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November 30, 2009

350 years of science

The Royal Society has posted pdfs of 60 of the most important papers it’s published in its 350 years. Want to read Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s paper on wee beasties? Newton on light and optics? Natural selection of the peppered moth? We gotcha historic scientific papers right here!

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(Two podcast interview with, um, me)

Here are two podcast interviews with me.

1. Cluetrain at 10, with Mitch Joel at Six Pixels of Separation.

2. Episode 71 of The Kindle Chronicles with Len Edgerly. I think my portion begins at about 11:45 in. I mainly grouse about the Kindle, even though I like the one I own. It was Thanksgiving morning, I was in a motel room with my family hushedly getting ready to go to my sister’s…

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November 29, 2009

NY Times Week in Review no longer reviews the week

It’s been a while since I’ve read the NY Times Week in Review. I was shocked at the issue I just read: It’s newsotainment, and not at its best.

What used to be a round-up of the week’s news is now a full page of humor (not even very funny), a feature article or two, some trivia (mainly media-related: Lou Dobbs, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck) and a few pages of op-eds. The op-eds and editorials are up to the NYT snuff, of course.

I feel bad for the Times. I’m sure they hollowed out the Week in Review reluctantly. But, the result is that as far as I can tell, there is no remaining weekly roundup of the news, now that Time and Newsweek have turned into collections of features. The news industry’s claim that it is indispensable for informing the public has grown yet weaker. And none of us should be happy about that.

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Awesome, Not awesome, Awesome if it works

Awesome: Photo of the sun’s path over the course of a year.

Not awesome: Video Professor. Nice job calling it like it is, Mike Arrington. (“When you’re 80 and look back at what you’ve done with your life, is this really what you want to have spent your time doing?”) And it’s been slashdotted.

Awesome if it works: Is this the fix for Left4Dead2′s crash-to-desktop problem?

[LATER THAT DAY: Nope. It definitely isn't. Sigh.]

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November 28, 2009

Wendy Seltzer on the other problem with DRM

Wendy Seltzer has posted an article that will run in Berkeley technology Law Journal (Jan. 25 2010) . In it she argues that the problems with DRM go beyond its failure to accommodate Fair Use:

The fair use debate is important, but it is not the only problem with DRM. Equally important, but thus far largely overlooked, is the impact on user-innovation and on the permitted development of media technology. Because DRM systems, by design and contract, must be hardened against user-modification, they foreclose a whole class of technology and mode of development. Moreover, this problem is distinct from that of fair use. Even if we could wave a magic wand and fully accomodate fair use in DRM, the incompatibility with user-innovation would persist, because it stems from a different and deeper aspect of the DRM system. Even the “fairest” DRM systems on the market today are unfair to the developers of new technology.

Anticircumvention law, backing TPMs [Trusted Platform Modules] and robustness rules, is fundamentally incompatible with deep-level user innovation…

Here is Wendy’s “Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em” paragraph:

First I briefly review the history and existing academic debates around DRM to consider why they have so overlooked the user-innovation impacts. The next sections examine the law and technology of digital rights management, particularly the interaction of statutory law, technological measures, and the contractual conditions generally attached to them. I focus particularly on the “robustness rules” in licenses at at this inter- section. I then introduce the rich literature on disruptive technology and user innovation, to argue that these copyright-driven constraints significantly harm cultural and technological development and user autonomy. I conclude that the mode-of-development tax is too high a price to pay for imperfect copyright protection.

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Andrew Zuckerman starts a blog

My deepest wishes for happiness go to Rachel and Ethan and their beautiful son Andrew.

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November 27, 2009

Broadband Strategy week: Interview with Brian David

At the latest edition of Broadband Strategy Week, I interview Brian David, Director of Adoption and Usage at the FCC’s Broadband Strategy intiative. We talk about what has to happen beyond providing access in order to enable and drive adoption.

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November 26, 2009

McLuhan tape rescue

I have not had a chance to listen to this — it’s Thanksgiving here in the US — but StarLarvae has found, digitized, and posted a talk by Marshall McLuhan at Johns Hopkins from the 1970s. Could be fascinating…

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Thanksgiving without a Giver

I very much liked James Carroll’s reflections on how the sense of gratitude occurs in those who do not believe there is a Giver of the gifts we have received.

When it comes to atheism, I am agnostic: I’m not sure if I believe that there isn’t a Giver. But that’s about as close as I come to believing there is one. As a result, I have no One to thank. And even if I did believe, I don’t think I would be grateful for anything except what we all share: Lives on a planet we can make into a home. If I were to thank the Giver for the particularities of my health, my family, and the fact that I was born in a country that enjoys (and squanders) abundance, I’d also have to blame the Giver for withholding these gifts from most of my sisters, brothers, and other fellow creatures. How do you thank the Giver for your good fortune without either blaming the Giver for not granting it to all, or thinking that you are especially deserving of favors? Gratitude without a Giver doesn’t have that problem. We non-believers obviously can’t accomplish the social act of acknowledging the good qualities of the Giver, but does G-d really care about the thank-you note?

Gratitude for believers and the rest of us is, of course, more than a social act. It’s a way of dwelling on the fragile boon you’ve been granted. If there is no Giver to thank, then our gratitude — as an appreciation of the gifts we have — can embrace the shared and unshared boons without equivocation or hesitation, remembering how unearned and unfairly-shared they are. (Happiness is here, it’s just unevenly distributed.)

Happy Thanksgiving.

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November 24, 2009

When the crowd is racist at Google

If you search Google Images for “Michelle Obama” (no quotes), the first image you’ll see is a poorly photoshopped picture of her as an ape.

You’ll also see a Google Ad on that page that links to Google’s explanation of why such a blatantly racist photo is the top-ranked one at Google Images. It says, after assuring us that Google does not endorse such images: “Search engines are a reflection of the content and information that is available on the Internet. A site’s ranking in Google’s search results relies heavily on computer algorithms using thousands of factors to calculate a page’s relevance to a given query.”

I have mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand, Google is taking a principled stand by not inserting its own political/cultural views into its engine. It’s also avoiding an endless squabble if it were to start hand-manipulating the results.

On the other hand:

1. Google’s algorithms are undoubtedly tuned by looking at the relevancy of the results. If they come up with a new wrinkle, they check it against the results it returns. So, the algorithms are already guided by Google’s own sense of what are good, useful and relevant results. If they tested a tweak of their ranking algorithm and it turned out always to put all the porn and pro-Nazi literature on top, Google would judge that algorithm as faulty. So, Google is already in the business of building algorithms that match its idea of what’s useful and relevant. When those algorithms occasionally turn up racist crap like that photo of Michelle, why not improve the algorithm’s results by intervening manually?

2. Google as a business and as a cultural force aims to give us useful results. That’s more important to the value of Google Search than the purity of its algorithmic approach. A photo of Michelle as an ape cannot reasonably be construed as the most useful result of a search for photos of her. So, fix it. (And, yes, I’d say the same if searches for “George W. Bush” ranked as first a photo of him as a chimp or as Hitler.)

Although the bulk of this post argues against Google’s position, let me say again that I am torn by this issue, and admire Google’s consistency and transparency about it.

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