Joho the Blog » 2011 » February

February 16, 2011

Watson, AI, Jeopardy, Toronto

Watson’s Final Jeopardy answer has created a need for a new word:

Schadenrobot: The joy humans feel watching robots fail.

[Minutes later:] I tweeted this, and Alistair Steele [twitter: alistairsteele immediately riposted with the far cleverer term: Schadendroid. Well played, suh!

2 Comments »

In praise of what Secretary Clinton did not say about Wikileaks

Especially when a prepared talk is being given in the midst of a difficult controversy, most of what matters is in what is not said. For that reason, I think Secretary Clinton’s speech on Net Freedom yesterday was actually quite encouraging about the State Department’s attitude toward Wikileaks. In this I seem to differ with many of my friends and colleagues. (See, for example, this thread from the Berkman mailing list. See also Mathew Ingram. Ethan Zuckerman posts his overall reaction, plus a brilliant draft speech he’d suggested Clinton deliver. Yochai Benkler has posted a draft of a paper [pdf] that — with Yochai’s accustomed astounding command of facts, law, argument, and moral insight — assails the claimed grounds for prosecuting Wikileaks) [Disclosure: I am a Franklin Fellow at the State Dept., attached to the group that works on the internal use of social media. This is a non-paying fellowship, and I feel no obligation to make nice, although I’m human.]

Secretary Clinton spent a substantial portion of her talk discussing Wikileaks.

The Internet’s strong culture of transparency derives from its power to make information of all kinds available instantly. But in addition to being a public space, the Internet is also a channel for private conversations. For that to continue, there must be protection for confidential communication online.

Think of all the ways in which people and organizations rely on confidential communication to do their jobs. Businesses hold confidential conversations when they’re developing new products, to stay ahead of their competitors. Journalists keep the details of some sources confidential, to protect them from retribution.

And governments also rely on confidential communication—online as well as offline. The existence of connection technologies may make it harder to maintain confidentiality, but it does not change the need for it.

Government confidentiality has been a topic of debate during the past few months because of Wikileaks. It’s been a false debate in many ways. Fundamentally, the Wikileaks incident began with an act of theft. Government documents were stolen, just the same as if they had been smuggled out in a briefcase.

Some have suggested that this act was justified, because governments have a responsibility to conduct all of their work out in the open, in the full view of their citizens.

I disagree. The United States could neither provide for our citizens’ security nor promote the cause of human rights and democracy around the world if we had to make public every step of our most sensitive operations.

Confidential communication gives our government the opportunity to do work that could not be done otherwise. Consider our work with former Soviet states to secure loose nuclear material. By keeping the details confidential, we make it less likely that terrorists will find the nuclear material and steal it.

Or consider the content of the documents that Wikileaks made public. Without commenting on the authenticity of any particular documents, we can observe that many of the cables released by Wikileaks relate to human rights work carried out around the world. Our diplomats closely collaborate with activists, journalists, and citizens to challenge the misdeeds of oppressive governments. It’s dangerous work. By publishing the diplomatic cables, Wikileaks exposed people to even greater risk.

For operations like these, confidentiality is essential, especially in the Internet age, when dangerous information can be sent around the world with the click of a keystroke.

Of course, governments also have a duty to be transparent. We govern with the consent of the people, and that consent must be informed to be meaningful. So we must be judicious about when we close off our work to the public and review our standards frequently to make sure they are rigorous. In the United States, we have laws to ensure that the government makes its work open to the people. The Obama Administration has also launched unprecedented initiatives to put government data online, encourage citizen participation, and generally increase the openness of government.

The U.S. government’s ability to protect America — to secure the liberties of our people — and to support the rights and freedoms of others around the world depends on maintaining a balance between what’s public and what should remain out of the public domain. The scale will always be tipped in favor of openness. But tipping the scale over completely serves no one’s interests—and the public’s least of all.

Let me be clear. I said that we would have denounced Wikileaks if it had been executed by smuggling papers in a briefcase. The fact that Wikileaks used the Internet is not the reason we criticized it. Wikileaks does not challenge our commitment to Internet freedom.

One final word on this matter. There were reports in the days following the leak that the U.S. government intervened to coerce private companies to deny service to Wikileaks. This is not the case. Some politicians and pundits publicly called for companies to dissociate from Wikileaks, while others criticized them for doing so. Public officials are part of our country’s public debates, but there is a line between expressing views and coercing conduct. But any business decisions that private companies may have taken to enforce their own policies regarding Wikileaks was not at the direction or the suggestion of the Obama Administration.

Now, one way to read this is to imagine what you wish Clinton had said, or what you would have said if given the opportunity. That certainly has its uses. But it’s essentially a daydream, for it acts as if high-visibility political speeches occur outside of political consequences and negotiations. (Ethan’s imagining, noted above, was within a pragmatic context, attempting to provide a vision for the talk.) If instead we take this speech as the result of a political struggle, then we have to hear not just the daydream, but the nightmare: Forces within the government must have been urging Clinton to take a hard line against Wikileaks and to use Wikileaks as a justification for constraining the Internet. When you consider all that Clinton does not say about Wikileaks, this speech is actually, in my view, quite encouraging. Indeed, in saying that “It’s been a false debate in many ways,” she does not narrow the criticism to the media’s participation; we are left to assume that she is also scolding elements of the government.

You say “Pshaw!” to the idea that this is a pretty enlightened speech? I understand that reaction, since this address is coming from a government that has reacted overall quite poorly to the Wikileaks leaks. (See especially Yochai Benkler’s comments in the Berkman thread and his comprehensive article.)( But that’s exactly why we ought to view the speech as a sign of hope that at least some elements of the government are catching on to what the Net is about, what it’s for, and what it can and cannot do. (“What the Net can and cannot do” is, from my point of view, pretty much the theme of the entire speech, which by itself is encouraging.)

Here’s an example of what I mean by reading the speech in light of what it does not say. Secretary Clinton does say that the Wikileaks incident “began with an act of theft.” But, she is careful not to say that Wikileaks was the thief. Instead, she refers to Wikileaks as making the documents public, as releasing them, and as publishing them. You can imagine the pressure on her to characterize Wikileaks as the source of the documents — as the thief — rather than as the recipient and publisher of them. (She does slip in an ambiguous phrase: “we would have denounced Wikileaks if it had been executed by smuggling papers in a briefcase.”)

Overall, I read the Wikileaks section of the speech as a refusal to blame the Internet, and as a refusal to issue threats against Wikileaks (and against the next Wikileaks-like site). True, Secretary Clinton “condemns” the leaks, but given the range of options for a Secretary of State, what else would you expect? That she would condone the indiscriminate leaking of confidential information? It’s confidential. Of course she’s going to condemn leaks, and in no uncertain terms.

The question is what follows from that condemnation. What followed were not threats against Wikileaks, not a clamping down on State Department security to ensure that “this never happens again,”not a retreat from Clinton’s emphasis on building a “need to share culture” within State, and not support for new policies that would put “reasonable” controls on the Internet to “ensure” that such “illegal acts” never recur, for “a free Internet does not mean a lawless Internet.” (All items in quotes are phrases I’ve made up but that I can imagine some in the government insisting be inserted.) The only statement about policies to address such leaks says that the Obama Administration did not “coerce” private companies to act to shut down (or shut off) Wikileaks; the clear implication is that the government should not engage in such coercion.

Now, we can imagine our own preferred words coming out of Secretary Clinton’s mouth, and we certainly can and should compare her statements with the actual behavior of State and the government overall. There was room for her to have gone further; I would have liked it better if she had, as per Yochai’s suggestion, acknowledged that State initially over-reacted in some chilling ways. But, in the context of the political debate, I think Secretary Clinton’s remarks on Wikileaks are encouraging, and her explicit rejection of limiting Internet freedom because sometimes leaks happen is hopeful.

1 Comment »

February 14, 2011

The “Twitter doesn’t topple dictators” cliche undone, but leaderless networks don’t stay that way

Jay Rosen has a great post, full of links (because Jay practices what he preaches about transparency) on the popular article that keeps getting written that argues that Twitter does not topple dictators. By the time Jay is done exposing the predictable pattern those bogus articles take, you will not be able to take them seriously ever again. For which we should thank Prof. Rosen.

One extremely fruitful place the conversation can move to is Zeynep Tufecki’s fabulous post on why leaderless networks tend to develop leaders. “Preferential attachment” just tends to have that outcome, as much for political leaders as for bloggers (as per Clay Shirky’s famous “power law” argument). Zeynep writes, for instance:

It is not enough for the network to start out as relatively flat and it is not enough for the current high-influence people to wish it to remain flat, and it is certainly not enough to assume that widespread use of social media will somehow automatically support and sustain flat and diffuse networks.

On the contrary, influence in the online world can actually spontaneously exhibit even sharper all-or-nothing dynamics compared to the offline world, with everything below a certain threshold becoming increasingly weaker while those who first manage to cross the threshold becoming widely popular.

Zeynep’s analysis and presentation are brilliant. I come out of it only wondering if the almost-inevitable clustering around particular nodes is an indicator of leadership, and, if so, how much that itself changes the nature of leadership. That is, the fact that Wael Ghonim and Mohamed El-Baradei are likely to gain many, many Twitter followers, and to loom large in Web link maps makes them important social media personalities. But Ashton Kutcher by that measure is also important. Kutcher (because there is a God who loves us) is not a leader. But Ghonim and El-Baradei are. This seems to me to be a very different sense of leadership, indicating a serious change in the mechanics and semantics of leadership.

 


[The next day:] Paul Hartzog responds, criticizing Zeynep’s assumptions for presenting “one side of the evolution of networks, i.e. the growth phenomena, without presenting the other side, which are the constraining phenomena, such as carrying capacity.”

7 Comments »

February 13, 2011

Greatest Grammy nominations ever

Oh you kids with your Kanye’s and your JayZ‘s and your M&M’s, why you ought to take a look at this clip from the 1971 Grammys to see what it was like back when music was music and blah blah blah. [via movieline]

A seriously amazing set of nominees. (And feel free to skip to the one minute mark to avoid the cringe-worthy David Cassidy “repartee.”)

6 Comments »

The size of an update

I enjoyed this explanation of how Google updates Chrome faster than ever by cleverly only updating the elements that have changed. The problem is that software in executable form usually uses spots in memory that are hard-coded into it: Instead of saying “Take the number_of_miles_traveled and divide it by number_of_gallons_used…”, it says “Take the number stored at memory address #1876023…” (I’m obviously simplifying it.) If you insert or delete code from the program, the memory addresses will probably change, so that the program is now looking in the wrong spot for the numbers of miles traveled, and for instructions about what to do next. You can only hope that the crash will be fast and while in the presence of those who love you.

So, I enjoyed the Chrome article for a few reasons.

First, it was written clearly enough that even I could follow it, pretty much.

Second, the technique they use is not only clever, it bounces between levels of abstraction. The compiled code that runs on your computer generally is at a low level of abstraction: What the programmer thinks of as a symbol (a variable) such as number_of_miles_traveled gets turned into a memory address. The Chrome update system reintroduces a useful level of abstraction.

Third, I like what this says about the nature of information. I don’t think Courgette (the update system) counts as a compression algorithm, because it does not enable fewer bits to encode more information, but it does enable fewer bits to have more effect. Or maybe it does count as compression if we consider Chrome to be not a piece of software that runs on client computers but to be a system of clients connected to a central server that is spread out across both space and time. In either case, information is weird.

1 Comment »

February 12, 2011

Berkman Buzz

The weekly Berkman Buzz, as compiled by Rebekah Heacock:

  • Ethan Zuckerman [twitter:ethanz] explores media coverage (and the lack thereof) of the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and Gabon link

  • The Citizen Media Law Project and the Cyberlaw Clinic First Circuit support the right to make cellphone recordings of police link

  • Dan Gillmor [twitter:dangillmor] argues that the Huffington Post should pay its bloggers link

  • Joseph Reagle analyzes Wikipedia’s gender gap across countries link

  • Weekly Global Voices: “Ghana: Want a new constitution? Text 1992″:
    link

11 Comments »

February 11, 2011

Freedom for Egypt: Some tweets, a thought about a future of journalism, and a question about networked leadership

This is such a miraculous day for our sisters and brothers in Egypt. As an American, a father, a Jew, and a fellow human being, I am overwhelmed with happiness for you and what you have so courageously accomplished.


A couple of tweets:

@MOHAMMEDFAS: words of joy will be everywhere only thoes who have oppressed this day will speachless!!

@peterglaser: Heute fängt das 21. Jahrhundert an – nicht am 11. September [The 21st century starts here, not on 9/11]


I learned a lot from Paul Amar’s article that tries to lay out Egypt’s power structure and political landscape. Of course, I cannot evaluate its accuracy. (I heard about it from a tweet by Matthew Stoller.


Andy Carvin [twitter:acarvin] is one of the faces of the future of journalism. He curated and retweeted thousands of tweets, a stream that gave better continuous coverage than was available on any of the broadcast channels. His retweeting of messages from the ground, from other Twitterers, from the mainstream media gave us a Channel of One. Andy’s stream was transparent — he was on the side of the protestors, duh (and, btw, CNN certainly gave up any pretense of objectivity on that score)— and imbued with his personality and his sense of humor.

Sure, Andy’s twitter stream was not a sufficient source of information, but what was? And sure, tweets are only 140 characters long, but they can include links to longer pieces.

Andy became a central part of the media ecology for many of us. While Andy is unique, the role he played is replicable. Smart media companies will be out looking for their own Andy Carvins. Even so, most will get it wrong, because they will assume that being inside a media company helps. I’m not sure that it does, although being paid by a media company certainly must.

(Some people (including me) have made donations to their local NPR stations to support Andy’s efforts. You can donate here. If you do, how about tweeting it with the hashtag #gave4andy so the the motive for your donation will be clear?)

(Later that day: Nieman Lab has an excellent post on the gave4Andy meme.)


A question: We’re going to be arguing forever about the role and importance of social media in the Egyptian revolution, but I want to ask a smaller question: Would the Egyptian Revolution been leaderless without the presence of social media?

I ask this as a genuine question. And I understand that I don’t know how leaderless it was.

14 Comments »

Libary Lab funds library innovation projects

Harvard’s new Library Lab has announced the first projects it will be funding. It’s an exciting set of projects.

The Library Innovation Lab [blog] that Kim Dulin and I co-direct had a few of its proposals accepted:

  • Library Analytics Toolkit: Tools to enable libraries to understand, analyze, and visualize the patterns of activities, including checkouts, returns, and recent acquisitions, and to do so across multiple libraries.

  • LibraryCloud Server: Build and maintain a web server that makes available to all Harvard library innovators data and metadata gathered from the Harvard libraries.

  • Library Innovation Podcasts: A series of biweekly podcast interviews with library innovators about their projects and ideas. The initial series would consist of 15 podcasts of about 20 minutes each.

We’re very excited about these, and have already begun work on them. I have a particular fondness for the LibraryCloud server, and will have more to say about it over time, for we view it ultimately as a multi-library system.

And a word of clarification. The Library Lab is part of Harvard’s Office for Scholarly Communication. It was created last year to create an infrastructure for library innovation at the school. The Harvard Library Innovation Lab at the Harvard Law School Library (which is why we tend to call it LIL) is a small lab that creates applications and prototypes that try to show how libraries can bring more of their value online. If it’s a cool idea for libraries, we’ll try to build it.

12 Comments »

February 10, 2011

[misc] The US GAAP Taxonomy is Miscellaneous

Well, here’s an application of some of the ideas in Everything is Miscellaneous that I wasn’t expecting: The US GAAP Taxonomy. A post at the XBRL Business Information Exchange says:

The US GAAP Taxonomy was built by the accounting standards setter, the FASB. It was built by accountants. It is a consensus-based product. Not one SEC XBRL filer uses the US GAAP Taxonomy as is to file with the SEC. Every SEC reorganizes the US GAAP Taxonomy.

But the US GAAP Taxonomy is not built to be reorganized. The structure of the taxonomy is more like a book. Can the US GAAP Taxonomy be reorganized? Of course it can. But it is certainly not optimized to allow for reorganization and reorganization is not even mentioned in the design characteristics. As such, it will cost more and be harder to create and maintain these reorganizations.

So how do you make it easier to reorganize? Many smaller pieces which can be put together as needed is vastly easier for a computer to deal with than having one large piece and trying to break that piece apart. That is one example of what can be done. Another is communicating the metadata which exists in the taxonomy, for example the information modeling patterns employed. A third is to make the existing metadata real metadata, rather than burying it in the labels of the concepts. Another is to add more metadata.

The post points out that it’s not that everything about that taxonomy should thrown into a big pile. There are key data points required by law and to achieve financial integrity. Still, this is not a place I would have thought miscellanizing would help. It seems, however, that I may well be happily wrong.

1 Comment »

[2b2k] Jay Rosen on Huffington’s path to somewhere

Jay Rosen wonders if there’s any room in AOL’s buyout of HuffingtonPost for “ideological innovation.” He suggests a four-part policy for AOL’s media:

1. Pluralism. Many points of view.

2. Transparency. All contributors explain where they are coming from.

3. “The view from somewhere.” Media sites will be upfront about their general stand point.

4. “Non-negotiables.” Accuracy, fairness, a fact-checking form for every article, etc.

It may look like #1 and #3 conflict. But, as I understand Jay’s point, pluralism applies to AOL, while having a standpoint would apply to sites like HuffPo and to individual topical sub-sites within HuffPo. (Note that pluralism is very different from balance.)

I like this a lot (surprise surprise!), but I wonder about the right level at which to apply the pluralism criterion. If AOL and other media conglomerates follow Jay’s advice, we will have a bunch of pluralistic hens, with one large, ferociously dedicated Fox in the henhouse.

In any case, I hope AOL listens to Jay. And I hope HuffPo stays ideologically committed, stops running the stupid gossip and pin-up articles, and gets off Obama’s back. But that’s just me.

2 Comments »

« Previous Page | Next Page »