Joho the BlogJuly 2012 - Page 2 of 3 - Joho the Blog

July 17, 2012

[2b2k] A New Culture of Learning

If you want to read a brilliant application of some of the ideas in Too Big to Know to our educational system, read A New Culture of Learning by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. And by “application of” I mean “It was written a year before my book came out and I feel like a dolt for not having known about it.”

DT and JSB are thinking about knowledge pretty much exactly the way 2b2k does. What they call a “collective,” I call a “knowledge network.” With more than a hat tip to Michael Polanyi, they talk insightfully about “collective indwelling,” which is the depth of insight and topical competency that comes from a group iterating on ideas over time.

Among other things, they write provocatively about the use of games and play in education, not as a way to trick kids into eating their broccoli, but as coherent social worlds in which students learn how to imagine together, set goals, gather and synthesize information, collectively try solutions, and deepen their tacit knowledge. DT and JSB do not, however, so fetishize games that they lose site of the elements of education a game like World of Warcraft (their lead example) does not provide, especially the curiosity about the world outside of the game. On the contrary, they look to games for what they call the “questing disposition,” which will lead students beyond problem-solving to innovation. Adding to Johan Huizinga‘s idea that play precedes culture, they say that games can help fuse the information network (open and expansive) with the key element of a “bounded environment of experimentation” (116). This, they say, leads to a new “culture of learning” (117). Games are for them an important example of that more important point.

It’s a terrific, insightful, provocative book that begins with a founding assumption that it’s not just education that’s changing, but what it means to know a world that is ever-changing and now deeply connected.


Yahoo’s patents

It has been bruited about that maybe Yahoo has hired Marissa Mayer, employee #20 at Google, in order to get acquired by Google. I cannot see the sense in that as an acquisition tactic, but it has led to further speculation that Google is interested in Yahoo for its patents.

Now that makes sense! In fact, here are just four of the many valuable patents Google would acquire from Yahoo:

  • US PATENT 893749039 Improving the rapidity of the embarrassment of a corporate board through non-vetting techniques
  • US PATENT 989209374 Significantly depressing corporate value by the refusal of no-brainer acquisition offers through the innovative application of self-importance

  • US PATENT 463874738 A new calculus of corporate value that rewards the acquisition, mishandling, and abrupt closure of genuinely innovative services with loyal user bases.

  • US PATENT 784789909 Techniques for the alienation of a company user base by re-imagining customers as consumers and services as Big C Content.

(The truth is that I have a soft spot for Yahoo as one of the original engineer-led sites, and I hope Marissa can lead it back from the brink.)


Hanan Cohen points to I’m more ambitious than that; I’d substitute “Yahoo” for “Flickr” on that site.

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July 13, 2012

How Google may turn its Kansas City broadband project into a business

As you likely know, Google is in the midst of providing ‘ultra high speed fiber’ access to the residents of Kansas City (MO and KS). (‘Ultra high speed‘ means at least 1gb, which is 50100x faster than your 10mgb connection.) This has been positioned as an experiment, and as a poke in the eye to the incumbents to “show ’em how it’s done.” And it has apparently made the incumbents nervous enough to offer residents a bounty for tips about the deployment.

Now Bill St. Arnaud speculates about how Google is going to turn this into a business. I have zero idea if he’s right, simply because I don’t know enough to have an opinion, but it sure is some interesting speculation.

Bill’s post is very readable, so I suggest you not rely on my summary, but here goes. First, Bill wonders how Google could hope to make back its investment in the physical infrastructure, since providers need about 40% of the market to subscribe to drop the per-user cost sufficiently. But (Bill figures), the incumbents will never let Google take 40% of their market. So, Bill figures:

Google will offer a basic free high speed Internet to each and every home, perhaps bundled with Google TV using their new set top box. A variety of premium services will also be offered for additional fees. I would not be surprised that Google decided to offer a basic 1 Gbps service to every home. This would clearly differentiate Google from the cableco or telco and make it almost impossible for them to compete without undertaking a massive investment themselves.

But, Bill guesses that the premium services will still not make the venture profitable. So, he speculates that Google…

…could offer to peak manage the customer’s power usage, by briefly turning off air conditioners and hot water tanks. They could also install smart thermostats and other devices to further reduce energy consumption. The money in the energy savings would be used to pay for the fiber or premium services, rather than being returned to the customer as piffling amount of energy savings.

So, the deal to users would be: We’ll give you incredibly high speed connectivity (or we’ll give you some great premium services) if you’ll let your energy company install a smart thermostat and manage your peak energy consumption in ways you won’t much notice. The user’s energy bills don’t go down (or don’t go down proportional to their energy consumption decrease), and the energy company shares the money with Google.

I’m not convinced that users would take the deal positioned that way. Maybe I’m positioning it wrong, but it seems like a pretty complex offer. I think I’d rather take a deal with my energy company to lower my usage and my costs, and then decide if I want to pay Google for fiber access or for premium fiber access. I already resent the cablecos for making their “triple play” (telephone, tv, Internet) pragmatically a requirement to get any one of the three. A double play of Internet and energy savings would be even weirder.

But, Bill knows approximately 50x what my own poor brain fiber does. The key is, I believe, in the energy company making the claim that the decrease in energy consumption will be minor, the noticeable impact on the user will be negligible, and the monetary savings would be “piffling.” If he’s right, it’ll be fascinating to watch.


This isn’t right, is it?

Seemingly wrong WolframAlpha result


July 12, 2012

Non-levitated mass

Guy Horton criticizes Michael Heiser’s new artwork at the LA County Museum of Art.

Photo of Levitated Mass

I saw it a couple of weeks ago. And outwardly, it’s nothing but a giant rock with a walkway cut underneath it. But inwardly, it’s a big expensive rock with a pointless walkway cut underneath it.

Aesthetically, I got nothing from it. The rock is big and heavy. The walkway is sloping and concretey. Walking underneath it reveals nothing about the rock except that its looks the same from underneath as from ground level.

So maybe it’s one of them artworks that are really about an idea. But what idea? Rocks are big? Rocks have bottoms? Do you like rocks? I like rocks. Some idea like that?

I’m not saying that you have to be able to explain everything about an artwork. I take as one of the points of Rothko’s paradigmatic works that you can’t really explain why the best of them are numinous.

But you can at least gesture at the colors and use a word like “numinous. If nobody can point to what there is to like about a work, then maybe it’s just a rock.

Here’s what the LACMA’s page says:

Taken whole, Levitated Mass speaks to the expanse of art history, from ancient traditions of creating artworks from megalithic stone, to modern forms of abstract geometries and cutting-edge feats of engineering.

In short: “It’s a rock. It wasn’t carved or nothing, and it was [email protected]#$ing hard to get it here. We hope you enjoy it $10M worth.”


July 11, 2012

Mouse Wars

The United States has scolded North Korea for staging some Disney shows without securing permission.

North Koreans are stunted and blind from malnutrition. North Korea has hundreds of thousands of people in death camps, including the parents and children of those who violated some bullshit law. North Korea makes repressive police states look good. And the US is scolding North Korea for violating copyright? OMFG.

I so want Cory Doctorow to write a book about how World War III was caused by North Korea’s violating of The Disney corporation’s “intellectual property rights.”

BTW, What would be a good title for this? Mouse Troopers? Kim Jong Mouse? The Pirates of North Korea?


July 10, 2012

[2b2k] Jay Rosen’s wicked problems

I really enjoyed Jay Rosen’s post of a draft of a talk he’s going to give he gave in which he talks about “wicked problems.” These are problems so complex that they’re hard to describe, and so difficult that you may not even identify them until you have a solution. Jay talks about how to journalistically cover wicked problems, which tend to be the most interesting and important problems to cover.

From my slanted point of view (no View from Nowhere for me!), wicked problems are problems that it takes a network to understand.

Anyway, read Jay’s post. It’s enjoyable, insightful, and provocative in the right ways.

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July 8, 2012

Louis C.K. and the Decent Net, or How Louis won the Internet

(This is the lead article in the new issue of my free and highly intermittent newsletter, JOHO. Also in it, a Higgs-Bogus Contest on particles that would explain mysteries of the Internet.)


Louis C.K. now famously sold his latest comedy album over the Internet direct to his audience for $5, with no DRM to get in the way of our ability to play it on any device we want, and even to share it. After making over a million dollars in a few days (and after giving most of his profits to his staff and to charity) Louis went to great pains to schedule his upcoming comedy tour in venues not beholden to their TicketMasters, so that he could sell tickets straight to his audience for a flat $45, free of scalpers. So far he’s made over $6 million in ticket sales.

But Louis C.K. also thereby — in the vocabulary of Reddit — won the Internet.

There are lots of reasons to be heartened by Louis’ actions and by his success: He is validating new business models that could spread. He is demonstrating his trust in his audience. He is protecting his audience while making the relationship more direct. He is not being greedy. But it seems to me that Louis is demonstrating one more point that is especially important. Louis C.K. won the Internet by reminding us that the Internet offers us a chance for a moral do-over.


Way back in the early days of all of this Internet madness, many of us thought that the Internet was a new beginning, an opportunity to get things right. That’s why we looked at all The Hullabaloo about the Net as missing The Point. The Hullabaloo saw the Net as a way to drive out some of the inefficiencies of the physical world of business. The Point was that the Net would let us build new ways of treating one another that would be fairer, more fully supportive of human flourishing, and thus more representative of the best of what it means to be human together.

We optimists were not entirely wrong, but not as right as we had hoped. Even as late as the turn of the century, the early blogging community thought it was forging not only a new community, but a new type of community, one with social ties made visible as blue underlined text. That original community has maintained itself rather well, and the amount of generosity and collaboration the Net has occasioned continues to confound the predictions of the pessimists. But clearly the online world did not become one big blogosphere of love.

It’s difficult, and ultimately rather silly, to try to quantify the unfathomable depth of depravity, skullduggery and plain old greed exhibited on the Net, and compare it to a cumulative calculus of the Net’s loveliness. For example, most email is spam that treats its recipients as means, not ends, but the bulk of it is sent by a tiny percentage of email users. Should we compare the number of bits or of bastards? How do we weigh phishing against the time people put in answering the questions of strangers? How do we measure the casual hatred exhibited in long streams of YouTube comments against the purposeful altruism and caring exhibited at the best of Reddit? How do we total up the casual generosity of every link that leads a reader away from the linker’s site to some other spot? Fortunately, we do not have to resolve these questions. We can instead acknowledge that the Net provides yet another place in which we play out our moral natures.

But its accessibility, its immediacy, its malleability, and its weird physics provide a place where we can invent new ways of doing old things like buying music and concert tickets — new ways in which we can state what we think counts, new ways in which we can assert our better or worse moral natures.


I am of course not suggesting that Louis C.K. is a moral messiah or that he “won the Internet” is anything except playful overstatement. I’m instead suggesting a way of interpreting the very positive response to his relatively modest actions on the Net: we responded so positively because we saw in those actions the Net as a moral opportunity.

We responded this way, I’d suggest, in part because Louis C.K. is not of the Internet. His Web site made that very clear when Louis charmingly claimed, “Look, I don’t really get the whole ‘torrent’ thing. I don’t know enough about it to judge either way.” He goes on to urge us to live up to the trust he’s placed in us. He’s thus not behaving by some Internet moral code. Rather, he’s applying Old World morality to the Net. It is not a morality of principles, but of common decency.

And herewith begins a totally unnecessary digression…

This is coherent with Louis’ comedy. His series fits within the line that began with Seinfeld and continued into Curb Your Enthusiasm, but not just because all three make us squirm.

Seinfeld was a comedy of norms: people following arbitrary rules as if they were divine commandments. Sometimes the joke was the observation of rules that we all follow blindly: No double dipping! Sometimes the joke was the arbitrariness of rules the show made up: No soup for you! (Yes, I realize the Soup Nazi was based on a real soup guy, but the success of the script didn’t depend on us knowing that.) Seinfeld characters’s are too self-centered to live by anything more than norms. And, in a finale that most people liked less than I did, they are at last confronted with their lack of moral substance.

Curb Your Enthusiasm is a comedy of principles, albeit with a whole lot of norms thrown in. Larry and his world are made unlivable by people (including Larry) who try to live by moral rules. Hum a bit of Wagner while passing by a Jew, and you’re likely to touch off some righteous indignation as if you were siding with the Nazis. Larry won’t give kids without a costume any Halloween candy, and then can’t resist telling a cop with a shaven head that the cop isn’t actually bald according to Larry’s principled definition. In a parody of rule-based life, Larry takes advantage of the rule governing handicapped toilet stalls. (See also.) In Curb the duties of friendship are carefully laid out, and are to be followed even when they make no sense. Larry’s life is pretty much ruined by the adherence to principles.

Louis is less about norms and principles than about doing the right thing in a world unguided by norms and principles, and in which human weakness is assumed. When a male southern cop who has saved his life asks to be thanked by being kissed on the lips, Louis reasons outloud that he can’t think of any reason not to. So he does. Norms are there to be broken when they get in the way of a human need, such as to feel appreciated. Nor do principles much matter, except the principle “Thou shalt not be a dick.” So, Louis watches bemused as an airline passenger becomes righteously indignant because his reservation wasn’t honored. The passenger had principle on his side, but is cast as the transgressor because he’s acting like a d-bag. In his Live at Beacon show, Louis contrasts the norm against using the word “fag” with nondiscriminatory behavior and attitude. (I’d like to hear what Lisa Nakamura has to say about this.)

And because Louis is a comedian, the humor is in the human failure to live up to even this simple ideal of not being a total a-hole. In his $5 comedy album, Louis relates how he thought about giving up his first class airplane seat to a soldier in uniform. Not only doesn’t Louis give up his seat, he then congratulates himself for being the sort of person who would think of such a thing. Giving up your seat is neither a norm nor a principle. It is what people who rise above dickhood do.

So, here’s why I think this is relevant.

The Internet is a calamity of norms. Too many cultures, too many localities, too many communities, each with its own norms. And there’s no global agreement on principles that will sort things out for us. In fact, people who disagree based on principles often feel entitled to demonize their opponents because they differ on principles. The only hope for living together morally on the Net is to try not to be dicks to one another. I’m not saying it’s obvious how to apply that rule. And I’m certainly not saying that we’ll succeed at it. But now that we’ve been thrown together without any prior agreement on norms or principles, what else can we do except try to treat each other with trust and a touch of sympathy?

That’s what Louis C.K.’s gestures embody. Many of us have responded warmly to them because they are moral in the most basic way: Let’s try to treat one another well, or at least not be total dicks, ok? Louis C.K.’s gestures were possible because the Net lets us try out new relationships and practices. Those gestures therefore remind us of our larger hope for the Net and for ourselves — not that the Net will drive out all rotten behavior, but that we can replace some corrupt practices with better ones. We can choose to dwell together more decently.

Nothing more than that. But also nothing less.


[2b2k] Two aphorisms

Everything is interesting if viewed at the right level of detail.

Everything is controversial if it is discussed long enough.

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July 7, 2012

[2b2k] Big Data needs Big Pipes

A post by Stacy Higginbotham at GigaOm talks about the problems moving Big Data across the Net so that it can be processed. She draws on an article by Mari Silbey at SmartPlanet. Mari’s example is a telescope being built on Cerro Pachon, a mountain in Chile, that will ship many high-resolution sky photos every day to processing centers in the US.

Stacy discusses several high-speed networks, and the possibility of compressing the data in clever ways. But a person on a mailing list I’m on (who wishes to remain anonymous) pointed to GLIF, the Global Lambda Integrated Facility, which rather surprisingly is not a cover name for a nefarious organization out to slice James Bond in two with a high-energy laser pointer.

The title of its “informational brochure” [pdf] is “Connecting research worldwide with lightpaths,” which helps some. It explains:

GLIF makes use of the cost and capacity advantages offered by optical multiplexing, in order to build an infrastructure that can take advantage of various processing, storage and instrumentation facilities around the world. The aim is to encourage the shared use of resources by eliminating the traditional performance bottlenecks caused by a lack of network capacity.

Multiplexing is the carrying of multiple signals at different wavelengths on a single optical fiber. And these wavelengths are known as … wait for it … lambdas. Boom!

My mailing list buddy says that GLIF provides “100 gigabit optical waves”, which compares favorably to your pathetic earthling (um, American) 3-20 megabit broadband connection,(maybe 50mb if you have FIOS), and he notes that GLIF is available in Chile.

To sum up: 1. Moving Big Data is an issue. 2. We are not at the end of innovating. 3. The bandwidth we think of as “high” in the US is a miserable joke.

By the way, you can hear an uncut interview about Big Data I did a few days ago for Breitband, a German radio program that edited, translated, and broadcast it.


July 5, 2012

The origins of information

“You can ring me here tonight from Finland. If you’ve got the film, just say the deal’s come off.”

“And if not?”

“Say the deal’s off.”

“It sounds rather alike,” Avery objected. “If the line’s bad, I mean. ‘Off’ and ‘Come off’.”

Then say they’re not interested. Say something negative. You know what I mean.”

— John le Caré The Looking Glass War (Pan Books, London, 1965), p. 34.

As Paul Edwards explains in his wonderful The Closed World, information theory grew in part out of work done during WWII to develop a vocabulary of words sufficiently distinctive that they could be differentiated over the uproar of battle. The demand for discernible difference (= information) has led us to to see language as code, to denature qualities, and to count that which gets in the way of clarity as noise.

I’m not kicking. I’m just reminding us that information had an origin and a purpose.

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