Joho the BlogDecember 2012 - Page 2 of 2 - Joho the Blog

December 15, 2012

I’d rather we had a right to an open Internet than a right to bear arms.

No, I’m not suggesting that we amend the Constitution to guarantee American citizens a right to access the open Internet. I’m suggesting that it’s weird that from all the rights we could imagine — a right to an education, to adequate health care, to equal pay for equal work — we continue to enshrine a right to carry guns.

Why guns of all things? Because of a fear of an armed federal take-over that made sense in 1787 but now is merely paranoia? Besides, when the feds have actually used armed force against states claiming rights, the states were defending slavery and segregation. Besides, if you’re hoping to defeat the US military, you better be pressing for a right to own tanks, jets, and, for those states with beachfronts, some battleships.

So, no, I’m not suggesting we pass an Internet Rights amendment. I am suggesting that we pass an amendment nullifying the right to bear arms. Let guns be regulated the way we regulate other objects that can harm us and kill our kids.

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An app idea

Sure, laugh, but what an opportunity! We need an app that lets you adjust the size of an on-screen grid in order to guide your knife cuts. Everyone becomes a master chef! Million dollar idea! I give it to you for free!

(Hat tip to Bob Morris and Gregor Hagedorn.)

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December 12, 2012

[eim][2b2k] The DSM — never entirely correct

The American Psychiatric Association has approved its new manual of diagnoses — Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — after five years of controversy [nytimes].

For example, it has removed Aspberger’s as a diagnosis, lumping it in with autism, but it has split out hoarding from the more general category of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Lumping and splitting are the two most basic activities of cataloguers and indexers. There are theoretical and practical reasons for sometimes lumping things together and sometimes splitting them, but they also characterize personalities. Some of us are lumpers, and some of us are splitters. And all of us are a bit of each at various times.

The DSM runs into the problems faced by all attempts to classify a field. Attempts to come up with a single classification for a complex domain try to impose an impossible order:

First, there is rarely (ever?) universal agreement about how to divvy up a domain. There are genuine disagreements about which principles of organization ought to be used, and how they apply. Then there are the Lumper vs. the Splitter personalities.

Second, there are political and economic motivations for dividing up the world in particular ways.

Third, taxonomies are tools. There is no one right way to divide up the world, just as there is no one way to cut a piece of plywood and no one right thing to say about the world. It depends what you’re trying to do. DSM has conflicting purposes. For one thing, it affects treatment. For example, the NY Times article notes that the change in the classification of bipolar disease “could ‘medicalize’ frequent temper tantrums,” and during the many years in which the DSM classified homosexuality as a syndrome, therapists were encouraged to treat it as a disease. But that’s not all the DSM is for. It also guides insurance payments, and it affects research.

Given this, do we need the DSM? Maybe for insurance purposes. But not as a statement of where nature’s joints are. In fact, it’s not clear to me that we even need it as a single source to define terms for common reference. After all, biologists don’t agree about how to classify species, but that science seems to be doing just fine. The Encyclopedia of Life takes a really useful approach: each species gets a page, but the site provides multiple taxonomies so that biologists don’t have to agree on how to lump and split all the forms of life on the planet.

If we do need a single diagnostic taxonomy, DSM is making progress in its methodology. It has more publicly entered the fray of argument, it has tried to respond to current thinking, and it is now going to be updated continuously, rather than every 5 years. All to the good.

But the rest of its problems are intrinsic to its very existence. We may need it for some purposes, but it is never going to be fully right…because tools are useful, not true.

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December 10, 2012

Senator Colbert? Meet Beppe Grillo

Those of us who are not-so-secretly hoping that Stephen Colbert might actually run for Senate should take a look at Beppe Grillo‘s career in Italy.

A controversial political comedian and a leading blogger — he’s got some Al Franken and some George Carlin as well as some Colbert in him — Grillo formed the Five Star Movement, which organizes Italian citizens to back politicians who support the movement’s anti-corruption, green, Euro-skeptical, pro-Internet principles. In October, it led the voting in Sicily. Now the Five Star Movement is holding an online vote to choose which candidates to support.

There are certainly skeptics. But Grillo’s career as a comedian and blogger who has become a political force is pretty amazing.

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December 8, 2012

[2b2k] Echo chamber examples wanted

What do you think are the best examples of Web-based echo chambers? These are the examples you’d point to if you wanted someone to see what an echo chamber is.

By “echo chamber” I mean a Web site where people with the same beliefs and values hang out, egg each other on, and do not for a moment seriously consider other points of view. If they link to other points of view, it’s to make fun of them. Participating in these sites should make you more close-minded and more impervious to fact-based counter-arguments.

So what are the best, clearest examples you know of?

Thanks.

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December 7, 2012

Are things different? Taleb on the future

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of The Black Swan (a book about modeling that is unlikely to star Natalie Portman) has a new book out — Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder — that has been excerpted by Salon in an article titled “The future will not be cool.” I haven’t read the new book. so what follows is based purely on this 2,000-word excerpt.

Taleb makes a point that challenges some pretty deep assumptions. Life, he says, really hasn’t changed much in the past few thousand years:

Tonight I will be meeting friends in a restaurant (tavernas have existed for at least 25 centuries). I will be walking there wearing shoes hardly different from those worn 5,300 years ago by the mummified man discovered in a glacier in the Austrian Alps. At the restaurant, I will be using silverware, a Mesopotamian technology, which qualifies as a “killer application” given what it allows me to do to the leg of lamb, such as tear it apart while sparing my fingers from burns. I will be drinking wine, a liquid that has been in use for at least six millennia. The wine will be poured into glasses, an innovation claimed by my Lebanese compatriots to come from their Phoenician ancestors, and if you disagree about the source, we can say that glass objects have been sold by them as trinkets for at least twenty-nine hundred years. After the main course, I will have a somewhat younger technology, artisanal cheese, paying higher prices for those that have not changed in their preparation for several centuries.

Had someone in 1950 predicted such a minor gathering, he would have imagined something quite different…

So, why, Taleb wonders, do we keep predicting that technology will radically transform our future? His answer:

Odds are that your imagination will be adding things to the present world. I am sorry, but this approach is exactly backward: the way to do it rigorously is to take away from the future, reduce from it, simply, things that do not belong to the coming times.

I am not saying that new technologies will not emerge — something new will rule its day, for a while. What is currently fragile will be replaced by something else, of course. But this “something else” is unpredictable.

The excerpt doesn’t explain what Taleb means by “fragile,” which is the theme of his book apparently, but, after a digression critiquing hip technologists who are too technocratic and uncultured for his taste, he gives some examples. Paperwork was fragile, which we know because the Internet has removed so much of it. Shoe manufacturers are moving from over-engineered shoes to “shoes that replicate being barefoot.” The iPad et al. return us to the “Babylonian and Phoenician roots of writing and take (sic) notes on a tablet. “My dream would be to someday write everything longhand…”

Oh dear.

I’m confused by his overall theme as expressed in this exceprt, since he uses Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and George Orwell as examples of futurists who got it wrong, but they would have gotten it far wronger if they had predicted the future by subtraction. The very things Taleb hopes will be subtracted — “deleterious, unnatural, alienating, and, most of all, inherently fragile preceding technology” — were by and large added during the past 150 years. Thus, predictions would have gone right if they had anticipated those additions. Presumably this is cleared up in the book itself.

But let’s go back to the passage I quoted at the beginning that argues that futurologists have tended to over-estimate the extent of change, and that life is pretty much as it always was.

Well, yes and no. At the highest levels of abstraction, Taleb is right: We still eat, shit, and fuck. We still talk with one another. Many of us still live in climates that shove our unclothed bodies out of homeostasis. We still have a system of specialization and economic exchange that lets you cook for me if I provide you with some compensation. So, yes, we eat together, wear clothes, and go to restaurants. We have not transcended our biology, our basic sociality, or our need for a culture and economy. Therefore we have not progressed?

Perhaps the problem is with using eating dinner in a nice restaurant as our example. Perhaps we might look at the systems by which Taleb is served his wine and artisanal cheese. If you can’t tell the difference between a basket and a truck, between a scythe and a thresher, between a root cellar and a refrigerated container vessel, between vassals and unionized farm workers, between planting last year’s seeds and genetically altering crops, between slavery and social mobility, then, yes, you’ll see no progress on your plate.

Ok, I admit that I’m not getting it. I look forward to reading his book.

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December 5, 2012

Dave Brubeck, RIP

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December 3, 2012

Hollywood and Web

The video from the November 19 Berkman discussion of the intersection of Hollywood and the Web is now up.

Here’s the panel discussion before screening of We Made This Movie, with Rob Burnett (the movie’s co-writer/director) [twitter:robburnett1], Elaine McMillion, and me, moderated by Jonathan Zittrain.

After the film I led a Q&A with Rob:

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Tab Rocker – a Chrome utility to return to previous tab

I get lost in my browser tabs all the time. The place I most often want to go is back to the tab I was just in. On Firefox, there are a few utilities that let me do that. My nephew Joel Weinberger has written one that does that and nothing but that for Chrome. You can grab it (free, of course) here. (The source code is on github.)

Joel wrote this, as the result of my whining, during our annual post-Thanksgiving-dinner viewing of Jurassic Park, although he did some clean up of the code afterwards. I should add that, among other things, Joel is a certified computer genius working in deep areas of computer security.

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December 2, 2012

For your convenience…

sign explaining that your shopping cart will lock its wheels if you try to take it too far

No it’s not.

From our local Shaw’s grocery store.

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