Joho the BlogJanuary 2013 - Page 2 of 3 - Joho the Blog

January 21, 2013

Popular for the right reasons?

Note that I understand that in what follows, I am wildly projecting my own feelings, without any data to support my hypothesis. So be it!

Americans by and large like Barack Obama. They like his wife more, but they do like the guy. My hypothesis is that people like Obama for the right reasons.

People liked W, too. I mean, I didn’t, but I’m a shallow, petty person. But people famously liked W because he’d be good to have a beer with. My data-free hypothesis is that people like Obama for better reasons. He isn’t particularly fun to have a beer with (although I am totally open to that invitation, Mr. President), but he is a thoughtful, sincere person who accords each person dignity.

If you’re one of those who don’t like President Obama as a person, none of this applies to you. But if you’re one of us who think it’d be fun to hang out with him (note to White House: Operators are standing by), I bet it’s for perceived qualities that are actually admirable.


January 20, 2013

Manet. Monet. Let’s call the whole thing off.

I was oddly pleased to read yesterday that when Monet first came on the scene, Manet was annoyed that his name was so close.

It didn’t help any that Monet’s first exhibition of works at the Paris Salon, in 1865, was praised by critics, while Manet’s were panned. It must be cold comfort to Manet that Manet’s two reviled works are now considered to be masterpieces. Even colder comfort: everyone still gets their names confused.

I read about Manet’s reaction in Ross King’s excellent The Judgment of Paris about the rise of Impressionism. I’m greatly enjoying it: it’s impressively researched, well-told, and is teaching me a lot about the context within which Impressionism came to be.

And totally tangentially: I went looking for a picture of Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, one of the two Manet paintings at that Salon — the other was Olympia — and came across a post that confidently explains the “anomalies” in the painting.

lunch on the grass - Manet
Thanks, Wikimedia!

The site Every Painter Paints Himself (I guess except for the lady painters) has a brief essay that suggests that the painting looks funny because the bather in the background is actually intended to be a painting in front of which the threesome is posing.

I’m marking this one Interested, But Not Convinced.


January 18, 2013

Clive Thompson on building another Internet

Clive Thompson is talking about the quest to build a new Net without its flaws.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Problems: Governments can shut down the Net. Corporations have a lot of control over copyright, causing the corporations that deliver the Net to throttle it. And Mother Nature can shut it down, e.g. Sandy. Is it possible to build another Internet? He’s been talking with people about this, mainly with people building mesh networks.

But can you make a mesh big enough to cover the planet? Not now. But what are the biggest ones now. (1) in Spain started about 10 years ago. 19,509 nodes, 43 web servers, etc. They don’t view themselves as building a new Net but extending the old one. (2) Athens Municipal Wireless covers about 50% of Greece that has internal versions of Google, Yahoo, etc. Way faster than normal Nets. (3) Quintana Libre serves a rural town of fewer than 500 people, speeds up to 20mbps. (4) Red Hook’s mesh provides local services that don’t show up off the mesh.

For mesh to work, the local community has to be really invested in it.

A guy in Australia has tech — Serval — that lets you make mobile-to-mobile calls to your normal phone number but without cell towers.

So, can you build another Net? You can do inter-continental hops: Australia to Slovenia exists. People are talking about buying decommissioned satellites “but you’d need a really big Kickstarter for that.”

So can you build a new one? Yes, and no, and no and maybe. Reliability and scalability? Mesh sw is still way too geeky. Bootstrapping conundrum: people want global connections, not just local.

Q: [me] But mesh currently connects outside of the mesh to the Internet via the existing Internet backbones. Is there any hope for a pure mesh Internet?

A: Not yet.

Q: Suppose we scaled back our expectations and started with mesh just for SMS, for example?

A: Yes, and that’d be great for activists who want to connect.

A: The examples I gave are all different. Quintana just wants access to the big Internet, but in Athens much of what they want is access to their own local stuff.


January 17, 2013

Clay Shirky: Why do comments suck?

At SCS13, Clay Shirky says that “Why do comments suck so bad?” is one of the questions that is perpetually asked in public discussions. So, what’s the answer?

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Clay points to YouTube as the “basement” of conversation, even in comments on innocuous videos, but there are sites discussing contentious issues that are quite civil and useful. And Google owns YouTube, and they have lots of money and an Internet sensibility, but still YouTube comments suck.

Explanation #1: The world is filled with trolls. But in fact, some sites with good commenting sections moderate comments, thinking about the commenters as a community, not as individuals asserting “First Amendment” rights.

Explanation #2: “Good. Big. Cheap. Pick two.” YouTube’s scale is “an attractive nuiscance.” If you have a publishing frame, then you want to let as many people in. If you have a community view, you are ok with limiting page views. E.g., Gawker uses an algorithm that features comments based on the richness of the thread. (The lower-ranked comments are still there.)

Explanation #3: “What do you want the users to do?” Publishing sites actually want people to forward the article to a million friends and then read another article. They often relegate the comments to the bottom of the page. E.g., the NYT says “Share your thoughts,” which is incredibly generic. No guidance is given. The result are responses that read like letters to the editor, without interaction or conversation. The NYT gives you actionable info for shows, but not for candidates: no links to their sites, no way to donate, etc. “The NYT is much better at helping consumers plug into markets than citizens to plug into politics.”

Explanation #4. “Institutions dodnot have the full range of either social technical solutions available to them culturally.” They can’t think of their commenters as a community instead of as a way of generating low-cost page views.


Clay would like newspapers to have a dashboard of options they can use when constructing commenting sections, each customized to the article.

Q: [Anil Dash] Why ascribe this to ignorance instead of malice. Many of this institutions are served by making their readers look stupid.

Clay: That’s one of my a priori assumptions. I don’t think the individuals making choices are purposefully trying to keep the comments shallow and to prevent collective action. Rather, “letters to the editor” is a comfortable place for them.


January 15, 2013

Why we mourn

CNN asked me to write 600-800 words about Aaron Swartz. I demurred at first, suggested some other people who knew Aaron better — I met Aaron when he was young, stayed in touch, had the occasional meal with him, admired him and loved him more than he knew — and agreed when CNN came back to me.

I have trepidation about what I wrote, which CNN has now posted. I don’t like the implication that we can sum up any life so glibly. But I also wanted to do a little to nudge attention from Aaron solely as a champion of open information. I also decided not to assess the blame that is so well deserved, because that’s well discussed already.

A handful of better sources and expressions:

There’s so much more, because no life can be told.

Here is Aaron in his own words, in a presentation at the Freedom to Connect conference last May.

And here is Larry Lessig on Democracy Now:


Tim Wu on prosecuting Aaron

… Swartz must be compared to two other eccentric geniuses, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who, in the nineteen-seventies, committed crimes similar to, but more economically damaging than, Swartz’s. Those two men hacked A.T. & T.’s telephone system to make free long-distance calls, and actually sold the illegal devices (blue boxes) to make cash. Their mentor, John Draper, did go to jail for a few months (where he wrote one of the world’s first word processors), but Jobs and Wozniak were never prosecuted. Instead, they got bored of phreaking and built a computer. The great ones almost always operate at the edge.

That was then. In our age, armed with laws passed in the nineteen-eighties and meant for serious criminals, the federal prosecutor Carmen Ortiz approved a felony indictment that originally demanded up to thirty-five years in prison. Worse still, her legal authority to take down Swartz was shaky. Just last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a similar prosecution. Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, a prominent conservative, refused to read the law in a way that would make a criminal of “everyone who uses a computer in violation of computer use restrictions—which may well include everyone who uses a computer.” Ortiz and her lawyers relied on that reading to target one of our best and brightest.

It’s one thing to stretch the law to stop a criminal syndicate or terrorist organization. It’s quite another when prosecuting a reckless young man. The prosecutors forgot that, as public officials, their job isn’t to try and win at all costs but to use the awesome power of criminal law to protect the public from actual harm. Ortiz has not commented on the case. But, had she been in charge when Jobs and Wozniak were breaking the laws, we might never have had Apple computers. It was at this moment that our legal system and our society utterly failed.

Tim Wu

Full article in the New Yorker.


My friend David Isenberg cautions us not to think of this as Aaron encountering one bad apple in the system. Rather, says David, “The legal system was working just like it always works…The case of US v Swartz was business as usual.”

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January 14, 2013

What gods and beasts have in common

“The man who is incapable of working in common, or who in his self-sufficiency has no need of others, is no part of the community, like a beast, or a god.”

Aristotle, Politics, Book One, Chapter 2, this quotation translated by Bernard Knox in Backing into the Future.

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January 13, 2013

Aaron Swartz was not a hacker. He was a builder.

Of course Aaron was a legendary prodigy of a hacker in the sense of someone who can build anything out of anything. But that’s not what the media mean when they call him a hacker. They’re talking about his downloading of millions of scholarly articles from JSTOR, and there’s a slight chance they’re also thinking about his making available millions of pages of federal legal material as part of the RECAP project.

Neither the JSTOR nor RECAP downloads were cases of hacking in the sense of forcing your way into a system by getting around technical barriers. Framing Aaron’s narrative — his life as those who didn’t know him will remember it — as that of a hacker is a convenient untruth.

As Alex Stamos makes clear, there were no technical, legal, or contractual barriers preventing Aaron from downloading as many articles in the JSTOR repository as he wanted, other than the possibility that Aaron was trespassing, and even that is questionable. (The MIT closet he “broke into” to gain better access to the network apparently was unlocked.) Alex writes:

Aaron did not “hack” the JSTOR website for all reasonable definitions of “hack”. Aaron wrote a handful of basic python scripts that first discovered the URLs of journal articles and then used curl to request them. Aaron did not use parameter tampering, break a CAPTCHA, or do anything more complicated than call a basic command line tool that downloads a file in the same manner as right-clicking and choosing “Save As” from your favorite browser.

Clearly, this is not what JSTOR had in mind, but it is also something its contract permitted and its technology did nothing to prevent. As Brewster Kahle wrote yesterday:

When I was at MIT, if someone went to hack the system, say by downloading databases to play with them, might be called a hero, get a degree, and start a company– but they called the cops on him. Cops. MIT used to protect us when we transgressed the traditional.

As for RECAP, the material Aaron made available was all in the public domain.

Aaron was not a hacker. He was a builder:

  • Aaron helped build the RSS standard that enabled a rush of information and ideas — what we blandly call “content” — to be distributed, encountered, and re-distributed. [source]

  • Aaron did the initial architecture of, promoting a license that removes the friction from the reuse of copyrighted materials. [source]

  • Aaron did the initial architecture of the Open Library, a source of and about books open to the world. [source]

  • Aaron played an important role in spurring the grassroots movement that stopped SOPA, a law that would have increased the power of the Hollywood-DC alliance to shut down Web sites. [source]

  • Aaron contributed to the success of Reddit, a site now at the heart of the Net’s circulatory system for many millions of us.

  • Aaron contributed to Markdown, a much simpler way of writing HTML Web pages. (I use it for most of my writing.) [source]

  • Aaron created Infogami, software that made it easy for end-users to create Web sites that feature collaboration and self-expression. (Reddit bought Infogami.) [source]

  • Aaron wrote, which he described as “a free software web application library for Python. It makes it easier to develop web apps in Python by handling a lot of the Web-related stuff for you. Reddit was built using it, for example.” (In that interview you’ll hear Aaron also talk about his disgust at the level of misogyny in the tech world.) [source]

  • Aaron founded Demand Progress and helped found the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, pioneering grassroots political groups. [source]

The mainstream media know that their non-technical audience will hear the term “hacker” in its black hat sense. We need to work against this, not only for the sake of Aaron’s memory, but so that his work is celebrated, encouraged, and continued.

Aaron Swartz was not a hacker. He was a builder.


January 12, 2013

Rest in peace, Aaron Swartz

It was with a shock of emotions beyond articulation that I read this morning that Aaron Swartz killed himself yesterday.

I first met Aaron when he was 14 or 15, at a conference where he was being consulted by graybeards with technical questions. I kept in touch, and followed his activities. Aaron was a prodigy not only of technology but of democracy. Every single project he undertook aimed at improving the public sphere — more open, with lower barriers, richer connections, better information, and less corruption. He wanted the public sphere to be more of us and be more ours.

I was so looking forward to watching him continue to grow, invent, and contribute. I admired him, and I enjoyed his company, and I didn’t ever want to have to use the past tense in talking about him. The future was so much more appropriate.

Cory Doctorow writes movingly and clearly about Aaron’s here.

I am so sorry for his family, for his friends, for all of us who knew him, and for those who did not have that chance.

Young Aaron (14-15) with Larry Lessig
Young Aaron (14-15 years old) with Larry Lessig


Here’s something I just posted at Reddit:

Aaron was a hero of the Internet.

Everything he did in his way too short life was aimed at making the connected world more open, with lower barriers, richer connections, more knowledge, more sharing, and less corruption. Consider Aaron’s work on standards for sharing ideas, his commitment to progressive and bottom-up politics, his efforts to provide free access to public domain court records), his work against corruption in politics, his contribution to the struggle against SOPA, the app he wrote for making it easier to create blogs and wikis (acquired by Reddit), his commitment to open information. And more.

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January 9, 2013

What I learned at NASA

Well, I learned a bunch of stuff, but I’ll only mention two.

First, NASA is as totally awesome as you think it is. I went to the Langley centerfor a one day visit, and got a morning tour, and it is a nerd-heaven work space, with no Star Wars white plastic, but lots and lots of dented workbenches covered with sprays of components. And it adds up to our species looking down on our planet. Ultra ultra cool.

Second, I got a tour of the National Transonic Facility by Bill Bisset, who manages the place. They test models in the world’s most sophisticated wind tunnel — they fill it with liquid nitrogen (which they make themselves) that’s blown in by the world’s most powerful horizontally-mounted electrical motor (that consumes an eighth of the output of a local nuclear generator), and they measure up to 5,000 different parameters. So, naturally, I ran an urban myth past Bill, because that’s an excellent use of his time.

I had been told by someone sometime that those little upturned wing tips you sometimes see on planes were discovered more than invented: Someone tried them out, and they turned out to increase the efficiency of the plane, but no one knew why.


Nope, nope, and nope. They’re called winglets. Here’s the story, from a NASA page:

The concept of winglets originated with a British aerodynamicist in the late 1800s, but the idea remained on the drawing board until rekindled in the early 1970s by Dr. Richard Whitcomb when the price of aviation fuel started spiraling upward.

Bill explained that winglets work by altering the vortex that forms when air rushes over a wing. “Winglets…produce a forward thrust inside the circulation field of the vortices and reduce their strength,” as the NASA page says. They increase efficiency by 6-9%. Bill said they also effectively increase the wingspan of the plane, but without extending the wings horizontally, which matters to airlines because they pay airports based upon the horizontal length of the wings.

So,yes, everything I’d heard was wrong. And, yes, it was in Wikipedia all along.

(And yes, I learned a whole lot more. It was for me a wonderful day.)

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