Joho the BlogJuly 2013 - Joho the Blog

July 30, 2013

Aaron Swartz and MIT’s neutrality

In my reading, MIT does not come off as cleanly in Hal Abelson’s excellent report as Pres. Reif’s spin suggests.

When Pres. Reif writes that MIT’s actions were “reasonable, appropriate and made in good faith” I think we have to ask “Appropriate to what?” To MIT’s interests as a legal entity? Very likely. To MIT as a university? Not in my book. I won’t try to adjudicate the claims that MIT cooperated eagerly with the prosecutors but dragged its feet with the defense; I’m too emotionally involved to trust my reading of the evidence in the Abelson report. But, MIT’s timid “neutrality” wasted an opportunity to stand against the unreasonable and inappropriate tactics of the prosecutors, and to stand for the spirit of inquiry, openness, innovation, and risk-taking that has made MIT one of the world’s great universities.

I understand that MIT wasn’t going to say that it was fine with Aaron’s breaching its contract with JSTOR. But MIT could have stood against prosecutorial overreach, and for the values— if not the exact actions— Aaron embodied.


Larry Lessig has posted incisive comments about MIT’s neutrality.

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July 28, 2013

The shockingly short history of the history of technology

In 1960, the academic journal Technology and Culture devoted its entire Autumn edition [1] to essays about a single work, the fifth and final volume of which had come out in 1958: A History of Technology, edited by Charles Singer, E. J. Holmyard, A. R. Hall, and Trevor I. Williams. Essay after essay implies or outright states something I found quite remarkable: A History of Technology is the first history of technology.

You’d think the essays would have some clever twist explaining why all those other things that claimed to be histories were not, perhaps because they didn’t get the concept of “technology” right in some modern way. But, no, the statements are pretty untwisty. The journal’s editor matter-of-factly claims that the history of technology is a “new discipline.”[2] Robert Woodbury takes the work’s publication as the beginning of the discipline as well, although he thinks it pales next to the foundational work of the history of science [3], a field the journal’s essays generally take as the history of technology’s older sibling, if not its parent. Indeed, fourteen years later, in 1974, Robert Multhauf wrote an article for that same journal, called “Some Observations on the State of the History of Technology,”[4] that suggested that the discipline was only then coming into its own. Why some universities have even recognized that there is such a thing as an historian of science!

The essay by Lewis Mumford, whom one might have mistaken for a prior historian of technology, marks the volumes as a first history of technology, pans them as a history of technology, and acknowledges prior attempts that border on being histories of technology. [5] His main objection to A History of Technology— and he is far from alone in this among the essays — is that the volumes don’t do the job of synthesizing the events recounted, failing to put them into the history of ideas, culture, and economics that explain both how technology took the turns that it did and what the meaning of those turns meant for human life. At least, Mumford says, these five volumes do a better job than the works of three British nineteenth century who wrote something like histories of technology: Andrew Ure, Samuel Smiles, and Charles Babbage. (Yes, that Charles Babbage.) (Multhauf points also to Louis Figuier in France, and Franz Reuleaux in Germany.[6])

Mumford comes across as a little miffed in the essay he wrote about A History of Technology, but, then, Mumford often comes across as at least a little miffed. In the 1963 introduction to his 1934 work, Technics and Civilization, Mumford seems to claim the crown for himself, saying that his work was “the first to summarize the technical history of the last thousand years of Western Civilization…” [7]. And, indeed, that book does what he claims is missing from A History of Technology, looking at the non-technical factors that made the technology socially feasible, and at the social effects the technology had. It is a remarkable work of synthesis, driven by a moral fervor that borders on the rhetoric of a prophet. (Mumford sometimes crossed that border; see his 1946 anti-nuke essay, “Gentlemen: You are Mad!” [8]) Still, in 1960 Mumford treated A History of Technology as a first history of technology not only in the academic journal Technology and Culture, but also in The New Yorker, claiming that until recently the history of technology had been “ignored,” and “…no matter what the oversights or lapses in this new “History of Technology, one must be grateful that it has come into existence at all.”[9]

So, there does seem to be a rough consensus that the first history of technology appeared in 1958. That the newness of this field is shocking, at least to me, is a sign of how dominant technology as a concept — as a frame — has become in the past couple of decades.


[1] Techology and Culture. Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4.

[2] Melvin Kranzberg. “Charles Singer and ‘A History of Technology'” Techology and Culture Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4. pp. 299-302. p. 300.

[3] Robert S. Woodbury. “The Scholarly Future of the History of Technology” Techology and Culture Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4. pp. 345-8. P. 345.

[4] Robert P. Multhauf, “Some Observations on the State of the History of Technology.” Techology and Culture. Jan, 1974. Vol. 15, no. 1. pp. 1-12

[5] Lewis Mumford. “Tools and the Man.” Techology and Culture Autumn, 1960. Vol. 1, Issue 4. pp. 320-334.

[6] Multhauf, p. 3.

[7] Lewis Mumford. Technics and Civilization. (Harcourt Brace, 1934. New edition 1963), p. xi.

[8] Lewis Mumford. “Gentlemen: You Are Mad!” Saturday Review of Literature. March 2, 1946, pp. 5-6.

[9] Lewis Mumford. “From Erewhon to Nowhere.” The New Yorker. Oct. 8, 1960. pp. 180-197.

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July 22, 2013

Paid content needs REALLY BIG metadata

HBR.com has just put up a post of mine about some new guidelines for “paid content.” The guidelines come from the PR and marketing communications company Edelman, which creates and places paid content for its clients. (Please read the disclosure that takes up all of paragraph 4 of my post. Short version: Edelman paid for a day of consulting on the guidelines. And, no, that didn’t include me agreeing to write about the guidelines)

I just read the current issue of Wired (Aug.) and was hit by a particularly good example. This issue has a two-page spread on pp. 34-35 that features an info graphic that is stylistically indistinguishable from another info graphic on p. 55. The fact that the two pager is paid content is flagged only by a small Shell logo in the upper left and the words “Wired promotion” in gray text half the height of the “article’s” subhead. It’s just not enough.

Worse, once you figure out that it’s an ad, you start to react to legitimate articles with suspicion. Is the article on the very next page (p. 36) titled “Nerf aims for girls but hits boys too” also paid content? How about the interview with the stars of the new comedy “The World’s End”? And then there’s the article on p. 46 that seems to be nothing but a plug for coins from Kitco. The only reason to think it’s not an ad in disguise is that it mentions a second coin company, Metallium. That’s pretty subtle metadata. Even so, it crossed my mind that maybe the two companies pitched in to pay for the article.

That’s exactly the sort of thought a journal doesn’t want crossing its readers’ minds. The failure to plainly distinguish paid content from unpaid content can subvert the reader’s trust. While I understand the perilous straits of many publications, if they’re going to accept paid content (and that seems like a done deal), then this month’s Wired gives a good illustration of why it’s in their own interest to mark their paid content clearly, using a standardized set of terms, just as the Edelman guidelines suggest.

(And, yes, I am aware of the irony – at best – that my taking money from Edelman raises just the sort of trust issues that I’m decrying in poorly-marked paid content.)

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July 20, 2013

The Rolling Stone cover: Outrage and sympathy

CNN.com has posted my op-ed about the Rolling Stone cover that features Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It’s not the favorite thing I’ve ever written, but I had about an hour to do a draft.

There are two things I know I’d change without even going through the scary process of re-reading it:

First, CNN edited out any direct assertion that the Tsarnaev’s are guilty. So, there are some “alleged”s awkwardly inserted, and some language that works around direct attribution of guilt. I’m in favor of the presumption of innocence, of course. But inserting the word “alleged” is a formalism without real effect, except when the allegedly alleged murderer’s lawyers call. But, I get it. (CNN also removed some of the links I’d put, including to the cover itself and to the Wikipedia NPOV policy.)

Second, I wanted to say something more directly about the distinction between the sympathy that feels bad for someone’s troubles and the sympathy that lets us understand where the person is coming from. My post too quickly rules out sympathy of any kind because I knew that if I asked for sympathetic understanding, many readers would accuse me of feeling sympathetic toward the perpetrator rather than toward his victims, as if one rules out the other. So, I opted to strike any positive use of the term. (Of course that didn’t stop many of the commenters from claiming that I’m excusing the Tsarnaevs. Ridiculous.)

So, I’ll say it here: sympathetic understanding is a crucial human project, and, in truth, it often does lead toward sympathetic feelings. For example, in The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer leads us through the story of the mass killer Gary Gilmore, providing explanations that implicitly run the gamut from psychological to economic to social to Nietzschean to Freudian [1]. Inevitably we do feel some emotional sympathy for Gilmore, although without thinking him one whit less culpable. It sucked to be Gary Gilmore, and that doesn’t mean it didn’t suck far worse to be one of his victims.

In the same way, the common narrative about the Tsarnaev brothers (which I, too, accept) is that the older brother was a rotten apple who drew the younger brother into evil. I think the story of how the younger brother became “radicalized” — in quotes because it is an exteriorized word — is more interesting to most of us than how the older brother got there. If and when they make the movie, the part of the younger brother will be the plum role. That’s the narrative that has been served to us, and there are reasons to think that it’s basically right: the younger brother didn’t show signs of radicalization — his friends were genuinely shocked — while the older brother did. (The Rolling Stone article elaborates this narrative by explaining not only how the younger came to his beliefs, but also by showing that he kept the change hidden.) This narrative also fits well into our cultural narrative about youth being innocent until corrupted. But my point is not that the narrative is true or false or both or neither. It is that we generally hold to that narrative in this case, and it is a narrative that naturally engenders some element of emotional sympathy for the corrupted youth. And what’s wrong with that? Sympathy doesn’t have to take sides. Our judgment does that. Understanding how Dzhokhar Tsarnaev went from innocent to a murderer of children (allegedly!) and what it was like to be him doesn’t mean that I hold him less culpable, that I want his sentence reduced, or — most importantly — that I now have less sympathy for his victims. Indeed, the whole power of The Narrative depends upon our continuing horror at what he did.

To say otherwise is to deny the power of narrative and art. It means we should ban not just The Executioner’s Song but also In Cold Blood, Crime and Punishment and even Madame Bovary, each of which bring us to both cognitive and emotional sympathy for people who did bad things [2]. It is also to deny that evil is the act of humans and thus is a possibility for each of us, at least in a “there but for the grace of God” sense.[3] And, to my way of thinking, our outrage at any attempt to understand those who commit incontrovertibly evil acts is intended exactly to silence that scariest of thoughts.


[1] It’s been decades since I read The Executioner’s Song, so I’m probably misrepresenting which exact explanatory theories Mailer employs.

[2] I know Madame Bovary is different because her acts of adultery even within the frame of the book are so thoroughly understandable.

[3] At the last minute when finishing this post, I removed a sentence referencing Hannah Arendt’s complex phrase “the banality of evil.” It raised too many issues for a final paragraph. (And I have a sense I will regret including Madame Bovary in the list. See footnote 2.)

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July 19, 2013

Reflections on a majestic eagle

We are on vacation at the lake house I share with my brother and sister. A bald eagle has made its home here. This morning I spotted it high in a pine tree, watching for prey. As I looked at it, it looked down at me. Our eyes caught. In that moment, I felt myself migrate into its body, and it migrate into mine. With my newly keened vision I could see myself from on high, and I realized that no one gets away with wearing a plaid shirt with plaid shorts, and at last I understood why the animals all laugh at me.


It is estimated by the the well-known scientist, Dr. Passive Voice Anonymous, that bald eagles are successful at catching prey only one in eighteen strikes. In short, from bald eagles we learn the important lesson that even they are not very good at what they do, and that a human with a rifle or even a baseball bat would be far better at being an eagle.


Benjamin Franklin, the only president of the United States who was never president [source], proposed that the turkey be the symbol of America. Thomas Jefferson objected however, arguing that “the sign and symbol of a nation so dedicated to ideals of human nature should not itself be delicious.” The two great men met to discuss the matter at a legendary dinner in the Priors Alehouse on Broad Street in Philadelphia, and emerged with a document that declared the bald eagle to be “sufficiently stringy, albeit with a certain gamyness not unpleasant to the tooth” to serve as the new nation’s symbol.

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July 13, 2013

Presidential Innovation Fellows

Yesterday I got to spend the afternoon with friends from the Department of State’s eDiplomacy group and people from the General Services Administration. I was leading a whiteboarding session for a project — a task marketplace — they have underway. The project development work is being done primarily by two Presidential Innovation FellowsJoe Polastre and Dain Miller — which made clear to me just how cool that program is.

The official description is:

The Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) program pairs top innovators from the private sector, non-profits, and academia with top innovators in government to collaborate during focused 6-13 month “tours of duty” to develop solutions that can save lives, save taxpayer money, and fuel job creation.

There are 30+ Fellows, whose terms run from 6-13 months, working on projects [github] that benefit the country.

I like everything about this program. I like that it enables development of useful software. I like that it announces the White House’s recognition of the importance of tech innovation. I like that it gets geeks into various branches of the government. I like that it gives some incredible developers real-world experience with the federal government — the admirable people who work there, as well as the constraints they work within.

The one thing I don’t like is the acronym. Pfft.

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July 11, 2013

Apple e-books decision explained – mainstream and Reddit

A judge has ruled that Apple is guilty of price-fixing in its attempt to get the major publishers to unite against Amazon’s discounting of e-books.

Now, that’s not a very helpful — and possibly not entirely accurate — explanation. If you want more, there’s a thread at Reddit that has some terrific explanations at various level of detail (e.g., this one), as well as bunches of questions asked and answered. And, of course, some digressions, hip shots, and smug wrongnesses.

There are certainly some helpful analyses and explanations from the mainstream: e.g., WSJ, Wired, Bloomberg. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to choose among those three and the Reddit comment I linked to above. But the Reddit thread is — at least to my taste — a better way to explore the issue: a variety of views expressed at appropriate lengths, with questions posed at various levels of sophistication, and with a conversation that goes where it wants to without a fear of dead ends.

Now, I’m aware that if you go to the Reddit thread, you’ll be appalled by how much there is wrong with it. Yeah, I’m not blind to it. But consider what an amazing emergent artifact that thread is. It combines in one flow “explainers” and analysis as good as you’ll find from professionals, Q&A, and a a social froth that you can easily ignore if it is not to your liking. This is what journalism looks like — one of the ways it looks — when the old constraints of space, authorial ownership, and editorial process are lifted, and a larger We gets our hands on it. Pretty fascinating.

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July 6, 2013

[misc][2b2k] Why ontologies make me nervous

A few days ago there was a Twitter back and forth between two people I deeply respect: Dan Brickley [twitter:danbri] and Ed Summers [twitter:edsu]. It started with Ed responding to a tweet about a brief podcast I did with Kevin Ford [twitter:3windmills], who is on the team working on BibFrame:

After a couple of tweets, Dan tweeted the following:

There followed some agreement that it's often helpful to have apps driving the development of standards. (Kevin agrees with this, and points to BibFrame's process.) But, Dan's comment clarified my understanding of why ontologies make me nervous.

Over the past hundred years or so, we've come to a general recognition that all classifications and categorizations are tools, not representations of The Real Order. The periodic table of the elements is a useful way of organizing information, and manifests real relationships among the elements, but it is not the single "real" way the elements are arranged; if you're an economist or an industrialist, a chart that arranges the elements based on where they exist on our planet might be just as valid. Likewise, Linneaus' classification scheme is useful and manifests some real relationships, but if you're a chef you might have a different way of carving up the animal kingdom. Linneaus chose to organize species based upon visible differences — which might not be the "essential" differences — so that his scheme would be useful to scientists in the field. Although he was sometimes ambiguous about this, he seems not to have thought that he was discerning God's own order. Since Linnaeus we have become much more explicit in our understanding that how we classify depends on what we're trying to accomplish.

For example, a DTD (document type definition) typically is designed not to capture the eternal essence of some type of document, but to make the document more usable by systems that automate the document's production and processing. For example, an industry might agree on a DTD for parts catalogs that specifies that a parts catalog must have an element called "part" and that a part must have a type, part number, length, height, weight, material, and a description, and optionally can note whether it turns clockwise or counterclockwise. Each of these elements would have a standard name (e.g., "part_number," not "part#"). The result is a document that describes parts in a standard way so that a company can receive descriptions from all of its suppliers and automatically build a database of the parts it uses.

A DTD therefore is designed with an eye toward what properties are going to be useful. In some industries, it might include a term that captures how shiny the part is, but if it's a DTD for surgical equipment, that may not be relevant enough to include...although "sanitary_packaging" might be. Likewise, how quickly a bolt transfers heat might seem irrelevant, at least until NASA places an order. In this DTD's are much like forms: You don't put a field for earlobe length in the college application form you're designing.

Ontologies are different. They can try to express the structure of a domain independent of any particular use, so that the widest variety of applications can share data, including apps from domains outside of the one that's been mapped. So, to use Dan's example, your ontology of jobs would note that jobs have employers and workers, that they may have a salary or other form of compensation, that they can be part-time, full-time, seasonal, etc. As an ontology designer, because you're trying to think beyond whatever applications you already can imagine, your aim (often, not always) is to provide the fullest possible set of slots just in case someone sometime needs that info. And you will carefully describe the relationships among the elements so that apps and researchers can use knowledge that is implicit in the model.

The line between DTD's and ontologies is fuzzy. Many ontologies are designed with classes of apps in mind, and some DTD's have tried to be hugely general purpose. My discomfort really comes down to a distrust of the concept of "knowledge representation" that underlies some ontologies (especially earlier ones). The complexity of the relationships among parts will always outstrip our attempts to capture and codify those relationships. Further, knowledge cannot be fully represented because it isn't a thing apart from our continuous invention, discovery, and engagement with it.

What it comes down to is that if you talk about ontologies as knowledge representations I'll mutter something under my breath and change the topic.

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July 1, 2013

Repeal the Internet: The MadLibs version

Here’s the MadLibs version of the Robert Samuelson paragraph about repealing the Internet. Have fun!

If I could, I would repeal                . It is the       adj          marvel of the age, but it is not — as most people imagine — a symbol of progress. Just the opposite. We would be better off without it. I grant its astonishing capabilities:        trivial example        ,      trivial example          ,     wrong example          , and much more. But the                ’s benefits are relatively modest compared with previous transformative technologies, and it brings with it a terrifying danger:                . Amid the controversy over leaks from the National Security Agency, this looms as an even bigger downside.

Comments Off on Repeal the Internet: The MadLibs version

I give up. Repeal everything.

Robert Samuelson has an apparently serious op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that we should “repeal the Internet.”

He says:

If I could, I would repeal the Internet. It is the technological marvel of the age, but it is not — as most people imagine — a symbol of progress. Just the opposite. We would be better off without it. I grant its astonishing capabilities: the instant access to vast amounts of information, the pleasures of YouTube and iTunes, the convenience of GPS and much more. But the Internet’s benefits are relatively modest compared with previous transformative technologies, and it brings with it a terrifying danger: cyberwar. Amid the controversy over leaks from the National Security Agency, this looms as an even bigger downside.

Excellent idea! Really well-argued! In fact, why stop there?

If I could, I would repeal the First Amendment. It is the governmental marvel of the age, but it is not — as most people imagine — a symbol of progress. Just the opposite. We would be better off without it. I grant its astonishing capabilities: the TV talking heads, the bumperstickers, the op-eds that have to overstate their case to get published, and much more. But First Amendment’s benefits are relatively modest compared with previous speech rights, and it brings with it a terrifying danger: free thinking. Amid the controversy over leaks from the National Security Agency, this looms as an even bigger downside.

Indeed,

If I could, I would repeal oxygen. It is the chemical marvel of the age, but it is not — as most people imagine — a symbol of progress. Just the opposite. We would be better off without it. I grant its astonishing capabilities: the way it’s used by cigarette lighters, the buoyancy of kiddie swim fins, the infomercials that entertain us with how it helps remove cranberry juice from table cloths. But oxygen’s benefits are relatively modest compared with previous chemicals, and it brings with it a terrifying danger: life on Earth Amid the controversy over leaks from the National Security Agency, this looms as an even bigger downside.

 


Here’s the MadLibs version of the paragraph. Create your own!

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