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November 19, 2015

Google stepping forward to defend Fair Use

Google has just posted that it’s going to start defending some YouTube videos from DMCA takedown notices when it believes that those videos are protected by the Fair Use exemption from copyright law.

This is great news and long overdue.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 lets a copyright holder send a notice to a site like YouTube claiming that a video violates its copyright. YouTube passes that notice on to the video poster and takes down the video. The poster can enter into a legal battle with the copyright holder which is rarely worth the time and money even if the poster is totally within her rights.

As a result, Big Content sends YouTube thousands of takedown notices that are generated algorithmically, without a human ever looking at the video to see if it is actually a violation. Since there’s no practical penalty for sending in a groundless takedown notice, Big Content has a “When in doubt, take it out” attitude.

But you usually can’t tell if a video falls under the Fair Use exemption without looking at it. Fair Use exempts material from claims of copyright infringement if the material is satire, if it’s citing the original in a review, for some educational purposes, etc. Fair Use is just plain common sense. Without it, you’d have to get Donald Trump’s permission to mem-ify one of his quotes.

Google to its credit recently used Fair Use to defend Google Books‘ scanning and indexing of in-copyright works. It won. This was a big victory for Fair Use.

Now Google seems ready to step forward and champion Fair Use in other realms. It’s hard to see how this benefits Google directly — they’ll be spending legal fees to keep some person’s video up, even as 400 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. But creating a Fair Use speed bump in the automatic and robotic cleansing of the Net is great for the ecosystem, which is great for us and ultimately for companies like Google that rely on the Internet remaining a robust domain of discourse and creativity.

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"You will not have my hatred"

Antoine Leiris
Monday, November 16, 2015

Vous n’aurez pas ma haine

Vendredi soir vous avez volé la vie d’un être d’exception, l’amour de ma vie, la mère de mon fils mais vous n’aurez pas ma haine. Je ne sais pas qui vous êtes et je ne veux pas le savoir, vous êtes des âmes mortes. Si ce Dieu pour lequel vous tuez aveuglément nous a fait à son image, chaque balle dans le corps de ma femme aura été une blessure dans son coeur.

Alors non je ne vous ferai pas ce cadeau de vous haïr. Vous l’avez bien“I will not give you the gift of hating you.” cherché pourtant mais répondre à la haine par la colère ce serait céder à la même ignorance qui a fait de vous ce que vous êtes. Vous voulez que j’ai peur, que je regarde mes concitoyens avec un oeil méfiant, que je sacrifie ma liberté pour la sécurité. Perdu. Même joueur joue encore.

Je l’ai vue ce matin. Enfin, après des nuits et des jours d’attente. Elle était aussi belle que lorsqu’elle est partie ce vendredi soir, aussi belle que lorsque j’en suis tombé éperdument amoureux il y a plus de 12 ans. Bien sûr je suis dévasté par le chagrin, je vous concède cette petite victoire, mais elle sera de courte durée. Je sais qu’elle nous accompagnera chaque jour et que nous nous retrouverons dans ce paradis des âmes libres auquel vous n’aurez jamais accès.

Nous sommes deux, mon fils et moi, mais nous sommes plus fort que toutes“You want me to be afraid, for me to regard my fellow citizens with a suspicious eye, to sacrifice my freedom for security. You lose.” les armées du monde. Je n’ai d’ailleurs pas plus de temps à vous consacrer, je dois rejoindre Melvil qui se réveille de sa sieste. Il a 17 mois à peine, il va manger son goûter comme tous les jours, puis nous allons jouer comme tous les jours et toute sa vie ce petit garçon vous fera l’affront d’être heureux et libre. Car non, vous n’aurez pas sa haine non plus.


“You will not have my hatred”

Friday night you stole the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred. I do not know who you are and I don’t want to know, you are dead souls. If the God for whom you kill so blindly made us in His image, each bullet in the body of my wife would be a wound in His heart. “ …all his life this little boy will affront you with his happiness and freedom.”

So no, I will not give you the gift of hating you. You have obviously sought it but responding to hatred with anger would be to give in to the same ignorance that made you what you are. You want me to be afraid, for me to regard my fellow citizens with a suspicious eye, to sacrifice my freedom for security. You lose. Game over.

I saw her this morning. Finally, after nights and days of waiting. She was just as beautiful as when she left Friday evening, and just as beautiful as when I fell madly in love with her more than 12 years ago. Of course I am devastated with grief, I concede that tiny victory, but it will be short-lived. I know she will be with us every day and that we will find each other again in a paradise of free souls to which you will never have access.

We are two, my son and me, but we are more powerful than all the armies of the world. I have no more time to waste on you, I need to get back to Melvil who is waking up from his afternoon nap. He’s just 17 months old; he’ll eat his snack like every day, and then we’re going to play like we do every day; and all his life this little boy will affront you with his happiness and freedom. Because you won’t have his hatred either.

It can be heart-breaking to be an adult.

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October 23, 2015

Does the networking of meaning destroy meaning?

Donatella Della Ratta, at Copenhangen University and a Berkman fellow, has posted a remarkable essay and linked to another.

The link is to a Wired article by Andy Greenberg about the New Palmyra Project, an effort to reconstruct the ancient monuments ISIS is destroying, and a plea for action to free the project’s creator, Bassel Khartabil, from a Syrian prison.

The second is Donatella’s article in CyberOrient that considers efforts that, like the New Palmyra Project, reconstruct sites destroyed by war, but not with that project’s historical purpose. In the article she brings to light some of the profound and disturbing ways the Net is changing how meaning works.

Her focus is on what she calls “expanded places,” physical places that have been physically destroyed, but that “have been re-animated through multiple mediated versions circulating and re-circulating on the networks.” As she says in the article’s abstract:

Thriving on the techno-human infrastructure of the networks, and relying on the endless proliferation of images resulting from the loss of control of image-makers over their own production, expanded places are aggregators of new communities that add novel layers of signification to the empirical world, and create their own multiple realities and histories.

Her primary example is Damescene Village, a theme park on the outskirts of Damascus where she conducted ethnographic research in 2010. The brief story of the role that theme park played in Syrian“the multiple layers of unreality that it attracted itself is mind-blowing” popular media, and the multiple layers of unreality that it attracted itself is mind-blowing: “a physical replica of the historic 1920s rebel stronghold conceived as a TV set for a reenactment drama of that very struggle; which, historically speaking, took place exactly in the location where the fictional copy had been rebuilt for the sake of media consumption.” To complete the media hall of mirrors, in the recent conflict each side shot “video accounts narrating the seizure of the theme park using themes, symbols and characters borrowed from the TV series.”

Eventually the Damascene Village was destroyed; yet, the self-shot videos, once uploaded onto YouTube, continued to fuel the spread of clashing narratives and contradictory understandings of national resistance, which turned a physical site hosting a staged representation of a conflict into a conflict zone itself, endlessly reproduced through social networking sites.

The complexity of this place as real, symbolic, organic, and manipulated is mirrored in the nature of the platform. She argues that the Internet’s “circulation, reflexivity, anonymity, and decentralized authorship” lead to a type of violence against meaning: “…the endless circulation of messages that are shared, manipulated, and repeated over and over again in a loop where any possible meaning is lost.” Citing Jodi Dean, Donatella says: “…the uncontrollable speed and spread of contributions over the networks help prevent the formation of any sort of signification,” generating not “a plurality of visions” but “…a feeling of ‘constituent anxiety.'” This process is, she says “inherent to the networks.”

A novel space has been created by the entanglement of warfare and technology, where lines are blurred between the physical, lived experiences of war and their media representations, which have gained a new existence by virtue of the endless circulation of the layering of times, spaces, and people enabled by the networks.

This new environment, defined around what I call “expanded places,” re-establishes the relationship between violence and visibility, and broadens the very idea of conflict. Here, mediated and symbolic languages are employed to perform and legitimize the violence perpetrated in physical spaces. At the same time, the large scale production and reproduction of this very violence through networked forms and formats serves to actualize and rationalize it, its viral circulation being endlessly nurtured and boosted by the techno-human structure of the networks.

But is Damescene Village is too good an example? It came onto the Net with so many layers of contested meta-meta-meaning that perhaps its online life is atypical. Donatella confronts this question, “ the Net not only continues the alienation of images of violence … but adds a participatory level”arguing that the Net not only continues the alienation of images of violence from their actuality and from ethical responses, as noted by Susan Sontag in the 1970s, but adds a participatory level to this: the images of violence are hyperlinked and recirculated by the viewers themselves. This borderless remixing and recirculation “have all contributed to the expansion of the place formerly known as the Damascene Village.”

But what to make of this expansion? Here again I worry that Donatella’s example is too good:

As shown by the story of the Damascene Village, the same symbolic and visual reference (Bab al hara) can be employed simultaneously by opposing factions (the Syrian army and the armed rebels) to produce contrasting narratives of resistance, and clashing ideas of nationhood. It can both serve to evoke a seemingly inclusive multiculturalism promoted under al Asad’s leadership; and, at the same time, to remind us that an entire nation is being besieged, not by occupying foreign forces but by the Syrian regime.

She takes this as a type of fictionality, as described by Jacques Rancière: a rearrangement of something real into new political and aesthetic formats without regard to the truth of that something, blurring “the logic of facts and the logic of fiction” in multiple layers of meaning. She invokes Baudrillard, saying that “The story of the Damascene Village proves that it does not really matter” whether the various factions’ fantasies correspond to historical truth. Rather:

what it is important to reflect upon is that this very fantasy has been used to generate and reproduce violence from opposite armed factions, both of which have employed mediated and networked languages to claim legitimacy over their own idea of homeland and national resistance.

But hasn’t that statement been true of every intra-cultural conflict? The truth of historians has never much mattered to factions trying to rouse support for their side. Donatella uses Rancière’s thought to find the difference between how this worked “the Net is in important ways moving us back to a simpler relation between image and reality through the posting of cellphone videos of police attacks, ”before and after the Net. I have not read him (I know, I know) but am not fully convinced by the ideas she cites. In the modern era, “technology is not understood as a mere technique of reproduction and transmission.” Yes, but that’s hardly new to the Internet. Not only has it been well understood at least since the 1960s, but one could argue that the Net is in important ways moving us back to a simpler relation between image and reality through the posting of cellphone videos of police attacks, the proliferation of video surveillance, and the new insistence that the police wear video cameras. Also: Russian dash cams.

She cites Rancière further to make the case that the anonymity of Net postings and the ability to record just about everything “has given rise a new understanding of history as a continuous process of assigning meanings to material realities, of connecting signs and symbols in unprecedented ways. In this sense we can define history as a ‘new form of fiction’…”

I have a complex reaction to this. (This is one of the reasons I so like Donatella’s writing.)

1. Yes, this is exactly what’s happening.

2. It is what happens when we all have access to the materials of history, and the decisions about what counts as history are not made by handfuls of people who control the media, which includes highly qualified historians, the editorial staffs of (sometimes scurrilous) newspapers, and self-interested political leaders.

3. If we substitute “current events” for “history,” the situation seems somewhat less novel. The word “history” carries with it a weight that “current events” does not. (a) We do not yet know what history (as practiced by that discipline) will say about current events. It may become far more settled than the fracturing of interpretations of current events now suggests, which depends to a large degree on how education and authority evolves over the years. (b) History of course always is fractured along the lines that divide people; one side in the United States Civil War still sometimes insists slavery was not the issue the war was fought over.

I am not disagreeing with the dangerousness of the fragmenting of interpretations engendered by the Net. I find illuminating and helpful Donatella’s brilliant exposition of the way in which these are not shards so much as multiply reflecting mirrors in which meanings cannot be separated from the act of meaning, and that act “meanings cannot be separated from the act of meaning, and that act of meaning is a performance that gets reflected, reappropriated, and reenacted without end ”of meaning is a performance that gets reflected, reappropriated, and reenacted without end and without the ability to see its source either in the actual world or in its initial expression — “the rise of the anonymous subject and decentralized authorship nurtured by virtue of the circularity and reflexivity of the networks.” Rancière says this creates “‘uncertain communities'” politically questioning “‘the distribution of roles, territories, and languages’.” That’s an important point, although these images also sometimes create powerful political communities, as was the case with images from Ferguson.

Donatella is admirably focused on what this means when the stakes are high:

…in expanded places that have been destroyed by violence and warfare, then have been re-born through a networked after-life, this process goes much further. Here, challenging the distribution of the sensible [Rancière’s term] is not only a matter of contentious politics, but of generating and regenerating violence and destruction through the endless circulation of formats of violence boosted by the inner techno-human structure of the networks.

Her presentation of the ways in which the Net leads to not just a fracturing of meaning but of an impossibly self-reflective entanglement of meaning is brilliant. Her drawing our attention to the direness of this when it comes to the most dire of human situations is crucial. Her concept of “expanded spaces” seems to me to be worth holding on to and exploring. In fact, it’s powerful enough that I don’t think it should be confined to places that have been destroyed, much less destroyed by war. It applies more broadly than that. Her discussion of places destroyed by violence seems to me to point to a case where the stakes are higher, but where the game is essentially the same.



I recognize I have not resolved the question posed in my title. You can thank Donatella for that :)


October 18, 2015

The Martian

My wife and I just saw The Martian. Loved it. It was as good a movie as could possibly be made out of a book that’s about sciencing the shit out of problems.

The book was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. So I was ready to be disappointed by the movie. Nope.

Compared to say, Gravity? Gravity‘s choreography was awesome, and the very ending of it worked for me. (No spoilers here!) But, it had irksome moment and themes, especially Sandra Bullock’s backstory. (No spoilers!)

The Martian was much less pretentious, IMO. It’s about science as problem-solving. Eng Fi, if you will. But the theme that emerges from this is:

Also, Let’s go the fuck to Mars!

(I still think Interstellar is a better movie, although it’s nowhere near as much fun. But I’m not entirely reasonable about Interstellar.)

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October 13, 2015

Games as art

Naomi Alderman makes a compelling case in The Guardian for looking at video games to find the first examples of digital literature.

Authors of articles don’t get to write their own headlines, and the Guardian’s headline goes too far: Naomi doesn’t claim that games yet have turned out “great works of digital literature.” Her own claim is more modest:

…are there video games experimenting with more interesting storytelling than any “digital literature” project I’ve seen? Yes, certainly. And if you want to think of yourself as well read, or well cultured, you need to engage with them.

I agree. There are many video games I enjoyed but am embarrassed about; these are what we mean by “guilty pleasures.” But the best of them deserve to be taken seriously. “Games are where digital art will emerge. And has emerged.”Games are where digital art will emerge. And has emerged.

I don’t know that we have examples of digital “high art” yet. Perhaps we do and I don’t know about them or don’t appreciate them. Perhaps it’s a silly concept. Or perhaps we won’t think we’re playing a game when we experience it. But it’s likely at least to come out of the rhetorical forms games have already created:

  • It will be a space in which the user dwells, not simply an object or experience unfolding in front of the user.

  • It will be interactive.

  • It will require the user to make choices that affect it in significant ways.

  • It won’t be the same for everyone.

It is a sign of the originality and importance of games that it’s not always clear what to compare them with.

For example, most digital games lend themselves to comparisons with movies. After all, they are composed of sound, flat visuals, and movement. That’s the apt comparison for Portal 2. (Naomi cites Portal, but I think the sequel is a better example.) Portal 2 is loads of fun to play. But it is more than that. The story that unfolds is as clever and well worked out as any movie’s. The characters are broad, yet reveal subtleties. We care about them. Most famously, we care about a particular inanimate cube. The “set design” is stunning. The voice acting is world class, and in fact includes JK Simmons who went on to went a Best Actor Oscar. “…the details are fully imagined, right down to gun turrets that coo.”Perhaps most remarkable is the extent to which the details are fully imagined, right down to gun turrets that coo plaintively. (You can see them rehearsing in this Easter egg.)

Naomi doesn’t mention Bioshock, but I’d count it as a hybrid movie and novella. The premise is original and political. The setting is beautifully done. The science fiction is well-imagined. And the plot contains some meta moments that reflect on its form as a video game. (Those who have played the game will recognize how non-spoilery I’m being :) The third and last in the series, Bioshock Infinite, has a premise, characters, plot, and setting that could make a successful movie, but the movie is unlikely to be as good as the game. For one thing, we get to play the game.

Other games work as reflections on the medium itself, a sign of the forming of an artistic sensibility. Naomi mentions The Stanley Parable and Gone Home. I’d add Spec Ops: The Line and even the Saints Row series. These are all successful, well-known games. All, except the last, can be taken seriously as statements inspired by artistic intentions. (Saints Row is self-aware, bad-taste burlesque.) The ferment in the indie game field is quite spectacular.

If movies can be an art form, then why not digital games? And all this is before virtual reality headsets are common. I have no doubt that digital games as immersive worlds in which users have agency will blow past movies as the locus of popular art. And from this will emerge what we will call serious art as well. We’re already well on our way.

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September 11, 2015

[liveblog] Bringing Silicon Valley to Government

I’m at an event sponsored by the Shorenstein Center and Ash Center and the Center for Public Leadership on “Bringing Silicon Valley to Government?” (#HKSgovtech). Panelists are:

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.

Van Dyck, Sinai, and Martin
Van Dyck, Sinai, and Martin

Maria Martin begins. She had founded a company and worked there for ten years, but then applied to be a Presidential Innovation Fellow, thinking she stood no chance. (She lightly recommends sending in a resume printed on colored paper.) She got in, and moved to DC for six months, or so she thought. Then she was asked to be a senior advisor in the White House. One day her boss, Todd Park [former federal CTO], couldn’t make a meeting at the Veterans Administration. She went and fell in love with the problem because it affected veterans and because it seemed solvable through software. The other people around the room were policy folks and didn’t know how to use software that way. She was told by her friends it’d be frustrating, but you can learn how to get things done in government. She was 28 years old when she became CTO of the VA.

Nick introduces Tim O’Reilly as “the godfather of tech.” Tim begins by denying that. “The thing I’ve done most of my career is to watch interesting people and say, ‘Wow, there’s something there!’.” “I’m kind of like a talent scout.” The person who first inspired him about gov’t is Carl Malamud. “He was the first person to put any govt agency on the Internet.” Carl went to Eric Schmidt who at the time was CTO of Sun and licensed data from the SEC. After two years Carl said he was going to shut it down unless the govt took it over. (See Public Resource.)

Then Tim saw Adrian Holovaty‘s mash up of crime data with Google Maps and said, “Wow, techies are beginning to pay attention to govt.” This inspired Tim to want to get more govt stuff into his Web 2.0 conference. He realized that government as a platform had created great value. E.g., opening up GPS. “So much of govt has been focused on, ‘We have to build it or else it won’t exist.’ … My idea was that if you open data, entrepreneuers can build on it.” Not open data for transparency so much as open data for building things. Todd Park, who was at Health & Human Services at the time, “totally got it.” When Amazon launched its Web Services, it found the people illegally hacking on its data. Tim’s company was one of them, to get book data. So Amazon brought in the hackers and built the services they need. HHS did this too. There are now hundreds or possibly thousands of apps using the HHS data.

Haley Van Dyck was on track in 2008 to move to Beijing to work for CNN on Olympics coverage. She was at a dinner where speakers talked about the need to do more for race relations in the US. Obama was running, so she went to work for him in Chicago. When they won, they were asked to connect citizens to government. She started at the FCC building the first new media team to fix their interface to the public. [Wow, they had a terrible UI. Thanks for helping to fix it, Haley!] She thanks Tim for helping to build a like-minded tech community in building. She now leads the US Digital Service.

Nick Sinai went to business school, worked for Lehman, and then pivoted to go to work for Pres. Obama, at the FCC for 1.5 yrs and in the White House for four years.

Haley: USDS is a team embedded in the White House and distributed dedicated to transform the most important citizen-facing services. It was started after the rescue effort. “Let’s bring in a couple of hyper-talented engineers” and add them to the hundreds of consultants in order to change the environment tasked with fixing the site that the President’s most important initiative rested upon. “At any moment, there were only 5-6 people working on” and they were able to fix it. The President asked that this method be used more broadly, so the USDS was founded.

The USDS theory of change is that the best way to create change is to deliver results and to do it where it’s most needed. There’s a team at the VA and a Homeland Security working on immigration services. The immigration process is currently entirely paper-based. To apply you have to send in avery long paper docket that humans then look out. It’s difficult to put this together. The paper file get sents around to immigration centers. By the end (6-9 months) it will have traveled the distance equivalent to going around the world six times. The postal costs alone are $300M/year.

A seven year long procurement for $1.2B was begun about ten years ago [I think] which resulted in a process that was even longer. The Obama administration decided to fix this. A $1.4B procurement process put it into the same hands as the first time. “We can’t build an application process the way we build battleships.” (Tim quotes Clay Shirky that the traditional waterfall sw dev process is “a commitment by everyone not to learn anything while doing the work.”) Instead, the digital team — five people — released the first sw update four months later.

Nick: Traditionally, we spend years developing the procurement. Then years writing the requirements. Then years building the system. Then in year 7 or 10 sw would actually launch. We’ll spend billion of dollars on a single sw enterprise system and then it fails because sw changes, and the requirements are wrong because no one tested them. But instead sw developers rapidly deploy, test what’s working, iterate.

Tim: There’s a real cultural change. If you’re a supplier charging the govt a billion for something that only costs a million, you don’t have incentive to shrink your profts a thousand-fold. The contractors say the project is massive like a moon landing, but Silicon Valley people look at it and say, “Actually, it’s in the range of a mid-size dating site.”

Haley: The five people on the team couldn’t have done it on their own. They worked with the contractors who were there. It’s a tight partnership.

Nick: We spend $80B/year in IT in govt, not including intelligence. (HHS has $11B budget for IT.) But we’re not getting the value.

Marina: The VA has 330,000 employees and 8,000 IT managers. It took a year and a half to get the first hire of the new team in. She had to document that she couldn’t hire through the usual pipeline…which itself took a year. She had to show the value of hiring another 75 people.

A VA example: The President was going to announce a site where you could put in the number of years of service and see how many “GI dollars” [? – couldn’t hear] you have. The contractor spent $1M building this simple page and it wouldn’t even load on the Internet. Marina asked one of the PIFs [Presidential Innovation Fellows]to look at the page. S/he called three hours later it and had fixed it.

[Audience member:] The culture, based on the annual budgets of the agencies, is more complex than you’re saying. SW companies selling to the govt have to include complexities to meet the culture and requirements. [Not sure I’m getting this.]

Marina: You change culture by celebrating vendors who do it in new ways.

Nick: The Administration has a program to educate the contracting officers across all the agencies who do the negotiations.

Marina: There are 1000+ websites at the VA and maybe a dozen IDs for each veteran. 942 toll-free numbers. So, how do you change the veteran’s experience. I could argue the need for this for 20 years, but instead we exposed it to the veterans. We didn’t close down the 1000 websites, but instead created one website that lets you get to what you need. How do we get info to the people who support veterans? To the community? The answer to our most-asked question takes 17 clicks to get to, and that answer is “Call your RO” without telling you what “RO” means (regional office) or how to call it.

The VA also built its own Electronic Health Records system many many years ago; we’re going to launch a new, open source EHR platform. And it’s building the first apps to make sure it works.

Third, the VA team is working on the appeals backlog. You have to process them in chronological order so there’s no low-hanging fruit. One of the boxes you can check is “Do you want a local hearing?” That’s very attractive to users, but it doesn’t tell them that that means a judge will be flown into their city in 2019. Giving users more info would help.

Nick: You’re engaging in user-centered design. The shift is massive. How do you hide the complexity of govt?

Tim: You should all read The UK Digital Govt Design Principles. The message is: Users first. The big difference between govt and the Valley is that in the Valley if you don’t please your customers, you’re out of business. But in govt you can go on for years getting funded. “The feedback loop is fundamentally broken.” In Silicon Valley you test, you work on it incrementally, you add new features.

Tim also recommends Jake Solomon’s “People, not Data” about food stamps in San Francisco. Why is there so much churn in the system? People apply and then drop out. One big reason: Applicants receive incomprehensible letters. “That was just the first step in debugging the system for users.” Govt administrators should be required to use this systems. (This was addressed by Code for America, which was a model for PIFs, started by Jen Pahlka (Tim’s wife.)

Haley: We’re working on a big project for the President. His advisors had a feature they really really really wanted included in the project. We were running an agile dev project, and added the feature. But in testing it turned out that the users weren’t clicking on that feature, preferring to use the search engine instead. But one of the advisors was incredibly upset that the feature he wanted wasn’t included in the launch version. We explained why. “We saw their minds just shift.” The advisor said, “You’re not building it because users don’t want it! We shouldn’t just build sw this way. We ought to build policy that way as well.'” “I left the West Wing wanting to cry [with joy].”

Tim: “If you can build something and show it works, you can change minds” about policy.

Nick: How do we turn those feedback cycles into weeks or months…?

Haley: Here’s the second half of the story. We decided to release all of the data to the partners in a private beta. It turns out that the feature the advisors wanted has been implemented by a third party as a separate standalone product.” You can achieve so much more by opening up data than by doing it all yourself.

Nick: Regulators sometimes fight innovation…

Tim: See my “Open Data and Algorithmic Regulation.” Lots of people hate regulation, but we want, for example, credit card companies to monitor usage to prevent fraud. This is a type of regulation. The credit card companies regulate in real-time and adaptively. Maybe govt regulation should look this way. The Fed does this, because we’re judged by the outcomes, not by our adherence to policy rules like “Interest rates shall be set at X.” They continuously adjust the knobs and levers. Nick Grossman has raised this recently about the debates about Uber and AirBnb. He says that they ought to open up their data to govt regulators so we can figure out the actual impact. Is Uber increasing or decreasing congestion?

Nick: What are the career paths like?

Marina: I didn’t think there was any way I could be in govt. There are many routes in.



Haley: Just do it.

Tim: You can do a lot from the outside. We all have a call to public service. We need a fundamental rebirth of civic mindedness, that govt something we do together. We need govt, unlike the conservatives and Silicon Valley believe.

Haley: We don’t know how algorithic regulation works or how far it should go into the delivery of services. This is something we all need to work on.

Nick: Engineering and Design programs should be working on these sorts of issues.


Q: Traditionally govt was not a top option for grads. Now it’s becoming more attractive. There’s more of a sense in the Valley that it’s their duty to fix things rather than just complaining.

Q: What steps are you taking beyond getting shit done to address some of the fundamental issues around procurement,agile dev, hiring quickly…?

Haley: We began with hiring. We’re done from 9 months to 4 wks to hire someone, which make us competitive with the private sector. (We use Schedule A Hiring Authority. “This is super wonky.”) The procurement process: crucial. We need to enable the right kind of companies to do the work. First, we’re working on building better buyers by bringing in technologists. In 1.5 months we’re launching an agile procurement process. We’re starting to train contracting officers with a five month course to understand how to procure digital in a way that makes sense. We’working with 18f on a pilot to reduce the barriers. We’d love to rebuild Schedule 70 .

Nick: It takes about 9 months to get on that schedule. GSA has a goal of getting this down to 21 days. There are ideas about raising the threshold for purchasing. Right now it’s an 80-90 PDF you have fill out. There’s so much friction in the system and you end up with people’s core competency is navigating the bureaucracy of the system.

Tim: As part of the new process, you’re given a data set available through a public API and you’re given a working app within a week. One of the largest IT companies couldn’t do it so they failed the agile certification process.

Nick: It’s about show, not tell.

Tim: It used to be that you had to provide a working model to get a patent. Think about all the junk sw patents. A working prototype ought to be a requirement.

Marina: And it’s not just about building apps. It’s about understanding the users and getting the incentives right.

Q: Everyone has a different definition of “agile.”

Tim: There’s always more than one way to do it, to cite the PERL slogan. There’s a family of things you can call “agile” : iterative, small pieces, feedback loops. Any version of agile is better than any version of waterfall development.

Nick: If it delivers in weeks, then I don’t care what we call it.

Q: You’re competing with Silicon Valley for people. Have you thought about offering H1 B visas for USDS?

A: That’s very interesting to us.

Q: How about the politics involved? There are forces that have spent decades dismantling in place systems that let Congressfolk know what they’re doing, etc. What are you doing to make sure that USDS is robust?

A: I’ve been surprised at how easy it’s been to identify the common causes you share whether you’re a Dem or Repub. No one wants veterans to have bad service from the VA. TBD is how the contracting community will respond. We’ve tried to be clear that this is not about taking away business from contractors. We’re not on a witch hunt against them. We want to make them more efficient. In many instances they’re delivering the systems we asked for but we got the requirements wrong.

Q: What skills should students develop to be attractive to USDS, etc.? Especially for Kennedy School students?

Marina: I hired a Kennedy School grad who’s been amazing. He has good dev skills,but more important he’s able to understand and ask questions and navigate through problems.

Haley: Show results.

Tim: It’s not about being a rockstar coder. Rather, solve user problems, and have a fundamental facility with tech that lets you say, “Oh yeah, that’s easy to do. Here’s the tool you use. The consumerization of IT means that you often don’t need to go to someone else to get something done.” “Tools like GitHub should be in your reportoire.” Young people can come into govt and help it see what things are easy so we spend money on what’s hard.

Nick: Go to a hackathon and work on some project together.

Q: As a designer and architect, how much of it is govt interacting with architects, city planners, and people who care about design? Lawyers often implement laws without regard to design.

Haley: We hire product designers, visual designers, user researchers. We’re in desperate need of more of them.

Tim: Code for America uses a lot of designers as well. And designed should be tested and iterated on as well. “It’d be awesome to have the equivalent of agile dev in city design.”

Nick: You could argue that The Constitution is a design document.

Q: I haven’t heard much from you about saving money.

Marina: I have to lead with the impact on veterans’ lives. Cost-savings is important but it isn’t enough of a driver of change. Even if we save $2B of the $80B, it barely dings the chart.

Haley: It’s an amazing secondary outcome of building better services for users. Also, cost-cutting inadvertently puts you in adversarial stance with some of the folks there. It’s easier to focus on who we are serving.

Q: What are you doing to create a sense of urgency?

Marina: We’re not going to be around forever.

Haley: We are living in a services delivery crisis. Veterans are dying because of that.

Nick: “Practice radical empathy.” You can’t just drop in as a hot shit technologist. You have to have empathy not just for veterans but for the person who’s been in this job for thirty years. You have to ask how you can make them the hero.

Tim: When immigration reform was on the table, that created urgency to get ahead of the topic so that there would’t be another sort of meltdown. And people want to be remembered for doing something good. Listen to what they’re trying to accomplish and how you can help them. There’s a human element.

Q: How to bring the human voice into policy circles? USDS asked me to report on what it’s like to get an immigrant visa. They sent me to the Dominican Republic where I talked with people about their experience, and shadowed them when they went to the local immigration office while they waited for 5 hours for their 10-min interview. The deliverable was a memo to the President. Having a background in policy was helpful in writing that in a way that made user needs and experience understandable to policy makers.

Haley: It coupled the policy discussion with implementation suggests. That’s rare and can be transformative.

[What a fantastic panel. And a completely awesome set of people — more examples of what true patriotism can look like.]

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July 29, 2015

Reddit is not a community. But there’s a little more to say.

Dennis Tenen has an excellent post reminding people that calling Reddit a community is at best sloppy. I have committed this sloppiness, although at times I do try to be more careful, because I fundamentally agree with Dennis on this. In fact, I resist calling anything on the Net a community because it’s a word worth preserving, although I’m afraid it has already slipped its moorings and has floated away from its original meaning.

I think of communities in their traditional sense as being people who care about each other more than they have to. Even so, Adrienne Debigare [twitter:adbigare] and I recently wrote about Reddit at, and we use the word “community” 32 times. We do, however, try to clarify our sloppiness toward the beginning:

[Reddit] is often talked about as a community, but its scale—169M unique visitors a month—stretches that term. Rather, it’s helpful to think of it not just as a community but as a culture that springs from a set of values and a form of discourse.

Adrienne and I also did a Radio Berkman podcast on this topic, and may have been much sloppier.

Dennis does a more precise job. He notes that a community typically: [1] is a social entity, [2] that occupies some contiguous stretch of real or virtual space, and [3] will usually “share a value system, which in turn manifests itself in specific customs, norms, and modes of governance.”

The pedant in me wants to fiddle with that, but Dennis isn’t arguing about the application of a term. He’s pointing out that it’s a mistake to think that Reddit is a single community, a single culture, a single set of people who share the same values, or whatever terms we want to use. Reddit “can be better described as a platform that facilitates a range of activities: some communal in nature, some commercial, and other simply private.”

Dennis is right.

But I think there are some weak ways in which it make sense to talk about a Reddit culture, even while recognizing that there is nothing one can say about values, discourse, or content that would be true of each of Reddit’s tens of thousands of subreddits. But there are at least four reasons to talk about the “Reddit culture” in the singular.

First, Reddit the Company makes a decision about what the default subreddits are on the front page, and I imagine that some very high percentage of users don’t customize that page. The company therefore has made a decision about what topics, values, and forms of discourse will stand for Reddit.

Second, contributors to those default subreddits, and to others, sometimes express a sense of identity, as Dennis notes. You can be a redditor. You can be a good redditor or a bad one. Of course this identity is fluid and not uniformly shared. But it exists. It has something to do with participating generously, accepting some norms of behavior (will the OP deliver?), and appreciating particular values that are assumed to be Reddit’s. These values include things like: valuing what is perceived as free and open speech, responding to challenges with some type of reasoned answer rather than mere assertions or hostility, etc. I’m not saying that Reddit lives up to these; there are deeply troubling gender issues, for example. But to say that someone is a true Redditor is to say something.

Third, the company has expressed political opinions, and has engaged with the “community” directly, responsively, and as equals-in-culture. (Clearly, that’s not been the case in the recent brouhaha.) That is, the company has expressed itself as a culture.

Fourth, the software itself enacts a set of values. Of course it can be used in ways contrary to those values, but it tends toward certain values. For example, it promotes unfiltered speech or speech filtered by the community and its mods; it gives every user equal upvotes or downvotes; it enables digressions from a thread without cost; it encourages linking out to the Web rather than assuming everything interesting is within its boundaries; it generally respects the user by not plastering itself with ads; it encourages pseudonymous speech; it assumes that the “community” will decide for itself which topics are interesting enough to merit creating a new subreddit; it is open source code.

None of these warrant us calling Reddit a single culture, much less a community. I agree with Dennis. I just want to leave room for also talking about Reddit as a culture, or at least as having something like a dominant culture, even as we always append Dennis’ caveats. As he writes, since “Reddit is not a community, then there is no reason for us to expect a uniform set of responses or behaviors from it as a whole. ” That is definitely a mistake we would be wise not to commit.


July 7, 2015

Friends reviewing friends

Amazon is refusing to post reviews when its algorithms sense a personal relationship between the author and the reviewer. Amazon says, “We are removing your reviews because you know the author personally,” according to Chris Morran at The Consumerist.

The intent is fine. A review is likely to be swayed by a personal friendship. That’s why some of us disclose friendships when posting reviews at Amazon.

But, it would help if Amazon clarified what “knowing an author personally” means. In a networked world, that is an incredibly vague description.

After that, here are some suggestions that I think would help matters while preserving the policy’s good intentions:

1. Flag reviews by people with personal relationships, but don’t remove them. They may in fact shed special light on the work being reviewed.

2. Allow reviewers to flag their own reviews, and to describe their relationships. E.g., “We are colleagues,” “She’s a lifelong friend,” “We were close friends until I moved 12 yrs ago,” “We’ve been on panels together,” “We were friends until the lying bastard done me wrong.”

3. Do not count the ratings by such people in the overall total.

4. Provide some avenue of appeal when the algorithm goes wrong.


July 3, 2015

Joining Reddit

Reddit is in flames. I can only see one way out of it that preserves the site’s unique value.

I say this as an old man who loves Reddit despite being way outside its main demographic. Of course there are outrageously objectionable subreddits—topical discussion boards—but you don’t have to visit those. Reddit at its best is wonderful. Inspiring, even. It is a self-regulated set of communities that is capable of great collective insight, humor, and kindness. (At its worst, it is one of the nightmares of the Internet.)

Because Reddit is so large, with 169M unique visitors each month, it is impossible to generalize accurately about what went on yesterday and is continuing today. Nevertheless, the precipitating cause was the termination of the employment of Victoria Taylor for reasons Reddit and she have not disclosed. Victoria was not only the wildly popular enabler of Reddit’s wildly popular AMA‘s (“Ask Me Anything”), she was the only Reddit employee visible to most redditors (Reddit users).

Victoria’s sudden dismissal was taken by many as a sign of the increasing misalignment of Reddit’s business goals and the culture of its communities. Reddit, it is feared, is going commercial. The volunteer moderators (“mods”) of some of the large subreddits have also complained that their requests for support over the past months have gone unanswered.

In protest, many of the large subreddits and a long list of smaller ones have gone private and are thus dark to most of the world. This will have some financial effect on Reddit, but it is better understood as a political protest, applying the technique used successfully in 2012 when Reddit, Wikipedia, and other major sites went dark to protest the SOPA/PIPA bills that would have limited Internet freedom. It is an assertion-by-deprivation of the cultural value of these subreddits.

It is, I believe, a mistake to view this uproar primarily in terms of economics or business. This is an attempt by a community to stay a community despite perceived attempts by the business underneath it to commercialize it. Up until now, Reddit the Company has understood the importance of accepting and promoting its community’s values. Advertising is unobtrusive, some of which lets users comment on the ad itself. Reddit makes money also from its users buying “Reddit gold” to bestow upon comments they find particularly valuable. Reddit gold has no monetary value, so users are consciously paying Reddit money for the privilege of paying another user a visible compliment. And Reddit has sternly defended the free speech of its users even when that speech is, well, horrible—although the management did controversially shut down some shaming and hating sites a few weeks ago.

Reddit is in bad shape today. The meme-making forces of sarcasm it’s famous for have been turned inwards.The most loyal users are feeling betrayed. Some of the communities that have driven Reddit forward as a cultural force are feeling abused. It’s hard to come back from that.

A big part of the problem is that Victoria, the face of Reddit to its own community, was accepted as “One of us! One of us!” as redditors sometime self-mockingly invoke the movie Freaks. Indeed, she embodied many of the virtues of Reddit at its best: curious, accepting, welcoming, helpful, funny. Many redditors saw themselves reflected in her.

Victoria was thereby an important part of Reddit’s support of what I call “The Gettysburg Principles“: She helped Reddit seem to be by, for, and of us. Now the face of Reddit is Ellen Pao, the interim CEO who is largely derided and detested at Reddit because she seems to be “One of them! One of them!”— a Silicon Valley player.

If we view this first and foremost as a problem in maintaining a community rather than strictly as a revenue issue, then I can only see one way forward: Pao should get off her executive horse, engage with the community in public, and show that she’s a redditor too. Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder, also should step forward with his best redditor face on. Alexis when free of corporate pressures is a redditor through and through.

There is still an opportunity for Reddit to show that it understands the source of all its value: communities trusted to run themselves, and a strong sense of shared cultures.


July 2, 2015

Beatles’ Revolver 49 years later: A Review

In the 1980s, I stopped listening to music for no particular reason. It was only in the early 1990s as I was commuting every week to my mother’s death bed (don’t smoke, kids!) that I started again. Thank you Mssrs. Bach, Gould, and Goldberg.

I have not listened to a Beatles album since before my 1980s quiet period. Let’s say about 35 years. I listen to other groups from that period, some of whom hold up amazingly well. But not the Beatles.

Why? They mean so much to me that there are no occasions that deserve them.

I know that’s nuts. I listen to Bach in utter awe and don’t think to myself, “Well, sure, but too bad George Martin wasn’t around then to help him out.” I do understand than my feelings about the Beatles are inextricably mixed with the growing distance from my youth.

So, it’s embarrassingly symbolic—the sort of thing that would make you stop reading a novel—that I listened to the Beatles on a run this morning while my wife and I are awaiting word that, God willing, we’ve become grandparents. (I don’t have words to talk about that now.)

So, here’s a review of Revolver (the UK version).

Overall: A+. Solid gold. 49 years young.

Track by track:

Taxman. This was not a favorite of mine, catchy though it is. I remember it as being too derivative, too genre-based. And an awkward protest song for the rich. On re-hearing it: It is a genre song with typical Beatles’ inventiveness. Great guitar work. Witty call-back to the Batman theme. Totally enjoyable.

Eleanor Rigby. It’s really hard to write fiction. For me this song doesn’t capture how Eleanor Rigby seems to herself. Yeah, lots people are lonely. But I’d like this song better if it ended with “All the lonely people, where do we all belong?” Not that I’m saying I could have done a better job of it. I’m just saying it’s a little immature and a tad condescending. On the other hand, a song like this is not what you’d expect from a rock band in the ’60s, unless they were the Beatles. It’s the Beatles stretching themselves. The melody is obviously great. The backing vocals are amazing. As always.

I’m Only Sleeping. Q: What sort of song is this? A: A Beatles song. Everything about it is unpredictable: the topic, the minor-major shifts, the harmonies, the bridge, the instrumentation and arrangement. Catchy, too. Try to get John out of bed and you get a tuneful, brilliantly original song. How about leaving a little talent for the rest of us, John, ok?

Love You To. It opens with a sitar. We don’t know where it’s going. We’re not even sure what scale it’s going to be using. And then it turns out that it’s a riff-driven song not unlike Taxman. The melody mixes the West and the East and is pretty minimal. But clearly this is George’s, reflecting his eclecticism and intended to educate us toward Indian music. The Beatles stretching themselves again.

Here, There and Everywhere. An impossibly pretty genre song. A little cupcake of perfection. The little almost-discordant harmony on “Love never dies” kills me every time.

Yellow Submarine. Tell you what, let’s have Ringo throw in a classic kiddy song with enough complexity in the harmonies and arrangements that it’ll be great when you’re high. Anyone see where the Oreos got to?

She Said, She Said. Power rock beginning. Angry high notes. Fuzz guitar echo. Break the tempo on the last line of the verse. Killer harmonies. A bridge that comes out of nowhere (“When I was a boy…”). The whole thing threatening to come apart once you’re out of the safety of the verse, with Ringo doing some wonderful lord knows what. I love the Beatles.

Got to Get You into My Life. Weird tempo. Horns. Who arranged this, Herb Alpert? What sort of song is this? Oh yeah, a Beatles song. This is essentially a solo by Paul, with the horns doing the harmonies. George’s guitar enters late with its usual egolessness—a new melody that serves the song rather than wowing us with George’s originality.

For No One. A melody that just rolls on, taking turns you don’t foresee until afterwards. Rhythmic shifts from waltz to 4/4. A goddamn French horn. An unresolved ending that works melodically and thematically.

Good Day Sunshine. In the first measures you think it’s going to be somber. Instead it turns into something cheery although the genre is confounding. Broadway? Damn those harmonies! Then the stride piano. WTF. Who else could have done this? I’m not sure what it is, but everything about it is great.

And Your Bird Can Sing. Damn. Another one. Incredible guitar work by George. What’s the bird? I don’t care. I’m not saying this is a great song. But whatever you think the Beatles are like, listen to this and remember that the Beatles weren’t like anything.

Doctor Robert. Another riff-driven song, like Taxman. George’s guitar could not be better. Again. The harmonies are amazing. The bridge (“Well, well, well you’re feeling fine”) switches to a chorale that’s as rhythm-free as any bureaucracy. A rollicking good time.

I want to tell you. Everything about this song is weird and unexpected: the chord changes, the instrumentation, the harmonies, the genre shifts. “It’s alright” has a weird dissonant piano behind it. There’s some straight rock guitar work thrown in by George. Where did this song come from?

Tomorrow Never Knows.. The amazing book Revolution in the Head argues pretty fiercely that LSD did not help the Beatles be better at what they do, especially for John. This is a pretty good evidence of that. Even so.

I tell you, these young Beatles are going to be big! Big, I tell you!

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