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July 18, 2009

When there’s no such thing as the best

I posted my post about the Sotomayor hearings over at Huffington, where I got a grand total of two comments. The second one raised an interesting point. (The first one was funny.)

Or, “Senator, would you simply prefer that the Court be comprised of the best legal minds in the nation, regardless or their race, creed, or color, despite the fact that such a concept is foreign to the race conscious liberals among us?” – Parducci

That’s a reasonable response (leaving out everything after the “despite”), but I think it’s fundamentally wrong, since it assumes there is a way to rank order legal minds. There isn’t, because there is no such order.

Look at the current Justices. You may be able to say that one particular Justice’s “legal mind” is not as good as the rest (“Judge So-and-So just isn’t up to snuff”), but there isn’t any real way to rank them in order (except perhaps by ow well their decisions accord with political sides). With heart surgeons, maybe you can look at the survival rates of their patients — and there are problems with that — but for judges, there aren’t criteria that result in a reliable, accurate, and agreed-upon quantitative ranking. Likewise, who would think there’s any sense in trying to numerically rank philosophers, historians, or chefs? You can see that a particular one isn’t in the top rank or is out of her league, but within that top rank, there isn’t a numeric ordering.

So, for nominees to the Supreme Court, the idea that we should take “the best legal minds” actually means that we should choose from among those who are highly qualified for the job. Since that class is far larger than nine, we get to choose our Justices based on many considerations, including the likely effect they’ll have on the political balance of the court and — yes — the likely effect they’ll have by bringing a diversity of experience and outlook. For the wisdom of a group is enhanced by including difference within it.

In fact, it would be interesting to see how the degree of qualification (based on whatever criteria one wants to suggest) going into the Court matches with the performance of the Justice over the course of her or his term.

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July 17, 2009

Search matchups

Google vs. Yahoo

Google vs. WolframAlpha

Google vs. Bing

(via Keith Dawson)

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July 14, 2009

[berkman] Mapping the global commons

Giorgos Cheliotis of the National Univ of Singapore, and a visitor researcher here at the Center, is giving a lunchtime talk at the Berkman Center called “Mapping the Global Commons: A quantitative perspective on free cultural practice.” How large and free are the Commons? (He’s excluding open source software from his discussion of the Commons)

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.

Giorgos has been working with Creative Commons. He points to a number of works, including by Lessig, and David Bollier’s “Viral Spiral,” which is a history of the digital commons. If the movement is old enough that histories are being written, Giorgos says, it may be time to take a fresh look at it.

He says the digital commons consists of shared resources, users, open licenses, and remixes. To measure its size, you can ask how people use it, how many resources in it, how quickly it’s growing, and how much is contributed back to the pool. How free the pool is will obviously affect how its gets used and remixed. All this is hard to measure, Giorgos says, because there’s no central registry. One approach would try to count everything that’s there. Another uses estimates, community-specific data, and external reports and local knowledge. Giorgos uses the latter technique. There is a trade-off between scale and accurate/richness of the data set.

He and his colleagues are building a live-data wiki platform to track the global development of open licensing (CC only for now): (It’s early beta, pre-release, and still under development.) Giorgos walks us through it. [You can give it a try yourself. It’s self-explanatory.] AT the moment, the wiki says that there are 170,268,161 Creative Commons-licensed works. At the site you can break this down by region. Asia is growing quickly. Brazil has lots. Spain is ranked #1. (You can zoom in on the map by drag-selecting an area.)

The project is aimed at the media, researchers, funding organizations…

The regions each have a “freedom score” that weights the CC licenses by how restrictive or permission they are. The overall weighted average is 3.29 out of 6. US: 3.1. Spain: 3.47. Brzil: 2.34. Thailand: 2.58 (which is a decrease). Korea: 1.76 (but lots of licenses). Giorgos says that presenting this data sometimes nudges people to work on boosting their country’s score.

The tables of data and the maps generated from them are automatically generated and cannot be changed by wiki users; the annotation and commentary can be changed. To see an example of a manually-curated page, see Singapore‘s. Giorgos points out that this raises synchronization issues: The data is updated but the narrative may not be.

How now asks how much is being remixed. They’ve focused on ccMixter, where everything has a CC license and can be remixed. You can see the chains of influences. He shows a visualization of the data: Each track is a node, with lines connecting them to remixes. The maximum path length is 6 (a remix of a remix of a remix, etc.) But it drops off quite steeply after path length 2. 60% of uploaded items don’t get remixed, but remixing accounts for more than half of the total production volume. In a“bow-tie” analysis, there’s a core of about 12% core contributors whose authors’ tracks are linked to and who link out; if you take contests out of the picture, the core goes up to 18% (although about the same absolute number) and the “tendrils” go down from 50% to 20%. [Giorgos presents some other visual analyses, but I can’t follow the visual presentation of quantitative information. Sorry. It’s a brain problem of mine.] In the core, there are more reciprocal relationships, which seems to show that the members of the core community see one another as peers.

33% of generation 1 remixes are contest entries: An artist or label sponsors a contest for the best remixes of a track. Contests attract one-time remixes who are “not productive otherwise in the community.” But, are contests part of a sharing economy, he asks? Some scholars say that contests help strengthen a sense of community. Giorgos is uncertain about what to make of contests.

Q: [me] Public domain? Media types?
A: Neither of those types of metadata are easily available.

Q: CC has the metadata about the media type. And it would be interesting to see how the licenses vary by media type.
A: It’s possible, but we haven’t done it so far. I have noticed that photographers tend to be more protective of their content than are musicians.

Q: Maybe photographers are worried that their work will be used to create a false image, which isn’t an issue for musicians.
A: I think that’s probably right. Music is usually used for entertainment. Photos are also used for information.

Q: What are you aspirations for this as data collection project?
A: I was motivated initially to do this [Tags: ]


July 8, 2009

Running thoughts

I run. Yes, I know the idea is ridiculous, but not half as ridiculous as the actual sight of me “running.” The only indication that I am running and not, say, just leaning forward slightly is that that posture could under no circumstances produce that amount of sweat. Showering for me is not going from dry to wet; it’s merely the replacement of sea water with fresh.

Well, enough about my sweat. Here are some random thoughts from the hard sidewalks of Brookline and Brighton.

0-10 minutes: Jill Sobule is really good. Why don’t I listen to her more? I especially like the songs where she reveals something unexpected about the person she’s singing about. That’s the essence of the narrative art. Also, why is that new song about kissing a girl bigger than Jill’s was?

10-12 minutes: Jeez, Hegel was right about how history works. Everywhere you look at what the Net is doing to us, old forms are being contradicted, but also raised up, and then overcome by something new that includes it while going beyond it. E.g., experts are better able to do what they do, but put them into a network with other experts — and non-experts — and you get the whole expertise taken to a new level. Likewise, the massness of the Web nevertheless is raising up a new type of local-ness, including that in some public, mass-y places there will be nooks with the Norman Rockwell expectation that people will know your name. Or avatar, anyway.

12-20 minutes: Since at the current pace, the number of registered Web domains will hit infinity in the year 2013, what will be the most efficient search algorithm to look up any one of them? Even if they were alphabetized, could you do the old thing of dividing the list in half to see if the target term is in part one or part two, and then dividing it again and again? With an infinite list, wouldn’t that on average take, um, forever? In fact, how would you even know where the middle was to do the first divide? Well, I suppose you could assign them numbers and then divide them into even and odd numbers. But you’re still talking about infinities here. Jeez, I wish I’d taken math after high school.

20-43 minutes: What is the name of the part of the leg between the ankle and the calf — the back part of the leg, not the shins — because whatever it is, it’s on fire. Undercalf? Backshin? The limpmaster? The quadralimpcets? The supra-ankle-scorcholater? Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow wow that’s a lot of sweat ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow.

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July 7, 2009

Free book on search interfaces

Berkeley’s Marti Hearst, who was way ahead of everyone else in faceted classification (e.g.,flamenco) , has written a a definitive book on user interfaces to search engines. And it’s up on the Web for free, if that’s the way you roll. Thanks, Marti!

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July 1, 2009

PDF: The takeway

PDF was an unusually rich conference. Great folks there and an especially good year to be talking about the effect of the Net on politics and governance.

My take-away (although having a single take-away from a conference I just said is rich is rather contradictory, don’t you think?): The Web has won in a bigger way than I’d thought. The people President Obama is appointing to make use of the Web for increased citizen participation and greater democracy (well, at least as access to the Web and the skills required are distributed more evenly) are our best, brightest, and webbiest. And they are doing remarkable things.

Douglas Rushkoff interviewed me for his radio show yesterday or was it the day before? Anyway, here it is. We talked about PDF and about my presentation there, which was about transparency and the changing role of facts.

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Bubble bursting photos

These photos of bubbles bursting may be old (or not), but I just stumbled across them, and they’re pretty amazing.

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June 29, 2009

[pdf09] Blair Levin on the Broadband Initiative

Blair Levin heads the national broadband initiative.

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.

He says he can’t tell us what will be in the initiative because he doesn’t know. He’s been working on the process, which will be “open and public.” The process will be transparent, inclusive, participatory, and citizens are “Priority Number One.”

The process will be data-driven, rather than starting from the conclusions.

He asks whether 40% is larger than 108%. He says a telco says 40% is larger, pointing to a chart that shows that investment went up 40% after deregulation, but missing the data on the very same chart that shows it went up 108% after regulation. This, Blair says, violates a fundamental law of lobbying: Don’t show data that contradicts your point on the very same chart. He says we need to look at the whole broadband ecology, not at how a single sector does. He says that his team is going to take the task very seriously. And, he says, he’s sure they’ll say some dumb things and make some mistakes. He asks for leeway (as per Jeff Jarvis) to make some mistakes.

The result will be a plan, not a report. Recommendations. The policy decisions will be made by the FCC, not by Blair’s group.

He asks for our help. 1. Study the law requesting the broadband plan. 2. Attend the July 2nd FCC meeting. 3. Go to (It’s not up yet.) 4. Participate in the foming events and workshops. 5. Give them your best ideas.

[Great to hear this sort of clear commitment and clear talk. Now there’s a panel, which I’m not going to try to liveblog…]

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June 25, 2009

[reboot] Dave Winer on the future of journalism

Dave Winer says he’s going to be our discussion facilitator.

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.

He begins with the story of BloggerCon, the first US blogging conference, in 2004. They invited the political bloggers, but the conference cost $595 [or 494 — sorry, missed it], so Dave added a second day that would be free. He asked himself what blog would do about it. So, he tried to get good discussion leaders who would act like a reporter who’s developing a story from the sources in the room. He tells us he’s going to run this session at Reboot that way.

Audience: Sometimes it’s good to listen to an expert. And if you don’t have a strong facilitator, things can get hijacked.

Dave: Yes, it depends on the quality of the facilitator. Some got it, some didn’t. Jeff Jarvis, who was a former reporter, completely got it. I get goosebumps thinking about it.

Audience: The media are part of the mess.

Dave: A big part of it. [I can see this is going to be difficult to live blog!]

Aud: But people can put lies up on the Net. Everyone has their own spin.Now we don’t know who to trust. How do we know what to trust?

Dave: It’s hard to find anybody you can trust. You have to develop your own sense of triangulation, i.e., what happened at the intersection of various opinions.

Euan Semple: Each of us has different leverage, and we have to be aware of that.

Dave: Yes. For example, I have more leverage in this room because my mic is always on. In fact, I want to use that leverage to ask a different question. I think Twitter is a dress rehearsal for the news system of the future. Yes? And what would you like from Twitter?

Matthias: I follow you, and you ignore the 140 character limit. I’m not complaining. But 140 chars aren’t enough for much of journalism.

Dave: I’d like Dave to have a time-expired unfollow: Unfollow but automatically refollow after 24 hrs.

Aud: With Jaiku, we could follow a discussion because they had threaded conversations. And wrt news: At the 140 conf in NYC, it was fascinating watching Al Jezeera using Twitter to get stories out of the West Bank. They were twittering from riots and attacks, and collecting them on a page on their site. On the other hand, it can be a source of misinformation.

Bruce Sterling: I’d like to read some tweets. (He reads spambot tweets using the hashtag #reboot11.) It seems to be a natural progression. If twitter is the future of media, it’s got enough spam to beat humans into a bloody pulp.

Aud: As The Victorian Internet made clear, media are always spammed.

Dave: And how do you keep the garbage out of Wikipedia?

Aud: I read the article that said that tech has always been instrumental to journalism. E.g., the journalist pyramid was due to the telegraph: You had to put the most important stuff first in case you lost the connection.

Dave: What do you do when you’re following someone who says something you don’t like?

Aud: During the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict I didn’t unfollow people with extreme opinions I disagree with.

Dave: I like extreme opinions that are respectfully stated because they often get me to think. I have strong opinions on that conflict, but when I stated them, some people unfollowed me and cut me off. That’s up to them, but I don’t cut them off.

Dave: By the way, if you’re moderating a session like this, the moderator needs to be strong.

Aud: Twitter needs a better reputation system.

Dave: Right now the reputation system is merely the number of followers.

Aud: Whenever you have a community, 90% are lurkers, 9% occasionally contribute, and 1% do all the work. We need a renaissance in critical thinking.

Me: I’d like to see Twitter remove the public display of the number of followers.

Dave: That would create what we call a “shit storm.” As the session ends, I’d like us all to think about what we’d like to see from Twitter, what we can add, etc.

[Because of the discursive nature of this session, I’ve done a particularly poor job liveblogging it.]

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June 24, 2009

Refrigerator Jones

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – An unexpected jump in U.S. durable goods orders last month backed hopes that the economy was healing, but news from the hard-hit housing market remained mixed.

In case you were wondering how long Americans could put off buying that new fridge, we now have the answer: About ten months. (And apparently the time spent resisting the urge to buy that new iPhone: 0.)

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