Science Addiction

A dormant blog by Devanshu Mehta

Month: November, 2008

Monty Python’s Online Circus

montypythonyoutubespam_med.jpg

The question for a 70s era comedy group is not so much “how do we squash all these kids pirating our work”. It’s more along the lines of “how do we remain relevant in the modern media culture”.

There are many that choose to go the route of “sue our fans” so that they buy our DVDs, CDs and nifty merchandise. Thankfully, Monty Python are not one of them. They have launched the Monty Python YouTube Channel. With all the clips from their shows and films already freely available on YouTube, they only had two alternatives.

They could either try to sue every video off the Internet, which is a losing battle against your own fans. Or they could choose to become the first result on every search page any time anyone ever searches for their clips– thereby taking control of the path their fans take on the Internet. If the content is going to be out there anyways, why not put it up yourself, at high quality, stay relevant and make a buck by reminding people of who you were (and selling CDs, DVDs and nifty merchandise). Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements

Mickey Mouse Turns 80, Still Imprisoned

Mickey and Minnie locked up

Mickey Mouse turned 80 on the 18th of November– the date in 1928 when Steamboat Willie was released.

No word on when he will be set free from the prison that the Disney company holds him, and every other creative work since before Mickey’s time.

Best “Inventions” of 2008

In listing the best inventions of 2008, Time magazine uses the word “inventions” quite loosely. I believe they use it to mean: any thing that involves science or technology that may have been created, manufactured, marketed or launched in or around 2008.

I mean when you think about the great inventions of 2008, do you think of a web site that allows you to watch video? (#4 Hulu.com)

Or maybe it conjures images of a Chevrolet car that was unveiled in 2007 and won’t be launched until 2011? (#7 Chevy Volt)

Or maybe the process of removing vowels from internet spam to render them absurd- a process that was started in 2002 by Teresa Nielsen Hayden, whom Time fails to mention. (#42 Disemvoweling)

Or maybe a facebook-like web site, that’s different! It is only for employees of US intelligence service employees, and that makes it an invention! (#32 Facebook for spies)

Or maybe it’s the fact that a major party candidate sold merchandise. What an amazing invention- if only Al Gore did that. Oh wait- he did. (#23 The Branded Candidate)

The people who created the Large Hadron Collider must be weeping at their luck, since they placed one rank behind Hulu.com, which is clearly a superior invention. What will we “invent” next? I’m guessing it will be t-shirts for spies and a facebook for presidential candidates- brilliant!

King Barack Obama

A funny way to position the words, via CNN’s Political Ticker


kingobama.jpg

Tech Policy “People to Watch”

Ars Technica and Tech Policy Central are putting together a “Who’s Who: People to Watch” list of people who will make a difference in tech policy.

Finalists will not be chosen simply on the basis of popularity or notoriety but will be judged by the ambition of their goals, the strength of their ideas, and the likelihood that they will, in fact, make a difference.

Anyone who reads this blog knows who I would nominate: Lawrence Lessig. But also, Susan Crawford for her recent addition to the Obama FCC review team, Kevin Martin of the FCC, Tim Wu, Rep. Ed Markey of MA, many of the Harvard Berkman crew like Zittrain, some of the EFF folk, the FreePress folks, Public Knowledge an, of course, Barack Obama Yeah, it’s a long list.

On Community-Based Collaboration: Lesson From the OCLC Debacle

Community-based collaboration or “Crowdsourcing” has become the buzzword in many industries- the idea that by fostering a community, you can solve many major problems through their collective wisdom without actually hiring people with… wisdom. Linux, Wikipedia, the recent Twitter Vote Report and many other projects are often cited as successful examples of this.

The nonprofit OCLC has a membership of over 69,000 libraries around the world. These libraries collaborate to create a database– WorldCat— of bibliographies that all the member libraries can use. It is a great system– or at least it was, until the recent introduction of their upcoming use policy. The two major concerns- via Terry’s Worklog– were:

  1. OCLC would require the license to be placed within the record. This takes the ownership of records away from the library and since it is only a link to the license, the license could be changed at any time without the knowledge of the linking library.
  2. WordCat data could not be used for creation of services– even non-profit– that may compete with it.

The first concern has been largely alleviated in a recent version of the OCLC FAQ, but the second one remains. Who really owns the database? Since it only applies to libraries who are members of OCLC (in contract), what prevents someone else from creating a competing service? And finally, can you really copyright a database?

There are many projects out there, like OpenLibrary, that are trying to create a truly open, non-commercial database of books that would run afoul of this clause. In reality, the problem is not in whether it will be enforced but in that this organization believes it is more than the sum of its parts. That OCLC– not its members– controls how and where the data should be used- data that was created by its members.

This is where OCLC is different from free and open source projects like Linux, Wikipedia and every Creative Commons or GPL licensed copyrighted work. There is no right to fork.

To everyone who contributes to community projects:

Always reserve the right to fork.

That is to say, you should always be able to take the marbles and go home. To fork, in open source projects, means to take all the code/data and create another project. This is made possible by the inherent “free”ness of GPL, CC, GFDL and other licenses. Many open source projects have been forked in the past because a sufficient chunk of the community didn’t like the rules they were being asked to comply with. Nobody controlled the code, so everyone controlled the code.

However, in the case of the OCLC debacle, via Annoyed Librarian:

To use a prison metaphor, it’s clear that librarians dropped the soap decades ago.

Or Stefano’s Linotype:

Basically, by using OCLC’s data you agree to protect their existence. And their monopoly (nobody else in the world does what they do, at the scale they do it). And with data that they didn’t even create.

In a time when everyone is using search engines as their first stop in finding answers, closing WorldCat further is a major step backwards. Like many other old-world companies, the OCLC is trying to remain relevant in the face of major paradigm shifts- in this regard, it is much like the Associated Press, which is losing relevance and support from member libraries (thanks Edward Vielmetti). If this was a commercial enterprise built by a million highly paid employees, it would make no difference what they did with their data. But this is a non-profit built on the backs of its members contributions.

As Princess Leia said:

The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.

Resources:

How the Media Decides What’s News

ifcmediaproject.gif

This morning, I found Natalie Holloway had returned to the front page of CNN. This afternoon, I find a story on NYTimes.com by Brian Stelter about the Independent Film Channel’s new show ‘IFC Media Project‘ which explores, among other things, how certain stories make it to prime time.

“People love to hear stories about tragedies,” Mr. Garrison tells the producers, sitting in his office, a framed copy of a People magazine cover saying “What Happened to Caylee?” on the wall. “It’s like eating a potato chip; you just can’t stop.”

Cable channels presented almost 900 reports about Caylee in the first 12 weeks after she disappeared. “During that time, approximately 100,000 other children were reported missing,” the program observes.

The show hopes to look in to the military “analysts” that show up on the news programs who have clear conflicts of interest and how advertisers influence which stories get covered. The show will be hosted by Gideon Yago, who younglings may remember from MTV News.

Note: The IFC is advertising on the same page as this NYTimes.com article. Ironic?

Election Over: CNN Back to Non-Journalism

Now that the election is over, CNN and others can return to what they do best:

That’s their front page. The good news is, we will now discover Anna Nicole Smiths new baby, Michael Jacksons illness, that Paris Hilton actually supported McCain and that sources are reporting that journalism standards have been abducted, molested, killed and the remains are scattered all over the Hudson river.

Is Google Evil?

In the great Hindu mythological tale- the Mahabharata– there is a young prince named Yudhishthira who always speaks the truth. So divine was this virtue that his chariot always remained a few feet above ground. And so implicit that even his enemies, in the heat of battle against him, would trust his word.

Until a fateful day during the great battle, when Yudhisthiras side- the Pandavas- decided that their teacher Drona, who fought for their enemies, must be killed. No one had the skill to do it, unless Drona could be emotionally weakened. And so the plan was hatched.

Drona’s son was named Aswathama. Coincidentally, this was also the name of an elephant. The Pandavas killed the elephant Aswathama and spread the word that Aswathama had been killed. Drona was distraught, assuming it was his son. The only way to confirm the story was to ask Yudhishthira- he who would never lie.

“Is Aswathama dead?” asked Drona.

“Yes,” said Yudhishthira. And then under his breath, he continued: “The man or the elephant.

Drona did not hear the second part as he threw down his weapons and wept. He was quickly killed, and the Pandavas were one step closer to victory.

However, the moment Yudhishthira muttered the half-truth under his breath, his flying chariot came half-way to the ground and stayed that way for the rest of his life. Even today in India, you can simply say “Narova Kunjarova” (man or elephant) and people will know you are referring to a half-truth or a white lie.

The moral: It takes more effort to keep a white sheet white than it does to keep a grey sheet grey. Just ask the formerly-perfect record of last year’s New England Patriots. Or Google.

Three wise monkeys

Google’s motto was “Do no evil.” With a motto like that, they were bound to fall short. They have had many missteps; their chariot is undoubtedly half-way to the ground. But are they evil?

Tomorrow at NPR’s Intelligence Squared debate, Jeff Jarvis, Esther Dyson and Jim Harper will be debating against the motion “Google violates its ‘don’t be evil’ motto“. Siva Vaidhyanathan, Randal Picker and Harry Lewis will be for the motion.

Jeff Jarvis has put up his debate notes on his blog and makes many points that I generally agree with. Google is not evil, if the word ‘evil’ is to retain any meaning. There are evil corporations- ones that have championed wars, economic turmoil, corporations that have hid their toxic contamination of water supplies and even milder forms of evilness, such as consumer unfriendly behavior. There are many seriously evil corporations, but Google is not even close to being in this group.

Of course, when drafting the motto, the founders were probably aiming higher than this kind of evil. What they were probably aiming for was to never adhere to the common corporate evilness- the old Microsoft kind of evil.

Jarvis points to all the good things Google has given us- a way to make money off content in the Internet age, a new platform (maps, services) for a new generation of companies to build tools, using the wisdom of crowds to rank content and the general good that comes from making the world a more connected and smaller place.

Jim Harper on the Tech Liberation Front blog makes similar arguments. But both of them gloss over two areas where Google is venturing in to potential evilness

  1. China: Harper and Jarvis both offer the same argument for Google’s censorship in China: “exiting China would abandon the Chinese people to government-approved information sources only.” But in the current scenario, Google is that government-approved source! By censoring their results, they have become the tool of oppression- which is fine if your a regular corporation out to make a buck, but not when your fundamental motto is to do no evil. With China, Google’s chariot came half-way to Earth.
  2. Privacy: This is a huge debacle waiting to happen. Google has sent out strong signals that they understand the ramifications of a single privacy scandal and have started to craft policies to safeguard search privacy. The advantage for consumers is that there is no brand-loyalty or lock-in with search, so we, the users, would leave Google in droves if it became clear that they are no longer good stewards of our data.

In general, however, I come down on the Jarvis, Harper, Dyson side of the debate. Google is not evil- yet. And the amount of good they do as a company, as a corporate citizen and in philanthropy offsets most of the potential for evil. Their behavior in China has damaged their reputation, but for a company that is aiming for perfection, I will take a near-miss.

So, was there a precise moment when Google’s chariot came half-way to Earth? Maybe it was when Eric Schmidt said the following, on their decision to censor in China:

We actually did an evil scale and decided not to serve at all was worse evil.

Of course, more to the point was what Google’s Marissa Mayer said more recently:

I think that ‘Don’t Be Evil’ is a very easy thing to point at when you see Google doing something that you personally don’t like; it’s a very easy thing to point out so it does get targeted a lot.

Off topic, but in the same ballpark: is Barack Obama setting himself up for a similar backlash? His post-partisan, everything to every progressive, hope, change, peace, net neutrality, end of oil chariot is bound to come flying to Earth. Maybe NPR will hold a debate in 2011 about that?

Do You Want to End Up Like Bush?

Via Dave Winer, here’s a good catch by Think Progress:

French President Sarkozy talking to Russian Prime Minister Putin. “Do you want to end up like Bush?’ Mr. Putin was briefly lost for words, then said: ‘Ah — you have scored a point there.'”

Of course, Dave Winers riff is icing on the cake:

How well do Sarkozy and Putin understand that, unless they organize their people on the Internet first, Obama might do it for them.

And he points out this web site, from Israel’s Netanyahu, that looks exactly like the site of a certain Barry from Chicago:

NetanYahu We Can!