Archive for the ‘Web’ Category

Google, warlords and roving bandits

January 19, 2010

Tom Slee and Whimsley’s turn at analysing the actions of Google:

In his posthumously published Power and Prosperity, Mancur Olson tells a story of China in the 1920s, when the warlord Feng Yu-hsiang defeated “a notorious roving bandit called White Wolf”. Most people in Feng’s domain preferred life permanently under the thumb of a warlord to life prone to the periodic invasion of roving bandits, and Olson wondered why? His answer was that even a warlord who wants to extract as much tax from his citizens as possible must look to the future, and unlike a roving bandit that future depends on having a relatively productive population. There is an alignment of interests between the population and the warlord that does not exist between the population and the bandits: it is in the interest of the warlord to restrain his takings and so ensure that his victims have a motive to be productive. The warlord also has a motive to clamp down on crime (other than his own), and to provide public goods that benefit those he taxes. Olson describes this as a “second invisible hand”, by which autocrats are guided “to use their power, at least to some degree, in accord with the social interest.” In a similar way, in a neighbourhood under the control of organized crime there will be no robberies, only a protection racket.

In many ways the Internet is, of course, a place. There is even a word, netizen, to describe us in our role as citizens of the Internet. And if the Internet is going to be a reasonable place to spend our time someone has to provide those common goods that keep it so – security, community standards, and so on. Who will do so?

Google is a warlord of the Internet, surrounded by bandits. It provides public goods because its revenue (advertisements) depends on a safe and yet wide-open Internet. For Google to make money the Internet must be accessible from Google’s search engine: enclosures are a threat to its business, whether they be ad-funded like Facebook or subscription-funded like the Wall Street Journal. Netizens must be comfortable and safe from bandits as they go about their daily electronic lives. Google also clamps down on attempts by companies other than itself to generate revenue from the Internet, for example by pushing the limits of copyright in its book-copying efforts, or by pushing open source software at the client side of applications.

While autocrats provide some public goods, there is a limit and in Google’s case we see that limit in privacy and to some extent in copyright. When CEO Eric Schmidt says (30 second video) “if you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”, we have bumped up against that limit. And while we may be grateful to Google for keeping us free from the claims of copyright owners, attempts to restrict advertising on and around content will not find a friend in Google.

Take a look!

Information is anything but free!

January 19, 2010

Nicholas Carr does the math for you!

Do the math. Sit down right now, and add up what you pay every month for:

-Internet service

-Cable TV service

-Cellular telephone service (voice, data, messaging)

-Landline telephone service

-Satellite radio


-Wi-Fi hotspots


-Other information services

So what’s the total? $100? $200? $300? $400? Gizmodo reports that monthly information subscriptions and fees can easily run to $500 or more nowadays. A lot of people today probably spend more on information than they spend on food.

There is also something about the poor artists at the end of that post. Take a look!

Google and its compromises

January 14, 2010

Nicholas Carr:

Like many other Western companies, Google has shown that it is willing to compromise its ideals in order to reach Chinese consumers. What it’s not willing to compromise is the security of the cloud, on which its entire business rests.

A great service called

July 15, 2009


Internet and the writing style!

June 21, 2008

Caleb Crain at Steamboats are ruining everything writes about the changes in literary styles that internet brings about (via Tyler Cowen at MR):

I would like to raise the question, How is the internet changing literary style? The question has at least two aspects. First, Which traits of style change when writing goes online? Second, What are the forces that cause these changes to come about? There is a third aspect, a moral one, which I will try to defer answering until the end of my talk but which shadows the first two, namely, Are these changes an improvement?

Along the way, there is also a broader definition of literary style:

By this point, you will have gathered from my references to feelings and to social context that the definition of literary style that I’m working with is broad. I suppose I define it as the way a writer expresses himself in words, and I would defend the breadth of my definition by arguing that whenever a writer expresses himself he also chooses how he will present himself—even if he chooses to keep his personal self out of view, insofar as that is possible. A writer is someone who has turned his self-presentation in language into an art or a profession, just as an actor has his self-presentation in person. Feelings and social context—or rather, linguistic effects that suggest feelings and social context—may be as crucial to a writer as metaphor and diction.

An interesting piece!

A time sink called Firefox

May 18, 2008

On my coming back to India, for the first time, I have been using a computer which is not connected to the internet most of the times; and, I can vouch for the different feel that Paul Graham mentions in his latest piece:

If you try this trick, you’ll probably be struck by how different it feels when your computer is disconnected from the Internet. It was alarming to me how foreign it felt to sit in front of a computer that could only be used for work, because that showed how much time I must have been wasting.

Wow. All I can do at this computer is work. Ok, I better work then.

That’s the good part. Your old bad habits now help you to work. You’re used to sitting in front of that computer for hours at a time. But you can’t browse the web or check email now. What are you going to do? You can’t just sit there. So you start working.

Take a look!

A free programming Q&A site

April 18, 2008

Joel has an announcement in his blog:

Programmers seem to have stopped reading books. The market for books on programming topics is miniscule compared to the number of working programmers.

Instead, they happily program away, using trial-and-error. When they can’t figure something out, they type a question into Google.

And sometimes, the first result looks like it’s going to have the answer to their exact question, and they are excited, until they click on the link, and discover that it’s a pay site, and the answer is cloaked or hidden or behind a pay-wall, and you have to buy a membership.

And you won’t even get an expert answer. You’ll get a bunch of responses typed by other programmers like you. Some of the responses will be wrong, some will be right, some may be out of date, and it’s hard to imagine that with the cooperative spirit of the internet this is the best thing we programmers have come up with.

Jeff Atwood and I decided to do something about it. We’re starting to build a programming Q&A site that’s free. Free to ask questions, free to answer questions, free to read, free to index, built with plain old HTML, no fake rot13 text on the home page, no scammy google-cloaking tactics, no salespeople, no JavaScript windows dropping down in front of the answer asking for $12.95 to go away. You can register if you want to collect karma and win valuable flair that will appear next to your name, but otherwise, it’s just free.

When I’m building a new product, my policy has always been to keep quiet about it until I have something to ship. But this isn’t really a product. This is a free new community site for programmers around the world and we need your help to design it, to program it, and to build it. We want to hear your suggestions, hear your ideas, and we’re going to build it right in front of your eyes. Thus, the vaporware announcement.

Every week, Jeff and I talk by phone (he’s in California, I’m in New York), and we’re going to record those phone calls and throw them up on the web for you to listen in on, and call it a podcast. We have a lot of trouble keeping on topic, so the podcast may be interesting to you even if you don’t want to hear about The first episode is up right now. Eventually I imagine we’ll figure out this newfangled “RSS” technology and you’ll be able to actually subscribe and get fresh episodes delivered into your ears automatically. All in good time.

Here is the page of; have fun!

HowTo: disagree (on the web)

March 29, 2008

The web is turning writing into a conversation. Twenty years ago, writers wrote and readers read. The web lets readers respond, and increasingly they do—in comment threads, on forums, and in their own blog posts.Many who respond to something disagree with it. That’s to be expected. Agreeing tends to motivate people less than disagreeing. And when you agree there’s less to say. You could expand on something the author said, but he has probably already explored the most interesting implications. When you disagree you’re entering territory he may not have explored.The result is there’s a lot more disagreeing going on, especially measured by the word. That doesn’t mean people are getting angrier. The structural change in the way we communicate is enough to account for it. But though it’s not anger that’s driving the increase in disagreement, there’s a danger that the increase in disagreement will make people angrier. Particularly online, where it’s easy to say things you’d never say face to face.

If we’re all going to be disagreeing more, we should be careful to do it well. What does it mean to disagree well?

Thus begins Paul Graham’s latest essay which attempts a disagreement hierarchy — beginning with Name calling, and ending with Refuting the central point — with Ad Hominem, Responding to tone, Contradiction, Counterargument, and Refutation in between, and in that order.

Graham, is of course careful to warn

One thing the disagreement hierarchy doesn’t give us is a way of picking a winner. DH levels merely describe the form of a statement, not whether it’s correct. A DH6 response could still be completely mistaken.

But while DH levels don’t set a lower bound on the convincingness of a reply, they do set an upper bound. A DH6 response might be unconvincing, but a DH2 or lower response is always unconvincing.

Of course, since we are on the topic, I should at least let you know that I am not in complete agreement with that last statement. For example, recently, PZ disagreed in the following fashion to this abominable post of Nisbet:

Fuck you very much, Matt. You know where you can stick your advice.

Now, this response, might be at DH0 level according to Graham’s classification or lower; however, I think (as also most of the commentors on this post for example), by dismissing Nisbet, and the fashion in which he dismissed, PZ is making a strong point: hence, the correct way of putting it would be

A DH6 response might be unconvincing, but a DH2 or lower response is always almost always unconvincing.

Have fun!

Wikipedia, its prodigious success and its demons

March 2, 2008

The “unhelpful” or “inappropriate”—sometimes stoned, racist, violent, metalheaded—changes are quickly fixed by human stompers and algorithmicized helper bots. It’s a game. Wikipedians see vandalism as a problem, and it certainly can be, but a Diogenes-minded observer would submit that Wikipedia would never have been the prodigious success it has been without its demons.This is a reference book that can suddenly go nasty on you. Who knows whether, when you look up Harvard’s one-time warrior-president, James Bryant Conant, you’re going to get a bland, evenhanded article about him, or whether the whole page will read (as it did for seventeen minutes on April 26, 2006): “HES A BIG STUPID HEAD.” James Conant was, after all, in some important ways, a big stupid head. He was studiously anti-Semitic, a strong believer in wonder-weapons—a man who was quite as happy figuring out new ways to kill people as he was administering a great university. Without the kooks and the insulters and the spray-can taggers, Wikipedia would just be the most useful encyclopedia ever made. Instead it’s a fast-paced game of paintball.Not only does Wikipedia need its vandals—up to a point—the vandals need an orderly Wikipedia, too. Without order, their culture-jamming lacks a context. If Wikipedia were rendered entirely chaotic and obscene, there would be no joy in, for example, replacing some of the article on Archimedes with this:

Archimedes is dead.

He died.

Other people will also die.

All hail chickens.

The Power Rangers say “Hi”

The End.

Even the interesting article on culture jamming has been hit a few times: “Culture jamming,” it said in May 2007, “is the act of jamming tons of cultures into 1 extremely hot room.”

From this wonderful piece by Nicholson Baker in New York Review of Books (link via Jenny). Baker goes on to list the requirements to become a top wiki contributor:

So how do you become one of Wikipedia’s upper crust—one of the several thousand whose words will live on for a little while, before later verbal fumarolings erode what you wrote? It’s not easy. You have to have a cool head, so that you don’t get drawn into soul-destroying disputes, and you need some practical writing ability, and a quick eye, and a knack for synthesis. And you need lots of free time—time to master the odd conventions and the unfamiliar vocabulary (words like “smerge,” “POV warrior,” “forum shopping,” “hatnote,” “meat puppet,” “fancruft,” and “transclusion”), and time to read through guidelines and policy pages and essays and the endless records of old skirmishes—and time to have been gently but firmly, or perhaps rather sharply, reminded by other editors how you should behave. There’s a long apprenticeship of trial and error.

At least, that’s how it used to be. Now there’s a quicker path to proficiency: John Broughton’s Wikipedia: The Missing Manual, part of the Missing Manual series, overseen by The New York Times‘s cheery electronics expert, David Pogue. “This Missing Manual helps you avoid beginners’ blunders and gets you sounding like a pro from your first edit,” the book says on the back. In his introduction, Broughton, who has himself made more than 15,000 Wikipedia edits, putting him in the elite top 1,200 of all editors—promises “the information you absolutely need to avoid running afoul of the rules.” And it’s true: this manual is enlightening, well organized, and full of good sense. Its arrival may mark a new, middle-aged phase in Wikipedia’s history; some who read it will probably have wistful longings for the crazy do-it-yourself days when the whole proj-ect was just getting going. In October 2001, the first Wikipedian rule appeared. It was:

Ignore all rules: If rules make you nervous and depressed, and not desirous of participating in the wiki, then ignore them entirely and go about your business.

The “ignore all rules” rule was written by co-founder Larry Sanger and signed by co-founder Jimbo Wales, along with WojPob, AyeSpy, OprgaG, Invictus, Koyaanis Qatsi, Pinkunicorn, sjc, mike dill, Taw, GWO, and Enchanter. There were two dissenters listed, tbc and AxelBoldt.

Nowadays there are rules and policy banners at every turn—there are strongly urged warnings and required tasks and normal procedures and notability guidelines and complex criteria for various decisions—a symptom of something called instruction creep: defined in Wikipedia as something that happens “when instructions increase in number and size over time until they are unmanageable.” John Broughton’s book, at a mere 477 pages, cuts through the creep. He’s got a whole chapter on how to make better articles (“Don’t Suppress or Separate Controversy”) and one on “Handling Incivility and Personal Attacks.”

Broughton advises that you shouldn’t write a Wikipedia article about some idea or invention that you’ve personally come up with; that you should stay away from articles about things or people you really love or really hate; and that you shouldn’t use the encyclopedia as a PR vehicle—for a new rock band, say, or an aspiring actress. Sometimes Broughton sounds like a freshman English comp teacher, a little too sure that there is one right and wrong way to do things: Strunk without White. But honestly, Wikipedia can be confusing, and you need that kind of confidence coming from a user’s guide.

I loved the last paragraph about Deletopedia a lot too! Have fun!

Some blogological links!

January 28, 2008
  1. Sarah Boxer at The New York Review of Books on Blogs (via Abi, at whose post, Coturnix lets us know that the response of Laeleps to the piece is a must-read);
  2. Zuska on interactive and ethical blogging;
  3. Andre of Biocurious on science and blogs (with a video clip of a talk by Andre);
  4. Dave Munger on the official launch of; and,
  5. Raj at Plus Ultra in a conversation with his daughter, who knows that she is just being used as a  sounding board for his blog post ideas 🙂