Delicious acquisition anxiety

Phil Edwards writes about the discontent felt by users when the big bad Yahoo buys out a social software web service. It’s tied into a critique of web 2.0 as an exploitative phenomenon.
I suspect this pattern arises from client-server architecture and server cost, regardless of malice. Successful client-server apps like google and del and flickr wind up costing someone a truckload of money. They need to do something to pay for the servers. There’s hardware and backup and patches and air conditioning and so on.
Even if you factored out venture money and outsourced r&d and the other artifacts of high-tech commercial culture, you’d still need someone to pay for the servers. Thus the classic phenomenon of a successful, idealistic web app provider doing a begathon when the server goes down.
The governance issues posed by server ownership get particularly strange when it comes to online games and communities. Eventually it could lead to political governance, where costs are paid via taxes to a democratically chosen government.
Some applications (aggregated comments) might be done decentralized. e.g. a shared bookmarking service that aggregates the bookmarks in each of our browsers, and allows browsing and querying of the virtual db, or a decentralized aggregated comment tracker.
When these apps are conceived after there’s an installed base of tools, it requires painful standards work to make this sort of thing happen, and then the installed base turn adoption process can take years. Data standards are political; the user base needs to have enough power and organization to create and demand the standard; this can take a long time. In many cases it’s easier to throw up a server, which gets us into the economic bind.


Excio is doing a geoblogging service. You can look up a zip code, see who’s blogging in the same place, and contribute posts.
The catch is that it’s a standalone blogging tool. “Excio offers all great features of other blogging tools, plus the ability to Geo-Code individual posts.”
Maybe this is a demo to show makers of other blogging tools how it works? But if they wanted to get integrated into TypePad and Blogger and WordPress — and logal blog portals like Austin Bloggers they ought to have a public api. As it is, they’re starting from zero users instead of millions.

Smart textile remote control

Maggie Orth’s International Fashion Machines is marketing a fuzzy light switch. Touching the pompom completes the circuit and turns on/off the light.

A fuzzy switch is kind of nifty if you don’t have little kids with sticky fingers. But it’s not that different from a regular switch that you need to get up to flip.
What would be really nifty is a fabric household remote control. Touch bits of fuzz or parts of a colorful pattern to could turn on/off lights, heating/air conditioning, stereo, run the bath. The trigger could be a soft press, or a bounce for the playful. It could be a fuzzy desk toy, a mousepad like desk accessory, or a watch band.
It will be especially fun when these are available as kits, and 8-12 year old kids will be able to make them as crafts projects.

Wired Magazine

The December Wired had an interesting-looking cover story, and a few article referrals in the queue, so I took it on the plane. Summary: despite some good articles, a reminder of why I don’t read Wired anymore.
Wired had one superb piece by Gary Wolf about an emergency warning system in Portland, Oregon, where 911 alerts are fed back to schools, hospitals, and building managers, and community members can feed back into the system. This is a working model of decentralization and openness, ready to be adopted around the country.
There were a few other good bits sprinkled around the magazine, including a graphical one page summary of government spending to keep data secret.
But the bulk of the magazine was written on autopilot. The cover story about alternatives to oil was euphoric and shallow. The claims of providers, from ethanol to oil shale to hydrogen, were repeated uncritically, summarized in a table showing the plentiful riches that await slightly higher energy prices. No mention of the critique that ethanol requires more energy to produce than it generates, and hydrogen is interesting as an energy storage medium, not a fuel.
The alternative energy story in the Economist (the other bit of airplane reading) was much better in the level of detail and critical thinking. A regular diet of blogs like The Oil Drum and the Ergosphere provide an infinitely richer picture about the opportunities and risks of post-oil energy technologies.
One effusive story about homeland security vendors was downright creepy. An ex-athlete with government connections raises venture financing with the purpose of buying out a homeland security vendor — any vendor – and selling the product to the government. Reminds me a bit about this story that broke last week in the Washington Post. It would be a fine idea to take down the names in the article and watch to see if any of the players are bankrupt or indicted in the next few years.
And the articles about media — movies, games, video, music read like product placement. It’s Entertainment Tonight with a focus on special effects. The esthetic is anti-O’Reillly — the audience is a consumer not a producer. The section on personal DVR knocks Linux versions as being “too hard” — true, linux dvrs aren’t consumer products yet, but the Wired editors are making that decision for the readers, assuming assuming their readers don’t include hackers anymore. There’s not so much critical thinking about the role of broadband and copyright policy on creative innovation, except for Xeni Jardin’s interview of Steven Soderberg, where the movie director fantasizes about mashups he can’t legally make.
I can’t remember when I stopped reading Wired Magazine. At its best, it was a heady brew of technoeuphoria, exploration of new ideas sparked by new technology, tasty tech and media tips, and gizmo ad porn.
Wired does publish some excellent work. These days, the good articles already make their way to the link inbox via blogging. External links are a better way to find those good articles than separating the glossy ad pages. The tips about gadgets and games and tech stuff can all be found sooner by blog.
This isn’t about the net killing magazines. It’s about the need to have a better product. If the issue had five or ten strong articles instead of two or three, Wired would have a regular reader.

Mass surveillance and bad math #2

This Ars Technica piece makes the argument about the ineffectiveness of mass surveillance at catching terrorists.

Just imagine, for a moment, that 0.1% of all the calls that go through this system score hits. Now let’s suppose the system processes 2 million calls a day. That’s still 2,000 calls a day that the feds will want to eavesdrop on

Data mining and bad math

There’s a lot of speculation that the warrantless spying authorized by the Bush administration is using some kind of TIA-like, Echelon-like massive data gathering and data mining operation.
That’s why the administration couldn’t get FISA warrants. If that’s what they’re doing, it’s arguably a bad idea even if it was legal (which right now it pretty clearly isn’t).
You can get warrants if you are spying on one, or five, or twenty people. You can’t get warrants if you are spying on 100,000 people, or 1 million people.
It’s also why they couldn’t use the “after the fact” exemption in FISA. Under FISA, the government can start spying immediately, and ask for the warrant up to 72 hours later. But if you’ve amassed petabytes of data on millions of people, the analysts haven’t analyzed it all in 72 hours. Maybe they go back and look for a pattern months after the fact.
Even if it was legal, though, it would arguably be a bad idea. Bruce Schneier makes the best argument that data mining is in many cases less effective than traditional, lead-based investigative work.
When you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, data mining is bad math. It’s very different from the use of data mining to detect credit risk patterns. In the US, there are probably tens of millions of people who are iffy credit risks, and there are different probabilities of default. It’s reasonable to use math to assign a credit rating based on probability. And there’s a competitive market for credit. If an individual gets turned down by one provider, they might get credit from another. It’s not a binary thing.
But what about looking for terrorist sympathizers. Islamist terrorists in the US are rare. How many potential terrorists in the US are willing to kill innocent civilians — maybe 100, 200? Not that many. How big is their network of sympathizers and supports? Maybe a few thousand? By contrast, how many people are there who are news buffs, ordinary muslims, and ordinary, never-violent political activists? Many millions.
So a data mining operation that looked for keywords would find many many more innocent people than potential terrorists. The government would waste their time reading this blog post and menus for mosque community dinners.
When you are looking to assess a credit rating, being about right is OK. If someone pays a rate of 15% instead of 14%, not that much harm is done. But when you are looking for a terrorist, you want to be 100% right. It doesn’t help if you miss a killer and abduct uncle abdul the hardware store owner.
The government would be much better off doing the traditional job of finding leads, getting warrants, trailing those people, and finding their contacts. That sort of hard work actually has a higher probability of success than the data mining approach.

Cheney says 9/11 attacks could have been prevented by wiretaps

as reported in Forbes. Of course. Nobody is arguing against the needed surveillance of suspected criminals.
And if law enforcement wants to eavesdrop on a US citizen or a resident, they need to be authorized by a judicial warrant. The missing word in Cheney’s remarks is “warrant”.
The terms of FISA are quite liberal — the government can start eavesdropping immediately, and ask for judicial review up to three days later. If for some reason, the terms of FISA hampered legitimate investigation of terrorists, the administration should propose a change to the law.
Our constitution does not allow the president to disregard the law, or to make law by fiat. That’s called monarchy or dictatorship.

The joke’s less funny this year

Over the years, I’ve argued in favor of calling the office Christmas Party a Christmas Party, since that’s what it is. If generic christians really and truly wanted to be ecumenical, they’d also hold Purim parties and Diwali parties — they’d really celebrate when other ethicities party, instead of condescendingly including Hannuka with Christmas.
Last season, the war on Christmas seemed like a joke – a joke on the humorless, paranoid ultra-Christian scrooges who managed to sustain a persecution complex when they’re part of the majority culture.
This year, it’s not so funny anymore.
I’m not offended when someone untentionally wishes me a Merry Christmas. But I do appreciate it when people who know I’m Jewish say Happy Hannukah. The point isn’t about people in the minority being offended. It’s about people in the majority being considerate. So the “war on Christmas” folks are waging a war on politeness. But I’m getting the sneaking suspicion that it’s worse than that.
Wishing a “Merry Christmas” becomes a test of club membership. If a non-Christian doesn’t eagerly welcome the greeting, we’re “them”, not “us”. What the “war-on-Christmas” people are trying to do is to subtly and insidiously create the impression that people who aren’t Christian and aren’t faking it are somehow less American.
It’s good to see that ACLU Texas is prosecuting the war on Christmas with the vigor it deserves.