Archive for the ‘culture/society’ Category

Painted on a cathedral ceiling or it didn’t happen

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013 by

My kids are home-schooled.  One of the many consequences is that they are sheltered from bureaucracy more than the average kid.

One of my teenagers is involved with a not-quite-local high school, because, well, why should the public school community be denied the joy of sharing in his perceived infallibility?  In order for me to volunteer to drive him and some classmates to an event, I needed to fill out a Form.  A teenager is not the best communication medium, but it only took a week of back-and-forth to determine that no electronic version existed, and to actually get the Form in to my hands.  His last text about it was “I have the forms”.   And indeed, when he handed it to me, he said, “You have to fill it out in Quadruplicate!”

The Form, of course, was a carbonless paper form, with a white, orange, pink and yellow sheet.   I replied, “It’s okay.  It’s like carbon paper.  You just fill out the top.”   His whiny cry of “But how do you Know?”, was less a doubting of my knowledge than a complaint that there was no “About this form” link at the bottom of the paper.  Though I still doubt it, he claimed to never have seen the like (remember that infallibility?).   (I also find it amusing that although Zingerman’s has gone digital and gotten rid of the carbonless ordering forms, they still say “Yellow copy” and “Pink copy” on the interim white receipts.)

A bit more questioning and discussion with my colleagues revealed that our kids really believe that there are only 3 generations of a technology:  What they and their peers use, what their parents use (now, not in their youth), and the original invention.

Thus text documents are either shared in the cloud, stored locally on a laptop/desktop, or painstakingly hand-duplicated by monastic scribes.  Personal music is streamed, parents listen to satellite radio and MP3s that came from old CDs, and people used to listen to rocks and sticks played around the communal cooking fire pit.   Vinyl LPs aren’t music at all.  As my kids said at a friend’s party a few years ago, “Why do you have those plastic things we make art bowls out of in your closet?”   We found a 20+ year old AAA Triptik for a cross-country drive and one of the kids asked how we updated that.  Might as well have been runes on dragon skin.

There are lots of other examples, and I’m resisting the urge to write about them.  But I’m thinking of all those intermediate technologies that are disappearing like so many 5 1/4″ floppies.

P.S. This post sat as a draft for about a year, and I’m only putting it out because I hear Gene’s voice asking me to put out content.  Which I intend to do.

 

The curious case of the software patent

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011 by

Critiques of software patents is all the rage lately, from bloggers like Daniel Tunkelang to the NPR. The list of problems with them includes that they stifle innovation, that they are tools to beat up small companies and startups, and that they are simply trading cards that big corporations use to protect each other at everyone else’s expense. So why are software patents different from other patents? Why aren’t people arguing about scrapping the patent system entirely?

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a debate-style talk featuring Bob Zeidman (pro) and Prof. Edward A. Lee (con) about software patents hosted by the Computer History Museum, which I found quite helpful in understanding the issues. The motion under consideration was “Software patents encourage innovation.”

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Dealing with censorship and other nonsense

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011 by

The discussion on my previous post has raised some interesting and valid points regarding holding conferences in countries like China that block some (or all) internet traffic. Given that the conference has an audience that extends beyond the location of the conference, how can this audience be served in the presence of country-sponsored firewalls? Specifically, how can we get access to the Twitter stream and to other media being generated by the conference?

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Censoring conferences

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011 by

A number of ACM groups have recently made decisions to hold their conferences in China. The list of major conferences includes CSCW2011, SIGIR2011,  Ubicomp 2011, and ICSE 2011, just to name a few. This seems like a strange trend. The purpose of academic conferences is to disseminate ideas in an open and public manner, and thus the argument has been made that taking these conferences to China will help expose China and Chinese researchers to these Western ideals. Yet what we see conference after conference are the restrictions that China imposes on electronic communication.

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Rabble-sourcing

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010 by

Some members of Congress are proposing a bottom-up approach to determine which programs merit cutting. The idea is to draft cost-cutting legislation based on aggregating citizens’ opinions on what should be cut and what should be kept. One of the targets of this approach is the NSF, or, more precisely, the merits of some of the research funded by the NSF. The premise is that watchdog citizens will identify research that isn’t worth funding and will bring this to the attention of the House Committee on Science and Technology. The members of the committee, will, then, presumably, take action to save the taxpayers’ money.

What’s wrong with this picture?

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Don’t go there

Monday, December 6th, 2010 by

The field of information retrieval is inherently (some might say pathologically) data-driven. We need datasets to test algorithms, to compare systems, etc. This is all good. It’s particularly good to have data that are meaningful and relevant, because it makes it easier to motivate users and to generalize findings to data that people care about.

I expect that in the next few cycles of conference submissions, we will see a number of papers analyze the “cable” data leaked by Bradley Manning to Wikileaks. It’s a large enough dataset with topical relevance that is sure to attract all sorts of analyses, much like the Enron email dataset did in 2004.

But there are some important differences.

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No such thing as bad press?

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010 by

A recent NY Times article exposed the machinations of a sleazy guy who ran an online business that relied on links — positive, negative, whatever — to his web site that caused it to be promoted in Google search results. In fact, he found that by being nasty to his customers, his rankings improved.

The Time article implies that it was his customers’ negative comments that drove up his PageRank score, but Get Satisfaction (least one of the sites on which many of the comments were posted) claims that they mark links with the “rel=nofollow” attribute, which removes that link from PageRank considerations.

So why was he as successful as the article makes it seem?

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Evidence

Thursday, November 18th, 2010 by

Those of you who’ve followed this blog and Jeremy Pickens’ blog will recall his many comments about Google’s un-Googly behavior. Recently, Benjamin Edelman actually tested the hypothesis about Google injecting bias into organic results. His post details several kinds of queries that don’t produce organic results. Which ones? Ones that are related to Google properties such as finance, health, and travel. While it’s clear why Google pushes its own properties, it seems that this behavior is inconsistent with the image it tries to project.

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Learning to apply the DMCA

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010 by

Panos Ipeirotis posted a great, (unintentionally) funny letter one of his students received from some clueless person claiming that the student’s site warrants a DMCA take-down because it allegedly deprived another similar site of $0.52/day in revenue by affecting its page ranking in some search results.

The letter Panos quotes is worth reading for its sheer comedic value; it is hard to imagine a better parody of a DMCA take-down notice. Unfortunately for all of us, however, the DMCA is invoked with similar justification with much larger sums of money at stake, and with much less humorous outcomes.

Benoît Mandelbrot, 1924-2010

Monday, October 18th, 2010 by

I am saddened to hear that Benoît Mandelbrot has passed away. His The Fractal Geometry of Nature excited and intrigued me when I was in high school, though I admit that while I, like many others, examined all the pictures, I read only scattered parts of the text. The talk of his I attended as an undergraduate was the first technical talk by a famous mathematician that I understood, essentially, in full.  The popularity of fractals was due to the gorgeous pictures,  and was aided by the simplicity of some of the underlying mathematics, which made it accessible to so many, and to the connection of fractals to so many phenomena. That fractals appeared at all scales in nature, from galaxies, to coastlines, to trees, I knew from looking at his book, but their tie to economics was new to me. He struck me as arrogant, but in an endearing way since his pride in his contributions stemmed from his intense love of the work and his absolute conviction of its importance. He clearly enjoyed his maverick status as someone who worked in a different way than most mathematicians, and on non-standard mathematics. Although he taught us to look for self-similar patterns throughout the universe, we won’t find the like of him any time soon.