Blog Category: social impact of technology



Imagine the (legitimate) outcry if a local municipality, a State government, or the Federal government in the US deployed an infrastructure that would systematically identify and track people as they went about their daily lives, without a viable option to opt out. While the US has laws that govern when and how data about individuals could be used, the mere availability of such data would lead to temptations that would be irresistible in practice, yet not necessary for the functioning of this society.

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The curious case of the software patent

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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

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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

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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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Don’t go there

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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?

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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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Learning to apply the DMCA


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.

Overflow overflow?


Ten days ago,  a theoretical computer science community Q&A site went beta and seems to be generating a fair amount of activity. I’m a big fan of MathOverflow, and am delighted to see a similar site springing up for a different field.

Thirty-nine days ago,  a new mathematics site went beta, which initially puzzled me since the mathematics community already has the highly successful MathOverflow site. The difference appears to be that MathOverflow is specifically for research mathematics whereas the new site aims to be broader, allowing more elementary questions.

Overall, I think a proliferation of such sites is great, but it is also confusing. It isn’t always clear when a question is research level or not. There are questions tagged algebra or topology on the CS theory site that are pure mathematics questions. There’s a question tagged  graph theory that had been posted previously to MathOverflow. I am delighted to see that both and quantum computing already are populated with a few questions, but similar questions in these areas received good answers on MathOverflow. It would be a shame if the proliferation of sites lead to less interaction between fields rather than more. I’ll be curious to see how the usage patterns play out over time.


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For those of us with a passing (or greater) interest in algorithms, last week was particularly interesting: Vinay Deolalikar circulated a paper that attempted to prove P≠NP. This is one of the great unsolved problems in Computer Science, and its solution has some important implications for real-world problems such as keeping your money in your bank account.

I won’t attempt a summary of the proof, and will limit myself to social commentary.

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What’s in your database?

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If you work for a small or medium business, someone in your office needs to buy things.   Paperclips, computers, mailing envelopes, office furniture, etc.   If you work for a small or medium research lab, someone in your office needs to buy these same things, but someone also needs to buy more unusual stuff.   Twenty pounds of modeling clay.   A Sony Aibo.  Make that two.   Lots of different types of video encoding software and hardware.  Stuff like that.

At our research lab, I am often the person who does the actual purchasing of the strange items.   If I’m buying a computer from HP, I expect the process to be pretty straightforward.   If I’m buying industrial laser elements from Bob’s House-o’-Lasers, I expect complications.  Reality is often the other way around.  Since I’ve been doing this since the mid 1990’s, I’ve seen how technology has often made it easier and sometimes much harder to buy things, use things, and deal with problems.   I’m going to describe a few examples in this and later posts.  Just a warning that my bias is somewhat anti-technology – I joke that I’m a neo-luddite.

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