Thoughts and finds of the day

Month: December, 2011

2011: The Year the Free Ride Died – ReadWriteCloud

Services and software that has no revenue model at all makes me nervous as a user. The problem isn’t unique to Web services. I’ve watched well-supported FOSS projects grow and prosper (Firefox, Linux, Hadoop, Apache, etc.) while hobby projects that I’ve taken a liking to eventually sputter and fail because the lead (usually only) developer or developers couldn’t swing development in addition to a full-time job.

For mature, well-supported and innovative services, you need money. What’s more, you need a direct correlation between satisfied users and income. Ad revenue doesn’t cut it.

I particularly liked the post by Maciej Ceglowski on the Pinboard blog asking users to join “the anti-free-software movement.” The idea? “If every additional user is putting money in the developers’ pockets, then you’re less likely to see the site disappear overnight.”

Ah, but what about sites that don’t have a business model or don’t provide paid accounts? Ceglowski says “Yell at the developers! Explain that you are tired of good projects folding and are willing to pay cash American dollar to prevent that from happening.”

I also like the Minimal Mac idea of just mailing money to a service to force services to allow users to pay directly.


Why we shouldn’t let Google (or anyone else) claim their private services are public spaces – Boing Boing

At Google+, Tom Anderson argues that Google’s “don’t be offensive” policy is good precisely because Google+ is a public space.

On the contrary, it’s the insistence that Plus is a public space that makes such policies troublesome, rather than mere quality control.

Conduct rules are, by and large, a good thing for any private venue that wants to avoid turning into a cesspool. They’re desirable in all sorts of other private contexts, too; a good example is a newspaper that doesn’t want to publish every deranged Letter to the Editor that comes in, or a quiet restaurant that needs to turf out an abusive patron. Guests in your home can’t demand the right to say anything they like in your lounge.

Likewise, deleting offensive content would be just fine if Google stopped marketing Plus as a public venue where you (rather than Google) can express your “real life” personal identity.

No-one—not MG Siegler (whose naughty avatar precipitated this mini-fuss) or anyone else—has the right to be published by Google. So everything Tom says about social networks applying policies is just fine—so long as they don’t claim to be public spaces.

By doing this, Google’s encouraging a kind of double-think. It’s private in all the respects that serve Google’s business interests and protect it from liability and risk, but public in all the respects that make us want to use it. But in trying to have its cake and eat it, Google ends up staking an implicit claim to quality-control over what people think is public speech.

It’s telling that Tom offers shoppings malls as an example of a “public” place similar to Google+. In fact, almost all malls are entirely private settings, which is why they have the right to boot out people wearing offensive shirts. Just because lots of people are somewhere, that does not make it public.

Debt relief: A time for forgiveness –

According to David Graeber, an anthropologist at Goldsmiths, part of the University of London, the first act of many successful rebellions was to annihilate the records of debt owed. In his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Mr Graeber describes how “cancelling the debts, destroying the records, reallocating the land, was to become the standard list of peasant revolutionaries everywhere”. Is this time different?

After more than four years of trudging through a global financial crisis, the road that seemed to lead to recovery is taking another turn for the worse. Most rich economies are bracing themselves for stagnation at best in 2012. The crisis has many causes but they all have to do with credit and debt: too much of it.

As the boom went on, households and financial companies gazing out on to a seemingly endless horizon of low interest rates and rising asset prices gorged themselves on debt. From 2000 to 2007, the average mortgage debt of US households went from two-thirds of disposable income to more than 100 per cent. British households raised their mortgage indebtedness from 83 per cent to 138 per cent. Among other Group of Seven leading economies, smaller debt binges took place in France, Italy and Canada – but not in Japan, still deflating after its 1990s debt crisis, nor in Germany, where labour market reforms were depressing workers’ wage packets.

The greatest build-up of debt was within the finance business. In the eurozone, total financial sector debt doubled from 1999 to €20tn on the eve of the credit crunch, or from 155 per cent to 222 per cent of the monetary union’s annual economic output.

Today, “debts exceed what can be paid”, says Michael Hudson, an economics professor at the University of Missouri. This is at the bottom of most of what has gone wrong in the crisis: the sum total of debt claims is greater than the worth of what was directly or implicitly pledged against the debt – whether the price of a house, the value of banks’ assets or the economic growth of countries.

If this seems like a new problem, it is only because we have forgotten the past. The importance of debt management throughout human history is evident in how the main religions contain often detailed regulations such as debt cancellations and prohibitions on usury. The biblical jubilee demanded that every 50th year indentured slaves should be freed and foreclosed land returned to the ancestral owner.

Such rules “tell us that the build-up of debts – collective and individual – should always send warning signals through the system because they are unsustainable”, says Lord Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi.


Of foxes, hedgehogs and the art of financial forecasting –

The fantastic Mr Fox is on course for another famous victory. FT Money has a tradition of holding a year-end competition to forecast some key financial indicator, and easily the most distinctive competitor is a fox in the garden of the columnist Kevin Goldstein-Jackson, who gives his forecasts by consuming one of a variety of appropriately labelled pieces of chicken. (I refer not to Mr Goldstein-Jackson but to the fox.)

If the method is quirky, there’s no arguing with the results: the fox was the most accurate forecaster in 2008 and 2009 and, barring a year-end rally, the fox will win again in 2011. Such repeated success is an outstanding achievement against fields of about a dozen rivals.


This bastardised libertarianism makes ‘freedom’ an instrument of oppression | George Monbiot | Comment is free | The Guardian

Put briefly and crudely, negative freedom is the freedom to be or to act without interference from other people. Positive freedom is freedom from inhibition: it’s the power gained by transcending social or psychological constraints. Berlin explained how positive freedom had been abused by tyrannies, particularly by the Soviet Union. It portrayed its brutal governance as the empowerment of the people, who could achieve a higher freedom by subordinating themselves to a collective single will.

Rightwing libertarians claim that greens and social justice campaigners are closet communists trying to resurrect Soviet conceptions of positive freedom. In reality, the battle mostly consists of a clash between negative freedoms.

As Berlin noted: “No man’s activity is so completely private as never to obstruct the lives of others in any way. ‘Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows’.” So, he argued, some people’s freedom must sometimes be curtailed “to secure the freedom of others”. In other words, your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. The negative freedom not to have our noses punched is the freedom that green and social justice campaigns, exemplified by the Occupy movement, exist to defend.

At IGN, Employees Use A “Viral Pay” System To Determine Each Others’ Bonuses | Fast Company

Most companies hand out bonuses at the end of the year, and many of them do so as a form of profit sharing. But IGN Entertainment, a division of News Corp. that creates content and communities for gamers, has developed an innovative system where it’s the employees themselves who help decide how much of those profits should go to each worker.

It’s called “viral pay,” and here’s how it works: Twice a year, in January and July, IGN creates a basket of tokens (called “Tokens of Appreciation”) based on how much profit there is to share. It distributes the tokens among employees and has them give their tokens–which are worth $1 each–to whatever other employees they want, as recognition for a job well done.

So, for example, if there’s someone in ad sales who went above and beyond to help you on particular campaign, you might toss some tokens their way. Of if there’s a developer who you think always comes up with great ideas about how to solve particular engineering problems, you might send them a little token love as well. Employees can give all their tokens to the same person, but they usually divide them up among several people.

Social Media And The Loss Of Uncorrelated Wisdom | Fast Company

It’s now a well-established fact that a group of people with diverse opinions can often make uncannily accurate decisions–smarter in many cases than any single individual could possibly manage.  

Open markets are the epitome of this, because they weigh individual opinions with real money, and as a result they sometimes produce decisions that seem truly prescient. Orange-crop futures markets, for instance, do a better job predicting Florida weather than meteorologists. And just a few minutes after the 1986 explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, the stock market correctly zeroed in on Morton-Thiokol, maker of the frozen O-rings, even though it was several weeks before a team of engineers investigating the disaster figured it out. (If you find this phenomenon as fascinating as I do, then in addition to James Surowiecki’s benchmark book The Wisdom of Crowds, you might want to peruse Scott Page’s excellent academic treatment of it in The Difference.) 

The key to accurate group decisions in these situations is that individual group members’ opinions must be independent of each other. If people make up their own minds, great. But if they decide what they think partly by checking out what others are thinking, then irrational cascades of opinion are likely–and in financial markets such irrational cascades are known as bubbles or crashes. It is in order to avoid erratic ups and downs, and to minimize the chances of a catastrophic loss, that a smart investor is constantly seeking out “uncorrelated” investments–that is, investments that are truly independent and unaffected by each other.   

WTF is happening with SOPA now? – Boing Boing

If you followed my tweets from the markup session for SOPA in the House of Representatives, you know how frustrating it was to watch: you had these lawmakers blithely dismissing the security concerns of the likes of Vint Cerf, saying things like, “I’m no technology nerd, but I don’t believe it.” In other words: “I’m a perfect ignoramus, but I find it convenient to disregard the world’s foremost experts.” Another congressman from Florida kept saying things like “No one can explain to me how this bill harms political debate or academic freedom.”

The markup hearing ended early yesterday, surprising many who concluded that the early adjournment meant that SOPA was off the table until Congress reconvened in 2012. But committee chair Lamar Smith quietly announced that there would be a special session on the 21st of December (when the press and opponents of the bill are likely to be distracted by the impending holiday) to finish up the bill’s markup.

I think I’ve got the perfect metaphor for the hearings: there’s a scene in the Disneyland Jungle Boat Cruise where you pass the “gorilla camp,” in which a tribe of gorillas have taken over an explorer’s camp, upending the jeep and taking deadly possession of the firearms. One gorilla is staring up the barrel of a rifle, while another is firing a pistol into a collection of floating explosive barrels in the river.

Trials and Errors: Why Science Is Failing Us | Magazine

But here’s the bad news: The reliance on correlations has entered an age of diminishing returns. At least two major factors contribute to this trend. First, all of the easy causes have been found, which means that scientists are now forced to search for ever-subtler correlations, mining that mountain of facts for the tiniest of associations. Is that a new cause? Or just a statistical mistake? The line is getting finer; science is getting harder. Second—and this is the biggy—searching for correlations is a terrible way of dealing with the primary subject of much modern research: those complex networks at the center of life. While correlations help us track the relationship between independent measurements, such as the link between smoking and cancer, they are much less effective at making sense of systems in which the variables cannot be isolated. Such situations require that we understand every interaction before we can reliably understand any of them. Given the byzantine nature of biology, this can often be a daunting hurdle, requiring that researchers map not only the complete cholesterol pathway but also the ways in which it is plugged into other pathways. (The neglect of these secondary and even tertiary interactions begins to explain the failure of torcetrapib, which had unintended effects on blood pressure. It also helps explain the success of Lipitor, which seems to have a secondary effect of reducing inflammation.) Unfortunately, we often shrug off this dizzying intricacy, searching instead for the simplest of correlations. It’s the cognitive equivalent of bringing a knife to a gunfight.

Defiant mood in village that shook China –

As an armed security cordon tightened around Wukan in southern China, the rebellious villagers patrolled their perimeter and gathered quietly in groups on Friday night.

An eerie calm had descended over the fishing village’s narrow stone alleys and central square where, hours earlier, most of the 13,000 residents had attended the memorial of Xue Jinbo, a local leader who died in police custody last Sunday