Thursday, June 30, 2005

Hostages to fortune

Wired News reports that an old piece of writing may come back to haunt Bram Cohen, creator of BitTorrent, in the light of the recent Supreme Court decision on Grokster. According to Wired, Cohen said he's unhappy that the Supreme Court's decision is forcing him to confront something he wrote more than five years ago. He added, "Anybody who thinks that they might produce technology at some point in the future that might be used for piracy has to watch everything that they say."

It's not just someone who might produce technology who has to be careful; it's everyone. Something I wrote in this explicitly personal blog was used to gain leverage against my employer. After that, I went through a great deal of soul searching about whether I should continue to write in my own name. It would have been much easier to write anonymously, as many do. I decided that the risk was outweighed by the beneficial discipline (and terror) of writing under my own name.

Forgotten indescretions have always had the power to come haunting. The difference today is that they're so indestructible. Digital posts are backed up and cached and copied and never go away (except for the ones you'd like to keep, which are governed by Murphy's Law and disappear without a trace). As I said my post about Miranda Murphy, the following rules apply:
Everything you say digitally will be remembered, and can be used against you.
If something you say can be misinterpreted, it will.
Caveat auctor!

English as a foreign language

Lady Catherine: 'She sallied forth to scold [any erring tenants] into harmony and plenty'
I am, at last, reading Jane Austen. The English in it is not 200 years old, but yet it surprises me at every turn.

The spelling is markedly different, the most noticeable being words split that we have joined: "any body" for anybody, "no body" for nobody. In contrast, the punctuation is not that alien, though there are, as one would expect, more commas than we'd use.

The most striking are words whose use reflects a different social mileu. Take "condescension", for example. Here's the insufferable Mr Collins describing his patroness in Pride and Prejudice: "... he had never in his life witnessed such behaviour in a person of rank -- such affability and condescension, as he had himself experienced from Lady Catherine. She had been graciously pleased to approve of both the discourses which he had already had the honour of preaching before her." [1] Elsewhere, reference is made to Mr Collins' admiration of "... Lady Catherine's condescension as he knew not how to admire enough" [2].

While we think of condescension as a failing, indicating arrogance and offensively patronizing [3] behavior, it also has the meaning of "affability to your inferiors and temporary disregard for differences of position or rank" [4] -- clearly a good thing in a patron. In Austen's world, class distinctions are a matter of endless attention and vital importance to one's quality of life, and hence a superior who deigns to ignore them is offering a great courtesy to their inferiors.

It's not the language that's foreign after all, but the world that it is describing.


[1] Pride & Prejudice, Chapter XIV of Volume I (Chap. 14)

[2] Pride & Prejudice, Chapter VI of Volume II (Chap. 29)

[3] Here's another one: patronizing. One meaning is "to treat with condescension", which is bad these days; but it also means "to act as a patron, to support or sponsor", which is a good thing (

[4] WordNet and American Heritage Dictionary, cited in

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

There's 4.6 of them born every minute

Gartner notes that 2.4 million consumers have reported losing money directly due to phishing attacks in the year to May 2005; of those consumers, half of them lost a combined $929 million in the 12 months preceding the survey.

(2.4 million suckers divided by 525,600 minutes/year gives 4.566. The loss per user is impressive, at almost $1,000, though I don't know why Gartner only gives numbers for half of them... I'd guess that gives a more impressive number.)

Phishing solicitations increased 28% from 57 million during the 12-month period ended in April 2004 to 73 million for the year ended May 2005. This is a smaller number than I would've guessed, given the prominence this topic gets. I suspect that the number of people losing money has increased more rapidly, though the press stories on the Gartner report don't mention this.

It's having an impact: according to Gartner, 33% of online shoppers are buying fewer items due to concerns about online fraud, and 75% are more cautious about where they shop online. The scary implication is the 25% are not more cautious about where they shop online...

Sources: Internet Retailer, ZDNet's IT Facts

Monday, June 27, 2005

Where do you want to be today?

Microsoft is dabbling in content again, according to Stephanie Olsen's blog.

As she points out, Microsoft has zigged and zagged on the topic of content. I think MSN still hasn't resolved what it wants to be when it grows up. It seems torn between the Google (advertising) and Yahoo (content) models. Does MSN want to Madison Avenue, or Hollywood?

It would seem to be best if they're neither; that way they don't compete head-on. MSN Spaces is cleverly not competing directly with Blogger; Spaces (and Yahoo360, too, judging by the beta) is going after small groups of friends, whereas Blogger oriented to people with Technorati ambitions. MSN does have a great asset in their instant messaging user base, but they're probably still running second to Yahoo in community software.

Some places that come to mind for MSN: Wall Street (money and business, though Yahoo is ahead there), Main Street (merchandizing, though eBay and Amazon are the name brands), Elm Street (home and family). It looks like they're going for Elm Street.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Technology isn't Destiny

Steve Heims argues that the ethos of science rests on two pillars: that science is value neutral, and that the results of science are unequivocally good [1]. I would add a third: that progress is inexorable. While this belief system is no longer held unquestioningly in scientific circles, it’s still going strong in technology. It can lead industries to underestimate the power of their opponents; this has happened with genetically modified foods, and may happen again soon with Digital Rights Management Systems (DRM).

According to Heims, John von Neumann (a paragon of the rationalistic approach) viewed the march of technology as inevitable and beyond human control. He also believed that all technologies were ultimately constructive and beneficial. Taken together, these two beliefs imply that a technologist is not responsible for any negative outcomes: if there are any harms, they only apply in the short term; and even if there were long-term harms, they’re inevitable [2].

The development of nuclear weapons called this value system into question: it is hard to argue that the science of the Bomb was independent of the political process, since it was funded as part of a war effort. It's even harder to argue that the invention of the Bomb was an unalloyed good. These days the hottest issue are in biology. Stem cell research is the subject of great political controversy, as is human cloning in general; and the risks and benefits of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the food supply have been hotly debated.

However, this belief system is still going strong in the IT business. Staking a claim to "Grove's Law" earlier this year, Intel’s outgoing CEO said: "Technology will always win. You can delay technology by legal interference, but technology will flow around legal barriers." [3]

Most technology visionaries still treat their dreams as being independent of politics, religion, and social debates in general. For example, most technologists resist the idea that their work should be the subject of regulation. It’s commonly argued that light regulation of emerging technology is the most appropriate course of action. This only follows if one accepts the premises that innovation is beneficial (the second pillar), and that regulation slows down innovation.

In reality, technology is not value neutral. One need only look at the United States’ R&D tax credit [4] to realize that society has chosen to fund specific kinds of innovation in specific industries: physical or biological science, engineering, or computer science. Most science is funded by government grants, and the size and focus of these awards are the results of social decision making, often with an eye to technological applications which reflect specific socio-political agendas. There are many reasons to subsidize R&D - creating of jobs, creating wealth, generating competition, creating national champions – all of which are to some degree at odds with each other.

Arguments in favor of the pillars often depend on discounting the importance of time. If a technology hasn’t yet triumphed, or its benefits are unclear, it’s argued that one simply hasn’t waited long enough. Proponents of technological determinism assume that the benefit exists, and it is only a matter of time before it shows itself: a Platonic ideal which is consonant with “math envy” which is at the root of many technologists’ world view [5]. This also accounts for the ultimately frustrating vagueness of technological prognostications: visionaries are happy to tell you when something will happen, but are careful never to guess about when.

Some may argue that science will inevitably progress, regardless of local political agendas: for example, if the US government won't fund stem cell research, then the State of California will. The discoveries will be made somewhere. However, these very decisions to fund or not are the result of lobbying and polls, and in their nature contingent. Little progress will occur in unfashionable areas, but this doesn’t help the skeptic’s argument: it’s impossible to prove a negative.

The fact is that political and social processes can speed up or slow down: bomb making was speeded up, and human cloning has been slowed down. History is path dependent, and these interventions affect the package of technologies which results. It is only if one believes that the outcomes of science and technology are inevitable, not only in their existence but also in their form, that timing becomes irrelevant.

Technology is a new addition to the social ecosystem, and it has intended as well as unintended consequences. The unintended consequences can be ignored if one believes in the Second Pillar: that the outcome of technical development is always beneficial. The realist, on the other hand, needs to plan for the unintended consequences, and society – your and I, in other words – needs to make a conscious collective decision on the risks vs. benefits of new technologies. Norbert Wiener had a fine sense of this imperative; here’s how Steve Heims describes Wiener’s world view [6]:

“Wiener is asking the user of powerful automated tools to reflect upon what his true objectives are -- to appreciate that multiple objectives usually conflict with each other and that to be able to articulate what one truly wishes implies a profound and sophisticated understanding of things and people, including oneself. This constitutes an important shift from the traditional view of technology: instead of think of a new technology merely as something that enables you to do such-and-such (the attitude of the "gadgeteer"), you come to realize that by making it part of your ecological system you grant it the power to alter your future, for better or worse. Just what part you wish it to play in your life and what relation to it you wish to have are the choices at issue.”
I believe that every technology is embedded in a value system, and that outcomes are neither pre-ordained nor unquestionably good. I would thus argue that technologists need to understand their social context if they are not to be surprised by cultural resistance.

One can see this playing out in DRM today. The companies providing the technology argue that they are not the ones limiting customer choice; they merely provide the tools which content companies can use to enforce their rights in whatever way they choose. This is the First Pillar in action: the technology itself is value neutral. The technologists focus, understandably, on the benefits of their technology, and don’t see (or admit) any downside to it; the Second Pillar. And third: since the technology has been developed, its deployment is inevitable. Alternatives such as levies are discounted as a blunt instrument, historically obsolete, or unfair [7].

Technology companies have a blind spot to alternative futures in which DRM does not inevitably triumph, and underestimate the power of social movements who don’t buy into the three pillars to block their chosen solution. The blank incomprehension among many in the biotech industry to the rejection of genetically modified food in the European Union is a precedent the ICT industry cannot ignore.

My general conclusion is that technology is not destiny. Technology is part of a complex social process, and the outcomes are uncertain. The best technical solution will not necessarily win in the market (cf. Betamax vs. VHS). Conversely, the optimal business result, let alone the optimal social result, is not necessarily built on the optimal technical solution. Put another way: The best technical architecture isn’t necessarily the best business architecture.


[1] Steve J Heims, John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death, MIT Press, 1980, Ch. 1, Von Neumann, Only Human in Spite of Himself, p 360

[2] Heims, ibid, p 367

[3] Michael Kanellos, blogging the 18 May Intel 2005 shareholders meeting

[4] Resources on the R&D tax credit: assessment of impacts, news coverage of its extension in late 2004 , a summary of the technology industry position, a backgrounder on state and federal credits; a summary of who qualifies

[5] It’s often said that those in the social sciences, or even softer natural sciences, have “physics envy” (in biology, in economics). By “math envy” I mean that technologists would like to believe that their work is timeless and true; the social contexts within which they appear are contingent and ultimately irrelevant. I prefer to use this rather than “physics envy”, since it seems to me that even physicists are jealous of the eternal truths supposedly obtainable via mathematics.

[6] Heims, ibid, Ch. 13, Wiener, the Independent Intellectual, p 341

[7] The European ICT trade organization EICTA makes the argument for DRM and against copyright levies concisely here. For a more detailed argument, see this. Those in favor of levies include collecting societies (eg in the US, ASCAP and BMI) and the free culture movement.

Friday, June 24, 2005

A tonne per terabyte

A conversation with Jon Pincus inspired me to wonder what the ecological impact of massive data storage might be. As I’ll outline below, I reckon a terabyte of storage generates a tonne of carbon dioxide every year, the same as the per-passenger cost of a flight from New York to LA, and about 5-10% of what a typical first-worlder generates in a year.

Working off Barroso, Dean and Hölzle’s paper on the Google cluster architecture, I infer that the energy consumption for storage is approximately 1W/GB: a dual 1.4-GHz Intel Pentium III server with a two 80GB drives draws 120W per server. Adding Google’s estimate of about 40% for cooling, gives 165 W per 160 GB, or 1 W/GB (watt/gigabyte). [1]

The environmental advocacy group SEEN estimates carbon dioxide production for a variety of power plant types. For a 1 megawatt (MW) plant the numbers range from 7,900 tonnes/year for coal to 4,000 tonnes/year for a gas-fired plant. I’ll pick 5,000 tonnes per MW.year for lack of knowledge about average capacity. That’s to say: 5,000,000 kg per 1,000,000 W.year, or 5 kg/W over a year.

Combining the two: 1 W/GB times 5 kg/W = 5 kg of CO2 per GB. To simplify further, and to be conservative, let’s say I’m off by a factor of five; that is, either servers or power plants are five times more power efficient than I’m estimating. That gives 1 kg/GB.

Since one metric tonne is 1,000 kg, and a terabyte is (roughly)1,000 gigabytes, we get to a nicely memorable number: a tonne of CO2 emitted per terabyte for data storage per year.

For context, first worlders generate about 20 tonnes of CO2 per year each [2]. Most people aren’t storing anything like a terabyte of personal data yet, and so the load their storage places on the atmosphere is relatively small. However, once we all start using up our TB of gMail storage, that tonne/terabyte will become a significant part of a first worlder’s the personal CO2 emissions.


[1] As a reality check, a Maxtor 320GB NAS is spec’d at a power consumption of 150 watts, or about 0.5 W/GB. Peter Harrison suggests a rule of thumb that each watt of power consumed requires a watt of cooling, again taking us to about 1 W/GB.

[2] One activist site estimates that a typical family of three with two cars, who flies to an annual vacation, might produce 50 tonnes of CO2 a year; the same family, living in a small, efficient house with no car, and no annual flight, might produce 10 tonnes. Jerry Hannan gives different figures of the same order: A car and driver produce about 5.5 tons of CO2 per year; when all fossil fuel is considered, every man, woman, and child can be said to be responsible for 18.7 tons of CO2 per year. Air travel generates a lot of carbon dioxide. The City of Seattle uses a figure of figure of 0.34 kg per passenger air mile. It’s 2,800 miles from LA to New York, which uses or 0.95 tonnes of CO2 per passenger.

Back to steam wireless

Telefunken radio grammophone

I'm back in my childhood, stuck in front of a piece of electronics listening to audio. It used to be a Telefunken valve radio and grammophone, and now it's my PC.

I love listening to the audio streams on web radio sites. It's wonderful to catch up with NPR shows I missed, or get an RSS feed of the most recent CadenaSer news broadcast. I can watch video of lectures on philosophy, or interviews with the digerati. The trouble is, I'm stuck in front of the PC. By contrast, I carry around my transistor radio in the morning as I shower and make breakfast, or as I'm cooking in the evening. The sound follows me around.

I suppose I could buy an MP3 player - but I hate walking around with my ears plugged up. I want to listen and interact with the rest of the world. I want to be able to walk away and have the audio fade. I don't want my attention monopolized by the audio - even if the earbuds produced sound half as good as my cheapo Sony transistor.

What I want is a wireless Internet radio. A just-for-the-purpose, Wi-Fi connected, MP3-enabled audio device that stores and streams audio feeds. An iPod with a couple of speakers and a Wi-Fi card velcroed to it might do the trick (if it weren't for likely poor battery life).

Of course, if I can think of something, someone's already doing it. Reciva’s Wireless Household Internet Radio (Reciva, engadget, ehomupgrade) is close to what I want, though it doesn't support podcasting. There's also the little problem that it's not on the market yet; it looks like a design concept in search of distribution. [1]

Even if they were successful in finding a market, Reciva's product would probably be obsolete in a year. Twelve months ago building in podcast support would not have been a no-brainer it is today. What one needs is a lego kit for new hardware. It doesn't need to be superbly well designed; the Heath Robinson-aspect (Rube Goldberg, for those on the other side of the water [2]) of being plugged together will have a certain geek chic. The software needs to be good, though; it Should Just Work out of the box. That's tricky; general-purpose pluggability and seamless usage are mutually exclusive (cf. Microsoft vs. Apple). I guess I'll just have to wait it out until the technology settles down long enough for it to be worth someone's while to bring an Internet Radio to Circuit City.


[1] Some other design ideas: Roku Tatung's "wireless MP3 players that will stream internet radio" (engadget), Torian’s InFusion portable wireless Internet radio (engadget).

[2] Robinson and Goldberg were contemporaries; Robinson was born in 1872, and Goldberg in 1883. They were famous on opposite sides of the Atlantic for their drawings of outlandish contraptions that performed simple tasks in outrageously complicated ways. They spoke to everyone's fascination and fear of complicated technology in the first third of the 20th Century. In a way they had it easy - technology was still largely mechanical, and thus visible. After the 1950's technology became invisible, its workings hidden in the black boxes of silicon chips and software algorithms. I love visiting old water mills, because one can trace the mechanism by walking through it. The adept can still do this with today's technology, but it requires an act of abstract imagination that isn't available to all.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Branded cooperatives - the future of news?

The savviest PR person I know told me over lunch that well-known journalists on big-name papers are worried about the long-term health of their industry. It reminded me of the New York Times columnist (? I didn't record the link) who confessed last week to only reading his own paper online - and who then expressed the hope that everybody wouldn't start doing that, since that wouldn't pay his salary.

The threat of blogs is not really that they're on-line; the Times and the Wall Street Journal and Fortune have gone online, too. What's different is that new media brands are built around individual voices, which then scale out to a small group, but not much beyond that. It's not a new phenomenon; I suspect most big papers grew out of newsletters written by one passionate journalist. The difference is the scale at which it can happen, and the rate at which "natural selection" can discover and grow new competitors. I also suspect that the new media may not grow into empires in the same way that the print media did.

I noticed it first with Wonkette. The site was started by the eponymous Ann Marie Cox; the first hand-off I saw was to Choire while The Wonkette was off writing a book. Nowadays Greg Beato has a byline too, but the voice is the same. This is a good way to get leverage from the brand that the founder developed, without them having to be keyboarding 7 x 24. The same was the case with BoingBoing; Mark Frauenfelder did all the early posting (2000), was then joined by Cory Doctorow in 2001, and then the other three.

The Wonkette site is part of Nick Denton's Gawker Media stable, but the association is under-played; it's visible at the top of the side-column, but not on the mast-head. I've clicked across to some of the other Gawker sites, on the premise that they'd have the same sensibility and I might enjoy them, too. (They did, and I didn't.) This is a way to build a web of mutually reinforcing sites without weakening the identity of any of them; and more importantly, it's a way to get economies of scale where it counts, in ad sales and back-end technology. Servers scale, writers don't.

This suggests that a small cooperative of writers, perhaps aggregated loosely into a larger constellation, will be a sustained pattern for on-line media. It plays to the characteristics of the medium: barriers to entry are low, and personality is the currency (convertible into ad revenue). It also suggests that the money-making opportunities will be largely invisible to the reading public: it's a stock of ad-space and a server farm, not a mast-head.

Can Ballmer pull a Chirac?

Jacques Chirac pulled off a masterly coup de théâtre at the EU summit last week; he ambushed Tony Blair with demands about the British rebate, and succeeded in completely diverting attention from the No vote in the French referendum on the EU constitution.

Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer needs something similar. The stock has been in the doldrums for years [1], the company has resorted to shaming its customers to get them to upgrade to Office 2003 [2], and it's at the hairy edge of its ability to ship large code bases - take Longhorn, and the Visual Studio upgrade cycle.

Ballmer needs to divert attention from the company's core business until it's exciting to look at again. He needs to find a subject where Microsoft has credibility, one that works world-wide, and one that's close, but not too close, to the software business. It would also help if he can point to a bogeyman.

Two possibilities come to mind: broadband deployment, and education.

Broadband deployment is key to Microsoft's connected computing ambitions, but it's not something the company has a direct stake in. Ballmer could become a leader in driving Internet access world-wide: affordable high speed access in the US, and any access at all in developing countries. It's something everyone will stand behind. And he even has a bogeyman, at least in the US: the network operators whose customer base and offering lags well behind most other developed countries.

Bill Gates has been talking recently about problems with science and engineering education in the US [3]. Microsoft is making investments around the world in education through its Partners in Learning and Unlimited Potential programs. Competitiveness leads to jobs, and jobs lead to votes; every politician worries about employment. If Microsoft could engage here, it could look good everywhere. Of course, it's hard to find an enemy in this debate; perhaps the opponent is ignorance itself.


[1] The stock is down about 30% over the last five years, and trails the S&P (down 20%) and the Dow Jones (flat); see Yahoo Finance graph. Over the last year MSFT is down about 10%, and the two indices are (barely) positive.

[2] See the "Evolve" ad series: This is probably an effective campaign; see here for a positive review. There are of course criticisms, eg MiniMsft. Whether the ads work or not (and I haven't seen any data either way, nor would I expect it to ever be published), the fact is that Microsoft Office has gone very public that it's biggest competitor is old versions of its own products, and that it has (at best) not done a great job to date of persuading users to upgrade.

[3] For example, in a panel discussion on 27 April 2005, Gates said this: "Even above the research funding problems that are real, the visa problems that are real, this pipeline problem [of the interest level and the capabilities coming out of K-12] is the most damning, I'd say."

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Public broadcasting: Fair and balanced?

The fight over public broadcasting is coming to a head nicely. The Right has been playing a long game, with a steady drumbeat about liberal media bias culminating in a House Committee proposal to eliminate some funding for NPR and PBS [1]. The Left is late to the game with claims of Republican partisanship in running the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), though it's being helped along nicely by the unabashedly political approach taken by Kenneth Tomlinson, the Bush-appointed Chairman [2].

Though it pains me as a pinko-liberal and long-time fan of NPR to say this, I think the Right is onto something.

I've been a member of KUOW, my local NPR news station, for more than a decade, and I love their news coverage and smart-pants entertainment shows. NPR?s programming seems neutral and fair to me [3], which I value.

However, something's wrong when a liberal like me begins to have doubts about public broadcasting's neutrality, as demonstrated by KUOW's schedule [4]. It runs quite a few distinctly left-wing shows, with no countervailing right wing crazies; when you do hear zealots, they're lefty zealots. While in some cases it's just the topic choices that have a liberal aroma (The Power of Voice, Living on Earth, various minority interest shows), others are blatantly on the far left fringe like Alternative Radio, whose recent contributors include Howard Zinn and Studs Terkel. KUOW Speaker's Forum highlights voices predominantly on the left, or on topics the Left cares about, like Thomas Frank agonizing over the class divide. KUOW used to carry RadioNation hosted by The Nation journalist Mark Cooper; it's now a podcast. The only show even vaguely right-of-center is Marketplace; but that's only on the right to those who believe that commerce is a crass and degrading activity which leads to moral collapse.

(I'm so used to Garrison Keillor's avowed Democratic bias in A Prairie Home Companion that I don't even think of it as political...)

I like NPR, and I like the fact that it's essentially free -- umm, well, paid for out of our taxes, as well as through subscriptions and foundation grants. I like its approach and I like its programming (with the exception of some of the shows mentioned above, which set my teeth on edge), and I would hate to see shows going off the air.

However, the deal only works if the programming is non-partisan in total, so that Republicans are just as happy having their taxes pay for NPR as Democrats [5]. That's definitely not the case with KUOW, and I suspect it's not the case for NPR in general.

The fact that these cuts are being opposed by and Common Cause [6] underline my point: Democrats like this thing more than Republicans do. They wouldn't like it so much if it weren't favorable to them, or at least consonant with their world view. Republicans don't like it, and they feel left out. One could argue that Republicans just want to cut all government spending: while that's true in general, there's something deeper going on here. The Right feels that the Left is getting a free ride with government-subsidized broadcasting that aligns with their world view. I think they're right.

Public broadcasting is in a bind. Most of its support base - members, foundations, and underwriting businesses like it's current left/liberal bias. They pay the piper, and they are entitled to call the tune. However, since some of its funding (and I can't figure out precisely how much, but probably in the region of a few tens of percent [5]) comes from government, it at the same time has to maintain a charade of being politically unbiased.

Since (if?) public broadcasting is supported only in small part by taxpayer dollars, it should just cut the cord. Go cold turkey, and forget about government funding.


[1] NY Times, June 10, 2005, Panel Would Cut Public Broadcasting Aid, abstract

[2] For example, it seems Mr Tomlinson secretly retained conservative journalists to report on political objectivity in Bill Moyers' "Now" program, NY Times 21 June 2005

[3] Some supporters of public broadcasting also praise it for being "non-commercial". They can't mean "free of commercials", since the underwriting messages largely come from companies, who are certainly out to reap commercial benefit from their support. The term probably means "not owned and run by a large company". I can see that this is attractive to many on the Left, though it means little to me. In the days when I had cable TV I found nothing worth watching on public TV, and a lot of informative material on the History Channel, Discovery, Bravo, etc. And if I wanted leftish news I could watch CNN; I wasn't dependent on the News Hour.

[4] KUOW's program schedule: My comments apply to the schedule published on 21 June 2005.

[5] I haven't found a straightforward description of NPR's funding. The NPR ombudsman gives an introduction here, and NPR shows some pie charts here. It feels like a shell game; funding from the CPB amounts to 1-2% of NPR's direct budget, but a large chunk of money must come from CPB indirectly via the 30% of revenue in programming fees from member stations. The CPB and the University of Washington provided 10% of KUOW's budget according to a rather uninformative annual report. The Ombudsman is noticeably vague on this point: "Some NPR stations can receive up to 15 percent of their budgets from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Other stations in underserved areas can get more. The big city stations get a lot less. So to the extent that those stations pay fees to NPR, some of that money comes indirectly from the CPB." CPB's annual appropriation is almost $400 million (link). CPB provides some information about the provenance of the $2.3 billion in revenue for public broadcasting as a whole, but I couldn't find details of where the money goes.

[6] MoveOn's call to action here; Common Cause's here

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Wearing out optimism

It is the peculiar gift of CEOs to be eternally optimistic. Whenever a CEO is reported to upbeat in the face of some calamity, I can only respond: well, duh... It's the CEO's job to see the silver lining in every situation. At least in public; in private they just as often have to be chest-thumping autocrats, finding fault in every particular, and so - supposedly - inspiring their tribe to greater success.

Such unreasonable optimism is a good and necessary thing. Employees and shareholders easily get disparities, often unreasonably. Someone who can always find the good news in any adversity keeps morale high, which is important for performance; so often, confidence is the magic surplus that stands between success and failure.

The trouble is, the trick loses its power through repeated use. When leaders are cheerful every single time, regardless of the evidence, they become less trustworthy. It's like a defense lawyer who can always argue why the prosecution case is flawed; the defendant may well often be innocent, but every single time?

Eventually the reaction becomes, "Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?," and the magic fades [1].

What's left is the power of their rhetoric, which shouldn't be discounted; the plausibility field surrounding charismatic leaders leverages some very deep human instincts [2]. Leaders can be particularly persuasive if they're good sales people, because as far as they're concerned, they're not spinning; they truly believe what they're saying [3].

However, once one notices that the positive spin never changes, one becomes aware of the mechanism: the power of their self-belief, the power of one's own desire to believe them. (I see the makings of another installment of Winning Against a Big Ego... stay tuned.)

Excessive optimism can be bad for business. In an article in the Harvard Business Review [4], Lovallo and Kahneman describe how executives and program planners often succumb to false optimism, resulting in inaccurate forecasts when defining new programs. They show that a combination of cognitive biases and organizational pressures lead managers to make overly optimistic forecasts in analyzing proposals for major investments. Rational weighing of the odds is overwhelmed by delusions of success; benefits are overestimated and costs are underestimated.

So, three cheers for pessimists! Any endeavor needs balance to make good decisions, and keep people motivated. Sometimes the glass is half full, but just as often it's half empty. Pessimists get a bad rap, because they're depressing to have around. They're typically not good leaders: "Let's go take that hill, boys, even though the odds are that we're going to be cut to ribbons by that machine gun nest." However, a general would do well to have a pessimist or two on staff. Pessimists can limit the number of follies one falls into. Pessimists are also a good foil for the optimistic visionary; the leader doesn't have to be on top form all the time, just more optimistic than the resident grinch.


[1] For those not versed in British culture: Mandy Rice-Davies uttered this immortal line in the Profumo case. During the trial of one of the protagonists, the prosecution alleged that Rice-Davies had received money from Lord Astor in return for sex. When she was told Lord Astor had denied ever sleeping with her, she uttered the immortal line: "He would, wouldn't he?" See for more.

[2] In Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert B. Cialdini argues professional persuaders exploit six psychologically hard-wired and evolutionarily advantageous responses. The one at play here is "deferring to authority"; the one which led students to apply (faked) shock therapy to test subjects in a famous experiment because their professor told them to. Listening to leaders is normally a healthy behavior, though, since it leads to cohesive communal action, and leverages the insights of those who are usually more skilled than their followers.

[3] cotes some researchers who believe that charismatic liars are effective because they believe their own lies. Note that I am not claiming here that leaders in general or CEOs in particular are liars.

[4] How Optimism Undermines Executive Decisions, D. Lovallo and D. Kahneman, Harvard Business Review, July 2003, p. 57, summary, purchase details; paraphrased in

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The mirror test

Today is the first day of the next part of my life. Yesterday was my last day at the company that has nurtured and sustained me for the last twelve years, from which I parted on good terms and with many wonderful friends. And last night, in a rather shell-shocked state, I got a very encouraging message about the future from Steve Jobs, via BoingBoing.

In his commencement speech at Stanford on Sunday, Jobs told three stories about second chances. BoingBoing quoted the following lines
I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

The other stories are encouragements to drop out and trust that things will be OK; or, as was the case when he was fired from Apple, to trust that things will be OK when you're dropped.

He ended his speech with the words on the back cover of the final edition of the Whole Earth Catalog: "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish." Since I'm a rather satisfied and conscientious type, I'll recast the advice to myself as follows: "Get hungry. Get foolish."

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Proof by Factoid

I’ve started a factoids log. The mundane reason is to have a shelf for the newsbytes one needs to know to win arguments. The strategic reason is to see what the collection looks like after a couple of months; a pattern might emerge that could be the basis for a broader polemic.

Gather and learning factoids goes against the grain for me. The American penchant for statistical sound bites still strikes me as odd, even after years here. Arguments are built on and won with numerology: Proof by Factoid.

The other pillar of American rhetoric is Proof by Human Interest – a touching story which purports to illustrate, but attempts to validate, one’s case. Those who can effectively combine these two techniques make the New York Times Best Seller List, vide Malcolm Gladwell.

Continental Europeans, on the other hand, prefer to argue from logic and idealism. Idealism, particularly when not supported by logic, can fail gloriously: examples range from Socialism to the EU Constitution.

In reality, arguments are made everywhere by a combination of these four ingredients: factoid, human interest, logic, and idealism. The recipes vary, leading to local styles which are both the same and different. It’s like bread. There is an infinite variety of breads, but most have four basic components: flour, water, yeast, and shortening.

Getting out of the eyeball

I've been trying to focus on the world outside my car while commuting to work, and trying to avoid daydreaming while I drive. It's impossible. I'm amazed that the roads aren't a pinball ride of cars colliding with each other as distracted drivers lose track of the outside world.

It doesn't take much effort to start attending to the road and its surroundings, but within seconds I fall into mindless musing; some time later I suddenly realize that I'm no longer paying attention to the world in front of my eyeballs. I slide into the world behind my eyeballs, driving along on autopilot.

In the few seconds that I can attend to the world outside the glass, I'm almost overwhelmed by the richness and detail. What a wonderful world, no matter if it's a tree-lined street, a busy freeway, or a commercial strip. There are endless fascinating discoveries: For example, I noticed some black wires strung along the cantilever holding some traffic lights. Looking along the pole I realized there were two tiny video cameras mounted on every boom; looking around, I then noticed that all the traffic lights at that intersection were similarly equipped.

But my seeing is constantly superseded by mental busywork. It's not the clear productive thinking that happens in a focused time. It's a flux of half-thoughts that live in the limbo between the front of my eyes, and the mind behind. It's even worse when the radio is on; not only am I pulled between the scenery and my thoughts, but the entertainment drags my attention sideways.

That productive, sustained thinking is, it turns out, just as hard for me as sustained concentration on the outside world. It's perhaps even harder: there's less to focus on when thinking, and I have to make the world, not just drink it in.

I find that sketching is a useful aid to seeing. Drawing well isn't the point; sketching guides and fixes my attention on what I'm seeing, and stops me slipping into half-seeing and half-musing. Clicking away with a camera is the antithesis of drawing; the camera is itself a limbo eye. It's interposed between me and the world, and it's a proxy in which the reality of the world is lost. I'm not looking at something; I'm looking at its image in the viewfinder. I'm not thinking deeply; I'm thinking about how to frame something. Clicking the image is a proxy for really looking, or really thinking.

(That's not to say that photography cannot be an aid to seeing - but it must be used as such. I imagine that a practice that involves thinking about how to frame the image, taking it, and then post-processing the result in the darkroom or in software is a discipline as fruitful as drawing.)

I will persevere. I used to switch on the radio reflexively whenever I got in the car; nowadays I prefer to drive in silence. That step led to this goal of simply looking outside the windscreen, rather than oscillating mindlessly between the world and the mind. Buddhists refer to the relentless chatter of pointless thinking as "monkey mind"; softly softly catchee monkey...

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Almost as good as dying

I've been sharing my decision to leave my current employ with co-workers and colleagues. Their kind words have been deeply touching, to the point that I risk an ego-out-of-bounds error. People couldn't have been nicer if they'd been asked to speak at a funeral.

That's the hardest part of leaving this job: all these wonderful people. I'm excited about what's coming next, but I will surely miss the company of this world class group of thinkers and doers and just downright nice people.

Horrible dilemmas

Impossible dilemmas are the stuff of tragic drama, ethics courses, and Zen. They are only too easy to find. Today's: the Wall Street Journal notes in passing that "drivers are tied into suicide car bombs, a sign of coercion," according to US commanders in Iraq.

I don't know how the coercion works, but it's all too easy to imagine. Let's say someone tied me into car, and told me that I was going to die when it exploded. I did have a choice, however; if I exploded it at the target of their choice, my loved one - who they'd taken hostage - would live. If I tried to minimize the damage by driving elsewhere, my beloved would die.

What would you do?

I think I would try to limit the death toll. Since there is no guarantee that they would keep their word and not kill my beloved if I did what they wished, and since she would want to spare as much life as possible, I would resist their designs.

But what if it were not just one loved one, but my whole family? What is my value calculus of known vs. Unknown people?

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Rosary, iPod and aerobics

Diarmid MacCullough attributes the fifteenth century rise of the Rosary to two factors [1]:
  1. It was a physical object: a reassuringly concrete holy possession, a personal relic that the even the poorest person could afford.
  2. The Rosary devotion constituted a religious practice for lay people that was as structured, corporate and intense as that which might be found in a religious community.
The iPod is a contemporary reminder of the talismanic power of things. Many cyber-enthusiasts proclaim the primacy of the bit over the atom; since anything can be represented digitally, they imply, the dirt world is an inconvenient and ideally optional extra.

That's not how humans seem to be wired, though. The physical world is the armature of our dreams, not an inconvenient carapace [2]. It matters what one's MP3 player looks like, and feels like in the hand; the quality of the music it pipes into your ears is the equi-perfect, digital commodity you could get equally well from a cheapo knock-off.

I'm sure many teens today will think back nostalgically to their first mobile or iPod in the same way that I remember my first HP calculator. Sure, the fact that it used Reverse Polish had geek chic, but it was the heft and the Mercedes-like click of the keys that have remained with me ever since.

As for structured communal practice: I'm perplexed by the lack of collective ritual among secular moderns. History and anthropology would suggest that meaningful, shared activities are part of being human, and yet individuality and divergence is the norm in the Blue states. The closest we've come in the last few decades is aerobics and occasional dance crazes (remember the Macarena?). Europe and the US Coasts are probably due for another simulacrum of a communal religious activity - though if disco and tae bo are the kind of thing we're in for, I'm happy to wait.


[1] Diarmid MacCullough, The Reformation, Viking 2003, Chapter 7, p. 319

[2] Anthony Damasio argues in Descartes' Error that emotion plays a central role in being rational. In a similar way, I would guess that physical action is essential for abstract thinking. I vaguely recall reading about some studies that linked gesture to narrative: if you tied someone's arms to their chair, they couldn't remember the details of story they were being asked to retell.