Friday, September 24, 2004

Problems with the patent system

As we spent the last class talking about the economics of information I wanted to carry on some thoughts brought up by Boyle's paper concerning Intellectual Property, and in particular the intellectual property of Information.

I spent a while in an engineering design consultancy where I was in contact with IP all the time. Whilst the system was originally designed to protect inventors and promote innovation there are several key problems with how it is being used now.

1. It no longer protects the individual inventor
The lone inventor now has a hard time protecting their patents. Whilst it is still very valuable to have a patent, at least in filing, the problem occurs when the individual inventor does not have the money, or time, to follow up on any infringements. Hence, even with a patent, the cost of the court cases and legal fees that can be required to chase down any infringements from large companies with an army of lawyers can be overwhelming. At some point the inventor will ask themselves is it really worth it or would they rather still be inventing than standing in court.

2. Those with the money can abuse it
The economics of paying for and maintaining patents are now being skewed by large companies. Whilst for a small company the cost of their patents can still be significant, large companies are able to file patents at will as the relative cost to them is so small. I met a guy from HP recently who said their lawyers couldn't keep up with all the patents they wanted to file. Clearly smaller companies have to pick and choose carefully which patents they choose to apply for, which leads me too...

3. Strategic patenting
So as a big company I can file as many patents as I need. So companies have begun to build a, metaphorical, fence around their ideas with a battery of similar patents related to an idea. One central idea is protected by twenty or so related patents to cover every alternative. This can make it a difficult job to get to the real 'quality' patent that lies behind all the variations.

4. Reasons not to patent and deliberate obfuscation
But also many companies have realized the value that lies in the information contained within the patent databases. The depth of information required to file a patent means that it has become a wealth of valuable knowledge for anyone seeking to invent or improve upon existing ideas. And people regularly exploit weaknesses in patents. So when you patent you protect your idea but you run the risk of allowing others to improve upon yours as you make it public. Realizing this problem companies regularly try to obscure the key idea as much as possible to make it either impenetrable to understand or impossible to find. Alternatively, for any internal innovations many companies are simply deciding not to patent and are relying on 'trade secrets' instead.

5. Software patents
I'm no expert on software patents but there clearly holds dangers and changes ahead as the debate rages on.

Patents are a key component of the economics of information in business and relatively recent changes in the way the system is being used - often brought about through the huge imbalances in company wealth - provide a big threat.

And briefly on quality - anyone who looks through the patent system will rapidly find that the quality is generally pretty low. (In the Oakland Museum of California they have a small section with Gold Rush era patent applications where they still required inventors to provide a fully functioning scale model with their application - perhaps we should reinstate that requirement...) I've heard statistics that more than 95% of patents never make money. With numbers in the millions of patents and more being filed every year, the skill to sift out the quality from the rest will become increasingly important.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Personal Bias and Recognizing Quality

A few months back I was talking to a friend at work about newspapers. He generally took the New York Times as his authoritative news source. I expressed my opinion that the news content in the Wall Street Journal was vastly superior.

My friend, who is very, very intelligent and has generally similar political leanings to me, told me that he had read some excerpts from the WSJ editorial page that were (to his mind) outrageous right wing propaganda pieces and that as a consequence he was entirely turned off from the WSJ. I said that from my readings the WSJ's content was not at all biased to the right, however the editorial page was clearly filled with masturbatory right wing polemics. I advised ignoring the editorial page, but paying attention to the news articles instead.

Months pass...
This morning when my friend wanders in and mentions that someone accidentally delivered the WSJ to his house, instead of his regular NYT. After reading the paper on BART, he agrees that the quality of the news in the WSJ is simply much, much better in terms of its depth of analysis and overal content, and that there seems to be no noticable right wing bias. I once again advise him to avoid the surrealistically conservative editorial page. But I mention that there was an article on Mary Mapes, the producer of the (now discredited) story on Bush's service record. The story was apparently well researched, and in fact, had nothing but good things to say about her - hardly the sort of thing you'd expect to read in a news source skewed to the right.

What stands out is this: my friend's notion of who he was caused him to dismiss the WSJ as a news source, due to political affiliations. Perhaps, at the same time, my own political biases were in play as well: I've become quite cynical about political parties - the Republicans are shills to big corporations, but at the same time, the Democrats pander to a different set of big businesses (most notably, as an open source advocate, I think the Democrats shill to The Mouse - the Disney Corporation, and other media interests). At the same time, I tend to think that many standard positions on the left are not well thought out, and that even very well educated liberals often take positions that are ideologically sound, but not in accord with empirical evidence.

And my point is...
People seem to put their authoritative information sources through an "ideological compatibility" filter, despite being well educated and highly intelligent - in this case, my friend only read the WSJ by accident. It appears that objectivity takes a back seat to ideology in news source selection. If my friend had an electronic subscription, instead of a physical subscription, he would never have accidentally received the WSJ, and been stuck with it on the BART ride. Given that a few studies have found that the internet allows people of a particular persuasion to meet and reinforce their common beliefs, will the internet actually result in increased polarization and less objectivity? With the supposed problem of "Too Much Information" and increased filtering capabilities actually lead to higher quality information that is ignored by a larger proportion of the audience?

Ask me a question that only someone who had seen a real raccoon would be able to answer

One day in the early nineties, when I was playing outside after school, I saw a raccoon, cautious and deliberate, making its way across the lawn in measured, calculated steps. I was completely entranced; this was the first and only raccoon I have ever seen in the wild, if the suburbs of D.C. count as the “wild.” When my parents came home from work, I insisted that I be questioned rigorously. I was very concerned, I recall, with not being believed, and I wanted to dispel all doubt that I could be making this up. Besides, as an only child, it often happened that I was the only witness to the various things that strike children as remarkable, worthy of reporting, and I certainly did not want to be thought an impostor. What did the raccoon look like? How was it walking? What did its face look like? Where was it going? Did it have paws or not? These were the kinds of amusing questions I demanded be asked of me, rather incessantly I'm told, until I was satisfied that my parents believed me.

My parents seem to enjoy trotting out this story at dinner parties, and it struck me as an interesting demonstration of the difficulties that arise from attempts to determine authenticity with only text at our disposal. It also reminds me of the hilarious questions that the Leisure Suit Larry games (a seedy role-playing game for adults) would pose of the user, intended to ascertain age and maturity level. If you missed several of these questions, you would be deemed under-age and denied access to the game, even though some of the questions were culturally quite specific, involving seemingly arbitrary references to pop culture and the like (so even my mom, who had spent the last 12 years in Japan, could not always answer all of them).

Can questions alone ever unfailingly determine the authenticity of information, or how authoritative a given information source is? How good can they get? Was there any set of questions that could have established “for sure” whether I had in fact seen a real raccoon? What strategies are we developing online to ferret out impostors? When we evaluate web sites for their quality, or receive advice from people on message boards or in chat rooms, what questions are we asking? Are they the same ones we would ask off-line to establish expertise in a court, for example, or is there a new breed of interrogation evolving to address informal online environments?

Sunday, September 19, 2004

The Secrets Of Mail-Order Steroid Success

Our writing assignment is on authoritative information, which made me think of an interesting example I read in a 202 reading, from the Sep 2, 2002 Business Week, called The Underground Web. I’ve excerpted it below. It raises the issue of who can be considered a trusted source on the web. The Elite Fitness site is clearly not an authoritative source (at least, not in my opinion). But what about a more reasonable site like MSN Health, which has MDs posting advice?

The Underground Web
The easy availability of drugs on the Web proved deadly for Eric Perrin. An avid bodybuilder, Perrin bought some dinitrophenol, or DNP, over the Net last summer because it was supposed to help him lose weight and get better muscle definition. While DNP is promoted on some fitness Web sites, it's illegal to sell for human consumption. The chemical is legal only for use in industrial applications such as a coating on railroad ties to kill fungus. In humans, DNP can shut down the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. Last August, Perrin took DNP for several days. As his body temperature began to rise and his heart started to race, his mother, Barbara, grew concerned. ''He told me, 'Don't worry, Mom, I'll be all right,''' she says. ''He was in a lot of pain.'' Eric died on Aug. 6 at a hospital near his home in Baldwin, N.Y. He was 22.While the local U.S. Attorney is prosecuting the man who allegedly sold Eric Perrin the DNP, Barbara Perrin thinks the dealer isn't the real culprit. She places most of the blame on the Internet and Elite Fitness, a New York company that runs the Web site where her son read about the supposed benefits of DNP and got in touch with the dealer. She is convinced that without the Web, her son would be alive today. ''DNP is not something you find easily,'' she says. Without the Internet, ''Eric may have gotten steroids, but not DNP.''Even today, Elite Fitness provides what appears to be a forum for people to meet who are interested in drugs. With a quick search of the site, BusinessWeek found dozens of postings from bodybuilders promoting the benefits of DNP, explaining how to use the drug, and downplaying its health risks. After one visitor asked on an electronic bulletin board why people die from taking DNP, one of the site's moderators responded by writing: ''Get your fluids, and you'll [b]e A-O.K.'' Another moderator posted ground rules for members to communicate in private so they could share information about ''sources.'' And members write that the best way to check out a source for restricted drugs is to e-mail a moderator. Paul Willingham, a partner at New York's Caliber Design Inc., which owns Elite Fitness, says the site simply provides a vehicle for bodybuilders to talk about any subject. ''We don't provide a forum to buy and sell drugs,'' he says. ''We're building a community for discussing physical fitness.''

Saturday, September 18, 2004

When life gives you lemons...

An Intersing note from Boing Boing.
Deaf children in Nicaragua create new language
BoingBoing reader Prodigal Tom says, "This is a fascinating article about deaf and totally neglected children in Nicaragua inventing their own sign language. I was also psyched because I learned there is an actual job called a psycholinguist! There's also a great point about how the language has evolved, so the younger members have a slightly different version than the originators." Link to Reuters synopsis, and Link to Science Magazine article, which appears to be available only to paid subscribers. (Thanks also to Mike Oliveri and others who pointed us to this item)
This is relevant to Information Quality in that the kids didn't find the new language adequate and changed it to suit them:
Today there are about 800 deaf signers of Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL), ranging from 4 to 45 years of age. Previous research on NSL has found that changes in its grammar first appear among preadolescent signers, soon spreading to subsequent, younger learners, but not to adults. This pattern of transmission, when combined with the rapid and recent expansion of NSL, has created an unusual language community in which the most fluent signers are the youngest, most recent learners. Consequently, much of the history of the language can be surveyed by performing a series of observations, progressing from the older signers, who retain much of NSL's early nature, to younger, more recent learners, who produce the language in its expanded, most developed form.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Blogging and Bush's service papers

On the theme presented in class today about how blogging reacts with the mainstream press, here's some insight on the release of Bush's National Guard service papers from Editor and Publisher (a great read for anyone interested in journalism) including quotes from newspaper editors about how they view blogging:

Blessing or Curse? Editors Examine Blogs' Role in '60 Minutes' Uproar
Although editors from four major dailies contend that their product remains the most trusted source of news for most readers, they admit the blogging community is offering competition and provoking even more skepticism of the mainstream media than usual. But they are divided on whether or not this is a positive trend or not.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

An email crisis?

How much spam lands in your inbox? A lot? A little? How important to you is email as a form of communication? What is the fraction of important email (email you must read) compared to the rest of email you receive? What strategies, if any, do you employ to increase the signal-to-noise in this environment?

In qualitative research Judd, Peter Lyman and I did over the summer, it became obvious that an email crisis is enveloping average computer users. Email as a resource is becoming more and more "inefficient" for many users while also becoming more important as a communication medium; people rely on email at home and at work to facilitate important, sometimes even critical, communication. The amount of spam and simply unwanted mail is also increasing, as is the sophistication of spammers; often fake emails appear to be genuine. The tension between these two - the growing importance of email as a communication medium and the increasing amount of "rotten" email - has combined to frustrate both sophisticated and non-sophisticated computer users. Participants in our study made it clear that email is starting to become inefficient, to different degrees, amongst all types of computer users.

We noted a variety of behaviors people used to filter email. The most simple was to use a piece of software - like SpamAssassin, etc. or bayesian filtering tools in a mail client - to filter spam. Other tactics arose like managing many different email addresses used for specific purposes or roles. Naturally, some of these many email addresses were valued moreso than others: people only give some email addresses out to certain people or via certain channels. Some people still read each email and have their own means of deciding which emails are junk. Some people even advocate not using email at all; which eliminates spam for sure, but also excludes some from communication via email entirely or requires building a parallel, seperate electronic mail network.

What do you do to filter email? Not just software, but behaviors you employ to actively increase the signal-to-noise ratio of the contents of your inbox. Do you see evidence of this email crisis in technologically less-sophisticated family and friends? Has a valuable email address of yours from the past become essentially useless due to spam? Do you check it anyway to ensure you don't miss old friends?

What things do you do to filter mail that might not meet a formal definition of "spam"? For example, I have set up a filter that routes every email sent from a certain person directly to the trash. This is because this person sends completely worthless (to me) email.

If you want to know more, check out "Unsolicited Bulk Email: Mechanisms for Control" by Hoffman and Crocker of the Internet Mail Consortium.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Bad information is relative (or Congress is stupid)

The subject of this post comes from Robert Park's book Voodoo Science. It's a short and fun book about how bad science can be and the effects this bad science has on all of us. You're hopefully familiar with the story of cold fusion, so I thought I'd try this story.
Joe Newman invented an "energy machine," a device that transformed its own matter into energy. In short, he was claiming that the 500 pound machine was a perpetual motion machine. The nice folks at the patent office rejected his patent application based on their long standing rule of refusing perpetual motion machine applications unless a working model ran for a year at their office. Of course, perpetual motion machines can't exist thanks to the second law of thermodynamics (entropy), but let's ignore physics for now.
Newman had a very flattering piece about his work aired on CBS in 1984, naming him "the man who stumped the scientists" or something similar. Following this and his failed patent application, Joe turned to his state senators who then called a Congressional hearing to sort out why he can't have a patent for the device. Newman was doing fine until John Glenn -- yes, the former astronaut and Senator from Ohio at the time -- asked him this question:
"It's a simple enough problem, you measure the input and you measure the output and you see which is larger. Would Mr. Newman agree to that? If he does, what laboratory would he like to have make the measurements?"
Newman said no, he wouldn't like the test. For any scientist or person of reasonable logical capacity, this would probably be enough to disprove Newman. However, this is a Congressional hearing and not a panel of scientists, and the testimony continued. Fortunately, the hearings eventually revealed that the special master appointed by the patent office to review Newman's case was formerly his patent attorney. The hearings quickly dissolved after that.
We can learn several lessons from this example. First, Congress might not know much about science, but they know a conflict of interests when they see it. In the context of our class, bad information is relative. Saying "perpetual motion machine" is enough to convince any scientist that this is bad science. Everyone else was convinced only after learning about the conflict of interests.
Next, where were the scientists to rip this man to shreds? Perpetual motion machines can't exist, and any scientist should know that. Rather than berate the man and pick his invention apart for the junk it is, they just kept on working, hoping that this invention would be quickly revealed as fraudulent. I guess scientists don't understand Congress, or better yet, scientists don't understand the scientific knowledge of the average person.
Finally, the media, CBS specifically, is just as culpable as everyone else in this case. Twice they aired Newman's story, and in neither did they portray him as the fraud that he is. And regardless of how nice he is or how much he believes in his invention, you would like to believe that our media would call his bluff too rather than spread misunderstanding about perpetual motion. I suppose I shouldn't keep that much faith in the media.
I can only speculate about this, but people want to believe in bad information. Whether it's perpetual motion, ESP, UFOs, or Saddam/Al Queda ties, individuals can suspend all logical and reasonable thought to jump to the incorrect conclusion. Almost no effort goes into debunking the myths people believe or disproving blatantly wrong information. What does this mean for the information we find on the Internet? Or the results of polls and other statistics? Or for Joe Newman and his 500 pound piece of garbage?

Thursday, September 09, 2004

"Computer Revolution" Thought

In his book Cyborgs@Cyberspace, self-proclaimed 'Cyberspace Ethnographer' David Hakken tries to problematize the notion of 'Computer Revolution' thought. His main point is to say that while we might unanimously agree that the current revolution has the potential to 'foster social transformation,' there is little agreement (and even less evidence) on whether it has thus far done so.

In particular he objects to the notion that a revolution is an all or nothing proposition. As an alternative he proposes this alternative:
"CR Thought can be arrayed into the following propositions, that
  1. At the most expansive level, computerization will result in the End of the Human Age, the marginalization of even total transcendence of human society altogether;
  2. Somewhat less cosmically, computerization will mean the End of the Job, the creation of a fundamentally new type of human social formation;
  3. Even more soberly, computerization will only mean the End of Machinofacture, passage to a new stage within the same basic type of social formation; or
  4. Anticlimactically, computerization implies the End of Nothing Really Significant. The attraction of revolutionary language is primarily rhetorical, and computerization is best seen as merely another development within the same stage of the current social formation."
This is in some ways a recounting of our discussion in class regarding identifying the 2 (or 4, or 8, or 57) information revolutions. I like Hakken's treatment in particular because he seems to come down on the side of #4: that social formations are now (and will continue) to be like they have always been. As long as there have been innovations, people have be employing apocolyptic language to describe their effects. In understanding the problem of quality of information, I think it might be more useful to adopt proposition #4 because it forces us to focus on the socio-technical systems which surround information and the historical forces that have created them as they are today.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Information Enthusiasm

In addition to the texts already mentioned in class, what other manifestos of information enthusiasm have you been able to find?

Pam Samuelson typically starts her cyberlaw class by assigning John Perry Barlow's "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace." Here's a passage:
Your increasingly obsolete information industries would perpetuate themselves by proposing laws, in America and elsewhere, that claim to own speech itself throughout the world. These laws would declare ideas to be another industrial product, no more noble than pig iron. In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish.
Please post more examples in the comments to this post.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

First post to Quality of Information Blog

Hello, the INFOSYS 290 class at UC Berkeley's School of Information Management and Systems will be using this space to talk about issues and themes surrounding the Quality of Information.

Please stay tuned!

Joe Hall