Sunday, October 31, 2004

Infoqual on the road

Scott Carter kindly took the blog on the road to CMU last week. This week I'm taking it further afield, blogging in from Europe, where I'll be for the election and next week's class, taking the topic of quality to Denmark. I'm sorry, of course, to miss both, but in terms of the election, it's a relief to get outside the bubble in which American elections live. In my jet-lagged state, I caught the middle of a familiar tv news story about the critical election, divided populace, bitterly fought campaign, dirty tricks by the incumbent party, and partisan interventions by the press. I was about to turn off, feeling that you cannot escape America anywhere, when they cut away to some recorded footage, and I realised this story was about the Ukraine. (The cheap grey suits and cheap grey haircuts gave it away at a glance--but cheap though these suits where, nobody looked as though they had a rectangular box between the shoulder blades.) Hands up those who knew there was a critical election going on in the Ukraine.

Denmark, you will no doubt remember, is part of that plucky Coalition of the Willing , though quite how willing is not absolutely clear. The first materiel contribution Denmark made to the invasion is said to have been half-a-dozen snow ploughs. Some suggest that this was a sign of incompetence, but as the Danish are not usually known for this (though I suppose all armies are--I vaguely recall a consignment of tens of thousands of boots, but only left boots, being sent to the Crimea), others suggested it was a sign of unwillingness. Coalition membership gives the Danes a particular interest in the outcome of the US election--but all European countries are looking on with predictable amazement at the way we run our politics. Stories about voting irregularities and suspect voting machines in particular receive a lot of attention. They run under a layer of smug tut-tutting typical that typifies how both old and new world talk about each other.

Despite the belief that old world (or at least old Europe) and the new are profoundly different, there was another eerie echo in the stories about Rocco Buttiglione, Italy's nominee to be European commissioner of justice. Buttiglione is a sort of fundamentalist Catholic with an impressive record of abusive comments about homosexuals, women, and single mothers. The parliament decided they didn't want their own John Ashcroft in charge of justice and, in a poltically significant act, refused to confirm the Commission unless Buttiglione was dropped.

To bring this discussion back to the matter of our course, the parliament seems to be showing similar if surprising backbone in the matter of software patents. A decision is set for latter this month. The Council of Ministers favours patents, the parliament opposes--or at least wants restrictions on what can be patented. The European Information and Communication Technology Association (EICTA) is lobbying for the patents. The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII) (which clearly wanted an acronym to chime with the EFF, but couldn't bring itself to put the Barlow-esque frontier in its name), is fighting against it.

I say this by way of background for our class on Intellectual Property and Quality in a couple of weeks (which I hope can focus on the question of what part IP plays in suggesting quality, and not just IP in general). I'll post some notes here during the week about the reading.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Do Internet Users Filter for Point of View More than Other People?

Not according to this study from the Pew Internet and American Life project, which says that "Wired Americans hear more points of view about candidates and other key issues than other citizens. They are not using the internet to screen ideas with which they disagree." I was surprised, but then asked myself why I should have been.

Monday, October 25, 2004

education as bricolage

Given this week's concentration on education, I asked attendees of the conference I am currently attending (UIST) who have a computer science background the following question: "What are the one or two most important influences on your learning the theory and practice of programming?" By and large, respondents said that instructors, TAs, and books were the most influential influences on their learning theory (e.g., algorithms, data structures, etc.) and mostly example code (from the Internet and open-source software) and to a lesser extent peer groups and books were the most influential for practice (e.g., writing programs that compile and run). Intuitively, it seems that computer science more than other disciplines might be amenable to online education, and these results suggest that most programmers feel that they mostly taught themselves from miscellaneous sources with the help of a few mentors. This seems similar to the model proposed by Brown and Duguid in "The Social Life of Information." Are classes and peer groups relatively irrelevant for teaching computer science (Georgia Tech banned all group projects to promote better individual assessment not too long ago)? Do other domains fit this model?

give the newbies a break?

The review process for papers was an issue that came up in a town hall debate at the conference I am currently attending (User Interface Software and Technology [UIST]). In particular, this conference does not use a double blind process: reviewers have full knowledge of the authors of the papers they are reviewing. This is relatively unusual in the scientific community at large. One reason given for this approach is that it is easy to discern the authors of a paper from the work presented even if the paper is anonymized and so anonymization is an unecessary burden. But another reason some attendees gave is that when reviewing papers they used author information to access the quality of the work: if the authors were junior or were new to the field these attendees would cut the authors some slack. But if they were well known in the field, these attendees would hold the paper to a higher standard. This bias seems to go against the otherwise positivist approach the field takes. But is it indeed necessary to know the author of a scientific paper in order to judge its quality?

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Quality without substance? Digital documents

Recently in IS203, the issue of digital documents came up, and how the physical representation of a document adds to the information contained in the document as a whole. Nancy Van House referenced a story by Paul Duguid about how the smell of vinegar is used by historians to understand the spread of disease. Apparently the adage of "the medium is the message" holds even outside of pop culture.

Simultaneously, in IS202, a reading from "Women, Fire and Dangerous Things" started a discussion about how categorizations of objects based on experiential criteria seems to be more natural and pervasive, than categorizations based on abstract criteria. It reminded me of the experience of being in a library, surrounded by stacks of books. The physical substance of the books, was tied to my sense of the knowledge contained within. Large, heavy books with fine bindings seemed to have a sense of authority independent of their actual content.

If we accept that our culture is moving towards representing information and knowledge in a digital form where the physical form has little to no correlation to the content, and for information on the internet, there isn't really any physical form that is locally experienced - then what does this mean for our intuitions about the value and substance of knowledge and information?

Will the lack of physical substance for books/periodicals and other information sources lead to a change in our basic intuitions about knowledge and information? Or will there be some kind of compensation, where the "status" of some kinds of information/knowledge will be explicitly made clear via some physical proxy/storage? We talk about "quality" in very abstract terms in the class, but if many of our most basic notions are based on embodied experience, won't the notion of "quality" be in for a very radical change?

Monday, October 18, 2004

Those Frat Boys...

“However we may choose to draw the actual boundaries of the public sphere, it is clear that these themes readily intersect with important areas of the sociocultural domain. I am thinking here of those everyday values, norms, practices, and procedures that may promote or hinder democratic virtues (however understood), including forms of interaction among citizens.” (page 41) -Dahlgreen’s “The Public Sphere”

The context of my story is slightly different but it is too good not to share. When I was at Dartmouth, there was a huge scandal when an internally distributed fraternity newsletter was leaked out to the public. The content of the newsletter itself was the main issue at hand because it was making fun of girls and sexual escapades.
However, I am looking at it in a different light in context of this class. We have talked about print, authorship, and the notions of public and private. Usually something is printed in order to make it more public, but in this case, they definitely did not want it read by the public. The issue is that the newsletter was obtained by people scrounging through what would be viewed as a private space (the fraternity's dumpster). Did they have a right to do that?

Read below for more details if you’re interested. There was never a concern about the fact that someone went through the trash to find the newsletter. However, if someone went through the trash to find a credit card slip, that would be viewed very differently. I am almost inclined to say that the brothers should not have been judged for something that was found in their dumpster – shouldn’t there have been some sort of right to privacy?

"The Newsletters were not intended to be seen or read by individuals who were not members of Psi Epsilon of Zeta Psi. The Newsletters were not meant to be disclosed to members outside of Psi Epsilon of Zeta Psi. They contained private communications. One Newsletter became public after it was stolen from Zeta Psi premises, a second alleged Newsletter was made public when it was taken without permission from a member's room, and a third Newsletter was destroyed by Psi Epsilon of Zeta Psi and was only made public because a Dartmouth sorority woman, not formally affiliated with Psi Epsilon of Zeta Psi, although well known to its members, decided to comb through a dumpster to find it. "-- Zeta Psi Press Release

Also see Zeta Psi Shuttered for "Abusive" Newsletter

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Fact & Fiction in Encyclopedia Entries

I found the article by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang intriguing. I hadn't quite realized that the move from print to electronic encyclopedias change the relationship with section authors so dramatically. Now that encyclopedias are are updated much more frequently and with greater ease, sections need to be continuously revised and authors have much more work to do.

I then started thinking, is this a great thing or is this a bad thing? On one hand, the need for constantly updated articles regarding various topics may lead to further research and revelation regarding said topics. On the other hand, perhaps authors will start to include unproven or shaky scientific or historical information in their sections for the sake of publishing new information.

In this day and age, we are taught that newer is better, and (in my experience) we tend to give greater respect to those that incorporate new theories into old events. However, this isn't to say that these new theories are anything but theories.

For example, take the historical event of the assassination of Czar Nicholas II and his family. At face value, it is a well documented historical event with a well-known chronology. Not much more can be said about it. However, there is some small controversy regarding the supposed survival of his daughter Anastasia. Though her survival has never been proven, and in fact there much evidence that she was killed, will authors of articles regarding this historical event grasp onto this controversy as fresh material? Will the drive to "update" compromise the academic integrity of the section? This is just one example.

On the bright side, perhaps the drive for fresh material will lead authors to pursue further research regarding Anastasia and even solve its riddle once and for all. But in the mean time, could they resist it as a salacious tidbit to include in their updated histories?

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Library resources on quality of websites

In a reading group meeting today I mentioned that we had just finished doing case studies of how one judges information quality on the web, and was pointed to a Berkeley library resource on evaluating web pages. It describes many of the quality indicators that were mentioned in class two weeks ago: the form of the URL, background information, documentation, external links, and outside opinions on the site. I imagine that our prototypical Berkeley sophomore wouldn't access a page like this before starting their Google search, but it's something that some are trying to address.

Monday, October 11, 2004

It's nice to know it's all there...

Reading Pennenberg's piece in Wired News, I recalled some of the blogger reaction to a piece I wrote in the Times' Week in Review section a while ago on Google's strengths and weaknesses. Among other things, I pointed out that:

"When you search for a common item like "ford" or "baseball," the engines naturally give the highest rankings to major sites that are linked to by hundreds or thousands of other pages. But when searches are more specific � whether "second superpower" or "Sinatra arrangers" � the rankings will mirror the interests of the groups that aggregate around particular topics: the bloggers, experts, hobbyists and, often, the crackpots...

"From the standpoint of the search engines, however, this is all as it should be. The beauty of the Web, after all, is that it enables us to draw on the expertise of people who take a particular interest in a topic and are willing to take the trouble to set down what they think about it. In that sense, the Web is a tool that enables people who have a life to benefit from the efforts of those who don't."

This for some reason was taken as an attack on the blog world by a number of bloggers, who reacted indignantly, all the more because the Times itself didn't make its archives accessible to the spiders. See, for example, this. And that charge was taken other bloggers who read the description of the piece in that blog, but didn't actually look it up. In fact a writer in the Observer charged me with "fulminat[ing]...that whenever one does a Google search on any topical issue, the top page rankings often go to blogs rather than established media sources (such as the New York Times )." But he indicated that he hadn't actually gone to check the piece -- "Big Media sources increasingly are ... locked behind pay-for firewalls. (As with Nunberg's little rant, which I have just tried to re-read - and been invited to pay $2.95 for the privilege.)"

I'm used to being misread and misquoted -- that comes with the territory. But in this case, the fact that the Times kept its archives behind a firewall entailed that people couldn't or wouldn't check the original, so based their comments on someone else's description of what you said. (I post copies of these pieces to my own Web pages, but most people wouldn't think to look there.) Since then, though, the Times has made a back door to its archives accessible to bloggers -- not a moment too soon, if you ask me.

The Quality of Information of the Daily Show

Reading the Manoff and Schudson (pg. 14 of the PDF) piece, I ran across this passage:
Although the dateline is a formality today, references to place do still served to establish the authority of news reports. This is most common in television, where the reporter appears before a setting that shows he or she was "really there" - the anchor appears in Beirut or, more routinely, the Pentagon correspondent appears next to a briefing-room podium with an official seal.
What instantly came to mind is Comedy Central's Daily Show with John Stewart. On the Daily Show correspondents are routinely put in front of blue/green screens and "pretend" to be in the place they are reporting on. Often the crowd laughs at the beginning of these pieces as they, being in the studio, can see the reporter right in front of them standing in front of the screen.

This made me think of the quality of information in general on the Daily Show. It sure as hell is funny, but is it anything more than that? I think so; It has a way of presenting certain issues and highlighting the really ridiculous parts of news-related stories. It does, in the end, have an certain impact as evidenced by: guests like Bill Clinton and John Kerry; a couple emmy awards and; ridicule from popular conservative talk show host Bill O'Reilly who called the audience of the Daily show a bunch of "slacker stoners."

If you've never seen much of the Daily Show... check out Lisan Rein's archive.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Fourth Rate Estate

A review of Robert O. Paxton's Anatomy of Fascism in the TLS of September 10, 2004, ended with a gloomy assessment of modern democratic politics:

It might well be argued that fascist regimes are nowadays unnecessary, since the modern parliamentary system does much the same job itself. Perfectly normal governments now intervene throughout society, seeking Gleichschaltung and control of all social institutions and of the private sphere; they engage in constant short-term campaigns for populist goals; they recognize but ignore, indeed tacitly welcome, the democratic deficit; and they seek control of the media in the spirit of Goebbels and Minculpop. They even wage a series of wars against weak opponents, claiming of course to be bringing liberation. With "democratic" governments like these, who needs Fascism?

Though the media come in near the end of this account of the subversion of politics, it seems reasonable to argue that they belong at the beginning. Through the media politicians are able to penetrate society and the private sphere; with the media short-term campaigns arise as needed and drop from sight when they become inconvenient; and in the media intentionaly ineffective handwringing about "democratic deficits" has become a refined art for politicians who prefer the status quo in which most incumbents face no effective opposition to reelection.

Can the press still justify its claim to be the voice of the public sphere capable of challenging institutional politics and vested interests, or is it little better than, as one history called it, a "fourth-rate estate"? And if such capablilities cannot be found in the conventional "press", then where? Do the new media of blogs offer any hope, or spearheaded by reinvented conventional hacks like Andrew Sullivan, do they only offer old wine in new bottles, to quote John Perry Barlow?

kid-safe "gay" searches

I did a paper when I was a freshman in college to look at how "kid-safe" search engines (such as Yahooligans, AOL Kids Only, and Ask Jeeves for Kids) responded to the terms "homosexuality" or "gay." To my shock, the responses were terribly limited. For example, back then in AOL Kids Only, if you did a search by the term "homosexuality" only one result would be returned, and it was a biography of Alexander the Great. Similar results were yielded by the others. It was very dissapointing. If I was a 12 or 13 year old struggling with my sexuality and turning to a search engine that I had been taught to use as "safe," it would have done me no good.

Based on our discussions last week, I decided to go back and do similar searches. I can't seem to find AOL Kids Only anywhere, so maybe they took it down in the past few years, but Ask Jeeves for Kids and Yahooligans are still up. The search today yielded COMPLETELY different results. Typing the word "gay" in to yields a question set with very relevant questions such as "What should I do if I think I'm gay/lesbian?" and "How do I know if I am gay/lesbian/bisexual?" These questions link to reputable support sites such as PFLAG and the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. Typing "gay" into Yahooligans yields an entire category match which similar resources as Ask Jeeves for kids.

I'm pleasantly surprised. These resources were simply not indexed by "kid-safe" search engines six years ago.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Google Google Google

Apparently college sophomores aren't the only ones who use google for everything...

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Trusting Strangers

In the "real world," most of the sources we go to for products and information are known to us. They're either widely known institutions (e.g. NPR for news or Circuit City for TVs) or individuals with whom we have some relationship. However, in the online world, it would be very restrictive to only consider sources of either information or tangible goods that we already know. eBay, Craig's list, etc. often have products at much lower prices than even online retailers, and as our search assignment has demonstrated, in some cases very good information can be obtained from anonymous people on the web.

In our real-world interactions, we tend to use past performance to predict the future -- the so-called "shadow of history." If we've had a poor experience at a store or got bad advice from a friend, we'll be less likely to patronize that business or turn to that friend again. Online, however, we generally don't have any history with the people or sites with which we're interacting. So how do we go about deciding whom to trust in our interactions with online strangers?

Clearly, this problem is one of balancing risks and rewards. We could easily chose to limit our online shopping to and other brands we know, or ignore any information that doesn't come from major publisher. Doing so, we'd be secure in the knowledge that our online experience will be of at least a certain level of quality. But we'd miss the opportunities of getting better prices in peer-to-peer markets or of finding more current, thorough, or specific information from people not attached to large media company.

So how do we balance these risks and rewards? We all do it to some extent, often without thinking about it. Much of the information available to help make these decisions also come from strangers (e.g. retailer reviews like, eBay feedback, even Google PageRank uses the link structure of unknown websites to rate page quality). Are these sources sufficient indicators of quality? If so, how can we be sure that we can trust even them? What else indicates that an online entity is trustworthy? Or do we only superficially care and protect ourselves by limiting our exposure to risk? For example, I might be inclined to trust unknown websites' information when preparing a blog entry on baseball trivia, but less likely to do so in my thesis. If that's the case, how do we decide the threshold of acceptable risk?

I've been thinking about this topic a lot lately, both in conjunction with my research (quality filtering systems) and with the search assignment: I found a number of pages with thorough, well-researched information written by total strangers. Were I actually researching my search topic, I couldn't decide whether I would actually use the information or not. While all signs pointed to it being authentic, useful information, its lack of provenance was really setting off my paranoia about random information online.

The Context of Bathroom Stalls

I was thinking about Paul’s lecture on Wed, in which he summarized 3 different student views of racism/porn on the web.
1. it has always been around and always will be so the Internet in itself isn’t the greatest problem
2. kids think they’ll find authoritative view info (like writing a paper about Jews based on a certain site)
3. communities can more easily gather together

I’d like to add a fourth view to that, which counters the first point, in that one of the biggest problems with racism and porn on the web is that it takes it out of context, which makes it much harder for people to recognize or know how to process it properly.

My example is based on my upbringing in Southern California. My hometown, Santa Barbara, has a very large Mexican population, and my high school was about 40% Mexican students (and is now supposedly over 50%). Every single bathroom stall in the school had “white trash” and “brown trash” written all over it plus lots of other creative phrases. Since I was raised in Santa Barbara, I was accustomed to the racial tension in its various forms and thought little of the writings on the wall, aside from the fact that they made for great reading material when I went to the bathroom.
If a high school kid were to move from Kansas to Santa Barbara, he would be shocked at the racist writings on the bathroom wall. Through looking at his surroundings both in the high school and in the community, he would (probably) get quickly used to that just being how things were.
However, if a kid from Kansas went online to something like, he could more easily internalize what he was reading without having any context to put it in, and just assume that brown people are trash.
Furthermore, if he and his family have moved to Santa Barbara, he will likely go home after school and tell his parents about what he saw at school and they will (hopefully) explain what racial discrimination is.
If he sits on the computer in his bedroom in Kansas, he wouldn’t necessarily go ask his parents about the website he was surfing. They would want to know why he was surfing such a site and maybe threaten to monitor his surfing so he has little motivation to want to bring it up.

This subject of context touches on the “place” that Geoff described in his posting. He discussed the sacrosanctity of a place, which goes along with this notion of needing to understand the surroundings of a place to actually understand the place itself.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

You can't ever find a place that's nice and peaceful.

After our discussion of why it is that people find it so disturbing to see hate speech, pornography, and other forms of pollution on the Web, I happened to be talking to my daughter about The Catcher in the Rye, which she's reading for ninth-grade English. I recalled the famous passage where Holden sees an obscenity written on the wall of his little sister's school:
Somebody'd written "Fuck you" on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how Phoebe and the other little kids would see it, and how they'd wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them -- all cockeyed, naturally -- what it meant, and how they'd all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days. I kept wanting to kill whoever'd written it… I figured it was some perverty bum that'd sneaked into the school late at night to take a leak or something and then wrote it on the wall."

Shortly after, Holden goes into the Metropolitan Museum and wanders into the Egyptian tomb:
I was the only one left in the tomb then. I sort of liked it, in a way. It was so nice and peaceful. Then, all of a sudden, you'd never guess what I saw on the wall. Another "Fuck you."… That's the whole trouble. You can't ever find a place that's nice and peaceful. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you're not looking, somebody'll sneak up and write "Fuck you" right under your nose.

It struck me that the passage gets at the deepest reason why people are disturbed by seeing taboo references in public places -- it seems to violate the sacrosanctity of the place itself. In that sense, maybe Holden's explanation for why he's troubled by seeing the graffiti in Phoebe's school is a kind of rationalization after the fact : the shock on seeing the words precedes the reflections as to what his sister would make of them.

What I was trying to suggest in class is that the explanations of the dangers of online racism and porn may have the same character -- not that there aren't any genuine risks in having this stuff out there, but that the shock and indignation that people feel when they see these sites isn't motivated primarily, or at least immediately, by the concern that the accessibility of the sites will lead to an upsurge in racism or sex crimes. It's more like Holden's feeling that "You can't ever find a place that's nice and peaceful." I'm not sure if this is stretching things, but at any rate, it's that sense of discourse as a "place" that I want to pick up on Wednesday,