Tuesday, November 30, 2004

'Blog' at top of Merriam-Webster's top ten list

'Blog' Tops Dictionary's Words of the Year

Tue Nov 30, 2:11 PM ET
By Greg Frost

BOSTON (Reuters) - A four-letter term that came to symbolize the difference between old and new media during this year's presidential campaign tops U.S. dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster's list of the 10 words of the year.

'Transitional Fair Use'

First (in the style of Paul), apologies for being an absent blogger. My nearly brand new Thinkpad died a sudden (but painless) death 10 days ago, and I've been hobbled ever since.


I thought this article was interesting: 'Is Transitional Fair Use' the Wave of the Future?'

The subject of IP is a few weeks old now, but I think fair use is the most interesting aspect of it. The article lays out a scheme that HBO is planning by which someone would be able to record a show on their DVR, but only keep it for a limited amount of time. None of this watching an episode several weeks later.

Is this the beginning of the end for fair use? Or was fair use already dead?

Monday, November 29, 2004

Information Literacy

Nancy posted this a few days ago... relates to last week's discussion of information literacy.

"Oregon now requires builders of affordable housing to install DSL, cable broadband or wireless access if they get federal dollars administered by the state. Last week, developers of 18 affordable-housing projects were awarded federal grants and will install high-speed Internet connections in more than 450 apartments. Many are offering tenants free or subsidized monthly Internet service.
"The access requirement pushes Oregon to the front of a national movement to bridge what's become known as the digital divide. The advocates think high-speed Internet access will make low-income youths better students and help their parents work through problems that put the family in poverty. "
Of course, this is not a panacea, but at least it's an effort in the right direction.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

What happened to the University?

During last week's eBay speaker, I surfed eBay's help pages to come across the eBay University which is linked through their help page. It offers courses on how to use eBay. I would have described such a class as a "workshop" or "seminar."

We've gone from The University of Phoenix Online to Kaplan University to Barnes and Noble University to eBay University. It's only a matter of time until we get Martha Stewart University and University of McDonald's and who knows what else.

My thoughts are that the popularity of online universities has led to anyone and everyone claiming what they want as a university. Without a regulatory structure, the web allows for what are traditionally respected institutions to become valueless.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Another Small Step for Open Source

Though I'm not sure whether this was what Linus had in mind.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Sharpen your aphorisms

The reporter that I mentioned in an earlier post is eager to go beyond what teachers say about their students to know what students have to say for themselves. He sent me the following request (from which, for the moment, I have removed the identifiers) which I now pass on to you. If anyone would be willing to talk to him, let me know and I'll make the connection.

I write about Internet topics. I'm currently working on a story about today's youths, their notion of truth and credibility and their approach to information, including resources online.

Would you be willing to speak about about your experiences, including whether your skills and techniques have changed over time. I'd be interested in a sense of what you've picked up in grade school, high school and college in terms of finding and evaluating information.

Anyhow, please let me know about your willingness and availability. Ideally, I'd like to talk to people today or tomorrow (Thursday the 18th or Friday the 19th), though there may be some flexibility to do interviews through early next week depending on when my editors wind up slotting the stories. We do not know for sure yet.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Racism, Wikipedia, and Vampire Watermelons

Our discussion today about open source reminded me of an internet legend concerning the Wikipedia I recently came across. Inaccuracies and deliberate misinformation in the Wikipedia aren't limited to obviously contentious topics like George Bush and John Kerry. Consider the strange case of the Vampire Watermelon.

Apparently, the Vampire Watermelon is the creation of British comedic fantasy writer Terry Pratchett, but some of his fans thought it would be funny to add a Wikipedia article describing Vampire Watermelons as an actual legend of the Roma culture in the Balkans. A small but doggedly persistent group continually re-edits the entry to ensure that its true nature as a spoof is not revealed.

You can watch the back and forth on the history and talk pages for the entry. In particular, look at the edits by Heenan73 and Wetman, and notice how quickly the edits were discarded. Heenan73 has also set up a separate site discussing this issue.

I could see someone writing a spoof like this to demonstrate their perception of Wikipedia's lack of authority, but this group's goals don't seem quite so highminded. I also have difficulty believing it's some organized slur against the Roma.

Most likely it's just a juvenile prank, but it does bring up some questions about the authoritativeness of "open source" reference material. At least with computer software, there is an obvious measure of quality: Linux/Apache/etc. either works for your application or it doesn't. But phenomena like the Vampire Watermelon really make me question whether the open source model can be effective replacement for expert editors.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Open-source religion (and further digression)

I thought that Steven Weber's use of religion as an instance of the struggle between open-source and classical ideas of property were pretty fascinating, particularly as it pertains to my own experience. I have a friend who's an ordained rabbi and a student at the Graduate Theological Union up the street from campus, and she was remarking to me about some similar issues. Her planned thesis topic is on worship practices of American Jews, and how some of them turn to practices like Buddhism, because they weren't satisfied with what Judaism alone was giving them. So I guess that means someone who does that is effectively a hacker, forking off their own branch of religious code. But how far does the analogy go? For instance, how about network effects and Metcalfe's Law? The Windows/Linux argument is filled with points about switching costs and the price of using something out of the mainstream. Are there any benefits to practicing a religion that many other people practice, as opposed to breaking off on your own? It doesn't really seem like it... on the other hand, maybe that's because the religious practitioner is both hacker and user, whereas the the CIO making the decision on his or her company's computing platform is just the user.

So maybe that has relevance for open-source in general. Hackers (who, I'd imagine, are nearly all users of what they hack) are much more invested in what they do than mere users. Perhaps that's an obvious observation, that you care more about something if you work on building it as opposed to just using it. But maybe open-source initiatives that make more of an effort to broaden their contributor base are more successful -- that would be interesting to discover.

In general, Weber seems to blur the conceptual line between open-source issues and copyright/ownership issues in ways that hadn't occurred to me before. As I was reading his descriptions of ownership as "excluding rights from others" as opposed to granting rights, what came to mind was Creative Commons licensing. I assume that open-source software developers don't really think about copyrights of code that they write and contribute to projects, but particularly if you apply the concepts to non-code realms, would copyright (either classic or new ideas like CC) interfere? What if you had something like an open-source book? Or, say, wikipedia -- how does ownership work? (Does anyone know the legal status of wikipedia articles?)

Monday, November 15, 2004


A reporter sent me this message this morning.

Hello Paul. I'm a reporter putting together a story on the implications
of technology on today's youths, specifically how has technology
affected their perception of truth, how they find information, how they
evaluate it, trust it, does access necessarily make you better informed,
etc. Is this an area you might have some insights in?

If these are specific questions, I'm lucky I wasn't sent the general ones. Nevertheless, in the spirit of open source, I'd like to draw on the distributed wisdom of the quality blog for help in answering. Even if you don't necessarily consider yourselves "youths", any insights you might offer will be gratefully received --and, if used, attributed.

Not Your Father's Oldsmobile

The topic of branding automobiles came up last week, and it brought to mind a commentary I did on "Fresh Air" a couple of years ago on GM's desperate efforts to redeem the failing Oldsmobile line in the 1990's. It also reminded me of a piece that James Surowiecki wrote in Wired recently about the paradoxical decline of brand loyalty; as he puts it: "Even as companies have spent enormous amounts of time and energy introducing new brands and defending established ones, Americans have become less loyal."

As it happens, I dug both of these out the other day in connection with a chapter I'm writing about the Democrats' efforts to rebrand themselves as a party of "values" (read, "traditional family values") in the face of the Republicans' near-ownership of the word. Is there any connection here? Can brands really float as free signifiers, even if they don't evoke a compelling and plausible narrative about the product they're attached to?

Saturday, November 13, 2004

'Blinded by Science'

Though it's a bit off topic for this coming week's discussion, I thought I'd share this recent article from the Columbia Journalism Review, called Blinded by Science.

It makes the argument that mainstream coverage of science has created a forum for lower-quality science because 'fringe' science makes better (i.e. more controversial) reading. Simply invoking the name of science seems to create enough readership and interest to support even the most outrageous claims based on the most scant evidence.

This was brought home to me recently when an appaled friend e-mailed me with a link to a website that claimed that recent Bush appontees to the EPA were planning on testing potentially toxic chemicals on disadvantaged children. The website, run by an organization called Organic Consumers, runs with the title 'EPA Will Use Poor Kids as Guinea Pigs.'

Not taking the site on faith, I dug up the EPA document which, not surprisingly, includes nothing remotely close to 'poor families having their children exposed to toxic pesticides,' as the Organic Consumers site claimed.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Academic plagiarism (a survey)

As was recommended in this week's lecture, I thought I'd send out a link to a survey on plagiarism that I've put together. The survey's audience is faculty members who may or may not have found instances of plagiarism in assignments handed in by their students. Any thoughts or feedback that anyone has on the survey would be more than welcome! (If you take the survey, please identify yourself as an InfoQual student somewhere in the "background" section, so I don't mix you in with faculty responses.)



Wednesday, November 10, 2004

How long can social responsibility stay in style?

If so many brands today fancy that they are promoting lifestyles, not products, then they must have a sense of what lifestyles people will find appealing. One especially appealing tactic seems to be targeting “Bobo” values, defined in David Brooks’ highly amusing “Bobos in Paradise.” He sketches a picture of a new kind of person, the Bobo – a term coined to invoke a sense of the contradictions between Bohemian and Bourgeois values. If memory serves, bobo archetypes are baby-boomers who are coming to terms with their anti-materialist, anti-establishment past by seeking out products that will enable them to spend their money without feeling bad about having supported the establishment and spent money on “mere” things. This will involve buying things that don’t look expensive (like driftwood desks), or that display a worldliness (old, rickety yet expensive tables made “in the traditional way” in Indonesia), or that suggest a familiarity with high art (like the clothing under the label, “Wearable Art”), to give a few examples.

(As an aside, there was one memorable incident at a friend’s house, where I’d been invited to dinner and was blithely describing Brooks’ thesis, pointing out how these Bobos will spend a fortune on a dining room table that looks like a worthless piece of driftwood, only to look down at the table and discover that it was, in fact, an elaborately constructed piece of alleged driftwood).

The Economist article suggests that social responsibility, another concept Bobos like to have associated with them, is the “next big thing” when it comes to brands. Do you agree that this is a growing trend for brands and that it will last, or that it will be supplanted soon by other sets of values? How long can social responsibility stay in style and what do you think has the potential to replace it, especially for your generation and the values you see emerging or shifting in younger people?

Micropayments and the Economics of IP on the web

The two articles below are both interesting discussions of the ways in which Internet micropayments may change the role of Intellectual Property and content provided on the web.

Briefly, micropayments allow users to make tiny payments with a mouse click to access small pieces of content e.g. a newspaper article, white paper, a film or a tip for a blog post. Being able to easily make small payments, at a small cost for an individual user and an individual piece of content, is important in the hope that for a provider of a piece of content these small payments eventually add up to something significant. This mechanism may provide an incentive for people to post their thoughts and content online.

The first article, by Clay Shirky, makes a convincing argument for why micropayments are doomed to failure and that the web is destined to be free.

The second is an equally convincing rebuttal to Shirky's article, by Scott McCloud, that had me warming to the idea that micropayments really have big potential to change the way people provide content on the web and the business models, or absence of, that go with it.



I've been greatly interested recently in their potential for micro-tipping - providing an after the fact mini-tip for something you enjoyed reading. Any others have any thoughts or experience with micropayments?

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Reading ahead

The class on education revealed the lock which tradition can put on change. Those old institutions--Berkeley, Stanford, MIT-- and their brands raise huge barriers to entry and force new entrants to conform to "quality" standards set by the old. Unsurprisingly, in the world of information provision as in the world of politics, incumbents have a significant advantage, particularly if they can force competitors to talk on their terms.

I hope the class on IP can continue the discussion. The institutions of IP, as we tried to show in looking at print and copyright, are very old. (Universities were, inevitably, among the very early and very powerful holders of copy). And as with universities, old institutions of IP are imposing themselves on the new forms in unexpected and often retrogressive ways. I'm assuming that you all know a good deal about IP and its problematic relation to new forms of communication. The purpose of the class is to use what you know, what we are reading, and the topic of the class to understand the relationship between IP and notions of information quality.

The reading for this week (November 10):

Carla Hesse's paper was part of a symposium orchestrated by Daedalus that included James Boyle, whose work we looked at earlier, and Richard Posner, of whom a little more below. Hesse gives a good overview of the "long durée of intellectual property, indicating critical moments in the development of IP and showing the accumulated baggage that it has carried from print culture into the digital world. Like many others who look at the evolution of IP, Hesse suggests that IP is fundamentally incoherent and increasingly unbalanced.

Posner's article represents the viewpoint of the "law & economics" school. It assumes that the creation of efficient markets will solve all problems--and that efficient markets can, ultimately, be created with the help of IP. So in contrast to Hesse account of incoherence, it suggests an underlying coherence.

Neither Hesse nor Posner addresses very directly the question of quality, and both (Hesse implicitly and Posner directly) set aside the role of trademarks. I hope we can address the relation between these two. Consequently, I've included the opening chapter of Naomi Klein's anti-branding manifesto No Logo and The Economist's highly predictable response that brands play a useful role in signalling quality and in allowing consumers to exert pressure and impose standards on producers.

The reading for the following week ,(November 17):

Steve Weber will be with us for the first couple of hours to discuss his book The Success of Open Source. Again, I'm assuming that most of you are familiar with the details of Open Source software. I'd like to push beyond the confines of software to discuss the notion of extending Open Source to other domains and the challenge of quality assurance in so doing. Benkler's essay (the other paper in the reading) and Weber's conclusion both look at this idea. My article "PG tips", in the optional reading, uses Project Gutenberg to consider why quality may be problematic for some of these other "Open Source" projects. O'Mahony & Ferraro note the formal structures emerging around this apparently "self-organizing" system, while the two remaining pieces, "Wiki Wars" and "Who Knows" discuss Wikipedia, the first looking at the problems of quality surrounding the entries for the presedential candidates, and the second at the move towards a more formal institutional structure for Wikipedia.

BBC News blogging

You may remember I mentioned when we were talking about the press and blogging that the BBC had their own bloggers whom they also publish on their website and encourage comments from the public.

Follow BBC blogging on the road to check out how it makes for a different kind of news story.

Somehow it being blogging seems to licence the writer to use a friendlier, more personal, style of writing. It also encourages discussion and you'll see pretty soon plenty of comments at the bottom. I wonder whether this really counts as a blog anymore now that it appears directly off the main BBC news website?
It's also an interesting alternative angle on the election results with particular reference to the Guardian's seemingly counter-productive effort to sway Ohio voters.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Rotten information

Here in Denmark I am surrounded by enthusiasts for Actor Network Theory. They like to assert in one form or another that the social sciences create the world they purport to investigate. The idea is neither original nor necessarily insightful, but it seems most plausible now as opinion polls, which have a problematic relation to the process that they claim merely to observe, reach a crescendo on the day before the election.

Some 30 countries, including many here in Europe, still ban polls around election time. Several such bans have been overturned by courts (in the US, India, Philippines, among others, such bans have either been seen as an abridgement of free speech) or simply circumvented by the net. In France, for example, where there is a 7-day ban, the newspaper Liberation posted their poll results on the web site of a sister publication in Switzerland. Nevertheless, restrictions remain in the vain hope that, if information might be rotten or at least problematic, it is either wise or feasible to try to ban it. Italy has a 28-day ban and Luxumburg 30 days. The numbers seem particularly arbitrary. Britain has--it would, wouldn't it?--a generally observed gentleman's agreement among the press not to publish polls on election eve and day. British press would regard the actions of Liberation as particularly gallic and ungentlemanly--though I doubt such moral superiority would hold were they expected to hold the gentleman's agreement for more than a day or two.

WAPOR, the World Association for Public Opinion, in The Freedom to Publish Opinion Polls, a survey about surveys (another case of it would, wouldn't it), found out that 24% of its respondents were worried about "unprofessional" political polls around election time (presumably the cads doing those are not WAPOR members), while almost the same portion (23%) were worried about not so much the quality of the information, as the quality of the journalists reporting it. In the current election, this lethal combination has been nowhere more evident than in the case of Gallup's polls, which repeatedly gave the Republicans significant leads, before conforming to the norm just in time for the election. As The Leftcoaster, in another case to emphasize the value of the blogshpere, discovered, Gallup repeatedly oversampled to favour Republicans--something the rest of the press managed to overlook. Even without "push polling", it seems, statistical rottenness is something the press has trouble dealing with.

As the polls point to a statistical "dead heat" at the end of the political "marathon", to borrow the sporting cliches most commonly used, I am reminded that I was in Europe just after the last election. A Portuguese newspaper, commenting on the stand-off in Florida, noted that the trouble with Americans was they didn't play football (ie, soccer). Consequently, the article explained, they don't understand the value of a good tie. James Baker in particular didn't seem to care how long extra time dragged on. What he did care about was that he was the last man standing. I take this to be a consequence of the remarkable spoils system in American politics. With so much at stake, so much patronage to dole out, and only two parties, sharing is inconceivable. I asked a Danish politician recently how many government-appointed positions changed hands when a government fell. She said about 17. In England, the new prime minister moves into Downing Street the day after results are announced. Even were the winner to take "all" here, there simply isn't all that much to take.