Archive for Technology

Ye Olde MOdulator-DEModulator Procured News-Paper

On the eve of the New York Times’ second attempt at establishing a paywall, Radley Balko points to a 1981 news report about using your home computer to read the newspaper. I love the fact that, in my lifetime, “Owns Home Computer” was text that one might put on a chyron.


What’s amazing though — acoustic coupler modem, ASCII-only display, and feathered haircuts aside — is that newspapers didn’t really know what they were doing in 1981, just as they don’t really seem to know what they’re doing now. Reports one editor, ”This is an experiment. We’re trying to figure out what it’s going to mean to us as editors and reporters, and what it means to the home user. And we’re not in it to make money, we’re probably not going to lose a lot but we’re not going to make much either.”

Spoiler alert: The clip closes with b-roll of a newspaper street vendor, concluding that he “isn’t worried about being out of a job.” But as the anchor reports, it cost $5 per hour to access the network (above marginal cost, by the way) and took 2 hours to download the paper; this means a price some fifty times higher than the dead-tree edition.

Why should one use Twitter?

This week marks Twitter’s 5th birthday, and Thursday, along with @adamthierer, I’m teaching a little introductory seminar at work on how to use the service. It’s a boon to anyone who’s job revolves around consuming and producing ideas and information, so it should be a no-brainer that most working in policy should be on it. But any time the subject comes up, skeptical rumblings resound.

Some of the folks we’ll be talking to are Twitter veterans and may be looking to share their own experience or pick up a pro tip, others are new to Twitter and have recently opened accounts, or don’t have accounts but are eager to learn. But then there are the folks, a bit older I have to say, who just aren’t interested.

Some are plain dismissive, in the “What do I care what someone had for breakfast” vein. Others seem overwhelmed and look at Twitter as one more damned thing they have to learn and manage. To them it’s a burden, not a benefit. Here’s a comment from an old post of Tyler’s on the same subject:

Personally, I dislike twitter because it becomes yet another thing that requires upkeep and saps attention from other projects.

There are only so many hours in the day, and I find social networks/e-mail/blackberries jarring and distracting. It outweighs any benefits I can imagine.

Looking back at what I first wrote about Twitter three years ago this month, I too was skeptical at first. Once I started using it, though, there was no looking back. It’s interesting that I wrote that I had “started to force myself to use Twitter to see if I can discover why people find it so compelling.” I guess only then did it seem obvious.

So how do one get skeptical folks to try it? Should one?

To the dismissive folks, I think the key is to explain that Twitter is a tool and it therefore can be used for good or ill. It can be used to only follow pop divas, or it can be used to follow the news, spread ideas, and have debates with other academics. I’m less sure what to say to the folks who answer, “Sure, but I already do that over email, research papers, op-eds, live debates, etc.” Simply answering that this is the new thing is not enough.

I think the immediacy of it is part of the answer, but that just further conjures up the image of another info-torrent one has to deal with. I think one way to answer is that just as Twitter has come on the stage as something new to deal with, mail, faxes, and even telephone calls have exited the stage. More importantly, though, is that Twitter is the kind of beast that doesn’t lend itself to an accurate personal cost-benefit analysis until one has used it. Its value is not easily understood from the outside.

So a little help, please. How do you take a 50-year-old who doesn’t use RSS feeds and get her to monitor a Twitter client? Is it even advisable?

Responding to Tim Lee on Reporting

At his blog, Tim Lee responds to my post from last week about the New York Times paywall, in Canada now and coming to the US next week. (How many things can you say that about?) I owe Tim an apology for not responding to his comments on my post, but I spent a large part of the weekend ensconced in my home office, attempting compliance with the federal tax code.

I’m not trying to blindly defend the existing model of journalism, or at least the model that has predominated for the previous decades. Like Tim, I’m excited to see new modes of journalism come up, and I agree with him that for much industry and niche reporting, the new model is extremely promising.

I’m just a bit more conservative than Tim about proclaiming that old media is dead and that the value provided by old-school journalists relative to bloggers and other new-media types (particularly amateurs) is negligible.

First, let me address the topic of shoe leather reporting. I don’t think of reporting on presidential press conferences as shoe leather reporting; that’s stenography. Tim’s right, very little original information is generated by the marginal reporter in the White House briefing room. But I don’t think that’s the right way to think about what quality reporting is.

What I mean by “shoe leather reporting” is, for instance, Dana Priest’s discovery of CIA black sites, or Sheri Fink’s incredible recreation of the struggle for survival in New Orleans hospitals during Hurricane Katrina. (Fink is a reporter with ProPublica, which Tim rightly cites as going good work. But this article wasn’t published on their web site; it was published in the New York Times, and for a reason.) For that matter, look at the incredible work done by the heroic reporters from the Times-Picayune in the days and weeks following Katrina; there were no bloggers or desk reporters with the capacity or capability to do the kind of quality reporting they did, day in and day out. I’d be happy to see a whole mess of either real journalists at streamlined operations or amateur reporters do this kind of work. But outside of niche publications, I don’t see it.

As an aside, I’m not sure that Tim’s point about sports reporting is exactly correct. The Internet doesn’t lower the costs of the Times reporting on Blue Jays games; ICTs generally do that, and we’ve had the basic tools of remote reporting in place for generations. I’m not sure why, if newspapers didn’t hire stringers to report on pro games in the 1950s and 1960s, the Internet makes that possible today. If the Times sent someone to Detroit in 1955 to report on a Dodgers-Tigers game, he would have phoned his story back into the Times newsroom. So would a stringer based in Detroit. So I think the case that the Internet has reduced the need for traveling reporters is a bit overstated.

Second, I think I’m not as willing as Tim to just write off an old business model simply because something that looks better comes along. Recall that people have been doing that with the legacy airlines for two decades, yet they still fly. The Times is still a valuable brand, and it may be that what it ends up doing in a decade is substantially different than what it does today or what it did ten years ago. I’m interested in observing the evolution of this business (think General Electric) and the news gathering industry. I hope the Times and others are challenged by the sources Tim names, because competition is good, not because I believe in a teleology of newspapers where their death is certain and it’s just a matter of time. The bigger question is whether the newspaper industry embraces modernity or acts completely idiotic like the recording industry. And I see the evidence as leaning towards the former.

Third, and finally, packaging and appearance and form still matter, and for this reason I’m not as willing as Tim to write off the value of non-reporters working for newspapers. Getting the Sunday Times on my Kindle for a buck reduces my search costs for news, and for me it’s worth that price. I’m also in love with the Economist’s iPhone app, which reads the whole magazine to me on the weekend while I’m jogging. Again, that’s worth the price of admission (about $2 per week). If someone else will provide me with a weekly roundup of news from around the world combined with tempered (if cheeky) analysis read in a lovely English accent at a lower price, then please let me know where I can find it.

I don’t think that Tim’s point any my point are mutually exclusive: Tim just has more faith than I do that the legacy news gatherers and sharers are relics of a bygone era and that suitable alternatives have already revealed themselves. Ultimately, it comes down to a question of taste for the consumers of news, and the more vibrant and varied a market we can have, the better we’ll all be.

There Is No Great Stagnation in Debating Stagnation

This morning I attended the debate between Rob Atkinson and Tyler Cowen on Cowen’s much-discussed ebook The Great Stagnation, hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

One of the topics discussed, though not at length, was gains in health care. The Cowenian take on this is that we’ve seen massive increased in health care spending over the previous decades with declining returns; this contrasts with huge gains in life expectancy and quality in the first three-quarters of the twentieth century. We have, as Cowen concisely puts it, picked the low-hanging fruit of medical innovation.

I was reminded of this excellent story from the Washington Post in 2009 on the cost of marginal heart attack interventions over several decades. Were it to run today, it might be linked to as “The Great Stagnation is Real, Cardiac Arrythmia Edition”:

Two decades ago, a famous clinical experiment showed that if a patient in the throes of a heart attack chewed and swallowed an aspirin tablet, the risk of dying fell from 13.2 percent to 10.2 percent.

If progress since then had come so cheap and easy — a 23 percent improvement for an investment of three cents — health care in the United States wouldn’t be in the state it is.

But that’s not how things happened.

Instead, the fight against heart disease has been slow and incremental. It’s also been extremely expensive and wildly successful.

In the 1960s, the chance of dying in the days immediately after a heart attack was 30 to 40 percent. In 1975, it was 27 percent. In 1984, it was 19 percent. In 1994, it was about 10 percent. Today, it’s about 6 percent.

Over the same period, the charges for treating a heart attack marched steadily upward, from about $5,700 in 1977 to $54,400 in 2007 (without adjusting for inflation).

The treatment of coronary heart disease — of which heart attack, or acute myocardial infarction, is the most significant component — this year will cost about $93 billion. It’s a huge contributor to the $2.3 trillion annual bill for medical care in the United States. Cardiovascular disease is responsible for 35 percent of deaths in America and has been the leading cause of death every year since 1900, except 1918, the year of the Spanish flu epidemic.

The evolution of heart attack treatment over the past three decades is a story of doing more things to more people at greater expense with better results. It is a portrait in miniature of medicine in the United States.

Although inappropriate care, high administrative costs, inflated prices and fraud all add to the country’s gigantic medical bill, the biggest driver of the upward curve of health spending has been the discovery of new and better things to do when someone gets sick.

“Money matters in health care as it does in few other industries,” wrote Harvard University health economist David Cutler in 2004. “Where we have spent a lot, we have received a lot in return.”

A great deal of the debate centered around measurement and teasing out the secular trends from statistical aberrations. (Starring in much of this were zero marginal productivity workers, who were not mentioned by name.) In the case of health care, this is really important, and Cowen points out that government and health care expenditures are wrapped into measured GDP at cost, which probably overstates their true effect on wealth creation. (And this goes to a larger point about the weakness of GDP measures in getting to underlying discussions of societal progress, for instance after natural disasters where wealth is destroyed making societies indisputably worse-off, but GDP can be up as a statistical artifact.)

Measurement is an important discussion, but it misses Cowen’s big, underlying points: no matter how measured, the rapid and life-altering innovations that occurred before 1973 simply haven’t been seen since. My grandfather went to medical school before penicillin had been discovered, when kids got polio and pertussis. My generation got smartphones. And to the extent we’re still seeing big, pathbreaking discoveries (which Atkinson argues) in information and communications technologies, the gains from these are not greatly affecting the median American household.

This is Congress without gridlock

The Senate yesterday passed a bill (previously passed by the House) that bans loud commercials on television. This has prompted some to ask whether Congress has nothing better to do with its time.

Is this all this Democrats-run senate can do? Turn down the volume when the country is in a recession and jobs are vanishing? Tsk, tsk-time to kick Harry Reid out of his seat!!!

That’s a reader comment on the story from USA Today. (I would point out to the commenter that it was a unanimous Senate that passed the bill.) There are many more like it. See these great comments at The Hill.

To me the real surprise would have been if the Senate hadn’t passed the bill this Congress.

From a Senator’s perspective, what’s not to love about this? The broadcasters pick up the tab for complying with the law, and the politicians get the credit. Credit for what? Doing exactly what their constituents want. The average American watches almost 5 hours of television a day, up 20 percent from 10 years ago. People who don’t write or comment on blogs likely think a ban is a great idea. I mean, loud commercials are pretty terrible after all.

Here’s what I’m trying to figure out, though. Consumers Union endorsed the bill and testified on its behalf, so they’re the Baptists in this story. Who are the bootleggers?

Can some dude without a PhD out teach MIT in math and engineering?

Technology can lower the barriers to entry for many industries. Writers without formal journalism training start blogs, break news, and attract readership that rivals major news organizations. Citizens without formal political training organize Tea Party rallies through the internet, run for office, and even beat establishment candidates in some cases, as election returns showed earlier this week.

But could some dude without a PhD teach college math and engineering? And history and biology? And beat MIT?

Well today, the Chronicle profiles Salman Khan, a 33 year-old former financial analyst, who has created 1,400 educational videos and posted them to YouTube, teaching math, engineering, history, biology, and other subjects that he finds interesting. His “Khan Academy” gets more views than MIT, famous for its early “open courseware” experiment, according to YouTube’s educational section. Iconoclast technology guru Jason Fried of 37signals has even invested in Khan Academy, arguing:

The next bubble to burst is higher education. It’s too expensive for people—there’s no reason why parents should have to save up a hundred grand to send their kids to college. I like that there are alternative ways of thinking about teaching.

Of course, breathless pronouncements about the power of technology have certainly been overstated before. And among businesses that are slow to change, certainly academia must rank among the slowest. But just how fast could academic entrepreneurs like Khan shake things up? I’d be eager to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Is the internet making us stupid?

Over at my humble podcast, I interview “Is Google Making Us Stupid” author Nick Carr about his new book, The Shallows, and what the internet is doing to our brains. Nothing good, he argues.

Carr’s publicist deserves a gold medal because the NYT today is running a series of articles on the “trend” that Americans are coming to the conclusion that gadgets and always-on connectivity is turning their brains to mush (one, two, and three). What’s more, on its Bits blog, the NYT is asking for volunteers to unplug from the internet and then report on their experience. And Carr had op-eds in the WSJ on Saturday and the WaPo yesterday.

So this is all to say, listen to my podcast. But also to ask, do you feel more distracted, unfocused and forgetful since the rise of the internet? For some of us “before the internet” is a meaningless distinction. Do you find it hard to concentrate on deep reading? Do you read as much as you used to?

Clay Shirky’s media diet longview

Clay Shirky describes his media diet to the Atlantic. The whole thing’s a good read (and at the end there are links to media habits of other interesting people), but here’s the part that caught my eye:

In general, there’s no real breaking news that matters to me. I don’t have any alerts or notifications on any piece of software I use. My phone is on silent ring, nothing alerts me when I get a Tweet and my e-mail doesn’t tell me when messages arrive.

I also don’t read any of the big tech aggregators. Knowing that, for instance, Google just bought Blogger, isn’t that useful for me to hear today rather than tomorrow.  Some of Michael Arrington’s stuff I think is an example of the worst kind of breaking news. The kind of Apple Insider stuff where they publish something every day to satisfy the news cycle. It’s gossip coverage like following movie stars and it distracts me from thinking longer form thoughts. …

For decades, I religiously read the op-ed pages of the New York Times but recently I’ve stopped because every op-ed is so closely tied to a newspeg that the thinking never gets very far from current events. So I’ve recently gotten away from the daily news cycle. I’ve got a weekly clock cycle and a monthly clock cycle. Time is a precious commodity. Increasingly, I’m trying to maximize it.

Several things strike me about this. First, I’m happy to find a kindred soul who doesn’t read news. People are surprised when I tell them that I don’t read newspapers and simply get my “news” from the ether. It’s a great way to make conversation: “So what happened with some baseball umpire yesterday?” Related to this is what I perceive as the increasing futility of the op-ed, or even blogging about current events, especially the latest policy turn in the tech or telecom sectors that I follow. It’s the same script, over and over, same arguments, slightly different sets of facts.

Finally, it seems like Shirky is accepting Nicholas Carr’s argument that the internet is distracting us and changing the way we think to the point where we can’t think deep thoughts any longer. At the same time, he’s offering a solution: turn it off. You don’t have to check it every five minutes. Unfortunately for most people, that’s easier said that done and requires lots of discipline. But, being aware of the issue is the first step toward addressing it.

FYI: Nick Carr will be the guest on my interview podcast on Monday and Clay Shirky will be the guest the following Monday (6/14). You can subscribe on iTunes.

Japan is building a moon base

Japan is building a moon base. Actually, it’s building robots that will build a moon base.

An ambitious $2.2 billion project in the works at JAXA, the Japanese space agency, plans to put humanoid robots on the moon by 2015, and now official backing from the Prime Minister’s office says the Japanese could have an unmanned lunar base up and running by 2020. Key to all of this, of course, is the robots themselves, and who better than the Japanese to dream up and realize the kind of intelligent, self-repairing, multitasking bots that will be needed to fulfill such a mission. As currently envisioned, the robots that will land on the lunar surface in 2015 will be 660-pound behemoths equipped with rolling tank-like treads, solar panels, seismographs, high-def cameras and a smattering of scientific instruments. They’ll also have human-like arms for collecting rock samples that will be returned to Earth via rocket. The robots will be controlled from Earth, but they’ll also be imbued with their own kind of machine intelligence, making decisions on their own and operating with a high degree of autonomy.

When the robots control the moon, what’s to keep them from weaponizing it and using it to destroy Earth?

What are you waiting for? Why haven’t you purchased robot insurance yet?

Ex-Hacker Adrian Lamo Institutionalized for Asperger’s

According to Wired’s Threat Level, noted hacker Adrian Lamo was institutionalized against his will for 9 days last month. He was released with a diagnosis of Aspberger’s. The whole article is an interesting read, but what fascinated me is how folks on the autism spectrum can go for so long without being diagnosed and how they’re surprised when they find out. From the article:

Also anecdotally, people with Asperger’s are frequently diagnosed in adulthood, even into their 50s, according to the U.S. Autism and Asperger’s Association. As in Lamo’s case, the diagnosis often follows a run-in with the police, says Dennis Debbaudt, an independent consultant who trains law enforcement agencies on interacting with people on the autistic spectrum.

Facebook’s autism

Until I read Tyler’s book, I never realized that autism had such a bad connotation associated with it, aside perhaps from it being considered a disability with which you wouldn’t want your child diagnosed. Now I see these views everywhere. Here are two from the last day, and interestingly they are both about Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

Jason Calacanis in his email newsletter:

Last year, when I realized that Zuckerberg was an amoral, Asperger’s-like entrepreneur, I told Zynga CEO Mark Pincus that Zuckerberg would try and slit his throat. 

Dan Lyons in his Newsweek column:

Based on Ben Mezrich’s 2009 book The Accidental Billionaires, it portrays Zuckerberg as a borderline autistic, entirely ruthless conniver. 

Perhaps there is a class of folks on the autism spectrum who use their ‘powers’ for evil, and this is where the prejudice originates? And perhaps Zuckerberg’s recent troubles, if he is autistic, stem from misreading Facebook’s users?

Who would you Twitter pwn?

If you have ever wanted Oprah Winfrey to follow you on Twitter, you might have been able to make that possible early Monday morning, when a software bug surfaced on Twitter’s Web site. … The bug was first revealed by a Turkish man who wanted to tell his friends on Twitter about a band,  “Accept,” that he enjoyed listening to. When the man typed “Accept pwns” into the update box on Twitter, he noticed that a user by the name of @pwns was now following him on the site.

That’s from an NYT post on the Twitter bug that allowed one to add themselves to anyone else’s following list. If you could make someone else follow you, who would it be?

Six degrees of Jesus

An intellectually stimulating iPhone and iPad game:

The basics idea behind Wiki Hunt is that you start on a Wikipedia article and try to make it to the target article in as few clicks as possible. You can play a completely random game where Wiki Hunt chooses your start page and your end page, a custom game where you pick the start and end, or my personal favorite: Six clicks to Jesus.

I wonder if something exists like this that automates Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon using the IMDB API. Read the whole article at Touch Arcade.

The best paragraph I’ve read today

On the front page of the New York Times today about

While Formspring is still under the radar of many parents and guidance counselors, over the last two months it has become an obsession for thousands of teenagers nationwide, a place to trade comments and questions like: Are you still friends with julia? Why wasn’t sam invited to lauren’s party? You’re not as hot as u think u are. Do you wear a d cup? You talk too much. You look stupid when you laugh.

Facebook, I can’t quit you?

I am this close to closing my Facebook account. They continue to make incomprehensible changes to their privacy policy and settings, so that it’s completely unclear to me which of my actions will be observable by whom.

A while back there was an app making the rounds that published to the world who visited your profile most frequently. I was identified as a frequent visitor of some friends profiles, and some people were revealed as frequent visitors to my profile. I’m not sure how they determined frequency, but it certainly shattered any conception of anonymous browsing I might have had.

Yesterday I logged in after not having done so in quite a while and was soon presented with a screen that asked me to link my profile with “pages” related to things I had listed in my profile (e.g. my high school’s page, band pages, TV show pages, etc.). There were only two choices given to me: accept “linking” my profile to the dozens of pages Facebook had chosen for me, or choose which pages I wanted to link individually. Not wanting to link to any damn thing, I chose the latter option. I was taken to a screen where all the pages were listed with a pre-checked box next to each one. In order to link to none I would have had to painstakingly uncheck all those boxes. Defaults matter and this was incredibly presumptuous. I closed the window without doing anything and I have no idea if I’m linked to any pages or not.

Now comes word from TechCrunch that a security flaw in Facebook allows anyone to see any of their friend’s live chats as they happen. Unbelievable.

Government regulation is not needed to discipline Facebook. Consumers will grow tired of being jerked around by such an insensitive and juvenile company and will find better service elsewhere. Twitter, for example, has incredibly simple and respectful privacy options.

So what’s keeping me from quitting? I don’t know really. A sneaking suspicion that I’ll miss out on something if I do. An invitation or the ability to easily look up an acquaintance’s email address. But I think I might just be exaggerating. Perhaps like James Sturn has done with the whole Internet, I should quit Facebook for at least a while and report back the consequences. Is there anything valuable I’d be giving up?

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