Monthly Archives: March 2009

It was so nice to have a break…

I recently Twittered that I thought spam levels were going up again (I correlated that with moving to the States in January) and, well, I was right about the increase but wrong about the reason: Spammer are rebuilding their infrastructure (NYT).  Here we go again. I do agree with the Gmail assessments in the comments – very few spam messages in my gmail account, and as far as I know, no false positives.

Time to look at filtering through Gmail, especially since more and more ISPs block outgoing SMPT packets (i.e., port 25) which forces me to use Gmail anyway.

Imagine a world where we wouldn’t need locks and passwords…talk about something that would reduce global warming…

Wikipedia as a city

Good article comparing Wikipedia’s development and life as that of a city by Noam Cohen, drawing on Lewis Mumford’s description of how a city comes to be:

Since their creation, cities have had to be accepting of strangers — no judgments — and residents learn to be subtly accommodating, outward looking.

Mumford elaborates: “Even before the city is a place of fixed residence, it begins as a meeting place to which people periodically return: the magnet comes before the container, and this ability to attract nonresidents to it for intercourse and spiritual stimulus no less than trade remains one of the essential criteria of the city, a witness to its essential dynamism, as opposed to the more fixed and indrawn form of the village, hostile to the outsider.”

The marvel of Wikipedia — and cities — is that all the intercourse and spiritual stimulus don’t make living there impossible. Rather, they are exactly what makes living there possible.


It is this sidewalk-like transparency and collective responsibility that makes Wikipedia as accurate as it is. The greater the foot traffic, the safer the neighborhood. Thus, oddly enough, the more popular, even controversial, an article is, the more likely it is to be accurate and free of vandalism. It is the obscure articles — the dead-end streets and industrial districts, if you will — where more mayhem can be committed. It takes longer for errors or even malice to be noticed and rooted out. (Fewer readers will be exposed to those errors, too.)

Like the modern megalopolis, Wikipedia has decentralized growth. Wikipedia adds articles the way Beijing adds neighborhoods — whenever the mood strikes. It is open to all: the sixth-grader typing in material from her homework assignment, the graduate student with a limited grasp of English. No judgments, no entry pass.

That simple and that beautiful…

Good survey of web business models

image Box UK, has a very complete survey of web business models. My concept of business models (though for information content and services, not just services) on the web was four: Free, ad-supported, subscription or some form of micropayment (Skype, I would say, is the largest user of this concept, though they pull it off a regularly replenished account).

This site expands that classification a bit, including things like taking payemnt for physical products and letting the service follow the product (which more and more electronics manufacturers do). What strikes me is that there really is nothing new here – all the business models have been around since time immemorial, something the media industries of the world should take note of.

The answer for more and more of the granulated information providers of the world lies in moving either towards the user (becoming, essentially, an integrated part of the user’s information need, such as Bloglines) or to step further from the individual information consumer, becoming a source of content for others to fight over. Paying a license, of course.

Anyway, a good list, and a good survey. Check it out.

(Via Chris Anderson of Wired.)

Shirky on newspapers

Clay Shirky, the foremost essayist on the Internet and its boisterous intrusion into everything, has done it again: Written an essay on something already thoroughly discussed with a new and fresh perspective. This time, it is on the demise of newspapers – the short message is that this is a revolution, and saving newspapers just isn’t going to happen, because this is, well, a revolution:

[..]I remember Thompson [in 1993] saying something to the effect of “When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem.” I think about that conversation a lot these days.


Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception. In ordinary times, people who do no more than describe the world around them are seen as pragmatists, while those who imagine fabulous alternative futures are viewed as radicals. The last couple of decades haven’t been ordinary, however. Inside the papers, the pragmatists were the ones simply looking out the window and noticing that the real world was increasingly resembling the unthinkable scenario. These people were treated as if they were barking mad. Meanwhile the people spinning visions of popular walled gardens and enthusiastic micropayment adoption, visions unsupported by reality, were regarded not as charlatans but saviors.


That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

That simple. He draws the line back to the Gutenberg printing press and the enormous transition that caused – much more chaotic that you would think with 500 year hindsight.

Highly recommended. And another piece of reading for my suffering students….

In defense of serious journalism

James Warren delivers the best defense for traditional newspapers I have yet to read, in The Atlantic. Interestingly, he singles out The Economist as one of the outlets that have done well in the face of the online onslaught. In Norway, the same thing has happened – the few papers that see increasing circulation are the quality niche papers, such as Morgenbladet and the extremely left wing Klassekampen, both of them niche publications that to some extent have shed their political affiliation and instead opened for quality journalism with opinions attached.

I feel encouraged that this is the way forward. Why waste paper on anything that isn’t high quality?

Update March 16: Linked from the same page: The potential disaster for investigative journalism, another good article, by James Warren. Methinks we need to look into funding of investigative journalism outside the subsidy model. Funny, I remember giving a talk about the decoupling of ads and content to Dagbladet, a Norwegian newspaper that is now in dire straits, in August 2000, and by then this wasn’t even news…

Real tale from a real assembly line

Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line by Ben Hamper

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Ben Hamper worked on the production line of the General Motors bus and truck plant in Flint, Michigan from 1977 to 1988, and wrote about the experience in this book. It is a rambling and often funny account of mind-numbingly dull work, schemes employed by the workers to make it less dull, and the equally inane managerial schemes to, well, manage. Witness Howie Makem, the "Quality Cat" mascot, an actor in a cat costume showing up at various intervals to get the workers to produce higher-quality vehicles.

The books should be required reading for business school students (and is in some courses) showing the sometimes vast difference between the managerial and worker view of the world. Hamper ridicules the ways of top management, while at the same time showing how, with relatively little effort (such as, when the factory in-house magazine reports that a country music singer was going to buy one of their cars, Hamper wants to know which car it would be and realizing that that was the first time he ever heard anything about who the customer was). In the end, the dull and hard work: Hamper develops anxiety attacks and eventually drops out from the assembly line. You kind of suspect it is from under-use of his brain – he likens it to forever dropping out of high school, staying in suspended animation in a never-ending adolescence, seeking relief in alcohol and mindless games.

Highly recommended because it offers a different view of things, sorely needed as something of a counterweight to all the starry-eyed management books out there. And it leaves you wondering, as Hamper does: If not the assembly line, what else can a middle-aged autoworker with no marketable skills do? Hamper can write and do auto shows. Most of his colleagues, you suspect, cannot. Given the current state of General Motors (at present, bankruptcy seems inevitable within a year) this is a question of more than fleeting interest for a sizeable portion of the US workforce.

View all my reviews.

Stewart, Cramer and ducking humiliation all the way to the bank

Like many others, I have been enjoying Jon Stewart’s skewering of Jim Cramer, CNBC’s money madman. But the New York Times has an interesting perspective interesting perspective on this: The media attention may be to Cramer’s advantage (as opposed to what happened to Crossfire when Jon Stewart appeared and exposed them for what they were.

Nevertheless, it must have been uncomfortable being up there, and deservedly so. But I do prefer this one:

The perils of openness

Mary Beard has a really interesting perspective on the consequences of openness: Transparency is the new opacity. In the absence of confidential channels (which, given today’s storage and search capabilities, you have no guarantee will remain confidential) very little actual information gets transmitted in student appraisals.

And the only difference between job appraisals and student appraisals, I assume, lies in vocabulary. As a technologist, I could envision all kinds of technical fixes to this, assuming that those in charge of the specifications acknowledge that they are necessary: Fields for comments hidden from the subject, fields that terminate after a certain time after reading, filters to search engines that handle confidentiality – including the fact that there is a confidential comment in the first place (which turns out to be surprisingly hard to do.)

But the more natural fix is the quick conversation in the pub, the hallway, or on the private cell phone – impervious to search, storage and documentation – where the real information can be exchanged. The electronic equivalent? Encrypted Twitter, perhaps, if such a thing exists.

What we need is online coffee shops, offering the same discreet, transient and history-less marketplace for information. Now I spend time on the phone with my colleagues for that, but that doesn’t work well across time zones. So – what would it look like and how to build it?

PS: Come to think of it, Skype is encrypted, at least the phone calls.

Wolfram is at it again

Stephen Wolfram’s next project, the Wolfram|Alpha search "engine" (or, rather, answer to everything that is computable) is due out in May visit it here.) To me it seems like a combination of Google, CYC and, perhaps, Mathematica. It certainly is interesting and should do much for factual search, not to mention conversational interfaces to search. Nova Spivack thinks it is as important as Google. Doug Lenat (in the comment field to Spivack’s blog post) says

[…] it’s not AI, and not aiming to be, so it shouldn’t be measured by contrasting it with HAL or Cyc but with Google or Yahoo. At its heart is a formal Mathematica representation. Its inference engine is basically a large number of individually hand-engineered scripts for tapping into data which he and his team have spent the last several years gathering and "curating". For example, he has assembled tables of historical financial information about countries’ GDP’s and about companies’ stock prices. In a small number of cases, he also connects via API to third party information, but mostly for realtime data such as a current stock price or current temperature. Rather than connecting to and relying on the current or future Semantic Web, Alpha computes its answers primarily from his own curated data to the extent possible; he sees Alpha as the home for almost all the information it needs, and will use to answer users’ queries.

Another way of seeing it might be as the latest shot at providing answers by processing rather than storage – which fits nicely with Wolfram’s idea of computational equivalence – that the universe can be described by a simple set of rules, which as far as I understand it means that all complexity is only apparent, not real, and only so because we have not yet understood the underlying algorithms.

I just can’t wait to try it out – and to see what the impact will be on more storage-intensive search engines and their use.

Update March 12: This is garnering some serious attention for a service that isn’t even in beta yet…

The view from the fringes

Them: Adventures with Extremists Them: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson

My review

Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Alternately deeply disturbing and howlingly funny about the paranoid of the world – and the exclusive but increasingly out-of-touch elite meeting fora that feed the fringes.

I keep shaking my head when someone can get time on national television (in any country) claming that the world’s leaders meet in secret places to plot wars and elections – and that most of them really are giant lizards inhabiting human bodies…

View all my reviews.

Introducing Lord Peter Wimsey

Whose Body? (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries) Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
I actually read this on the web since it is in the public domain (due to someone forgetting to renew the copyright) and I have bought a small netbook computer which works quite well for reading.

Dorothy Sayers had a fascinating career: She was one of the first women to get a degree from Oxford, started working as a copy writer for an ad agency to make some money, and wrote detective novels to indulge in a bit of escapism and become financially independent. She created Lord Peter Wimsey, a seemingly scatterbrained but, of course, whip smart nobleman complete with WWI shell shock, monocle, a loyal butler named Bunter and, eventually, a girl friend named Harriet Vane who bears quite some resemblance to Sayers herself.

The funny thing is that Sayers wrote a number of religious and philosophical tracts as well as a translation of Dante’s Divinia Commedia, but she is remembered for her detective novels, which, I should say, are remarkably modern and witty for something written in 1926. (In some circles, her essay The lost tools of learning has great currency.)

"Whose body?" concerns a naked body found in a bathtub, resembling a mysteriously disappeared financier. After few twists and turns, it is pretty easy to understand who the villain is, but how Lord Peter Wimsey gets there is less easy to figure out. Sayers strictly follows the classic rules of detection – always leave all clues visible to the reader, then surprise them – and does so here as well. It is not her best work – that would be Murder must advertise or The nine taylors (the latter rather complicated, but interesting) or perhaps Five red herrings. But it is available in the public domain, gives a great introduction to the unbeatable Lord Peter Wimsey, and is not the worst way to spend an hour or two before going to bed.

View all my reviews.

Stimulus Bill Restricts Hiring of Internationals

This is going to help the US economy?

Under a recently passed amendment to the federal stimulus bill, companies participating in the Troubled Assets Relief Program—a government financial-rescue plan implemented last fall—will face more restrictions in hiring H-1B visa holders, foreigners with at least a bachelor’s degree and “highly specialized knowledge” in a particular field.


Firms that have accepted TARP funds would be required to demonstrate that they have made concerted efforts to employ and avoid laying off U.S. citizens before hiring H-1B visa holders, said Kevin Casey, the University’s chief lobbyist.

I can only repeat (almost) what I said in the comments:

As an HBS graduate who works with software and technology companies both in Europe and the US, I can only bemoan this measure as uniquely shortsighted – and very helpful to European and Asian software companies, who can hire graduates from top US schools. For mysterious reasons, the US don’t want them once they have been trained and can contribute to the economy.

The fact that large companies now are putting their software research and development (not maintenance ) centers in Canada (just across the border in Vancouver) or in India speaks volumes. On the other hand, it may make it easier for me to find people…

I think the best solution for the US economy is Tom Friedman and others’ idea to allow a few million Chinese, Indian or Korean immigrants, provided they buy a house. Talk about a shovel-ready project….

(Via Greg Mankiw.)

Update March 11: This is indirectly hurting American export of education (where there is an $11.2b trade surplus. I have heard similar from other academics recently. I suppose this is good news for the Norwegian School of Management (we’ll get more and  better foreign students since the USA offers a less attractive proposition), but still, this is bad news overall.

Aging actress blues

I am on the United Airlines flight from Shanghai to San Francisco, which is surprisingly enjoyable, since I am traveling business class and the airplane is new, with seats that allow you to stretch out with your feet high enough that you avoid swelling and pain. Which is something that happens when you are a man and you reach middle age, like I have done.

When you are a actress* and reach middle age, however, something else seems to happen. I am (intermittently) watching Nights in Rodanthe, a really forgettable (and very predictable) movie with Richard Gere and Diane Lane, a middle-aged romance of sorts. And it is a disconcerting, because Diane Lane is a great actress: One of my favorite movies is Indian Summer, and she is brilliant there, with a natural humor and fetching wickedness of expression achieved signaling subtlety and wit. This is not the case in this movie, however, because somehow her face has lost its expressiveness. And its wrinkles. And that, honestly, is a loss – both to acting and to beauty.

I really cannot understand this. Why is it that beautiful women – or, for that matter, any woman – injects Botox in their cheeks and silicone in their lips to "hide" their age? Yes, they look less wrinkled and, at least for a while, younger. But it seems to be a really slippery slope, a kind of addiction, where they very quickly become scary, like Jessica Lange in Broken Flowers, with their plastic faces and bovinely bulbous lips. The end result is the vacant expression of a storefront mannequin, great for stills but somehow alien as as soon as the picture starts to move, while the face (at least from eyebrows to upper lip) does not.

The really scary thing is that this madness is now infecting younger and younger women, with teenagers getting implants and 20-year-olds getting facial adjustments. Eventually, I suppose, all women will look the same, hiding their personalities and expressive capability behind a sleek and photogenic facade. What a loss for the male part of the population – no variety, no quality, everything palpably mediocre in its perfection.

It is deeply ironic that this movie has an subplot involving a doctor with a patient dying during a plastic surgery procedure. That is the ugly little forgotten detail – that any kind of surgery has a risk, however small, of failure, with loss of health or life as a result.

Dying to look like everyone else, in other words….

*Yes, I am aware that this happens to aging actors as well. But it is (normally) less visible, though not less reprehensible.

Interesting search:

image is a federated search engine for classified ads – it does not (at least as far as I know) have its own ads, but act as a portal to other ad sites, presumably in return for a share of profits.

The value created is partly from the interface technology (enter "Mercedes 450 SEL 6.9" and it knows you are looking for a car and format the page so that you can drill down on models and years) and partly in that it accesses all kinds of local and community-based listings.

When I was looking for my used Mercedes I searched large advertisers such as and – but they only show their own ads. would have found me more cars (though not any I would have bought rather than the car I did get.) Useful because many markets are local and therefore hidden if you come from outside.