Open Source Government

They say that discussing politics can be like pulling teeth. So, as long as I'm at it, here are some political musings before I head out to get my wisdom teeth out.

Geek icon RU Sirius of the webzine 10 Zen Monkeys has called for the creation of an Open Source Party in American politics. As a hybrid of libertarian/liberal/paleocon/futurist/other philosophies, the party would stand for such things as making government more transparent and accountable, strengthening civil liberties, and re-tooling items ranging from copyright law to currency to work better in today's and tomorrow's increasingly digital (and post-scarcity) world.

Specifically, the seven platform items are:
1. Let's Have A Democracy (let's figure out secure internet voting and remove the systemic constraints on creating new political parties);
2. Let's Have Civil Liberties and a Bill of Rights (let's repeal legislation that has infringed on our constitutional liberties and rethink the drug war);
3. Let's End the Imperial Foreign Policy;
4. A New "Energy Task Force";
5. Let's Explore The Possibility of an Open Source Monetary System;
6. Let's End Corporate Personhood and Other Rules that Unfairly Advantage Corporations;
7. Let My Web People Go! (let's figure out how copyright should work in a digital, post-scarcity economy).

Though the party is still just "a gleam in the eye and not an extant organization," I think it has a lot of potential-- not only does the party's philosophy seem coherent and communicable, but RU Sirius's position statements read like a laundry list of thoughtful approaches to what may be some of the most important issues of the 21st century. There are a few notable exceptions (enhancement ethics/bioethics?) and I have a few misgivings about the platform (can strong civil rights survive in the age of garage biotech? I hope so, but I'm not sure.). But I think the platform offers a fresh and thoughtful take on what issues are important and I sincerely hope, whether or not the party takes off, that the concepts inherent in the platform make their way into our political discourse.

In the long run, of course, more is at stake in how we deal with Sirius's overarching point of 'openness' than just the singular (albeit important) issues RU Sirius lists. What's at stake is the participatory nature of our government. There's been a trend in America (perhaps western society, perhaps the world) to treat governance as someone else's problem. I think this springs from the weird way our culture, institutions, and indeed, government have emergently co-evolved to compartmentalize, obfuscate, and encourage outsourcing of political activity, rather than there being any sort of explicit conspiracy. But it's led to systemic disconnects between voters and their government. People don't participate in government: they tend to elect least-worst candidates whom they hope will be able to navigate and weather Washington's dysfunctional and corrosive economy of influence, or if nothing else, maybe bring home some bacon. Votes are "fire and forget".

In short, our government sucks. It's not participatory in any significant sense of the term, and it's simply broken in some respects. RU Sirius's point seems to be that, surely in the age of the internet and with the potential openness that Web 2.0 technologies could provide, it doesn't have to suck as badly as it does.

The example that springs to mind when I try to understand how this "open source government" philosophy could be translated into practical initiatives is the Sunlight Foundation. It's a non-profit government watchdog organization named after the disinfectant powers of sunlight. It has notably has created a Web 2.0 mashup that clearly and intuitively lays out the location of every congressional earmark (aka 'porkbarrel legislation'). To oversimplify some, it's a map of who the most corrupt politicians are.

It's just one mash-up. It won't change the world overnight. But this "open source" style of political activism, in allowing voters a clear, intuitive look at the inner workings of government, has the potential to sidestep the vast and layered forces of inertia in Washington. Eventually, the theory goes, if everything about the way government is run is made available, accessible, and intuitive to the public, that's going to normalize how decisions in Washington are made, no matter how many special interest groups want to skew the system in their favor.

All in all, RU Sirius's proposal is based on a powerful and seemingly feasible core idea. I hope it pans out.


America's New Constitution

A contemplation for a Sunday night-

America's founding fathers meant for the Constitution to be a living and binding governance document. To both guide and reflect the shape of America's government, and to be amended as things came up.

However, though we're still bound by the Constitution, in large part we've stopped updating it, or at any rate, the amendments we've ratified aren't representative of the most significant ways we've altered, reinterpreted, or departed from the original governmental forms and rights set forth in the Constitution (e.g., see the tangled skein that has arisen from the commerce clause, or the banality of perhaps half of the amendments after the Bill of Rights). The majority of our federal government- to this day- has very little constitutional basis.

Simply put, for whatever reasons, our big legal, organizational, and social shifts no longer get amended into the Constitution, and thus the Constitution (though still binding) no longer reflects our actual government, our society, or the law of the land.

Is that good or bad? I don't know-- but I would guess somewhat bad, because having a constitution detached from the how the law of the land actually works obscures the form of government from its citizens, and it obscures and hampers the function of the ideals and checks and balances built into the Constitution.

Now, I realize I'm probably not the first person to make this observation. However, here's the question I'm throwing out there:

If we were to update the Constitution to be consistent with how our government is *actually* run, what would our new-slash-actual constitution look like?

Some existing amendments would be dropped, as they've been rendered toothless or are obsolete in modern society. Many amendments would need to be reworded; and many, many would need to be added. The sections dealing with the shape of the government would need a major overhaul, with very little in the way of states' rights, and huge sections on federal bureaucracies, intelligence and defense agencies, new executive branch powers, regulatory agencies, and so forth.

It could be a very scary document, at that.


Ed Boyden, Roy Baumeister

Ed Boyden, a neuroscientist over at MIT/Technology Review, has started a general-interest science blog. I'm happy to see this, as Ed seems not only smart, but prone to write frankly and creatively about deeply relevant issues.

Another interesting, rather speculative piece I'd direct people toward is "Is There Anything Good About Men?" - American Psychological Association, Invited Address, 2007, Roy F. Baumeister.

I've not decided whether I agree with his conclusions, and since it's a conference address it's a little citation-lite, but it's a thoughtful and thought-provoking mix of fact, theory, and conjecture.

Back to paper writing.


Citizendium: Choosing a Free Content License

Citizendium, the wiki encyclopedia I volunteer with, is holding a call for essays about which free content license we should choose for our content. It's an open call for essays, so even if you're not a member of Citizendium and have an opinion you're encouraged to write it up and send it in. Wikipedians and other indirect stakeholders welcome.

Here's my essay (i.e., personal opinion) on what and how things should be considered. As a complete position statement it may be a little rough around the edges, and it may move rather slow for those who live and breathe this stuff. Feel free to leave comments.

Citizendium's License
Mike Johnson
DRAFT version

There's a lot at stake in our choice of free content license, and we have lots of options. In this essay I'll run through options that have been discussed on the forums, some practical concerns, potential future developments which may be relevant, and my own recommendation. I'm not a lawyer, and I don't claim this essay to be a definitive analysis- but I think, at minimum, it maps out some options, issues, and opinions that should be considered.

===Part 1: Our Options===

The most common content licensing options discussed on the forums have been:

- GNU Free Document License (like Wikipedia): people may use our content freely, so long as they credit Citizendium and any improvements under the same conditions, and conform to certain (some some circumstances, rather unwieldy) regulations pertaining to including licensing information along with documents. It's very similar to CC-by-sa, but as the license wasn't designed with wikis in mind, it's a bit 'creaky' in various ways (it may be sacrilege, but I'd refer readers to the Wikipedia article on the GFDL for criticisms of the license). Wikipedia was founded before there was a mature ecosystem of free content licenses and chose this license by necessity.

- Creative Commons: Attribution, Share-alike (CC-by-sa for short, aka the "Creative Commons Wiki License", like the Encyclopedia of Earth): people may freely copy and improve our content, as long as they credit Citizendium and release any improvements they make under the same conditions.

- Creative Commons: Attribution, Share-alike, Non-commercial (i.e., CC-sa-nc, like many images on Flickr): people may freely copy and improve our content, as long as they credit Citizendium, release any improvements they make under the same conditions, and don't use our content to gain "commercial advantage or private monetary compensation".

- Dual-licensing our content under both the GFDL and CC-by-sa, since they essentially lay out the same abstract set of rights and obligations (there are certain technical legal uncertainties about the possibility of doing this, but the people who work on these licenses with whom I've interacted didn't shoot this down as a possibility). The benefit would be better outgoing compatibility, that websites using either the GFDL or CC-by-sa could integrate our content with their content. The main drawback would presumably be another layer of licensing complexity.

- Public Domain. No legal protections on our content whatsoever; people are free to do anything they please with our content (and importantly, repackage, change, and sell it under whatever conditions they prefer).

Of note, any license we choose for our fully homegrown content will exist side-by-side with the GFDL, which applies to articles with content originally sourced from Wikipedia. There's no way of changing this.

===Part 2: Practicalities===

Non-commercial clause. One of the big question marks in choosing a license is whether to add a clause prohibiting commercial or commercial-related use of our content. On paper, it sounds great: we're contributing to Citizendium for humanitarian reasons, and we don't want anyone making money off the sweat of our brows. Or if anyone does, it should be us.

But from a practical standpoint, I personally don't like the non-commercial clause, because it
1. Adds a level of ambiguity to our license: commercial acts don't necessarily have clear boundaries. And if people have to ask whether a use will be okay, most won't.
2. Answers a danger (other people making money off our content) which may be rather trivial. Someone may sell our content if we license it under CC-by-sa-- but they could just get it for free from citizendium.org. I can't dismiss this as a concern, since in the future businesses may get more clever and obnoxious in their attempts to wring money out of free content-- but it hasn't been a major problem for Wikipedia yet. That Wikipedia is freely available online (and that the GFDL protects Wikipedia's content from people trying to claim ownership and economic rights over it) takes a lot of wind out of the sails of those trying to monetize it.
3. Puts our content at a competitive disadvantage in the quest for eyeballs. Content without this clause will simply get used more. I think getting our wonderful content out there to be read by as many people as possible is really very important. Relatedly, it
4. Walls our content off from being combined with other sorts of free content (one can't mix-and-match CC-by-sa and CC-sa-nc content unless one can clearly show it's not for a commercial use- a risk many people will not take.

So, I think it's cleaner and better for reaching more people with our content to forego a non-commercial clause.

That said, the clause would increase our options for fundraising via selling businesses the right to use our work in commercial settings. We may or may not want to do this, but options are generally good.

Whether or not to go with CC-sa-nc is probably the most consequential choice on our plate. However, other relevant factors among the licensing options are:

Compatibility with Wikipedia. This is a huge factor in choosing a license, and one that's been debated on the forums: some are strongly for compatibility, some strongly against. Personally, I see full and seamless compatibility as very desirable in the long-term: Wikipedia's going to be around for a while, and if we set things up such that we can seamlessly share content between projects, I think it'll help us both out in obvious (less duplicated effort, less license administration overhead) and non-obvious ways. And philosophically, it's very much in the spirit of free content to work toward a licensing ecosystem where omnidirectional sharing is easy.

But in the short-term, things are more mixed. I don't think any of us want Wikipedians to swoop in and copy some of our competitive advantage away (and I assure you, from reading certain blogs, some Wikipedians are waiting to try to do so). Honestly, for a variety of reasons, I'm not all that worried about this-- but I do strongly believe we need to avoid the appearance that the really good stuff from Citizendium ends up on Wikipedia anyway during our first few years of existence.

Now, to be honest, I feel a little dirty about bringing this up. We've used some of Wikipedia's articles as jumping-off-points for some of our articles, and it seems natural that we should return the favor. And it just seems right to allow content to freely pass between our projects. I think it's very important to be a good neighbor to Wikipedia (as well as to other free content projects). And I think choosing incompatibility for incompatibility's sake, to wall off our homegrown content from Wikipedia for competitive advantage, would simply be unacceptable and inconsistent with our mission of improving the state of free content.

But I believe that in choosing a license there are many things to weight, and we should also keep in mind that, though there are external stakeholders in this decision whose wishes we should consider, we're not beholden to any one of them: we are a sovereign community and our most fundamental responsibilities in choosing a license are to our community, its philosophical and practical goals, and its health.

So I think we need to take this situation seriously and, if we do choose to be compatible or incompatible with Wikipedia, we should make our choice with respect to the likely practical consequences to our community in addition to philosophical ideals. I don't know what these practical consequences would be with respect to compatibility/incompatibility with Wikipedia- I think we'd do just fine in either scenario, and perhaps this issue is a tempest in a teapot. This is quite possible. But I view talking about these issues surrounding compatibility with Wikipedia as 1. part of due diligence in writing this essay, and 2. a reminder to the Erik Möllers of Wikipedia that we are a sovereign community (I do encourage Mr. Möller and others who hold an opinion to submit an essay. Wikipedians are among the stakeholders in this decision, and our decision will be poorer for not hearing from them).

As a digression, I think it's in Wikipedia's best interests to not swoop in and copy our content wholesale, from both the standpoint of having pride in their own content (if Wikipedia copies wholesale from us, that's a pretty harsh statement about the health of and confidence in their processes), and that they should take care to avoid anything that might stifle competition, because competition is valuable to the health of their community. But although there are many thoughtful people at Wikipedia, I don't think we should count on Wikipedia per se to keep these things in mind, since it'll be individual contributors acting under many different assumptions that would be doing the copying. I think at this point we should assume that, depending on internal politics at Wikipedia, they may copy from us very freely if we legally allow it. And we couldn't really cry foul, since they'd be fully within their rights.

So, though my personal stance is to weight long-term seamless compatibility with Wikipedia as a significant positive (albeit among other important factors), and short-term seamless compatibility as a minor positive, I do suggest that people think very carefully and honestly about this issue. It's complicated and potentially important, and I doubt I'm doing it full justice.

Compatibility with Creative Commons. Wikipedia is, of course, a major factor in compatibility, but Creative Commons content is growing very quickly as well. If we went with CC-by-sa we'd be compatible with e.g., the Encyclopedia of Earth. There are reasons to put compatibility with Wikipedia on a pedestal in relation to Creative Commons, but in the long run, perhaps not as many as one would think.

Ease of internal administration. Frankly, I think this is the strongest argument for going with the GFDL. It's simple, and simple is very good. If we have some content licensed differently than other content, it becomes a headache to administer very quickly. Going with the GFDL isn't necessarily a silver bullet, however, since we'd face problems with importing Creative Commons-licensed content. It would be worth examining Wikipedia's approach to importing CC-licensed content to see if they've figured out clever and low-friction ways to handle this.

Quality of License. Put simply, Creative Commons licenses are better laid-out and more suitable for wikis than the GFDL.

Customization. We should consider whether we want to accept any of these licensing options as-is or whether we want to (at risk of making our content less compatible with other free content) add in any additional terms to the broad-stroke license we choose.

===Part 3: Future Developments in Free Content Licensing===

- CC-by-sa has a 'compatibility framework' which attempts to bridge the gap between a Creative Commons-structured license and other free content licenses. The current revision of CC-by-sa isn't compatible with the GFDL (or any FSF license), but from personal correspondence with the FSF I believe it was a matter of timing and not substantive reasons.

- The current draft of the next revision of the GFDL includes a relicensing provision that
If the Work was previously published, with no Cover Texts, no Invariant Sections, and no Acknowledgements or Dedications or Endorsements section, in a system for massive public collaboration under version 1.2 of this License, and if all the material in the Work was either initially developed in that collaboration system or had been imported into it before 1 June 2006, then you may relicense the Work under the GNU Wiki License.
The unreleased GNU Wiki License will presumably be much more suitable for wikis than the GFDL, and include compatibility provisions matching up with CC-by-sa's compatibility framework.

So, as a bottom-line, I would say there's a good chance CC-by-sa and GFDL content will be compatible sometime in the future. This potential development would make choosing between CC-by-sa and the GFDL a lot less pressing (though, naturally, we shouldn't depend on this happening). I think it'd make CC-nc-sa a less desirable licensing choice because there wouldn't be that potential for radical simplification since the GFDL and CC-nc-sa simply can't be made compatible.

===Part 4: Other Issues===

Copyright sharing. I think it's desirable for contributors to share copyright with Citizendium, if and only if Citizendium enters into a legally binding contract with contributors to not use said power for certain aims. Or to use said power only for certain aims. The devil's in the details, but I see no reason why copyright sharing paired with such a contract couldn't provide all of the positives and none of the negatives put forth in these arguments. Of note, copyright sharing would only apply to homegrown content, which would reduce its utility.

One of the possible benefits of copyright sharing would be the ability to merge homegrown CC-licensed and GFDL-licensed articles under a GFDL article. There would like be many other such relatively minor legal maneuverings that would become possible with copyright sharing. However, once we start importing non-homegrown CC content, such merges would become more complicated. Copyright sharing isn't a silver bullet.

===Part 5: My Recommendation===
If you've been reading closely, you can probably guess what my recommendation will be: that we should license our content under CC-by-sa. It will probably give us eventual full compatibility with Wikipedia (good, in my mind), short-term incompatibility with Wikipedia (mixed, but slightly negative in my mind), full compatibility with Creative Commons sources, and a more sane wiki license than the GFDL. Until compatibility is reached, there'll be some administration headache in keeping licensing issues sorted out; hypothetically, after CC-GFDL compatibility is established, most of that should go away.

Alternatively, I think simply going with the GFDL is a good second choice (for many of the administrative reasons argued here), provided that we will indeed be able to relicense our content under the GNU Wiki License. If we choose this route, I think we should make a point of following up with the FSF for information and advice.

As a third choice, I would have few qualms about dual-licensing our content under both CC-by-sa and the GFDL. It would add some legal ambiguity (depending on whom one asks, the GFDL may not allow this) for what seem like rather ephemeral gains. Perhaps others have alternative perspectives on this.

There's no silver bullet licensing choice-- but conversely, for what it's worth, with the GFDL and CC-by-sa likely converging I think there are relatively few bad licensing choices.



Dear Readers,

Here's a quick update on what I've been up to and blog plans:

1. I've written an article for the Wikipedia community newsletter, the Wikipedia Signpost. It covers what's been going on at Citizendium, our future plans, why Wikipedians should care about Citizendium, and some personal philosophical digressions. I really like how the article turned out. If you're a Wikipedian or interested in wikis I encourage you to go check it out.

2. Quotes of the week- I've been working full-steam on some ideas (see 3.) and my quote of the week tradition has been one of the casualties. Sorry! They'll likely return when the intellectual ferment on these new ideas settles down. This gives me some time to build up more really good quotes, too.

3. I promised you five novel research ideas in July, and I gave you three. Well, the last two ideas have grown into a rather substantial research project, which may yet end up on this blog-- I'm just not ready to post it. I might also look for alternate or additional venues to publish it, and may be asking my neuroscientist friends for publication advice once it's in a more polished form (appreciated, as always).


Quote of the Week: July 22

A lot has been said about Andrew Keen's new book, The Cult of the Amateur, in which he argues that the products of user-driven content communities (e.g., Wikipedia) often compare poorly to those produced by more traditional institutions.

Over at the Wikipedia Signpost, Wikipedia user Thespian opens his review of Andrew Keen's new book with this quip:
One of the hardest parts of reading The Cult of the Amateur is the temptation to agree with the author, Andrew Keen. It's tempting, when involved in an edit war, to pick up the book, read it, and say, "My god, he's right! People who don't have a clue are RUINING the Internet!", before stepping back and realizing, he's also talking about you.
For some reason, this reminds me of David Gerard's amusing (and doubtlessly true) note that
[M]assive collaboration is hard. The main problem is how to work with idiots you can’t get rid of, who consider you an idiot they can’t get rid of.

Women and Citizendium

Leslie Brooks has a short piece up asking “where the hell are the women in the Citizendium project?” I’m not impressed by the tone of the piece itself, but I think it is a good question (we do have more male than female contributors). Really, I think the question should be expanded to women and wikis in general– I would imagine that Wikipedia may be equally or moreso biased toward male contributors, but it’s just easier to tally up contributions by gender when people are editing under their real names. Regardless, engaging both male and female contributors is something we really need to think about.

I’m writing this as a personal response to Leslie’s blog post, not an official rejoinder.

Dear Leslie,

You can criticize with the intent to help, you can criticize with the intent to explore greater philosophical issues, or you can criticize to produce a neat little snarky blog post. I feel your post straddles the second and third.

Honestly, I think you cover some interesting philosophical ground– maybe wikis can be (tend to be?) biased against women (why is that?). It could be that, by bringing in many academic experts, Citizendium brings some of the biases you mention. I don’t know– but I find these issues interesting and I’d like to hear more.

But you don’t do real dialog about these issues any favors by only linking to criticisms of us (most of which I consider long-since rebutted) and ignoring all the other interesting things and quality dialog going on at Citizendium, nor by ignoring the most valid point of comparison (Wikipedia), nor by not offering any suggestions on what to do.

So I ask you, Leslie– please show your colors. Either make some suggestions on what we can do to help attract female contributors (keeping in mind there are many constraints involved with building an encyclopedia), or don’t. With respect, I submit that- particularly when dealing with volunteers- it takes more to make a positive difference in the world than a snarky blog post.

In the end, I think we’re on the same side. We all want Citizendium to be a welcoming place for female contributors (for philosophical, practical, and moral reasons), and we at Citizendium have thought about the issue and take it very seriously. We’re a group of volunteers that are juggling a lot of initiatives, and sometimes worthy causes don’t get the attention we would like to give them. If you give us a good, easy-to-implement idea, we very well may divert some of our precious, finite resources into it. We would love to have more women editing at Citizendium and are committed to it! And so if you have suggestions on what we can do to bring this about, we’d love to hear them.

But if you do want to suggest changes to Citizendium (and this goes for anyone), please:
1. don’t try to hijack our deliberation process with name-calling like Kali Tal did– she did her cause (a good cause) no favors by her actions– and
2. keep in mind that the vast majority of us are volunteers, that we’re operating under many (and sometimes non-obvious, complex) constraints connected to our main goal, that of building an encyclopedia, and that assuming good faith, being respectful of those you’d like to influence, and meeting people halfway aren’t just platitudes– they’re an important part of effectively working with people and bringing about the change you want.

So, thank you for raising the philosophical issue, Leslie– and I mean that sincerely– but I wish you had put more meat and more respect into your article.

Update, 7-24-07: Interested readers, please see the discussion attached to my crosspost on the Citizendium blog.

Scientific Research (3/5: Dark Energy)

What I'd do with a research lab, part 3:
Test a pet theory regarding Dark Energy

Working hypothesis: There is a fairly elegant modification to gravity that may explain Dark Energy, and that current MOND theories do not touch upon.

We've known since 1929 that our universe is expanding, but in 1998 we discovered that our universe is actually accelerating in its expansion. This flies in the face of accepted understandings of gravity and the Standard Model of quantum mechanics, neither of which allow for any reason that the universe should be expanding. We've come to call this force "Dark Energy" because it pushes the universe apart, just as the presence of energy does, yet we're unable to observe it.

I've been kicking around an idea of how Dark Energy might arise. It is, of course, a low-probability hypothesis, but there aren't really any front-runner theories on Dark Energy[1], the magnitudes involved in my hypothesis make sense, it's unique (to my knowledge), it'd be an elegant way to solve the problems of Dark Energy and inflation if it worked, and I think diversity of effort is very valuable in science. So I'd indulge myself. It's sort of a waiting game at this point since there isn't that much data on the historical expansion rate of the universe, which is really necessary to test these sorts of theories (elegant doesn't mean correct), but I do believe gathering such data is one of the highest priorities in cosmology.

I can hear a physicist in the background snort at my presumption. Quiet, you- get your own blog. :)

[1] Some theories which attempt to explain Dark Energy are listed at the Wikipedia page; physicists are also exploring a promising new option tying Dark Energy, Dark Matter, and inflation to supersymmetrical particles. A reasonably good overview of the new option may be found at Ars. If you're wondering what all this Dark Energy stuff is about, Wikipedia and NASA are good places to start.

Edit 11-7-07: It occurs to me I should put forward something falsifiable in this post.

My theory suggests that a universe with homogeneously distributed mass, in entropic equilibrium, and with no expansion momentum would (setting aside quantum fluxuations that would immediately bring it out of such equilibrum, and
contrary to all gravitational theories I'm familiar with) not collapse due to gravity. Rather, a "dark energy" term would arise which would precisely balance gravity. As the distribution of mass becomes less homogeneous, the dark energy term would naturally increase relative to gravity's effect on the universe's topology.


Quote of the Week: July 15

From the New York Times article Make Money, Save the World, on efforts to decompartmentalize modern philanthropy by encouraging 'for-benefit corporations' or 'for-profit charities':

“There’s a big movement out there that is not yet recognized as a movement,” said R. Todd Johnson, a lawyer in San Francisco who is working to create an online wiki to engage in the give and take of information for what he calls “for-benefit corporations,” another name for fourth-sector activities. [...] Still, whatever participants call it, the fourth sector faces challenges. Current legal and tax structures draw strict lines between for-profits and nonprofits, and fiduciary obligations prevent asset managers from making investments with any aim other than maximizing profit.

[...] “What we are constantly coming up against is our tax laws and our culture,” Ms. Berry said. “The whole fabric of society wants us to make money on one side and do good with it on the other. What we’re saying is: What if we did both things at once?”

She and others argue that current laws, tax structures and definitions of fiduciary responsibility encourage companies to shift costs onto society.


Scientific Research (2/5: Anthropic Principle)

What I'd do with a research lab, part 2:
Attempt to generalize the Anthropic Principle to include Dimensionality

Working hypothesis: There are substantial arguments from Physics, Physical Chemistry, Biochemistry, Biology, and Entropy that intelligent life could only arise in a universe with exactly three macroscopic spacial dimensions.

If that seems overly technical, I'm taking a stab at the question, "What's so special about three dimensions? Why don't we live in four dimensions, or two?"

The Anthropic Principle is an argument about why we seem to live in a universe which seems fine-tuned for living creatures. There are 20-plus 'universal constants' (for instance, the speed of light or the strength of the electromagnetic force) which contribute to how matter, energy, and space behave, and it's been observed that if any of them were much different, life couldn't exist--nuclei couldn't form, planets couldn't form, the universe would expand too quickly and fly apart, and so forth. The Anthropic Principle[1] argues that it's not such a big surprise that everything appears fine-tuned for life: if it were any different, we wouldn't be alive to talk about it.

It's a bit of a strange argument, and it's sometimes tough to pin down exactly what the Anthropic Principle is arguing for, especially since there are so many variants. It certainly shouldn't be taken as an excuse to throw up our hands and say, so that's why things are the way they are: the Anthropic Principle is no substitute for hard scientific knowledge about why these constants have the values they do. Used carefully, though, it's a good intuition pump for exploring the intersection between cosmology and biology.

I've sketched out an attempt to generalize the Anthropic Principle to include dimensionality: essentially, I argue that our dimensionality is very fine-tuned, and that any alternate macroscopic dimensional configuration (e.g., any configuration other than our 3 spacial dimensions + 1 time dimension) would likely not give rise to life[2]. It's clear that we don't know all the factors and implications involved in switching our dimensionality for another, but I believe we do have enough knowledge to make certain limited but probable predictions[3]. With these predictions in mind, I've outlined nine arguments to support my hypothesis: five are from the realm of Physics and Physical Chemistry, three from the realm of Biochemistry and Biology, and one dealing with entropy. A major goal of the project, which I have yet to attempt, is to use these arguments to try to generalize the Drake Equation across dimensionalities.

It's a little on the abstract side. And terribly difficult (some would say impossible). But I think the process of working toward this goal could highlight a lot of interesting things about life, intelligence, biology, biochemistry, physics, and cosmology.

[1] My frame of reference is what people call the "weak" Anthropic Principle. I disagree with the "strong" Anthropic Principle, which argues that the universe must at some point generate intelligent life such that the universe will be observed, since it gives an almost mystical, non-naturalistic primacy to observation acts by intelligent beings. Instead of tying physical laws to observation, I would rather see them tied to cosmological natural selection.

[2] The National Academy of Science has recently issued an analysis of (and call for further research on) the prerequisite chemical conditions for life. Ars Technica's coverage of this report is an excellent place to start for anyone who wants to get up to speed on what scientists have identified as enabling conditions for life to arise (though extending some of these chemical principles/prerequisites to other dimensionalities will not be straightforward).

[3] I haven't been able to find much published literature explicitly on this topic of physical and biochemical implications of alternate dimensionalities and I'm grateful to those people with whom I've discussed this.


Mahalo, Part III

Mahalo, as I noted in my launch coverage back in May, is "a search engine where users get hand-crafted portal-like results for common search queries." Mahalo's founder Jason Calacanis and I are both connected to Larry Sanger, so between that and being fairly intrigued by the idea I've kept my eye on the project.

I like Mahalo. It gives me good content for certain searches, and gosh darnit, it's friendly. But my major philosophical problem with Mahalo, which I laid out here, is that it's not really on the correct side of the technology curve. Having humans make portals for common search terms may work well compared to other options today, but algorithm-based search (e.g., Google) will keep getting better and better in almost every metric whereas human-based search can't*. Google is pretty much guaranteed to improve over time, because it can benefit from iterative algorithm tweaks, large and small, but Mahalo is based on non-iterative human labor and so has to work for every inch of improvement on every page (and simultaneously spend many man-hours battling page rot). I'm not going doom-and-gloom on Mahalo, because I think they've got some really good stuff going on, but let's be honest-- it's a tough spot to be in.

*Granted, I expect Mahalo to do cool things with crowdsourcing additional links on topics and getting editors to filter and sort the best submissions. This sort of strategy has worked for Slashdot-- but it's an unproven technology in search. In some fashion I think Mahalo will be able to crowdsource freshness, but it may not be enough to keep every page as fresh as one would like.

Essentially, I believe Mahalo needs something up its sleeve to stay competitive in the future, something that can connect it to the world of the algorithm. History seems to bear this out: Yahoo's human-crafted web directory looked as good on paper then as Mahalo's human-crafted search portal strategy does now-- but Google's algorithms ate Yahoo's lunch. Similarly, the human-powered DMOZ just couldn't compete against Google. Google's algorithmic approach allows it to have a "special sauce" of algorithms, if/then context switches, and exceptions that it can apply to almost every page on the internet, tweak at will, and combine with sophisticated intent predictors drawn from users' searches to get pretty great search results. This is a very powerful, iterative strategy, and it allows Google to keep its results fresh without any human overhead. I would generalize this as 'Technological progress in search is relentless and algorithms are impressively tweakable, scalable, and improvable compared to human evaluation, and Google is very good at using these these facts to eat peoples' lunches.'

Obviously I don't have The Solution for how Mahalo should try to answer Google. I do think Mahalo is right to try something new, since nobody's had any luck trying to out-Google Google, and I also think Mahalo's on to something with its "search portal" idea. But I can't get away from the feeling that turning one's back on algorithms is trying to swim against the current.

So here's my two-part idea: (1) build a back-end to allow Mahalo to automatically import tagged content into its search portals and (2). use algorithms to figure out what tagged content is worth bringing in.

(1) The tagged-content import system: this setup would draw in relevant, tagged content from elsewhere (like Flickr and Youtube, but blogs, too-- the sky's the limit) to automatically populate e.g., a "content grab-bag" section of Mahalo portals, perhaps heavily weighted toward images, with thumbnails. If someone's at the Mahalo portal for Fugu, most content tagged Fugu will be quite relevant, and there are often powerful indications of how good tagged content is (community ratings, views, links, etc) which could give sorting methods plenty of fodder to work with. Basically, there's lots of great tagged content of all stripes out there, tags enable more streamlined and fresher aggregation, and content aggregation is what Mahalo is all about. It seems like a pretty natural fit.

(2) Using algorithms (not editors) to power the system: by using algorithms, adding this sort of content doesn't add extra effort per page and it also automatically stays fresh. I think it's the perfect complement to the human-crafted search results and would help Mahalo portals stay dynamic. Basically, it's the perfect toehold for introducing and benefiting from algorithms in Mahalo. That said, you could certainly use the tagged content import system with editors making the calls instead of algorithms... it'd just be a lot more man-hours and it wouldn't stay as fresh. And there might not be as much of a point, since the editor could go out, find, and add such content independently. What might be the most attractive option is a hybrid algorithm-editor solution, where algorithms automatically populate sections of Mahalo with tagged content once per day, but editors go through and veto anything that doesn't fit. Algorithms could be tweaked to try to give more 'relevant/informative' content or more 'fun' content, depending on the topic (this might not be in the first system revision!).

Eventually, Mahalo could branch out to become a hub which aggregates all sorts of tagged content on a given topic and displays them based on algorithm, user, and/or editor input... or people could submit various types of content and each Mahalo page could be somewhere between a Digg/Slashdot hybrid for almost any type of content on that specific topic (wouldn't that be cool?). But that's getting a little far afield. In the short-term, I think the combination of human-crafted results and being able to dynamically populate search portals with fun & relevant content would serve Mahalo well. It's a combination that Google can't have, and it'd also give Mahalo a leg up on Wikipedia as a portal to the freshest and most diverse content on a topic.

A tagging back-end would also help integrate some local search capabilities into Mahalo: Mahalo could determine a user's location through various means (whether their search phrase included a location, by tracing their IP, by user preferences, or with a "where are you?" input box), and then return relevant content that was also tagged with their location (and synonyms).

Lest I get ahead of myself, this idea isn't an automatic homerun. It's new and untested- I don't know of anybody who's done this sort of content aggregation based on tags. Largely, this idea would depend on figuring out clever ways to source and sort through tagged content (hey, if you didn't want to roll your own algorithms right away maybe you could somehow use a Google appliance to help sort tagged content!), and the proof would be in the relevance of results. It might be a homerun and it might be a dud. But given the potential benefits (especially in freshness) and near-effortless scalability to all Mahalo pages, it sure seems worth testing.

Bottom line: Mahalo's pretty darn cool as-is (as a Minnesotan, I like how friendly it seems), and I don't doubt that Jason has some further ideas up his sleeve. But using tags and algorithms to aggregate content, though no magic bullet, seems like a promising direction which would allow Mahalo to effortlessly go local, keep pages fresh, and start to take advantage of algorithms while still keeping true to its core vision of being "human-powered search".

Edit, 7-13-07: It seems to me that a good strategy for Mahalo is fostering communities around its portal pages. Communities like dynamic content, thus my suggestion of dynamically bringing in tagged content (it's an inexpensive way to keep things fresh). Per a previous email, I'd also suggest setting up some sort of 'alert' system, where Mahalo sets up automatic Google searches for all the terms they've done, and if any sites that weren't originally in (for instance) the Google top 10 break into the Google top 5, that entry gets flagged as "there's something happening on this search term that might make our portal stale -- have a guide check it out".

Mahalo, Part II

A few months ago I covered the launch of Mahalo, a new "people-powered" search engine which aims to make human-crafted, intelligent portals for the most common search terms (example). I explained the search engine as "based on the theory that many people are searching for the same things, that search engine spam is making Google less useful for common queries, and that humans are still wiser than algorithms at sifting through results and finding the really good stuff." I also noted that I found the real strength of Mahalo to be that the people crafting these portal pages could not only find the best links, but also give really great, human-crafted link context and tell the story about "what you'll find there and why you should take the page seriously" much better than Google can.

I still stand behind all of that. And I still think Mahalo is a very cool project.

However, I also believe Mahalo is staring down the barrel of two pressing questions:

1. How can Mahalo, a human-powered search engine, get on the correct side of AI/algorithm progress? While Google's algorithms are only going to become better, Mahalo's portal system is fairly 'fixed' in its structure and doesn't appear to have that same sort of potential to benefit from progressive tweaks in the code. Aggregated over 10,000+ results and several years, this promises to become very significant.

2. How can Mahalo break into the local search scene? Google's doing cool things with local search, but Mahalo's search results are not local, and are currently not structured such that local results can easily sneak their way in (as with Google).

In what I'd deem a blogsperiment, I'm going to offer possible answers to these two questions *if* somebody puts some money in my tip jar and earmarks it 'Mahalo' (Calacanis, I'm looking at you, though this isn't a shakedown- just a value trade. I figure you of all people will appreciate the incentive structure). Your choice of whether I blog it or email it.


Quote of the Week: July 8

I wasn't sure about whether to keep up my weekly quotes during this month of science, but since I found one that connects rather ironically with my next science topic, I took it as a sign. This quote is from Jack Cohen in "Is Biology Science?"
In summer 2002, I was at the Cheltenham Festival of Science. Lots of biologists presenting, for sure. But… one very popular event was a presentation by three famous astronomers: ‘Is There Life Out There?’ I prefaced my first question to them by a little imaginative scenario: three biologists discussing the properties of the black hole in the middle of our galaxy. It was very clear that the astronomers really believed that they could discuss ‘life’ professionally, whereas everyone saw biologists talking about black holes as absurd.
Physicists sometimes seem to think they're the superstars of the academy (especially, say, compared to sociologists). Does doing all that rigorous math and modeling give one a special license on truth or just go to one's head? As the son of a physicist, I have no comment. :)


Scientific Research (1/5: Gut Flora)

I have somewhat of a love/hate relationship with science: on one hand, it provides a uniquely privileged (and fascinating) look into the mechanisms of reality. On the other, the practice of science is often distorted by institutional and financial factors, which can warp what gets studied and who gets to study it away from the ideal and make life pretty miserable for would-be scientists.

Still, I'm drawn to science like a fish to water, and as a hobby I sometimes plan out lines of scientific inquiry I would pursue if I were a scientist and/or rich, particularly on issues which might not come up in normal science funding cycles. Every week in July I'll be posting about one such idea. It'll be a grab bag. Sit back and enjoy it.
What I'd do with a research lab, part 1:
Study the effects of diet on gut flora, and the effects of gut flora on physiology and psychology

Working hypothesis: Diet significantly and predictably influences gut flora, and gut flora has a significant influence on physiology, psychology, and in aggregate, perhaps even national character.

Gut flora, as anyone who's read any yogurt labels nowadays knows, refers to the bacteria in our guts which help us digest food and absorb nutrients. The way this is commonly put is that, just as cows have cellulose-eating bacteria in their guts which help them digest grass, we have our own bacteria, or gut flora, which help break down hard-to-digest foods like Twinkies and Big Macs. This sounds simple enough-- but what common wisdom misses about these bacteria in our guts is just how widely important and frighteningly under-studied they are. We know these bacteria not only play a key role in health[1][2]- they may be the primary external factor in immune system function- but can actually influence perception[3]. We also know literally almost nothing[4] about what lives in our guts. So, while the rest of the body is fairly well mapped-out, we have this huge question mark on gut flora, with a scribbled-in note that

1. Whatever does live in our guts outnumbers the 'human' cells in our body about 10-to-1,
2. gut flora is terribly important to body function (perhaps on the scale of a major bodily organ),
3. gut flora likely has some influence on nearly every part of our physiology, and
4. lots of things can go wrong. But we have few reliable metrics to figure out if someone's gut flora has gone wrong, let alone how.

A big frontier in health science is figuring out what sorts of things influence this gut flora we carry around. Scientific wisdom has us getting much of our initial flora as a baby from our mothers, largely from breast milk and the birthing process, and these initial gut ecosystems are thought to be at least minimally stable. We also get bacteria from the food we eat, both from obvious sources such as yogurt but also from bacteria that naturally grow on foods such as grains and produce. Gut flora and mouth flora are linked, as are one's genes and gut flora (e.g., genes influence gut flora, but gut flora also influences gene expression[5]). Taking a cycle of antibiotics is thought to sort of "reroll the dice" on gut flora: most bacteria die off and the survivors must scramble to repopulate the gut before their competitors do. There is, of course, a lot of randomness in all of this.

The nuances and relative contributions of these factors are several frontiers in themselves. Scientists are also starting to explore the indirect contributions of food to our gut flora, or whether different diets stochastically give rise to different biosystems by virtue of changing the competitive landscape for bacteria in our guts. One issue that I think is on the edge of researchers' minds is whether a significant part of America's systemic health problems is not just that we as a nation tend to eat food that's bad for us, but we're eating food (e.g., high-fructose corn syrup, food additives, preservatives (particularly sulfates), low-level food-borne antibiotics and pesticides) that makes the wrong bacteria thrive in our guts.

I think that's probably the case and, getting further afield, what I'd like to do is attempt to look into whether the changes in gut ecosystems caused by changes in eating habits and food manufacturing trends- aggregated over the 300 million people who live in America- could contribute to a stochastic change in national character. Perhaps a significant contributing factor to some of our institutional ills is the food we eat, the corresponding imbalance in gut flora which arises from eating such food, and the subtle yet powerful-in-aggregate dysfunctional personality changes that e.g., biologically-active metabolites of such non-symbiotic gut flora might cause.

I sense some reader eyebrows being raised at this point-- that bacteria could influence, let alone commonly influence, personality may seem quite a stretch. But consider the case of toxoplasma gondii (among other examples): it's a protozoan parasite that spends part of its lifecycle in cats and part in other mammals, and shows clear signs of manipulating host behavior for its own ends. Infected rats, for instance, actually seek out the scent of cat urine, since when the rat gets eaten the toxoplasma can complete its lifecycle in the cat. What's mind-boggling, though, is that humans who show tell-tale immunological signs of a past toxoplasma infection score statistically different on personality tests than do those who have not been infected (infected men tend to score higher in paranoia, whereas for women toxoplasmosis seems to lead to higher levels of social trust and sexual promiscuity). It's unknown how or why toxoplasma causes such subtle personality changes in humans-- though likely it's a result of many generations of toxoplasma getting progressive fitness benefits from honing its initially accidental effects on rat fear/motivation, and since rats and humans are both mammals, some of those same psychological buttons toxoplasma has evolved to exploit in rats are hooked up to things in our brains, too. The fundamental point I would take from this is that there's ample evidence that pathological microorganisms can and do subtly affect personality[6]. Personally? I believe these external pathogenic influences on personality - real as they are - will pale in comparison to that mediated by our gut floras.

Let me be perfectly clear: whether diet-gut flora interaction could be a commonly significant or significant-in-aggregate factor in personality is mostly just an intuition, built on the connections between gut flora and health, and health and personality, how tightly coupled bacteria and their metabolites are to our bodies and the scope of functional possibilities where such metabolites might- intentionally or unintentionally- act as e.g., hormone mimics, how many nerves (100 million+) are in our guts and how connected they are to our brain, the many possible feedback mechanisms between bacteria and neurotransmitters[7], how 'clever' and environmentally manipulative bacteria can be[8], and how connected I think physiology and personality are. A sore tooth can influence personality; surely something that can not only affect our nerves, but many aspects of our biochemistry and nutrition as well, may do the same. I think it's premature to really push any specific hypothesis about this gut flora-personality connection, since a lot of the basic science isn't there to build on. But it's a hypothesis we should be open to, and if I were in charge of the NIH or a well-endowed charitable foundation, I'd heavily prioritize flora research in general, particularly in the context of twin studies: we know so very little about gut flora (other than that it's important) that the expected return is extremely high[9].

Update 10/13/07:

Since posting, there have been at least two major developments on this topic:
1. A theory that the appendix functions as a "safehouse" for good bacteria, especially with respect to repopulating the body's GI tract after diarrhea, has been gaining traction. See

Bollinger RR, Barbas AS, Bush EL, Lin SS, Parker W. 2007. Biofilms in the large bowel suggest an apparent function of the human vermiform appendix. J Theor Biol (in press) doi:10.1016/j.jtbi.2007.08.032

2. A study has linked preference for chocolate with gut flora metabolism. Specifically, people who identified themselves as "chocolate desiring" had significantly different metabolic profiles and significantly different gut flora activity profiles than those who self-identified as "chocolate indifferent". It's both clear that this is an important result, and extremely hard to tease apart the causality involved at this point.

Results to be published in the Nov. 2 issue of American Chemical Society’s Journal of Proteome Research (via PhysOrg).

Update 8/1/10:

A new frontier in gut flora research is exploring the viral symbionts of peoples' gut flora. Recent research points to a viral counterpart to our gut flora which
1. We know very little about (a recent study matched only 20% of the viral biome to existing databases);
2. Varies significantly between individuals (with identical twins having no more similarity with each other vs unrelated people, contra gut flora);
3. Is surprisingly stable (5% change over the course of a year, 1% for the most common viromes-- indicating a benign, possibly functional symbiosis rather than an arms race).

The functional significance of the viral counterpart to our gut flora remains unknown. Presumably, though, it's important.


[1] http://www.wired.com/medtech/health/news/2007/04/bacteriahacking
"Probiotics (pills containing bacteria) have resulted in complete elimination of eczema in 80 percent of the people we've treated," says Dr. Joseph E. Pizzorno Jr., a practicing physician and former member of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy. Pizzorno says he's used probiotics to treat irritable bowel disease, acne and even premenstrual syndrome. "It's unusual for me to see a patient with a chronic disease that doesn't respond to probiotics."

[2] One of my reasons for being so interested in this topic is that I suffer from celiac disease, or at least have some probably-autoimmune-mediated reactions to gluten and casein, and some think celiac disease may be initially, and perhaps chronically, caused by the presence of 'bad' bacteria in the gut.

[3] http://www.nature.com/nm/journal/v13/n1/abs/nm1521.html
"We found that oral administration of specific Lactobacillus strains induced the expression of mu-opioid and cannabinoid receptors in intestinal epithelial cells, and mediated analgesic functions in the gut--similar to the effects of morphine. These results suggest that the microbiology of the intestinal tract influences our visceral perception."

[4] http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/312/5778/1355 - with interesting commentary by John Hawks:
"This is really important stuff -- our nutrition is very dependent on these microbes, and there is every reason to think that their ecology affects our overall health status as well. And we know very little about them -- heck, these guys are using the same metagenomic techniques to fine organisms in our bodies that are used to find new unidentified ocean life!" e.g., we're forced to use metabolism and byproduct analysis because most of what lives in our guts can't be cultured in vitro. Edit, 7/13/07: A recent paper came out in PNAS outlining a technique that may at least partially solve this problem.

[5] Hooper LV, Wong MH, Thelin A, Hansson L, Falk PG, Gordon JI. Molecular analysis of commensal host-microbial relationships in the intestine. Science 2001 Feb 2;291(5505):881-4.

Gregory Cochran has argued from an angle of evolutionary fitness load and allele frequency that many things we think of as being caused by genes or behavior (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis) are probably primarily mediated by pathogens.

[7] See
http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0FDN/is_2_9/ai_n6112781/pg_6 - it's also a good survey of some other complexities in this topic.

[8] This just scratches the surface of the manipulative potential of bacteria, but one such subtle strategy used by bacteria is (briefly) explained here:
"The genes responsible for toxin production only seem to be expressed during periods of nutrient deprivation. This is consistent with the view that most disease-causing bacteria express their pathogenicity when they are hungry," says Abraham Sonenshein, professor at the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts University and at Tufts University School of Medicine, at the 107th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) on May 24, 2007.

[9] Another related high-return research area which I think is a little better represented in science (but should also get more funding) is examining potential pathogenic influences on personality, e.g., along the aforementioned lines of toxoplasma gondii and
this previous post.

- I got to thinking about this when musing about America's social/political/institutional ills. Perhaps this is a longshot for trying to help explain our various institutional dysfunctions. But who knows? It could be a contributing factor. Just because the effects of gut flora are incredibly complex doesn't mean they're neutral when aggregated into larger contexts.
- At this point I don't have solid predictions on what sorts of diets tend to strengthen/weaken what sorts of personalities. Perhaps the safest thing to say is that the significant variation in human personality may have gut flora as a significant contributing factor, and also that the physiological stress of coping with a non-symbiotic flora may e.g. lead to personalities more prone to addiction.
- Though there is plenty of literature documenting correlations between gut flora and various diseases, and specific diseases and personality changes, I haven't found any literature that covers what I would like to study, which is modeling gut flora's influence on personality without the mediating frame of a specific disease.

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Quote of the Week: July 1

From a column entitled "How To Keep Hostile Jerks From Taking Over Your Online Community":
Teresa invented a technique called disemvowelling -- removing the vowels from some or all of a fiery message-board post. The advantage of this is that it leaves the words intact, but requires that you read them very slowly -- so slowly that it takes the sting out of them. And, as Teresa recently explained to me, disemvowelling part of a post lets the rest of the community know what kind of sentiment is and is not socially acceptable.

Now, the astute reader may object that this is more of an anecdote than a quote-- so here's your official quote of the week, from famed neuroscientist György Buzsáki when asked what coursework he might do differently in hindsight: I've often wondered about going into neuroscience so I found this particularly poignant.
We do not quite understand where our curiosity and motivation come from. Occasionally, we dream up an ideal life with constant happiness and success but attempts to define universal happiness and success always fail. Even if I confine your question to the "most effective road to systems neuroscience", it is hard to make up an ideal curriculum. Perhaps, I wish I had learned more math and engineering, and got exposed to a world-class laboratory environment from the beginning. But whereas possession of tools is useful in answering questions, the critical factors in science seem to relate to asking an important question and building up a sufficiently intense motivation to solve it. Living in a suppressive regime at the time when my interest in the brain emerged made me focus on inhibition. This may not have happened under other conditions. Hardship and failure can be as formative of character and creativity as a barrage of positive feedback and supportive advisors. (emphasis added).


Quote of the Week: June 24 (updated)

From Paul Graham's essay, Writing, Briefly:
I think it's far more important to write well than most people realize. Writing doesn't just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you're bad at writing and don't like to do it, you'll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated.
Edit, 6-27-07: I often wonder about what traits or habits of mind are connected to being a good writer, and (for example) whether I should try to vote for political candidates who write their own books and speeches. Realistically, though, the benefits Graham identifies of being able to write largely come from the actual act of writing-- one can't benefit from writing if they don't sit down and do it. So I'd encourage everyone to try to budget time to actually sit down and write, whether they think they're particularly good at it or not.


Quote of the Week: June 17

Lawrence Lessig, speaking about the scorched-earth inefficiencies of modern copyright in Free Culture:
The list could go on, but the obvious point is this: Physical property and the intangible property we call copyright are different. Jefferson pointed to one difference. But the really crucial difference that I’ve been trying to get people to see is that physical property systems have a host of techniques to assure that the property system is efficient. Copyright does not. Copyright is the least efficient property system constructed by government — which is saying a lot. And rather than continue sophomoric debates about who is “stealing” what, it’s about time that policymakers — and industry leaders — took responsibility for the inefficiency that copyright is.
I've been a fan of Lessig for quite some time, and I've usually agreed with him in principle, but some recent issues with image rights on Citizendium has really driven home this point. There's an incredible amount of intellectual wealth rotting away, lonely and desolate because its copyright status can't be confirmed or its owner can't be found, or because the copyright system is just too thorny for people and organizations to navigate. Really great, cool things aren't happening not because of any economic reason but solely because our copyright system sucks.

One of the most recent copyright issues to come up on Citizendium is of museums and stock image companies trying to re-copyright old public domain images in various ways--some argue that they own the copyright on their 'artfully' scanned images of public domain works; others try to lock down reuse via contracts; still others embed their own copyrighted watermarks in their scans of public domain works. Any readers have pointers on what the current legal precedents on these issues are?


Quote of the Week: June 10

From the NYT:

The world’s cleverest designers, said Dr. Polak, a former psychiatrist who now runs an organization helping poor farmers become entrepreneurs, cater to the globe’s richest 10 percent, creating items like wine labels, couture and Maseratis.

And iPods. Today's WWDC was pretty amazing: if someone like Steve Jobs (and, realistically, a core support team) donated 10% of their time to charitable design causes, the world would become a better place for many people in fairly short order. In general, I think creativity is often lacking in non-profit enterprises: too often charitable foundations see their mission as more-or-less one of wealth (re)distribution, and framed like that, there's not much room for innovation, nor much reason to aggressively recruit top minds.

This is one reason I'm so excited to see Google.org coming online: it's a "for-profit" charity, i.e., its fundamental mission is charitable but it has a freer hand as it can enter into for-profit ventures. They need not make money, but if they do, the money goes back into other charitable ventures. Google also took the step of giving it 1% of Google assets across the board- which includes $1 billion and 1% of Google engineers.

Interesting times.


A Treat

I'm almost done with a series of posts-- they're on the abstract side, but they were fun to write and should be a treat to read. Expect something big 'soonish'.


Quote of the Week: June 3

Watching the political debate last night brought this quote to mind. It's not meant to be snarky. But I do think it's true.
If you cannot be the master of your language, you must be its slave. If you cannot examine your thoughts, you have no choice but to think them, however silly they may be.
Richard Mitchell, Less Than Words Can Say



Jason Calacanis, serial entrepreneur, just launched Mahalo, a search engine where users get hand-crafted portal-like results for common search queries. It's based on the theory that many people are searching for the same things, that search engine spam is making Google less useful for common queries, and that humans are still wiser than algorithms at sifting through results and finding the really good stuff. Essentially, the site plans to have employees (along with a dash of user-submitted content) build a portal of links to the best information for each popular search term. If a portal doesn't yet exist for a search term, Mahalo returns Google results by default.

The idea caught my eye as innovative. It might even work. So here's my feedback to Jason: it seems to me that where Mahalo really has the potential to shine (yet is only doing a middling job at, currently) is in giving context. Half of the human-powered-search equation, and most of the work, is having real people do the research and come up with the best links on a topic. The second half is giving people enough context to know what they should click on. Mahalo has lists of great links, but it also needs to tell the story of each link. It'd only take 3-5 words each, max. A link without a story about what you'll find there and why you should take the page seriously isn't any better than a random Google result.

A lot of entries do pretty well at this- air conditioner, sake, cholesterol management; some don't- yoga, obesity (I'm mostly going off the Top 7 links). But since giving intelligent link context is something human-powered search could do really well and is really helpful for people, and also something that Google can't do, I think it'd be worthwhile for Mahalo to make it a top priority.

So, that's the angle I'd suggest for competing against Google. With a short (3-5 word) story about each link, search results for common queries could be better, more contextual, and more concise. Competing against Wikipedia-as-a-search-engine will actually be tougher, I think, since Mahalo's portal-style search results and Wikipedia's summary-style articles occupy overlapping niches.

Finally, some search engine diversity!


Quote of the Week: May 27

Via John Hawks, a paper entitled Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: problems with using long words needlessly. Here's the abstract:

Most texts on writing style encourage authors to avoid overly-complex words. However, a majority of undergraduates admit to deliberately increasing the complexity of their vocabulary so as to give the impression of intelligence. This paper explores the extent to which this strategy is effective. Experiments 1-3 manipulate complexity of texts and find a negative relationship between complexity and judged intelligence. This relationship held regardless of the quality of the original essay, and irrespective of the participants' prior expectations of essay quality. The negative impact of complexity was mediated by processing fluency. Experiment 4 directly manipulated fluency and found that texts in hard to read fonts are judged to come from less intelligent authors. Experiment 5 investigated discounting of fluency. When obvious causes for low fluency exist that are not relevant to the judgement at hand, people reduce their reliance on fluency as a cue; in fact, in an effort not to be influenced by the irrelevant source of fluency, they over-compensate and are biased in the opposite direction. Implications and applications are discussed (emphasis added).


Quote of the Week: May 20

Parents are being warned to think long and hard when choosing names for their babies as research has discovered that girls who are given very feminine names, such as Anna, Emma or Elizabeth, are less likely to study maths or physics after the age of 16, a remarkable study has found.

Both subjects, which are traditionally seen as predominantly male, are far more popular among girls with names such as Abigail, Lauren and Ashley, which have been judged as less feminine in a linguistic test. The effect is so strong that parents can set twin daughters off on completely different career paths simply by calling them Isabella and Alex, names at either end of the spectrum. A study of 1,000 pairs of sisters in the US found that Alex was twice as likely as her twin to take maths or science at a higher level.

The Observer, Names really do make a difference, 4-29-07.


Quote of the Week: May 13

At the University of Bristol in England, gene-chip analysis — the marriage of DNA chemistry and silicon electronics — shows that the same variety of wheat expresses its genes very differently depending on whether it’s grown in conventional or organic conditions.
When Science Sniffs Around the Kitchen, The New York Times

I've got to think that these sorts of findings- along with the established trend that today's fruits and vegetables are significantly less nutritious than those of 1950- may help take organics more fully mainstream in the next few years.


Quote of the Week: May 6

I'm debating whether my blog should be a politics-free zone. I'm leaning toward "yes" right now, but if you have a preference feel free to say so in the comments. In the meantime, a little lighter quote of the week by Scott Adams of "Dilbert" fame:
It’s important to agree with people if you want them to think you are a genius. For most people, the definition of smart is “Thinks exactly like me but even more so.”


A Modest Proposal (Political Ads)

The content of political ads in the U.S. is very, very loosely regulated. Unlike every other sort of advertisement, political candidates can (at least in most circumstances) make blatantly false or misleading statements with blanket immunity in the name of free speech. And, as anyone who's watched a television come election time, this quickly turns things into a mudslinging race to the bottom.

Some have clamored for government regulation to curb false or misleading statements-- but it's not at all clear that we could trust (say) the FCC to be a good gatekeeper for political discourse, nor whether trying to outlaw false statements wouldn't mire political campaigning in layers and layers of frivolous and non-frivolous lawsuits to be sorted out laboriously and expensively by the legal system. Simply put, the legal system doesn't move fast enough to mediate political debate, nor do we want the side with the best lawyers to win.

So, besides government regulation, what can be done to help our political discourse suck less?

I'd like to suggest something that could be put into play by any candidate, at any time, with little expense and no legal reforms necessary. Essentially, if one found oneself in a dirty race where ones opponent was making blatantly false or misleading statements, instead of just slugging back, they could ask a respected, neutral third party to fact-check their advertisements before airing, and inform their viewers about it. I envision a statement like this at the end of a political ad:

"There's a loophole where political candidates can legally say almost anything to get elected, true or false. We thought you deserved better, so we had the official Congressional Research Service review this ad and they found it non-misleading and factually correct. Can candidate X say the same?"

As with so many other things, the devil's in the details- what famously neutral research organization would resonate well enough with voters (and agree to participate) so the other side couldn't just bring in their own obscure partisan "factcheckers"? Could you use this against last-week-of-the-election smear campaigns? Where do you draw the boundary on 'misleading'? How do you fit this into a small part of a thirty-second ad- and so forth. But I think such things could be worked out and that this strategy would likely improve political discourse- and since taking the moral high ground first is so powerful, it might even help win some elections.


Modern Dragons, Now With 20% More Umlauts

CHiLLi.cc, an Austrian youth magazine, is running a short article on Citizendium written by yours truly! You can check it out in its original English form or the German translation. It's a good summary of the differences between Citizendium and Wikipedia and the rationale for those differences.

Some personal musings-
The realities of Citizendium's situation mean that the more we publicize Wikipedia's flaws the more likely we are to succeed. That's not something I relish, as I personally like Wikipedia a lot for what it is, and I'd also rather be making Wikipedia better than criticizing it-- but since a thriving Citizendium is good for the world (and, I strongly believe, good for Wikipedia itself) I've accepted it.

Tip o' the hat, Wikipedia.


Quote of the Week: April 29

From "Scientific Success: What's Love Got to Do With It?" via gnxp.com:
Several years ago, Satoshi Kanazawa, then a psychologist at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, analyzed a biographical database of 280 great scientists--mathematicians, physicists, chemists, and biologists. When he calculated the age of each scientist at the peak of his career--the sample was predominantly male--Kanazawa noted an interesting trend. After a crest during the third decade of life, scientific productivity--as evidenced by major discoveries and publications--fell off dramatically with age. When he looked at the marital history of the sample, he found that the decline in productivity was less severe among men who had never been married. As a group, unmarried scientists continued to achieve well into their late 50s, and their rates of decline were slower.

"The productivity of male scientists tends to drop right after marriage," says Kanazawa in an e-mail interview from his current office at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the United Kingdom. "Scientists tend to 'desist' from scientific research upon marriage, just like criminals desist from crime upon marriage."

Kanazawa's perhaps controversial perspective is that of an evolutionary psychologist. "Men conduct scientific research (or do anything else) in order to attract women and get married (albeit unconsciously)," he says. "What's the point of doing science (or anything else) if one is already married? Marriage (or, more accurately reproductive success, which men can usually attain only through marriage) is the goal; science or anything else men do is but a means. From my perspective, scientists are no different than anybody else; evolutionary psychology applies to all humans equally," he adds.


Quote of the Week: April 22

I'm going to make a strong statement-- I think Ray Kurzweil's "The Singularity is Near" was probably the most important book written in 2005. If you're at all curious about what sorts of- and what degree of- technology the future may hold, I suggest you pick it up. I think most readers of this blog would find it at least thought-provoking, and possibly world-changing. However, as I mentioned in my review, I do find it incomplete-- it gets at the economic, scientific, and technological aspects of technological change, but (in my opinion) gets the social, political, and human implications very wrong. As a hardcore geek, Kurzweil understands technology and has all sorts of thoughts on how he'd augment his body with advances in biotechnology and nanotechnology. But how geeks deal with technology is going to be a lot different than how the rest of the world- especially on the level of societies- does.

I'm convinced that the futurist community is really on to something and in fact has a type of wisdom about the future that the rest of society doesn't. For instance, I buy their argument that there is likely to be more technological and social change in the next twenty years than the last hundred, and I find Kurzweil's "law of accelerating returns" to be at once a simple yet awe-inspiring insight. But a community of technology geeks is really only prepared to offer half the story about the future, and until the insights of the futurist community really seep into public consciousness and "people geeks" join the discussion (define that as you will), that's how things will stand.

With that in mind, here's a quote from 10zenmonkeys.com's "Why Chicks Don't Dig the Singularity":
I think male geeks in the futurist community assume that human nature is the same as the nature of male geeks in the futurist community. And it’s kind of become a little religion; we have our own Rapture and our own eschatology and all that sort of stuff. But I think the idea of merging with machine intelligence is not appealing to lots of different kinds of people. And so when we talk about it, we talk as if this tiny sector of human experience –- and the kinds of enhancements male geeks want — is all that there is. But when you describe these kinds of things to most people, they’re not necessarily enthused. They’re more often afraid. So I think we need a clearer idea of what is universal in human needs to be able to explain The Singularity.