February 28, 2005

Like Most Revelations   {Comments: 153}

after Morris Louis

It is the movement that incites the form,
discovered as a downward rapture -- yes,
it is the movement that delights the form,
sustained by its own velocity. And yet

it is the movement that delays the form
while darkness slows and encumbers; in fact
it is the movement that betrays the form,
baffled in such toils of ease, until

it is the movement that deceives the form,
beguiling our attention -- we supposed
it is the movement that achieves the form.
Were we mistaken? What does it matter if

it is the movement that negates the form?
Even though we give up (give up) ourselves
to this mortal process of continuing,
it is the movement that creates the form.

--Richard Howard, 1992

The garden ring   {Comments: 3}

Craig Berman has an interesting feature over at Gapers Block about Chicago's El. He starts out by detailing the plans for a circle line and the progress that has been made so far; then he turns to his own proposals, which range from insightful but unlikely to pie in the sky. Maybe I'm a public transportation geek, but I had a lot of fun poring over the maps he put together.

For me the most important point he made was about the bottom of the proposed circle line, which fails to extend all the way around to the Red and Green Lines, effectively isolating the south side:

Let's complete the "Circle Line" by connecting the Orange, Red, and Green Lines on the South Side. This final spur would truly complete the Circle Line by running a subway from the Ashland Orange Line stop, down 35th street through Bridgeport, and terminating at a "Superstation" that would link the Circle Line to the 35th/Sox Red Line stop and the 35th/Bronzeville-IIT Green Line stop. The Circle Line would live up to its name and break the rapid transit boundary between the South and the Southwest Sides.
It's hard to believe the plan appeared at all with this glaring omission. The boundary he's talking about is more than just a rapid transit boundary; it's a hard border in the form of the Dan Ryan Expressway, engineered by Richard J. Daley to keep the south side (and its residents!) separate from the rest of the city. Shouldn't efforts be made to include them now? It's amazing how little things change.

I suppose you could look at this in terms of usage and who wants to get where; maybe they've done some research to see who wants to go where, and based their plans on the need. But this gets to Berman's point about the El as an enabler. Any time you're talking about transportation there has to be a kind of build it and they will come mentality, since naturally it's hard to project future need of a resource without some provision of it in the present. In this

February 27, 2005

Unethical vegetarianism   {Comments: 6}

Pejman Yousefzadeh points out this story about the dangers of a vegetarian diet for children. Here's the relevant researcher, Lindsay Allen:

"If you're talking about feeding young children and pregnant women and lactating women I would go as far as to say it is unethical to withhold these foods during that period of life," she said. "There's a lot of empirical research that will show the very adverse effects on child development of doing that."


Prof Allen made the claims after her research showed that adding just two spoonfuls of meat to the daily diet of poverty-stricken children in Africa transformed them physically and mentally. Over two years the children almost doubled their muscle development, and showed dramatic improvements in mental skills. They also became more active, talkative and playful at school.


The African study involved 544 children in Kenya, typically aged about seven, whose diet chiefly consists of starchy, low-nutrition corn and bean staples lacking these micronutrients. Over a period of two years, one group of the children was given a daily supplement of two ounces of meat. Two other groups received a cup of milk a day or an oil supplement containing the same amount of energy. A fourth group ate their normal diet.

This experiment seems pretty useless as an indicator of anything except the dietary needs of children in Kenya. Most of the time when you talk about vegetarianism in the United States, the diet is more varied than just "starchy, low-nutrition corn and bean staples" -- every vegetarian I know likes fresh vegetables, for example, and most are careful to include proteins (pulses!) of different kinds in their diets.

Also, it makes me wonder about cultures that are traditionally vegetarian. I know a goodly number of whip-smart Indians who haven't eaten two ounces of meat in their whole lives. Are they experiencing the same adverse effects? Maybe some research on the effects of different vegetarian diets (Kenyan vs Indian, vegan vs vegetarian) is in order...

Checking your credit   {Comments: 336}

The other night on Chicago Tonight they were discussing identity theft (the context was this ChoicePoint business) and the new free credit reports that Americans can get this year. The host asked the experts whether these credit inquiries wouldn't reduce people's credit ratings, since generally inquiries have an effect on your credit rating. One expert (a professor at NWU's law school whose name I can't remember and unfortunately couldn't find) sort of dodged the question by saying that if everyone around the country asked for a credit report, this wouldn't be a problem, because the scores are calculated relative to others' scores. The big problem with this explanation is that there will be defectors -- there's a major incentive here not to get the credit report when everyone else is going it. So that didn't make any sense.

At any rate, I've been noodling around the internet, and it turns out the "expert" was wrong. There are actually two kinds of credit inquries, soft and hard; and only hard inquiries, made for example by credit card companies when you open a new account, affect your rating. Soft inquiries, including inquiries by individuals and potential employers, don't have any effect on scores. I mention this beause it seems to be a common misconception.

Also, I can find no evidence (see, for instance, here, here, and here) that credit ratings are calculated relative to others' scores. They may be treated relatively in the market, so that if everyone's score suddenly declined, lower scores would be accepted for the same transactions. But this is a market effect, not part of the score itself, and presumably there would be a considerable lag.

MORE: Sweth fleshes this out considerably in comments.

February 24, 2005

Cash and carry   {Comments: 3}

Carl Nyberg over at Blogging Blagojevich's Blunders critiques the Blagojevich plan (who else's?) to fix some perverse incentives built into the teachers pension fund system. Basically the problem is that the local school boards are giving big raises to teachers right before they retire which ups their pension amount considerably (since the pension is calculated on salaries in the most recent years). The problem is that local school boards don't pay for this, the state does -- it's sort of an unfunded mandate in reverse. From the Trib's editorial:

[T]axpayers should be asking why in the world cash-strapped school boards have been guaranteeing massive pay increases in long-term contracts.
Isn't this obvious? Local school boards are accountable to local constituencies, so naturally they're going to try to get and retain the best teachers they can. This means paying the most, and since they can increase their teachers' pensions dramatically by paying a big raise for only one year, that's what they're going to do. Since the boards only have to pay for the raise (and not the higher pension) out of their own budget, it's a way of leveraging those funds, given the (poorly constructed) constraints they have to work with. This practice is apparently common and accepted enough now that it's written into some teacher's contracts.

Blagojevich's response has been to look for a way to put a limit on those end-of-career pay raises -- basically he wants to impose a 3% limit on these raises, beyond which the local school board would have to pay for the increases. Nyberg thinks this is a unfair:

[B]y kicking the problem back to the school districts G-Rod is creating a situation where the local boards have two choices. They can either cut services to pay for pensions or raise property taxes. And remember they have to do this in the context of having their health care costs rise significantly more than the rate of inflation.

Rod's "fix" is really just shifting the tax burden to the property tax and creating a grunch of crises at the local level.

While I sympathize somewhat with the school boards, the state simply cannot allow this practice to continue, and unless the local school boards are made responsible for the pension costs they incur, what's to stop them from making these commitments again? I can't speak to the specific numbers, but Blagojevich's plan is the right idea -- it puts the budgetary responsibility with the decision makers, eliminating the incentives that led to this situation to begin with.

Now, should there be a grandfather clause that commits the state to paying for the pensions related to raises in contracts already signed? I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, it seems a little unfair to change the rules and expect the school boards to honor those commitments (which are legally binding) with local tax money. But on the other hand, the property taxes that will have to be paid on these teachers' contracts would actually be paid by the constituents who receive the services. If bigger contracts pay for better teachers, shouldn't the localities that benefit from those better teachers be the ones paying for them?

February 23, 2005

The rest of life pales in significance   {Comments: 5}

William Saletan has written an article about the retirement age, arguing that it should be dramatically increased based on some comparisons with the state of affairs when Social Security was enacted (the piece has a kind of originalist flavor). The arguments are reasonable, and just intiuitively it makes sense that we should be increasing the retirement age as lifespans increase; but he's missing a major point. Retirement has come to mean something in this society -- it's a whole phase of life now, one that people spend a lifetime preparing for and looking forward to. There really wasn't a concept of retirement at the time Social Security was enacted, since most people worked until they were feeble; you could say that the retirement phenomenon was a huge unintended consequence of Social Security.

This might actually be the sticking point when you talk about intergenerational equity -- not the money one generation is paying to another, but the right (and Americans do see this as a right) to retire and live out our years in travel or consumption or just sitting around watching TV. Each generation pays for the retirement of the previous generation and looks forward to its own, and when we think about progress, the biggest effect middle-class Americans see in their lives is a longer, richer retirement. Is Saletan really going to deny them that?

By the way, I'm not entirely sold on the concept of retirement in its stylized, ideal form as you see it in ads for investment firms. Aren't a lot of older Americans taken by surprise when they get to retirement age and don't know what to do with themselves? I can only provide anecdotal evidence here, but when I was working at Social Security I was amazed at the number of people who contacted us about returning to work after retirement. Folks that age face any number of depressing circumstances, and feeling useless has to be high on the list.

February 21, 2005

Don't be evil   {Comments: 6}

Mithras clued me in Saturday to the big change in Google's ranking algorithm last week. It's still not clear exactly what the change was, but the result is that most blogs have experienced dramatic falls in their Google search placement. These falls seem to be independent of Google page rank and are affecting some blogs differently than others. In my case, this blog is no longer the first hit for "locussolus" or "paul goyette" -- enter the latter right now and you won't find this page in the top 100 results. I find this irksome, but it's not really that big a deal; the people who read this site usually didn't find it through a Google search, and the people who do find it through a Google search were probably looking for something else. (Of course, this is not the case for all blogs.)

The comments and trackbacks to Mithras's post contain a number of hypotheses about the possible mechanics and rationales behind this change, but it's clearly related to Google's attempts to thwart comment spammers. It may also be have something to do with the new nofollow attribute, but that can't be the only explanation since not all sites have been affected equally (in particular, many self-hosted sites don't seem to have been affected at all). At any rate, I'm still trying to come to grips with the consequences and implications of this change; I'm going to try to work through them here.

Search engines, and in particular Google, are really becoming the gatekeepers for the world's information. Not all information can be found through Google, but things are definitely moving in that direction -- the decisions to encode major libraries in the United States (and by the way the rest of the world won't be left out for long) and to make academic papers available through Google Scholar are part of a grand and somewhat utopian scheme to make all the world's information available to everyone -- or at least, all the information that's not under copyright!

But Google's growing status as gatekeeper for the world's information means that it makes crucial decisions about access. Not all information is equally important or equally relevant to a particular query, so information is ranked. This ranking may just be a matter of convenience when you're teaking your algorithm in the early '90s, but when literally everything is online and the internet is the medium for public discourse, it becomes a question of power, influence, and quiet marginalization. Surveying the situation today, I have no doubt that this is where we're headed.

What's so magical about the folks at Google is that even when they were tweaking their algorithm back in the early '90s, they foresaw the potential for these deep issues of speech and access. So instead of relying exclusively on content analysis, they built their model to incorporate the implicit views of the internet's readers and writers: they counted links, and they used their count to estimate a given site's authority on a particular search term, or in general. This was a profound and elegant achivement. Yes, it made search more accurate. But more than that, it codified the web's already democratic ethos -- tying search results to the actions of writers demystified search and gave content creators more power in the form of links. And while Google's new algorithm was somewhat prone to manipulation -- that's what's precipitated this whole crisis -- the very reason it could be manipulated was that it was transparent.

Today we have the blog, a phenomenon that's emerged largely because of the authority given to links and Google's transparency with respect to that authority. It's a phenomenon that takes that democratic ethos to the next level by removing virtually all the costs (financial, but also in terms of the required technical knowledge) associated with self-publication. Mix in Google's method of ranking search results, and you have a situation where millions of people have been moved to new acts of speech and are engaged in a worldwide discourse. If you hold freedom of expression dear, this is a monumental achievement.

Of course, there are also the spammers, who take the same democratizing elegance of Google's system and turn it on its head: by flooding my comment section (and yours) with links, they're able to increase their (or their client's) page rank, which means more traffic and presumably more sales. Google has lately attempted to solve this problem by removing some links from its search results -- so for instance blogs hosted with Blogger now use a nofollow tag to exclude links in comments from Google's ranking calculations, and MT has made a plugin available.

And it makes sense that Google would try to effect some change centrally rather than counting on individual bloggers to spam-proof their sites. For the bloggers, this is a classic collective action problem: if all bloggers took the same anti-spam actions, nobody would have to deal with spam; but an individual blogger's actions don't have much effect on the overall comment spam situation on the internet, so there's little incentive for the individual to act, except perhaps to get rid of local spam. Unfortunately, this isn't enough incentive for every blogger, and adding plugins or other anti-spam software can require technical skills that not everyone has, or has the will to acquire. Google, on the other hand, has an enormous incentive to act unilaterally. Their search engine, built to reflect individuals' search needs, loses some of its usefulness if it can be polluted by comment spam. The concern over this growing problem had to be one of the major considerations in their acquisition of Blogger, and it's almost certainly behind this latest change in their search algorithm. Deemphasizing blogs in their ranking calculation means deemphasizing all of that comment spam as well.

In various comments and responses I've read, there are people who view this adjustment as a good thing. Some seem to think that assigning authority to all those links has had a corrupting effect on blogs, even though blogs would never have built the powerful network between them without them. Others hope it will reduce the spam problem, and they might be right -- although past experience suggests spammers will find a way to exploit any system that gives individual users any discretion at all. Still others are glad that search results will be easiler to read without all those irrelevant blog posts, which is reasonable enough as long as you don't care about the content on blogs.

But even beyond these practical considerations (which at any rate I find uncompelling), there are important questions of value that have to be dealt with. In this case the issue is one of form -- the blog is being subordinated in search results to other forms, such as the static informational website or the online store. Does this formal subordination reflect a judgment about the value of the content on blogs? If so, it's an extraordinarily crude generalization; while many blogs may not contain information of value to others, there are also plenty of blogs that do. Are the recipes at Too Many Chefs less valuable than those at David's Yum Yums just because one is a blog and the other is not? And even if it's not an explicit judgment about blog content, the judgment is implicit in the adjustments Google has made to its algorithm, and strikingly so. Regardless of the reason, individual writers (citizen journalists!) are being written out of equation and power is being taken from them.

What's really unnerving about this seizure is that Google and the other major search players are all corporate entities. This means that their incentive structure is (naturally) about finding ways to make a profit. So Google may care about the accuracy of its search algorithm, but only because it indirectly supports the goal of selling more ads to generate revenue, which is necessarily Google's overriding concern. From an economic perspective, there are really two problems with letting the market handle search. First, major search players have little incentive to safeguard public speech or treat it the same as corporate speech. Competition won't lead to provision or protection of public speech because it's simply not in the interests of corporate entities. The other problem is that there are insurmountable barriers to entry in search. The major players all crawl and cache huge portions of the net, but for the would-be alternative search engine, this is a serious hardware challenge. There's a reason that we don't see serious challenges to Google's dominance very often (and that when we do, it's from Microsoft).

When Google changes its algorithm to diminish the authority of blogs, we're left with other kinds of authorities -- some traditional media, some educational institutions and non-profits, but mostly businesses. That Google's advertising market consists primarily of these same businesses is obviously a conflict -- not a legal conflict, of course, since there's no regulation on this point, but rather a conflict of value systems. The central issue of this whole discussion is what it means for content to have value. In a capitalist setting we value things in terms of dollars, and even when there are other kinds of values involved we can usually find a way (through the magic of revealed preference) to convert them into dollar terms. But there are other important values that are difficult to quantify in this way. We live in a free market society. Well, in order for markets to function efficiently, there has to be a strong flow of information among consumers and firms. But this can't happen when a single corporation (or even a group of major search players) controls both the information and its presentation, and can strategically change both in respose to its own incentives. We live in a democracy. Well, in order for a democracy to function properly, individuals have to have as complete a picture as possible of their government and the state of the world. This can't happen when the corporation controlling the information is willing to marginalize an entire class of speech because its own business model is threatened!

There's no strong conclusion to be made here. I don't think that Google is evil yet, and there's every reason to think they're still in the process of solving the spam problem, and that their solution will be more subtle than what we've seen so far. But that doesn't change the fact that these institutions (eg the entire store of human knowledge, and how it's organized) need to be safeguarded by someone who has some incentive to actually do some safeguarding. Certainly there will be plenty more incidents like this in the future to remind us how much power Google et al wield and for what ends; but in the meantime aren't there some basic steps we can take? The most obvious would be a demand (made by the public or the government) that all search algorithms be entirely transparent. This would obviously be a blow to the search business, but it might just be a reasonable price to pay to be the gatekeeper for all human knowledge. And as I mentioned before, the main barrier to entry in search is probably the cost of hardware rather than the algorithm; also it might be possible for the algorithm to remain proprietary even if it's public (although the lack of good international protections makes this a little thorny).

We should probably also be thinking about specific content rights concerning speech and access. Some system of minimal fairness requirements for how content is to be sorted by search engines and how this relates to both the reader and the writer of content would seem to be in order, even if they're non-binding. Some guidelines on this -- even just a more formal and gracious version of the terms of service that are already out there -- could do a lot to reassure the public, even absent the total transparency called for above.

February 19, 2005

Selection criteria   {Comments: 6}

My friend Pamela has started a new blog called Dare I Speak? and she's already got some deliciously wrongheaded posts up. The first reads media obsession over Kinsey's sexual habits as a way of advancing the homosexual agenda (!) rather than as simple voyeurism or even scholarship (since, after all, Kinsey was writing about sex). The latest is about the phenomenon -- which, by the way, I'm having a hard time documenting with a link -- of newborns with ambiguous gender who aren't assigned a gender by their parents or doctors at birth and instead get to "choose" their gender around preschool age as they begin to identify with one gender or the other:

This whole idea of having a child pick its gender is preposterous. How could something so critical as deciding which sex a child will have to grow into become its own decision at such a young age?
I'm not sure if the idea that the child would pick a gender is preposterous or not, but it's certainly no less preposterous than letting the parents pick when the child is still newborn, given the enormity of the decision and the complete lack of available information at that time. While I can sympathize with the desire to protect a small child from such a weighty decision, it might be a misconstrual to call it a decision in the first place. In fact, the hope in waiting should be that the child will reveal some preference, not by achieving a precocious sense of self and sexuality at age 5, but through social behavior and interaction. Maybe this is dubious, but surely it's at least as good an indicator of the child's lifetime gender identification as anything available to the parents at the moment of birth.

Pamela goes on to say that in cases where the parents choose the wrong gender (she calls this the worst case scenario, even though there's no reason to believe it won't happen in a large percentage of cases), individuals can choose to have a sex change operation later in life. This suggests that 1) some individuals may prefer one gender over the other, even if it's ambiguous at birth; and 2) individuals gain more information about their gender identification with time. If both these things are true, isn't waiting at least a reasonable course to consider?

Research might shed some light on this, but unless/until there's someway to quantify the traumas associated with growing up with the wrong gender and having a sex-change operation on the one hand and going a few years without an identified gender on the other, it's going to be difficult to weigh a decision. In the meantime, experts and those actually facing the decision have made their best guess, and until better research comes along I'm comfortable with that -- more comfortable, at least, than I am with broad, ideological pronouncements!

UPDATE: Pamela has provided this link, which apparently prompted her post.

February 17, 2005

The party of Social Security   {Comments: 8}

I'm starting to be seriously concerned about the way the Democrats are approaching the Social Security issue. The calculation seems to be that the Republicans have neither the numbers nor the unity necessary to pass sweeping changes without help; so the Democrats have adopted this uncompromising stance where there's nothing wrong with Social Security as it is now. The problem is, this claim is obviously untrue. Social Security is going to face huge deficits over the next few decades. Whether these deficits are smaller or larger than other deficits (created by the Bush tax cuts, for example) has nothing to do with whether there's a problem with Social Security; it's a sour grapes argument, and it's all we're hearing from the Democrats.

The Bush plan is easy enough to attack, even with the sketchy details we have now. It doesn't fix Social Security's budget problems, which would seem to be a fatal flaw given the way Bush has presented it. It cuts benefits and bases its projections on an overly optimistic return beyond inflation. Most importantly, it's a very un-Republican attempt to publicize the entire retirement account system in the United States -- where any number of retirement account options already exist. Surely this last point is one the Democrats could make forcefully; isn't Bush's program just a massive expansion of government? And one that fails to address the real problems with Social Security?

Taegan Goddard links to a Washington Wire poll indicating that Americans (and even a big chunk of Republicans) want the Democrats to be an opposition party. But heckling the passing parade isn't going to do it. The Democrats need to seize this issue and make it their own -- it's as good a place as any to finally begin to redefine what it means to be a Democrat.

Borscht 4.0   {Comments: 0}

Last Saturday we had our fourth annual borscht party. Every year I worry that we're over-hyping the event, because I always feel like cooking the soup is amateur hour -- I've never found a recipe that's excited me, and in general I don't think of borscht as a soup to thrill (a problem compounded by the dietary restrictions of our more, well, vegetarian guests).

The whole affair has its genesis in two experiences I had in college. One was a small dinner party with a vegetarian borscht whipped up by one of my friends (she ended up with a PhD in slavics, naturally) and some nice thick ribeye steaks grilled well beyond perfection by another -- there was nothing to do but chop up the steak and put it in the borscht. The other experience was with the parents of a Russian friend; his step-father taught me to eat the stuff in a very particular way: first, a bite out of a raw garlic clove dipped in salt; second, a bite of black bread thickly slathered with warm butter; third, a spoonful of borscht with plenty of sour cream mixed in; fourth, a shot of vodka, apparently as a chaser. This is, of course, the regimen we impose on our guests at the annual party. And if I ever get a grill, we'll be charring ribeyes as a garnish.

Anyway, the real point of this post isn't to tell stories, but to publish the recipe we used and comment a little on how it might be improved for next year. I must warn you that it's a work in progress, but for those who have asked (and for me, reading sometime next winter) here's a loose approximation of what we did this year:

4 medium yellow onions finely chopped
10 medium beets, peeled and cubed
10 medium carrots, peeled and cubed
1 bunch of celery, chopped
5 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 medium heads of cabbage, shredded
1/2 gallon vegetable stock
caraway seeds
sherry vinegar
white wine
safflower oil

1. Saute the onions in a large skillet over high heat with plenty of butter until translucent; place in a large stock pot. Deglaze the skillet with white wine and reduce; add the liquid to the pot with the onions.

2. Sweat the celery in a small amount of butter; add them to the pot.

3. Lightly salt the cabbage and saute it in butter, probably in batches (depending on the size of your skillet). Add the cabbage to the pot and deglaze the skillet with white wine as before.

4. Toss the cubed carrots and beets in a couple tablespoons of safflower oil and spread them evenly on a cookie sheet or two (we lined the cookie sheet with foil). Roast them at 350F for about 30 minutes, or until slightly caramelized. Add these to the pot as well.

5. Add the vegetable stock, 1-2 tablespoons of vinegar, 1-2 cups white wine, salt and pepper to taste, and maybe 1/4 tsp caraway seeds; bring to a light boil and then simmer. (At this point we refrigerated the soup overnight.)

6. About 90 minutes before serving, add the potatoes and continue to simmer. Serve with raw garlic cloves (peeled!), salt, black bread and butter, sour cream or creme fraiche, and vodka as described above. This recipe made enough for maybe 16 people as a main course.

The real departure here was the roasted beets and carrots; we were looking for a way to bring out the sweetness of the beets in this soup. It didn't really work -- the soup ended up being dominated (as usual) by the cabbage and wasn't nearly as sweet as we were hoping. Moreover, the beets lost their color to an extent I don't remember from years past -- in the final presentation they were almost indistinguishable from the potatoes! I don't know if this was the result of the roasting, the long simmering, or both.

It may sound extravagant, but next year we'll probably do steps 1-5 without the roasting or the caraway seeds, simmer for awhile, discard the vegetables, reduce the liquid, and call that the stock. Then on the day the borscht is to be eaten we'll start over, same vegetables, maybe with less cabbage, and do it all again. No need, I think, to roast the carrots, but we'll roast the beets as described above and add them near the end, so they retain their color and their sweetness in the final presentation. Or at least, that's what we'll do unless we think of something more interesting.

(By the way, borscht may not be the preferred spelling. My friend -- the one with the PhD -- writes it as borshch, which is a standard transliteration; I believe borsch would also be acceptable, but under a different system. I used borscht because that's what I've always done, and also because that seems to be the spelling in widest use -- it dominates the others, if only just, in Google hits.)

February 15, 2005

Netfix   {Comments: 4}

Apparently Netflix's ranking algorithm (for deciding which customer gets those DVDs first when they're scarce) favors new customers and those who return their DVDs less frequently -- at least, according to Will Baude and some informal research he's dug up.

Attending to new customers (especially those in the free two week trial period) seems logical enough, as does skewing the model toward more profiable customers, ie those who return their DVDs less frequently but nonetheless pay the same flat fee. Baude, a real consumer's consumer, wants to take action on this, but says he's stuck in "conflict aversion" about the situation. Does the situation really warrant action? Calculations about the profitability of different customers aside, doesn't it make sense to take care of those who use the service less? And why is a system that gets movies to the least frequent users more quickly any less fair than one which takes orders on a first come, first served basis? To my mind, there's a certain logic to a system that prioritizes users in this way.

Of course, none of this precludes a challenge from an irate Baude, based in whatever logic he can muster -- and probably Netflix should be more transparent with its algorithm if it wants to keep customers. But the implication that a system that weights some customers over others is unfair will have to be defended.

UPDATE: Baude has more.

Spoiling the broth   {Comments: 2}

Congratulations to my good friend Barrett and the rest of the Too Many Chefs crew on a full year of some of the most creative food blogging out there (and also, belatedly, on a beautiful redesign). They've managed to compile a huge library of excellent recipes, many of which are entirely first-growth. Here's to another year...

February 14, 2005

The Maltese Falcon   {Comments: 9}

It turns out today is the 75th anniversary of the publication of Dashiell Hammett's masterpiece The Maltese Falcon. And while I've been somewhat remiss about posting (but not about reading!) my 50 books, it seems appropriate to comment on this one now (I read it on a train in Italy).

I'm actually not a big reader of detective fiction, but I'd been meaning to read Hammett on the recommendation of a friend with whom I share a common interest in Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman. He was right; Hammett's spare and strictly external style blew me away, first in its similarity to Robbe-Grillet, but also in how appropriate it was for detective fiction. Maybe it was last year I read The Big Sleep, and, well, Chandler doesn't have anything on Hammett when it comes to technique, even though he was writing later. The discipline required to craft Hammett's precisely noncommital narrative -- especially when he didn't have a writing background -- is really stunning. Let me recommend Robbe-Grillet's The Erasers for those who'd like to see this technique taken to its logical conclusion.

The other thing that interested me about The Maltese Falcon was this game theory post from Baude a couple months back -- I'd been wondering just how closely the novel tracked his analyses, which, incidentally, I'm still not sure I comprehend, except in a purely academic sense (what good, I ask, are rational actors who are compelled to act according to some preimagined scheme?). What became clear in reading the novel though was just how appropriate a subject Sam Spade is in any discussion of game theory -- he's the ultimate rational actor, and he appears in an entirely amoral context. Again, the technique is central to making this work, but Hammett also makes the calculations disturbingly explicit. It's good stuff.

No money in RSS?   {Comments: 0}

Friday Venkat linked to an interesting post by Jason Calcanis about the Bloglines sale last week, in which he basically dismisses the whole web-based RSS approach to content aggregation because there's no money in it. For him the main problems seems to be that 1) this technology is already everywhere and 2) ads on these aggregation sites are a form of content exploitation.

My own thoughts on this differ some. Web-based and even desktop-based RSS readers are really about choice -- they provide faster access to content, but they also require you to go out and find which content you want aggregated. And yet RSS technology is really just a protocol for transferring information; who ever said the end user has to be involved? What if, for example, a site aggregated content from many different blogs and then presented these to you in the form of a feed or a website? If these blogs were clustered content-wise, this might be of value, both to readers and to advertisers.

Which gets to another question: why is it that bloggers don't get the respect afforded to other kinds of published writers? Obviously there are large tracts of the blogosphere that may not be of interest to anybody, much less worthy of publication. And yet there are other blogs which are actually generating ad-income of their own. When will someone come up with a business model for aggregation that actually pays bloggers for their work? It wouldn't have to be much, but even a small cut of that advertising revenue would probably entice a lot of folks. Witness the number of people who are willing to mar their blogs with flashing banner ads, for what would seem to be small compensation. It might seem like a logistical nightmare to compensate bloggers on a collective site, but there are electronic mechnisms for this like PayPal that drive the administative costs toward zero. And writers don't even have to pay self employment tax on income less than $400 per year.

Anyway, I think Jason Calcanis may be right about Bloglines's business model, but that doesn't mean that RSS technology doesn't have profitable or novel applications -- certainly there are things that we have yet to see here.

Live long and prosper   {Comments: 1}

More speculation here about exponential increases in life expectancy, with another appearance by Aubrey de Grey (see also here); the occasion for the article seems to be the Social Security debate, although I'm guessing a 5000 year lifespan would have more important (and even politically provocative) consequences than the budget deficit.

Just to point out an inaccuracy/careless statement -- the article justifies its vision of the future like this: "Since women tend to live longer than men, it's safest to imagine this astonishing life span first being enjoyed by a female." The thing is, I think the assumption that women's longer lifespan is somehow intrinsic or biological or even genetic (!) may well be wrong. I have never seen, for instance, a study comparing lifespans across people who hold employment of comparable physical difficulty, and at the same time I observe that women's lifespans have been dropping relative to men in recent years -- an indicator, perhaps, that joining the workforce is taking its toll in women's life expectancy. But whether or not this is the case, the assumption that a technology extending human life to 5000 years would be subject to the same constraints (biologic or otherwise) seems a bit heroic.

February 9, 2005

Not an ideal speech situation?   {Comments: 0}

Paul Musgrave writes here about what (political) blog readers want. It's pretty much common sense, and of course there's a note of disappointment as he's writing -- Paul craves real policy discussion and high minded debate. I don't disagree, but I will say that even as an echo chamber the blogosphere is useful enough. When I my life have I ever been so informed about events in politics or the world as when I was daily reading two dozen political blogs? That it wasn't part of a utopian citizen-discussion doesn't lessen the value of that information. The real service here has less to do with serious debate than simply providing a new avenue for people to get involved in the political system. And of course on that count political blogging -- distasteful as it might be for some of us -- has been a runaway success.

Verisimilitude   {Comments: 3}

In light of my post the other day about blogging and fiction, I've been wondering whether part of the problem with blogs (or the internet in general) as a fictional medium is the fact that everything you put online is completely continuous with everything else. That is, unlike a book or a short story or even a television program, content on the internet is so easily linkable from anywhere else that it's kind of difficult to bracket some content as fiction and other content as nonfiction. Related is the fact that as an author you have less control of how a reader approaches your work (not to mention less control of the work itself). Anyway it occurs to me that online literature that plays productively along this line between the fictional and the nonfictional (something like this, maybe?) might be much more interesting than (for instance) hypertexts.

February 7, 2005

Control freak   {Comments: 0}

I'm a little puzzled by Martin Schwimmer's request that his blog be removed from bloglines (the link is via Venkat at BTD), given the fact that he publishes an XML feed. He seems to be concerned that his material is being "reproduced" without contact information at bloglines; and yet anyone who views his blog through an RSS reader will likewise experience his content without contact info. I guess he's bothered by the presence of an intermediary, and yet I get the feeling there are a lot of people who think of the sevice as little more than a friendly alternative to putting an RSS reader on their machine(s).

I do sympathize with his concerns about advertising, but I'm not sure I see this as any different than the ad-ridden browsers you get from AOL or many cheap ISP's. Is he asking to be "removed" from the viewable web for those using these browsers as well?

I think Bloglines should probably be more careful about seeming to co-opt people's content, especially if they're going to use it as part of a money-making venture. But people who publish their content with RSS should be somewhat educated about how that information will be used and where it will appear.

Disrepair   {Comments: 5}

In conversation the other day, a friend mentioned the Hypertext Hotel, an early experiment in collaborative online fiction that Robert Coover was involved with for a while. This seems to be a mirror of that site, although a couple layers deep the links all stop working, so it's not clear just how complex the web was/is. I know that it was still quite active in 1996, because Coover came to IU at the time and I remember the site making quite an impression on me -- it was probably the first time I saw the internet as having any real potential as a literary medium. I haven't, of course, kept track of how things are developing in the field; this looks like as good a place as any to start surveying the scene, but to be honest my expectations are low. It seems like a more healthy artistic production would emerge out of forms that are already highly productive in a non-artistic sense (blogs, for instance). So, where are all the literary blogs?

February 3, 2005

At my most masochistic   {Comments: 2}

I tried not to watch the State of the Union, but I couldn't stay away from the much-hyped Social Security bit. Two things struck me. First, I felt a little nostalgic hearing Bush describe the problems with Social Security, how it works, etc -- it reminded me a lot of making just about the same speech every day as an employee of SSA three years ago. People's eyes glazed over hearing about it then, and I can't imagine their reactions will be any different now. This is an issue people care about, but broad stroke visions of responsibility and ownership aren't going to resonate. In my experience, people want to know how much they are going to get.

And then on the ownership rhetoric: it seemed to me there was a real dissonance between Bush's idea of giving people ownership of their payroll tax contributions and the reality of the personal accounts as he described them. These accounts seem limited on a number of dimensions: what you can invest in, when and how quickly you can get your funds out, who you can leave the money to, whether you have to contribute or not. Aren't these supposed to be private accounts? If the goal is to give Americans more ownership of their retirement, why impose all of these restrictions? The answer is that the goal of a retirement plan isn't to create ownership -- it's to create security.

MORE: I forgot to mention in re the State of the Union, that long time friend of locussolus Barrett Buss got a SOTU gag in Salon. It's a classic!

Back   {Comments: 1}

I've been back for a little more than a week, but obviously I haven't been posting. This is partly because of a slight post-vacation depression and partly because I've come down with a nasty flu, but the biggest impediment of all has been this deluge of comment and even trackback spam (an odd spamming strategy, since I don't even publish trackbacks) that actually seems to have broken MT's comment counter. I knew solving the problem for the forseeable future would be possible with just a few patches, plugins, and precautions, but I also knew finding that combination and purging all the existing spam would take hours. For some reason my installation of MT-Blacklist can't really handle more than a couple hundred comments at a time.

By the way, I don't think comment spam in general is a classic commons problem, as I've read in at least two places over the past couple days. In general, vulnerability to spam is a problem that the owner of a site has an incentive to fix, and the ability -- if she can get her hands on the right technology. I would expect a commons problem when it comes to developing free anti-spam software for blogs, but the magic of the open-source seems to have taken care of that. All the solutions I have implemented were discussed in the incredibly useful chicagobloggers group -- so thanks to everybody who's been asking and answering questions there. Following are the changes I have made:

  1. I installed the plugin from MT to stop an exploit that's been allowing spammers to commandeer MT's email notification function and use it to send spam email. In the process I was forced to upgrade to MT 2.661 -- not 3.15, because of the huge price tag, although I'm told the MT-Blacklist implementation built into that version is more functional.

  2. I installed another plugin from MT that adds "rel=nofollow" to all links posted in comments -- this means that linking back to your site in a comment will not affect your Google page rank anymore. I feel bad about this, because it removes part (hopefully a small part) of the incentive to leave comments here. To compensate for this, in the future I will try to add frequent commenters to my blogroll, if they aren't there already. This is step I would urge all MT users to take if they haven't already -- I doubt it will have an effect on the amount of spam you experience, but if everyone did it, there would be no more incentive to spam comments. And of course, regardless of whether the spam stops, it's nice to know it isn't achieving its goal.

    (By the way, the installation of this plugin is definitely a commons problem from the blogger's perspective, but I wonder if Google might be helping out with that: I noticed today, after installing the nofollow plugin yesterday, that my page rank has increased, despite the fact that I haven't posted in three weeks and there haven't been any new links in at least that time. Is this just a coincidence? If Google hasn't added an input for nofollow use to its page rank algorithm, it probably should -- it would create a huge incentive for individual blog owners to install the plugin, which will help salvage the whole page rank model.)

  3. And I instaled MT-Close2, which allows MT users without a MySQL database to mass close old comments. Closing old comment threads seems to be the most effective means of limiting comment spam -- and it is far easier to manage spam deletion for a few dozen posts than for a few hundred. Be advised: my new policy will be once a month to close all threads more than 30 days old.
And of course I've also deleted all of the spam I could find, both manually and with the help of MT-Blacklist. I don't know if this is going to be a comprehensive solution, but it should make things much more manageable and stick it to the spammers at the same time.