Thursday, February 28, 2002
Seriously, though – thanks for the plug, Ev. (One question: now that I’m part of the club, does this mean I have to post something about Dvorak?)
John Hiler discusses the powerful effect blogs have on searches at Google.com. Because blogs contain “fresh” content and frequently contain numerous links, they tend to be weighed more heavily by Google than other sites. Why? This is essentially proof of what I wrote about on Monday – Google’s Page Rank technology treats links as “votes” for a page – and the more links a site receives, the more influential that site’s links are considered. Given the self-referential nature of weblogs, they become heavy hitters when it comes to search results at Google. You want proof? I’m the #1 search result at Google for “PayPal IPO micropayment”. OK, so it isn’t much – but I’m hardly the only one who’s written about it.
There’s even a term for this: it’s called Google Bombing.
Sit back for a moment and think about the implications. From a strategic point of view, the opportunity to influence the way your site is displayed in Google can be enormous. It’s no longer just about what words are on your page – Google can now display your site higher in search results if enough sites use those words to link to your site. If you’re aiming to be a category killer, then (among other things) make sure that other sites use that category term to point to you.
Wednesday, February 27, 2002
By the way: Charlie Rose doesn’t archive his shows online, but NPR’s Fresh Air does. You can listen to yesterday’s Terry Gross interview with Peter Jackson here.
Tuesday, February 26, 2002
Berkeley Professor Richard Muller teaches Physics for Future Presidents, aka Physics 10. I’m no physicist (nor am I a future President, most likely), but this is a pretty fascinating site. I’d say he’s angling to replace Richard Feynman as the people’s physicist, and this site certainly goes a long way to establishing his capabilities.
Prof. Muller’s explanation of the class:
My goal is to make Physics 10 into the most interesting course you have ever taken, and to teach you material that will be useful to you for the rest of your lives. The course will NOT be a watered-down physics course. I believe that students who take this course are smart and interested in — maybe even fascinated with — physics. They read about recent discoveries, and wish that they could understand them better. They enjoy Science specials on TV, even though they don’t fully understand everything. The barrier has probably been the math. Although they did well in advanced algebra, and perhaps even calculus, their main interests have been elsewhere, so their ability to use math as a tool has atrophied. Math has been the barrier to understanding better, but they don’t have the time or inclination to learn the math just so they can understand the physics.On the left-hand side of the page, you’ll see links to the book he’s writing to accompany the course. I’ve only just started reading it, but I can already say that it’s well worth the time. Where else can you learn that chocolate chip cookies have more energy than a similarly weighted sample of TNT (key fact: the cookie has more energy, but TNT can release it quicker, giving it more power)?
Monday, February 25, 2002
Jason Kottke discusses blogging and the development of peer-to- peer journalism. He asks “is the weblog network efficient at journalism?” He grants that the question may be beside the point, but I think he’s on to something. Blogging, whether it’s used for journalism or for knowledge management (John Robb’s K-Logs group at Yahoo! Groups explores this related topic), can be a tremendous tool for gathering information – precisely when you don’t know what it’s good for.
In other words, you can’t know today what you’ll want to know in a year. For me, this weblog is primarily useful as a running collection of notes, links and other things that may be useful to me at some point in the future. Why? How? I don’t know and I’m not sure it matters. What Jason is asking above is whether blogging is good for journalism – more precisely, he wants to know whether the weblog notion is efficient for journalism. At some broad level, journalism and knowledge management aren’t that far off: both seek to assimilate information, distribute it to a select audience and educate. Where they diverge is in their intended result: journalism makes value decisions about what to include whereas KM exists to make the individual more valuable by shifting the editorial control to the individual. (Put another way: journalism edits, KM empowers.)
But let me get back to answering Jason’s question: on its own, a weblog isn’t a particularly efficient tool for journalism. As tins reader S.R. pointed out when I raised a related issue last month on micropayments, “consumers want editors – they don’t want to have to shift through all the choices.” Weblogs have dramatically increased the number of content providers (that’s in fact the salient point raised by MIT Prof. Jenkins in last week’s article in Technology Review) – which isn’t necessarily a good thing. But do we necessarily need editors? I’m not so sure.
In the same way that Google serves its own quasi-editorial role through its Page Rank technology, MIT’s experimental blogdex site may be the path to turning weblogs into a true knowledge sharing device. This is what makes weblogging “efficient”, inasmuch as efficiency is achievable or desirable. How? blogdex crawls weblogs each morning. (You can see the entry for tins by visiting this link.) blogdex looks for “popular” links, and gives weblog owners a way to see who’s linking to them and what the links say. This isn’t just a good way to stay on top of the popular opinion about what you’re talking about – it also can compile groupings of “popular” links. A more advanced system could group popular links by topic – giving webloggers a way of staying on top of themes they’re interested in. The more popular a link is (especially if grouped by category), presumably the more likely it is that you’d be interested in it. (What you really want is a marriage of blogdex – which is an attempt to rank link popularity and establish connections between disparate sites – and Google, which builds a full-text index of everything it crawls. Give me that, and I’ve got the perfect answer.)
But the blogdex metaphor serves another role – that of informing visitors of new content. Without blogdex (or its counterparts), users only get the benefit of content at sites they know of – which reinforces S.R.‘s comment above that readers don’t want more choice when it comes to content. That may be true, but those same consumers do want better information. In this way, webloggers represent both journalist and editor – and individual readers get to decide which weblogs provide them with useful, interesting information. The fancy term for this is disintermediation. I call it democratic (lower-case ‘d’). What needs to happen for weblogging to grow from an individual news-gathering/link-sharing tool and develop into a true organizational change agent is for the aggregation and dissemination tools to mature – to take the blogdex metaphor and evolve it to be a more effective distribution mechanism. I have no doubt that it will come – most likely from companies like Userland, who have already demonstrated an uncanny knack for innovating in this arena – and whose Radio platform is remarkably receptive to new services. When this metamorphosis comes, I think we’ll see weblogs come into their own as a stand-alone KM platform. (See also my comments on this from mid- January titled “Cancer and DNA”. Yes, there’s a connection. See the post.)
There’s more interesting reading on this, by the way. Adam Curry (yes, the same Adam Curry that was once a VJ) maintains a fantastic weblog. Just last week, he wrote an interesting piece in response to the Wired News article about blogging. You should read Curry’s entire post, but here’s a snippet that ought to get you going:
Weblogging is changing our view of the world. Mainly because we are now writing about our own views. Instead of watching the editied for tv version we are taking the time to collect, rearrange, codify and publish our own version of what we see. We are exercizing our brains, making them stronger, linking them with others who are also emerging from the hypnotic depths of mass-media.
The training wheels are about to come off.
Thursday, February 21, 2002
The New York Times reports that Plantronics used IP.com to protect an idea it had last year. The idea is to take advantage of what’s known as “prior art” – if prior art exists that adequately describes the subject matter of the patent application, the patent will not be granted. IP.com allows companies to register their prior art so that competitors cannot subsequently patent the same idea.
What’s so provocative about this is that the willing disclosure of new ideas without patent protection (think of it as “defensive” patent protection) is becoming part of a company’s IP strategy. The cost is trivial to use IP. com – $155 vs. an average of $15,000 for domestic patent filings – and it’s effective in preventing others from cornering the idea down the road. The downside? You can’t charge royalties – and there’s no guarantee that your description of the idea will be construed broadly enough to qualify as prior art with subsequent patent filings.
One more note: I’m surprised that The Times didn’t discuss another site that rewards people for finding prior art to challenge current patent applications, and includes strange bedfellows Jeff Bezos (CEO at Amazon.com, owner of the One-Click business method patent noted earlier today) and Tim O’Reilly (CEO of O’Reilly & Associates and major critic of business method patents): BountyQuest. BountyQuest, founded by former Foley Hoag & Eliot attorney Charles Cella, is the site that rewards “bounty hunters” who manage to find prior art for companies seeking to challenge the legitimacy of current patent applications. (Bezos and O’Reilly, though at odds on the current utility of business method patents, both agree on the need for patent reform. Both are investors in BountyQuest.) The rewards run to $10,000 to $15,000 for those that find valid prior art.
One thing is certain: between IP.com and BountyQuest.com, companies now have two non-traditional, powerful ways to turn the staid world of patent protection into a strategic chess match.
Bloomberg.com : Technology News reports that the trust-busting folks in the European Union want to now limit the protection afforded software companies through the granting of patents. This is the same commission that prevented G.E. from merging with Honeywell last July. The commission seeks to disallow business method patents (like Amazon.com’s 1-Click patent). (Side note: for a good overview of the Amazon business method patent and the resulting litigation with Barnes and Noble, see One Click … Two Click at Gray Cary’s web site.)
The real kicker in the EU’s motivation here is this statement from the bloomberg.com article: “[The Commission] blamed a lack of legal certainty in Europe for the fact that most software patents are held by non-European companies.” Let’s see if I got this right: the reason that companies aren’t innovating more in Europe is that there’s an uncertainty of legal protection for that innovation. So the Commission proposes to codify the lack of legal protection in the hopes of attracting more innovation. Riiiiiight.
Business method patents like Amazon.com’s One Click patent are useful precisely because they reward innovative processes. (And no, this isn’t going to be a discussion of the legitimacy of Amazon.com’s claim. It’s moot: the PTO says it qualifies, so the discussion now should shift to whether the business method patent issue itself accomplishes the desired goal of fostering and protecting innovation.) Amazon.com and companies like it invest tens of millions of dollars in trying to come up with new ways to further their business goals. If we didn’t protect these innovations, companies would have less incentive to invest the money necessary to deliver them to market. (This is the same issue facing the bio-tech industry, where patents make drug research worthwhile, since it can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to bring a new drug to market. Without patent protection, other companies could create copies of those drugs, sell them, and profit without the burden of the R&D spending.)
What the Commission is really doing is admitting that much of the current innovation is coming from elsewhere. By weakening (or removing) the patent protections currently affording, the Commission is simply making it easier for European companies to profit from others’ efforts by copying their innovations without paying royalties. I guess fair competition is good just as long as it’s biased in favor of the Europeans.
Monday, February 18, 2002
Here’s one founder’s take on why her start-up failed. Talk about bitter! Now, there’s almost certainly another side to this story (like the VCs who would probably say that the founders didn’t know how to run a business, couldn’t shift the business model fast enough to respond to market conditions, and couldn’t expand their customer base to support a fast-growth enterprise… you know, the things VCs always say about founders), but this account of ArsDigita’s rise and fall is rather juicy.
But I’m interested in it for a purely personal reason – the one thing I take away from this write-up is that one of Eve Ander’s partners in ArsDigita, Philip Greenspun, made out OK. (According to Eve, Phil got a cool $7.6 million to leave ArsDigita. Not quite Mariah Carey money, but not bad all the same.) Philip is Philip Greenspun, author of Travels with Samantha. Published in 1993, TWS was the first publication I’d seen that really took advantage of the web. Back in the days when you doanloaded Mosaic from UIC’s servers, this was a true online publication. Not only was it well-written (and as a child who grew up with a Samoyed, I totally understand his attachment to his), but it used photos well, presented the content in a readable format, and its focus on cross-country travel spoke to my wanderlust when I was trapped in law school. To understand just how revolutionary TWS was, you have to know how little there was on the web that was worth reading. No news sites, no entertainment sites – just a handful of personal sites, lots of technically-focused sites and tons of educational institutions that were slowly converting from the wonderful world of Gopher.
Greenspun has done quite a few things since his publication of TWS – including co-founding ArsDigita and starting the popular photo resource site photo.net. Not bad. Don’t know the guy from adam, but I read his journal (which, if you think of it, really was one of the first weblogs) almost nine years ago – and at least a couple times a year, I’ve had a reason to swing by and read a chapter or two. If you haven’t ever read it, do it. You’ll be glad you did.
Wednesday, February 13, 2002
MIT Comparative Media Studies Director looks at blogs as the “digital renaissance”. I just came from a dinner in L.A. with a friend who spends a lot of his time thinking about knowledge management, and got to explain the concept of blogs to him. This article does a good job of explaining the concept to the masses (a far better job than John Dvorak’s piece last week that tried to do the same thing and relegated blogs to digital vanity presses for “wanna-be writers”. Pardon me? With all due respect, John, plenty of us are the real deal. But we’re more than willing to throw the thoughts-in -progress out to be tested, evaluated, and rejected or accepted. You’re either on a dais or at a round-table. Which will it be?).
Proof that Henry Jenkins gets it?
Bloggers are turning the hunting and gathering, sampling and critiquing the rest of us do online into an extreme sport. We surf the Web; these guys snowboard it. Bloggers are the minutemen of the digital revolution.How can you not like the image of a minuteman on a snowboard? In this time of patriotic Olympics, it’s quite the appropriate image…
Jenkins talks about the “democratization” of publishing. What I like so much about the blog concept is that it makes you part commentator, part editor – and it’s this, coupled with the interwoven nature of self-referential blogs, that create self-selecting “communities” of individuals seeking knowledge, discourse, and challenges. This continues a thread I picked up last month when talking about KM – and the possible advantages of a far more decentralized approach to sharing information (and informing the broader community).
Tuesday, February 12, 2002
Last Saturday, I wrote about (and linked to) a Slate article about the Dvorak keyboard and its apparent superiority to the standard “QWERTY” keyboard. Many thanks to tins reader T.A. for a pointer to this Reason magazine article from June of 1996 debunking the Dvorak myth.
The article is a lengthy and entirely worthwhile read about the myth about markets being inefficient at selecting superior technologies. Often cited in these discussions, note authors Stan Leibowitz and Stephen Margolis (economics professors at U. Texas/Dallas and North Carolina State U., respectively), are examples like Beta vs. VHS, Windows vs. Mac, and QWERTY vs. Dvorak.
The authors focus on the concept of “path dependence” – the economics theory that past market successes dictate future market choices, eventually locking consumers into choices that are increasingly inappropriate. In this theory, luck plays as large a part as superiority in determining a winner.
Where “path dependence” theory goes wrong is in ignoring other factors that affect market choices – questioning the assertion that the choices consumers are locked into are in fact inappropriate. (Leibowitz and Margolis use Windows as an example: the Mac OS may have been superior to DOS, but Windows didn’t require new hardware purchases as well as new software… so a switch to Mac would have required a far higher investment for consumers. Had the Mac OS run on Intel machines, it’s entirely possible it would have won head-to-head against Windows.)
What’s really remarkable is the systematic debunking of the alleged claims of the Dvorak keyboard’s superiority. Check it out.
The future of money? Who knew I was this interested in payment technology? I’ll stop obsessing about PayPal, but this week’s article in The Economist certainly makes PayPal look outdated. It describes currency that is wired, can be programmed, supports authentication and unique identification, and is purportedly counterfeit-proof.
The technology discussed in the article is RFID (radio frequency ID tags) – a microchip coupled with a small antenna. Costs are down to $.30 per RFID – still prohibitively expensive for banknotes, but the price is heading in the right direction. At least one bank (the European Central Bank) is already exploring ways to integrate RFIDs into Euros by 2005.
A number of potential hurdles exist to establishing an international standard for this: all participating countries would need to agree on a cryptographic standard, for one. Our government’s last major drive at a government-sponsored cryptographic standard was the ill-fated Clipper Chip – now imagine making that an international effort, with all of the various governments lobbying for their own standard. And crypto only works well when it’s well-tested, open to wide public review. What are the odds of this happening in the short term? More than likely, we’ll end up with a cobbled-together collection of “standards” much like the cellular phone industry enjoys today.
But that’s not what intrigues me. Deeper in the article is a comment that bears more investigation. Since RFID-tagged bank notes would support unique identification, and could be identified at cash machines, cash registers, etc., governments are intrigued by the ability to monitor and track movements of bank notes. While The Economist focuses on potentially suspicious transactions (the example used is a large deposit of notes that had been out of circulation for a long time), I think the more interesting angle for governments is taxes (isn’t it always?): by having better visibility into monetary transactions, governments would be able to levy taxes more efficiently – ensuring that tax revenues go up.
Whatever their intentions, there’s no arguing with this focus. Cash is, after all, a government-insured promise to honor all debts. Just because the current system is inefficient, open to fraud and difficult to monitor doesn’t mean that we’re entitled to keep it that way.
Saturday, February 9, 2002
Note: See the update posted on February 12 that addresses the Dvorak keyboard “hoax”. Make Mine Dvorak – One writer’s love affair with the other keyboard layout. Twenty years ago my parents bought an Apple ][+ (in an odd way, typing those matched brackets still looks cool to me), and my infatuation with computers began. Though I was young, my mom refused to let me play any violent games (“violent” in those days is laughable compared to what’s out today) – so my first computer “game” was Typing Tutor.
Since I loved spending time on the computer, I learned to type. Fast. (It wasn’t a glamorous life, but it was mine.) Consequently, I could type better than 80 words per minute before I entered junior high. (I just wandered over to TypingTest.com and found out I’m now over 150 words per minute.)
I bring all of this up because it turns out there’s a “better” keyboard than the QWERTY keyboard. Patented by August Dvorak in 1936, it was based on research and linguistics analysis done by Dvorak that analyzed frequency of letters and sought to maximize left hand/right hand alternates. The Slate article linked to above suggests that it works “rapturously” – for long-time QWERTY users, as the writer states, it’s like “removing a tiny pebble from your shoe.”
I won’t hold the fact that Ralph Nader is a supporter against the Dvorak keyboard, but I have to wonder whether making the switch would be ultimately self-defeating: what about every other time you’re at a different computer with a QWERTY keyboard? Would it be like switching between languages in which you’re fluent? Or like trying to speak a different dialect of English? (It appears that I have my answer: this post in Slate’s The Fray indicates that for at least one user, it was “back to hunt and peck” on a QWERTY keyboard after converting.)
Despite this, I admit to being a bit intrigued. Regardless of the ultimate viability of a Dvorak keyboard, it’s certainly an interesting case study in why inferior technologies often trump superior technologies. (As if we needed any more examples.) Coolest anecdote in the piece? The original reason for the QWERTY keyboard:
Christopher Sholes, [the QWERTY inventor,] chose the layout mainly to keep frequently used letter pairsE and D or T and H for examplerelatively far apart so that typists wouldn’t hit them in quick succession, jamming primitive machines.
Friday, February 8, 2002
More on the PayPal IPO delay ::: From yesterday’s TheStreet.com, an article about PayPal’s delayed IPO. Here’s a priceless quote from the CEO of IPO.com, who probably figured that a little bit of ice would most likely not harm the Titanic:
“The timing of the suit seems kind of interesting,” says [IPO.com CEO Mark] Baum. “But this late in the game, it’s hard to imagine this would undermine the company’s business. It tends to be on patent infringement that there’s usually a payment of some kind. It very rarely seems to put companies out of business,” he said.Excuse me? One of the biggest concerns over PayPal’s business model is its ability to turn a profit. If it has to pay a royalty to CertCo because of CertCo’s patent, PayPal’s already- thin margins get thinner – undermining PayPal’s argument that it can leverage a growing customer base to make money.
In other news, News.com notes that the IPO may be back on again, as PayPal filed an amended S-1 today with the SEC responding to CertCo’s claims. Sure enough, CertCo contacted PayPal the day before the IPO claiming infringement of the 150 patent. PayPal explains in the S-1 that:
all of the patent’s claims have as an element that a system send an “ authenticated” or “verifiable” “payment advice message.” But our service does not send either “authenticated” or “ verifiable” “payment advice messages.” For this reason, among other reasons that may exist, we believe that we do not infringe CertCo’s patent, and that CertCo’s assertions are without merit.
Mercury News | 02/07/2002 | Lawsuit delays eagerly awaited PayPal IPO ::: Recall my observations about micrpayments and PayPal in late December and early January? One of my comments then: “Here’s hoping PayPal’s IPO is strong. They represent the best opportunity we’ll have in 2002 to see a solid, viable infrastructure play for enabling micropayments next year.” Well, we’ve got a bit longer to wait. After pricing their shares and readying their opening on the Nasdaq on Wednesday, PayPal had to delay the IPO. At the 11th hour, CertCo filed a lawsuit that claimed PayPal’s payment system infringes on a patent obtained in February of 2000 (US Patent 6,029,150) by CertCo. (CertCo filed the patent application on October 4, 1996, prior to PayPa’s founding.) Here’s a snippet from the patent app itself:
In one aspect, the invention is a method of payment in an electronic commerce system wherein customers have accounts with an agent and where each customer shares a respective secret between that customer and the agent. This secret is set up prior to the actual transaction or payment and, in preferred embodiments, is a dynamic secret.Aside from the validity of CertCo’s claims (and the absence of any information on CertCo’s web site), you’ve got to wonder about the timing. PayPal’s IPO was hardly a secret – so it stands to reason that the filing of this lawsuit was timed deliberately to derail PayPal’s float and raise awareness of CertCo’s own offering.
According to the method of this invention, a customer obtains an authenticated quote from a specific merchant, the quote including a specification of goods and a payment amount for those goods. The customer then sends to the agent, in a single authenticated one-pass communication, a payment request message representing a request for payment of the payment amount to the specific merchant along with a unique identification of the customer. The agent, after processing the payment request, issues and sends to the customer, in a single one-pass communication, an authenticated verifiable payment advice message. The issuing by the agent is based only on:
the single communication from the customer to the agent,
the secret shared between the customer and the agent and
non-cryptographic customer information (“customer status information”) and/or non-cryptographic merchant information (“merchant status information”) which the agent has.
The customer and merchant status information are referred to collectively herein as “status information.”
Upon receipt of the payment advice message, the customer forwards a portion of the payment advice message to the merchant. The merchant then provides the goods to the customer in response to receiving the portion of the payment advice message.
Day-traders who were looking forward to another profitless .com IPO will have to wait until another day. (Can a hack of CertCo’s web site by frustrated day-traders be far behind?)
Thursday, February 7, 2002
Monday, February 4, 2002
Cryptographic Abundance ::: Anybody remember Pretty Good Privacy back in ’94 and ’95? I was a volunteer law clerk for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (aka EFF) at the time, working on the Bernstein case. I was amazed that (a) crypto was available for free that was allegedly “crack-proof”, and (b) more people weren’t using it.
It was considered such a threat by the U.S. government, that it prohibited a math professor from “exporting” encryption software he wrote. (His “export” consisted of simply posting the software on a Usenet newsgroup.)
Today, the rules have changed. An article in today’s Salon titled “The encrypted jihad” looks at the recent history of U.S. export control restrictions, and points out that the Clinton administration relaxed the export control restrictions – to a point where many terrorists today can use sophisticated technology to protect their communications from other eyes.
It all comes down to how private you want to be. What the first article points out is that privacy is possible today – with just a little effort from any computer user. But it’s a bit sad that today the only groups reliably using crypto are those who seek to exploit our freedoms to take them away.
Ironically enough, much of the same base technology that makes crypto so useful can be used to uniquely identify people… which could ultimately be the hook that the government uses to try and ferret out some of the individuals illegally in the country, waiting in the wings to be part of the sequel to September 11. More on digital fingerprints later.
One last thought: there’s a comment in the Salon article that irks me:
Americans have, after all, now come to accept that they will have to compromise on issues like privacy or economic growth in favor of increased security.
Is this really true? Are we all willing to give up such basic freedoms in pursuit of a “security” that’s only in place until the next threat comes along? Where do we draw the line? Just because the bad guys use the technology doesn’t mean that we should give up our own right to use it.
What about you? Do you use any cryptographic products to secure your own communications? Why or why not?