Friday, January 27, 2006

Social networks and reputation in Russia

People interested in social networks and reputation systems ought to come here. Everything seems to get done by virtue of knowing somebody who knows somebody. We got into the opera at a reasonable price because it was arranged by Katya, who told us to meet Grigori at the door, who got us in at the native rate for a small surcharge (he either works at the theater, or knows someone there). Katya is a hub -- she runs the office of the company we work with, is in charge of sheparding foreigners around and much else. She carries three cell phones for her own use and has a bunch more she hands out to her charges, so she can tell them that Sergei will pick you up at 10 and deliver you to Alexi, etc. Sergei has been driving us around, at one point we had to decide whether it was safe to leave a couple of laptop cases with him. Turns out it is, because he gets lots of work from Katya and has a good reputation and it would be silly for him to jeopardize this healthy business relationship (another driver the company used didn't get the system and was summarily disconected from the network).

An American who lives here got laughed at by the Russians when he went to get his car inspected -- turns out that everybody else knows somebody whose cousin runs an auto shop and will sign the papers for you sight unseed, for a small fee.

It's pretty clear this elaborate informal network evolved so that people could operate a real economy while the official one choked on its own bureaucracy and corruption. This two-layer approach seems to have persisted past the fall of communism. I wonder if it impedes or helps the development of a full-blown capitalist economy. Or which is better. The favor-network sounds kind of nice, but is prone to corruption of its own and can shade off into organized crime, which is also plentiful here.

My seatmate on the flight here was reading a thick Max Weber book (in German). I vaguely recall that one of Weber's theses was that modern societies evolved away from this kind of informal network into more formalized, rationalized, bureaucratic structures. Given the history of such structures here, it's not surprising people prefer a more underground approach.

Random links: from Russia with love edition

I would like to remind you all that the original purpose of weblogs was to post links with very little comment. All these blogs with long, brilliant, incisive essays are missing the point completely.

New doom: population implosion

This is genius

Radical Torah

SQL injection attacks by example (great tutorial for exploiting what must be a very common security hole)

Hands-on datamining of Enron's email

Fascist Propaganda: can it happen here?

This was from a Google ad, search on "suprematism"

Thursday, January 26, 2006

To the Finland Station

The vicissitudes of globalization have taken me to St. Petersburg, Russia, where instead of making software the old-fashioned way (writing it myself), I'm trying to communicate my intentions to a team of young Russians. I believe this is an asinine way to develop software, but I go where they send me, and try to enjoy the ride. Six months ago it was Budapest.

It's been bitterly cold here, lowest temperatures in 30 years and its precipitating uneasiness among the international energy supply. Having gas pipelines blown up by unknown parties doesn't help matters. So I haven't seen a whole lot of the city yet. General impression: magnificent pastel wedding cake buildings surrounded by 80 years of Soviet smog and neglect. There is a pervasive acrid smell, a combination of cigarette smoke and congealed car exhaust. It's huge -- 4th largest city in Europe, and mostly 19th century buildings set on pilings in the former swamp that Peter the Great decreed would be his capital.

Last night I snuck out to see a performance of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Oneigin at the Mariinsky Theater, the 223-year-old building that also houses the Kirov ballet. Much to my surprise, I enjoyed it. I was programmed to hate opera at an early age, but this is actually the second I've seen in recent months, and voluntarily at that. The first was Dr. Atomic, which has a more modern sensibility, and a world-historical story. In Oneigin, there's 3.5 hours of nothing much happening except people singing about their emotions, not really my thing. But the foreign setting helped. I was impressed by the informality of the crowd, opera is more or less popular entertainment here, and the audience seemed to span the social classes.

I also managed to fit in a quick pass through the Russia Museum, which has the sequence of Russian art from icons to Cubism, Constructivism, Suprematism, Futurism, Acmeism (I love that stuff), followed by Socialist Realism (which I love as scary kitsch; see the Budapest link above).

Last evening one of my cow-orkers took me to a restaurant which was decorated with erotic, vaguely egyption puppets and sculptures, in a style somewhat similar to the art of R Crumb's crazy brother Max. A guy at the neighboring table heard us talking American and made conversation in broken English. "What do you think of Russia?", he asked. I didn't know how to answer that. Wrapping your head around a huge country with a thousand years of bloody history is not done in a few days.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Attention deficits

Charlie Stross (whose Accelerando I have been meaning to review here) comments on the attention economy. I read the first sentence:
Irritable? Easily distracted? Have difficulty focussing on written text for long enough to read more than a sentence? Welcome to the club.
and then found my attention wandering over to another one of my 10 or so open web browsers. Argh! I've found a practical solution to this: make the font bigger, which is trivial to do in Firefox (hold down control and use the mousewheel, if you don't know). At my age, eyestrain is an issue and bigger and bolder can help hold my attention. It's a bit pathetic, but these small tricks of self-management are becoming more and more important as the biological information processing slides into obsolesence.

Charlie's post is mostly fretting about spam and advertising, which are only a small part of the problem for me. I have a pretty good spam filter by using Gmail, and I can usually manage to ignore ads. My problem is that there are too many things that I want to pay attention to: I have about 200 feeds in my RSS reader, a full-time job, a part-time research contract, numerous small projects, and then there is a family in there somewhere that I like to spend at least a little time with. People are inventing new technologies and new scientific discoveries all the time, writing good books and making good movies. As the amount of available interesting good stuff grows and my brainbandwidth remains finite (with a slow steady decrease in power), I just grow more and more uninformed as time goes on.

The ultimate solution to this is cognitive enhancment via technology and intimate interfaces between mind and the technosphere (which is the point of my coinage googlectual, and one of the themes of the first part of Accelerando, as it happens). In fact, that book clearly suffers from attention problems itself, there are way too many ideas packed into it.

But the cognitive enhancing glasses can't happen too soon for me.

PS: Heres my Amazon wishlist where I track all the books I would like to read if I had sufficient time and bandwidth. This one seems especially relevant somehow. I haven't read it, but I do have the T-shirt.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Free news and free software

Mark Kleiman's blog has expanded into a group blog, renaming itself to The Reality-Based Community, and it features some very nice writing while continuing in the centrist, professional, sober adult vein of its originator. Check out this fine filleting of Alito's character -- "a man with an unrelenting instinct for the capillary", very nice.

And here is a post by their resident cynic which addresses the economics of journalism vs. blogging, making an argument similar to one I've made in a different context:
Bloggers often acknowledge that reporting (whatever that is) takes skill. But they commonly slight how much skill, and what kinds, and how much sheer labor goes with the skill. Good beat reporters spend years figuring out whom to call for the crucial fact, how to talk to them, when not to believe them. ....On average, the result of such reporting-as-hobby relates to professional journalism as a soapbox racer relates to a Lexus, and for exactly the same reasons.
Read the whole thing. He bases it around a Walter Lippman piece from 80 years ago -- which indicates that the problems with new economy are not all that new.

Back in the embryonic days of the Free Software movement, long before the more respectable Open Source appelation had been dreamt up, I made a similar argument to RMS. If software was free, said I, how are people who spend their life making software supposed to eat (and I was in grad school at the time, not all that concerned with money, but I always have liked to poke holes in other people's utopian notions). I remained an open-source skeptic for many years. In the early days it seemed to me that free software was parasitizing the work of government- and monopoly-funded research labs (AT&T, MIT, etc) and simply copying their designs (Unix). Innovation wasn't going to happen in open-source land because that required people who could spend their full time at it (researchers in big labs), not hobbyists and enthusiasts.

I seem to have been wrong about that. Free software mutated into open source and metastatized into all sorts of niches and developed its own economy connected to the cash economy, and it seems to have plenty of innovation attached to it.

But note how this happened. Large-scale, high-quality open source is usually not done by solely by part-time hobbyists, it's mostly centerered around teams of full-timers who are supported by an academic institution or by corporations who see FOSS as helping them build cash value elsewhere (IBM and Google seem particularly good at this, but everyone is doing it). So there is no shortage of people who are paid to work on FOSS, and no shortage of innovation (at least when compared alongside the closed-source software world). There is by now a huge non-cash economy swirling around the FOSS world, tightly linked to the cash economy in a variety of ways.

It seems like the news business is in an loosely analagous state. There are free products produced by amateurs, professional groups giving some stuff away and selling the rest (New York Times), and plenty of individual professional writers who use blogs to extend their work and build their reputation by giving some stuff away for free. The amateurs both parasitize the professionals and perform some value-added services.

Eventually, most intellectual work (art, science, design, etc) is going to take place straddling the free and cash economies, with the vaguely-defined reputation economy gluing them together. Businesses and indivduals need to figure out how to mix this stuff. I sure wish I was better at it.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Too much information

Cosma on the horrible information overload of real biology:
One reason papers like this gladden my heart is my basic intellectual cowardice: the sheer endless proliferating detail of biology overwhelms me, especially when something drives home the fact that we keep finding utterly new stuff everywhere we look. Here we are, looking at our own guts, and coming up with stuff like this: "Three sequences from two subjects ... appear to represent a novel lineage, deeply branching from the Cyanobacteria phylum and chloroplast sequences." See? There are organisms whose closest relatives are the stuff that turns ponds and leaves green living inside us, and until now we had no idea. And when we eventually look inside them, they're going to turn out to be weirdly complicated and uniquely strange, exactly like everything else. And of course the damn things will have histories, again exactly like everything else. Biology just doesn't stop, and at some point the details and special cases make me wish my head would explode.
Read the whole thing, it's funny. But I feel the same way, there's just too damn much detail. If there is a spectrum of detail-oriented vs. abstractifying in cognitive style, I am way way to the right. I can't remember stuff, which is why I am a software guy, and why I am emotionally tied to elegant languages and systems like Lisp (the more powerful the abstraction, the less you have to rememeber) and also have a deep interest in user interfaces (because a good UI will remove cognitive burdens via affordances).

This is what bioinformatics is all about, figuring out some way to abstract from all the detail into some form of useful knowledge. Statistics pulls a lot of weight, but since my mathematical skills have atrophied my efforts are more in the line of making environments that let scienteists link various types of knowledge together, perform computations over them, and visualize the results.

My real interest is broader; it's in figuring out just what it means to know something in a condition where you have a limited brain and senses surrounded by effectively infinite amounts of data. This is not a problem unique to bioinformatics. Basically it's everybody's problem, the problem of the googlectual. Google is a great tool but causes as many new problems as it solves.

Bruce Sterling's most recent book is promoting a vision of a world full of SPIME, which roughly means objects with a trackable identity (think RFID) and that have their entire history monitored, recorded, and available. This is going to save our environmental asses, somehow. Let's say he's right, how are we going to make use of all this data? I mean, it would be nice to be able to do a Google-local-physob search for that screwdriver I misplaced the other day, or have a dashboard widget that is tracking my laundry status and raises a red flag when clean sock levels are dangerously low. But presumably there are more interesting forms of knowledge to be extracted from a complete record of the interacting histories of objects.

Fed Up

"Those who love life do not read. Nor do they go to the movies, actually. No matter what might be said, access to the artistic universe is more or less entirely the preserve of those who are a little fed up with the world."
-- Michel Houellebecq, speaking of H.P. Lovecraft

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Righteous Gentiles

Hugh Thompson Jr was a US military helicopter pilot who risked his own life to help stop the My Lai massacre in 1968. He came upon the scene, put his helicopter down between the villagers and the US soldiers who were busy killing them, and ordered his troops to defend the villagers. He died recently (BBC via Steve Gilliard).

I'd heard his story before but this time it brought up memories from the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial/museum in Jerusalem, which I visited 20 years ago. The outside grounds of this otherwise grim place are devoted to the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations, commemorating non-Jews who came to the aid of Jews under the Nazi regime, usually at great risk to themselves. That some people (not many, alas) could retain their moral clarity and be capable of acting on it, in conditions like that, made me think that there might be some hope for humanity after all.

Hugh Thompson seems to have lived on the same avenue. There are some heroes in the world.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Dialectics of randomness

Starting the new year out on a random note:

Statistics of Aaarrgh! (and again, here)

Dialectics for kids! (or, Chairman Mao Meets the 7 Habits of Highly Successful People)

Dialectics of American Politics! (by the excellent Billmon)

Science fiction writers argue about solving the socialist calculation problem! (with bonus Eric Raymond reference)

IKEA socialism.

Speaking of dialectics, if the semantic web is the thesis, folksonomy is the antithesis, what is the synthesis? Some efforts to answer this one. Warning: last link contains ugly word mashup folktologies, yech.