Sunday, August 29, 2004

Even more on Gmail

This is a nice write up on how Gmail is design to help certain sorts of email-relatd behavior, and hinder others. It's always risky to support some behaviors over others, because you will upset at least a few users, and if you pick the wrong ones, then your application is hard to use and people will avoid it.

The alternative though--not picking which behaviors to support best--is worse. You're left with a highly customizable piece of "architecture" riddled with terrible defaults. No one customizes much, so they are stuck with a program that is very hard to use. Until they leave. Exhibit A: Lotus Notes vs. Outlook.

Friday, August 27, 2004

A Random Walk to the White House

If you turn on any business oriented news show, or pick through the money section of a paper, you will see folks prognosticating on why a particular stock went up or down yesterday, and why it will go up (or down) today. None of these people are right, or if they are right, they are right by luck, because stock movement is random in the short term, and tied to earnings growth in the medium-to-long term.

This means, among other things, that it is pointless to try and make money off short term price fluctuations. It also means that short term dips and rises don't tell you very much about the broader underlying economy. Actually, even medium term stock activity may not tell you very much about the underlying economy, because the stock market and the economy as a whole are different, though related, things.

This good New Yorker article discusses how much of a similar sort of randomness decides elections. Here is a nice para discussing how informed voters actually are:
Converse claimed that only around ten per cent of the public has what can be called, even generously, a political belief system. He named these people "ideologues," by which he meant not that they are fanatics but that they have a reasonable grasp of "what goes with what"-of how a set of opinions adds up to a coherent political philosophy. Non-ideologues may use terms like "liberal" and "conservative," but Converse thought that they basically don't know what they're talking about, and that their beliefs are characterized by what he termed a lack of "constraint": they can't see how one opinion (that taxes should be lower, for example) logically ought to rule out other opinions (such as the belief that there should be more government programs). About forty-two per cent of voters, according to Converse's interpretation of surveys of the 1956 electorate, vote on the basis not of ideology but of perceived self-interest. The rest form political preferences either from their sense of whether times are good or bad (about twenty-five per cent) or from factors that have no discernible "issue content" whatever. Converse put twenty-two per cent of the electorate in this last category. In other words, about twice as many people have no political views as have a coherent political belief system.
They can, however, dash something off the top of their head if asked, or pull some lever if they stumble into a voting booth. And just like people wandering up to the bar to order a drink, "five per cent, enough to swing most elections, decided the day they voted".

The assertion in the next section, I find naive:
All political systems make their claim to legitimacy by some theory, whether it?s the divine right of kings or the iron law of history. Divine rights and iron laws are not subject to empirical confirmation, which is one reason that democracy?s claims have always seemed superior. What polls and surveys suggest, though, is that the belief that elections express the true preferences of the people may be nearly as imaginary
It is impossible to select true preferences through an election because of Arrow's Incompleteness Theory that shows how polled preferences are, among other things, necessarily transitive. In practice, elections introduce competition into ruling and channel those competitive emotions in the relatively benign practice of running for office. The enable a strong state (by conferring legitimacy and sublimating violence) but, with a strong constitution, also restrict its size.

The author wants to believe that some sort of quality decision making is at play in elections, and puts forward the notion that the great unwashed (when they bother to vote at all) look to the elite for which way to go. The "elite" in this case are those who care and have consistent, well thought out ideological positions.

The elite, the article argues, have become polarized.
?The simple truth is that there is no culture war in the United States?no battle for the soul of America rages, at least none that most Americans are aware of," he says in his short book "Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America" (Longman; $14.95). Public-opinion polls, he argues, show that on most hot-button issues voters in so-called red states do not differ significantly from voters in so-called blue states. Most people identify themselves as moderates, and their responses to survey questions seem to substantiate this self-description. What has become polarized, Fiorina argues, is the élite. The chatter among political activists, commentators, lobbyists, movie stars, and so on has become highly ideological. It's a non-stop 'Crossfire,' and this means that the candidates themselves come wrapped in more extreme ideological coloring [even if they themselves are no more ideological than before]

Are the elite more polarized? Maybe. Is this a good or bad thing? Unclear -- diversity of opinion may help people make better decisions, and a unanimous "elite" opinion may reflect delusional groupthink as much as a well-informed consensus. Most importantly, I think a polarized elite should put paid to the notion that simply educating and informing people will reduce difference in views, by definition the "elite" are educated and they still don't agree.

The core decision in the US 2004 election may be "do you or do you not believe that the US is at war against Islamic terror?" Those who do not may (sadly) be given an opportunity to reassess their position. In any event, the 2004 result will be the toss of a coin regardless.

(And lastly, enjoy the rantings of a man who clearly has not been laughed at enough, at least, not to his face. While we shared a school, I enjoyed his snappy dressing and avoided his classes. I'm sure he dresses just as well at Princeton -- they're welcome to his threads.)

Thursday, August 26, 2004

VoiP vs the Past

Telco is heavily, and inefficiently, regulated. Phone companies must, by government mandate, support a laundry list of people at a loss. In order for them to do this, they hike up the charges on everyone else (through taxes, rates, etc) and use this money to make up the shortfall elsewhere. Major redistributions of wealth include corporate (ie. worker) calls to residential (ie. workers at home), people in (expensive) cities to people in (cheap) country, etc. This form of redistribution, btw, is very expensive compared to general taxes.

While these regulations are also burdensome, they also create tremendous barriers of entry into the telco business. If an entrant is required to support all of these loss-making activities as well, it is likely they may quit as they see their profits dwindle away. If an entrant is allowed to ignore these burdens, incumbents will (reasonably) complain that they are being treated unfairly and may sue.

Voice-over-IP enables communications far beyond straight phone calls, but it runs the risk of being regulated out of existance before it can even begin because, well, it could be construed as a telco. The alternative is reducing the regulatory burden on incumbent telcos and reduce the web of subsidies that 1) increaes their costs and 2) dissuading competitors.

I find it promising that early VoiP applications are very distinct from what we think of as phone calls.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

More on Google

James Surowiecki is blogging on Marginal Revolution. I think the Surowiecki is the best business/econ journalist out there, and I'm not sure why he's currently writing for the New Yorker, not exactly known for the size of its readership or insight into business/economic matters, or why he's writing for free, but I'm glad to have more of his stuff to read. (I also can't see how he could beleive that The Crow is a good movie).

He has a good post on the Google IPO, and seems to think it did better than I did (he calculates cost per dollar raised, which is, I think, the correct metric).

Also, gmail seems to have type-ahead address completion. How they managed this in a regular web browser I do not know, but it's great.

Lessig + Posner

Posner and Lessig are two of my favorite law profs. How wonderful that Posner is writing on Lessig's blog. The topic: intellectual property, something that I had discussed with both individuals.

One of the nice things about Posner is that he's been at this game for a long time, both on the academic side but also on the practical side (on the 7th Circuit). He is fully aware of the folly inherent in laws, lawyers, legal academics, courts, and judges. How else do you characterize someone who creates an entire field of law ("Law and Economics") but now sums up the idea judicial posture as "be reasonable"? One of the reasons copyright has been revealed as so out of control is because the costs of the bad laws only rose recently, with the Internet, and the incentives on legislation, persecution, and interpretation have been made unbalanced because of the low coordination cost between publishers vs the high coordination costs between consumers.

I also look forward to Posner's upcoming book on risk. Risk is something that humans are pretty awful at thinking about, but which impacts large amounts of our legislative impulses. His thoughts on the 9/11 report (which I thought was a pretty amateur effort) are interesting, and I look forward to more.

Geneva II

This article does a reasonable job outlining the trouble military lawyers had giving guidance on what was and what was not permissible in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ultimately, it recommends rewriting Geneva, and talks about how greater transparency will help make things better. It does not think about incentives, however, which is where Geneva was remarkably clear-headed and wise: if you do not follow the laws of war, you are not afforded the protection the laws of war may offer.

What's left then, is a question of how to manage public relations and propaganda, which is a different question entirely.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

More about Google

Firstly, Google's IPO seems to have a 18% first day pop. This is bad, and may have been the result of them restricting the shares they ended up issuing and lowering the price. They should have held their nerve after all.

Secondly, I only just noticed the advertising in gmail. I was emailing a friend about having dim sum this weekend, and ads for teriyaki sauce etc. appeared on the right. It seemed to have taken me 3 weeks to notice, so I guess they are very unobtrusive. They certainly use up less bandwidth than those ridiculous banners that crawl all over yahoo! I don't mind them at all.


As reader WC points out, there are two different ways of dealing with traffic jams. Traffic hurts the driver of an individual car and the drivers around him because both of them become stuck in jams. Since all the harm done (the cost) is not borne by the driver that just entered the road, it means that he has created a negative externality that will lead to too many people entering the road and--traffic.

There are two ways to try and solve this problem. Building more roads is not one of them because less traffic will just cause more people to drive until you are back at the same old traffic levels. HOV lanes work by forcing people to take cars off the road in exchange for less traffic (at least in the HOV lane). Or you can simply levy congestion charges, as they have in London.

I actually visited London recently and lived in the area where the charges are in effect. It was remarkably free of traffic jams, which, I am told, had been endemic before.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

All About Google

I've had the good fortune to be using Google's new email product Gmail for about a month now, and I like it. I thought I would go through some its novel features and how the outline Google's approach to solving the email problem.

Email's problem is, of course, that there is too much of it, and most of it is useless. Which kinda sounds like the Web actually -- loads of pages, most of them rubbish. Just as Google used human created links to infer contextuality, and added reason to search, they seem to be using other forms of human created contextuality (such as "replies") and use that to structure email, with lashings of "search" tossed in.

One innovation is that they break the chronological order of email. In your standard inbox, the newest messages are at the top, and the oldest are crusting over at the bottom. Google still puts new messages at the top, but it also lumps threaded messages (original message, response, response to the response etc.) as a single message that only moves up to the top when there is a new posting. Clicking on that message reveals a list of headers in chronological order, and if you click a header that post, and all posts preceding it, are revealed in one long thread. Note that I cannot really call any message within an email thread an email, because where does an email begin and end? Borrowing the term "post" from message boards seems more appropriate.

This has the benefit of lumping tightly linked emails together without resorting to something that overlays the standard chronological ordering, which is how I have seen this done elsewhere (as in Apple's I think I like it, but time will tell.

A second feature, which I don't think I like, is that Google Mail discourages sending email to the Trash. Trashing email is one of the noblest activities Man can engage in, and to discourage this seems a little bonkers. Instead, Google encourages you to "archive" email, which means you put it in some folder that you can then search later. I have no doubt that Google search is very good, but deleting email is critical to good hygeine.

On the other hand, I do appreciate how hard it is to keep the inbox empty, and moving all crusty email to an "archive" folder instead of letting it fester in the inbox is certainly better than creating a rats nest of folders and then trying to figure out some unique way of filing them so you know how to get to them later.

Oh, Google has also IPO'd. Personally, I am indifferent, which I guess means that the price has been set efficiently and that there are no real gains to be made by buying it. While this may not excite the investing public, any company that wants to issue shares and cares about raising as much money as possible better be paying attention.

Monday, August 16, 2004

The Red Rock Eater jumps the Shark

Phil Agre just sent out this to his entire mailing list, of I don't know how many people. It's very long and insane, and clearly something Phil invested serious time and effort into. Here's the opening
Liberals in the United States have been losing political debates to conservatives for a quarter century. In order to start winning again, liberals must answer two simple questions: what is conservatism, and what is wrong with it? As it happens, the answers to these questions are also simple:

Q: What is conservatism?
A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.

Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.

These ideas are not new. Indeed they were common sense until recently. Nowadays, though, most of the people who call themselves "conservatives" have little notion of what conservatism even is. They have been deceived by one of the great public relations campaigns of human history. Only by analyzing this deception will it become possible to revive democracy in the United States.
and it just gets better from there.

I'm not sure if this is something Phil worked on in private, or if he showed it to others first. Either boggles the mind.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Schwartz unplugged

It seems that Sun head honcho Johnathon Schwartz has a weblog. Most of it is a tirade against IBM, which is understandable because IBM is eating Sun's lunch.

He has a post about Sun's definition of "open", which is, essentially, easily substitutable. But the ease of substitutability is only really a factor if it allows the vendor to raise prices. If a piece of open source software is priced at zero, it does not matter how easy it is to sub out of the stack and replace with something else. In addition, if all the rents from downstream lock-in are factored into the (reduced) upfront sale price, then lock-in, with subsequent prices raises, does not matter either.

When Schwartz claims that the real price of porting out, say, one piece of middleware and replacing it with another, is retesting it with other applications of the stack, he is correct. In the large IT implementation I am currently involved with, this type of "regression" testing is indeed tremendously expensive and time consuming. But even more expensive and time consuming are all the business processes and human capital investments that need to be reworked to get any value out of the technology at all.

The McKinsey Quarterly had a good article about how IT investment only lifts productivity if couples with "good management" (which I assume means decisions about business rules that are sane, clear, and precise, instead of the usual mix of complexity and imprecision). To wit:
Our research, undertaken in partnership with the London School of Economics, focused on the period from 1994 to 2002. It offers evidence that specific management practices foster higher productivity regardless of a company's location, size, sector, or historical performance.

...To put this into perspective, such [a management centric] improvement has an effect comparable to that of raising capital investment by 70 percent, going from 10 manufacturing plants to 17, or increasing the workforce by 25 percent. What's more, companies got the same benefit from improved management regardless of where they ranked on our scale. In other words, even well-managed companies get a big bang from these efforts.

As you would expect from such a large jump in productivity, the impact of better management on the financial performance of individual companies was also impressive. The same one-point improvement on our scale was correlated with a five-percentage-point increase in a company's return on capital employed.

Compared with those results, how do IT investments stack up? We found that additional computing power6 also translated into higher productivity—but the impact was modest. The top quartile of companies, as reckoned by the level of their IT deployment, had a total factor productivity just 4 percent higher, on average, than those in the bottom quartile—just one-sixth of the impact of a one-point improvement in management practices. Moreover, companies with more powerful IT didn't do better financially. That may seem odd, given the rise in productivity, but one likely explanation is that the cost of new IT investments balanced out the financial gain they generated. Again, these results held good regardless of a manufacturer's location, size, or industry.

Of course, managers shouldn't stop buying computers. Rather, the results show that companies can get the biggest benefit by combining IT investments with good management. For corporations scoring in the bottom quartile of management practices, the deployment of more powerful IT is associated with productivity improvements of just 2 percent. However, companies with increased computing power and improved management practices achieve 20 percent higher productivity. This result shows that better management practices can raise productivity a good deal by themselves and increase the impact of IT investments on productivity as well. Companies should first improve their management practices and then invest in IT.
The implication for calls to put IT into poorly managed, low productivity environments (such as schools) is clear.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

David Warsh

The WSJ Opinion Journal mentioned David Warsh today in the context of an article on the fact that some Vietnam vets do not believe that Kerry should be Commander in Chief (no link):
Robert Novak's much-noted column yesterday on anti-Kerry Swift Boat vets described their book purporting to debunk John Kerry's war record as "neither the political propaganda nor the urban legend that its detractors claim." Tom Lipscomb, the former chief of Times Books and head of a Vietnam Vets group in New York City, instantly credited Mr. Novak with having "informed the news directors of America that it is OK to discuss the charges being made by the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth."

Don't bet on it. Ask David Warsh. He was the Boston Globe columnist who, during Mr. Kerry's 1996 senate re-election battle with Bill Weld, got interested in the episode that earned Mr. Kerry his silver star. The reason was a Kerry shipmate who, under the auspices of the campaign itself, casually mentioned that he had already injured the enemy fighter whom Mr. Kerry later chased and killed behind a hootch. That led Mr. Warsh to investigate and eventually lay out as a theoretical possibility that Mr. Kerry's killing of wounded enemy was less than heroic, possibly even technically a "war crime." He noted that Mr. Kerry returned the next day with his movie camera to reenact his version of the scene.

Though Mr. Kerry himself had come home and insisted before Congress that "war crimes" were routine in Vietnam, Mr. Warsh later opined that the term should never have been in his column. In any case, the violent reaction would have taught anybody that there was no taste for revisionism about Mr. Kerry's Vietnam heroism. Mr. Warsh was ripped by fellow columnists in his own paper, and even his editors (who had meticulously screened his column) were less than staunch in its defense. But the episode is also relevant in another way: Mr. Warsh was a Vietnam vet himself and obviously skeptical of Mr. Kerry's penchant for dramatizing what was, after all, a four-month stint in the war that Mr. Kerry proceeded to turn into lifelong political gold. Maybe that's the real source of veteran hostility to Mr. Kerry. --Holman W. Jenkins Jr
I know David Warsh, I read his Economic Principals every week. Warsh takes a literary approach towards economics and mostly discusses new books, biographies, university departments and social relationships related to the subject, a focus that must require genuine affection for the field. A pity that I do not think he gets much of it right, his genuinely warm and sentimental nature limit his ability to embrace the mechanical self-interest at the heart of economic models.

One recent example is a column on a paper which demonstrates that economists are less selfish that other volunteers in tests, and uses this to urge us to 1) drive sweetly and 2) imagine a kinder, gentler world where we were all just nice to each other. I used to take part in exactly the kind of game theory experiment that Warsh describes, and basically you end up in a room with 1) a buddy or 2) a fellow student, who is probably a buddy as well. Note that this precisely fails to reflect the reality of nations and modern economies where the bulk of economic transactions are (necessarily and preferably) anonymous.

Another is an article that says Bush II has brought social security and Medicare into imbalance through tax cuts. The truth is that the system is already in "imbalance" because politicians have promised more to retirees than they have promised to tax earners, and Bush II's tax cut does little to change this one way or the other. The only reason this is not reflected in current government accounts is because the government uses cash accounting, not regular accounting, but David did not really understand this point. Arnold Kling demonstrates this pretty clearly.

But some of Warsh's columns are super, like this one on excellent piece on productivity and automation.

Good Induce Act conversation

Representative Boucher talks to people about how the in-Congress INDUCE Act is bad because it criminalizes technology that might be used to copy something. It is mostly the choir preaching to the choir, but the first few posts are worth reading to understand the issue.

TSA -- Sign me up

I registered yesterday with the a pilot program from the new fingerprint/retinal scan airport security process at Logan airport. I was picked because I've flown into and out of it about 50 times this year. Essentially, what they do is take a biometric scan of your eye (retina? iris? both?) and your fingerprints, and then encode this information into a smart chip on a card. When you insert this card into a machine, it matches the information on it with the eyeball and finger infront of it to see if the two are the same.

The process as very straightforward. You bring in 2 good IDs, they scan them into some machine, verify something (I guess) and then have to stare into this fancy camera and put your finger(s) on this special plate of glass, and the other biometric photo is taken. They then run some sort of background check to see if you are eligble -- I'l find out in about a week if I passed.

What this will mean from a "what will I actually have to do once I get to the airport" is unclear, but if this gets me through airport security lines faster, I am all for it. However, as Bruce Schneier has pointed out many times before, ensuring that an individual has valid ID does little to improve security. Instead, human should be looking for "suspicious" activity, because as vague as that dictate is, it's better at picking up *real* security threats.

Right now, however, there are lots of people who do nothing but compare IDs to faces. It will probably be an improvement if those folks could instead be keeping an eye open for "suspicious" activity.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Real Negotiation

This New Yorker article discusses, at length, the 3/11 bombing in Madrid within the larger context of Muslims in Europe finding solace in jihadi websites. To be frank, I struggle to find an actual insight in the article, but its description of ideological echo-chambers forming online is an unexpected but predictable outcome of the promise of the Internet.
“The Internet is the key issue,” Gilles Kepel, a prominent Arabist and a professor at the Institut d’Études Politiques, in Paris, told me recently. “It erases the frontiers between the dar al-Islam and the dar al-Kufr. It allows the propagation of a universal norm, with an Internet Sharia and fatwa system.” Kepel was speaking of the Islamic legal code, which is administered by the clergy. Now one doesn’t have to be in Saudi Arabia or Egypt to live under the rule of Islamic law. “Anyone can seek a ruling from his favorite sheikh in Mecca,” Kepel said. “In the old days, one sought a fatwa from the sheikh who had the best knowledge. Now it is sought from the one with the best Web site.”
The author suggests that like-minded internet activists willing to take up arms may constitute a nascent state, although to me it sounds like a criminal gang. In particular:
The fact that bin Laden was addressing nations as an equal showed a new confidence in Al Qaeda’s ability to manipulate the political future. Exploiting this power will depend, in part, on convincing the West that Al Qaeda and bin Laden remain in control of the worldwide Islamist jihad. As long as Al Qaeda is seen as being an irrational, unyielding death cult, the only response is to destroy it. But if Al Qaeda—amorphous as that entity has become—has evolved into something like a virtual Islamist state that is trying to find a permanent place for itself in the actual world, then the prospect of future negotiations is not out of the question, however unlikely or repellent that may sound to Americans. After all, the Spanish government has brokered truces with ETA, which has killed four times as many people in Spain as Al Qaeda has, and the accelerated withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq following the train bombings has already set a precedent for accommodation, which was quickly followed by the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Last year, Germany paid a six-million-dollar ransom to Algerian terrorists, and the Philippines recently pulled its fifty troops out of Iraq in order to save a hostage from being beheaded.
Whether or not to negotiate with an entity does not rest on whether it is a "death cult" or a "(virtual) state". It depends on whether there is a geniune zone of agreement where both sides can agree, and whether negotiation is preferable or not to not-negotiating. Personally, I cannot see any possible zone of agreement between jihadis and the rest of the world, which means there can be no value to negotiation. If jihadis want a state, they can contest for one in countries that allow elections, or they can fight for one in states that do not allow elections. And they are fair game for those who protect states -- armies and police.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Good writer on Slate

I'd like to recommend Lee Smith's most recent article on Slate, not because it's a particularly fine piece (although it is), but because Lee's been producing piece after piece that involve, in my mind, new and genuine information and perspectives to help make sense of the arab world and the Global War on Terror. I think he's spent some time in the area observing arabs but not in the "I'll go to a coffee shop and chat because chats in coffee shops are where all intelligent conversation happens" (argh), but in a way that captures the immaturity, delusions, and arrogance of a people who were pretty great once and now owe their importance to the fact that they were born on top of oil wells at a time that oil became valuable.

I'd recommend reading all of his pieces, I think they are the best thing currently put out by Slate.