September 2006

Who Writes Wikipedia?

by on September 30, 2006 · 6 comments

Via Patri Friedman, here’s a fascinating article on the people who write Wikipedia:

I purchased some time on a computer cluster and downloaded a copy of the Wikipedia archives. I wrote a little program to go through each edit and count how much of it remained in the latest version. Instead of counting edits, as Wales did, I counted the number of letters a user actually contributed to the present article.

If you just count edits, it appears the biggest contributors to the Alan Alda article (7 of the top 10) are registered users who (all but 2) have made thousands of edits to the site. Indeed, #4 has made over 7,000 edits while #7 has over 25,000. In other words, if you use Wales’s methods, you get Wales’s results: most of the content seems to be written by heavy editors.

But when you count letters, the picture dramatically changes: few of the contributors (2 out of the top 10) are even registered and most (6 out of the top 10) have made less than 25 edits to the entire site. In fact, #9 has made exactly one edit–this one! With the more reasonable metric–indeed, the one Wales himself said he planned to use in the next revision of his study–the result completely reverses.

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Kip Hawley Is an Idiot

by on September 30, 2006 · 2 comments

I wish I could buy this guy a beer:

A Wisconsin man who wrote “Kip Hawley is an Idiot” on a plastic bag containing toiletries said he was detained at an airport security checkpoint for about 25 minutes before authorities concluded the statement was not a threat.

Ryan Bird, 31, said he wrote the comment about Hawley–head of the Transportation Security Administration–as a political statement. He said he feels the TSA is imposing unreasonable rules on passengers while ignoring bigger threats.

A TSA spokeswoman acknowledged a man was stopped, but likened the incident to cases in which people inappropriately joke about bombs. She said the man was “a little combative” and that he was detained only a few minutes.

Bird’s original account of the incident is here.

Listen to the Stopped Clock

by on September 29, 2006 · 64 comments

I’ve written before that Chris Castle is a technically clueless lawyer whose blog specializes in juvenile and mean-spirited insults of his ideological opponents. He and I clearly don’t see eye to eye on a lot of copyright-related subjects. Yet it seems that even a stopped clock is right once in a while:

I believe there is a good business case that can be made for selling in mp3. At the risk of stating the obvious, I would point out that the iPod, and almost every music player in the market, supports mp3. So the reason to sell in mp3 is not because DRM is bad. I completely disagree with Professor Lessig’s radical fringe that opposes DRM in all forms, and unlike many in the fringe, I support a copyright owner’s decision to sell in any format they wish–DRM or non-DRM.

But the business argument over selling in the unprotected mp3 format shouldn’t have anything to do with how you feel about DRM. The reason you sell in mp3, and the reason you sell in Fairplay, Windows Media and any other common format is because–they are common formats. A lot of people use them. It just happens that more people use mp3 than use Windows Media or Fairplay.

If a copyright owner sold an mp3 file, it could be suitably watermarked to carry identifiers that would allow accounting if an online service wanted to sell the tracks. The point is that if you sell in mp3 you are not giving a fan anything that they couldn’t make themselves if they bought a CD and ripped it.

I think he over-estimates the effectiveness of watermarking technologies. And Castle is wrong when he says that Lessig is in the “radical fringe” that opposes DRM in all of its forms. He’s not, much to my disappointment. But otherwise, this analysis is dead on. And given that Castle is clearly not an apologist for piracy or a critic of the music industry, maybe the music industry will listen to him.

I wonder if it’s occurred to Castle that it’s not a coincidence that MP3 is more widely deployed than FairPlay and Windows Media. The whole point of DRMed formats is to limit interoperability with third party devices. Hence, we shouldn’t be surprised that DRM is plagued by incompatibilities.

Update: I struck out the bit about Lessig’s attitude toward DRM, which on re-reading Lessig’s post clearly isn’t right. What I should have said is that Lessig is more sympathetic than me to the notion that some DRM is better than others, and that we should therefore settle for the least-bad DRM we can get, rather than focusing on persuading publishers to ditch it altogether.

This week, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen announced that his mouse brain-mapping project has finally been completed. This major undertaking arrives in tandem with other advances in medical technologies that will soon force political leaders to face difficult policy questions.

Mapping a mouse’s brain is significant not only because mice share 90 percent of their genes with humans, but also because mapping is the first step towards the goal of reverse engineering. Computer science uses reverse engineering to understand how a device or program works, usually with the goal of copying and improving the technology.

Researchers interested in extending human longevity, such as Ray Kurzweil, believe that reverse-engineering the brain can lead to great advances, not only in understanding how to repair the human body, but also in the field of artificial intelligence. This potential is exciting, and it challenges many of our current practices and beliefs. Consider, for instance, a procedure being tested to wake up patients that many doctors consider brain dead.

Using electrical stimulation of the brain, a type of human “reboot,” scientists have discovered that it is sometimes possible to wake people in deep comas. Dr. Edwin Cooper, an American orthopedic surgeon, has had some encouraging success with his technique, including awakening from a coma Candice Ivey, a woman doctors wanted to terminate by pulling her feeding tube.

[...]

Read more here.

Remember $80 Movies?

by on September 29, 2006 · 24 comments

I’ve finished The Long Tail. Here’s a final point from the book that I liked.

He reminds us that in the early 80s, Hollywood priced the first generation of videotapes at about $75. The theory, he writes, was that this was what a typical family of five would spend on three or four visits to the theater. Obviously, in hindsight this was a stupid pricing strategy. Demand for movies turns out to be highly elastic, and you can sell a lot more movies at $15 or $20 than you can at $75–enough that total revenues go up as a result of the price cuts. Today, the sales and rental of DVDs is on par with movie tickets as a revenue source. Although it’s possible that charging a premium for a new technology made sense, it’s almost certain that the video market would have taken off faster if Hollywood had started out with prices at $30 or $40 instead of $75.

It seems to me that as the movie and music industries move into the digital age, they’re making the same mistakes. The music industry seems to think that 99 cents is unreasonably low. But I think the opposite is probably closer to the truth; demand for music, like the demand for movies, is likely to be highly elastic. If the music industry cut prices to 49 cents a song, a lot of existing customers would buy twice as many songs. Moreover, there are some people who are currently getting their music from illicit file-sharing networks, but would be enticed to buy from an online store at a lower price.

The same seems likely to be true with movies. Apple has priced movies at $10-15, in line with DVD prices. Other movie services seem to be converging on those price points as well. But without the production, distribution, and retail costs associated with shipping a plastic disc around, the marginal cost of getting a movie to consumers via the Internet is far less than $10. It’s likely that here, too, they’d sell a lot more movies for $5 than they would for $10.

I recommend Anderson’s book. It’s an entertaining read that’s packed with insights about the emerging long tail economy.

Every week, I look at a software patent that’s been in the news. You can see previous installments in the series here. This week we return to the VoIP industry, which is rapidly becoming choked with patent litigation. One of the leading VoIP firms, Vonage, was sued by at least two companies this summer for patent infringement. Verizon was one of them, but I’ve yet to find any information about which patents they allege Vonage infringed. If anyone knows, please tell me and I’ll look at those in a future installment. The other company to sue Vonage was Klausner Technologies, which previously won a settlement from AOL.

The patent at issue is seems to be “Telephone answering device linking displayed data with recorded audio message.”

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CableCARD: Still a Flop

by on September 28, 2006 · 8 comments

Ars covers an FCC filing by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association concerning the uptake of CableCARDs. The CableCARD has not proven a hit with consumers, to put it charitably. So far, 200,000 have been deployed, out of 73 million households with cable TV service. That’s about a quarter of one percent.

This is not a surprise. CableCARDs incorporate two of my least favorite things–digital rights management and government technology mandates–so I might be biased, but I have trouble seeing why anyone would want one. The cards were mandated by the FCC as a way of creating a competitive market in set-top-box replacements. The cable industry likes its set-top boxes, resents the FCC’s attempts to abolish them, and so they’ve done everything they could to resist their roll-out. Their primary weapon has been foot-dragging. They released a first generation CableCARD spec that was were crippled by limited functionality. More than a year after the first generation was unveiled, it remains unclear when the second generation will become available.

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Remember the digital TV converter box subsidy? Last July, the Department of Commerce released for comment some fairly sensible rules for administering the program, given the constraints set out by Congress.

The deadline for public comments was this Monday, and–to no one’s surprise–quite a few commenters wanted more money. The broadcasters and TV manufacturers, for instance, complained that the program would be limited to households that do not have cable TV. “No television left behind,” was the unstated theme, as they expressed concern over disconnected televisions in basements across America.

A coalition of retailers–including firms such as Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Circuit City–supported this position. They argued for “leaving such issues to the marketplace, by letting those citizens who believe that they need a Converter apply for a coupon to get one…” This is indeed a novel reading of Adam Smith. Everyone who wants a subsidy should get one. It’s a variant of the invisible hand: outstretched and palm up.

But the retail stores didn’t stop there. They also argued that they should be directly compensated for accepting converter box coupons. The “investments, expenses, and risks,” they maintained, should not be placed “solely on the backs of retail vendors who come forward to participate in this program.”

Let’s recap. The DTV program will cause millions of consumers to drive over to their local Circuit City or Best Buy or Wal-Mart, coupon in hand, to buy converter boxes. The stores can charge whatever they want for these boxes. They will also be reimbursed by the government for the face value of the coupons. A fair number of these consumers–once in the able hands of the store sales staff, will no doubt end up buying brand-new digital televisions from the retailer instead of a puny converter box. And the stores want to be paid for the burden of handling all this additional business?

Nice try. But the argument is utter nonsense. The retail industry lobbyists should be congratulated for their creativity–and perhaps nominated for some lobbying chutzpah award. And then sent away empty-handed.

Barking is Better than Biting

by on September 28, 2006 · 4 comments

I hope the guys at Techdirt don’t mind me ripping off entire posts, because they’re too good, and too short, to excerpt:

Sometimes on the internet, things break. With so many pieces of network gear between a user, their ISP and a content provider’s servers, it’s not unreasonable that something goes down, gets misconfigured, or unplugged every once in a while. Something along those lines happened yesterday at Comcast, when a DNS server failed, temporarily blocking users from accessing Google and some other sites–and then the conspiracy theories started flying, with plenty of commenters fingering net neutrality even after the problem had been resolved, and the truth of the equipment failure had come out. The upshot of this isn’t to point out trigger-happy commenters ready to jump all over ISPs before the truth comes out, but rather that it illustrates just how difficult telcos have made it for themselves–should they ever actually go so far as to follow through on any of their inflammatory rhetoric about blocking or degrading the traffic of sites that won’t pay protection money. The tremendous amount of press this issue has gotten, fueled by the exaggerated and dishonest claims from people on both sides of the issue has made a lot of consumers hyper-sensitive and imagining “net neutrality violations” where they don’t exist. It’s seemed pretty clear all along that any telco stupid enough to block access to something like Google in the middle of this highly charged debate would be shooting itself in the foot; but these sorts of reactions to network outages and problems reiterate that even if telcos have the right to demand payments from content providers and block traffic, doing so would be commercial suicide.

I think this illustrates the virtues of the Felten thesis: threatening to enact new regulations may be more effective than actually enacting them. Even if the pro-regulatory side ultimately loses the legislative battle, the mere fact that we had a big debate about it means that a lot more people are now paying attention to the importance of network neutrality principles, and it’s likely to intensify the backlash should the telcos do anything shady in the future.

As I write this, Ed Felten is testifying before the House Administration Committee on e-voting. He recommends better physical security features, a voter-verified paper audit trail, and greater involvement of computer security experts. These are all good recommendations. One recommendation he doesn’t make, unfortunately, is that we consider scrapping e-voting altogether.

If there’s one message that comes through most clearly in his testimony, it’s “get the details right.” The word “detail” appears on every single page of the written testimony, and in five distinct cases he stresses the importance of paying attention to the implementation details of the security measures he recommends. He stresses that security measures that sound good in the abstract will be useless or worse if they’re implemented poorly.

I think he’s right, but here’s the problem: I don’t see any reason to think that the political process will ever be able to get the details right. Politics proceeds by 30-second soundbites. Congress-critters are too busy to delve deeply into the minutia of voting machine design. And, frankly, the people who tend to volunteer to be poll workers are not, on average, very smart.

If you’ve got a policy proposal that depends on the political process getting a lot of complex technical details right, you should probably find a better proposal. Our political institutions should be as fault-tolerant as possible, so that even if a lot of people screw up, the system will still work.

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