Archive for the ‘For Nerds and Geeks’ Category

Why Google Needs A Chief Economist

Monday, June 1st, 2009

Wired explores Google’s web ad revolution: it’s not just the breadth and depth of the user data that make this a $21 billion a year business, it’s also a sophisticated system of auctions that instantaneously determines winning bids in the millisecond it takes to return your results. No small undertaking:

Varian [Google’s Chief Economist, Hal Varian] believes that a new era is dawning for what you might call the datarati—and it’s all about harnessing supply and demand. “What’s ubiquitous and cheap?” Varian asks. “Data.” And what is scarce? The analytic ability to utilize that data. As a result, he believes that the kind of technical person who once would have wound up working for a hedge fund on Wall Street will now work at a firm whose business hinges on making smart, daring choices—decisions based on surprising results gleaned from algorithmic spelunking and executed with the confidence that comes from really doing the math.

Since financial institutions relied on complex risk models designed by geniuses to create, sell, and purchase mortgage-backed securities, let’s just hope this particular band of geniuses stays out of trouble.

PS: It’s been so long since I personally have really looked – you know, looked – at a sponsored ad link on Google, I decided to search “coffee” and just see what showed up. The very top sponsored link? Bing! Microsoft’s new competitor search engine…Where else are you gonna go to steal search traffic, right?

In the mix

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

Site Lets Writers Sell Digital Copies. (NY Times)

Linked Data is Blooming: Why You Should Care (ReadWriteWeb)

Mint Considers Selling Anonymized Data From Its Users (ReadWriteWeb)

The Growing Popularity of Popularity Lists (The Numbers Guy/Wall Street Journal)

Data-Driven Healthcare

Monday, May 11th, 2009

The super-nerds in team Obama are turning their attention to the health care system. The leader in this drive, somewhat counterintuitively, is thought to be budget director Peter Orszag.

What makes Orszag’s vision so interesting is that it is utterly data-driven. In a time of negative growth and yawning deficits, Orszag believes it is possible to extend coverage to everyone and lower costs over all. The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza has a great profile of the man & his ambitions:

Orszag is convinced that rising federal health-care costs are the most important cause of long-term deficits. As a fellow at the Brookings Institution, he became obsessed with the findings of a research team at Dartmouth showing that some regions of the country spend far more money on health care than others but that patients in those high-spending areas don’t have better outcomes than those in regions that spend less money. If spending more on health care has no correlation with making people healthier, then there must be enormous savings that a smart government, by determining precisely which medical procedures are worth financing and which are not, could wring out of the system. “I spent several months in very intense study,” Orszag told me. “The reason that I wanted to go to C.B.O. was I thought that was one of the key bodies that could really delve into what we could do about it.”

Interestingly, when the Times’ David Leonhardt sat down with President Obama recently, Obama struck a similar note:

“if it turns out that doctors in Florida are spending 25 percent more on treating their patients as doctors in Minnesota, and the doctors in Minnesota are getting outcomes that are just as good — then us going down to Florida and pointing out that this is how folks in Minnesota are doing it and they seem to be getting pretty good outcomes, and are there particular reasons why you’re doing what you’re doing? — I think that conversation will ultimately yield some significant savings and some significant benefits.”

But the President goes a step further, bringing up the example of his grandmother, who had hip replacement surgery last summer, and died a few months later. Expensive procedures like these, which frequently occur at the end of life, are some of the biggest drivers of healthcare costs.

NYT: So how do you — how do we deal with it?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think that there is going to have to be a conversation that is guided by doctors, scientists, ethicists. And then there is going to have to be a very difficult democratic conversation that takes place. It is very difficult to imagine the country making those decisions just through the normal political channels. And that’s part of why you have to have some independent group that can give you guidance. It’s not determinative, but I think has to be able to give you some guidance. And that’s part of what I suspect you’ll see emerging out of the various health care conversations that are taking place on the Hill right now.

Scary stuff, medical bills. The idea that better information can make health care cheaper is enticing but untested. We do know, however, that much of the cutting edge of medicine is super-expensive, precisely because it’s so advanced.

UPDATE: It seems like the healthcare industry is sufficiently frightened of having cost-cutting imposed on them to make some preemptive announcements that they’ll cut costs themselves.  Hmm…

Yahoo or Google as a Datatrust? But will Facebook play?

Monday, May 4th, 2009

Time will tell, but it appears that Yahoo! has made it *really* easy (for application developers) to extract publicly available data from all over the interwebs and query it through Yahoo!’s servers.

YQL Execute allows you to build tables of data from other sources online, using Javascript as a programming language and run it on Yahoo’s servers, so the infrastructure needs are very small.

Similarly, Google “just launched a new search feature that makes it easy (for you and I) to find and compare public data.”

Graph from Google Public Data

Image taken from the Google Blog.

Which is pretty exciting as both are huge leaps towards what we’ve envisioned as a “datatrust” in various blog posts and our white paper. Well except for maybe the “trust” part. (Especially given our experiences with Yahoo here and here.)

A few more points to contemplate:

  1. Now that the Promised Land of collating all the world’s data approaches on the horizon, will that change people’s willingness to make data publicly accessible? What I share on my personal website might not be okay rearing its head in new contexts I never intended. As we’ve said elsewhere, when talking about privacy, context is everything.
  2. What about ownership? Both Yahoo! and Google may only temporarily cache the data insofar as is needed to serve it up. But, in effect, they will become the gatekeepers to all of our public data, data you and I contribute to. So the question remains, What about ownership?
  3. There’s still a lot of data that’s *not* publicly accessible. Possibly some of the most interesting and accurate data out there. How will we get at that? Case in point, Facebook just shut down a new app that allows you to extract your personal “Facebook Newsfeed” and make it public via an RSS feed, citing, what else? Privacy concerns. (Not to mention the fact that access to Facebook data is generally hamstrung by privacy.)

Peanuts and Cracker Jack

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

Over at Consumerist, the race is on for the title of “Worst Company in America.”  eBay v. Chrysler, GM v. Chase, Comcast v. Capital One…and so goes the parade of reviled corporate names even your dog has heard of, with the wildcard entry this year being the Peanut Corporation of America. (Remember them? Salmonella outbreak? Nine dead, hundreds made sick…against AIG they don’t stand a chance.)

Of course, these companies don’t want us to hate them. They want us to like them. But it’s interesting to note that some of the things they do out of their own self-interest are truly not in the interests of the consumer. And very often these conflicts are over personal data and the flow of information.

Let’s take Comcast v. Capitol One, just as an example. Comcast slapped limits on customers’ internet use, and critics say the policy is intended to deter people from watching TV online.  Funny, Comcast also has a cable business that would be adversely affected if people started watching shows on their computers.

Cap One is of course a huge and reviled credit card company, routinely accused of all kinds of chicanery you can just about get away with if you bury important notifications in nausea-inducing 2-point font. Also, they have the power to wreck your credit score.

At the time this post is being written, Comcast is winning handily.

Total aside: bless Nick Denton & the team he hired for creating a consumer news site that is hip and witty in a way Ralph Nader could only dream of. And bless Consumer Reports for buying it from him. This is a good match.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

The 2009 Plagiarius Awards – honoring the most brazen violators of copyright law in consumer products – have been announced in Germany.

On the red carpet, a delightful procession of winning knockoffs next to their original twins. There’s a rolly black suitcase, originally made by a German company, and copied to near-perfection by a Chinese one…here are two toothed belt axes (huh?) whose only apparent difference is that one has a patch of red where the other is blue. Then there’s that jaunty green watering can, “Elise,” whose studied imitator was born in Hong Kong.

Since we don’t do this particular kind of public shaming in America, Businessweek interviews Plagiarius judge Doris Moeller:

How exactly did you judge these awards?

The jury [which also included several lawyers, professors, and journalists] looked at about 30 infringements. Products are included if the [counterfeiting] behavior is incredible, former employees are involved, or there are hints that the [plagiarist] got the information in an incorrect way. Each of the products in question has to be sold on the German market.

What are the repercussions of receiving an award?

There is a press conference that goes with the awards at which the companies are publicly blamed for bad behavior. That affords an opportunity to make issues like counterfeiting and piracy public. I think the media coverage really harms the producers hit by an award.

Perhaps no surprise: most of the copies originate in China or elsewhere in East Asia. But there’s a Canadian impersonator here, and a Greek one too.

Want to know more? Since 2007, Plagiarius has been exhibiting the best of the fakes at a museum in the small city of Solingen. Entry is 2 Euros for adults, but the photos of the museum are free of charge. So feast your eyes:

Plagiarius Museum

Peer Review

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

Crowdsourcing meets…patent law. Businessweek dissects the Peer-to-Patent Community Patent Review Pilot, a project of New York Law School.

[W]hy do many leading corporations support an initiative that appears designed to surface more information to challenge patent applications? In short, Peer-to-Patent offers the potential to deliver stronger, more litigation-proof patents in shorter time and lower cost. By increasing transparency at the outset and surfacing potential issues regarding prior art earlier, this process can preempt very costly litigation down the road. In an important way, Peer-to-Patent becomes a powerful insurance program to mitigate risk of patent challenges.

The hard work of slogging through “prior art” (earlier work that may be similar or relevant) is done by law students and volunteers. The project was recently re-upped and has the support of General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and, critically, the U.S. Patent Office.

Who says government can’t innovate?

Drip, drip, drip

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

At Wired, David Kravets frets that the Obama administration won’t change course on the pending international treaty on counterfeiting. Among other things, the agreement is rumored to make peer-to-peer filesharing a crime and open the door to iPod searches by law enforcement. That scuttlebutt courtesy of Wikileaks, since FOIA requests for the treaty have been turned down by Team Obama.

Though it may only scratch the surface, the Wikileaks page on the Proposed US ACTA multi-lateral intellectual property trade agreement (2007) is mind-numbingly detailed. There’s also more than a whiff of judgment about the document’s goals:

In 2007 a select handful of the wealthiest countries began a treaty-making process to create a new global standard for intellectual property rights enforcement, which was called, in a piece of brilliant marketing, the “Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement” (the agreement does not cover currency fraud)

The page traces the treaty’s origins to a handful of U.S. legislators who’ve taken campaign contributions from big entertainment companies.

Worth a listen, then, if you didn’t catch it this weekend, is On The Media’s interview with Wikileak’s investigations editor, Julian Assange.

BOB GARFIELD: Investigative reporters and news organizations have feasted on the documents provided by whistleblowers since time immemorial, but when information is particularly sensitive, the news organizations typically will give the government an opportunity to persuade the news organization that, for whatever reason, it is extremely dangerous to release some or all of what has been leaked. Why is that such a bad idea?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, CBS followed that practice for eight months, concealing Abu Ghraib, until it was scooped by The New Yorker. So that kind of practice is not something that journalism should be proud of, whatsoever.

You have to think where your loyalties are. And for a news organization, that primary loyalty should be to its readers or it should be to its sources. Our primary loyalty is to our sources, secondary loyalty to our readers.

Some questions I am left with:

– A news organization whose primary loyalty is to its sources? Isn’t that what got Judith Miller in trouble?

– How is Wikileaks’ record holding up? How many egregious errors so far?

– About that anti-counterfeiting treaty: what part of it merits classification as, er, classified?

What Would Diderot Do?

Monday, March 9th, 2009

Book historian Robert Darnton has read and summarized the lengthy draft settlement between Google and book publishers for the New York Review of Books.

Please allow me to now further simplify by summarizing Darnton’s analysis:

> The Enlightenment represented the dawn of a new age of learning, built on the free-ish exchange of ideas in letters and books.

> The enlightened founders of the United States limited copyright to 28 years, recognizing the necessity of both protecting authors’ rights and advancing public knowledge. Life expectancy was much shorter then, but a young author could have a reasonable expectation of his or her book losing copyright within their lifetime.

> The 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act extends copyright to the life of the author + seventy years. That means the books now entering the public domain date to roughly to the 1920s, and all the authors are dead.

> Google has been digitizing millions of books. Some of them are in the public domain, some are still copyrighted, and the largest portion are copyrighted but out of print, and therefore largely out of reach.

> A draft settlement between Google and publishers promises to bring the texts of these books to the people, at low cost (at your home computer) or no cost (at public and university libraries which purchase a license). This archive could quickly become the world’s largest library, bar none.

> This exciting archive could represent a Digital Republic of Learning that would have made Diderot (the author of the first encyclopedia) salivate.

> While there have been some similar efforts by not-for-profit groups like the Open Content Alliance, Google Books, will eat their lunch.

> The draft agreement between Google and publishers has problems: libraries would be limited to a single computer terminal with access to the archive, and users would have to pay to print copyrighted material.

> The biggest problem, however, is this:

“What will happen if Google favors profitability over access? Nothing, if I read the terms of the settlement correctly. Only the registry, acting for the copyright holders, has the power to force a change in the subscription prices charged by Google, and there is no reason to expect the registry to object if the prices are too high.”

It’s interesting to consider this scenario. In the short life of Google, most criticism has come from a smallish cadre of geeks. Under different management, could the company ever do anything to make your mom mad?

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