May 2006

Ok. I lied. I have one cool thing to share. This site will take a photo you upload and based on face recognition algorithms tell you what celebrities you look like. Good news: Tamar looks like Paris Hilton and Julia Roberts. Bad news: I look like Larry King.
(via Gizmodo)

Well, it's time for a blogging break. Recently it's been less of a choice, since I've been tied up with finishing up my Masters Degree, which thankfully I now have! Since then, Ben and I have been busting our butts trying to shine Mycroft up for a number of (hopefully) interested investors. But, most importantly, on Tuesday I leave for 3 weeks with my wife in France and Italy. No computers, no e-mail, no work, no nothing. Just fun, food, wine, sun, music, books… My first real vacation in more than 4 years, and the first I've ever taken with Tamar. Oh my god, I'm so, so excited!!! So, see you in the middle of June.

Today and tomorrow are the culmination of a long, busy semester of working on Mycroft. I'm really proud of what we've accomplished so far, and excited that we finally get to show it off. There are two end-of-semester events at the iSchool that you might come to, if you're so inclined. For a quick overview of what I and my cohorts have been doing, you can come to the Final Project Showcase, from 4-7 tonight, in South Hall Room 110. (Check out all the project descriptions.) For a deeper look, tomorrow morning's got a series of 30 minute talks about all the projects. Check out the schedule here. We'll be giving away (some) of the deepest darkest secrets about Mycroft at our talk at 11:30 in Room 202. Hope to see you there!

Network neutrality is the idea that everyone's messages should pass on the Internet according to the same rules. Technically speaking it means that everyone's packets are all tangled up together. Some get lost, some get rerouted, some go faster than others, but whatever happens it happens equally to everyone's traffic.

The reason why this is an issue now is because the companies that provide the Internet's backbone – the trunk, where your service provider (e.g. Earthlink) is the branch and individual websites are the leaves – are having trouble making money. That's it, plain and simple. Their profit margins are small, and they realized that by allowing companies to pay extra fees to have their packets delivered faster than other people's they could make some dough. And that's on top of what companies already pay for their Internet access. So, enter Congress, the FCC, everyone, and their brother.

(For some background on this issue, see this Washington Post article, a somewhat geekier take from Wikipedia, or this interview of Tim Berners-Lee.)

There's a lot of debate about what to do by people much more informed than I am. It's all very interesting, but I have the solution: do nothing. That's right, forget about it. Don't pass a law that allows companies to charge more for faster access. And whatever you do, don't pass a law banning it. Don't pass a law that defines neutrality. Don't legislate on who has the right to define neutrality. Don't have a series of open forums and a public feedback period. Don't put it through its paces in the courts. Do nothing. Just drop it.

Now, I know that's never going to happen. There are lots of good arguments on both sides, but the truly interesting thing to me is that, once the subject has been broached, there's no going back. The arguments, at this point, must be made, and someone has to 'win'. There's influence to be exerted, connections to exploit, and public opinion to court. We don't seem to be satisfied with the idea that if companies do what they want, and people do what they want, eventually the market and public opinion will find a solution. It won't be clean, it won't be fast, and it won't leave anyone a hero or a martyr, though, and so it won't happen. In this case, the phone comapnies have chosen to lobby Congress, instead of directing their attention towards customers. That's because if they did, they'd get their heads chopped off.

Of course, if you took that argument to its logical conclusion you might think you could say the same thing for, say, murder. Eventually the market and public opinion will come to a resolution about it, so why legislate? But there's a difference. Murder comes up as an issue for public debate because it goes against basic human values, because our sociocultural system has decided that it's abhorrent. Network bias, on the other hand, comes up because some companies just want to make some more money. Plain and simple.

That's not the most bullet-proof argument in the world, but hopefully it gets the point across.

Ben Hill, my co-conspirator for Mycroft, our distributed collaboration project, appears as one of two guests on this week's edition of Jon Udell's weekly podcast over at InfoWorld. The other guest is Nathan McFarland of CastingWords is a podcast transcription service that uses Amazon's Mechanical Turk as the outsource labor provider.

Jon wanted to to talk about the possibilities of 'harnessing collective intelligence,' (a la Tim O'Reilly) a phrase I really like. Collective intelligence is really built when people can collaborate and contribute in the course of their daily activities. When you make a dedicated activity out of it, you begin to move towards the individual side of the individual/collective continuum. We built Mycroft with this in mind, and it was the main reason we chose to focus in on tasks that take only a few seconds – tasks you can do without ever leaving whatever page hosts the Mycroft module. I think enabling these casual, fun interactions will be the key to sustaining a high participation rate over time.

Recently I've been using a really neat new service called 'la la.' In a nutshell, la la provides the infrastructure so that you can trade away CDs you don't want, and for $1.49 per CD get a different CD that you do want. Basically you just make two lists CDs you have and CDs you want. When a CD you have is on someone else's want list, you send it to them with a plastic sleeve and envelope (postage paid!) provided by la la. That entitles you to a receive a CD off of your want list. The catch is that you don't get to decide which one. I assume it just registers that you're due a CD, and then the first person who ponies up any of the CDs on your list sends it to you.

So, la la is great. I love it simple, well executed idea. Ryan complained about their lousy metadata, but I have to say for the music I listen to, it's not a problem. And I have a TON of old CDs I'm ecstatic to get rid of. Ace of Base for Count Basie? You bet! I can't figure out how they make money on the deal though the margin for each transaction, after all the overhead (including postage) must be small. But I guess even a small margin tens of thousands of times will net you a tidy profit.

However, here's my itch, and I hope someone scratches it. There absolutely needs to be a la la notifier. The basic problem is that unless I log in all the time to see what CDs I have that others want, I miss the chance to trade a lot of CDs. People who can afford to spend all day on la la can do more trading than I can because they watch their list all the time and pounce on new arrivals before I ever see them. I'm sure tons of opportunities to trade CDs come and go during the day in between times when I log on. There should be a small, unobtrusive tray icon to let me know when someone requests a CD I have. Or is there already and I haven't seen it?