Thursday, December 15, 2011

Opposing SOPA and PIPA

I'm in a bit of a rush at the moment, but wanted to add my blog to the chorus of opposition to SOPA and PIPA heading through Congress. As the House Judiciary Committee is voting on SOPA today, now is the time for everyone out there to call their reps and oppose these bills.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Klout and the Future of Whuffie

I like Klout, admittedly with a few reservations, realizing that it has a long way to go. It is something of an attempt to be a Whuffie system, and I have been writing about those for years. Klout, despite its flaws, gives a good example of how Whuffie systems might start out and where they might go in the future. Klout's stated goal is to measure one's online influence, and render that information as a number between 1 and 100. To quote their About page: "The Klout Score measures influence based on your ability to drive action. Every time you create content or engage you influence others." This year, Klout has hit public attention in the online world. There are a lot of people who think it is desperately important, and others that hate it, but Klout has at least succeeded in getting people's attention.

I do have several criticisms of Klout. I am curious as to how meaningful it is as a measurement in terms of real-world impact. What exactly does online influence mean, and should people care about it as much as some of them seem to? How exactly do you define influence at all? As far as I know, it is not easy to make tests where we ask people to attempt to influence the world in a particular way, and measure the result. Klout is only measuring comments, retweets, shares and such. It does appear to be correlated with real-world fame and influence, as can be seen by people that have real-world fame tend to have high Klout scores. People are still trying to find out whether Klout is actually usable in real world situations. There haven't been anything approaching double-blind scientific tests, only approximations and Klout's marketing department trying to convince us that it is a real thing.

Klout's algorithm is secret, so for all we know a significant portion of the score could be a random number generator behind their black box. I might just be an openness and transparency fanatic, but I imagine that will be a significant weaknesses for Klout. There is no accountability or insight. Considering that the metric is their business, this is somewhat understandable, but for me at least, it is a hindrance. Klout is succeeding in getting attention right now, because it's the only real competitor in this space and no one is providing an alternative. We simply have to take their metric because it is the only one out there.

While one of Klout's benefits is simplicity of presentation, I wish that one could go into more detail with the score. Social influence, online or not, is incredibly complex. People can be hugely influential on one subject and not another; people might be more likely to influence those with similar tastes; there is a difference between influencing the world by creating new works and directing people to existing ones; and there are many other shades of 'influence' that Klout doesn't go into. Klout does attempt to make its metric more focused by listing individual topics, but I find that system to be largely irrelevant at the moment. Topics are limited to three per person and they are determined solely by what I believe is a natural language processing algorithm on their end. Mine are coffee and libraries and that is almost completely nonsensical. Up until a week ago, Klout thought I was an authority on Skynet. It will get better when people can suggest topics for others, and Klout has said that improvement will be here soon. It would also improve if there could be a greater number of topics, and if each had its own individual score. Klout also attempts to break the metric down into sub-factors of reach, amplification and a network's influence, but again, those are somewhat hand-wavy. There is a long way to go on all these fronts. We do not just need more accurate metrics, but to better define what we want to measure.

If Klout were a predictive metric instead of simply a number, it would at least provide an explicit connection to the world. Where if your score is x, you can, through y effort, change the world z amount. Then the metric can be tested and refined. Unfortunately, then you need metrics for x, y and z, and to measure and define a host of other items affecting the system. Despite the outpouring of data about people's social lives, the social sciences remain far from the hard sciences. Klout is just a first step. Perhaps if there were a way to spend Klout, that would give us an exchange rate to something tangible, but I'm not sure that even makes sense, despite the idea of 'reputation markets'. Reputation and influence are not easily transferable or fungible, so our handy metaphors are not much use. Could you measure a Gross National Attention and see where it is being spent?

Our shortage of metrics in the social sciences is so acute that people are starving for them, even if they are as imprecise and inaccurate as Klout. Klout is already showing itself to be significant, simply because it is used. I have seen a lot of articles this year by people ranting how important Klout is. That 'Without Klout, Google+ is dead to me'. Instances of people throwing fits with regards to their score. Given the tone used in those articles, it is easy to dismiss the people obsessing about Klout as twats, but Klout does appear to be a meaningful measure to some extent. How to make it more useful is a better question.

People, mainly marketers, are attempting to use the metric and measure the results. Dozens of companies are giving away perks to people with high Klout scores and certain topics of influence in the hopes that they will talk up their products and influence people to buy them. Audi appears to still be trying to figure out whether or not their participation in such a plan actually had results. There's a new idea to give people with high Klout equity in startups if they and promote them. Again, a ways to go, but with money being poured in, people are going to want to be able to measure their return on investment.

As hungry as people are to use the Klout score for marketing, people are even more hungry to have a high Klout score, out of sheer simple human competitiveness. Klout encourages people to sign up additional services in order to get a higher score. Not everyone cares to do this of course, but certain competitive people like me are more than happy to. Thankfully, I've avoided sounding like a twat on a message board, but I can see some of where they are coming from. I could easily imagine people out there wanting to give Klout access to their emails and phone records just so that their connections to various people could be added to their score. As I wrote earlier, it gives people something to compete for in a way similar to money because it's a status metric.

Klout does indeed lead to some negative effects in the real-world, beyond shrill comments on blogs. A lot of people have criticized that it just creates an arbitrary pecking order for people to be pricks about, or to easily dismiss people without looking at them, and that is a danger. A great criticism of the social networks behind Klout, 'The Social Graph is Neither', does a good job of pointing out how far removed Facebook and such are from normal human interaction. Klout does certainly have a 'teach to the test' effect, encouraging online interactions for the sake of scoring points. I admit I have found myself influenced to tweet more simply with scores in mind. My response to those criticisms is to make the test better, instead of abolishing the test. That is why I am trying to better connect the metric with reality. Ideally, I want Klout, or a new Klout replacement, to be greatly improved, but I am thankful for it as a first step.

This has gotten quite long enough at this point, so I'm going to break up what I am writing into more articles. Next up will either be a deeper look at ways to improve social metrics, or a look at my favorite social network, Reddit, thoughts on improving it, and how it ties in with Klout.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


Given how often I think about creating web services that would require collecting and analyzing massive amounts data in order to provide the features I want, Reddit does a good job of playing devil's advocate, because it provides much of what I want while being incredibly simple. Reddit is the best source of link recommendations I have found, and it does almost nothing to provide what I dream of in creating the Platonic ideal of the social net. There are no personalized recommendations. It strictly avoids caring about user's real names, locations or other demographic data. Almost nothing is done to use or display social connections. None of the fancy stuff I dream of seeing. It is simple, and it works.

Having a functioning online community and also attempting to wring every last piece of data out of users are at least slightly contradictory goals. As much as I hate to admit it, I share some goals with Facebook. We both want to be able to analyze all the data coming out of social activity, though Facebook is in it for the advertising dollars, and I want it out of curiosity and potential academic reasons. As 'The Social Graph is Neither' points out, reducing social networks to programmatic code is awkward for a number of reasons: real life social connections are not easily categorized, many times explicitly declaring them is detrimental to the real world social connection, and the effort to record all the data can create an unnerving worry of privacy and voyeurism. You do not need to track and analyze every detail of people’s lives to create a useful social network.

Reddit explicitly avoids most of the fancy data processing I want to play with, has a very simple model, and it seems to work tremendously well. It might even succeed because of it. It manages to give me some of the best recommendations for what to read on the internet. One of its main competitors, Digg, implemented several of the features I want, and Reddit beat it into the ground. Yet I still wish to expand upon Reddit's model, to analyze and toy with the data. There are many things other than simplicity that differentiated Reddit from its competitors, and I hope there is a way to expand upon Reddit's functionality without bringing it crashing to the ground.

What I Would Like To Improve: 


The general anonymity of Reddit can lead to some rather unsavory behavior, as seen in a row that popped up across the net last month. Yet a lot of people seem to like that anonymity, and it did help make Reddit what it is today. With usernames not tied to real names, it does make it easier for people to speak their minds. By minimizing the social network features, it does make it harder for mob-mentalities to mass promote links. Unlike YouTube, the comments are (generally) not a trolling wasteland, giving credence to the idea that using real names does not do not do much to improve online interactions. A lot of people do feel Reddit is a community and spend the majority of their time on the site writing comments, as opposed to submitting links.

As for myself though, I am not a fan of the encouraged anonymity part of Reddit. Because of it, I only rarely get into discussions. Talking with a username with no human face does not give me any context and makes it hard to care about the discussion. When I get into an argument about politics I don't know if I am I talking to a voter who actually believes what they are stating, some troll just being an ass, or a 15 year-old who just read 'Atlas Shrugged'. It is hard for me to feel that Reddit is a community instead of just a machine that spits out link recommendations.

I would loosen the encouraged anonymity and allow people to opt in to displaying their own personal information. Allow users to remain anonymous if they choose, but also allow accounts to be directly linked to Google+, Twitter, Facebook, etc., and encourage code to shuttle information back and forth between them. I want a Reddit where I could know more about the person or bot behind the accounts that were posting so as to have some more sense of community. Make it easier to find people I already know on the site, and make it easier to gather all the statistical data about where posts were coming from, the demographic breakdown of who was making them, where in the world they were coming from etc. I believe this would greatly encourage me to actually interact with and talk to people on Reddit.

Note that other sites have attempted this, namely Digg, and that lead to some negative effects, the largest one being that groups of friends would vote in sync. Perhaps we could move to the system used in most modern republics, where the secret ballot was invented to discourage social pressure and the buying of votes. Currently on Reddit you are able to see every vote a user has ever cast. I would consider getting rid of that, but that would make it hard to do some of the changes I am about to get to.

Post Automation/Aggregation

I would loosen the spamming rule just a bit, and allow or encourage people and organizations to post their own stories. Make submission to Reddit easier to automate, so that posts I make to Twitter or Google+ would be automatically sent to Reddit. Do not discourage news websites from automatically sending all their stories to various subreddits. Essentially, I want a more universal view of what is popular on the internet right now. I want a more omniscient view of the net and encouraging more content to be dumped into Reddit is a good way of doing that. Of course, then you would need a better way to filter everything.

Apply Better Filters

I would not directly ban vote manipulation in the same manner Reddit currently does, but would instead try to get the software to weigh votes. This way one would not have a binary response to vote manipulation, but a more continuous approach. The system I imagine would by default give less weight to votes coming from bots, or accounts all voting in sync, or votes that have been paid for, but would acknowledge that there is potentially valuable opinion in these votes. Perhaps, yes, this group of 30 accounts voting in sync might all be sock-puppets run by one person, but instead of ban-hammering them, count all their votes together as the equivalent of one vote. I want to have a system where you don't need explicit, iron rules against spam and vote rigging, but a system that takes them into account and adjusts according. You can have thousands of bots voting for every single person that votes, but if their votes mean nothing to you, they do not need to be deleted, they can just be ignored.

To continue in that direction, do not just make a distinction in weighting between people who are 'cheating' and those who are not, but between humans that have contributions of different value. Have a system that can measure the statistical similarity between how people vote and the links they submit, so that saying one wants to weigh someone's vote higher causes more of what they like to be recommended to you.

Furthermore, allow users to customize these weights themselves, and allow them to alter the weights at the flip of a switch. I want to be able to weigh votes and shift that weighting so that I could read different types of opinions. Given default laziness in most users, you would want to create default weightings that would have a similar effect to the current policies of reducing spam and vote manipulation, but make it easy to modify. Allow me tailor my own basic weightings, so that I can specify the how much I like various posters, how much I like various sources and so on. You could even have people's votes count inversely. As a liberal, I might want to tag a conservative as someone whose vote counts negative to me.

Ideally I could easily escape my own echo chamber by flipping a dial to see what conservative people were reading. I would like to flip between what people my age were reading and other generations, what fellow Americans were reading vs. other countries, what my friends were reading vs. strangers and many other variables. Even better, allow me to say that this other user is to the right, this other user is to the left, and have the system calculate, based on everything they have voted on, everything that people with voting patterns similar to them have voted on, and so forth, and then sort every post along that axis. That is the sort of power I want when using Reddit.

Another similar change I might like to make would be to move away from the independent subreddit model. I think it should be easier to post links in multiple subreddits at once so as to be able to see how the same post fairs in different subreddits. Essentially, I do not want the discrete distinction between various subreddits to be the final arbiter in how something is seen. I want to be able to use a subreddit as just another type of filter or tag, and for Reddit to be able to recommend links to me in subreddits I have never seen.

Why More Isn't Done With Reddit's API

When I started writing this article more than a year ago, I was under the mistaken impression that Reddit did not have a public API, and that this was what was preventing more sites from interfacing with it. It turns out Reddit has a quite thorough API. I was stunned by this because with an open API like that, I would expect Reddit to be overrun by bots. And indeed, it does have something of a problem with that, but not as large as I would expect. There are websites that I won't link to, that will sell you upvotes. I'm surprised that every news site doesn't have code that automatically sends whatever they publish to Reddit, despite the ban on self-promotion. True, the rules largely prohibit that, but I would think it would be beneficial enough to get these results that people would be hiding their spam behind various randomizing filters. There are certainly bots and spammers on Reddit, but they have not overwhelmed the site. On the whole it seems Reddit is mainly run by humans. Perhaps it is just the hard work of the moderators of each of the various subreddits that keep things from being overrun by bots.

I'm surprised more isn't being done to analyze all the data there is. Instead the main uses of the API are browser extensions like the Reddit Enhancement Suite and smart phones apps. There are bits of JavaScript to allow blog articles to be submitted and upvoted from external websites, but that is a far smaller degree of integration than I would imagine. Nothing that exciting, though useful and nice. Again, perhaps the lesson is to stay within the bounds of practicality. Maybe the main thing protecting the humanity of Reddit is not the moderators, but the fact that Reddit is not as popular as I would imagine it to be, and that the cost of the code I am imagining is simply not worth the price.

Potential Consequences and What Might Be Done To Compensate 

For the purposes of this thought experiment, I am imagining a future internet where Reddit is big and popular enough that mere human moderators cannot sweep back the bots, and the only solution is to invent smarter filters. The changes I am imagining being made to improve Reddit would still make several problems more likely. The anonymity and lack of social connections in Reddit discourages mob-mentality that was one of the issues that broke Digg. Weighing votes based on their popularity could provide positive-feedback loops leading to a situation where a small number of users dominate what is highly ranked on the site.

We would need to be very careful with how votes were weighed. Ideally you would have something where the value of someone's opinion was based on a combination of how other people valued it, how close they were to your social circle, and how similar that opinion was to yours.

The default weighting systems would provide a tremendous amount of influence on how the site felt to average users. I would hope that allowing users to customize their weighing systems would create enough diversity that it would avoid creating single broken weighting to set the entire site off kilter. I also would not have only a single default weighting for new users, but would assign different values, both to create more diversity, and for the purpose of A/B testing.

Allowing people to tune their voting systems will likely encourage echo chambers, but at least if you give everyone their own weighting system, it allows the echo chambers to be personalized. And I would want to provide easy to use options to make it easy for users to choose to see posts from opposing viewpoints that were popular enough. No guarantee that people would still want to do that, but making it easy would at least encourage that behavior.

I want a universal, continuous, automated system, and I know that would require a tremendous amount of data and computation to execute in a usable manner. A significant part of what I want involves statistics that I am just being hand-wavy about, because I have not thoroughly studied them. The UX design alone would be a tremendous headache. I admit that I am not sure how practical these ideas might be, but it is what I would aim for. However, Reddit has approximately 20 employees, and their existing, simple model does not overreach. Perhaps the lesson there is to live within the bounds of practicality.

Ordering the Chaos 

Reddit makes a virtue of its simplicity, and here I want to apply more fancy software to something that is already working. But that way lies the future! It might not be easy to alter Reddit to improve it, most of the possible changes that might be made would make it worse, but there are still many improvements that might be made. I want to see the entire net translated into some Reddit/Twitter/Google+ hybrid, and easily see what is popular right now among either my social circle, humanity at large, or some specific subsection. I want to be able to easily see what people are saying about various subjects, and divide what they're saying by whatever demographic I chose. I want to neat statistical maps of how memes are flowing. I want an idealized universal perfect internet.

I suppose my dream for a more universal, more analyzed, tune-able Reddit is close to how Google+ is supposed to work. I look at Google+ and see how it technically has most everything Reddit has, save for downvoting. I use Google+ in mostly the same way I use Reddit, in that I +1 pages on Google+ the same way I upvote pages on Reddit, and I share a page on Google+ like I submit a page to Reddit. From my perspective the only differences between the two are that Google+ unsurprisingly has a better Chrome extension to make it easier to submit pages to Google+, and that Reddit has significantly more users and user activity. Not surprisingly, I spend more time on Reddit. Google+ is also different from Reddit in that it doesn't have Reddit's user culture, but I don't really care about that, aside from the link recommendations that come out of it. I just see two different websites that I have to bounce back and forth between, when if they were combined the whole might be greater than the sum of their parts.

The larger picture is that I am not just looking for how to make one website better. I don't want to just have to go to one site. I want the entire internet to be behaving by the set of rules that I've got in my head, with the good features of Reddit, Google+, etc., shared universally. I don't really care about the local culture of some section of the net. I just want a Platonic ideal of the net, and a pretty data visualization layer over the top. If we could get everyone using open standards like OpenSocial and such, and allow people to easily personalize how they see all the data out there... Well, I might as well wish for a third party candidate to have a chance at winning the presidency.

In the meantime, for the purposes of having links recommended to me, Reddit is the best site on the net. This may be mainly because of its users, and those users may be due to Reddit’s simplicity. Still, Reddit is a long ways off from where I dream of being. But Reddit is a step closer, and a lot more useful to me, than most other things out there.


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Occupy Wall Street Two Months On

I started writing this post in early October, and now, more than a month later, the Occupy movement is continuing along, with some notable success in shifting the public debate. In general, I am quite happy that the Occupy movement is occurring, and support it. I agree with many of the items that they're protesting and am also happy to see something of an active left-wing movement return to America.

Ideally the Occupy movement would be non-partisan as people posting this chart have been promoting, and there are examples of the occasional Republican or Tea Partier supporting the movement. I have written earlier about the Tea Party more than a year ago, and that movement still irritates me to no end despite supposedly having at their core some admirable goals. Sadly, I would still summarize the Tea Party as on-the-whole irrational, right-wing fucks who are happily tearing this country apart.

My hopes are that the Occupy movement can manage to be a general protest of the 99% against economic inequality and corruption in government, but that is a faint hope. This appears to significantly be a leftist movement. Given how I've grown up to idealize much of the 60s political activism, that isn't entirely bad. Even if the movement gets turned into a left-wing version of the Tea Party, good for it shifting the national debate, and I strongly hope it manages to achieve some of its objectives.

When it comes to clearly defining those objectives, there is some cohesiveness and direction in the movement, despite its overall decentralization. The General Assembly in New York has put forward the clearest declaration of objectives I have seen in one place with the The 99 Percent Declaration.

Looking at this declaration, I whole-heartedly agree with several points, am iffy about some, and find others completely irrelevant. They've broken down twenty points. Please go to the page if you want a full accounting. I would do a point-by-point analysis myself, but it has taken me a month to get this much written. The declaration is a mixture of measures that range from attempts to reduce corporate power, inequality, and the impact of  money in politics, which I am very much in support of, to various hand waving wishes to improve the economy, to various left supported issues that though I support seem somewhat off the central message.

Going through the list, I would say that I strongly agree with items 1, 2, 3, 6 and 16. I partly agree with, strongly depending on implementation, points 5, 8, 9, 13 and 19. I agree with, but seem to be off the main track points 7 and 11. Lastly, I somewhat disagree with, or just strike me as crazy hand waving, points 4, 10, 12, 14, 15, 17, 18 and 20.

The general aim of the movement is a protest against corporate power, money corrupting American/global politics, and the growing income and wealth inequality in our society. Those are all goals I support whole-heartedly and achieving any of those alone would be a huge accomplishment. If they intend to stick with that message, I would refine the aims of movement significantly, and focus on those points.

Remove money from the election process by abolishing lobbying, having publicly funded elections, and disallowing politicians from getting jobs in areas they had been regulating. I also support instant runoff voting, non-partisan redistricting and voting holidays that were not even mentioned in the 99 Percent Declaration. Reduce corporate power through reversing Citizens United, abolishing corporate personhood and greater antitrust action. Fix some of the financial messes by reinstating Glass-Steagall. Admittedly financial policy gets hugely complicated and I can barely begin to comment on it without much more research and going on for pages and pages. Similarly, I would like to see a push for tax-reform, and simpler, more progressive taxes, but tax policy is complicated enough I could write about it across a dozen blog-posts.

If those goals alone were achieved, I would be beside myself. Beyond that, yes, you can argue that healthcare implemented through a single-payer system would greatly help the masses, and is being prevented by health-insurance corporations, and should therefore be a part of the Occupy movement. Similarly, I am greatly in favor of increased environmental protections, and much of the environmental damage in this country is caused by laws and tax incentives that feed money into various industries and corporations at the expense of the people. Yet going down that road, I am tempted to throw in every political cause I support, from intellectual property law, to ending the drug war, to foreign policy, to removing religion from politics, and we get a huge, messy progressive wish list.

I believe that the Occupy movement should remain as focused as possible on fighting money in politics, reducing income inequality, reducing corporate power and fixing financial policies that contributed to the economic mess we are in now. Keeping that focus is the best way to achieve these already significant goals, and to attempt to bring in support from across the political spectrum.

As for how the Occupy movement should achieve its goals, continuing to protest and raise awareness is a good first step. If a large public movement can be built, that will we wonderful. Lawrence Lessig and Dylan Ratigan are pushing the United Republic movement, and I hope that succeeds.

If this does remain a leftist, partisan effort, that is not ideal, but I'll take it. In that case, they could learn some lessons from the Tea Party, and influence the nomination process. The elections this year did see several progressive victories, if victory is defined as halting further descent. Hopefully by the time elections happen next year, the movement will have built further political power. Getting Elizabeth Warren and Alan Grayson elected would be a good start. We shall see where the movement goes. At the moment, it's the best sign I've seen for hope in this country in a while.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Redesign underway

The wonderful Cori Johnson has come through and given some help to the design of this blog. We're still working on tweaking some of the issues, apparently it might be a flaw that I happen to like Times New Roman. So, I'm learning about fonts.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Minor updates

The time horizon I had in mind in my previous update seems to have been a bit optimistic. I have just this week managed to connect and wire in some social network links. Next on the list of technical improvements will be having Cori Johnson help with the design and layout, but that is contingent on me actually getting back to the non-technical aspect of this blog, namely writing content. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

And we're back!

After far too long, I once again have a computer set up in my room and can get back to regularly typing. Thank you, Ricky Vegas. Still need to pull the info off of my dead laptop, but that shouldn't take too long.

Since I last wrote here back in March, life has been going well. Dating a wonderful girl, Bloodhound is about to go live, working on trying to get an essay published with my friend Tynan, getting things ready for Burning Man... living the dream, basically.

With regards to the blog, I did buy and will be trying to get that up and running shortly. Need to update some a lot of things with changed links, Google's +1 buttons, etc. Then I'll go back to typing out whatever I happen to be thinking about Syria, tax-policy, Google+, life, etc.

Right now, I'm just happy to have a computer again.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Pardon the interruption

Sadly my computer has broken, which will disrupt my planned updates for awhile.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Quantitative Measures of Social Data

I've talked before about whuffie, going all the way back to one my first posts, and would like to see if I could expand on the subject a bit. Humanity is continuing to gather a new mass of data made available by the net and computers but we are still looking for better tools to better analyze it.

We've got many new projects that are beginning to utilize the new mass of data available through websites, blogs, Twitter, social networks, cell phone, GPS systems, and such. MIT's Billion Prices Project, Google's Ngram Viewer, etc. All that is still only in the most rudimentary stages. New ones are popping like Swipely that I'm quite excited about. If we can start seeing how money flows through the economy more accurately that will have a huge effect on economics. Or if Open Social or Diaspora ever take off, or Facebook opens up, or if Google just gets a popular social network; we can start associating all this data with people's social connections.

Obviously more data is being created, and is being analyzed in some useful ways. That's not news. Google takes all the distributed hyperlinks on the web together and turns them into concrete search rankings. My issue with all this is that I want to be able to cross reference all these different domains, and start to find more uses for it. Part of that is that we're going to need more direct, easy to quantify, measurements. New scientific advances are created through new tools and measurements. Or whatever that quote was. I'll go read through some Kuhn and get back.

What sort of new measurements do we need?  I keep referring back to whuffie, and get all hand-wavy in actually determining what that is. In the book that coined the term whuffie, Cory Doctor's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, whuffie is supposed to a simple measure of one's reputation. This is the main currency in the book because they exist in a post-scarcity economy. I keep asking myself, is that even a goal that's imaginable? I like the intention of measuring someone's reputation, or contribution to society, as a single simple number for many reasons, but am not sure how possible it is. We like money because it measures an incredible mess of things by one simple number. I feel that in many ways money is so important to people because as a simple number, it's an easy way to keep score in the game of life. I'd like to provide an alternative simple number to measure some of the things money doesn't. Or, to provide other ways to measure the externalities missed by money.

We might be seeing the beginning of that with things like Reddit's karma. The Whuffie Bank is trying, but is doing an absolutely poor job of it. Part of the issue is that reputation and social worth are so poorly defined, we're approaching the issue from the wrong direction by starting with the concept of whuffie and working back from it. I'm not sure an absolute objective measure of reputation or social worth is possible, as it seems that any such thing is relative to the perspective of each person. Even accepting the value as relative, we still don't have any idea about how to measure that value. The best way to get where I'd like to be would be to start with simpler, more easily definable metrics that we can actually use.

So, with searching for more precise quantifiable metrics, what questions to we want to ask? How similar is another person's tastes to mine? Or specific tastes with regards to a given domain? This one is being attempted through various recommendation engines, and though they still have a long way to go they are producing usable results. Similarly we could see how similar one's personal spending habits are to others, or geographical placement, or social network. I suppose all those dating sites are matching stated tastes in dating/sexual partners.

We've got all these taste measurements progressing, and are somewhat successfully using them to provide recommendations to people. All these relatively simple measures of the choices that people are making., Reddit, our search histories, Ok Cupid, our social networks through Facebook and such, purchase histories with Amazon and such, etc. At the moment most of those are behind private walls and not easy to combine for greater explanatory power, but I feel that doing has a bunch of potential. Especially if we manage to fold in things like cell-phone usage histories, browser histories, credit card histories. We could be making recommendations of music by search histories, or predicting political alignments by purchasing history, or any of a dozen other things. I imagine we might be able to do a Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory type thing with them and use that info to judge personality types. All this together would give us much more detailed pictures of people's lives, although it would still be incredibly messy and hard to sort through. Need to read up on MIT's Reality Mining.

What next do we do with these? Sadly, my knowledge of statistics is not exactly what I would like it to be for answering these questions. Recommendations are predictions, in that they predict what people will like. If we can begin to predict what people will do in the future, that will be impressive. A good measure would be to see if some people are leaders in terms of changing tastes. With chagrin, I'm pulling up Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point right now. That would probably be a combination of their social influence and the predictiveness of their taste. Hrm...

And in the last few paragraphs, I've gotten away from my original idea of being able to extract simple useful metrics out of this million dimensional space. There are a lot of questions I'd like to ask, but most are going to require their own ways of precisely defining what is meant by them. Ideally, I'd like simple measures of fame, reputation, popularity, desirability, social contribution, origination of ideas, political alignment, environmental impact and other things. Potentially within a specific domain or relative to a given person or group of people. Sigh. Of course I'd like a computer program that could answer whatever questions I ask of it, and give nice visualizations of the data, but that's about the practical as wishing for the moon. As I've been throwing this around for hours and have not gotten very far, I suppose I'll close off and see how I feel about it in the morning.

Oh! And following up on my last post they managed to remove Mubarak from power in Egypt. Protests are moving on to Algeria and Yemen. Interesting times to be alive, and I expect much of the Middle East to be pretty damn different by the end of the year. Hopefully in a good way.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Revolts in the Arab World

While I can't say I am at all familiar with the situations in North Africa and the Middle East, I have been following the news quite closely since the fall of the Tunisian government two weeks ago.  This week, with Egypt in revolt and at this pointing looking certain to toss Mubarak out unless the army radically changes course, the news has grown even more interesting.  With the additional recent collapse of the government in Lebanon, protests rising in Yemen, Albania, Jordan and unrest in Libya and Algeria, I imagine that this might be as decisive as the collapse of communism in 1989-1991.  Though at this point the narrative is still waiting to emerge.

The high food prices and economic troubles that spiked these actions aren't likely to be going away this year, and the social atmosphere created by seeing successful actions against corrupt regimes will continue pushing for more actions.  Will these protests spread primarily against American backed dictatorships, or will they spread to nations such as Syria and Iran?  That would give me some optimism.

What new governments will form in these countries is the next main questions.  I am all for removing corrupt dictatorships, but if they are merely replaced with Islamist hard-liners or direct rule by various armies, that is not an improvement.  Sadly, I do not know enough of these societies to begin to guess what might happen.  I am an optimist, but will have to wait and see.  News out of Tunisia does seem optimistic on that front so far, and in Egypt the action does not appear to be under the sway of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Yet, again, I do not know enough to venture a guess.

Another item that in most cases seems disconnected from these protests are the various separatist movements in the area.  South Sudan is seceding and Somaliland is effectively separate from Somalia but has yet to receive recognition.  The protests in Yemen are at least partly in support of the secessionist movements of South Yemen.  The maps are already going to be somewhat redrawn, but if there is a tremendous area-wide upset, I imagine the cartographers will have a lot of work to do.  I am often a fan of redrawing maps, and the Middle East is a mess in that regard.

Further into the future, I am trying to imagine how much more this will spread.  I was reading news reports today of China blocking searches of 'Egypt' and there are certainly a lot of corrupt dictatorships in the world.  If this movement spreads further out of the Arab lands, as it has with Albania, it... well, this is just more idle speculation on my part.

Either way, exciting times to be alive.  May it all not go to hell.  If this all turns out like Iran did in '79, I will have to become more pessimistic.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Thoughts on the last year and decade, and where we'll go from here

Before I get used to writing the date out as 2011 and my memory gets too fuzzy, I wanted to take a look back at what the rest of the world was doing in 2010.  A fair share of unfortunate events such as the BP oil spill and the Haitian earthquake, but in general I was fairly happy with the year.

Some good things came out of the 111th Congress, and though certainly not as perfect or clean as I'd have hoped, it was good to see some of the things I had hoped for in 2008 actually happen.  Health care, financial reform, direct student loans, DADT repeal, food safety, child nutrition and the new START treaty were among the top things that went in the right direction, if hobbled as much as most things that come out of Congress.  On top of that we've got the EPA now about to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, which I'm quite happy about as cap and trade or a carbon tax seem to be dead issues at the moment.

On the more disappointing side, health care and financial reform did not go nearly as far as I'd like, the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy is sickening, and I'm sad Obama hasn't closed Guantanamo, prosecuted torturers in the American government, repealed the Patriot act, done more to improve transparency and protect whistle-blowers such as WikiLeaks.  Fortunately, at least WikiLeaks will be hard or impossible to stop.  I look forward to seeing what happens in North Africa after the Jasmine Revolution, or with the Bank of America leaks and this new Swiss banking information, those all give me some hope.

I could also say I'm disappointed about the lack of instant run-off voting, more non-partisan redistricting, restrictions of corporate power, and insufficiently progressive taxation, but I've made most of those points before.  At least California is doing non-partisan redistricting now with the most recent ballot initiatives, even if the state still desperately needs a new constitution and/or to be broken into several smaller states.  And hey, California is doing its own cap and trade, I'll be thankful for that.

With the economy in the last year in America; we've continued to rack up debt, and seen the gap between the rich and poor continue to grow.  We're going to have to deal with that at some point.  With the new Republican House though, we won't close to raising any taxes, and I'm not sure what services will get cut.  Personally, I'd love to cut agricultural subsidies, corn-ethanol subsidies, fossil-fuel subsidies, the military budget, the drug war, etc, etc.  Maybe in the next year we'll get a little of that, but on the whole, about as likely as us raising taxes on the rich.

In the rest of the world, developing countries such as China and India are growing and pulling more out of poverty.  We've also seen a lot of rising oil and food prices in the world over the last year, and it looks like those will be here to stay for awhile.  Definitely part of the reason North Africa is seeing some of the turbulence it has been the last week.  I'll be quite curious as to how China's economy deals with the next year.  In addition to their inflation with the rising food and oil prices, we've got people like Jim Chanos warning China is going to have a massive property market crash.  Sadly, I'm not enough of an economist to give a fair valuation to this, and I fear my own views might just be nationalistic competitiveness, but I am getting the feeling China is heading towards something of a crash.

With tech and science in the last year, Moore's Law has marched on and computers, the net, and cellphones have gotten a lot better.  Some of the news with Google's self-driving cars, IBM's Watson, and various translating services has certainly impressed me with the progress that software might make in the future.  We're also seeing increasing research that can be done by analyzing the large amounts of social data out there and turning the social sciences into something for measurable and direct, such Google's book analysis.  Outside of software, this last year had graphene, arsenic utilizing life, the first completely artificial organism and... well, I'm finding it hard to find good summary.  I'll edit this tomorrow.

Well, I'm crashing, I'll revise in the morning, and just push to the web now.  Then, with any posts I write for the next while, I'll stick to more specific topics.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Starting Out 2011

Once again a new year.  At this point I've seen four decades, which is starting to make me feel a bit old.  The 90's are now a far away, humorously stereotyped decade that soon college freshman won't be able to remember.  And yet, somehow, I'm still waiting for that singularity, cure for diabetes or self-driving cars.  Maybe getting close on some of them, though, and that'll be pretty interesting.  Either way, I'm looking forward to this year.  Unlike this time last year, I'm happily employed and with health insurance, so that's a big plus.  Also, I'm recently moved to San Francisco and am enjoying that tremendously.  On the other hand, still missing my ex a bit, but can't win them all.

As I haven't blogged in a fair while, I initially set out to write this post with all my thoughts on the last year and the new; including my goals, reviews and commentary of 2010 and predictions and predictions for 2011.  That ended up being a bit long, and as I've got to get work, I'm going to break this post into three parts and just start with my goals for now.  I'm trying to formulate them a bit so as to provide some discipline, and for that reason have begun using  We'll see if that keeps me in line, but going to write them down here to talk about them a bit.

Firstly, with regards to work, need to keep learning more programming.  I'm involved in some projects right that are introducing me to ORMs and better database management, and then others that should teach me a good bit of JavaScript, JQuery, etc, which will help improve my web app development.  I would also like to learn some Android development by years end.

Outside of work, I'd love to actually code some stuff on my own again, haven't done that in years.  I've been meaning to code my own social graph software, should start there.  Then there's the traditional wanting to exercise more, eat less meat and more vegetables, and get back into martial arts.  Handicraft wise, I'm meaning to get a bar built in this house with the help of Truebe, and finishing my furniture that I've only done 20% of in three and a half years.  Need some discipline.  Oh, and I need to pick up new music, I've fallen completely behind on that since leaving college.  With reading, I'd like to re-study some math, and possibly go through some of my college textbooks in various subjects.

Perhaps most importantly, I want to be making more money by year end, and begin to pay my parents back the debt I accrued over my months of unemployment.  Just got a raise at the start of this month with BetterOffLine getting a round of financing, but there is a lot of room for improvement.  This Great Recession isn't exactly fun, but we'll see what the company can do with financing.  Or elsewhere, if need be.

Then of course there are the goals involving beautiful women, but that pretty much goes without saying.

So, that's the summary.  We'll see if I can churn out my other thoughts on the turning year shortly, and I'll return to writing about society, politics, science and technology.