Algorithms Should Work for Us

But what is most important here is not the consequences of algorithms, it is our emerging and powerful faith in them.
-Tarleton Gillespie
Can an Algorithm be Wrong? posted on Culture Digitally, developed out of claims of #occupywallstreet hashtag censorship levied against Twitter. The author, Tarleton Gillespie, claims that, "the interesting question is not whether Twitter is censoring its Trends list. The interesting question is, what do we think the Trends list is...?"

I agree. Gillespie's full reasoning can be found in his article. In part, he highlights a divide between the perception of what the Trends list is showing and the real algorithm behind that list. I feel that an persistent recognition of that divide is an essential part of a modern human's mental tool-kit.

Algorithms distill usefulness out of the overwhelming sea of data that is our present world. With that power, algorithms shape our perception of the world. The let us know what to buy, what to read, what news is important, what stocks are worth manipulating. Daily, more and more trust is being handed over to algorithms. They're essential. But as filters, they leave a lot behind. And we can never see what we are never shown. We have to come to terms with that fact. We have to take the time to look behind the curtain from time to time; rehash, reassess, demand tinkering when the facts call for it. Algorithms are tools. They should work for us.

80,000 eBooks on Loan

Any account holder can borrow up to 5 eBooks at a time, for up to 2 weeks.

-Internet Archive Forums

If you want access to 80,000+ books for the price of logging on to a website, Open Library is the place for you. The Internet Archive and a few forward-thinking libraries have teamed up to create a virtual lending library.  This is great news for everyone, but a particular boon for researchers. One more cut and paste quote, "Genealogists are some of our most enthusiastic users, and the Boston Public Library holds some genealogy books that exist nowhere else,” said Amy E. Ryan, President of the Boston Public Library. "This lending system allows our users to search for names in these books for the first time, and allows us to efficiently lend some of these books to visitors at distant libraries."


Here's the full press release. I suggest you bookmark Open Library and start borrowing.

Rachel Botsman: Collaborative Consumption

Access is better than ownership.

-Kevin Kelly

This recent TED talk is a great primer on collaborative systems and their potential to change our approach to consumption. It's now possible to increase the dignity of our Christmas presents by boosting their use exponentially!

Bruce Sterling on Wikileaks

Wikileaks is a manifestation of something that has been growing all around us, for decades, with volcanic inexorability.

-Bruce Sterling

 Bruce Sterling's December 22nd commentary on Wikileaks is gold. I've read about twenty of the hundreds of editorials covering Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Cablegate and the rest; only Bruce has found the proper vantage point from which to describe the chaos. Unlike the pundits, Sterling has the benefit of a historical perspective. He knows hackers, he has chronicled the rise of cyberculture (helped birth the unfortunate trend of affixing "cyber" on anything new and tech related, actually) and he understands what Wikileaks represents. Bruce's perspective allows him to relate to Assange and pity his plight. Conversely, Sterling's maturity, and perhaps a bit of aged based conservatism, allows him to simultaneously groan for the State as it attempts to adapt to the the emerging world.

This knotty situation is not gonna “blow over,” because it’s been building since 1993 and maybe even 1947. “Transparency” and “discretion” are virtues, but they are virtues that clash. The international order and the global Internet are not best pals. They never were, and now that's obvious.

The data held by states is gonna get easier to steal, not harder to steal; the Chinese are all over Indian computers, the Indians are all over Pakistani computers, and the Russian cybermafia is brazenly hosting because that’s where the underground goes to the mattresses. It is a godawful mess. This is gonna get worse before it gets better, and it’s gonna get worse for a long time. Like leaks in a house where the pipes froze.

Sterling isn't picking sides, he's offering perspective. In the end, I think we all have to agree. It is truly a godawful mess.

Mobile Phones and Economic Development

Ever since I used a text message to pay for food from a Kenyan street vendor, I've been following the growth of mobile banking in the developing world. Foreign Policy's The M-Banking Revolution is a decent overview of the latest developments around the world.

In May, Safaricom took it one step further, partnering with Equity Bank and offering M-Kesho, an interest-bearing savings account, to all M-Pesa users. Subscribers can now use their cell phones to transfer money from their M-Pesa accounts -- using Safaricom's existing network of nearly 20,000 licensed card vendors -- into their M-Kesho accounts. M-Kesho users are also able to access mobile microinsurance and microloan products. By registering SIM cards that double as individualized account numbers, Equity Bank is seeing 8,000 new customers each day, and its CEO, James Mwangi, recently predicted that, in mere months, Kenya "will be the most-banked country in Africa and the developing world."

Dean Kamen Saves the World

Dean Kamen is an inventor and a great man. I call him great because he intentionally puts his efforts into changing the world for the better.

After 12 years working on these two problems, the engineers at Deka now have their solutions on show at the workshops in Manchester. The first is the 'Slingshot', a large box about the size of an office photocopier, sheathed in black protective foam, that can cleanse water of any contaminant from radionuclides to sewage, and run for years at a time without maintenance. The second is another metal box, five feet square, connected to a bottle of compressed gas, which emits a low murmur of humming energy. This is a Stirling engine, similar to the one installed in his electric car, but large and efficient enough to electrify an entire village, which can be driven by any locally available source of heat. Both devices have already been proved amazingly effective: one six-month test has used a Stirling engine to provide electric light to a village in Bangladesh, powered by burning the methane from a pit filled with cow dung; Slingshot has undergone similar tests in a settlement in rural Guatemala. But Kamen has yet to find a commercial partner to manufacture either of the devices for the customers that need them most. 'The big companies,' he says, 'long ago figured out - the people in the world that have no water and have no electricity have no money.' He's tried the United Nations, too, but discovered a Catch-22: non-governmental organisations won't buy the devices until they're in full production.

Here's on of the things that's broken in the world. Kamen has world changing devices that can't get funded under present systems. Now, that's not totally the case. I've thought of three different vehicles for capital that might work. Anyway...

Just wanted to point out that there's a lot of potential out there in our world. We just have to make it potent. As Kamen puts it, "if you include all the money we've spent on Stirling, and all the money we've spent on the water project, it probably is in the area of $50 million. And I'm a little company, and that's a lot of money. But I believe in it. I just believe in it. It might fail, but you've got to try. Look at the state of the world,' he says. 'It's a mess. What if we can fix it?"

The Article

Superstruct: Join Me in Creating the Future

Superstruct is the world's first massively multiplayer forecasting game. Developed by Institute For the Future, Superstruct projects a future (2019) when multiple crises are beginning to harm the globe. Players are asked to develop solutions in order to prevent the potential extinction of humankind. Superstruct is running for six weeks.

This project is interesting for multiple reasons. First, as a means for advocating a long term mindset, it is top notch. The interactive aspects of Superstruct do a better job of presenting the human consequences of global change than most of my International Security professors who are teaching courses on the subject. Second, and most promising, this game harnesses the creativity of the player community. It makes brainstorming fun and rewarding.

My idea of the day: I want a Schoolhouse Rocks version of this game. Specifically, I'm Just a Bill. Present the difficulties of governance in a compelling way and make developing solutions engaging. Then get actual Congresspeople to sponsor the solutions.

Alright, off to play Superstruct.

Widget For Visualizing Political Bias

Andy Baio has an interesting post about a recommendation algorithm he and a partner created to color a writer's words red or blue to reflect political leanings. A writer's bias is weighted based off of links to sites deemed appealing to either the political Right or Left. The program is site specific, having been developed for use on MEMEorandum.

This is a great example of social feedback technology. At a glance, a user can make a judgment about the content in question. I don't know if it's desirable for people to make rush judgments of this type, but damned if the program doesn't make them easy!

I would like to know if general usage promotes negative or positive feedback. If writers desire to be seen as objective, they may seek to balance their links. A negative feedback loop could drive the content towards a calm middle ground. Or perhaps bias drives traffic and writers will strive for Red or Blue through and through? MEMEorandum could become a totally bipolar site. Here's a situation where an outsider's tool could shift the output of a system*. Fun stuff!

*As I understand it, the program doesn't use live information. So "shifting the output" is only theoretical.