I’m Shocked, Shocked!

But I’ll take any other effort to get this issue in front of the public: Ads Follow Web Users, and Get Deeply Personal (pdf)

For all the concern and uproar over online privacy, marketers and data companies have always known much more about consumers’ offline lives, like income, credit score, home ownership, even what car they drive and whether they have a hunting license. Recently, some of these companies have started connecting this mountain of information to consumers’ browsers.

The result is a sea change in the way consumers encounter the Web. Not only will people see customized advertising, they will see different versions of Web sites from other consumers and even receive different discount offers while shopping — all based on information from their offline history. Two women in adjoining offices could go to the same cosmetic site, but one might see a $300 Missoni perfume, the other the house-brand lipstick on sale for $2.

The technology that makes the connection is nothing new — it is a tiny piece of code called a cookie that is placed on a hard drive. But the information it holds is. And it is all done invisibly.

And, as has been noted before, it’s troubling.

“Information Wants To Be Free”

Has Wikipedia Created a Rorschach Cheat Sheet? Analyze That

There are tests that have right answers, which are returned with a number on top in a red circle, and there are tests with open-ended questions, which provide insight into the test taker’s mind.

The Rorschach test, a series of 10 inkblot plates created by the Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach for his book “Psychodiagnostik,” published in 1921, is clearly in the second category.

Yet in the last few months, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia has been engulfed in a furious debate involving psychologists who are angry that the 10 original Rorschach plates are reproduced online, along with common responses for each. […]

OT: A Surprise This Morning

I don’t know why, but it appears that The Boston Globe has made a change in its delivery schedule; to wit, one can now find the current issue in the Kendall Square vending machines before 7AM! Of course, I have also noticed that the machine where I used to have to stop to get a paper early in the morning has been EMPTY the past two days, so it’s clearly a zero-sum game when it comes to paper delivery — but I do think that they might even be trying to rework their supply logistics.

Or, it could just mean that the regular delivery driver is on vacation this week.

I Wasn’t There …

But this sounds more confusing than enlightening — but, sometimes, that’s Charlie’s way: Opening statements made in civil suit over swapping songs (pdf)

Charles Nesson, the Harvard Law School professor defending a college student accused of illegally downloading and sharing music online, used an unusual prop in his opening statement yesterday to illustrate why a federal jury should side with his client against the recording industry.

Nesson held up a rectangular piece of plastic foam wrapped in cellophane and said it represented the compact discs that record companies sold before digital music became available online. Then he sliced open the wrapper with scissors and hundreds of tiny jigsaw pieces fell in a pile in front of the jury in US District Court in Boston.

“You have the ability to share, and this physical object’’ – the 70-year-old professor paused as he snipped – “suddenly broke into a million bits. Here it is. Bits. . . . Can you hold a bit in your hand? You can’t. . . . And suddenly you have songs being shared by millions of kids around the world.’’

[…] Sam Bayard, a lecturer at Harvard Law who works at the university’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, founded by Nesson, listened to the opening statements and said Nesson appeared to be encouraging jurors to engage in a form of nullification. That refers to the controversial concept that jurors have a moral duty to disregard a judge’s instructions and rule in favor of a defendant in a criminal or civil case because they disagree with the underlying law.

“I think he’s arguing [Tenenbaum] did it, [the record companies] are right, but this isn’t morally blameworthy; he’s just a kid,’’ Bayard said. Such an appeal might encourage jurors to award minimal damages if they side with the industry, he said.

Amazon and Technological Mediation

Amazon Faces a Fight Over Its E-Books (pdf)

A growing number of civil libertarians and customer advocates wants Amazon to fundamentally alter its method for selling Kindle books, lest it be forced to one day change or recall books, perhaps by a judge ruling in a defamation case — or by a government deciding a particular work is politically damaging or embarrassing.

“As long as Amazon maintains control of the device it will have this ability to remove books and that means they will be tempted to use it or they will be forced to it,” said Holmes Wilson, campaigns manager of the Free Software Foundation.

The foundation, based in Boston, is soliciting signatures from librarians, publishers and major authors and public intellectuals. […]

In particular, there’s this striking example of missing the entire point:

Randal C. Picker, a law professor at the University of Chicago, says he thinks Amazon was right to delete the improperly sold versions of “1984” and argues such systems can also allow companies to better enforce copyright laws. He notes that the harm to the Orwell book buyers was minimal, since their money was refunded after copies were deleted from their Kindles.

“Because copyright infringement was poor and lax in the offline world, it should also be that way in the online world? I don’t understand that logic,” Mr. Picker said. “The whole point of moving online is that it creates new opportunities.”

Google Working To Defuse Google Books Concerns

An article on a recent panel discussion at the BPL: Google Books causes concern among librarians, authors (pdf)

Google’s growing digital book project is making some in the publishing world nervous – a fact the search giant is trying to change. Google Books, which includes the largest team of engineers working out of Google’s Cambridge office, has been a force ever since it started an aggressive book scanning project with some of the world’s largest libraries in 2004. But now that Google has become a publishing powerhouse – with more than 10 million books scanned so far, of which 1.5 million are currently available online free of charge – it has made some librarians and authors uneasy.

“Google is creating a mega bookstore the likes of which we have never seen,’’ said the panel organizer Maura Marx, executive director of Open Knowledge Commons, a Boston nonprofit organization. “People are very uncomfortable with the idea that one corporation has so much power over such a large collection of knowledge.’’

A growing concern, which was raised during the library panel, is that Google will end up with monopolistic control of access to millions of scanned digital books. This concern was heightened when Google negotiated a settlement with the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers, groups that represent authors and publishers, after they sued Google to stop the search company from digitizing books.

Architectures and Advantage

Designing institutions when market ideology meets technological advance: Traders Profit With Computers Set at High Speed (pdf)

Nearly everyone on Wall Street is wondering how hedge funds and large banks like Goldman Sachs are making so much money so soon after the financial system nearly collapsed. High-frequency trading is one answer.

And when a former Goldman Sachs programmer was accused this month of stealing secret computer codes — software that a federal prosecutor said could “manipulate markets in unfair ways” — it only added to the mystery. Goldman acknowledges that it profits from high-frequency trading, but disputes that it has an unfair advantage.

Yet high-frequency specialists clearly have an edge over typical traders, let alone ordinary investors. The Securities and Exchange Commission says it is examining certain aspects of the strategy.

“This is where all the money is getting made,” said William H. Donaldson, former chairman and chief executive of the New York Stock Exchange and today an adviser to a big hedge fund. “If an individual investor doesn’t have the means to keep up, they’re at a huge disadvantage.”

Later: a cautionary voice — Hurrying Into the Next Panic? (pdf)

So, is trading faster than any human can react truly worrisome? The answers that come back from high-frequency proponents, also rather too quickly, are “No, we are adding liquidity to the market” or “It’s perfectly safe and it speeds up price discovery.” In other words, the traders say, the practice makes it easier for stocks to be bought and sold quickly across exchanges, and it more efficiently sets the value of shares.

Those responses disturb me. Whenever the reply to a complex question is a stock and unconsidered one, it makes me worry all the more. Leaving aside the question of whether or not liquidity is necessarily a great idea (perhaps not being able to get out of a trade might make people think twice before entering it), or whether there is such a thing as a price that must be discovered (just watch the price of unpopular goods fall in your local supermarket — that’s plenty fast enough for me), l want to address the question of whether high-frequency algorithm trading will distort the underlying markets and perhaps the economy.

[…] Buying stocks used to be about long-term value, doing your research and finding the company that you thought had good prospects. Maybe it had a product that you liked the look of, or perhaps a solid management team. Increasingly such real value is becoming irrelevant. The contest is now between the machines — and they’re playing games with real businesses and real people.

OT: Slow Motion Train Wreck

And, by that I mean the President’s health care initiative. Last night’s press conference (pdf) was such a snoozer of wonkitude that I quit watching after about 25 minutes.

The President clearly was given some good talking points, which clearly were aimed at showing the public who will be the real victims of the the Republican strategy of obstruction to “break” Obama — those either currently or prospectively ill-served by the health care system; i.e., all of us. But, his heart clearly wasn’t in it. He could have taken those stories of families suffering, children dying, etc. and hung them around the necks of the Republican leadership, but he didn’t go for the throat.

Or rather, he didn’t go for the throat on health care. But he did offer up this discussion and, as Salon notes, it was the only point in the conference where he really seemed like the political firebrand he can be (the NYTimes article makes the same observation — pdf):

Q Thank you, Mr. President. Recently, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested at his home in Cambridge. What does that incident say to you? And what does it say about race relations in America?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I — I should say at the outset that Skip Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here.

I don’t know all the facts. What’s been reported, though, is that the guy forgot his keys, jimmied his way to get into the house; there was a report called into the police station that there might be a burglary taking place.

So far, so good, right? I mean, if I was trying to jigger into — well, I guess this is my house now, so — (laughter) — it probably wouldn’t happen.

(Chuckling.) But let’s say my old house in Chicago — (laughter) — here I’d get shot. (Laughter.) But so far, so good. They’re — they’re — they’re reporting. The police are doing what they should. There’s a call. They go investigate. What happens?

My understanding is, at that point, Professor Gates is already in his house. The police officer comes in. I’m sure there’s some exchange of words. But my understanding is — is that Professor Gates then shows his ID to show that this is his house, and at that point he gets arrested for disorderly conduct, charges which are later dropped.

Now, I’ve — I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. But I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.

And number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcing disproportionately. That’s just a fact.

What?! “I don’t know all the facts.” “[T]he Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.”

If this were the words of the President’s predecessor (whose foibles are well known), then one might understand them. But these are the words of a professor of constitutional law from a leading US law school! Moreover, as anyone from the Boston area can tell you, this story keeps changing by the day, with details changing and continuous shifting of strategic positions all around. (See, for example, today’s competing articles from the Globe: Obama scolds Cambridge police (pdf); Sergeant at eye of storm says he won’t apologize (pdf); Professor is down-to-earth, friends say (pdf); Machismo and the Gates incident (pdf))

The kindest interpretation of the President’s words is that he is unhappy that his friend is at the center of this kind of mess. But there are plenty of interpretations that are less benign and, worse, far more damaging to the President’s political capital — at a time when he needs every bit of that capital to make progress on the agenda item that brought him to the podium last night in the first place. The LAST thing the President should be doing is weighing in on something he acknowledges he knows nothing about when he has some REAL work to get done.

Was it bad staffing? Poor political advice? Who knows? But the damage is done.

First, after listening to the comments on the local NPR affiliate during my morning shower, I raised the above topics with my wife. Then, I had the depressing experience of listening to the local Fox affiliate’s political “bombasticator” outline exactly the same argument, spun exactly as you would expect from a Fox outlet.

And then I picked up this morning’s Boston Globe — and what do you supposed was the headline above the fold?


Distraction; fixation on celebrity; commenting on things best left to existing institutions; working outside the institutions, rather than relying upon them.

Explain to me again how this is “change I can believe in?”

Prediction: If Ted Kennedy dies before the end of the summer, health care reform will die with him. This White House blew its chance last night, because I can guarantee that the discussion for the next week is going to be about race, and not about health care. And then it’s August.

Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Some other links:

Later: it starts — Officer Defends Arrest of Harvard Professor (pdf).

On Thursday, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, clarified President Obama’s comments to a pool reporter on Air Force One. “Let me be clear: he was not calling the officer stupid, O.K.?” Mr. Gibbs said. He added that the president was simply saying that “at a certain point the situation got far out of hand, and I think all sides understand that.”

Didn’t our last President also need to have his words “explained” after the fact?

Also — see this: Obama Complains About the News Cycle but Manipulates It, Worrying Some. Moreover, there’s at least one person at the New York Times who thinks it *was* a political move — President Obama, Professor Gates and the Cambridge Police

This was no exceptionalist rant. Speaking to Mr. Robinson, the president used the first-person plural revealingly when he said: “I do think it is important for the African-American community, in its diversity, to stay true to one core aspect of the African-American experience, which is we know what it’s like to be on the outside.”

[…] People who have heretofore viewed Mr. Obama as a “postracial” abstraction were no doubt surprised by these remarks. This could be because they were hearing him fully for the first time.

Culture, Secrecy and Product Development

Chinese Worker Commits Suicide Over Missing iPhone Prototype

There’s tremendous pressure on employees dealing with Apple’s new products to maintain a high-level secrecy over the gadgets, traditionally launched amid great suspense and a big marketing buzz. Apple is also a constant target of prying journalists, rabidly faithful customers and competitors who make great efforts to try to steal a peek at its latest technology.

Sun [Danyong] was responsible for sending iPhone prototypes to Apple, and on July 13 he reported that he was missing one of the 16 fourth-generation units in his possession, the newspaper reported. His friends said company security guards searched his apartment, detained him and beat him, the paper reported.

In the early morning of July 16, Sun jumped from the 12th floor of his apartment building, the paper said.