December 28, 2010

“It’s For Your Benefit” [3:40 pm]

How could anyone possibly object to Disney working ever-harder to maximize your enjoyment? Disney Command Center Aims to Keep Lines Moving [pdf]

To handle over 30 million annual visitors — many of them during this busiest time of year for the megaresort — Disney World long ago turned the art of crowd control into a science. But the putative Happiest Place on Earth has decided it must figure out how to quicken the pace even more. A cultural shift toward impatience — fed by video games and smartphones — is demanding it, park managers say. To stay relevant to the entertain-me-right-this-second generation, Disney must evolve.

And so it has spent the last year outfitting an underground, nerve center to address that most low-tech of problems, the wait. Located under Cinderella Castle, the new center uses video cameras, computer programs, digital park maps and other whiz-bang tools to spot gridlock before it forms and deploy countermeasures in real time.

[...] Disney, which is periodically criticized for overreaching in the name of cultural dominance (and profits), does not see any of this monitoring as the slightest bit invasive. Rather, the company regards it as just another part of its efforts to pull every possible lever in the name of a better guest experience.


Later: See also Computers That See You and Keep Watch Over You [pdf], part of the NYTime’s “Smarter Than You Think” series.

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What Hath US News and World Report Wrought? [3:24 pm]

Surprisingly, the use of application screening rate in the US News and World Report ranking of colleges is not implicated in this Boston Globe article: Student’s résumé was full of errors, unlikely claims [pdf]

In hindsight, there were other red flags that raise questions as to how closely Harvard’s staff scrutinized Wheeler’s application, and whether the failure to catch simple errors and too-good-to-be-true claims played a greater role in Wheeler’s admission than his own ingenuity.

“Not to take responsibility from what he did, but Harvard has to own up to what it did by letting him in,’’ said Steven Sussman, Wheeler’s attorney. “There were substantial irregularities with the Wheeler application that should have raised red flags that were ignored.’’

Harvard spokesman Jeff Neal declined to comment on Wheeler’s application but said the university has taken steps to improve its process for screening applicants.

From their ranking description — How U.S. News Calculates the College Rankings:

Student selectivity (15 percent). A school’s academic atmosphere is determined in part by the abilities and ambitions of the student body. We factor in the admissions test scores for all enrollees who took the Critical Reading and Math portions of the SAT and the Composite ACT score (50 percent of the selectivity score); the proportion of enrolled freshmen at National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes or in the top quarter at Regional Universities and Regional Colleges (40 percent); and the acceptance rate, or the ratio of students admitted to applicants (10 percent) [emphasis added]. The data are for the fall 2009 entering class. While the ranking calculation takes account of the SAT and ACT admissions test scores of all entering students, the table displays the score range for whichever test most enrolled students took

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December 21, 2010

Cute [1:49 pm]

Made me think of one of the questions from the recurring Saturday Night Live “What If?” skit — “What If … Superman grew up in Nazi Germany?” Law and the Multiverse Blog Mixes Lawyers and Superheroes [pdf]

Is Superman’s heat vision a weapon? If so, would the Second Amendment protect his right to melt pistols and cook hamburgers with it?

You might not have thought to ask these questions. You might have, in other words, a life. But a new blog and the interest it is generating shows that there are people who look at an epic battle between superheroes and supervillains and really, really want to know who should be found liable for the broken buildings and shattered streets.

Those people now have a blog called Law and the Multiverse: Superheroes, supervillains, and the law. Kicked off on Nov. 30, it addresses questions like: “What if someone is convicted for murder, and then the victim comes back to life?” And whether mutants are a legally recognizable class entitled to constitutional protection from discrimination.

(”What If … Eleanor Roosevelt Could Fly?” was the best question, though.)

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December 15, 2010

When Is Copyright Infringement Not Copyright Infringement? [11:17 am]

When it’s marketing and promotion, of course. Music Blogs Caught Up in Labels’ Online Piracy Fight [pdf]

“At first I thought it was hackers,” Mr. Hofman said. But within hours a notice went up on the site saying that its domain name had been seized by the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement unit of the Department of Homeland Security; it was one of dozens of sites shut down, accused of copyright infringement and selling counterfeit goods.

But Mr. Hofman, a brawny Long Islander in his early 30s who formerly worked for a major record label, does not think of himself as a pirate.

OnSmash.com and the handful of other music blogs shut down by the government post brand-new songs and videos without licenses, but much of that material is often leaked to them by managers, music labels and even the artists themselves.

As a result, these sites have a complex symbiosis with the music business. While the Recording Industry Association of America wants to shut them down, the rank and file of the record labels — particularly in hip-hop circles — uses them as marketing tools and publicity outlets.

Nice to see that DHS is doing it’s best to keep America safe from terrists!

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From The Rare Earths Front [9:34 am]

I recognize that this isn’t really on-topic, but it’s interesting to watch the way that this issue is being orchestrated in the press. Today’s New York Times trumpets Economy Vulnerable to Rare Earth Shortages, Report Says [pdf].

The United States is too reliant on China for minerals crucial to new clean energy technologies, making the American economy vulnerable to shortages of materials needed for a range of green products — from compact fluorescent light bulbs to electric cars to giant wind turbines.

So warns a detailed report to be released on Wednesday morning by the United States Energy Department. The report, which predicts that it could take 15 years to break American dependence on Chinese supplies, calls for the nation to increase research and expand diplomatic contacts to find alternative sources, and to develop ways to recycle the minerals or replace them with other materials.

At least 96 percent of the most crucial types of the so-called rare earth minerals are now produced in China, and Beijing has wielded various export controls to limit the minerals’ supply to other countries while favoring its own manufacturers that use them.

It’s interesting that we seem to be in a 30 year cycle when it comes to thinking about resource scarcity and what to do about it.

Why do the Chinese have such a high fraction of the supply? Because they sell it cheaper than anyone else — period. Rare earths are found in lots of places; the “rare” is a historical artifact of the difficulty of their extraction, rather than any character of their abundance in the earth’s crust.

And why is it cheaper? Partly because of government support (in financing and in looking the other way when it comes to environmental harm) and partly because of a conscious effort to use this market power to try to capture the technologies that employ these materials — strong magnets, specialty sensors/controls, etc.

Are industries vulnerable? Well, yes, but only as much as they are vulnerable to supply disruptions generally. And firms have strategies to combat some of these (stockpiles, etc.). Moreover, each time the Chinese play games with their rare earth market power, they undermine themselves, because consumers get nervous and start making plans to be more efficient in their use of what they have, exploring alternatives and substitutes, and developing better recycling and recovery technologies.

But, I guarantee that this report and the consequential press fallout will be used to get the US government to intervene in these markets, and it will result in the usual counter-productive effects: overdevelopment of underperforming mines, stockpiling leading to gross market manipulation, and institutional corruption. Arguments will be made for exceptionalism and that the lessons of the past will have been learned — except for the lesson that says we collectively come up with this “issue” every 30 years, with occasional disastrous results when the political forces are aligned just right, rather than recognizing a simple economic fact reducible to a simple Socratic dialog:

Q: How do you know that something is scarce?

A: It has a price.

We have taken advantage of the fact that the Chinese elected to undervalue their resource to get market share. Now that they are talking about revising the price and availability of their resource, market incentives will convince investors to develop other sources of the material, or find out ways to make do with less. That’s what markets do — it’s why we put up with all their failures; this is what they are specifically set up to deal with. So, it’s something to work on, yes — but to present it as a crisis is a gross misrepresentation of the situation.

For sheer amusement, nothing can beat the title of this article, but I would highly recommend it: You Don’t Bring a Praseodymium Knife to a Gunfight, from Foreign Policy [pdf].

Later: Interesting — the report is still not posted, but the DOE.gov site blog now points to this webcast that was supposed to start at 9:30AM (no time zone indicated, of course) from CSIS Rare Earth Elements: Geology, Geography and Geopolitics. Maybe the report will turn up once the webcast begins….

Finally released: Department of Energy Releases New Critical Materials Strategy; the report: US Department of Energy Critical Materials Strategy.

And *shock* the executive summary includes the following:

DOE’s strategy with respect to critical materials rests on three pillars. First, diversified global supply chains and multiple sources of materials are required to manage supply risk. This means taking steps to facilitate extraction, refining and manufacturing here in the United States, as well as encouraging additional supplies around the world. In all cases, extraction and processing should be done in an environmentally-sound manner. Second, substitutes must be developed. Research leading to material and technology substitutes will improve flexibility to meet the material needs of the clean energy economy. Third, recycling, reuse and more efficient use could significantly lower world demand for critical materials. Research into recycling processes coupled with well-designed policies can help make recycling economically viable over time.

While stockpiling *is* cited in the next paragraph, it almost appears as if the report writers decided to consult and listen to some real resource economists. Of course, we’ll see what the typical industry apologists have to say, but it’s not as scary as I had feared — at first blush, anyway.

We’ll see how I feel after I read the whole report.

Later: from Chapter 9; p 108

Based on preliminary analysis, this Strategy does not recommend stockpiling critical materials for potential use in commercial clean energy technologies at this time. The demand projections for material use in clean energy technologies presented earlier in the Strategy highlight the difficulties in accurately forecasting material requirements due to uncertainties in market conditions, choice of component technologies among manufacturers and competing demands. From a practical standpoint, these factors would make it difficult to develop a national industrial stockpile with sufficient material stocks and flexibility. Even if material requirements could be calculated with a reasonable degree of certainty, the U.S. Government would incur significant upfront costs and downside risk to develop a stockpile sufficient to meet domestic material demand. Maintaining a national stockpile would also put the government at risk of distorting market price signals for key materials by competing with the private sector for materials on the open market. However, given the demonstrated interest of other nations, such as China, in stockpiling, this issue merits further study.

There’s still wiggle room (as well as a preceding section about government support for domestic industry development and price supports), but it’s probably necessary to head off those who have been screaming for a market intervention for the past year or so. Nice!

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December 9, 2010

You Mean The Market Is Not Always The Solution? (*shock*) [8:53 am]

A look at the conflicts that emerge when we conflate “speech” with “commerce:” Hackers Defend WikiLeaks, Testing Online Speech [pdf]

Both Facebook and Twitter — but particularly Twitter — have received praise in recent years as outlets for free speech. Governments trying to control the flow of information have found it difficult to block people from voicing their concerns or setting up meetings through the sites.

At the same time, both Facebook and Twitter have corporate aspirations that hinge on their ability to serve as ad platforms for other companies. This leaves them with tough public relations and business decisions around how they should handle situations as politically charged as the WikiLeaks developments.

Some internet experts say the situation highlights the complexities of free speech issues on the Internet, as grassroots Web companies evolve and take central control over what their users can make public. Clay Shirky, who studies the Internet and teaches at New York University, said that although the Web is the new public sphere, it is actually “a corporate sphere that tolerates public speech.”

Marcia Hofmann, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said, “Any Internet user who cares about free speech or has a controversial or unpopular message should be concerned about the fact that intermediaries might not let them express it.”

She added, “Your free speech rights are only as strong as the weakest intermediary.”

See also The Future of the Internet’s Wikileaks FAQ.

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December 2, 2010

Disheartening [9:11 am]

Amazon Removes WikiLeaks From Servers [pdf]

Under pressure from federal lawmakers, Amazon.com on Wednesday booted WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing Web site, from its computer servers, three days after the group released a trove of embarrassing State Department cables and documents.

[...] “WikiLeaks servers at Amazon ousted. Free speech the land of the free — fine our $ are now spent to employ people in Europe,” the group wrote in its Twitter message. “If Amazon are so uncomfortable with the first amendment,” the group later wrote, “they should get out of the business of selling books.”

Calls to Amazon’s Seattle office seeking comment were not immediately returned Wednesday night. But Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, chairman of the senate governmental affairs committee, said Amazon reached out to his office Wednesday morning, and that he planned on asking it “about the extent of its relationship” with the group. He said he was also calling on other companies to sever any ties with WikiLeaks.

“WikiLeaks’ illegal, outrageous, and reckless acts have compromised our national security and put lives at risk around the world,” Mr. Lieberman said. “No responsible company – whether American or foreign – should assist WikiLeaks in its efforts to disseminate these stolen materials.”

I suppose it’s indicative of just how tenuous the state of internet regulation/freedom here in the US that Amazon capitulated to Lieberman. I would really like to know (1) if Amazon had to break their contract with Assange or (2) the contract was terminated because of a violation of the terms of service and, if the latter, (3) how many will continue to use the service under the same terms.

And, of course, who’s surprised to find that Lieberman is the senatorial bully taking “credit” for the shutdown.

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December 1, 2010

F.T.C. on Online Privacy [7:08 pm]

F.T.C. Online Privacy Plan Seeks ‘Do Not Track’ Option [pdf] (Summarizing the FTC report with an amazingly uninformative title: Protecting Consumer Privacy In A Era Of Rapid Change)

The Federal Trade Commission advocated a plan on Wednesday that lets consumers on the Internet choose whether they want information about their browsing habits to be collected, an option known as “do not track.”

The F.T.C.’s proposal, a broad framework for commercial use of consumer data, would encourage companies to promote consumer privacy when developing new products and services, among other provisions. Do-not-track controls would let Web users decide whether Internet sites and advertisers could collect information about their browsing and buying habits as well as other personal data.

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