Of all the stupid modern tribes to belong to, the tribe of the corporation is probably the silliest — April 23, 2014

Of all the stupid modern tribes to belong to, the tribe of the corporation is probably the silliest

On the occasion of Apple’s releasing their revenue numbers, it’s fair to point out that lashing yourself to a particular company is really stupid. Daring Fireball, for instance, exists to defend Apple and lash its detractors. Which is fine as far as it goes: I read DF every day, and I like his style very much. John Gruber is very much a part of the corporate-tribalism nonsense, and he makes a good living from it: people invite him to give talks to defend and explain Apple, and there are rumors (unclear how accurate) that he makes half a million dollars a year from it. And good for him.

Of course there’s a tribe on the other side, namely the tribe of Android. Inasmuch as I use Apple products, I guess I’m not a member of the Android tribe. I like Apple products.

But here’s the thing: this has nothing to do with me as a person. Yet the weird stupid modern tribalism requires that your choice of technology have something to do with you as a person. If you use Android, you probably have a neck beard, for instance. If you use Apple, you’re probably effete and eat kale. Or whatever. (Turns out I eat a lot of kale, you guys.)

Starting from this base of letting the technology determine your personality, the next step is to care very much about the companies that make them. I am supposed to be personally invested in the success or failure of Apple Inc. Turns out I’m not, though. I like their products. I will keep buying their products because I like them. If they go out of business, I will be sad, because then I will have to use products that I wouldn’t otherwise have chosen. Only, it seems really hard to imagine Apple’s going out of business, so … I guess I have no reason to be sad. Problem solved!

Apple doesn’t need your support. Neither does Google. Apple and Google will do just fine even without bands of true believers furtively tossing grenades at the other side. Use their products if you like them; don’t use them if you don’t like them; lobby the company to change things (in its dealings with Chinese manufacturers, for instance) if that’s what you want. But defining yourself as an “Apple person” or an “Android person” is just pathetically demeaning to your stature as a human being.

I still need someone to explain to me what problem Google Plus solves, and why it’s not creating other problems that I find way more annoying — July 19, 2011

I still need someone to explain to me what problem Google Plus solves, and why it’s not creating other problems that I find way more annoying

I am now on Google+, because men of my ilk are required to join new services such as this. But it is not solving a problem I have. It’s just creating more problems.

I left Twitter some months ago, because my workflow was like this:

1. post to Twitter.
2. have the post automatically mirrored to Facebook.
3. flip over to Facebook to make sure that the post replicated.
4. if it took more than a minute to replicate, refresh a few times before giving up with an odd, low-level form of nervousness.

I was connected to all the same people on Twitter that I was connected to on Facebook. Granted, there were others on Twitter who were not on Facebook, like famous people or, to put it another way, people with whom the interaction was expected to be more one-way. I followed Chris Onstad, author of Achewood, for instance. It was fun. His Twitter feed is hilarious. I followed the author of a book I really loved, and to my great surprise and pleasure he connected me with the [newspaper: Boston Globe] to write a piece for them. So I can definitely say that Twitter was good for my wallet.

But it was also really distracting, for reasons I laid out in that piece. And I don’t have the self-control to be connected to two social networks and yet only check them occasionally. Nor do I have the self-control to prevent myself from refreshing email dozens of times a day. Email by now is in fact a reflex. But at least email isn’t getting new updates constantly. And the fun of Twitter is following lots of interesting people saying lots of interesting things. It was *too* fun, honestly. Sad to say. It’s taken me until age 33 to realize that I actually have to talk myself down from unhealthy habits; I literally have to say to myself, “Yes, you want a milkshake from Toscanini’s made with burnt-caramel ice cream and a shot of espresso. But 1) those are empty calories, 2) you can use that $5 for something better, 3) you’re trying to cut down on your caffeine intake, aren’t you?” I probably should have been doing this throughout my life. In any case, I’m starting now, and it seems to be working.

So I ended up thinking that it was better to concentrate on one social network, namely Facebook, and ditch the rest. Really, it’s probably best to go with zero social networks, but Facebook is essentially inevitable now. Many websites require you to use a single-sign-on platform, and OpenID is dead; Facebook is the only one left. Google, as I recall, tried OpenID. OpenID sucked. So a Facebook account is … well, “necessary” isn’t the word, but it would certainly be annoying to go without one.

Also, though, Google+ isn’t solving a problem that I have. Its main innovation, so far as I can tell, is that it makes the concept of a “circle” fundamental: circles for friends, circles for acquaintances, circles for colleagues, etc. Others have the problem that they need their messages to go to specific circles; I do not. The problem is supposed to be that, say, you want to write naughty words, but don’t want your grandmother to read them; or that you want to bust on your coworkers but don’t want your coworkers to read it; or some such. First of all, Facebook offers enough in this direction that Google+ is not really solving a real problem. For instance, I was connected on Facebook to my girlfriend’s son, and I set up permissions such that he couldn’t see a lot of what I posted. Problem solved. I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of those blocks, too: coworkers have clearly put me on a “don’t share your Wall with coworkers” rule set. Facebook also offers a nice preview feature, which allows you to see how your profile looks when visited by a specific Friendster of yours.

More fundamentally, having to figure out who should read a given post and who shouldn’t is the kind of psychic weight that I try very hard to cast off. “Should this go to Acquaintances, or only to Friends?” is a question which, when asked often enough, will eventually rub my mind raw.

I’d much prefer to just post whatever comes to my mind to Facebook or Twitter, and let people decide whether they want to read it. On the receiving side, I’m sure Facebook has enough intelligent algorithms to decide whether you find my posts interesting; if it doesn’t think you do, they won’t show up in your feed. If you think I swear too much, you can ignore my posts. If you really hate me, you can defriend me.

Mark Zuckerberg, I’m told, said at one point that people should have just one persona, which is on display at all times. At some level this is wrong: I make dirty jokes with some people but not with my mother; I have one side of my personality that really likes discussing policy and theory, but that side will quickly put itself into hiding if it senses that the people around it just don’t care about those things.

But the costs of having different personalities on the web — one for Acquaintances, one for Friends, one for Policy Wonks — exceed the gains, for me anyway. I’d much prefer to put all those personalities together into one feed. I suspect the audience finds this more interesting, in any case: much better to get the occasional notional pornography title (a category of Facebook post that I very much enjoy writing) amidst links about health insurance, I think, than to get a steady diet of one or the other. I could be wrong about this, in which case my audience would prefer that I put different ideas in different channels. Not my problem. I guess Google+ is designed for people who think that *is* their problem.

Google+, I gather, came out of watching people’s occasional paroxysms of anger against Facebook’s privacy problems. But people don’t really care about their privacy; if they did, Twitter wouldn’t be popular. In Twitter, everything you write is visible to the world. Had Facebook decreed from early on that everything you post is public, people would have nothing to be angry about. It’s the perception of a bait-and-switch that angers people about Facebook; it is manifestly *not* that people care about their privacy. So inasmuch as Google+ gives people more privacy than Facebook, it’s not offering the world a solution to any problem that the world actually suffers from.

Neither Google nor Facebook actually cares about privacy. What they want is to sell ads, or to otherwise monetize their social networks. That means, as the saying goes, that “if you’re not paying for a product, *you’re* the product.” They’re selling *you* to advertisers. So at a fundamental level — the level of what keeps the lights on in Google’s and Facebook’s datacenters — neither of them is actually interested in your privacy. Neither of them *could* be interested in your privacy. If Google+ has any actual appeal, it’s the perception that it won’t bait-and-switch you. But that’s just responding to an accident of Facebook’s history. If Facebook were born now, it would be Twitter, and everything would be public. Not baiting-and-switching on privacy is not the basis for a network that people should care about.

What I get with Google+, then, is the solution to a privacy non-problem and the creation of groups of acquaintances that cause me stress without solving any problem I have. Can someone point me to some really killer feature that I should know about?

I am often a curmudgeon about new technology, but it’s not out of reflexive hostility toward new things. It’s that I really need people to prove to me why I need something. I was this way with the iPhone and the Mac, but eventually the tipping point came where it was obvious that the iPhone and the Mac were just better than every one of their competitors, and that there was no legitimate reason to avoid buying one. So I’m more than open to being convinced that I should use Google+. I just need to be convinced that it a) solves a problem I have and b) is better than Facebook. Thus far I’ve not been convinced.

How Google’s PageRank algorithm works — August 23, 2010

How Google’s PageRank algorithm works

There was recently a little tempest in a teapot on Twitter about some measure of how influential a Twitterer you are, which got me thinking about how silly a lot of these measures are. They remind me a lot of early baseball statistics: read one of the early books in the sabermetrics genre, like [book: The Hidden Game Of Baseball], and you’ll find a lot of dudes with limited statistical training taking a little of x, and a little of y, adding it together, and finding that — hey, this looks like a good measure of something; let’s use it! There are worse ways to develop a measure of something, but there are also better ways. Subsequent sabermetricians developed better ways, using rigorous statistics.

These amateur Twitter ranks made me think of Google’s PageRank algorithm, which was based on years of work trying to measure influence in academic journals. The Google problem and the journal problem are quite similar: if a given journal, or a given journal article, have a lot of inbound “links” (that is, citations from other journals), that’s good — but only if the linking journals are themselves highly linked. A bunch of citations from garbage journals, or a bunch of inbound web links from spam sites, shouldn’t contribute anything to your journal’s or your website’s rank.

The math behind the basic PageRank algorithm is simple. Imagine that you’re an infinitely patient web surfer who jumps randomly from page to page: you start on some page, click on every link on that page, and do the same on every subsequent page. If you click on 10,000 links, and 500 of them go to CNN.com, then you’ve spent 5% of your time on CNN. If 1,000 of those links go to NYTimes.com, you’ve spent 10% of your time on the [newspaper: Times]. The PageRank for a given site is the fraction of time that our hypothetical random web surfer spends, in the long term, on that site.

Specifically, imagine a big table listing the probability that one site links
to another:

CNN NYTimes HuffingtonPost TalkingPointsMemo
CNN 0.75 0 0 0.25
NYT 0 0.75 0.05 0.20
HuffPo 0.35 0.40 0.20 0.05
TPM 0.20 0.30 0.10 0.40

(In Google’s practice, this would be a square table with as many rows and as many columns as there are pages on the Internet. So imagine a table with billions of rows and as many columns.)

The probability in each cell is the probability that the domain in the same row links to the domain in the same column; so for instance,
the probability that CNN links to Talking Points Memo is 0.25; it doesn’t link at all to the [newspaper: Times] or to the Huffington Post.
(These are purely made-up numbers.)

Imagine, again, that we’re a random web-surfer. We start at the [newspaper: Times]’s website, click somewhere, then click another link at random from where we’ve landed. So now we’re two clicks away from wherever we started. What’s the probability that we’d end up at Huffington Post after two clicks? Turns out that we can answer the question if we turn the table above into a mathematical object called a matrix. The matrix version of the table above looks like

[ [0.75 0 0 0.25] [0 0.75 0.05 0.2] [0.35 0.4 0.2 0.05] [0.2 0.3 0.1 0.4]  ]

This is called a “transition-probability matrix.” Since every row sums to one — because every page links to some other page, even if the page it links to is itself — it’s also called a “stochastic matrix.” It turns out — via the Chapman-Kolmogorov equation — that the probability of getting from one of those pages to another within two clicks is the square of the transition-probability matrix. Squaring such an odd-looking beast may seem weird, but it’s a well-defined operation called matrix multiplication. The square of that matrix looks like so:

The square of the matrix shown above

which says that the probability of getting from Talking Points Memo to Huffington Post in two clicks is 0.075. Continue this process through many clicks and you’ll eventually approach what’s called the “stationary distribution” — the long-term probabilities of ending up in any given state, independently of where you started out. In this particular case, the stationary probabilities are

* CNN: about 0.285
* The Times: 0.4
* HuffPo: about 0.057
* TPM: about 0.257

The [newspaper: Times], then, would have the highest PageRank, followed by CNN, TPM, and HuffPo. Again, the interpretation of the PageRank is very simple: the long-term fraction of time that a random [1] web-surfer would spend on your page.

Of course Google needs to modify this basic approach somewhat. One assumes that there’s a lot of “secret sauce” baked into the actual PageRank algorithm — as opposed to this bare skeleton — that allows Google to respond to spammers more effectively.

Regardless, I suspect a Markov-chain approach like PageRank would apply with few modifications to Twitter. Your Twitter rank would go up the more retweets (someone on Twitter essentially forwarding your tweet on to his or her followers) or mentions (someone including your Twitter handle in his or her tweet) you get, but only if the people retweeting or mentioning you were themselves highly ranked. The essential metric would be the fraction of time that a random Twitter surfer would spend reading your tweets.

One might argue that having a lot of followers should increase your Twitter rank. This is debatable: are your followers actually valuable if they’re not mentioning you or voting for your tweets by retweeting them? I could see basing the Twitter rank on followers rather than tweets, in which case the interpretation would be “the fraction of time a random Twitter surfer, jumping from Twitter handle to Twitter handle, would spend on your account.” But that seems less promising than basing it on tweets.

In any case, the point is that PageRank has a simple interpretation based on probabilities. This is in contrast to all the gimmicky Twitter-ranking sites, whose point is to drive traffic to one site or another. It’s like we’re reinventing Google. Right now we’re at the Alta Vista of Twitter: the current competitors are less focused on searching and ranking, more focused on their “portal,” and ultimately less professional than what Google came up with by using actual math.

For much, much more on the mathematical details of PageRank, see Langville and Meyer’s [book: Google’s PageRank and Beyond: The Science of Search Engine Rankings]. It’s a gem.

[1] — Specifically, someone surfing according to a Markov chain. This is a very simple way of modeling a sort of random process that has “no memory”: if you tell me the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth pages you clicked on, and ask me to guess what your sixth page will be, I can throw out all the information you gave me apart from the fifth page. Earlier states, that is, don’t matter in prediction of the future; only the most recent state matters.

An axiom for life in the era of Twitter and Facebook — August 11, 2010
The iPhone is not on the side of the angels — May 24, 2010

The iPhone is not on the side of the angels

One of the very infuriating things about reading Jon Gruber is his constant “Apple rocks, open-source sucks” mantra. If you didn’t know that constant refrain, it might seem as though he links to “open is for losers” without comment; knowing Gruber, you know that he’s either doing it approvingly, or as a stick in the eye of his non-Apple-fanboy readership. He’s, honestly, a dick like that.

Paul Graham says in the linked piece that “Of course [he would invest in] iPhone. Im talking about what I hope will set us free, not what will generate opportunities.” This is a perfectly sound point, and doesn’t take away from the fact that *the iPhone is an anti-freedom device.* I say this as a happy iPhone owner. Or rather, I say it as a *conflicted* iPhone owner: I realize that by using this device, I am harming the cause of freedom. But it’s also a spectacular piece of consumer technology.

The open-source movement has always treated software as speech: if it’s not free, it doesn’t matter how good it is. If all the books that you could read had to be personally vetted by Barack Obama, you’d never stand for it. Open-source advocates feel the same way about software that needs to pass through a censor first to make sure it doesn’t conflict with what Apple is trying to sell.

That said, I used Linux exclusively for years, and no longer use it as my everyday computing environment; I use a Mac. Macs and iPhones are designed with a level of polish that you don’t appreciate until you suddenly realize that your computing experience has been painless for the first time in decades — that everything works as it should, and that you’re actually giddy at your ability to experiment without fear.

So I’m conflicted. And I’m not going to take the (as it has always seemed to me) lazy way out and say “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” I think one is actually obligated to bring one’s life into harmony with one’s principles, so long as one has principles. I’m the first to admit that I suck at doing this. But it’s a conflict, and it’s an *obvious* conflict: I believe in free speech, I believe that regulated speech is not speech worth having, and it’s obvious that Apple peddles regulated speech. Yet they make operating systems that are head and shoulders above everyone else’s, despite the fact that they’ve been *sitting out there*, just *begging* for someone to make a comparable interface. No one has. Surely Apple deserves to be rewarded for making the best product.

When my iPhone contract expires in September or October, I am seriously considering switching to an Android phone of some sort. Maybe an HTC Incredible, maybe a Nexus One, maybe something else. Before I do that, I will probably pick up an Android device purely for development purposes. It may turn out that I love Android devices, and the contradiction in my life melts away. I hope so, because in the meantime it is uncomfortable.

Google to acquire my former employer for $1 billion? — April 21, 2010

Google to acquire my former employer for $1 billion?

If so, then holy fucking shit. Seriously.

A while back, I mentioned that Google was now in the business of giving multimodal travel directions: MBTA, say, to mass-transit system to mass-transit system to Amtrak. I mentioned that it would only be a matter of time before they’d connect up to airlines, etc.

What I didn’t mention there, but have always believed, is that the airline piece is something that only ITA could handle. They’ve been working on the problem of finding the cheapest flight between two cities for their entire history; if Google wanted to add airlines to its route-finding software, it would either have to reinvent what ITA did, or acquire ITA. Given that it took ITA the better part of a decade, and a team of the smartest people you could find, to solve this problem, it’s always been obvious that Google would acquire ITA rather than build this technology itself. If Google is planning to add air travel to its route-finding software, it follows that they’d have to acquire ITA.

ITA is sitting on the best kind of monopoly you can hope for: they’ve solved a problem that no one else can solve. They deserve any success that comes their way. And they can name their price if Google comes knocking. If Google decides not to buy, but they want to add air travel to their software, they’ll have to spend at least five years trying to do it. They’ll probably have to poach large numbers of ITA employees. They’ll need to hire people away from the airlines themselves. I’m no business strategist, but it certainly seems like ITA has them over a barrel here.

I, for one, bow deeply in the direction of ITA’s headquarters on Portland Street in Cambridge. If this works out the way it’s looking, then congratu-fucking-lations to you folks.

I’m still kind of in shock, even though this all makes perfect sense.

Because Google failed me for approximately the first time ever — April 17, 2010