fortune or its reverse the seldom-updated lackaff.net blog

5Aug/060

Dispatch from Wikimania: Wealth of networks and open source innovation

The first session today has been pleasant. Yochai Benkler and Rishab Ghosh are addressing different aspects of alternative, open production methods. Benkler highlighted some arguments from his new book, certainly preaching to the choir about the benefits of partipatory culture and content production. Without having read the book, I'm not sure that Benkler is breaking much new ground here, but he has done an excellent job of synthesizing a lot of the discussion currents in the FLOSS community.

Ghosh presented an interesting argument for open source production methods. I especially liked his intro -- a discussion of James Watt and the implications of the patent on his steam engine. In the late 18th century, Watt patented his new steam engine, and successfull lobbied for a long patent extension. He did well financially. But when the patent finally expired 1811, steam engine construction became "open source," as new designs were published and shared in journals. After a few years during which Watt's former competitives profited simply by not paying license fees, there was a sudden explosion of steam engine innovaion. The power of the engines increased exponentially, and became powerful enough to drive railroads and the massive machines of the Industrial Age.

I'm inspired. Maybe my novel will be set in this era, with the warring steam scientists as protagonists...

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4Aug/060

Dispatch from Wikimania: Aiming for Wikipedia 1.0

I'm in the middle of a Wikimania panel discussion that appears on the verge of becoming quite lively. The topic is article validation or fact-checking, primarily as it relates to the Wikipedia 1.0 project (a plan to produce a "stable" version of Wikipedia for distribution in print and other media). The panelists include an Martin Walker, active participant in the initiative, and a genial World Book editor who is dicussing that encyclopedia's fact-checking procedures.

The fact-checking process for print encyclopedias is intensive and apparently highly-labor intensive. Fact-checkers work on giant sheets of paper, annotating them by hand. Articles are set on "timers" for frequent updates, but are often revisited earlier as events dictate.

The notion of a stable or un-editable version of Wikipedia seems to concern a lot of the prople in the room. Martin notes that when his group uses language like "locked version," lurkers crawl out of the woodwork to voice their displeasure. Clearly, a stable version of important articles would be very useful to the project, but the process of generating the articles is hotly debated.

A suggestion was made that Wikipedia users should be able to show verifiable "badges" of their expertise, such as a "Harvard PhD" userbox... and all the hands in the room reached for the ceiling. So we are aiming for an expert-reviewed, stable encyclopedia. That sounds kinda familiar.

More later...

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2Aug/060

Wikimania!

So the blog has been hibernating for a few weeks due to offline commitments. Some dear college friends tied the knot at the Graceland Chapel in Vegas last week, and I was able to hang out with them there for a few days. Then my family flew out to visit for a few days, and we explored the Niagara area a little.

This weekend I'm going to party with some rockstars. Well, "party" meaning "attend an academic conference" and "rockstars" being people like Judith Donath, Ward Cunningham, Brewster Kahle, Larry Lessig, David Weinberger, Jimmy Wales and so on. Yes, it's Wikimania!

Alex and I are presenting some of our research on Wikipedia's topical coverage. Here's the video-enhanced version of our abstract. Should be a fun time -- I'm sticking around for the whole weekend, and looking forward to putting faces to many of the names I read.

 

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10Jul/060

Recent read: Before the Dawn


I was pleasantly surprised by a recent visit to my local (suburban Buffalo) library. The new nonfiction shelf was stacked with books from my reading list. Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade is one of the latest in the steady stream of popular science writing on human origins.

Before the Dawn is an engaging, enthusiastic presentation of some of the latest thoughts in anthropology, medicine, genetics, and several other sciences with an interest in ancient human history. In coherent, logical chapters, Wade weaves recent developments in the physical and social sciences into a fascinating overview our earliest beginnings. Part of what makes this area of research (and this particular book) so interesting is that certain debates remain feirce, and scientists from many disciplines are applying their expertise to the same questions. For example, when did humans develop language, and how did it develop? While traditional linguistic approaches have relied on comparisons of historical languages, genetic testing methods have provided insights into how the dispersion of early humans across the globe correlates with the development of language families, as well as approximate inception dates. Wade also addresses topics such as sexual behavior and mate selection, race, cultural change, cannibalism, and the domestication of plants, animals, and humans themselves.

Although Before the Dawn is popular science, it is firmly grounded in real research. Wade is astute enough to recognize meaningful debates in a range of scientific fields, and an effective writer who can present these complex topics to an interested nonspecialist audience. One minor quibble is that while Wade takes pains to discourage the "progress" metaphor for biological evolution ("humans were the ultimate, inevitable result of evolution"), he takes a strangely parochial view of "primitive" cultures and cultural evolution -- "Why haven't some Amazonian and Polynesian tribes evolved from Stone Age societies until present times?" His argument that genetic propensities are a stronger influence than, say, accidents of geography and history (as Jared Diamond argues) seems like a reach.

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9Jul/060

Flash Mob: A singular act of female rebellion

A flash mob is a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, do something unusual for a brief period of time, and then quickly disperse. They are usually organized with the help of the Internet or other digital communications networks. The Wikipedia seems to be unaware of an earlier usage of the term.

While flipping through some old paperwork, I came across this postcard I picked up in Tasmania. I'd argue that these women have a stronger claim to the term than today's hipsters...

Update July 9: Google reveals that the image is a 2004 painting by Peter Gouldthorpe. The Flash Mob is an actual historical phenomenon -- more details about this group and Tasmania's other female convicts here.


A SINGULAR ACT OF FEMALE REBELLION IN VAN DIEMEN'S LAND
The Rev. Robert Crooke records in his diary an occasion in 1844, when the Rev. Mr Bedford, Chaplain of the Female Factory at Cascades near Hobart Town, conducted Governor Franklin and Lady Jane Franklin around the institution. The Governor, a humane and popular man, addressed the gathering of between 300 and 400 women and was accorded a good hearing, as was Lady Franklin. But when Mr Bedford, whose hypocrisy had earned him the ridicule and contempt of his female flock, and especially that of a group of hardened offenders known to Hobart Town as `The Flash Mob,' began to address the women from the dais, "on a sudden the three hundred women turned right round and at one impulse pulled up their clothes shewing their naked posteriors which they simultaneously smacked with their hands making a loud and not very musical noise. This was the work of a moment, and although constables, warders etc. were there in plenty, yet 300 women could not well all be arrested and tried for such an offence and when all did the same act the ringleaders could not be picked out. The feeling of the Governor and her Ladyship may well be conceived..." — although it was said that her Ladyship managed to restrain her mirth until she was safely homeward bound in the viceregal carriage

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28Jun/060

Heterarchy and online social norms

I've finally gotten around to posting my master's thesis: Norm maintenance in online communities: Analysis of heterarchical moderation regimes. Abstract:

Like offline communities, online communities need structure and social norms to remain useful and viable for their members. The technology that has enabled these new types of social formations to emerge has also created new types of problems for these communities. Online communities can be vulnerable to several types of abuse, including malicious postings and spam, and present new problems of information overload. As online communities grow from dozens of individual participants to thousands, the technical workload of limiting abuse can become problematic. Heterarchical moderation (whereby many, most, or all community members are given a small amount of power and responsibility for maintaining social norms and useful discussion) has recently emerged as an option to help limit abuse and promote community goals. This thesis examines three different online communities that employ heterarchical moderation regimes to help maintain community discussion norms. A large sample of conversations from each community is subjected to both quantitative and qualitative analyses to provide an overview of the implications heterarchical discussion moderation.

I looked at a six-week sample of comments posted to Slashdot, Kuro5hin, and the now-defunct(?) Plastic.com to try and get at some of the discursive and social dynamics of distributed comment-rating systems. Looking back at it, I recognize a lot of things I could have done better, especially with my so-called "quantitative" analyses (hey, I was in a humanities program). But I had a lot of fun with the project, and some very smart referees were generous enough to pass it, so I'm not too embarrassed to open it to wider scrutiny.

I trimmed the lengthy appendices from the PDF -- the Slashdot and K5 data are still available in those sites' archives.

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27Jun/060

Norm maintenance in online communities: Analysis of heterarchical moderation regimes (PDF)

Lackaff, D. (2005). Norm maintenance in online communities: Analysis of heterarchical moderation regimes. Unpublished master's thesis, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Victoria, Australia.

Abstract
Like offline communities, online communities need structure and social norms to remain useful and viable for their members. The technology that has enabled these new types of social formations to emerge has also created new types of problems for these communities. Online communities can be vulnerable to several types of abuse, including malicious postings and spam, and present new problems of information overload. As online communities grow from dozens of individual participants to thousands, the technical workload of limiting abuse can become problematic. Heterarchical moderation (whereby many, most, or all community members are given a small amount of power and responsibility for maintaining social norms and useful discussion) has recently emerged as an option to help limit abuse and promote community goals.

This thesis examines three different online communities that employ heterarchical moderation regimes to help maintain community discussion norms. A large sample of conversations from each community is subjected to both quantitative and qualitative analyses to provide an overview of the implications heterarchical discussion moderation.

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27Jun/060

2.0 people who matter, and don't

Business 2.0 revealed their list of the 50 people who matter -- the moguls, geeks, organizations, and groups who are defining the media landscape. It's interesting to see the world of new media through the eyes of business journalists -- they are wary of internet hype after getting burned so often in the last decade, but still willing to engage in Web 2.0 hyperbole. "You! Consumer as creator" (should that be produser?) takes the #1 spot. The writeup on Jimmy Wales and Kevin Rose caught my eye.

The New New Media:
Kevin Rose (Digg) and Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia)


Old media is all about reinforcing the importance of the institution as the editorial filter. The new new media is all about the importance of the reader as the editorial filter. Tens of millions of users can create a collaborative intelligence that's far smarter than any one editor could ever hope to be.

Why does that seem so familiar? Oh yeah, Rolling Stone crowned Rob Malda (creator of Slashdot) the "king of new new media" back in 2000. (Sorry I don't have a link). The coronation was based on similar grounds: the primacy of "users" on Slashdot, the key element of participation, and so on. So, actually, Digg and Wikipedia are the new new new media. In Web2.0world, everything new is new again, and again. (Incidentally, those classy journos at Business 2.0 also released a list of people who don't matter anymore. Malda made this list.)

I've talked with colleagues often about the concepts of novelty and banalization. Banalization, or the loss of novelty for users of a technology, is a treacherous path for Web 2.0 applications. Technologies that survive the process flourish -- email, mobile phones, TiVo, maybe Wikipedia and Flickr. Other technologies fail once the novelty wears off (see the endless parade of social networking services) -- the service they provide is not something that can become effectively normalized, but is novelty itself. Massive investments are being made into social media, and it's not clear that these are much less risky than those made in the late 1990s. Cool still !necesarily= profit.




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26Jun/060

Party like it's 1699: The Pirate Party

The Piratpartiet, or Pirate Party, is a new Swedish political party dedicated to copyright reform, patent law reform, and strengthening personal privacy rights. The party has no stance on any more general issues. Founded earlier this year, the Pirate Party has gained significant attention from both the domestic and international media.

While p2p filesharers are clearly a key potential constituency, other issues, such as a desire to reform the pharmaceutical patent system, indicate the party has a notion of the broader implications of the platform (or at least the PR savvy to tap into them).

The Pirate Party has a chance (albeit a very, very small chance) of putting a member in Parliament in the September general election. But even if they don't succeed, they have effectivly forced the issue into the general political sphere. Other minor parties have adjusted their platforms to accomodate the Pirate Party's agenda and avoid losing votes. I'll be following the Party's progress this summer with interest.

As one might expect, citizens of other filesharing nations have followed suit and started their own Pirate Parties. There are even rumblings of a US version. While I doubt the PPUS will have a significant impact on US policy, I see nothing wrong with the creation of an overtly political organization dedicated to copyright reform. In a recent Slashdot discussion, one commentor noted that the US already has "legitimate organizations" like the EFF working towards these types of goals. But one reply was: Well on the other hand, "Electronic Frontier Foundation" doesn't make headlines. "Pirate Party" does. I know I'll never have a chance to cast a vote for a Pirate, but a group like this has the potential to provoke a broader public debate on IP issues.

Incidentally, the Pirate Party's logo is really cool. I wanted it on a shirt, but getting an official Tshirt shipped from Sweden would run about US$40. So I grabbed their logo and slapped it on some swag at Cafepress. I'll probably take down my versions once the US Pirate party starts fundraising, but if you'd like a Pirate Party t-shirt, you can grab one there.

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9Jun/060

Wikilocalpedia

For one of my research projects this summer, I'm looking at Wikipedia content. Rather than tax WP's servers with thousands of queries, I thought it might be useful to run a local WP mirror. Because I am interested in the functioning of the Mediawiki software as well as WP content, I wanted a local Mediawiki install, and not just a database mirror. Getting this to work has been a challenge, so I thought I'd note a few things I've learned here for future reference.

The creation of a local WP requires at least four types of fiddling:

  1. a working install of MediaWiki on a PHP-sporting HTTP server,
  2. a properly configured MySQL database,
  3. a dump of relevant content from the Wikipedia
  4. a script of some sort to import the dump into the database

Relevant notes for each section follow. My sadly underpowered desktop box (Athlon 64 3000, 512MB RAM) is running Ubuntu Linux 6.06.

1. HTTP server and MediaWiki
Used a default Apache install with PHP and MySQL connectors through Synaptic. MediaWiki 1.4 is also available in the repositories, but those clever MediaWiki hackers have already released versions 1.5 and 1.6. Wanting the latest and greatest, I installed 1.6 manually (very easy, using MW's slick mostly-browser-based installer. Later, as I had trouble using various import scripts, I installed version 1.5. In hindsight, I probably should have just used the package install.

2. MySQL
Installed MySQL through Synaptic. I ended up changing some of the default settings to speed the import process. Basically, I made my /etc/mysql/my.cnf file match the settings in "my-large.cnf" example configuration file. Also, I disabled the log-bin option. Note that you will want to save your original my.cnf and change most of these options back after you complete the import, as these changes basicaly allow MySQL to use as much of your system's resources as it wants. Also doublecheck the MySQL data directory -- even a basic WP mirror will eat up a lot of gigs. I ended up sacrificing a 20GB hard drive to the ravenous Wikipedia database.

3. Wikipedia dump
Dumps of WikiMedia Foundation project content are available at
http://download.wikimedia.org/enwiki. I just wanted the most recent revisions of English Wikipedia articles, so I snagged http://download.wikimedia.org/enwiki/20060607/enwiki-20060607-pages-articles.xml.bz2. Save your file somewhere where you won't forget it.

4. Import the dump using a script
The big database dumps are provided in XML format, which requires some massaging if you want to cram it back into a SQL database. A PHP script is provided with MediaWiki 1.5 and higher, in /maintenance/importDump.php. This script works as advertised, but is very slow (as few as 8 pages inserted per second -- with over 3 million pages in my smallish dump, this would be a long, lonely road).

An alternative is MWDumper, a Java program that imports pages much faster. You'll need to install Java, of course, I've the Blackdown JRE package installed, seems to work. Using MWDumper, I am currently getting about 100 pages imported per second, can am watching red links in local WP articles slowly turn blue.

Woot. TFSMIF.

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