How Wikipedia 'will make universities obsolete'

For most web surfers, the Wikipedia is simply an occasionally useful online resource that needs to be taken with a huge sackful of salt. For others, it’s a poor excuse for a real encylopedia. But for its proponents, it’s nothing short of revolutionary! It’s Emergent, you see.

A column by veteran tech writer Al Fasoldt has provoked some furious defenses of the site, in a similar spirit to the ones we received here recently. What they lack in coherence, they make up for in passion. And in the absence of decent Flame of the Week material recently, we hope this will provide the same vicarious thrills.

Taking to his scooter, one young Wiki-fiddler roars into action.

“Old World is under attack. The authority of the book, authority of the journalist, authority of the teacher, is under direct assault by Wikipedia and other online efforts,” claims the poster, ‘Stephen’.

“It should come as no suprise [sic] a journalist and teacher ganged up on Wikipedia. Both have much to loose [sic]. Their claim? Authority. We will see much more of this backlash by the old guard in the future,” he continues, confidently.

“The education system its self [sic] will come into question eventually. Universities are formed around libraries and libraries are physical things that require physical campuses. Take away the library, provide full access to every book ever writen [sic] online, imagine the consequences.”

Which is an odd thing to claim, as your reporter can access the expensive databases at his wonderful local library for nothing, even when he’s sitting 5,500 miles away.

A future where publishers throw everything they have online for free is then described, although the question of why these professional researchers should throw away their livelihoods away in such a fashion isn’t explored. But let’s not allow facts to spoil this titanic struggle for the future of learning.

“It’s a war between the Old World of the past and the New World and those who ‘get it’ know whats happening on all fronts,” writes Stephen.

Quite so.

We’ll be asking the Chancellors of Oxford and Cambridge why they don’t “Get It!” and exactly when they plan to close down their institutions very shortly, we promise. With such a mortal challenge to their legitimacy, they must be planning for that day already.

Meanwhile the excitable young Wiki-fiddlers, understandably, rather like the idea that they’re writing the reference books of tomorrow, and so fill it with their favorite subjects, like minor Star Trek characters, Ayn Rand and junk science. (The entry on “memes” is almost as long as the entry for Immanuel Kant).

“It’s the Khmer Rouge in diapers,” observes one regular Register reader, which seems as good a description as any to us.

All of this obscures the potential of the Wiki as a mechanism for community groups and public organizations to publish information they already want you to have, a theme which we’ll be exploring further this week. Alas, that’s not very sexy, certainly isn’t Emergent and doesn’t usher in a New World Order; it’s just something that could prove to be a humble and possibly very useful bit of middleware. But that’s if they can ever get round to agreeing on a mobile API. ®

Hungover CNET wakes up next to

What a night out that was. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time…

On Friday morning CNET woke up to find it was sharing a bed with, and couldn’t quite recollect how the pair of them had got there. We’ve all had nights like this, but yesterday CNET staffers were puzzling over how the mothership found itself tweaked into an improbable and very hastily arranged relationship between two hugely unlikely partners, both apparently lured to sin by the glamor of latest Silicon Valley goldrush: copy-protected music downloads.

Some poor, unwitting business development executive at CNET must be rubbing his forehead this morning, asking himself “what did I do?”

CNET has decided to buy some “specific assets” of the company that Michael Robertson founded in 1998 with the intention of forming a marketplace for the exchange of music. CNET won’t inherit the sprawling archive of music that has accreted there, however. has never been less than a mess, but it does represent a hefty social archive. And at some point (and we shall endeavour to find out who, and where) two drunken business executives decided to flush the chain on the whole lot, and strike a deal. CNET has acquired the domain name, to add to its existing treasures, such as “” and – stop laughing, you folks – “”. The music archive, however, gets it in the neck.

Musicians received this announcement on Friday.

“Your personal information, music, images, related content or other information will not be transferred to CNET Networks, Inc. or any other third party… Please note, however, that promptly following the removal of the website, all content will be deleted from our servers and all previously submitted tapes, CD-ROMs and other media in our possession will be destroyed. We recommend that you make alternative content hosting arrangements as soon as practicable.”

A verbose way of saying, “piss off”…

“It has been a privilege to host one of the largest and most diverse collections of music in the world. wishes to express its sincere thanks to each of you for making our website an important part of your musical journey. We wish you continued success.”

… and, goodbye.

Whoops Acquisition

Not since the Great Leap Forward has there been such a destruction of the commons. Back then, for political reasons, millions of books were burned. Now, for very sensible commercial reasons that we must not question, millions of MP3s will be lost to the commons. You have precisely seventeen days to grab the good stuff (and, Steb Sly – we hope you have a backup)

Punters and musicians alike will have until December 2 to retrieve the goods. After that, the future isn’t too difficult to predict.

CNET will follow Wal-Mart, Real Inc. and Apple Computer into the DRM business, infecting as many computers as they can with restrictive software controls that close what for a brief period has been an open computer platform. They all hope that this tentative business model, the terms of which are set by the entertainment “industry”, will somehow turn them a profit. Or at least give the illusion of doing so, until a better idea comes along.

One such idea is the tremendously popular notion of ‘compulsory licenses’ – a flat rate fee to be levied by some rich nitwit, somewhere (as a society we can choose who and where at our leisure) – but which potentially provides us with free music private sharing and a way of ensuring the creators are recompensed. It’s handicapped with a Stalinist name, right now, but even the libertarian Electronic Frontier Foundation has thrown its weight behind the idea.

And with this war of the ideas imminent, we expect no less than to see some creative disclaimers appear at the end of CNET news stories. Back when Intel invested in the advertiser-friendly portal, CNET used to run disclaimers detailing INTC’s stake (six per cent, if you must know).

Can we expect to see a news stories about music downloads tagged with similar conflict-of-interest disclaimers? There’s something indecent about this prospect and we hope Register readers can formulate it more stylishly and succulently than we can.

Meanwhile, CNET’s acquisition of the domain leaves it with all sorts of delicious headaches, best encapsulated by the great American one-man band Hasil Adkins – familiar to you Cramps fans – who pondered:

I went out last night
And I got hitched up
When I woke up this morning
Shoulda seen what I had in the bed with me.

One blogger is worth ten votes – Harvard man

Working in his secret laboratory at Harvard University, a Fellow of the prestigious institution has come up with a formula that rocks electoral maths to its core.

Former software developer Dave Winer has worked out that one weblogger is worth ten ordinary voters, and he revealed the results of his complex calculations to Wired this week.

Normally we avoid ten-a-penny Internet cranks. The gaffe-prone former software developer has put his foot in his mouth so many times it probably qualifies for a residential parking permit.

But we did the maths ourselves – and were confounded. His work could indeed have far-reaching social consequences.
Continue reading “One blogger is worth ten votes – Harvard man”

Chris Anderson makes me a bet

“Or the arrival of the Web browser, which blew millions of minds, making a mouseclick feel like teleportation.”
Chris Anderson, Wired

I was really calling the editor of Wired magazine, Chris Anderson, to check up on which weird and interesting drugs he was taking when he wrote the sentence you see above you.

[* answer below]

Anderson bet me that in five years time, there will be more 802.11 chipsets then there will be mobile phone chipsets. Naturally, opportunities like this don’t come up every day, so of course I took him up on the offer.

It was an affable chat, but by the end it was clear to me that Chris hadn’t just drunk the Kool-Aid, his metabolism has mutated itself, Science Fiction-style, to produce the stuff on demand. So you never need go thirsty ever again.

“The technology is Wi-Fi, and it’s the first blast in a revolution, called open spectrum,” he writes, “that will drive the Internet to the next stage in its colonization of the globe.”
Far from colonizing the globe, the Internet has failed to create much of a plut even here, in the land of its birth.

From recent research, we learn that half of the richest nation on the planet has cottoned on to the Internet for what it really is: a boring, stupid and expensive information tool that doesn’t really work very well.

True believers dismiss this significant part of the population as Luddites. But I think they’re making a sensible value judgment on the quality of the information they’re receiving. It’s not that they don’t get it: they are simply exercising a vote and it’s a pretty smart one: The PC-Internet proposition has value, but the experience is awful. It’s not as easy to use as a can opener or a remote control. So where do you think our Brothers and Sisters go?

C’mon. This isn’t hard to figure out.

However, to indulge the Deregulation Lobby for a moment, we must confess: it’s certainly a beautiful dream.

Home grown WiFi networks will cover the nation, giving us unlimited Internet access and phone calls, and the evil carriers will melt into history.

Who doesn’t want to believe?

Show us the money

However we must have a rational basis on which to proceed. And the problem with this alluring vision now is that there won’t be enough money to sustain it. After all, everyone expects public WLANs to be free.

“It’s a hype cycle like we had around dot-coms. It’s not focused on technical or economic reality,” Qualcomm VP James Belk tells Business Week, a point we made here

Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs tells the magazine how expensive it is to provide WiFi access, and the hidden costs that the lobbyists often fail to point out.

“We believe Wi-Fi will explode in homes, large businesses, and college campuses,” he says. “The real question is: Is there a business [behind] providing Wi-Fi in hot spots?”

“The problem I have is seeing a long-term financial model in hot spots. Wide-area coverage, such as EV-DO, will provide high data rates over larger areas than Wi-Fi can. If you’re paying a monthly rate to your cellular provider for the capability to get data anywhere, would you pay more to get Wi-Fi in hot spots? No. Plus, EV-DO is secure and requires less power than Wi-Fi does.”

Successful WiFi companies sell into the three business sectors Jacobs mentioned above, and stay well clear of the public access sector:

“Hotspot is a good idea – but who gets paid?” Ben Guderian, a marketing director at SpectraLink told us. SpectraLink has a good business selling into health care and commercial organizations, and this week launched two new campus 802.11 phones.

“When you try to make Wi-Fi cover a wide area, it’s absolutely the worst way to do it, Martin Cooper, told CNET recently. Cooper is credited as the first person to make a cellphone call (in 1973, he led Motorola’s cellular project).

“In order to cover a city, you need a million sites; we actually did an analysis of that. And every one of them has got to have backhaul. So it turns out it’s neither economical nor practical. ”

Can I climb up your pole?

Writing in the investor magazine The Chili, Woz Ahmed, sums up the Bubble and adds another hidden cost to Jacob’s list: infrastructure build out. This isn’t a problem on campus or corporate networks, but planning permission is time consuming and expensive.

“A WLAN operator must have the expertise to select, obtain planning permission, commission and manage hotspot sites. It may be uneconomic to do this, as the potential number of WLAN users will always be lower than cellular voice users.”

Even in densely populated urban centres, “it will not be cheap, as premises owners are contributing to the WLAN bubble by charging operators high fees for attractive hotspot locations, such as airports, conference centres, hotels, major transport terminals and routes.”

Of course, these inhibiting factors don’t apply in a campus environment, or the home, as SpectraLink’s Guderian told us, “The cost of wireless is getting low enough so that wireless can save wiring for both voice and data,” he told us.

Indeed this is where WiFi poses an acute danger to the incumbents:

In The Chilli’s opinion, WLAN is the Rabbit of Internet data, given its weaknesses in standards fragmentation, interoperability, roaming and business model. Rabbit was a hotspot initiative by Hutchison launched in 1989 which failed because the seamless coverage offered by the 2G networks was so much more popular. People appreciate the certainties of something just working. It will be amusing to see the WiFi lobby explain to their mothers, and other relatives, that you only need to “reset your Mac WEP parameters” every four hundred yards to keep your WiFi phone working, and we eagerly the responses to this modest request.

Advantage Incumbent

But who expects the carriers to vanish overnight? Debt-laden they may be, but they still have a steady income. And the traditional carrier business model has a significant advantagein economies of scale, over new entrants. The carriers have made expensive investments in upgrading their networks, but it voice. 3G networks are roughly four times as efficient as the 2G networks and more savings will be achieved as the old networks are turned off. Data is just a bonus.

Admittedly, the carriers had expectations for mobile data that were almost as unrealistic as the WiFi/spectrum deregulation lobby has now. If only they’d asked the other half, the people who have voted with their feet when asked to comment on the glories of the Internet.

The successful models for mobile data have been the ones that eschewed all pretence to be “The Internet” – WAP was sold as “the mobile Internet” – and delivered us a simple social service or communication channel.

Forever Blowing Bubbles

But you have to wonder how the bubble-boosters affect the prospects of successful businesses, such as the SpectraLinks who have built solid businesses on 802.11. In no small part, by wisely avoiding the public access arena.

It’s not as if the wireless world isn’t interesting enough already. There’s a frantic pitch for the retail markets going on right now, for the last “yard”. Because so many people have phones, and they trust them to work, there’s a lot of maneuvering around “Proximity Servers” and local wireless gateways. These represent serious gambles for the investors.

But the WiFi Bubble is interesting if only because, a couple of years after the greatest loss of wealth in human history, it proves that we have astoundingly short term memories, that we are incapable of fixing structural problems with our trust capital relationships, but most of all, because we insist on perpetuating the dippy belief that technology can provide all of our answers.

These delusions remain here on the West Coast. I suspect these folks will realize pretty soon that American capital – already thinking of a Sinofied Dell – has cut them adrift.®

[*] Since you insist. This extraordinary statement had us leaping to the phone, such was our curiosity. Was it, we wondered DMT or Peyote? “Is this on the record?” Fraid so. “I’m, erm, much too boring to do anything like that.” Shame.

Anti-war slogan coined, repurposed and Googlewashed … in 42 days

This year marks the 100th anniversary of George Orwell’s birth, and the writer who best explained the power of language on politics would be amazed what can be done with the Internet.
Second Superpower
On February 17 [2003] a front page news analysis in the New York Times bylined by Patrick Tyler described the global anti-war protests as the emergence of “the second superpower”.

Tyler wrote:

“…the huge anti-war demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.”

This potent phrase spread rapidly.

Anti-war campaigners, peace groups and NGOs took to describing the global popular protest as “the second superpower”. And in less than a month, the phrase was being used by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. .

And a week ago, a Google search for the phrase would have shown the vigorous propagation of this ‘meme’.

Rub out the word

Then came this. Entitled The Second Superpower Rears its Beautiful Head, by James F Moore, it was accompanied by a brand new blog. The details need not detain us for very long, because the consequences of this piece are much more important than its anodyne contents.

It’s a plea for net users to organize themselves as a “superpower”, and represents a class of techno-utopian literature that John Perry Barlow has been promoting – the same sappy stuff, but not as well written – for the past ten years.

Only note how this example is sprinkled with trigger words for progressives, liberals and NPR listeners. It concludes – if you can find your way through this mound of feel-good styrofoam peanuts –

“we do not have to create a world where differences are resolved by war. It is not our destiny to live in a world of destruction, tedium, and tragedy. We will create a world of peace”.

In common with the genre, there’s no social or political context, although the author offers a single specific instruction that is very jarring in the surrounding blandness: we must co-operate with The World Bank. Huh?

It’s politics with the politics taken out: in short, it’s “revolution lite”.

Now here’s the important bit. Look what the phrase “Second Superpower” produces on Google now. Try it! Moore’s essay is right there at the top. And not just first, but it already occupies all but three of the first thirty spots.

The bashful Moore writes: “It was nice of Dave Winer [weblog tools vendor] and Doc Searls [advertising consultant] to pick up on it, even if it’s not really ready for much exposure.” No matter, Moore is an overnight A-list blogging superstar, at his very first attempt.

Although it took millions of people around the world to compel the Gray Lady to describe the anti-war movement as a “Second Superpower”, it took only a handful of webloggers to spin the alternative meaning to manufacture sufficient PageRank™ to flood Google with Moore’s alternative, neutered definition.

Indeed, if you were wearing your Google-goggles, and the search engine was your primary view of the world, you would have a hard time believing that the phrase “Second Superpower” ever meant anything else.

To all intents and purposes, the original meaning has been erased. Obliterated, in just seven weeks.

You’re especially susceptible to this if you subscribe to the view that Google’s PageRank™ is “inherently democratic,” which is how Google, Inc. describes it.

And this Googlewash took just 42 days.
Continue reading “Anti-war slogan coined, repurposed and Googlewashed … in 42 days”

“This MS Antitrust story was created by a computer program”

Google’s News service is remarkable: and the most astonishing thing about it is that it is generated automatically.

” The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program,” says a note at the foot of each page.

But why stop there? Why not use Perl scripts to generate the copy, too? You don’t need messy human wetware – foul drunken journalists – and it’s much more of an “end-to-end” solution, whatever that may be. It could revolutionize the industry, because once you’ve done away with journalists, there’s no need to employ expensive PRs to buy them drinks (or in Apple’s case, “decline to comment”.)

We’ve been secretly testing our own story generator, and here we shall reveal exactly how it works. Google keeps its algorithms and weighting secret – but we’re delighted to share them with the world. But be patient: it’s a work in progress.
Continue reading ““This MS Antitrust story was created by a computer program””

Physics hoaxers discover Quantum Bogosity?

The physics establishment appears to be unable to decide whether papers submitted by two former French TV presenters are a scientific breakthrough or an elaborate hoax. The debunking to date has been done on Usenet groups and informally, over the Internet.

The pranksters evaded the rigorous peer review process employed by scientific journals, and have succeeded in publishing four physics papers. The pair even won themselves PhDs into the bargain.

Grichka and Igor Bogdanov succeeded in having Topological field theory of the initial singularity of spacetime published in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity 18, Spacetime Metric and the KMS Condition at the Planck Scale in the Annals of Physics, and a Russian journal, and Igor – this time flying solo – persuaded the Czechoslovak Journal of Physics to publish the Topological origin of inertia.

But curiously, so arcane and abstract is the world of theoretical physics, that the work has yet to be repudiated.

Usenet posters describe the papers as “laughably incoherent”. A fascinating thread on Usenet begun by John Baez brought the hoax to light, and persistent questioning by Arkadiusz Jadczyk on his website has done much to expose the pair.

The Bogdanovs apparently foxed a New York Times reporter curious about the case, who after an angry denial from one of the hoaxers – denying that he was a hoaxer – dropped his investigation.

“Does no one have the courage of his convictions to stand up and declare an opinion one way or the other, or is it simply that no one has bothered to actually spend the time to acquire an informed opinion (i.e. more than just skimming the papers for a few choice sentences)?”, asks Kevin Scaldeferri from the California Institute of Technology.

So, the only respectable branch of physics in which the Bogdanov’s operate appears to be, umm … pataphysics.

The terrible, terrible conclusion some might draw from the episode is that string physics is no more a “science” than a social science. Several years ago physics professor Alan Sokhal hoaxed the cultural theories establishment with a delightful pastiche that suggested recent quantum theory work proved aspects of Lacanian psychoanalysis, as he explained in his paper A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies:-

“While my method was satirical, my motivation is utterly serious. What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance,” he wrote.

But if the establishment is so reluctant to expose the prank, is it the fault of hoaxers or the scientific method? The work of many of our most important scientists has been conducted in the margins, contrary to orthodox scientific opinion. Occam’s Razor is not only a wonderful thing for debunking junk science, but a terrific way to cut your own arms and legs off. And scientists must eat, so grant-funded research necessarily follows the orthodoxy.