Myhrvold’s Terrorism Paper

Nathan Myrhvold released a lengthy paper analyzing the technological nature of terrorism and critiquing the American strategy of counterterrorism thus far. I particularly liked his Richter-scale for ranking potential threats. In his paper, Myrvhold suggests a far more proactive policy of investment in counterterrorism R&D. He concludes by stating that, in the likely event that his advice isn’t followed, it’s more likely than not that we will see an attack within the next decade that kills 100,000 – 1,000,000 Americans.

I think he’s correct about the nature of the threat, and I think he’s correct in his prediction. More worryingly, I think he’s right about the political constraints that make proactive measures very unlikely. However, I’m concerned that his prescriptions focus too much on the technology angle, to the exclusion of the domestic policy angle.

Joe Studwell’s “How Asia Works” is one of the best economics history books I’ve read. It’s as if Studwell sets out to prescribe the cure for the disease described in “Confessions of an Economic Hitman“, and succeeds brilliantly. The cure he prescribes dates back to Meiji-era Japan and German economist Friedrich List. The antidote explicated by List was applied successfully by Japan, South Korea, and modern-day China. Ironically, the antidote was forcibly administered by Americans, in the first two successful instances — in the case of Japan, by General MacArthur.

The first rung of the development ladder prescribed by List (and successfully implemented in Japan, South Korea, and China) is “land-tenure policies that support smallholder farmers”. Studwell compellingly argues that, without this first rung, no country has ever reached the higher rungs of development. Ever since the dawn of agriculture, the inexorable trend is for rent-seekers to capture an increasing share of the value, and eventually enslave 90% of the population in serfdom. This is the topic of Perkins’ book (and the genesis of what we call “bullshit jobs” — a topic for another post). But in the case of MacArthur (and List), the antidote was clear: land-tenure polices that redistributed land from rent-seekers to smallholders, resulting in full employment and skin-in-the-game for everybody. Overall profit drops, but individual productivity skyrockets.

When we fail to follow List’s (and MacArthur’s) advice, we see exactly the situation that Perkins predicted. Studwell holds up the Philippines as an example of a country that did a particularly poor job of agrarian reform (echoing the often-hilarious accounts in “Sons of the Yellow Emperor“). The rent-seekers capture government, and the fringes fall away and become sympathetic to “terrorist” groups like Abu Sayyaf.

The necessary reforms are unlikely to come from within, and simply forcing countries to become “democratic” isn’t the answer. But imposing these policies from the outside has been successful in the past, and would be a better use of our influence.

Welcome Home Jon!

[via Jeff] Jon Udell is joining our team at Microsoft.  I’m surprised that none of the people I told about this leaked it before now 😛

It’s a shame that he felt the need to defend against appearances of “selling out”.  Let’s hope that’s the last time he feels that way.  Anyone who’s followed him over the years knows that he’s not going to compromise his integrity.  Jon is thoughtful, deep, and non-partisan.  Why pick sides when you’re in a position to think things through and decide for yourself?

He’s a uniter, not a divider.  His role will be fairly different in details that Scoble’s was, but the general pattern for Jeff’s team is that they are bridge builders.


Can Microsoft Innovate?

WSJ is running a debate between two of my favorite people, Dave Winer and Robert Scoble.  We gave Davefirewood as a function of distance and price” before he even asked for it, but I actually don’t disagree with much of what he or Scoble say.

On the other hand, I agree with Dave’s assertion that the entire premise is a bit skewed.  He mentions that, “by the time there is a class on it, it’s not innovation”.  By the same token, by the time the press is writing about it, it’s not innovation.  The WSJ article mentions Google ad platforms and search as the “new” against which Microsoft’s “old” on one hand and “playing catch up” on the other is contrasted.  Same with iPod and Zune.  These are simply big company implementations of things that have been around for a long time — Google sure as heck didn’t invent ad targeting or search. 

It makes good press to say, “which BigCo did it first”, but that’s not reality.  If you want innovation at a big company, look for improvements to existing products.  If you want to see innovation in overall features, and things that can potentially change the game, look to the customers/developers as Dave says.  In my opinion, the best strategy for a BigCo is to enable a climate where tons of external innovation can happen, and can be harvested/rewarded by the BigCo in a way that benefits everyone.



AaronSw Sellout?

Reddit, the one company that would never sell out, has sold out.  Aaron was the guy who gave them their “indie cred”, and he’s trying hard to maintain that cred.  Right now, he’s experiencing the angst of realizing that money doesn’t buy happiness.  But that will pass when Wired bids up Reddit’s attention to pull 10x what they paid the Reddit founders.  In the meantime, Aaron will be busy trying to infect an old new media company (Wired) and an old media company (Conde Nast) with some really cool ideas.  If history is a guide, I predict that Aaron will be the most valuable part of the aquisition.

E.O. Wilson at Microsoft

I recently read Ridley’s The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, as a follow-on to Dunbar’s Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language.  Between the two books, E.O. Wilson came to visit Microsoft campus and talk about one of his many works, The Creation : a Meeting of science and Religion.

It turns out that Wilson is cited extensively in “The Red Queen” and is a giant in the area of science where evolutionary theory overlaps with study of human nature.  He’s been teaching at Harvard for 50 years and won several awards for his research.  He’s an unabashed secularist, but far more Baconian that authoritarian, so I was very interested.  It’s all very relevant to Microsoft and Google business, BTW, but that’s a topic for later.

He started by relating his upbringing in the Baptist South.  I immediately pegged him as the didymous (twin) of J. Vernon McGee; he has the same rich drawl and I imagine McGee looks the same.  He talked about how he’s been touring the country with evangelicals, forming a sort of alliance to preserve biodiversity.

Very early, he went to great lengths to differentiate himself from evangelicals.  He doesn’t want anyone to mistake him for a believer, and to make the point he set up a (IMO straw man) definition of “evangelicals” as people who believe that the creator needs to “interfere” periodically, while he is more of an emanationist in the Pythagorean sense.  He sees people who try to rationalize the two as “wimps”, which I think is rather arbitrary and silly (presupposing lack of sentience in the “emanated” takes a leap of faith equal to the converse).

But once he cleared the “we differ on completely stupid and irrelevant metaphysical points” air, he got down to the areas of agreement.  As I’ve blogged before, these are remarkable and huge.  Basically, if evangelicals disagree with him on any of his latter points, they would be hypocrites (and in the past, have been).  Perhaps this is why he’s getting so much cooperation from evangelicals.  His statistics about vanishing biodiversity are alarming.

It was eye-opening for me.  I always assumed that, with the advent of conservationist and “green” movements, we had reversed the tide and that species extinction was a sin of our past ignorance more than a reality of today.  Not so.  I always assumed that technology, liberty, and free flow of information would be sufficient to make sure the right thing is done.  Not so.

Separate but (very) related, I recently saw a stat about human languages since the invention of printing press.  One would assume that the printing press and other communication technologies would have made it possible to preserve human languages for posterity.  Surprisingly, one major effect of better communication technology was to remove a lot of the regionalization of language, which made it possible for people to “compare” and choose languages more easily.  Since the invention of printing press, 50% of languages in use at the time have died off, and language is far more homogeneous now.

This also ties with the story of the Picts and Edward Curtis.  The Picts and Druids were wiped off the face of the earth around 1000 years ago.  It was the fate of many previous races; but happened right around the time that such events became reprehensible and mostly ceased to happen.  It can be considered tragic in the sense that, had they hung on for a few hundred more years, they might be with us today.  But far more tragic to me is the fate of a whole slew of Native American Tribes.  Edward Curtis settled in Seattle just 120 years ago, and made it his life’s work to record the lives of the various Native American tribes around the country who were slowly dying off.  He took photographs and audio recordings, funded by Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan.  Most of the tribes he recorded have gone completely extinct (at least in terms of Y haplotype and MTDNA), and his work is the ONLY recorded history of their existence, customs, and lives.  You can look at this and laud the technology that made it possible to give them a crude approximation of immortality; or you could lament the conditions which made it possible for them to vanish with nary a trace.  But regardless of which attitude you take, you have to admit that they wouldn’t even exist today without the selfless work of a single man: Edward Curtis.

Hammering Thumbs

Blake Ross talks about how the old Netscape Browser was one big WTF.  His post led me to one of the old Netscape devs (everyone knows jwz) claiming that, “to a database person, every nail looks like a thumb.

It’s lovely, because it’s in the same post claiming that you would be crazy to use anything other than BSD ‘mbox’ files to store e-mail.  In hindsight, that seems like crazy thing to call crazy.

Anyway, it’s a common theme on this blog.  Data is the only thing that matters.  Modern machines don’t even run Basic anymore, paradoxically the code jocks like jwz enabled the revolution where it’s all about hypermedia now.  Sorry, code guys.

So my friend Mark just pointed me to the Wikipedia entry for “Pick Operating System“.  (Interesting, helicopter parts were being tracked in m200 by the time I became a Pick god).  Pick was like the WWW before the WWW was invented.  Well, it was like a bunch of walled-off WWW’s with a cool data access model and a cool identifier model.  So maybe it wasn’t a WWW at all.  But jwz should have put Pick in his pipe and smoked it, then maybe he wouldn’t have opened his cakehole with all that nasty personal defamation of McCusker.  McCusker “gets” Pick, I am sure.


Update: My brother adds his memories of Pick, along with source code for a Pick to C++ gateway.  I wonder if WGB.MET is reading?

VCs and Taint

Dare has an interesting post on the way that VCs are now bragging about how they steer clear of anywhere Google might go.  I’ve noticed that VCs often think in “big dog”, “Moneyball”, “old boy” terms, so it’s not surprising.  That’s the challenge for Umair; he covers all of the same topics as the VCs, and in more depth, but he’s just a wee bit too intellectual.  He needs to sound just a bit more paternalistic and sexist if he wants to appeal to the baby boomers and sound like a member of the VC club.

Coincidentally, the other day, my aggregator fed me this post (warning, totally NSFW) by Sam Sugar about his conversation with Fred Wilson (a VC).  It was right next to a post by Fred; the irony wasn’t lost on me.  Fred made it pretty clear (very politely) that he wasn’t interested in even having a conversation about the topic, because of “taint”.  The interesting part is that the VCs have no problem investing in companies in Sam’s industry, as long as the “taint” is sufficiently dissociated.

The “taint” in Sam’s industry, of course, comes from the fact that we have a whole industry organized around exploitation.  As Sam chronicles, though, it’s a rather complex picture where the exploiters are increasingly as likely to be women as men.  I suspect that many VCs read Sam’s blog, since he thinks like a VC and asks the questions that VCs generally won’t ask publicly.

Speaking of, if you’re visiting Shanghai in the next couple of months (and you look British), don’t arrange private dinners with attractive single (or married, for that matter — I’m afraid to take my own wife to dinner in Shanghai now) Chinese women.  The angry mob is on the hunt for ChinaBounder, a British retard who thinks that Shanghainese promiscuity is a license to brag about his cross-cultural sexual exploits.  As the Sugar/Wilson conversation on “taint” shows, a bit of humor can help people push the edges and discuss an uncomfortable subject without blowing up.  Bounder (like Sugar) loves to quote Shakespeare.  But Bounder clearly is crossing the line between “poking fun to allow an uncomfortable subject to be discussed” and “mocking and provocation with malicious intent”.  The violent reaction was quite predictable, and the subject could have been raised with moderation and sensitivity, so Bounder has nobody to blame but himself for what he gets.

When Privacy is Bad: In Defense of Google

As much as I love to see people questioning Google’s stewardship of “all the world’s information”, I have to defend Google on this one.  An anonymous poster claiming to be from MSFT is over on a Google blog –using the AOL data leak as a way to smear Google.  That’s just plain wrong; and in the context of the original post, bordering on unethical.

There is an e-mail hoax making the rounds in India right now, purporting to explain how Google’s social networking service, Orkut, was created.  I’ve seen a few different versions going around, but they all have the same core story:

“A young software engineer travelling with his ‘girlfriend’ was in a train accident.  He survived, but could not find his girlfriend after the crash.  So, he wrote code day and night and hired a bunch of other coders to write Orkut.  In Orkut, people would type in the names of their friends, and their friends could type in the names of their friends, and so on.  After three years, he had millions of records and eventually one of her new friends entered her name in the database without her knowledge — our heartbroken lover was able to find his lost lover at last!”

Of course, the story is a complete fabrication; but were it true it would be rather creepy.

To some people this may seem “sweet”.  But you have to wonder why it wasn’t enough for this fellow to just put up a web page and let her Google for it herself.  Clearly, if he was so intent to “find out where she lives now and pay her a visit”, he was convinced that she was not going to contact him on her own.  Otherwise, the effort to build Orkut would have been senseless.  Stalkers always rationalize that their prey “want” it, so he surely had some reason why the poor girl was not going to contact him.  For example, “She is rather weak-minded, so she has probably had her heart stolen away by some evil man who has brainwashed her.  If only I go visit her at her new home, I can make her remember that she loves me instead.”  One reason that he might be so certain of this may be that she had done it in the past, before the train crash.  The poor fellow; always having to rescue his girl from manipulative men who make her unfaithful!

At first, I thought, “what a terribly unethical way to attract cyberstalkers to your social networking service!”  It’s not as if these people need any encouragement.  But then I remembered the “Committee of Gossips“.  The Internet makes it harder for people to hide from obsessive stalkers, but it also makes it harder for obsessive stalkers to operate in secret.


So a few days ago, Niniane Wang at Google discovered evidence of rape by looking through the AOL search logs.  Almost instantly, she was mobbed with (mostly anonymous and male) commenters screaming foul — “How DARE you pry into someone’s PRIVATE life; I will never trust Google again!”

These people operate on denial and self-delusion; secrecy and privacy are the oxygen that keeps their abusive behaviors alive.  The typical date-rapist or stalker will tell you that it’s just a difference of opinion, a private matter, and that it’s none of your business.  He knows that he loses if you have all of the facts and can judge for yourself.

In this case, Niniane was looking at PUBLIC logs, and the evidence is clear enough that a crime has been committed.  Not only did Niniane do nothing wrong by calling attention to this; I argue that law enforcement would be negligent to not follow up on this (if possible).  It is sad (yet common) that the victims in the examples she cites could reach out for help only by leaving private e-mails in a public place, or typing a query into a search engine with the hope that they might find some answers somewhere.

The truth is, there are probably thousands of queries like this every day, from people suffering depression, abuse, or other problems; and looking for help.  Search engines should provide a direct and smooth transition to priivate and confidential 1:1 counseling for people in these situations.  When someone asks the search engine “is it normal to cook for someone after they rape you?” (it’s not uncommon, BTW), this person clearly wants to connect with someone who understands.  When someone asks “why is it so hard to find a reason to live?”, they are reaching out.  You’re not invading their privacy by directing them to resources that can help them.

Of course, people will be discouraged from seeking help for depression, abuse, and these sorts of things if they feel like their private lives might appear on someone’s blog the next day.  But that’s not the gist of the comments objecting to Niniane’s post.  And one way to give hope to future victims is by showing them tht they’re not alone; that there are many people asking the exact same questions — people who never would have scanned the AOL logs themselves now know that they aren’t the only ones to be having the same questions; and that is nothing but good.


And if transparency is (understandably) a deterrent for victims to seek help, it’s doubly a deterrent for the abusers.  And in the case of abusers, shining the light can only do good.  The restaurant or venue owner who gets negative reviews on dianping will claim that “it’s just a difference of opinion or a misunderstanding”, and that may be the case (yes, sometimes the perp is the victim).  But you get to look at the evidence and decide for yourself.  The same should be true of heartbroken trainwreck survivors and date-rapists.  It’s only a matter of time until we have a “dianping for people”, and the committee of gossips have eyes everywhere.  This is what scares the anonymous protesters the most.


GigaOM is now a full-time job, meaning that Om will be blessing us with higher volume of his incisive analyses.  It is a wonderful thing; people pay lots of money for the kind of insights he offers.  The only problem is that it now becomes a full time job for his readers to digest all of the material he’s generating.  We need an OMWatch.

Speaking of smart people, Rohit just e-mailed me to point out that I lost a ton of historical posts in the blog move.  So I moved feed location and lost about 80% of my subscribers, and now I am going to lose 80% of my Google juice as the crawler notices that all of my content is gone.  That is just brilliant; I should start a SEO consulting company.  I will fix the issues this weekend.  And I still intend to pull back in all of the historical comments than have been lost in previous blog moves, too.