A Tech-Econ Mashup with a Libertarian Flavor

Awesome New Twitter Tool

First, let me preface this post by saying that Twitter is still over-hyped and full of worthless information.

Now, for those of you (like myself) who’ve fallen prey to its evil, self-aggrandizing appeal – or if you just like sharing links and stuff – there’s an awesome new tweet-management tool that I’ve been using. Hoot Suite has some great features, including:

  • The ability to schedule your tweets ahead of time (so that you can space out your tweets throughout the day, rather than clog up your friends’ feeds with several consecutive posts)
  • Multi-platform support: update your twitter, facebook, and Linkedin accounts (for those of you who bother signing into Linkedin more than once a month).
  • A built-in link shortener that also tracks clicks – see how many people click on your tweeted links.

Thanks to Cord (and Michelle) for bringing this awesome tool to my attention.


Filed under: Information Tech, Tech Biz,

Spotify vs. Pandora, and the Indecisive Listener

Tech geeks across the web have been wetting their collective pants in anticipation over the American release of Spotify. This up-and-coming free music-streaming service that blends the best of iTunes, iMeem, Grooveshark,, Pandora, and all the other popular music services. I however, remain unconvinced.

I’m stuck on Pandora because I dislike having to mess around with playlists. I like typing in a name and just letting the machine do its thing. Granted, sometimes Pandora gives me very odd choices (like Hanson on a station seeded with the Rolling Stones and STP, what??), but usually I just enjoy the passive listening experience. If I don’t like a song, I hit “next,” and let the algorithm decide for me.

I guess my inclination towards Pandora says more about me than it does about music streaming apps. It’s just that…  playlists require a level of decisiveness that I just don’t have when it comes to the little things in life. I use the “shuffle” and “random” settings on every music player I’ve ever had. I’m a go-where-life-takes-you kind of person, I suppose.

Filed under: Computers and Software, Uncategorized, , , ,

US Still Pwns China on Free Speech


Today marks the 20th anniversary of the bloody end to the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing. Reports abound that the Chinese government has blocked several social networking sites in order to avoid a resurgence of anti-government sentiment:

…the Chinese government has begun clamping down on access to popular Internet services in an apparent effort to quell memorials, protests, or any rekindling of the pro-democracy and anti-government sentiments that led up to 100,000 Chinese to gather at Tiananmen Square in the first place. Microsoft and Yahoo have confirmed that access to Flickr, Hotmail, and even Microsoft’s new Internet search service Bing have been blocked by the Chinese government, and reports have access to microblogging service Twitter shut down as well.

I don’t get sentimentally patriotic very often, but seeing that iconic image of the man in the white shirt standing in front of the line of tanks makes me happy that I live in a society that embraces the idea of free speech. I’m not a very politically-savvy person. IMHO, politics is nothing but a ridiculous game and an utter waste of our money. However, with that massive waste of money comes a big government that’s too intellectually divided and, more importantly, too inefficient to ever be able to censor our speech, thoughts, beliefs, and expressions.

Try to imagine an entity of the US government actively regulating content on the internet. The feds are already doing such a great job with medicare fraud, online prostitution, disaster relief, the war on drugs, the financial sector, social security, the budget deficit… need I continue? When it comes to protecting free speech, our saving grace may be that our government is too incompetent and uncooperative to ever become an Orwellian dictatorship. My idea of a realistic dystopian future is less like V for Vendetta, and more like Idiocracy (“paid for by Carl’s Jr.”)

Filed under: Information Tech, Politics, , ,

FTC Investigates Apple and Google Boards for Possible Antitrust Violations

The Federal Trade Commission launched an investigation Monday into the ties between the boards of Google and Apple. Eric Schmidt and Arthur Levinson each sit on the boards for both companies, although according to antitrust law, a person may not sit on the board of two companies if it decreases competition between them.

As if it needs to be said, Apple and Google aren’t really competitors, not in any meaningful sense, anyway. Google is an information services company that specializes in internet search, advertising, information organization, and not being evil. Apple is primarily a hardware company that manufactures PCs (called “Macs,” though technically they’re still personal computers), mp3 players, cell phones, and “edgy” urban hipsters. In effect, Google is the top company for geeks with mathematics PhDs, Apple the haven for geek-wannabes with horn-rimmed glasses.

If the two company’s compete anywhere, it’s in the wireless marketplace, albeit indirectly. Google’s entry into the smart phone market (through its open-source Android operating system) has no doubt spurred this investigation. Android runs on T-mobile “smart” handsets, which compete with the AT&T iPhone (both of which compete with Blackberry, HTC, Palm, etc). Here’s the rub: Apple itself only has about a 1% share of the cell phone market, and about 6% of the smartphone market, while the Android phone is about 4% (smartphones make up about 12% of the entire cell phone market).  Google also has a deal pending with HP that would put the Google OS on a new line of HP netbooks, which would bring Apple and Google closer to being true competitors, but rumors aside, Apple appears to have no intent to enter the netbook market.

While I don’t object to the FTC’s goal to promote a competitive marketplace, this investigation is unecessary. The tech market has historically been the least regulated, most competitive, and fastest advancing sector of the economy, while tech prices have come down year after year after year. Let’s chill out and leave it alone.

Filed under: Computers and Software, Tech Biz, , , , ,

Facebook Allows Developers to Access User’s “Streams”

Facebook announced today their new “Open Stream API,” which will allow 3rd-party developers access to users’ “data streams” (i.e. status updates, posted links, pics, wall posts, and anything else that could show up on a user’s Wall). Privacy advocates, take heart:

Users will maintain control of their data privacy, [platform designer Dave] Morin noted, and applications will be able to access streams only with individual users’ permission — largely the way Facebook’s current on-site application system works. The data harvested by new applications will be subject to the same privacy strictures as any other data on Facebook: Even if it’s on other websites, it will still be visible only by your friends, not the public at large.

Facebook is taking a step closer to what I suggested right here last week, in opening up and allowing other networks and developers to more easily interface with users’ profiles and data (I love when I’m on the right track without even realizing it). Facebook is on track to becoming a ubiquitous technology – imagine if ten years from now, people refer to all online social networking activity as “facebooking” (similar to how performing an online search is commonly called “googling,” something Google has been fighting for some time).

Now, if only Zuckerberg & Co. would end this senseless “Twitterization” of facebook’s appearance, there’d be no stopping them.

In related news, MySpace has hired Owen Van Natta, a former facebook executive, as its new CEO (does this mean Tom is no longer my friend?). My $0.02: cleaning up the MySpace cesspool and turning it back into a company that anybody will take seriously is one of the most difficult jobs a web entrepreneur could have.

Filed under: Information Tech, Internet, Tech Biz, , ,

How to Improve Social Networking

OpenID is onto something.

Apart from Facebook, neglected LinkedIn and Twitter accounts, and some bookmarks, I haven’t embraced social networking to the fullest because I don’t want to bother with 75 different accounts, profiles, usernames, etc. I’m already keeping track of about 4 different identities (or “brands” as those so-called “new media gurus” would call it) across the internet that I’ve created over the years, and I’m not looking to add more complexity to my life at the moment.

An example of how to properly incorporate social networking into your business: Netflix now allows users to interface their accounts with their facebook profiles, so that any film that a user rates on Netflix will show up as a little blurb in their facebook feed (typically a short line reading “Libby rated Swingers 3 out of 5 stars”). Admittedly, the only useful purpose for this is that I can now broadcast my taste in film to my facebook friends, but it’s a heck of a lot easier than maintaining a Netflix account for my movie rentals, PLUS rating everything I’ve seen on facebook’s Flixter app. My life is now a wee bit simpler.

I feel like facebook has an opportunity to become a huge internet launch pad for people, the biggest thing since Google. Imagine if, instead of every niche social community each starting up its own separate social networking website, they instead were able to build off of facebook’s? I’m not talking about setting up a “fan page” (who really ever reads those updates, anyway?). Think of how easy it could be to set up a new social network if users could just login to these new separate, smaller networks with their facebook profiles, similar to how I can leave comments on my friends’ Blogspot blogs with my WordPress ID. Again, life is made simpler.

Does anybody have more examples of integrated social networks?


Afterthought: at some point in the last couple years, it seems like we’ve begun moving away from the old wisdom of never putting our personal information online, towards making our personal information freely available, even so far as using our real names as our cyber-identifiers. Thoughts?

Filed under: Information Tech, Internet, Tech Biz, , , , ,

Revisiting the Turing Test

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

Earlier this week, at Will‘s suggestion, I watched an episode of the tv show “NUMB3RS” that involved artificial intelligence and the Turing Test.

A quick (spoiler-heavy) summary: when an AI engineer is found dead in a secure room, the resident supercomputer is the main suspect. After interrogating the computer’s AI (named “Bailey”), Charlie & Co. conclude that it passes the Turing Test and is, in fact, sentient, leading the FBI to believe that Bailey is the murderer. After a few commercial breaks, the math squad discovers that Bailey isn’t a programmed intelligence after all – “she’s” just a complex, souped up expert system that models human conversation. The machine appeared intelligent on the surface because of the rapid speed at which it could search for appropriate responses to the user’s queries. The programmer’s death is attributed to a hacker attack (or his jealous and tech-savvy wife, I can’t remember), and Bailey is deemed a failure and deactivated.

In the show, Bailey is compared to Deep Blue, the supercomputer that defeated chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997. Deep Blue didn’t have any measureable intelligence; rather, it employed brute force computing, calculating millions of sequences of possible chess moves before determining the best move (the math is complex, but for the sake of simplicity, I’ll say that it chose the move with the highest probability of leading to a win). Deep Blue’s knowledge of chess strategy went only as far as what its programmers “taught” it. The reason it defeated Kasparov had little to do with “what” it knew, or “how” it thought, but the speed at which it could analyze moves (200 million per second), something no human is capable of doing.

So, where does that leave the Turing Test? If a sufficiently complex computer could fool us, how can we really know if a machine is intelligent or not?

To answer that question, I’d ask: How can we know if we’re intelligent or not? Free will is a shaky assertion once science is applied to philosophy. All of our decisions are the results of chemical reactions in our brains that we have little, if any, control over. Sure, we can choose to take a mind-altering chemical to change our brain’s functioning, but that choice isn’t really our own, either; our preferences or morals involving drug use are either part of our social programming or our inherent tastes. By no means am I an expert in cognitive science, but I think we are slaves to our biochemistry, psychology, and external social conditioning much more than we think. My gut also tells me that there are anomolies, too: purely unprecedented thoughts that don’t follow the chemical reaction chain (similar to random genetic mutations in evolutionary biology), although I’d bet these are rare and more often that not inconsequential.

None of that is to say that a murderer isn’t guilty because he ultimately had no choice or control over his actions  – society couldn’t function if we let that kind of logic rule us. I’m just suggesting that we’re not as free as we’d like to think. However, I don’t think that fact really matters in a funtional, “macroscopic,” day-to-day context. Most of us in the developed world live long enough to reproduce, provide for our families, and live well past our reproductive years. Our species has survived and evolved for millions of years, which means we must be doing things correctly – yet how many people do you know who spend considerable effort determining if they’re really intelligent or just on auto-pilot? (Aside: I dare say that a person who devotes his or her career to this kind of research is probably unfit to produce many offspring… to my knowledge, those at the extreme tail ends of the bell curve don’t tend to do well in evolutionary terms. My intuition tells me to compare the number of computer scientists or mathematicians with litters of small children, vs the number of Walmart cashiers with trailers full of kids. On a related note, I am totally screwed if I keep this geek stuff up.)

Getting back to the original questions, now: we assume we’re intelligent because we’re self-aware, and we take it on faith that everyone else is self-aware and intelligent to basically the same degree as us. Whether or not we actually are that self-aware is irrelevant for the most part. So, if a computer is able to deceive us into accepting its sentience, I don’t think it matters much. If such a machine is capable of choosing to commit a crime, or if it’s simply programmed to kill, we’d consider it a menace to society and deal with it with accordingly.

And then the war between robots and humanity shall begin… 😉

Further Reading:

Society of Mind (Marvin Minsky, MIT)

The Age of Spiritual Machines (Ray Kurzweil)

Filed under: Computers and Software, Science & Technology, , , , , ,

On Twitter

Here’s what my twitter feed looks like on an average day:

  • Policy wonk friend: “This is stupid –….”
  • Reading friend: “At such-and-such cafe reading what’s-his-face.”
  • Random friend A: “Watching a movie, television show, or sporting event.”
  • Social friend : “Anyone going out after work?”
  • Foreign friend: [something in Italian]
  • Random friend B: “Spending the weekend at some other place, going to see some weird thing.”
  • Institution I meant to take off my follow list: Read the latest press release here…
  • Youtube Junkie friend: “this is funny –…”
  • Random friend C: “Saw something on the metro this morning.”
  • Friend I don’t really know: “The new album by a band I (and only I) like is good, but not their best work.”
  • Random friend D: @Random friend A “comment on same movie, television show, or sporting event.”

I’m about ready to give up on Twitter. None of my local friends use it (facebook and cell phones for us), and most of the tweets I read are either out of context for me or just not relevant to anything I’m involved in currently. I don’t see much point in twittering the minute details of my often-banal daily experience, either. Still, I maintain a half-assed tweeting habit, hoping that it will grow on me.

Recommended Reading:

Why Twitter can be Dangerous

100 Things More Popular than Twitter

Filed under: Information Tech, Internet, , ,

Internet or Electricity?

Tyler Cowen asks the question today, citing an article in the NY Times about Entasopia, a Kenyan settlement that has spotty mail delivery, little infrastructure, and no electricity. Google has helped finance the solar-powered internet service that serves as the bridge over the “digital divide” for Entasopia’s 4,000 residents.

So, would you rather live without internet or electricity? For the first time in years, I’m living in a house without an internet connection (or a working furnace at the moment; waking up to no heat on a 6-degree day is an experience you should all try sometime). While there are coffee shops in town with free wireless access, and I can still use MSU’s internet if I’m on campus, it’s much less convenient than checking my Twitter feed in my PJs over a bowl of cocoa puffs.

I’m tempted to say that I’d prefer having internet over electricity, under a few conditions. If I lived in a warmer climate, I wouldn’t need more heat than a kerosene heater could provide. I could probably make due without warm water, or my industrial-strength hair dryer. If I had sufficient solar power (or whatever alternative) to keep my cell phone and computer charged, and maybe to power something to boil water or cook an occasional warm meal, I think I’d be satisfied. Oh, and I would need a high-bandwidth connection, of course; dial-up speed internet just isn’t internet anymore. I’d also need Google to pay for my connection, since Entasopia’s service costs about $700 every month.

You know, maybe I could experiment with this by just shutting off the lights and cracking my neighbor’s WEP connection.

Filed under: Science & Technology, , ,

The Line between Artificial and Human

Daniel Roth over at Wired recently posed the question of whether or not humanoid robots may someday be granted “human” rights.

I’ve seen videos of the incineration of T.M.X. Elmo (short for Tickle Me Extreme); they made me feel vaguely uncomfortable. Part of me wanted to laugh—Elmo giggled absurdly through the whole ordeal—but I also felt sick about what was going on. Why? I hardly shed a tear when the printer in Office Space got smashed to bits. Slamming my refrigerator door never leaves me feeling guilty. Yet give something a couple of eyes and the hint of lifelike abilities and suddenly some ancient region of my brain starts firing off empathy signals. And I don’t even like Elmo. How are kids who grow up with robots as companions going to handle this?

This question is starting to get debated by robot designers and toymakers. With advanced robotics becoming cheaper and more commonplace, the challenge isn’t how we learn to accept robots—but whether we should care when they’re mistreated. And if we start caring about robot ethics, might we then go one insane step further and grant them rights?

My guess is that, as both robotics and artificial intelligence become more sophisticated, the Turing Test will have an important part to play in the future of biological-artificial life relations. For those of you who don’t feel like wikisurfing, the Turing Test is a conceptual method for detecting consciousness in artificial intelligence, developed by Alan Turing (the “father of modern computer science” who cracked the Enigma Code during WWII). The test is simple: a human “judge” sits at a computer terminal and essentially talks/types a conversation (on any topic the judge prefers) with an artificial intelligence on the other end. If the judge believes he’s talking to a human, the A.I. passes the test, having proven itself sufficiently “humanlike” to effectively be considered conscious and capable of thought.

What’s notable about the Turing Test is that passing it involves being able to persuade a human mind, versus meeting various technical specifications determined by some board of academic experts. It reveals more about us as human judges than it does about A.I. architecture. An artifical entity’s state of consciousness is a function of our own human perception, rather than of its own technological sophistication. My own belief is that any entity capable of passing a Turing Test deserves my respect and compassion, regardless of any technical questions about the origin and genuineness of it’s “thoughts” or “feelings.”

I’ve always been fascinated with artificial intelligence and the human response to it. I’m an unabashed Ray Kurzweil fan (and a singularity “enthusiast”), and I love pretty much any science fiction that involves intelligent artificial life. Some of my favorites include Star Trek: TNG’s Data (tied with the fawxy Capt. Jean-Luc Picard for my favorite character) – the episode “Measure of a Man,” in which Data’s status as an autonomous being is called into question, is particularly compelling; both “The Second Rennaisance” and “Matriculated” from The Animatrix; Lester del Rey’s Helen O’Loy, a terrific short story about a man who falls in love with his own creation; and of course, H.A.L. 9000 gets the award for the most menacing artificial life form in science fiction cinema.

If you’re eager to tinker around with your own artificial intelligence, PandoraBots offers free “trainable” chatbots with customizable HTML. Check out my chatbot, “Batman.”

Filed under: Science & Technology, , , , , ,


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