don’t get too comfortable

It was good to read this (via the great Justin Miller). In it, Patton Oswalt laments the cooption of geek culture by the masses. He lovingly describes his youth as a Northern Virginian Otaku, and laments that culture’s adoption by the mainstream.

I’m sympathetic, but Oswalt is totally wrong. It’s not a problem that jocks like Watchmen or Buffy or whatever else. It’s great that they do. If something has artistic value, it should be enjoyed by as many people as possible.

I get that this stuff feels like a life raft to teenagers in legitimate pain; that it provides a sense of identity for outcasts. I was one of those kids. But I’ve reluctantly concluded that it’s not healthy to create these islands of identity. Imbuing pop culture with value, then borrowing that value for yourself — it’s not a winning formula. If kids who can throw footballs know who Boba Fett is, and if that cuts the legs out from under some aspiring introverts… I guess I think that that’s a good thing, even if it’s painful for them in the moment.

Oswalt’s lamenting the destruction of the nerd ghetto, and proposing that we build a new one. That’s an understandable impulse, but it’s wrong. Undercutting the drive to self-victimize can appear cruel when considered in the context of young people’s deliberate and inevitable victimization of one another. But the alternative isn’t really mercy; it’s just assisted masochism.

(A note: I wrote this late at night, then pulled it down the next morning until I could reconsider it. Seems fine now (1/8/2011), so back up it goes.)

another tedious bike post

I’m a bit late to this, but for the record: it’s extremely disappointing to see the most important cyclist advocacy organization in the city concern trolling its own members.  As others have noted at length, the proposed pledge to more lawful behavior is both insulting and potentially unwise: complete and mechanical obedience to the rules of the road can be dangerous in its own right.  I’d say I’m pretty scrupulous about following the law — dorky hand signals and everything! — but if you think I’m going to hang out in a left turn lane facing a red light but no oncoming traffic, waiting for someone to plow into me from behind, you’re nuts.

I get pretty upset when I see someone salmoning up a one-way street or failing to yield the right of way, but the actual incidence of serious cyclist misbehavior seems to me to be relatively small.  In the same way that many motorists habitually execute rolling stops, or fail to signal, or go five miles over the speed limit, cyclists commit a lot of offenses that don’t represent serious safety problems.  No one spends much time bemoaning drivers’ peccadilloes because we’re used to them.  But first-hand experience of biking through the city is still pretty rare. It’s unfortunate, but I think that without such experience, drivers are unqualified to weigh in on what constitutes dangerous behavior, and consequently overstate the problem of cyclist recklessness to an astounding degree.  In perfect world everyone would make at least a few commutes using each mode (and in the presence of users of other modes) before engaging with this topic.

Motorists often mistake their own surprise for evidence of a safety problem.  This is understandable; we should all resolve to surprise each other as little as possible on the road.  But sometimes a driver’s surprise represents proof of a cyclist’s erratic behavior, and sometimes it’s just evidence of the driver’s lack of experience around bikes.

I think folks behind the wheel are used to having responsibility vested with them.  As is often repeated, they’re in control of deadly weapons.  A burden of responsibility is understandably placed on them, rather than pedestrians.  Unfortunately, the speed and vulnerability of cyclists combined with drivers’ inexperience around them makes this two-party arrangement untenable.  Cyclists have to adopt a patronizing attitude toward people in cars: to declare themselves the judges of how the street should be navigated. We’re the most vulnerable; no one else is willing to take charge of keeping us safe.  If we decline that responsibility, it’s our own asses.

This isn’t an ideal state of affairs.  The burden should be shared, and codified by law. And it really can be that way!  I rode in the Netherlands this fall; that’s how things work there. But that experience was both inspiring and depressing: believe me when I say that we are nowhere near ready to rely wholly on the rules of the road in the way that American drivers and all of the Dutch are able to (the only time I have been hit by a car as an adult, I was completely in compliance with the law; the driver simply didn’t expect a bike to be there).  The current situation will obtain in most American cities for the foreseeable future.

Besides, sharing the road is a pain in the ass.  That’s just the truth: it would be a lot more convenient for me if there weren’t any cars in the street, and it would be a lot more convenient for the drivers of those cars if I walked to work.  That’s just how it goes.  Some folks in cars are never going to be happy that I’m on the street, on a bike.

Safely navigating the city on a bike and keeping drivers happy are goals that are somewhat in tension.  Trying to meet drivers’ motivated and at times incoherent expectations is a losing proposition.  Changing those expectations is the only way forward, and the only way to do that is to get more bikes on the road.  I wish WABA’s staff was focused on that task instead of spending time scolding the people they’re supposed to be representing.

when to be pissed off at an airline

I had some interesting Twitter conversations this morning about American Airlines’ departure from Orbitz. Various sites seem to be pissed off at AA for this, presumably because they interpret any additional consumer inconvenience as the likely result of a greedy corporate cash grab. That’s not a terrible rule of thumb, but in this case the situation is a little more complicated.

On the one hand, you’ve got online ticket agents (OTAs) like Orbitz, Kayak and the like. On the other you’ve got the airlines. In between are the global distribution systems (GDSes). These are the centralized reservation databases that are used by airline staff when they have to book you a new flight on another airline; they’re the things that were used by travel agents back when travel agents still existed. The OTAs use them, too — though the situation here gets a little bit complicated, as some of the OTAs are in bed with and/or wholly owned by the GDSes. GDSes aren’t just price aggregator: they do various complicated things like hold tickets for you while you’re in the process of checking out through a travel site. They’re sort of like stock exchanges for airline tickets.

The key thing to realize is this: the GDSes are old systems, and represent something that is at least a bit cartel-like. They introduce friction; they charge fees. They’re middlemen who serve other middlemen. If we can manage it, eliminating our collective reliance on them would be a good idea. Disintermediation should benefit the consumer!

As I understand it, American Airlines is asking the travel search engines to talk to AA’s systems directly instead of going through a GDS. Perhaps this is a temporary tactic that’s being used to put pressure on a particular GDS as AA renegotiates the terms of their contract. Perhaps it’s an earnest effort to begin tearing down the overcomplicated system currently governing airline booking. I don’t know. What I do know is that AA is getting a pretty raw deal in the media. I find it astounding that any reporter could be so credulous as to write this story. Expedia’s offering moral support to Orbitz? Right. Sure.

So look, I don’t know how much goodwill AA deserves in this situation. But all that they’re asking Orbitz to do is talk to their systems directly. This would involve some technical work by Orbitz, but would allow for the elimination of a Ticketmaster-like entity that’s currently involved in the purchase of air travel. That could potentially mean lower prices. What they’re not doing is saying, “Sorry consumer, I don’t care about the extra hassle I’m causing you; you’re just going to have to search for and buy tickets straight from our own site so that I can avoid paying any helpful search engines a booking fee.” (This, incidentally, is exactly what Southwest, jetBlue and various other discount airlines used to/still do, but for some reason it didn’t stop anyone from loving them). If they were doing that, I’d be a lot more sympathetic to the hue and cry that’s being kicked up. As it is, this is just a business flexing its muscle to get out from under a gatekeeper’s thumb. I’m all for it.

shell scripts work better than giant puppets

There were two good pieces on NPR this morning discussing the reaction to Wikileaks.

First, there’s this story, which briefly gets at some of the concerns about Twitter as a platform for activism that I tried to express in this piece. The point Shirky makes is an important one: so much vital expression now happens in privately-controlled mediums that nominal speech rights are often a bit beside the point. This, combined with the fact that we seem to be relitigating the “should shield laws apply to bloggers?” question, makes me think that we’re collectively more confused about how you can and ought to be able to speak on the internet than I would’ve expected. Hopefully we’ll muddle our way through to a productive conclusion.

Second, they did a piece discussing the costs of prosecuting participants in Operation Payback, and it’s also worth a read. I’m sympathetic to the basic dilemma: going after the participants is a lot like calling in Interpol for a vandalism case. Individual actors are only responsible for substantial damage when considered together; and nobody’s very happy about the idea of locking up bored rich kids. Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that this is what a hard computer crime problem looks like. It’s not thrilling to me to read that the FBI and DOJ are basically shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Eh, that sounds too hard.” This is all the more galling when these agencies are bothering to pursue computer crime enforcement agendas around intellectual property. Like it or not, distributed international attacks are the class of problem most in need of solving.

One other thing I’d add: keep an eye on how useful the “cybersecurity” community makes itself during this process. My guess is that they’ll keep their traps shut (or at least spend their time gleefully fretting about what kind of funding requests Stuxnet will necessitate) while the “computer security” community does the hard work of grappling with the Operation Payback DDoS. On the other hand, I suppose the cybersec guys were probably the ones behind DDoSing Wikileaks, so, y’know, your tax dollars at work.

Third: about that DDoS. I’m not sure what to say about it, really. I find the argument that it can be considered civil disobedience to be more compelling than I would’ve expected. I’m somewhat sympathetic to arguments like the one Tim makes here (or that’s discussed in this comment). But I think the idea that past instances of civil disobedience were done in an orderly manner by uniformly thoughtful people who did their best not to inconvenience anyone else is probably wishful thinking. I’m no expert on this stuff, but that strikes me as the sort of perceptual shift that happens after a movement is vindicated by history. You’re going to have to piss some people off. Otherwise you might as well go schedule a protest march for all the good it’ll do you.

And although I’m not particularly sympathetic to Payback’s targeting of Amazon — cowardly though the firm’s behavior may have been, too many others rely on the AWS infrastructure, and there are plenty of hosts out there — the payment-processing and DNS control points now being counter-attacked by Operation Payback really do represent worrying concentrations of power. These systems are controlled by entities that are immune to public oversight, yet seem to be completely compliant when state agents ask them to restrict their customers’ liberty. That’s a recipe that should worry libertarians a lot more than it seems to.

On the other hand, there’s Gawker. And although it’s probably a mistake to conflate all of these actors, there do seem to be some connections. The “Anonymous” community is becoming a sort of petulant digital Fight Club that’s going to be very difficult to combat, and which behaves in a chaotic and unprincipled manner. That they’re targeting those who dare to talk about them is pretty dismaying; that the only way to respond seems likely to be a combination of quiet state cooption of ISPs and throwing children in jail — that’s incredibly depressing.

more efficiency means less profit

I’ve been following the “Do Not Track” discussion with interest. I’m not sure I have any particularly strong feelings about the proposed implementations, but I’m curious to see what happens. And of course it’s been hilarious, as always, to see some of the knee-jerk pro-corporate responses that the policy proposal has prompted.

There’s an aspect of the debate that I briefly tweeted at Harlan Yu, and I guess it might be worth expanding on a bit. Consider an excerpt from this post over at TLF:

The FTC’s report calls for a “uniform and comprehensive” way for consumers to decide whether they want their activities tracked. The Commission points to a Do Not Track system consisting of browser settings that would be respected by web tracking services. A user could select one setting in Firefox, for example, to opt out of all tracking online. The FTC wrongly calls this “universal choice.”

Really, it’s a universal response. It’s a single response to an overly-simplified set of choices we encounter on the web. This single response means that tracking for the purpose of tailored advertising is either “on” or “off.” There is no middle setting. But it is the “middle” where we want consumers to be. The middle setting would represent an educated setting where consumers understand the tradeoffs of interest-based advertising – in return for tracking your preferences and using them to target ads to you, you get free content/services. But an on/off switch is too blunt and not, err, targeted enough. There is no incentive for consumers to learn about the positives, they’ll only fear the worst-case scenarios and will opt-out. In return they’ll also opt-out of the benefits. [more on the “middle” below].

(Aside: can we please stop with the transparent attempts to frame the debate in a self-serving way through use of the word “nuclear”? Everyone knows what you’re doing, dude.)

Let me quibble with the free content/services bit embedded here. Implicit in this assertion is the idea that advertisers’ ability to possess better information about consumer behavior allows ads to be more precisely targeted, making the ads more valuable to the businesses that place them. This increases the revenue available to ad-supported industries, many of which provide valuable content or services through what is a de facto tax on businesses.

I think the evidence for this dynamic is weaker than a lot of people suspect. As far as I can tell, it’s all based on Google. GOOG showed up and provided contextualized ads to consumers and a model that allowed advertisers to only pay for purchases that were “working”. This is pretty much the only way they make money, and they make a lot of it.

But Google’s a huge success in a landscape of failure. Online ads sell for pathetic rates relative to broadcast or print. This is because by all accounts online advertising doesn’t work very well. You can measure whether someone clicks on an ad, and often whether they buy something after that click. But it turns out they rarely do those things. So businesses aren’t willing to pay very much for ad space on websites.

Is it really a coincidence that the advertising medium with the best instrumentation also appears to be the least effective? I suspect it’s not. It may be that ads never worked as well as the industry had told us; or it may be that the eyeballs/clicks/conversions funnel is a naive conceptualization of how the system works. Either way, Google has succeeded by giving advertisers what they think they want, which is analytic tools that seem to reveal that the whole enterprise is horribly ineffective.

I think the push for better tools and more efficient ads is basically a race to the bottom. In fact, less perfect instrumentation might allow the ad industry to capture a bit more revenue from business thanks to decreased efficiency. If I’m right, those in the business of selling ads should be excited about initiatives like Do Not Track. I don’t think it’s conceivable that the market will cease pursuing greater efficiencies unless this kind of regulatory intervention occurs.

It might sound a little strange to hear me sign off on the government propping up an industry I detest. Honestly, advertising is a big reason I find myself on the liberal side of the corporate/state distrust spectrum. There aren’t many things I find more odious than cynical attempts to manipulate people’s thoughts and desires — especially when it’s done using quirks of biology and psychology. Our anti-propaganda norms make it quite clear that we don’t tolerate such manipulation from government; when examples of it are revealed, they’re harshly criticized and punished. Yet we accept as perfectly normal the idea of such manipulations being pursued by private entities, who are free to try to cajole us into doing things contrary to our own interests, and without any mechanisms for controlling them other than the adeliberate market and (viciously resisted) regulation.

It’s a bit weird. Distressingly weird! So I think preserving personal privacy is probably worth the introduction of this kind of inefficiency. And I think the preservation of the media creation business is desirable, and I don’t really believe in any models for accomplishing this except some sort of (probably convoluted) public subsidy. If I’m right, decreasing the efficiency of advertising will act as a de facto tax on businesses which choose to advertise. We’ll consequently pay slightly more for products sold by such businesses, and the difference will help pay for our magazines and newspapers and web videos and music. I think that’d be an okay deal.

other places

I should have written this a while ago, but: those few of you who visit here but don’t visit sunlightlabs.com — please consider that latter decision. A lot of my writing winds up there these days, including stuff on some issues that readers of this site might actually care about.

Oh, also: @sunlightlabs. C’mon, you can afford to follow one more account.