Friday, March 30, 2007

Food that is bad for your health

Since False Data is sick and having trouble finding something he feels like eating, I cooked macaroni and cheese. It turned out to be very rich and creamy, and probably BAD for your health. You know the foods that are BAD for your health sometimes taste better than those that are supposed to be good for your health. Think about ice cream, really rich and creamy ice cream. We know it has lots of fat and sugar in it, but tastes better than low-fat ice cream or soy-based ice cream.

So, does this mean Velveeta tastes good? What about Cheeze Whiz? I know I am scared to eat Velveeta. It just seems to be very chemical. False Data told me that Cheeze Whiz used to be in a spray can. You just need to use it like a bottled whip cream; squeezing its top and spraying “cheese” on a cracker. …. Ugh! It seems to be something wrong …

Recently, many people became more health conscious than they used to be. Is there still anyone who is happy to eat cheese from a spay bottle?

power pole microturbines

Made it to campus briefly to drop off paperwork. Now I'm back on the couch.

Through the screen door, I can see a utility pole, carrying the neighborhood's above-ground electric lines. I noticed that it's taller than most of the trees. And that the trees are blowing in the breeze. Hmm. There's wind up there.

I was wondering if it'd be useful to build a microturbine that could bolt to the top of a utility pole. It'd need to be auto-feathering to avoid blowing the pole over in high winds and would need an inverter and some other fancy electronics to match the phase of the power line, but if you had all that it could pump electricity directly into the grid whenever the wind blew, supplementing the main power plants.

After some back-of-the-envelope calculations, it turns out it's probably not worth the trouble. Let's use Del Mar, California as an example. They have (or maybe had) 184 utility poles and a population of 4389. That's 24 people per pole. The average Californian uses 7,000 kwh/yr of electricity (or 798 watts if you translate to civilized units), while the average American uses 12,000 kwh/yr, or 1368 watts. So the demand is 19,035 watts per pole in California, 32,631 watts/pole outside it. Windside's cute little micro-turbine, model 4C, produces 240 watts at a wind speed of 15 m/s (33 mph). But it looks like Del Mar's in a "marginal" wind power area with average speeds of around 13 mph at altitude. Assuming the turbine's output varies linearly with wind speed, bolting one to the pole should give you about 95 watts/pole. That's 0.5% of consumption per pole in California or 0.3% for the rest of the country. So you'd need a bigger or more efficient turbine, less energy consumption, or more poles to make a significant difference.

To bad, too--they'd look cute spinning up there.

not dead yet

This stuff still has me on the couch, but I'm slowly recovering. The fever dropped yesterday. Today, my brain's still pretty mushy and I feel like crap, but it's at least a somewhat better grade of crap.

I had to leave the house yesterday for, of all things, jury duty. You see, they originally wanted me to serve during the semester, which would've been quite nasty--imagine missing two weeks worth of classes, or four if it's a long trial. Finals won't wait, being a student isn't an excuse from jury duty, and unlike businesses I don't believe schools need to make accommodations. (What would they do, anyway? Write a special final for me and somehow try to wedge it back into the curve?) So I postponed jury service. But the voice menu system gave me only a six month range, which didn't help much--even pushing it back the full six months would've put it right in the middle of studying for the bar exam, definitely a career limiting move. So I did what I could to mitigate the damage and scheduled it to run over spring break.

However, you only get to do the "postpone for any reason" thing once. Then the flu came and knocked me flat on my keester. There's a two-week leeway built into the system, but that'd land me right back on top of classes, so it was no help. And the last time I tried the voice line it connected directly to the automatic system with no option to talk to a human, and I wasn't optimistic it'd be any better in the morning before a 7:45 a.m. reporting time. So yesterday I was pretty much trapped and, by operation of the rules of jury service, I had to risk infecting the jury pool. That's the danger of bright line rules, I guess.

I was pretty careful to minimize interacting with people--mostly just sat in my chair like a lump listening to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy on the iPod--and would've explained it to the judge if I'd gotten called, but fortunately God was looking out for all involved and I wasn't called for anything. It did set back my recovery a bit, though.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Sick. Fever. Bed.


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

pen names and blogging

A blogger receives death threats. Those threats cause her to cancel speaking engagements and to barricade herself in her house. The incident is causing quite a stir across the blogosphere, with people leaping into the discussion on all sides.

First of all, s0 that there is no ambiguity, I think some--maybe even many--of the comments people posted about Kathy Sierra crossed the line. Two lines, in fact. The first was when they went from criticism to ad hominem attacks. That's the line that separates useful discussion from useless noise. The second was when they went from insults to threats and intimidation. That's the line that can, and ought to, put you in jail.

But one post that I thought raised some difficult issues is Brad Feld's, entitled Anonymous Bullies, in which he writes this:

Until recently I didn’t think much about the difference between an anonymous comment and one where the person identified themselves. I’ve been spending a lot of time recently thinking about reputation and trust, especially given the geometric growth in user-generated content.

Kathy’s story sealed it for me – reputation and trust are at a tipping point and are an issue that is going to have to be dealt with in 2007.
As someone who writes under a pen name ("pseudanonymously," in the security jargon), reputation is an issue that strikes home with me.

Pseudonyms serve a valuable function. I chose to write under a pen name for a number of reasons, including privacy considerations, the fact that this blog is an experiment, and that it allows my online persona to differ from my real life one. I agree that reputation is an important check on conduct within the blogosphere, so I use this name consistently.

There are some problems, though. Some of them technical. For example, if you look around the Internet, you'll see comments labeled "False Data" with a link back to this site. Because the software and protocols aren't there, though, there's no way to know whether or not it was me who posted those comments. However, this exact same problem would occur no matter what name I used. For example, if you saw a comment from someone named "Brad Feld" which didn't appear on the Feld Thoughts blog, it would be hard to be confident that the person who wrote it was, in fact, Brad Feld.

We can solve half this problem pretty easily. I could, for instance, put a copy of every comment on this blog. Then you could check the comment on someone else's blog against the copy on mine and be fairly confident I wrote it.

But the other half of the problem is harder: suppose I decided to take a swipe at someone but I wanted to be able to deny it. I might post a comment on their blog but not put a copy on my blog and then claim it was someone else who wrote the comment. There are ways of solving this part of the problem, too. For instance, your software, which shows you the comments, could automatically check each comment it shows you to see if a copy appears on the blog of whoever claimed to write it and mark a red X through any comment that doesn't have a copy on some blog somewhere. Then you might not trust the source of a comment that has a red X through it. (This isn't a complete design--there are ways to defeat it and ways to implement it more efficiently--but you get the idea of how it works.)

There is also software that claims to solve this problem, like the OpenID stuff LiveJournal uses, but it doesn't seem to be widely supported.

The idea here, and the problem we'll need to solve, is that, if you're going to rely on reputation, you need to have a way to be reasonably sure you're holding the proper person in (dis)repute.

Friday, March 23, 2007

juggling one ball too many

If this were a law firm, I'd be on a 3000+ hour pace. Somehow between the work, the cleaning up, the trips to the library, dropping people off and picking them up, and everything else, I forgot to buy an important birthday present.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Efficiency, productivity . . . they come at a price, and I just got dinged. It's time to rethink this game.

Windows Genuine Advantage? I'm confused.

From the most recent auto-update of my XP machine:
Size: 1.2 MB

The Windows Genuine Advantage Notification tool notifies you if your copy of Windows is not genuine. If your system is found to be a non-genuine, the tool will help you obtain a licensed copy of Windows.

More information for this update can be found at
Um, OK, exactly how is this helpful to me? I bought this computer with Windows pre-installed. So why would I want to put 1.2MB of software on a machine that will notice that it's a genuine copy and not pop up a notice? And, worse, why would I want to run the risk that the software will screw up and decide my genuine copy is a fake? That's all I need as finals approach.

The answer, of course, is that the tool is helpful to Microsoft, not to me. Someone there decided piracy was getting out of hand, had engineering create this software, then gave it to some poor person in marketing to massage the language in the notice, and finally ran it past legal to make sure whatever the notice says is technically correct. Then they pump it out through automatic updates hoping people will just click through. Me, I defer to UserFriendly's wisdom on this one.

Oh, and for those with a technical interest, it's worth checking out Linux Genuine Advantage, too. It, like Windows Genuine Advantage, has also been cracked.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

About the death of Captain America

False Data sent me an article about the death of Captain America. I was actually surprised to see it since he seemed to be a part of the American cultural legacy. He has been around longer than I have been. He also seems to have been through so many events such as wars and scandals with the American public. His stories have generally represented American public opinions at the time. For many comic book readers or maybe for others beyond this group of people, he might have been somewhat as real as a living-breathing hero can be.

Why did the comic book editor/writer decide to kill him? The article writer mentions:

Captain America has always been used by Marvel to represent the generalconsensus in U.S. politics.

When Americans can't even agree on the principles their nation is supposed to uphold, killing off a symbol like Captain America makes perfect sense.

I think it’s a good analysis. The article writer indicates that, with his own death, Captain America still represents the status of American public opinion – the lack of the principles and/or death of consensus.

New words?

Deplane: I am sure you’ve heard this word.
Detrain: I take a train to go to work every week. A conductor always uses this word. Is she/he imitating announcements that fight attendants use? I had never heard of this word until I began to take the train.
Defund: I heard it in NPR news. One of the legislators in Washington DC used it. In this case, “de” is combined with something other than a vehicle. Until I heard it, I thought combining “de” and a vehicle’s name is a trendy thing to do. I was wrong.

If this “trend” continues, we might eventually hear a word like:
Deschool : Graduating school.

Can you come up any other words we can combine with “de” that still make sense?

hitting my personal October Point

After the MPRE, I'm hitting my personal October Point. What's an October Point? It's that point in the semester when the stress builds up and your system starts rebelling, one way or another. It just so happens that this one's on St. Patty's day instead of Halloween.

I did go running this morning for the first time since, oh, about high school. Nick and Noelle invited me to come along on a charity run. I'm proud to say I survived the experience. Surprisingly, cardio wasn't the main problem. Shoes were. I need to look into some good running shoes or cross-trainers if I want to do any more running.

OK, back to work. Ad astra per aspirin!

Friday, March 16, 2007


Back in January, I wrote about the developing U.S. Attorney scandal. Now we're starting to see more details, such a story in the LA Times that says this:
On Tuesday, Iglesias, 49, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that two prominent Republican politicians had called him to ask whether indictments would be filed before the November election against Democratic politicians in an ongoing criminal investigation. In the weeks that followed, Iglesias and seven other federal prosecutors were forced to resign.
. . .
. . . He earned the ire of the state GOP by refusing to prosecute anyone for voter fraud after the 2004 elections, despite some Republicans' contention that 15-year-olds voted. Iglesias said he could find no federal crimes.
The story notes that the second call was from Senator Pete Domenici.

As far as I know, one of the functions of a federal prosecutor is to not bring charges where the prosecutor can't find a crime: the prosecutor has an ethical duty to seek justice. If Congress wants to hold hearings, that's a different matter. As a deliberative body, Congress is set up to perform those sorts of investigations.

Something about this whole situation just feels wrong. I can't put my finger on exactly what it is just yet, but something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

how companies mismanage their data and why it matters

(Begin soapbox speech.)

Company X has a set of computer servers with a great, big shared directory space. People put files in directories (a.k.a. folders) in this space--think of it as one great big disk drive. Because of the way the company sets up its permission system, everyone can write everywhere. So, what happens? Person A has a directory there. Person B starts working inside person A's directory. Person A doesn't realize it and deletes person B's changes.

It should be impossible for this problem to happen. The first, simplest, most basic thing Company X should do is give each person his or her own directory and set the permissions so that only the directory's owner can change the files in that directory. If you want to change someone else's file, you copy it to your directory and make the changes there. Then the other person can copy it back.

Second, there's no way to recover the changes because Company X runs their back-ups once a week. This problem also shouldn't happen. Company X really ought to be running what are called "incremental backups" and doing it every hour. An incremental backup is simply a copy of only the stuff that's changed since the last backup (incremental or otherwise). They don't take a lot of space, and they can save your butt, or at least your workers' time.

Finally, if you just do the simple trick of controlling write permissions on directories, you can get into a situation where no-one knows which copy of the file is the "official" copy. There are lots of great ways to deal with this problem, too. For at least the last couple decades, software called "version control systems" has existed. It's designed to solve exactly this problem. CVS is free and widespread, but it has some limitations. Subversion is the new kid on the block, also free, that's designed to replace CVS. If you want a commercial product, how about BitKeeper? Many others exist, too.

In other words, these problems are expensive to the company, they've been around for a long time, and they're easy to fix. Please, please do so.

(This concludes this soapbox. Had this been an actual rant, the attention signal at the beginning would have been followed by scorching rhetoric with minimal factual content.)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

a million superballs can't all be wrong

Haven't had much time to post lately. Between the MPRE and picking up all the other stuff that I had to postpone because of it, life's been a little busy. A friend sent this link, though, to an ad for the Sony Bravia television. There's something meditative about listening to someone sing while you watch a million superballs bounce down a hill. (And no, I don't want to think about what it took to clean them up afterwards. There are far bigger messes developing in the world right now than anything resulting from a million superballs.)

Sunday, March 11, 2007

groundnut stew

Based on a recipe I originally saw on the Radio Netherlands web site, of all places.

In a large Dutch Oven, brown
  • 3 tablespoons oil
  • 3-4 lb boneless chicken thighs
for about 15 minutes. Remove them from the pan and set aside, reserving the drippings. In the drippings, cook
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 1-2 sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped
until the onion is tender. Drain off the fat. Stir in
  • 1 28-oz can diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground red pepper
bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Add
  • browned chicken
  • 1 15-oz can black beans, drained
and simmer 20 minutes. Then add
  • 3/4 cup peanut butter
and simmer another 20 minutes.

Serve with couscous and fruit salad.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

the MPRE is over

The MPRE is over. Time for the next thing to bubble to the top of the priority list. Onward and upward!

Thursday, March 08, 2007


I haven't been paying much attention to nerdcore, hardcore rap for computer geeks, but a former co worker just forwarded a YouTube link to a very cool piece.

For those not familiar with the Unix references in the rap, sometimes you need to stop a runaway program. On a Windows machine, you'd use the process manager (the thing that pops up when you hit ctrl-alt-del on newer Windows versions). On Unix, you use a command called "kill." There are various forms of kill that have different levels of severity.
  • The normal "kill" will send a "terminate" signal asking the program to stop running. The program may ignore the signal.
  • "kill -1" sends a "hang up" signal. Some programs will respond to this signal by reconfiguring or restarting themselves.
  • "kill -9" tells the operating system "do whatever it takes to shut this program down now." It does not give the program time to react. It simply takes the program down immediately.
In that case, why not use "kill -9" all the time? Many programs, as part of shutting down, will do things like record configuration changes you might have made or data they might have received. If you take the program out without warning, it won't be able to write that information and could lose data. So normally, you'll escalate to "kill -9" only in the most severe situations.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

(too much?) more on the Cathedral and the Blogosphere

Apologies in advance for a long post. While my column space may be unlimited, I'm very much aware that the reader's attention isn't. On the other hand, I wanted to give this topic the space it deserves because good quality information distribution is essential to the proper operation of a democracy.

Tim Lee's interesting response points out two difficulties with my critique about bloggers and journalists. First, he feels that I give newspapers too much credit, and blogs too little, when it comes to depth, and second, he is skeptical that newspapers have the advantage in integrity.

Laying the Groundwork

To respond to these points, I need to lay some groundwork. I'd like to look for structural advantages and disadvantages on both sides, so let's also expand the focus to professional media outlets, including newspapers, radio, and TV, on the one hand and, on the other, blogs, podcasts, and vlogs. Since we need names for these groups to be able to talk about them, I'm going to call the first group "centralized media" and the second "distributed media." The question I'm trying to answer is what, if any, advantages does centralized media offer that distributed media doesn't.

Defining Centralized and Distributed Media More Closely

To define them a little more closely, here are the main traits I see of each group. First, centralized media:
  • a larger number of people operating within a business entity
  • the people have formal training in journalism
  • there's usually a hierarchical organization in which a small editorial staff must edit, review, and approve anything a larger staff of reporters writes
  • the business entity generates revenue and attempts to operate for a profit
For the moment, I'm ignoring the functions outside reporting and editing. They may be significant, such as (as Lee points out) advertising potentially distorting integrity, but I'll deal with them in the context of talking about profit motives. I'm also leaving ownership of a printing press or transmitter out of the equation.

Next, distributed media:
  • each producer typically has a small number of people, often just one
  • the people may have strong expertise, but it is usually in a field other than journalism
  • most of the organizational focus crosses producer lines, is informal, and is fluid, typically in the form of a web of trust
  • profit is usually not a strong motive
Again, I'm leaving out the actual medium, the web server and associated software, because there's little to stop a newspaper or TV station from running a corporate blog, and I've already agreed that easy linking and comment feedback are good things for both forms of media. On the other hand, if the fact that a lot of people are involved in a centralized media producer made it less responsive to criticism, that would be a more fundamental issue that's independent of the distribution technology it's using.

Clearly there's a continuum between centralized and distributed media. A one-person community newspaper published as a labor of love starts to look a lot like a blog, for example. Ars Technica, on the other hand, seems to have many of the traits I've assigned to centralized media (though unfortunately their "about us" page doesn't talk about their editorial structure.)

The Long Tail Phenomenon

Finally, Lee invokes the long tail phenomenon, asserting
The average blog post is almost certainly of lower quality than the average newspaper article. But because there are so many more blogs than newspapers, and because there is such a great diversity of bloggers, the best blog posts are often better than the best newspaper articles.
I agree that the number of blogs is an advantage we shouldn't ignore. However, there is also a small number of very good centralized media producers among a lot of marginal ones, so let's focus on comparing the best with the best on both sides in order to focus on the structural issues. I will pull in averages only where they illustrate the influence of the structure. For example, it might be necessary to talk about averages when discussing the influence of the profit motive on journalistic integrity or the influence of "link love" on fact gathering through a web of trust.

Analyzing News Versus Gathering It

I would expect distributed media to be very good at analyzing news, but less good at gathering it. By "gathering news," I mean interviewing people, conducting (or commissioning) and collating research, and digging up facts. It includes everything from sending a war correspondent to Iraq, to putting a reporter on Air Force One, to interviewing people, to flying a helicopter over the latest traffic mess or forest fire.

News Analysis

The main strength of distributed media in news analysis comes from the fact that the good producers often have a strong background in the fields they analyze. For example, many authors of academic blogs are world-class experts in their particular specialties.

One influence that works against distributed media in news analysis is a lack of review coupled with the large number of producers. Most academic journals (with law reviews a notable exception) are peer reviewed, but most academic blogs are not. Centralized media outlets also have a layer of editorial review, though I've suggested that editorial staff really works more towards giving the entity a consistent outlook than one that's necessarily always balanced. For example, Fox News is consistent in how it presents the news. Whether it's balanced seems to be debatable. Note, though, that there are fewer centralized media producers than distributed media producers, and each centralized producer pumps out more stories, making it easier to evaluate each centralized producer's point of view. In contrast, distributed media relies on the web of trust. Unless the person doing the evaluation happens to personally be an expert in , say, California Civil Procedure, Venture Finance, or Security, that person will have to rely on someone else's evaluation. I've suggested the web of trust makes it harder to properly evaluate the analysis the further in the web you are from its source.

On the whole, though, I think the level of expertise probably outweighs any web of trust issues. I would expect the web of trust to be able to flag egregious problems, such as a supposed environmental expert quietly being on Exxon's payroll, and I'd rather hear directly from the expert than to hear the expert's views clipped and distorted through a reporter.

News Gathering

When it comes to gathering information, I think centralized media has the advantage for two reasons: money and access. It is the rare blogger who could afford a helicopter to fly over a forest fire location, and even if the blogger could do so, getting the FAA to grant access to the airspace would likely present a problem. Similarly, the Whitehouse restricts access to press conferences, if for no other reason than security. We may see more distributed media in these roles over time, but for the present having the money and contacts to put a reporter on location gives centralized media the upper hand in this area.

Every generalization has its exceptions. For example, distributed media would probably do quite well gathering information about software or appliances, things that are relatively accessible and inexpensive. A prime example would be breaking the Sony DRM Rootkit story. Similarly, reporting on the latest court decisions using public filings as primary sources is an area where distributed media should do well, particularly when those filings are public records available from web sites. On the other hand, I would not expect a distributed media producer to spend a few hundred hours compiling an empirical study unless it had an outside source of revenue, such as a research grant. To be fair, the number of times centralized media is willing to commit a few hundred hours of reporter time to a project is pretty limited, too, but remember that we're comparing best to best here.

Journalistic Integrity

The fundamental issue with journalistic integrity is whether the media producer recognizes and discloses conflicts and produces fair and balanced reporting. (I am using the term "balanced" to mean the reporting is not too slanted. I doubt it's possible to eliminate all slant, but it is possible to make a conscious effort to limit it.) Let's look at the motivations in both cases.

Their Main Motivations

For centralized media, profit is an important motive, both for the media outlet as a whole, and for individual participants in terms of their salaries. Another factor is reputation, again both for the outlet and for the individual: if you plagiarize or fabricate stories, you might find yourself unemployable as a journalist. Journalists receive training in recognizing conflicts of interest and the importance of full disclosure, though Lee has expressed skepticism about how effective that training is at changing the conduct of the average journalist in the normal case.

For distributed media, currently fame and recognition, what Richard Bennett called "link love," seem to be important. Others might produce because of a strong commitment to a particular set of policies, but I'd lump that in with fame and recognition, not for the author but for the policies.* Reputation remains an important factor. Distributed media producers do not generally have training in recognizing conflicts of interest or full disclosure unless they seek it out.

Profit/Recognition Motive Versus Reputation

The profit motive for centralized media and the fame/recognition motive for distributed media seem to be a wash. For example, whether a newspaper has a reputation for being balanced or for being best used to wrap fish does not seem likely to affect revenue from its classifieds. A newspaper that's known for stellar reporting may get wider readership, but so might a newspaper that regularly prints a full-page pinup in each issue. On the other hand, one notable effect money often has is to get the individual participant to take the job more seriously. For instance, as I mentioned earlier, I can budget more time and attention to an activity that puts food on the table.

It's not clear to me what effects a decrease in reputation would have. This is an area where I'd love to see some empirical studies comparing reputation for balance with number of readers, listeners, or viewers. What I would expect for centralized media is that declining reputation would shift the demographics but would not be closely correlated with a shift in total audience size, so the impact on revenue would largely depend on what advertisers are willing to pay for a given demographic. For distributed media, a similar phenomenon might occur, where who's linking to the site might change but the total number of links might not. What effect that might have on fame and recognition seems would depend on what audience the producer is trying to reach. Note that distributed media's audience is part of the web of trust, so rearranging the web means reaching different people but doesn't necessarily mean reaching more or fewer people.

Training in Journalistic Ethics

Finally, education in recognizing conflicts of interest might shift the total balance for two reasons. The first is that it equips the reporter to recognize those problems ahead of time rather than learning about them by falling into them. The second is that the reporter might have a stronger commitment to fair reporting as a result of the training. Lee gives these influences less weight than I do, but I suspect we won't be able to resolve this disagreement without more information.


*There's a third group: people who blog to stay in touch with friends and family. I've left them out of the analysis because they don't seem likely to be the sorts of news gathering and analysis producers we're talking about here. Omitting them might be wrong, though, because if you believe they are an important part of the web of trust for distributed news gathering, it may be necessary to look more closely at how their motivation affects the way they filter information.

Monday, March 05, 2007

more on bloggers and journalists

Tim Lee, who is obviously better at checking the links to his articles than I am, has a couple thoughtful responses to my critique.

The second article tackles my criticism of the difficulty blogs have in making sure their reporting is accurate. Lee describes the process this way:
[A]ny given reader doesn’t read “the blogosphere.” They read 10-100 specific blogs. And they tend to read the same blogs, day in and day out, for months or even years. So every blog with a non-trivial readership does have a significant number of people tracking its reputation.

Moreover, bloggers read each other, creating a web of trust that’s an important part of vetting information on the blogosphere.
I don't know the original source of the web of trust concept, but I first encountered it in cryptography. Let's suppose you want to make sure that the person I am in real life is the same person who posts on this blog. If you know me, it would be easy enough to know for sure. You could simply ask me ahead of time to put something distinctive in a blog post and then check to make sure it showed up. But suppose you don't know me, but you know one of my friends. You could trust that friend to make sure it's me. And so on through friends of friends.

Of course, you might not trust that friend 100%. Or you might think there's a chance that friend, even acting in good faith, will simply make a mistake. So if you're a goodly distance away, you might check with two or three friends and hope they know me through independent paths, so that a mistake up-stream--a screw-up by a common friend somewhere close to me--doesn't throw off your results. But that increases the effort you have to expend to find out if the information is good or not. In other words, it increases your transaction costs. And checking the facts of a news story is more involved than the simple yes/no question of whether X is me.

Now, that's not to say reporters don't have the same problem. They definitely do, especially in an age where they seem to insist on interviewing other reporters rather than going to primary sources. However, one thing a newspaper is able to bring to the mix is that it shortens the web of trust. The reporters who work for a newspaper have a strong financial incentive to follow whatever tone the newspaper's leadership sets for fact checking. And the newspaper puts out a lot of news articles. So even if an individual reporter writes rarely, if you assume that reporter is generally following the newspaper's lead, then you have a lot of data with which to build a fairly complete picture of the newspaper's overall tendency to report accurately and carefully (its quality) and the distortions it routinely introduces (its slant). It's the same process that happens with blogs, but you're playing the game of telephone with fewer links in the chain. Note that these are essentially the same ideas Lee expresses:
[M]ost of the contributors to a newspaper are not widely known by their readers. In those cases, all of the vetting is put on the shoulders of the paper’s editorial staff. You have to take it on faith that the editor of the paper has good judgment in choosing reporters.
We're just interpreting the impact differently. Lee rightly points out that if you conclude that certain reporters at the paper (or at Reuters or AP, for that matter) are not trustworthy, you don't have many options but dropping the entire paper. I agree, but I don't think that's a problem as long as you have enough papers and other news sources to turn to.

I agree with Lee that the comments section of a blog is a major improvement over a newspaper's editorial page. So is the fact that one blog can so easily link to another, and that the search engines will index all those links. And based on Richard Kuttner's piece, I think he would agree as well. I certainly hope to see either more news organizations allowing reader comments, or the spread of technologies that allow readers to comment on web pages regardless of whether or not the page itself has a comment feature.

My Monday schedule is, as usual, a total mess, and I want to give Lee's other article some careful thought before I respond. I'll hopefully have something up about it later today or tomorrow.

Friday, March 02, 2007

bloggers and journalists

Tim Lee, at the Technology Liberation Front, posted an article discussing the similarities between blogging and newspapers, on the one hand, and open source and the traditional software companies, on the other (think Eric Steven Raymon's The Cathedral and the Bazaar). His article, in turn, links to a Richard Kuttner piece on the Columbia Journalism Review. I've been thinking about a similar topic a lot, recently, and the conjunction sparked a few ideas.

So, leaving opinion writing aside, what do newspapers have that blogs don't?

Lee, a libertarian blogger, seems to say "not much," at least long term, outside of specialized areas like war correspondence. He points out that pervasive technology means there's most likely to be a blogger somewhere near where things are happening, and the information will get picked up by other blogs. He also points to investigative journalism that's now happening in blogs, and that newsmakers can now communicate directly with the public.

In contrast, Kuttner, a long-timer journalist and columnist, says that "the best material on the Internet consistently comes from Web sites run by print organizations." But I'm having trouble finding why he thinks that's so--not surprising since his focus is really on how the newspapers can survive. However, if we don't know why it's so, we can't justify faith that it will continue to be so.

One point Kuttner seems to make, with which I agree, is that depth is expensive. Most of what I write here is opinion, because opinion is cheap. You won't find many really in-depth articles because I don't have the time to research them. If you paid me a salary to do it full time, that might change, but as it is I--like many bloggers--am sharply limited in how much time I can devote to this project. While Lee bridles at the term "amateur," I am exactly that: blogging doesn't put food on my dinner table, so I have to budget my time accordingly.

Two other points Kuttner raises are civic-mindedness and, implicitly, journalistic integrity. Journalists take classes on journalistic integrity, though there are some cases where I have to wonder whether they're universally effective. Blogging is a new enough medium, run by people who generally lack journalist training, that it's still grappling with issues like disclosure. For example, Joel Spolsky writes about being approached to do product reviews and being allowed to keep the product, raising a potential conflict of interest. It's possible a popular blog could support its author full-time, but that author may quickly find herself at sea and losing credibility without a commitment to integrity, full disclosure, and balance. Similarly, without that commitment, civic-mindedness can quickly become punditry and nothing more. The other side of the problem can happen with the bloggers doing fact gathering that Lee mentions: their main incentive to be fair and balanced is reputation, but how do you track the reputations of millions of amateur reporters in the field around the world?

So I think that's what newspapers can really offer to the mix: ideally, they can concentrate enough people with the proper training and resources to bring consistent depth and balance to their reporting. To the extent a newspaper just reports the facts or echoes a press release, it contributes very little beyond the convenience of gathering that information to a central place. Its real value comes from context, fact checking, and balance. If you leave out the actual printing press, I see blogs on a continuum with newspapers--most blogs are like one-person papers, usually opinion-heavy, often run on a shoestring, much like 21st Century pamphleteers. As you start adding people, expertise, money, and resources to a team blog it begins looking more and more like a newspaper.

Correction: the author of the CJR piece is Robert Kuttner, not Richard Kuttner. My apologies to Mr. Kuttner.