From the monthly archives:

June 2005

Reining in ICANN

by Henry on June 30, 2005

A _very_ interesting development for Internet policy geeks. ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, runs key aspects of the Internet domain name system, mixing together the highly technical with the highly political. It has many opponents, running the gamut from Internet activists through commercial operators like Verisign, to the International Telecommunications Union, which has been ginning up a series of UN conferences to try to grab authority away from ICANN (the ITU is seeing its policy domain disappear from beneath its feet as telcos move _en masse_ to the Internet). One of the key uncertainties surrounding ICANN has been its relationship with the US government. Formally, ICANN runs the Domain Name System under the terms of a Memorandum of Understanding with the US Department of Commerce. While ICANN was supposed in theory to be more-or-less self regulatory, its exact relationship with the US government was both unclear and controversial, leading the US government to suggest that it would renounce control over ICANN when the Memorandum lapses “next year”:http://dcc.syr.edu/miscarticles/MM-Prepcom2.pdf . Now the US government seems to have backtracked on that commitment.
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Making markets again

by Henry on June 30, 2005

My “post”:https://crookedtimber.org/2005/06/24/market-making-versus-market-taking-in-politics/ last week about Rick Perlstein’s pamphlet got some “interesting”:http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2005_06/006592.php “reactions”:http://www.reachm.com/amstreet/archives/2005/06/26/the-next-big-idea/ (and some “wrongheaded”:http://www.janegalt.net/blog/archives/005369.html ones too). I was particularly taken with Matt Yglesias‘s reworking of Perlstein’s argument and suggestions for how it might be applied. This said, I think Matt is wrong when he claims that the argument over market-making versus market-taking isn’t really an argument between the left and the center of the Democratic party. While there’s no reason _in principle_ that the one set of disagreements should map onto the other, there’s an enormous degree of overlap _in practice_. In internecine battles over policy, New Democrat/DLC types have made hay with the claim that leftwing policies simply don’t sell in the marketplace of American politics. As a result, they tend to exaggerate the extent to which these market rules are a given, and to discount the possibility that they might be changed. A case in point, which I’ve just come across, is this “review”:http://www.ndol.org/ndol_ci.cfm?contentid=253353&kaid=127&subid=171 by Ed Kilgore of Perlstein’s “book on Barry Goldwater”:http://www.powells.com/cgi-bin/biblio?inkey=74-0809028581-0 . Kilgore criticizes non-centrists for defying

bq. the commonsense view, based on extensive political experience, that Democrats can best meet the contemporary rightwing challenge by occupying the abandoned political center and peeling off moderate, independent, and even Republican voters.

Kilgore argues that Reagan and his allies won through fortuitous circumstance rather than ideological zeal, and contends that those who believe otherwise are afflicted with a variety of religious messianism

bq. Indeed, the left’s new fascination with the conservative movement, and with politicians like Goldwater and Reagan, can best be understood as reflecting a powerful desire to believe that ultimate success does not require, and may actually prohibit, ideological flexibility, submission to public opinion, or the responsibility to achieve actual results. A period of losing may well precede the day of victory, in this view, and the left’s current leaders may, like Goldwater, never enter the promised land themselves. But someday, if their people remain faithful and refuse compromise with impurity, an Aaron will arise, and redemption will be at hand.

Now, like all caricatures, there’s a little truth to this, but only a little. The “net-roots” whom Kilgore disparages as zealots in fact showed an extraordinary degree of flexibility in embracing a candidate last year whose views they didn’t share, but whom they thought might win. But the problem in Kilgore’s article goes deeper than this. By recasting the debate as one between unrealistic ideological purists (bad) and those who are willing to make political compromises and move towards the center (good), he completely fails to address Perlstein’s underlying argument. Perlstein’s real claim, if I understand it rightly, is that long term political success doesn’t come from adapting your party to a political marketplace in which the enemy has set the rules of competition. It comes from a concerted effort over time to remake those rules yourself. This doesn’t have to be pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking. Nor does it have to be something which is antithetical to ND/DLC types’ policy goals. Matt’s suggestion for a new kind of family and childcare politics is a good example of an initiative that could help remake the rules of debate, and that both leftists and centrists could get behind. But it _does_ require people like Ed Kilgore to stop using the current rules of the political marketplace as a stick to beat the heads of leftists, and to start thinking creatively about how those rules might be changed. So far, I’m not seeing much evidence that they want to do this.

A new (to me) scam

by John Quiggin on June 30, 2005

I just got a letter on impressive looking letterhead, from Domain Registry of America, offering to renew my domain name “johnquiggin.info” at fairly exorbitant rates. I don’t actually own this domain: out of a frivolous desire to be a dotcommer, I chose “johnquiggin.com”, rather than the more appropriate “johnquiggin.net” or “johnquiggin.info” when I got my own domain from Dotster.

This looked like an Internet version of the old subscription invoice scam, and sure enough, it was. I was happy to find that one practitioner of this scam has been nailed in Canada

These guys give what looks like a physical address at 189 Queen St., Suite 209, Melbourne, so I’ve written to Consumer Affairs in Victoria, suggesting a visit.

Minor update The Daniel Klemann referred to in the Canadian story mentioned above is, apparently the one behind my solicitation. If any Canadian readers would like to get in touch with the relevant authorities, and point that this guy is still active, despite his commitments, I’d be happy to send along a copy of the notice he sent me. I’ll try myself via email.

Cryptonomicon

by Kieran Healy on June 29, 2005

My usual few years behind the curve, I picked up Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0060512806/kieranhealysw-20/ref=nosim/ yesterday. Right now I’m about a hundred pages in, and I’m wondering whether I should keep reading. The prose is flat. Stephenson keeps lathering-in in chunks of his background reading. Much of that material is interesting, but it’s applied with a trowel. Most of all, a strong whiff of “Mary-Sue”:http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/004188.html wish-fulfillment pervades the whole thing. Here is the author/soldier in Shanghai on the eve of the second world war, earning the respect of Nipponese soldiers by composing haikus, eating sushi and learning judo. Here is the author/genius talking about computability and mathematics with Alan Turing, impressing the hell out of him with his raw, untutored brilliance. Here is the author/unix nerd putting down a bunch of cardboard-cutout cult-stud poseur academics about the _real_ meaning of the Internet. And so on. Does the book warm up at all, or are the next 800 pages more of the same? If the latter, I think I’d be better off finding some of the stuff Stephenson relies on for detail (like Andrew Hodges’ brilliant _Alan Turing: The Enigma_) and just reading that, instead.

Roundup

by Ted on June 29, 2005

If I had all the time in the world, I’d have more to say about these links that I’ve been sleeping on:

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Protecting the nation’s milk supply

by Henry on June 29, 2005

An interesting story in the “Chronicle”:http://chronicle.com/temp/email.php?id=kvt034h8b46fjlf16jbtzmxjeg9v0e6l (link should work for 5 days or so) on the ethics of scientific research. The National Academy of Sciences has decided to publish a paper describing the vulnerability of the nation’s milk supply to terrorist attack (yes, it’s a serious paper), despite a letter from the Department of Health and Human Services saying that publication would provide”a road map for terrorists” and not be “in the interests of the United States.”

bq. In their paper, Mr. Wein and Mr. Liu describe how the milk industry is vulnerable because individual farmers send their product to central processing facilities, thereby allowing milk from many locations to mix. Terrorists could poison the supply by putting botulinum toxin into one of the 5,500-gallon trucks that picks up milk daily at farms or by dropping the toxin into raw-milk silos, which hold roughly 50,000 gallons each. Pasteurization would destroy some but not all of the toxin, and a millionth of a gram of toxin may be enough to kill a person.

The authors’ reasons for making these findings widely known (and the National Academy’s for publishing them) seem legit. There are safeguard measures that could be taken to make this kind of attack more difficult; for instance the simple step of locking milk trucks and tanks. While the government has issued voluntary guidelines recommending that milk suppliers take these precautions, it’s been unwilling to require them by law. In essence then, the government seems to be relying on voluntary compliance and security-through-obscurity, neither of which provide much protection as any system administrator worth his or her salt will tell you. As one of the paper’s authors notes, “Using Google, … it would take you all of 30 seconds to pull up these things.” It doesn’t seem at all unreasonable to raise a public stink about this, in the hope that it will provoke a serious response.

Bottom-up creativity and its new challengers

by Eszter Hargittai on June 29, 2005

A propos the spread of social bookmarking and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this week that file-sharing programs can be held responsible for copyright infringement, this article in today’s NYTimes does a nice job of summarizing some of the ways in which various new online services are leading to more and more bottom-up creativity and content whose sharing does not necessarily constitute copyright infringement.

But bottom-up creativity may depend on more traditional avenues at times and the article doesn’t address this other side of the issue at all. For an example, take note that some photo labs (e.g. Walmart, like they really needed to come up with more reasons to alienate people) have decided not to print people’s photos if they look too professional. The burden seems to be on the amateur photographer to prove that the picture was really taken in her own back yard. ARGH.

French fail to notice Irish independence

by Chris Bertram on June 29, 2005

From Slugger O’Toole comes the news that “corporate France appears to be unaware that Ireland is an independent nation”:http://www.sluggerotoole.com/archives/2005/06/ireland_barely.php , and has been since 1922. Regular readers of CT will, of course, be aware that Ireland is indeed separate from Britain, although Irish people who achieve sporting excellence become “British” even faster than “Zola Budd”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zola_Budd .

Social bookmarking goes mainstream (or attempts to anyway)

by Eszter Hargittai on June 29, 2005

The speed with which the major online players are coming out with new services these days is quite impressive. Yahoo! just launched the Beta of My Web 2.0. An important new feature is that they are now offering social bookmarking. Think del.icio.us (or Furl or Spurl or Jots or .. you get the point), but now available to millions of Yahoo! users without them having to find their way to such a site and create a new user account. It’ll be interesting to see if social bookmarking takes off at a larger and more mainstream level (read: past super-savvy Web users). If you have no idea what social bookmarking means (as tends to be the case with most of my friends who are not in geek world) you can start by reading a review of related tools or Yahoo!’s FAQ for a better idea of My Web 2.0 in general.

Using del.icio.us has allowed me to find some great sites that would have been unlikely to show up in my browser otherwise. You go to a Web site, you decide to bookmark it (but doing so on del.icio.us is like bookmarking it publicly) and then you can add tags to it to classify it according to your liking. The exciting feature of del.icio.us (and other such services) is that they show you how many other people have also tagged that same page. Clearly you share some interest with those people. You can then click to see their entire list of bookmarks or just the ones they have tagged similarly to the shared link. Chances are good that you’ll find some additional pointers of interest.

Yahoo!’s twist on all this is that you don’t have to make all the bookmarks public. You can make them completely private (you’re the only one with access), available to your community (people you’ve linked to your Yahoo! account) or completely public. I do think – just like with Yahoo! 360 – that Yahoo! should allow you to distinguish between different communities (e.g. “make available to friends”, “make available to colleagues”) and am hoping they will implement that feature at some point. My hunch is that they will also have to offer all the features available on sites like del.icio.us (and do so without requiring the installation of an additional toolbar) to get users of that system to bother with Yahoo! for social bookmarking purposes.

Apologies if My Web 2.0 is not available to everybody. I can’t quite tell. I was required to sign in to my Yahoo! account, but I don’t know if it let me proceed only because I am already a Yahoo 360 user.

UPDATE: Reading this article I just noticed that Yahoo! is calling the ranking of pages that comes out of this new way of organizing content “MyRank”, which is cute given Google’s famous “PageRank” algorithm.

Priceless

by Ted on June 28, 2005

Recently the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that the (Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation) continued to allow another fund manager, Alan Brian Bond, to manage $50 million for eighteen months after the New York money manager had been indicted in a high-publicity kickback scheme. This prompted Democratic State Senator Marc Dann to craft a bill requiring BWC administrators to Google the investment managers once a month to make sure they haven’t been indicted.

Google Earth!

by Eszter Hargittai on June 28, 2005

If you thought Google Maps and the corresponding satellite images were cool then you’ll be hard-pressed to find a word to describe the experience of using Google Earth. Before you get too excited, do check to see if your computer meets the current requirements.

I don’t think you have to be a geography geek like me (I did take four years of high school geography after all) to appreciate this service. It’s amazing. You can zoom in more than on GMaps, you can tilt the image, you can get driving directions superimposed on the satellite images, you can get road names added, dining options included and much more.

In line with this article in today’s NYTimes, neither the directions nor some of the locations of things are always correct, but they’re close. Go play.

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Guns or butter

by Henry on June 28, 2005

“Alex Tabarrok”:http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2005/06/krugman_beneath.html denounces Paul Krugman as an “illiberal demagogue” who has forgotten his heritage as an economist. The reason: Krugman’s claim that China is a strategic rival, and his recommendation that the Chinese bid for Unocal be blocked. Now I’m far from being an expert on Asian politics, and so won’t pronounce on the substance of whether Krugman is right or wrong on this specific issue. But I do think it’s fair to say that there’s another term than “illiberal demagogue” for someone who believes that strategic concerns trump trade interests when push comes to shove. That term is “mainstream international relations specialist.” The kind of “doux commerce” liberalism that Alex seems to favour has been out of fashion in IR theory since Norman Angell’s (somewhat unfairly) ballyhooed _The Great Illusion_ .

If I understand Alex correctly, he’s telling us that economics, which likes to portray itself as a rationalistic and impartial approach to the understanding of human behaviour, is at its core a set of normative arguments for the increase of trade and commerce, and against the pursuit of a certain kind of ‘irrational’ self-interest. I think that Alex is largely right on this – though many economists wouldn’t admit it (and one is faced with the interesting question of whether scholars like, say, Dani Rodrik, are economists under Alex’s definition of the term). But it leads to the interesting question of when economists’ prescriptions for free trade over strategic manoeuvre are in fact the right prescriptions. On the one hand, posturing and mutual distrust can lead to a downward spiral and thus to war, in circumstances where peaceful commerce might otherwise have been possible. And it may well be, as Alex believes, that you can reconstruct people’s beliefs away from war, and towards peaceful exchange by substituting the voices of liberal economists for those of “mercantilists, imperialists and ‘national greatness’ warriors.”* On the other, if one state _does_ see politics as a zero-sum game and is unlikely to be persuaded otherwise, then it may be a big mistake to concede strategic resources to that state – it may use them against you later. This is of course the reason that international trade in, say, advanced weapons systems, does not resemble a free market (whether control over oil companies is a similarly sensitive strategic asset, I’ll leave to the discussion section). Which means that if Alex wants to make a convincing case that Krugman isn’t just making a claim that runs against the usual normative biases of economists, but is actually wrong on the merits here, he needs to provide more evidence than an argument-by-assertion that China is now “moving” from war to trade. As stated above, I’m not a China expert, but from what I do know, this is very much an open debate.

* interestingly, those in international relations theory who make this sort of claim are usually vehemently opposed to economic reasoning.

Go read

by Henry on June 28, 2005

Dan Nexon’s “evisceration”:http://duckofminerva.blogspot.com/2005/06/dangers-of-talking-points-rnc-defense.html of the RNC memo defending Karl Rove.

Freedom of the press is great if you own one*

by John Quiggin on June 28, 2005

The US Supreme Court has declined to hear a case in which journalists have appealed against a ruling that they should either reveal anonymous sources or go to jail. A noteworthy feature of the NY Times treatment of the story is the presentation of the issue in terms of whether journalists are entitled to special protection not available to bloggers. At the end of the story Rodney A. Smolla, dean of the University of Richmond School of Law is quoted as follows

The federal judiciary, from the Supreme Court down, has grown very skeptical of any claim that the institutional press is deserving of First Amendment protection over and above those of ordinary citizens … The rise of the Internet and blogger culture may have contributed to that. It makes it more difficult to draw lines between the traditional professional press and those who disseminate information from their home computers.

The failure of journalists to establish a special exemption raises the more general question of whether and when people should be compelled to reveal details of their private conversations. If constitutional limits are to be imposed on such questioning, it may be better to derive them from the right to privacy in general rather than the specific claims of the press. Alternatively, and perhaps preferably, it might be better for the legislature to provide a public interest exemption of some kind.

On the same topic, I was going to respond to this piece by Margaret Simons about bloggers and journalists but, as often happens, Tim Dunlop has written exactly what I would have said, only better.

* And nowadays everyone does

Meet Republican Singles

by Henry on June 27, 2005

Something that I’ve been wondering about for a while. Google Ads don’t necessarily match their advertisements to websites in quite the manner that you’d expect, presumably because of the way that its underlying algorithm works. “Brad DeLong’s site”:http://delong.typepad.com/, for example, seems to have become the new in-spot for Republican and Conservative singles to hook up with each other, while “Nathan Newman”:http://www.nathannewman.org/log/ rather improbably provides a venue for union-busting specialists to connect with their core clientele in the business community. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if many of Nathan’s readers make a habit of clicking on the link to “Union-Free Labor Relations Training” on a regular basis. After all, each time that they do, a small sum of money presumably disappears from the advertising budget of a rather slimy organization, and reappears (after Google deducts its cut) in Nathan’s Paypal account. Now personally, I’ve no problems with that. But does this undermine the rationale behind using Google Ads for politically targetted advertising? Left-leaning blogs are likely to “sound” Republican to Google’s algorithm because of the frequency with which they mention Republican politicians (and Republican blogs will sound left-wing). Thus, they’re likely to attract a disproportionate number of ads which are aimed at exactly the wrong population. Many of the people who read these blogs are unlikely to want to click on the ads for any sincere motives. The same, of course, is true for right wing blogs harping on how horrible the Democrats are; again they’ll appear to be “good” bets to an automated algorithm for advertisements aimed at leftwingers, unless that algorithm is sophisticated indeed.

Unless Google changes its algorithm, I can’t imagine any easy technical way of distinguishing ‘fake’ clickthroughs from real ones, except in the most straightforward of cases (e.g. the same person at the same IP address repeatedly clicking on an ad again and again). Now this may in reality be a non-problem – I’ve seen no data on it- but in principle, Google Ads seems to me to be quite vulnerable to politically motivated attacks, which could prove quite expensive for the advertisers.