Obama loses Twitter followers on etiquette, not message

July 29th, 2011

Reports are emerging that the presidential Twitter account is losing a reasonably large number of followers in its present campaign to reach an agreement on the debt ceiling. When taken in context, the loss of followers is small, and I argue that it’s not policy disagreement but Twitter etiquette violations that are losing the president his followers.

SPAMTASTIC? — U.S. President Barack Obama has been calling on supporters to contact lawmakers.

Mashable reports that the president has lost more than 30,000 followers today, and that the Republican lawmakers his account is calling out have gained from the exposure.

Meanwhile, Mashable reports that NM Incite counted 22,000 uses of the #compromise hashtag the @BarackObama account has been pushing. For an account with more than 9 million followers, a loss of 30,000 is no biggie.

I do think there is a reason for the rather sizable drop. As any long-time Twitter user knows, any period of rapidfire tweeting will result in a follower shift. If you happen to hold the key to world news and tweet incessantly about it, you can go from dozens to hundreds of thousands of followers overnight. But if you’re following some event that many of your followers don’t care about, some less loyal contacts will bail on you in annoyance.

So, the president’s account has lost some followers. Who cares? Politicians, investors, and citizens alike have much more to lose if this isn’t resolved well.

Given how easy it is to annoy followers with spammy posts, it might be worth note how few followers that account lost. What do you think?

Gingrich and MTV on the Internet in 1995

July 29th, 2011

Here is a four-minute report from MTV News in 1995, which includes Newt Gingrich speaking against net censorship, Snoop Dogg claiming the World Wide Web is where it’s at, and David Bowie claiming to be have gotten “so tired of the rubbish on it that I dropped out of it again.”

Via Gorociao

Tab dump: magnetic storage and visual weather browsing

July 13th, 2011

I end most days with a lot of unused story ideas. I’m going to start posting “tab dumps” on a periodic basis. Over at Transpacifica, I’m considering a more topical series with different topics on different days of the week. We’ll see if this flies.

For now, two links:

  • A Technology Review post declares magnetic tape to be the longest-running computer storage medium. Coming with the story is an amazing video of a robotic tape storage system at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, also known as those red I.M. Pei buildings in the Boulder, Colo., foothills.
  • I continue to be obsessed with WeatherSpark, a visual weather forecast and history browser. I discovered it has figures for the day I was born, and because of the visual display, I now know that my parents were not kidding about record lows. (It was about -13° F when I was born. That night it went to -18°, and before I left the hospital it was -23°.)

Agony and ecstasy of responsibility

May 20th, 2011

The show is like a virus, he claimed. It spreads through your life, promoting self-examination, and in the end you are free. This is the conclusion of Mike Daisey’s solo performance The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which I caught last night approaching its final weekend at the Seattle Rep. You are free, he claims, not as in free speech or free beer, but in the same way that “the truth will set you free.”

As a student of technology and society, a mid-rank Apple nerd for almost 20 years, and young China specialist with a history as a tech journalist in Beijing, I was not set free. The performance was a form of re-burdening, and that’s most likely how he would like it. While portraying Steve Jobs as a duality of “visionary-asshole,” Daisey himself plays the role of comedian-preacher. Just as Jobs’ roles are inextricably intertwined, Daisey’s comedy is what puts his sobriety in sharp relief.

The performance is one part confession of a consumer fetishist, one part reflection of a global consumer. The power of Apple’s marketing of computers to shape our vision of ourselves and of ubiquitous computing to shape the societies it envelops are the subject of celebration and unrepentant praise. The technologist’s bile is reserved for such easy targets as PowerPoint, a technology “that allows people in the same room to communicate with each other” from a company that builds “technologies to enable us to do things we can already do.”* The genius of Jobs, we learn, is that he takes risks, tolerates nothing that doesn’t meet his personal standards, and meanwhile succeeds at this nearly every time.

Of course, responsibility is a harder topic than the natural comedy of nerds craving news about the newest router, iPod, or operating system. Daisey tells the story of an iPhone that shipped with pictures from the factory on it. These images, he says, led him to travel to Shenzhen, the southern Chinese special economic zone adjacent to Hong Kong, where he set out to meet the people who assembled these objects–including the one I am using to write these words–that gain so much praise and following among richer populations.

Labor conditions at the factory he visited, a complex employing almost half a million people at a dominant electronics manufacturer, Foxconn, have been covered extensively in the international media after a series of suicides made headlines. Daisey perhaps focuses unduly on Foxconn, especially for those in the audience that read the performance as a political polemic on international labor conditions. There are millions of other workers at the many factories near Shenzhen making everything from buttons to machine components to books. The vast majority of these workers move to the city from rural China, and most are young women. Thus the exclusive focus on Foxconn would give the uninitiated theatergoer the impression that Apple and it’s suppliers are especially bad.

It would be a mistake, however, to consider this sermon a political critique. It would even be a mistake to think of it as a sermon on consumer responsibility. What gives this account its power is the performer’s intense personal relationship with technology and the story discovery of the technology’s relationship to the human beings who create it. Comedy comes with self consciousness and goading a crowd of Seattlites. Gravity comes with discovery, or reminder, of the way our actions implicate across human society.

* All quotes from memory, and I didn’t sleep much last night.

Motivated reasoning, motivated communication

April 22nd, 2011

Why do some people side with the vast majority of scientists on the proposition that human activity is contributing to global warming, while others deny, jeer, and gloat? Why is it so clear from that first question that I fall on the liberal/progressive side of U.S. political divides?

In Mother Jones, Chris Mooney has an article on “motivated reasoning,” which comes into play when values or other motivations cause people to deviate from that imaginary cognitive process known as perfect rationality. I like it for several reasons.

First, Mooney, a partisan writer and author of The Republican War on Science, does the honorable thing and points out that it’s not just conservatives or Republicans who reject science in favor of biases. In the debate over whether vaccines increase the risk of autism (general scientific consensus: no), it’s liberals and organic-oriented folks who reject science.

Second, true to form and forum, he argues that Republicans are nonetheless more predisposed to reject science—on the climate, on evolution, on stem cells, etc.—and that there might be something to do about it.

Which leads us to number three: the idea that if we wish to communicate across value systems or across biases, leading with the facts may be doomed to fail. Leading with values may hold greater promise. The key insight, in my opinion, is that scientists have to learn what all great communicators already know: You have to know your audience, and it helps if you meet them half way.

The conventional way to present information in the sciences and social sciences is to follow professional conventions. This produces illegible equations or regression tables, narratives thick with jargon and acronyms, and abstracts that address “the literature” rather than “the reader.” The reader gets scare quotes, because without graduate training in a nearby discipline, the vast majority of academic work is illegible. The readership of an article presented up to professional standards is structurally limited to, optimistically, a couple hundred.

If academics, whether scientists, humanists, or anything in between wish to participate in political or social discussions, they will have to consider their audience. They’ll have to practice motivated communication, rather than a data dump. This requires the acquisition of a new skill set, but I think it’s worth it.

Transit and peering in backbone disputes

December 26th, 2010

From the excellent arstechnica explanation of the Comcast-Level 3 dispute over delivery of Netflix traffic.

In large part, the complaint comes because the practice of “paid peering” is relatively new, and Level 3 wants to prevent such fees from becoming the new norm. Some of my own sources in the industry indicate that Comcast has become well-known in the last few years for its aggressive approach to interconnection, and for trying to charge CDNs who want such a direct connection. Indeed, Comcast last week indicated that its Level 3 charges weren’t an anomaly and that other CDNs had already paid up.

But Level 3 says that the charges are a dangerous outlier. The company’s backbone is one of the world’s largest, so it connects to plenty of other networks; still, Level 3 tells me that this is the first time it has been charged simply to access another network—that is, charged to deliver the content requested by that network’s users. Other CDNs may well pay the fees, though John Ryan expressed near disbelief that any are paying just for access to Comcast’s customers. Instead, they may be paying for transit, routing their traffic across the country to get it where it’s needed, or paying ISPs to take on this data hauling themselves. But Level 3 has a huge fiber footprint in the US; it can localize its CDN traffic and dump it at regional Comcast connection points, so it doesn’t need transit services.

Level 3 is also willing to pay something for interconnection to compensate other networks for more ports or backhaul or other infrastructure. But what it will do only under public protest is pay ongoing fees simply for delivering on-net traffic—that is, for access—traffic ratios be damned. Ryan, clearly not feeling well disposed toward Comcast at the moment, suspects the company would still try to charge him even if he delivered traffic right to every user’s local node.

Read it all.

Google’s SSL shift helps schools, China censor search

July 12th, 2010

In the course of the long-standing Google–China story, one small announcement made many in China happy: Google would offer SSL encryption on standard searches. Now, this security and openness may be threatened, as attempts to access Google Hong Kong’s encrypted service are returning errors from a connection in Beijing.

When SSL became available for standard searches, it was first set up so you would simply type in https:// instead of http:// before accessing Google. This caused a problem for schools and others who restrict the content their users can search for, in many cases because of laws governing school Internet connections. When SSL is enabled on an HTTPS connection, however, filters can’t block based on the words people search for, because even the query is encrypted. Thus schools were faced with having to block the “google.com” domain for their users, something Google did not want.

Therefore, they amended their strategy to create a new address entirely, encrypted.google.com, instead of offering https://google.com. This may seem like a trivial change, but it’s important for several reasons.

First, and this is no small problem, the word “encrypted” is harder to remember for non-English-literate users. Adding an “s” to the protocol was simple and direct.

Second, more importantly, just as this change separated secure search from standard search for schools to discriminate, another kind of firewall and censorship—the system of content filters in China known collectively as the Great Firewall—can discriminate.

As it turns out today, this has come to pass. After Rebecca MacKinnon noted someone was having trouble reaching Google from China, I tried a few things from my connection in Beijing. After some strange behavior, one problem remains consistent: If I type in “encrypted.google.com.hk,” which is the encrypted version of Google’s Chinese-language search product, which is no longer hosted in the Mainland, then I get sent to an error page and a Baidu search for the URL (see screen shot).

What does this mean? Although these things are notoriously uncertain, what appears to be happening is that at least one connection in China has blocked the Chinese-language encrypted search. Thus searches for sensitive terms or searches that return results containing sensitive words stand the chance of being blocked. I tried some famous ones, and they indeed resulted in an error.

Google has made the decision to make censorship easier for schools, in the process making it easier for China. A Chinese system could of course block Google outright, but this would not still be an issue if that was an easy pill to swallow. Google’s e-mail, translation, and other services may not dominate the market in China, but they are popular among many elites and many others.

As of yet, the U.S. site, encrypted.google.com, is loading as normal from Beijing, but this site lacks customizations for Chinese users. If this condition continues, open information just got one step harder to get from inside the GFW.

Are you in China? Can you access these sites? Leave a comment.

How to: Unlocking an iPhone 3G with broken wi-fi

July 12th, 2010

This is not so much a political post, or a post about information, as a victory cry from the hutongs of Dongcheng, Beijing.

I love my iPhone, but I don’t love the fact that it is programmed only to work with AT&T—or “locked.” This is not for the normal reasons: Honestly, AT&T’s service has been more or less fine for me. This is probably because I used it mostly in Boston and Colorado; trips to New York proved frustrating at times.

My reason to hate locked phones is that I regularly leave the United States. Here I am for the second summer in a row in Beijing, using China Mobile’s prepaid Shenzhouxing service, and Apple doesn’t want me to be allowed to use my iPhone. Luckily I have my old HTC Touch when I’m in a bind, but I like my iPhone, and I paid for it. I’m even still paying for AT&T, because they eliminated the option of suspending service.

Last summer, I followed the directions from the “Dev-Team,” and unlocking for use in China was no sweat. This summer, I have a phone that has lost its ability to use wi-fi, a hardware problem Apple claims cannot be fixed. That’s fine when I have 3G, but wi-fi is needed for step two of the jailbreak-unlock process.

After much nonsense, here’s how I got around this problem.

  1. My iPhone 3G used to have software version 3.1.3, which is hard to jailbreak. Jailbreaking being compulsory for an unlock, I upgraded to the new software 4.0.
  2. The redsn0w team has released a beta of its jailbreaking software that works for iPhone 3G on software 4.0. I used this.
  3. The jailbreak now complete, I needed to find a way to put ultrasn0w, a package that unlocks the phone and allows it to use any carrier, on the phone. Unfortunately, the standard way to do this is to use the Cydia application repository and download ultrasn0w using wi-fi.
  4. Eventually I found the raw files for ultrasn0w’s most recent version, and instructions to download and install into a directory on the iPhone’s jailbroken file system. Those files go in the iPhone’s private/var/root/Media/Cydia/AutoInstall directory, which I had to create.
  5. To install these files, I first tried iPhone Explorer, but the Mac version of the software (irritatingly!) lacks the ability to put files in ALL directories, thus the target /private/var/root was off limits. Therefore, I turned to PhoneView, which mercifully has a seven-day demo period and accesses root. I connected the phone and dragged and dropped the two ultrasn0w files.
  6. I put in the China Mobile SIM, shut down the phone, and when it woke back up I was in business.

This probably took six or eight hours to figure out over a week, so I wanted to contribute my mini-success story. Hope this helps people before it becomes totally out of date.

Things I want in an academic writing workflow

July 1st, 2010

I’ve recently finished a master’s thesis. Like my undergraduate thesis, this was composed using Microsoft Word with EndNote providing citation management. This will be the last time I go in this direction. Without further ado, a list of my ideal solutions (demands, really), as I look for substitutes.


  1. The citation software and the word processor must work together consistently. This may seem simple, but I had several periods when inserting a cite-while-you-write note in Word would cause Word to crash. This is, for obvious reasons, very bad. Upgrading to a new version of EndNote solved this once. Copy-pasting the entire document into a new Word doc worked another time. No one should have to solve this problem.
  2. The word processor must give reasonable GUI controls over formatting. Word goes overboard on its GUI, but colleagues who say LaTeX is my solution overestimate my patience in looking at unformatted text. Perhaps I have missed some good solutions, but the only way I have found to make LaTeX work is to edit everything in a raw text editor. This is not how I prefer to see my words while writing. As an Apple user, I tried Pages, but this leads to another problem:
  3. The word processor must have auto-save! Sure, we should all hit save frequently while working. The problem is that we don’t. Microsoft knows this; even WordPress saves automatically. Apple’s Pages is out of contention for my use, despite attractive type handling and intuitive formatting, because I would some day compose a few hundred excellent words and then lose them forever.
  4. The workflow must handle non-Latin scripts. Some people have told me they eventually got it to work, but LaTeX simply does not like to handle Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. I haven’t tried other languages, but several attempts to set things up for mixed English-Chinese text on LaTeX ended in failure. For word processors where switching script is less trouble, there is still the problem of line spacing. If I set a paragraph at 12 pt type with 14 pt line height, this should not be overridden by the insertion of a Chinese phrase. Microsoft and others fail on this.


  1. The citation software and the word processor must work together consistently. I know I’m repeating myself, but there are a few more notes on this compatibility front. First, now writing two weeks after starting this post, I have had another discouraging experience. Frustrated by EndNote and Word, I decided to use Mendeley and OpenOffice while writing a draft working paper that should be out some time this fall. In at least once case, inserting a citation caused OpenOffice to crash. I lost about 20 minutes worth of writing, which I was able to do better the second time. But this relationship needs to be stable!
  2. The citation software should stand alone. This point is targeted at Zotero, the excellent Firefox add-on that takes and organizes snapshots of websites, and in some cases can do a decent job of grabbing citation data from academic article depositories. Zotero, however, is so far inextricably tied to Firefox, a memory hog that gives a less than ideal interface for these kinds of jobs. Luckily, Mendeley will ably import from Zotero.
  3. The citation software should be in the cloud, but not only in the cloud. And this point targets RefWorks, a cloud-based package that many universities subscribe to. Problems with cloud-only solutions: Working while out of wi-fi range; using data after you leave a subscribing institution; lack of native GUI and dependence on keeping more browser windows open. I love the cloud. My e-mail and research are backed up there, but they also live on my laptop. Citations should obey the same rules.
  4. Non-Latin script support. This echoes point four above. An additional concern: an ideal citation management system would happily deal with multiple citation styles. Say I am citing English sources alongside Chinese sources. The most effective convention might be to follow an English format for English and a Chinese format for Chinese. It would be nice if that would work.
  5. File management is a must. Zotero and Mendeley are the primary examples here, but even EndNote has some infrastructure for keeping files at hand. These days, any research project means the accumulation of dozens of PDFs—of articles, books, maps, reports—and other file types including audio and video. My fantasy system would handle this all with grace.

Have I asked too much? I don’t think so. Mendeley is almost there. OpenOffice is a good package, if a little unstable. Zotero is working on a stand-alone application. But to make this work, we’re going to have to move these things forward a step.

The other possibility is that I’m missing some important solutions. Any thoughts out there?

White House web guy scolded for contact with Google colleagues, first caught by Google Buzz privacy flaw

May 17th, 2010

Andrew McLaughlin, deputy White House web chief, was reprimanded for improperly using personal e-mail to consult former colleagues at Google, The Hill reported today. He apparently consulted Vint Cerf among others on issues including network neutrality, and used his personal Gmail account in violation of a pledge he signed.

The White House requires staffers to use official e-mail for all business to ease compliance with rules requiring the maintenance of presidential record. The fun part, though, is that this was apparently first noticed because of the much-discussed privacy flaw embedded in Google Buzz at the time of its sudden release that revealed frequent contacts.

This goes to show that it’s not just activists in authoritarian countries who could get into political trouble because of privacy slips. Here’s Tony Romm on how it happened.

Concern that McLaughlin may have violated federal archiving and ethics rules first arose in April, upon the debut of Google Buzz. The new social network, which automatically adds a user’s recent contacts to his or her subscriber list, reflected that McLaughlin had communicated in the past with top Google staffers.

The link was not totally surprising, given McLaughlin’s previous position as Google’s head of global public policy.

But after seeing McLaughlin’s contacts on Google Buzz, Consumer Watchdog filed a FOIA request for his e-mails, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) questioned McLaughlin’s conduct in his own, separate missive.