Virulent Word of Mouse

May 7, 2011

Warhol iconography on web time

Filed under: Amusing diversions,Computer and Internet Humor,Short observations — Shane Greenstein @ 10:31 pm

Web-time is faster. That is no secret. More people participate in more sharing of information in more places at a greater speed. Faster, quicker, bigger, wider. More people in more places communicate and share more information.

The type of imaginative satire that would have taken Andy Warhol months or years to develop can now be done in a matter of days. If crowd-sourced, the compilation can easily exceed anything that anybody alone could have imagined. On web time everybody is famous for fifteen nanoseconds.

Which means cultural cycles beat to a faster rhythm. Fads grow quickly among the online hoards, and just as quickly become replaced by new fads.

Sometimes, however, it is astonishing. In a blink an iconic image becomes established.

Even more astonishing is the speed of the next stage. In a blink newly minted iconic images transform into parody.

As illustration, consider this now iconic photograph, taken by the White House photographer, released on Monday, May 1, after the death of Osama Bin-Laden.

It has become known as the “situation room photo.” Over lunch at work my colleagues and I have had conversations about “that photo from the situation room.” Everybody knows it.

It deserves the attention. The photo shows an intense meeting among US leaders in the situation room during the execution of that raid. Obama is hunched over. The VP looks up from his laptop. Hillary Clinton covers her mouth, as if in shock. It is a great photograph, capturing the intensity and tension of the moment.

Such an icon was just asking for a bit of humor. It did not take long.

Look at this parody, which has come out in the last few days. It includes one additional participant, a little girl covering her ears. Where have you seen that little girl?

Talk about iconic photograph. That little girl came from a photograph taken Saturday of the balcony of the royal wedding, where the newlyweds kissed for the crowd. That little girl gained worldwide fame for covering her ears when the crowd roared.

Look, it is funny to have her in the situation room. Give somebody some credit for imagination. I had a great laugh. Didn’t you?

Now, here is my point. Once you get the idea behind the parody, there is no reason to stop with little girls. Within days others have started to paste lots of different people into the situation room. These parodies are all over the Internet.

If you are curious, see a whole list of them here.

Think about this for just a minute. The royal wedding resulted in a bunch of iconic photographs. The kiss on the balcony emerged as one, especially due to the little girl covering her ears. Her actions tell a story about the level of noise.

One image from one newly minted iconic photograph then got merged into another newly minted iconic photograph, resulting in a marvelous piece of Internet humor.

So that is the consequences of living in Web-time. Iconic images emerge with astonishing speed. Iconic images get merged easily. Iconic images descend into parody quickly.

If Warhol were alive, he would have laughed too. On web time everybody is famous for fifteen nanoseconds.

(Thanks to Marty Parker for showing me the parodies).


Late follow-up: Alert readers have sent email. The little girl’s name is Grace Van Cutsem. She is three years old. Little Grace is getting more than her fifteen nanoseconds of fame. She has been put in many pictures, not just the situation room. If you would like to see some, click here. 

April 9, 2011

Six myths about the Internet

Filed under: Internet economics and communications policy,Short observations — Shane Greenstein @ 3:29 pm

On April 7th, 2011, I had the great pleasure to deliver the Tullock Lecture at the Law School for George Mason University.  After discussing it with the organizer, Tom Hazlett, the talk became focused on a number of provocative and (partially) entertaining themes. Hazlett suggested the talk’s title, which was “The Mythology of Networks.” Here is an ad for it.

As the talk took shape, I found myself with far more material than I had time to present. I had to boil it down, so the talk became focused on “the six myths of the Internet”.  A myth is an economic metaphor that contains a grain of truth, but misleads. An economic metaphor is a short story or aphorism that provides guidance about the key features of a situation.

There are more than six myths, to be sure, but six was as much as I had time for. And the talk just seemed to coalesce around the six that informed aspects of a big question, namely, this big question:

Was the Schumpeterian competition that blossomed in the commercial Internet a fortuitous accident or not? Can government policy for commercializing technology nudge, encourage, and recreate it in other settings?

The six myths frames this blog post. In a moment the post lists the six myths of the Internet. After that the post will list my (tentative) rewriting of each of the myths to make them less misleading.

That will frame the question: What are your favorite myths and how would you rewrite them?

Anyway, here we go. Here are my six myths:

  1. The gov’t funded the Internet to design a network that could survive nuclear war.
  2. It was cheap and easy to transition the Internet from government to commercial management.
  3. Government funding accelerated the arrival of the Internet.
  4. Openness made the commercial Internet more innovative.
  5. The commercial Internet is like a highway.
  6. The Internet led to the death of distance.
If you are curious, here are PDFs of the slides explaining each of the myths. Here is a recording of the talk too. But I digress….
Back to the main topic. Here are my (tentative) corrections to these six myths. These are tentative because I am very open to suggestions. If you have a better idea, please feel free to say so!
  1. The Internet’s invention involved a collective effort from many participants, initially nurtured through government funding.
  2. The commercial Internet faced the dual challenges of monopoly and rent-seeking.
  3. Government funding can and did shape the direction of innovation in inter-networking technology.
  4. Open structures can enable challenges to leading firms, and this did matter during the Internet’s commercialization.
  5. The commercial Internet involves shared use and partially shared governance of some of its components at the transport layer.
  6. Urban leadership shapes the economic geography of the Internet’s impact.
What other myths would you add to this list? How would you fix them and turn them into useful economic metaphors? Suggestions are welcome!

February 11, 2011

Valuing companies: A primer

Filed under: Short observations,Uncategorized — Shane Greenstein @ 3:35 pm

How much is a company worth? I get this question so often I have grown tired of answering it. Indeed, there is no right answer.

Along comes Anders Bylund to the rescue. He has put together a very nice compendium of the debate over valuations. If you are interested, look here. The article provides a particularly thorough discussion about why the different ways to value a firm yield such different rankings, especially in high tech, where the financial position of firms looks rather different than the rest of the economy.

To be fair, Bylund focuses on how different valuations work.  He takes the typical pricing conduct, revenue patterns, and debt structures of high tech firms as a given, then shows how those typical structures play out in different valuation metrics. He does not really focus on why systematic market situations lead to mismeasurement.

That leaves open a couple questions. For a high tech audience, he left a big gap: he did not talk much about why investors place so much importance on estimates of the future revenue and earnings potential of high tech firms, even though these estimates have been shown, time and again, to be quite fragile and lacking in robustness. Or, perhaps I could say it another way: why is it that high tech firm valuations reflect investor speculation about the future even though most of that speculation lacks credibility?

Ah, questions, questions, questions. So many questions, and so little time. Let’s leave that topic for another day. Enjoy this article for now. It is good progress.

February 2, 2011

Bing imitates Google: Their conduct crosses a line.

Imitation happens. It is a part of competitive behavior. Sony brings out a new feature on its TV and Samsung does the same thing three months later. installs a better tool for soliciting comments, and a month later the same feature shows up at the Huffington Post. Chrysler brings out a minivan and within a two product cycles every other auto assembler has one too. Nobody loses sleep over this.

Moreover, the Internet makes monitoring a rival easier, so imitation involves less hassle and far lower costs than it used to. So it should surprise nobody that imitation happens with some frequency, especially among online competitors, and more often than in competitive contests offline.

Yet, so why does Bing’s imitation of Google’s search results seem to cross some sort of ethical line? Why does Microsoft’s conduct leave me shaking my head, wondering why Bing’s management did not put its nerdy foot down and just say “That is shameful. Let’s not go there.”?

Let’s consider why. (more…)

January 6, 2011

Illustrating air transportation in motion

Filed under: Amusing diversions,Maps,Short observations — Shane Greenstein @ 11:24 pm

This post contains two short movies of the air transportation networks in the globe and the US, respectively. Both movies have been circulating on the Internet for a while, so you may have seen them. If not, you should watch.

The first movie displays everything, namely, all the planes in flight on the planet over the course of a day. That sounds mundane, but the movie takes a perspective rarely seen, putting together satellite images. The viewer can see all the planes flying at one time, as if from 30K up. Your jaw will drop the first time you view it.

We see all planes over the course of a day — everywhere and at once, while some places sleep and others scramble during their waking hours.

It is about a minute long. It is a very elegant way to display the globe’s air transportation network. Each little dot represents a plane. The dots move. It is hard for the human eye to follow any particular dot, but the sum-total of them provides a special fireworks.

Here are some details to notice. For example, pay attention to the change from light to dark as the planet rotates over the course of the day. It is near summer in the north, so the north pole experiences quite a long day.

The composer flattens the earth. This has advantages in this context, but it exaggerates the relative size of the north and south poles. Because there is so few plane flights traveling to or from those regions, so it fades into the background, and does not distract.

Enough words from me. The movie itself is astounding to watch, and that says it all. Enjoy!

Now look at this one. This minute-long video shows only the US. About halfway through the country goes to sleep, and virtually all the plane traffic stops. Then it wakes up again, with airports in Chicago leading the way. Take a look:

I do not know about you, but I can watch these over and over.

Last observation: I am struck by the myriad technologies that came together to make these possible. Each plane is identified by radar. Some clever computing splicing puts multiple radar images together. Another set of clever splicing speeds it up (or samples once every minute to make a frame), and translates it into a short viewable video. Yet another technology makes it available to any viewer, and yet another set of technologies embedded in infrastructure delivers it to your screen. This takes advantage of an amazing leap in mainstream networking technology.


December 16, 2010

Cheap Shots Aimed at Scientists: A Political Movement?

Filed under: Editorial,Short observations — Shane Greenstein @ 5:28 pm

In a prior post I described a politically motivated cheap shot aimed at a computer scientist at Northwestern. I looked closely at the circumstances that fed the situation. I concluded that the charges lacked merit.

Was that an isolated example? No, it was not. In this short post, I point towards another recent example with many similar features.

Look, people differ in their priorities, and that is why governments have policy issues to debate. What we observe here, however, is not a rational policy debate about the governance of science. Rather, we are observing a debate characterized by cheap shots, misleading headlines, and juvenile argumentation.

This is bad news for anyone who values the contributions of science to the US economy.


October 11, 2010

Patent disputes in smart phones and divided technical leadership.

TechDirt recently published a provocative article, titled “Meet the Patent Thicket: Who’s suing Who for Smart phone patents.”

I have one observation to make. Though this is an interesting article, the author gave it a misleading title. That is the point of this post.

The article should be called “Divided technical leadership and lawsuits in smartphones.” I have to explain two things. Why the article says something about divided technical leadership, and why it does not say something about patent thickets. (more…)

July 22, 2010

A guide to net neutrality lobbying

Here is a short article about net neutrality. It has the provocative title “Where do telecom lobbyists come from?” Actually, the article is not very provocative.  It describes the positions of the main players, and explains a bit about who they have hired to advocate on their behalf. Nothing about it surprised me. Still, it is useful for those who are unfamiliar with how these issues get debated in Washington.

One observation and question. These lobby efforts primarily represent the views of established firms. That is not a surprise, but this issue effects more than established firms. It also effects entrepreneurs and software developers. A few big software developers are represented, Google and Microsoft most prominently. Nobody, as far as this article states, advocates for entrepreneurs, or small software developers. I would be interested to know if there are lobbyists who do represent the views of those groups.

Does anyone know?

June 4, 2010

New pricing for data plans at AT&T

Filed under: Broadband,Internet economics,Short observations — Shane Greenstein @ 5:36 pm

In case you missed the news, AT&T wireless announced a change in its pricing of data plans. This is squarely aimed at iPhone and iPad users. There are lots of different opinions about the announcement, especially among Apple users.

Tim DeChant, who writes a blog about current events and solicits Kellogg faculty opinions for it, put together a great post about the new pricing plan. He describes much of the relevant detail, and how to interpret it.

Well, perhaps I am biased when I say “great”. The post includes several quotes from yours truly.

Go ahead and check it out!

June 1, 2010

How fast is your broadband? Help the FCC find out!

Filed under: Internet economics and communications policy,Short observations — Shane Greenstein @ 2:07 pm

Surveys have shown for some time that most people have no idea how fast (or slow) their broadband is. As it turns out, neither does the US government.

Today, the Consumer Task Force announced an initiative. The FCC is asking today for 10,000 volunteers to participate in a scientific study to measure home broadband speed in the U.S.

Here is what their announcement said: “Specialized hardware will be installed in the homes of volunteers to measure the performance of all the country’s major Internet service providers across geographic regions and service tiers.  The FCC is partnering with SamKnows Limited in this effort (the same firm conducted a similar test in the United Kingdom).”

Here is the relevant Public Notice: The results will end up in a “State of Broadband” report.

Anyone can register as a volunteer for this national test at Volunteers will be able to track the performance of their own broadband service, as well as providing valuable data for the FCC, Internet service providers, and the public at large.

I think this is a great initiative. While adoption of broadband is important for many households, it is no longer an issue for a significant fraction of households. Rather, the quality of the network is the most important feature. Instead of just complaining about the quality of the network the FCC decided to take the initiative and measure something.

Good to see some imaginative and entrepreneurial energy out of this agency. Give them some credit.

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