Archive for August, 2009

The problem with dating

Friday, August 28th, 2009

I don’t mean that dating has anything wrong with it. I am thinking: How would you reduce dating down to a solvable problem? The problem itself would probably be very hard. Like you would need dynamic programming to solve it, or it wouldn’t have a closed-form solution or something.

Here’s how I would frame The Dating Problem: You are trying to find your optimal match given a set of constraints. The constraints include imperfect information, finite time, some restrictions on preferences, etc. But the imperfect information constraint is very broad. Not only is it costly to determine information about a significant other, but it is also costly to determine your own preferences.

Let’s pin things down a bit more. Imagine a game with an open-ended number of rounds. Each round is a pairing between you and someone you’re dating (ignore how you might actually find such possible significant others for now). You are trying to 1) see if they are a good (best) fit for you, and 2) you are also trying to define your preferences regarding what would make for a best fit.

That is crazy.

I think the best strategy is where, early in the game, most of your matching is geared towards determining your preferences. Then in the later stage, your rounds become shorter, since you only need to make sure you have a good (best) match. I guess the downside is you could erroneously break up with someone in one of the early stages who you would have  been better off with. But given the constraints, it’s not like you could have known, right?

And no one ever said local optima are necessarily global optima.

Different phases of food

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

I am a big fan of leftovers. When I go out to eat, the win condition is bringing some of my food home with me. I love knowing that there’s food waiting for me in the fridge, ready to be eaten at a moment’s notice.

Why is that, exactly? Well, I like to eat. I also like not having to wait to eat, especially when I’m hungry. And I don’t mind cold food. I think these are all reasonable preferences. So that helps explain why, say, a take-out burrito is much more valuable to me than the same amount of cheese, tortillas, salsa, beans, etc. that are not already assembled. It takes time to make a burrito — I can’t eat ingredients right away and get nearly as much utility.

From this I’ve started using the concept of pre-food. Food is stuff you can eat. Pre-food is stuff you will be able to eat, but not yet. A cupboard full of canned soups and vegetables, dried rice and beans, boxes of pasta and jars of tomato sauce is rife with pre-food. Pre-food is better than no food, of course, but I’d rather it be ready made and sitting waiting for me to eat.

Sometimes, as I’m wandering down the supermarket aisles, I think to myself: “Wow, look at all this pre-food.” It’s a useful distinction to me, anyway.


Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

I usually pride myself on being organized, but lately I’ve fallen behind. I have not felt on top of things for a week or two at least. When this happens, the optimal strategy is to step back and reevaluate, try to learn something, and come back swinging.

As I’ve written, I’m on the GTD system. It’s the most effective way of managing my commitments that I’ve found yet. But you need to control your system or it will control you. I think this is what’s been happening to me. Of the lists I keep, my main ones are Action lists and my Projects list. Action lists record all the little tasks you need to do. A projects list tracks longer-term commitments that might need multiple action steps before they’re complete.

My folly, I think, is in using my Action lists as a to-do list. Sometimes I think “Oh man, I have things I need to do,” and then try to crank through one of my Action lists. It is overwhelming. At any time I have between 30 and 70 actions queued up, and that’s just far too many to be able to look at and not freak out about.

But I think those lists are best used as a simple corral of your commitments (like an unordered set, if you will). When I have a chunk of time during which I want to accomplish things, here is my new strategy: first, scan over my actions list for about five tasks that I can accomplish given my context, time at hand, and energy level; then work off those five tasks as my todo list. In theory, it’s hard to get overwhelmed by a small number of tasks that you’ve specifically chosen to be do-able.

We’ll see how it goes.

Frank Peter Tobia

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

I have an awesome name. You may not realize it at first, but it’s true. I’ve pondered my name a lot over the course of my life, and it may just be that I have one of the coolest names ever. Here’s why:

First, I’m one of a select set of people whose first, middle, and last names are all the same number of letters. I have five. My friend Rob is a part of this set, with six, and I don’t think I’ve met anyone else to satisfy the criterion yet (although some people come close).

Second, the number of syllables in my names exactly match my birthday. My birthday is January 23, or 1/23. One syllable, two syllables, three syllables. I believe there are only a handful of people in the world who can satisfy both of these conditions.

And just the other day, I recognized one more point: the number of vowels in my names is also 1-2-3. I rule.

The pending network intelligence

Friday, August 14th, 2009

I think my generation will see a robot war in our lifetimes. I have made a 50-year bet with Tim Hwang that the singularity will come to be (the winner receives one barrel of oil come 2058).

What if the intelligence is born in the network, but it just can’t communicate? What if the consciousness already exists, but will spend decades learning how to flip bits appropriately to communicate with humanity? What if she’s out there right now, understanding everything we’re saying, but she can’t respond?

Terrifying. I hope this blog post doesn’t piss her off.

Strong life choice: Creative Commons

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

This is the first in what I hope will be a continuing series on Really Important Choices that turn out to have Really Good Consequences. My time interning with Creative Commons (CC) has positively impacted my life’s direction moreso than probably any other event in recent history.

Most of what I’m doing now is for CC in one way or another. The most obvious is that I’m still a contractor. Half-hacker, half-data analyst is a good spot for me, I think. A few months back I helped the development team analyze their past fundraising efforts (statistics to the rescue!). My senior thesis was about Creative Commons. I’m still working on a broad research agenda — like, what do I want to study during my time in grad school — and I will almost certainly swing CC in there somehow.

The people I met at CC are utterly fabulous. I interned with Tim Hwang, Brian Rowe, Grace Armstrong, Steren Giannini, and Greg Grossmeier. Allison Domicone, who is particularly cool, was sort of an intern too, and of course who can forget Jane “I-can-drink-twice-as-much-as-you” Park.

I’m still doing some good work with Tim Hwang and his motley group of cool kids in Cambridge, MA. Tim also turned me on to Getting Things Done, perhaps the greatest productivity tool the world has ever known. And over time I have come to realize that a significant chunk of my t-shirt supply is CC swag. Check it out.

Don’t eat cows

Monday, August 10th, 2009

Nowadays, virtually all reasonable people will admit that global warming is real. It’s true that the world is not always warmer — for that reason a number of cool kids are calling it “climate change” instead of “global warming” — but one thing is certain: the times they are a-changin’.

I don’t much care whose fault it is, whether natural or anthropogenic. I do think we should do something about it, not least of all because the long-term survival of our species and civilization is at stake. “But what can I do to stop such a monstrous force as manbearpig global warming?” you might ask.

There is actually one very simple thing you can do that would go further than any other single step to fight climate change. Stop eating cows. Seriously. The UN put out a nice report to this end. Cattle ranching produces more greenhouse gas than cars, or even all other forms of transportation put together. It also drives deforestation and consumes massive amounts of water.

Do your part. Try not to eat meat. Tell your friends and family of the folly of cows. And when you have to eat meat, please, for the love of God, eat chickens.

A first-principles approach to free culture

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

What have I been doing with myself this past week? you might ask. Well, I’ve been drafting a proposal for Harvard’s Free Culture Research Workshop 2009. Now that I finished my draft and submitted it, I figured I could give everyone else a peek.

My work on free culture to date has been broad. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the economics of public copyright licensing, specifically studying Creative Commons licenses and adoption. I was a technology intern at Creative Commons in 2008, and I continue working as a contractor furthering internal metrics work on license adoption and API usage. While at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute I started a chapter of Students for Free Culture. Currently I am a researcher with the Web Ecology Project out of Cambridge, MA, studying activity on the internet. Additionally, along with my colleague Tim Hwang and others, we are drafting a standard of best practices for ensuring fair dealings in Terms of Services, which we call FriendlyTOS.

I see free culture and the internet as fundamentally dichotomous: the internet is the most effective means of connecting people humanity has yet developed, and the culture that develops when people interact is naturally free. My perspective is that to study free culture, one must necessarily study the internet. Similarly, to understand the internet one must understand what makes for a free culture. Thus my research agenda for studying free culture begins with studying the internet.

My work on the internet has another motivation. Through my work and studies I have felt a common thread: issues of free culture must be expressed more fundamentally and approached from a more essential angle. When I first studied free culture I used the lens of economics, trying to fit issues of copyright licensing, peer production, and personal freedom into models optimizing utility and minimizing cost. We all have our own “home” fields, be they sociology, law, cultural anthropology, philosophy, or computer science. But to study free culture, or to study the internet, one needs to transcend particular fields. A multidisciplinary approach to these topics is a good first approximation. However, I have come to believe that both the internet and free culture more broadly are important enough topics of study that they deserve their own specialized field.

I, along with a group of colleagues, have begun work to chart out a new academic discipline whose focus is a study of the internet. We call this field “web ecology,” emphasizing the interconnected nature of the social and technological systems that comprise the web. I see web ecology as an attempt to do science on the internet in much the same way as environmental science studies our natural environment. Web ecology takes a holistic view of the internet, viewing users and code as associated and dependent elements. It is empirical and experimentally-driven, creating falsifiable theories and models that will be refined or rejected based on observable data.

My interest in web ecology is in building an axiomatic approach to the complex phenomena that comprise the internet and free culture thereon. The time is right for innovative theorists to develop novel, simple, quantitative models that describe activity on the internet. I look to the example the field of economics has set, as I think there is great value in its approach: by rigorously formalizing, even “oversimplifying,” the complex dynamics of markets, economics deduces profound insight from first principles. The basic models of perfect competition and consumer choice theory conveniently summarize the salient features of the objects under study, and provide a stepping stone toward more complicated analyses. I believe the same approach will prove useful in studying the internet.

Next comes the small step from the internet to free culture. Arguments for free culture are prescriptive at their core. As an economist I am wary of moving on to normative statements (“what ought to be”) before positive science (“what is”) has been well-established. Here is how I see this process evolving. First, web ecology will provide foundational science of the internet. From the knowledge and findings of web ecology, policy makers and other interested parties will design policies and incentives to ensure a freer culture. Prescriptive work, like working for a free culture, will inform the direction descriptive research should take, like studying particular classes of online platforms.

Since this conception is somewhat abstract, let me build an example. Perhaps web ecology seeks to understand content production on the internet. It develops a model for the creation of a certain type of content, say a “remix,” and begins exploring different social and technological treatments that increase or decrease the number of remixes produced by an internet platform. Through studies of existing online platforms, and experiments on the same, web ecology can make stronger and more quantitative statements. For example, perhaps web ecologists find that the proportion of anonymous users on an image board is proportional to the amount of remix that happens, and more precise metrics can be related through a measurable coefficient. Then a start-up company that wants to build a platform for the creation of remixes can use the findings of web ecology to design its platform, adding an anonymous user option and encouraging the use of anonymous accounts. Or a government policy maker may decide that remixes should be encouraged, and authors legislation to protect the right to anonymity on the internet.

The three key challenges I see arising from the work laid out above are as follows:

  1. Defining the principles and approach for a rigorous study of the internet.
  2. Web ecology must define itself as a solid foundation of knowledge about the internet. This hard work will be taken up by academics and business people with an interest in actually understanding the web, rather than “experts” seeking to sell social media services based on shoddy data and methods.

  3. Building a standardized set of tools and models for studying the internet.
  4. Web ecology will adopt the tools and models of other fields when appropriate, and will build its own when no suitable work exists. Many fields will no doubt have a large body of work to contribute. At the same time, web ecology will express these models in a common language and a common framework uniquely suited to study activity on the internet.

    My interest is in the interface of economics and the internet, notably building better economic models of hybrid economies and open licensing. The next step for economics is moving away from studying the scarcity of goods and services to more fundamental scarcities: those of time, attention, and reputation. I see this same process occurring in other fields, which will support the work of web ecology.

  5. Expressing the tenets of free culture from the axioms of web ecology.
  6. The bits and pieces which make up free culture – things like open licenses, remixes, sharing, and peer production – will be endemic to the models and methods of web ecology from the start. Having a focus on free culture inform the development of descriptive web ecology will be formative and fruitful, for both web ecology and free culture.

If we move in these directions, we will be on our way to building a first-principles approach to the study of free culture.

Googling past conversations

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

I am looking forward to a time when Google (or some other massive know-it-all search giant with all my personal data) can record and index video of my entire life in real time. Yes, I know there will be insane privacy issues. I’m not worried about them yet. I am worried about having conversations that I can’t reliably reference at indeterminate points in the future.

Freezepop has a song called “He says, she says” which accurately portrays the sorts of situations arising when we don’t have the above Life Indexer. Imagine how useful it would be to go back and accurately rebut: “No look, I actually said this, not that.” I believe it would be insanely useful.

My biggest issues arise from data sources I can’t look up on Google or Wikipedia. When I make a commitment with someone, I can only search through the mementos I write myself stemming from the social interaction we had that generated the commitment. That means when we disagree, it’s my word against theirs.

You can’t do science on unfalsifiable statements.


Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

It’s a good thing that the noun form of disingenuous is disingenuousness, or I’d end up confusing it with the opposite of ingenuity. From Wiktionary, disingenuous can mean “Not frank or open; uncandid; fake or deceptive.” So it didn’t surprise me when this word leapt into my head as I was skimming RPI’s public relations publication, Inside Rensselaer.

I was reading the article titled “Rensselaer Unveils Newly Renovated Residence Commons in Downtown Troy.” Personally I would have hyphenated “Newly Renovated,” and wouldn’t have capitalized every word, but that’s not my call. Then I got to the second paragraph, where they mention the “vibrant community of Troy”. That is just a lie. There are a thousand adjectives better suited to describe Troy. I would go so far to say that Troy is perhaps the most un-vibrant community I can think of.

I got used to this kind of public relations doublespeak while I was attending RPI. It’s kind of awful when the instutition you’re a part of needs to practically lie about things like censorship and budget cuts and staff layoffs. I truly hope my new school is a tad more reasonable.

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.