Friday, January 12, 2007

The Universal Service Fund -> free international calls

That's certainly not what the USF is for, but one enterprising person in Iowa is using it that way, according to a scheme described by Michael Arrington on TechCrunch:
Here’s my understanding of how this works: the founder created his own telephone company in Iowa. Iowa is apparently the only state taking advantage of an FCC kickback scheme that gives telco’s a portion of the fees generated from every inbound call to an Iowa number. So when you call the AllFreeCalls phone number, a portion of any long distance fees you are paying go to the company. The kickback is apparently authorized via the Universal Service Fund. These kickbacks are enough on average to more than cover the international outbound calling fees.
Arrington admits that he hasn't quite wrapped his head around how this works. I'd be surprised (and dismayed) if it were allowed to continue for long -- that's really not what the USF is for!

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The Army's Counterinsurgency Manual

The US Military's counterinsurgency manual is getting a lot of play now that its main author, Gen. Petraeus, has been put in charge of forces in Iraq. I've only skimmed it, but am intrigued that it has an entire appendix on social network analysis.

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The Goddard Space Center and Section 508

The Goddard Space Center has some surprisingly strong and clear guidelines for testing and designing websites for Section 508 compliance.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Reading :: On Bullshit

On Bullshit
by Harry G. Frankfurt

This thin monograph, based on a 1986 paper, examines the concept of "bullshit" to attempt a definition. It's unclear how tongue-in-cheek the monograph is, but if we take it at face value, we can see it as a capsule of some of the problems and conflicts going on in philosophy.

What I mean by that is that the book is particularly concerned with truth-value and nailing down concepts in relationship to it. Frankfurt claims that "bullshit" is not lying, since liars are fundamentally concerned with truth and their relationship to it, but "bullshitters" aren't; the essence of bullshit is indifference to the truth. Furthermore, Frankfurt avers that
the contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things really are. These "antirealist" doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. (pp.64-65)
Frankfurt is of course describing -- at least in part -- postmodernism and its variants. He goes on to claim that one response to the postmodernist crisis is to turn to sincerity, i.e., being true to oneself because one cannot find objective truth. He punctures this conceit and concludes that "insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit" (p.67).

Well. This last gloss -- it appears in the last few pages of the book -- tells us a lot about the rest of the book. Frankfurt provides no cites here, performs a sweeping generalization of the postmodernist position (although he doesn't use the term "postmodernism"), and lumps a lot of separate inquiries into a straw argument. I didn't find this gloss to be particularly convincing or fair.

I also didn't find the author's methodology to be particularly convincing. Ask a linguist what "bullshit" (or any other term) means and she will point to how the word is enacted differently in different regions and communities. Ask a phenomenologist and he will conduct an empirical inquiry to demonstrate relative coherence in the concept's use within a given group. Ask a Deleuzian philosopher or an actor-network theorist and she will trace the associations that are made between the term and other relative terms. In each of these investigations -- some of which are empirical investigations -- we see some recognition that terms and concepts exist within human activity and in relation to other terms and concepts. But Frankfurt, who empasizes the importance of objective inquiry, avoids any empirical study of how the term and concept are used, contenting himself with examples from Wittgenstein's letters and thought experiments from daily life in order to nail down the "essence" of the term.

For an empiricist rhetorician like myself, that seems like a rather odd way to perform an objective inquiry -- unless an "objective inquiry" is as self-contained and solipsistic as the enterprise of "sincerity" that the author derides in his final pages.

Reading :: God's Debris

God's Debris
by Scott Adams

Imagine that you're eighteen and in your first semester at the University of X. You've made some fast friends in your dorm, and one night, after watching the midnight film in the student union and drinking too much Mountain Dew, you hang out and talk philosophy. You warm up over head-scratchers such as "If God is all-powerful, can He create a weight so heavy He can't lift it?" Whoa. Talk about expanding your consciousness.

God's Debris is like one of those late-night bull sessions that seem so profound when you're eighteen and so embarassing when you're thirty-five. Scott Adams, best known for his Dilbert comic strip, cops to this in the introduction, sort of:
The target audience of God's Debris is people who enjoy having their brains spun around inside their skulls. After a certain age most people are uncomfortable with new ideas. That certain age varies by person, but if you're over fifty-five (mentally), you probably won't enjoy this thought experiment. ... If you're twenty-three, your odds of liking it are very good. (pp.ix-x)

The book is designed as a dialogue, exactly like those dorm room dialogues, but between a delivery driver and a mysterious old man who discuss the nature of God, reality, and so forth. And it works exactly like those bull sessions, which is to say that it draws its apparent power by oscillating between absolute and relative statements to create the illusion of profundity. For instance, the main character argues that
words such as dimension and field and infinity are nothing more than conveniences for mathematicians and scientists. They are not descriptions of reality, yet we accept them as such because everyone is sure someone else knows what the words mean. (p.21)

But earlier the character intones that "'only probability is inexplicable'," and he uses probability as the uncontested, absolute bedrock for most of the rest of the discussion, as if probability is not an abstraction or "convenience" in the same way that the other concepts are. The dialogue is littered with examples like this one. For instance, after claiming that human beings are not equipped to understand God or judge His motivations, the character confidently claims that the only challenge that could interest God would be destroying Himself. (This notion gives the book its title.)

Reading the book and tracking its claims is like trying to get rid of that bump in the carpet: Adams pushes down on one spot, and it goes flat, but the bump appears somewhere else. It is this rapid circulation -- this process of taking one abstraction as a bedrock truth in order to challenge other abstractions -- that gives the dialogue an appearance of motion when there actually is none. Stances such as solipsism and logical positivism are tried on when convenient and abandoned just as quickly. So Adams' target audience -- "people who enjoy having their brains spun around inside their skulls" -- should be fairly happy with the circular motion of the book's argument.

I don't think I'm giving anything away by noting that the book essentially concludes that the geek will inherit the earth -- the introvert who is more interested in ideas than people, the skeptic who enjoys abstract logic puzzles, the person who has to be given basic lessons in human interaction (pp.105-121). That's hardly surprising for anyone who has read Dilbert. But part of the charm of Dilbert is that the character is self-effacing and put-upon by the world's vagaries. That self-effacement is gone here. Imagine Dilbert as Plato and you'll get the thrust of this book.

Reading :: Lifehacker

Lifehacker: 88 Tech Tricks to Turbocharge Your Day
By Gina Trapani

Lifehacker is based on the popular blog edited by Trapani, a sort of Hints from Heloise for the knowledge economy set. The blog is terrific, and I've picked up several ideas and examples from it myself. But of course these ideas and examples are fleeting. Will the bright idea of hacking a Yahoo Calendar feature be useful next month? Will this virtual screen software be useful once the next version of OSX comes out? Probably not. For that reason, one would think that a book based on this sort of blog would have the half-life of polonium.

Indeed, many of the tricks and examples in Lifehacker have a short shelf life -- but Trapani has organized these examples around more lasting, strategic principles for managing work in information-saturated and heavily interrupted activities. Principles such as "free up mental RAM," "firewall your attention," and "avoid repetitive tasks" are useful principles, even if the examples that illustrate them won't generally survive after Vista has been released. And Trapani does a good job of pointing to ways that make these hacks last and transfer, such as her attention to plain text todo lists.

The book itself is written in an engaging style; I think most of the book was culled directly from blog posts. If you're interested in lifehacking, but you want the material to be a bit more pulled together than the blog affords, this book is for you.


Wikinomics looks like an interesting book:

In the last few years, traditional collaboration—in a meeting room, a conference call, even a convention center—has been superceded by collaborations on an astronomical scale.

Today, encyclopedias, jetliners, operating systems, mutual funds, and many other items are being created by teams numbering in the thousands or even millions. While some leaders fear the heaving growth of these massive online communities, Wikinomics explains how to prosper in a world where new communications technologies are democratizing the creation of value. Anyone who wants to understand the major forces revolutionizing business today should consider Wikinomics their survival kit.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The new blog

I've been blogging my readings on my Reading List blog since June 2003 and my observations of net culture and net work on the Net Work blog since August 2005. But recently I decided to consolidate the entire enterprise here, under one blog hosted off of UT servers. Why? Several reasons:
  • Maintaining two different blogs is unwieldy. I find that I have to crosslink them too much; they interrelate heavily.
  • Consolidating the blogs means that I can blog daily, even when I don't have a book to review.
  • Maintaining your own blogging platform poses several problems in terms of security, data storage, and continuity. I'd rather outsource that work.
  • Posting on Blogger raises the profile of the posts. While migrating the backlog of my Reading List posts, I began getting comments and email from people who had run across posts there -- but who had not seen the same posts on my old blogs.
  • Posting here allows me to link to Amazon products with a referrer account and to take ads. This is a little experiment more than anything: I don't expect to make any real money from the blog, but I am interested in how these sorts of micropayments work.
  • Blogger's search capabilities are superior to Drupal's, meaning that posts can be found faster.
Anyway, here it is, the new blog. As always, email me with comments or suggestions.

... but where is my keypad?

Roger Johansson at 456 Berea Street asks the relevant question about the iPhone. A screen-only phone means a loss of tactile input, which has implications for SMS but also for visually disabled users. I also wonder how greasy the touchpad will get ...

Update: 37Signals' blog raises the same question from a different angle.

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Quickly reviving the iPod

A few days ago I suggested that Samsung and the mobile phone industry were slowly killing the iPod by introducing vastly expanded flash memory that could boost phones' capacity to hold music. Apple's announcement of the iPhone yesterday demonstrates that they have been thinking about this issue much longer and deeper than I have. It seems to be a big step in the right direction, integrating audio and video iPod services, calendaring, address book, web browsing (with wifi), and so forth. The form factor and browsing capability suggest that this device could take sales away from adjacent markets as well, such as the PSP, which Sony's been using to try to break into the handheld entertainment and web browsing market.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Cliche finder

I think I'll have my students use this...
Submit a few paragraphs to the Finder which searches for clichés listed in the Associated Press Guide to News Writing. Even if your clichés are few and far between, the Cliché Finder will light up the various and sundry overused phrases beyond the shadow of a doubt and shatter your blissful ignorance like a bull in a china shop.

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Monday, January 08, 2007

GM's Volt

Via Slashdot, this report on the new Volt, a plug-in hybrid:
The Volt has a battery-powered electric motor that can run the car for up to 40 city miles on a single charge. Beyond that, a gasoline-powered, one-liter, three-cylinder engine can generate electricity to power the car and replenish the battery, with a range of up to 640 miles, GM said.
It's styled like a Murano.

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San Francisco's municipal wifi

Via Slashdot, this story on the details of S.F.'s new WiFi agreement. This deal bears watching because it might become the model for other municipal agreements.

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