Danny Taggart's Blogarama

A more-or-less daily dose of news, politics, techmology, and any random thoughts that pass through my head.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Germany to women: Screw or be screwed

From the Telegraph (via Volokh):
    A 25-year-old waitress who turned down a job providing "sexual services'' at a brothel in Berlin faces possible cuts to her unemployment benefit under laws introduced this year.
    Under Germany's welfare reforms, any woman under 55 who has been out of work for more than a year can be forced to take an available job – including in the sex industry – or lose her unemployment benefit.
The reason the German government didn't make an exception for prostitution:
    The government had considered making brothels an exception on moral grounds, but decided that it would be too difficult to distinguish them from bars.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Is TradeSports trading on its own exchange?

I'm looking at the Iraq elections futures on TradeSports and notice that there have been a number of trades at 99.9. This is very strange to me because the trading fees are $0.04 per block per trade/expiry. So that means that any buy order at 99.2 or above would necessarily incur a loss because of trading fees. It wouldn't make sense for a trader to engage in this kind of behavior. The only explanations I can think of are:
1. TradeSports waives the fees for certain high-volume traders.
2. TradeSports itself engages in trading on its own exchange, something which they specifically deny in their FAQ.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Google unveils AdWords API

Here is the AdWords API page and here is the actual API reference. (via Battelle). I guess they don't have an AdSense API, contrary to previous speculation. This makes more sense. The AdWords API sounds like an ad monitoring / ad generation tool; basically makes the process more efficient. An AdSense API would really screw with their business model fundamentally. I'll be keeping my eye out for more details.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The euro-hypocrites

The Europeans are hoppin' mad. First, we go into Iraq without their permission. Instead, we built our own "coalition of the willing" to do the job. Now, we build another coalition to distribute aid to Tsunami victims, ignoring the Euroweenies once again. Let me get this straight, the Europeans are building a supranational government, with its own currency, to try to take over the world. ....And they're complaining that the US is building its own coalitions??

Monday, January 24, 2005

Google ad API

Google is coming out with an API for AdWords and AdSense (via Searchblog). Details are sketchy, but here is a summary from Silicon Valley Watcher:
    For the first time, the search giant will provide its advertisers with an application programming interface (API), which will enable them to link their computer systems with Google and control parts of the mammoth Google ad delivery system. The API will allow advertisers to self-administer the delivery, the timing and the price they will pay for their text ads.
    The Google API is only available to advertisers and not to online publishers carrying Google ads.
One key question: Will advertisers be able to exclude specific sites from their ad delivery? The implications are enormous.

If the answer is yes, advertisers will now have direct control over their traffic. This ability will help them detect and act against fraudulent clicks in real-time, without appealing to Google's bureaucracy. It will also give them more leverage with Google, in terms of shaping security and content-delivery policy.

Let's consider a hypothetical here. Advertisers may decide they don't trust certain behavioral segments of web traffic. So they say, for example, "exclude domain blogspot.com". Google's publisher base will tend to erode under these conditions. The survivors will be large, trusted publishers with a name and audience. But where is Google's competitive advantage in such a market? The point is, giving advertisers control over ad delivery undermines Google's unique strength - leveraging large data sets and broad traffic patterns. If Google gives this up, it will face tough competition from people who are already exploring alternative ad models like blogads.com, kanoodle.com, snap.com.

But it's not clear that this functionality will be present in the API. We'll just have to wait and see.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Google click fraud update

There's an interesting Slashdot discussion about a Newsweek article on click fraud. Well, this is finally getting some more attention. But, investors still don't seem to get the message. Google's stock is back up to 194 from its short hiatus in the 170s. This, even though the AdSense program is essentially a giant scam which will collapse in the next couple of years. This would be catastrophic for Google. Their 2004 Q3 financial release states:
    Revenue generated on Google’s partner sites, through AdSense programs, contributed $384.3 million, or 48 percent of total revenue, a 120 percent increase over the Network revenue generated in the same quarter last year.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Filtering the blogosphere some more

Thinking about the Jim Miller article some more, I wondered why Bloglines or other RSS aggregators don't implement some kind of efficient filter that recommends specific posts, instead of blogs. I am getting increasingly frustrated at having to manage a blogroll that only gets me maybe one interesting post out of five. Bloglines should have some functionality that allows me to grade specific posts and then intelligently ranks future posts based on my past preferences.

Of course, you could make such a system much more sophisticated. For example, you could cluster people's preferences and generate recommendations based on what people like you find interesting. This approach saves you from having to develop an intelligent ranking system based solely on individual data, which would probably end up frustrating a lot of people anyway. (Imagine you happen to downrank two posts which talk about Iraq and Bloglines assumes you don't want any news about Iraq.) I suspect a number of people out there are working on such things, but I haven't seen it yet.

Filtering the blogosphere

James D. Miller argues that the blogosphere depolarizes American politics by exposing people to novel ideological intersections they otherwise would not have encountered. He points to Andrew Sullivan as an example of the cross-ideological bloggers drawing supposedly incompatible audiences. He also addresses the view that blogs polarize politics by allowing people to seek out only information which reinforces their beliefs. Miller argues that polarization will actually be reduced by efficient filtering technology which serves up only those articles which may interest you:
    An online dating service has value only if it matches you up with people you would have otherwise never have met. Similarly, a good news filter should locate material you wouldn't have ordinarily found. For example, I wouldn't be helped by a filter that tells me to check out the Becker-Posner Blog because, given my tastes and web reading habits, this blog is something I would read and find independent of the aid of any filter. In contrast, I would benefit from having a filter that informs me of an interesting article on a blog I had never heard of before.
This argument is not so convincing. Yes, filters can point you to new information that interests you, but this simply means that your values are being reinforced with new information. One could argue that inefficient filters would expose you to information you otherwise would not have considered, opening up your mind to new possibilities.

Now, I agree with Miller, but I would argue it a little differently. I would say that it is unrealistic to expect people to open their minds to new ideas if they are being force-fed information they do not find interesting or useful. This is the old mentality that it is the media's job to "educate" the masses.

Is it possible for someone to stagnate by seeking out information that validates only a very narrow vision? Yes, but this person would fare no better in a top-down information model. He would find the news boring or frustrating. I suppose this is why newspaper circulation is tanking.

But it is not necessarily true that reinforcing one's beliefs with new information leads to closed-mindedness and stagnation. This assumes that the world of ideas is indeed polar and that if people of belief #1 are not at least sometimes exposed to belief #2, they will never break out of the confines of belief #1. But the world is not polar - it is a network. New information necessarily exposes people to new angles on old ideas, new reasons for existing beliefs. Information can flow between disparate belief systems, but slowly, organically. The effects of the blogosphere network are to tie people together and act against isolation.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Ayn Rand Institute losing its edge

One thing I liked about Ayn Rand is that she didn't do bullshit. If she had a position, no matter how unpopular, she defended it without compromise. The same can't be said of her successors at the Ayn Rand Institute in the wake of their tsunami PR disaster. Can anyone make heads or tails of this hairsplitting quote?
    Obviously, the tsunami, with the thousands of innocent victims left in its wake, is a horrible disaster. The first concern of survivors and of those trying to help them is to provide basic necessities and then to begin rebuilding. The American public's predictably generous response to assist these efforts is motivated by goodwill toward their fellow man. In the face of the enormous and undeserved suffering, American individuals and corporations have donated millions of dollars in aid; they have done so by and large not out of some sense of altruistic duty but in the name of the potential value that another human being represents. This benevolence, which we share, is not the same thing as altruism. [Emphasis mine.]

Friday, January 14, 2005

Ayn Rand Institute whitewashes history

The Ayn Rand Institute published an op-ed by David Holcberg during the tsunami disaster arguing that the US government should not give aid to the tsunami victims. After the PR disaster that followed, ARI "clarified" its position in another article (which I will discuss later). I noticed, however, that ARI removed the original op-ed from its web site. The link that originally pointed to it has been redirected to an article about Iraq. Fortunately, Google has a cached copy of it. Clarifying your position is one thing; obliterating history so that you control the discussion is completely unethical and unwise of an organization who wants its ideas taken seriously.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

60 Minutes at it again

60 Minutes ran a story on January 2nd about Google, its business and culture. At one point, Lesley Stahl does a Google search for "60 Minutes", which yields results she complains are "controversial" (the Drudge Report featured prominently in the results). This is a "problem" apparently. Here's the quote:
    That includes the term "60 Minutes," for which Google's computers return 19 million search results in one-fifth of a second. But at first glance, the top results are all related to "60 Minutes" stories that have created some kind of controversy. And that’s a big problem with Google: Its ranking system tends to put negative events or statements at the top of the list.
Well, gee, the stories that create controversy are the stories that people are talking about. This is exactly what Google is meant to show - the web's concensus of what is most important about any given topic. What is the problem with this?

Basically, Lesley wants Google to act as a PR service of CBS, only presenting results in a non-controversial and respectful manner. I mean, CBS is the paragon of virtue and integrity, right? It would be unseemly to give any attention to those nasty right-wingers who might criticize the demigods of CBS.

Newsflash Lesley: Google doesn't work for CBS. And thank God for that.

Basescu's "axis"

Shortly after winning the presidential election in Romania in December, Traian Basescu expressed his committment to close relations with the US and Britain:
    The Washington-London-Bucharest axis will be a foreign policy priority for Romania's president.
Now, it's clear that Mr. Basescu's intentions are positive. But, I question the use of the word "axis" here. Its use is a bit odd in the foreign policy context of fighting the "Axis of Evil." It also has a historically negative connotation, especially since Romania was initially part of the Axis in World War II. Perhaps a better term would have been "alliance" or "coalition."

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

MMORPG growth

Bruce Sterling Woodcock has an interesting site with all kinds of pretty charts showing MMORPG growth and market share. I used to play Asheron's Call when it peaked in 2001 with ~120,000 subscribers, but now I see the number has fallen below 50,000. Here's a chart of total MMORPG subscriber growth over the past 6 years:

Monday, January 10, 2005

How to market a software design book

Put a hot chick on the cover. No, really. Head First has figured this out. As I was browsing the dry, boring Computers section at Borders, their book really stood out. What better way to appeal to the male-dominated software industry?

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Iraq elections futures (update)

Looks like my initial hunch was correct. The assassination of Baghdad governor Ali al-Haidari on January 4th shocked the Iraq elections futures on Tradesports. I did a little bottom fishing at 81. The price has since rebounded to about 89. There are still about 20 days to go until the election, so maybe some more opportunities will come up.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Sky not falling, American tech not doomed

The publisher of CIO Magazine, Gary Beach, writes an ominously titled article, "The Education Crisis", in the December 15, 2004 issue (via Online Universities Weblog). I suppose it's the fad nowadays to bemoan America's fall from its position as world technology leader. This collective sense of doom oftentimes produces incoherent arguments from otherwise smart people. This is one of those times.

Beach is particularly concerned about the decline in US engineering graduates. To support his concern, he engages in some fuzzy math. He claims that:
    So in the 16 years from 1985 to 2001, there was a 40 percent drop in the number of engineering degrees awarded.
However, he extrapolates this figure from the ratio of engineering degrees to total degrees earned over a number of years, without looking at the change in total degrees earned. If you look at the National Science Foundation statistics, the number of Bachelor's degrees in engineering was 77,572 in 1985 and 59,536 in 2000, a 23% decline. If you count Master's and Doctoral degrees, the totals are 101,710 in 1985 and 90,592 in 2000, an 11% decline. This is a far cry from the 40% Beach claims.

Next, Beach says that this decline is bad news for the "tech business." But surely, the "tech business" consists of more than just engineering. In fact, the number of US science and engineering degrees earned was 422,515 in 1985 and 521,848 in 2000, a 23% increase. How does this square with Beach's claims? The answer is that the decline in engineering graduates is offset by increases in other S&E fields. For example, natural sciences degrees are up 23% from 1985 to 2000.

Furthermore, the decline has not been straight down since 1985. The number has fluctuated, dipping in the early 90s, rising in the late 90s, and dipping again. This is hardly a "crisis", even for engineering.

Nowhere does Beach attempt to explain why engineering degrees are the litmus test for the American educational system or American technology leadership. As the technology industry changes over time, so does the educational landscape. The computer industry has been a primary driver of American growth over the past 10 years and the number of computer science graduates increased to meet the demand. We can expect the same dynamism in the future.

Beach points out that Asian countries are increasing their number of engineering graduates, at higher percentages of total graduates than the US. He also notes that more engineering and natural sciences doctoral degrees are now conferred in Asian countries than in the US. He offers the unsubstantiated claim that "PhDs generate the innovation that creates new industries." Of course, we know about Bill Gates and Michael Dell, neither of whom completed college. I would offer my own unsubstantiated claim that it is the non-PhDs who are busy innovating and creating new industries, not the academics pursuing tenure.

But let's think about the Asian situation a bit more carefully:

1. These countries are heavily investing in fields which will become oversaturated in the long-run, by virtue of the fact that all of them are doing it. Their educated workers will find themselves in the most competitive fields, with commodified wages under constant downward pressure.

2. The technology industry will change ever more rapidly. The skills in demand today may not be in demand tomorrow. That means investing in specialized technical knowledge will not produce the kinds of returns it has in the past. Being able to understand markets and business processes and to be flexible in transitioning one's knowledge and skills is essential. In this case, America has the long-term advantage.

It is true that the American education system faces important challenges. It may even be in a crisis. But the evidence offered in Gary Beach's article does not support this contention. Addressing these challenges requires careful consideration, not knee-jerk alarmism.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Don't use Yahoo Small Business services

I have finally transferred all my domains from Yahoo! Small Business services to a different company. The reason for the switch was bad information security at Yahoo. Here's what happened:

I signed up for a number of services, including domain name registration, web hosting, and email. In my Yahoo profile, I put down all my contact info except my cell phone number, which I try to keep as private as possible. However, in my credit card billing info, I had to type in the phone number associated with my credit card. So, since I assumed that the credit card information is private, I put my cell phone number there.

Fast forward a couple of weeks. I get a call on my cell phone. It's aplus.net asking me if I would like some web hosting for my newly-registered domain name. I asked them how the hell they got my cell phone number. It turns out that they scour the WHOIS for newly-registered domain names. Even though I specifically left out my cell phone number from my Yahoo profile (which is used to populate the WHOIS entry), Yahoo decided unilaterally to include my private credit card-associated number in my public WHOIS entry. What morons!

After God-knows how many calls to Yahoo tech support over two months (that's another story), I managed to get the whole mess straightened out and all my domains transferred from Yahoo's service. Who knows what other security holes they have in their system?

I have other lesser beefs with Yahoo! Small Business, regarding deceptive advertising. Its Yahoo! Domains page states that each domain registration includes free "domain forwarding so you can point to an existing site." Great, but what they don't tell you is that they only provide unmasked forwarding, meaning that your domain name does not show up in the browser address bar. They don't provide masked forwarding, which actually does display your domain name (they will provide it if you pay for web hosting or email service). Other domain registration companies, like NameZero include masked forwarding as the default. Of course, this is a minor complaint compared to their security problems.

Google's weird math

I did a Google search for the word "blog", limited within the past 3, 6, and 12 months. The number of hits for each time period are as follows:
In the past...Hits
3 months20,400,000
6 months19,400,000
12 months21,900,000

What's wrong with this picture? Well, the hit number for 6 months doesn't make any sense. How could more pages have been updated in the past 3 months than have been in the past 6 months? Is there something going on that I'm not getting?

Venezuela gov't steals British-owned land

Read about it here (via The American Thinker, via InstaPundit). It's interesting that the British Embassy has not sent a diplomatic note of protest to the government. I guess this is a trial balloon, with a broader land-nationalization campaign ahead. The only question I have is whether they plan to target only foreign-owned land, or potentially all farmland. According to the CIA World Factbook, agriculture accounted for $5.9 billion (or 5%) of GDP in 2004. That's a good chunk of change.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Oink oink! Our "leaders" in action

This is the stuff that should be repeated in the media, over and over and over again, instead of stupid whining about how Bush didn't express contrition over the Tsunami fast enough. Some excerpts:
    Real estate developer Jonathan Rubini arranged for Stevens to get into a deal in which he turned $50,000 into as much as $1.5 million ‹ and Stevens was the only investor not liable for any debts, the Times said. In the meantime, he muscled through a $450 million contract for Rubini from the military, despite the view of Air Force officials that Rubini "lacked capacity and adequate funding."
    Consider Karen Weldon, the 29-year-old daughter of Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that despite her lack of foreign-policy experience, Karen was given a lobbyist contract of a quarter-million dollars from Serbian interests allied with accused war criminal Slobodan Milosevic, as well as a $20,000-a-month contract with a Russian aerospace manufacturer. Rep. Weldon later pushed to get visas for the Serbians and deals for the Russian company.
Remember, our government-run prisons - oops, I mean schools - teach us these people are our "public servants."