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Flog of the Prokonsul

Internet fluency, digital governance and Wikipedia propaganda. You have been warned.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Political parties, Part 1

In my third and last blaper I will write about the essay 'The Challenge of E-democracy for political parties' (available online as a pdf), by Grant Kippen and Gordon Jenkins.

Let's start with some interesting tidbits of info from 'who is who' analysis - a little hermeneutics never hurt anyoine :)

Mr. Kippen, unlike most of the contributors to Shane's 'Democracy Online' we are reading, is not an academic. He seems to be involved with the world of business (The Hillbrooke Group), political think tanks and NGOs (National Democratic Institute for International Affairs) and politics (being an organizer of an '93 electronic campaign fofor the Liberal Party of Canada).

Gordon Jenkins also doesn't seem like an academic. One of the editors of the Journal of Internet Banking and Commerce, he is involved with the International Institute of Business Technologies.

So we face an interesting question: how, if at all, will backgrounds of those authors influence the article? Stay tuned for the answer.

Breakthrough next door

KurzweilAI.net, a technology breakthrough newsite I visit, has reported an interesting discovery next door (CMU):

Tribune-Review, October 28, 2005

Carnegie Mellon University and German scientists unveiled technology on Thursday that makes it possible to speak one language, yet be understood in another.

In a demonstration, sensors captured electrical signals from facial muscles; a computer recognized the words, translated them, displayed them on a screen, and spoke them in both languages.

"Translation goggles" also displayed the translated words on a miniature virtual screen on eyeglasses. And small ultrasound speakers delivered a narrow beam of sound in a foreign language to one person, while others nearby heard the same words in the language they were spoken.

Read Original Article>>

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Blogger Nugget

Blogger now offers a tool (backlinks) to track back people linking to your posts. Useful, although I'd like to see something that would track who links to the blog itself.

Google has this capability in theory: when you type in a website adress, it gives you options to see 'what links there'. However, it seems broken to me - I always get 0 results when I use this option. Possibly it is an error of syntax - does it work for you? Can you figure out how to make it work? If so, drop me a comment.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Project update 3

Meeting with CIDDE went very well. Things should be speeding up soon. I'll add more details when I am not moving between classes :)

Update: I have talked with professor Laudato and I am happy to report he thinks this project has potential. In the coming week (or so) I will probably attend a larger CIDDE meeting and present the idea to more people.

The avalanche has started... hopefully :)

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Controversial (?) nugget

Since I feel like being non-wiki and controversial today, below is the link to the short movie I mentioned at the end of our class, as a slight counterpoint to the two other movies we watched. It is not a pro-conservative movie, since it is not a US production at all - it is actually a promo of a new Japaneese anime series, Full Metal Panic: Second Raid. But, whether one likes anime or not, I find it an excellent, graphic explanation of why military intervention in another country may be justified.

Opening this can of worms further, in order to download the movie you need to install (assuming you don't have it) a BitTorrent software, as the series has not been officialy translated into English and the only available and unofficial trailers with English subtitles are distributed that way. BitTorrent technology is actually a good subject for another digital fluency nugget. It represents one of the (in)famous peer-to-peer (P2P) file distribution tool, is open sourced, and used to download not only the pirated stuff but for completly legal large files (like Linux distributions (i.e. operating system install files)).

BitTorrent can be used by software developers who want to ease the bandwidth strain on their servers. If a developer offers a large file for download, the bandwidth limit of their server may be exceeded if a large number of people download the file. By offering the file via BitTorrent, they transfer much of the bandwidth burden to downloaders of the file. For example, the demo of the flight sim X-Plane is offered via BitTorrent, as well as the World of Warcraft ingame patches. Another such example is PlaneShift, a free open-source MMORPG, which uses BitTorrent for its primary method of distribution. The fan-film Star Wars: Revelations is distributing two DVD images as well as the film by itself via BitTorrent, and Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning, a feature-length film, was provided for download via the network besides a centralized server. The NetBSD operating system version 1.6.2 and later as well as most major Linux distributions use BitTorrent as an alternative way of distributing ISO images of their releases.

Following the success of the BitTorrent protocol, Bram Cohen, its creator, was hired in 2004 by Valve Software to develop a means of distributing patches and other content for online video games, proving that there are some less controversial reasons for the development of this technology. While many legal files, including Linux distributions, are available on other networks such as eDonkey2000 and Gnutella these are placed there by users and not generally part of the official distribution mechanism. So far, BitTorrent seems to be the most popular P2P protocol adopted officially for legal uses.

So, after this intro, here is the promised link. File (avi) needs to be opened with a BitTorrent application, and size is 45mb. I hope you enjoy it :)

PS. For a list of BitTorrent clients to chose from, see Wiki :)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Copyright nugget

As a more academic companion to the copyright rant I posted recently on my main blog, I'd like to recommend this short article about the danger of non-commercial open source licences, written by a fellow Wikipedian.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Project update 2

Some bad news: seems like there will be no presentation at i-fest - we were to late and they say their schedule is full :( Shame they cannot make room - I will be sure to contact them early next year (yes, I do plan to carry this after this term).

But on the bright side, there is a possibility of having a presentation for SIS dept - hopefully I will be hearing more from them soon. Any advice on whom to contact about other presenations would be great.

A technical issue: I think that a PowerPoint presentation may not be the best way to tell people about Wiki - I feel that a demonstration with a large computer screen (like the one we have in class) would be much more useful. I.e. instead of talking and showing slides, it may be better to demonstrate with mouse where are the tools/pages we will be talking about. What do you think about such an approach? Is there any software that may be helpful during such presentations (for example, enlarging mouse pointer may be useful)?

A back-up PP presentation in case of Wiki downtime may be useful. But again, an alternative may be a 'screencast software' - does anybody have any experience with that and could recommend the best soft I can download and play with?

In other digital fluency nugget related news, you may want to check this article:

All human life is indexed on the web

Search engines are changing the face of business forever

Friday, October 14, 2005

Project update

To people interesting in how the Wikipedia project is going along, some good news:
1) I got a word back from CIDDE, they are interested in hearing more. Hopefully I will meet with them f2f this month.
2) I am also working on Wikipedia front, trying to organize and expand tools available there. See Wikipedia resources for researchers for category listing various useful articles. Eventually, I hope to create a nice looking academic portal on Wiki. Any help with that would be as appreciated as real life / Pitt related efforts, so if you want to help with my project online, do let me know.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Online Deliberations, Part 2

In the second and main part of my blog, I'd like to adress some key points raised in the article.

Witschge writes that "to understand the democratic possibilites of the Internet, we need to understand its users". That's a wise advice. Understanding technology itself is not enough - after all, it is not the technology (software) that votes or makes decisions. Two main issues she adresses are heterogeneity and anonymity.

As was already raised in our discussions, there is substantial fear that Internet will do little to encourage people to engage in constructive debates about democracy or take part in decision making process. Some people (Cass Sunstein, author of Republic.com) had even argues that it may have an opposite, negative effect and actually increase the polarization. As Witschge points out, the current research is at best inconclusive. People are likely to search for like minded individuals, but much less likely to search for those different, that are likely to disagree with them (well, with the exception of those that actually like heated discussions, preaching and convincing others - I wonder what's the percentage of such people in general population, and how can we define them in psychological trait?). This is as true online as offline, and those who thought that technology will radically transform human nature have been (not for the first time...) brutally disappointed.

But I don't think it forms a reasonalble ground for pessimism. Majority of population is uniterested in political discource and decision making in offline world and is unlikely to change their behaviour online. Sad, but its the reality we have to deal with. My advice is to forget about them and concentrate on that segment of population that is active off and online. How does Internet affects the activists? I very much doubt it has the negative effect predicted by the author of Republic.com. Or, to be more correct - I doubt it it matter. We are likely to meet those 'different' when we engage in various activities. And this is where Internet shines: since it allows people to engage in so many various activities much easier then offline, the frequency of political discourse will increase because Internet has made easier to engage purposely in it and because people will find themselves meeting others more often. And from this increased frequency will come increasing understanding of others, and simply more chance meetings of people we want to talk with.

Yes, we are building 'our daily selves' (and why not?), when we visit the pages we like, read the stuff we are interested in - but at the same time we are also meeting other people and discussing various topics with them, commenting on articles, blogs, usenet, wikis, forums... Since all activities are easier and less time consuming then in real world, we can afford to do both more. Granted, most people won't bother - but they wouldn't bother in real life. And those who do can do so (I hope) much more effectively.

Witschge other point, on the dangers of anonymity, is one I wholeheartly agree with her. Anonymity is mostly negative. If you have something valuable to say, you should not be afraid of using your real name and I am more likely to pay attention to a post signed with a name (although it is always a matter of trust - who goes to the trouble of verify if it is real?). At least, that holds true in a society respecting free speach - I can completly understand why people in lets say China or Iran may want to remain anonymous on the net. It is interesting that Wiki (yes, you knew I'd mention it eventually :D) functions well with most of its users being anonymous - but I would wager a guess there are different levels of anonymosity. I.e. a person may not sign with their real name, but in time it comes to value its online anonymous avatar as much as its real world self, thus they are likely to act respectably and don't want to risk stigmatism for offensive behaviour to befall their online avatar. And since Wiki promotes civility, people who want to be respected there want to behave, no matter if they are anonymous or not.

Comments, as always, awaited and appreciated.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Online Deliberations, Part 1

Starting with the review of 'Online Deliberations: Possibilities of the Internet for Deliberative Democracy) in Shane, I will again start with the note about author:

Tamara Witschge is a PhD student at the Universiteit van Amsterdam. Quoting from her homepage, her "research focuses on online discussions of contested issues. She aims to gain insight into the process of online discussions, specifically regarding the openness of the debates."

Quite a few of her publications seem to be scattered online, like the earlier version (2002) of the paper we are reading (pdf warning!).

No bow tie...

Unfortunately, it does not appear she is a blogger, so I wouldn't expect another prominent visitor.... but them, we can never be entire sure, can we?

Soon I will post my thoughts on the paper. For now I strongly advice you all to read it - it is short, nicely written, will only take a few minutes of your time, and is definetly worth it.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Deep web

Time for a new fluency nugget. The topic for today is the 'deep web', also known as the 'invisible web'. To quote from Wiki article, which I have just finished updating:

The deep web (or invisible web or hidden web) is the name given to pages on the World Wide Web that are not part of the surface web that is indexed by common search engines.

Now, this would be just a trivia if not for the information on of how to access the deep web and the fairly extensive list of specialized search engines listed on Wiki page. Some of them are not very efficient, but others may prove to be quite useful when you want to find more information.

Of course, beware of the FUTON bias...

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Technologies for Democracy, Part 3

In this last blog about Froomkin's article, I'd like to raise an important issue for our discussion.

Scalability. The new tools we see on the net are pretty, but how scalable are they? 10 comments may be not enough, but 100 makes for a long reading. What about 10,000?

We have been hearing some interesting concepts on this from our recent guest, Peter Muhlberger, but unfortunately with our resident liveblogger stricken by flu it appears we don't have any notes online to go over the links he mentioned (a shame - can anybody fix this?).

And ideas are all well and good, but does anybody know of any projects being implemented and actually using such large scale digital governance projects?

One thing that struck me about all those projects we have been hearing about is that they are all about designing better software. Software is good, but aren't we forgetting the human factor?

There is one comforting thing I can tell you from personal experience with Wiki. With hundreds of thousands registerted editors and many anonymous, we are still far from being overloaded with comments. Even controversial, 'hot' subjects are under control, as with increased numbers of comments and edits we gain increased numbers of editors working together, keeping track of current discussion, updating the article with the evolving consensus, guarding against vandalism and if the subject is important and broad enough, even creating dedicated projects.

You see, people who edit Wiki do it for *fun* - I know of no Wikipedian who is bored editing. This means basically that we have managed to gather specialists (or hobbists) from area as diverse as Aa, Estonia to Złotów County (in other terms, we have now over 750,000 articles). And this is just a tip of the iceberg.

There are many tasks involved in our project beyond simple article writing. We have software developers. We have a police force. We have a detective agency. We have a cleanup crew. We have such strange organisations as the Arbitration Committee, Association of Members' Advocates, Welcoming Committee and even people taking care of BJAODN (don't ask). And as strange as this sounds, we even have people who even find administrative and bureaucratic tasks fun and carry them on efficiently and with passion. Come to think of it, we probably have people taking care of the proverbial kitchen sink as well. But unlike the classical bureaucracy, we don't allow ourselves to became overburdened with rules for the sake of rules - our encyclopedic conentent is growing almost expotentially, which I think is a good indicator that we are doing a fair job.

The point is that with the growth of a project, it doesn't have to collapse under its own weight - if it is flexible enough to utilize the full potential of its users. This leads me to a hypothesis that if we can delegate parts of governance related jobs to volunteers/hobbists, we can end up with the best sorting/analytical system this side of a strong AI.

Sometimes I have this vision of a government run by volunteers and hobbists. I am not sure if this is would be a utopia or dystopia, though :) Can they do a worse job then our current politicians? Often, I wonder. Seriously: sure they can. But - can they do better? If Wikipedia is any indicator, this is at least a subject meriting more study and discussion.

Well, that's all for today, folks. Awaiting your comments!

Oh. Sorry I didn't manage to cover the promised meaning of life topic. But don't worry, the answer is out there - go read the The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which is actually one of our Featured Articles on Wiki :)

And don't forget to check some previous commens - I think you will be suprised who found us already! (Stu, you may yet become quite (in)famous :D).

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Technologies for Democracy, Part 2

After the brief introduction to the author, it is time to dive into the proper article. What were the most important issues Michael Froomkin raises?

Internet provides tools for a better discourse.

Keep the above in mind because it is, really, what his article is about. It is a well known fact that most people tend to forget majority of what they read soon afterwards. I don't expect you to remember most of my blogs, and I am sure Froomkin doesn't expect his readers to remember much of his article. But if you can remember the above idea, I think both of us will be quite happy with the outcome :)

Now, its time for some details. There are some interesting issues Froomkin raises in his article that I plan to discuss today and tommorow (in the last, third part of 'Technologies for Democracy' series). They mostly resolve around the technologies for better discourse and their impact Those technologies mentioned by Froomkin are blogs, wikis, 'collaborative filtering tools' (like Slashdot) and 'community deliberation tools'.

The first two we are all (I hope...) fairly familiar by now. Froomkin, being a blogger himself, makes good points about the raising importance and benefits of blogs, especially as a form of cosmopolitan views exchange and political commentary (see also my recent blog about the P-blogs). However, I do think he undervaluates wikis (he doesn't mention Wikipedia at all! shame, I say!). I'd guess this stems from personal experience (or rather, lack of it) - he probably didn't spend much time in the wiki communities. I am perfectly willing to excuse it considering his valuable input on blogs and other projects - but let me adress a few wiki-related points that I think would benefit from further consideration in his article.

Froomkin mention some interesting wiki-based projects (like Openlaw), but I think he misses the important point about wikis: they are not only databases, but also a discussion forums. Blogs don't make for a good database - thus I think that for anything more complex then a news report, wikis are a much better choice (and even here I could argue with Wikinews). Besides, even as a discussion forum wiki offers a better functionality that a normal blog: headers allow the discussion of many topics on a same page, indents allow it to be as readable as the Usenet discussion, and interlinks allow users to move the discussion into completly new subpages and of course create a thematical pages on related concepts. I am not saying that blogs will die out or be replaced by wikis, but I am sure that most complex projects, wikis are better then blogs. And I think that virtually anything connected to some serious governance projects is complex.

The 'collaborative filtering tools' section is very interesting, but I have one problem with it: Froomking mentions Slashdot as the only example. Slashdot, being a very interesting cross between a website and a blog, with a dash of some fairly unique ideas of its own, is definetly a framework with lot of potential. Unfortunately, as far as I know, no other website has been able to use the 'slash' software to ovetake orginal Slashdot in popularity (see Alexa for the best comparison tools). News reporting and discussion, while worthwile, also limits the impact of this technology on the 'public sphere', just as with the blogs. I can see great potential in some elements of its software, like its 'karma', and I'd like to see it implemented in wikis (including *the Wiki*) and other 'community deliberation tools'. All this considered, I am not sure if Slashdot is really important enough to deserve its own section - but I have to admit I am fairly unfamiliar with the site, so maybe one of you, dear readers, more familiar with this subject would like to support Froomkin's POV?

Finally, we reach the governent-related 'community deliberation tools', a subject perhaps most important in terms of government digital governance and erulemaking. I do hope that tools like deliberative polls and others, drawing on experiences and innovations of community created sites like blogs, wikis, Slashdot and other more or less exotic sites out there, will lead us to a more efficient political system. From town meetings to country policy, those tools promise us a possibility of a major change - vastly increasing the power of our votes. Of course, as Froomkin himself mentions, a promise is just this - a promise. It is up to us to use it - or lose it.

Tune in tommorow for some ending comments on scaling, digital divide, Jürgen Habermas, human nature and the meaning of life.

A final thought for today: since I decided to blog my paper, I certainly hope to receive some comments here!

Monday, October 03, 2005

Technology for Democracy, Part 1

Since we have those blogs, I think it would be a shame to not use them when doing the papers. Honestly, docs are so last century... OK, that may be a bit too far. But I fully intend to utilise the potential of blogs when talking about my scheduled paper for this week, about 'Technology for Democracy'. Besides, nobody said that those papers have to be docs, did they?

And I think it would be wise to start by doing a little hermeneutics and learning who is (A.) Micheal Froomkin.

Well, he is the guy who is not afraid of wearing a red bow tie, and even putting such a photo on his homepage. Further, he apparently likes anagrams, linking the first word on his page to one :) And last but not least, he is a serious blogger. All things considered, I think he would fit well into our class :)

With such an introduction, I think you will be more inclined to read his essay, if you haven't done so.

To be continued...