Saturday, July 25, 2009

The AP, Stuck in a Hole, Digs Deeper

The AP, Stuck in a Hole, Digs Deeper: Richard Perez-Pena, reporting for the NYT on the AP’s latest announcement regarding their attempt to restrict their articles from being linked to or appearing in search results:

Tom Curley, The A.P.’s president and chief executive, said the company’s position was that even minimal use of a news article online required a licensing agreement with the news organization that produced it. [...] Each article — and, in the future, each picture and video — would go out with what The A.P. called a digital “wrapper,” data invisible to the ordinary consumer that is intended, among other things, to maximize its ranking in Internet searches. The software would also send signals back to The A.P., letting it track use of the article across the Web.
They have no idea what they’re talking about. Seriously, look at this gibberish. Someone just sold the Associated Press a bag of magic beans. (Via Daring Fireball.)

Ten years ago, the music industry bought into some magic beans called SDMI. I remember discussions back then where some people really believed it would be possible to tie the wrapper indissolubly to the contents. We know how that story evolved. The magic beans were soon discarded for less magic but somewhat more effective lobbying for new laws (DMCA) and legal action by the industry associations. It could be that the AP believes in magic beans, but more likely they believe in their lawyers' ability to use the DMCA to go after any bigger players who do not respect their wrappers. IANAL, but my hunch is that they could erect a plausible case with huge potential downsides for the defendant if there were able to move the argument from fair use, seen as protecting manual copy-and-paste of small quotes by individual authors, to DMCA infringement in using wholesale automatic means to slit AP wrappers in a news aggregator.

Many Web publishers and aggregators already pay the AP for their feeds. IMO the AP is trying to create a legal environment in which any publisher/aggregator that gets big enough will feel compelled to pay up. They may not be able to maintain the high prices they charged in the days of paper, but whatever price they are able to charge is better for them than the zero they get from all those smaller aggregators today.

Behind all of this obfuscation, it's really all an argument about who pays and how much. The news costs something to collect, write, and edit. The AP and other news sources might believe that they have a rarer and more valuable product than they really do — who doesn't feel that way about their creation? — but there is some value that should lead to someprice. What happened is that the old price discovery mechanisms (I buy this physical newspaper or that one, or don't and get my news from radio or TV; with several regulatory and structural inefficiencies that engendered monopoly rents) have not been replaced by sustainable new ones. Thus, the AP is trying to design a new market mechanism that exploits the legal infrastructure that was created by media lobbying. It may be unseemly, but so far we have not been very good at developing an unregulated digital market for news and other content that can effectively balance demand and supply by paying producers enough to keep producing.

Some argue that the problem is that the incumbent producers are too inefficient and just trying to protect their lucrative inefficiency. Sure, but it's not as if there are many examples out there yet of more efficient news producers (as opposed to aggregators and editorializers) who are making a decent living providing all that we seem to want to read today.

I care a lot about the news. I subscribed to the paper NYT for 24 years in CA, NJ, and PA. I don't now because it stayed pretty much the same but my news needs diversified as the Web increased news diversity. I'm also a long-time subscriber to Salon. But I find myself reading it less and less. I'm still a subscriber of the New Yorker, Scientific American, Backcountry magazine, and Ski Journal. I still read much of the New Yorker (and delight in its cartoons) and Ski Journal (a beautiful use of high-gloss print), but the rest is being displaced by a multitude of aggregators and blogs, from Google News to the Loom to Wild Snow that give me access to a much broader range of news in a more timely manner. I'd be happy to pay as much or more as I did for the NYT to support all of those sources in some distributed way that doesn't require me to deal with pay walls for individual properties. Pay walls are very inefficient both economically and mechanically because my news reading only touches a teeny fraction of each source's content over time. I'd love a mechanism where I pay one payee a flat subscription and pennies flow to sources in proportion to the amount of their content I read (BTW, why don't all public radio stations in a metro area do that, based on audience metering?). Market mechanism designers, were are you?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Journal of Experimental Linguistics

The Journal of Experimental Linguistics: JEL is a linguistic "journal of reproducible research", that is, a journal of reproducible computational experiments on topics related to speech and language. [...] In all cases, JEL articles will be accompanied by executable recipes for re­creating all figures, tables, numbers and other results. These recipes will be in the form of source code that runs in some generally-­available computational environment. [...] Although JEL is centered in linguistics, we aim to publish research from the widest possible range of disciplines that engage speech and language experimentally, from electrical engineering and computer science to education, psychology, biology, and speech pathology. In this interdisciplinary context, "reproducible research" is especially useful in helping experimental and analytical techniques to cross over from one sub field to another. (Via Language Log.)

Bravo! Great concept, open access. I am delighted to see the LSA and this outstanding editorial board (alright, I'm not totally objective with so many friends, current and former colleagues there) take this bold step when so many other proposals and arguments in related societies and fora have failed or are barely limping along.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Misunderstanding Bell Labs

On The Washington Note, James Pinkerton claims that cost control in health-care reform will reduce surpluses and thus hurt the kind of discovery and invention at Bell Labs funded by the AT&T surplus. Except that the generous funding of Bell Labs by AT&T in the monopoly period was a consequence of AT&T being a regulated monopoly. Until the 1984 consent decree, AT&T's surpluses were determined by government tariff regulations, and AT&T's expenditures where substantially determined by political considerations ranging from providing employment where it mattered to state and Federal legislators, to supporting national defense goals through R&D. That same AT&T had the power to control what could be attached to its network, to the point of in effect forcing most users to rent its ponderous devices. Users had little to no choice choice in devices, tariffs, and terms of use. Translated to medicine, that AT&T was like a national HMO with one-size-fits-all treatments and an immovable bureaucracy, and with a gold-plated research arm that looked very good in Washington but did not matter much to everyday quality of care. I doubt that is what James Pinkerton wants to see. And I don't see the substantial private sector surpluses of for-profit health insurers, hospitals, or pharma going to much fundamental research. Instead, all the fundamental biomedical research there is (and there is probably less fundamental reseach than there should be) is paid by our Federal income taxes and by a few private foundations (and thus, indirectly, by the tax deductions on charitable giving).

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Regina Carter

Regina Carter quintet at Stanford last night, with Jeff Sanford (clarinet/flute), Fred Harris (piano), Seward McCain (bass) and Akira Tana (drums). Intriguing reinterpretations of classics and classic forms, full of unexpected twists and turns. A quintet that at times sounded like a full orchestra, but also full of intense, mind-bending individual touches. Besides Carter, Harris and Sanford had excellent solo contributions.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The iPhone ate my homework

Why I Hate the iPhone: [...] I hate the iPhone for irrational reasons related to the number of times I get emails like these:

F, I know you want me to send you the text and you should have it in your hands soonish but I'm stuck sending things from my iphone.

[...] For me, the sentence "I'm sending this from my iPhone" does not instill a sense of awe and techno-envy but instead I get a sinking feeling that I'm not going to see a certain draft or a certain figure for a while yet to come. (Via FemaleScienceProfessor.)

The iPhone here is just a popular proxy for the whole class of smartphones; I remember first feeling that way about those "sent from my BlackBerry" signature lines. But there's a deeper issue here: much our work is still stuck where we can't get to it easily from a smartphone. It's a human factors problem — reading and writing are difficult on small screens and keyboards; it's a software problem — technical writing and technical data rely on software that typically does not work on a mobile device or on the cloud; it's a systems problem — much of our data is on machines with restricted connectivity for technical and security reasons. I'd love to stop carrying a laptop everywhere, but it's unlikely that I will be able to in the foreseeable future.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Future Music

I recently became a member of SF Jazz, and just bought tickets for some of their festival concerts in the fall:

I might be tempted to book a few more later, but these were the dates that I could be fairly sure of now.

Why isn't there a similar organization in Philly? There are several venues there that bring excellent jazz and world music artists, but if they worked together, they could create a lot more focus and excitement around the music.