Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Smart Money is Deserting Elsevier reports that "Elsevier's upside potential looks capped," in part because of the success of the open-access movement in universities. 
there is no room for top-line expansion given tight university library budgets, and no room for cost-cutting in an industry where the labor of academic researchers, editors, and peer reviewers is provided, literally, for free. Critics note that even the functions provided by Elsevier - journal layout and reviewer coordination - are often outsourced or poorly performed. For some journals, even layout is handled gratis by academics, who submit their articles pre-formatted according to provided LaTeX templates. 
We regard the common stock as an implicit naked short put option because, while the upside potential from the publishing division is limited, the downside risk from any revolt by its customers (libraries), laborers (academics), or funders (governments) is not. Elsevier's substantial profit margin has persisted for as long as it has partly because of the lack of awareness and the apathy among stakeholders; those factors are changing. 
This is a pretty remarkable development. My colleague Stuart Shieber should get a lot of credit for his leadership (read his Congressional testimony here, or the Cliff's Notes version in the Chronicle of Higher Education).

And if I haven't gotten to you in some other way, please sign the petition to the White House asking that taxpayer-funded research be freely available over the Internet. (You will be asked to register and click a link that gets emailed to you. Be sure to check your spam box if it seems not to arrive promptly.) If you need any persuasion, read Stuart's blog post about it.

You paid for that research. You should be able to see what it found rather than going through a private, for-profit intermediary which will charge you (or your library or university) for the privilege of learning what you paid to find out.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Oh dear

Spellcheck does not catch all mistakes. From a commencement program at the University of Texas. Read carefully!

As soon as someone noticed, they printed up another batch, but it was too late for the audience -- the programs had been distributed. The school apologized through several media -- alas, the Tweeted apology may not have helped matters much.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Apple un-censors "Jailbreak"

For a time, Apple banned used of the word "jailbreak" from its app store and music library. I suppose it was trying to weed out apps for compromising the security of its phones and its music service, iTunes, since that's what "jailbreak" refers to in a certain community. Of course it is ordinary (if colloquial) English in other contexts to -- for example the name of an album by Thin Lizzy, and the name of an episode of the Roy Rogers show which I probably watched when I was 9 years old. The album and the Roy Rogers episode were not banned, only their name, so for a time you could find them, in the Apple store, but only under the name "J*******k."

Monopolies are always bad, and information monopolies are especially dangerous.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

My REAL Contribution to the Birth of Facebook (II)

(I blogged a bit about this earlier. This is an expanded version.)

I have gotten a lot of amusement lately from the fact that one of Mark Zuckerberg's prototypes for Facebook was a little network called Six Degrees to Harry Lewis. Mark, who knew me because he had taken my theoretical computer science course, constructed the network by scraping the archives of the Harvard Crimson and linking names that were mentioned in the same news story. As former dean of the College, I was the maximum degree node. On January 23, 2004, MZ wrote to ask my permission to use my name in the name of the site, explaining that users would type in their names and see how many hops it took to be connected to me. My reaction was interesting.

Can I see it before I say yes? It's all public information, but there
is somehow a point at which aggregation of public information feels
like an invasion of privacy. 
Mark obliged, and after looking at it, thinking it was another Friendster, I shrugged,
Sure, what the hell. Seems harmless. 
Which was sort of true, but not very prescient! David Kirkpatrick tells this story in his book about Facebook.

But it occurred to me recently that I actually HAD done something important, not for Zuckerberg per se, but to encourage student technological innovation and entrepreneurship. I got the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to rescind its rule against students running businesses out of their rooms in the dorms and Houses.

The origins of the rule had been lost in the sands of time. One person I talked to suggested it had to do with shipment of goods (crates of oranges, perhaps) into and out of residential buildings. Others thought that student for-profit businesses in Harvard buildings might jeopardize the University's tax-exempt status. On closer scrutiny these rationales did not hold up. The reasons, some faculty thought, must be deeper and more philosophical. One faculty member, when I proposed rescinding the rule, thought

Student entrepreneurs are not experiencing college as it should be. They are taking advantage of our endowment and tax payers money. Using the university for private gain is taking advantage of the system.
Well, maybe. But the rule was very selectively enforced--basically you had to be successful enough to be noticed before the Administration would lower its heel on you and tell you to stop.

By the spring of 2000, after several years as dean and several years of watching the commercial use of the Internet take off, I began to be worried about the following Gedankenexperiment. How would we tell the difference between a student telecommuting to a part time job (financial aid students had to work part time as a requirement of their Harvard scholarships) and a student who was an Internet entrepreneur, working for him or herself? You could have a videocamera on the student's hands on the keyboard and to watch the packets flowing in and out of the student's room and there was absolutely no effective difference.

And, I thought, shouldn't we be encouraging students to be creative in ways that would be rewarding to the student and to the world?

But what about the load on the Harvard network? Well, we could always regulate that. But seriously, we knew where the load on the network was coming from: peer-to-peer file sharing, not students starting the next Microsoft. (Yes, I had in the back of my mind the unfriendly reception some of my colleagues had given Mr. Gates when he started a little company as an undergraduate, using Harvard resources.)

So in the spring of 2000, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted to change the rule so it now reads:
Harvard permits undergraduates to undertake modest levels of business activities on campus. Students may be required to move businesses entirely off-campus should they disrupt residential life, compromise the educational environment, or jeopardize the nonprofit status of the University or any exemption of its income or property from federal, state or local taxation.
Harvard became quite a bit more supportive of entrepreneurship in the subsequent years. And what Mr. Zuckerberg did, which would have been actionable four years earlier, was completely within the rules.

One other thing worth mentioning. Some have asked why Harvard is not getting a slice of Facebook the way Stanford got a slice of Google. The two situations are completely different. Google emerged from PhD research in the Stanford computer science department. As a result, Google's key patent, the Pagerank algorithm, is actually not owned by Google or by Larry Page personally, but by Stanford, which licenses it to Google for certain considerations. Harvard had no such role in the birth of Facebook. It simply created the need by failing to move its own printed face books online!

Monday, May 14, 2012

What Is College For?

Here is an answer not anticipated in the collection I co-edited by that name: To train economists to help Peter Thiel, who has declared higher education to be a worthless bubble. Thiel Capital wants only applicants who have a "High GPA from top-tier university," thank you very much.

That's the trouble with this country

Thanks to my brother Dick for this.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Awkwardness of Foreign Entanglements

NYU has a Shanghai campus. When challenged as to whether free speech and free inquiry could really take place at NYU Shanghai, NYU's President Sexton said“I have no trouble distinguishing between rights of academic freedom and rights of political expression. These are two different things.” So then, are the words "New York University" academic or political speech? The latter, apparently, according to the Chinese Internet censors. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education
China’s Internet censors have added “New York University” to their list of blocked search terms, reports China Digital Times. Last week, NYU’s law school offered the blind civil-rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng a visiting-scholar position. … On the popular Sina Weibo microblogging service, searches for “New York University” drew denial-of-service messages on May 10, reports China Digital Times. Other terms banned since the diplomatic row began, and still blocked, include Mr. Chen’s name, and more than a dozen nicknames for him such as “sunglasses brother,” and the name of the U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke.
I am all in favor of engaging China and other far eastern nations with undemocratic political systems. But what can it possibly mean to run an American branch campus in a place where even the name of the university is politically unmentionable?

Monday, May 7, 2012

Amazing Student Journalism

and not in a good way.

On April 19, a panel entitled "Singapore UnCensored" was held at Yale, in the aftermath of strong faculty reaction against the creating of the Yale-National University of Singapore campus. There is much to say about that arrangement, and many reasons for skepticism; Jim Sleeper has pulled together a series of critiques into one mammoth compendium, Yale Has Gone to Singapore, but Can It Come Back? A fuller analysis on my part will have to be for another time. For the moment I just want to comment on the curious handling of the panel in the Yale Daily News.

Here is the way the YDN account begins:

Seven Singaporean students and alumni from Yale and Columbia offered their perspectives on the liberal arts college Yale is planning with the National University of Singapore at a panel discussion Thursday.
Speakers on the panel touched upon many issues typically raised with Yale-NUS — academic freedom, the liberal arts model in Asia and the Yale “brand” — and fielded questions from the roughly 60-person audience of students and professors in Luce Hall related to those topics. But the panelists also established at the start of the afternoon’s event that, as students, they did not feel comfortable questioning the University’s decision-making for the project. They asked that the conversation, which was open to the public, not be recorded because their comments were exclusively meant for the Yale community.
The article proceeds to quote not from the panel itself, but from comments offered to the YDN after the event by various people who were there. But the YDN does not even fully characterize the degree of self-censorship to which it agreed: As Sleeper explains,
A poster for the meeting in print and online read, "Yale Faculty and Students Welcome," not "Open to the Public," and E-Ching made clear, in response to a faculty member's request to listen in and participate via Skype or conference call, that "we would certainly welcome the virtual presence of faculty at our session, if it is understood that there will be no recording of any kind, and no quoting from what is said during the session. This is because we expect it to be a lively debate and are concerned about quotes out of context." [Audience members were instructed,] "To everyone here, including reporters, do not record or quote from the session, it's off the record."

Why on earth would the YDN agree to such conditions? Well, to be fair: They are the same conditions under which the Crimson and even the Harvard Magazine are allowed to attend Harvard FAS faculty meetings, in spite of my best efforts to get the ban on direct quotation listed. But it gets worse. Sleeper goes on to report,
Only when I rose toward the end of the session and asked if they were indeed recording the discussion and if the government might receive a report did they acknowledge that they were and that it might.
Huh? The YDN knew that the Singapore government was going to get a copy of the recording, in blatant contradiction to what the ground rules had implied, and still stuck to its end of the bargain? Yup. As Sleeper goes on to explain, 

The story neither named nor quoted any of the five faculty members who'd asked questions, astonishing because if anyone in the room could have been quoted without risk of reprisal from Singapore or the Yale administration, we could have been. Nor did the story ever mention my question about why the organizers had imposed ground rules they hadn't observed. It didn't report their acknowledgement that they were recording the session and that Singapore authorities would get a report.

And yet a government-controlled Singapore newspaper gave an anodyne report on the event, largely matching the carefully self-censored YDN version but including details that could only have come from that recording.

Two conclusions seem inescapable. First, even the Yale Daily News is eager to go along in order to get along, not to ruffle the harmony-loving feathers of the repressive government with which the Yale Corporation has struck its Faustian bargain. If another Bob Woodward is to emerge from Yale, he or she (like the original) will not come from the ranks of YDN reporters. We had better not count on this crucible to set the standard for the investigative journalism and free speech on which democracy depends.

And second, the Yale-NUS partnership can work only if professors and students agree to censor themselves meticulously, often against limits that can be known only once they have been violated. It seems unimaginable that the spirit of free inquiry can flourish in anything resembling the sense to which it has been understood at Yale and Harvard. How can those old defenders of the right to pursue and argue the truth, and to "give a true account of the gift of reason,""harmonize" their teaching and scholarship with the rules of a regime that so controls the press?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Death of Time

I have gotten used to the Death of Distance--that I can monitor instanteiously the power output of my home photovoltaic system from Hong Kong, and that I can listen to Red Sox games rolling across the Dakota prairies. Of course, the death of distance cuts both ways. I can bring my local environment with me, but most of the time I opt to live in a generic average American culture, listening to CNN of MSNBC on my satellite radio, with no sense of the happenings or gossip in Boston.

Now time is dying too. Because newspapers are now a continuous process, and the daily paper is just a snapshot of that river at an arbitrary moment in time, the Boston Globe has all but eliminated use of the terms "yesterday," "today," and "tomorrow," which used to be mandatory. Copy editors have to retrain themselves to restore what previously they were trained to eliminate. As the Globe explains,
The one print exception to the rule applies to headlines. Constructions such as “Crucial vote on debt limit today” are a newspaper staple. The “today” conveys an immediacy and often an urgency that we don’t want to lose. We suspect that “Crucial vote on debt limit Wednesday” would not rivet anyone’s attention.
So it goes.