Friday, December 31, 2010

The Winklevosses vs. Facebook

The New York Times has a good story on the business page about the Winklevoss twins and their effort to unwind the settlement they reached with Facebook.They claimed that they were deceived about Facebook's value when they signed the deal, and they are owed more than they got.

I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, as a legal matter, it's pretty technical, and depends on who said what to whom and when. I don't think all the emails and text messages have been disclosed and heaven knows what the legal requirements would have been on disclosure at the time the settlement was being hammered out. The twins may have a point. The article states,

"Yet days before the settlement, Facebook’s board signed off on an expert’s valuation that put a price of $8.88 on its shares. Facebook did not disclose that valuation, which would have given the shares a worth of $11 million. The ConnectU founders contend that Facebook’s omission was deceptive and amounted to securities fraud."
Well, who knows. Maybe it is.

But plainly the moral question is being raised again. "The principle is that Mark stole the idea," says one of the twins. And this is where my sympathies tend to go to Mark, for the simple reason that none of these guys invented the concept of a social network or using the Web to construct one, and even if they did, that's no reason for any of them to have exclusive control over those ideas. Those ideas were in the air at the time. So soon we forget! Friendster had almost two million members by October of 2003, and all the social complexities of when to accept friend requests and when to deny them were already the stuff of social discourse (see this Crimson column from the time, "Not a Friendster of Mine," for example). People "steal" other people's ideas all the time; that's the way the process of invention and discovery proceed. The people who succeed are the people who work at implementing the ideas. Bill Gates did not invent microcomputer operating systems, or word processors, or spreadsheet software either; that doesn't make him a thief.

As it happens, I had the sense in January of 2004, before Facebook was incorporated, that Zuckerberg was going to do something in the way of a social networking site, because he put me at the center of a prototype, "Six Degrees to Harry Lewis," in which the links were between people mentioned in the same story in the Harvard Crimson. David Kirkpatrick mentions this in his book about Facebook. (Mark asked me politely--I knew him already because he took the undergraduate CS theory class from me--if I would mind if he made the site public. He wanted to put me at the center of the network because I had been mentioned in a lot of Crimson stories. My response? "Sure. Seems harmless.")

Though it viewed Harvard through a distorted lens, I actually liked The Social Network (the movie) because of the way it toyed with this business of the movement and growth and execution of ideas, and when echoing an idea constitutes theft and when it is is the ordinary commerce in the gift culture that nurtures creativity. To complicate things, the movie throws in a scene in which Zuckerberg seems to be dishonest with his business partner, misrepresenting some documents he is asking him to sign. This is designed to make the viewer skeptical about Zuckerberg's integrity, but whether not this even happened has nothing to do with whether Zuckerberg "stole" the Winklevosses' idea. I tend to think he didn't.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Neat Tech Products

Writing in the New York Times, David Pogue has a roundup of his favorite technology products of the year. Many of them are pretty unsurprising, which doesn't make them any less useful--a wall plug that adds two USB jacks for power alongside the usual three-pronged 115VAC power sockets. But one I really love is an iPhone app that translates Spanish to English--not a big deal except that you input the Spanish by pointing the camera at a sign, and the output is an image of the same sign with the translation written in English in exactly the same font! What a cool idea. It shows the power that comes when lots of technology building blocks become mature--text scanning, translation (probably nothing more than dictionary look-up, but this particular application domain doesn't require more than that), and some simple image synthesis tricks.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Is Wikileaks Like the Pentagon Papers?

Daniel Ellsburg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, thinks so. Writing in today's Wall Street Journal, Floyd Abrams, who represented the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case, doesn't. Abrams argues that Ellsburg was principled about revealing official wrongdoing but not injuring U.S. diplomacy. Assange, Abrams argues, is simply opposed to official secrecy in any form, and that, this view of how governments work being wrongheaded and naive, Assange is a bad guy. His acts have actually hurt American journalism by killing any chance of a federal shield law that would protect reporters' confidential sources.

Interestingly, Abrams seems to concur with Assange that he hasn't done anything illegal, if the facts about what he actually has done (merely receiving and not soliciting secrets from individual leakers) are as Assange represents. That being the case, it will be hard to criminalize what Assange did without simultaneously criminalizing what investigative reporters do all the time.

It is crazy that the one thing Assange might do that would make prosecution easy would be to reveal corporate secrets, because he then could be charged with copyright infringement. What a Swiss Army Knife of a statute the DMCA has turned out to be in the hands of creative prosecutors!

I am not sure I buy Abrams' claim that Assange has been indiscriminate and unselective in what he has revealed. (But of course I have only Assange's word about what he has NOT disclosed.)

I think far too much interest has been focused on Assange in this affair. The real question going forward is, what kind of protocols can be developed for sharing secrets within bureaucracies where they need to be shared but limiting access to those with a need to know? This is in large measure a technological problem, made more difficult by the fact that in the technology world, it is no longer reasonable for bosses to be able to do the jobs of the people who work for them. Low-level people therefore have access to enormous databases because they do the grungy work of maintaining computer systems and networks, and their bosses, though in principle more authoritative than these low level geeks are, have no sense of what the geeks are doing.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Too Much Anonymity Department

Here is something that annoys me.

I am getting fewer and fewer holiday/Christmas cards. I am grateful to those who send them. Really I am. BUT, to those who are sending me cards:

Would you mind putting your last name on the card somewhere? Or if not your last name, at least a photo of you, rather than just one of your children? I have two cards from people with names like "Sally, Jim, Rebecca and Alphonse." I have tried to look those names up in my mental rolodex but it isn't indexed that way. Sorry. It does look like it was a good year and you had a nice wedding. I just haven't a clue who you are.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Phony "Conservatism" and Internet Neutrality

It is time to call out the Republicans, elected and unelected, for their rabid anti-net-neutrality rhetoric. They cast themselves as small-govenment conservatives, but really they are pro-big-business monopolists. They love small-government when it keeping it small limits consumer choice and creates artificial scarcity so the big businesses that pay their bills can become even more profitable without improving their services.

Mitch McConnell's blast: "The Obama administration, which has already nationalized health care, the auto industry, insurance companies, banks, and student loans, will move forward with what could be the first step in controlling how Americans use the Internet by establishing federal regulations on its use….The Internet is an invaluable resource. It should be left alone. As Americans become more aware of what’s happening here, I suspect many will be alarmed, as I am, at the government’s intrusion. They’ll wonder, as many already do, if this is a Trojan horse for further meddling by the government."

Hogwash, or worse. Net neutrality is about your right to connect to the Internet and use it the way you want to use it. Anyone who thinks the government does not have a role in creating a level playing field for citizens, consumers, and business entrepreneurs should have to answer the question: Would you defend the right of Verizon to provide phone service only to white people, or only to Democrats? After all, Verizon owns the wires, so wasn't it a government takeover of communications back then when access rules were put in place for telephony?

Net neutrality rules are pro-business. The only reason the big telcos and their congressional and talk-radio fellow travelers don't like the rules is because they create competition in what is rapidly becoming an oligarchical business space.

The head of a small ISP has a letter in the Globe this morning that states the case very well. With giant Internet providers in control, small providers, online start-ups, and anyone who publishes media online are at the mercy of these Goliaths that serve more than 200 million Internet users.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Can Grades Be Controlled in a "Fair" Way?

The New York Times has a not-bad story about one university's attempts to rationalize the grades its students receive. This is a much more subtle problem than most so-called conservative critics acknowledge. It would be easy to force a grading curve on courses above a certain minimum enrollment: just require faculty to turn in numerical grades, using whatever method they want that is monotonic (higher numbers representing better performance), and automatically curve the letter grades to achieve whatever proportions are deemed appropriate. The problem with doing this is, of course, that some courses attract better students than others. At Harvard, the students who enroll in Math 55 include a fair proportion of the very best undergraduate math students in the world; it would be unjust to give many of them Cs just on principle.

Many schools have experimented with "decorated transcripts" of various kinds, which give not only the student's grade but some information about the other grades given in the course. This makes the transcript more complicated, but certainly has transparency to recommend it. Still, it doesn't really tell the reader how good the competition was.

Harvard doesn't decorate transcripts, but for a long time it used to try to push faculty toward a norm that took the quality of students in a particular course into account. The dean would inform professors, for each course, of the difference between the average grade in that course and the average grade of that course's students in their other courses. That is, a negative number would tend to indicate that the course was grading harshly and a positive number that the course was grading generously. These numbers were always interesting to contemplate, and there were finer variants on the theme (for example, comparing the grades I give in CS courses to the grades my students were getting only in other CS courses, or only in other science courses). It was never clear, however, how faculty used the information. In particular I don't think anyone ever studied the time series: Did "harsh" professors raise their curve more or less than "soft" professors lowered theirs? Or perhaps that was studied, and that is the reason we aren't being given that information any more.

If students all took the all the same courses, a large part of the problem would go away. Every professor could grade using any kind of distribution, and GPAs, being averages of the same components, would fairly rank students. You would still have the problem of comparing a Physics B+ to an English A-, but the overall records could rationally be compared.

When you think about that, you realize that the problem resembles that of Bowl Championship Series rankings in college football. Teams don't have enough head to head meetings, or even enough common opponents, to make it easy to figure out who the top teams should be. There is some sound mathematics that could be focused on the ranking problem, but as in the case of the BCS algorithms, it would have one huge disadvantage: There would, in general, be no way to answer a question of why one student outranked another except to persuade someone that the algorithm was right and to assert that the relative standings were what fell out of the algorithm when it was applied to the mountains of data about grades.

I wrote a couple of chapters about all this in Excellence Without a Soul, but you can get a good sense of my position from this Morning Prayer talk I gave in the fall of 2003.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Railroads and the Internet

Susan Crawford, who blogs brilliantly about communications technology and law, today quotes J.P. Morgan brilliantly: "The American public seems to be unwilling to admit . . . that it has a choice between regulated legal agreements and unregulated extralegal agreements.  We should have cast away more than 50 years ago the impossible doctrine of protection of the public by railway competition." Amen. All the blathering about the government interfering in private enterprise by passing neutrality rules misses the fact that there is virtually no competition in Internet services in the US. "Subscribers to high-speed Internet access are choosing their local cable monopoly 90% of the time these days," Crawford continues. "Where Comcast is doing business, Comcast is or soon will be consumers’ only choice for high-speed Internet access." 

An unregulated monopoly will inevitably raise prices and limit services to increase profits. We have seen it before, but the flamethrowers on the right such as Michelle Malkin see any regulation of these Internet monopolists as "bureaucrats … increasing their control over your lives exponentially." Of course, I imagine  Malkin would also have stood shoulder to shoulder with the railroad monopolists, and the telephone and telegraph monopolists too.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Harry's Hong Kong Adventure

I will be traveling to Hong Kong in January to give a series of lectures. Here are the ones that will be open to the public:

Lee Hysan Lecture, Chinese University of Hong Kong: Approaches to General Education. Monday, January 17, 16:30.

Sir Run Run Shaw Lecture, Shaw College, Chinese University of Hong Kong: Civic Education in the Information Era. Wednesday, January 19, 17:00-19:00.

Asia Society and Harvard Club of Hong Kong: Idea Economy 2011. Luncheon Talk, Hong Kong Club, Thursday, January 20, 12:15-14:00.

Public Lecture, Department of English, City University of Hong Kong: The Future of Ignorance. Thursday, January 20, Wei Hing Theatre, 18:30 registration, lecture 19:00-20:00. Also featured by the Harvard Club of Hong Kong.

Déja vu all over again

"Other groups warned that the rules would smooth the way for fast and slow lanes on the Internet. … Before the F.C.C. meeting even began on Tuesday, the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, said in a statement that the Internet 'should be left alone,' and that his colleagues would 'push back against new rules and regulations' next year." -- New York Times story  of December 22, 2010 on the FCC neutrality rules

"A few years ago a man started a news bureau in Cincinnati. A correspondent in New York filed the market reports each morning and the Cincinnati gentleman sold the information to customers. The Western Union asked him to sell out to them and he refused; thereupon his messages were taken away from the "through" wire and sent by a "way" wire. The difference in time was an hour, and the man was ruined. What were the relations of the Western Union to the people of the country in their social and political interests? The Western Union was controlled by three or four gentlemen in New York. It controlled the market prices, all the political and general news sent over its wires--every single important personal communication sent in the country. This company was controlled by no law except the interests of its owners. No State could pass a law which should have any effect on this corporation. Was there any other like power in the world? … How is it with the press? The Western Union Telegraph Company and the Associated Press made a close corporation. … Some time ago two papers in San Francisco discussed the postal telegraph. The rates to those papers were increased. One paper died in consequence and the other ceased to discuss the matter. … This was the power which this corporation held." -- Testimony before a congressional committee about the telegraph monopoly by Gardiner Hubbard, as reported by the New York Times, February 8, 1883

Internet service is not a national monopoly yet, but it is heading toward being a regional monopoly. Most people now get their Internet service from their Cable TV provider, and most regions are now served by only one Cable TV service. Speak up if you believe that a service like Skype, which singlehandedly has undercut the hugely profitable international telephone business, could again come into existence with no regulation and monopoly Internet service provision.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Net Neutrality at Last?

It is a fundamental principle of Internet libertarianism that carriers should not discriminate in how they treat packets based on the content of those packets. This "net neutrality" principle is easier to describe than to formalize, however.
In the US we have had what might be called telegraph neutrality and telephone neutrality rules. There have been laws preventing the telephone company from, for example, dropping calls from the DNC headquarters but not the RNC headquarters. It's an old story, and the whining about a "government takeover of the Internet" is just nonsense. (See p. 314 of Blown to Bits for more on this.)
Today the FCC passed some neutrality rules, after a long delay. It's not everything that everyone could have wanted, and Public Knowledge has already sent me an email grieving the loss of an opportunity. I'm not so disappointed. In fact, I am mainly worried that even these rules will be challenged in court, by telcos and cable companies who will insist that they own the damned wires and should be allowed to decide what goes through them. The real problem is that it will be hard to get the new Congress to give the FCC the authority it needs to make rules like these. And that will in the long run be bad for new businesses, while good for the existing near-monopoly players in the communications world.

Will Harvard Bring Back ROTC?

It depends on what "bring back" means.

Following the repeal of DADT yesterday, President Faust issued a statement that included the following sentence: "I look forward to pursuing discussions with military officials and others to achieve Harvard’s full and formal recognition of ROTC."

"Recognition" is exactly what I figure will happen. In 1993, the Harvard Faculty voted to end recognition of ROTC on the basis that it did not comply with University nondiscrimination policy. With that premise gone now, it seems to me a simple matter to restore the status ROTC had before '93 -- an activity in which Harvard students can be involved with the simple courtesies of postering, meeting in Harvard rooms, and so on that are attendant on recognition.

Today's papers, however, are full of stories about Harvard's intentions. See the Globe, the Herald, and the Wall Street Journal. The Globe raises the possibility of an ROTC unit returning to Harvard, which would be a lot more than "recognition": "A Pentagon spokeswoman said it is too early to say whether the decision could result in a ROTC unit being established on campus, but student interest and the military budget are two potential factors."

This makes sense, as far as the Pentagon goes. During the 1990s units were being consolidated, not subdivided. And let's be serious about student interest: At a lot of universities with large ROTC programs, the "interest" students show in ROTC is not greater patriotism than at Harvard, but less institutional financial aid. It is a great way not only to serve your country but to get a free college education. Since Harvard provides financial aid up to need for all students, a huge incentive to sign up for ROTC here is missing, and that will inevitably hold down the numbers. (In fact, that makes ROTC participation here all the more remarkable: the students who do it are doing it without the financial incentive.)

But DADT was not the only thing keeping ROTC at arm's length from Harvard, and the Pentagon's inclinations are not the only relevant factor with DADT repealed. ROTC was booted from Harvard in 1969 by taking credit away from the "Military Science" courses and teaching credentials away from the "Professors of Military Science" whose appointments Harvard did not control. I have no idea if these are things on which the Pentagon would insist today, or if Harvard could or would want to reach some accommodation with military officials about these matters. But before anyone gets too excited about a ROTC unit returning to Harvard because of the repeal of DADT, it is worth remembering that the vote that ended the ROTC unit at Harvard was not the 1993 vote about gays in the military, but the February 4, 1969 vote, which read as below. It is hard to imagine that #1-3 could easily be reversed.

Whereas, the ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) program is externally controlled, i.e., taught by professors who do not hold regular appointments.
That the Faculty of Arts and Sciences
1. Withhold academic credit from any courses offered by the three branches of ROTC at Harvard in the future. 
2. Request the Harvard Corporation to terminate the Faculty appointments of the present instructors of these courses as soon as possible after the end of the current academic year and to make not further such appointments.
3. Request the Harvard Corporation to withdraw the description of ROTC courses from the course catalogue and to cease the free allocation of space in University buildings to ROTC. 
4. Provide scholarship funds where need is created by this Faculty decision.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Here comes the MPAA

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the Motion Picture Association of America  plans to remind universities of the anti-piracy provisions it got Congress to include in the Higher Education Opportunity Act. Turns out part of the price for Congress to create educational opportunities is that universities have to devise plans to address illegal movie and music downloading on campus.

Now what the MPAA (and the RIAA) would really like is for universities to monitor their campus networks for illegal content. The nice thing about this strategy is that the university tends to be a monopoly provider of Internet services to students. If one of my students doesn't like Harvard's services, she can't ask for a Verizon DSL connection instead. If she is going to download illegally, Harvard has a way to know it.

Of course, the same logic would suggest that since pirated CDs can arrive in a student's room only through their campus mailboxes, universities should open students' postal mail to make sure there is nothing illegal in it.

Whatever the universities can be pressured into can serve as a model for what Congress can be asked to impose on other ISPs, or what individual ISPs can be pressured into doing. Watch for more pressure for pre-emptive surveillance to protect American intellectual property as both Congress and the courts grow increasingly sympathetic to business interests where they conflict with personal liberty.

Prayers and exams (for close Harvard watchers only)

Speaking of things that have been done the same way at Harvard for a long time …

Harvard has had morning prayer services six days a week every day since the founding. There can't be many institutions with a record like that.

The service is now held from 8:45-9:00am, and consists of a 5-minute homily by a member of the community, a hymn sung by the congregation, some choral music by a trained student choir, and a prayer or two. I speak there once or twice a year as it's one of the few places where it is easy to speak on moral subjects. The venue has the advantage that homilies are so short you don't need to be fair to the other side of whatever argument you decide to make, and at the same time no one else is given the opportunity to respond. My talks are collected here.

Historically academic activities have been timed to avoid conflicts with the service, even though attendance is now typically no more than a couple dozen people, many of them not students. Classes officially begin at 5 minutes after the hour, morning exams began at 9:15, and so on.

When responsibility for proctoring final exams was shifted from the administration to the faculty last year, the time of morning exams was shifted to 9:00. That would require anyone who wanted to go to Morning Prayers to be a few minutes late to their exam. I doubt this could have happened twenty years ago without some protest; today wonder if anybody even noticed.

I was thinking not only because my own exam is taking place right now, but because the Reverend Professor Peter Gomes, already planning to retire at the end of next year from his post as Minister in the Memorial Church,  has been hospitalized following a stroke. What will be the role of the Minister and the Church in Harvard's future?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Governing Harvard

Two weeks ago, Harvard announced that it was making the first significant change to its governance structure since the 1600s. Several people have asked me what I think.

First a bit of background. After I left the deanship in 2003, I wrote a book called Excellence Without a Soul, in which I gave my views of higher education at places like Harvard, and at Harvard in particular. I was critical of Larry Summers' record as president, but I was more critical of the group that hired him and to which he was answerable, namely the Harvard Corporation--which consists of six "Fellows" in addition to the President. Writing in 2006, I said:

During most of the Summers years, the Corporation was a leadership vacuum. Its members were rarely heard from in public and rarely spoke to those who make the university run, except the president and his staff. If Harvard were a publicly held corporation in today’s climate of intensely scrutinized corporate governance, the shareholders would have been up in arms about the failure of the directors to care responsibly for the institution.

n the great financial meltdown of 2009, Harvard fared worse than many universities. On December 12, 2009, just more than a year ago, together with my colleague Fred Abernathy in Harvard's Engineering School, I published an opinion piece in the Boston Globe that echoed what I had written in my book three years before:

IF AN ORDINARY corporation had the kind of fiscal year Harvard University just had, some of its directors would be gone. Long-term investments down $11 billion; another $1.8 billion lost by top management speculating with cash accounts; another half-billion gone in an untimely exit from a debt rate gambit. The institution left so illiquid that it was forced to sell assets and issue bonds at the worst possible time, just to pay the bills. A publicly held company would have experienced a shareholder rebellion - especially after the Globe reported that the chief investment officer had repeatedly warned the president about the risks he was taking with the institution’s cash.

The blame had to be traced back to the Corporation, and it was time to do something about it. The Harvard Corporation is a dangerous anachronism. It failed its most basic fiduciary and moral responsibilities. Some of its members should resign. But the Corporation’s problems are also structural. It is too small, too closed, and too secretive to be intensely self-critical, as any responsible board must be.

Two days later, on Monday, December 14, senior Fellow James Houghton announced his resignation. This was obviously a coincidence; though we knew nothing about it, the report that Houghton had informed Corporation a week earlier was surely accurate. Ironically, when the Globe accepted our piece on December 9, the editor told us it would run sometime the following week. Things would have looked different had our piece run as originally scheduled, since that would have followed rather than preceded the announcement about Houghton.

A regularly scheduled meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences occurred on Tuesday, December 15. The President, after discussing Houghton's planned retirement and the protocol for replacing him, also mentioned that the Corporation had begun discussing how it could most effectively carry out its roles and responsibilities. In fact, the President continued, Mr. Houghton had been instrumental in kicking off these discussions.

Just a month later, as a favor to a friend who had a book coming out about power elites, I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about the Harvard power structure, entitled Harvard's Secret Seven. In it I again called for greater transparency: The modern power elites thrive by forgetting any regrettable past. This amnesia is easy at Harvard, where the legal fiduciaries operate in secret and need not answer for their acts. They are the antipodes of the selfless institutional servants who built Harvard and other great American enterprises, and they bear close watching.

The deliberations mentioned by the President in December had by spring grown into a very public process, reported in detail by the alumni magazine. They resulted in the report of two weeks ago, which makes three dramatic changes. First, it increases the size of the Corporation from seven to thirteen (including the President in both cases). Second, it ends life tenure for Fellows. And third, it creates a functional committee structure, whose members will include individuals who are not Fellows.

All three changes are exactly right. In fact, the third may prove to be the most significant. Opening up critical discussions to a larger group of individuals will require the Fellows to explain and defend themselves. The Corporation will be less likely to function as an echo chamber, accepting the authority of one or two supposedly knowledgeable experts.

What was the effect of the piece Fred and I wrote for the Globe, and my subsequent piece for the Huffington Post? Perhaps nothing; as I said, there is no doubt that Houghton had already decided to step down before our piece appeared. On the other hand, I received enough supportive comments from alumni as well as faculty to know that we were saying things that others thought obvious. So while it is possible that everything might have played out as it did without our criticisms, I suspect that we may have encouraged others to speak along the same lines, more quietly but directly to the decision-makes.

Either way, it doesn't matter. I am much more optimistic about Harvard's future now. I suspect that a good deal of the credit for these changes should go to the President and to the energetic new Fellow, Bill Lee--not a man to leave things alone just because they had always been done that way at Harvard.

Elbow Room

When my book with Hal Abelson and Ken Ledeen came out in 2008, we launched the Blown to Bits blog at I've been blogging over there about the digital explosion and its impact on all of us. Important as it is, that's not the only subject I care about. So I am moving all my blogging over here to the Bits and Pieces blog, where I'll have a little more room to maneuver. Expect to find me blogging here about education and sports, as well as things digital. With a sprinkle of politics, as needed!