Google and the end of everything

My choice for this weekend’s Big Think post stems from a recent Wired article by Chris “The Long Tail” Anderson, in which he attempts to argue that the ability to sort through gigantic databases of information — something he associates with Google — will mean “the end of the scientific method.” As I understand it, his argument is that since we have so much data, we can just use algorithms to find correlations in the data, and that will produce as much insight as years of traditional scientific research. The piece is entitled “The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete,” and there’s a somewhat related post from Kevin Kelly (another Wired alumnus) on his blog Technium that he has entitled “The Google Way of Science.”

I think Anderson’s piece is an interesting thought experiment, and it forces us to think about how the sheer quantity of data we have available to us changes how we do things. However, like many others who have responded to his article (check the comments on the article for more), I think it has a number of serious flaws — and they are all summed up in the title, which implies that having a lot of data and some smart algorithms to sift through it means “the end of the scientific method.” That’s just ridiculous. It reminds me of philosopher Francis Fukuyama writing a book in the early 1990s about “the end of history,” in which he argued that the clash of political ideologies was more or less over, and that liberal democracy had effectively won. As we’ve seen since then, this was more or less complete rubbish.

Anderson argues that “The Petabyte Age is different because more is different.” There’s no reason for believing that this is true, however. Expanding the amount of data — even exponentially — doesn’t change the fundamental way that the scientific method functions, it just makes it a lot easier to test a hypothesis. That’s definitely a good thing, and I’m sure that scientists are happy to have huge databases and data-mining software and all those other good things; but that doesn’t change what they do, it simply changes how they do it. With all due credit to Craig Ventner of the Human Genome Project, sifting through reams of data about genetic pairs and sequencing them can help tell us where to look, but not what to look for, or what it means.

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Rogers iPhone: Get a second mortgage

Whoever leaked the supposed memo with Rogers’ pricing for the Canadian iPhone played a cruel joke on their fellow Canucks: instead of the much-hoped-for $30 unlimited data plan — like AT&T users in the U.S. have — we get a series of plans that start at twice that amount, and the cheapest plan comes with a pathetic 400 megabytes of data and a paltry 75 text messages. If you want 200 text messages (which many U.S. plans come with) and a gigabyte of data per month, you have to spend a whopping $100 — oh yeah, and that’s without the ridiculous “system access fee” that gets tacked on, and call display is extra too.

The most common response to the plans so far, at least to judge by a Twitter search and a blog search, is virtually unprintable — as was the original domain name of this website, which is collecting names on a petition to send to the Competition Bureau (as of Sunday morning, the site had accumulated more than 10,000 names). There are some detailed responses here, and also here, and serial tech entrepreneur Albert Lai has a response to the plans here. Former Tory candidate Stephen Taylor calls it “a rip-off.”

As my friend Mark Evans notes on his blog, Rogers is clearly going for the cash grab here. I wish I could say that I was surprised, but this is pretty much what I was expecting. I think Rogers knows that Apple devotion and early-adopter syndrome will drive plenty of people to buy an iPhone regardless of the plans, and they will make boatloads of money on them, and everyone else can get stuffed. It’s a shame that Canada’s cellphone market is such fertile ground for plundering.


A Rogers account representative emailed me some additional info (which she also sent to Tris Hussey of Maple Leaf 2.0). In a nutshell, she says that you can choose one of the new data plans and add a voice plan, or you can add a data plan to your existing voice plan (but not one of the iPhone bundles). Upgrading to the iPhone from your existing phone and plan starts at $199.

“Rogers customers … can select from the new data pricing (ranging from $30 for 300MB to $100 for 6GB or $50 Flex Rate plan) and add a voice plan, or they can choose a combined voice and data plan to best suit their individual needs. Customers are not required to take the value packs, and can order most other features a la carte, such as $7 for Caller ID.

Existing customers can keep their existing voice service plan and pick a separate data plan (not in the iPhone 3G bundle) to meet their needs. They will need to check their upgrade eligibility, but any customer with a monthly service fee that is over $30 can upgrade to an iPhone 3G at $199 (for the 8GB model).”

Update 2:

Jevon at points out some fine print in the Rogers contract that could jack up your costs for the iPhone even further — to the tune of $1,100 or more, thanks to a mammoth “break fee” that you will be charged if you try to escape from your three-year contract early.

Memo to Jakob Lodwick: Grow up

At the risk of writing about two “High School 2.0” blogosphere situations in one week (the first one being the Loren Feldman and Shel Israel brouhaha), I couldn’t help but notice that Jakob Lodwick — the brash young millionaire co-founder of Vimeo and, and one-time blogging boyfriend of party girl-blogger Julia Allison — has decided to quit the Internet. Well, maybe not the Internet per se, but the “social Web,” meaning he has closed his blog and his Tumblelog (he’s financially involved with Tumblr as well). Why? Because he just can’t take the abuse any more, he says. It’s just too much.

Apparently, some people have been saying mean things about Jakob — about how he’s arrogant, and insufferable in a way that only a millionaire geek can be, that he dresses funny, and so on. It’s gotten to the point where even his Mom can’t take it any more, and has had to shut down her own Tumblr blog. The humanity! At some point, reading through Jakob’s last post to the blogosphere at large, and then through his farewell letter, I started to think that maybe it was just a big prank — maybe Jakob is secretly laughing at us. I mean, could he really have written a line like “I may be a millionaire, but this sort of thing still hurts” and not felt just a little ridiculous? Then he says:

“I am walking away from what might be called The Social Web. This comprises any site where ‘anyone can sign up’ and electronically socialize with one another. The story is the same with most of these sites: a few settlers discover and make themselves at home, enjoying the solitude.

Increasingly, less-adventurous people find their way to the site. The population begins to snowball. A vocal minority of thoughtless jerks begin to speak up, driving away the settlers. In the worst case, the result is something like MySpace.”

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Google: Find it, then help you watch it

My friend Steve O’Hear from Last100 has the news that Google has launched its own media-streaming software, called Google Media Server. According to the description at the Inside Google Desktop blog, it’s pretty simple: if you have a networked device that can connect to your TV, then you can watch YouTube videos, look at photos and listen to music (although it’s for Windows only at this point). It’s not surprising that Google would get into this niche — if anything, I find it kind of surprising that they haven’t done it before now.

Getting content from a computer to your TV hasn’t been easy until relatively recently. If you were into Linux you could play around with something like the open-source software, and many people I know — geeks, naturally — modified their Xboxes to act as streaming media servers, while some built their own standalone media boxes. Now most game consoles will serve that function, and there’s the Apple TV and Mac Mini as well, which do the job quite well. And, of course, if you’re really desperate you can always use Windows Media Center 🙂

It will be interesting to see how much traction Google gets with its offering — and as Steve points out in his post, this is clearly just a small part of the Web company’s push into the living room.

The big problem is the word “compulsory”

Like my friend Mike Masnick at Techdirt, I came across a long guest post not long ago at William Patry’s blog (Patry is legal counsel for Google and an expert in copyright law) about the need for something approaching a “compulsory license” to solve the problems of rampant digital copyright infringement. A good example of a compulsory license is the legal mechanism by which Internet radio broadcasters are allowed to play music and pay a set rate to artists. A similar process (although it is not compulsory) compensates publishers and songwriters when music is played on the radio — something the music industry was not in favour of when it was first instituted in the 1930s and ’40s, but quickly grew to like and rely on. The record industry is now trying hard to extend that kind of payment to artists as well, something I wrote about recently.

As Mike notes in his post on the topic, lawyer Joshua Wattles spends the better part of his guest post at Patry’s blog describing how terrible most compulsory-licensing approaches are:

“Most, however, have nothing to do with lofty aspirations of balance or with enabling an otherwise impossible market or even with a measured response to benefit a clamoring public. Instead, they have everything to do with power players reaching for commercial advantages within a niche market.”

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Video interlude: The Pirate’s Dilemma

Matt Mason, author of the book The Pirate’s Dilemma — which takes a look at how what has been called “piracy” throughout history has actually created new technologies and new industries — has put together a video that goes through some of the themes in the book, with the help of a couple of staffers from and the executive producer of the TV show Heroes. We were planning to have Matt as a keynote at mesh 2008 in May, but he ran into visa problems and couldn’t make it. We’re still hoping to be able to get him up here to talk about his book.



Powerset: a Hail Mary pass for MSFT?

Matt Marshall over at VentureBeat says he has it on good authority that Microsoft is planning to make an offer for Powerset, the “semantic search” startup that has been in stealth mode for quite awhile now, popping up only long enough for a party or two, and recently poked its head out with a small-scale demo of its technology as a Wikipedia search engine. The rumoured dollar value for this deal? $100-million. If true, that would be a hell of a payday for something that hasn’t really shown much in the way of spectacular results so far, and is based at least in part on 30-year-old technology that the company licensed from Xerox’s PARC labs. TechCrunch says the deal could still be derailed by the Microsoft-Yahoo mess.

Of course, for a company like Microsoft, $100-million is chicken feed — Bill and Steve find that kind of money stuffed under the couch cushions when they vacuum the Microsoft HQ. And the idea of an acquisition has been around before, with rumours floating here and there. It’s a painfully well-known fact that Microsoft’s search is a distant third place to Google and Yahoo, which is one of the main reasons the software behemoth continues its on-again, off-again (currently on-again) pursuit of Yahoo’s search business. If it could use Powerset to add natural-language search tools to its arsenal, that might help to close the gap with Google — although as Danny Sullivan has noted many times, we’ve been around this particular racetrack many times before.

Kara Swisher owns the Yahoo story

Or at least she does as far as Techmeme is concerned. She has been breaking elements of the Microsoft and Yahoo saga for awhile now, but this is the first time I’ve seen her name appear more than four times on Techmeme — as the lead item for the top cluster, then the lead item for two secondary clusters of links, and then as an item in the subsidiary links in two of those clusters (there’s another link below the bottom of the image which I didn’t have room to include). In any case, she has been owning this story pretty much from the get-go.

Click the image for a larger size, or click here (in the interests of full disclosure, I consider Kara a friend).

Israel and Feldman: High school 2.0?

In what has to qualify as the longest-running bitchmeme — or blogosphere soap opera — in recorded history, Loren Feldman of 1938media and “social media” guru Shel Israel (who co-authored the book Naked Conversations with Robert “Scobleizer” Scoble) continue to fight their bizarre feud throughout the battlefields of new media: Twitter, blogs, YouTube and FriendFeed. Their weapons? Injured pride, hand puppets and righteous indignation. And to some extent, we who follow them on the various social networks are the audience, the judge and jury, a variation on the Greek chorus yelling advice, and occasionally just amused bystanders, unsure of what the heck is going on.

So what is going on? A quick recap: Shel is a social-media consultant and Loren Feldman is a former actor who started a video-production business called and began doing video blog posts about some of the personalities in the blogosphere — Michael Arrington, Jason Calacanis, Dave Winer, etc. Loren has a New York accent and attitude, and doesn’t pull any punches either in language or delivery, looking straight into the camera and calling people out if he thinks they need to be called out. It’s refreshing, and it’s often pretty funny — but it is also occasionally kind of mean-spirited, in that “Hey, you’re a moron, and your mom dresses you funny” kind of way. Think Don Rickles with video.

Loren’s videos “taking the piss” (as the Brits say) out of Mike Arrington and Jason Calacanis got him a lot of attention, and he has wound up becoming friends with both of them — and as far as I can tell is now working on doing the same with Julia Allison (here’s the two of them discussing what is okay and what isn’t okay as far as parody goes). One of the places where Loren made friends with Mike was at mesh 2007, when Mike was a keynote and Loren was on a panel about video, and for the record Loren was polite and funny and a pleasure to have as a panelist. I did a video with him, and he was a real pro.

Over the past few months, Loren has been making fun of Shel and his video interviews, which until recently Shel was doing through (where Scoble now works). The early videos were fairly painful to watch, and Loren sent a lot of Twitter messages and so on around about how bad they were — and then came the puppets. In a flash of evil genius, Loren came up with the idea of doing interviews with a puppet version of Shel, and has since done them with a number of people, some of whom Shel knows. I confess that I find the videos pretty funny — even though Shel has made it clear that he doesn’t, and that he resents people like Mike Arrington supporting Loren, and resents friends who are playing along with the joke.

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Don’t worry, media: Old people love you

Amid all the doom and gloom about the decline of the traditional media business, whether it’s books, magazines, television or newspapers, it’s nice to see a ray of hope like the one contained in a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers analysis of the industry, which boils down to (and I’m paraphrasing here): “Old people still like you.” According to a description of the report from MediaPost, while the “Net generation” is focusing on digital and online forms of media:

“consumers over the age of 50 are creating a balance in the industry by devoting significant amounts of attention to the more traditional media of their generation.”

And while the number of media consumers under the age of 25 amounts to as much as 40 per cent of the population of some countries such as India, China and Brazil (it’s 34 per cent in the U.S.), the consulting firm says that the number of older consumers continues to grow, thanks to the demographic bubble created by the Baby Boom. PricewaterhouseCoopers says that the 50-plus population:

“will see double digit growth rates and globally, this population will increase from 1.1 billion to 1.25 billion, a 13.1% rise through 2012. This growth will help sustain traditional formats.”

So there’s your business model for traditional media in a nutshell: the growing population of geezers. In other words, lots more ads for — not to mention feature stories about — hip replacements, adult-incontinence products and luxury cruise vacations. Hurray.