Friday, August 26, 2005

Odds & Ends

As the week comes to a close, here are a few things I've found interesting in the last couple of weeks. Just a small sampling, mind you, but then, there'll be lots of other days to get to the rest.

Battelle Book on Google Almost Here. John Battelle is a special name in magazine journalism. Many have succeeded in recording a single large success, but not many can boast of two giant home runs in their career. A co-founder of Wired Magazine, he later went on to found Internet Week, one of the epic rise-and-fall stories ever in the American magazine industry. At the height of the Internet boom, it was so successful, stuffed with so many ads, that the editorial side literally couldn't keep up, despite massive hiring. They began recycling stories and repeating them, just to have enough editorial matter to balance the ballooning ads. You may remember, or at least guess, the rest: after the market and technology crash of five years ago, the magazine itself crashed and burned. Battelle went on to teach journalism out west, and for the last couple of years has been working on a long-awaited book about Google. A recent
excerpt in Wired shows why so many have been awaiting this book. His brief, lucid explanation of Google's secret sauce, the page rank system is one example of the guy's casual brilliance. I've read perhaps a couple dozen explanations of this system, but none could compare with this:

Together, Page and Brin created a ranking system that rewarded links that came from sources that were important and penalized those that did not. For example,many sites link to Those links might range from a business partner in the technology industry to a teenage programmer in suburban Illinois who just got a ThinkPad for Christmas. To a human observer, the business partner is a more important link in terms of IBM's place in the world. But how might an algorithm understand that fact? Page and Brin's breakthrough was to create an algorithm - dubbed PageRank after Page - that manages to take into account both the number of links into a particular site and the number of links into each of the linking sites. This mirrored the rough approach of academic citation-counting. It worked. In the example above, let's assume that only a few sites linked to the teenager's site. Let's further assume the sites that link to the teenager's are similarly bereft of links. By contrast, thousands of sites link to Intel, and those sites, on average, also have thousands of sites linking to them. PageRank would rank the teen's site as less important than Intel's - at least in relation to IBM.

Mossberg Follows Hanson. Not long ago, my friend Dan Hanson, the self-described "entreprenerd" of Cleveland, wrote on his blog about the myth that Dell is the low-price computer alternative. He pointed out how they use what amounts to a bait-and-switch tactic on their low-priced specials, making sure that those models are low on storage or speed or both, and possibly missing important features, like sound cards. He has a built-in bias, of course, since he's in the same business. In any event, just ten days later, the Wall Street Journal's sainted, uniquely influential personal technology columnist, Walter Mossberg, who has no such built-in bias, made much the same point. Once again, Dan is riding out ahead of the technology wave. And his print journalism is no slouch either, especially for a guy who came relatively late to that field. His sparkling piece on One Cleveland in Inside Business (an otherwise undistinguished magazine which at least has the good sense to spotlight his sparkling work), which we hear was held for quite a few months and chopped up in an epic bit of bureaucratic buffoonery, has been talked about and linked to with increasing frequency lately. In part, that's because One Cleveland just got a giant booster rocket with the decision by Intel to invest millions in Cleveland, but also in part because the piece is such a deft and concise overview of what this giant initiative is really all about, and why it's so crucial to the region's economic future.

Impending Conservative Crack-Up? On the one hand, ex-Nixon White House flak Pat Buchanan can sometimes sound like a complete loony-tunes, a guy so paleolithically conservative that he's lost touch with reality. Other times, like when he appears on Jon Stewart's Comedy Central, he has a disarming way of pointing his humor at himself. His magazine, The American Conservative, can at times be surprisingly insightful, especially about the larger conservative movement, where it tends to serve as a loud dissident.
This piece, by an obscure New York attorney, makes a number of interesting counterintuitive points about the current conservative political movement. It suggests that the movement, so full of serious intellectual insight during its decades out of power, is now quietly reversing course after it has attained power. "Original thinking often flourishes under conditions of intellectual marginality," he writes. "Unfortunately, the conservative movement, having discovered a mass audience, risks squandering the intellectual marginality that once made it so interesting and daring." I think he's on to something.

Burying Global Warming. Many progressives are understandably on the verge of despair over various indicators that suggest our energy habits are pushing the planet perilously close to disaster, to say nothing of depleting what oil the Earth has left. On the other hand, anyone who's studied even a little history knows that disruptive, unforseen innovations have a way of regularly pulling our collective fat from the fryer. In a fascinating
piece in the July issue of Scientific America, Princeton physics professor Robert Socolow outlines a scheme for burying carbon dioxide emissions, or as he puts it, "sequestering it underground," rather than emitting them into the air. "Nothing says that CO2 must be emitted into the air. The atmosphere has been our prime waste repository, because discharging exhaust up through smokestacks, tailpipes and chimneys is the simplest and least (immediately) costly thing to do. The good news is that the technology for capture and storage already exists and that the obstacles hindering implementation seem to be surmountable." I must admit, that's the first I'd ever heard of that idea, and it took me by surprise. It also made me curious about the author. Drilling down to learn more, I found this page, which notes that his initiative is funded by...Ford and BP. That's interesting. It doesn't mean his ideas are necessarily tainted, of course. But couldn't the editors of this well-respected science journal at least have mentioned this seemingly germane fact about his research funding somewhere in the article, and simply let readers decide what weight to assign to it?


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