All posts by robertmcgrath

Book Review: “Beyond Infinity” by Eugenia Cheng

Beyond Infinity by Eugenia Cheng

Mathematician Eugenia Cheng really enjoys math, and her popular books bubble with her own excitement. And she’s a pretty darn good teacher, too.

Her recent book is all about the weird, twisty and awesome world of infinity.

We all have some nebulous ideas about “forever” and “more than you can count” and so on, but trying to make the idea of “infinity” logical is very difficult and, not to put too fine a point on it, mind-breaking.   Cheng’s book recounts how mathematicians have tamed this concept, and the cool ideas that had to be invented.

Infinity is weird.

One moment you think you know what is going on, and the next moment you look in a slightly different direction and everything falls away.” (p. 211)

But mathematics has worked hard to get solid footing.

It’s the joy of Infinity. The real joy, to me, is understanding the logic behind it, and seeing how to deal with these things with mathematical rigor.” (p.  270)

Throughout the book, Cheng uses phrases like “when a child is first learning” or “a young child who doesn’t know how to count yet” to introduce simple intuitions which underlie mathematical concepts. It sounds like she spends time playing with young kids (which she may well do), but this is also a way to defuse the ignorance of the non-technical reader (such as moi).

The result is one of the most painless explanations of, say, set theory, I’ve ever read (and I’ve been trying to grok set theory since Lyndon Johnson was President of the US).  Cheng also gives a mathematician’s explanation for why all those one-dimensional opinion scales (“strongly agree” – “strongly disagree”) drive me nuts (pp. 171-176). (Hint: they are projecting a multidimensional space onto a one-D line, which makes it impossible to actually express your actual (more than 1D) opinion.)

For that matter, now I have a much better (non-technical) of what “category theory” is about (Chapter 13). I’ve heard mathematicians talk about it for years, but no one ever explained it very clearly to a civilian like me. Cheng explains the basic idea, and in only a few pages.


Actually, I’m not quite a “civilian”. After decades of programming computers, I have no problem at all understanding not only binary arithmetic and trees, but also the weirdness of whole numbers and the “gaps everywhere” in the number line.

Computer math is all Integers, and all computers have only so many numbers they can count—they are finite. All those fractions, and even those negative numbers on your computer are done with extremely clever and nerdy tricks that simulate continuous math. Cheng makes these groaty engineering problems fit into the larger picture of abstract math.

Above all, we get the sense of Cheng’s own lifelong love of math, and why it is interesting.

I often feel that I’m making no progress in math because everything I already know seems easy and everything I haven’t done yet is difficult….” (p. 39)

The most beautiful things to me are the things just beyond the boundary of logic.” (p. 278)

This is a remarkable and surprisingly enjoyable book. It is easy to see why her popular math books are praised so highly.

  1. Eugenia Cheng, Beyond Infinity: An Expedition to the Outer Limits of Mathematics, New York, Basic Books.


Sunday Monday Book Reviews

Book Review: “How Not To Be Wrong” by Jordan Ellenberg

How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg

This is a widely praised book, and I can see why. It’s a really nice piece of popular mathematics, presenting many deep topics without distracting details.

I’ve booked enough college by now that I have heard of most of this stuff before. But even so, Ellenberg does such a great job of organizing and explaining things that I kept reading even when I already knew the “surprise ending”.

I also liked the serious tone. He didn’t succumb to the Hollywood rules, didn’t try to make it an exciting story, tragic or triumphant or conspiratorial. And, thank goodness, he didn’t try to tell how everything is connected to everything else. I’ve had enough of that stuff.

Ellenberg aims to be useful, and to show how mathematics applies to everyday life, even if you didn’t realize it. He says you can think carefully, following mathematical knowledge, even if you hate math.

To that end, he has a rather lot of discussion of lotteries, which these days are state sponsored mathematics tests. It’s still the case that the only way to win is to not play.

But, Ellenberg shows that there is a lot more to it. He also has a fine old time dissecting cases where a glitch in the design meant that you could win by playing the lottery. Or rather, some people could win.

And so on. The Laffer curve. The perils of statistical significance. Bayesian inference. Correlation and regression.

It’s difficult to be an informed citizen without a grasp of these issues.

Reading Ellenberger actually helped me in a couple of my own ongoing writing projects.

His explanation of survivor bias made me realize that this phenomenon holds a possible answer for the questions “Why are coworkers so satisfied with coworking?”

Survey after survey reports that members of coworking spaces say they are happy, productive, “thrive”, etc. (E.g., [3]) These rates are much, much higher than workers in any other type of workspace. Reading Ellenberger crystallized my intuition that this could well be selection bias, a survivor bias. Unhappy coworkers don’t cowork, and aren’t sampled.

A second highlight for me is Ellenberger’s extensive discussion of voting schemes, and the dilemmas and paradoxes found in trying to assess opinions of groups. His chapter gave me a better understanding of my intuitive skepticism of enthusiastic (often techie) advocates of blockchain based voting schemes [4], “reputation economies” [2], and Distributed Autonomous Organizations.

There are any number of variations of these themes, people searching for just the right algorithm that will automatically, and uncorruptably, represent group opinions and magically save democracy and humanity. (These are the same folks who sometimes think that the solution to creating trusted systems is to use “trustless” algorithms.)

Reading Ellenberg throws cold water on a lot of these ideas. There is no one right way to do voting, even for abstract versions of the problem that ignore the messiness of the real world. No formal system (algorithm) can represent the will of the group in all cases, however you define “the will of the group”. Speaking mathematically, Ellenberg also feels that any election so close as to be within the margin of error might just as well be decided by the toss of a coin. There are days when I agree with him.

This is an excellent book. It won’t actually help you always be right, but it will help you be numerically literate in the contemporary world.

  1. Jordan Ellenberg, How Not To Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, New York, Penguin Books, 2014.
  2. Michael Fertik and David C. Thompson, The Reputation Economy: How to Optimize Your Digital Footprint in a World Where Your Reputation is Your Most Valuable Asset, New York, Crowne Business, 2015.
  3. Gretchen Spreitzer, Peter Bacevice, and Lyndon Garrett, Why People Thrive in Coworking Spaces. Harvard Business Review, 93 (8):1-7, 2015.
  4. Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott, Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin is Changing Money, Business, and the World, New York, Portfolio/Penguin, 2016.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book review: “Made With Creative Commons” by Paul Stacey and Sarah Hinchli Pearson

Made With Creative Commons by Paul Stacey and Sarah Hinchli Pearson

The Creative Commons (CC) has been around for a while now (since 2002, which is several eons in Internet years), and has to be considered very successful, at least in its initial ambitions. Creative Commons licenses are widely known and used, and they solve the technical problem they were created to solve: they are a universally recognized standard for controlled sharing of intellectual property.

I have always admired the clear sighted way CC laid out and explains their licenses. “There is no one right way.” ([1], p. 41) But they have worked out a range of very sensible alternatives, which make it easy to do what you mean to do in a standard way.

If nothing else, CC has given the world an array of possibilities. No one is forced to share via CC, but the multiple CC licenses lay out ways that you can share if you want to. Do you want to share, but always preserve your credit (Attribution)? Do you want to preserve your creation whole, or allow people to modify it (No Derivatives)? Do you want to preserve rights to make money (No Commercial)? Do you want to share, with the provision that everyone who uses the work must also share what they do (Share Alike)? Just asking myself these questions, inspires me to want to try it out!

Of course, Creative Commons has always been about more than license language,. The overall goal is to foster global culture and to use the Internet as the repository of shared, common information. The Commons, for the benefit ao all humankind.

In recent years, CC has been moving to new directions, and this book is a part of the new direction.

Basically, the “strategy” aims at three goals:

We need to talk about sharing,”
Towards a vibrant, usable commons,” and
Let’s light up our global commons.”

Boiling these down, CC is moving to try to make it easier to share, and generally to get a lot more sharing going on. I note that the essential accomplishments of CC’s first decade is succinctly summed up in only two and a half pages of this book, Chapter 3. The rest of the book is the new stuff.

One aspect of this new project is to consider financial models. The global commons may be powered by “joy and gratitude”, but people need to eat.

Paul Stacey and Sarah Hinchli Pearson’s new book, Made With Creative Commons, is all about this topic–economic viability. As they say, the original notion was to document successful “business plans” that use CC. But the “open business plans” they found are not really about the money, they are about how to succeed in a very broad sense.

What we didn’t realize was just how misguided it would be to write a book about being Made with Creative Commons using only a business lens.” (p.20)

To this end, the book includes short but useful chapters that define “commons”, particularly the “digital commons”, and the challenges of navigating commons in a world of markets and states.

Even though this book is about how to make money using CC, it’s not about money. It can’t be, because it’s about values.

Sharing work with Creative Commons is, at its core, a moral decision.” (p.20)

Being Made with Creative Commons is not just about the simple act of licensing a copyrighted work under a set of standardized terms, but also about community, social good, contributing ideas, expressing a value system, working together. “ (p. 30)

sharing with a Creative Commons license is a symbol of how you want to interact with the people who consume your work” (p. 20)

Stacey and Hinchli suggest that using CC is beneficial in a variety of ways.

First, CC can be very valuable with ‘Problem Zero: getting discovered’. Specifically,

  • CC can help grow audience, gain name recognition, differentiate
  • CC can be a marketing tool (loss leader)
  • CC can foster “hands on engagement”—tinkering creates demand, and committed followers

CC can be used in business models that make money in a variety of ways. These concepts aren’t especially novel, but CC can play a valuable role. Many creators or companies share part or all of their work, and sustain themselves viaL

  • Selling other services. E.g., Sell in-person version (e.g., live concerts). Advertising. Help or other consulting.
  • Charging some users (e.g., charge content providers for uploads)
  • Memberships, pay-what-you-want, crowdfunding

But, by sharing via CC,  “Rather than simply selling a product or service, they are making ideological, personal, and creative connections with the people who value what they do.“ (p. 30)

The authors consider that sharing is also a personal connection between a creator and the people who consume their work.

“the common strategies that creators, companies, and organizations use to remind us that there are humans behind every creative endeavor. To remind us we have obligations to each other. To remind us what sharing really looks like. (p.31)

This seems to require more than a commercial relationship. It is a human relationship.

  • Be human (“But it can’t be a gimmick. You can’t fake being human. “ p.31
  • Be open and accountable
  • Design for the good actors
  • Treat humans as humans
  • State you principles and stick to them
  • Build community
  • Give more than you take….
  • Involve people

Clearly, there is much more to CC than digital rights.

The bulk of the book is 24 case studies, ranging from ‘Arduino” to “Wikimedia”. These cases reveal a great variety of ways to do it. For that matter, there are quite a variety of “its” to do. There is a common theme, throughout:

Regardless of legal status, they all have a social mission. Their primary reason for being is to make the world a better place, not to pro t. Money is a means to a social end, not the end itself.” (p. 14-15)

I am familiar with some of the cases, though I did not necessarily understand their business models. (‘Open source’ means that users do not need to know how you make money!)

The enterprises studied are mainly digital, but some have substantial “analog” components. Even in cases that offer similar products and services, there are different approaches to making money.

The cases in this book examine some of the business models for these enterprises.

  • Grants
  • Charging for uploads and publication
  • Custom implementations for institutions
  • Crowdfunding
  • Value added (e.g., metrics, tools for assessment)

Pretty much every business model you can think of is represented except purely commercial ownership and slavery.

The enterprises include:

Individual creators (e.g., writers and musicians): Fans are your friends, friends share. CC lets creators retain credit, allow reuse or not, and reserve commercial rights.

Media distribution: digital images, music, etc. – Individual creators benefit from large markets that attract users and expose their work. CC licenses protect the interests of creators who wish to share, while allowing services to make enough money to operate.

Journalism – The purpose of journalism is to share information, but it must be available to everyone, and it must be authoritative. CC licenses let journalists share while protecting the integrity of the product, through Attribution, controlling Derivatives, and controlling commercial use.

Knowledge Enterprises: Libraries, Archives, Journals, Textbooks, etc. – The vast common heritage of humankind needs to be shared by all. This includes school books, science journals, cultural museums, and lots of other kinds of knowledge. CC licenses make it possible to share widely with the people who need the information, which protecting the interests of creators and sustaining the services that make the sharing possible.

Things: design and know-how for building – The vast common heritage of humankind include making. CC isn’t limited to digital artifacts, and these days “how to” is usually represented in digital materials including plans, software, tutorials, and consulting.

While sharing is “a moral decision” (p. 20), this book surveys all the ways that people manage to both freely share and accrue enough resources to continue to share. Whether formally “for-profit” or “not-for-profit”, the main point is not to make money, it is to make enough money to continue the mission.

The business models described in these case studies are surprisingly diverse, ranging from conventional grants, sponsorship, and advertising, through a variety of user fees and “extra” products, and ultimately the “pay-what-you-want” model (essentially, digital busking). Many operations use a combination of approaches.

The book documents the ways that CC helps these enterprises accomplish their goals. A CC license is the clearest possible signal that the creator wants to share, as well as a universal declaration of the rules that apply in each case.

This signal is used by creators to publicize their own values, and to define a positive and mutually beneficial relationship with their audience and consumers. For most of the cases, these values and relationships are the social capital that is the very core of the enterprise.

It’s hard to know the ultimate importance of these kinds of enterprises in the grand scheme. The world economy seems to be dominated by a mixture of restrictive property rights and uncontrolled appropriation. I think that CC offers an interesting middle way.

This book helps make the case that sharing is both a morally and economically rational.

Very interesting, and highly recommended.

  1. Paul Stacey and Sarah Hinchli Pearson, Made With Creative Commons, Copenhagen, Ctrl+Alt+Delete Books, 2017.


Sunday Saturday Book Reviews

Introduction to Quantum Computing

As I have said before, from the very beginning, everyone knew that Quantum Computing was going to be revolutionary. Aside from the technical factors (orders of magnitude speed up, solving impossible problems), the romantic weirdness multiplier is massive. Computing is magical, Quantum Computing is practically mystical!

I, like everyone, and excited and ready for QC. But I don’t understand it.

For this reason, I was eager to read Johnathan Katz’s nice little tutorial, “How quantum mechanics can change computing[2].

The heart of the matter is, of course, the physics of atomic and subatomic particles, which is so different from familiar classical physics. Katz explains that “[t]he smallest unit of information in classical mechanics […] is the bit, which can hold a value of either 0 or 1”. Quantum superposition means that a quantum bit (qubit) can simultaneously hold the value of 0 and 1.

The second important difference is that classical bits are independent of each other, but qubits may be entangled. This is a form of instantaneous parallelism, by which a whole collection of qubits might be set at once. This raises the tantalizing possibility of solving a computation that takes zillions of bit operations, in just one step.

If that ain’t mystical, I’ll eat (and simultaneous have) my hat.

Building a system that physically implements qubits requires “operations and measurements to be done on a atomic scale”. I don’t know what all that means, but it is real, real hard. Current publicly announced Quantum Computers are in the range of a few qubits (your watch has millions of classical bits). Google has announced a 49-qubit computer by January, 2018, which is a the biggest acknowledged system.* (As far as I know, you may be able to rent time on a QC, but you can’t buy one.)

As I have noted, one of the earliest know uses for QC is in the realm of cryptography.  Much of contemporary computational cryptography depends on algorithms that are difficult to compute with conventional computers. The algorithms that secure the internet are secured by computations that are “too hard” to be broken.

But QC can crack those problems nearly instantly.**

In 1994, Peter Shor showed that quantum computers could quickly solve the complicated math problems that underlie all commonly used public-key cryptography systems

In short, the Internet is basically toast on the day that QC is widely available to break public keys.

QC can also be a defensive weapon, in the form of Quantum Key Distribution. Entangled qubits can be used to create an untappable communication channel, which could be used to securely transmit crypto keys. There are new demonstrations of this capability announced every day <<link>>, and I assume that national security services probably have even better systems.

There is a lot of current work developing “quantum safe” cryptography, most of which I don’t really understand. Old fashioned cryptography isn’t very intuitive, so I’m not surprised that QC gets wild.

In the cryptocurrency field, there are a few tentative steps toward “quantum safe” blockchains. To date, these are “non-Nakamotoan” systems, to coin a phrase. They claim to replicated the key properties of Bitcoin, but there are significant differences besides just the cryptography.

As Mark Anderson comments, there are multiple proposals and “not every solution to the quantum singularity is as promising as every other”. And, as I have suggested before, these solutions are not backward compatible to Bitcoin, and many people may not consider them to be a legitimate replacement.

Interesting times.  (Or maybe, the times are simultaneously interesting and not interesting!)

* I assume that major nation states may well have had much larger QCs for years, but these developments would be highly protected secrets.

** This is why national capabilities are likely to be deeply secret.

  1. Mark Anderson, qBitcoin: A Way of Making Bitcoin Quantum-Computer Proof?, in IEEE Spectrum – Tech Talk. 2017.
  2. Jonathan Katz How quantum mechanics can change computing. The Conversation.August 23 2017,


Fixing Journalism? Two Approaches

Everybody knows that journalism is in crisis. It turns out that the Internet lowered the cost of delivering information to the point that anyone can play the role of journalism. Anyone. For any reason.

Worse, as the information economy has been increasingly captured by the advertising industry, all other interests have been obliterated. Everything is subordinated to the need to command a large enough audience to generate revenue for advertisers. We now have a word for this, “click bait”.

At the same time, the idea of “mass” media has been replaced with individually filtered channels. It isn’t necessary to serve a least-common-denominator, each person receives a custom stream, potentially different from any other. This has shattered cultural consensus that, for better or worse, was a side-effect of mass media.

These developments have had pernicious effects everywhere, but the destruction of quality (or even mediocre) journalism is particularly damaging to civil society and democratic government.

Scarcely a week goes by without hearing about some new effort to “save” or “reboot” journalism. Shorn of marketing hype, these ideas are basically about money. How can you sustain the activities of journalists or equivalent content creators?

There aren’t many candidate solutions, and they are all pretty much the same ideas as sustained print based journalism.

  1. be a captive propaganda organ
  2. advertising
  3. subscription

Setting aside the “ministry of truth” approach favored by political groups, let’s look at two recent examples of the other approaches.

Civil: Self-Sustaining Journalism

One diagnosis of journalism’s malaise is that they need to adapt to the new world of on-line advertising and the accompanying need to “attract eyeballs”. Conventional journalistic organizations must be rebooted for this new world.

There are many versions of this, but one interesting concept comes from “Civil”, which not only aims to fix journalism, but uses trendy blockchain technology to do so.

The goal is “is a self-sustaining global marketplace for journalism that is free from ads, fake news, and outside influence”. Wow!

One of the key insights in this approach is to view the goal as a global marketplace for journalism, which eschews notions of a special fourth estate with a critical role in democratic self-governance. From this point of view, journalism is one kind of content, and it has to compete in a global marketplace filled with lots of other content.

In one sense, this is essentially conceding defeat. Journalism is over, so we’ll reuse the term for journalism-like content.

Their promised solution sounds too good to be true. Somehow this global, unregulated market will be free of influences, and “self-sustaining” without ads. How will this work?  Magic.

The magic is blockchain based “autonomous” organizations. This technology replaces a conventional organization with code, and, most important, aims to replace the critical functions of journalism with “autonomous” processes—protocols that are not controlled by any person.

So, Civil proposes a suite of processes that they believe replace everything important from conventional journalism,  and avoid costly overheads and intrusive outside interest.

Who are the stakeholders in the journalism game? At the heart, there are journalists (“sellers”) and citizens (“buyers”). There are  funders, owners, advertisers, and sponsors.

But the critical piece that makes it journalism rather than entertainment is quality control, selection of topics, honest investigation, and careful fact checking. In a conventional organization, this role is performed by editorial staff and other managers, who exercise power with judgment.

The ‘Civil’ project eliminates all of these players except the producers and consumers.

Civil aims to create a marketplace model for journalism where citizens and journalists connect around shared interests and standards.

This is both technologically and organizationally identical to many other Internet markets.

The Civil project diagnoses the weakness of this “Amazon” model as being the ease with which “anonymous black hats to cheaply produce and spread fake, malicious content in pursuit of clicks-for-cash ad dollars or nefarious propagandist aims.

Their solution is inspired by Wikipedia, and seeks to “incentivize journalism” while defeating non-journalistic behavior. In their analysis, the way to do this is to create a cryptocurrency and use it to implement micropayments. It’s a bit more complicated than this, because they want to encourage more than just personal payments. They want stable channels of information with strong quality or at least reputation for quality.

Their design has three pieces:

Newsrooms” – “Newsrooms allow citizens to pool funding to support coverage for a specific topic. The more citizens, the more funding, the more journalists will be drawn to cover it.”

Stations” – “Stations allow journalists to productize and price their work to their own dedicated audience however they want”

Fact-checking-as-a-service” – this is crowd sourcing of the editorial role.

These ideas are to be implemented with Ethereum-style “smart contracts”, creating protocols for buying and selling content, as well as voting, penalizing ‘inaccuracy’ and other activities.

The two “innovations” here would have to be the “newsroom” and the “fact-checking-as-a-service”. (“Stations” are indistinguishable from many other digital channels, including this blog.)

The Newsroom concept is an interesting take on how journalism is supposed to work. The idea that journalists should cover what “people” want them to cover is, well, problematic. There are lots of things I don’t want to know about (e.g., wars), but I need journalists to tell me about it. The idea that journalistic coverage should be driven by customer demand is pretty poor journalism.

The “Fact-Checking-As-A-Service” is even more problematic. This concept replaces the efforts of editors and quality control staff with an unspecified crowd sourcing. They don’t explain how this might work or even what it does.

First of all, “fact checking” is only the first level of journalistic quality controls. A report can be 100% “accurate” and still mislead by omission or bias. For that matter, much of the “fake news” is based on interpretation and even “alternative facts”. If there are multiple “fact checkers” who give different rulings, how does that help?

Second, actual quality control is far more than just double checking names and dates. Tracking down alleged events and sources isn’t trivial. More important, judging the weight to give various sources is hard. In this, journalists act as trusted sources of information, and we implicitly trust their sources because we trust them. Replacing this chain of trust with a “trustless” system is dubious.

As an aside, I’ll point out that the best journalists are not “incentivized” by money. They are motivated by a desire to be a trusted source of information. And the best of them report on things that no one wants to know about—and they make us care whether we want to or not.  Thus, the incentives of this system are probably misguided from the start.

The bottom line is that “Civil” is almost a caricature of the cryptocurrency culture. They aim to “fix” journalism, but they seem to misunderstand what it is, and misdiagnose its ills. Not surprisingly, the proposed “fix” is problematic, and unlikely to work.

The Conversation

“The Conversation” offers a rather different “fix” for at least part of the same problem. The conversation is a not for profit enterprise, dedicated to promulgating reliable, fact-based information.

Provide a fact-based and editorially independent forum, free of commercial or political bias.”

The Conversation is responding to the challenges described by Civil. They also perceive a disconnect between universities and the public. Universities are repositories of knowledge, but that knowledge is poorly represented in journalism.

The Conversation sees itself as a source of trusted information dedicated to the public good.

In contrast to Civil, The Conversation does not rely on a “market” to “incentivize” their producers. For one thing their writers are already highly motivated. What they do focus on is careful editing, which is not just ”fact checking”, but also helps create clear, understandable information for non-specialists.

Above all, The Conversation is aiming to create trusted and trustworthy information. They enforce strong rules on transparency, including disclosure of financial interests. The authors are not paid in cryptocurrency or anything, and the content is open for anyone to reuse under Creative Commons Attributions-No Derivs (CC BY-ND). This license preserves the attribution and precludes modification of what the author said, which are necessary to maintain both the trust of the readers and the reputation of the writers and editors.

In short,  “We aim to help rebuild trust in journalism.”

The content is not driven by user demand, it is curated by The Conversation. They are looking for people who know a lot about a topic of public interest, who want to inform the public about it.

Authors must agree to “Community Standards”, which amount to straightforward rules of civil discourse: mutual respect, staying on topic, be constructive, be responsible. It is interesting that one of the rules is “Be You”. No anonymous or pseudonymous posts allowed: you must take personal responsibility for what you say.

Articles are “pitched” to the staff, and if selected an editor is assigned to help create the article. The editor is not a “fact checker”, she or he is a co-creator,  charged to help design the article to be valuable for the general audience.

The published article will include the name, qualifications, affiliations, and funding sources of the author. In this, they are taking practices from academic publishing out to general readers.

The content is free for readers, and available for republishing. No one is writing to make money, but there is plenty of reputation on the line.

One reason this works is that the contributors must be affiliated with an academic institution. Aside from filtering out complete fakes and robots, this means that the authors have their own funding, and generally have a mission to publish. The Conversation doesn’t need to “incentivize” with a starvation wage.


These two (of many) efforts to “fix journalism” offer an interesting comparison.

Both Civil and The Conversation say that there is a crisis in journalism, and describe the illness in similar terms. But these two projects diagnose the underlying disease rather differently, and therefore prescribe different treatments.

Civil is concerned with the financial underpinnings of journalism, and seems to be mainly interested in coverage of current events, especially local events. They seek to use digital technology to create a more efficient, decentralized funding model. Specifically, they use trendy blockchain technology to design “markets” that replace the processes of journalism.

While Civil deploys “disruptive” technology, it’s processes aren’t especially novel, nor even that different from conventional practice. The main novelty is the replacement of editorial decision-making and quality control with market incentives and rather hazy notions of “fact checking as a service”.

The Conversation is concerned with creating better content in ways that are distributed as widely as possible. They are particularly interested in disseminating the deep knowledge accumulated at Universities to the general public.

The Conversation is focused on trusted information. As such, quality control is at the center of the solution, and incentives are aimed to support public interest, not market share.

The Conversation uses digital technology (of course), but musters motivated people from the existing pool of academic researchers who have a desire to support the public good. Authors are not paid, and the content is given away for free. Editors, on the other hand, are paid. If there is a market, it is a reputation economy.

It is notable that The Conversation has been operating for a number of years. No one is getting rich, but there is a lot of solid journalism being made. In that sense, it is a proof by existence.

Civil, on the other hand, is untried as yet. The blockchain technology it aims to use is not only new, it is extremely shaky.

My own view is that Civil’s approach to journalism exhibits fundamental misunderstandings and even a repudiation of what journalism actually used to be. Editors have always been aware of market forces, but are supposed to act as a buffer between producers and raw demand. That is, editors want to foster solid reporting, even if there is no immediate “demand” for it, and they want to report accurately regardless of what the customers want to hear.

Editorial staff does fact checking, but fact checking per se is only the most trivial aspect of quality control. In any case is neither an optional after market service, nor something that you choose to match your own prejudices.

I think that The Conversation’s focus on trust is a great idea, and I’m glad to see it working. On the other hand, The Conversation is focused on a small part of the problem with journalism, which is the poor use of expert knowledge. This problem has been around for decades in the form of anxiety over the challenges of disseminating scientific understandings.

The Conversation works because it uses already existing social mechanisms, specifically, the credentialing and public mission of Universities. These institutions are designed to create trusted information and conduct civil discourse. The Conversation extends the reach of these processes.

However, the entire enterprise of public universities is increasingly threatened by both cultural attack and politically motivated defunding. The Conversation only works if you think that University affiliated experts are trusted sources, and that belief is far from universal. A lot of “fake news” is simply nihilistic denial of expert opinion, and no amount of editing can overcome the will to deny.

The bottom line is that neither of these projects is much of a cure for journalism. The Conversation does a good job, but depends on the fate of academia and rational debate in general. Civil misunderstands journalism, and attempts to fix the problem of trusted information via “trustless” technology and market forces. Whatever Civil is doing, it isn’t good journalism.

  1. Civil Civil: Self-Sustaining Journalism.June 20 2017,
  2. The Converstaion. The Conversation: In-depth analysis, research, news and ideas from leading academics and researchers. 2017,


Cryptocurrency Thursday

Collapsable Delivery Drone

I’m not a huge fan of buzzy little quadcopters, nor am I a fan of delivery drones. The former are about as welcome as a cloud of mosquitos, and the latter promises to transfer even more wealth to the 0.001%. (I’m not sure who these drones will be delivering to, when none of us have jobs or money to buy things.)

That said, I was interested to see the “origami-inspired cargo drone” developed by a group at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne [2]. Their design wraps the copter in a flexible cage, which protects the package and also encloses the dangerous rotors. The cage is foldable, so it closes up to a relatively small package when not in use.

The cage is a nice design. It addresses the safety (and perceived safety) of the drone in a nice way. Rather than depending on complex algorithms to make the drone “safe” and “friendly”, their design makes the drone a soft beach ball like thing—the affordances are obvious and visible. Furthermore, the safety factor is passive. The effectiveness of the enclosure does not depend on either software or humans.

I’m sure that this basic idea can be realized in a lot of geometries. The EPFL design is modular, which means that a variety of cages can be made from the same design. It folds up rather neatly, and, of course, is light and strong.

I could imagine versions of this concept that have a standard coupling to a range of quadcopters. Sort of a “delivery cage” costume for drones. (I smell a new standard for “drone costume attachment” coming.)

Clearly, there is no reason why the cage has to be so bare and undecorated. Why not streamers, glitter, and even LEDs? These might make the drone more appealing, and would also make the drone more visible to cameras, radar, and sonar. (Another standard? Passive safety reflectors for drones?)

I’m still not eager to have my local stores put out of business by Amazon, but if I’m going to have to live with drones, I’d like them to bounce off walls and people, rather than crash into them.

  1. Evan Ackerman, EPFL’s Collapsable Delivery Drone Protects Your Package With an Origami Cage, in IEEE Spectrum — Automation. 2017.
  2. Przemyslaw Mariusz Kornatowski, Stefano Mintchev, and Dario Floreano, An origami-inspired cargo drone, in IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems. 2017: Vancouver.


Robot Wednesday

Handheld Mass Spectrometry

Mass-Spectrometry is pretty much magic. A tiny sample of matter can be analyzed to get a chemical fingerprint which reveals exactly what it is.

Today, mass-spectrometry requires a large and expensive machine, and generally requires a fairly large sample which is destroyed by the process, which takes 30 minutes or more to complete. This is fine for laboratory studies, but impractical for many medical applications.

This fall a group from University of Texas report on a new device intended for use in course of cancer surgery [3]. The device is a pen-sized sampler that is touched to the tissue around a removed tumor. It samples the chemistry of the tissue without damaging it, feeds the sample to a mass-spectrogram machine, and quickly screens the results to determine if the tissue is cancerous (and so should be removed). The algorithm is highly accurate, enabling a surgeon to find the edges of what must be removed.

The quick turn around and spatially precise sample are essential for use during surgery. The technique picks up metabolites from the tissue without destroying it, which is a great improvement over previous methods.

As Emily Waltz points out, this technique still requires a mass-spectrogram machind, which is impractical for most operating rooms. However, there are new developments that will make smaller and cheaper mass-spectrogrametry possible [1].  And, of course, machine learning can be used to create many different fast classifier algorithms.

Combining these developments, as well as other non-invasive sensing will lead to some pretty amazing medical tech.


Aside:  Please note the careful experiments and detailed open report of their validation studies in [3].  Compare to the usual Silicon Valley hype-intensive, data-light technology.

  1. Dexter Johnson, Mass Spectrometry Gets a New Power Source and a New Life, in IEEE Specturm – Nanoclast. 2017.
  2. Emily Waltz, Handheld Mass-Spectrometry Pen Identifies Cancer in Seconds During Surgery, in IEEE Spectrum – The Human OS. 2017.
  3. Jialing Zhang, John Rector, John Q. Lin, Jonathan H. Young, Marta Sans, Nitesh Katta, Noah Giese, Wendong Yu, Chandandeep Nagi, James Suliburk, Jinsong Liu, Alena Bensussan, Rachel J. DeHoog, Kyana Y. Garza, Benjamin Ludolph, Anna G. Sorace, Anum Syed, Aydin Zahedivash, Thomas E. Milner, and Livia S. Eberlin, Nondestructive tissue analysis for ex vivo and in vivo cancer diagnosis using a handheld mass spectrometry system. Science Translational Medicine, 9 (406) 2017.