Archive for September, 2007

Facebook as a crime fighting tool?

September 30th, 2007

hobbes jailMy aunt Marilyn forwarded me this interesting article: “Victim uses Facebook to finger suspect“. How would a victim use facebook to find an anonymous attacker and how does search using facebook differ from more traditional means? Unfortunately, the article doesn’t really delve into those issues but I thought I just share a few speculations.

First, facebook lets you browse pictures of people based on where they live. Each user and his or her friends usually keep pictures current. Second, you can view multiple pictures and video on many people that can help you get a better idea whether you have a match or not. Third, you can see groups and affiliations that might help you hone on someone who was more likely to commit a hate crime.

Unless you belong to the same network (e.g., attend the same school), you can currently only browse names and pictures. My best guess from this article is that the victim took the initiative to find the attacker, so I bet that both the victim and the attacker went to the same school.

But if facebook can be used to fight crime, should law enforcement have privileged access to it? And if so, how comfortable are we with public or secret investigations into broad swaths of innocent people? Finally and relatedly, how concerned should we be at the possibility of false positives (e.g., framing the wrong guy)? I don’t have answers to these questions, but I think we should follow cases like this one to see how well facebook works in practice as a crime fighting tool.

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Motivational speaker + civic engagement + kids = ?

September 29th, 2007

I found this video in a post titled “My life in a nutshell.” Oh, too true!

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Dice stacking

September 29th, 2007

This is real! If you don’t think you have time to spend a few minutes watching this video, just think how much time this dude has spent practicing these crazy tricks.

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September 29th, 2007

Barry Bonds CartoonThe news for non-sports fans: “The ball Barry Bonds hit for his record-breaking 756th home run will be branded with an asterisk and sent to the Baseball Hall of Fame.” Some eccentric rich guy named Ecko buys the Bonds’ ball for $700k, and then runs an online poll to decide what to do: (1) give to baseball’s hall of fame as is; (2) send it into outer space or (3) give it to the hall with an asterisk on it. Number 3 wins!

Poor William Rhodes of the NY Times seems to be Bonds’ only defender. In his column today, Rhodes argues that the Hall of Fame should reject this defiled donation or else be an “accomplice in compromising the integrity of baseball.” Come on, Rhoden: what really hurts the integrity of baseball more: this asterisk or BALCO?

But Rhoden brightened my day with this question and answer: “What would happen if the Hall of Fame rejected the ball? Ecko is stuck with a $700,000 ball.” Yes, that would also be a funny ending to this farce.

Footnote: Immediately after Barry Bonds broke the home run record, the Onion ran this funny headline: “MLB To Place Asterisk, Pound Sign, Exclamation Point, Letter ‘F’ Next To Bonds’ Name In Record Books.” Once again, the Onion is spot on.

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Can you run a membership organization on facebook?

September 28th, 2007

In my facebook class, we are responsible for forming three person teams: a marketer, a technologist and a manager. I’d like to manage a team that creates something useful for e-thePeople and other membership organizations, so I put together this video to solicit interest. I am pleased with the results. Check it out yourself:

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What is “Connected Conversations”?

September 28th, 2007

Big IdeasUp from zilch three weeks ago, “Connected Conversations” is up to 25 daily subscribers and 30 daily visitors. Welcome aboard everyone! Since there are so many new people I wanted to repeat and elaborate on my introductory post:

This blog will offer off-the-cuff commentary on technology, politics and academia et cetera, from the perspective of a grad student and social entrepreneur. I like to play in intersections, so over time I’ll try to cover some of the three pairwise intersections and of course anything that I can come up with in the one three-way intersection.

Feel free to join me in this exploration by commenting, or corresponding with me directly at

Rather than telling, let me show. You could just visit the site and pursue the archives to get a sense of what I like to write about, but here some pointers to some of my favorite and most popular posts so far:

  • Amazing Americans:a powerful patriotic video by a marine
  • Spy vs spy: Seven sites on your side: Why some sites are intentionally broken, creating an opportunity for other sites to fix the experience for you. Wanna get an automatic refund if your airfare goes down? Six other great sites too.
  • Morph madness: Does Mike+Maria=Anna? What does Ben+Angelina=? Spooky!
  • Celibacy and “The Selfish Gene”: Why does celibacy poses a problem for the genetic theory of evolution? May the “selfish allele” offer a better theory of evolution than the “selfish gene”?
  • The power of youtube: Wondering what all the fuss is about youtube? Watch this amusing video that is typical fare on youtube.

So, expect my posts to include neat videos and pointers to cool things as well as analysis and a strong point of view. Thanks for participating in my blogging experiment!


What makes facebook work?

September 28th, 2007

A new back-to-school ritual for students these days is to create and manage a profile on At the beginning of this summer, my friend Nathaniel convinced me to sign up and I have looked back. It is amazing, for the reasons I described in this past post. But why does it work so well?

Facebook taps two powerful human desires:

  1. Exhibitionism: filling out a facebook profile gives pleasure in defining who you are, sharing your music, book and movie preferences, etc. And as you get more involved in facebook, you may develop a sense of obligation (e..g, oh! I haven’t added a review of the movie I saw last weekend).
  2. Voyeurism: facebook allows you to peek into the lives of others. It offers a low commitment “on ramp” perhaps towards deeper friendship with new acquaintances. Over time, it is a lower barrier way to keep in touch. And what I hear is that facebook is the best way to find the cool parties. :)

In addition, facebook has developed a trust culture. In the beginning, only students with “.edu” email addresses could participate. No “creeps” could participate so facebook was safe. There is also a strong commitment to use real names and real profile pictures. Now, facebook is open but you can’t make much headway in the system if you violate the culture of trust. So, this culture is self-perpetuating.

Finally, facebook has “lightweight connectivity.” What is lightweight connectivity and why is it so cool? Consider how my mom uses netflix. She watches lots of movies and actively manages her movie list. She has also had great lists of books, movies, events and restaurants that she kept in a private diary. With netflix, she can now share at least her movie list with a half dozen or so of her friends. And just by sharing that list, she is strongly influences what movies her friends watch. What netflix does for movies, facebook does for everything social in your life. And if you are in college or recently graduated, you can be certain all your friends are on board.

Well, I apologize for dumping so much jargon in this post. Facebook is something really cool. Join now! I’ll be your guide if you want. And then you’ll understand what I am talking about, because I plan to write a lot more about facebook.

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Finding a new windmill to tilt at…

September 25th, 2007

Scott Reents sent me an email with just a single link, and man did it bum me out.

Lawrence Lessig is a famous constitutional law scholar who teaches now at Stanford Law School. For the last ten years, he has led the charge to redefine copyright in the Internet age as the founder of Creative Commons. Recently, all of us suffered a major setback when he lost a (literally) ‘Mickey Mouse’ Supreme Court case. And now this cause is losing its principal advocate, who has found a new windmill to tilt at: corruption. (He says: “I am 99.9% confident that the problem I turn to will continue exist when this 10 year term is over. But the certainty of failure is sometimes a reason to try.“)

For someone who is so admired and successful, I found Lessig’s inspirations really depressing for this decision in his announcement (“Required Reading“). His three inspirations are (1) obama; (2) gore and (3) an unnamed prominent republican who called him a “shill” for google.

Working backwards: first, please don’t accept the “shill” charge, Professor Lessig! Or tell me: how did you get duped into being an accomplice in corrupting the system? These charges really got to hurt an advocate who devoted a decade to an issue. I think that he should rather reconcile his views on the particular issue in question — network neutrality — where he should explain where his principled position does indeed differ from google’s largely correct but somewhat self-interested position.

Second, Al Gore is valiantly pursuing the global warming issue. But he is a sad hero: don’t you think he’d much rather have been President? And as a serious Washington insider for decades, it seems a little late and convenient to start blame the system now. It’s especially disingenuous because the environment also has its own interest groups that pray on emotional responses.

Third, he says that Obama is running for Presidency because of a ten-year “up or out” strategy. It’s a terrible parallel because Obama is riding at the top of his wave and Lessig is adrift after recent serious setbacks. So, claiming success (“we are going to prevail in these debates. Maybe not today, but soon.“) is decidedly weak. In fact, the weakness of this argument by such an admired thinker leads to question whether my own support of Obama is foolish too!

That said, Lessig is an *amazing* person so I wish him all the luck in the world in this new endeavor as well as those who will remain in the copyright arena. Lessig, here’s a message for you in the unlikely event you read this post: please understand that it is written with the same honest candor that your post was written and that I have the utmost respect for everything that you’ve accomplished. Corruption is a terrific new windmall to tilt at….good luck!

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Favorite cookbooks

September 25th, 2007

Right now, my wife Maria cooks us delicious meals with recipes from three books from our moms. We are into simple (e.g,. very few) and fresh ingredients. I was inspired to post this by a link “Top 10 Food Books Every Chef Should Own“. First our short list:

And here’s the list from the post that inspired this one:

1) On Food & Cooking / Harold McGee
2) The Art of Eating / MFK Fisher
3) Kitchen Confidential / Anthony Bourdain
4) It Must’ve Been Something I Ate / Jeffrey Steingarten
5) Tender at the Bone / Ruth Reichl
6) The Tummy Trilogy / Calvin Trillin
7) The Omnivore’s Dilemma / Michael Pollan
8) Down and Out in Paris and London / George Orwell
9) Heat / Bill Buford
10) The Physiology of Taste / Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

What are yours? Feel free to critique or add to these lists.

3. et cetera

Stumbling onto human computation

September 24th, 2007

I have recently become a big fan of StumbleUpon. With a single click, you can transported to wild and wonderful things on the Internet based on recommendations from other web surfers. Using this service, I stumbled on this amazing video on human computation. After watching the video, I realize that StumbleUpon itself is an example of human computation. Here’s professor Luis von Ahn‘s 60 minute or so presentation:

What if we just think about humans as a very specialized kind of processor? Human computation is a novel take on artificial intelligence (AI) problems like classification and ontologies. Traditionally, AI would use edge detection or some other image processing technique to classify a picture. But no one has been successful in using these technique to find common objects like cars, celebrities, etc. Human computation asks: why ask computers to do what people can do automatically and instantly? Is there some way to harness the 9 billion man-hours wasted playing games like tetris to do accomplish something productive?

Professor Ahn’s first game is called ESPgame. You sign up and become teamed up with someone else from across the Internet. Simultaneously, you enter words to describe a random image. If you type in the same word, you get points for a “match.” The most common words to describe an image become “taboo” as the game advances and the players have to search for more subtle words that describe the image.

So far, hundreds of millions of images have been classified by hundreds of thousands of people. He has two other notable games: Peekaboom, a game for locating objects within an image, Verbosity, a game for collecting common-sense facts about the world.

I actually like the idea of human computation because it applied to an even wider class of internet services than the games that Ahn has created. For example, google’s search engine is really human computation: it relies on links from sites like this blog that were chosen by real people to determine the order of the search results. Similarly, both Amazon’s recommendation feature (“people who bought this also bought..”) and even the user reviews can be considered human computation. And the tagging services like, my music service also fits into the category as well as StumbleUpon, the place I discovered this idea originally.

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iRobot and X-Men: quick reviews

September 24th, 2007

iRobot: Will Smith stars in Isaac Isamov’s sci fi thriller. Original story develops several interesting themes about cloning, scientific progress, paternalism and anthropomorphism. Also, a prescient warning of the danger of automatic updates (think: Microsoft). The robot “sonny” is surprisingly convincing; Will smith is good but not great.

X-Men: Growing up, I loved the comic book. I liked the movie because I had entirely forgotten all the details of the main storyline of the X-Men. Like iRobot, it raises questions about what it means to be human and about scientific progress. Unlike iRobot, the X-Men aren’t clones but have unique mutations that give them superhuman powers. In addition, the X-Men story intentionally sets up a parallel between teenage angst and the mutant equivalent. My low expectations of the movie were exceeded: although accessible to all sci fi aficionados, I especially recommend this movie to X-Men fans.

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Recall economics

September 23rd, 2007

I am in the market for a wooden train set for my son as a Christmas present. In my opinion, this item is perfectly suited to be purchased used. Unfortunately, RC2 recently recalled about 1.5 million trains due to excessive levels of lead paint. The primary economic impact is quite bad for RC2, both directly in replacement costs and indirectly though loss of consumer confidence. However, it has one benefit for them: I am now hesitant to purchase used trains. So rather than paying $1-2 for each used train, I’ll probably end up paying about $10 for each new train. Ugh.

3. et cetera

Some more good political resources

September 21st, 2007

My brother forwarded two valuable political resources: and The first is especially engaging in my opinion. With a truth-o-meter, they verify that “Obama girl’s” is correct to say ‘At least Obama didn’t marry his cousin,” as Giuliani did.’ However, Guiliani is completely wrong to accuse the democrats of socializing medicine and mostly wrong in asserting that they are “tripping over themselves” to raise taxes between “20 and 30 percent.”

I find three aspects make these resources valuable: (1) they can develop a track record of credibility; (2) people are quite good at discerning the truth when given all the facts (in contrast to a one-sided political statement) and (3) they can hold politicians accountable for what they say. Unfortunately, that third point is undermined by the fact that these sites primarily reach highly educated and engaged voters. They can do little to put fire to feet of mass campaigns of slander like “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.”

By the way, my mom sent me a link to the email discovery issue yesterday and my friend Nathaniel has been the source of several posts. If you find something interesting, send it to me! (mike [at] weiksner [dot] com). Also, until I figure out a better system I’m going to cross-post relevant articles on e-thepeople (like this current one) and on my obama blog. I consider the main place for me to post my ideas, but e-thepeople is a better place for public discussion. Still working out the obama blog thing.

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Subpoening personal emails in business trials?

September 20th, 2007

It’s not surprising (but stupid imo) that many people send personal emails at the office during business hours and from their business email account. It is more surprising that many people use their *personal* email accounts to conduct business. In fact, many Democrats were upset that Karl Rove used his RNC account for official White House business but that those email disappeared when they were subpoenaed. (I guess they were not discoverable after all.) But Rove is hardly alone in using alternative email accounts; the practice of using personal emails for business is indeed quite widespread, as noted in this interesting legal analysis of this issue:

An April 2007 survey revealed that 33 percent of employees use personal e-mail accounts at least once or twice weekly for business purposes, and that 17 percent do so daily. Moreover, nearly 16 percent of the survey participants admitted to using their personal e-mail accounts to avoid corporate review or retention of their messages.

As I read it, the courts are trying to strike a pragmatic balance between defendants’ privacy and plaintiff’s discovery interests. One case recognizes that giving a legal adversary access to all personal emails or even a harddrive is “overbroad.” Another case penalized a defendant for intentionally terminating a yahoo account in order to avoid disclosing potential evidence.

The courts are struggling to come up with solutions. In one case, the emails were filtered by an outside expert for relevance. In another case, the defendant was ordered to determine the relevant emails himself. These approaches have obvious problems. Perhaps more promising, some companies are offering to this filtering automatically. These technologies are important because they can make discovery more effective at finding relevant emails while protecting the defendants privacy for irrelevant ones.

The analysis offers common sense advice: “companies should consider educating their employees through employee handbooks, notices, meetings and regularly scheduled reminders that using home computers and personal e-mail accounts for business may well require those computers and e-mails to be reviewed for responsive information if there is litigation. And employers may wish to discourage their employees from using private e-mail accounts to conduct business.

I suppose that the courts are being reasonable about this process. Still, I worry that crucial decisions about email discovery motions will be decided by who has the better lawyer rather than the merits of the case. They *are* always watching you!

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