Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween 2009: Cops 'n' Robbers

So, after a few variations on this theme, we settled on a both-sides-of-the-law motif for Halloween 2009 Chez Yang. Got the prisoner jumpsuit and the policeman's jacket from a Halloween City closeout box for $9.99 each; Skyler's clothes are just some clothes he happened to have (and he's wearing a Secret Identities mask!). Heather was originally intended for the beat-cop outfit, but she was exhausted after work, and my mom was a good sport. Actually, she loved it. It was the first time she'd ever dressed up for Halloween, and she was surprisingly convincing as a cop: People kept asking her for directions. At least she didn't have to break up any fights. Oh, yes: An actual lady cop wanted to pose with her for a photo, so we obliged.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Posted via email from OriginalSpin

Halloween 2009: Cops 'n' Robbers

So, after a few variations on this theme, we settled on a both-sides-of-the-law motif for Halloween 2009 Chez Yang. Got the prisoner jumpsuit and the policeman's jacket from a Halloween City closeout box for $9.99 each; Skyler's clothes are just some clothes he happened to have (and he's wearing a Secret Identities mask!). Heather was originally intended for the beat-cop outfit, but she was exhausted after work, and my mom was a good sport. Actually, she loved it. It was the first time she'd ever dressed up for Halloween, and she was surprisingly convincing as a cop: People kept asking her for directions. At least she didn't have to break up any fights. Oh, yes: An actual lady cop wanted to pose with her for a photo, so we obliged.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Posted via email from OriginalSpin

Thursday, October 29, 2009

My latest column for the SF Chronicle: Black belt jonesing—U.S. martial arts culture's roots in the black community

Protest has erupted on filmgeek sites across the Web over Will Smith's decision to cast his son Jaden as the "Karate" Kid in his remake of the 1984 movie (karate's in air-quotes here because, given that my man Jackie Chan is stepping into Pat Morita's shoes as the wise but reluctant master, we're talkin' kung fu here, people).

By and large the beef is typical remake rage, but not a few commenters have questioned the casting of an African American to replace Ralph Macchio's Daniel-san. My column this week talks about why, given the real and deep roots of American martial arts culture in the black community, this is less of a perversion than a correction.

In fact, it may be a waypoint to the future: With a chapter in martial arts culture poised to close, as Asian icons like Jackie, Jet Li and others age toward retirement, black fighting stars may well represent the next generation of heroes of the genre and field. The column features awesome thoughts from producer Warrington Hudlin (House Party, Boomerang), actor Michael Jai White (Black Dynamite), and assistant professor Amy Ongiri, author of the forthcoming Spectacular Blackness. Worth a read, if I say so myself!

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Techstasy: Crappy-looking homemade virtual reality goggles still awesome, offer immersive Google Earth views

(via Engadget)

The best thing about these is the words "VIRTUAL REALITY" sarcastically written in black marker on the side of the setup's cardboard shadowbox

The worst thing is the fact that if you even momentarily put these on, you will never, ever get laid again (and probably never did before). 

But it's still awesome that a consumer-grade smartphone, a set of repurposed machine-shop goggles and some cardboard can create an effect that rivals the hideously expensive setups VR poster-boy Jaron Lanier used to tout, back when VR was the guaranteed Next Big Thing


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Monday, October 26, 2009

Diagram of "Left" vs "Right," from forthcoming book "The Visual Miscellaneum"—simplistic and misleading, but interesting

I think this diagram, from Information Is Beautiful, is problematically binary, in a way that disallows more complex political affiliations. Also, some of the terms are loaded in a way that, to me, is an oddly right-wing frame: For instance, the phrase "tax and spend" is old-school Republican messaging, as is the idea that the Left supports "interfering" with society and social lives. 

Uh...isn't regulating sex, marriage, and pregnancy "interfering" with society and social lives? And which partisan agenda does that belong to? 

What do you guys think?

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Halloween costumes! The not-so-long arms of the law

Justice has a new name: Officers Hudson and Skyler Yang

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Techwrecks VIII: More Microsoft "viral" video—"LOL MOBIL APPS AR TEH SUX"

Listen, Microsoft. There are some things you do well. Or at least adequately. But there are a lot of things you do that verge on mediocre, and an unfortunate number that simply eat dong. Many of the latter involve trying to be funny. You are a giant robot behemoth with world-crushing ambitions. When you try to make a ha-ha, it frightens little kids. Also, you do not have, how you say, the sense of humor.

I suspect this video is meant to mock Apple's App Store offerings (many of which are, indeed, moronic, though many of the moronic ones are free—thus, caveat emptor, muthafatha). But what does Windows Mobile Marketplace have to offer that's any better? And have you used some of the truly insanely amazing—and free—stuff that's available for the iPhone, boners? Seriously. Yelp Monocle is mindblowing. The Zillow app is fantastic, if you own real estate. (Or, given current market conditions...really depressing.)

Come back when you have a few thousand apps you can brag about—then throw down the parody gauntlet, 'kay, MSFT?

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Indian Americans flexing political muscle—and raising serious dough from fellow desis

This is a big deal. Like other Asian Americans, Indian American children of immigrants have been pressured to get educated and find employment in safe and secure professions —law, engineering, medicine. But coming from an ancestral culture where politics is like oxygen, the step from, say, pediatrician to running for Congress is somewhat less wrenching than for many other Asian ethnicities.

That's why it makes sense that so many Indian Americans are now running for public office at all levels, from city council to Congress to (choke) governor—in most cases running damn competitive races (bolstered by incredible fundraising clout from "uncles" and "aunties" in their communities) and in more cases than you'd guess, winning. Congressional Quarterly has an article up now talking about the phenomenon. It's worth a read. Special props should go out to Raj Goyle, a two time Democratic state legislator running uphill in a conservative Kansas district (I'm pretty sure I met him at Asia Society's Asia21 summit in Japan!), and Manan Trivedi, a physician and Iraq War vet running as a Democrat in Pennsylvania (who happens to be the cousin of Sepia Mutiny's illustrious Abhi Tripathi). Both are great candidates. Worth your notice—and support.

Check out Trivedi's "Why I'm running" video here:

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Hmm...has anyone done a study on the tendency for blogs/online media to link to particular versions of news stories?

Everyone knows that online linking has both economic value and an affinity element: By linking to stuff, people send traffic towards it; as a result, people tend to link to stuff they like and want to support more than stuff they hate and want to see die, painfully

Given that, I wish a media researcher with some actual funds would do a study on "link clustering" and partisanship. 

Looking at memeorandum, it's obvious, as you'd guess, that blogs heavily favor linking to stories whose frame or content support a partisan-friendly narrative (both on the right and on the left).

However, it looks like that's more the case on the right than on the left, just based, again, on casual link counts on memeorandum, not the most scientific methodology.

Still, if that is in fact the case, my take on this is that left blogs tend to show both sides of the story and then add a progressive ideological frame, while right blogs tend to prefer an echo chamber—refusing to link to and thereby support anything that might dissent from their partisan narrative.

But yes, I wish someone would actually test this, as it would help dimensionalize what many studies already suggest...that right-wing news consumers are surprisingly ill-informed about, you know, actual reality (warning: PDF link to PIPA/U. of Maryland report on media consumption and misperceptions of the facts surrounding the Iraq War).  

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Some of you will love this cuz it's the best ad for the public option EVER. Some will love it cuz it features Heather Graham jogging. offers up this absolutely brilliant ad called "Track Meet" explaining that the public option (in the form of Heather Graham, looking hot...and flexible) is there to provide competition for bloated, consumer-abusive insurance companies who've fattened themselves on markets protected by antitrust waivers. The ad aptly demonstrates how the public option would move those self-satisfied lard-asses to start offering good service at fair prices...or be outrun and outgunned by a hot blonde. Er, by the for-the-people public option. By emphasizing that this is about fostering competition, not taking over the system, it makes the strongest and best case for the PO available. Other countries have shown how private companies can still do very well by competing on service and product diversity, offering upgraded, gap and enhanced insurance offerings even when a public option is available. Why is America so afraid of making healthcare competitive

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Zuckerman: Fund newspapers with online sports betting! Nick Pileggi: "Newspapers are not sacred papal offices."

It's hard for me to decide whether this is a brilliant, out-of-the-box idea for supporting a moribund print news industry or, you know, the worst idea ever. MoDo, rhapsodizing over a simpler, whore-and-rackets filled time for print:

Can vice save journalism?  

It’s an intriguing idea, especially since the profession had such a cozy relationship with vice in the old days.  

Arthur Gelb, The Times’s famed former culture impresario and managing editor, begins his wonderful memoir, “City Room,” by describing the racier Times newsroom of the 1940s. He says it was a time of clandestine sex in closets, a movie-star mistress of the publisher sashaying about and two tough bookies from Hell’s Kitchen at a corner desk taking bets as “wads of bills peeked from their pockets.”  

Yeah, the Golden Age of the newspaper. As ludicrous as Dowd's Guys and Dolls journimanism fantasy might be, is there merit in Mort Zuckerman's idea to give newspapers an online sports book franchise to support their operations? Kind of like (ahem) Native Americans and reservation casinos, one supposes?

It might well be feasible, but using a mechanism that would make erstwhile journalistic instruments into ripe targets for organized crime manipulation (although, arguably, newspapers already are) sounds like a terrible notion. And how might running sports book taint the papers' perceived journalistic integrity? Assuming that they still have any? Besides, one suspects this may be workable for a blue-collar tab (like Zuckerman's own Daily News) but not quite as doable for a staid, respectable Dowd's own New York Times

It's clear, however, that by proposing ideas like this, publishers are suggesting that it might be time to throw in the towel on news as an actual business, as opposed to a charitable endeavor conducted by some other commercial entity. You know, like how Stanley Kaplan test prep services supports the Washington Post

So, sure, let's find vices to pair up our papers with, then. The News can have sports book. The New York TImes can have a Ponzi scheme franchise. The Wall Street Journal? Legalized cocaine sales. The New York Post? "Escort" services

Sure, that'll work. 

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Techstasy: Barnes & Noble unveils the Nook, a Nintendo DS for literary big kids

I have zero need for an e-book reader. I own a hacked MSI Wind U100 netbook (running Mac OS X!) that essentially does everything the Kindle does at a lower price, except, you know, it's actually a real computer. (WhisperNet is cool, but WiFi is everywhere and I also have a jailbroken iPhone that tethers.) (Apple/AT&T, please don't hate.)

However, I am sorely tempted as I look at the sleek form of B&N's new Nook e-reader. The dual screen is foxy. The Cover-Flow-esque interface looks delicious. 

I suspect that it’s going to be crushed by whatever iPhone Giga tablet Apple rolls out in the next six months, but it’s still truly sweet. And I’m tempted. I’m really, really tempted.

Nook Demo:

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Friday, October 16, 2009

LOVE THIS CLIP. Obama to critics: I'm busy with a mop, cleaning up somebody else's mess....Grab a mop!

I love this quote. Hell, I love this president—especially now that he's finally rolling up his sleeves, jutting his jaw and turning the spotlight on the do-nothings and no-everythings on the Right—both within his party and in the GOP.

When, you know, I'm busy and Nancy [Pelosi is] busy with our mop cleaning up somebody else’s mess –- we don’t want somebody sitting back saying, you're not holding the mop the right way. (Applause.) Why don’t you grab a mop, why don’t you help clean up. (Applause.) You're not mopping fast enough. (Laughter.) That's a socialist mop. (Laughter and applause.) Grab a mop –- let’s get to work.

Everyone agrees there's a problem. But only some people are trying to fix it. That's a winning message for a public that is by and large sick of waiting around and hearing empty slogans. Stand and deliver. Grab a mop.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009 releases stats on race and dating. Probably an incredibly corrupted sample, but still fascinating.

The post, on their blog OKTrends (great idea to actually dedicate a blog to examining the sociological implications of your data, guys—not a lot of other places you can see trends in racial interaction emerge before your eyes than an online dating site), is titled rather obviously "Your Race Affects Whether People Write You Back." Fortunately, the post is saved by the blog's consistently snarky, self-and-other deprecating tone, which is awesome:

Welcome back, dorks. We’ve processed the messaging habits of almost a million people and are about to basically prove that, despite what you might’ve heard from the Obama campaign and organic cereal commercials, racism is alive and well. It would be awesome if the other major online dating players would go out on a limb and release their own race data, too. I can’t imagine they will: multi-million dollar enterprises rarely like to admit that the people paying them those millions act like turds. But being poor gives us a certain freedom. To alienate all our users. So there.

I, too, feel the freedom to alienate both of you who are reading this. So there.

The sum-up of the data:

  • Nobody loves an Asian guyangry or otherwise. Or at least, 78% of people don't. (That total doesn't include Indian males, who are broken out separately and get it in the nads even harder—80% of their outreach goes ignored.) But Asian guys are still marginally better off than black men, who get no responses to their messages 83% of the time. Sucks to be us.
  • Everyone loves an Asian girl. Essentially, every group of males responded to Asian females at a rate equal to or higher than women of their own race. Except Pacific Islanders, who are likely a very small percentage of this pool, making the data therein even more squirrelly than the rest of this stuff.
  • White people have it made, but especially white men. Every group of females responded to messages from white guys at a rate equal to or higher than men of their own race. Oh, but whites are also far more likely, by a huge sum, to prefer to date people of their own race to people of other races. (Here, white women are the most strongly preferential—in fact, they're the only group out of all race/gender combinations to actually have a majority, 54%, say they strongly prefer to date within their own race, something echoed by 40% of white men. Every other group was willing to date outside of their race by a huge percentage; black men were the most likely to reject the notion that same-race dating was preferable, with only 11% saying they strongly preferred to date black women.
  • Black women are pretty much screwed. I'll let the blogger say it in his own words:
Men don’t write black women back. Or rather, they write them back far less often than they should. Black women reply the most, yet get by far the fewest replies. Essentially every race—including other blacks—singles them out for the cold shoulder.

Man, that sucks. I've suggested before (and in company which includes the awesome Twanna Hines of Funky Black Chick), that black women and Asian men should take a good long look at one another. Go forth. Let love reign. It's better than dealing with the crap this world slings us alone.

Oh, and some additional good commentary's over at Racialicious. Go check it out.

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Got asked to contrib a Salon piece I wrote to a new anthol on Sarah Palin coming from OR Books; they have a really novel biz model

They're publishing to e-book and print-on-demand, globally and multilingually, all at once. By cutting out the middlemen (from distributors to wholesalers to bookstores) and selling directly to consumers, they intend to amp up the promotion budgets for titles to $40-$50K a piece. (No clue what their advances are to authors. Presumably, smaller than trad houses, but I know a lot of authors who'd exchange some advance money for bigger promo...)

But will consumers bite? Would love to think so. The publishing industry as it currently stands is a total disaster.

Check out their website for more details: OR Books

And don't miss Cory Doctorow's post on OR at the Boing.

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My latest San Francisco Chronicle ASIAN POP column: Sometimes goofy, always awesome immigrant parents and why we love 'em!

If you haven't checked out and my, two websites that celebrate the malapropisms and cultural disconnects that make our Asian immigrant 'rents so special, do it now. This week's Asian Pop talks to Teresa Wu and Serena Wu, the enterprising 20-year-olds behind the fab fobsites, and muses on the evolution of F.O.B. into "fob" with playwright David Henry Hwang (whose acclaimed debut, "F.O.B." turned 30 this year) and graphic novelist Gene Yang, author of the National Book Award-nominated "American Born Chinese." Share and enjoy!

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Techwrecks VII: The new, from RFP to DOA

It's almost not fair to pile more contempt on the incredible amount already heaped over the mangled wreckage that is the Republican National Committee's new website, whose redesign was initiated by the party's, uh, inimitable chairman, Michael Steele. As (hardly a partisan organ) reported when the original RFP went out, even tech-savvy types on the Right recognized the project for what it was: A poorly envisioned, badly scoped, horribly defined disaster.

Red State's Erick Erickson is a bit circumspect, but see if you can suss out his take on the RFP by reading through the lines: "[T]here is no way any competent person would put together an RFP like this. It's crap. It is not legitimate. It is unprofessional. It is illusory." The RFP is all buzz words -- "Flash," "widgets" -- but little in the way of specifics. No matter: the RNC wants all bidder to attach a firm price tag to their proposals. How much is "some place the box hasn't even reached" going for these days? On the Next Right, Dale Franks is holding on to some glimmer of hope: "Surely this is all some sort of elaborate joke. Perhaps on Monday the RNC will tell us that they were just having us on. Then, once we've all had a good laugh, they'll release the real RFP."

The best part about the RFP? They wanted a wholesale redesign, which would go "someplace the box hasn't reached yet" while remaining fully 45 days. Looks like they missed the deadline. But even with the extra time, the site proved to be broken on launch, throwing up error pages to those eager to see the fresh paint (including, presumably, both actual Republican die-hards and giggling progressives). And once the problem (conspiracy?) was fixed, the results were...underwhelming to say the least.

Of course, what do you expect from a party whose current and former leadership includes such digital winners as Chuck "Stop Me Before I Tweet Again" Grassley and Ted "Series of Tubes" Stevens?

The most appropriate thing about the site? Its blank "future leaders" page. Truth in advertising, at least.

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Chambliss (R-GA) wants economic stimulus...for AFGHANISTAN. Bush established single-payer IRAQ. Why does the Right hate AMERICA??

This is almost too crazy for words. Sen. Saxby Chambliss—the same guy who made racially tinged remarks about Obama needing to "show some humility" before Congress; the guy who faked a "bum knee" to dodge the draft during Vietnam, then ran abhorrent ads questioning the patriotism of Vietnam vet and triple amputee Max Cleland and accusing him of siding with Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden against the U.S.—has now come out for massive economic aid to Afghanistan to stimulate and rebuild their economy.

Yes. The same guy who frothingly ranted against the bill to stimulate and rebuild our economy is now pleading the case for needy Afghans. (It's worth noting that the hypocrisy doesn't end there: Once the bill passed, Chambliss and his fellow GA senator Isakson were among the many GOP politicos who held out the hat, demanding $50 million of the funds for their own state's pet projects.

But the Chambliss ludicrousness is just the half of it. I'm not sure how I missed this before, but as HuffPo's Mark Dorlester noted, the Iraqi constitution—which we imposed by force on the country, after invading under what everyone now accepts were false pretenses, actually guarantees healthcare as a right to all Iraqis, provided by the government:

Article 31 of the Iraqi Constitution, drafted by your right-wing Bushies in 2005 and ratified by the Iraqi people, includes state-guaranteed (single payer) healthcare for life for every Iraqi citizen. 

Article 31 reads:  "First: Every citizen has the right to health care. The State shall maintain public health and provide the means of prevention and treatment by building different types of hospitals and health institutions.  Second: Individuals and entities have the right to build hospitals, clinics,or private health care centers under the supervision of the State, and this shall be regulated by law."  There are other health care guarantees, including special provisions for children, the elderly, and the handicapped elsewhere in the 43-page document. 

Under force of arms, President Bush imposed his particular idea of democracy on a people not asking for it - perhaps a noble undertaking in one context and a criminal violation of international law in another. Bush's followers are proud of the Iraqi Constitution, a model for the world, they told us. 

So, according to the American political right-wing, government-guaranteed health care is good for Iraqis, but not good for us. Not good for you. They decry even a limited public option for you, but gleefully imposed upon the Iraqis what they label here as "socialism," with much Democratic Party member support.  

And note: When Dorlester says "single-payer," the single payer is us—the American taxpayer. Billions to subjugate, indoctrinate and remold societies abroad, but not one cent for our own sick and needy—that's the GOP's bottom line.

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Friday, October 09, 2009

Incredible. Obama awarded 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for...not being Bush? Shows how toxic world opinion of America was under W

I'm not sure I'd have been more stunned if I heard the president had been given the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical, but surely you've seen that the Norwegian Nobel Committee has selected Barack Obama for this year's Nobel Peace Prize...just eight months into his presidency.

The Committee said it honored Obama for his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples," but the reality is there was no hint that he was even among the front-runners, and the jaws of reporters attending the press conference dropped when Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Nobel committee, said Obama's name. Here's CNN on the award:

"Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future," the committee said.

Jagland said the decision was "unanimous" and came with ease.

He rejected the notion that Obama had been recognized prematurely for his efforts and said the committee wanted to promote the president just it had Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 in his efforts to open up the Soviet Union.

"His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population," it said.

Three things come to mind: The first is, if Obama's getting Nobel Prizes less than three-quarters of a year into his first administration, Lord knows what he'll be doing by the end of his second term. (Granted, a Nobel's a tough act to follow.)

The second is that right-wingers like Matt Drudge who said the "world rejected Obama" when Chicago's Olympic bid was shot down might want to munch a few syllables. Polls, international media coverage and yes, this award, all point to the fact that America's popularity, and Obama's, are as staggeringly high now as they've been since the president was elected. And there's simply no logical or feasible way that you can spin that as negative, no matter how much of a knee-jerk hater you are.

And the third is that, per the title of this post—the reality is that this award is primarily meant to underscore how much the global community despised the Bush Administration's foreign policy and attitude toward our international peers and rivals. America is still the most important country in the world, and will remain so, if we don't screw things up, indefinitely. Bush did his worst. Obama hasn't been brilliant in his diplomacy and decisionmaking, so much as simply open, rational, thoughtful and deliberate. But when you're the leader of the effing free world, that's enough. Or at least that's what the Nobel committee seems to be saying.

Congrats, Mr. President! So what are you going to do with those $1.4 million smackers?

Obama's recognition comes less than a year after he became the first African-American to win the White House. He is the fourth U.S. president to win the prestigious prize and the third sitting president to do so.

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The announcement Friday in Oslo, Norway, came as a surprise -- Obama had not been mentioned among front-runners -- and the roomful of reporters gasped when Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Nobel committee, announced Obama's name. Watch announcement of Obama as Nobel recipient »

Jagland said the decision was unanimous and came with ease.

He rejected the notion that Obama had been recognized prematurely for his efforts and said the committee wanted to promote the president just it had Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 in his efforts to open up the Soviet Union.

Jagland said he hoped the prize would help Obama resolve the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Listen to Jagland explain why Obama was this year's choice »

Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, last year's laureate, said it was clear the Nobel committee wanted to encourage Obama on the issues he has been discussing on the world stage.

"I see this as an important encouragement," Ahtisaari said.

The committee wanted to be "far more daring" than in recent times and make an impact on global politics, said Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of the International Peace Research Institute.

And Wangari Muta Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist who won the 2004 Peace Prize, said the win for Obama, whose father was Kenyan, would help Africa move forward.

"I think it is extraordinary," she said. "It will be even greater inspiration for the world. He has shown how we can probably come together, work together in a cooperative way."

The award comes at a crucial time for Obama, who has initiated peace missions to key parts of the globe.

Obama's envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, has returned to the region to advocate for peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Mitchell met Thursday with Israeli President Shimon Peres. He plans to meet Friday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before talking with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton starts a six-day trip to Europe and Russia on Friday. On the trip, the secretary will discuss the next steps on Iran and North Korea, and international efforts to have the two countries end their nuclear programs.

The centerpiece of the trip will be her visit to Moscow, where she will work toward an agreement to take the place of the Start II arms control pact, which expires December 5. She also will address the new bilateral presidential commission that is working on a broad range of issues, from arms control to health.

Mohamed ElBaradei, who won the 2005 peace prize for his efforts to prevent nuclear energy being used for military means, said Obama deserved to win for his efforts to bring Iran to the table for direct nuclear talks with the United States.

"I could not think of anybody who is more deserving," said ElBaradei, the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Listen to ElBaradei react to the announcement »

As the news of Obama's win broke online, postings on social network sites Twitter and Facebook expressed surprise. Many started with the word: Wow.

The last sitting U.S. president to win the peace prize was Woodrow Wilson in 1919. The other was Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Jimmy Carter had been out of office for more than two decades when he won in 2002.

This year's Peace Prize nominees included 172 people -- among them three Chinese dissidents, an Afghan activist and a controversial Colombian lawmaker -- and 33 organizations, the highest number of nominations ever.

The deadline for nominations must be postmarked by February 1 each year. Obama was inaugurated on January 20.

The Nobel recipient receives a prize of about $1.4 million.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Techwrecks VI: MIT study uses public Facebook data to identify gay users; huge implications for market research, civil liberties

Wow. Using nothing more than publicly available profile data — primarily relying on the principle of "homophily" (which does and doesn't mean what you think it means — "homo" = same, "philia" = friendship, so "homophily" = birds of a feather flock together) — MIT students were able to create a program that successfully identified Facebook users' sexual orientation with startling accuracy. Basically, they predicted, if you're gay, you're more likely to have gay social connections than if you're straight. And while this theory may be less valid for people in certain contexts (stereotypes aside, I'm sure if you're a straight male in musical theater or fashion design, you will bollix up the system), it holds true enough that the study has both interesting and troubling consequences, for market research and for civil liberties. From the Boston Globe article:

People of one race tend to have spouses, confidants, and friends of the same race, for example. Jernigan and Mistree downloaded data from the Facebook network, choosing as their sample people who had joined the MIT network and were in the classes 2007-2011 or graduate students. They were interested in three things people frequently fill in on their social network profile: their gender, a category called “interested in” that they took to denote sexuality, and their friend links. 

Using that information, they “trained” their computer program, analyzing the friend links of 1,544 men who said they were straight, 21 who said they were bisexual, and 33 who said they were gay. Gay men had proportionally more gay friends than straight men, giving the computer program a way to infer a person’s sexuality based on their friends.

And it's not just sexual orientation that this kind of process works on:

Other work, by researchers at the University of Maryland, College Park, analyzed four social networks: Facebook, the photo-sharing website Flickr, an online network for dog owners called Dogster, and BibSonomy, in which people tag bookmarks and publications. Those researchers blinded themselves to the profiles of half the people in each network, and launched a variety of “attacks” on the networks, to see what private information they could glean by simply looking at things like groups people belonged to, and their friendship links.  On each network, at least one attack worked. Researchers could predict where Flickr users lived; Facebook users’ gender, a dog’s breed, and whether someone was likely to be a spammer on BibSonomy.

So what are the implications for market research? Well, since the industry was invented back in the 1920s (corresponding with the arrival of broadcast media, naturally), market researchers have been engaged in the study of consumer behavior based on three basic principles. The first is that if you ask people questions about themselves, they'll respond to those questions accurately. The second is that those responses
expose patterns that are meaningful clues as to how similar consumers are likely to behave. And the third is, even if some of the people in question are lying or mistaken, in aggregate, the mob speaks truth.

Now, even those of us in the actual market research industry know there are giant problems with these assumptions. For one, people lie all the time. To themselves, as well as to telemarketers who interrupt their dinners with random calls about feminine hygiene. Meanwhile, identifying links between query responses and future behavior is a tricky craft that sadly is best performed in hindsight (polls are much better at telling you why something may have happened than what might happen next—this sleight-of-hand is why political pollsters manage to stay in business, even though their predictive results often suck lemons).

But the biggest problem in modern market research is the notion that aggregate results are accurately usable in a world where communications have become more and more granular. We don't live in a broadcast world any longer; messages and media are increasingly customized for microniches (or personalized for individuals). The secret sauce that marketers are looking for is a way to do this kind of detailed fine-tuning without requiring individuals to opt in: There are, after all, many messages that people would choose not to see, and many people who choose not to see any messages at all (hello, AdBlock Plus). And while bribing people to provide information works, it's still easier and cheaper to try to obtain information from third-party public sources, assuming you can do so with any consistent validity. And for information that's potentially dangerous, like sexual orientation, plenty of people choose to lie simply to protect their careers — or their families.

Which brings up the civil liberties element in this exercise. On the one hand, this program uses publicly available data to make its conclusions—and social networks are fundamentally rooted in homophily, so there's no way of altering their business model to avoid the generation of patterns that might be useful to third parties, ranging from marketers to law enforcement. (It's not a huge leap of faith to imagine that if you're, say, a child pornographer, a noninsignificant number of your Facebook buddies might share your sick interests.)

So is there any solution?

For one, social networks might eventually be forced to turn off public searchability of profile pages by default, and to make it much harder to opt in to exposing them. At the least, they should auto-alert all first-generation friends of a user that wants to make his/her profile public to search, and give them the option of making their friendship status hidden on such pages.

You don't need to erect a total firewall; putting enough black holes in the social graph renders programs that rely on aggregate parsing, like the simple one created by those MIT students, useless.

On the other hand, imagine, if you will, what Facebook would have turned into had Google purchased it, and combined its gargantuan pool of active search data with the site's burgeoning trove of profile data. Can you say...Skynet? I knew you could.

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

"We Eat Our Own": Classic break room notes left by disgruntled officeworkers

I'm sure I'm just at the back end of a viral email chain on these, or else they were swiped from Still, they were quite amusing, so I figured I might as well share them with the world (or the 80 or so people who actually bother to read this blog, anyway).

(h/t my cousin Esty Young)



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