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Posts tagged with ‘xl’

Google Rolls Out New Gmail Search

I saw a new option pop up in Gmail today, and I have opted into a field trial of a new Gmail search. Now Google will show relavant files in Google Drive and Google Calendar along with emails when searching in Gmail. Also, emails and Google Drive files  will show up in Google Searches.

Facing Planetary Enemy No. 1: Agriculture - NPR →

Dan Clark via NPR

Can we feed the world without destroying the environment?

It’s a good question, because agriculture is probably the single most destructive thing that humans do to the earth.

Consider: Cropland and pasture now cover 40 percent of our planet’s land surface; farming consumes nearly three-quarters of all the water that humans use for any purpose; farming accounts for a third of all the emissions of greenhouse gases that humans release into the environment. (Those greenhouse emission come from clearing forests or grassland for crops, the emissions of methane from rice paddies, and the conversion of nitrogen fertilizer into nitrous oxide — a powerful greenhouse gas.)

That’s bad enough, but Jonathan Foley from the University of Minnesota, who led this new analysis, says it’s likely to get worse. Demand for food is expected to double over the next forty years. Are we truly, to quote environmentalist Bill McKibben, facing the “end of nature”?

According to the new study, not necessarily. But avoiding mass deforestation and food scarcity is going to take some very big changes. Briefly: Big investments in food production in places (think Ukraine and Uganda) where current farm land isn’t producing as much food as it could; much more efficient use of water and fertilizer; less wasted food; and (controversy alert!) eating less meat. About 40 percent of the planet’s crops, according to this study, currently are fed to animals.

Unfortunately, the paper does not really explain how this will happen. There’s no global dictator who can, for instance, abolish feedlots where corn is fed to cattle.

The issues with terrestrial meat can’t be waved away by suggesting it will be banished. Like the other issues — water use, etc. — smarter approaches need to be undertaken.

Polyface farm style grassfed beef raising is probably the greatest return on sunlight turned into protein. And we will see the adoption of techniques (and others) that rely on raising meat animals on land that is unsuited to agriculture: like raising beef cattle and fowl on dryer grasslands and pigs in oak forests, and without feeding them grain.

The economics of food are already changing, since we are headed for an era of increased urbanism, and at the same time, a planet where connectedness is both a tool and a danger. The global food system — where apples come from China and tomatoes are shipped from Mexico to New York City, both of which are over 90% water — is inherently unsustainable, and is based on the low cost of oil, and our willingness to burn it without consideration for ‘externalities’ like climate change.

There are real dangers ahead, since the confluence of these trends — increasing demand for food, decreasing water resources, and increased cost for oil — suggests that sustainable agriculture is perhaps the greatest single challenge we face.

I believe that new web-based social tools — food tech — is of critical importance for the world, and I have a hard time imaging why world governments are not allocating serious money on these problems.

The debate about tools like Twitter Trends is, I believe, a debate we will be having more and more often. As more and more of our online public discourse takes place on a select set of private content platforms and communication networks, and these providers turn to complex algorithms to manage, curate, and organize these massive collections, there is an important tension emerging between what we expect these algorithms to be, and what they in fact are. Not only must we recognize that these algorithms are not neutral, and that they encode political choices, and that they frame information in a particular way. We must also understand what it means that we are coming to rely on these algorithms, that we want them to be neutral, we want them to be reliable, we want them to be the effective ways in which we come to know what is most important.

Twitter Trends is only the most visible of these tools. The search engine itself, whether Google or the search bar on your favorite content site (often the same engine, under the hood), is an algorithm that promises to provide a logical set of results in response to a query, but is in fact the result of an algorithm designed to take a range of criteria into account so as to serve up results that satisfy, not just the user, but the aims of the provider, their vision of relevance or newsworthiness or public import, and the particular demands of their business model. As James Grimmelmann observed, “Search engines pride themselves on being automated, except when they aren’t.” When Amazon, or YouTube, or Facebook, offer to algorithmically and in real time report on what is “most popular” or “liked” or “most viewed” or “best selling” or “most commented” or “highest rated,” it is curating a list whose legitimacy is based on the presumption that it has not been curated. And we want them to feel that way, even to the point that we are unwilling to ask about the choices and implications of the algorithms we use every day.

Peel back the algorithms, and this becomes quite apparent. Yes, a casual visit to Twitter’s home page may present Trends as an unproblematic list of terms, that might appear a simple calculation. But a cursory look at Twitter’s explanation of how Trends works – in its policies and help pages, in its company blog, in tweets, in response to press queries, even in the comment threads of the censorship discussions - Twitter lays bare the variety of weighted factors Trends takes into account, and cops to the occasional and unfortunate consequences of these algorithms.

- Tarleton Gillespie, Can an algorithm be wrong? Twitter Trends, the specter of censorship, and our faith in the algorithms around us

Gillespie pulls back the curtain and shows the little man working the levers and knobs that control the public face of the great impartial oracle that we seem to want the web to be. However, the ‘reality’ that Twitter’s trending topics or Tumblr’s Explore shows is the result of conscious algorithmic and curatorial decisions that shape the results. And that shaping is not just one of emphasis, but of exclusion and censorship.

We are confronting a serious issue of public discourse, one that has been with us for hundreds of years, since Gutenberg: those that control the presses, control public discourse.

Increasingly, as we move out of the industrial, modern era, that control is shifting from corporate media companies — TV, magazine, and newspaper companies — into a web-based, post-modern, post industrial time. The rise of search and social tools has raised up companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google, and our notions of relevance — and our beliefs and values — are directly influenced by the mazes that these companies have built.

Our social discourse has migrated online: first, in the early ’00s, to a constellation of blogs, but now we have migrated into social territorial explicitly owned and managed by web companies.

This is a direct analogue of the growing ownership of US public space by retailers, landlords, and developers. We live in a world of malls, private parks (like Zucotti Park, strangely enough), and other semi-public, privately controlled environments. These are not places solely under the jurisdiction of our civil laws: they are subject to arbitrary controls by their owners. (Paradoxically, it is the fact that Zuccotti Park is not a New York City park that allows protestors to sleep their over night.)

Can we rely on the corporation interests — or whims — of entrepreneurs to control public discourse?

Or more centrally: Is there actually an alternative? If I am interested in seeing what is most relevant to me when I turn on my device, some software has to run, some agency is needed to filter through petabytes of blurbage to pick out the snippets I can read over breakfast. If not this system of Twitter, Flipboard, News.me, and Summify, then what? Are all curation and algorithmic filtering inherently censorship?

I think the answer is yes and no. Yes, any system to filter — either by social curation or algorithmic analysis — will impose some worldview to determine what factors should go into excluding some stories and surfacing others. But, no, that worldview should not be intentionally ideological, imposing an extremist viewpoint. Or perhaps, in the perfect world, we could imagine that the worldview would be something like our own, and potentially even accessible to users.

When a long list of complex factors are smooshed together, and these companies have to decide how things will be filtered and float, the last thing any user wants is a system skewed to sell more soap. The interests of the individual and the public should predominate.

Just as the government has stepped in to stop unscrupulous advertising in the industrial era (like claims that cigarettes aren’t dangerous) we will likely have to regulate the degree to which web media services factor in commercial interests to their inner machinery.

Just because a restaurant is private property does not mean the laws of the land don’t apply. This is why the challenge against Jim Crow laws started with lunch counters: to challenge the notion that owners could pick their clientele, and make their own laws.

We are likely to see a new sort of rights movement: not a civil rights movement, but a social rights movement.

Are Social Tools Pushing Us Past β Superlinearity?

Tim De Chant comments on a 2009 research paper by Marcus Hamilton and colleagues which explores the mathematics of population density when humans first started moving out of Africa, around 50,000 years ago.

Tim De Chant, Density solidified early human domination

Our predisposition to living densely, they suppose, may have contributed to our stunning success beyond the savannas of Africa.

A sublinear relationship between population size and home range size—meaning that larger groups live at higher densities—imparts special advantages for species that can deal with the twin burdens of density, overshoot and social conflict. Overshoot describes a population that overwhelms its habitat, devouring all available food and otherwise making a mess of the place. Social conflict is as it sounds, where tight proximities provoke fights between individuals. Together, those snags can bring a once booming population to it’s knees.

But social animals are uniquely adapted to cope with those problems. For one, social behavior soothes tensions when they do rise. And when it comes to the necessities of life, density conveys a distinct advantage for social species—resources, chiefly food, become easier to find. Larger, denser populations squeeze more out of a plot of land than an individual could on his or her own.

Density itself wasn’t directly responsible for the first forays out of Africa. Those groups were were too small and dispersed to receive a substantial boost from density. They faced the worst the natural world had to offer, and many probably couldn’t hack it.

Where population density conferred its advantages was when subsequent waves of colonizers followed. Density allowed those people to thrive. They joined the initial groups, growing more populous and drawing more resources from the land. This made groups more stable both physically and socially—full bellies lead to happier and healthier people. As each group’s numbers grew larger, their social bonds grew stronger and their chances of regional extinction plummeted. In other words, once people worked together to establish themselves, they were likely there to stay.

It’s a heartwarming story the scientific paper tells in the unsentimental language of mathematics. It implies that the essential success of our species can be boiled down to one variable, β, and one value of that variable, ¾. The variable β is an exponent that describes how populations scale numerically and geographically. Its value of ¾ is significant. When β equals one or greater, each additional person requires the same amount of land or more—the group misses out on density’s advantages. But when β is less than one—as it is in our case—then a population becomes denser as it grows larger.

The degree of our sociality has allowed us to bend the curve of population density in our favor. If early humans had been an entirely selfish species—each individual requiring as much or more land than the previous—β would be equal to one or greater. We wouldn’t have lived at higher densities as our populations grew, and early forays beyond the savanna might have petered out. Instead of conquering the globe, we’d have been a footnote of evolution.

And here is where we can consider how this affects our modern lives. Population density may have aided our sojourn out of Africa, but it’s clear there are limits. Hunter-gatherer populations appear to be limited to around 1,000 people, depending on the carrying capacity of the ecosystem. Technology has raised carrying capacities beyond that number—as evinced by the last few millennia of human history—but we don’t know it’s limits. A scaling exponent equal to ¾ may have helped our rise to dominance, but it also could hasten our downfall. Technology may be able to smooth the path to beyond 7 billion, but what if it can’t? What if ¾ is an unbreakable rule? What happens if we reach a point where density can no longer save us from ourselves?

I am betting that social tools — based on liquid media — and new levels of urban living will enable us to push β past 3/4. My prediction is that we will pass over a new threshold when 90% of the world’s population is living in urban settings, and 90% of the world is cooperating and collaborating through online social tools. In effect, we will change the equation by allowing higher degrees of social density while managing contention for resources through lower cost cooperative techniques.

Hilary Mason Says Twitter’s URL Wrapping Won’t Have Any Effect On Bit.ly - Nitasha Tiku →

Twitter announced that it will start ‘wrapping’ all URLs through it’s URL ‘shortening’ service, t.co. This effectively ends the reason for many URL wrapping (or ‘shortening’) services that cropped up over the years.

However, companies like Bit.ly that started to meet this need for shorter URLs — largely because of Twitter’s 104 character limit — grew into media analytics services, tracking clicks and other access through URLs passed through Twitter, other services, and pasted into web sites.

However, Twitter has steadily encroached: first by creating t.co and using it to wrap long URLs, and recently, by rolling out its own analytics tools. Wrapping all URLs would appear to be the final nail in that coffin.

Not so, according to Hilary Mason, chief scientist of Bit.ly:

Nitasha Tiku via Betabeat

Twitter tweeted out a post today spreading the word that, “We’re about to start wrapping all URLs regardless of their length with the t.co URL wrapper.” But chief scientist Hilary Mason told Betabeat it’s no big deal for bit.ly. “We don’t expect to see any changes,” she emailed.

Ms. Mason pointed out that Twitter has essentially been doing the same thing since August 24th. “The only change is that they will now wrap links under twenty characters, which means that there will actually be tweets longer than 140 characters,” she wrote, adding, “It hasn’t had much of an effect on bitly. We provide public analytics that people love!” (It’s true, Betabeat does spend perhaps too much time on the bit.ly’s Info Page showing when and where your tweets were accessed.)

That doesn’t mean everyone remains unscathed by Twitter’s announcement, however. As Ms. Mason noted, “It’s much more of an issue for Twitter app developers than for us!”

This doesn’t really scan. Yes, Bit.ly can still do what it does, and Twitter’s moves in this area have been obvious for several years so Bit.ly has had a lot of time to adapt to a changing conetxt, with Twitter as a competitor. But it’s not sensible to assert that Twitter’s actions in this regard have no impact on Bit.ly.

[Tiku updated after talking this over with other folks.]

As Tom Critchlow, VP of Operations at Distilled NYC was quick to point out, if bit.ly’s strength is metadata, it may soon have some  competition in that arena as well.  “Twitter is definitely planning on rolling out more robust analytics,” Mr. Critchlow wrote Betabeat via Skype. As he pointed out, “This will likely be publisher driven (i.e. not public, but you can analyze the tweets of a site you control). So not quite killing all the features of bit.ly. But most of the use for bit.ly (via Twitter) that I see right now is from marketers who want to manage and track their own Twitter activity and I can imagine Twitter analytics providing a large part of that.” For more general link shortening, Mr. Critchlow hypothesized,  “bit.ly is still the defacto choice.”

On the Distilled NYC blog back in August, Mr. Critchlow noted that Distilled received fewer direct visits than it had on the same day of the week for the previous six months after Twitter rolled out its t.co shortener.

“Obviously Hilary has access to data that I don’t and likely has more of a clue about bit.ly’s traffic stats,” Mr. Critchlow acknowledged. Indeed, we don’t know if marketers (or, ehem, bloggers, are the service’s only power users). “But it feels to me like once Twitter analytics roll out there will be much less of a need for bit.ly in the Twitter ecosystem,” he wrote.

Based on unverified Quantcast data, bit.ly’s traffic has been dropping since April, before Twitter started wrapping their URLs. But Ms. Mason responded by email, “I’m not familiar with how Quantcast calculates those numbers, but I doubt that it fully considers the bit.ly API or HTTP 301 redirects, which is where we see the majority of our traffic.”

“You also need to keep in mind that Twitter is only one social network,” she added. “Bit.ly is used widely across many networks. I’ll also reiterate my earlier point, which is that Twitter has been wrapping almost all links since August — I don’t see why wrapping the tiny remaining percentage will make a difference in how people use bit.ly.”

Bit.ly has established relationships with many media companies, but it seems obvious that Twitter would like to disrupt that cozy relationship. Considering that Twitter has pushed the metaphor of a ‘real-time information network’ there is no doubt that analytics around URL use are core functionality, and that Bit.ly and others now face their most serious competition: Twitter itself.

[I am a shareholder of Bit.ly, and an advisor to the company. These are my personal views, not those of Bit.ly or its management.]

Economists say that for China to continue serving as one of the world’s few engines of economic growth, it will need to cultivate a consumer class that buys more of the world’s products and services, and shares more fully in the nation’s wealth.

But rather than rising, China’s consumer spending has actually plummeted in the last decade as a portion of the overall economy, to about 35 percent of gross domestic product, from about 45 percent. That figure is by far the lowest percentage for any big economy anywhere in the world. (Even in the sleepwalking American economy, the level is about 70 percent of G.D.P.)

Unless China starts giving its own people more spending power, some experts warn, the nation could gradually slip into the slow-growth malaise that now afflicts the United States, Europe and Japan. Already this year, China’s economic growth rate has begun to cool off.

“This growth model is past its sell-by date,” says Michael Pettis, a professor of finance at Peking University and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “If China is going to continue to grow, this system will have to change. They’re going to have to stop penalizing households.”

The Communist Party, in its latest five-year plan, has promised to bolster personal consumption. But doing so would risk undermining a pillar of the country’s current financial system: the household savings that support the government-run banks.

Here in Jilin City, where chemical manufacturing is the dominant industry, the state banks are flush with money from savings accounts. The banks use that money to make low-interest loans to corporate beneficiaries — including real estate developers, helping fuel a speculative property bubble that has raised housing prices beyond the reach of many consumers. It is a dynamic that has played out in dozens of cities throughout China.

- David Barboza, Households Pay a Price for China’s Growth

So, Chinese ‘growth’ is a new ponzi scheme: using the savings of the frugal Chinese workers to inflate the value of real estate, making speculators and officials wealthy, and of course, making the country ripe for the real estate bubble to collapse.

Socialwashing: Talking More Social Than You Walk

I have a feeling that Wendy Lea is responding to the cacaphony of companies claiming to be social, perhaps egged on by the appearance of the Dachis Group’s Social Business Index, and she uses a wonderful term: social washing. I presume this is based on greenwashing, where companies try to make themselves seem more green than they actually are.

Wendy Lea, Social Business: You’re Doing It All Wrong

The distinction between being social and socialwashing isn’t academic – it’s the difference between gaining and losing value. With everyone clamoring to embrace social, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the next big thing. Social business can have a tremendous effect on all aspects of a company: it can lower support costs and call volume, act as a powerful customer acquisition tool, and inform the product team, helping to align them with what customers really want.

But most companies won’t see these results overnight. They aren’t structured in a way that enables them to benefit from social across operational functions, and most enterprise software applications aren’t built to process unstructured customer conversations and integrate them into traditional enterprise back-end systems.

If anything, Lea doesn’t go far enough. Business will require a rethink from the ground up to become social, not just a few tweaks and new hires in PR and customer support organizations.

Lea touches on the real barriers to adoption of social business thinking when she says that ‘most businesses aren’t structured in a way that enables them to benefit from social across operational functions’, which means in practice that the communication paths in most businesses — who says what to whom — have been devised around business processes not social networks.

Stowe Boyd, The Rise Of Networks, The End Of Process

Today, the social web is happening, and acting like a solvent on these business constructs: not just superficially, or metaphorically, but at the very core of industrial beliefs. Note: this isn’t just a bunch of humanist rhetoric: the social society is exploding, and new ways of interaction that were unaffordable or impossible before are not only cheap and possible but being adopted widely because of a long list of reasons, not the least of which is simplicity and effectiveness. People are thronging on social sites like Facebook and Twitter because they are a straightforward way to stay connected with others, and this in turn shapes our worldview.

As these new realities percolate in the open web and in the new web-influenced culture, people carry these experiences into the world of business. Indirectly, based on their experience in the open web, which leads them to consider how the social tools could work in the business context. And more directly, some pioneers are dragging social tools into the business context, and seeing where it all goes.

And some, a few, are trying to think through a new model for business, reconstructed around what we have learned in the open web, balanced with what we know about the conduct of business. A new hybrid, intentionally devised to keep the best of the old (or at least the parts that will still work) and fuse that with the new, social models that dominate the web revolution.

From a social viewpoint, the architecture of business seems all wrong. People aren’t really designed to do one thing, like a cog in a watch. They have various relationships with other people, and through these relationships they have influence on the work going on all around them. They are not alone, like a moth in a bell jar. We are not alone, in our work. Even the most repetitive of work — screwing bolts on an assembly line, or delivering the mail — happens in the context of other people, and is made more valuable by their exertions.

Increasingly, people’s work is being viewed as a shared aspect of social relations. Time is a shared space, where we cooperate toward shared ends.

One casualty of this large-scale shift in business doctrine may be the hallowed business process. The notion of a process — a defined series of steps in the production of goods or the delivery of services — subordinates individuals to the their roles in the process.

For decades, business planners have made a distinction between repetitive, lock-step processes, where very little variability is involved (think pharmacy), and more free-form, unstructured processes where a higher degree of variability is expected (think emergency room). Taking the abstraction of a process out of the world of chemistry, manufacturing, and logistics, and treating the people involved as so many chemicals, gears, or trucks seemed like a good idea in the past, but is not going to be workable, going forward.

We will have to devise a new, richer way to think about people’s interactions — via social networks — and our connection to mechanical processes and devices. In effect, we will need to model work with two layers, one where people are communicating with each other in a very fluid and flexible way, and another where machinery communicates with us and other machinery in less fluid ways. […]

More importantly, the customers in the emerging social world will have new expectations about their role in business ‘processes’ and may be significantly less willing to be treated like pigeons pecking at levers in exchange for pellets.

So, I agree with Lea that businesses have a long way to go, and more companies will be involved in socialwashing: building a veneer of social networks over a process-oriented organization. However superficial that may seem, however, it may be a necessary first step. It might be like the joke about getting directions in Maine, where the local tells the tourist, ‘There’s no way to get there from here: you have to go somewhere else, first’.

It might be necessary to experiment with sociality at a superficial level to allow people to bend their minds around the profound difference of loosely connected networks as opposed to tightly connected processes. So we should accept the socialwashing as inevitable and formative, like living through your teenage years.