Thursday, April 25, 2019

Short talk at Asilomar Microcomputer Workshop

I gave a revised version of Blockchain: What's Not To Like? in the 2019 Asilomar Microcomputer Workshop's Athematic session. Below the fold, the text of the talk with links to the sources. Readers should also consult the "Additional Material" in the original talk, the video of my original presentation, and the podcast interview.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Personal Pods and Fatcat

Sir Tim Berners-Lee's Solid project envisages a decentralized Web in which people control their own data stored in personal "pods":
The basic idea of Solid is that each person would own a Web domain, the "host" part of a set of URLs that they control. These URLs would be served by a "pod", a Web server controlled by the user that implemented a whole set of Web API standards, including authentication and authorization. Browser-side apps would interact with these pods, allowing the user to:
  • Export a machine-readable profile describing the pod and its capabilities.
  • Write content for the pod.
  • Control others access to the content of the pod.
Pods would have inboxes to receive notifications from other pods. So that, for example, if Alice writes a document and Bob writes a comment in his pod that links to it in Alice's pod, a notification appears in the inbox of Alice's pod announcing that event. Alice can then link from the document in her pod to Bob's comment in his pod. In this way, users are in control of their content which, if access is allowed, can be used by Web apps elsewhere.
In his Paul Evan Peters Award Lecture, my friend Herbert Van de Sompel applied this concept to scholarly communication, envisaging a world in which access, for both humans and programs, to all the artifacts of research would be greatly enhanced.
In Herbert's vision, institutions would host their researchers "research pods", which would be part of their personal domain but would have extensions specific to scholarly communication, such as automatic archiving upon publication.
Follow me below the fold for an update to my take on the practical possibilities of Herbert's vision.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

What is Amazon?

In Why It's Hard To Escape Amazon's Long Reach, Paris Martineau and Louise Matsakis have compiled an amazingly long list of businesses that exist inside Amazon's big tent. After it went up, they had to keep updating it as people pointed out businesses they'd missed. In most of those businesses, Amazon's competitors are at a huge disadvantage:
While its retail business is the most visible to consumers, the cloud computing arm, Amazon Web Services, is the cash cow. AWS has significantly higher profit margins than other parts of the company. In the third quarter, Amazon generated $3.7 billion in operating income (before taxes). More than half of the total, $2.1 billon, came from AWS, on just 12 percent of Amazon’s total revenue. Amazon can use its cloud cash to subsidize the goods it ships to customers, helping to undercut retail competitors who don’t have similar adjunct revenue streams.
In the mid-50s my father wrote a textbook, Organisation of retail distribution, with a second edition in the mid-60s. He would have been fascinated by Amazon. I've written about Amazon from many different viewpoints, including storage as a service, and anti-trust, so I'm fascinated with Amazon, too. Now, when you put recent posts by two different writers together, an extraordinarily interesting picture emerges, not just of Amazon but of the risks inherent to the "friction-free" nature of the Web:
  • Zack Kanter's What is Amazon? is easily the most insightful thing I've ever read about Amazon. It starts by examining how Walmart's "slow AI" transformed retail, continues by describing how Amazon transformed Walmart's "slow AI" into one better suited to the Internet, and ends up with a discussion of how Amazon's "slow AI" seems recently to have made a fundamental mistake.
  • Izabella Kaminska's series Amazon (sub)Prime? and Amazon (sub)Prime - Part II provides the deep dive to go with Kanter's big picture, looking in detail into one of the many symptoms of the "slow AI's" apparent mistake.
Below the fold, a long meditation on these posts.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Digitized Historical Documents

Source
Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo trained as a historian. From that perspective, he has a great post entitled Navigating the Deep Riches of the Web about the way digitization and the Web have transformed our access to historical documents. Below the fold, I bestow both praise and criticism.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

First We Change How People Behave

Then the system will work the way we want. My skepticism about Level 5 self-driving cars keeps getting reinforced. Below the fold, two recent examples.