A Paradox at the Center of the Internet: No Big Deal

December 2, 2022

The Internet is a mess, but compared to how it was in its early decades it is way more organized. The organization of the Internet is called centralization. Gordon Brander of Unconscious wants the Internet to be decentralized. He says that will happen after it becomes more centralized first, read his explanation here: “Centralization Is Inevitable.” Brander says that the best way to understand the benefits of decentralization is to understand how centralization first happens.

While there are many ways to map centralization, the Internet is concentrated into different hubs or a scale-free network. The best way to define a scale-free network is:

“The defining characteristic of scale-free networks is a power law distribution with a long tail. A small number of nodes with an extremely large number of links, and an extremely large number of nodes with a small number of links. Think Twitter. Most users have a few followers, while a few influencers have millions. This power law distribution grants the biggest hubs a lot of power over the network. It also makes hubs important to the functioning of the network in ways that are not immediately obvious, like keystone species in an ecology.”

These networks emerge because there receive preferential attachment or “the rich-get-richer” scenario. Users prefer a hub/network, ergo it will receive more attention, trust, users, etc. Scale-free networks are also more efficient, because links between systems are smaller.

Another advantage is that they are resilient to attack, i.e. if one part of the hub fails, the entire system continues to run. That also makes networks more vulnerable to attacks, because a well-laced virus could knock out all the nodes.

Brander ends his spiel by stating the centralization and decentralization of the Internet is the circle of life: random start-ups, exponential growth, consolidation, collapse, then repeat. Someone cue The Lion King’s opening song!

Whitney Grace, December 2, 2022

WikiLeaks: Oh, Oh, Some Folks Are Not Happy

December 1, 2022

I read “WikiLeaks Website Is Struggling to Stay Online—As Millions of Documents Disappear.” If the write up is on the money, one lesson from this alleged cancel culture action is to hit the Print to PDF and save a document.” Assuming that online is forever is one of those weird misperceptions many online users have. Nope.

The write up says:

WikiLeaks’ website appears to be coming apart at the seams, with more and more of the organization’s content unavailable without explanation. WikiLeaks technical issues, which have been ongoing for months, have gotten worse in recent weeks as increasingly larger portions of its website no longer function.

The write up points out:

Although WikiLeaks long boasted that it released more than 10 million documents in 10 years, at current, less than 3,000 documents remain accessible, according to an analysis by the Daily Dot of the website’s leaks archive.

What’s interesting is that no one has claimed responsibility for hitting the delete key. What I find interesting is that the site has been online for many years. Now here’s a question, “Who could have taken this action?” Microsoft would say that it was 1,000 engineers working for a nation state. Others might say, “Oh, just a technical glitch.” A few might say, “Teens fooling around?” Does this list exhaust the possibilities?

Stephen E Arnold, December 1, 2022

Sesamy for Content in Small Bites

December 1, 2022

Here is good news for anyone who would like to purchase a piece of content without a long-term relationship with its host platform. The Next Web reports, “Swedish Startup Sesamy Seeks to Slaughter the Subscription Model.” It is such a good idea, we wonder whether this company will become an Amazon acquisition target. Writer Cate Lawrence tells us:

“[Sesamy is] So far, the Stockholm-based company has partnered with every major book publisher in Sweden and Denmark to offer users the option to purchase digital content as a single purchase. You can then consume it on any app or device. This means you can play Sesamy audiobooks in your favorite audio app and download watermarked ebooks to any ereader. And you actually own the book instead of renting it with a platform like Amazon Kindle. … Publishing companies are struggling to woo readers who look to cut costs, and Sesamy offers them a new business model and potential revenue source. In October, the company launched SmartID with Swedish publication Breakit, enabling publishers to monetize non-subscribed readers, without cannibalizing their existing revenues from digital subscriptions.

The software will also include built-in price optimization that suggests a fair retail cost to readers and publishers, ensuring that the platform remains competitive. And this incremental revenue may add up at a time when people are culling their subscriptions to save money.”

There must be an appetite for this sort of service—the company just raked in €3.3 million in a recent funding round. It will use this capital to make available single issues of newspapers and magazines. Yes please. Lawrence contemplates an extension to academic journal articles. They should really be free, she notes, but single-article access would be an improvement. Sesamy was founded in March 2021 by the folks behind the podcast platform Acast.

Cynthia Murrell, December 1, 2022

Smart Software: Can Humans Keep Pace with Emergent Behavior ?

November 29, 2022

For the last six months, I have been poking around the idea that certain behaviors are emergent; that is, give humans a capability or a dataspace, and those humans will develop novel features and functions. The examples we have been exploring are related to methods used by bad actors to avoid take downs by law enforcement. The emergent behaviors we have noted exploit domain name registry mechanisms and clever software able to obfuscate traffic from Tor exit nodes. The result of the online dataspace is unanticipated emergent behaviors. The idea is that bad actors come up with something novel using the Internet’s furniture.

We noted “137 Emergent Abilities of Large Language Models.” If our understanding of this report is mostly accurate, large language models like those used by Google and other firms manifest emergent behavior. What’s interesting is that the write up explains that there is not one type of emergent behavior. The article ideas a Rivian truck bed full of emergent behaviors.

Here’s are the behaviors associated with big data sets and LaMDA 137B. (The method is a family of Transformer-based neural language models specialized for dialog. Correctly or incorrectly we associate LaMBA with Google’s smart software work. See this Google blog post.) Now here are the items mentioned in the Emergent Abilities paper:

Gender inclusive sentences German

Irony identification

Logical arguments

Repeat copy logic

Sports understanding

Swahili English proverbs

Word sorting

Word unscrambling

Another category of emergent behavior is what the paper calls “Emergent prompting strategies.” The idea is more general prompting strategies manifest themselves. The system can perform certain functions that cannot be implemented when using “small” data sets; for example, solving multi step math problems in less widely used languages.

The paper includes links so the different types of emergent behavior can be explored. The paper wraps up with questions researchers may want to consider. One question we found suggestive was:

What tasks are language models currently not able to to perform, that we should evaluate on future language models of better quality?

The notion of emergent behavior is important for two reasons: [a] Systems can manifest capabilities or possible behaviors not anticipated by developers and [b] Novel capabilities may create additional unforeseen capabilities or actions.

If one thinks about emergent behaviors in any smart, big data system, humans may struggle to understand, keep up, and manage downstream consequences in one or more dataspaces.

Stephen E Arnold, November 29, 2022

Are Governments Behaving Like Sheep?

November 24, 2022

North Korea, China, and possibly Russia are incarnates of Orwell’s Big Brother from the dystopian 1984 novel. The US government is compared to Big Brother (and rightly so) when it attempts to block free speech. The thing about outlawing free speech is that it takes too much energy to regulate. The US government wants to limit free speech, but only when it feels like it. We also do not want that, because the government lies. Gizmodo explains why we do not want the government to be Big Brother in: “You Really Don’t Want The Government To Be Your Content Moderator.”

The Department of Homeland Security is collaborating with tech firms and large businesses to repackage Bush’s “War on Terror” into a new product. They are building tools to monitor social media and combat disinformation. Why did this happen?

“In April, the Biden administration announced the launch of a Disinformation Governance Board, a new unit within DHS meant to “standardize the [government’s] treatment of disinformation” across various agencies. But the project was fumbled from the start: the unit initially failed to release a charter, leaving Americans to wonder just what exactly this shadowy new group with a creepy name was going to be doing. It didn’t take long for critics—on both the political left and right—to start referring to it as a “Ministry of Truth,” (the notorious propaganda bureau from George Orwell’s 1984). Though officials tried to salvage the effort. DHS shuttered the board in May after it had been operational for less than a month.”

Biden’s administration continued the Orwellian acts with a new organization: Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security (CISA). Big businesses such as JPMorgan Chase and Twitter are working with the FBI and CISA to approach state-sponsored disinformation campaigns. The US government also wants to address COVID-19 vaccine efficacy, US support of Ukraine, Afghanistan withdrawal, and racial justice.

Is the US government is not an impartial entity despite what politicians claim?

Whitney Grace, November 24, 2022

Estonia and e-Residency

November 21, 2022

I have been to Estonia a couple of time. Once I visited in the summer. Another time I visited in February. Here’s a tip: “Leaves of Grass” weather is preferable in my opinion.

I mention Estonia because I noted a link to the Estonian government’s e-Residency information. You can find the basics at “Become and E-Resident.”

The main idea is that one can join Estonia’s digital nation. E-Residency is open to people from other countries. The idea is that the business would be “location independent” and the company would be an EU outfit.

The benefits include:

  • Grow your business remotely
  • Minimized bureaucracy (keep in mind that this is an EU company within a Baltic state with a Russian border)
  • Joining an international community.

There are nominal fees, probably less than US$200, and a background checking process.

The idea is an interesting one. However, the e-Residency does not appear to include one of those “golden passports” available from some countries.

Are there downsides? A few, for example:

  • Explaining to a US tax authority what’s going on
  • Anticipating how the program will evolve; for example, laws passed in Estonia going forward
  • Dealing with litigation in the US, EU, and elsewhere
  • Resolving issues arising from payment to vendors and collecting money from customers.

If this approach to business appears attractive, check out the Estonia government’s Web site.

Stephen E Arnold, November 21, 2022

Confirming a Fundamental Law of Online: Centralization Is Emergent

November 17, 2022

The author of “Scaling Mastodon Is Impossible” did not set out to provide evidence of this fundamental Arnold Law of Online: Centralization is emergent. The law means that when someone creates an online service, traffic flow or whatever one calls what happens online causes centralization. The idea is that centralization is cheaper and somewhat easier to maintain than the “let many flowers bloom” approach to development. (Hello, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Twitter. You have an advantage. Why not use it to your advantage?)

The article about Mastodon states:

Decentralization promotes an utopian view of the world that I belief fails to address actual real problems in practice. Yet on that decentralization wave a lot of projects are riding from crypto-currencies [1], defi or things such as Mastodon. All of these things have one thing in common: distrust. Some movements come from the distrust of governments or taxation, others come from the distrust of central services.

As the essay creeps to its conclusion, I spotted a gem of observation; to wit:

Wikipedia for all it’s faults shows quite well that a centralized thing can exist with the right model behind it. The software and the content is open, and if WikiMedia were to fuck up too much, then someone else could step into place and replace it. But the risk of that happening, keeps the organization somewhat in check.

If the author is correct, the future of online may look more like Wikipedia. Possibly? There is another Arnold Law of Online to consider:

Online services lead to monopolization.

This means there will be new Amazons and Googles in the future. Emergent does not mean good, however.

Stephen E Arnold, November 17, 2022

What Is the Sum of Online Videos and Zoom? Answer: Duh

November 14, 2022

The pandemic casts a long shadow, both medically and socially. For example, Insider reveals, “US Math Skills Suffered Their Biggest-Ever Setback During COVID, with Just 26% of 8th Graders Meeting the Mark.” Sounds like a lubricant for future financial fraud. Reporter Ayelet Sheffey cites the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. She writes:

“The results were stark — math scores for eighth graders dropped in nearly every state, with just 26% of them proficient in the subject, down from 34% in 2019. For fourth graders, the average math score fell by five points, and reading scores for both grades fell by three points. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said during Monday remarks that these findings should be ‘an urgent call to action.'”

Wait, down from 34% pre-pandemic? We weren’t exactly doing great then either. The write-up continues:

“As [Education Secretary Miguel Cardona] noted during his Monday remarks, these results cannot be solely attributed to the pandemic, saying that ‘the data prior to the pandemic did not reflect an education system that was on the right track. The pandemic simply made that worse. It took poor performance – and dropped it down even further.’ He called out lack of investment in education under previous administrations. Cardona said that in the coming days, his department will inform educators on how they can use funding for schools from the 2021 American Rescue Plan stimulus package to address learning loss and launch a series on tools to accelerate students’ learning in math and reading.”

It is true that schools are in desperate need of funding, so that is welcome news. But can this problem really be solved by throwing money at it? It is far from assured the added dollars will address problems like over-testing, systemic inequity, and entrenched practices that squash students’ innate love of learning. And don’t even get us started on factors outside school. It is tempting to blame the pandemic for poor student performance, but the dramatic plunge in scores only highlights a long-term problem.

Cynthia Murrell, November 14, 2022

The Tweeter: Where Are the Tweeter Addicts Going?

November 3, 2022

With Instagram and TikTok becoming the go to source of news, what is Twitter doing to cope with these click magnets? The answer is, “Stay tuned.” In theory the sage of the Twitter thing will end soon. In the meantime, let’s consider the implications of “Exclusive: Twitter Is Losing Its Most Active Users, Internal Documents Show.” The story comes from a trusted news source (what other type of real news outfit is there?). I noted this statement in the write up:

Twitter is struggling to keep its most active users – who are vital to the business – engaged…

The write up points out:

“heavy tweeters” account for less than 10% of monthly overall users but generate 90% of all tweets and half of global revenue. Heavy tweeters have been in “absolute decline” since the pandemic began, a Twitter researcher wrote in an internal document titled “Where did the Tweeters Go?”

The story has a number of interesting factoids; for example:

  • “adult content constitutes 13% of Twitter”
  • “English-speaking users were also increasingly interested in crypto currencies …But interest in the topic has declined since the crypto price crash”
  • “Twitter is also losing a “devastating” percentage of heavy users who are interested in fashion or celebrities such as the Kardashian family.”

What about the Silicon Valley type journalists who tweet to fame and fortune? What about the text outputting Fiverr and software content creators? What about the search engine optimization wizards who do the multiple post approach to visibility?

One of the Arnold Laws of Online is that users dissipate. What this means is that a big service has magnetism. Then the magnetism weakens. The users drift away looking for another magnetic point.

The new magnetic points are:

  • Short form video services
  • Discussion groups which can be Reddit-style on the clear Web and the Dark Web. Think Mastodon and Discord.
  • Emergent super apps like Telegram-type services and specialized services hosted by “ghost” ISPs. (A selected list is available for a modest fee. Write benkent2020 at yahoo dot com if you are interested in something few are tracking.)

The original magnet does not lose its potency quickly. But once those users begin to drift off, the original attractor decays.

How similar is this to radioactive decay? It is not just similar; it is weirdly close.

Stephen E Arnold, November 3, 2022

What Do Quasi Monopolies Do? What Big Outfits Have Done for Decades: Keep On Keeping On

November 2, 2022

The race is on. With the advertising money machines making some unpleasant sounds, the big tech companies are doing what big companies do.

Google’s ad revenues softened. The Zuckbook whines about Apple’s ad plays. Apple is gearing up to suck in ad dollars. Amazon is post so many ads when I search for T shirts, I can’t figure out what’s what.

And this is just the beginning.

What’s coming? Ah, you don’t care. I don’t either. Here are some prognostications from the Beyond Search team:

  1. More ads than ever. Everywhere. Constantly. (Why bother with objective content. Do advertorials.)
  2. The dunce advertisers have no choice but a few big outfits; thus, advertisers will choke down questions about ad fraud and fee manipulation
  3. Consumers will pay for these less and less effective ads with higher and higher prices. Zero gravity, right because the money floats out of individuals’ wallets. Zip zip.
  4. Government regulators will do what they do best — Have meetings and maybe hold a hearing or two so we can hear, “Senator, thank you for that question…”

Pretty bleak, right? Want to push back? You will be fighting what sure look like monopolies, legions of attorneys, and probably some other folks as well.

Is this the attention revolution? Nope. You will have less and less attention between more and more advertising.

Stephen E Arnold, November 2, 2022

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