Philosophy Items
October 17, 2004

There Is No Cat

Philosophy By: ams

Using Desktop Google I found an email from Ross Stapleton-Gray (author of An Internet of Less Than Solid Things, among others), saying

zCommerce is to eBay, as radio is to telegraph… (“eBay, except there’s no cat!”)

citing the Einstein cat story:

You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat.

–Albert Einstein, when asked to describe radio.

September 18, 2004

Intellectual Property Values

Philosophy By: ams

Ross Mayfield writes in his post Patents, RFCs, and Reputation,

Here’s a thought, which is more valuable: the Eolas Patent on browser plugins or Dave Crocker’s RFC for email?

Eolas recieved a half a billion settlement from Microsoft, and the original inventors could realize a considerable reward, if appeals reach an end. I’m using Eolas as one of the perfect examples of pure return, and this is in no way a knock against the inventors. A patent and a standard are hard to compare because the process of invention is so different. But to you personally and society the answer is clearly the latter.

The real question is, have standards surpassed patents in reputational return?

This reminds me how strong the tradeoff is in deciding the value of intellectual property when it’s being created. Those who want money and power choose to close access to an innovation through patents and the protection of the law; those who want fame and glory choose to open access to an invention through standards and the leverage of an appeal to something bigger. When a person or company can do both at the same time — the so-called embrace-and-extend strategy — that person or company has the foundation for an empire.

Ross points out that “Aaron Swartz is right to be proud and congratulated on RFC 3870“, and we agree.

September 11, 2004

Pareto optimality should be computed over time :-)

Philosophy By: ams

A running joke is that Adam’s cellphone gets more and more positive comments as it gets more obsolete. It’s one of those long, flat Sharp ones — and since that form factor is dead and buried, no one’s seen one recently.

This NYTimes article (by way of C|Net) talks about several retro trends in one piece — old phones, adding old handsets to modern cells, pseudo-retro record players, PC case mods… a quick read.

The commerce-relevant part is that it should be possible to increase consumer choice by adding the past back to the present — that is to ask, why is that that no one can buy a new instance of Adam’s phone?

It should be possible to go to a website and design your own phone, with your own form factors, sliders for trading off color with battery life, network providers you need support for, and expect a custom-manufactured phone in the mail back to you within a day or two. That is the Now Economy at work…

A digital generation’s analog chic | CNET News.com

When Eugene Auh went trawling at eBay for a cheap cell phone last month, he searched for one with a decidedly anachronistic bent.

“I wanted the biggest cell phone I could find,” said Auh, a 27-year-old investment manager in Philadelphia. His winning bid of $25.95 bought a Motorola DynaTac, a 1980s-era “brick” cell phone that fits more comfortably in a backpack than in a suit pocket.

Rather than subtracting from its charm, the phone’s cumbersome size–it is roughly 8 by 2 by 3 inches–is its main attraction, Auh said. Indeed, he plans to take the phone to work, to the gym and even to his nighttime haunts.

…Auh, meanwhile, is holding off on his romantic overtures until he finds a service provider that can support his antiquated cell phone. But once he does, the women of Philadelphia will need to act quickly, Auh warned.

“This cell phone only stores nine numbers, ladies,” he said, “so it’s first come, first served.”

September 8, 2004

Just Call Him Van

Philosophy By: ams

Two years ago Trevor F. Smith wrote about the pronunciation of “Vannevar Bush”:

Bush showed his own “spark of belligerency.” He was quick to take exception to things. Even his own first name, with its Dutch pronunciation (Vuh-NEE-ver), irritated him. “The strange name” was “a nuisance,” always requiring an explanation or a quick lesson in pronunciation. Bush wished his father had named him John, after the first name of his friend, and his sisters indeed called him John at times.

The Vannevar Bush Wikipedia entry confirms that His name was pronounced Van-NEE-var. as in “receiver”.

September 3, 2004

Institution building: a look back at W3C

Philosophy By: ams

A long time ago, I wrote an article for a standards-policy seminar at UC Irvine on my experience with the development of the World Wide Web Consortium; I later presented to a cyberpolicy seminar in Georgetown. That was about it, until I started reflecting on the challenges in intiating a new Labs division for CommerceNet. It’s a perennial challenge to foster innovation within a multi-party cooperative research & development consortium; the Harvard Business School press even has a book on the topic: Technology Fountainheads: The Management Challenge of R&D Consortia by E. Raymond Corey.

The Evolution of the World Wide Web Consortium


The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has developed a novel organizational form as it attempts to “lead the evolution of the Web” — equal parts academic lab, industrial research & development consortium, trade association, and standards body. In this paper, we trace the history of W3C’s adaptations in structure and process to accommodate the shifting opportunities of the Web market.

August 19, 2004

Solve Just Enough To Be Useful

Philosophy By: ams

Dare Obasanjo:

A technology doesn’t have to solve every problem. Just enough problems to be useful. Two examples come to mind which hammered this home to me; Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web and collaborative filtering which sites like Amazon use…

If you read the descriptions of the Xanadu model you’ll notice it has certain lofty goals. Some of these include the ability to create bi-directional links, links that do not break, and built-in version management. To me it doesn’t seem feasible to implement all these features without ending up building a closed system. It seems Tim Berners-Lee came to a similar conclusion and greatly simplified Ted Nelson’s dream thus making it feasible to implement and adopt on a global scale. Tim Berners-Lee’s Web punts on all the hard problems. How does the system ensure that documents once placed on the Web are always retrievable? It doesn’t. Instead you get 404 pages and broken links. How does the Web ensure that I can find all the pages that link to another page? It doesn’t. Does the Web enable me to view old versions of a Web page and compare revisions of it side by side? Nope.

Despite these limitations Tim Berners-Lee’s Web sparked a global information revolution. Even more interestingly over time various services have shown up online that have attempted to add the missing functionality of the Web such as The Internet Archive, Technorati and the Google Cache.

Here at CommerceNet we are grappling with the problem of solving just enough about decentralization to be useful in many commerce settings. More on that to follow in coming months…