The New Digital Age

The New Digital Age explores the impact of internet connectivity and digital media on society. The book witnesses changes that have already occurred, reviews current trends, and tries to predict some future moves.

Written by Eric Schmidt, a tech executive, and Jared Cohen, a former foreign policy advisor, the book focuses on the impact of technology at the political and societal level, not so much at the individual level (only the first chapter “Our future selves” is about it). I applaud this ambitious agenda.

People interested in technology and cyber criminality (e.g. TED talks, Wired) might be familiar with some of the observations and speculations in the book. The novelty that it carries will depend on the background of the reader. Some of the predictions are however unique to the authors, and they do not hesitate to give their personal opinions. This gives a special edge to the matter.

The trends and predictions are usually backed up with short annectodical evidences that are interesting in themselves. The overall discussion remains however usually quite abstract, which at times gives the impression that it lacks substance. This is to be expected from such a book, though. Prediction and precision don’t match up very well.

My main criticism of the book is that while the chapters tell a consistent story of how society evolves with periods of peacetime, revolution, conflict, and reconstruction, the chapter internals do not enjoy such a coherent treatment. The predictions that they discuss appear to exist more by accident than as the outcome of a thorough analysis. For instance, I do not recall reading anything about electronic voting. This seems to me like an unavoidable topic for such a book.

The book gives also a slight feeling of redundancy. Certain topics are discussed from a different point of view from chapter to chapter. For instance, the tension between privacy and security is discussed under the perspective of state organization, militantism, counter terrorism, etc. An improvement for a second edition would be to provide a roadmap of recurring topics and their treatment in each chapter. That would give a high-level view of the content, and would avoid this unpleasant feeling of redundancy.

While the positions in the book are relatively balanced, the overall tone is inevitably biased towards US policy, which is no suprise given Jared Cohen’s background. Also, the book emphasizes tracking and surveillance a lot and will make proponents of an anonymous internet uneasy.

Overall, I liked the book. The themes addressed are very relevant and it sharpened my understanding of the role of technology in modern society. What the future will really bring, nobody knows.

The Social Network

I wasn’t much involved or interested in social media (twitter and the likes) until I joined SCG a few month ago. I had a rather defensive attitude and wanted to have the smallest fingerprint on the web. For several reasons, I nevertheless started using Google Shared Link, Twitter, CiteULike and Stackoverflow to see how they worked.

I must admit that I kind of like them all, now that I overcame my initial resistance.  But what I liked most is the surrounding questions on the evolution of the society. Here is a bunch of points I’m questioning myself about these days.

Ranking, reputation and suggestion system

The heart of these systems is to identify the value that the community gives to certain person or item (value is vague, maybe relevance or credibility would be better). This value can be mined using information about the network, or number of visit, etc. or by requesting user to vote. Purpose of these systems is to be fair, objective and democratic. Such systems are however complex to create. You need to design a set of rules that fit the purpose as well as a set of counter-mechanisms to eliminate abnormal behavior that still slip in (e.g. robot visit, abnormal pattern in user vote, etc.).  Ultimately all such system have their own weakness. This wasn’t too a problem when we didn’t depend critically on such system, but this is now the case.

The value of our second life

How much value to give to the web presence of an individual? For instance, recruitement has already changed with the appearance of job sites first, but then of online CV. This tendency will continue and expand to all area of our life. We can expect in the future to have consolidated profile be used more and more prior to meeting people for real. You can’t just erase all that and start from sratch. This may seriously bias our opinion on people. Prejudges related to a our web presence may be hard to overcome. Our presence on the web will be a direct measure of our skills, as is the case for instance with stackoverflow QA and CV. Will this expand to other area? Will we soon see  sentences such as “10+ meme on twitter is a plus” for people working in PR?
•    How much should we trust this information?
•    What is the “critical mass” that these systems must reach to really work?
•    Does it represent the real soft- and social-skills of a person?
•    Can we really sum up people with numbers?
•    When will the first “single consolidate metric” appear that grades an individual according to its complete web presence?

Community vs. individual

The web was first driven by communities. People which contributed to the web, adhered to the value of these communities. However, if the tendency to expose single individual continues, there will more and more tension between the community aspects and the individual, selfish aspects. This tension isn’t new and has probably been studied since decades in sociology and psychology, but the expansion of this tension to the web is new.  And the effect is unknown.  Everybody will be an active player the Internet and not just a passive user, as during the past decade.  We can then expect much more friction and instability in these social web site. Or maybe not.
References

Nowhere to Hide: Assessing Your Work Reputation Online

S*** My Domain Name Has Expired

I had the bad surprise last week to notice that my domain name had expired. Like many other before me, I realized then that the domain name business is aggressively money-driven and that many companies try to make profit out of domain name registration.

In my case, the domain name had first expired, but because I was in vacation and couldn’t do much from there, it had then moved after 30 days into the status “redemption period”. I knew about a few status but not about the complete list of status. You still have a chance to renew the domain name while in status “redemption period”, but it costs you more! Normally, the domain name should go back to public after the redemption period is over. Unfortunately, there are many companies watching the soon-to-be-expired domain names, and they systematically buy them. There are also some affiliation between registrar and such companies, which means there is apparently little chances that you can buy it again after it has expired completely. You can place a “back-order” on these companies website, but again, it will cost you more.

I was a bit disgusted by the whole process, and had no other way than to renew it at a much higher price than normal. Lesson learned: make sure you enable “automatic renewal” on your registrar website.

Here is a portion of the chat I had with the guy at register.com:

Chat log
me: Hi, I have a question about DNS renewal.
support: Ok I can help you with that, what is the domain name please ?
me: My DNS recently expired while I was on vacation. When I came back, I tried to renew it, but unfortunately my credit card had expired as well (bad luck). Now that I have updated the information for my credit card, the DNS move into “redemption-period” and I can’t renew it. The DNS was “XXXXXXX”
support: Ok thank you. Just a heads up.. DNS is Domain Name Server. What you have is a Domain Name. Thanks. I will just be a second to bring up that account.
me: Yes, sorry, I mean DN.
support: Not a problem.
support: Your domain name’s status is currently: Redemption Period
me: Yes. That’s what I obtained with WhoIs. Is there a way to renew it?
support: This means that the domain name has gone back to the registry. I can still however purchase the name back for you, however the rates are registry rates and higher then the normal renewal cost and the rates are non negotiable due to the domain not being with our company.

1 Year is $120.00
2 Years is $145.00
3 Years is $170.00
5 Years is $179.00
6 Years is $205.00
7 Years is $240.00
10 Years is $250.00
me: Will the domain goes back to “public” if I wait longer. I could then register it again with normal price?
support: Eventually, but it may go to an auction or someone may have back-ordered the domain name. This is a very risky and touchy time with a domain name. Redeeming the domain at the registry price is your last and only real chance of getting this domain name.
support: There are hundreds of “just dropped” sites that email all there clients all the domains that expired and was released that day, so your domain name will be view by hundreds of people as soon as it drops publicly.
me: What you mean is that there are some companies that systematically buy expired domain in the hope to sell it back for a higher price?
support: Correct.
support: This is a very common practice.
me: What I don’t get is who own the “registry” and the domain name right now.
support: That would be ICANN
support: They are the owner of all domain names.
me: But they are not doing any business on their own…
support: I’m not sure what you mean.. they hold the accreditation for all registrar’s. Without an ICANN accreditation you cannot legally sell domains as a company.
me: I mean, who fixed the prices you sent me? ICANN?
support: The expiration date for the domain name “XXXXXX” has past, as well as our 30 day administrative grace period during which a renewal of a domain name may be permitted. Accordingly, we have submitted the domain name to the Registry for deletion. The Registry has placed this domain name in a ‘Redemption Grace Period’, which provides the Registrant one last opportunity to ‘redeem’ or reclaim the domain name before it is made available for public registration on a first come, first served basis.

Once the domain name is placed on redemption status by the Registry we incur additional expenses in reinstating the domain name, which are in reflected in the redemption fee.

me: Ok, so the “recovery” price is registrar-specific but higher than normal renewal because of the “extra work”. And yours starts at 120 USD.
support: We charge more because we have to pay more to the registry. We do not own domain names but purchase from the registry when you purchase from us. This is not $120.00 profitable dollars for our company.
me: If I reinstall the DN for $ 120, am I able to renew it then on a yearly-based at the regular price of $ 35?
support: Correct.
support: Did you want to reinstate the domain ?
me: Yes, I will reinstall the domain. Just leave one minute to decide whether I take 1 year or more. I don’t want to be in the same situation next year. And it will cost me more money to renew it on a yearly basis.
support: You are far better off going longer then sooner, the farther out you go the less of a chance it will happen and the better savings you will get.
me: Ok, so I would like reinstall the domain for a period of 5 years at the price of $ 179.
support: Sounds great, that’s the best choice.
support: Perfect.
support: This is going to take up to 72 hours to redeem the domain back into your account. This requires a special department to redeem. You will get an email notification once the domain has been redeemed.
support: Was there anything else I can help you with today ?
me: No that was all. Thanks a lot.
support: Did you want me to put the privacy protection back on the domain once in the account ?
me: Is it still $ 11 per year?
support: It would be $45.00 for a 5 year term.
me: In this case, please include “privacy protection” as well.
support: Ok I can do that for you. Did you want me to re-create the email account as well ?
me: No. Not for the time being. So far I remember it was relatively expensive and and I can’t afford a 5 year period for the mail.
support: Ok I will get this redeemed for you as soon as possible. Was there anything else I can do for you today ?
me: I see no other points.
support: Have a great day.

Fun with iTune Shuffle and Probabilities

I recently tagged and imported all my mp3 into iTune. I noticed then that there were lots of albums that I had only partially listened to and I decided to use the feature “Party Shuffle” to listen to my library randomly and eventually hear all the songs.

After a couple of weeks, I observed that some songs would reappear in the playlist and were picked twice. Over the weeks the frequency of “re-entry” songs increased with the direct consequence that new music was played less and less. Even though I had already realized that it would not be possible to hear all the songs with approach, I was still surprised by the “re-entry” rate, which I would have intuitively expected to be much lower.

I turned to probability to better understand the situation.

Let’s n be the size of my library. After t songs played randomly, the probability that a given song was played at least once is:

P( song played at least once ) = t / n.

Absolutely not! This probability can be computed with 1 – probability that the song was never played. This gives:

      P( song played at least once ) = 1 – (( n-1 )/ n)  ^ t

More generally, the probability of a song having been played x times is given by the function

P( x ) = (1/n)^x * ( (n-1) / n )^(t-x) * C ( n, x  )

Where C(n,x) is the number of possible permutation. The expanded

P( x ) = (1/n)^x * ( (n-1) / n )^(t-x) *  n! / (n-x) ! x!

Note that the probability that the song was never played (x=0) is still (( n-1 )/ n)  ^ t.

After t songs, the sum P(0) + P(1) + … + P(t) = 1, which proves that the formula is correct.

The average number of songs played in the library after t songs, can be computed with

Avg. played

 = n * P( song played at least once )

= n * ( 1 – ((n-1)/n)^t ) = n – (n-1)^t  / n^(t-1)

The “re-entry” rate, or the probability of hearing a new song can be computed with (n- avg. played) / n which is equivalent to the probability that a given song was never played P(x=0).

The graph bellows shows the probability that a song was never played for a library of 500 songs, after 0, 50, 100, etc. songs. It’s interesting to notice that the probability of new songs fall below 50% after about 300 songs.

iTune_probability