The Laboratorium
July 2008

Another Quiz


What’s the connection among the following things:

  • Oliver Hazard Perry Throck Morton, 14th Governor of Indiana
  • “We Are Coming, Father Abraham”
  • 19th-century exhibitions
  • Cincinnati
  • The first steam-powered fire engine
  • Hertford County, N.C.
  • The United States Patent Office
  • The burning of Washington in the War of 1812
  • Amateurism
  • The lyceum movement
  • Scientific American
  • Clara Barton
  • Lincoln’s second inaugural ball
  • The closing of the western frontier
  • Macadam
  • Personal reinvention
  • Manifest Destiny
  • St. Louis
  • John Sutter
  • Samuel Colt
  • Ulysses S. Grant
  • Filth
  • Railroads
  • Henry Benjamin Whipple
  • Steamboats
  • Smallpox
  • Steamboat explosions
  • American medical education
  • Patent medicines
  • Reuben Samuel, stepfather of Jesse James
  • Indianapolis
  • Abraham Lincoln’s interest in gadgets
  • The Red Badge of Courage
  • Lieutenant Colonel James W. Ripley
  • General Benjamin F. Butler
  • The 1863 draft riots
  • Lincoln’s visit to Richmond in 1865
  • The surrender at Appomattox
  • Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show
  • Signatures
  • Hartford
  • The 1914 German invasion of Belgium
  • Swords
  • Imperialism
  • J.D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan’s charitable impulses
  • Mass consumer culture

For a vague hint, see here; for a stronger nudge, see here.

Assassin’s Creed Creed


So I ran across the double Altair glitch in Assassin’s Creed. Only, because of the framing story, according to which the main game is just a computer simulation, I didn’t think it was an actual glitch. The game opens with a series of simulated glitches, and I figured this was just more of the same. It wasn’t entirely satisfying dropping through the bottom of the map to my death, or having the camera whipsaw around unpredictably, or being chopped up by my clone, but I thought these were just clever bits of framing, and that the game was leading up to a catastrophic “breakdown” in the simulation.

No. It was just a glitch. After the next major checkpoint, everything went back to “normal.” Consider this an unexpected consequence of breaking the fourth wall; when the game just plain breaks, no one will notice.

Oh, and one more thing. I don’t want to hear any whining from people complaining that the glitch “prevented them from finishing.” I played through the entire section: dodging invisible pits, climbing ladders when I couldn’t see myself, avoiding my own sword, and strategically positioning my clone so the camera angles would work out. It can be done.

A Quiz


What do the following have in common?

  • Toyota’s lean production system
  • A map of England’s fossil strata
  • The Triangle Shirtwaist fire
  • Einstein’s equation
  • Rosa Parks
  • The San Francisco earthquake
  • Hank Aaron’s record-breaking home run
  • The compass
  • Cod
  • The 1960 Olympics
  • Muckraking journalism
  • Prohibition
  • The blizzard of 1888
  • The Galapagos Islands
  • The 1919 Paris Peace Conference
  • Tea
  • The 1968 election
  • Bananas
  • Anne Boleyn
  • The East India Company
  • Nixon’s visit to China
  • The NASDAQ market
  • Mauve
  • The 1970 Alabama/USC football game
  • 1968
  • The Model T
  • The Carlisle school football team
  • “Howl”
  • The 107th Congress
  • The GI Bill
  • The Chicago Columbian Exposition
  • Gunpowder
  • The dot
  • Coal
  • The battle of Thermopylae

(For a hint, see Sarah L.’s comment to my last post.)

Rules for Law Reviews, pt. N


“Likely” is the new “clearly.”

Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel I give it 1 star


This book was edited by Wendy Wolf, who should have been fired.

Not Cool Yet


Cuil is a new search engine with big ambitions. Their privacy policy is great; their search results okay. My problem with them is that they interleave web and image results in a way that creates the misleading impression that particular images go with particular web pages. Sometimes, they’re embarrassingly mismatched. My egosurf page, for example, is embarrassing for me. My personal homepage is illustrated with a decade-old monstrosity, whereas my school page is paired up with a Tony Hadley album cover. The worst part is that both of these pages have current photos of me on them.

The Ranking of Knol Articles


Philipp Lenssen, The Ranking of Knol Articles:

Some people noticed Knol articles are already sometimes ranking very well in Google results, even though Google promised Knol articles wouldn’t get any artificial boost. Until further evidence comes in I don’t think we’ve much reason to distrust Google’s statement, and yet, the site does get a major boost all the same simply because it’s in the vicinity of the superbly ranking network of Google websites (not yet on the PageRank 10 homepage, but for instance on the PageRank 8 — recently 9, AFAIK — blog, on PageRank 9 Google Scholar, and perhaps now or soon on other Google properties… not to mention all the other press backlinks Knol gets as it’s a Google project). But don’t expect any guaranteed high rankings; an article I started on the competitive subject of search engine optimization did not jump into the top 10 for that phrase.

Interesting question (and I’m looking at you, Frank and Siva), does Google have a special responsibility to use responsibly the PageRank of its core sites? Google gives them super-high importance, so anything they link to becomes derivatively important almost immediately. There’s a lot of potential for conflicts of interest here, as Phillipp goes on to explain, some of them quite subtle. We wouldn’t think that others online have a special responsibility to use their Google-juice responsibly, but if you also run the search engine perhaps some of the ethical obligations transfer over.

People of the Book I give it 2 stars


It reads like a much shorter James Michener novel: a set of linked stories, spread across the centuries, all of which wear their research on their sleeve. That ought to work. The only problem is that there’s a reason Michener’s novels were doorstops. The individual stories feel rushed, and when the big twists come along, it’s like watching The Scary Door.

The Orange Box I give it 5 stars


Possibly the best value in video-gaming ever. While Eighth-Life is occasionally cliché-ridden (Is that a gunship? There must be a box of rockets coming up!), it’s lovingly constructed and many of the sequences are absolutely bloody brilliant. Portal, is Portal of course: a perfect concept executed with exactly the right script, art, level design, sound, and music. And to top it all off, three of these four games come with commentary tracks, so I wound up playing through them a second time. (I also hear that Team Fortress 2 is good, for them as who likes that kind of stuff.)

From the Mailbag: The Google Dilemma and China


Long-time Laboratorium reader Ken Liu writes in with the following:

I read your piece on The Google Dilemma, and I wanted to raise several points that you might or might not have considered. The intent isn’t to argue, but in general, I’ve found the discussion of censorship in China in America to be lacking, and I hope you could enrich the discussion.

First, the term “censorship” is loaded. Businesses follow censorship laws (or the pressure to censor that isn’t strictly legally required) in every country, including the Untied States (see the recent agreements by major ISPs to remove child pornography newsgroups). This point is often abused by those who defend China’s practice — but they do have a point. The point isn’t so much whether human rights are being respected; rather, it’s about the right balance between insisting on your principles — that you, as a Western company, would like to display search results and images that you see as legitimate responses to a query, subject to your own biases and tastes — versus the principles of the host country — which may be determined through undemocratic processes (as they are in China), or by non-liberal cultures (as they are in Saudi Arabia and other places), or through democratic processes in liberal cultures with certain blind spots.

Often, people speak of “censorship” without acknowledging that there is a background of this kind of contest going on. Fundamentally, the assumption behind the intuition that “censorship” is bad is that other people ought to see things just the way we see them. And that may be a laudable goal or a bad goal. But it’s not self-evident. To say that someone else is censoring is to say that they are not seeing things the way we want to see them, and whether the views of those others are “authentic” (in the sense of being liberal or democratic) may be relevant or not to the determination, but again it’s not self-evident.

Second, there’s the question of whether it’s a net good thing for Google/Yahoo/etc. to do business in China while following Chinese rules about censorship, as I’ve defined it above. Supposing that we find it a laudable goal to impose our views on the Chinese — a question that we will set aside for now — it’s hard to see why Google’s method is bad. Google’s principle fundamentally is that more information is better than less information, so it’s better for Google to be present in China than for it not to be in China. I find this argument very convincing. The presence of a Western company spreading Western values in China, no matter how censored, is a net win for the West. In so far as our goal is to topple the Chinese government and to introduce instability into China, it’s better to have Google in there spreading information and alerting people to the fact that things are being censored, than otherwise. And as I have elaborated elsewhere, Google.cn’s censorship is quite different from what the Chinese companies and users themselves engage in.

Third, there’s the question of the specific example of Tiananmen. You view the Chinese search results as “censored,” but actually, every time I do a search on Tiananmen on Google I feel I’m watching the result of a Google bomb. To me, the iconic image of Tiananmen is the one where Chairman Mao stood up and declared the founding of the People’s Republic. That moment is the dividing line between pre-modern China and modern China, and for many Chinese it is an image that is much more potent than the images of the protests. (Alternatively, other Chinese might think of Tiananmen as a complex symbol of some six hundred years of late Imperial Chinese history; as a stand-in for the debates over Chinese ethnicity and identity (Manchu, Mongol, Tibetan, Hui, or Han?); as a public forum in which the greatest events of China in the last sixty years have played out; as a place in which the conflicting impulses of Chinese nativist pride and confusion and shock at the importation of the foreign are still being played out; etc.) Taken in context, the protests of 1989 — which dominates Western consciousness purely by accident of timing — are simply one other entry in a long history of Chinese student movements against governments which produced little immediate concrete results, but cumulatively, will lead to significant systematic changes. It is neither the most important student movement in China nor even the most significant event in Tiananmen Square itself. For most Chinese, Tiananmen is a central backdrop to the birth of modern China, the scene of countless official processions — the good and the bad, a symbol with a complex history that is entwined with the Chinese identity, and somewhere in that line, the protests of 1989 are but a blip in that long history. When a search engine defines this symbol for Western audiences as simply a photograph of an unknown man standing in front of a column of tanks, then there is more than a bit of cultural domination and essentialism going on. The “uncensored” Google search results encapsulate, in a very simple image, the lack of understanding most Westerners have of China, of Tiananmen, and of the protests of 1989.

Now, a simple answer might be: “That might all be true, but who cares? The job of a search engine is to reflect the consensus judgment of the Web as a whole on a matter. If most of the Web view Tiananmen as simply a symbol of democratic protests against authoritarian China, then the fact that the Chinese themselves see Tiananmen differently, as a symbol of more than 400 years of Chinese history, is irrelevant.” But that’s just ducking the problem. The fact that most Chinese do not write in English and are not free to write what they think so that they can counterbalance the biases of the West against their country and culture means that the Web is itself necessarily biased and dominated by Western ideas and beliefs. Before we simply say that the problem is Chinese censorship, we should acknowledge that the “uncensored” view Google gives us in the West is itself quite biased and “wrong” in its own way.

By way of reply, let me just say that if I had an extra hour in every day, I’d write an essay called “There’s No Such Thing As an Objective Search Result, and It’s a Good Thing, Too.” Every search ranking is “biased” in the Eric Goldman sense: The search engine’s programmers necessarily make editorial judgments about what their users most want to see. (Even an alphabetical list of every page on the Web favors some sites and disfavors others.) The real question is what kinds of search engines we would want to have for a liberal society in which people hold diverse and opposing views about “good” and “bad” content—and for a liberal international order in which different societies have diverse and opposing views on these questions.

One answer is that diversity of individual judgments should be mirrored by diversity of search algorithms. We stand the best chance of helping every individual find the content she wants and needs if we give her a rich opportunity to pick and choose among competing search engines. The more we force search engines to hew to “objective” societal judgments about good and bad content, the more likely we are to impose majority views on minority searchers. So we should be as agnostic as we reasonably can abut what is “right” and “wrong” in search results, as a way of respecting the judgments of others with whom we disagree.

Another answer is that the inevitability (indeed desirability) of bias in the Goldman sense need not mean we throw up our hands about search engines that are biased in the Friedman-Nissenbaum sense: ones that “systematically and unfairly discriminate against certain individuals or groups of individuals in favor of others.” So far as possible, we ought not to let search engines be the instruments of unfair discrimination against the disempowered. I see at least two cases in which the toleration principle from above poses no obstacle to this antidiscrimination principle:

First, when there isn’t a diversity of search engine options, the toleration principle loses force. If everyone uses a single dominant search engine, the choice is between letting the search engine impose its values on users and imposing societal values on users. Of course, the first-best response would be to restore diversity to the search ecology, but a second-best (and ideally temporary) move would be to prevent those instances of discrimination that society as a whole considers unfair.

Second, when a search engine is dishonest with its users about its biases, we have grounds to object. Such an engine isn’t properly other-regarding and deprives its users of autonomy. A search engine that claims its rankings are entirely “objective” and then filters out results by hand is telling us that it doesn’t actually believe its own rhetoric about the rightness of its ranking principles. While the line is hard to draw, there’s also a point at which a complete lack of transparency becomes a form of dishonesty. A search engine that genuinely thinks certain forms of content are “bad” and unwanted by its users should be willing to admit in public that it holds these views.

I don’t mean these principles to be a direct response to Ken’s email. You’ll note, for example, that I raised the issue of liberal internationalism (how different states with different values are to coexist) and then said nothing at all about it. Think of my thoughts here, instead, as being where I’d start from in responding, if I had that extra hour.

Overheard (Partly in My Mind)


“There’ve been what, eight indictments so far? We may just need to wait for more before we can generalize.”

“Speaking as a legal academic, eight data points is seven more than we need to generalize.”

The Google Dilemma


I’ve posted online my latest draft, The Google Dilemma. It’s based on a couple of talks I gave this spring—one to a group of high-school students and one to a group of law students. Very loosely, it’s an attempt to explain why people should care about search engine law. I take five search queries—two of them seemingly harmless and three highly controversial—and tell their stories. How does Google decide which sites to return in response to one of them, and whose ox is gored when it does? It’s short—by legal academic standards, at least—and, I hope, both readable and entertaining.

Remember the Princeton!


From the department of things I did not know:

In 1844, during a test firing of an impressive new cannon known as the Peacemaker on board the warship U.S.S. Princeton, a backfire resulted in the deaths of the secretary of state and the secretary of the navy.

—Julia Keller, Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel, page 37

Unless the Intersection Is the Null Set


If you play both Second Life and Half-Life, do they cancel each other out?

Wall-E I give it 5 stars


It’s as though Pixar’s storytellers are so good they have to handicap themselves. We’ve done bugs, monsters, and a culinary rat; what next? I know, we’ll make an epic romance between two robots who don’t speak. And yet it works. Great love story, unforgettable minor characters, and many moments of effortless physical comedy.

Of course, the absurd constraints Pixar forces itself to work under are in large part the reason for its success. We saw four trailers for forthcoming CGI animated movies, and it was immediately obvious that they were all going to suck. Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Bolt, Madagascar 2, and The Tale of Despereaux: With these movies, it’s clear the animators and writers knew where they were going from pretty much the moment the high-concept pitch was pitched. But Pixar lives by the chess adage “If you see a good move, look for a better one!” And going with unlikely-seeming projects is a way of sweeping the obvious—and therefore trite—gimmicks off the table before they even get started.