The Laboratorium
January 2012

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Okay, I Think I Like Sasha Frere-Jones Now

Sasha Frere-Jones, Screen Shot, The New Yorker, Feb. 6, 2012):

Why is pop music the only art form that still inspires such arrantly stupid discussion? The debates that surround authenticity have no relationship to popular music as it’s been practiced for more than a century. Artists write material, alone or with assistance, revise it, and then present a final work created with the help of professionals who are trained for specific and relevant production tasks. This makes popular music similar to film, television, visual art, books, dance, and related areas like food and fashion. And yet no movie review begins, “Meryl Streep, despite not being a Prime Minister, is reasonably convincing in ‘The Iron Lady.’”

On this theme — the centrality of “authenticity” and irrelevance of actual authenticity in pop-music — I also highly recommend Eljiah Wald’s How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Spot the Security Holes

My hotel’s WiFi is $9.95 per day, added to your room bill. You purchase it by logging into the network with your room number as the username and the hotel’s name as the password. All of this is explained on the authentication page you encounter as soon as you start trying to use the WiFi.

At first, I thought they might as well have a tipjar at the front desk saying, “If you liked our complementary WiFi, why not why not express your gratitude by leaving us $10?” But then I realized that a tipjar wouldn’t let you add charges to other guests’ bills at will. So really, it’s more like a tipjar for use by pickpockets.

The Orphan Wars Redux

I’ve revised my blog post on The Orphan Wars into a short essay for the EDUCAUSE Review. It bears the same title, but I’ve updated it for the higher-education IT community. Here’s the new opening paragraph:

“Orphan books”—books that are in copyright but whose copyright owners can’t be found—have been in the news lately, thanks to lawsuits over Google’s plan to scan a copy of every book ever published. What started as a project to make a better search engine has gradually become a focal point for debate over whether the legal system can find a way to rescue the orphans from copyright limbo. Some of the libraries working with Google have announced plans to make available to their patrons digital versions of the books they think are orphans; an authors’ group has sued to stop them. In this column, I’ll review the convoluted history of the Google Books lawsuits, with an eye toward what they might mean for orphan books.

Grand Archives FTW

From the Megaupload indictment:

ee. On or about October 18, 2007, BENCKO sent an e-mail to VAN DER KOLK indicating that “sorry to bother you but if you would have a second to find me some links for the “Grand Archives” band id be very happy.” On or about the same day, VAN DER KOLK responded to BENCKO with an e-mail that contained a link to a Grand Archives music album with he statement “That’s all we have. Cheers mate!”

At least they had good taste in the music they were pirating.

Primarily Misleading

There is something slightly off about sentences like this one, from the New York Times:

At a minimum, it is clear that Republican voters, after delivering three different winners in the first three stops in the nominating contest, are in no rush to settle on their nominee.

You see this kind of coverage a lot in primary season: commentators make sweeping statements about the electorate’s desires based on polling or primary numbers. The problem is that it hopelessly conflates individual and collective preferences. In this sentence alone, there are two such slippages. First, clear votes for different candidates are smushed together into a collective indecision. And then, that indecision is attributed back to the individual voters. But the fact that Republican voters in three states disagree about which candidate they would like to nominate does not tell us that they are happy to make the choice slowly. It could just be that their primary process is set up in a way that doesn’t lead to an unambiguous early winner, given this year’s candidates and political climate.

The mild version of this mistake comes up in two-party elections or in polling on an issue that has only two choices. To win an election by 10 votes out of 1,000,000 cast does not mean that the electorate collectively has spoken and pointed to you. (Indeed, with many voting technologies, this difference would be well within any reasonable margin of error, so we couldn’t even be sure that the “winning” candidate got more votes.) All it means is that the election process resulted in selecting one candidate over the other, which, by the rules of our system, means giving the winner the job. A “close” election could reflect a bitter partisan divide, or vast collective indifference as between two decent choices. The number alone says little. The same goes for margins of victory: even a 65-35 victory in the popular vote — an unprecedented margin for a presidential election in U.S. history — need not mean uniform national agreement on anything. The many millions of voters on the short side of the count need not be acquiescent, just outnumbered.

In multi-way contests — like early primaries — the gap between individual and collective preferences is even more severe. Indeed, thanks to Arrow’s impossibility theorem, there may be no coherent way to combine individuals’ choices at all. Every voting (or polling) system will fail in one way or another.

This year’s Republican primaries, in particular, seem to be suffering from a severe independence of irrelevant alternatives problem. The media has settled on a narrative in which the essential choice for Republican voters is between Romney and Not-Romney. But that choice is never on the ballot, and it seems never to be presented in polls. Instead, they’re asked to cast a single vote for one candidate, with a wide array of would-be Not-Romneys to choose among.

Under these circumstances, we simply do not know what the statistical preference of Republican voters looks like. It could be that as the various Not-Romneys drop out, their support will largely break for Romney, or for the other Not-Romneys. If the former, then Romney is in fact broadly preferred by the Republican electorate; if the latter, then he is in fact broadly rejected it. By the first-past-the-post standards of political reporting, these are two very different outcomes. But by those same first-past-the-post standards, Santorum “won” Iowa, Romney “won” New Hampshire, and Gingrich “won” South Carolina and we’re no closer to having a meaningful picture of overall individual preferences.

The secret, of course, is that reflecting individual preferences isn’t necessarily the point of a voting process. Simple coordination — telling the party stalwarts whom to believe in and coalesce around — is frequently valued in a primary. So is awarding delegates in a way that permits a relatively small group of party insiders to push a favored candidate (remember the superdelegates?). And at the general election, the media narrative of a decisive “choice” almost certainly helps promote social cohesion and effective governance, even if the narrative itself is a lie.

In any event, here’s my suggestion for how to perform more illuminating primary polling. Don’t just ask people who they’ll vote for. Instead, ask them to rank-order candidates from most preferred to least. Or ask them whether they consider each individual candidate “acceptable” or “not acceptable” as a possible nominee. No poll is perfect, but I think this sort would be substantially less misleading, because it would focus attention on what actual voters’ desires, not the fictional desires of a mythical collective hypothesized from raw vote totals.

Mystery Hunt 2012

This past weekend, I made my annual pilgrimage to Cambridge for the MIT Mystery Hunt, a puzzle competition on a grand scale. Teams of up to 200 people attempt to be first to solve over a hundred puzzles and put the answers together to find a coin that has been hidden somewhere on the MIT campus. This past year, my team, Codex, won the Hunt, which means that by tradition, it was our turn to write and run the Hunt this year. It was an intense, exhausting, and deeply fulfilling experience.

I like to think of the Mystery Hunt as a gift economy. Each year’s Hunt is a gift given by the previous year’s winner to the other teams. I put in hundreds of hours writing and test-solving puzzles, plus an intense final sprint behind the scenes at Hunt HQ from Friday morning until late on Sunday. Codex’s leaders easily spent thousands of hours each making the Hunt come together. All of this was completely unpaid.

Why would any sane person sacrifice a year this way? Part of it is pride: just like solving a puzzle is a way to show off your cleverness, creating one lets you show off your creativity. But I think the reciprocal obligation that gift exchange creates best explains why every year the winners take on this tremendous burden. The winning team in a Hunt is the one that has most fully enjoyed the puzzles, that has been the greatest recipient of that year’s gift. This creates a social debt, one that can be repaid only with a return gift: another Hunt. Every year, teams joke that they will locate the coin, then walk away and leave it alone so that someone else can write the Hunt. No one ever does it: everyone understands what cheap move it would be.

This also explains something else. Each year’s Hunt is typically a little more ambitious than previous Hunts, on average. The overall number of puzzles has been rising with time, and the writing teams are always adding some new element. Last year’s Hunt had an incredibly clever structure, with unusually imaginative metapuzzles. (A metapuzzle is a puzzle based on combining the answers to other puzzles.) This year, we had teams come and put on fake Broadway productions. These something mores, I think, are a way for the writing team to demonstrate that it isn’t just returning exactly the gift it was given and is obligated to give back. They show that the Hunt, a labor of love, is freely given, that we chose to add something unique and not required.

This year’s Hunt theme was musical theater, as filtered through The Producers. It’s an apt metaphor: running the Hunt reminded me of working backstage on college theater productions. Everything is a complete disaster up through and including the dress rehearsal, but on opening night, everything always comes together in front of the curtain. I had the best seat in the house to appreciate the brilliance and inexhaustible work of my teammates, and to see the ingenuity and enthusiasm of the Hunters in the audience rising to the occasion. At the Hunt wrap-up — presented as an awards show for things like “Best Wrong Answer” — I found myself choking up. Getting to be part of a Mystery Hunt is an emotional, uplifting, humbling thing.

Some links:

And now for some details of the puzzles I worked on, and my favorite puzzles. Warning, some mild spoilers lie ahead:

Written by me:

  • My favorite is 25th Annual Putnam County Debate Tournament. It requires solvers to classify the syllogisms hidden within a series of intentionally terrible arguments. The difficulty was slightly miscalibrated: many teams got stuck on the step of realizing that there were syllogisms involved, rather than on the more fun step of peeling away the informal arguments to find the (amusingly invalid) syllogisms within. It got called “this year’s WTF puzzle” by one solver.
  • Tax in Space, was described by one reviewer as “straightforward(ish).” This puzzle started life as a logic problem that would actually use some real legal doctrine, and mutated repeatedly. In its final version, it’s a shaggy-dog puzzle: a long and convoluted joke. As a bonus, there are in-jokes for anyone who’s studied basic tax law (e.g. “Capital Gains” and “lower-case gains”).
  • Raw Bar was a late-in-the-day idea. I was looking over a sushi menu and thought, “You know what looks kind of like a puzzle: sushi menus.” It seemed obvious that the ingredients in a roll could make a cryptogram, and from there, what could they be a cryptogram for? This one didn’t quite work; it was both too hard and too easy, even if the concept is decent.
  • I also helped write a piece of the endgame, which isn’t yet online. As part of it, I got to dress up as Watson 2.0.

My favorite other puzzles:

  • Potlines: A cute, well-executed idea. Once you have the “aha” about what the diagrams represent, what remains is just the right level of difficulty: doable but not trivial. The elegance of the illustrations makes this one work.
  • The Measure of All Things: Nerdy but silly.
  • Slash Fiction: Very nerdy and very silly. The idea is clever (although likely to be baffling if you don’t have computer experience), but the execution absolutely sells it. Seth and Vera took a secret four-day trip to Paris to film it.
  • Yo Dawg, I Herd You Like Puzzle Hunts: A multiply recursive puzzle that requires no special expertise to solve, this one’s construction is absolutely brilliant. And it had the best title in the Hunt. Whenever we called a team about this puzzle, we’d lead off with “Yo Dawg, …”
  • Paper Trail: A nice little diagramless crossword with a twist.
  • Winning Conditions: Play with this for a bit, until you get the idea. Then try to win. Yeah, it’s devious. And fun.
  • B.J. Blazkowicz in ‘Wintertime for Hitler’: Yes, it’s a Wolfenstein 3D / “Springtime for Hitler” mashup. And yes, it really is playable. And yes, it’s a good reminder about how much we’ve learned about FPS level design in the last two decades.
  • Incredible Edibles: Another cute, well-executed idea. A good one for non-puzzle-experts to try their hands at.
  • Critical Thinking: Like my puzzles, this one has a prominent humorous strain. But this one has an actual humorous payoff each time you make progress in solving it.
  • Dawn of a New Era: Kai has a real gift for elegant puzzle mechanics. You’ll learn a lot in the course of solving this one.
  • Collect Them All: Again, plenty of fun for non-experts.
  • In Vivo and Makefiles: For heavy UNIX users only, but lots of fun for them.
  • Twosquare: I helped fact-check this one, and it was plenty of fun. Prepare to watch some truly stunning magic tricks, I mean illusions. Be sure to read the alt-text on the images; it provides a significant but important hint.
  • Picture an Acorn: Not only are the individual pictures fun to identify, but the extraction of the final answer is exceedingly clever.
  • Itinerant People of America: I didn’t solve this one, and I admire anyone who can. Notable because we got John Hodgman to embed an important clue in one of his blog posts.
  • The Voices in Your Head: Seth’s music puzzle.
  • Stage Lines: Another elegant Kai construction.
  • Award-Winning Poetry: Another puzzle whose humor is perfectly embedded. Broadway musical fans have a shot at this one; anyone else should just keep moving on.
  • Carb Pool: We gave each team two bags of pasta: one intact and one broken. And just to be sure that they didn’t think the number of pieces was important, we broke it in front of them, violently. This one required several hours of cutting dry pasta by hand. Here’s a photo:

Precision hand-cut pasta

  • Set Theory: Not a novel idea, not that difficult, very well-executed.
  • Cross-Breeding: A puzzle whose implementation perfectly reflects its concept.
  • Course 7E: The first puzzle I test-solved, and still a favorite. Not quite “funny” per se, but definitely enjoyable.
  • Functions: Arguably the most widely admired puzzle in the Hunt, judging by the number of Codexians who were raving about it.
  • Rats: You had to see Michael (an actual MIT alumni interviewer) in action to get the most out of this one, but having a interview to be admitted to the second half of the puzzle was an idea of loopy genius.
  • Sovereignty: I fact-checked and helped edit this puzzle, and in its final form it requires some very nice logical reasoning. Per the references to “players,” should probably not be attempted by non-gamers.
  • Argh: Like Andrew, I couldn’t believe this one hadn’t been done before. But it hadn’t, and now it has been, and in style.
  • Cookin: Another fun-for-all food puzzle.
  • JFK SHAGS A SAD SLIM LASS: Yes, this puzzle has no content. Yes, it’s solvable.
  • Encoded: I haven’t otherwise coded in at least a year, but I installed two programming environments and learned some new libraries to do this one.
  • Screen Test: I like the concept, but I couldn’t have solved this one alone.

My favorites metapuzzles were:

  • Charles Lutwidge Dodgson: play chess and Scrabble simultaneously, each with a hidden twist. I spend a day grinding through the chess half during test-solving, and never noticed the time flying by.
  • Into the Woodstock: Aha-based, but both clever and fair.
  • William S. Bergman: Mad wordplay in the house.
  • Mayan Fair Lady: Manages to combine the two source elements in the show in a surprising but highly amusing way.
  • Ben Bitdiddle: Here’s a bag of parts; hope you brought a soldering iron like we told you to.
  • Ogre of La Mancha: Worth it for the answer alone.

GBS: HathiTrust Moves to Knock Out Orphan Works Claims

Over the holidays while I wasn’t paying attention, there were some interesting filings in the HathiTrust case.

First, the Authors Guild and HathiTrust reached an agreement on how to litigate, given the state universities’ sovereign immunity. Under the stipulation, all of the individual regents named in the lawsuit are out. In their places, the presidents of the universities involved have agreed to be defendants. If they lose, they agree that they have the authority to order their libraries and HathiTrust to knock off whatever activities the court orders them to knock off.

Second, HathiTrust filed a motion for “judgment on the pleadings.” As usual, the motion itself is boring; all the action is in the associated brief. HathiTrust claims that the Authors Guild and other authors groups’ don’t have standing to sue on behalf of their members, and that none of the plaintiffs have standing to sue to stop the use of orphan works. In both cases the basic argument is the same: you’re not allowed to sue for infringement of a copyright owned by someone else. This doesn’t go to the part of the lawsuit over the HathiTrust database itself: the motion would narrow the lawsuit, not block it entirely.

And finally, Judge Baer entered a new scheduling order. He gave the plaintiffs until January 31 to respond, and the defendants until February 17 to reply to the response. Oral argument will be held on March 2.

GBS: Mitgang, Hoffman, and Dickson Out as Plaintiffs

Also on Tuesday, Judge Chin allowed three of the six representative plaintiffs to withdraw from the case. Herbert Mitgang, Daniel Hoffman, and Paul Dickson are out; Betty Miles, Joseph Goulden, and Jim Bouton remain. I would love to know what the story behind this move is.

GBS: New Scheduling Order

On Tuesday, without fanfare, Judge Chin entered a new scheduling order in the Authors Guild case. The new deadlines are:

  • The authors file their response to Google’s motion to dismiss by February 6; Google replies by February 17. [Previously, these dates were January 23 and February 3, respectively.]
  • Google responds to the authors’ motion for class certification by February 8; the authors reply by April 3. [Previously, these dates were January 26 and March 12, respectively.]
  • Discovery closes on April 13. [Previously, this date was March 30.]

Thus, this new order slows down the current round of dueling motions by two weeks.

Applications and Appliances: A Conversation with Jonathan Zittrain

Building on my critique in Zittrain vs. Zittrain and some recent thoughts of his own on the subject, Jonathan Zittrain and I did an email dialogue about the intersection of apps and apps: what happens when locked-down appliances can run downloadable applications? We talk about generativity, security, developers’ choices, and the future of general-purpose computing.

The whole exchange is posted at Freedom to Tinker, a singularly appropriate home. Here’s the beginning:

JG: I suppose the place to start is with your concern about “appliances”: single-purpose devices like the TiVo. What’s wrong with boxes that do one thing and do it well?

JZ: Nothing’s inherently wrong with single-purpose devices. The worry comes when we lose the general-purpose devices formerly known as the PC and replace it with single-purpose devices and “curated” general-purpose devices.

JG: In the last few years, the appliance has taken on a new face, thanks to downloadable apps. An appliance with an app store is no longer just a single-purpose device: it can do all kinds of things. But that, you’ve argued, doesn’t really fix the fundamental problem.

JZ: It may look like the best of both worlds, but I worry it’s the worst of both worlds.

JG: I wanted to focus on your critique of the Mac App Store. This one is interesting because it sells programs that run, not on a closed device like the iPhone but on a traditional, general-purpose computer. The day that Apple activated the Mac App Store, it didn’t reduce the Mac’s generativity one iota. Every Mac in the world was just as capable of doing everything it used to be able to do, just as easily. All Apple added was a new way to install programs: so they made the Mac even easier to use, without reducing its power. But you’re skeptical. Why?

JZ: Let’s see how much of an advantage a developer sees from having an app in the App Store vs. “sideloaded,” even on a Mac OS that doesn’t require jailbreaking for sideloading. To the extent that users are looking to the App Store for their wares, it’s a de facto limit on generativity even if not a literal one. But I agree that the real worry is if Mac OS should become routinely configured not to allow sideloading at all.

The Value in Law and Economics — No, Really!

Kenneth Anderson asks

What should I tell my 1L students tomorrow as to why they should study law and economics — or not?

The context is that his students are increasingly dissatisfied with his previous explanation that economic “consequences matter”:

As one of them put it, that might be fine for students at the top ten schools, but students at my school are not going to become judges or people who create the rules. They are going to become, if they are lucky, lawyers doing much more modest tasks that take the existence of the rules — including their efficiency or inefficiency, and their consequences — pretty much for granted. They are, after all, the rules of the game.

I would respond that every lawyer who drafts a contract is one of the “people who create the rules.” And lest you think that this excludes litigators, remember that settlements are contracts too, and that most lawsuits end in settlement. A divorce lawyer putting together a separation agreement with an alimony component needs to know something about varying tolerance for risk. A real-estate lawyer negotiating a newsstand’s lease needs to know something about incentive compatibility. Many, indeed most, divorce and real-estate lawyers understand these concepts implicitly; a course in law and economics helps build that intuition by making the issues explicit and given them names.

Beyond that, persuasive arguments are the stock-in-trade of every practicing lawyer, and microeconomic analysis is nothing if not a fruitful source of arguments. Economic thought provides rhetorical topics that work in a tremendous range of situations. A lawyer who can explain why the other side’s proposed wording for an injunction gives the defendant the “wrong incentives” has an advantage over a lawyer who hasn’t mastered incentive-talk. In the last half century, only the deconstructive genius of critical legal studies has offered lawyers anything like the rhetorical cornucopia that law and economics does.

Thinking like an economist is not thinking like a lawyer. Neither is thinking like a philosopher, literary critic, programmer, psychologist, poet, historian, bench scientist, anthropologist, statistician, or theologian. But being able to think like one — or better, like several — is a way of thinking like a more effective lawyer. These insights of these fields are not substitutes for long and close practice with law’s primary materials. But, as an economist might say, they can be excellent complements for it.

Temporary Disruption

I am tweaking the site’s design. Things will be a little askew for a while. Please excuse.

UPDATE: Tweaks complete.