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Shady Illuminations

Clouds and Caves

by John Shade

Generic image illustrating the article
  John is so distressed by the social nature of software today that he turns to poetry.  

Seems like every tech news story these days is about collaboration and the wisdom of crowds. Everybody’s pair programming, groupthinking the genome, distributedly searching for aliens, micromanaging their social media reputations, and you gotta be working on an open source project on Github. It’s a moshpit out there, everybody bumping up against one another for the promise of sparks. It’s all crowd this and cloud that in this wacky Wiki Wiki world.

Sort of discouraging to a misanthropic hermit like myself.

I mention all this as a possible explanation for the fact that the following news items caused me to break out in iambic pentameter.

Crafty Crowdsourcing

Pinterest is one of those whowoodathunk success stories in social software. Like all such ventures it is a species of grafitti or leafleting, with the virtual wall or lamppost supplied by a virtual company that in turn rents it by the minute from Amazon, this being what is known these days as a business model. As Pinterest’s founder Ben Silbermann told MIT’s Technology Review, search algorithms don’t know what you want, but strangers on the internet do.

And apparently he’s right. Pinterest’s users post collections of images on what Silbermann calls “pinboards” in order to share their interest in antique dolls or things containing chocolate. You would think that would be enough of a contribution to society for anyone, but Silbermann likes to think about Pinterest as a tool for finding things online. He calls it a human indexing machine, and says it works exceptionally well. “The whole reason Pinterest exists,” he said, “is to help people discover the things that they love and [somehow cause someone to give us money].”

 It’s something that I never would have guessed:
 That crowdsourced wisdom truly stands the test.
 As search tools go, crowdsourcing is the best
 If what you seek is crap on Pinterest.

Collegiate Collaboration

Oxford University recently blocked access to Google Docs all across the campus network. Students were outraged, according to Paul McNamara writing in Buzzblog. Their natural need to collaborate online was being thwarted.

Oxford took the action, University mouthpieces said, because Google Docs, particularly Google Forms, was being widely used for phishing purposes by unscrupulous ne’er-do-wells to take over email accounts of students and crank out spam. So, taking their cue from the Old West, they shot those train robbers right in the horse.

After two and a half hours the University reinstated Google Docs and with it the status spammus quo ante.

 Reacting to a rash of phishing, Ox-
 Ford University flips out and blocks
 All students’ access to their Google Docs.
 How will they write those papers for the jocks?

Smells Like Team Spirit

Ever heard of Braess’ Paradox? It crops up in traffic planning and power transmission networks and materials science and team sports. An article in arXiv reveals that it can also infect social networks like Pinterest.

German mathematician Dietrich Braess showed that removing roads from a system of roads can lead, paradoxically, to less traffic congestion. Or compressing a material can cause it to expand. Or removing one player from a team can improve team performance. OK, that last one doesn’t seem particularly paradoxical to me. Some people are just negative. My friends keep telling me.

When applied to social networks, Braess’ Paradox identifies situations where reducing the amount of information you’re getting from those helpful online recommendations can lead to better decisions. And not because you’ve filtered out the bozos. Although presumably that helps, too.

 When traffic flow’s improved by closing streets,
 And teams improve when mates hang up their cleats,
 Can sailboats catch the breeze with folded sheets
 And armies win their wars in full retreat?

Groupthink Triumphant

Computer Science professor Peter Fröhlich of Johns Hopkins University developed a grading system in which he gave an A for the highest score on the final exam, and everybody else’s grade was scaled accordingly. It worked well until last fall, he told Inside Higher Ed.

At the end of the fall semester, students in three of Fröhlich’s classes realized that there was a fatal flaw in his grading algorithm. If every student got the same score on the final, then that would be the highest score and would be assigned an A. So every student would get an A. This would be true for any score, even zero. So if all the students in class boycotted the exam, thus getting a zero, they would all get As.

The students did just that—arranging the boycott using social networks, of course.

Fröhlich gave them all As. What else could he do?

 These Hopkins students, I just think they’re great.
 With them I think I could collaborate.
 Refuse to play, yet force a check and mate:
 A moveless move I much appreciate.

Clouds on the Horizon

“Mobility, social networking, cloud, and big data will be the four major trends for the next decade,” according to Deccan Herald, Bangalore. And “[c]loud drives the other three trends.”

So there’s no use fighting it then. I think I’ll just go find a place to hide until this blows over.

 I shouldn’t criticize what folks take pride in;
 Give all of them their fluffy clouds to ride in,
 But while you’re at it think about providing
 A cave for misanthropes like me to hide in.

I didn’t say good iambic pentameter.

Late-breaking bulletin: my editor informs me that “Oxford students don’t do that sort of thing.” I wouldn’t know. I went to school in the United States. Several of them.

John Shade was born under a cloud in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions of ostensibly higher learning did nothing to brighten his outlook. He inclines to the Marxist view on not wanting to belong to any group that would have him as a member. Follow John on Twitter, send him your feedback, or discuss the article in the magazine forum.