Author: Deven Desai

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Peer review, replication, and thankless tasks

Peer review and the ability to test claims are powerful but not infallible. The video (here) from The Economist covers the way science and peer review may not be great or as reliable as we hope or believe. In short, industry such as pharmaceuticals, may draw on academia, but the research cannot be replicated. Pharma has revealed that issue. Many who think about this issue know that replication and verification is not well-rewarded, and so the scientific method may not live up to its potential. The chat also gets into some nice issues regarding statistics and false positives. It also looks at the failure of peer reviewers to do their jobs as well as desired (for example, not catching errors that one journal inserted as a test). And, peer review is not about reviewing the raw data.

I wonder whether open data sets as Victoria Stodden has described them will help here. It may be that modeling and other software approaches will be able to test the raw data and examine the method of collection to note it limits and find errors. Who knows? Maybe replication can be automated so that people could focus on the new work and machines can deal with the drudgery of “Yes, that is correct.”

UPDATE: I noticed that The Economist has an autoplay ad. That is lame. I have removed the embedded video but still recommend going to the site to watch it.

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NSA, Its Seal, and the First Amendment

Speech, Citizenry, and the Market in real life. It seems the NSA has invoked a public law to prevent someone from making parody NSA T-shirts. The shirt displayed the seal and the words “THE NSA, The only part of the government that actually listens.” The NSA was not amused. The first site to offer the shirts stopped offering the shirts after a letter from the NSA (apparently they were able to talk about that one for now). The NSA wrote to one online outlet, “The NSA seal is protected by Public Law 86-36, which states that it is not permitted for “…any person to use the initials ‘NSA,’ the words ‘National Security Agency’ and the NSA seal without first acquiring written permission from the Director of NSA.” The company, Liberty Maniacs, has sued under the First Amendment. That case may be near settlement.

In the Liberty Maniacs case, the obvious parody should suffice. If not, I suggest that the NSA is public figure entity and so mocking it by using its name and logo (just like we use a person’s name and face) should be protected under that reasoning as well. That said, I would think that under Alvarez, most special laws regarding seals, the Olympics, and so on will need some extra explanation to stay in place.

The video below is from Cafe Press which also offers the shirts and mugs.

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Santa’s Brand

Quietbook has a mock re-branding Santa guide up. It is a “refresh.” Refresh. The word triggered a flashback to corpspeak where irony goes to die. I scanned the rest of the page. “*Santa* is a Concept, not an idea. It’s an Emotion, not a feeling. It’s both Yesterday and Today. And it’s Tomorrow as well.” Ah yes. They get it. The Santa Brand book is a great example of the way branders operate. I dove into those ideas in my paper From Trademarks to Brands. These folks take you on a similar but funnier journey. Good times and a belated but truly meant Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all.

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Some Holiday Music a la Middle Earth

I rather liked the way the trailer (or preview) for the first past of The Hobbit used Misty Mountains Cold. The movie, well, more than enough has been said about that. I looked for the song, as it seemed appropriate for this time of year. It turns out several groups have covered it. And this one to get you started seems to agree that it fits the time of year. It is from the 2012 Holiday Concert at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

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On Lust, Dust, and Books

Bow down. Bow down to the queen of books. As a kid, if a foot touched a book, we employed a hand gesture, akin to genuflection, to make up for our disrespect. It’s an Indian thing. Doris Lessing’s Nobel speech captures why that gesture makes sense to me. It makes her my queen of books. We have the luxury of arguing over whether books are findable, searchable. We should pay attention to what Lessing said. In 2007 Lessing spoke of Africa, dust filled and hungry for books:

“Please send us books when you get back to London,” one man says. “They taught us to read but we have no books.” Everybody I met, everyone, begged for books.

And I do mean hungry:

Not long ago a friend who had been in Zimbabwe told me about a village where people had not eaten for three days, but they were still talking about books and how to get them, about education.

Lessing captures the faith that education will raise someone from poverty. Perhaps it is ironic that she attacks the Internet and blogging while wondering from where and the publishing of ideas will emerge in Africa. But her criticism seems to me more about the thin nature and “inanities” of much online than the technology itself. Her real concern is that reading begets reading and writing. She focuses on the simple fact that people want to read and write. Some learn from labels on jars or torn sections of novels left behind by those fortunate to have read the whole novel and who tore it for travel ease. In contrast, “We have a treasure-house of literature, going back to the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans. It is all there, this wealth of literature, to be discovered again and again by whoever is lucky enough to come upon it. A treasure. Suppose it did not exist. How impoverished, how empty we would be.”

For all the debate on scanning books and incentives to create, I have to stop and say rot and rubbish. Get the books, the texts to everyone. Now. Don’t tell me someone does not want to read or learn math or engage. Build and reinforce the culture that wanted to feed the body and the mind. As Lessing concluded:

That poor girl trudging through the dust, dreaming of an education for her children, do we think that we are better than she is – we, stuffed full of food, our cupboards full of clothes, stifling in our superfluities? I think it is that girl, and the women who were talking about books and an education when they had not eaten for three days, that may yet define us.

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San Francisco for the Rich but that can be fixed

Are San Francisco’s housing issues self-created? Possibly. Many have posted about the HuffPo article showing how New York and San Francisco are now populated by the wealthy almost exclusively. And as I visit SF what should I see but the Examiner running a series about SF’s future. Oh no it may hit 1 million people by 2032! That’s right a Dr. Evil 1 million. There is an artificial scarcity in SF. Let’s compare. SF square mileage about 47; NY’s about 23. SF, I believe, has assiduously limited housing. It could build up. It could improve public transport (Muni is not, repeat not, a subway). It is trying to do some work to get to address these issues. Still, it seems that the outrage over high prices and company buses might also be directed at government and residents unwilling to increase the amount of high rises.

Of course, the whole Peninsula could use density and better housing in the Fabgoog area would be welcome. Who knows? Maybe some light rail or better buses in the area would turn Mountain View into a Santa Monica of sorts. Great food, great living, and an identity of its own rather than a weird kowtow to the small city to the north.

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More Patent Fun, New York Times and another DC event

My paper with Gerard Magliocca made the New York Times in a piece called “Beyond 3-D Printers’ Magic, Possible Legal Wrangling,” and the fun continues. With patent reform on the table (pdf to the bill), the New America Foundation is holding a conference called Just How Broken Is the Patent System?. I will be on the kick-off panel with my friend Adam Mossoff. After some jousting over patents, property, and more with the help of Annie Lowery, the day will turn to industry folks, policy wonks, and more professors, to get into health and patents, green innovation, patent assertion, fixes to the patent system, and a keynote by Maureen K. Ohlhausen, Commissioner, Federal Trade Commission.

It promises to be a fun day. Hope to see folks there.

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Drones, Amazon, Pizza, and More

As I saw that Amazon is tinkering with drone delivery, I thought “How very Stephenson” and that the opening of Snow Crash tracked the idea of 30 minutes or less delivery. Of course, others thought of this connection overnight. And although Fox News hyped the idea as the Senate holding hearings on Amazon and Drones (“Senate to hold hearing to discuss Amazon package delivery drones“), the hearings were already in place as Fox reports. The Amazon glory is icing on the cake of let’s freak out about drones. And, yes, there are reasons to think about drones and what, if anything, should be done to regulate them. In this post I am more interested in the labor issues. Chris Taylor’s thoughts at Mashable get into this question. There are many limits to the tech. But as I wrote before, Amazon strikes me as well-placed to press into new ways to use this sort of technology to reduce its labor needs. Local distribution sites, same day or now maybe within an hour delivery, maybe on-demand printing of books (or 3D things), and Amazon could yet again change shopping. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case about forcing retailers to collect taxes even when they have no presence in a state. Amazon’s response of moving into states and taking on local retailers may prove to increase competition locally and in an ironic twist the idea that imposing taxes would be fair may prove to be what eats at local businesses more than expected.

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Talent Timing Paradox

There is a hidden paradox in Talent Wants to be Free: There is time to lock down, and a time to set free (maybe to sow, reap, and more too). Lobel notes that some work indicates that early stage industries may benefit from lock down. But she also makes the observation that a company locking down talent may be in decline. What can we make of this possible paradox?

I think that it shows how difficult it is for any company or industry to truly innovate. As Lobel notes, when things plateau, talent should be loosened up. Why? I suggest that the old hack of the Innovator’s Dilemma is in play. As a company is used to a certain business there are many reasons it won’t move on to the next thing. And it may not be able to see or be willing to work on the next thing. The folks who are into crazy late night work, start-up adrenaline, and the chance to press the edge of whatever field they are in find that the company has become stale. That may also be an industry. I believe that the convergence of businesses is part of why Silicon Valley companies looked to limit talent movement. They both did not want their core people help competitors build rival services and found that folks may be tempted to move to a seemingly new place. For example, a social network person may have jumped to Google to build Google + if their old firm was stable or a search technologist to Amazon or FaceBook, and so on. The respective verticals may be stale and converging. So the leaders start to find ways to keep labor in place (and probably sneak folks to their outfits as much as they can nonetheless). Is there another option? Sure.

Start a Bell Labs, Skunk Works, or Google X. In the short term at least, some of the best folks may stay and set up the next stage of your company. But as the scenario planning and related literature show, sooner or later the company will fail to turn that work into something. When that happens, some of the talent may be frustrated and leave. Again, the need for the payoff, the we planned for X and delivered X vortex takes hold and down the drain we spin. The upside is that other companies will lurk at the edge of the collapse and pick out the best of the wreckage. The key as Lobel argues is that the human capital be able to picked up. If not, the stalling, collapsing company keeps hold of good folks who might do great work elsewhere.

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What Sort of Innovation?

Professor Lobel’s book raises many questions. That is a good thing. I like books that connect to ideas that have been pinging about my brain and that spur new ones. Talent Wants to be Free does those things. For now, I will look at something that always lurks in this space for me: What type of innovation are we talking about?

I wonder about most discussions about innovation and disruption that focus on the private sector. Something, which for want of better or less exhausted words, we call innovation or disruption occurs at the firm level. But slowing down, we should parse these ideas. Marianna Mazzucuto has done some great work on the way the state is needed and has contributed to the innovations we all celebrate. Again, there are distinctions, as it may be that the work occurs at the state level (basic research), or that the state funded the core research. The counter-punch is that states may make big bets that pay off and they often make big bets that fail. That they fail seems a silly critic (though the linked Economist article makes it). I wonder whether any large institution struggles with two things. On the one hand, placing big bets at all takes bravery and/or vision. And on the other, what parts of the state or private sector carry forward that work is a big issue.

In other words, how much do market incentives skew focus for any of these outfits? Did Bell Labs or Parc do work that Mazzucuto would say was analogous to the state work? I think so. Today is Google doing some of that work? Microsoft Research? Sure. But in what way? The need for short-term payoffs is a problem for the core work that may then be transferred under Lobel’s ideals. Companies talk of moon shots and at the same time want them to occur within a year. Big leaps on the moon take years, perhaps more than a decade, of work to get to the wow moment.

Now it may be that an overall sector leads to great outcomes and breakthroughs, and thus the talent movement within a sector is needed as part of that process. Still I wonder at whether many of the areas the book considers and the issues about talent mobility relate more to applied innovations rather than bedrock work fueling a shift at a national or global economic scale. Remember Schumpeter drew on work that looked at long cycles and breakthroughs in fields that spawned many companies and sub-industries. So although I think it is wise to let talent be free, I wonder about whether that leads to better small steps (e.g., tweaks to phones, social networking, etc.) more than the sort of innovations that spur massive shifts in industry.