Monthly Archives: December 2008

My Mechanical Turk

This week’s storm in the blogosphere focused on the question of “authority” on twitter and other social networks. It all began when welebrity Loïc Le Meur suggested that twitter searches should be filtered by a measure of authority. This immediately elicited critical responses from other high profile members of the online world, such as Robert Scoble and Dave Winer, only to have Mike Arrington leap to Loïc’s defence.

So what is the kerfuffle all about? I’ll start at the beginning, with twitter. I’ve written about twitter many times before, but there may be a few readers who still don’t know what it is. Twitter is a microblog. It is one of many, but currently the most popular. A microblog allows users to post very short messages and links to all of their “followers” (also known as “subscribers” or “friends”, depending on the site). While it is possible to make these messages private on twitter, most people keep their messages public. As with anything publically published online, this means that these messages are visible to anyone, not just followers. In particular, they are amenable to searching. A twitter search is a powerful tool. A good example is using twitter to keep track of rapidly unfolding current events. Over the last few days, many twitter users have been posting photos, news links and opinions about the bombings in Gaza, tagging them with label “#gaza” which makes them easy to find on twitter. In amongst the predictably partisan rhetoric from both sides, it is possible to stay a step ahead of reporting in the mainstream media and gain some genuine insight into the crisis. Not so long ago, a search for #mumbai provided a similar window onto the Mumbai terrorist attack.

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End of the Age of the Gatekeepers

Homer & Bart 2Mark Pesce describes himself as “an inventor, writer, theorist, very minor TV personality” (he’s a regular on the ABC’s New Inventors). He is also a major personality in Australian twitter circles. Yesterday Pesce penned an excellent opinion piece connecting two recent Australian court cases. In one a judge ruled that tasteless sexual depictions of Simpsons cartoon characters should be considered child pornography. In the other case, a man was found guilty of distributing child-abuse materials. What he had actually done was pass on a link to a video of a man swinging a baby. He had nothing to do with the creation of the video, but simply shared a link to a video that thousands around the world had already seen.

Now each of these cases in isolation may well be legitimate interpretations of Australian law, but taken together the implications are rather ridiculous. As Pesce observes:

[It] means that viewing a clip of The Simpsons on YouTube will soon be as illegal as watching it on television. In particular, videos showing the various times Homer has strangled Bart – which exist – would be very illegal, the equivalent of the most severe child abuse materials. And God help you if you should flip a link of that video to one of your friends. That’d be “distributing” child-abuse materials, because, where we are now, distribution has expanded to include link-sharing.

Another Australian twitter luminary, Stilgherrian, is fond of seeking out modern day inheritors of King Canute (not Stil’s preferred spelling) who try to turn back the tide. So it seems that Australian courts are joining the RIAA, television stations and the Australian Government in vying for the Canute mantle and attempting to put Pandora’s internet back in the box. They should face reality and give up. As Pesce says, we have reached the end of the age of the gatekeepers.

Rudd, Carbon and the Price of Petrol

Power StackAustralia’s Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, triggered waves of protests from environmentalists this week when he annouced that Australia’s target for emissions for 2020 would be a mere 5% reduction from the levels in 2000. With substantial commitments to emission reductions from other countries around the world, this target would be increased to 15%. The Government was at pains to point out that Australia’s population growth makes this target more ambitious than it sounds. However, by world standards Australia’s emissions are very high, whether measured per capita or by gross domestic product. This means that Australia should have more scope for relatively inexpensive emissions reductions than many other countries.

So 5% does seem to be a very unsatisfactory target. If you are a climate-change skeptic, even a 5% target is a needless waste of time and money, while if you take forecasts of climate-change seriously it seems woefully inadequate. However, rather than focusing on the target itself, in this post I will look at the implications that the Government’s plan will have where consumers will see it most directly, on the price of petrol.

In their White Paper on the carbon reduction scheme, the Government proposes a cap on the price of carbon of $40 per tonne for the next 5 years while, for their financial impact modelling, a price of $25 per tonne has been assumed. In an earlier post I calculated the impact of the price of carbon on the price of petrol. Here are the results for a range of carbon prices.

Cost of

Petrol Price
10 2.4
20 4.8
25 6.0
30 7.2
40 9.6

So, if the Government’s assumption is correct that the price of carbon will initially be around $25 per tonne, we can expect an increase in petrol prices of 6 cents per litre. Even if the price of carbon reaches the $40 cap, the impact on petrol prices will only be around 10 cents per litre. I say “only” because that 10 cents is small compared to extraordinary moves in petrol prices seen over the last year due to movements in the price of crude oil. From July to November, the price of petrol in Sydney fell by almost 40 cents per litre, according to prices published by the Australian Automobile Association, and based on my observations has fallen another 20 cents since then. Even compared to the 38 cents per litre fuel excise, 10 cents seems a modest figure. The chart below shows the dramatic moves in petrol prices along with projected prices based on the daily price of Singapore 95 refined oil, based on a regression model I have used in a number of posts in the past.

Petrol - Dec 2008

Introducing an emissions trading scheme for carbon will eventually affect a wide range of consumer prices, but based on the relatively small increase in petrol prices that it will produce, the scheme is not likely to have a significant impact on consumer behaviour. The scheme will do all its work on the behaviour of businesses and, given the dire financial straits we find ourselves in today, this is presumably why the Government has been so unambitious with their target. But this does also highlight that there is a lot more that the Government could be doing to reduce consumer carbon emissions beyond the trading scheme itself.

Photo Source: Foto43 on flickr (Creative Commons).

RIAA Continues to Stifle Innovation

Back in August, muxtape, a popular music playlist site, was forced to close by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Now mixwit have announced that it is closing too. The only explanation offered was as follows:

We’ve put a year of work into Mixwit so this choice wasn’t taken lightly. I won’t go into the details of our situation but state simply that we boldly marched into in [sic] a position best described as “between a rock and a hard place.”

Reading between the lines, it looks as though they too have fallen at the hands of the RIAA. Under the cover of claims to be protecting artists, claims that do not bear close scrutiny, the RIAA is building an impressive track-record of stifling innovation. While it is possible to take comfort from the fact that attempts to stem the tide of progress always fail in the end, it is nevertheless frustrating to see the suffering of victims of this pernicious organisation in the meantime, whether those victims are single mothers sued for file-sharing or the creators of sites like muxtape and mixwit.

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Auction Approaching

Recently I bought a new house at auction and now I am in the process of selling the old house, which will also be by auction. As a result, I have spent a lot of time of late pondering the best way to approach an auction, both as a buyer and a seller.

There are a lot of different types of auction. In a Dutch auction, popular at wholesale fish markets and also known more prosaically as a descending price auction, the auctioneer starts with a high price, which is then reduced in increments until a buyer is prepared to pay that price for the fish (or whatever is being sold). Bond market tenders are closely related to Dutch auctions.

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Pownce and Sandy: RIP

As is probably evident from past posts about twitter or identica, I am something of a Web 2.0 junkie. Over the last few years I have signed up for countless services and I am sure I have forgotten about far more of them than I actually use. And therein lies a problem. The rate of innovation online of late has been extraordinary, but the result is a proliferation of services that is not sustainable. With the Global FInancial Crisis progressing outside the financial sector to the broader economy, venture capitalists will be tightening their purse-strings and this will inevitably lead to a period of consolidation in the online landscape.

Early signs of this phenomenon appeared today with announcements that the social networking site Pownce, to-do list manager I Want Sandy and virtual Post-It note site Stikkit  will all be closing down.

Twitter is a common theme behind these closures. Despite the backing of welebrity Kevin Rose and rich media sharing features, Pownce ultimately failed to grow at the same rate as twitter. When initially launched, the mystique generated by the invitation-only private beta version of the site attracted attention for a while, but interest seemed to wane after the site went public. Personally, I have been using twitter more and more and pownce less and less over the last year, but I will miss the friendly alien (pictured above) who appeared on pownce pages when something went awry. Somehow he is more endearing than twitter’s “fail whale”.

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Blog Comment Spam

What with buying a new house, going on holiday and now trying to sell the old house, it has been a while since my last post. Here is a quick reflection on blog comment spam to ease myself back into my blogging regimen.

Those who have never written a blog may not be aware of the phenomenon of blog comment spam. The basic idea is the same as email spam: to drive traffic to websites featuring pornography, viagra or worse. Fortunately, spam filtering software works as well, if not better, for blog comment spam as it does for email spam.

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