Who Owns a Twitter Account?

Well, I think this is kind of ridiculous:

In October 2010, Noah Kravitz, a writer who lives in Oakland, Calif., quit his job at a popular mobile phone site, Phonedog.com, after nearly four years. The site has two parts — an e-commerce wing, which sells phones, and a blog.

While at the company, Mr. Kravitz, 38, began writing on Twitter under the name Phonedog_Noah, and over time, had amassed 17,000 followers. When he left, he said, PhoneDog told him he could keep his Twitter account in exchange for posting occasionally.

The company asked him to “tweet on their behalf from time to time and I said sure, as we were parting on good terms,” Mr. Kravitz said by telephone.

And so he began writing as Noah Kravitz, keeping all his followers under that new handle. But eight months after Mr. Kravitz left the company, PhoneDog sued, saying the Twitter list was a customer list, and seeking damages of $2.50 a month per follower for eight months, for a total of $340,000.

I don’t think you can equate getting Twitter followers under one account, and say, intellectual property developed at a university or a company (using tools available at such university or company). In this case, the effort was entirely Noah’s, with little to no input from his parent company.

Imagine a lawyer or an account who goes from one job to another, and takes along the clients he cultivated at his old job to his new one. Should he get sued in the process?

Who Was the First Novelist to Use a Word Processor?

The literary history of the typewriter has its well-established milestones, with Mark Twain producing the first typewritten manuscript with Life on the Mississippi. But what about the first novel produced with a word processor? From an interesting New York Times piece, we learn about Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, an associate professor of English at the University of Maryland, who is on a mission to answer this question:

Uncovering a clean answer to the question “Who was the first novelist to use a word processor?” is a trickier business, though Mr. Kirschenbaum has promising leads. Through his agent he recently heard that the science-fiction writer Frank Herbert, the author of “Dune,” who died in 1986, may have submitted work to his publisher in the late 1970s on 8-inch floppy disks.

From his website, Kirschenbaum notes about his project:

The project I will be working on is entitled “Track Changes: Authorship, Archives, and Literary Culture After Word Processing.” Unlike my first book, Mechanisms (2008), where I was primarily interested in experimental instances of electronic literature, here I will be looking at the impact of digital media throughout all sectors of contemporary literary composition, publishing, reception, and archival preservation. I intend to argue that the full parameters of computers as what electronic publishing pioneer Ted Nelson three decades ago called “literary machines” have not yet been fully delineated, and that as a consequence we conceive of print and the digital as rival or successive forms rather than as elements of a process wherein relations between the two media (at the level of both individual and collective practice) are considerably more dynamic and contingent.

On a related note, it seems that Stephen King was one of the leaders in using a word processor to publish his stories/novels. Mr. King’s first computer — a behemoth with a beige molded casing, built-in monochrome screen, and an $11,500 price tag — has enjoyed a certain cultish afterlife. The name of Stephen King’s his first computer? Stephen King’s Wang. And Matthew G. Kirschenbaum is trying to buy it.

On Understanding Advanced Mathematics

What’s it like to have an understanding of very advanced mathematics? A very detailed answer in a Quora post:

  • You can answer many seemingly difficult questions quickly. But you are not very impressed by what can look like magic, because you know the trick. The trick is that your brain can quickly decide if question is answerable by one of a small number of powerful general purpose “machines” (e.g. continuity arguments, combinatorial arguments, correspondence between geometric and algebraic objects, linear algebra, compactness arguments that reduce the infinite to the finite, dynamical systems, etc.). The number of fundamental ideas and techniques that people use to solve problems is pretty small — see http://www.tricki.org/tricki/map for a partial list, maintained by Tim Gowers.
  • You are often confident that something is true long before you have an airtight proof for it (this happens especially often in geometry). The main reason is that you have a large catalogue of connections between concepts, and you can quickly intuit that if X were to be false, that would create tensions with other things you know to be true, so you are inclined to believe X is probably true to maintain the harmony of the conceptual space. It’s not so much that you can “imagine” the situation perfectly, but you can quickly imagine many other things that are logically connected to it.
  • Your intuitive thinking about a problem is productive and usefully structured, wasting little time on being puzzled. For example, when answering a question about a high-dimensional space (e.g., whether a certain kind of rotation of a five-dimensional object has a “fixed point” which does not move during the rotation), you do not spend much time straining to visualize those things that do not have obvious analogues in two and three dimensions. (Violating this principle is a huge source of frustration for beginning maths students who don’t know that they shouldn’t be straining.) Instead…
  • When trying to understand a new thing, you automatically focus on very simple examples that are easy to think about, and then you leverage intuition about simple examples into much more impressive insights. For example, you might imagine two- and three- dimensional rotations that are analogous to the one you really care about, and think about whether they clearly do or don’t have the desired property. Then you think about what was important to those examples and try to distill those ideas into symbols. Often, you see that the key idea in those symbolic manipulations doesn’t depend on anything about two or three dimensions, and you know how to answer your hard question.
    As you get more mathematically advanced, the examples you consider easy are actually complex insights built up from many easier examples; the “simple case” you think about now took you two years to become comfortable with. But at any given stage, you do not strain to obtain a magical illumination about something intractable; you work to reduce it to the things that feel friendly.
  • You go up in abstraction, “higher and higher”. The main object of study yesterday becomes just an example or a tiny part of what you are considering today. For example, in calculus classes you think about functions or curves. In functional analysis or algebraic geometry, you think of spaces whose points are functions or curves — that is, you “zoom out” so that every function is just a point in a space, surrounded by many other “nearby” functions. Using this kind of “zooming out” technique, you can say very complex things in very short sentences — things that, if unpacked and said at the “zoomed in” level, would take up pages. Abstracting and compressing in this way allows you to consider very complicated issues while using your limited memory and processing power.
  • Understanding something abstract or proving that something is true becomes a task a lot like building something. You think: “First I will lay this foundation, then I will build this framework using these familiar pieces, but leave the walls to fill in later, then I will test the beams…” All these steps have mathematical analogues, and structuring things in a modular way allows you to spend several days thinking about something without feeling lost or frustrated. Andrew Wiles, who proved Fermat’s Last Theorem, used an “exploring” metaphor: “Perhaps I can best describe my experience of doing mathematics in terms of a journey through a dark unexplored mansion. You enter the first room of the mansion and it’s completely dark. You stumble around bumping into the furniture, but gradually you learn where each piece of furniture is. Finally, after six months or so, you find the light switch, you turn it on, and suddenly it’s all illuminated. You can see exactly where you were. Then you move into the next room and spend another six months in the dark. So each of these breakthroughs, while sometimes they’re momentary, sometimes over a period of a day or two, they are the culmination of—and couldn’t exist without—the many months of stumbling around in the dark that proceed them.”
  • You are humble about your knowledge because you are aware of how weak maths is, and you are comfortable with the fact that you can say nothing intelligent about most problems. There are only very few mathematical questions to which we have reasonably insightful answers. There are even fewer questions, obviously, to which any given mathematician can give a good answer. After two or three years of a standard university curriculum, a good maths undergraduate can effortlessly write down hundreds of mathematical questions to which the very best mathematicians could not venture even a tentative answer. This makes it more comfortable to be stumped by most problems; a sense that you know roughly what questions are tractable and which are currently far beyond our abilities is humbling, but also frees you from being intimidated, because you do know you are familiar with the most powerful apparatus we have for dealing with these kinds of problems.

###
(Hat tip: Chris Dixon)

Social Media During the Reformation, or How Luther Went Viral

It’s hard to put the words “social media” and “Reformation” together, yet this brilliant piece in The Economist explains how Martin Luther’s 95 Theses went viral.

Although they were written in Latin, the “95 Theses” caused an immediate stir, first within academic circles in Wittenberg and then farther afield. In December 1517 printed editions of the theses, in the form of pamphlets and broadsheets, appeared simultaneously in Leipzig, Nuremberg and Basel, paid for by Luther’s friends to whom he had sent copies. German translations, which could be read by a wider public than Latin-speaking academics and clergy, soon followed and quickly spread throughout the German-speaking lands. Luther’s friend Friedrich Myconius later wrote that “hardly 14 days had passed when these propositions were known throughout Germany and within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them.”

The unintentional but rapid spread of the “95 Theses” alerted Luther to the way in which media passed from one person to another could quickly reach a wide audience. “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation,” he wrote in March 1518 to a publisher in Nuremberg who had published a German translation of the theses. But writing in scholarly Latin and then translating it into German was not the best way to address the wider public. Luther wrote that he “should have spoken far differently and more distinctly had I known what was going to happen.” For the publication later that month of his “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, he switched to German, avoiding regional vocabulary to ensure that his words were intelligible from the Rhineland to Saxony. The pamphlet, an instant hit, is regarded by many as the true starting point of the Reformation.

You probably learned in your world history class that the 95 Theses were a precursor to the Reformation. So why did Luther’s message spread?

Unlike larger books, which took weeks or months to produce, a pamphlet could be printed in a day or two. Copies of the initial edition, which cost about the same as a chicken, would first spread throughout the town where it was printed. Luther’s sympathisers recommended it to their friends. Booksellers promoted it and itinerant colporteurs hawked it. Travelling merchants, traders and preachers would then carry copies to other towns, and if they sparked sufficient interest, local printers would quickly produce their own editions, in batches of 1,000 or so, in the hope of cashing in on the buzz. A popular pamphlet would thus spread quickly without its author’s involvement.

As with “Likes” and retweets today, the number of reprints serves as an indicator of a given item’s popularity. Luther’s pamphlets were the most sought after; a contemporary remarked that they “were not so much sold as seized”. His first pamphlet written in German, the “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, was reprinted 14 times in 1518 alone, in print runs of at least 1,000 copies each time. Of the 6,000 different pamphlets that were published in German-speaking lands between 1520 and 1526, some 1,700 were editions of a few dozen works by Luther. In all, some 6m-7m pamphlets were printed in the first decade of the Reformation, more than a quarter of them Luther’s.

Another interesting point is that the spread of Luther’s message wasn’t limited to printed media:

It was not just words that travelled along the social networks of the Reformation era, but music and images too. The news ballad, like the pamphlet, was a relatively new form of media. It set a poetic and often exaggerated description of contemporary events to a familiar tune so that it could be easily learned, sung and taught to others. News ballads were often “contrafacta” that deliberately mashed up a pious melody with secular or even profane lyrics. They were distributed in the form of printed lyric sheets, with a note to indicate which tune they should be sung to. Once learned they could spread even among the illiterate through the practice of communal singing.

The piece is interesting throughout, and has a very good conclusion: Today’s social-media systems do not just connect us to each other: they also link us to the past.

###

Question for the reader: what other events/messages in history, do you think, spread virally in a similar fashion? I can think of a few.

The Contagiousness of Yawning

I remember seeing a Mythbusters episode where they weren’t able to bust the myth that yawns are contagious (they ruled it was “plausible”). In a paper published this year, two Italian researchers, Ivan Norscia and Elisabetta Palagi, carried out a more thorough experiment. The goal was to determine what are some variables that play a factor in yawn contagion. Their abstract:

The ability to share others’ emotions, or empathy, is crucial for complex social interactions. Clinical, psychological, and neurobiological clues suggest a link between yawn contagion and empathy in humans (Homo sapiens). However, no behavioral evidence has been provided so far. We tested the effect of different variables (e.g., country of origin, sex, yawn characteristics) on yawn contagion by running mixed models applied to observational data collected over 1 year on adult (>16 years old) human subjects. Only social bonding predicted the occurrence, frequency, and latency of yawn contagion. As with other measures of empathy, the rate of contagion was greatest in response to kin, then friends, then acquaintances, and lastly strangers. Related individuals (r≥0.25) showed the greatest contagion, in terms of both occurrence of yawning and frequency of yawns. Strangers and acquaintances showed a longer delay in the yawn response (latency) compared to friends and kin. This outcome suggests that the neuronal activation magnitude related to yawn contagion can differ as a function of subject familiarity. In conclusion, our results demonstrate that yawn contagion is primarily driven by the emotional closeness between individuals and not by other variables, such as gender and nationality.

The gist? You’re more likely to yawn after seeing a relative (rather than a stranger) yawn.

Also: did reading this blog post make you yawn? Research has shown that even reading about yawning can trigger yawning in humans. Not boring at all.
###

Facebook Timeline and Advertising

Did you think Facebook’s latest move of unveiling Timeline was a way of improving user experience? Perhaps, but as this BetaBeat post posits, it’s also designed to woo advertisers:

In what seemed like an unrelated move, in September, Facebook announced a brand new type of profile called Timeline, where your whole personal history is laid out by month-by-month, all the way back to your birth. At the time, Facebook described it to consumers as a chance to: “Share and highlight your most memorable posts, photos and life events on your timeline. This is where you can tell your story from beginning, to middle, to now.” By the end of this year all 800 million plus Facebook profiles will have been converted to this new interface.

What most users don’t know is that the new features being introduced are all centered around increasing the value of Facebook to advertisers, to the point where Facebook representatives have been selling the idea that Timeline is actually about re-conceptualizing users around their consumer preferences, or as they put it, “brands are now an essential part of people’s identities.”

The name itself is cleverly designed to conceal the fact that your profile no longer arranges information chronologically. Yes, things are laid out by year and by month. But, when it comes to what’s displayed to your social circle at any given time, other metrics, including direct payments to Facebook itself, will now influence the ranking and placement of stories. This payola will be a crucial part of the graph rank, the new metric for placement that the social network uses to determine what appears on your profile.

If this seems a bit disheartening, remember that you aren’t a Facebook customer: its advertisers are.

The Top Five Longreads of 2011

One year ago today, I published my post on the best longreads of 2010. Today, I bring you my list of the best longreads of 2011. It’s been another amazing year for long-form journalism, and it’s hard to whittle down the list to just five entries. Nevertheless, these five pieces stood out in my mind:

(1) “The Man Who Played Rockefeller” [Wall Street Journal] – first highlighted in this post, I wrote: “riveting, at times unbelievable, account of how a German-born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter came to the United States at the tender age of 17 and proceeded to climb up the ranks of society. But he did it through conniving tactics, playing cool, and always acting the impostor.” It is already on my short list for best long read of the year.

When he entered the magnificent Gothic church in early 1992, the former Christopher Crowe had a new name and a meticulously researched persona to go with it. “Hello,” he greeted his fellow worshippers in his perfectly enunciated East Coast prep-school accent, wearing a blue blazer and private-club necktie, which he would usually accent with khaki pants embroidered with tiny ducks, hounds or bumblebees, worn always with Top-Sider boat shoes, without socks. “Clark,” he said, “Clark Rockefeller.”

(2) “The Assassin in the Vineyard” [Vanity Fair] – I am a huge fan of reads that involve mystery, espionage, and crime. This piece by Maximillian Potter, which I first highlighted here, is far and away one of the most thrilling short reads I’ve read in 2011. In that post I wrote:

The gist of the story: La Romanée-Conti is a small, centuries-old vineyard that produces what most agree is Burgundy’s finest, rarest, and most expensive wine. But when Aubert de Villaine received an anonymous and sophisticated note, in January 2010, threatening the destruction of his heritage, unless he paid a 1 million euro ransom, he did not treat it seriously at first. Who was the mastermind behind this crime? And did the criminal get caught? All is revealed in the article…

Thoroughly engaging and entertaining read.

(3) “The Epidemic of Mental Illness” (Part I) and “The Illusions of Psychiatry”(Part 2) [New York Review of Books] — this two part series, written by Marcia Angell changed my perspective on depression, the medicine used to treat it, and the field of psychiatry in general. I point out both reads because they are meant to be read in order (Part I then Part II).

Reviewed in Part I are books by  Irving Kirsch, Robert Whitaker, and Daniel Carlat. A notable paragraph of skepticism from Part I:

Do the drugs work? After all, regardless of the theory, that is the practical question. In his spare, remarkably engrossing book, The Emperor’s New Drugs, Kirsch describes his fifteen-year scientific quest to answer that question about antidepressants. When he began his work in 1995, his main interest was in the effects of placebos. To study them, he and a colleague reviewed thirty-eight published clinical trials that compared various treatments for depression with placebos, or compared psychotherapy with no treatment. Most such trials last for six to eight weeks, and during that time, patients tend to improve somewhat even without any treatment. But Kirsch found that placebos were three times as effective as no treatment. That didn’t particularly surprise him. What did surprise him was the fact that antidepressants were only marginally better than placebos.

I thought I’ve read a fair amount of skepticism in Part I. And then I read “The Illusions of Psychiatry,” which totally transplanted my thoughts on psychiatry from one mindset to another.

While Carlat believes that psychoactive drugs are sometimes effective, his evidence is anecdotal. What he objects to is their overuse and what he calls the “frenzy of psychiatric diagnoses.” As he puts it, “if you ask any psychiatrist in clinical practice, including me, whether antidepressants work for their patients, you will hear an unambiguous ‘yes.’ We see people getting better all the time.” But then he goes on to speculate, like Irving Kirsch in The Emperor’s New Drugs, that what they are really responding to could be an activated placebo effect. If psychoactive drugs are not all they’re cracked up to be—and the evidence is that they’re not—what about the diagnoses themselves?

(4) “Gilad Shalit and the Rising Price of an Israeli Life” [New York Times] – of all the longreads I’ve read this year, I think this one most likely escaped a lot of people’s radar. The story is about Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was captured by Hamas in June 2006 and didn’t gain his release from captivity until October of this year. The author of the piece, Ronen Bergman, offers why he is an authority on writing about this controversial subject:

I have covered Israeli hostage and M.I.A. cases for more than 15 years, including the covert ways in which Israel’s powerful espionage agencies operate to bring soldiers home alive or dead. Over that time, the issue has come to dominate public discourse to a degree that no one could have predicted. Israeli society’s inability to tolerate even a single soldier held in captivity results in popular movements that have tremendous impact on strategic decisions made by the government. The issue has become a generator of history rather than an outcome of it.

Perhaps more than any other issue in the last five years, the politics behind negotiating the release of Gilad Shalit embroiled the country of Israel. This is a must-read piece that offers an eye-opening perspective.

(5) “The Man Who Sailed His House” [GQ] - Michael Paterniti writes a remarkable story of a Japanese man named Hiromitsu who survived the March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Not only is the story incredible, but so is the narration (you here are this man, experiencing the catastrophe in the present):

At two forty-six, something rumbles from deep in the earth, a sickening sort of grinding, and then everything lurches wildly, whips back, lurches more wildly still. The cut boards stacked along the wall clatter down, and your first move is to flee the shed, to dive twenty feet free onto open ground and clutch it, as if riding the back of a whale. Time elongates. Three minutes becomes a lifetime.

When the jolting ends, stupefaction is followed by dismay—and then a bleary accounting. Already phones are useless. The boss, Mr. Mori, urges you to rush home to check on your wife and parents, but fearing a tsunami, fearing a drive down into the lowlands by the sea, and trusting the strength of your concrete house to protect your wife and parents, you at first refuse. There are ancient stone markers on this coast, etched warnings from the ancestors, aggrieved survivors of past tsunamis—1896, 1933—beseeching those who live by the water to build on the inland side of their hubris or suffer the consequences.

Originally featured in this post.

I think 2011 was another excellent year for long-form journalism. I highly recommend checking out the Longreads Tumblr for more “Best of 2011 in Longreads” posts. Finally, check out my #longreads tag on this blog for more reading.

The Histrionics of Grief in North Korea

Following the death of Kim Jong-Il, North Koreans took to the streets to mark their grief of their beloved Leader. I watched, mouth aghast, not believing if these scenes were real:

Amy Davidson has a brief post in The New Yorker about the hysterics of the North Koreans:

How does a whole crowd fake tears? Barbara Demick, in “Nothing to Envy,” her book on the ravaged social landscape of North Korea, collected accounts of how ordinary North Koreans set themselves to just that task after the death of Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, back in 1994: “It was like a staring contest. Stare. Cry. Stare. Cry,” a student told her. “Eventually, it became mechanical. The body took over where the mind left off and suddenly he was really crying. He felt himself falling to his knees, rocking back and forth, sobbing just like everyone else.”

Cue Barbara Demick’s explanation of how the North Koreans grieve:

Those waiting in line would jump up and down, pound their heads, collapse into theatrical swoons, rip their clothes and pound their fists at the air in futile rage. The men wept as copiously as the women.

The histrionics of grief took on a competitive quality. Who could weep the loudest? The mourners were egged on by the TV news, which broadcast hours and hours of people wailing, grown men with tears rolling down their cheeks, banging their heads on trees, sailors banging their heads agains the masts of their ships, pilots weeping in the cockpit, and so on. These scenes were interspersed with footage of lightning and pouring rain. It looked like Armageddon.

Seems like history repeats itself.

Your Credit Score and Social Media

Well, this is slightly unnerving. In a BetaBeat post titled “As Banks Start Nosing Around Facebook and Twitter, the Wrong Friends Might Just Sink Your Credit,” we learn about a new wave of start-ups that is…

working on algorithms gathering data for banks from the web of associations on the internet known as “the social graph,” in which people are “nodes” connected to each other by “edges.” Banks are already using social media to befriend their customers, and increasingly, their customers’ friends. The specifics are still shaking out, but the gist is that eventually, social media will account for at least the tippy-top of the mountain of data banks keep on their customers.

“There is this concept of ‘birds of a feather flock together,’” said Ken Lin, CEO of the San Francisco-based credit scoring startup Credit Karma. “If you are a profitable customer for a bank, it suggests that a lot of your friends are going to be the same credit profile. So they’ll look through the social network and see if they can identify your friends online and then maybe they send more marketing to them. That definitely exists today.”

And in the last year or so, financial institutions have started exploring ways to use data from Facebook, Twitter and other networks to round out an individual borrower’s risk profile—although most entrepreneurs working on the problem say the technology is three to five years away from mainstream adoption.

Here’s what I am thinking. If you have a solid credit rating, then exposing your social media outlets could potentially hurt you. On the other hand, these algorithms may be devised such that you take a bigger hit if you don’t divulge your information. If you have a poor credit rating but a strong network of friends, then divulging your social media crumbs could help you in your overall credit score. One thing is for certain, however: if there is any way that a bank could find out more information about you to better predict your ability to repay a loan, the more aggressively it will try to implement the schema into its arsenal of judging your credit score.

We live in a brave new world.

How To Be a Better Blogger

Dan Frommer’s post on how to blog better is one of the most helpful blog posts I’ve read this year. Here are some of Dan’s ten tips to be a better blogger:

  1. Above all else, factual accuracy and attention to detail. That’s the easiest and best way to build and maintain trust over the long-term. If a fact is wrong, fix it and don’t be shy about it. If an opinion or prediction is wrong, learn from it and consider explaining how you got it wrong.
  2. Write the site that you want to read. That covers story selection, length, frequency, style, vocabulary, attitude, humor, level of sensationalism, and more. Don’t publish anything you’re not proud of. Be yourself.
  3. Be more skeptical. Companies and people have no interest in telling any side of the story but their own. Often, that side is flawed, invalid, or incorrect. Let someone else be the gullible one who looks silly later: Always question everything. (But don’t let it turn you into too much of a conspiracy theorist.)
  4. Try new things, all the time. Especially those that are a little outside your comfort zone. This is the Internet — don’t act like you’re writing for Time Magazine in the 80s. Stories can be pictures, charts, lengthy essays, numbered lists, or 140 characters. Measure how your experiments do, and take the results into account for the future.

However, I think the most important lesson for me is regarding attribution. I make it very clear when I quote or paraphrase, but what I have to get better at is referring you, the reader, to click over to the original piece I link to. Writes Dan:

Aim to become as big of a traffic referrer as you possibly can — not only is that good policy, but it’s a great business asset.

Amen. With that in mind, you should read Dan’s post to see his other tips for better blogging.