Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Mysterious disappearance of Nguyen Tuong Van artwork: The limits of Google and Yahoo

'I am going to send you to a better place' by Matija Milkovic Biloslav Remember the news item last Friday about the controversial installation artwork "I am going to send you to a better place" by Slovenian artist Matija Milkovic Biloslav? That political artwork about Nguyen Tuong Van? No? I don't blame you. Suddenly the news networks (except ABC) shut up about it either because of the legal threat from the directors of the Lasalle-SIA college or because the college rapidly destroyed evidence of the poltical nature of the work and then denied any political connection that would allow the story to survive. More disturbingly, it seemed to disappear off the net too! It's okay though, I eventually found it.

But, back to the start of the story... According to the threatened newspaper itself:
Slovenian art student Matija Milkovic Biloslav had displayed under falling nooses a single standing stool carrying a card with Van's execution number – C856 – a very deliberate reference to the Melbourne man, scheduled to be hanged at dawn this Friday. But after The Australian unexpectantly attended last Friday night's opening of the exhibition at the Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts, the self-consorship that pervades the country of four million took hold.

Over the weekend, The Australian newspaper was threatened with legal action by Lasalle directors if it published a picture of the work and all requests for an interview with the artist were denied. The card carrying Van's execution number was hastily removed. The college, which receives government funding, said the artwork was about suicide.
News.com.au, however, did publish a photo of the artwork, as did SMH in a
related news item
. I don't suppose anyone is really surprised about this: "Singapore college stifles political debate through art" is perhaps not an earth-shattering headline and so that's why we didn't hear any more about it.

But why did all the images of the artwork and links to the news articles disappear off of Google and Yahoo, arguably the two top search engines? It was only when I switched to MSN search that I was able to find the articles again (a good one on About.com too). We know that in the past, Google
has already been complicit with the Chinese government to block questionable content containing words like "dem*cracy" and "tian*nmen square". I wonder what other agreements Google is now making with other anti-free-speech governments?

Of course I'm being overly paranoid here. I don't think Google has made an agreement with Singapore. We are probably just seeing the evidence of tardy indexing of non-US websites and the limits of the effectiveness of its page-ranking algorithm. I do think it is worth getting concerned about our reliance on US-oriented and public-company-based tools to navigate and disseminate the web. It is not only tricky to find highly-specific information about very current Australian events via the dominant three search engines, but especially difficult if it's politically sensitive to the point that governments wish to prevent its spread.

Perhaps it is time to stop assuming Google can serve all of us all the time. Search engine indexing and algorithms ought to be really tailored to the geopolitical needs of the user. A specific search engine apparently already was created to assist the needs of Chinese users to access information blocked by Google to Chinese IPs (Elgoog) but it still relied on the US-centred indexing and searching algorithm of Google. Time, I say, to prototype a not-for-profit search engine that would provide Country-X-centred indexing and searching; and one of these for any country or cultural group that would care to make it.

For example, Australian users typically want to find current information produced by Australians or people who are interested in Australia, not US-produced information. So a high priority would be to index Australian websites or content produced by Australians. The page-ranking would work better for Australian users if links from high-ranking Australian websites were worth more than high-ranking US websites. In fact, links would be accorded a score on the basis of how near or far they are geopolitically (or perhaps just geographically) from Australia.

Any thoughts? Anyone interested in picking up the baton?

Addendum: Voctir, a Singaporean blogger, has posted photos of Biloslav's artwork in it's original state.

Main reference: ABC News radio broadcast about the C856 artwork story
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Thursday, November 24, 2005

Learning to play the game

Bribery Further to the Michelle Leslie story, Crikey today published an "insider's eyewitness account" of the political connections and bribes that were involved in securing her release.
The cops initially asked for 400,000,000 rupiah ($US40,000) but this was negotiated down to 100,000,000 rupiah ($US10,000). The offer was taken to Ms Leslie and she was asked to make arrangements (quietly) for this transaction to take place. This deal broke down when she spoke to her parents and boyfriend and professed her innocence to them. Neither the parents nor the boyfriend would stump up the cash because they believed her assertions of innocence and thought she was being extorted by the Bali cops.
Admittedly it's another story with an anonymous source, but I find it to be a compelling explanation for the extremely short sentence Leslie received. At the same time, it suggests that Leslie learned how to play the game 'as she went along' so to speak. It also explains why former judge Marcus Enfield warned Leslie against "revealing the circumstances of her release from a Bali prison". Finally, it explains why Leslie has been so demure and controlled towards the media since her release and return to Indonesia.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Who is Michelle Leslie?

Michelle Leslie, veiled Six months ago I would have had no idea who Michelle Leslie was, even though she's from Adelaide, but now... Now a very well known, gorgeous and full-of-potential supermodel.

We've seen dozens upon dozens of blog posts and news article on Leslie since she was first arrested in Bali for drug offences, especially about her "changing faces" or as Sarah put it from nude to prude (and almost back again). At this point, however, I'm simply awestruck by what a rocket-boost this whole kerfuffle means for her career! She's probably actually gained far more out of this whole thing than lost.

She's now hotter than hot property as a model, everyone knows her name, and if I was running a modelling company I'd be extremely keen to hire her.

It seems that many Aussies admire the smart and careful way in which she handled her arrest and court case. Certainly, if I was Leslie I would have worn the most loose and covering clothes possible to help ensure the judges wouldn't be distracted by my appearance. And if she justified that by explaining she'd converted to Islam, then good for her because it seemed to get her off. It's just smart. So I doubt many Aussies are going think less of her over this or even of her partying with two ecstasy tablets in her handbag.

Michelle Leslie, unveiled So, now that she's gotten off with scant 3 months in prison (little more than the duration of her court case, which seems to have been assisted by her embarrassing connection to an Indonesian politician), what are the downsides for Leslie? A criminal record in Indonesia? Tut-tutting because she was using drugs? A slightly offended Aussie Muslim community possibly (although that seems unlikely)? All minor in the face of the boost this must have given her profile and career. Overall I think Leslie and her managers come out on top. Just wait for the confirmations of how much is being paid for her "story" by the media... If I was her I'd be smiling too!

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Monday, November 21, 2005

Digital tug-of-war

Tug of war, Philip Greenspun Last Wednesday I got home just in time to see a rather unusual invention introduced on The New Inventors called the "Family Winner", a piece of software which assists a win-win resolution after a marital breakup.

At first I thought this would be such a useless piece of software. How could a software algorithm - which is a glorified mathematical formula - be truly useful in terms of negotiating with the infinite variability of human minds and human emotions? Then I gradually came to accept its value. Software is already used extensively for decision support and risk modelling. Why not for negotiating? You can't bribe it and can expect it to be 100% objective and impartial. In fact limited software for conflict resolution support already exists.

The concept on which the Family Winner rests is that in any negotiation the two parties don't necessarily have the same aims and conflicting aims don't always perfectly overlap. The two parties typically place higher values on particular aims and lower values on others.
Through a series of trade-offs and compensation strategies, disputants can often achieve 70-80% of what they require, rather than the traditional 50-50 approach to resolving disputes. The system takes a rational approach to negotiation and forces disputants to focus upon their interests.

It is based on game theory techniques and subsequent algorithms developed by Nobel Laureate John Nash. Basically, the disputants are advised to use the Family Winner system as the 3rd step in a computerized conflict resolution process (the first 2 steps already exist in different software packages, but will help the disputants be rational by the time they hit Family Winner).
Apparently this has not just been trialled as a replacement for using a lawyer in a domestic breakup but also for assisting negotiation of industrial relations disputes. It makes me wonder what the potential for "negotiation support" software could be. Is it just a niche or is there a widespread need for software-assisted negotiation? Could it be useful in international-scale conflicts? Even if it could be useful, could two parties ever agree to a computer-modelled resolution which is mathematically the best case outcome or will they prefer human-negotiated resolutions because they feel they can work these more to their advantage?

I know I'd feel that way. It is a bit like betting on those dogs in the picture above versus the roulette wheel; certain dogs have a distinct advantage, whereas each pocket of the roulette wheel has an equal chance of being the winner regardless of human/animal emotion!

Image courtesy of Philip Greenspun
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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Coffee drags down the web

Webs of drugged spiders I really was working when I came across this essay on a NASA study about the effects of drugs on spiders.
The spider dosed with caffeine was by far the most disoriented and proved incapable of creating even a single organized cell. Its web showed no sign of the "hub and spokes" pattern fundamental to conventional web design.
Unfortunately I discovered this with a cup of coffee by my side while trying to figure out how to get particular piece of web control code to work in ASP.NET! Perhaps this means one could blame one's inchoate code on the caffeine? In fact, perhaps we can blame all confusing and badly designed web sites out there on the effects of excessive coffee-drinking by the designer!

Caffeine-influenced spider web lacks a single organised cell
The spider on marijuana drifted off before finishing the job. The spider on benzedrine, an upper, worked energetically but without much planning. The spider dosed with chloral hydrate, a sedative, soon fell asleep.
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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

$100 laptop risks being too cool for school

OLPC project laptop with crank handle to power Lee Felsenstein of the Fonly Institute makes an important critique of the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project instigated by Massachusettes Institute of Technology.
By marketing the idea to governments and large corporations, the OLPC project adopts a top-down structure. So far as can be seen, no studies are being done among the target user populations to verify the concepts of the hardware, software and cultural constructs. Despite the fact that neither the children, their schools nor their parents will have anything to say in the creation of the design, large orders of multi-million units are planned.
It seems another story of the techno-cool factor overriding the first and most important consideration: Is it useful?! (Note: There is no doubt that the laptop MIT developed is very cool and if you didn't see it already, check out the official photographs and the technical specifications)

If it indeed is true that "no studies are being done among the target user populations" then this is extremely worrying and sad for this initiative which definitely has awesome potential. What commercial product is developed without some sort of idea as to whether and how the target users will adopt it? It seems like MIT has done well at what it does best – produce a very sound prototype to fulfil the "$100 laptop pricetag", This is only half of the challenge, though, or perhaps only a quarter! It is absolutely critical that the technology is distributed in an appropriate, effective and sustainable way and backed up by highly sensitive education programs to ensure the laptops are actually useful.

On the face of it, the OLPC project seems to be such a timely, responsible and philanthropic initiative, but Felsenstein reveals a number of potential hardware and usability problems which appear unresolved. Even if MIT denies these issues will be a problem, how can they back up such a claim if they haven't surveyed the target users on the ground to find out how they will use the laptops? How can they know what the greatest challenges will be for these fresh adopters?

The OLPC project needs to move out of technical-development mode and into "social philanthropy" mode to first of all determine the real needs of the end users. Otherwise, we can predict a result somewhat like that of the town of Ennis in Ireland (as related in Mark Warschauer's "Reconceptualizing the Digital Divide").

Lime OLPC project laptop Addendum: Two days after my post, MIT unveiled the actual laptop that will be deployed (which looks a bit different to the prototype and appears to have a longer crank handle). Thanks to Dima's comment for the headsup.

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Sunday, November 13, 2005

Who supplemented Saddam's bank account?

An ABC article today states the Australian Wheat Board contributed 290 million dollars to Saddam Hussein's regime during the Oil-for-food programme from 1996 to 2003.
A report yesterday claimed the Iraqi Government had stopped trade with Australia until grains exporter AWB made compensation for the hundreds of millions of dollars of its money used as kickbacks to prop up Saddam Hussein's regime.
Wheat Whether it was done knowingly or not is a point of contention, but regardless I feel a bit shocked. It was easy, in those first four years, to be spending a few hours of my day helping the wheat to grow up tall and harvest it to be sold to the AWB, blissfully unaware of how my tiny actions could be related to such corruption on the other side of the globe!

(Note: The Iraqi government denied it had stopped wheat trade with Australia, but the point has been made anyway)

It's just another little tiny example of how our lives are not independent from other people in the world. All of our actions are impacting on people living far away and in different circumstances. I think of many Aussie farmers who have shares in AWB as well as supplying it with wheat (and now other cereals). The AWB may not just be guilty of screwing farmers out of money but of something quite a bit worse and on quite a different scale.

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Saturday, November 12, 2005

Terrorists evil - but okay to torture them?

Abu Ghraib 'Scream'With reference to Ami's recent post on the Jordanian terrorist attacks, I commend this reiforcement of the lack of justification there is for terrorism. But it raises a question in my mind which worries if we're becoming jaded by the term "terrorism". I worry about Ami's discussion of "root causes", as if terrorism has a specific source that can be traced to illness within the perpetrators.

When Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (of New York) spoke at the Adelaide festival of ideas he was challenged by a direct question. "Does the Quran contain any verses that are twisted to seem like incitement to terrorism, no matter how obscure these might be?" I really liked his answer, which addressed the real question rather than getting upset at the slight to the holy book of his faith. He inarguably demonstrated the sad fact that X% of people are prepared to end their life at any given time for varying reasons, and if offered some kind of reward for their family or a promise that they'd be remembered in a positive light would be doubly willing to do so. This might seem obvious, but what we can gain from it is that it's illogical to pretend terrorism starts as an illness which doesn't exist in other societies or is attached to some religion, ethnicity or nationality. I'd suggest that terrorists are born out of a certain unhappy/negative environment and lack of education/understanding rather than something inherently "evil" inside them or their society.

And there is a second aspect to consider, following on from my post about the recent Bali bombings... At the back of my mind I'm questioning if the term "terrorism" is unhelpful if it excludes other instances of indiscriminate violence or killings, or other targeted atrocities perpetrated not by terrorists but by national defence forces with the seal of approval from their leaders? It seems that because these often cannot be named under a single umbrella term like "terrorism" that it can become difficult for people to condemn them, especially as news of these actions is sometimes filtered through a supportive media (unlike the case with the majority of terrorist attacks - though Al Jazeera and other media outlets may be an exception).

USA terroristNotably, many people have taken the opposite tack and used the word terrorist to name these other instances of violence and killing I mentioned. But the term ends up sounding inappropriate and seems to backfire on the groups, making them appear too radical and too fringe to be worth listening to.

Your thoughts?

Image (top) derived for Desert Pea from The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893, and images of the Abu Ghraib tortures from 2003-2005. Image (bottom) courtesy of Manila Indymedia
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Monday, November 07, 2005

Bring on the turd towns

Proposed waste water recycling program draws an emotional response Perhaps you saw the SBS Insight forum last week (transcript) about supplementing current mains water with purified "waste water". I hope I have used the best terms, because "recycled waste water" seemed to be an emotive term on the show as Toowoomba's mayor pointed out. Since the wasted water is not just being recycled but also purified we may as well say it!

I remember Rosie Beaton casually commenting on Triple J that she didn't want to drink water recycled from sewerage and politely noting that several people had called to say she shouldn't say that, but that she still really "didn't like the idea". It's okay for Rosie to have that opinion privately, but she probably hadn't thought about it at the time and she's influencing the nation's youths here! It's practically the only thing she's ever said that disappointed me.

Now, here's the bottom line. Buried deep in that transcript in one line is the revelation that the recycled waste water is purified to a level that's equivalent to that of current mains water! Greg Leslie (UNSW) says:
The relative risk associated with this is less than or at worst equal to what we are doing right now.
Or to move away from those dry technical terms, it's 100% safe to drink, which represents a small fraction of overall water usage. If you live in Adelaide you probably don't drink Adelaide water anyway. I'll look forward to purified waste water which actually will be potable!

On a side note: the purified recycled water also doesn't taste or smell shitty. This was demonstrated during the forum and seemed to convince a few participants to change their mind over recycled water.

The rest of that entire forum danced around the issues of public perception and unsubstantiated fear-mongering regarding the shrinking of male genitalia! And then we were distracted by the outspokenness of Toowoomba's vociferous mayor, Dianne Thorley who visited Singapore and learned all about recycling waste water for human consumption, and loudly defends her decision to implement it in Toowoomba! Well I will excuse her for her loud voice. She had to deal with such thickheadedness; primarily a lobby group made up of Toowoomba residents who were afraid of their city being nicknamed "Turd Town". Well I could come up with some more: we can call Sydney "Shit City"... or Adelaide "Crapelaide"... or Tassy "Turd Island"...

...Or we could just leave the playground, start being smart about water recycling, and be proud of our water-smart cities.

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