Google’s Vint Cerf avoiding responsibility

Yesterday morning I was on my way into Lancaster and listening to the Today programme. Google’s ‘internet evangelist’ Vint Cerf was being interviewed by John Humphrys and the topic was ‘should the internet be regulated like other media’.1

Not surprisingly Vint Cerf thought not, but I was surprised how well he avoided actually saying so. John Humphrys is experienced and politicians fear him in these early morning interviews, but to be honest he was completely outclassed by Vint Cerf who sidestepped, avoided and generally never addressed the question.

Web 2.0 was the heart of the issue. With end-user content now dominating the internet do service providers such as YouTube (of course owned by Google) have any responsibility for the kinds of material hosted?

This was in the context of videos of ‘happy slappers’ and other violent attacks being posted, but more generally that whereas TV in many countries is limited in the kinds of material it can show, particularly early in the evening when children are more likely to be watching, is limited by a mixture of voluntary and satutory codes. Why not the internet?

Vint Cerf repeatedly re-iterated the same message “Google is law abiding” if content is not legal it is removed. Implicitly the message was “if it is not illegal it is OK”, but as I said he carefully avoided saying so.

The closest point to actually addressing the question was when John Humphrys suggested that technologies could be misused like research for atomic power being used for nuclear weapons (strange I thought it went the other way round?). Vent Cerf’s response was, the standard neutrality of technology stance, that the makers of roads were not responsible for car deaths, strip development … the same argument used by arms dealers, manufacturers of gas guzzling cars, and scientists in every repressive regime in recent history.

According to Cerf if you are a worried parent you need to buy good filtering software; the solution is at the edges of the net … and of course does not involve the likes of Google … who it appears from the context is at the centre?
Now there are very good arguments against regulation both ethical (freedom of expression) and practical (volume of material, international access). The disappointing, and worrying, aspect of this interview was that Google’s key public face was unwilling or unable to constructively enter the debate at all.

  1. “The 0810 Interview: Godfather of the Internet”, BBC4, Today Programme, Wednesday, 29th August 2007[back]

in the news – second chances for killers and students

As well as Hurricane Dean which has been dominating much of the news, two items have caught my attention over recent days. One is the debate surrounding the court decision preventing the deportation of Learco Chindamo, the killer of school teacher Philip Lawrence 12 years ago. The other is the release of statistics showing drop-out rates from UK Universities.

Learco Chindamo came to the UK when he was 5, killed Philip Lawrence when he was 15 and has been in prison since. His life sentence carried a minimum term of 12 years and next year he will be eligible for parole. He is also a Filipino by birth and has an Italian passport, so the Home Office intended to deport him on his release, but were prevented by the courts.

Philip Lawrence was a Head Master who died protecting one of his pupils. His wife and family have had to live with that ever since. Furthermore, she had been promised by officials that he would be deported.

The case is distressing and traumatic, but in the end clear. The mark of a civilised society is surely how we treat the undeserving. This is not a man who came to the UK to work and then murdered, but someone who has spent all his childhood here, albeit under the influence of London youth gang culture, and who knows no other country. Deportation would not be sending back but throwing away, like those sent to Australia in the past.

If this has not been such a public case, we might have never have heard of this decision. And because it is public we have some inkling of the anguish we might feel if it were our family not some other. But the purpose of law is precisely to protect us from the retribution we would want if we know the victim and balance that with the mercy we would seek if we knew the criminal.

We might ask questions about our criminal justice system. Is twelve years enough for a cold blooded killing, even if the killer is 15 years old? Is 15 a child or a man? Do we trust the parole system to only release him if it is safe to do so? These questions seem valid no matter the passport a man carries, and it is right to debate them. But to deport a man, who has served half his life in jail, to a country he has never known would have been simply wrong.

It seems frivolous to move from this to university drop out rates, but they are not so far distant.

In some universities the rate is nearly 20% compared to near 2% for the ‘best’. In the TV report other figures were quoted … and certainly the 20% figure at one point sounded as if it were the national average rather than the average at the ‘worst’ institution.

The TV report also noted that those with worst drop out rates were largely ‘new universities’1 and the Vice-Chancellor of Liverpool Hope was interviewed and staunchly defended his own institutions policies to inform students about the nature of courses.

What was left unsaid was that these institutions mainly take those with the lowest academic achievement at entry.2 In other words these serve the ‘lowest’ in society and, as I am sure in other countries also, this is as much determined by social situation as academic ability.

There is often debate about the university system and whether these are ‘real universities’. I have written about this before when I was education columnist for SIGCHI Bulletin: I had recently returned from a visit to South Africa and read on my return a particularly scathing attack in The Times on new university courses. 3 Recently this has been in the media again when “The Taxpayers Alliance’ (I assume representing everyone except children, the elderly and the poor) issued a “non-courses report“, damning degrees such as “Equestrian Psychology” and “Golf Management”.

Now we might debate the academic merit of particular courses (although strangely the ones cited by the TPA sound more academic than many … perhaps reflecting their own understanding of academic content?) … and I stand on shaky ground as my own discipline of computer science, would have been in a similar position 40 years ago. Also it is certainly true, although it is politically incorrect to say, that academic degree classifications at different institutions are not worth the same and indeed, although even more politically incorrect, classifications now at the ‘old universities’ are not the same as they were 15 years ago. We can also ask whether the move to push more and more post-18 education into universities, or whether the changes in that education are in the right directions.

However, notwithstanding all this, it is the new universities that have borne the brunt of the expansion of higher education in the UK and not surprisingly have the most difficult job to do. They take students who at 18 have the lowest A Level grades and, even taking into account the different meaning of classifications, take many of those students to a high level of academic achievement.

These are students who would not have had that chance when I was 18.

Not surprisingly some find that it is not for them, but the 20% drop out rate at the ‘worst’ institutions should be seen against the 80% of students at these institutions who are succeeding, but would never have been given the chance in the past.

Whether even the 20% of drop outs can be seen as a sign of failure, depends on whether they see themselves as having ‘failed’ or having learnt where their true abilities and interests lie. My guess is that for many it will be the former and this is the issue to tackle: how we can have an education system that is about allowing people to develop and learn their strengths not simply learn what they cannot do?4

And what of those 80% who have been given a chance they might not have had. Is it right to say that a person has no more to learn and be judged for life by what they achieve at 18 years old? And is it right to say that a man cannot change and be judged for life by what he did or was at 15 years old, 26 or even 47?

  1. In the UK the former polytechnics become universities in 1992 and since then various other educational institutions have been given university status. It is these that are the ‘new universities’ as opposed to the pre-1992 ‘old universities’ [back]
  2. I am carefully choosing words here as achievement at 18 years may not be a good measure of initial promise, current ability or future potential. [back]
  3. opportunities for change, SIGCHI Bulletin, January/February 2002, written in response to “Professor scoffs at ‘useless’ degrees”. Reported by John O’Leary, Education Editor, The Times, Wednesday October 3rd 2001, page 13. [back]
  4. see also my SIGCHI Bulletin columns “abject failures” and “on the level” [back]

online image manipulation

I was looking around for online image manipulation programs. I found a few and all seemed quite basic (no real turbocharged web2.0 one), but iaza caught my eye … basic but lots of pictures of the site developer’s Tibetan spaniel Niro!
IAZA - image manipulation and cute doggies!

The other one that seemed interesting was wiredness which is quite basic in functionality, but clearly aiming to be zappy in its interface … and has an API so you can send images to it from other sites for manipulation (what I was looking for).

Single-track minds – centralised thinking and the evidence of bad models

Another post related to Clark’s “Being there” (see previous post on this). The central thesis of Clark’s book is that we should look at people as reactive creatures acting in the environment, not as disembodied minds acting on it. I agree wholeheartedly with this non-dualist view of mind/body, but every so often Clark’s enthusiasm leads a little too far – but then this forces reflection on just what is too far.

In this case the issue is the distributed nature of cognition within the brain and the inadequacy of central executive models. In support of this, Clark (p.39) cites Mitchel Resnick at length and I’ll reproduce the quote:

“people tend to look for the cause, the reason, the driving force, the deciding factor. When people observe patterns and structures in the world (for example, the flocking patterns of birds or foraging patterns of ants), they often assume centralized causes where none exist. And when people try to create patterns or structure in the world (for example, new organizations or new machines), they often impose centralized control where none is needed.” (Resnick 1994, p.124)1

The take home message is that we tend to think in terms of centralised causes, but the world is not like that. Therefore:

(i) the way we normally think is wrong

(ii) in particular we should expect non-centralised understanding of cognition

However, if our normal ways of thinking are so bad, why is it that we have survived as a species so long? The very fact that we have this tendency to think and design in terms of centralised causes, even when it is a poor model of the world, suggests some advantage to this way of thinking.

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  1. Mitchel Resnik (1994). Turtles Termites and Traffic Jams: Explorations in Massively Parallel Microworlds. MIT Press.[back]

visualising vocabulary

Fiona just pointed me to Visuwords a lovely visualisation of word association using WordNet data. The image below is of the word ‘human’ and you can see two clusters one corresponding to the noun human and one to the adjective meaning humane/caring
Visuword visualisation of the word 'human'
[[full size image]]

Visuwords is Flash front-end and PHP backend. It appears to use some variant of spring and ball visualisation. You can download the source … so could use it as the basis of visualisation for other kinds of data such as web sites.

multiple representations – many chairs in the mind

I have just started reading Andy Clark’s “Being There”1 (maybe more on that later), but early on he reflects on the MIT COG project, which is a human-like robot torso with decentralised computation – coherent action emerging through interactions not central control.

This reminded me of results of brain scans (sadly, I can’t recall the source), which showed that the areas in the brain where you store concepts like ‘chair’ are different from those where you store the sound of the word – and also I’m sure the spelling of it also.

This makes sense of the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon, you know that there is a word for something, but can’t find the exact word. Even more remarkable is that of you know words in different languages you can know this separately for each language.

So, musing on this, there seem to be very good reasons why, even within our own mind, we hold multiple representations for the “same” thing, such as chair, which are connected, but loosely coupled.

Continue reading

  1. Andy Clark. Being There. MIT Press. 1997. ISBN 0-262-53156-9. book@MIT[back]