Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Remainders: From Supply Chains to Stephen Hawking

I’ve set (what I originally thought was) a reasonably modest goal for myself of writing 10 blog posts in April. Two more to go with one week left. Thanks for following along and please let me know what you think. Also, you can now subscribe to the blog by email. Sign up here.

Alright alright alright. Quick status check for me: Spent the week out in SF for Percolate’s Transition Conference where I gave a talk about how to use supply chain thinking and the Theory of Constraints to deal with the content marketing bottleneck (I’ll share the video when it gets online). We’ll be in London in early June, so if you’re around and interested in coming please reach out. I just finished the book Soldiers of Reason which is about the history of the RAND Corporation (I’ve got a half-written post I’ll try to get out about it). I’m taking a break from game theory and nuclear warfare with Andy Weir’s new book Artemis (which I haven’t heard was great, but I liked The Martian a lot and my library hold came through the day I finished the other book). Now onto the links.

The biggest story in advertising was Martin Sorrell’s departure from WPP, the largest holding company in the world. I spent a little time on Twitter looking back into the commentary around his original takeover of Wire & Plastic Products. The highlight: The company still makes wine racks.

Speaking of Wire & Plastic Products, here’s the history of the shopping cart, an under-appreciated invention.

On a more serious tip, The New Yorker had my favorite profile of Sorrell. For what it’s worth, I met him once or twice and emailed with him a few times and my takeaway were a) he knows his company and the ad industry inside out, b) he emailed me back immediately, and c) he was a good performer (it was a lot of fun to watch him interview folks on stage and make them wiggle a bit, especially media owners).

Two really excellent long-form pieces from this week:

  1. Wired on a group of video game hackers who took things too far.
  2. The Verge on the mostly failed One Laptop Per Child experiment (I’ve still got one somewhere around the house)

Matt Haughey (who, amongst other things, started one of my favorite sites Metafilter) wrote about his experience trying to recreate just one custom prop from Beyonce’s Lemonade as a way to illustrate her incredible attention to detail.

If you want to get a jump-start on my post about RAND, here’s an article from a few years ago by the author which covers many of the pertinent points (one of the amazing RAND facts is that they’ve had over 30 Nobel laureates as either employees or advisors in their ~70 years of existence).

A few weeks ago I shared an excellent Planet Money video about why Coke cost a nickel for 70 years. Well, here’s another about the economics of graveyards:

While we’re on videos, here’s one from Vox on China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Continuing with the audio/visual theme, the best podcast episode I listened to this week exponent from a few weeks ago on Facebook.

Speaking of Facebook, I’m skeptical Zuckerberg doesn’t know what’s going on with the ad business as Wired suggests. The guy is very smart and runs a giant company who makes the vast majority of its money from advertising, I’d be pretty shocked if he just doesn’t know what’s going on as suggested (emphasis mine):

That isn’t to say the hearings went over perfectly, even at home. One mystifying thing to employees was that Zuckerberg frequently seemed to come up short when asked for details about the advertising business. When pressed by Roy Blunt (R-Missouri)—who, Zuckerberg restrained himself from pointing out, was a client of Cambridge Analytica—Facebook’s CEO couldn’t specify whether Facebook tracks users across their computing devices or tracks offline activity. He seemed similarly mystified about some of the details about the data Facebook collects about people. In total, Zuckerberg promised to follow up on 43 issues; many of the most straight-ahead ones were details on how the ad business works. It’s possible, of course, that Zuckerberg dodged the questions because he didn’t want to talk about Facebook’s tracking on national TV. It seemed more likely to some people on the inside, however, that he genuinely didn’t know.

My favorite headline this week: Someone Convince Me That an iPhone Wallet Case Isn’t the Dumbest Idea in the World.

The Register had a good primer on the current economics of bug bounty programs.

The always smart Tim Harford wrote about what made Stephen Hawking great. I particularly liked this bit, “First, he did not patronise his audience: presenting the most complicated ideas was a sign that he respected our intelligence. If we did not grasp everything, we would still be better off for having tried.” I have thought about this a lot in building Percolate, both internally and externally. It’s always been important to me to assume your audience is brilliant and work from there. At Transition over the years we’ve had talks on how cities grow like biological organisms, promise theory, and whether humans will follow the path of bacteria and hit the edge of the petri dish and die. The positive feedback I got on the most complex topics (told well) was always huge.

Finally, I wrote about The New Yorker, basketball, and the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect earlier in the week and last week I wrote a piece about the idea of an information fiduciary and how it might be a good way to think about regulating Facebook. And, of course, here’s the Remainders post from last week.

Thanks for everything and have a great weekend.

April 20, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Information Fiduciaries

I’ve set a reasonably modest goal for myself of writing 10 blog posts in April. Let’s see if I can get back on this bike (since I really miss it). This is post number 5!

Over the last few weeks I’ve been asked a lot about my take on the Facebook news and I’ve struggled to add much to the conversation. I’m not shocked (this story has been around since 2015 in almost exactly its current form, a fact I don’t think nearly enough people understand), we shouldn’t be calling it a breach or a leak (that’s not what happened), and I think it has a lot more to do with the new European data regulations called GDPR than most are mentioning. Outside of that I’m mostly left pondering questions/thought experiments like what is the minimum amount of targeting Facebook would have to hold on to in order to maintain 80% of its ad revenue (aka minimum viable targeting) and did they actually end up in this mess in an effort to directly make more money (the FB wants more data to sell to advertisers argument) or in an effort to drive engagement (which, of course, helps make more money). Not sure that second one matters, but it’s interesting to me nonetheless.

Anyway, mostly I’m left looking for opinions that go beyond the recitation of facts.

On Sunday morning I was reading the Times opinion section and ran into an idea that felt new. Here it is from Jonathan Zittrain’s op-ed “Mark Zuckerberg Can Still Fix This Mess”:

On the policy front, we should look to how the law treats professionals with specialized skills who get to know clients’ troubles and secrets intimately. For example, doctors and lawyers draw lots of sensitive information from, and wield a lot of power over, their patients and clients. There’s not only an ethical trust relationship there but also a legal one: that of a “fiduciary,” which at its core means that the professionals are obliged to place their clients’ interests ahead of their own.

The legal scholar Jack Balkin has convincingly argued that companies like Facebook and Twitter are in a similar relationship of knowledge about, and power over, their users — and thus should be considered “information fiduciaries.”

Information fiduciary is one of the first things I’ve read in all the morass of Facebook think-pieces that felt both new and useful. The basic idea is that Facebook (and other similar platforms) have a special relationship with users that resembles the kind of fiduciary responsibilities doctors and lawyers have with our data (critically, Balkin makes a distinction between the responsibility for data and advice, the latter of which Facebook obviously doesn’t have).

In his much longer and surprisingly readable paper on the idea he lays out an argument for why we should take the concept seriously. The paper starts by replaying a question Zittrain posed in 2014 New Statesman article after Facebook ran a get out the vote experiment that drove impressive numbers:

Now consider a hypothetical, hotly contested future election. Suppose that Mark Zuckerberg personally favors whichever candidate you don’t like. He arranges for a voting prompt to appear within the newsfeeds of tens of millions of active Facebook users—but unlike in the 2010 experiment, the group that will not receive the message is not chosen at random. Rather, Zuckerberg makes use of the fact that Facebook “likes” can predict political views and party affiliation, even beyond the many users who proudly advertise those affiliations directly. With that knowledge, our hypothetical Zuck chooses not to spice the feeds of users unsympathetic to his views. Such machinations then flip the outcome of our hypothetical election. Should the law constrain this kind of behavior?

Balkin argues that we don’t really have any way to stop Facebook from doing that legally. The First Amendment gives them the right to political speech. We could hope that they wouldn’t do it because of the backlash it would likely create (and it’s true that it would probably be enough to prevent them), but do we feel good relying on the market in this case?

After going through a bunch of options for dealing with the situation, Balkin lands on the fiduciary concept. “Generally speaking, a fiduciary is one who has special obligations of loyalty and trustworthiness toward another person,” he writes. “The fiduciary must take care to act in the interests of the other person, who is sometimes called the principal, the beneficiary, or the client. The client puts their trust or confidence in the fiduciary, and the fiduciary has a duty not to betray that trust or confidence.”

In a more recent blog post Balkin argues that Facebook has effectively confirmed the idea with his response to Cambridge Analytica when Zuckerberg said, “We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you. I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

But how would it all work? Well, Zittrain and Balkin tackled that too. In a 2016 Atlantic article, they present a theoretical framework for application in a similar way to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which, while it has its flaws, is a solution that seems to generally work for the various parties involved. Here’s their proposal for a Digital Millennium Privacy Act (DMPA):

The DMPA would provide a predictable level of federal immunity for those companies willing to subscribe to the duties of an information fiduciary and accept a corresponding process to disclose and redress privacy and security violations. As with the DMCA, those companies unwilling to take the leap would be left no worse off than they are today—subject to the tender mercies of state and local governments. But those who accept the deal would gain the consistency and calculability of a single set of nationwide rules. Even without the public giving up on any hard-fought privacy rights recognized by a single state, a company could find that becoming an information fiduciary could be far less burdensome than having to respond to multiple and conflicting state and local obligations.

This feels like a real idea that has value for all parties involved and a legitimate framework for implementation. I don’t know that it will ever come to pass, but I’m excited to continue paying attention to the conversations around it.

April 9, 2018 // This post is about: , , ,