Milbloggers Gone, But Their Words Remain by Noah Shachtman

One September 3rd, 2009, 22-year old Specialist Jordan Shay was killed in Baqubah, Iraq.  A week and a half before he died, he tweeted: “back in iraq for round two, probably won’t fire a shot in anger all tour. sucks.”

A few days later, Shay updated his blog. He wrote about the Sweet Tarts he gave to the local kids, the pictures he snapped with Iraq soldiers, the cluelessness of his “blundering platoon leader,” and his hope for this tour — shootouts or not.

We are respected in Baqubah. We are also feared. Our battalion has a fantastic opportunity to use these facts to our advantage and make a real difference before the withdrawal of all combat forces in the summer of next year. We made a difference in 2007, we could do it again in 2009. I fear we will not.

Then, on the way back from a mission, Shay’s armored vehicle rolled over and fell 60 feet from a bridge.

Shay is one of a half-dozen troops who perished in recent years, but whose words still remain online. On Memorial Day, take a few minutes to read through the blogs of service members like Shay, Sergeant Christopher Abeyta, Captain Jenna Wilcox, and Major Andrew Olmstead.

Cognitive Surplus: The Great Spare-Time Revolution by Wired Magazine

Clay Shirky and Daniel Pink have led eerily parallel lives. Both grew up in Midwest university towns in the 1970s, where they spent their formative years watching television after school and at night. Both later went to Yale (a BA in painting for Shirky, a law degree for Pink). And both eventually abandoned their chosen fields to write about technology, business, and society.

Now their paths are intersecting. In December, Pink, a Wired contributing editor, came out with Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. The book digs through more than five decades of behavioral science to challenge the orthodoxy that carrots and sticks are the most effective ways to motivate workers in the 21st century. Instead, he argues, the most enduring motivations aren’t external but internal—things we do for our own satisfaction.

And in June, Shirky is publishing Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, which mines adjacent territory. He argues that the time Americans once spent watching television has been redirected toward activities that are less about consuming and more about engaging—from Flickr and Facebook to powerful forms of online political action. (For an alternate perspective on the influence of the Internet, see Nicholas Carr’s essay) And these efforts aren’t fueled by external rewards but by intrinsic motivation—the joy of doing something for its own sake.

Wired had the two sit down for a conversation about motivation and media, social networking, sitcoms, and why the hell people spend their free time editing Wikipedia.

Pink: A few days ago, I was talking with someone about Wikipedia. And the guy shook his head dismissively and said about the people who contribute to it: “Where do they get the time?” We both think that’s a silly question.

Shirky: It is. People have had lots of free time for as long as there’s been the industrialized world. But that free time has mainly been something to be used up rather than used, especially in postwar America, with the rise of suburbanization and long commutes. Suddenly we no longer lived in tight-knit communities and therefore we spent less time interacting face-to-face. As a result, we ended up spending the bulk of our free time watching television.

Pink: The numbers on that are astonishing.

Shirky: Staggering. Someone born in 1960 has watched something like 50,000 hours of television already. Fifty thousand hours—more than five and a half solid years.

Pink: You’ve just described our boyhoods.

Shirky: Yes, sitting in front of the television.

Pink: Passively watching Gilligan’s Island and The Partridge Family.

Shirky: Oh, that walk down memory lane is painful. Somehow, watching television became a part-time job for every citizen in the developed world. But once we stop thinking of all that time as individual minutes to be whiled away and start thinking of it as a social asset that can be harnessed, it all looks very different. The buildup of this free time among the world’s educated population—maybe a trillion hours per year—is a new resource. It’s what I refer to as the cognitive surplus.

Pink: A surplus that post-TV media—blogs, wikis, and Twitter—can tap for other, often more valuable, uses.

Shirky: That’s what’s happening. Television was a solitary activity that crowded out other forms of social connection. But the very nature of these new technologies fosters social connection—creating, contributing, sharing. When someone buys a TV, the number of consumers goes up by one, but the number of producers stays the same. When someone buys a computer or mobile phone, the number of consumers and producers both increase by one. This lets ordinary citizens, who’ve previously been locked out, pool their free time for activities they like and care about. So instead of that free time seeping away in front of the television set, the cognitive surplus is going to be poured into everything from goofy enterprises like lolcats, where people stick captions on cat photos, to serious political activities like, where people report human rights abuses.

Pink: Any sense of how much of that giant block of free time is being redirected?

Shirky: We’re still in the very early days. So far, it’s largely young people who are exploring the alternatives, but already they are having a huge impact. We can do a back-of-the-envelope calculation, for example, using Wikipedia, to see how far we still have to go. All the articles, edits, and arguments about articles and edits represent around 100 million hours of human labor. That’s a lot of time. But remember: Americans watch about 200 billion hours of TV every year.

Pink: Amazing. All the time that people devote to Wikipedia—which that guy considered weird and wasteful—is really a tiny portion of our worldwide cognitive surplus. It’s less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the total.

Shirky: And it represents a very different and very powerful type of motivation.

Pink: Exactly. Too many people hold a very narrow view of what motivates us. They believe that the only way to get us moving is with the jab of a stick or the promise of a carrot. But if you look at over 50 years of research on motivation, or simply scrutinize your own behavior, it’s pretty clear human beings are more complicated than that.

Shirky: That’s for sure.

Anti-Money Laundering: Blocking Terrorist Financing and Its Impact on Lawful Charities by Matthew Levitt

This morning I had the opportunity to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on the topic of “Anti-Money Laundering: Blocking Terrorist Financing and Its Impact on Lawful Charities.

Non-profit organizations are especially susceptible to abuse by terrorists and their supporters for whom charitable or humanitarian organizations are particularly attractive fronts. Here is a selection from my testimony:

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) – the multilateral body that aims to set global standards for anti-money laundering and counter-terror financing – has found that “Terror networks often use compromised or complicit charities and businesses to support their objectives.” In fact, FATF warned that “the misuse of non-profit organizations for the financing of terrorism is coming to be recognized as a crucial weak point in the global struggle to stop such funding at its source.”

According to the Justice Department, intelligence indicates that terrorists continue to use charities as sources of both financial and logistical support. British officials concur. According to a joint UK Treasury/Home Office report, a “significant proportion” of terror finance investigations in the UK over 2006 included analysis of links to charities. The report found that “the risk of exploitation of charities is a significant aspect of the terrorist finance threat.”

Most charities are completely law-abiding, praiseworthy organizations. But among the minority of charities engaged in supporting terrorism, some are founded with the express purpose of financing terror, while others are infiltrated by terrorist operatives and supporters and co-opted from within. Treasury designations of entire charity tend to focus on the former. Never has the government targeted unwitting donors.

One reason the charitable sector remains vulnerable to terrorist financing according to FATF, is that charities are subjected to lesser regulatory requirements than other entities, such as financial institutions or private companies.

The US has been largely alone in cracking down on abuse of charities and NGOs by Islamist militant groups. Many other countries have been reluctant to take any steps to tackle this problem, often out of concern that they will appear to be targeting Muslim humanitarian efforts.

Despite some criticism, the U.S. government has been consistent in its efforts to protect the donor public and stem the flow of funds to terrorists by cracking down on the abuse of the charitable sector by terrorist organizations. The Treasury Department has designated more than 40 charities with ties to designated terrorist groups, a few with branch offices in the U.S. The U.S. has also prosecuted charities and their leaders, such as in the case of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF) which was found guilty on all counts in November 2008.

In none of these cases was U.S. government action capricious or based on sparse, dated, or unreliable information. The designation process in particular, I know from first hand experience, is appropriately robust, vigorous and errs on the side of caution. Designated entities can and do appeal their designations, and the Treasury Department has a record of lifting designations when warranted.

It should be clear that charities and international aid organizations come to this problem set from a noble and well intentioned perspective focused on the need to highlight opportunities to facilitate quick, efficient and timely aid. Thankfully, promoting opportunities for charitable giving and reducing the risk those opportunities are abused for illicit purposes are in no way mutually exclusive goals.

Unfortunately, there are those who insist otherwise. They stress that due diligence on the part of charities is difficult and costly, and insist it has only limited value. In fact, the real question of the day is how to most effectively streamline due diligence and make it more cost effective. There should be no debate over the basic threshold for harmonizing charity and security: a basic commitment to non-violence.

Balancing the risk of violence and the opportunity for charity, government and the non-profit sector both have a responsibility to err on the side caution. Both also have a responsibility to work cooperatively to thaw the chilling effect that the government’s public response to terrorists’ abuse of charities has had on charitable giving within the United States, and within Muslim-American communities in particular.

The problem is not enforcement of U.S. laws banning material support to terrorist organizations (indeed, in the history of Treasury’s designation regime only a handful of U.S. based charities have been designated), but rather the unintended impact this has had on charitable giving. Greater due diligence on the part of non-profit organizations, combined with government outreach and information campaigns such as Treasury’s “Updated Anti-Terrorist Financing Guidelines: Voluntary Best Practices for U.S.-Based Charities,” would go a long way toward resolving this problem.

My full, written testimony is available here.

Steve Jobs Reinvents the CEO With E-Mail Campaign by Brian X. Chen

Most Fortune 500 CEOs are about as accessible as Kim Jong Il, but Apple CEO Steve Jobs has been breaking the mold. He’s sent terse e-mail replies to more than a dozen customer inquiries — and one journalist — in the past few months.

It’s not that he’s become unusually friendly. Rather, the legendary entrepreneur is carefully reinventing his role as CEO.

Jobs typically shies away from the public spotlight, but with these e-mails he has been transforming his public persona into that of a leader who’s well-connected with his followers, as opposed to a man running a business, says Brian Solis, a new-media branding and public relations expert.

“What he is trying to do is strategically pick the right people that are going to literally spread his word verbatim,” Solis said. “With just one e-mail he’s able to talk to the entire world.”

Historically, Jobs has been selective about the media outlets he communicates with. His favorites tend to be The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. And in the past, there have been a few occasions where Jobs sent short e-mails in response to customers’ questions, but around the time the iPad launched, the CEO began shooting out e-mails to customers almost every week.

Like any normal human being, Jobs may simply be eager to talk about his beloved pet projects. But even if that’s true, there’s a strategy behind Jobs’ e-mail spree, said Steve Rubel, a senior vice president of Edelman Digital, the world’s largest independent PR firm.

Rubel explained that Apple is one of the only companies to operate with a centralized “command-and-control model.” Because Apple is not in a position to communicate with tools such as Twitter or Facebook, Jobs’ e-mails are proving an effective means to address an enormous community of consumers.

“They’re more open than the way they were before,” Rubel said. “I wouldn’t define Apple as open, but more open. There’s a big difference.”

Jobs’ out-of-the-blue responsiveness couldn’t have come at a better time. For the past year-and-a-half, Apple has frequently been the target of negative press, thanks to its controversial App Store. And its recent legal tangle with Gizmodo over a lost iPhone prototype has inspired even mainstream comedians Jon Stewart and Ellen Degeneris to mock Apple for its increasingly nefarious public image.

Therefore, Jobs could very well be stepping in to take control when Apple needs it most.

Rubel added that it was unlikely Jobs’ PR team was helping him draft his e-mails, because they come off as very frank and human.

“They’re off the cuff, but he’s a marketing genius, though,” Rubel said. “He’s responding to the right e-mails at the right time, based on what he thinks is right.”

Solis explained that by responding to e-mails, Jobs is demonstrating Apple’s nimbleness by showing the company is paying attention to the world’s needs, even at a CEO level.

Jobs is responding to questions to steer perceptions by setting the record straight, Solis said. One example was his response to a customer seething over Apple’s delayed launch of the iPad overseas, alleging that Apple was “pulling the wool over the rest of the world’s eyes.”

Are you nuts?” Jobs wrote. “We are doing the best we can. We need enough units to have a responsible and great launch.”

And a second more recent example was Jobs’ heated e-mail exchange with Gawker blogger Ryan Tate, who accused Apple of destroying digital freedom with the iPad and the App Store’s stringent rules.

“Freedom of programs that steal your data,” Jobs countered in his response. “Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom.”

Such fortifying statements can act as a “slap in the back of the head” for inquirers, Solis said.

Last, Solis believes Apple is trying to make one message especially clear: Jobs is back, even though his medical leave last year had some analysts making grim predictions. Also, Jobs could be stepping in to mitigate some public relations issues relating especially to the controversial App Store, Solis said.

“I think part of him feels that during his absence, he felt Apple lost some of its footing during that time with public relations,” Solis said. “Because of some of the challenges, he’s taking the lead.”

It’s unlikely many other CEOs could execute Jobs’ strategy, Rubel said, but he and Solis both agreed that Mark Zuckerberg might very well pull it off. The Facebook CEO recently responded to a blogger’s e-mail in response to mounting criticism about the network’s privacy flaws, and which he also addressed in a guest column printed by The Washington Post.

“Leaders are going to have to shed the filters they once hid behind, one of them being public relations, in order to lead,” Solis said. “That’s what people are looking for them to do. Facebook and Steve Jobs are leading communities into places they’ve never been before.”

“Zuckerberg and Facebook already have lots of people out there speaking in very credible ways about them,” Rubel added. “They have their blog, their Twitter account, they already are open.”

Jobs did not respond to an e-mail requesting comment on his e-mail comments.

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China Tries to Hide J-10 Fighter Crashes

On April 13, in the port city of Tianjin about 130- KM away from Beijing, China showed off its 4th Generation J-10 aircraft to military attaches of about 50 countries it could possibly export to. 9 days later as per Strategy page reports it was running to cover up the 2nd crash of the J-10 fighter that became public in the last two years.

The 22 April crash became public because a senior colonel had died in the crash and the funeral became too big to keep the story hushed. The news report also claims that the design of the 200-odd J-10s produced has not worked out as desired by its developers.

The crash and doubts over its design also comes as a set back to Pakistan, which was hoping to buy 36 J-10 in a deal worth US$1.4 billion has also been concluded reports China’s English Peoples Daily. In the past it has exported fighter aircraft to Iran, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Pakistan. However, the pitfalls of reverse engineering without paying royalty and truly understanding the technology are high accident rates, a fact that China has hushed up with its lack of media freedom.

The first flight of the J-10 begun took place in 1998. It is the most advanced 4th Generation aircraft to be built by China. However, reports the development of J-10 has proven to be torturous. The prototype was rumoured to have first flown in 1996, but the project suffered a serious setback in late 1997 when the 02 prototype lost control and crashed, as the result of certain system failure, presumably with either the FBW system or the engine.

If the reports pertaining to the faulty design of the fourth generation fighter are serious enough, it will put the Chinese plans to replace the obsolete J-7 fighter and Q-5 attack aircraft in a limbo. With 2,000 combat aircraft China has the 3rd largest air force in the world.

The Evidence Against Chávez Mounts by Douglas Farah

I have not had time to write much recently, but two recent events point to the increasingly overt ties between the Chávez government and international terrorist organizations.

The first, Chávez’s help bring the FARC in Colombia and the Spanish ETA together,, I already discussed at some length here.

New revelations are now being published about Chávez’s direct (although repeatedly denied) ties to Hezbollah and other radical Islamist groups. A new book, “El Palestino,” by Spanish journalist Antonio Salas documents armed camps in Venezuela where the FARC, Hezbollah, ETA and others all train together.

In the book, which comes out later this week, the author says he posed as a Venezuelan Palestinian interested in jihad and ended up traveling around the world after fabricating a new identity. His employer, Antena 3 of Spain, has released some of the hidden camera video he shot to verify his experience.

According to the book’s publicity, “It was in Venezuela that he received his baptism of fire. He found that just around the city of Caracas there are six terrorist training camps. There he learned to shoot every kind of weapon. His time there coincided with the training of members of the FARC, ETA and other groups.”

There have long been reports of these camps from credible sources, but video and direct, publicly available documentation and first hand experience has not been. This is in keeping with Chávez’s broader goals of creating an alliance of state and non-state actors to wage asymmetrical warfare against the United States. It is, quite likely, the worst of all worlds for the rest of Latin America, and beginnings of the solidifying joint venture that will eventually pose and existential threat to the United States.

Both Chávez, with the FARC, and Iran with its Hezbollah proxy, have the same goal in this endeavor. Each of the proxies has relevant experience and resources the other does not, and both have a long history of adaptation and co-learning from other terrorist groups, regardless of political/theological differences.

Chávez has also made no secret of his desire to spread armed revolution across Latin America to rid the continent of non-Bolivarian governments, or transform the governments to the Bolivarian way.

Hence his support, through the Movimiento Bolivariano Continental, (Continental Bolivarian Movement), to the FARC, the Tupac Amaro movement in Peru, the Mapuches and MIR in Chile, etc. etc.

This support is likely to increase as Chávez’s internal situation deteriorates. With the highest homicide rate in the hemisphere, water and electrical rationing, inflation running at more than 30 percent and his popularity in a steady decline, he is likely to be desperate for anything that can give him a boost.

Iran, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador have enormous stakes in Chávez’s survival, no matter what the cost. So one can expect the region to be roiled by something he cooks up to fabricate a crisis.

The U.S. response so far has been muted to Chávez and his lethal alliances. There are no good options for a response, but it is increasingly clear that the day of reckoning is drawing near.

The Iranian Trap for Medvedev’s Opportunistic Foreign Policy by Pavel K. Baev

Publication: Jamestown Foundation Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 100 May 24, 2010

The draft resolution on new sanctions against Iran introduced by the US at the UN Security Council last Tuesday has caught Moscow in a trap set primarily by its own unprincipled diplomatic maneuvering. On previous occasions, Moscow tried to reconcile the pragmatic bargaining with the US and its “good-neighborly” partnership with Iran, but now the intrigue is far more complicated. Russian-Iranian relations have visibly shrunk, even if Rosatom still promises to launch the Bushehr nuclear power station in August (RIA Novosti, May 20). A new dimension in the protracted international controversy around the Iranian nuclear program was opened by the trilateral deal involving Brazil and Turkey that was announced in Tehran last week. The technicalities of the swap are yet to be presented to, and approved by, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but the substance is clear: Iran entrusts 1200 kilograms (kg) of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey for safe-keeping and receives 120 kg of highly-enriched uranium from Brazil (Kommersant, May 18; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 19).

This deal does not slow down uranium-enrichment activities in Iran, consequently pressure from the UN would be entirely justified, but Russia has agreed to execute new ‘smart’ sanctions (which are certain to have zero impact on Iranian nuclear ambitions) primarily in order to proceed with the “reset” in relations with the US. Washington has indeed lifted its unilateral ban on contacts with several Russian companies and colleges (including Rosoboronexport) suspected of contributing to missile and nuclear projects in Iran (, May 22). Moscow, has granted support to the Turkish-Brazilian initiative, perhaps never expecting it to succeed because its own proposals had failed. Neither Turkey nor Brazil is gravely concerned about Iran accessing advanced nuclear technologies, but both countries are eager to boost their international prestige by succeeding in resolving a pivotal and intractable issue (, May 20). They have good reasons to be proud of their achievement, but the US demand for sanctions clearly devalues it and Moscow’s support for the draft resolution amounts, in their eyes, to a betrayal of trust.

This diplomatic blunder is undeniably personal because President, Dmitry Medvedev, had persistently sought to become involved in the talks. He discussed the Iranian issue with Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while visiting Turkey on May 12-13, then called US President, Barack Obama, and greeted in Moscow the Brazilian President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was bracing himself for 18 hours of hard bargaining in Tehran. It is impossible to fathom what kind of suggestions and promises Medvedev gave his counterparts, but it is known that Erdogan called Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin ,on May 19 seeking to secure more meaningful support for the swap deal. Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, now tries to convince his US counterpart, Hillary Clinton, that the atmosphere has become favorable for resuming political efforts, but Washington is adamant on a new resolution (despite objections from Brazil and Turkey) and Russia cannot retreat from its consent not to use its veto (Vremya Novostei, May 20).

Whatever the outcome of the unusually multi-polarized debates in the UN Security Council, it is already clear that in Russian foreign policy this duplicity (or perhaps even triplicity) is not an isolated episode, but a feature determined by its new “pragmatism.” Two weeks ago a draft guideline-setting document from the foreign ministry was leaked to the media and emphasized a pronounced shift in priorities towards improving relations with many partners and abandoning a confrontational stance (Russian Newsweek, May 9). The main thrust of the foreign policy, according to this “doctrine,” is on securing external involvement in Russia’s modernization, and many recent compromises, such as the rapprochement with Poland and settling the maritime border dispute with Norway, appear to fit this pattern. Medvedev has indeed adopted a “smiles-and-smooth-talking” style, which contrasts positively with Putin’s often terse and caustic behavior (The Moscow Times, May 19). The key proposition beneath these stylistic differences, however, is that the global crisis has undermined the US leadership and eroded the EU cohesion –and thus has created new opportunities for Russia that must be carefully exploited in a cooperative rather than confrontational climate (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, May 20).

This proposition is not without rational assessment, particularly as far as the consequences of the deeper than expected crisis in the EU structures of governance are concerned, but it underestimates the scope of Russia’s own weakening and marginalization. Moscow could have perhaps acquired a new position of strength –in “soft power” terms– vis-à-vis Ukraine, which has suffered a near catastrophic economic contraction and cannot count on any “rescue packages” from the EU or US (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 20). Russia cannot, however, project any meaningful influence even in Central Asia, where the implosion of Kyrgyzstan could be merely the beginning of the end for despotic regional stability (Vremya Novostei, May 21). Imagining Russia as one of the “emerging powers” on a par with Brazil or India, the makers of Medvedev’s foreign policy remain in denial of the profound crisis of its state fundamentals.

Current economic statistics show the picture of an uncertain recovery, but perhaps the most telling figure is the sustained decline in foreign investments, which has registered a five-year low in the first quarter of 2010, and the high level of “capital flight,” primarily to Switzerland (Vedomosti, May 21). This may be the most definite “litmus test” of Medvedev’s opportunistic foreign policy, in which flexible tactical maneuvering brings a sustained erosion of trust. Spinning the discourse of “innovations” Medvedev is in fact presiding over Russia’s continuing de-modernization, determined not by the high profitability of raw materials extraction and export, but by the bureaucratic super-structure that expropriates and consumes these profits. The unavoidable tightening of budget expenditures in the political system based on rent-extraction and glued together by corruption would lead to both more ruthless predation and more destructive clan feuds. In this situation, a policy of exploiting other states’ troubles guarantees that your own troubles would also be seen as someone’s opportunities.

Sergei Ivanov Seeks Deals in Washington by Pavel Felgenhauer

Publication: Jamestown Foundation Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 98 May 20, 2010 

The Russian authorities are seeking a major détente with the West. A draft of a revised foreign policy doctrine was leaked and extracts published by Russky Newsweek in Moscow this month. The document was prepared by the foreign ministry and envisages closer political cooperation with the US and the West in exchange for much needed Western capital and technologies to kick-start Russian modernization in all fields, including defense. The document was prepared by the foreign ministry in February and provisionally approved by President, Dmitry Medvedev. Diplomats told Newsweek that since February the draft has been in the hands of the government, where Russia’s Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, has his own personal foreign office run by Yuriy Ushakov, the former ambassador to Washington (EDM, May 19).

Medvedev is essentially a figurehead president and Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, who supervised the writing of the draft, is equally not a particularly influential figure in Moscow. Ushakov, in turn, is not liked in the foreign ministry. The leak of the draft to Russky Newsweek is the apparent result of Moscow’s inter-departmental rivalry and intrigue. However, it is increasingly clear that a revolutionary change in Russian foreign policy is indeed occurring and the entire leadership, including Putin, is behind the move.

This week, in Washington, during a briefing in the Russian embassy Deputy Prime Minister, Sergei Ivanov (in charge of defense and defense industry), told Russian reporters that cooperation with the US is improving (Interfax, May 18). Ivanov is close to Putin, in 2007 he was considered a frontrunner to become president before Putin chose Medvedev to be promoted as his official successor. It is known in Moscow that Medvedev and Ivanov do not particularly like each other. Ivanov’s reportedly glowing endorsement of further US-Russian cooperation is a clear sign this is a Putin-approved policy shift.

In Washington, Ivanov met with US Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, Assistant Secretary of State, William Burns, and National Security Advisor, James Jones. Officially, Ivanov’s visit was primarily to promote space cooperation with NASA, but he told reporters that much more was discussed, including Iran, Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) cooperation, WTO membership and encouraging US investment and technology transfers. Ivanov was upbeat on further cooperation in all fields and announced that Moscow has offered to work with the US on the joint production of the An-124 Ruslan heavy military transport aircraft. Today An-124’s made in Russia and Ukraine in the 1980’s and 1990’s are chartered by the Pentagon and other NATO militaries to carry heavy and bulky cargos to Afghanistan. With the Russian defense industry in deep crisis, Russia and Ukraine have lost the capability to produce new Ruslans and until now all attempts to restart production in Russia or jointly with Ukraine have failed, despite Putin declaring it a national priority. Ivanov announced a joint venture with the US air industry that could share know how and make modernized An-124 planes for the Russian military, the Pentagon and for commercial cargo airlines. According to Ivanov, “the Pentagon is looking into the matter.” Ivanov announced: “We must travel a long way, but I sincerely hope if true business interests unite us, security problems will be seen in a totally different light” (Interfax, May 18; Kommersant, May 19).

In another sign of growing friendship, Russia’s UN Ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, supported a draft UN Security Council resolution proposing new sanctions against Iran despite the last ditch attempt by Tehran to deter the vote by signing an agreement brokered by Turkey and Brazil to send some enriched uranium abroad in return for fuel rods for a medical research reactor (Kommersant, May 20). The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who adamantly opposes new sanctions, is reported to have telephoned Putin to ask for help (RIA Novosti, May 20). The UN draft calls for an embargo on the sale of offensive heavy weapons to Iran such as tanks or fighter jets. The draft apparently avoids restricting the sale of antiaircraft missiles like the S-300 Russia has promised Iran, but withheld until now. Russia is a major arms supplier to Iran and any restrictions would be unpopular in Moscow’s powerful arms trading community. If Putin rebuffs Erdogan and allows new sanctions to pass in the UN, this would be seen in Moscow as a major concession that Washington would be expected to match.

The Russian military, supported by Putin and Medvedev, is ready and eager to buy Western weapons and to create joint ventures to co-produce on Russian soil. Russia is transforming from a global to a regional power with dominating limited regional interests. Moscow wants to dominate the post-Soviet space and use in time of need a sophisticated and disciplined military force that could project power primarily using high quality and better equipped units. Israel and France are important military-technical partners in this transformation, with Italy, Germany and now the US invited to join.

Putin, and Medvedev, seem to be genuinely interested in finding an enduring understanding with the West and settling outstanding differences on the solid basis of carving up Eurasia into clear zones of dominance and a written code of conduct (a proposed revised European security code). The resolution of the long-standing territorial dispute with Norway, the sincere Russian effort to upgrade its relations with Poland and put past differences to rest –all happening last month– are good examples of Moscow’s new strategic thinking. Russia is extending an open hand to the West, offering each side the opportunity to pursue their interests without hindrance in its sphere of interest. A number of major Western nations like France, Germany, Italy and maybe the US are seen in Moscow as sending signals they are tacitly ready to accept Russia’s special regional role.

The security situation in Kyrgyzstan seems to be deteriorating with rebels threatening a civil war that may undermine the Moscow-backed provisional government (Interfax, May 19). In the worst case scenario, Russia may see itself obliged to intervene as an armed peacekeeper. The Western reaction to this, or any other possible future Russian involvement in the post-Soviet space, may determine the success or failure of the new détente and the outcome of Iranian-connected diplomatic maneuvers.

Palantir Technology: GovCon5 5 Videos by Blake

GovCon5 Videos

Palantir’s 5th Government Conference was a huge success with over 1,000 guests in attendance. Attendees represented many communities of interest, including defense, intelligence, law enforcement, and finance to name a few.

Videos of the first four conference presentations are now available. Due to popular demand for these videos, this special preview of presentations has been made available ahead of the rest of the day’s content. An announcement will be made here when the remainder of the conference sessions are available. The complete conference agenda has also been made available for reference.

The next Palantir Government Conference is coming in October 2010. Details will be available in the coming months.

Diaspora – a distributed, open source, secure social network with Facebook in its sights by Darren Quick

Diaspora – a distributed, open source,  secure social network with Facebook in its si...

Diaspora – a distributed, open source, secure social network with Facebook in its sights

In what is quickly shaping up as the David versus Goliath fight to watch, four students from NYU’s Courant Institute are looking to take on social networking behemoth Facebook with Disapora – a distributed, open source social network. They aim to address the privacy concerns that has put Facebook under fire by giving users complete control of their details and content and who they share it with. Through the use of a personal web server called a Diaspora “seed”, users will be able to securely share information, pictures, video and more.

To cut out the middleman, Diaspora will be a distributed network where separate computers connect to each other directly, instead of relying on a central hub to relay information. Since each computer – or “seed” – is owned and hosted by the user, they have total control over what information is shared and with whom. GPG encryption will also ensure that no matter what kind of content is being shared, it can be done so privately and securely. This is sure to appeal to Facebook users concerned about what Facebook does with the personal information stored on its servers.

And making the move to Disapora won’t mean saying goodbye to all your Facebook friends because it will aggregate content from all your existing social networking services including Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. The Diaspora team says their software will actually make those services better as it will allow users greater control over their data. For example, a user’s seed can be used to automatically generate a tweet from a caption and link when uploading an image to Flickr.

The Diaspora team thinks it has hit upon a good idea and it seems they aren’t the only ones. To make Diaspora a reality the students are raising money through the online fund-raising site, Kickstarter. Their initial goal was to raise US$10,000 in 39 days – a mark they reached in just 12 days. At the time of writing the total amount pledged stood at US$125,087 with 18 days still to go and was climbing by the minute. All four $2,000 plus pledges were sold, as were all five $1,000 pledges. The remainder was made of 39 backers pledging at least $350, 137 pledging $100 or more, 231 contributing $50 or more, 1,324 providing $25 or more, 564 coughing up $10 or more, and 671 contributing $5 or more.

The students now have more than enough money to chuck in their summer internships and spend three months totally focused on building Diaspora. Once they have produced the first solid iteration of Diaspora they will release the code as free software for anyone who wants to use it, forever.

To see some kind of return they also plan to provide a paid turnkey hosted service along the lines of to make it easy for people who want to use Diaspora, but don’t want to deal with the fuss of setting it up. Such users won’t be locked in though. If someone decides they want to graduate to hosting their seed themselves they are free to do so and will be able to easily export their data and configuration.

If the level of interest and financial support Diaspora has attracted carries over to the end product then Facebook could well have reason to be worried. The Diaspora team plans to make the service available a few months after the end of summer and those interested in their progress can keep up to date via their website.

Open Facebook Alternatives Gain Momentum, $115K by Ryan Singel

A screenshot of a beta of the open source, federated social  networking program OneSocialWeb running on a server at screenshot of a beta of the open-source, federated social networking program OneSocialWeb running on a server at

When called for an open alternative to Facebook last Friday, lamenting the company’s untrammeled desire to control your online identity and reconfigure the world’s privacy norms, reader response was overwhelming, with hundreds of comments and ironically, thousands of “Like” votes on Facebook.

Now, a group of four New York University students — who were working on just what we called for — have harnessed that dissatisfaction in the form of more than $115,000 in crowdsourced funding for their distributed, social networking system called Diaspora. That’s the equivalent of a significant angel round of funding in the internet startup world, and their fundraising on the Kickstarter crowdsourced funding site has another 19 days to go.

It’s also an impressive for a project proposal from four students who say they aren’t going to start coding until they graduate from college this summer. And a testament to how strongly that a growing number of people want an alternative to a centralized and dominant social networking site.

The students took their inspiration from a speech in February by the outspoken Software Freedom Law Center founder and Columbia University law professor Eben Moglen. In that speech to New York’s Internet Society, Moglen accused Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg of having “done more harm to the human race than anybody else his age” and described Facebook as a “terrarium for what it feels like to live in a panopticon built out of web parts.”

Diaspora isn’t the only effort to break open the “terrarium.”

For instance, there’s OneSocialWeb, a distributed social networking service that’s under development by four Vodafone employees.

It’s got working code and currently lets users share messages and make connections. The basic protocol is open, using the instant messaging protocol XMPP — the same as Google’s innovative but lightly used Wave collaboration and messaging system.

Power users can install their own server, while others can use a version hosted on someone else’s. That’s much like the open-source WordPress publishing system, which anyone can install on an owned or rented server — or choose to use’s online service.

Currently, users can create profiles, “follow” and “friend” other users, “like” their updates, and share videos and photos.

Laurent Eschenauer, one of the OneSocialWeb developers, says his project and Diaspora share the goal of providing a “free, open and decentralized alternative to the social networking silos that are Facebook and Twitter.” He says he hopes that Diaspora looks to work cooperatively with his project, rather than “reinventing the wheel.”

OneSocialWeb already allows accounts hosted on different servers to send messages and photos in real time, and the group plans to have a version 1.0 available this summer (early beta versions can be downloaded to your own server now). A hosted version that less-technically inclined users can use should be available by end of summer.

The recent news also reinvigorated developer Michael Chisari, who decided to reopen his open source social networking project called Appleseed, which already has working code that allows users on different sites to “friend” each other and interoperate.

Chisari describes the project as “seeing the user as an online citizen, as opposed to a consumer to be targeted”, which he says is in “stark contrast to current social networking websites, who rely heavily on ad placement and data mining of their users.”

Both OneSocialWeb and Appleseed share the same problem: getting enough users to make users want to sign up — the so-called network effect where a network gets exponentially more useful as it gets bigger. (Think of the fax machine as an example — two fax machines in the world aren’t very useful, but your fax machine becomes much more useful when there are 1,000 of them, and even more valuable when there are 10 million.)

Diaspora is taking a different tack, according to Moglen, who has taken the students on as clients and is informally advising them.

Users don’t have to choose to stop using Facebook or Twitter and will be able use the Diaspora client to use those all those services in one place — much like Friendfeed currently does. But when Diaspora knows that the person you are trying to communicate with also has Diaspora, it will use peer-to-peer, encrypted methods to send that message. And as more and more people start using the free software, they’ll slowly find themselves weaned from for-profit services, according to Moglen.

“This is the crucial way out of the walled garden,” Moglen said. “It gives a smooth transition to federated network services.”

Moglen says he’s not picking a favorite in the race to unseat Facebook with open source and free software.

But he says the money raised by Diaspora is also a significant moment for the free software movement.

“The funding is not through the capital market and not through the venture capital system, but through civil society,” said Moglen. “This is a signal to Facebook, and I am sure Facebook is getting it.”

Read more at and

SwiftRiver Web Services Launches by Ushahidi and Jon Gosier

The SwiftRiver Web Services platform offers RESTful apps that live in the cloud that we encourage other developers or applications to utilize. These services are diverse and powerful ways to improve data collection and management.

For non-profits and NGOs working in the field who may be worried about connectivity or security, all SWS Apps are also open source which means they can be run on your own servers or completely offline.

The first of these web services available is OpenSiLCC. OpenSiLCC allows users to parse and categorize any text on the fly. We are also developing open source applications which exemplify use. They’re potential building blocks for your ideas with code to help get you started. One of them, Abraxas is live and can be found here. Get the Abraxas code.

To sign up, visit What are some use potential use-cases for OpenSiLCC?

  • SMS messages coming from Frontline or Clickatell could be tagged and categorized in real-time.
  • Users could aggregate non-tagged data (say from Twitter), parse, and output feeds with tags.
  • Develop your own glossaries and text parsers for content unique to your organization (or language).
  • Identify relationships between seemingly disparate message types (email, sms, twitter).

Sign Up For Web Services

Read the related post “Taxonomy for Text Messages“.

The next version of SwiftRiver (0.2.0 Batuque) will ship with these services (OpenSiLCC and others) fully integrated.

Visualizing Redundant Data Validation by Jon Gosier (Ushahidi)

data visualization

The following visualizations represent the various methods that go into calculating the reputation and veracity scores for users and content within the SwiftRiver platform. They are in part a response to this comment from reader Charles Bernard on this post. His comment:

In many instances, there are entities with a vested interest in preventing valid information regarding things such as voting, battles and even disasters, both natural and man-made.

For nearly any human effort, there exist a group of entities which would profit by either the details or the extent of a problem being kept from the public–and that can include relief agencies.

While tracking particular sources and their validity of reports is a step in the right direction, some entities, in particular governments and large corporations have access to the resources needed to generate thousands or even 100,00s of thousands of false data reports, flooding the system with misinformation.

In other words, what steps are we taking to prevent individuals with malicious intent from gaming SwiftRiver? Here was my response:

With Swift, we aren’t just validating content, we’re also validating users, users validate each other and content validates users. Content can also be used to verify other content. This creates a system that’s difficult to dupe, as one looking to falsify information would need to thousands of false reports from a number of different ‘users’, locations, and media channels.

What would be absolutely possible is for a group to download Swift, set up their own instance with all sorts of fake information and publicize it as fact. However, our distributed, decentralized reputation system River ID would show that outside of that instances ‘ecosystem’ no one trusts those users, or the instance. If the administrators opt out of tracking…they also forfeit any sort of benefits that come from River ID (trust from users who don’t know you or your site). In this case falsifying information is indeed easy, but promoting it becomes self-defeating, as the more people who aren’t under your influence see it, the less authority your Swift instance (with all it’s fake reports) actually holds.

I thought these concepts might be hard to grasp so I made the following Arc Diagrams to give a visual representation of what I actually mean. Click the images for high-versions. In the images below, the light grey color is simply used to indicate that content isn’t important for what that particular chart is showing you.


Fig. 1 Individual Voting Against the Community

Figure 1 represents the most classic scenario of ‘gaming’, spam, bots or human individuals who are trying to vote bogus content ‘up’ so it will be weighted higher than other content. Section “A” represents User 1. Section “B” represents the activity of User 2 (our spammer). Section “E” represents the community within this particular Swift instance. Section “F” represents the users of our distributed trust system River ID or the global SwiftRiver economy. Section “C” represents individual content items. Section “D” represents the source that content is coming from.

The thickness of the lines connecting the users to the content and the source, represents how they’ve voted on those particular things. The thickness of the line for User 2 tells us that he’s rating these things very highly. Perhaps they come from his blog, and he wants them at the top! The thickness of the lines from the local community of the SwiftRiver instance as well as the global users tells us that these content sources are suspect. We can see that User 1 (who represents our average, active user) is voting closer to the how the community is voting, in fact even harsher than the community votes both the content and the source (represented by thinner lines).

This dynamic relationship between users and their interactions with content (in contrast to the local and global community) is considered when scoring users, content, and the sources. In this case the person voting against the tide is actually damaging his or her own reputation both locally and globally. However, this isn’t the only thing we consider, otherwise it would encourage conformity which also isn’t good (sometimes the outlier knows something the rest don’t.)


Fig. 2 Factors Considered in Rating Content

In Figure 2 we can see that things like Time, Location, Activeness as well as Global and Local interaction, are all considered. Time (green) and Location (dark grey) are optional, for scenarios like a conflict or war. The content producer’s location, or proximity to ‘ground zero’ tells the system to factor this in to its score. Also the length of time that content is produced after the initial event may also tell us a lot. Things like ‘time’ and ‘location’ are optional because if your Swift instance is tracking something like a political scandal, time and proximity may not actually add any value to authority calculations.

Purple represents how active Users 1 and 2 are. In and of itself how much someone uses a Swift instance is irrelevants. It could mean that they are an eager member providing valuable assistance, or it could mean they are attempting a brute force attack on the system similar to the Figure 1 scenario. However, when coupled with other factors, frequency of interaction is considered and can positively or negatively weight the score for a user.


Fig. 3 Ratings Visible to Users

In Figure 3 I’m illustrating what information is visibly shared in the scenarios above. The trust the local community has for Users 1 and 2 is displayed. The trust the global RiverID system has for Users 1 and 2 is also displayed. Thus, the trust Users 1 and 2 should have for each other is inferred.

Swift’s strength is in multiple points of redundancy. All scores are calculated against a multitude of other factors which may or may not be independent to the local community. This allows users to build scores more organically than x=bad y=good. There are some probabilistic calculations as well as algorithmic intricacies that make all this a lot more complex (a lot of math beyond my paygrade). We also calculate things like tags and content influence which compound the complexity.

Unless the local Swift instance administrators opt-in to participating in the global Swift ecosystem, their instance only holds authority with the people using it. In theory, their ‘gaming’ would then be contained to their local Swift instance. The fact that global authority isn’t considered would be an indicator that the public shouldn’t trust it. If they do opt-in to the global ecosystem, it becomes increasingly harder to continue gaming the system, as your scores are constantly weighted against the global community’s.

Because Swift is open source, it’s easy to reverse engineer or hack parts of the local system. But this is why we announced Swift Web Services last month, core components to the global system are centralized and well protected. This protects the global ecosystem, but still allows for independent uses of SwiftRiver, and all of it’s components as open, locally deployable apps. Some users, for example election monitors, may not want their SwiftRiver instance online at all. In that case, global authority doesn’t matter, the instance can and should only be influential amongst the people using it. This is why we opted for cloud solutions in addition to local deployment options, yet another redundancy to ensure the platform’s usefulness in multiple scenarios.

Marine Corp Family for Quality Healthcare Calls to an End to the Feres by Freire Family

The Freire Family had two sons that went off to war. Both of them came back from the Middle East healthy and in one piece. Ezequiel Freire, the youngest at the ripe age of 20 was put into the hospital for an easily treatable problem and never made it out due to alleged negligence from the medical staff. The family is now avidly opposing this Feres Doctrine that most people are not informed of until tragedy strikes.

It is our Military’s job to protect us, but we aren’t protecting them when they come home.

PRWEB — The Freire Family had two sons that went off to war. Both of them came back from the Middle East healthy and in one piece. Ezequiel Freire, the youngest at the ripe age of 20 was put into the hospital for an easily treatable problem and never made it out due to alleged negligence from the medical staff. The family is now avidly opposing this Feres Doctrine that most people are not informed of until tragedy strikes.

There is a doctrine that prevents military personnel and veterans from filing a tort claim for any injuries on active duty, even when the government is grossly negligent. It was adopted by Congress in 1950 and, with the approval of the Supreme Court, The Feres Doctrine became Law Of The Land the same year.

Lieutenant Feres was killed in a barracks fire on a military installation in New York State in 1946. His wife filed suit under the Federal Tort Claim Act of 1946. Feres v. United States, 340 U.S. 135 (1950)

She lost in 1950 when the “Feres” Doctrine was adopted.

In 1946, President Truman appointed Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson to become the lead prosecutor at the Nuremberg International War Crimes Tribunal.

After witnessing the presentation of the crimes against humanity of the defendants in the docket which resulted in the death penalty for most of the Nazi leadership found guilty of said crimes, Judge Jackson became the author of the Feres Doctrine.

Our forefathers placed this information in the First Amendment, ahead of the Right To Bear Arms, because of the brutal treatment of English citizens by King George. So Congress “adopted” the Feres Doctrine and then the Supreme Court made it the “law of the land”.

Feres states that no service member or their families may take civil action against any government official for any crime “incident to service”. Crimes of murder, rape, torture, assault, perjury, negligence, experimentation, etc., can be prosecuted criminally, but not civilly.

The Right to petition the courts of this land to seek redress against the government, as guaranteed by the Constitution of The United States does not apply to those who have sworn to protect and defend the very same Constitution!

When someone takes the oath of enlistment/commission, he or she swears to protect the Constitution of The United States against all enemies, both foreign and domestic…… At that very instant, the Feres Doctrine becomes effective without the knowledge of those just sworn into the Armed Forces.

Though the Military do not have the same rights of freedom of speech that we do as Americans due to being sworn in, a congressional appeal on behalf of the family will be written to overthrow this doctrine on May 1st 2010.

To learn more go to

To help sign the petition to overthrow this Doctrine please sign your name at

For the full Feres Doctrine visit

The Collapse of Complex Business Models by Clay Shirky

I gave a talk last year to a group of TV executives gathered for an annual conference. From the Q&A after, it was clear that for them, the question wasn’t whether the internet was going to alter their business, but about the mode and tempo of that alteration. Against that background, though, they were worried about a much more practical matter: When, they asked, would online video generate enough money to cover their current costs?

That kind of question comes up a lot. It’s a tough one to answer, not just because the answer is unlikely to make anybody happy, but because the premise is more important than the question itself.

There are two essential bits of background here. The first is that most TV is made by for-profit companies, and there are two ways to generate a profit: raise revenues above expenses, or cut expenses below revenues. The other is that, for many media business, that second option is unreachable.

Here’s why.

* * *

In 1988, Joseph Tainter wrote a chilling book called The Collapse of Complex Societies. Tainter looked at several societies that gradually arrived at a level of remarkable sophistication then suddenly collapsed: the Romans, the Lowlands Maya, the inhabitants of Chaco canyon. Every one of those groups had rich traditions, complex social structures, advanced technology, but despite their sophistication, they collapsed, impoverishing and scattering their citizens and leaving little but future archeological sites as evidence of previous greatness. Tainter asked himself whether there was some explanation common to these sudden dissolutions.

The answer he arrived at was that they hadn’t collapsed despite their cultural sophistication, they’d collapsed because of it. Subject to violent compression, Tainter’s story goes like this: a group of people, through a combination of social organization and environmental luck, finds itself with a surplus of resources. Managing this surplus makes society more complex—agriculture rewards mathematical skill, granaries require new forms of construction, and so on.

Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.

Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.

The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden decoherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake—”[U]nder a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.

When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.

* * *

In the mid-90s, I got a call from some friends at ATT, asking me to help them research the nascent web-hosting business. They thought ATT’s famous “five 9’s” reliability (services that work 99.999% of the time) would be valuable, but they couldn’t figure out how $20 a month, then the going rate, could cover the costs for good web hosting, much less leave a profit.

I started describing the web hosting I’d used, including the process of developing web sites locally, uploading them to the server, and then checking to see if anything had broken.

“But if you don’t have a staging server, you’d be changing things on the live site!” They explained this to me in the tone you’d use to explain to a small child why you don’t want to drink bleach. “Oh yeah, it was horrible”, I said. “Sometimes the servers would crash, and we’d just have to re-boot and start from scratch.” There was a long silence on the other end, the silence peculiar to conference calls when an entire group stops to think.

The ATT guys had correctly understood that the income from $20-a-month customers wouldn’t pay for good web hosting. What they hadn’t understood, were in fact professionally incapable of understanding, was that the industry solution, circa 1996, was to offer hosting that wasn’t very good.

This, for the ATT guys, wasn’t depressing so much as confusing. We finished up the call, and it was polite enough, but it was perfectly clear that there wasn’t going to be a consulting gig out of it, because it wasn’t a market they could get into, not because they didn’t want to, but because they couldn’t.

It would be easy to regard this as short-sighted on their part, but that ignores the realities of culture. For a century, ATT’s culture had prized—insisted on—quality of service; they ran their own power grid to keep the dial-tone humming during blackouts. ATT, like most organizations, could not be good at the thing it was good at and good at the opposite thing at the same time. The web hosting business, because it followed the “Simplicity first, quality later” model, didn’t just present a new market, it required new cultural imperatives.

* * *

Dr. Amy Smith is a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, where she runs the Development Lab, or D-Lab, a lab organized around simple and cheap engineering solutions for the developing world.

Among the rules of thumb she offers for building in that environment is this: “If you want something to be 10 times cheaper, take out 90% of the materials.” Making media is like that now except, for “materials”, substitute “labor.”

* * *

About 15 years ago, the supply part of media’s supply-and-demand curve went parabolic, with a predictably inverse effect on price. Since then, a battalion of media elites have lined up to declare that exactly the opposite thing will start happening any day now.

To pick a couple of examples more or less at random, last year Barry Diller of IAC said, of content available on the web, “It is not free, and is not going to be,” Steve Brill of Journalism Online said that users “just need to get back into the habit of doing so [paying for content] online”, and Rupert Murdoch of News Corp said “Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use.”

Diller, Brill, and Murdoch seem be stating a simple fact—we will have to pay them—but this fact is not in fact a fact. Instead, it is a choice, one its proponents often decline to spell out in full, because, spelled out in full, it would read something like this:

“Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don’t know how to do that.”

* * *

One of the interesting questions about Tainter’s thesis is whether markets and democracy, the core mechanisms of the modern world, will let us avoid complexity-driven collapse, by keeping any one group of elites from seizing unbroken control. This is, as Tainter notes in his book, an open question. There is, however, one element of complex society into which neither markets nor democracy reach—bureaucracy.

Bureaucracies temporarily suspend the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In a bureaucracy, it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one.

In spring of 2007, the web video comedy In the Motherhood made the move to TV. In the Motherhood started online as a series of short videos, with viewers contributing funny stories from their own lives and voting on their favorites. This tactic generated good ideas at low cost as well as endearing the show to its viewers; the show’s tag line was “By Moms, For Moms, About Moms.”

The move to TV was an affirmation of this technique; when ABC launched the public forum for the new TV version, they told users their input “might just become inspiration for a story by the writers.”

Or it might not. Once the show moved to television, the Writers Guild of America got involved. They were OK with For and About Moms, but By Moms violated Guild rules. The producers tried to negotiate, to no avail, so the idea of audience engagement was canned (as was In the Motherhood itself some months later, after failing to engage viewers as the web version had).

The critical fact about this negotiation wasn’t about the mothers, or their stories, or how those stories might be used. The critical fact was that the negotiation took place in the grid of the television industry, between entities incorporated around a 20th century business logic, and entirely within invented constraints. At no point did the negotiation about audience involvement hinge on the question “Would this be an interesting thing to try?”

* * *

Here is the answer to that question from the TV executives.

In the future, at least some methods of producing video for the web will become as complex, with as many details to attend to, as television has today, and people will doubtless make pots of money on those forms of production. It’s tempting, at least for the people benefitting from the old complexity, to imagine that if things used to be complex, and they’re going to be complex, then everything can just stay complex in the meantime. That’s not how it works, however.

The most watched minute of video made in the last five years shows baby Charlie biting his brother’s finger. (Twice!) That minute has been watched by more people than the viewership of American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, and the Superbowl combined. (174 million views and counting.)

Some video still has to be complex to be valuable, but the logic of the old media ecoystem, where video had to be complex simply to be video, is broken. Expensive bits of video made in complex ways now compete with cheap bits made in simple ways. “Charlie Bit My Finger” was made by amateurs, in one take, with a lousy camera. No professionals were involved in selecting or editing or distributing it. Not one dime changed hands anywhere between creator, host, and viewers. A world where that is the kind of thing that just happens from time to time is a world where complexity is neither an absolute requirement nor an automatic advantage.

When ecosystems change and inflexible institutions collapse, their members disperse, abandoning old beliefs, trying new things, making their living in different ways than they used to. It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.

Apple like 19th Century railroad baron [says canal owner] by Ronald O Carson

Adobe’s made the questionable decision to use a historical metaphor to described recent Apple moves to block Flash from the iPhone OS platform. Thereupon, it’s pretty easy to aptly extend that metaphor to include Adobe, which is still futilely pushing its last century multimedia technology.

MarketWatch is reporting comments by Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch in which he likens Apple’s decision to block Flash to the behavior of 19th Century railroad barons, who were known for doing whatever it took to win.

“Apple’s playing this strategy where they want to create a walled garden,” said Lynch at a tech conference in San Francisco, likening the company’s moves to the deployment of railways with varying gauges in the 1800s, which precluded compatibility with the trains of rivals.

“If you look at what’s going on right now, it’s kind of like railroads in the 1800s,” he added.

Well, if Apple’s a railroad — a technology that rapidly spread technology, development and wealth around the world — then Adobe most assuredly is a canal, a great way to deliver stuff if you don’t mind slow (really slow) not to mention government subsidies and massive public works boondoggles. Canals, along with their backers in the government bureaucracy, fought a decades long rearguard action against railroads that ultimately saw them lose out to a superior technology.

Fundamentally uncompetitive

Whereas Adobe’s CEO has said Apple (and even Microsoft’s) qualms about Flash’s numerous technical failings — security, performance, resource consumption — are merely a smokescreen, there’s no question that Flash is a very last century way of delivering multimedia. It’s an unnecessary and, frankly, unwanted middleman between we the users and content.

Thereupon, one assumes once Adobe’s attempt to tar Apple with the antitrust brush fails, they’ll be back in Washington seeking subsidies or even protection — at least that’s the way railroad vs. canal metaphor played out historically.

Perhaps we should love and embrace Flash out of a sense of nostalgia?

Thereupon, let’s erect a granite monument to Flash saying how grateful we are for its role fostering development of the web (up to about 2005) and just skip straight to the good part (a Flash free future)…

Article is from BLORGE is a technology news site covering general technology and science, Vista, Macintosh, iPhone and Touch, gaming, photography, and buying guides. It was founded in October 2006 by John Pospisil ( Our team of international writers is dedicated to providing gutsy, honest and informed coverage and comment on key technology news and issues, without fear or favor. We serve the global IT community. We want to inform, stimulate and entertain. We want to provide a fresh, independent perspective. Our motto is “technology with attitude”.

Google and the Napoleonic Model: Business in Revolutionary Times by Robert Greene

In my book The 33 Strategies of War, I tried to determine what made Napoleon Bonaparte such a strategic genius. After much research, the answer I came up with was not what I had expected. Napoleon was essentially a brilliant organizer. Living in revolutionary times, he determined that what would make an army unbeatable was its speed and mobility–the capacity to adapt faster than the enemy to changing circumstances. To do so he needed a new organizational model, something that had never been tried before in warfare.
He would break his large army up into small, fast-moving divisions. He would give the field marshals who led these divisions complete freedom to make decisions in the moment, without having to consult him. This could lead to some chaos, but he enjoyed the room for creativity that came with it. He encouraged soldiers on all levels to show initiative, and gave them the chance to rise from the bottom to the top–as he had done. This army was now fighting for an idea–to spread the French revolution throughout Europe.
This mobile, highly motivated fighting force completely overwhelmed its opponents in one major battle after another, utilizing a new strategy–maneuver warfare. Instead of marching to a prescribed place to meet the enemy, Napoleon would throw his divisions into a scattered pattern and depending on how the enemy reacted, he would close in on it from several directions.
The gist of the Napoleonic revolution in warfare was not technological, but strategic. He had a superior idea and exploited it to the maximum–until 1806, when age and too much power weighed him down and he came to prefer size to fluidity.
I saw in Napoleon a model for success for any group operating in a transitional period in history, where speed and mobility is the key. This means paying supreme attention to how your group is organized and creating a structure that fits the times.
While I was doing research for The 33 Strategies of War, I became intrigued by a company that seemed to exemplify–in an almost uncanny way–the Napoleonic model. That company was Google. I initiated an informal study–gathering as much material and contacts within the company as possible. And as I went deeper into this subject, I saw more and more connections. The following is the gist of my analysis:
Like Napoleon (who had risen from the bottom of the French army), the two founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, came from a radically different background than your average CEO. They were scientists at Stanford, their field being statistics and probability. In founding Google in the late 1990s, based around their innovations in the field of search engines, they came to several important conclusions: the Internet is going to radically alter the business environment. The world is entering a new era–the Information Age. They wanted their company to reflect these changes. They needed to create their own business and organizational model. And so they studied in depth how other businesses operated, particularly in technology, to see if there were lessons to be learned.
Most of these companies, like Microsoft, had intense layers of bureaucracy. They would have a giant staff of software engineers to create new products. But before such products could be launched, they had to be integrated with everything else, and they had to be as close to perfect as possible. Once the product was ready, large-scale sales and marketing teams would go into action, making sure they saturated the public. If these companies were creating any kind of content, there was an editorial staff. To keep this all running smoothly, they had to have a very large management staff.
To roll out any new product would take years, as this machinery was slow and lumbering. All of the different departments and layers of bureaucracy had to be brought into the process. By the time the product came out, competitors had already appeared, but it was too late to adapt to what was evolving. The sheer size of the company made it difficult to maintain close ties to the public; better to make perfect products and sell them hard than respond to public feedback. Everything was geared towards market domination–using vast resources and muscle to maintain that.
All of this bureaucracy created small power bases from within the company, increasing the political games being played and adding to the slowness. A company like IBM once dominated the computer field, but completely lost ground in the 1980s, mostly because it did not believe in the personal computer. There were some from within the company that thought differently, but they could not get their voices heard or influence the entrenched culture. All of the resources that IBM had were useless in the face of such rigidity–proving that structure, strategy and ideas are more important than money and technology. (In war, a similar example would be the Blitzkrieg of 1941: the French had superior equipment and technology, but their ideas on how to use them were completely outmoded and they collapsed in the face of a superior strategy.)
To Page and Brin, a company in this new environment had to be lean and fast, able to stay ahead of the innovation cycle and adapt quickly to trends. They had to build a new kind of structure. This governed most of their key organizational decisions. They would not produce any content; Google would serve as a platform for others to create or move content, enhancing the flow of information. They would have no editorial staff. To make money, they would sell advertising space, but all of this would be automated. Customers would buy through a self-serve platform. This allowed Google to have a minimal sales staff. Any kind of feedback or data on advertising sales could flow directly and immediately to anyone within the company–there were no bottlenecks from within to slow down the flow of information.
Google would have a relatively small staff of engineers. They would hire the best but keep the numbers down. They predicated this all on their philosophy of release often, release early. They would not spend months perfecting their latest product–in fact they would release it in a beta version and let the customers help improve it with their feedback. This meant no marketing or sales team to push the new product. This would also help them to develop close ties to their client base and make people feel involved in the process.
As a result of all this, the company would need far fewer managers to keep Google running. As far as possible, employees would be self-managed.
It is this remarkable lightness of Google that has allowed them to move, adapt and expand at such a rapid rate. This mobility is the foundation of their power, as it was for Napoleon. To ignore this simple truth is to ignore a fundamental principle of strategy.
In addition, Google created a completely different culture. The company was broken down into small units that could be self-managed. They created the 20% rule: all employees must devote 20% of their time to creating something of their own–a pet project, an innovative idea that could later fit into Google or, if not, could be taken elsewhere. Periodically small teams of peers would review these projects and critique them. It became possible to rise fast within the company and make a fortune.
The culture was centered around the idea that Google was the spearhead of a revolution: this was the company that was going to give the world access to information, to everything going on in the world and allow people to make what they wanted with it. This sense of being part of a cause created an extremely motivated workforce that does not need to be policed by teams of managers. A degree of chaos is allowed for and even encouraged.
With such an organization in place, Google could practice a kind of maneuver warfare. Most companies focus on dominating a particular position in the marketplace, like armies that marched to meet the enemy at a set point. This is old style warfare and business–linear and predictable. In the new environment what matters is putting your company in a position in which it can quickly adapt to the latest trend and get a toehold there before others. To do so, you have to be built for that.
As a company that focused on primarily having a search engine as its center, Google could quickly move to other areas–Gmail or Google News, et al–all with the aim of creating a kind of operating system for the Internet. If some new trend appears on the horizon, they are ready to pounce and exploit it. For instance, they saw great potential for YouTube, tried to produce their own version of it and when that failed, they simply bought YouTube. This kind of fluidity is unheard of in business and devastatingly powerful.
As opposed to past models, Google does not invent something they think is clever and then figure out how to market it to the masses, with all of the time and money that requires. They work on what is already there–the demand that is palpable. As opposed to the traditional business practice as it evolved in the era of mass consumption, their ideal is to create less and less distance between themselves and their customers.
I focus on Google because to me they are the most radical version of a new business model that has succeeded on a large scale. I could also bring in other companies that have experimented as well and had success. A company like Zara, which has adapted brilliantly to the new environment, has based its model on the speed with which it can produce items that respond to the latest trends, giving consumers a much wider choice. The company is structured in a similar loose fashion to Google. There are many other examples as well on smaller scales all around the world. As the tsunami of the global meltdown is receding, these are the companies that are poised to take over.
I do not mean to imply that Google is infallible and already we see signs of their limitations. Like Napoleon, they could slowly morph into the enemy, into a slightly more mobile version of Microsoft. This was merely to point out the radical departure they made in the initial structure of the company and the power that brought them. If they are smart, they could dominate the scene for years to come, but nothing is certain.
This then is the point that we have reached: What is really changing in the world is not technology, or the globalization of capital, but the relationships between people–relationships that were once hierarchical and based on the force of authority. This has been radically flattened. What matters most now are the connections between people, the interdependencies and networks that can be formed and the unimpeded flow of information. Any kind of obstruction to that flow will be seen as something from the past, someone or some group trying to halt the course of an historic fatality.
We are in the midst of a countercurrent. As the new is flowing in, the tide of the old is still there. We see signs of this decrepitude everywhere. Looking at large businesses with their big marketing campaigns, often tied around celebrities, we are simply seeing dinosaurs making a lot of noise before they disappear. The signs of this old order clinging to power are everywhere, and it will be quite a spectacle to see them become extinct in the years to come.
Without grasping this wider perspective of what is happening in the world, the crest of a change that began millennia ago but greatly accelerated by the advent of the Information Age, nothing you do will have any kind of lasting effect or power.
Robert Greene is the author of three bestselling books: The 48 Laws of Power, The Art of Seduction, and The 33 Strategies of War. He attended U.C. California at Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he received a degree in classical studies. He has worked in New York as an editor and writer at several magazines, including Esquire; and in Hollywood as a story developer and writer. Greene has lived in London, Paris and Barcelona; he speaks several languages and has worked as a translator. He currently lives in Los Angeles.