Category Archives: random

60 days

In case you wondered why there were no updates on this blog recently, the answer is simple – I am dissertating. I need to have a finished manuscript by mid June, which leaves me with around 60 days to finish the task. Wish me luck! :)

In other news, which you may have already seen on Facebook, an article I co-authored with Erik Nisbet and Tarleton Gillespie got published in The Information Society and we got some press coverage in Cornell Chronicle. Here is the abstract of the paper:

Addressing the reasons for—and the solutions to—the “digital divide” has been on the public agenda since the emergence of the Internet. However, the term has meant quite different things, depending on the audience and the context, and these competing interpretations may in fact orient toward different policy outcomes. The goals of this article are twofold. First, the authors unpack the term “digital divide” and examine how it has been deployed and interpreted across a range of academic and policy discourses. Second, through a framing experiment embedded within a nationally representative survey, the authors demonstrate how presenting respondents with two different conceptual frames of the digital divide may lead to different perceptions of who is most accountable for addressing the issue. From this, they discuss the dynamic relationship between the construction and communication of policy discourse and the public understanding of the digital divide, as well as implications for effective communication about the digital divide and information and communication technology policy to the general public.

Feel free to contact me if you want to read the entire piece and don’t have access.

Is it the time to lobby?

It’s been quiet on this blog for a while, so I decided to share an observation based on some conversations I recently had at one of the Internet governance meetings.  The conversations were about ICT companies and the point was that while Western companies are extremely enthusiastic about emerging markets, they do not consider their regulatory systems with the same rigor as they do in the developed world.  In other words, while in the developed countries these companies invest considerable resources in working with the governments and lobbying, in the developing countries their efforts are primarily in marketing.  Even when they do work with governments, it is mostly done through the marketing departments where the governments are viewed primarily as costumers, less as regulators.

I heard similar observations from a number of industry players and also from a government official.  I listened and “filed” these observations, but they were  brought back to life with the recent explosion of the BlackBerry story.  You may know that the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and now also India and a number of other countries, are threatening to ban BlackBerry unless RIM allows them access to the encrypted email data of BlackBerry users, stored on the company’s servers.  India gave RIM an ultimatum until the end of the month to comply and the rumor is that the Indian government has similar plans for Google, Skype, and perhaps others.

I wonder how did RIM find itself in such a situation?  Will other global technological companies find themselves in a similar situation soon too?  Peter Svensson writes in Washington Post today:

“Threats by the governments of India, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to shut down BlackBerry’s corporate e-mail services reflect unease about a technology that the U.S. government also took a while to accept.  The foreign governments are essentially a decade behind in coming to terms with encryption, a technology that’s fundamental to the Internet as a medium of commerce. (…) RIM, the company behind the BlackBerry, doesn’t have years to wait for foreign governments to adopt the more relaxed U.S. stance toward encryption.”

I assume Svensson is right about his historical perspective; after all, writing about this is his bread an butter.  At the same time, given that all the governments currently having an issue with BlackBerry are in developing countries, I think he is missing the point made by the people I talked to about the Western companies’ attitudes to the emerging markets’ governments.

It did not take the US government years to figure out its stand on encryption on its own.  On the contrary, this position is a result of years of dialogue, argument, and debates between the government and the various interest groups, primarily the industry, through its lobbying activities, and the civil society.  We can see a similar discussion taking place these days around the issue of net neutrality.

It seems to me that until the RIMs, Googles, and Skypes of this world won’t take the regulators in the developing world as seriously as they take the governments back home, we will continue seeing more “BlackBerry” cases.  Until the multinational MICT companies will not engage in a meaningful  way with the local governments in the emerging markets, the barriers to their activities there will continue growing and become more sophisticated, especially when it comes to such a politicized area as information.

So, I wonder if it is the time for these companies to start lobbying in the developing world just the way they are lobbying here.  While I am aware of the potentially harmful influences of lobbying, it is an integral part of the policymaking mechanism and, for better or worse, it also has an educational impact on the policymakers.  At the end of the day, usually those are the governments that are catching up with technology, while the industry is ahead of the curve.

What do you think?  Is it the time to lobby?

When I have the time…

I love building things, but I do not have enough time to do that and quite frankly I do not have the best conditions to do that at the moment.  So, in the meantime (and as a form of procrastination) I’ve been collecting projects that it could be fun to build once I have the time.  Most of them came from the MAKE magazine’s blog, which is a worthwhile space if you are interested in this kind of projects (but it is quite overwhelming in terms of volumes).

So, here are the DIY projects that I liked.  It is sort of repository for myself and also for anybody who has an interest.  Please feel free to suggest more ideas.

and a larger and rather different variation

I will stop here for now… more may follow later :)

The story of Felix Zandman

In the bubble where I live, media, information, and communication technologies (MICTs) are truly ubiquitous.  Most of the time I, and those around me, use these technologies thinking very little about how they were invented and the people who brought them to us.  Yet, the more I learn about MICT the more fascinated I become with the individuals behind some of the major technological breakthroughs and innovations.  I think some of their personal stories are truly fascinating and can give us a really unique perspective on their inventions.

Dr. Felix Zandman My dad sent me a link to a documentary about one such person, Felix Zandman (in the picture).  I have never heard about him before, even though most of my gadgets, and in fact the field of my studies, owe quite a lot to his talent.  If you are using a laptop, a mobile phone, a digital camera or any other piece of electronics, most probably you are enjoying fruits of his work.  Zandman, who is one of the only six recipients of  Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Electronic Distributors Association (and a “few” other awards), is the founder of Vishay Intertechnology – one of the world’s largest manufacturers of discrete semiconductors and passive electronic components.  In fact, many of the innovations in the sphere of minimization of electronic components came from Zandman’s ideas, which I think is amazing.

Even more amazing in my view is Zandmand’s personal story.  His entire family, except for one uncle, was killed in the Holocaust.  He survived through a series of coincidences (or miracles if you want), human compassion, and living in a hole (literally) with 3 (and then 4) more people for 17 months.  He came out of that war with nothing and ended up building a Fortune 1000 company and creating technology that touches lives of billions of people.  I find his personal story truly amazing and inspiring, and my attempt to abbreviate it here does not do it much justice.

If you have an hour to spare, I encourage you to watch the entire documentary.  Someone uploaded it on 56.com (part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 – warning: it’s really slow, you need to let it buffer for a while to watch it smoothly) and the first 20 minutes or so are also available on YouTube (part 1, part 2) – all with English subtitles and narration.  Most of what I know about the story of Felix Zandman at this point is from this documentary (the online materials are scarce), but it really got me interested in his personality and now I also intend to read his memoirs, Never The Last Journey.

On discourse and shaping of the information society

There was a very interesting talk at the Berkman Center back in January.  Julie Cohen, a law professor from Georgetown University, talked about her upcoming book “The Networked Self: Copyright, Privacy, and the Production of Networked Space.”

What I found particularly interesting about this talk is her attempt to introduce sociological literature into a predominantly legal debate.  Her point of departure is the gap between the rhetoric of law and policy aimed at shaping the information society and the realities on the ground.  For example, she points at the language of economic liberties as fueling the information society governance debate, but at the same time there are laws and regulations that significantly restrict those liberties being that through strong copyright or weak individual privacy protections.  She also highlights that while the policy discourse is usually abstract, the individual’s interpretation of the law and his or her interaction with information and technology is very concrete and situated in a particular physical reality.  Although she focuses on the policy debate in the US, I think her framework can be helpful in thinking about discourse and policymaking elsewhere.

Reaching across the disciplinary isle is not a trivial task and during Cohen’s talk at Berkman it was interesting to see how, during the Q&A, the lawyers in the room took her presentation to different directions from where I think it would go has she been giving her talk in a Communication or an STS departments.  Yet, I think she did a very good job linking the abstract thinking of sociologists about the concrete actions of people to the concrete thinking of the legal scholars about the abstract concepts of the law.  I view it is a part of a very important interdisciplinary dialogue we should have in the field and on purely selfish grounds it helps me to think about communicating the relevance of my dissertation research to the more “hard core” policy debate.

You are invited to watch the talk as well as to read its coverage on Ethan Zuckerman’s, David Weinberger’s, and John Palfrey’s blogs.  In addition, I found a recent paper written by Julie Cohen, which provides an outline of her book (in case you don’t have the time to watch the video).

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Enjoy!

The duality of hoidays

Quoting my dear friend, Anichka: “Hello Two Thousand and Ten! You be good now.”  This is my first post in the new year and I would like to use this opportunity to share a short semi-theoretical observation.

There was an article in the NY Times titled “Saying No, No, No to the Ho-Ho-Ho.”  The article is about people who have decided not to celebrate Christmas in 2009.  People did it for various reasons, but the following quote from Renata Rafferty, a 53-year-old philanthropy adviser, I think summarizes the overall sentiment.  She said that she decided not to stress herself by “conforming to some tyranny of the ‘shoulds.’”

I think this idea of the “tyranny of ‘shoulds'” is a great example of social structures as those are defined in the Theory of Structuration.  We do things because this is the way it is, because we are used to.  This is how we grew up doing them and we do not think much about their meaning or why we partake in that specific activity.  People celebrate Christmas (or any other holiday for that matter) in a particular way because they should and because they grew up doing it that way.  People in many places over the world shop away the month of December, just because this is “expected” and constantly reinforced.  For example, until recently, once of the jewelry counters in a local mall, had a sign saying “Accessorize your love this Christmas” and that was the leitmotif of the entire holiday season elsewhere.

However, ideas such as those presented in the NYT article, are an example of reflexive monitoring of our behavior.  It provides a collection of opinion where people are discursively reflecting on their behavior, which in turn allows them to change it. The fact that this reflection is discursive allows others (like me, and now you reading this post) to reevaluate their behavior regarding that structure.  The interesting part in my eyes, that if you read the comments to the article you can see that this discursive reflection is used by some to reinforce their current behavior (particularly for those who don’t like what they see the holiday has become) or to alter it (the article was an “aha” moment for some of the readers) – all this happens in the context of how each one of those people is celebrating Christmas and how they grew up thinking about it (read, duality of structure).  Moreover, for yet another category of readers, especially those who like Christmas and the way it is celebrated, this discursive reflection caused to look for an alternative explanation as to why they think it should be kept the way it is.  Overall, there can be a great number of different reactions, but all of them would be fueled by the same reflective mechanism.

I think this is a really nice and interesting example of how the structuration works.  What do you think?  I only hope that I am not that owner of a hummer (theory) who views everything as nails (structuration).

NewYear2010

A glimpse at the Israeli tech

I have recently encountered some news articles discussing Israel and technology, so I thought I’d share a couple of observations: one about where Israelis are spending their time online and another one about the Israeli high-tech industry and its main challenge.

As to the first observations, it turns out that the five most popular websites in Israel are: Google (92.3%), Walla! (67.2%), Facebook (61.2%), Ynet (58.4%), and YouTube (54.9%). This is interesting and slightly surprising at the same time.  It is interesting because Facebook has outperformed Ynet and the Israeli equivalents of YouTube are nowhere near the top runners.  It is also interesting because US brands are occupying three out of top 5 places.  Of course in all of them, the users can do practically everything in Hebrew, but still, the local attempts to offer search, social networking, and online video, are not doing very well.

These statistics are also surprising, because there is an image of Israelis as being obsessed with news, but it seems like the social interactions are currently more interesting to them compared to the biometric database law and such.  Perhaps this is a sign of relative calm in the region.  Also, to me, one of the surprising aspects of the numbers above was that Walla! outperformed Ynet in popularity, because I was under the impression that Ynet is far more popular.  Perhaps that can be explained by the fact that Walla! offers not only news, but also email, shopping, and more (the exclamation mark in the name is there for a reason – they are taking the Yahoo! approach).  This may also be an explanation to why Ynet has recently offered its registered users a free email with unlimited capacity.

Asked explicitly about their browsing habits at work, the respondents to the survey listed the  same five websites at the top, but in a slightly different order: Google (87.8%), Ynet (52.8%), Walla! (47.9%), Facebook (31.2%),  and YouTube (25.3%).  It looks like the working people value news more than socializing and entertainment, but since I don’t have the actual survey in front of me, it hard to tell much.

As to the second observation, there is a new book out there, trying to analyze the success of the Israeli high-tech.  From its description the book sounds a bit too poetic (almost like a marketing brochure), but it cites  some interesting numbers and voices an important warning.  For example, there are around 3,850 start-up companies in Israel today and in 2008 the volume of venture capital investments in Israel was 2.5 higher compared to that in the US.  If you compare the per capita venture capital investment, the volumes in Israel are 30 times higher compared to Europe, 80 times higher compared to India, and 300 times higher compared to China (well, I guess this is one good thing about being a small country).  There are 63 Israeli companies traded on NASDAQ, which is the larger group of foreign companies from a single country on that exchange (the second largest group is Canada with 48 companies).  Finally, it turns out that Israel has one of the highest rates of investment in civil R&D in the world.  According to the article the country invests 4.5% (of its GDP I assume, because the article does not clarify that) in civil R&D, compared to 3.2% in Japan (the second largest) and 2.7% in the US (the third largest).

The book discusses a number of factors that contributed to the entrepreneurial culture and innovation in Israel (such as the immigration and combination of the army service and good higher education) and highlights one factor that endangers it all.  The authors, Dan Senor and Saul Singer, suggest that the state of the K-12 education in Israel is degrading and something needs to be done if Israel wants to maintain its innovative-entrepreneurial advantage – and I tend to agree.  I have not read the actual book, so I am not sure what exactly they are proposing, but I think it is good that this problem is getting attention in something that will probably become a popular read in the industry.

The Israeli TV industry: Some numbers

Israel is debating another reform in its broadcast TV industry, which allows an interesting peek on the numbers constructing the Israeli media market.

Currently there two private broadcast TV channels in Israel, which are supported through advertising (there is a government supported public channel as well).  Channel 2 started operating commercially in 1993 and Channel 10 joined the competition in 2002.  Both channels are operated through permits, which means that they have to be renewed every few years, which in turn is supposed to give the public body that monitors these channels, the Second Authority, the leverage to make demands for quality content.

One can debate whether or not the Authority is successful in imposing content quality standards, but the reform is aimed at moving from the permit regime to a license regime.  According to those pushing for the reform, this will allow to introduce another player to the Israeli broadcasting media market.  Since such a shift requires amending the law, the story starts with discussions in the Economic Committee of Knesset, the Israeli Parliament.

So, what can we learn from these debates?

  • According to Menashe Samir, the CEO of the Second Authority, the annual income of the commercial broadcasting TV stands on NIS 1.2 billion (around US $320 million), while operating a channel costs about NIS 400 million (around US $70 million).  Eran Pollack, from the Ministry of Finance, provided some more specific data, saying that in 2008 the commercial broadcasting channels had incomes of NIS 700 million for Channel 2 (US $187 million) and NIS 400 million for Channel 10 (US $107 million).
  • Eran Polack also said that in 2008 the overall TV industry in Israel had an income of approximately NIS 5.5. billion (US $1.47 billion).   The break down is really interesting.  The commercial broadcasting TV channels account only for a small portion of that pie; the Israeli cable and satellite TV providers account for almost two thirds of it.   HOT, the cable company had an income of NIS 2.085 billion (US $559 million) in 2008, and YES, the satellite company had an income of NIS 1.415 billion (US %378 million).  Also, the public channel accounted for about NIS 350 million of income (US $94 million).
  • As to the viewers, according to Yehuda Saban from the budget department, an average Israeli views 225 minutes of TV a day – over 3 and a half hours.  Children watch TV even more than that.  All this in spite of the fact that the costs of cable/satellite TV in Israel are relatively high; at the bottom 20% of the income group, people spend as much as 1.2% of their monthly income on TV.

It is f course also interesting to see how both supporters and opponents of the reform justify their positions through claims for greater societal benefit, but I won’t torture you with this now :)

Intel is doing it smart

At the last WTPF meeting I learned about the Magellan laptop project of the Portuguese government.  Every participant was provided with such a laptop for the duration of the forum, at the end of which the laptops were supposed to be donated “to children in a developing country.”  I am not sure where exactly they went, but many of the participants got to keep their laptops and were provided with a lot of information about the project.

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The Magellan laptop

The Magellan initiative, named after the 16th century explorer, is a collaboration between Intel and the Portuguese government.  According to Mr. Mario Lino, Minister of Public Works, Transport and Communications, it is part of the government’s commitment to development of the “information society” in Portugal.  The aim is to deliver those laptops to 1.1 million students registered in their e-school program and supposedly 800K have been already deployed.  Moreover, the initiative is looking to expand beyond the Portuguese borders.  A number of times during the forums it was mentioned that a really large shipment of Magellan laptops (if I remember correctly about 200K) went to Columbia and shipments to other corners of the world are on their way.

The project representatives I talked to at the forum were not ready to say how much it would cost if someone wanted to by a batch of these machines.  They sold them on spot for 250 Euro a piece, but told me that the price will be negotiated per project depending on the quantities and the educational needs of the client.  From my neighbor on the flights back to the US, whose kid participates in the program, I learned that in Portugal those laptops are distributed for 50 Euro maximum (if the family is not eligible for any additional subsidies).  If the family falls in certain category, it would get not only the laptop for free, but also an internet connection as long as there are children aged 8-10 in the household and their participate in the program.

Indeed, the program is very well known in Portugal.  I was lucky enough to receive one of those laptops and carrying it around and taking it on the plane attracted both attention and comments of the locals who were really proud about their local laptop traveling to the US.

Digging into it, Magellan laptop is the Classmate PC in a different cover.  I think Intel have handled it really smart with this project.  They gave the Portuguese government the ability to repackage their Classmate PC so that it could be presented to the world as a Portuguese laptop and the Portuguese government could take the credit.  In other words, the Portuguese government rips political dividend while helping Intel disseminating their technology.  Sort of a win-win situation.

The laptops are indeed assembled in Portugal (from parts made in China), which makes it the first European laptop.  My version came with Windows XP in English, but from my neighbor on the flights back I learned that machines distributed in Portugal come with dual boot of XP and Ubuntu.  Moreover, they come with an educational software, which according to my neighbor was rather buggy and not very useful.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the software.

The size, the design, and most importantly the purpose of the laptop (and the entire program), raised an immediate comparison to OLPC and XO, but on that (and more on the specs of the laptop) in a latter post.  In the meantime, here are few more pictures of the machine with some comments.

Just to give you a sense of its size compared to a standard business card; also note the handle to carry it around

Just to give you a sense of its size compared to a standard business card; also note the handle to carry it around

An open laptop: the keybord is pretty small (designed for kids) and my version has Portuguese layout; the touch pad is nice, but I couldn't figure out how to turn off the tapping functionality; note a built-in webcam above the screen

An open laptop: the keybord is pretty small (designed for kids) and my version has Portuguese layout; the touch pad is nice, but I couldn't figure out how to turn off the tapping functionality; note a built-in webcam above the screen

Right side: USB port, SD card reader, LAN, and power

Right side: USB port, SD card reader, LAN, and power

Left side: Another USB port, headphones and microphone jacks

Left side: Another USB port, headphones and microphone jacks

The bottom view of the laptop

The bottom view of the laptop

Another bottom view, this time with the battery out

Another bottom view, this time with the battery out