Chris Anderson’s “Free” isn’t Perfect, But I Think He’s Right. (Part 1)

I downloaded Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price from iTunes this weekend. (And I downloaded it for free, naturally.)

I was a fan of The Long Tail. It wasn’t always spot on, it was a simplification, and it definitely didn’t fit with a lot of my more “scholarly” reading, but I think it was a good book, and it really pointed to a significant change in the current information age.

Free, on the other hand?

I’m a little less taken with Free.

It’s not that I find fault with his primary premise– that as marginal costs come closer and closer to zero with the digital delivery of content, the only way to stay ahead of the curve is to go to a Free model, and hope that the big numbers and market dominance you get from going to Free will allow you to monetize something else. That concept really seems fundamentally solid.

My problem, actually, lies with many of the negative Amazon reviews being right. (I don’t remember the last time that I’ve had that particular promise– usually, I read one-star Amazon reviews in order to fuel my reading, as an ignorant nutball reading that my reading of the text needs to avoid and, indeed, counter.)

When you look at most of the negative reviews, you see a common criticism: what Anderson keeps expounding as new and revolutionary is really just the same-old, same-old. It’s bait and switch, loss leaders, the ad-based media model… Fundamentally, what Anderson is describing is a model that was created in the late nineteenth century and perfected in the first half of the twentieth.

Which is not to say that I agree with these pooh-pooh-ers. I think there is a fundamental change here. I think that, as long as it’s something that can be produced and distributed digitally, we’re approaching the point where there is such a thing as a free (virtual) lunch. It’s just that Anderson is downplaying the places where “Free” is the most revolutionary– and the most free– namely, piracy and the gift economy.

Very little (virtual or otherwise) ink gets used in this book describing the amazing amount of work that volunteers put in for dev and testing communities for things like Linux distros and the Mozilla family–purely for for the good of the community and a better end product for them as users. Little to-do is made about the rather revolutionary nature of (so-called) digital piracy, the only form of “theft” ever invented that deprives the original maker only of an opportunity, not of any property.

Instead, Anderson’s book is all about how to monetize Free.

On the one hand, this is one of the biggest questions of the current digital age. Everybody insisted that there was no “there” there when Google offered its IPO, that a business model based primarily on Free was obviously and completely doomed. But five years later, the company’s 2004 price seems like a smarter investment than ever. I would expect nothing less from the editor-in-chief of Wired.

But when you talk about how to monetize Free, it inevitably comes about that what you’re really talking about isn’t “free” Free, but “kinda” Free.

But Chris Anderson knows what side his bread is buttered on: he’s going to stick to the part of Free that’s going to appeal to and sell to people in business. Not because it’s the more interesting question, but because, well, they’re the ones with the money.

On page 98 of the book, Anderson writes:

Information that can be replicated and distributed at a low marginal cost wants to be free; information with high marginal costs wants to be expensive. So you can read a copy of this book online (abundant, commodity information) for free, but if you want me to fly to your city and prepare a custom talk on Free as it applies to your business, I’ll be happy to, but you’re going to have to pay me for my (scarce) time.

So if you own a Fortune 500 company, and you’re interested in finding out how Free can benefit your company, please— pay Mr. Anderson’s exorbitant-seeming speaker fees. You’ll be absorbing a hidden cost by doing so:

He wrote this book, rather than a far more interesting one, for the sake of you and your colleagues. So go support him, before he starts rethinking this whole free thing and I have to pay for access to old Wired articles.


Asus Eee PC 901 Review

I know there’s already about a million Eee PC reviews out there, but several of my Facebook and Twitter friends have asked me to take a minute to talk about my newest toy, an Asus Eee PC 901… So for the first time ever, I can claim to be writing a post “by popular demand.”

It occurred to me today that it might be almost predictable that I would like the Eee PC– it’s basically the ukulele of laptops. It’s small, portable, fun, and when you pull one out in front of people, their responses are usually either astonishment or amusement. It’s just so tiny! Some images to try to give a sense of scale:

Asus eee 901This is my Eee atop my 17″ Toshiba laptop, along with a pack of Bicycle playing cards. As you can tell, my Toshiba could eat my Eee. This is, of course, the entire point of the Eee. Weighing less than than two and a half pounds and only nine inches wide, the thing is extremely portable. It’s about the size of a leather-bound day planner.

Asus eee 901While its small size is the chief selling point of the Eee PC, it’s also one of its drawbacks. I’ve seen many reviews that say the keyboard is simply too small for an adult male. There’s some truth to this, but I take issue at the same time. I have to take this back to the ukulele comparison, here. It’s a reoccurring issue for beginners on ukuleles– the belief that having large fingers will make it impossible to play a small soprano uke. However, this just isn’t true. Once your fingers learn where to go, you can play the smaller uke. If a man the size of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole can play the ukulele, size is no excuse.

That said, I wouldn’t chose my Eee as my computer of choice for writing a seminar paper or writing a CSS style sheet from scratch. The smaller size makes touch-typing much more difficult, especially if you’re going to be (as I assume most users will) switching back and forth between it and regular-sized keyboards. The smaller keys do mean a few more slips of the fingers, and the compressed size also means making some sacrifices or compromises. The biggest example of this is the right shift key, which is the same size as (and directly to the left of) the up arrow– and this can create some very inconvenient typos.

Overall, though, I’m very happy with the purchase. This computer fits my needs– it was under five hundred dollars, it fits (with plenty of room for chords, a book or two, pens, etc.) in my man-purse, and the solid-state hard drive eases my mind about the occasional bump or thump it might get as I carry it around. It’s the perfect size to strap on my back and bike to class, to take to meetings or trips to libraries or archives. 20 gigs of memory isn’t the most, but it’s plenty for a secondary computer that you use primarily for webaps. (And the fact that it comes with an equal amount of online storage is awesome.)

Asus eee 901And it’s wicked fast. Like, seriously fast. Puts my theoretically much better main laptop to shame. In the default “easy mode” (pictured at left) it boots impossibly fast– a matter of seconds, and does it almost silently, too. The tabbed system of the easy mode is super-intuitive and simple– it looks almost like a toy or a computer that your grandmother could understand. But it’s slightly buggy, occasionally and inexplicably losing an icon. And on top of that, it doesn’t take full advantage of the KDE/Xandros Linux machine you’ve purchased. There’s not even an icon for the terminal window or Konqueror (two of the more powerful pieces of software on the thing, really…) in easy mode.

Asus eee 901I bought the Linux machine– you can purchase it with Windows XP if you’re more comfortable with that– for a reason. I’m not a huge fan of Leopard or Vista, and I knew that this means I’m going to want to start learning Linux. This is where the Advanced Desktop Mode (which you can see to the right) comes in.

At first I was confused why the folks at Asus didn’t just include the full desktop mode on the computer as a default– anyone who’s going to be buying a Linux-powered mini web machine like this is going to want to take full geeky advantage of it. But once I worked up the nerve to go under the hood, I found that it wasn’t that hard to install (although there is a little extra script editing for the 900 series due to a conflict that I don’t really understand as a Linux newbie). And the process of installing and activating the desktop got me (as an absolute beginner) familiar with some of the more important programs– the terminal window, Synaptic, and Kate. I feel more empowered and encouraged to look into expanding and altering the thing now that I understand how to get around, and have seen some basic commands in action.

Next step: upgrading to Openoffice 3, installing XAMP, and finding a good compatible Twitter client.

Overall, for the price, this thing can’t be matched. I’ve played around with the MacBook Air, and while it’s got more memory and power, it felt like it was going to snap in my hands. Plus, it costs three or four times as much and takes up more room in a bag. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a small, portable laptop. If you’re like me, and do ninety percent of your work online, anyway, the relatively small memory shouldn’t be a problem. The battery life isn’t the stuff of dreams, but it’s probably the longest of any laptop I’ve had. You’re not going to write your dissertation or your novel on this thing, but I imagine it’d be a lifesaver on research trips or conferences.


Image Searching…

Dave Lester’s recent post on Polar Rose reminded me that I’ve had the draft of an entry on some interesting image search stuff saved here for over a week.

Image search technology just keeps getting cooler and cooler. I’m eagerly awaiting the day when there’s an image search site that allows you to draw a simple shape or symbol and search the web for other examples. That doesn’t seem to exist, but there’s still some exciting developments. The facial recognition search that Dave discusses in his post is a great example. Here’s two more.

I recently came across TinEye. It’s still in private beta, and has a fairly limited pool of images (although surprisingly large…), but the functionality is really exciting.

Tineye lets you take any image you come across on the web, and search for similar images elsewhere. They even have a nifty Firefox plugin that lets you search with just a single right click. TinEye’s search isn’t limited to finding the exact same image in multiple URLS, though– to quote their FAQ,

TinEye frequently returns image results with colour adjustments, added or removed text, crops, and slight rotations. TinEye can also detect images that are part of a collage or have been blended with another image…

TinEye uses sophisticated pattern recognition algorithms to find your image on the web without the use of metadata or watermarks. TinEye instantly analyzes your query image to create a compact digital signature or ‘fingerprint’ for it. TinEye searches for your image on the web by comparing its fingerprint to the fingerprint of every single other image in the TinEye search index.

All this got me excited, and I immediately decided to take it for a test run. I wasn’t disappointed.

I was trying to find images that were going to be all over the internet. My first thought was the classic poster for Star Wars:

I found many exact matches using TinEye. But as I got to the eighth page or so of matches, that’s when it really got interesting. Posters for Star Wars in foreign languages. Covers of books that used cropped versions of the art with writing in very different places. Even a picture of someone standing in front of a poster, an obstructed image that also cuts off the top of the poster:

This was pretty exciting, so I looked around for the image of the most beat-up copy of Action Comics #1 I could find. (It’s the first appearance of Superman, for those who didn’t spend their childhoods drooling over comic books like me.)

Tineye immediately brought up images of the famous cover in much better condition. But the most exciting hit was the cover of a later issue of Action Comics, from a little more than a year later, where artist and creator Joe Shuster rather obviously recycles the iconic image:

Pretty remarkable that TinEye could spot the similarities, given both the obvious similarities and how very different the images are.

I’d like to nominate TinEye to the long list of “Sites People Think Will Be The Next Google Acquisition.”

The other site I wanted to mention, which I haven’t had as much opportunity to play around with*, is WhatTheFont. WhatTheFont lets you upload a logo, and will tell you what font or font family is being used.

It’s a remarkably useful tool for designers, assuming it works as well as advertised. the unofficial Google Operating System blog gives it good marks.

*In part, I haven’t played with it as much because it doesn’t have the nifty FF plugin– something worth noting to anyone trying to design and promote a web ap– integrating search into the browser makes habitual users.


The “Edupunk” Thing.

As Rob MacDougall pointed out, “Edupunk” seems to be the new hot meme in the edublog world.

I’m coming a bit late to the party, as the term was coined almost two weeks ago, which in the blogosphere seems to mean a thing’s ready for its postmortem… Well, unless it’s LOLcats. LOLcats has legs.

If you’re not hip to the right circles, or just behind on your feed reader (I’m both), click around these entries. Follow the hyperlinks. Check out the blogs of the people posting replies. Make sure you’ve got a couple hours on your hands– for such a new concept, it’s generating a lot of dialog. Which is awesome in and of itself, honestly.

Personally, I find the concept deeply intriguing. Ultimately, a lot of what people are talking about as being “edupunk” is very similar to things I’ve been trying to express for a while. An appreciation for the DIY ethos– the concept that fast, quick, and handmade is better than slick corporate cookie-cutter product any day of the week. A desire to get people to get their hands dirty with all the new tools available. The understanding that sometimes you need an Allen wrench, and sometimes you need a sledge hammer. Advocating that educators going past the standard classroom interaction is the essence of “best practices.” The concept that being in a classroom shouldn’t keep students from being autodidacts, but should rather encourage it. Using Web 2.0 tools (when appropriate) to make students interact more, participate more, and allowing them a greater amount of ownership and stewardship of their work. Acknowledging that Blackboard is too badly designed and inflexible to be the killer ap of courseware it’s become.

Of course, I’ve been a big fan of and advocate for punk, DIY, zines, and the like for– wow… over fifteen years. So this sort of thing has an intrinsic appeal to me. Something that co-opts the DIY ethos and combines it with new media and progressive/radical pedagogy? That’s just custom-tailored to my tastes.

The term’s a bit silly, of course. And the term’s too new to really indicate any real community or cause. But I’m glad the term’s been coined. Ultimately, if the meme gathers enough steam, and actually comes to be a real thing, a movement, philosophy, praxis, approach, critique, whatever… It will have come out of Jim Groom coming up with a term that provides an umbrella of linked concepts under which different people can gather.

I hope it does. I’d gladly call myself edupunk if that came to pass.

Even if it doesn’t, it’s definitely come to generate a really interesting conversation.


One qualm I have to express, though, related to an association made by several critics of the not-yet-extant “movement,” as well as some of its advocates.

Punk was never, ever, only about anger and nihilism.

That’s an impression that comes from too many people painting with much too broad a brush, and the overstatement of the impact of the Sex Pistols.

The Ramones had an edge, but blind, dumb joy drove their music, just as often as anger. The Clash had more righteous indignation than undirected anger. Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers are, to my mind, totally punk rock– and JR writes songs about romantic awkwardness and being a baby dinosaur. The DIY ethos that has driven so much of the last thirty years of punk music and culture found its incubator in the garage bands of the sixties. Listen to the Shaggs singing (with no sense of melody or harmony, let alone any sense of irony) about how great parents are. Listen to the One Way Streets singing “We All Love Peanut Butter.” You can’t hear anything but sheer joy in these songs.

I thought Bob Mould proved conclusively in 1984 that punk had a lot more emotional depth and complexity than angry adolescent rejection. Why does this impression persist?

Assuming that punk– and anything that, like the notion of “edupunk,” draws on the legacy and ethos of punk– has the emotional complexity of the Incredible Hulk is just patently wrong.

Sure, punk is often about smashing the “system.”
And sometimes anger makes you want to smash things.
Sometimes, it’s political– the system is too broken to be repaired, and needs to be cleared away before new options can thrive.
Sometimes, it’s just the sheer joy of breaking things.
And other times, you’re motivated by a sense of play and fun– detourning the mechanisms of a system, subverting it, disrupting its self-seriousness, and trying to provoke positive change.


Myst is not a good video game.

First off, I had to post this when I found it: apparently, Nial Ferguson was so impressed by the Calm and the Storm that he went and got a job with them. It’s not really a conflict of interests or anything, but I found it very interesting.


That said, I’m still not loving Myst. I’m not exactly an avid gamer, but I do enjoy some games in moderation. I’m not one of those anti-video game people. But I do not find Myst particularly enjoyable.

I’m still trying to beat it, though, as Prof. P promises that there’s payoff at the end… I doubt it, though.

While reading the Gee article, it occurred to me that Gee has this almost platonic ideal of the “good video game,” which he then contrasts with a bad classroom. But his thinking about what good video games are made me realize that Myst falls short.

Yeah, I said it: Myst is not a good video game.

I’m not going to belabor the point, but a couple of principles of “good video games” that Myst V (the version I’m playing) violates:

  • Verbal information is seldom given “just in time,” but rather well in advance and often in a different location.
  • While there is a fish tank/sandbox in the form of the first couple rooms, it’s essentially useless, except for understanding the very basics of navigation.
  • This may just be me, but I know it’s not me alone: the game isn’t “pleasantly frustrating.” It’s just FRUSTRATING. The puzzles are very difficult, which may just be my unfamiliarity with the series, but they’re also often quite hard to FIND. This leads to situations like wondering around for a long time trying to find something to DO (this game is so action-less I find it PAINFUL. I can accept a nonviolent video game, but a game where you can’t even JUMP, get your feet wet in the ocean, or TALK TO ANYONE becomes pretty stagnant pretty quick), or, conversely, completing a puzzle without being aware that a puzzle had been there in the first place. (This latter situation occurred to me more than once.)
  • The game doesn’t go through “cycles of expertise,” it just stays at a fairly stable level of difficulty, with the occasional easier problems sprinkled throughout. When I had to resort to a walk-through at one point, I realized that I was doing the game essentially backwards. And the thing of it was, some of the earlier stuff was far more challenging than some of the later.

Oh– and just another desultory thought, here… Where do walk-throughs stand in terms of academic honesty and honor codes? Is it more like plagiarism, or more like a study guide? 


Here and here.


…Post on Education and teh Intarwebz…

…This post is mostly in response to Dan Cohen’s No Computer Left Behind.

In my methodologies class, the professor gave us an assignment last week that she had given her undergrad class the week before.  We were to take an 1881 plantation map that she had pulled from a textbook, one that gave very little in the way of clues as to its location, and to find its current location.  She warned us, as she had warned them, that "the answers won’t be found on Google."

Well, being both a congenital contrarian and a vocal proponent of Google Nation, I looked at this as a challenge.  I was determined to find the site, and to use Google every step of the way.  And I did.  And in fact, I had the correct answer within a few hours of the assignment.  I used Google Scholar to find an article that had a map of the plantation and environs circa 1985.  This article gave me a citation to the first appearance of the map, which I then found via Google Scholar.  I used Google Maps to find a nearby city that was sizable enough to have be on a map, and then followed the appropriate roads up to the plantation’s site.   After finding out about USGS Eros from Fenwick’s Geographic Reference Librarian, (Joy Shu, I learned from a little Googling about…) I used Google to find the USGS Eros site, found a nearby stream, and confirmed what I had suspected.  I was also able to find out a bit about the family’s history, including photos of several family members, using Google.  I was able to do all of this in under 12 hours, and still had time for some TV, a few beers, and to watch some shows I’d Tivo’d that day.

In class this week, the professor described the difficulty the undergrads had experienced– looking for a different nearby town– a smaller one closer to the plantation– on Google yields an incorrect hit, in a city in a different county.  The professor explained that she had used the student’s inability to locate the map as what some might call a "teaching moment"– one of those perfect chances to communicate something to your students in terms that they can immediately relate to, based on personal experience.  She used this teaching moment to try to eliminate their belief that Google was the end-all, be-all in Internet knowledge-seeking.  She taught them about databases, how many aren’t crawled by Google, and how to use them.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a Google Cheerleader, but I still understand what she felt was the best lesson for the undergrads to pull from this– that "Not everything is on Google."  Of course it’s not.  But at the same time, everything that you needed to get this problem solved really WAS on Google, as long as you combined Google’s search capacity with a) a knowledge of which tool to use when, and how, and b) a little bit of logical reasoning and critical thinking.

So I have to admit that I got a little frustrated when she was describing the experience with the undergrads.  I think the lesson she taught was a valuable one– one that a lot of undergrads need, and don’t often get.  However, I don’t know if I agree that it’s the best teaching moment for that lesson, given that in this case, everything WAS on Google.  Personally, I might have used the same moment to give the students a very different lesson– "Sharpening your Google Skills." 

("Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills–nunchuck skills… bowhunting skills… computer hacking skills… " –Napoleon Dynamite)

In the past few years, I have talked with numerous librarians and academics who are aghast at what they see as the over reliance of students on the Internet in general, and Google and Wikipedia specifically.  I think that to some extent this is valid– you have to remind students to look at books, too.  But it’s also useful to point them over toward Google Books, which in my experience is a treasure-trove of valuable information– something that digs deep into books you wouldn’t have time to look through, that can shed light on your research even if they’re ostensibly about a different topic.  Even if these people are disturbed by students using the Internet as a primary or only source of information, they should at least do students the service of making sure that they are savvy users of the Internet.

I guess I’m kind of pushed toward this point of view as a person who studies popular culture.  I believe that media literacy is something that is unforgivably overlooked in primary, secondary, and college education.  There are skill sets and critical thinking skills that can allow students to find these new media– and even older media, like television– to be quite useful, absolute founts of knowledge.  Instead, many educators, possibly afraid of technology they aren’t so great at navigating themselves, settle into neo-Luddite platitudes of dismissal.

I was especially shocked to see Cohen’s quote from Leon Botstein, that "a Google search of the Web ‘overwhelms you with too much information, much of which is hopelessly unreliable or beside the point. It’s like looking for a lost ring in a vacuum bag. What you end up with mostly are bagel crumbs and dirt.’"  I’ve met Leon a few times.  He’s a pretty hep cat.  And anyone who’s even looked at his book Jefferson’s Children will tell you, the guy’s not exactly old school when it comes to education.   (If you haven’t read the book, check it out.  It’s fascinating.  Although as an alumnus of Simon’s Rock College I do have to agree with one Amazon Reviewer who called it "perplexing and offensive" that he fails to even mention that school.  I mean, it’s owned by Bard, so he’s the President of both colleges, and SRC provides kids with an alternative to the last two years of high school that Botstein proposes eliminating– by letting them just go to college instead.)

…But, being a big fan of Leon’s, I’m willing to overlook this statement, and assume that the real problem lies in a single word of the quote: "overwhelms."  It’s not hard to be overwhelmed by this massive surge of new access to information unless one has been properly educated in how to navigate, use, and master it.  This is not an educational opportunity Leon’s had.  Heck, in rushing to become the country’s youngest college president, he probably had less opportunity than most to take some college-sponsored computer skills sessions than most profs might.

Nevertheless, the fact remains: at this point, many undergrads lack the critical thinking and IT skills to use all the information the Internet gives them access to, and yet they are still more competent than many of their instructors.  This reality is not only highlighted by the number of neo-Luddite screeds and screams by educators, but by the constant influx of articles in educational journals about the newest evil in "cyber-cheating."

Some of this is changing, I’m sure, over time– the youngest staff at most colleges has only recently begun to represent the first generation of college students to have gone through post-secondary education with Internet access.  But by the time these postdocs, adjuncts, and nontenured associates have actually found enough of a place to find a voice in the creation of classes for their programs, how many more students will have gone through college without the benefit of Internet research training?

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should probably admit that I’m one of the people who’s benefited from the Internet.  I’m rubbish when it comes to coming up with names and dates… and here I am in a History PhD program.  Google is one of the things I can thank for this.  So that’s out there– that’s my bias.  I never would have made it this far into History if I had been studying even 50 or 100 years ago.  If I had to rely on rote learning and memorization, I doubt I would have even made it through college.  So I’m a beneficiary of this changing technology and progressive education.  I have had teachers who encouraged me, and understood that analysis, critical thinking, and argument are far more important than knowing 1066 or 1588.  Actually, I only really learned to write once my parents put me in front of a computer when I was in second grade or so– so there’s a chance I might not have even made it into college without the aid of technology.  It’s probably for these reasons that I’ve come to understand and emphasize the import of media literacy and technological skills.  When you can never remember names and dates, it’s important to be really fast and proficient at tracking ’em down.

…Oh yeah, and one other note on the article:  Standardized Tests are BAD.