Google and the end of everything

My choice for this weekend’s Big Think post stems from a recent Wired article by Chris “The Long Tail” Anderson, in which he attempts to argue that the ability to sort through gigantic databases of information — something he associates with Google — will mean “the end of the scientific method.” As I understand it, his argument is that since we have so much data, we can just use algorithms to find correlations in the data, and that will produce as much insight as years of traditional scientific research. The piece is entitled “The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete,” and there’s a somewhat related post from Kevin Kelly (another Wired alumnus) on his blog Technium that he has entitled “The Google Way of Science.”

I think Anderson’s piece is an interesting thought experiment, and it forces us to think about how the sheer quantity of data we have available to us changes how we do things. However, like many others who have responded to his article (check the comments on the article for more), I think it has a number of serious flaws — and they are all summed up in the title, which implies that having a lot of data and some smart algorithms to sift through it means “the end of the scientific method.” That’s just ridiculous. It reminds me of philosopher Francis Fukuyama writing a book in the early 1990s about “the end of history,” in which he argued that the clash of political ideologies was more or less over, and that liberal democracy had effectively won. As we’ve seen since then, this was more or less complete rubbish.

Anderson argues that “The Petabyte Age is different because more is different.” There’s no reason for believing that this is true, however. Expanding the amount of data — even exponentially — doesn’t change the fundamental way that the scientific method functions, it just makes it a lot easier to test a hypothesis. That’s definitely a good thing, and I’m sure that scientists are happy to have huge databases and data-mining software and all those other good things; but that doesn’t change what they do, it simply changes how they do it. With all due credit to Craig Ventner of the Human Genome Project, sifting through reams of data about genetic pairs and sequencing them can help tell us where to look, but not what to look for, or what it means.

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Rogers iPhone: Get a second mortgage

Whoever leaked the supposed memo with Rogers’ pricing for the Canadian iPhone played a cruel joke on their fellow Canucks: instead of the much-hoped-for $30 unlimited data plan — like AT&T users in the U.S. have — we get a series of plans that start at twice that amount, and the cheapest plan comes with a pathetic 400 megabytes of data and a paltry 75 text messages. If you want 200 text messages (which many U.S. plans come with) and a gigabyte of data per month, you have to spend a whopping $100 — oh yeah, and that’s without the ridiculous “system access fee” that gets tacked on, and call display is extra too.

The most common response to the plans so far, at least to judge by a Twitter search and a blog search, is virtually unprintable — as was the original domain name of this website, which is collecting names on a petition to send to the Competition Bureau (as of Sunday morning, the site had accumulated more than 10,000 names). There are some detailed responses here, and also here, and serial tech entrepreneur Albert Lai has a response to the plans here. Former Tory candidate Stephen Taylor calls it “a rip-off.”

As my friend Mark Evans notes on his blog, Rogers is clearly going for the cash grab here. I wish I could say that I was surprised, but this is pretty much what I was expecting. I think Rogers knows that Apple devotion and early-adopter syndrome will drive plenty of people to buy an iPhone regardless of the plans, and they will make boatloads of money on them, and everyone else can get stuffed. It’s a shame that Canada’s cellphone market is such fertile ground for plundering.

Update:

A Rogers account representative emailed me some additional info (which she also sent to Tris Hussey of Maple Leaf 2.0). In a nutshell, she says that you can choose one of the new data plans and add a voice plan, or you can add a data plan to your existing voice plan (but not one of the iPhone bundles). Upgrading to the iPhone from your existing phone and plan starts at $199.

“Rogers customers … can select from the new data pricing (ranging from $30 for 300MB to $100 for 6GB or $50 Flex Rate plan) and add a voice plan, or they can choose a combined voice and data plan to best suit their individual needs. Customers are not required to take the value packs, and can order most other features a la carte, such as $7 for Caller ID.

Existing customers can keep their existing voice service plan and pick a separate data plan (not in the iPhone 3G bundle) to meet their needs. They will need to check their upgrade eligibility, but any customer with a monthly service fee that is over $30 can upgrade to an iPhone 3G at $199 (for the 8GB model).”

Update 2:

Jevon at Wirelessnorth.ca points out some fine print in the Rogers contract that could jack up your costs for the iPhone even further — to the tune of $1,100 or more, thanks to a mammoth “break fee” that you will be charged if you try to escape from your three-year contract early.

Memo to Jakob Lodwick: Grow up

At the risk of writing about two “High School 2.0” blogosphere situations in one week (the first one being the Loren Feldman and Shel Israel brouhaha), I couldn’t help but notice that Jakob Lodwick — the brash young millionaire co-founder of Vimeo and CollegeHumour.com, and one-time blogging boyfriend of party girl-blogger Julia Allison — has decided to quit the Internet. Well, maybe not the Internet per se, but the “social Web,” meaning he has closed his blog and his Tumblelog (he’s financially involved with Tumblr as well). Why? Because he just can’t take the abuse any more, he says. It’s just too much.

Apparently, some people have been saying mean things about Jakob — about how he’s arrogant, and insufferable in a way that only a millionaire geek can be, that he dresses funny, and so on. It’s gotten to the point where even his Mom can’t take it any more, and has had to shut down her own Tumblr blog. The humanity! At some point, reading through Jakob’s last post to the blogosphere at large, and then through his farewell letter, I started to think that maybe it was just a big prank — maybe Jakob is secretly laughing at us. I mean, could he really have written a line like “I may be a millionaire, but this sort of thing still hurts” and not felt just a little ridiculous? Then he says:

“I am walking away from what might be called The Social Web. This comprises any site where ‘anyone can sign up’ and electronically socialize with one another. The story is the same with most of these sites: a few settlers discover and make themselves at home, enjoying the solitude.

Increasingly, less-adventurous people find their way to the site. The population begins to snowball. A vocal minority of thoughtless jerks begin to speak up, driving away the settlers. In the worst case, the result is something like MySpace.”

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Google: Find it, then help you watch it

My friend Steve O’Hear from Last100 has the news that Google has launched its own media-streaming software, called Google Media Server. According to the description at the Inside Google Desktop blog, it’s pretty simple: if you have a networked device that can connect to your TV, then you can watch YouTube videos, look at photos and listen to music (although it’s for Windows only at this point). It’s not surprising that Google would get into this niche — if anything, I find it kind of surprising that they haven’t done it before now.

Getting content from a computer to your TV hasn’t been easy until relatively recently. If you were into Linux you could play around with something like the open-source MythTV.org software, and many people I know — geeks, naturally — modified their Xboxes to act as streaming media servers, while some built their own standalone media boxes. Now most game consoles will serve that function, and there’s the Apple TV and Mac Mini as well, which do the job quite well. And, of course, if you’re really desperate you can always use Windows Media Center 🙂

It will be interesting to see how much traction Google gets with its offering — and as Steve points out in his post, this is clearly just a small part of the Web company’s push into the living room.

The big problem is the word “compulsory”

Like my friend Mike Masnick at Techdirt, I came across a long guest post not long ago at William Patry’s blog (Patry is legal counsel for Google and an expert in copyright law) about the need for something approaching a “compulsory license” to solve the problems of rampant digital copyright infringement. A good example of a compulsory license is the legal mechanism by which Internet radio broadcasters are allowed to play music and pay a set rate to artists. A similar process (although it is not compulsory) compensates publishers and songwriters when music is played on the radio — something the music industry was not in favour of when it was first instituted in the 1930s and ’40s, but quickly grew to like and rely on. The record industry is now trying hard to extend that kind of payment to artists as well, something I wrote about recently.

As Mike notes in his post on the topic, lawyer Joshua Wattles spends the better part of his guest post at Patry’s blog describing how terrible most compulsory-licensing approaches are:

“Most, however, have nothing to do with lofty aspirations of balance or with enabling an otherwise impossible market or even with a measured response to benefit a clamoring public. Instead, they have everything to do with power players reaching for commercial advantages within a niche market.”

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