Allison's Reflections

Just another Weblogs at Harvard site

Blog #0010: IPRs and Open Source

Filed under: Where Wizards Stay Up Late — allee at 1:46 pm on Thursday, September 15, 2016

For me, one of the most frequently mentioned topics in high school was intellectual property. Lexington High School’s Honor Code addressed the necessity to respect individuals’ intellectual property; my economics class discussed the implications of IPRs on a country’s economic productivity; my US history class would often have debates around IPR policy as part of our current events section. Thus, when IPRs made an appearance in Where Wizards Stay Up Late, I was intrigued.

BBN’s initial refusal to release the IMP code was a blatant attempt to control every part of the current network— essentially, monopolize control of a unique resource. While the source code for the IMPs is not exactly a product being sold on the market, I find that many economic ideas are still relevant. If I may be visual for a second, here is a graph of a perfectly competitive firm:


We can see that economic welfare (basically the benefits society reaps due to the sale of the product) is quite plentiful. On the graph, the total economic welfare is represented by the sum of consumer and producer surplus.

Now, here is the graph for a monopoly:


(Source for graphs: Essential Foundations of Economics by Robin Bade and Michael Parkin, 7th Edition)

Because a monopoly will choose to produce at a level below the demand for the commodity to raise prices, the total economic welfare is reduced. In our reading, BBN would be the monopolistic firm in question. The text mentioned “deadweight loss” (harm to society) such as the Network Measurement Center at UCLA being unable to function efficiently.

In this specific case, it was quite clear what the benefits and detriments of BBN keeping the source code private were. However, this caused me to wonder about the converse scenario— open sourcing. I remember hearing about Google choosing to open source TensorFlow and chose to read about it (here is the link, if anyone is interested). The basic idea of this particular article is that Jeff Dean believed that open-sourcing would make collaboration between Google’s researchers and other scientific communities easier and faster. In addition, individuals could improve the source code with few barriers.

Of course, as Satell includes as a caveat in his piece, total openness would harm a firm (hence Google keeping its search engine’s workings a secret). But generally, I see open source code as a great thing. Much like the RFCs had been at the beginning, I feel like they’re an invitation to join a larger community. They share a spirit with the ARPANET’s first users, who tinkered with the network on their own and contributed ideas freely. That’s how electronic mail came to be, and while I have a love-hate relationship with my inbox, it’s certainly connected the world in a new way. It’s evidence of how much this kind of innovative environment can cause great improvements in society.

However, I’m sure there are even more subtleties to IPRs and the choice between privacy and open-sourcing. I’d love to examine TensorFlow or another case study next week in our seminar. Until next time, then!

Blog #0001: On Pride and (a Bit on) Prejudice

Filed under: Where Wizards Stay Up Late — allee at 9:14 am on Thursday, September 8, 2016

“Ego”. In the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s defined as “a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance”. It was a word that had an explicit and implicit presence in a large portion of this week’s assigned reading.

The text described computers as “extremely egocentric devices” (94). I found this to be an almost foreshadowing statement. Inventions tend to share characteristics with their inventors, much like how a child will inevitably pick up some of his or her mother’s idiosyncrasies or father’s philosophies. So even as Crocker’s RFCs did foster a sense of collaboration over ego, it did not surprise me that there were multiple incidences of self-involvedness uprooting communities.

In my experience, egos do not usually manifest themselves in a blatant, “screaming-from-the-rooftops” manner. Rather, they subtly embed themselves into small, unintentional actions; for example, the UC Santa Barbara incident mentioned in the text. The Santa Barbara students who began fiddling with their IMP were so focused on their research that they did not consider that what they did would have implications at other universities. Self-importance was inherent in their inconsideration. The same can be said regarding the “header wars” and the treatment of the Tenex and non-Tenex compatibility issues.

The unfolding of a more open networking culture with Adventure and room for personal opinions to be expressed most likely exacerbated this presence of ego. “Flaming” was a byproduct, and in my opinion, this is the worst exhibition of ego, pride, and bias that I encounter today. I play a variety of online games, one of which is infamous for its “toxic” players. The game assembles teams of five players, each who typically fill a role, and then puts teams with similar levels of players against each other. However, from the process of choosing characters and abilities at the very start of the game to mid-game when fighting the opposing team, it’s rare that the other players and I are really a team. Sometimes, I find that there’s more battling going on in the group chat than in the actual game. Language can become derogatory and abusive, resulting in hurtful verbal sparring rather than productive strategizing. “AFK-ing” (being away from the keyboard for extended amounts of time) is common when someone is overwhelmed by the other teammates.

So where does this leave us? I’d hate to see rampant flaming become an accepted part of Internet culture. But we don’t live in a time where it’s logistically possible to have a Stefferud-like moderator watch over every bit of user input. In the particular game I mentioned, the creators have put a filter that will censor out any particularly awful language, but it’s not nearly sufficient; people can always come up with misspellings of a swear or new ways of cursing. I read some articles on flaming in hopes of finding some potential solutions, but there seem to be flaws in every attempted fix so far (I did find some interesting perspectives on flaming such as what actually qualifies as flaming, though; they can be found here and here). In our upcoming seminar, I’d love if we could take some time to discuss flaming and what measures are plausible to be taken to mitigate it. I look forward to the seminar next week! 🙂

Blog #0000: Beginnings!

Filed under: Where Wizards Stay Up Late — allee at 10:16 am on Saturday, September 3, 2016

The space race was the last of all the things I thought could have launched the inception of the Internet (pun 100% intended). Nor did I expect that the US government was the entity that backed the original funding for this technological innovation to ultimately occur. For me, last week’s reading and discussion revealed assumptions and biases I never knew I had.

Perhaps the strongest and thus most insight-providing reaction I had to the material was surprise— shock, even— in response to the government’s involvement in ARPAnet’s creation. Previously, I subconsciously only saw the government as a restrictor of the Internet. I had at some point incorrectly gathered for myself that an independent scientist or mathematician had single-handedly created it, and that upon seeing its potential, the government began putting regulations on it. A lot of this bias stems from an experience I had in sophomore year, which I actually wrote about in my application for this seminar. While studying abroad in Hangzhou, China in the spring of 2014, I collided with the Great Wall— more specifically, the “Great Firewall” of internet censorship (though I did also have an unfortunate crash with the physical Great Wall as well on that trip, but that’s a story for another time). Websites I knew and loved such as Facebook were utterly inaccessible. When I investigated the matter further once I returned to Boston, I found articles about imprisoned “cyberdissidents” in China. From this point, perhaps I saw government as a hindrance to online communication and freedom of thought. Obviously, the issue isn’t as black-and-white as my naive sophomore year-self perceived. In this seminar, I’m hoping to further parse out this censorship controversy and the interplay of government and technology.

On a separate note, the reading and discussion have allowed me to view the internet from a more technical standpoint. I have a bit of programming experience in C++ and Java, but unless I’m coding (or telling people I am when I’m really just having a staring contest with a slew of red error messages on Eclipse), I rarely approach thinking about how technology actually works. So reading about technical troubleshooting— for example, how checksums detecting packet errors should be handled— forces me to consider beyond my normal scope.

Overall, I’m excited to have my misconceptions brought to the surface. It can feel a little intimidating, especially in discussions when others seem to talk about IMPs and packet-switching as if these topics are as easily comprehendible as the weather. But beginning to know what I don’t know seems like a good place to start, and I can’t wait for the upcoming seminars and readings!