Markets are everywhere

So DARPA had to trash their innovative terrorism markets program because Congress got their collective panties in a proverbial twist. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if just the opposite is true. When congressmen all start thumping on the national bible, it’s time to buy whatever they hate. At any rate, the predictive power of markets is well-established, and if you’re clever you can spin that into gold by mitigating risk in the venture of your choice.

Here’s a good NY Times article about innovative futures markets: Predict the Future of Technology and Win a Plasma TV. Give away a few baubles and trinkets, and you can get your hands on priceless information. What’s the Next Big Thing in the tech toy market? How’s that can’t-miss film with Ben Affleck and What’s-Her-Name going to do at the box office? There are lots of funky futures markets out there. Yale Econ professor Robert Shilller’s New Financial Order website has a good list. Here is an amusing quote from from the site: is an Irish firm that allows betting on world events, such as election or ouster of world leaders. Even after the DARPA terrorism futures scandal, Tradesports continued to trade terrorism events like the U. S. terrorism alert levels and the capture of Saddam Hussein. When the terrorism futures scandal broke in the U. S., Tradesports created a contract on the ouster of John Poindexter as head of DARPA.

Is anything sacred? Well, what’s it worth to ya?

Micropayments must die

This is a damn good article by Clay Shirky about why micropayment systems don’t work and won’t work: Fame vs Fortune: Micropayments and Free Content. The gist of it is that, while the monetary cost of acquiring content can get vanishingly small, the mental cost does not. There is a significant mental expense even to think about whether you want to buy content. Sifting through thousands of ten-cent online offerings trying to find a good read is headache-inducing at best. Since there’s a lot of really good free content out there, the obvious conclusion is that even a small cost will cause people to substitute the free stuff.

I remember having long email discussions about this with my Star Chamber co-authors back years ago, but I lacked the wit to say it as forcefully as Shirky puts it here. My argument was that we are all, all of us who create original content, going to have to get used to giving away big chunks of what we make, if we want to be successful. Here’s a good quote from Shirky about the paradoxical effect of the Internet:

People want to believe in things like micropayments because without a magic bullet to believe in, they would be left with the uncomfortable conclusion that what seems to be happening — free content is growing in both amount and quality — is what’s actually happening.

Free, good, and plenty of it… how do all these virtues come to coincide? As Shirky observes, when you give cheap publishing tools to a writer, you don’t get a publisher who writes, you get a writer who publishes. Publishers must have money, but a writer may happily substitute fame. Creators hunger to see their ideas in motion. This all raises the next question: where does the money come from? Surely writers must eat, or at least drink expensive coffee. My answer is that none of this means paid writing jobs are going away. I am not any less inclined to buy magazines and books now than I was before the Net came along. But my selections, my expectations, and my general information-space standard of living have all improved vastly. Micropayments can slip beneath the waves and no one ever need shed a tear.

Find that quote!

Amazon has been doing this search-the-entire-book search for a few weeks now. Here is what the New York Times has to say about it: In Amazon’s Text-Search, a Field Day for Book Browsers

It sounded cool, so I tried it and discovered it really was cool. Here’s my example: for a long time I was trying to remember a quote by Stanislaw Ulam about nuclear physics and the bomb. The quote, paraphrased, was something like, “It’s amazing how a few scribbles on a blackboard can change history.” I had read it in a great big very good book called “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” by Richard Rhodes, but I don’t own the book, and I couldn’t find it on the web, so I had to make a special trip to the bookstore to find and write down that quote. So for my Amazon test, I typed

“stan ulam scribbles”

and in a few seconds I had my answer.

It is still an unending source of surprise for me to see how a few scribbles ona blackboard or on a sheet of paper could change the course of human affairs.

Read what Jon Udell has to say about Amazon’s new service. He points out one of the big advantages of the feature: getting more value out of your own library. Just as I used Napster to grab music that I owned but was too lazy to walk downstairs for, this search tool is a great way to pick information out of books on your bookshelf.

3-D Wiggle-Vision

Via BoingBoing I found this groovy faux 3-D site. It’s a brilliant fusion of the old “winky” lenticular concept with digital cameras and the web: Burning Man Opera Ark of the Nereids. I didn’t find a “how we did this” page, but it looks like you just need to mount two digital cameras next to each other and snap them at the same time. Low tech + high tech = average height tech. Very nice. Some of the pictures are more compelling than others. I particularly liked the one near the bottom of the bell car. You really get the sense of bouncing along in a vehicle next them. The difference between this and a single still picture is dramatic. The general weirdness of the photographic subject matter adds to the otherworldliness of the pictures. I want to go to Burning Man.

Finkenwalde and Samarkand

Blogger Jeff Hall of Finkenwalde recently linked to my Red Sox essay and sent me a nice email. I went to take a peek at his writing and discovered that he’s in the army and was recently stationed in Central Asia. Uzbekistan, to be precise. Uzbekistan is an interesting place, not only because it’s in the middle of Stan-land (it borders Thisstan, Thatstan, and Theotherstan) but because it straddles the great Silk Road and contains one of the most exotic places in the world: Samarkand. Never having been there, I can’t vouch for what it’s “really like.” But the history of the Silk Road is fascinating, and the names can’t be beat for raw sex appeal: Samarkand, Uzbekistan, the Rome of the East, is located in the valley of the Zarafshan; it is the city of Tamerlane the Great, and home to Ulugbek’s peerless observatory.

Jeff Hall has been there, and you can read about what he had to say about it on the July 17th, 18th, and 19th posts to his blog. As a result of these posts, I’m putting Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game on my reading list so I can learn a little more about Central Asian history. I have a sneaking suspicion it’s going to be useful information. Any Rambles readers out there ever been to Kazakhstan?