You cannot escape the cauldron of being you,
time’s eternal tempest;
the stillness at its center
with an elusive peace.
Its spindly legs grope frantically
for an exit from its mysterious
translucent prison. The bottom
is familiar – rough and shaggy.
The perimeter is deception,
the illusion of freedom,
summoned from above by a malevolent demigod.
She, too, familiar.
What foul magic hath sealed in this crafty creature,
even with the air around it?
What sport of it maketh these alien adjudicators
as requital for its transgression;
daring to scavenge for crumbs
in the light
just after lunchtime?
(Warning: Dune Spoilers Aplenty)
In Frank Herbert‘s novel Dune, the feud between the Atreides and the Harkonnens was “kanly” – no holds barred. The word appears early in the novel, when the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is discomforted by the Duke Leto Atreides‘ usage of the word in their final correspondence, in which the Duke refuses to meet with the Baron for a peace negotiation. It is within this context that the story of Dune begins.
This feud reached its climax in a Harkonnen surprise attack on the Atreides home on Arrakis, in which House Atreides was virtually wiped out, with the exception of a handful of Atreides survivors, including the Lady Jessica Atreides and her son, Paul Atreides, the ducal heir.
The extent of the Harkonnen victory gives the impression that the Duke was outmatched. Even the Lady Jessica thought of the Baron Harkonnen as “too potent an adversary” when she encountered him the aftermath of the Baron’s victory. However, the Duke Leto may have been the greatest tactician alive in the universe at the time, superior to the Baron. He was aware that Arrakis was a trap, and even that the Padishah Emperor had secretly sided with the Harkonnens. He knew that the spice harvesting equipment would be damaged, and that he would be blamed for a poor harvest. But he walked into the trap knowing also that the spice melange was the most precious commodity in the universe, and that control of Arrakis would give him tremendous power and wealth. He also knew that the native Fremen would make potent allies on the planet. He was supported by talented people, some “legends in their own lifetime”. The Duke came to Arrakis as prepared as one could be under the circumstances.
How then, did the Duke allow himself to fall victim to the Harkonnen attack? Leto made several critical errors. A direct attack by the Harkonnens, even one aided by the Emperor, might not have succeeded, and a failed attack on the Duke could be disastrous for both the Baron and the Emperor. The attack must involve treachery.
The Duke knew this, of course. The Lady Jessica had received warnings of treachery through her Bene Gesserit sisterhood, in a message hidden in the Bene Gesserit way: written in a form of braille on a leaf in the royal gardens on Arrakis. His son Paul heard similar warnings from the Fremen, whom the Atreides were already courting as allies, after saving the life of his Fremen housekeeper. The Duke, while aware of the danger, still did not know, however, “which hand held the knife”.
The Harkonnen master stroke, most likely devised by the Baron’s advisor, mentat Piter De Vries, came in the form of a “scrap of a note”, with the Baron’s own seal, implicating the Lady Jessica as the Atreides traitor, falling into the hands of the Atreides mentat, Thufir Hawat, the Duke’s “Master of Asassins”.
In the moment that Hawat, shaking, approached the Duke with news of the note, the Duke made a fatal error. The Duke decided to pretend that he believed the note, in the hopes that the real traitor might lower their guard. As part of this decision, he pulled his best man, Swordsmaster Duncan Idaho, from a critical mission recruiting the Fremen to keep the Lady Jessica under surveillance. Hawat was similarly distracted from detecting other threats, especially the real traitor, Paul’s tutor, Dr. Wellington Yueh, who betrayed the Atreides by deactivating the Atreides House shields immediately before the Harkonnen attack.
Why did the Duke weaken himself so? Why play out a charade of distance from his partner when he most needed her counsel, trained as she was as a Bene Gesserit? Why, when he must have known in his heart that the Lady Jessica, whom he hadn’t married in hopes of making an alliance with another Great House, not only had his best interests in mind, but loved him, and their son?
One factor may be that Leto relied overly on Hawat, a human computer, and one of the best mentats in history. Hawat had virtually complete control of security in House Atreides, and when the evidence alleging Jessica’s involvement with the Harkonnens reached his hands, he was overwhelmed by the possibility, as intended by De Vries. To Hawat, the Lady Jessica was a much more obvious suspect than Yueh, who was Imperially conditioned not to harm the Atreides. Only the twisted mind of De Vries could imagine the possibility of breaking such conditioning, and Hawat could not.
The Baron understood the limits of a mentat well. The Baron saw De Vries only as a dangerous tool to be used. He instructed his nephew, the presumed heir to the barony, Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, on the limits of a mentat (in the presence of De Vries) before making his attack. The Duke failed to understand Hawat’s limitations. Jessica, by contrast, realized that Hawat was vulnerable, and that the note was aimed at him. She even presented this possibility to Hawat, making him realize that he himself was a target of Harkonnen intrigue, something he had left out of his computations, thus exposing the mentat’s blind spot. But too late.
Leto’s more fundamental error was to deny the love that bound himself and Jessica, love that he should have realized transcended any of the intrigues that the Harkonnens had put against them. It was only when Leto denied this love that he was lost. Shortly before the Harkonnen attack, Leto made the decision to change his strategy and marry the Laddy Jessica. But too late. The Harkonnen attack was already upon him.
Would the Atreides have prevailed had the Duke married the Lady Jessica? Given the disastrous results of Leto’s decision to instead follow Hawat’s plan, it is likely that the marriage would have raised morale and strengthened House Atreides at a critical time, focused Hawat’s energies more productively, and allowed Idaho to cement his bond with the Fremen. Yueh might have been exposed in time, and Harkonnen attack, stripped of a critical element, might have been postponed, giving the Atreides enough time to recruit the Fremen, allowing them to repel virtually any attack.
Jessica herself, always completely loyal to the Atreides, had been ignorant of her parentage until her extraordinarily gifted son noted the genetic markers in her and himself shortly after the attack. The fact that Jessica actually was a Harkonnen, and the daughter of the Baron, no less, should be considered among the great ironies in modern fiction.
As of this writing, President Obama’s approval rating is 40%, according to Gallup, down from about 51% a year ago. I’ve written about the voting aspects of YouTube before, so I was interested in how the YouTube ecosystem reacted to the latest State of the Union speech, as compared to last year’s speech. For both speeches, I looked at the numbers for three different sets of videos: the official White House release, the Wall Street Journal’s release, and one put up by the New York Times (links to each below).
The first thing that became apparent is that the “approval ratings” for videos of the president’s speech were always higher than the president’s approval ratings according to the polls. The official White House copy of the 2014 speech got 1,961 “Likes”, and 1,429 “Dislikes”, or a 58% approval rating. This was the lowest of the batch, but still considerably higher than the poll numbers. By comparison, the official release of the 2013 speech had an astonishing 81% approval rating. That’s obviously a marked drop, but consistent with the relative drop in poll numbers. More people also watched and voted on the 2014 speech: 45,000 more views (a 12% increase) and 1,000 more votes (a 50% increase).
The Wall Street Journal version showed a different trend: a drastic drop in views of more than 80% (from 374,004 in 2013 to 71,935 in 2014), but a comparable approval rating (67% to 61%). Finally, the New York Times showed exactly the opposite trend: more than double the views (245,700 to 504,950), and an *increase* in approval ratings (61% to 68%). In addition, the total number of votes tripled on the Times version, from 1,404 to 4,422.
That’s a lot of data, but what does it mean? The first thing I would take away from these numbers is that it was a fairly successful speech, in the sense that many more people liked it than not. 57% is pretty good. True, it’s not as good as 87%, which the 2013 Inauguration Speech got, but still a significant majority.
Also, the sample size is significant: about a million people watched the speech on YouTube, internationally, and it seems like the general trend is that the number of people who are watching the speech that way is increasing. For comparison, the New York Times release of the president’s 2009 Inauguration speech got a mere 53,815 views, compared to 1.16 million for the 2013 speech, or twenty times more. Possibly more importantly, participation is going up, not just viewership. The percentage of people voting on videos, as opposed to just watching them, is increasing.
Perhaps the most troubling trend is the drop in viewership of the Wall Street Journal versions of the videos. The Wall Street Journal is considered a conservative publication, so the possibility of a five-fold drop in viewership of the State of the Union among conservatives online could indicate a radical disengagement. It may simply be a failure of marketing on the part of the Wall Street Journal, but it is worth investigating. The corresponding increase in the New York Times versions only stress the point.
Finally, the demographics of YouTube are most likely very different than the demographics of television, and certainly than the demographics of households being polled. YouTube is also international, so many of people voting on the State of the Union videos may not be American, and the president has generally been popular abroad. The voting sample for YouTube is also more likely to skew younger than that of the polls. In other words, the YouTube audience is more likely to be in the president’s political base.
There is no question that if current trends continue, the information revealed by YouTube viewership and voting numbers will be increasingly important to politics and beyond.
2013 State of the Union: White House Official
2014 State of the Union: White House Official
2013 State of the Union: Wall Street Journal
2014 State of the Union: Wall Street Journal
2013 State of the Union: New York Times
2014 State of the Union: New York Times
2009 Inauguration Speech: New York Times
2013 Inauguration Speech: New York Times
There is too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and not only is the amount is increasing daily, but the rate it is increasing is itself increasing, as more people from more nations continue modernize, with the effect of increased carbon
output. The long term effects of high levels of carbon dioxide are not well understood, and the short term effects are appearing today.
The most obvious solution to this problem would be to reduce carbon emissions wherever possible. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be politically or economically feasible. Cutting carbon drastically would also require significant lifestyle changes across the globe. When it comes to cutting down carbon output, likely the best that could be practically acheived would be to slow the rate down, which would not be enough, and even that appears unlikely.
Another proposed solution to the problem is geoengineering, which involves launching shiny particles into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight away from the earth, cooling it. This has two major drawbacks – first, it does nothing to reduce the quantity of carbon in the atmosphere, and second, by focusing on cooling the planet, it addresses only temperature, and not any other possible side effects of elevated CO2 levels.
I propose that a genetically-engineered bacteria designed to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen be released into the atmosphere. The bacteria would inhale carbon, and in fact thrive in a carbon rich environment.
Single-celled organisms that consume carbon and exhale oxygen already exist and are well-studied. Algae, or pond-scum, are examples of such a species. Scientists have already discovered microorganisms living in the upper atmosphere, many of which live off of carbon dioxide. It would be well within the capabilities of the scientific community to genetically modify one of these microorganisms and release more of them into the atmosphere.
It may not even be necessary to intervene in a natural process that is already underway. These microorganisms exist, and are likely to continue to thrive on the huge amounts of carbon entering our atmosphere. I suggest that we need only to speed this process along, so that the damage of elevated carbon levels in the atmosphere would be minimized.
One of the most appealing aspects of this solution is the apparent lack of side effects. Obviously, any potential perils of this approach should be carefully considered and studied. But the byproducts of these microorganisms would primarily be oxygen. Other byproducts could be controlled in the lab. These would be “good” bacteria, like many of the ones that comprise an essential part of human digestion.
This post is a short addition to my previous post, “Disruptive YouTube” – two footnotes that I think merit their own post.
The first is that it took 20 years for email to have enough impact on society that the US Postal Service is in trouble. Although it may take that long for YouTube to be visibly disruptive at a large scale, YouTube is already disrupting television to some extent, with programmers painfully aware of the competition that YouTube represents, particularly to their younger viewers. YouTube itself is a fairly compelling “channel”, with a search engine interface (which itself is more powerful and compelling to savvy users than simple channel number buttons). Also, it may take considerably less time for YouTube to be disruptive, since its audience is already internet savvy to some degree (particularly the commenters). YouTube itself has gone “viral” at this point, since YouTube as a platform is carried as a meme on virtually every viral video, so millions of views on one video may also mean millions of new and converted YouTube users. And many will notice the “upload” button, create an account, and contribute something of their own, becoming a participating content provider rather than an audience member.
The second footnote is that I’m noticing more and more how beloved some videos seem to be (note 50% in this context means 50% of the votes on the video are Likes). Some, like Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road, Jack!”, with 99% (over 120,000 likes!), may be expected to be likeable. “Something Stupid – Frank & Nancy Sinatra” has an incredible 99.7%, with over two thousand likes, and dislikes in the single digits. More surprising are David Bowie’s “Starman”, with 98% and Boy George, with 98.1%. “Guns N’ Roses – Paradise City” has 99.2%, with over 70,000 votes, and over 20 million views (this is no mean sample). The controversial Sinead O’Connor got 98.9%. Apparently now that the controversy has died down, kids like her music, all the same (At this point, I should come out and say that I believe that teenagers are by far YouTube’s largest consistent demographic – exploring/surfing YouTube instead of just getting a video, watching it, and closing it). Some of these acts seem to be liked more now than when they first came out.
What is going on? How is this level of unanimity on the internet, often with tens of thousands of participants (in Sinead O’Connor’s case, almost 65,000 votes), remotely possible? Surely not everyone watching a particular video got there completely intentionally. Sometimes YouTube makes suggestions to people that seem like a stretch based on the current video (“Don’t touch that dial! Something’s coming right up!”). So we have to consider that a portion of the audience got there randomly. In addition, one would expect a population of trolls to vote any video down, even the most likeable ones, just because they can. Perhaps clicking “Dislike” is not gratifying enough for a troll, who clicks “Like” and proceeds to write something obnoxious. In any case, this mystery makes the relative unanimity even more impressive.
I should clarify that this unanimity is not a given, by any means. Good old “Charlie bit my finger”, which has as of this writing received 107,496 Dislike votes, still has a score of 88.3% likes. A budget speech by President Obama given on April 13, 2011 stands at 80.4% – not nearly as popular as the music videos, but considerably higher than his current approval rating. And poor Rebecca Black’s Friday received only 22.7% (with 65,427 likes and 222,923 dislikes). Her second video did slightly better with 36.9% (of close to a million votes). This lack of unanimity seems to be the exception that proves the rule.
This data is interesting and valuable, and thankfully, public. I predict that YouTube will continue to be an excellent way of judging the zeitgeist for some time to come. More importantly, it is increasingly clear that there is some sort of agreed-upon shared cultural heritage that is being celebrated (“Liked”) on YouTube. If a music video is capable of receiving tens of thousands of positive votes ten, twenty, forty, or even eighty years after it first came out, it seems safe to say that the video has staying power. Some of it may be nostalgia, and some of it is the continuing novelty of YouTube. But there is a crowd-sourced curation that is happening on YouTube, and it merits our attention.
UPDATE: My favorite example of negative feedback on YouTube may be “Fox Business blasts The Muppets for brainwashing America’s kids with anti-corporate, liberal agenda“, a video with over 222,000 views and 3,300 votes, 94% of them negative. It seems that the YouTube community is almost unanimous in despising an attack on the beloved Muppets.
As a conversational space, to use NYU Professor Clay Shirky’s coinage, YouTube is often a disaster. Shirky himself has used the example of “Charlie bit my finger – again !” to demonstrate this disaster in action. “Charlie”, which has received an astonishing (and growing) 380 million views (the final episode of MASH, by contrast, got a paltry 50 million), has a virtually unreadable comments section; of the 600,000+ comments, what isn’t spam is either inane (“Charlie is so cute!”) or generally unintelligible vulgarity (“this video sucks”).
Based on “Charlie”, one could be forgiven for seeing YouTube as a hopeless space for facilitating meaningful conversation. Fortunately, “Charlie” is in fact an exceptional case: few videos get that many views, or even close to it, and while the video is entertaining, there is not much intellectual space for users to contribute in the comments. “Charlie” the video is too simple and “Charlie” the space is too crowded to maintain any sort of interesting momentum in the comments below.
Even so, the YouTube comment system is turning out to be something new that cannot be modeled as a traditional conversation. It may be more fruitful to study it as a feedback system instead. Most of the time, conversation on YouTube is not happening, in the sense of a coherent written back-and-forth among a group of commenters. YouTube’s specific commenting features, considered below, actually make conversation in this sense virtually impossible, so that even a small group of well-meaning, mature, and amiable commenters will have trouble carrying a real conversation. But as we’ll see, what emerges instead can be fascinating.
The YouTube commenting interface is straightforward: each video gets its own page, with the video itself dead center. Around the video is basic metadata (title, description, uploader handle). Below, towards the bottom of the page, are user comments on the video. There is a single thread in the comments: the video. YouTube has a basic crowd-sourced feedback system: users can vote up or down (i.e. Like or Dislike) both videos and comments. If there are enough positive votes on a comment, it becomes a “Top Comment”, and appears prominently above all other comments (even above the new comment form). Uploader comments have an especially elevated status: they always appear at the top. With enough negative votes, a comment is suppressed: it is hidden by default, and requires an additional click to read.
In addition to the interface itself, YouTube’s commenting system has some unique features that distinguish it as a forum.
1) YouTube is an anonymous forum. True, usernames are probably tracked by Google, but in the context of an actual discussion, the identities of the commenters among themselves is by default unknown. The only real hints to most commenters’ identities are the videos they choose to watch and what they write, which can be fairly substantive.
2) YouTube comments are uncensored. There seem to be no designated moderators (at least not public ones) appointed by YouTube/Google. Uploaders themselves have only one moderation option: Off. Any and all comments are allowed, or no comments at all. Other than that, comment moderation is completely user-driven, based on the simple Like/Dislike voting system, where each user gets one vote.
3) YouTube comments are always organized around a specific video. There is no other comment taxonomy, such as forums or threads. Comments are always supposed to be about The Video, and they generally are, or are quickly voted down by other users. This structure, together with the anonymous nature of the forum, keeps the video itself as the focus of conversation.
4) The ability to vote on individual comments creates a secondary feedback system (feedback on the feedback), and has a marked effect on how comments are constructed. As mentioned above, with enough Likes, a comment can be raised up to “Top Comment” status, making it much more prominent than those left at the bottom. This usually has the immediate layout effect of ripping a popular comment out of context and putting it onto a pedestal (a transfer that can be highly disruptive to what would have been a conversation).
It also creates a new incentive structure. Comments want to be read, and since being promoted to Top Comment results in many more readings, comments on YouTube want to be Liked as a result. Instead of the “rat race” of actual conversation, the commenter aims for the Top by trying to one-up other commenters by writing the funniest, wittiest, or most insightful comment – a pressure cooker of artificial selection. The end result is that Top Comments are typically pithy and quotable, like sound bites, constructed to solicit immediate positive feedback from other anonymous visitors. At its best, what replaces conversation is a feedback space full of sharp one-liners annotating the video: a pure meritocracy.
5) The scale of the YouTube landscape is vast, and growing rapidly. According to YouTube’s official blog, “more than 48 hours (two days worth) of video are uploaded to the site every minute” (over 4 million minutes of video per day). A related, and even more important, number is the quantity of videos: the diversity of subjects, styles, and qualities, each with the potential to foster a unique discussion. That number was not released, but assuming a long-ish 5 minutes per video, about 13,000 videos are uploaded every day. YouTube also has a massive audience up to the task of watching all this stuff: the site receives 3 billion video views daily (ibid). That means that, over a period of a year, YouTube handles over 1,000 trillion views. These incredible numbers have increased 100% and 50% since last year, respectively, and are likely to continue to increase.
Taking these features together, we begin to see each YouTube video as a bit like an island with a port, full of strangers, surrounded by open sea. Islands are of many different sizes. Commenters and Likers are drifters and vagrants: sailors who travel from port to port, briefly visiting and moving on, rather than settling down. At each port, The Video is the island’s shrine which centers all discussion. Some islands are friendlier than others (usually based on the tone of the shrine). When an island becomes hostile (or boring), a visitor can simply raise anchor and sail away, perhaps to visit another day. There are, from the sailor’s perspective, endless islands to see next.
The key question then is, how active is YouTube’s feedback space? How many viewers are also participants, leaving some sort of feedback? The video “Hit the road Jack!”, featuring Ray Charles performing live, is well-known, well-liked, and mainstream, making it a reasonable benchmark. “Hit the road Jack!” has been viewed over 30 million times, and Liked by users over 100,000 times . So in this case, 0.333% of YouTube viewers had accounts, were logged in, and voted on the video. In lieu of hard numbers, a reasonable low-ball estimate is that 0.3% of viewers participate by giving their feedback (this turns out to be a fairly consistent ratio of votes to views).
Well, 0.3% of 1,000 trillion views is 3 billion votes per year. “Hit the Road, Jack!” also has over 20,000 comments. Visitors may post multiple comments (but not multiple votes), so let’s assume 10,000 actual participants. That is one tenth of the voter population, or about 0.04% of the viewer population. This much smaller number still implies 300 million comments per year on YouTube. To put this in perspective, Amazon claims 10 million product reviews, total [source].
Possibly the most significant feature of YouTube’s numbers is the statistical distribution of views, which has not yet been released by Google. The most watched video on YouTube history is “Justin Bieber – Baby ft. Ludacris”, with over 630 million views and rising. This may seem like a large number, but it is dwarfed by the 1,000 trillion views distributed across less popular videos. In fact, “Baby” has received less than 0.1% of the total YouTube view share, demonstrating that on YouTube, big ratings and tiny share are not mutually exclusive, a feature that is characteristic of a Long Tail system.
The relative handful of behemoths like “Charlie” and “Baby” cannot compete with the sum total of thousands of videos with a million views each, or tens of thousands of videos with 100 thousand views each, etc*. Those videos comprise the smaller scale multitude; the nooks and crannies of YouTube; the shadows. And participation has a much better chance in the shadows. “Charlie” and “Baby” are tough places to have a discussion, but with “only” 190,000 views, a geology animation called “650 Million Years in 1 Min and 20 Sec” might not be. The video itself has 430+ Likes (~ 0.2% participation rate), and with 700+ comments, a fairly lively and on topic discussion of tectonic plates, the future of earth, and yes, religion. Since the video predicts where the continents will be in 150 million years, there is some humor, like “ZOMG, we’ll all be neighbors. 8’D” (by iDinoroars).
As YouTube, one of the fastest and most successfully scaling websites in history, continues to inflate, the number of participants represented by the 0.3% will grow with it. And as the viewer base becomes savvier, the 0.3% participation rate has a good chance of growing as well, perhaps to 3%, perhaps to 93%.
Meanwhile, the seemingly endless parade of both videos and participants is creating a rich and diverse feedback space, constantly growing and evolving, especially in the shadows.
UPDATE: added on 11/6/2011
I would be remiss if I did not address the so-called problem of trolls on YouTube. The answer is that because the YouTube forums are completely driven, and managed, by the user base of YouTube, which includes, well, anyone who feels like commenting, since there are few barriers to entry. In any case, trolls are treated in various ways: they may be isolated with down votes on their comments, ignored, or actually, in not-so-rare cases, voted up by others, if the comment is witty or amusing enough.
A Curtis Mayfield music video has 3,365 likes and 44 dislikes. That’s a 98.7% Like voting rate, virtually unanimous by internet standards. The 44 dislikes may be genuine dislikes, or merely trolling (ensuring things are never quite unanimous). Either way, even if every one of the dislikes were trolls (which I doubt), that leaves 1.3% of the vote. Not much. My reasoning is that even the worst trolls probably don’t click “Like” on videos, and if they do, that could be because they actually like the video.
Anyway, 98.7% is nothing (Sorry, Curtis). Neither is 98.52% (“Andy Williams – Moon River 1960’s performance”), or 98.99% (“Bee Gees – Stayin’ Alive [Version 1] (Video)”). And forget about “Tallest Man – Guinness World Record”, with a measly 94.36% vote up rate.
“Bill Withers – Ain’t No Sunshine” has 87,506 likes, and 679 dislikes. That’s 99.23% of voters who agree that they like this video (I’m one of them). That 0.77% almost seems like noise – the video seems impossible to dislike, just from the numbers. Interestingly, the comments seem surprisingly trollish, perhaps a reaction to the near unanimous approval the video has. There are videos with 100% Like rates, but typically they need to stay under a certain view threshold.
One other related observation: reading the comments, there’s often a “NN dislikes” meme. That is, many of the comments are responses to how many dislikes there are. It usually is a variation on the video itself. A contrived example might be “42 people think the world is flat.” This may be of interest since it seems to be almost a kind of double vote. “Not only do I like this video, I’m going to call out people who didn’t like it!” The “NN Dislikes” meme seems to be popular, based on the number of likes the comment usually gets.
* I strongly suspect that YouTube videos follow a Power Law distribution for number of views, but I don’t have numbers to back that up (yet).
UPDATE: I changed the title from “On the Feedback Shadows of Youtube” on October 23, 2011.
UPDATE: I changed the title from “YouTube, Disruptive YouTube” (ugh) on November 27, 2011.