Archive for February, 2012

Chinese telegraph code

February 25, 2012


It looks like the Chinese used a system like Unicode a century ago to encode messages. You need more than simple Morse code to communicate Chinese ideograms, as this picture shows (taken from the telegraph station in the Forbidden City).


Update (2012-03-16): on a related topic, here is a talk on the history of the chinese typewriter.


Privacy as a feature

February 25, 2012

Privacy is in the news. But, as I’ll explain, economic analysis shows that people actually don’t care about this feature much relative to other features. What is then government’s rationale for forcing this feature ahead of others?


There is a lot of innovation in the tech industry as result of strong demand and intense competitive pressure. Yet, accoding to privacy advocates little has been done with regards to privacy, yielding some kind of unacceptable trade-off. If people are really that concerned about privacy, then why is it served poorly? 


Could it be that privacy is hard to see (you don’t know if the feature is there)?

The same can be said of Halal or Kosher food, which probably taste the same as regular food. Yet those features and the accompanying certifications developped naturally in the market.


Could it be that people aren’t aware of the lack of privacy?

I am sure most people don’t understand web technology and its privacy implications (web beacons, third-party cookies, …). But if there was demand for privacy, profit opportunities would invite the creation of privacy-respecting services by entrepreneurs, who would advertise their unique features as a competitive advantage (educating the public in the process).


Could it be that services are unclear in disclosing their privacy practice?

If that were the case, competitive advertisement would bring the issue to light. Also, I would expect people to avoid such unclear services. After all, if you are vegetarian, you don’t order dishes unless their are clearly labelled as such (or you ask).


From all this, I can only conclude that people demonstrate little preference for privacy features relative to other features these days. Political regulations would impose an opportunity cost of more desirable features, thereby making people worse off. Even if privacy became a priority for customers, there is no theory or evidence to suggest that government involvement would improve the competitive process or bring any net benefit.


PS: I talked about privacy without defining it. In reality it is not a single feature. In a way, many privacy features are already widely implemented: your account is password protected, and your search history, emails and personal information are not published in the open.

PPS: Even from an ethical angle, the notion of privacy “rights” is silly. First, such rights would be incompatible with rights to property and contractual agreements. Second, people tend to avoid services that violate their rights (this is not like unsolicited email, or spam, because users choose to use the products that have tracking built in). Third, I suspect people should be more worried by government’s surveillance programs than that of advertisers.


Instapaper Founder On The App Economy : NPR

February 6, 2012

The Instapaper dev makes an astute observation about the app store model: the beauty is that it lowers the barrier to making purchases.
You don’t have to give your credit card on some app’s website, which you don’t necessarily trust.
Also, the process is identical for free apps and for paid apps (just type your password).