• Anil collects more thoughts on the coming storm of apps vs. open web. "This, for me, is a social issue, a cultural issue, and a political issue, not just a technological issue. Perhaps we need to speak of it that way more often, to make the stakes clear."
  • "'s time for developers to take a stand. If you don't want a repeat of the PC era, place your bets now on open systems. Don't wait till it's too late." Tim O'Reilly on the coming platform storm. [via anil]
  • a quick, straightforward explanation of data portability and why companies like Google should support it. [via battelle]
    filed under: amazon, google, internet, privacy
  • Flickr applies for a patent on "interestingness" as a way of determining which media objects are getting the most attention from users. [via kottke]
    filed under: flickr, future, law, tagging
  • Using a bunch of Amazon metrics to track the popularity of game systems. [via AWS blog]
    filed under: visualization, amazon, hacks, webservices, games

Amazon Adds Comments

Just noticed that Amazon is now allowing comments on each review. It looks like this:

amazon review comments
(click to enlarge)

For years, Amazon has tried to keep people from having conversations via reviews with careful instructions about not referencing other reviews. But that didn't stop people from conversing. You often see things like, "Reviewer x is off his rocker..." or "I don't know what some of these reviewers are thinking..." in Amazon reviews. Now people can talk to each other directly.

If people know that their reviews are "thread starters" rather than isolated posts, you could get more chatty reviews with open-ended questions designed to provoke discussion. You should also get more flame wars, more trolling, all of the standard online discussion problems. (Especially with an audience as large as Amazon's.) And how do you police comments on millions of reviews? Does each reviewer "own" the thread associated with the review? If so, shouldn't they be able to approve/edit comments on that review? Is it fair to allow comments on a review from six years ago, when the author of that review isn't expecting feedback, and likely isn't tuning into the page anymore?

On the positive side, you might get a better view of a product because discussion can bring out more detail. Should be interesting.

Better Amazon RSS Feeds

A few years ago I put together a little tool to help assemble RSS feeds of Amazon products called the Amazon RSS Feed-Builder. I've been using feeds generated with this tool for about three years, tracking the latest books, music, and DVDs across series and artists that I like. Because publishers often announce books to Amazon well in advance, I know about new books in the Hacks Series well before O'Reilly announces the books on their own website. Amazon also offers pre-built feeds on their Amazon Syndication page.

These old-style Amazon feeds have worked well at alerting me about new products, but they are fairly limited. I just see the title, the author, and a price in my newsreader. I decided to upgrade my Amazon feeds so each item includes a product image (if available), a product description, and product details. And I figured if I was going to go through the trouble of upgrading my feeds, why not just upgrade the Amazon RSS Feed-Builder? So here's the new thing:

Amazon Feed Generator

It's hot off the assembly line today, and I'm sure there are bugs to be worked out. (It's also powered by orange gradients.) If you want to give it a shot, feel free to try it out and post any comments/problems on this post. As an example, here are the latest books in a Polar Exploration Feed. I subscribe to this feed, and I'm notified whenever new books about polar exploration show up in Amazon's catalog.

This uses the latest version of Amazon Web Services, with a custom stylesheet and Amazon's server-side XSLT service. And I want to say thanks to Alan Taylor for his recent article subtitled, AMZN-XSLT-JSON-AJAX (AXJA?). His stylesheet is a perfect example of consuming the new, more-complex AWS responses with XSL.

Mechanical Turk

ETech has been over for a week, and one presentation is still nagging at me on a regular basis. Amazon has a Web Service called Mechanical Turk (named after this Mechanical Turk), and Felipe Cabrera from Amazon spent 15 minutes or so talking about MTurk during one of the ETech morning talks.

The talk focused on the idea that artificial intelligence hasn't materialized, and there are still some tasks that are easy for humans but impossible for computers. For example, a human can look at a picture of a chair and answer the question: Is this a picture of a chair or a table? A computer would have a tough time with that.

MTurk farms out these sorts of questions to real live humans and wraps their decisions (or HITs in MTurk parlance) into a Web Services API so they can be used in computer programs. Cabrera called this process of tapping humans to make decisions for machines Intelligence Augmentation (IA) as apposed to Artificial Intelligence (AI). The talk was good, and MTurk is definitely a clever hack, but the idea has been bothering me.

I can imagine a world where my computer can organize my time in front of the screen better than I can. In fact, I bet MTurk will eventually gather data about how many HITs someone can perform at peak accuracy in a 10 hour period. Once my HIT-level is known, the computer could divide all of my work into a series of decisions. Instead of lunging about from task to task, getting distracted by blogs, following paths that end up leading nowhere, the computer could have everything planned out for me. (It could even throw in a distraction or two if that actually increased my HIT performance.) If I could be more efficient and get more accomplished by turning decisions about how I work over to my computer, I'd be foolish not to.

I guess this idea of people being managed and controlled by machines is nothing new, and it was the bread and butter of science fiction books I read as a kid. But MTurk puts this dystopia in a new, immediate context. Machines are smarter than ever, and control of human decision-making could be highly organized.

MTurk is only a few months old, and there's nothing inherently wrong with it. But I can't stop projecting the ideas behind the system ahead a few years, and that's what's bothering me. I can't even fully articulate why it's bothering me. I don't have any conclusions, or even concrete hypotheticals of MTurk gone awry—so I'm just using my blog as therapy. Obviously my computer didn't ask me to write this.
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