Sites that revolutionized the Web

I compiled a list of the websites that have changed the way information is produced, handled, or distributed over the Internet. Many of these sites have something in common: they enable users (human or software) to judge the relevance of their content, to provide "interesting" information to others. This has been called distributed cognition or collective intelligence: like diligent ants, the small contributions of many people or sites lead to great achievements and sources of information.

  • Google. The most effective search engine for several years now. It judges the relevance of a webpage (its PageRank) by the PageRank of webpages that link to it. Thus, if many webpages link to a certain site, this should be interesting. And even more if those webpages are interesting themselves. Google has become an empire of free web-based utilities (in some cases buying other companies):
    • GMail. One of the most flexible free web-based mail providers, it gives users almost 3Gb of disk space and decent spam filtering. A great tool for keeping and searching old mails.
    • Docs & Spreadsheets. Edit and share online documents and spreadsheets. Great for collaborative work. Import and export to/from OpenOffice, Word/Excel, HTML, etc... (Used to be Writely, which Google bought...)
    • Blogger. Well, the host of this blog and millions of others. There are a lot of blog providers, so I will not attempt a list. The benefit of blogs is that they enable the easy and quick production of information by anyone with Internet access. Certainly, lots of junk is produced every second (like this blog...), but out of that interesting things can be sifted... For example, the US Pentagon filters all information about Irak that is published or broadcasted on usual media. But they don't have control over the Web, so blogs became a powerful weapon against Bush's government attempt to hide information on US soldiers killed, prisoners tortured, etc.
    • Books. Search on books.
    • Scholar. Search on academic texts.
    • and much more...
  • Wikipedia. The world's largest encyclopedia. Wiki enables users to easily build web documents collaboratively. This led to the development by an enthusiast community of this free encyclopedia. Everybody can edit documents (which are of course monitored for accuracy), so its growth rate is immense compared to any other published by a much smaller group of experts. In less than five years, it has more than million and a half entries in English. Because it has articles in more than 250, from Esperanto to Nahuatl, from Swahili to Maori. The Wikimeadia Foundation has several sister projects, among others:
  • Amazon. Buy online! Largest bookshop in the world. Useful features include ratings and reviews of products by users, and automatic suggestion of similar products (people interested in what you bought, also bought...).
  • eBay. Auction online! Users also rate sellers, so it is easier to trust somebody who has given excellent service to others. And it motivates sellers to give a good service, since they will be rated by their clients.
  • Orkut, Friendster, hi5, etc... Social networking sites. Also useful to make new friends with desired characteristics. LinkedIn is similar, but business-oriented.
  • del.icio.us. Make, share, tag, and search bookmarks online. "Social bookmarking".
  • YouTube. Users can upload and rate videos. Recently bought by Google, which already had its own Google Video.
  • Flickr.com. Store, share, search, and rate photos online.
  • Sourceforge. Host of thousands of open source projects. Useful for collective development of software projects, since it provides free website, CVS, etc.
  • arxiv. The first of several open archives, scientists can share their preprints before having to wait the long process of journal publication. Even online journals can take several months to review a paper. Best place to find out the most recent research, and the best way to divulge quickly your own.
  • CiteULike. Make, search, share, and tag academic citations online.
  • Digg. People vote on news items. News with most votes are shown in front pages, so you tend to get interesting news (for a certain category). Nowadays most news are tech-related, but the model has lots of potential. A similar site is Google news, only that the relevance of news is calculated automatically.
  • Pandora. Free online radio, suggesting music similar to an artist or song of your choice. See this post.
If you have more sites to add to this list, please post a comment!


Do you need a tech update???

You need a technological update if...

  • you still connect to the Internet with gopher
  • your mobile phone weights more than 200 grams, or you can't receive SMS
  • you still use pine to check your e-mail and lynx to surf the web
  • you still use floppy disks
  • you still use vi to edit your code
  • your monitor is monochromatic or CGI
  • you don't use Google to search the web
  • still have a hotmail account instead of a gmail account
  • burning a CD takes you more than twenty minutes
  • you still use Wordstar
  • you still listen to tapes in your walkman
  • you have never heard of Linux
  • you prefer documents in ps over pdf
  • your camera is not digital
  • your are proud of your laserdisc collection
  • you or your children play with Intellivision or Atari 2600
  • your company still praises COBOL
  • you don't know what a blog is...


Pandora: a new way to listen music

Our friends Chris and Antonja showed us Pandora. It is the outcome of the Music Genome Project, which started with the turn of the century.

They have analyzed songs from more than ten thousand artists (and counting), and graded them according to different properties, such as melody, harmony and rhythm. Making their huge database available to the public, it enables the personalization of radio stations. For example, if you like Led Zeppelin (In this world, there are two kinds of people, those who like Led Zeppelin, and those who haven't heard them), you can easily create a "Led Zeppelin station". Unlike Radio Netscape, it doesn't play ONLY Led Zeppelin songs 24/7 (which is not bad...), but will randomly give you to listen songs from and similar to Led Zeppelin's, e.g. Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, etc...

This is great not only for listening music you like, but also to discover artists you never knew about...

Pandora has more functionalities I will let the interested reader discover by her/himself... (i.e. I'm lazy to write about them)


PhD thesis: first version finished!

After two busy months, I have the first complete version of my thesis (I need to thank Nadia for her great patience!). Now it will be reviewed by the members of my thesis comission, and in a couple of months I would give the private defense...
Let's hope that I'm not requested to change more than half of it!

Please feel free to send in any comments.

Design and Control of Self-organizing Systems

PhD Dissertation presented by

Carlos Gershenson

(to be defended in 2007)


Complex systems are difficult to design and control. There are several particular methods for coping with complexity, but there is no general methodology. In this thesis I propose such a methodology. This is based on the description of the system as self-organizing. The methodology proposes a series of steps to follow to find proper mechanisms that will promote elements to find solutions by actively interacting among themselves.

A general introduction to complex thinking is given, since designing self-organizing systems requires a non-classical thought, while practical notions of complexity and self-organization are put forward. To illustrate the methodology, I use as case studies self-organizing traffic lights, self-organizing bureaucracies, and self-organizing artifacts in an ambient intelligence scenario, along with other possible areas of application.

Please feel free to check the latest snapshot of my thesis (pdf). Any comment/suggestion/feedback would be more than welcome.


Art vs. Science???

Last weekend, Nadia and I went to the Symposium "Where do we go from here?", to celebrate the launch of the Brussels Platform for the Arts. With all the educational reforms going around the European Union, Belgium decided that it was time for an academic Doctorate in the Arts.

For some people involved in the event, academics = science, and they defended that they had nothing to do with each other, arguing that science is cold and methodical, and that it suffocates creativity. Other people, such as Jean Paul Van Bendegem (well, actually the ones who have a hands-on experience with science), defended that there are more things in common than differences between the arts and sciences.

I think that both need creativity and hard work. Nobody in science really follows the scientific method: you need inspiration to explore new avenues and ideas. And art is not only about liberating the spirit: without hard work, you won't do anything relevant.

Sciences, not even the hardest ones, are purely objective, nor arts are purely subjective... all of them are contextual!

I think that doing research in arts does not need to follow scientific approaches, and still be academic. You just need a group of experts judging whether a student has proven herself/himself worthy of obtaining a doctorate degree. The precise rules in which this will happen are still to be determined, but I think the program has lots of potential.


New president(s) in Mexico...

On December 1st, Vicente Fox stepped down from Mexico's presidency, while Felipe Calderón started his six year period. Since Calderón "won" the elections using electoral fraud plus other dirty manouvers, the civil unrest surrounding all of his events is noticeable.

Usually, the exchange of presidential powers is made before the Congress. Everybody says speeches, promise everything will be better, and so on. However, there had been a strong militarization around the Congress building in Mexico City fearing civil demonstrations, especially after Vicente Fox was unable to give his last presidential report (to my mind for the first time in our history), and when he had to move the celebrations of the Independence day and "cancel" those of the Revolution, knowing how many people would reming him of his mother if he shows himself in public. (Not to worry, the government of the City took care of both celebrations).

So, how things went: Exactly at midnight of December 1st, the powers were transfered
at a private ceremony inside the presidential residency of Los Pinos. However, this was televised, since it seems that TV has more weight and power in Mexico than the Congress...
An off voice declared Calderón president... should we interpret it as a metaphor of God? Of dark figures behind power? Salinas de Gortari? In any case, not the people, for sure.

Now, it is a constitutional requirement for a new president to be at the Congress. Three days before a fight broke out, where congressmen supporting or rejecting Calderón fought for the control of the tribune, where the change of powers should take place. There was no winner, and both camps stayed sleeping in the Congress Hall until Calderón showed up through the back door, in the middle of insults from socialist congressmen and applauses by his supporters, and in 5 minutes he was gone...

The members of the PRI (centerwing party) supported Calderón, in exchange of his support of Gov. Ulises Ruiz of Oaxaca, who has been facing trouble with people demanding his removal for several months now. Calderón's way of saying thank you: he arrested the leaders of the Oaxacan movement when they were in Mexico trying to reach an agreement with the federal government... So things don't look prosperous at all for freedom of speech and human rights...

But in parallel, Andres Manuel López Obrador, the "legitimate" president, will be organizing demonstrations to prevent neoliberal dreams from proliferating...