Saturday, September 20, 2014

Is Alibaba comparable to a US company?

Alibaba is this weeks hot news -- they have had a lengthy PR campaign (preceded by a documentary film) followed by a record-setting stock offering.

I went with the hot-news flow, posting a comparison of Alibaba's market capitalization to those of other prominent companies as a "current event" for my class, but then I began to wonder whether that was an apples-to-apples comparison. I think I know what companies like Apple or Intel or Amazon are and do, but, I am not sure about Alibaba.

This was driven home by a New York Times article on Alibaba and its relationships to other companies and its history with respect to Yahoo. A lot of the article is summed up in the accompanying graphic, which depicts Alibaba's corporate investments, corporate investors, including Yahoo and Softbank, and Alibaba founder Jack Ma's personal investments:

This graphic reminded me of a case study of the Internet in Singapore that I worked on several years ago. With the help of my nephew, who worked for Goldman Sachs in Singapore at the time, I made the following graph of the ownership relationships between Singapore info-communication companies and the Singapore government in the year 2000.

Both graphics depict a Web of business and ownership relationships, based on corporate and personal ties. (The tie between Yahoo and Alibaba seems to have been based in large part on the relationship between Jack Ma and Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang). To a degree, US corporations are also parts of such webs, but is their interconnection as deep as that of Alibaba or the Singaporean companies?*

These graphics call to mind the stereotypical differences between US and Chinese (Asian?) cultures. For example, this pre-departure guide for Chinese students contrasts an individualistic US with a collectivist China.

I am surely not an organization theorist, political scientist or anything close, but I wonder about basic differences between a US company and a Chinese company like Alibaba. Is owning a share of, say, Apple, conceptually the same as owning a share of Alibaba?


* This is not to imply that all Asian corporate cultures are the same -- for example, the venture-capitalist role of the Singapore government is apparent in the Singapore figure above. That being said, it should be noted that, when I was there, Chinese people dominated the Singaporean companies.

Update 10/3/2014

There is a long discussion of this post on the Slashdot Web site. The discussion rambles quite a bit -- for example some comments talk about the structure of this particular offering rather than the nature of Chinese vs. US corporations. One exchange that I liked was:

Comment: At that high level, the line between corporations and the government becomes blurry, no matter which country you live in. Just look at Standard Oil, Boeing, Halliburton... The list goes on.

Reply: For sure, but are there differences in degree? For example, in Chinese dominated Singapore, the government is an explicit shareholder. I wonder if anyone has done a study of explicit ownership of stock by US companies --- e. g., does Haliburton own stock in Standard Oil?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Censorship and being skeptical of things posted online -- an example for my class

This morning my Google Plus feed included a link to a video posted by Moshe Vardi on Chinese Internet censorship during the run up to the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

I am going to use it in class as an example of government censorship, but, more important, to illustrate the need to be skeptical of things one finds online.

Internet censorship in China is not exactly news, but I still wanted to check the provenance of the video. The video was produced by Going to their Chinese news page, I noted that the general tenure of the posts is negative, perhaps indicating some bias:

The video presents a number of "man in the street" interviews showing people who are apathetic about or unaware of the 1989 demonstrations. At the 1:27 point in the video, a reportedly censored post from Weibo, China's version of Twitter, is displayed. The deleted post had allegedly contained a link to a Tiananmen democracy rally announcement at, a URL shortened using the service.

Following the link, I found a Weibo page with a bunch of posts, none of which seem to have anything to do with Tiananmen Square (thanks Google translate).

But, I noticed something strange. Normally, when you go to a URL shortened by, it displays the original full-length URL in the address bar, but in this case, it displayed the shortened version,

When I refreshed that page, it went first to then redirected back to

This strange behavior indicates some sort of trickery, lending credence to the assertion that a rally announcement had been deleted.

One can not be sure, but I now have more confidence in the video, it's interview clips and the claim that over 50 people were arrested in the run up to the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen.

Shifting gears -- it was interesting to compare the Weibo site to Twitter. It is a lot busier, more colorful and loaded with ads, including animated GIFs. Definitely not a US style site.

Not only does Weibo have more ads, it has greater information density. I checked a 102 Chinese character "tweet" and Google translated it into 335 latin letters -- well over the Twitter limit. (We can re-take the advantage by attaching images of printed pages to our tweets).


Here is the video:

Update 2/25/2015

This is an 80 minute talk Chinese censorship of the Internet by Gary King, of the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science:

King reports that China has over half a million people working on Internet censorship and that their goal is not to suppress criticism, but to head off action. (Criticism is valuable information).

The scope and methodology of this study is interesting -- big data social science – made possible by the Internet.

Update 5/25/2016

Gary King and his colleagues have published a study in which they estimate that Chinese government workers fabricate about 488 million social media posts annually.

The workers write these posts in addition to their regular jobs and send copies to a government propaganda office.

King estimates that about one in every 178 comments on Chinese social media sites is fabricated by the government, but they are not distributed uniformly over time. As shown below, their strategy is to increase post frequency in response to specific threats or events and nearly stop at other times.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Learning in an Introductory Physics MOOC: All Cohorts Learn Equally, Including an On-Campus Class

Researchers from MIT, Harvard and Tsinghua University in China have published a study analyzing learning in a Newtonian Mechanics MOOC offered by edX.

The class was intended for students familiar with the topic at a high school level. Approximately 17,000 people signed-up, but, as is typical in MOOCs, most were browsers. Only the 1,080 students who attempted more than 50% of the questions in the course were included in this study.

They looked at pre-post test improvement for several student cohorts based on previous education level and math and physics background. There was also a cohort of high school physics teachers.

Obviously, students in some cohorts did better on the average than those in other cohorts, but normalized gain for the various cohorts was about the same. They state that "there was no evidence that cohorts with low initial ability learned less than the other cohorts," which "should allay concerns that less well prepared students can’t learn in MOOCs."

Furthermore, the MOOC students learned at a similar rate to MIT students who had taken the on-campus version of a similar course. The on-campus students had four hours of small-group, flipped classroom instruction each week, staff office hours, helpful fellow students and access to physics tutors the MIT library. In spite of those resources, they were surprised to find no evidence of positive, weekly relative improvement of on-campus students compared with MOOC students.

Bear in mind that even the students who had less than a high school education and were relatively unprepared in math were motivated to complete the MOOC -- they were not typical low-performing students. Still, this is the sort of research we can look forward to seeing as we study innovation in Internet-based education.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Recommended podcast: the women who programmed the ENIAC

How some math-savvy women helped win World War II and became the first computer programmers

Stephen Cherry of IEEE Spectrum interviews LeAnn Erickson about the women who were hired to program the ENIAC just after World War II. The ENIAC was at the University of Pennsylvania and, during the war, many of the women had been using calculators to compute artillery shell trajectories at the nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground.

These women were "computers" at the Jet Propulsion Lab.

LeAnn Erickson is a professor of film and video production at Temple University and an independent filmmaker. She produced and directed Top Secret Rosies, a documentary on those early ENIAC programmers.

Here is the trailer:

Also, check out this post on the US Army Web site.

Update 10/6/2014

NPR has done a segment (6:46) on The Forgotten Female Programmers who Crated Modern Tech -- the ENIAC programmers, Grace Hopper and Ada, Countess of Lovelace. It is based on a new book, The Innovators, by Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isacsson.

Update 10/22/2014

Jean Jennings Bartik, one of the first seven ENIAC programmers, has written an autobiography. Her son, Timothy Bartick sent me a link to his review of the book, in which he highlights some of the recognition she has received and describes her effort to improve the standing of women in technology.

In the following six minute video, Ms. Bartik tells of her education, early work as a "computer" at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds and later as an ENIAC programmer.

The video begins with a short clip (6m 9s) showing Ms. Bartik programming the ENIAC. (This was before the stored program computer -- the ENIAC was programmed by setting dials and switches and plugging in switchboard like wires).

Update 10/23/2014

Yesterday I posted links to a short video interview of Jean Bartik and her autobiography.

She was an exceptional woman and had a significant career after her work on the ENIAC. The same can be said of other ENIAC programmers. Read more about each of them on their Wikipedia pages:

Update 11/30/2024

The Computers, another documentary on the women who programmed the ENICAC will be released soon. You can see the trailer here.

Update 5/24/2015

CIO Magazine has a post with links to photos and ancilary material on "Nine programming languages and the women who created them." The title is misleading -- the nine women were significant contribtors, but not the sole "creators" of the languages, but post itself makes that clear, citing other team members.

Grace Hopper, creator of FLOW-MATIC and COBOL contributor