logo Ming the Mechanic - Category: Information
An old rigid civilization is reluctantly dying. Something new, open, free and exciting is waking up.


Wednesday, February 1, 2006day link 

 Chilling Effects
Chilling Effects Clearinghouse is a resource set up by Electronic Frontier Foundation, essentially to help you out if somebody is trying to shut you up on the net when you state your opinion or tell your story. For example, if you give a critical report of the products or activities of some company. They might send you a legal sounding notice, threatening you with million dollar lawsuits and jail if you don't remove your criticism. It you're just one individual without legal resources, that might freak you out, and you might do what they say, and shut up. But you don't have have to, if you realize you're not alone, and if you have a place to share your story, and receive support and advice.
Do you know your online rights? Have you received a letter asking you to remove information from a Web site or to stop engaging in an activity? Are you concerned about liability for information that someone else posted to your online forum? If so, this site is for you.

Chilling Effects aims to help you understand the protections that the First Amendment and intellectual property laws give to your online activities. We are excited about the new opportunities the Internet offers individuals to express their views, parody politicians, celebrate their favorite movie stars, or criticize businesses. But we've noticed that not everyone feels the same way. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some individuals and corporations are using intellectual property and other laws to silence other online users. Chilling Effects encourages respect for intellectual property law, while frowning on its misuse to "chill" legitimate activity.
Notice particularly that they're gathering a searchable database of Cease and Desist letters that people have received, and they will help decode the legalese, to explain what they actually mean, and what your rights actually are.
[ | 2006-02-01 22:25 | 19 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Sunday, January 1, 2006day link 

 Best of Web 2.0
Dion Hinchcliffe selected the Best of Web 2.0 software in 2005. A fabulous list of great online software. And you probably don't know all of them. My own favorite on the list is Protopage.
[ | 2006-01-01 22:18 | 23 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

 Xooglers
Xooglers is a blog by a couple of ex-Google employees, who share their experiences. Which is fascinating. I read it from one end to the other. They don't have anything particularly bad to say. Rather, they have a bunch of great things to say. Interesting is that this is a couple of very smart people, but still they feel that they didn't entirely measure up to working for Google. Particularly one of them, who was a venerated rocket scientist Ph.D. at JPL, but at Google he rather felt himself to be in the lower 25%, prone to screw up and just not measure up to everybody else. Which mostly says something about the quality of people working at Google. Maybe I'm glad they didn't want me. I don't like being one of the stupid guys.
[ | 2006-01-01 22:05 | 8 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Thursday, December 1, 2005day link 

 Consumer Networking
Wouldn't it be nice if "consumers" were well enough networked and well enough informed that companies just can't get away with screwing them over?

We seem to be getting closer, probably thanks to blogs more than anything else.

Sony BMG released more than 20 million CDs that, if you played them on your windows computer, would install a Root Kit, which would hide itself in your operating system, mess with what you were doing, and report back your activities to Sony. A Root Kit is a hacker technology, for installing hostile programs on your system, while they remain undetected and trick the system into making it look like nothing at all is going on. Sony did that deliberately, as DRM (Digital Rights Management), to try to make sure you didn't violate the rules they'd like you to follow. Remember, we're just talking about a normal audio CD, which you wouldn't expect to install anything in your system. But it installed some very bad stuff, making your system further vulnerable to attacks. Around 500,000 networks were compromised by this hack. Read the timeline here. Because of a storm of bad publicity and a number of class action lawsuits, Sony finally recalled the CDs, although they didn't give more than a very wimpy apology.

The good news is that the debacle probably set back the deployment of DRM several years. Which is good for you, as DRM basically just means that the big music and film companies want to break your equipment so it only does what they'd like it to do, if any of their CDs or DVDs are involved. And most likely Sony will take a big dip in sales because of this. And maybe they'll start getting the message that their customers don't want crap like that, and that enough of them are sufficiently well-informed and loud enough to say so.

The Grateful Dead isn't exactly a big corporation, but they have been a shining icon for file-sharers everwhere. They always allowed fans to make their own recordings of their concerts and to share them freely. And that was part of what kept them having a large following for a long time, and probably a major driver behind their commercial enterprise. But recently their company commanded some websites to remove archives of their music, apparently because Jerry Garcia's widow had changed her mind or something. Which caused a big uproar, and deadheads immediately and loudly started boycotting all things Grateful Dead. Read here. And, now, today they apparently changed their mind and reinstated the archives they had asked to get removed.

And, now, also from the last few days there is this story. An avid amateur photographer wanted to buy a $3000 camera, and an online store in New York called PriceRitePhoto had the best price. But what followed was an outrageous sequence of abusive experiences with them, being threatened and blackmailed in an assortment of ways. But this guy had the guts to post the whole thing on his blog. Which got a LOT of attention, Slashdot, BoingBoing, Digg, and many other sites. And a lot of help too. And despite lots of, probably fake, positive reports on various review sites, it turned out that lots of people had similarly horrifying experiences with that company.

Be sure to read the update section after his account. First more outrageous threats. But then, in brief, in the course of two days it seems that the camera vendor has gotten de-listed from several of the main price listing sites, and that their ISP is considering terminating their account for illegal activity. And the owner of the company called the guy and was suddenly very nice and apologetic, and said the responsible employee was fired. Nothing like seeing one's business go down the drain to get somebody's attention.

What all of this means is that it is a lot harder for a company to do something misleading, unethical, sleazy, illegal, or just unpopular. OK, not all incidents are going to get this kind of publicity, but enough of them are to create an impact.
[ | 2005-12-01 22:58 | 21 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Tuesday, November 29, 2005day link 

 How to write unmaintainable code
This is an elaborate and funny guide to how to maintain job security as a programmer by writing code that nobody else will be able to maintain, while making it appear like you just did your job. Stuff like:
Lie in the comments
You don't have to actively lie, just fail to keep comments as up to date with the code.

Document the obvious
Pepper the code with comments like /* add 1 to i */ however, never document wooly stuff like the overall purpose of the package or method.

Document How Not Why
Document only the details of what a program does, not what it is attempting to accomplish. That way, if there is a bug, the fixer will have no clue what the code should be doing.

Avoid Documenting the "Obvious"
If, for example, you were writing an airline reservation system, make sure there are at least 25 places in the code that need to be modified if you were to add another airline. Never document where they are. People who come after you have no business modifying your code without thoroughly understanding every line of it.

I've seen lots of programs that do many of the things he's mentioning. Many programmers do these things instinctively. Maybe because they have that job-security thing built right in. Secrecy is good. For many others it would be more accidental, because they didn't think about how other might need to use their work.

Many well-known open source programs are delivered with a lot of these techniques applied. And, well, that isn't really because they want it to be unmaintainable. Just because it made sense to somebody at some point, and they forgot to mention what it all meant. Or because so many people have worked on a program that it becomes a huge pile of spaghetti. Or maybe it is because the maintainers are very smart people, so it is obvious to them how everything fits together, and they don't expect lesser mortals to have a chance.

MediaWiki is the wiki program that runs Wikipedia. The code is an outrageously complex mess, even though it seems to be made by very smart people, and they obviously are maintaining it, and it works well. But on several occasions I have needed to extract something from it, and ended up giving up and writing it from scratch, because everything depends on everything else, in ways that are very non-obvious. Maybe I'm just not smart enough to touch it.

Many open source packages make sure to sneak in a few things to humiliate you, particularly if you need to compile them. "Adjust the compiler settings to fit your local environment" - yeah, that's really helpful when I don't know what any of them mean.

Lawyers probably learn many of the same techniques. Laws seem to be written that way. The small print in user agreements and contracts are usually written that way. They make it appear that they're going to great lengths to spell things out exactly, but really they're convering up the essentials, so that they know what it means, but you don't.

I've worked for managers who did this thing masterfully. I.e. keep the real information for yourself, and share only the trivial parts, so that if anybody tries to take any initiative on their own, they'll make a fool of themselves, because there's always something essential they didn't know.

French management seems to work a whole lot like this, from all I hear. I was talking with a friend I'm probably going to do some programming for, and he provides a certain kind of analysis of strategic business numbers for companies. To his surprise he found that most top managers he presented it to and explained it to would keep the information to themselves. He helps the President have some important insights into the company's operations, and a few weeks later the CEO comes and asks him for the same thing, and he realized they didn't talk with each other at all. Each of them would merely use the data to bring out as a surprise in a meeting with big shareholders, to impress them, but otherwise it would be carefully hidden.

Information is power if it is secret. Or, really? That's not the way it should be of course. And it isn't like that across the board, of course. Really, information translates into much more power when it is clearly communicated and widely shared. But a different kind of power. The exponential synergetic power of easily building on other people's work, rather than the power of exclusion, keeping everybody else in the dark, so you yourself can look a little better.

Luckily it is changing.
[ | 2005-11-29 23:59 | 24 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Saturday, November 19, 2005day link 

 Saving the net from the pipe owners
Doc Searls has an excellent and long article, "Saving the Net: How to Keep the Carriers from Flushing the Net Down the Tubes". Basically the net as we know it is in grave danger if the large telco carriers that own most of the pipes it runs on manage to get their way. You might think that the net is just this common free space where we all can share and communicate. But some very large companies think it is merely their property, and their delivery mechanism for their content that you'll have to pay for. And if we don't watch it, they might get their way, by getting their business plans put into law. Well, U.S. law at least, but that unfortunately sets the tone for how things work. This quote from Edward Whiteacre, CEO of SBC, epitomises the problem:
Q: How concerned are you about Internet upstarts like Google, MSN, Vonage, and others?

A: How do you think they're going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there's going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?

The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo! or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!

He was asked this, as far as I remember, because SBC started blocking VoIP (voice conversations over the net) on their network. Which they think they have a right to do, because they don't make money off of them. Well, they do - people pay for their internet connection, but SBC also sells phone service, and they don't want competition. So, where we think we're free to do whatever it is technically possible to do on the net, these guys have in mind to only let you do things they get paid a cut of. I.e. they regard the net as the vehicle for big companies to deliver paid content to you, the consumer, rather than as your way to peruse the information you're interested in.

One of the many good points in Doc's article is that the battle is about semantics. Not "just semantics", but it is semantics in the sense that one side is somewhat succeeding in positioning the discussion to be about ownership and property. They "own" the pipes, the copyrights, the content, and everybody else are freeloades who'd want to rip it off for free. And law, particularly in the U.S., tends to be on the side of property owners. Here's from a previous article, particularly about copyright, discussing that beyond the legal and political contexts there is the metaphorical:
The third is metaphorical. I believe Hollywood won because they have successfully repositioned copyright as a property issue. In other words, they successfully urged the world to understand copyright in terms of property. Copyright = property may not be accurate in a strict legal sense, but it still makes common sense, even to the Supreme Court. Here's how Richard Bennett puts it:

The issue here isn't enumeration, or the ability of Congress to pass laws of national scope regarding copyright; the copyright power is clearly enumerated in the Constitution. The issue, at least for the conservative justices who sided with the majority, is more likely the protection of property rights. In order to argue against that, Lessig would have had to argue for a communal property right that was put at odds with the individual property right of the copyright holder, and even that would be thin skating at best. So the Supremes did the only possible thing with respect to property rights and the clearly enumerated power the Constitution gives Congress to protect copyright.

Watch the language. While the one side talks about licenses with verbs like copy, distribute, play, share and perform, the other side talks about rights with verbs like own, protect, safeguard, protect, secure, authorize, buy, sell, infringe, pirate, infringe, and steal.

This isn't just a battle of words. It's a battle of understandings. And understandings are framed by conceptual metaphors. We use them all the time without being the least bit aware of it. We talk about time in terms of money (save, waste, spend, gain, lose) and life in terms of travel (arrive, depart, speed up, slow down, get stuck), without realizing that we're speaking about one thing in terms of something quite different. As the cognitive linguists will tell you, this is not a bad thing. In fact, it's very much the way our minds work.

But if we want to change minds, we need to pay attention to exactly these kinds of details.

"The Commons" and "the public domain" might be legitimate concepts with deep and relevant histories, but they're too arcane to most of us. Eric Raymond has told me more than once that the Commons Thing kinda rubs him the wrong way. Communist and Commonist are just a little too close for comfort. Too social. Not private enough. He didn't say he was against it, but he did say it was a stretch. (Maybe he'll come in here and correct me or enlarge on his point.) For many other libertarians, however, the stretch goes too far. Same goes for conservatives who subscribe to the same metaphorical system in respect to property.

So the work we have cut out for us isn't just legal and political. It's conceptual. Until we find a way to win that one, we'll keep losing in Congress as well as the courts.

Doc wrote another excellent article with David Weinberger, called The World of Ends, essentially arguing that the net is a neutral medium that connects up a lot of ends. It is about connecting everything to everything, with zero distance. The things to connect might be us having a conversation, or it can be you making a purchase in a store. Doesn't really matter. The net itself is stupid, and just acts as the connecting substrate. It is a place, to connect up end users. And that's what works. If anybody succeeds in re-defining it as merely their distribution mechanism, which they can slice up and monetize like they feel like, it starts not working any longer.
While the Net's nature is a world-wide place, the Web's nature is a world-wide publishing system. The Web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist who wanted a simple way documents could be published and read, anywhere in the world, without restriction by physical location or underlying transport system. That's why it has hypertext protocols, "languages" and "formatting" standards. It's also why we "write", "author" and "mark up" "documents" called "pages" and "files" which we "post", "publish" or "put up" so others can "index", "catalog" and "browse" them.

To sum up, the Net has all these natures:

1. transport system (pipes)
2. place (or world)
3. publishing system

--and others as well. But those aren't at war with one another, and that's what matters most.

Right now #1 is at war with #2 and #3, and that war isn't happening only in the media and in congressional hearing rooms. It's happening in our own heads. When we talk about "delivering content to consumers through the Net", rather than "selling products to customers on the Net", we take sides with #1 against #2. We unconsciously agree that the Net is just a piping system. We literally devolve: our lungs turn to gills, our legs turn into flippers, and we waddle back into the sea--where we are eaten by sharks.

Hopefully it doesn't end up happening. Law makers might see the light and not just hand ownership of the net to a few corporation. We might collectively understand the matter clearly enough to not allow it. And there might be technological solutions that take it in a different direction, and bypass the monopolies. Community wifi networks, for example.
[ | 2005-11-19 14:12 | 31 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Wednesday, October 26, 2005day link 

 Mr.Angry and Mrs.Calm
picture
An interesting perceptual illusion. If you're looking at these pictures right in front of you on your screen, you will probably see an angry guy on the left, and a serene looking woman on the right. But try to move further away, and you'll discover that it is quite the other way around.

Read more about it here.
[ | 2005-10-26 00:26 | 19 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Monday, October 24, 2005day link 

 Transliterature
Ted Nelson is the guy who basically invented hypertext. No, not the web, but the vision of interlinked information. And he's not quite happy with what we can do yet. He thinks we should start over, for that matter.
"Tekkies think that electronic documents and the World Wide Web are something completely new and that they own it, exactly the way every generation of teenagers thinks they've invented sex and it's their secret.

But it's not new and they don't own it. Word processing and the World Wide Web are not intrinsically new. They are literature.

What is literature? Literature is (among other things) the study and design of documents, their structure and connections. Therefore today's electronic documents are literature, electronic literature, and the question is what electronic literature people really need.

Electronic literature should belong to all the world, not just be hoarded by a priesthood, and it should do what people need in order to organize and present human ideas with the least difficulty in the richest possible form.

A document is not necessarily a simulation of paper. In the most general sense, a document is a package of ideas created by human minds and addressed to human minds, intended for the furtherance of those ideas and those minds. Human ideas manifest as text, connections, diagrams and more: thus how to store them and present them is a crucial issue for civilization.

The furtherance of the ideas, and the furtherance of the minds that present them and take them in, are the real objectives. And so what is important in documents is the expression, reception and re-use of ideas. Connections, annotations, and most especially re-use-- the traceable flow of content among documents and their versions-- must be our central objectives, not the simulation of paper.

Those who created today's computer documents lost sight of these objectives. The world has accepted forms of electronic document that are based on technical traditions, and which cannot be annotated, easily connected or deeply re-used. They impose hierarchy on the contents and ensnare page designers in tangles only a few can manage.

"Technology" must no longer be the emphasis, but literature. "Hypertext"-- a word I coined long ago-- is not technology but potentially the fullest generalization of documents and literature. Text on paper was the best way to present ideas in the paper era, when there was no other way; but now we see fantastic movies and commercials to imitate, and we have super-power graphics cards that can enact swoops and zooms hitherto scarcely imaginable. Tomorrow's true hypertext can give us far more powerful ways to show, integrate and embellish ideas-- leaving behind the imitation of paper represented by word processing and the web. It's time for a new flying cinematic literature to represent and present tomorrow's ideas."

Transliterature is what he's aiming for. Ted Nelson is a very smart man who thinks outside the box. But so far a lot of what he has proposed hasn't become practical to do. I hope that might change. It is kind of dumb we still live with metaphors like desktops and documents and folders, when we could do so much more.
[ | 2005-10-24 22:31 | 11 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Thursday, August 18, 2005day link 

 The pivotal moment of the web
Nice Wired article We are the Web by Kevin Kelly. In part speaking for how pivotal the invention of the web is likely to be perceived in the long view. Like, say, looking back 3000 years from now.
There is only one time in the history of each planet when its inhabitants first wire up its innumerable parts to make one large Machine. Later that Machine may run faster, but there is only one time when it is born.

You and I are alive at this moment.

We should marvel, but people alive at such times usually don't. Every few centuries, the steady march of change meets a discontinuity, and history hinges on that moment. We look back on those pivotal eras and wonder what it would have been like to be alive then. Confucius, Zoroaster, Buddha, and the latter Jewish patriarchs lived in the same historical era, an inflection point known as the axial age of religion. Few world religions were born after this time. Similarly, the great personalities converging upon the American Revolution and the geniuses who commingled during the invention of modern science in the 17th century mark additional axial phases in the short history of our civilization.

Three thousand years from now, when keen minds review the past, I believe that our ancient time, here at the cusp of the third millennium, will be seen as another such era. In the years roughly coincidental with the Netscape IPO, humans began animating inert objects with tiny slivers of intelligence, connecting them into a global field, and linking their own minds into a single thing. This will be recognized as the largest, most complex, and most surprising event on the planet. Weaving nerves out of glass and radio waves, our species began wiring up all regions, all processes, all facts and notions into a grand network. From this embryonic neural net was born a collaborative interface for our civilization, a sensing, cognitive device with power that exceeded any previous invention. The Machine provided a new way of thinking (perfect search, total recall) and a new mind for an old species. It was the Beginning.

[ | 2005-08-18 12:17 | 21 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Tuesday, August 16, 2005day link 

 Beacon Postings
One weird thing with blog postings and google power is that sometimes one individual post becomes, like, THE place to go for a certain subject. Just because Google has made it show on the first page for that search term. I've had a few of those, where one post over many months attracted hundreds and hundreds of people, who think that this somehow is one of THE authoritative places to go. And they leave lots of comments, and a whole little community forms.

I did a post two years ago, which was just a few paragraphs about my own experience about almost falling for a Romanian e-bay scam in buying a non-existent computer. Still, today, if you search in Google for ebay scams, my article is number 5. And there are 255 comments so far. Lots of people have shared their experiences and tips there. Even the Romanian scammers have shown up, to occasionally taunt their victims, in Romanian.

And if you search for Yamashita Treasure, you'll see my post as number 2. Which was just a mention of a review of a book. But, there too, a whole little community has formed. 167 comments. Every day treasure hunters are sharing their tips, asking for help, etc. You know, they've found some interesting underground spot in the Philippines, and they need somebody with a ground radar, or explosives expertise, or whatever. And, hey, it was just one of my thousands of blog postings. I'm not even participating. Intriguing.

A blog posting is not particularly suited to this, even though it kind of works. The comments are one long thread, and it is easy to find out how to add a new comment. But, I mean, if one had known that that posting was going to be a central gathering place for that subject, maybe one would have put some more facilities there. Like, on my ebay scam page, it would make sense to list other resources that could be helpful. So, should I go back and change my original posting? Doesn't quite make sense to me either.

But maybe one could have some additional features available that might spring into action when a certain post transforms from being just a note written at some point in time into being a *place* that people go to as a resource. A beacon that gathers people around a certain subject. If it really is a gathering place then maybe it should be linked with more of a forum, or a wiki, or a bookmarking feature, and maybe it should display resources from other places on the same subject.

It is a little odd. Meeting in an old blog post is kind of like meeting on page 207 of "Moby Dick". Maybe everything ought to be a potential meeting place.
[ | 2005-08-16 14:00 | 32 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Thursday, August 11, 2005day link 

 Negative Information
Scientists have apparently figured out that information can be negative. Article here and some news items here or here.
What could negative information possibly mean? In short, after I send you negative information, you will know less. Such strange situations can occur because what it means to know something is very different in the quantum world. In the quantum world, we can know too much, and it is in these situations where one finds negative information. Negative information turns out to be precisely the right amount to cancel the fact that we know too much.

Now, if I didn't know anything else, I might guess that it would be something like this: If somebody had information about my name as "Fxlemyminxg Fxunzch" and I told them to take away the x, y and z's, they'd have the real name. But that's not really what they mean. They don't mean either that it is when people pass around false or confusing information. It is more like this:

Particles in a quantum state are uncertain. If they're isolated from everything else, one doesn't really know anything about them. They have to be observed somehow. So, if you have a quantum particle, and I have the knowledge of its state, then we have some information. We could ask somebody else to come and verify it. But if I give that knowledge to you, and forget about it, assuming that would be possible, then you would have both the thing and the information about it, and it is no longer as certain. Because you could decide that it is just about anything, and nobody could be quite sure what it is. So, there's less information.

Another piece of the idea is quantum entanglement. Two particles might be entangled, even though they're in different places. And then they can know things about each other without having to transfer any pieces of information. So, you can sort of have a credit, so you'll able to know stuff in the future, without any information having to be transferred. Information can just suddenly be there, and to make the information accounting add up, that is as if negative information had been transferred.

I can't say I entirely get that, but, as usual, quantum mechanics provide plenty of material for useful metaphors for daily life.

For us to know something with some certainty, we normally need to be separated from the process by which the object of attention is generated. I can be a knowledgable stamp collector if there's a limited number of agencies that can issue stamps, which can be listed in a book, and if it is kind of difficult to manufacture stamps. If anybody could make the stamps themselves, and nobody could see the difference, then my knowledge of the world's stamps would probably become less. Sufficiently high quality color copiers and printers might subtract information, because I might no longer know what is original and what isn't. A nano replicator would subtract information, because a lot of people suddenly wouldn't be sure what stuff really is, because anybody could make it or change it. Is it a real Van Gogh, or a $5 nano-generated replica? I suddenly don't know.

Might be a solution to information overload. There are potential technologies that suddenly, disruptively, would make it a whole lot less meaningful to keep track of certain kinds of information.
[ | 2005-08-11 13:00 | 20 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Monday, June 13, 2005day link 

 Bonjour
picture This is a snapshot that Michael Heileman took from his iChat program during the Reboot conference.

If you didn't know, Apple has this protocol called Bonjour, which used to be called Rendezvous. That was a better name, but somebody else sued them for the rights to it. Anyway, what it does is, quite automatically, to notice who's close by on the same local network. So, this is not this person's buddy list across the net. Here it is the people who're present in the same room. Which he might or might not know.

You open up your laptop computer and, bing, right away you see this. And you could of course send these people messages and chat with them, if you had the need. The point is that it is super-easy and automatic. You don't have to go and ask anybody for their username or anything.

This has so far been a Mac-only trick. But Bonjour has just become open source and will become available for any other platform too. There's no particular reason for it to be Mac only. David Weinberger was sitting typing away on his IBM Thinkpad, so he didn't show. It was about 1/2 each of Mac and Windows in that particular location. Windows has never been cool, and amongst famous techie bloggers, a Mac Powerbook is by far the platform of choice. Anyway, that's not the point. Would be better if this worked, no matter what you were running.

Bonjour/Rendezvous is also what enabled instant collaboration through a program called SubEthaEdit. It works over Bonjour. So, you open it up, and instantly you can see who's working on documents in your local area. And if they let you, you can join in in editing the documents. Which looks absolutely magical for collaborative note taking. Each person gets a different color, and all changes are being shown in real time. And it actually works. You can add to other people's notes, take turns, make corrections, etc. Some people are good at taking quotes down verbatim, others are really good at organizing the whole document. And it is basically done when the speech is done, and can be uploaded to a website, for even more people to look at.

I stayed at a Hotel in Vienna for BlogTalk last year. Nobody had said anything about the connection in the hotel, but there was a plug, and as a good techie I scanned the ethernet traffic and guessed at what settings to use and got online in no time. And lo-and-behold, a few other people showed up on rendezvous who had done the same, and I could instantly ask them when the program started, which I somehow had missed too. Plus help somebody who hadn't guessed what IP number to use for the router.

Anyway, nothing new for the folks who're using this all the time, but a little technical magic to share with the people who don't.
[ | 2005-06-13 22:58 | 20 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Sunday, June 12, 2005day link 

 Just google me
Robert Scoble is a blogging evangelist for Microsoft. He's a friendly, talkative guy, who, I guess, is very valuable to them, in trying to prove to the world that Microsoft isn't really like Microsoft, but just some friendly techies who're like everybody else. So I suppose they just let him bumble around and talk about whatever he feels like, as that's priceless advertising. Anyway, one of the things he said at reboot was:
"I don't keep an email contact list anymore: all my friends are bloggers and if they are not, they will be soon, so I just google my friends, I just have to remember their name. This is why I put my email address and my mobile number on my home page. If I can't find out how to talk to you, it adds to much friction, I go find somebody else."

Hm, I can sort of see the point, but is that really meaningful? It isn't practical for everybody to just deal with the top 10 people of any given kind. Scoble is "Robert" #2 in Google. OK, I'm "Flemming" #2, although that's a bit easier. But, hey, all my friends aren't bloggers, and they aren't all at the top. A bunch of them are, but it just isn't mathematically possible, unless you only deal with the elite. And with people who don't have names like John Smith.

It is a good thought indeed that we ought to be able to search for what and who we need in real time, and a search engine should be able to give us the most relevant and up-to-date match. But if the criterion is merely that they all have to be in the top 10 out of millions, that doesn't work.
[ | 2005-06-12 20:55 | 13 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Sunday, May 15, 2005day link 

 False Information
picture It seems to be an integral part of our culture that we're inundated with phony messages that pretend to be useful information, but that really isn't.

The way it works is often that the more loud and visible and important a message is presented to be, the more likely it is to be complete irrelevant junk.

That's obvious in my e-mail inbox. Any message that is marked as URGENT, IMPORTANT, READ IMMEDIATELY, or that has its priority flag set to high, is almost certainly worthless spam.

And the more a message is written with strange words in small print, trying to be invisible, the more likely it is that it is covering up something you actually ought to know.

Most products you buy come with voluminous pieces of text which serve no useful purpose other than legally covering the asses of whoever produced it. They're usually in the smallest possible font and in a language that is meant to discourage you from reading it. But it will state that it is very important that your read it carefully. The text will usually either outline some monstrous contract you're entering into by accepting this product, or it will outline a lot of horrible things that could happen to you if you use it. Both of which might or might not be important or useful. You can't easily know.

I don't know anybody who routinely reads all the Legal Notices, User Agreements, Terms of Use, etc that they're presented with. Even if, legally, they implicitly have agreed to a lot of stupid things when they clicked on OK, or took the shrinkwrap off a package. Like that you won't sue the company that made it, or they own everything you do with that product, or something.

If I buy a piece of equipment, like a computer, it is quite normal that it might come with a thick booklet, which is nothing but legal stuff, talking about nothing but radio interference and electrical standards, in a bunch of different languages, page after page after page. And that they actually altogether leave out the instructions for how to use the computer.

People who consume pharmaceutical drugs have gotten very used to going right past all the small print. Even if it is stated in the commercials. "Might cause irreparable kidney damage", "Has caused cancer in laboratory animals". They actually say that on TV in the commercial, but very quickly, in a voice that makes you tune it out. But they can legally claim that they told you, and you were warned, and it is your own fault.

Advertisements are of course full of misdirection and false information. That is, the message that actually is conveyed isn't the truth, and it isn't what you need, and it isn't what would actually be useful to you.

The advertiser can claim that they didn't do anything wrong. They just show you some beautiful or fun images and some nice words, and the legal stuff is covered in small print somewhere. The cigarette ad shows you the freshness of a mountain spring, or high society elegance and beautiful dresses, and if you somehow end up thinking that has something to do with cigarette smoking, and that you'll be cool and fresh if you smoke, they can say it's your own fault. And that they included the warnings they were supposed to. But none of those communications actually convey anything very useful.

If I buy pack of cigarettes, it carries a message in bold letters telling me I'll die painfully of Emphysema or something like that. Which isn't overly helpful if I plan on going home and smoking it. It might be more useful to tell me that if I get plenty of exercise, eat healthy, take extra anti-oxidants, and drink plenty of water, it might be a good idea. And, by the way, that I would probably be a good deal healthier if I didn't smoke, or I smoked less. There's not a word about that. It is either mountain fresh elegance or it is instant death. Both of which are untrue.

We supposedly operate in a free market economy where a lot of things should sort themselves out by market forces, by supply and demand, by many people making little decisions on values. And the theory is that the people who make economic decisions in principle are perfectly informed. I.e. they make the correct value decision based on their situation. So the price of bread or gasoline would sort itself out, and if something is too expensive one either produces more or alternatives emerge, and so forth.

The trouble with that is that a large amount of the available information is false. Most companies have a huge budget for producing false information, so it is usually the misleading stuff that is most prominent.

Ideally our economy would be a bit like ants operate. You walk around, and the other ants give you simple messages. There's food over there, the anthill is over there, we have some dead ants to remove over there, we've got eggs over here. That works great for ants. But for us humans it is unfortunately much more complex. And most of the messages are misleading. There's tasty and healthy food over there, there are good deals over there, sign this contract without reading it, you're gonna be beautiful, you're gonna die. Most of it isn't correct, and it is meant to trap you into somebody else's self-serving business plan or political agenda.

Even when authorities of various kinds try to be helpful, it rarely works well. Most company cars and trucks in the U.S. have a sticker on the back bumper that says "How's my driving? Call 1-800...". What the hell is that supposed to mean? Should I call that number and say "Your driving is fine, your cornering is a work of art". I think it is meant for reporting bad driving, but that's not what it says. Most elevators carry the same one sign that says something like "If this elevator fails to operate, don't be alarmed, press the button marked 'Alarm'". Hey, I'm going to press the button marked 'Alarm' exactly because I'm alarmed that I'm stuck in the elevator, not for any other strange reason. Who invented that awkward sentence?

We're surrounded by signs and messages. Colorful, bold, verbose communications that people have been paid for writing and manufacturing. But rarely do they actually say the things we need to know.

The only reasonable anti-dote I can think of, other than most of us somehow getting very educated in honest and effective communication, would be to overlay a collaborative grassroots information network on all of it. Which is the kind of stuff that tends to happen on the Internet, and which will become more prevalent as more technologies become available. You know, instead of relying on somebody's advertisement you research it on the net and find what other people are saying about that product or company. Instead of relying on the company telling you about their products, you rely on enthusiast communities that catalog everything that's worth knowing. Instead of just ignoring somebody's terms of purchase, you might run into an independently produced cleartext explanation of what they say. Instead of just believing what is the "cheapest" or the "best" from a colorful message, you access some comparative database that tells you so. Instead of relying on road signs, you look up the route on the net before you leave.

It is still a bit too much work to find it and access it. Ideally you should be able to bring up that kind of stuff instantly and anywhere. Which might come with location based services. You see a building and you click on it and hear what other people say that it is, rather than relying on the sign by the door. You see a product or a brand name, and you click on it and hear what information other people have gathered about it.

We might very well get to a point where most of the phony information becomes irrelevant, however expensively produced it is, because we bypass it right away. I.e. you never rely on it, but you instantly access an unbiased cleartext overview of what it is about. Nobody would buy a product based on its ad or its packaging in the store, because they would always know if it really is the best choice.

If we could do that well enough, a lot of otherwise well-established businesses would suddenly fail, because it would be clear that they aren't producing anything useful, and they can no longer cheat. But at the same time economic activity could operate at a much higher level, because more people would make more informed decisions, so value assessment and exchange would be more productive.
[ | 2005-05-15 15:32 | 17 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Monday, May 9, 2005day link 

 Tax Haven Trillions
According to this article it has been estimated that rich individuals have stashed away 11.5 trillion dollars in off-shore tax havens.
Although they have only 1 percent of the world's inhabitants, they hold a quarter of United States stocks and nearly a third of all the globe's assets.

They're tax havens: 70 mostly tiny nations that offer no-tax or low-tax status to the wealthy so they can stash their money. Usually, the process is so secret that it draws little attention. But the sums - and lost tax revenues - are growing so large that the havens are getting new and unaccustomed scrutiny.

Well, if I suddenly had a few hundred million lying around, I'd also right away be looking for where I could stash it away in order to pay as little tax as possible. Despite my most noble social intentions. So I can't say I can blame anybody for doing that. But it is an alarming figure. Essentially there are two different worlds to live in. If you're rich enough, it is no particular problem to place the majority of your wealth outside the system most of the rest of us are stuck in.
[ | 2005-05-09 22:31 | 11 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Monday, April 18, 2005day link 

 Prison and the Net
picture Yahoo News: Inmates in U.S. using intermediaries to escape into Internet, about how some prison inmates succeed in getting a voice on the net, by passing messages on to others who post them on websites.

I right away get to think of my friend Bruce Lisker. And it is sad that he isn't mentioned there. Bruce is in prison for life for the murder of his mother. A very brutal murder. She was beaten with a steel bar, strangled and stabbed. In upscale Sherman Oaks, close to where I used to live. He didn't do it, though. His Dad didn't think he did it. Nobody in his family believes he did it. I don't think he did it. But he was the first person on the scene, and her blood got all over his clothes as he tried in vain to revive her, while he was waiting for the ambulance. And at the time he was a doped out 17 year old loser who indeed was hanging out with the type of people who would do such a thing. It was easy to believe he would be the guy, and a crooked cop did a sloppy investigation and covered it up. It shortly became very clear to Bruce and his Dad who actually did it, but that person has since committed suicide. And Bruce is having trouble getting his case opened up again. He's been in prison for 22 years now. He's today a decent, polite person, who writes poetry and has learned computer programming and studied the law.

I helped him put up that site. It was since taken over by somebody else and I'm no longer hosting it, and it seems to look exactly like I left it. I don't even know how to get hold of Bruce. I haven't spoken with him for several years. The inmate e-mail address, which normally would print out e-mails and send them to him, is no longer working. But I'm pretty sure he didn't go anywhere.

At the time the main way he could contact me was to make a 15 minute collect call once per week or so. Which would be interrupted every minute by a recording announcing that one is speaking with a prison inmate. Anyway, that's how he orchestrated his website, and by having documents sent to me.

It was fairly odd. In part because he had never ever been on the Internet. He studied Cobol programming in jail, but they're not allowed near anything that's on the net. So he hadn't actually seen a webpage in real life. He had read about all of it in magazines. But it is a little difficult to have a sense of it when you've never seen it. Nevertheless, it was an example of what the articles talks about. Getting some kind of voice on the net, having a website, translated from phone calls and letters and legal documents.

The fact that he isn't one of the people mentioned in an article like that, and that 60 Minutes never got around to doing a feature on him, and the fact that he's still rotting in jail, is an indication that it doesn't necessarily go anywhere, even if one gets one's place on the web. Nobody's linking to that site. Other than me, by having mentioned it here previously. The only other existence Bruce has on the net is a contact ad from inmate.com, with an e-mail address that isn't working.

It can be hard to prove one's innocence if nobody's listening.
[ | 2005-04-18 19:50 | 12 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

 Participatory Culture
Participatory Culture Foundation:
Announcing a new platform for internet television and video. Anyone can broadcast full-screen video to thousands of people at virtually no cost, using BitTorrent technology. Viewers get intuitive, elegant software to subscribe to channels, watch video, and organize their video library. The project is non-profit, open source, and built on open standards. Today we're announcing the project and releasing our current sourcecode. The software is launching in June.
Super!
[ | 2005-04-18 19:15 | 13 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Friday, April 15, 2005day link 

 Google Video
picture Google has a new video search. Which has a lot of potential, I'm sure. But it is also a bit strange, as a lot of the videos aren't available. You can search on the closed captioning (subtitles) within a lot of programs that have been broadcast, and it will show you excerpts and snapshots along the way. But then you can't see the actual video. You'd have to go and find it and download it yourself from some file sharing network. The broadcasters really need to get smarter. Anyway, you can also upload your own videos. Apparently they'll take just about anything, of any length, and host it on their servers and index it. And that should have potential.
[ | 2005-04-15 22:26 | 4 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

 Search results you might not want to see
ZabaSearch is a people search engine which is, well, a little scary. If you live in the U.S., try to put in your own name. I put in mine, and it gave most of the addresses I've lived at or used, back to 15 years ago, and phone numbers. Seems like this comes from credit records. This kind of stuff has been available all along, but usually required a fee. Stalkers really have it much too easy.

Read about the people behind it here. The journalist makes a point of digging up some dirt on them, which just serves them well. A couple of guys with a criminal record, hiding behind a mailbox center, and who used to employ a bunch of the members of Heaven's Gate.
[ | 2005-04-15 22:17 | 10 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Wednesday, April 13, 2005day link 

 Automatic Academics
picture Some clever grad students have used an automatic computer science paper generator to create a gibberish paper, which they've gotten submitted to a conference. They now plan on randomly generating a gibberish speech which they can go and deliver there.

Now, I generally think such pranks are hilarious, and very useful in blowing the cover of people who take themselves too damned seriously, but who accept things that look and sound right, but which aren't. I remember examples like a comedian succeeding in passing himself off as a doctor and giving a speech at a medical conference, saying nothing but gibberish, and nobody noticed. And there are those guys who made a fake WTO website and managed to be invited to conferences where they created quite a havoc.

And, hey, that paper is pretty damn good. I don't understand a word of it, even though I understand most of the words. But it kind of sounds like it is saying something, and it is kind of a lively read. There are a few akward sentences that might give it away, but they're well hidden. I don't know what kind of expert one has to be to catch that this isn't real, as it isn't entirely clear what it is talking about in the first place. And that is probably one of the factors that let's things like that slip through. Lots of people are experts in a particular field, but not in many others, and they have no time to check everybody's references. So if you hear something that isn't exactly in your field, and it sounds like that kind of things should sound, you think it is real.

But now I notice that their agenda actually is to put down a certain type of conference which they regard as fake, because they accept papers that aren't reviewed. Which, for that matter, it says clearly on their website, so it isn't really that big a caper to succeed in submitting a paper. Anyway now I notice, somewhat to my horror, that the conference they would like to embarrass is the Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics. Which I don't know, so I can't make any statement about whether it really just is fake conference for money making purposes as they say, but I notice that I know some of the affiliated organizations and a number of the people listed as advisory board members, so I would guess it is what it says it is.

Systems thinking is probably a field that some hardcore scientific types would love to debunk. And they might feel they have an easy time at it in a multi-disciplinary setting where organizers are trying to be open to different types of views, and where it isn't a criterion that everything you say has to be proven years ago. For that matter, systems thinking doesn't necessarily go well with the approach of taking things apart into their components and analyzing them and proving them and peer reviewing them. And it is full of angles and possibilities that easily can be ridiculed by materialist folks who'd like such things to not exist. The Gaia Theory, morphogenetic fields, implicate order, synergetics - there'd be plenty of folks who'd find all of that to be utter nonsense. Evolution would be in the same category if it didn't happen to be juxtaposed with creationism.

One of the items listed from the hoaxers' site is the wellknown "Sokal Hoax". Which was a physicist who wrote a paper he meant to be utter nonsense, and got submitted to some prestigious scientific journal, based on his own considerable reputation, in order to then embarrass them. Except for that his article is pretty good, and not as utterly nonsensical as he pretends. But it refers to a bunch of these things that the author considers new age nonsense, like morphogenetic fields. So he considered that anybody who'd accept that he'd write about such things and not be up in arms about it would be a complete idiot and worthless academic.

Which reminds me of a caper that "Amazing" Randi did once. He's a stage magician who's a wellknown materialist "sceptic" who tries hard to disprove that anything supernatural exists. Often by the approach that if he can make some kind of magic trick or hoax that does the same thing as what somebody says they can do, they were obviously frauds too. Anyway, he had gotten an ally to pose as a channeler at some kind of new age expo. The guy put on a show of going into a trance and delivering some very general mumbo jumbo about the world changing and spiritual influences. And the audience seemed quite happy with it all, which was taken as a success by Randi, in showing that they're all gullible idiots. Anyway, the joke about it is that after Randi's ally triumphantly announced on the stage a little later that it was a hoax and he was just faking it, nobody really minded. The audience thought it was fun too, and they thought the channeling had been pretty good, whether he thought he faked it or not. Because it really didn't matter at all, unless you had some kind of point to prove. The result mattered.

So, in case that conference there is really for people who're into systems thinking and informatics, I think they might actually enjoy and appreciate the joke of somebody delivering a randomly generated paper and a speech. It certainly is a good comment on how human systems work. The ways in which false information often is accepted provides some insights into how systems work.

Better targets might be the types of folks who really take themselves too seriously, and who would freak out and be greatly embarrassed by being hoaxed like that.
[ | 2005-04-13 23:59 | 12 comments | PermaLink ]  More >



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