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June 29, 2007

In search of the very, very small

I spent three days last week in Basel being taken around to see various pieces of research the research outfits around there are doing into nanoscience, courtesy of the European Union of Scientice Journalists' Associations (my affiliation is with the Association of British Science Writers). All very interesting stuff, and difficult to summarize intelligently in a few hundred words, though I made a stab at some of the medical stuff. The thing that most struck me immediately, though, was how different it all was from the image of nanotechnology I'd half-formed from odds and ends I'd read or heard about in the media.

I probably just don't read enough.

The first time I ever heard of nanotechnology, though I'm not sure they used the name, was in a three-part 1988 documentaryTV series called What is Truth?: Seeing is Not Knowing. It was produced by the distinguished science producer and writer Karl Sabbagh, and looked at how we know what we know about things we can't examine directly, such as the contents of memory, the very large (space) and the very small (molecules). Two enduring images stick with me all these years later: a guy riding a bicycle through the CERN particle accelerator to cover the distance to the bit that needed repairs, and their mock-up of what a nanofactory might be like. By then people were already talking about the idea that we could have machines in our homes into which you put ingredients and instructions and out of which you later take whole devices or whatever. The machine was played by a dishwasher and the emerging device by a boom box, and the whole thing looked pretty hokey, but still: molecular manufacturing.

But that's not what the people in Basel were doing at all; at no point in the three days did anyone talk about building consumer devices or the grey goo that belongs in a horror movie. Instead, what kept reappearing was various types of microscopes - atomic force, scanning probe, even a synchrotron. From those, we saw a lot of highly detailed images of really tiny things, such as collagen fibers waiting to cause havoc in the human bloodstream and three-dimensional images of rat brains.

I think everyone's favourite presentation was that of Marc Creus, from the Institut de Microtechnique in Neuchâtel, who said cheerfully he was there to talk about a hole. Actually, a nanopore, 25 nanometers in diameter. The idea is to build on a technique created by the engineer Wallace H. Coulter, who created a simple device – essentially, a box with two chambers divided by a membrane (in its first prototype, the cellophane off a pack of cigarettes) with a small hole in it (originally, melted with the heated point of a sewing needle) – to count microscopic particles suspended in a fluid. A solution passes through the hole simultaneously with an electric current; when a particle goes through, the current shows a change proportional to the size of the particle. The particle, in other words, briefly partially blocks the hole.

The way Creus told it, Coulter had been experimenting with paint, but one night left the paint open. The next night, finding it had dried out, he looked around for another liquid – and wound up using blood. The Coulter Principle, as it's now known, is used all over the world for analyzing blood samples ("complete blood cell" counts). He had trouble getting a patent on it, by the way; the examiner thought it was too simple, and anyway you can't patent a hole. He eventually got his patent in 1953 and became quite wealthy from his device.

Creus is trying to shrink the Coulter Principle with the idea of exploring the nanoscale: nanopores should make it possible to count protein molecules. You could, for example, test for the presence of a particular protein by adding them to a device that already contains its antibodies. The protein bound to the antibody will be a bigger molecule than either on its own.

Even weirder, Urs Staufer, from the same institute, is using nanoscience to explore…Mars. There's something very strange about the notion of using something tiny to study something really large. But the deal is that one of these scanning proble microscopes, specially adapted, will be on the first Mars Scout mission, due to launch in August. A robot arm will go along scooping up samples of…what do you call it when it's Mars? It can't be earth, can it? Anyway, the robot arm pours the sample on a wheel that rotates in front of the microscope, and the images are sent to Tucson and everyone has four hours to decide if they want to look at it more closely and compile the commands to send for the next go-round. The hope is that they'll find ice underneath the surface and will be able to dig down and investigate it.

I suppose all this makes sense. You can't really manufacture anything, at any scale, until you understand how it all works, just as you can't colonize anywhere until you've explored it. If they get down the nanoscale far enough, will they plant a tiny Swiss flag?

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

June 22, 2007

Many hidden returns

This week, the Open Rights Group released its report on the May 7 electronic voting pilots, conducted during by-elections in various locations in England and across all of Scotland. ORG observed these as closely as it could through the eyes of 25 volunteers.

Much of the report should be familiar to anyone who's read about similar trials and pilot projects in the US and elsewhere (especially the UK's own 2003 trials). There were technical problems when equipment failed or had to be rebooted. There were people problems, when both voters and officials were uncertain how to make machines work. There were security issues, as when ORG observers found PCs and switches with open ports and no one watching them. And there were design problems, when ballot layouts confused voters into spoiling ballots. Sound familiar?

More than that, the process of tallying votes just isn't transparent. At some point in the process, a miracle occurred and numbers were produced. Anti-evoting activists have been talking about "black box voting" for years, and here it was, live and in the silicon.

Probably no one expected ORG to come away from the trials glowing with enthusiasm about the technology. But the group put a significant amount of effort into observing the process and reporting fairly what it saw. The report needs to be taken seriously by the people in charge of choosing how we vote.

The job for the observers, from the sounds of it, wasn't easy. Rules were inconsistent, inconsistently applied, and subject to abrupt change. My favourite was the constituency that apparently got its security advice from someone used to working with banks: they were told not to let anyone see the screens of the laptops. But the whole point of elections is to make the process publicly accountable – which means the nuts and bolts need to be visible.
Curiously enough, it may be the black-box nature of these systems that kills them after all, just not for the reason we always thought.

If there is one consistent refrain throughout the mad rush to move ballot boxes inside computers it's that new technology will engage a new generation of currently disaffected voters. One of the most intriguing observations to come out of the Open Rights Group's report on the recent e-voting trials, therefore, is: "People passionate about local politics were consistently being turned off by the e-voting and e-counting pilot counts in areas observed" (p20).

People who don’t' care that much may just want the counts. But if you're a politician running for office, his agent, or one of the dozens (or thousands) of people who participated in the political process by campaigning for him or who cares about specific issues, just getting the count out of a black box is as much missing the point as watching a tennis match by looking up the final score on the Internet. Worse, since what's at stake is who runs the country (rather an Oscar or a trophy), you need to have confidence that the count has some relation to how people actually voted. If I lived in any of the constituencies where these pilots took place, I'd be demanding they rerun the election.

That might be the thing that kills it, more than the security problems or any philosophical problem the general public might have with privatizing voting. Without passionate supporters there would be no candidates.
Politics, sports, and entertainment all face the same challenge of engaging fans. The lesson from sports in particular is that the more detail you give fans the more obsessive they become. If there were some way to project each ballot, one at a time, on a giant screen, without destroying the secrecy of individual ballots, maybe every election would have the magnetic quality of Bush vs. Gore 2000. It would be quite a show, especially if people had the option of standing up at a microphone and explaining just why they voted the way they did. How's that for public access TV?

As things were, electronic counting meant agents, candidates, and various others couldn't tell what was going on. Internet voters can't be interviewed on existing the poll station, so local parties can't get a sense of how the vote is going. The campaigners who show up on people's doorsteps to get out the vote don't know whose doorsteps to canvass. This may not seem like much of a loss. But, as ORG points out, one way candidates have traditionally decided whether to ask for a recount is by comparing the posted returns with the information the parties have worked to compile throughout the day. (For US voters: after you exit UK polling areas you typically find party representatives conducting exit polls.)

I'm not convinced that the end users – that is, the voters – count for much in any of this. So far, the best efforts of computer scientists, hackers, and activists have had little success in trying to turn back the clock to pencil and paper or other forms of tried and trusted technology. \But if the insiders don't like it – the politicians who award funds, the parties who elect them – there might just be a chance it won't fly permanently. If so, they'd better act now, before the vendors become big enough to own us all.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

June 15, 2007

Six degrees of defamation

We used to speculate about the future of free speech on the Internet if every country got to impose its own set of cultural quirks and censorship dreams on The lowest common denominator would win – probably Singapore.

We forgot Canada. Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, is being sued for defamation by Wayne Crookes, a Vancouver businessman (it says here). You might think that Geist, who doubles as a columnist for the Toronto Star (so enlightened, a newspaper with a technology law column!), had slipped up and said something unfortunate in one of his public pronouncements. But no. Geist is part of an apparently unlimited number of targets that have linked to other sites that have linked to sites that allegedly contained defamatory postings.

In Geist's words on his blog at the end of May, "I'm reportedly being sued for maintaining a blogroll that links to a site that links to a site that contains some allegedly defamatory third party comments." (Geist has since been served.)
Crookes is also suing Yahoo!, MySpace, and Wikipedia. (If you followed the link to the Wikipedia stub identifying Wayne Crookes, now you know why it's so short. Wikipedia's own logs, searchable via Google, show that it's replacing the previous entry.) Plus P2Pnet, OpenPolitics.ca, DomainsByProxy, and Google. In fact, it's arguable that if Crookes isn't suing you your Net presence is so insignificant that you should put your head in a bucket.

One of the things about a very young medium – as the Net still is – is that the legal precedents about how it operates may be set by otherwise obscure individuals. In Britain, one of the key cases determining the liability of ISPs for material they distribute was 1999's Laurence Godfrey vs Demon Internet. Godfrey was, or is, an otherwise unremarkable British physics lecturer working in Canada until he discovered Usenet; his claim to fame (see for example the Net.Legends FAQ) is a series of libel suits he launched to protect his reputation after a public dispute whose details probably few remember or understand. In 2000 Demon settled the case, paying Godfrey £15,000 and legal costs. And thus were today's notice and takedown rules forged.

The truly noticeable thing about Godfrey's case against Demon was that Demon was not Godfrey's ISP, nor was it the ISP used by the poster whose 1997 contributions to soc.culture.thai were at issue. Demon was merely the largest ISP in Britain that carried the posting, along with the rest of the newsgroup, on its servers. The case therefore is one of a string of cases that loosely circled a single issue: the liability of service providers for the material they host. US courts decided in 1991, in Cubby vs Compuserve, that an online service provider was more like a bookstore than a publisher. But under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act it has become alarmingly easy to frighten individuals and service providers into taking down material based on an official-looking lawyer's letter. (The latest target, apparently, is guitar tablature, which, speaking as a musician myself, I think is shameful.)

But the more important underlying thread is the attempt to keep widening the circle of liability. In Cubby, at least the material at issue appeared on the Journalism Forum which, though independently operated, was part of CompuServe's service. That particular judgement would not have helped any British service provider: in Britain, bookstores, as well as publishers, can be held responsible for libels that appear in the books they sell, a fact that didn't help Demon in the Godfrey case.

In the US, the next step was 2600 DeCSS case (formally known as Universal City vs Reimerdes, which covered not only posting copies of the DVD-decrypting software but linking to sites that had it available. This, of course, was a copyright infringement case, not a libel case; with respect to libel the relevant law seems to be, of all things, the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which allocated sole responsibility to the original author. Google itself has already won at least one lawsuit over including allegedly defamatory material in its search results.

But legally Canada is more like Britain than like the US, so the notion of making service providers responsible may be a more comfortable one. In his column on the subject, Geist argues that if Crookes' suits are successful Canadian free speech will be severely curtailed. Who would dare run a wiki or allow comments on their blog if they are to be held to a standard that makes them liable for everything posted there? Who would even dare put a link to a third-party site on a Web site or in a blogroll if they are to be held liable for all the content not only on that site but on all sites that site links to? Especially since Crookes's claim against Wikimedia is not that the site failed to remove the offending articles when asked, but that the site failed to monitor itself proactively to ensure that the statements did not reappear.

The entire country may have to emigrate virtually. Are you now, or have you ever been, Canadian?

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

June 8, 2007

Beating galahrose

So, there I was, in the front seat of a strange car with a strange man in the railway station parking lot in the strange town of Farnham, watching him count out £420 in cash of my money. It must have looked like a drug deal.
Actually, I was buying the car we were sitting in on three minutes' acquaintance. It was an eBay-arranged marriage (the car is wonderful, thank you).

I say this to show that not inexperienced as an eBay buyer. I'd bought small odds and ends here and there: a couple of stuffed pelicans, a load of used DVDs, a phone, like that.

None of this prepares you for how fiercely some people compete for some things.

Like hairtoys. The millions of women in history who have had long hair have come up with all manner of gewgaws to hold it up with - sticks, clips, pins, bands, forks…the array is endless. Don't ask me how you use a hair fork; if your hair is long enough and you like the fork enough eventually the two of you figure something out.
This is a minority interest, so your dedicated longhair lives by handmade stuff, some of which is extraordinarily beautifully made by people you can only call artists. Many sell on eBay, often for such modest prices that you feel bad you aren't paying them more.

Except for this one outfit, whose prices frequently pass the $100 mark. Their stuff is certainly nice; they work in both exotic woods and in a popular resin-impregnated, brightly dyed, compressed high-tech laminate known as Dymondwood. But so do many others with just as fine an artistic sensibility and attention to finishing. What happened there?

Some months back, I began seeing complaints that all their stuff was being bought up by a single bidder, the dreaded so-called galahrose. Amid a plethora of posts resenting her budget and her staying power ("This buyer is driving me INSANE") and speculating about her motives, someone asked plaintively, "Why is no one else allowed to have one?"

I read about her and felt stubborn. Why should galahrose get all the forks? I schemed. I plotted. I read her bidding histories. I studied the prices she'd paid. I surveyed the current list. There was a load of hair sticks, which I dismissed: too much like trying to implement antigravity. And three Dymondwood forks: green, blue, and multicolor, The third was clearly less popular than the other two – and it would go with almost anything. This was the one. I was going to prove you could beat galahrose.

Galahrose's pattern seemed to be to place a moderately high bid early on and then leave it alone until the last day or so, when she'd come back and, if necessary, bid noticeably higher. Clearly bidding against her in the early days was a bad idea: you'd just raise the price unnecessarily. You'd have to snipe: swoop in during the last few seconds and bid before anyone could respond.

Suddenly, my previous eBay adventures seem decorous and quaint. You have two choices: either you use a Web site to store the auctions you're interested in and do your sniping for you, or you run software on your own machine. I chose the latter, and ran tests. Make sure the thing works beforehand. You don't go into the French Open final without practicing, do you? So I placed an early test bid on an item I didn't want; let galahrose pay more for this one; what do I care? She obliged.

Now. Fully armed. Watch on the price. And, 30 seconds before the auction ended, off we went…

It turns out that galahrose is minor league. Somehow I had failed to notice that she is routinely losing now to two really intense bidders, lynne916 and moneypenny_cat. These people bid much higher than galahrose – and they snipe. They bide their time through the puny, little $75 bids and then the real auction happens in the last 30 seconds, when their proxies bid frenziedly against each other. If you want to compete with them you have to work blind; the price can triple or quadruple.

The last fork (an ebony, turquoise, and silver job) they fought over went for $158 and change. Don't think of it like a ridiculously expensive plastic barrette; think of it as jewelry that happens to be worn in your hair, OK?

But even so: what do they do with it all? One of those bidders racked up a bill to that single eBay seller of $2,200 in a single day. How much hair can they possibly have?

I am now convinced that eBay is turning us all evil. The site is teaching us all to be greedy people who care nothing for the desires of others. Out of my way! It's mine! Formerly, you would indulge this behavior once a year, when your favorite store had a sale. Now you can do it every day.

Still, I got lucky. The Big Two weren't interested in my fork. The bidder I beat in the last minute was galahrose. I can wear my fork proudly, as my tangible record of triumph, however petty.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. She has an intermittent blog. Readers are welcome to post there or to send email, but please turn off HTML.

June 1, 2007

Britney Spears has good news for you

The most entertaining thing I learned at yesterday's Google Developer Day (London branch) was that there is a site that tracks the gap between the BBC's idea of what the most important news is and the stuff people actually read. When Ian Forrester and Matthew Cashmore showed off this BBC Backstage widget, the BBC was only 17 percent "in touch" with what "we're" reading. Today, I see it's 39 percent, so I guess the BBC has good days and bad days.
I note, irrelevantly to this week's headline, that Cashmore also said that putting Britney Spears in the headline moves stories right to the top of the reading list (though to the bottom of the BBC's list).

The widget apparently works by comparing the top stories placed on the BBC News front page with the list the BBC helpfully supplies of the most popular current stories. A nice example of creative use of RSS feeds and data scraping.

See, journalists have mixed feelings about this kind of thing. On the one hand, it's fascinating – fascinating – to see what people actually read. If you are a journalist and a hypocritical intellectual snob, this sort of information gives you professional license to read about Britney Spears (in order to better understand your audience) while simultaneously sneering (for money) at anyone who chooses to do so recreationally. On the other hand, if you're dedicated to writing serious think pieces about difficult topics, you dread the day when the bean counters get hold of those lists and, after several hours' careful study, look up and say brightly, "Hey, I know! Why don't we commission more stories about Britney Spears and forget about all that policy crap?"

(I, of course, do not fall in either category: I write what one of my friends likes to call "boring bollocks about computers", and I have been open for years about my alt.showbiz.gossip habit.)

The BBC guys' presentation was one of a couple of dozen sessions; they were joined by developers from other companies, large and small, and, of course, various "Googlers", most notably Chris di Bona, who runs Google's open source program. In the way of the modern era, there was a "bloggers' lounge", nicely wi-fi'd and strewn with cushions in Google's favorite primary colors. OK, it looked like a playpen with laptops, but we're not here to judge.

There seems to be a certain self-consciousness among Googlers about the company's avowed desire not to be "evil". The in-progress acquisition of the advertising agency DoubleClick has raised a lot of questions recently – though while Google has created an infrastructure that could certainly make it a considerable privacy threat should it choose to go in that direction, so far, it hasn't actually done so.

But the more interesting thing about the Developer Day is that it brings home how much Google (and perhaps also Yahoo! is becoming a software company rather than the search engine service it used to be. One of the keys to Microsoft's success – and that of others before it, all the way back to Radio Shack – was the ecology of developers it built up around its software. We talk a lot about Microsoft's dominance of the desktop, but one of the things that made it successful in the early days was the range of software available to run on it. A company the size Microsoft was then could not have written it all. More important, even if the company could have done it, the number of third parties investing in writing for Windows helped give that software the weight it needed to become dominant. GNU/Linux, last time I looked, had most of the boxes checked, but it's still pretty hard to find fully functional personal finance software, persumably because that requires agreements with banks and brokerage firms over data formats, as well as compliance with a complex of tax laws.

The notion that building a community around your business is key to success on the Internet is an old one (at least in Internet years). Amazon.com succeeded first by publishing user reviews of its products and then by enlisting as an associate anyone who wanted to put a list of books on their Web site. Amazon.com also opened up its store to small, third-party sellers and latterly has started offering hosting services to other business. The size of eBay's user base is of course the key to everything: you put your items for sale where the largest number of people will see them. Yahoo!'s strategy has been putting as many services (search, email, news, weather, sports scores, poker) as possible on its site so that sooner or later they capture a visit from everyone. And, of course, Google itself has based its success in part on enlisting much of the rest of the Web as advertising billboards, for which it gets paid. Becoming embedded into other people's services is a logical next step. It will, though, make dealing with it a lot harder if the company ever does turn eeeevil.

The other fun BBC widget was clearly designed with the BBC newsreader Martyn Lewis in mind. In 1993, Lewis expressed a desire for more good news to be featured on TV. Well, here you go, Martyn: a Mood News Google Gadget that can be tuned to deliver just good news. Keep on the sunny side of life.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. She has an intermittent blog. Readers are welcome to post there or to send email, but please turn off HTML.