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March 30, 2007

Re-emerging technologies

Along about the third day of this year's email software that works offline; the display looked just like Ameol,an offline mail and news reader I've used for 14 years. (The similarity is only partial, though; Zimbra does synching with mobile devices and a bunch of other things that Ameol doesn't - but that Lotus Notes probably did).

"Reverse pioneering", Tim O'Reilly said the first day, while describing a San Francisco group who build things - including a beer-hauling railway car and carnival rides - out of old bicycle parts.

At some point, also, O'Reilly editor Dale Dougherty gave a talk on the publisher's two relatively new magazines Make and Craft. He illustrated it with pictures of: log cabin quilts, Jacquard looms, the Babbage Differential Calculator, Hollerith tabulating machines, punch cards, and an ancient Singer treadle sewing machine. And oh look! Sewing patterns! And, I heard someone say quite seriously, what about tatting? Do you know anyone who does it who could teach me?

A day later, in Boston, I hear that knitting is taking East Coast geeks by storm. Apparently geek gatherings now produce as many baby hats as the average nursing home.

Not that I'm making fun of all this. After all, recovering old knowledge is a lot of what we do on the folk scene, and I have no doubt that today's geek culture will plunder these past technologies and, very like the Society for Creative Anachronism, which has a large geek (and also folk music community) crossover, mutate them into something newer and stranger. I'd guess that we're about two years away from a quilting bee in the lobby. Of course, the quilting thread will be conductive, and the quilt will glow in the dark with beaded LEDs so you can read under the covers, and version 2.0 will incorporate miniature solar panels (like those little mirrors in the Eastern stuff you used to get in the 1970s) that release heat at night like an electric blanket...and it will be all black.

Of course, this isn't really new even in geek terms. A dozen years ago, the MIT Media Lab held a fashion show to display its latest ideas for embroidering functional keyboards onto networked but otherwise standard Levi's denim jackets and dresses made of conductive fabrics. We don't seem to have come very far toward the future they were predicting then, in which we'd all be wearing T-shirts with sensors that measured our body heat and controlled the room thermostat accordingly (another idea for that quilt).

Instead, geeks, like everyone else, adopted the mobile phone, which has the advantage that you don't have to worry about how to cope with that important conference when your personal area network is in the dirty laundry.

But this is Generation C, as Matt Webb, from the two-man design consultancy Schulze and Webb told us. Generation C likes complexity, connection, and control. GenC is not satisfied with technologies that expect us to respond as passive consumers. We ought to despise mobile phones, especially in the US: they are locked down, controlled by the manufacturers and network operators. Everything should come with an open applications programming interface and...and...a serial port. Hack your washing machine so it only shows the settings you use; hack your luggage so it phones home its GPS coordinates when it's lost.

The conference speaker who drew the most enthusiastic response was Danah Boyd, who had a simple message: people outside of Silicon Valley are different. Don't assume all your users are like you. They have different life stages. This seems so basic and obvious it's shocking to hear people cheer it.
It was during a talk on building technology to selectively jam RFID chips that I had a simple thought: every technology breeds its opposite. Radar to trap speeders begets radar scanners. Cryptography breeds cryptanalysis. Email breeds spam, which breeds spam filtering, which breeds spam smart enough to pass the Turing test.

The same is true of every social trend and phenomenon. John Perry Barlow used to say that years of living in the virtual world had made him appreciate the physical world far more. It's not much of a jump from that to all sorts of traditional crafts.

Don't get me wrong. I'm glad geeks want to knit, sew, and build wooden telescopes. Sewing used to be a relatively mainstream activity, and over the last couple of decades it's been progressively dumbed down. The patterns you buy today are far simpler (and less interesting) to construct than the ones you used to get in the 1970s. It would be terrific if geeks brought some complexity back to it.

But jeez, guys, you need to get out more. Not only is there an entire universe of people who are different from Silicon Valley, there's an entire industry of magazines and books about fabric arts. Next, you get to reinvent colors.

I blogged more serious stuff from etech at Blindside.

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 , or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

March 23, 2007

Double the networks, double the neutralities

Back in 1975, the Ithaca, New York apartment building I was living in had a fire in the basement, and by the time it was out so was my telephone line. The repairman's very first move was to disconnect the $3 30-foot cable I had bought at K-Mart and confiscate it. At the time, AT&T's similar cable cost $25.

In fact, by then AT&T had no right to control what equipment you attached to your phone line because of the Carterfone case, in which the FCC ruled against AT&T's argument that it had to own all the equipment in order to ensure that the network would function properly. But this is how the telco world worked; in Edinburgh in 1983 legally you could only buy a modem from British Telecom. I think it cost about £300 – for 300 baud. Expensive enough that I didn't get online until 1990.

Stories like this are part of why the Internet developed the way it did: the pioneers were determined to avoid a situation where the Internet was controlled like this. In the early 1980s, when the first backbone was being build in the US to connect the five NSF-funded regional computing centers, the feeling was mutual. John Connolly, who wrote the checks for a lot of that work, told me in an interview in 1993 that they had endless meetings with the telcos trying to get them interested, but those companies just couldn't see that there was any money in the Internet.
Well, now here we are, and the Internet is chewing up the telcos' business models and creating havoc for the cable companies who were supposed to be the beneficiaries, and so it's not surprising that the telcos' one wish is to transform the Internet into something more closely approximating the controlled world they used to love.

Which is how we arrived at the issue known as network neutrality. This particular debate has been percolating in the US for at least a year now, and some discussion is beginning in the UK. This week, at a forum held in Westminster on the subject, Ofcom and the DTI said the existing regulatory framework was sufficient.

The basic issue is, of course, money. The traditional telcos are not, of course, having a very good time of things, and it was inevitable that it would occur to some bright CEO – it turned out to be the head of Verizon – that there ought to be some way of "monetizing" all those millions of people going to Google, Yahoo!, and the other top sites. Why not charge a fee to give priority service? That this would also allow the telcos to discriminate against competitor VOIP services and the cablecos (chiefly Comcast) to discrminate against competing online video services is also a plus. These proposals are opposed not only by the big sites in question but by the usual collection of Net rights organization, who tend to believe all sites were created equal – or should be.
Ofcom – and others I've talked to – believes that the situation in the UK is different, in part because although most of the nation's DSL service is provided either directly or indirectly by BT that company has to be cooperative with its competitors or face the threat of regulation. The EU, however, is beginning to take a greater interest in these matters, and has begun legal proceedings against Germany over a law exempting Deutsche Telecom from opening the local loop of its new VDSL network to competitors.

But Timothy Wu, a law professor at Columbia and author of Who Controls the Internet: Illusions of a Borderless World, has pointed out that the current debates are ignoring an important sector of the market: wireless. The mobile market is not now, nor ever has been, neutral. It is less closed in Europe, where you can at least buy a phone and stick any SIM in it; but in the US most phones are hardware-locked to their networks, a situation that could hardly be less consumer-friendly. Apple's new iPod, for example, will be available through only one carrier, AT&T Wireless.

Wu's paper, along with the so-called "Carterfone" decision that forced AT&T to stop confiscating people's phone cords, is cited by Skype in a petition to get the FCC to require mobile phone operators to allow software applications open access. Skype's gripe is easy to comprehend: it can't get its service onto mobile phones. The operators' lack of interest in opening their networks is also easy to comprehend: what consumer is going to call on their expensive tariffs if they can use the Internet data connection to make cheap ones? Wu also documents other cases of features that are added or subtracted according to the network operators' demands: call timers (missing), wi-fi (largely absent), and Bluetooth (often crippled in the US).

The upshot is that because the two markets – wireless phones and the Internet – have developed from opposite directions, we have two network neutrality debates, not one. The wonder is that it took us so long to notice.

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).

March 16, 2007

Going non-linear

OK, you're the BBC. How do you balance what consumers want with what the rightsholders demand, all the while trying to serve the public interest as required by your charter and bearing in mind the revenues you derive from secondary markets to non-license fee payers in other countries?

There are some things we can guess pretty accurately about what consumers want: control over schedules and access at will. People who have Tivos or other PVRs, for example, do not in general decide to throw them away and go back to scrutinizing schedules for the moment when their favorite shows will be on. ("linear viewing", in newspeak). As channels and conduits continue to proliferate, the only way to make sense of it all is to have a computer do it for you. Similarly, the big action online is in two areas: downloads (legal or illegal), and streamed video clips. In both cases, it's up to the viewer to determine when they watch.

YouTube might seem close to the traditional broadcast model, since people do have to sit on the "channel" (site) to watch streaming video and can't download or save it for future viewing without a third-party hack. But in fact it points to a very different future in which it will be more common to watch pieces of programs than whole ones. This is a trend throughout digital media – people buy songs more than albums, professors put together course packs of chapters rather than assigning whole textbooks, National Public Radio lets listeners pick the sections of "All Things Considered" that they want to hear, and ring tones capture a quick snip of a favorite sound. Why should video be any different? Great movies and TV shows are the sum of their great moments.

The BBC is trying to take the next steps into its digital future against this media landscape, and some time back it published its proposals. Ofcom has published comments (PDF), and the BBC Trust has published its comments (PDF) as part of a public consultation. You have until March 28 to respond as a member of the fee-paying public.

For the past few years, the BBC has seemed like the one big organization that could really lead the way away from Big Media's take on what digital media should look like, especially when it began opening up its archives online for anyone to mix, rip, or burn. And in fact its original proposals seem to have been similarly far-ranging, including audio podcasts of classical music, a seven-day "catch-up window" in which viewers could download shows they'd missed, and "series stacking", allowing viewers to download all the previous episodes of a series that's still in progress.

Ofcom and the BBC Trust are seeking to modify these proposals. Some of their suggestions make sense. For example, allowing series stacking on 20-years of the soap EastEnders would be pretty extreme, as the BBC Trust points out, especially since the BBC derives revenue from the earlier years of the soap in syndication on UK Gold. I think decisions about what series can be stacked should include some consideration about whether the series is going to be commercially available in other formats within a reasonable amount of time – say, a year. If it's not, that would argue for greater availability via download.

What's unnerving is to read this passage against series stacking, from the BBC Trust's report:
"A window of 13 weeks could allow users to create sizeable archives of programming on their computers."

Compare and contrast to:the decision in the Sony Betamax case, in which Universal Studios and Disney complained about the potential for "library-building" that might "result in a decrease in their revenue from licensing their works to television and from marketing them in other ways."

We now know what they didn't in 1984: that people did create libraries of videotapes – but many of those tapes were purchased, and home video/DVD sales now make up a vital source of revenues for the studios. While the BBC also makes money from its secondary markets, it has a chance to be a real innovator here. It should not echo Disney in clinging to old business models..

A bigger issue is whether audio podcasts should be protected with digital rights management. The Trust and Ofcom are in favor of this, on the grounds that without it the BBC might be distorting the market for competitors. Hogwash. The BBC has batches of free-to-air radio channels in the UK; does that mean no one listens to any other radio? We know two things about DRM. First, it puts control over access to the content into the hands of a third-party vendor, one with no public service charter or accountability to the license fee payers. Second, users hate it. The BBC could spend silly amounts of money into the infinite future DRMing its audio content, and the first thing that will happen is that someone will write a nice little program to strip it all out. It has always been true that the best way to fight copyright infringing file-sharing is to build a service that's fast, reliable, and reasonably priced. As things are, if the BBC adopts the Trust's recommendations it will just fuel the extralegal file-sharing that all these guys are supposed to be against.

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).

March 9, 2007

Your cheating heart

The Australian journalist and broadcaster Derryn Hinch once observed (in his book about how to play Scrabble), that "Anything worth having is worth cheating for". I'm not sure it follows, however, that everything people cheat for is worth having.

We all understand that someone might inflate their academic credentials in order to land a job teaching, or writing an article for the New Yorker. That sort of thing is as old as credentials. The Internet has made all kinds of cheating easier, from finding an unaccredited institution to sell you a degree (as Ben Goldacre notes that TV nutritionist Gillian McKeith has done) to finding student papers to turn in as your own, to buying illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

The growing problem, however, seems to be a more subtle form of cheating: accusing someone you don't like of cheating in hopes that the resulting difficulties will persuade them to just go away. This seems to be what happened in the weird case of Chris Dussold, a former professor at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, whose story surfaced in the Chronicle of Higher Education about a year ago. Dussold, who had decided to resign after years of denying apparently unquashable rumors that he was sleeping with a student, was summarily fired in 2004 on the charge that he had copied the teaching philosophy statement he had included in his application for tenure. Dussold retaliated by searching for – and finding – examples of plagiarism by the very university dean who fired him, among other university staff. Dussold initiated a lawsuit against the university.

I'm not an academic, and it's hard for me to judge just how terrible it is to copy a statement of teaching philosophy; opinion among academics seems to be divided. Certainly, you can't plagiarize your teaching record, student evaluations, or other material you must submit to win tenure. But it certainly would give a group who already wanted to remove someone a solid excuse.

A different example – but I suspect not uncommon – was a young friend of mine who from a very young age had always been a gifted reader and writer. Due to incurable homework troubles, he found himself in a community college with a writing professor whose own skills (judging by the exercises he assigned and the sample paragraphs he praised) wouldn't have landed him a job writing for one of those Web sites that regularly emails you out of the blue and asks you to write for them in exchange for copies of the Web site. The teacher accused my friend of plagiarism – not because he'd found similar text to my friend's work through Google or one of the term paper sites but because, he said, the writing was "too good". Pointing at one sentence my friend had particularly liked, he said, "That's a professional-level sentence." Well, yes. This particular kid could write publishable prose at 12. But at 18, rather than get into a long, drawn-out battle with the teacher and the college head, my friend agreed to drop the course in return for having no blemish on his record.

Which leads us circuitously to this week's fuss over "Essjay", the Wikipedia admin who awarded himself a PhD in theology and a degree in canon law, as well as a tenured professorship at an unnamed private university. He might never have been found out except that he got quoted in a New Yorker article about Wikipedia (abstract). Essjay has now identified himself as 24-year-old Ryan Jordan, with no advanced degrees and no teaching experience. Although, really, who knows? Maybe that's just another game and the real guy who's written or contributed to 16,000 entries, is one of Wikipedia's most trusted administrators, and has been hired by Wikia, Wikipedia's for-profit sibling company is in fact the dog in that famous New Yorker cartoon.
Now, Wikipedia is a true meritocracy, or close to it. Fourteen-year-olds become respected contributors if they write and edit enough good articles. Why – WHY – would anyone inflate their academic credentials to contribute to Wikipedia? Shouldn't a cheat aim higher than that?

The New Yorker has had, throughout its 80-odd years of existence, a stellar reputation for accuracy, which I suppose is gives this incident some additional deliciousness to those who think that anything that embarrasses the "MSM" (mainstream media) must be a good thing. As Guardian editor Charles Arthur points out, it's a terrible moment for the journalist, who wrote, in general, a very good piece. It's easy to Monday-quarterback now and ask how she thought a professor in a private university would have time to spend his claimed 14 hours a day on the site, or whether a professor could really supervise an in-class quiz while surveying 20 IRC channels. But usually when you're interviewing someone you're trying to get them on your side, to talk to you in a way they don't normally talk to people they've never met. And Essjay certainly was an expert on Wikipedia. Lying about his credentials got him nothing: he'd have been quoted anyway.

If the point was to be able to boast about fooling a stalwart publisher dedicated to accuracy – well, you work for something intended to educate the world. Why was this worth cheating for?

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).

March 2, 2007

Fusion cuisine and the Chamber of Legislative Horrors

So this is the pitch:

Do you still recognize the country you grew up in? In Britain, the home of habeus corpus and the Magna Carta, the London 2012 Olympics are serving as the excuse to give police powers to inspect postal packages for drugs, track individuals through the use of CCTV and electronic travel passes, and identify suspects through their relatives' DNA stored among the 3 million samples held in the nation's DNA database. In the US, it's now extremely difficult to travel, even on a Greyhound bus, without presenting photo ID, a government agency maintains a list of who is not allowed to fly, and your most private medical records are open to inspection by a raft of people from medical personnel to insurance companies and prospective employers.

The Australian Parliament has a compendium of anti-terrorism legislation from Australia and elsewhere, much of it passed since 2001.
It seems as though in every country surveillance is on the rise, backed by legislation granting more and more powers to law enforcement.

What's it like in your country? The 2007 Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference wants to know. You have nothing to lose but your homes, jobs, freedom...

Something like that. (Do get in touch if you want to hand over examples.) The losers will be featured somewhere on the CFP program.

About that reference to the 2012 Olympics. It's generally true that the World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks of September 2001 gave security forces everywhere a chance to dust of the failed proposals they had in their bottom drawers that no politicians would ever accept previously and get them through before the first shock faded. Every subsequent event – such as the July 7 London bombs, or last summer's mixed-liquids-on-a-plane madness – has fueled another round of Add the Police Powers. But the 2012 Olympics? They're harmless, right? (Except for the ever-mounting bill; the Evening Standard this week put it at £10 billion, four times the original estimate, and counting. For the record, I was always against the Olympics coming to London.)

Not so much harmless. And they're almost open about it.
The Telegraph discovered a leaked memo in late January that specifically suggested that public support for increased surveillance (scanning postal packages, location tracking via enhanced CCTV, mobile phones, and smart travel cards) could be increased by piloting them during the Olympics. The documents, prepared for the Number 10 Policy Review Working Group on Security, Crime, and Justice, also revealed that the DNA database that Blair is so proud of and its 3 million samples could be used for familial tracing. Your DNA may not be on the database, but if your father's is identifying a familiar connection might help lead the police to you. Oh, yeah, and while we're at it, why don't we conceal X-ray cameras in lampposts everywhere?

I know how much this sounds like bad science fiction, and since the X-ray camera bit came from The Sun, who knows? And the fact that something is being discussed doesn't mean they won't see sense and not implement it or that the technology will work in the first place. But these are thoughts that only a few years ago would have been unthinkable, and now they're not only being thought they're being outlined in policy memos.

And even that is relatively trivial compared to part 2A of the Serious Crime Bill, which creates Serious Crime Prevention Orders, to be granted by the High Court or Crown Court, that will grant the power to do data matching between, from the sounds of it, any and all data held about you anywhere – within different government departments, outside it in commercial databases, travel data, ISP logs, whatever. The bill is at the committee stage in the Lords but has yet to be introduced in the Commons. A friend of mine has taken to calling this scenario "data fusion".

What this all signifies is very precisely and carefully laid out in a just-published book, Illusions of Security by Canadian author Maureen Webb. In it, Webb makes the carefully documented case that in the years since 2001 a massive shift has taken place from reactive policing to preemption of risk (which seems a logical extension of the sort of nervousness that requires warning labels on bags of marbles). She primarily writes about Canada and the US, but she could be writing about many other countries: you could be guilty at any time and so you should be watched, just in case. Instead of giving us greater security, Webb argues that increased surveillance is counter-productive because it alienates the very communities we most need help from – and that in fact it makes us all more insecure because our lives could be abruptly turned upside down at any moment. Whose life doesn't look suspicious if it's examined in great detail?

So: send your examples and I'll enter them in the Chamber of Legislative Horrors contest. You could be a loser!

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).