October 31, 2003

Dead Peasants

Already suffering from the raids that netted more than 300 "illegal aliens" across 60 stores, Wal-Mart's images is taking another (well-deserved) hit.
“I never dreamed they could profit from my husband’s death,” Jane Sims told the Houston Chronicle after Wal-Mart collected $64,000 on her spouse, who worked 11 years at a Texas distribution center until his 1998 fatal heart attack. Sims is part of a lawsuit charging that Wal-Mart took out some 350,000 similar policies, then wrote off premium costs as a tax-deductible business expense.
This perhaps explains why Wal-Mart seems to hire so many senior citizens and retirees. [A longer article is in the INDYpendent. Or Google's set of stories.] [via Kelly]
Posted by johndan at 12:17 PM | TrackBack

October 30, 2003

Dreaming

There's something odd and fascinating about this: RapidEyeMovement, a website that hosts dream journals (and allows other visitors to add their interpretations).
In this dream My husband and I are computer repair and sales people. We get a phone call from a customer who bought a computer from us but is having problems with it. SO i agree to meet him and help sort the problem out....
I'm not a fan of dream interpretations--bizarre imagery is interesting for its own sake, though.
Posted by johndan at 11:12 PM | TrackBack

October 29, 2003

Minor DMCA Exceptions

Regulators at the Library of Congress and the US Copyright Office added four new exceptions to the over-reaching Digital Millenium Copyright Act. Added were allowances to break copyright protections in order to
  • provide read-aloud or handicapped access to ebooks when necessary
  • transfer computer programs or video games from obsolete to current file formats or hardware
  • computer programs that are protected by obsolete or broken hardware dongles
  • lists of sites blocked by commercial Internet filtering software (but not lists for battling spam)
While this is a sign of progress, it's extremely limited. DMCA still prevents people from removing restrictive protections on media that they've already purchased, in order to play the media on a different device, even if the use doesn't actually break standard copyright law.

[via a c|net story, among other places]

Posted by johndan at 05:03 PM | TrackBack

The Politics of robots.txt

When standard web crawlers are indexing sites, they begin by checking for the existence of a robots.txt file [definition]. The file specifies which directories a well-behaved crawler should or should not include in its index. So, for example, irrelevant files or things that are semi-private can, in theory, not show up in search engines. In practice, they still tend to show up for a variety of reasons, including crawlers that ignore robots.txt and via links from other pages. Still, robots.txt files do have an effect and hiding pages and directories with rules in that file tends to make the pages not show up as frequently in search engines.

At some point last summer, the White House changed the robots.txt files in White House websites to include most of the directories with "Iraq" in them to the robots.txt file, meaning that search engines would no longer list pages from White House websites if the pages contained the word "Iraq". As the DNC's blog ("Kicking Ass") describes it,

Why would the White House do this? Those pages are still public, and the White House search engine itself does index those pages, so users can still get to them.

It's easy enough to understand the reasoning if you look at past White House actions. Earlier this year, the White House revised pages on its website claiming that "combat" was over in Iraq, changing them to say "major combat."

One of the reasons some alert readers noticed the change — and were able to prove it — was that Google had archived the pages before the change occurred. Now that all of the White House pages about Iraq are no longer archived by Google, such historical revisionism will be harder to catch.

Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog offers a more detailed and wide-ranging analysis, including extensive links, comparisons, and ongoing discussion (including what Dan Gilmor describes as the Occam's Razor" explanation).

[via Dan Gillmor's eJournal]

Posted by johndan at 03:15 PM | TrackBack

Dan Gillmor on Guerilla Marketing

Dan Gillmor dismisses -- and then regrets his dismissal -- of guerilla marketing. Commenting on the press release for an Oki Data color printer campaign that featured unitard-clad dancers with Oki logos on their chests singing "songs about Oki printers" and dancing in high-trafficked areas in San Francisco (that's a scenario my fingers have never typed before), Gillmor quips,
I was laughing out loud when I forwarded this along to Mercury News Business Editor Vindu Goel. He wrote back, "Costumed people dancing in the streets of a city that just had the Exotic Erotic Ball and is going to have a peace protest this weekend -- and Oki actually thinks it'll get noticed?" (He also observed that San Francisco isn't exactly the hotbed of technology, though there are undoubtedly some "hot beds" (note spelling in press release) in the city.)
But by the end of the article, he realizes his complicity (Palmolive? You're soaking in it):
Still, I'll bet that the local TV stations will cover this stunt.

Question: Does this posting count as coverage, too?

Bingo. That's the gift of postmodernist culture. There's no such thing as bad press, because mindshare influences brand recognition.
Posted by johndan at 01:14 AM | TrackBack

October 28, 2003

Study on the Effects of Spam on End Users

Surprising PEW research study on spam, including survey results such as
  • 7% of email users report that they have ordered a product or service that was offered in an unsolicited email, although not all of this is pure “spam.”
  • 33% of email users have clicked on a link in unsolicited email to get more information....
  • 32% consider unsolicited commercial email to be spam, even if it came from a sender with whom they’ve “already done business.”
  • [via Slashdot]

    Posted by johndan at 01:17 PM | TrackBack

    October 27, 2003

    After Steampunk

    calculator.jpgVintage Technology hosts an archive of examples of "home electrical goods from the twentieth century". It's an eclectic mix (given the span of the twentieth century as it relates to 2003), so there are 1940s radios and 1980s calculators (some of which I'm pretty sure I owed). I still have my HP-11C around here somewhere....
    Posted by johndan at 09:59 AM | TrackBack

    American Idol for Russian prisoners. Prize: freedom

    From Boing-Boing. Not sure how to even comment on this, since the story seems capable of consuming any satire or critical comment I might throw at it.
    In a grotesque, totally po-mo spin on reality talent shows like "American Idol," Russian prison officials organized a contest in which prisoners sing their way out of jail. Six convicts pleased judges enough to awin pardons.

    Vladimir Volzhsky sang his own song, White Nights of the Perm Prison Camp. He has already released two albums.

    The prisoners sang to 1,100 guests, most of whom were prison and police officials.

    Technically, the six to be freed will be released because their parole is due, not just because of the competition. The 17 losers received a television and a small cash prize.

    Link to story. Anyone who provides BoingBoing with links to MP3s of winning (or, heck, losing) tunes wins a reduced life sentence. UPDATE: An anonymous BoingBoing reader points us to MP3 files from prison singer Vladimir Volzhsky. Link to Russian page,

    Link to English.

    [via Boing Boing]

    Posted by johndan at 09:41 AM | TrackBack

    #9

    A little moment of revolution from Tim Bray:
    After dinner Friday the kid wanted to do a jigsaw puzzle and I thought that we might as well have a musical backdrop for our quality time. I felt in a rock & roll mode and my hand fell on the White Album. Eventually Revolution #9 came along, and all these decades later, you know, it holds up pretty well. Anyhow, the kid with furrowed brow was trying to figure out which way a piece of Thomas the Tank Engine would fit, and I was making helpful suggestions when I noticed that in his little munchkin voice he was intoning “Number nine... Number nine... Number nine...” Now that’s Quality Time.

    Coincidentally, yesterday afternoon I could hear my daughter attempting to work her way through a new song on her guitar upstairs, in her room above my office. I was struggling to place the song, which sounded familiar. She came downstairs and asked me to help her figure out some slide notation in the tab, and realized she was learning Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" (which I have to point out is a song that I think of as from my generation, but actually came out when I was about ten).

    [via ongoing]

    Posted by johndan at 09:28 AM | TrackBack

    Maps and Interfaces

    A brief piece in Anti-Mega discusses parallels between interface design and mapmaking, including references to MacEachren's How Maps Work and Mullet and Sano's Designing Visual Interfaces:
    Cartography seems to have some parallels with HCI, and its modern twist, interaction design. Both disciplines are interested in how information is disseminated, passed, parsed and used, and this book takes a cognitive approach to understanding. It doesn't stop at when the information is understood, but is interested in how that information will be used, for what purpose, and under what conditions (and then taking that learning and changing the design accordingly).
    The problem of usefulness has plagued computing as a human activity for its entire history. Users are frequently constructed as inefficient components of an otherwise smoothly running program. Delays and unused gestures are seen as waste, something to be overcome. The system only runs well when the users understands instantaneously, without thought. The interface, like the map, is seen as a necessary embarrassment, an admission that there's dirt within the system, impurity.

    But what if maps are not representations but contexts for stories to play out? Not so much in the sense of Brenda Laurel's notion of "computers as theater", but in postmodernist, "happening" sort of way.

    Posted by johndan at 09:25 AM | TrackBack

    October 26, 2003

    Dreaming

    There's something odd and fascinating about this: RapidEyeMovement, a website that hosts dream journals (and allows other visitors to add their interpretations).

    In this dream My husband and I are computer repair and sales people. We get a phone call from a customer who bought a computer from us but is having problems with it. SO i agree to meet him and help sort the problem out....

    I'm not a fan of dream interpretations--bizarre imagery is interesting for its own sake, though.

    Posted by johndan at 04:32 PM | TrackBack

    October 25, 2003

    Computing

    Mitch Kapor, of early killer app Lotus 123 and EFF fame (among other things), is leading development of an alternative to traditional approaches to organizing information in computers [MIT Technology Review article]. Based on "contexts", Kapor and Co.'s Open Source app "Chandler" attempts to structure information and documents based on purpose and use rather than in hierarchical (and separate) locations. The "Co.", Kapor's "Open Source Application Foundation," includes Andy Hertzfeld, the programmer who built most of the original Mac OS. Chandler is based around email functionalist, which Kapor sees as the central information application for most users.
    The “to-do” screen, for example, could be a context, with e-mail mixed in with related task items. So if you’re planning a party, Chandler might put a calendar with key dates on it (when to pick up a cake, say), the invitation form, RSVPs, a task list, and even a budget on-screen at once. When a guest’s e-mail request for veggie hors d’oeuvres arrives, arranging for them would automatically be added to your to-do list. Contexts will mean Chandler can reorganize the screen every time the user shifts between projects, as if she were replacing her desk with a new one. That’s a far cry from today’s software, which forces people to dig through applications and file folders to find things, and to print them out if they want to see everything in one place. And while Chandler will offer preset contexts, Kapor expects other open-source programmers to build them, too. If someone develops a better way to run spreadsheet analyses, a user can simply pull out existing contexts and replace them. (Try that with Outlook.)
    Sounds great on paper--I'm hoping it works as well.
    Posted by johndan at 01:26 PM | TrackBack

    October 24, 2003

    Some Demographics

    Now Reading: William T. Vollman, Argall: A book of North American Landscapes, V.3.and Ellen Lupton (Ed.) Skin.
    Now Listening: Drive-By Truckers: Decoration Day and Afrikaa BamaataWhat's the Name of this Nation? Zulu!
    Now Watching: Led Zeppelin, How the West Was Won (DVD).

    Posted by johndan at 10:39 PM | TrackBack

    Videoconferencing on the City Scale

    Citizens and visitors to London and Austria will be able to interact with each other via a pair very large videoconferencing units being installed in public spaces in both cities. Wired mag reports:
    video screen mock-up An Austrian firm is developing a giant video-conferencing system that will be deployed in public spaces in London and Vienna next year, allowing people in the two cities to meet and talk eye-to-eye. Standing in front of the 10-foot-high, cylindrical TV screen is like looking directly into the heart of a foreign city, its inventors say.
    Posted by johndan at 07:09 PM | TrackBack

    Shrinkwrap Agreements on Tools

    From Boing-Boing, via a bunch of other places (including Ed's Gripelog), news of an End User License Agreement ("Shrinkwrap Agreement") being applied to a woodworking tool. Such controversial agreements, commonly used in the software industry, are often used to take away traditional consumer rights without the consumer even realizing it. They're called "shrinkwrap" because the terms of the agreement include the fact that by breaking the shrinkwrap, you're agreeing to the agreement. (Often, they're also part of software install processes--those "Yes, I Agree" buttons you click without reading the contract offered.)

    In the TemplateMaster case, purchasers are prevented from letting anyone aside from the purchaser use the tool.

    "...the purpose of the TemplateMaster is to clone itself. Therefore we are verifying your honesty that only you will use the tool and you will not be passing it around to others to use for free. It is exactly the same as the 'shrink wrap' agreement that comes with almost all computer software. Please help us fight 'tool piracy'." [full agreement at Stots online]
    Note that the agreement articulates "honesty" in a very bizarre and interesting way:
    • "the purpose of the TemplateMaster is to clone itself" I don't know much about the TemplateMaster, but this would appear to be, at the very least, only a partial truth. Why would anyone buy a tool that had as its primary function the ability to clone itself? What good is that? Entertainment? Watch this, Frank! It's going to duplicate again!"
    • "we are verifying your honesty" Actually, what we're really doing is binding you to a legal contract, because we don't trust you to just apply your honest, best judgment.
    • "you will not be passing it to others to use for free" So now I'm not allowed to let others use something when I'm not using it. Imagine the consequences of this applied on a larger scale--I can't loan people print books. I can't offer someone a place at my dinner table for a meal, because the table manufacturer only allows me and my family to be seated. I can't give someone a ride in my car or, worse yet, loan them my car. I'm not allowed to teach students how to design pages for Internet Explorer because not every student in my class has licensed the right to that knowledge.... These seem a little far-fetched, but that's because the TemplateMaster case is far-fetched.
    • "help us fight 'tool piracy'" ! .... I'm not sure what else to say about that term, but "!". Since when is using one tool to make another considered "piracy"? Only since Stots had the bright idea to hook its wagon to the music/movie/software piracy horse.

    The way things used to work was that people used tools to make, among other things, new tools. It's not like they grew new tools on trees. So when my wife and I hired a local carpenter last year to build a porch on our house, he started by building a whole range of jigs and frames and sawhorses to use in the construction. And what did he use to build them? Tools, including other jigs and frames and sawhorses.

    Now I'm worried that I'm going to be sued as the construction equivalent of his ISP or something.

    Posted by johndan at 11:31 AM | TrackBack

    October 23, 2003

    Airports, Redux

    Although it's probably relatively unrelated to my schizophrenic experience two weeks ago of leaving one Ottawa airport on Saturday and landing in a completely different one the following Wednesday, there are apparently some serious map issues in the new Ottawa Airport:
    Officials at the Ottawa Airport have flown into damage control after a visitor noticed that large display maps in the new terminal have redrawn the United States, putting Atlanta in Alabama and Washington, D.C., next to North Carolina.
    Oddly, in my experiences, Canadians seem to know the US much better than the US knows Canada. That's either due to the fact that many Canadians I deal with are in the midst of the Green Card process, or because the airport hired a particularly lame company to do the maps. Or both. [via The Map Room]
    Posted by johndan at 11:00 PM | TrackBack

    Gehry Concert Hall

    Following up/expanding on the previous post about usabilty/usefulness: SFGate (among others) reports on Frank Gerhy's newest work, the Disney Concert Hall in LA:
    But savor what actually exists: a sensuous spectacle to be relished and explored. Someone who never buys a ticket can discover hidden terraces 70 feet in the air, or lean against the thin steel panels that frame the travertine stairway that sweeps upward from the corner of Grand Avenue and First Street. Disney Hall offers triumphant proof that architecture can thrive as an interactive part of the larger culture around it -- not merely an object of contemplation.
    From a completely utilitarian standpoint--a rudimentary usability position--the work of Gehry and other contemporary architects is massively stupid. But from a usefulness perspective, one that values the ability of situations and technologies to challenge people, to help them learn things about themselves and the world around them--this makes a lot of sense. pic of Disney Concert Hall

    The key question, of course, is this: How does one apply the things learned in deconstructive and postmodernist architecture to other fields?

    Posted by johndan at 04:13 PM | TrackBack

    After Usability

    Even as the computer industry--and society--have increased attention paid to "< href="http://usability.gov/">usability in software and hardware design (and product design, communication, and other circles), important work has begun to coalesce around the notion of usefulness. As an article in the Guardian reports,
    As Pentagram's Robert Brunner argued last week at the HITS (Humans/Interaction/Technology/Strategy conference in Chicago: "It doesn't matter if something is usable. What matters is that it is useful. Even better if it is desirable." To break the deadlock in user-interface and product design, we need radical innovations. We could start by going beyond the text- and list-based interface of Google, and should be debating what could be learned from Grokker's information visualisation-driven product.
    I've long thought that the most interesting and useful computer experiences emerged from breakdowns. This is true of education in general: one doesn't learn important things if they're transparent. One learns when theories and concepts collide, and when realities smack them upside the head. The most unusable technologies are frequently the most useful. Usability models, though, tend to conceive of breakdown--even visibility--as a bad thing, to be avoided. Sure, we can't survive if everything breaks down completely. But if things aren't stress facturing, if the system doesn't crash occasionally, you're not pushing hard enough.
    Posted by johndan at 04:01 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    Interview with Google News Creator

    I get the majority of my news from three sources: National Public Radio, Weblogs, and Google News.

    The Online Journalism Review (OJR) has an in-depth interview with Krishna Bharat, the creator of Google News. (Here's a photo of the Google News team with the Webby Award they won.)

    Bharat says, in the interview,

    There are no press releases on the browsable pages or news pages. We have a higher editorial responsibility on those because we're telling you where you should look. On the news pages, we do not intend to use press releases. We would never do anything to compromise the objectivity of the product. We don't even show advertising … we do this because we think it's useful. Making a press release available as part of the search results gives the full facts that were available to the reporter when they wrote it.

    I want this to be a force for a democracy. I want us to be an honest broker, and I want newspapers featured on our site to get traffic from us. … There's never been a more controversial time on the planet. I think it's great to be a news source at this point because there's so much hunger for news. You see a lot more diversity in the news coverage on our site than on others. I think the diversity is a mirror to the diversity of opinion there is worldwide. One of the things that makes us objective is we show all points of view. Even if you disagree with one, we give you both -- the majority and the minority point of view. The ones you don't agree with are education. It's nice to know what the other side is thinking. You'll see left-leaning ones as much as much as you see right-leaning ones. Frankly, the software doesn't know the difference between left and right, which is good.

    [via Google Weblog]

    Posted by johndan at 03:41 PM | TrackBack

    A Weak Defense of Textbooks

    Although the big scandal this week in the textbook industry is the news (not actually all that new, but previously unreported) that textbooks sold in the US are more expensive than the same textbook sold in other countries. First, lets look at the textbook industry itself. Like any other industry, it exists, at least in large part, to make a profit. I've authored or co-authored several tradebooks and textbooks, and I did that work--hundreds of hours on most of those projects--to make a profit. In our culture, that's not necessarily evil: if an organization wants to do good work, and to continue to do good work, there's not an easy way around the fact that bills have to be paid, employees have to be paid, etc. I won't go into the complexities of arguing for or against a socialist system of work, except to say that I don't see it coming real soon to a community near me except in little pockets and pools. So making a profit itself isn't necessarily evil, unless you buy into that whole "contamination" theory of money. I'm a leftist, but i don't buy into that (pun not intended). Second, producing textbooks isn't cheap. Although academics are a group that, in general, gives freely of its time, I also think that they sometimes deserve to be paid for their effort. Textbook authoring, for example, are not highly valued by my own University. It shows up on my annual reports, but it's never going to net me a lot either in status or pay. So I expect to be paid for the hundreds of hours I mentioned above. Additionally, although a handful of textbooks take off and make millions, many more actually lose money, sometimes big chunks of money. And the author's work is not the only cost of producing a textbook--in addition to expected things like marketing, printing, and shipping, textbooks require effort on the part of graphic designers, editors, proofreaders, and (in some cases) programmers, usability experts, information architects, media specialists, and website designers. One textbook I co-authored clearly cost, in advance royalties and wages, something in the low to medium six-figure range. I think this book will eventually turn a profit, but it's an iffy thing. So the money for any specific textbook typically also includes a substantial R&D cost to cover a range of successfully and failed projects. (I make a similar argument to myself every time I buy an Apple product rather than a knock-off--I'm paying for R&D.) Third, the prices of goods, at least in our culture(s), are at least partially determined by market demand. I know this doesn't hold water in every case, and there are certainly companies like Enron that have jiggered with markets and regulations in order to artificially drive prices up or down. And markets aren't perfect--in fact, that's the point. In a completely transnational, global economy, goods would flow freely to whomever wanted to pay for them, without issues like differential income levels in some countries, or tariffs, or trade embargos. But, instead, capitalism relies at least partially on the idea of differential growth: Some areas have higher wages than others; some areas will pay more for products than others. Textbooks are part of that pattern. So the market price for a textbook in Mexico is different than the market price for the same book in New York is different than the market price for the same book in Peru. The educational system in the US is so highly stuctured that it will currently bear a higher market price for books. Will that last? I don't know--I'm guess it will. (What will likely happen is that the market will begin to focus on online information space purchases rather than print texts--software will probably replace static text. But that may actually be used as a justification to drive up prices.) All of this is relatively self-serving. As I said above, I do profit from this market. Are these all just rationalizations? I don't think so. Could the textbook industry sell books more cheaply? Perhaps, but not dramatically so while maintaining an active R&D program. Is life fair? Only sometimes, and sometimes only a little. I'm currently finishing up book projects including an edited collection (with Stuart Selber) called Central Works for Oxford (see tentative cover sketch below) and two others. cover.jpg
    Posted by johndan at 09:24 AM | TrackBack

    "Schools Tackle PDA Problem"

    CNN reports on PDA use in schools. As usual (and as typical in most responses), technology is characterized as a threat to education and order. AIM has the same reputation.
    Though no formal policy exists, teachers there generally apply the same rules that they have for computers: no exchange of information between devices, and no personal e-mail or chatting unless it's part of a class exercise.

    When East Dubuque does consider a PDA policy, Ambrosia said he'll want to ban the combination cell phone-PDA models.

    "It shouldn't be so easy to have all these other functions at their fingertips," he said. "It's hard enough to keep a young teenager on task."

    They've got it all wrong: Educational and work structures--social life in general--are changing. Systems are fragmenting, dispersing, and recombining. The development of ubiquitous communication networks provides a whole new model for our culture(s). If we fail to respond to those changes in positive ways, we're toast.

    Face it: Schools and workplaces can't control the devices by banning them. Educational and working structures need to take advantage of these changes. More importantly, they have to recognize that old forms of learning and working--long, sustained, concentration on a single topic to the exclusion of all else--no longer function effectively.

    Current models of learning and working are broken. There's no reason to defend them from disruptive technologies. In fact, those technologies are the new learning and work structures and processes.

    [via Educational Technology Weblog]

    Posted by johndan at 08:58 AM | TrackBack

    October 22, 2003

    Elliot Smith Suicide

    From NPR (among other places):
    Singer-songwriter Elliot Smith, 34, was found dead Tuesday by his girlfriend in the Los Angeles apartment they shared. He apparently stabbed himself in the chest.
    Not to me morbid, but Smith never struck me as a violent-suicide type, more a pills or a running-car-closed-garage-door or just-fade-into-the-void type. Stabbing himself in the chest? No.
    Posted by johndan at 05:48 PM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

    Color Scheme Generator

    An extremely useful color scheme generator (including various colorspaces and schemes such as analogic, monochrome, checks for various types of colorblindness conditions, etc.). Very useful design tool. screen shot of color scheme generator
    Posted by johndan at 04:50 PM | TrackBack

    Finally, a Use for Spam

    An idie CD of songs based on spam email received by the artist. Organized by Brad Sucks (a Canadian one-man band), artists were asked to compose and perform songs based on spam subject lines. Tracks on the $5 CD include
    • "You Are Being Watched," by Son of Supercar
    • "Urgent Business Confident," by Uncle Azathoth
    • "psiloveyou," by Jack Shite,
    • and "Do You Measure Up," by add
    • The main Brad Sucks site links to some of the press the project is getting.
      Posted by johndan at 04:32 PM | TrackBack

    Boy's Internet Research On A Bridge Snags Him In FBI Web

    From Maryland's SunSpot.netnews site (among others):
    The terrorists arrive that awful Sept. 11 morning, and the nation spends the past two years trying to cope. The government investigates shadowy places where it never previously stuck its nose, and the civil libertarians shudder. Is Big Brother getting too snoopy? A 12-year-old kid at Boys' Latin researches a paper on the Bay Bridge, and suddenly the FBI's Joint Terrorist Task Force shows up in the headmaster's office.
    [via Blogdex]
    Posted by johndan at 04:17 PM | TrackBack

    October 21, 2003

    Hacking Smart Nametags: nTAG sleep attacks

    From foe romeo, who got it from kottke.org apparently via Matt at Blackbelt Jones Work. How convoluted.
    Early on during the conference, Whit Diffie hacked his nTAG badge to send a sleep command to any nTAG badge in range, effectively deactivating them. As word spread of the hack, people sought him out to sleep their hated badges. Others were pissed that he was turning off their badges without permission; someone asked at the end of the conference if sending a sleep command constituted an attack (When Sleep Attacks!).
    At next year's conference, attendees will be required to download nTag patches overnight and reboot each morning.
    Posted by johndan at 06:29 PM | TrackBack

    Google Definitions

    Google now does definitions. From Evhead:
    Yes, Google inline definitions. Nice. (Also try: define:mandelbrot set)
    Or maybe define:"search engine".
    Posted by johndan at 06:23 PM | TrackBack

    Balancing Utility With Privacy

    As a followup to my previous notes about RFIDs, here's a Wired article on UbiComp 2003, which deals with some privacy issues related to ubiquitous computing.
    Last week at UbiComp 2003, a ubiquitous computing conference in Seattle, many engineers confronted the damage their technology might cause to personal privacy. "The more awareness you have in the system," said one engineer who asked not to be named, "the less privacy you're going to have. That's the trade-off."
    "Asked not to be named"? How ironic. Luckily, his IntelliBadge™ would allow us to track them down if we needed to....
    Posted by johndan at 06:20 PM | TrackBack

    Gnomoradio

    Coolness!

    Jim Garrison writes to report the launch of a project that uses my three favorite things (THINGS): free software, Creative Commons licenses, and RDF. Gnomoradio.org will "create an online network where artists can promote and share their music freely and willingly." As its announcement explains, it is built on gpl'd software, and gives artists the ability to generate "an Internet address (a URL) that will point to information about the song, a machine-readable license, a method of verifying the downloaded song, a link to the artist's web site, and information about purchasing any available recordings of the song." More discussion.

    Let free compete with controlled, and let's see who wins.

    [via Lessig Blog]

    Posted by johndan at 06:03 PM | TrackBack

    Buying Someone Else's Memories

    The Independent reports on studies of "memory morphing", the advertising industry's methods for influencing--sometimes dramatically--the memories that people form about past events. In one study, Elizabeth Zaltman, a former professor of psych at the University of Washington investigated the potential effects of advertising campaigns that rely on nostalgic, such as Disney's "Remember the Magic":
    She reported an experiment in which people were shown an advert suggesting that children who visited Disneyland had the opportunity to shake hands with Bugs Bunny. Later, many of those who had seen the advert "remembered" meeting Bugs on childhood visits to the theme park, a feat that would have been impossible, given that the cartoon is a Warner Brothers character.
    Or more directly,
    Earlier this year, other American psychologists announced research findings to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, showing the ease with which false memories can be implanted in people's minds. In a test by the cognitive psychologist Kathryn Braun-LaTour, a colleague of Zaltman's, participants were served an unpleasant-tasting orange drink spiked with salt and vinegar. They were then shown adverts suggesting the drink was refreshing. Sure enough, many of the participants later reported that they had found the drink refreshing.
    In a case of wild understatement, Loftus commented, "This brings forth ethical considerations. Is it OK for marketers to knowingly manipulate consumers' pasts?" [Via Blackbelt Jones Work]
    Posted by johndan at 06:01 PM | TrackBack

    October 20, 2003

    Film and Architecture

    The invention of the movies was transformative for architecture, paralleling and informing the invention of the idea of space. A medium that allows the continuous depiction of space, the movies goaded architecture into a new sense of flow, creating an idea of the palpability--the physics--of the space. Space was no longer just a byproduct of the order of events. Animated, the rush of space could be expected to have an effect on the material conditions through which it passed. Film was able, for the first time, to capture the blur of speed much the way we--slow to process our own environment--perceive it. Interest in such distortion through attenuation has something of a history, originating in our ability to cross landscapes at increasing speeds--the view from the train or the car.

    (Michael Sorkin, "Frozen Light", p. 28. Architecture + Process: Gehry Talks)

    Architecture, along with music and film, seem to have done a much better job at responding to--and influencing--cultural and technical changes over the last decade than writing has been. Perhaps writing, at least as the term is currently articulated, is by definition antithetical to twenty-first-century culture. That's not to say that there aren't forms of writing that are more attuned to the shapes and trajectories of contemporary life--blogs maybe, or billboards or instant messaging--but only that those forms of writing aren't yet considered "real" writing by most people.
    Posted by johndan at 10:01 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    "The Social Life of Objects"

    Although they've primarily been used to track inventory in various ways (see RFID Journal for examples), Radio Frequency ID (RFID) chips open up new possibilities for research on proximity and movement of nearly any object. For example, tiny RFID chips in luggage tags could be used to easily track airline baggage. Or to collect data on the migration of circulating books to let subsequent readers know where the book has been. Or to track interactions among schoolchildren in classrooms (here's the NSF page on project). The small size and extremely low cost of the chips allows them to be used in a wide range of applications. This is both a great opportunity and a great danger: RFIDs would provide interesting and important data on how object move around in space, over time. Sensors that controlled HVAC based on people actually moving within different areas of a building. A library card catalog that could provide the physical location of any book, even if it was mis-shelved. (Hell, my office and home bookshelves could use this.) Social science data on interactions and proximity of people in differing situations. All of which suggest a parallel problem of surveillance: The chips are both small and passive, meaning that they can be used to track people, the movement of automobiles, etc. Wikipedia has some additional overview material and links to worry about. As Declan McCullagh points out, one company has designed RFID chips that are washable, specifically designed to be sewn into clothing. Foe romeo (from whom I swiped the title of this, and linked to the book scenario above) provides some thoughts about the fact that you can "RFID people."
    Posted by johndan at 09:32 PM | TrackBack

    Combat Rock

    Mother Jones Magazine has compiled a table of music played as part of psy-ops activities by US military and FBI. In the entry on attempts by the 4th Psy-Ops Group using Guns N' Roses, Quiet Riot, and Jimi Hendrix tunes to force Manuel Noriega to surrender from his refuge in the Vatican Embassy in Panama City in 1989, a US official said, ""We received a note from the nuncio protesting either the loudness of the music or the quality, I'm not sure which."
    Posted by johndan at 05:44 PM | TrackBack

    Owning Facts

    As InfoWorld reports, a House subcommittee approved the Database and Collections of Information Misappropriation Act of 2003, something previously called the Database Antipiracy Act. As Infoworld points out, "The bill would allow owners of databases to secure copyright-like protections on facts within databases, not just proprietary information." Briefly put, the danger in this is that companies who gather factual data would be able to prevent others from republishing that factual data. So, for example, the NBA can claim ownership of game scores, preventing news agencies from reporting them without payment. Or publishers can gather data from US government sources (such as court proceedings) and prevent others from publishing the data--even though such information is generally supposed to be in the public domain. This is a bad thing. See the ACLU letter on this topic as well.
    Posted by johndan at 03:28 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    October 18, 2003

    Crayon-Based Coverage of "Operation Iraqi Freedom"

    Disconcerting: Shocked and Awed: A gallery of Iraq schoolchildren art.

    [via metafilter.com]

    Posted by johndan at 04:37 PM | TrackBack

    Google AdSense Backs Off on Restrictions

    Looks like Google has backed off on AdSense terms and conditions for use that appeared to prevent users from ever criticizing the service. [via kottke.org]
    Posted by johndan at 04:26 PM | TrackBack

    Review of Six RSS Readers

    I've talked several times (and in several places) about the way that RSS readers offer methods for managing information flow in the datacloud (where "authorship" gives way to "symbolic-analytic work": the rearrangement, filtering, and recombination of information in modern dataclouds). The RSS browser I use to skim feeds and post to Datacloud is Ranchero's NetNewsWire, an OS X program LockerGnome Bytes has posted a review of RSS readers for other platforms (including one for PocketPC).
    "There are many different RSS readers out there, and the choices are growing every day. For this roundup we picked some of the top new choices and even found one for the Pocket PC. FeedDemon - Full featured RSS reader with lots of bells and whistles. The Cadillac of RSS readers right now. Aggreg8 - Mozilla add-on that provides a simple interface and basic RSS functionality. NewsGator - Unique RSS reader that functions as an add-on to Microsoft Outlook. Blends in nicely with the Outlook interface. Feedreader - Basic RSS reader that gets the job done without a lot of bells and whistles. PocketFeed - Basic reader for Pocket PCs. Still at an early stage of development but we found it usable and quite cool. SharpReader - SharpReader requires Microsoft's .NET framework. It provides basic reader functionality and features. Nothing to rave about but quite functional." (Marc Erickson) [Lockergnome Bytes]
    Posted by johndan at 04:23 PM | TrackBack

    October 17, 2003

    great lawyers

    From Lessig's blog:
    So imagine this: An employee works for a software company. He discovers a problem with the software, tries to warn the company, but it does nothing. He quits, and then sends email to all the customers of the company, informing them of the security problem with the software. The flood of emails brings the email server down for a bit, but that admittedly does not cause significant damage. Nonetheless, the employee is criminally prosecuted for causing an "impairment to the integrity" of a computer system (by revealing its flaws) which resulted in more than $5,000 in damage (because now it was known to be flawed).

    The employee is found guilty. He is sentenced and serves (yes, he actually serves) 16 months in a federal prison.

    The story has a happy ending. Sort of. An appeals court judge vacated the earlier ruling (although the ex-ex-con served 16 months).

    Technically, though, I'm assuming the employee was found guilty due to having signed a nondisclosure agreement while he still worked at the company (and which was probably still in effect when he sent the email). It's not clear to me where the line is between revealing trade secrets and whistle-blowing; at the very least, it's not as clear as Lessig's claim that, "it can't be 'damage' to tell the truth about some company's software--however ugly that truth might be." In fact, there are enormous numbers of "ugly" things that should be protected, to some extent. Privacy for example. Back doors to software. Credit card numbers, when stored in a database or file. And, yes, sometimes trade secrets (real ones, that is, not the overly broad type frequently claimed by companies just to bully people around, like Diebold's attempts to shut down criticism of its voting machines [eff link]).

    So while Lessig's nameless employee may have been on the side of justice and right here, we need to be careful about making this a banner case. Maybe it's more complicated than it's been portrayed. (I'll admit here that I've only read Lessig's entry on this, not the PDF of the decision that he links to.)

    Posted by johndan at 05:48 PM | TrackBack

    "Nothing Blows Up": The Birth of Videogames

    Electronic Gaming Monthly is running a piece on vintage video games that's both very funny and very depressing.
    Tim: Which button do I press to make the blocks explode? EGM: Sorry, they don't explode. Becky: This is boring. Maybe if it had characters and stuff and different levels, it would be OK. If things blew up or something or—
    And from a review of Pong, which I remember playing at a friend's house when I was about six:
    John: In this thing? [Points to the Pong game console] Tim: I would never pay to play something like this. John: I'd sooner jump up and down on one foot. By the way, is this supposed to be tennis or Ping-Pong? Becky: Ping-Pong. Gordon: It doesn't even go over the net. It goes through it. I don't even think that thing in the middle is a net. Tim: My line is so beating the heck out of your stupid line. Fear my pink line. You have no chance. I am the undisputed lord of virtual tennis. [Misses ball] Whoops. John: Tim, how could you miss that? It was going like 1 m.p.h. Sheldon: Hey, why does it say Sears on the controller? EGM: Sears sold it for Atari. Andrew: Isn't Sears, like, a clothing company? Becky: Sears makes everything. Actually, I've never been in there.
    A few weeks ago, I realized that "Classic Rock" stations were now playing songs that were released when I was in high school.
    Posted by johndan at 10:43 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    Icon Design, Craft, Etc.

    Uday Gajendar has a nice piece on the craft of icon design at boxes and arrows:
    Designing web-based enterprise software involves creating complex artifacts like architecture wireframes, object models, screen flows, and clickable prototypes in order to articulate aspects of the online experience for product stakeholders. But what does “craft” mean for interaction designers?
    Gajendar discusses, among other things, the connections between interface elements such as icon design (normally considered very low level) and overall site purpose and usability (normally considered very high level). And on the way, there are some interesting insights about the rebirth of craft in contemporary technology design.

    All of which harkens back to Frank Lloyd Wright's admonition that "form follows function" was not a "horse first, then cart" argument, but more along the lines of "yin/yang"--the micro and the macro are intimately related. The meaning of the small is articulated partially by its context, and contexts' meanings are articulated partially in the micro items they contain. To alter one is to alter the other.

    Posted by johndan at 05:05 AM | TrackBack

    October 16, 2003

    Frogs in My Clogs

    My favorite comic, Red Meat now has a DIY version (not run by Red Meat as far as I can tell). There's even an archive of fan comics. I probably should have warned before you clicked, but Red Meat (and all its by-products) are relatively disturbing, sickening, and gross. In a good sort of way. redmeat.jpg (OK, this site is probably old, but it's new to me. Bear in mind that until last week, I didn't know that The Golden Gate Bridge was in San Francisco. Sue me. I'm a tenured, full professor, so I figure if I don't already know it, it don't count.) (For extra credit, email me to complain about the grammatical errors in the previous two sentences....)
    Posted by johndan at 10:25 PM | TrackBack

    Trademark, Social Critique, and Kid's Movies

    CNN reports that Caterpillar Inc. is suing Disney over a movie in which Caterpillar bulldozers threaten a jungle. According to Caterpillar, the movie (a very low profile, straight to DVD sequel to George of the Jungle) infringes on Caterpillar's trademarks. More to the point, though, is Caterpillar's claim that the trademark infringement portrays Caterpillar in a bad light, and that it will have a
    negative impact on children that view the movie" for the bulldozer maker and its line of toys.
    But given that IP law generally protects criticism, it seems like Caterpillar's suit becomes self-contradictory.
    Posted by johndan at 01:50 PM | TrackBack

    "This is Not My Beautiful House...."

    I got back into Ottawa airport last night at midnight (after several major delays in Newark's airport because of high winds advisories. The worst part about the landing wasn't the heavy turbulence, but the knowledge that I was on a connecting flight and would be taking off in a much smaller jet, in very high wind conditions, in about an hour. Landing in Ottawa went as expected: one of those landings where no one says anything because the plane keeps lurching violently, but occasionally someone would give out that terrified giggle/laugh thing. When I got into Customs, it was in a different room than normal. I figured this was due to my coming in from Newark on Continental rather than Detroit on Northwest (my usual). airport.jpg After I cleared Canadian Customs, I exited into the airport AND IT WAS A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT AIRPORT THAN THE ONE I DEPARTED FROM LAST SATURDAY. I thought maybe someone in San Francisco has slipped acid into my coffee or something that morning. Or that I'd somehow gotten on the wrong plane. But all the signs in the airport said "Ottawa Airport". And, besides, it was a *nice* airport. Eventually, I realized that between last Saturday and last night, construction had been finished work on the new airport. Construction's been going on for some time, but I hadn't paid much attention to it since the new airport was farther down the road (about a quarter mile) than the old one--so my driving in and out never took me past the construction site. The rest of the trip home was uneventful, at least in comparison.
    Posted by johndan at 12:50 PM | TrackBack

    October 10, 2003

    eMusic Fails Me....

    For months, I've been tellling people about eMusic, a legal mp3 download site that signed close to 1,000 small labels to their database. I pay $10 a month, I get to download as much music as I want. These are small labels, so they're not interested in making the sort of megabucks killing that physical CDs offer, or even the $0.99/song that Apple's iTunes Store promises. Instead, most of the labels are small, struggling organizations looking for exposure. This is, in other words, a second and third tier of the music industry. That sounds like a negative thing, but it's not: to my mind, the most interesting things in music now are not mega-blockbuster acts, but artists outside of the mainstream. And I'm not saying they don't deserve to make a living. They just don't need the massive PR, overpriced studio time, payola, and decked-out tour equipment that Billboard Top 10 Acts do. So the minor amount of money that eMusic channeled to them went farther than it might for most of the acts in, say iTunes. Every little bit helps. In the first month, I downloaded amazing work from ex- (and future-) Pixie, Frank Black; late lamented schizophrenic Wesley Willis; alt-rock heroes Yo La Tengo; b-sides and outtakes from two-man new garage group The Black Keys. And more: obscure Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson cuts. Sonic Youth fan-club-only releases. Several hours worth of Ethiopian Funk. Richard Tomphson's newest CD. Some early work by hiphip pioneer and Zulu Nation leader, Afrika Bambaata. Several early Kinks albums. A box set from cal-punk-alt-rock gods Camper Van Beethoven. These are songs, for the most part, that aren't selling well--they labels aren't getting rich and, for the most part, wouldn't know what to do if they did. They just want to make it. So I was happy paying $120 a year for this service. Hell, I was ecstatic. Yesterday, though, I received email telling me eMusic had been bought out by Dimensional Associates. They made this sound like a good thing, but their second point was much less positive:
    [On] November 8, 2003, your EMusic subscription will convert into EMusic Basic. Under EMusic Basic, you will be billed $9.99 per month for access to the service with no minimum monthly commitment, but you will be limited to no more than 40 downloads during your monthly billing cycle.
    Yeah, that's a good deal. It's cheaper than iTunes Store, but it's not at all what I bought in for. What I liked about eMusic was the space I had to try things out, to download a couple of songs -- or even a few albums -- and see if I liked them. I think my "hit" ratio was about 33%. On one hand, that seems low--but only if you're paying per track. And if you think about it, that's what the music industry--especially alternative labels--should be encouraging: people need to get out of their comfort zones, listen to some new artists. And it's not like my $10 a month is the only money going into the music industry. In the last month alone, in addition to my eMusic $10, I've bought $100 worth of CDs and $60 worth of music DVDs. (This is the point where I find out if my wife Kelly is reading my weblog. Wait--I mentioned them in my weblog, so they're business tax deductions!) Per-song payment obviously discourages this sort of experimental listening. Instead, it seems, we're going back to the old model, where the Brittany Spears and U2s and Shania Twains dominate the sonic landscape. So, like Dan Gilmore (and I'm guessing many, many others), I'm saying so long to eMusic.

    SunnComm Lawsuit

    From Lessig:

    "This is good news (ok, not for Halderman but for the law). SunnComm says it is suing Alex Halderman (Ed Felten's student) because he posted a paper pointing out the weaknesses in SunnComm's copy-protection software. I'm sure there will be a world of legal support to help Halderman establish what should be an obvious point: tell the truth is not yet a crime, and (fortunately for most professors) writing even wrong papers is not either.

    "UPDATE: Oh well. Looks like SunnComm has come to its senses. No lawsuit after all."

    Posted by johndan at 09:24 PM | TrackBack

    Usability Movement Hijacks Parliament Site

    Another cool story via Boing-boing: A "Paramilitary Wing of the Usability Movement" has examined a poorly designed UK gov't site, scraped it (pulled content from the original), redesigned, and posted to its own server a redesigned (and much more usable) version of the UK Parliamentary record. Before:
    before.jpg

    and after
    after.jpg

    Posted by johndan at 05:59 PM | TrackBack

    Polish hackers offering "untraceable" hosting on hacked boxen

    Home broadband represents relatively open terrain for hackers, given the untapped horsepower and bandwidth of many systems connected via cable and DSL and the security know-how of many home users. I know my own firewall stops a broad range of attacks; many home systems (and not a few office computers) aren't behind firewalls of any sort. Boing-boing analyzes and links to a Wired article:
    Wired Magazine reports on a new kind of ISP: an "invisible" hosting service, based in the former Soviet Union, which uses a network of compromised machines and some redirection-fu to make it very hard to determine where a web-server actually lives. The service is reportedly marketed to spammers as an untraceable base-of-operations. I'm pretty skeptical about the untraceability of these systems -- I suspect that rather, they are resistant to some tools, not resistant to others, and not hard to write new tools to uncover. Still, it's juicy, lurid reading.

    Another site hosted by the Polish group offers free credit consultations. Traceroutes to the site, removeform.com, also provided ever-changing results, ranging from a computer connected to a DSL line in Israel to another provided by EarthLink. However, the title of the site's home page consistently read "Yahoo Web Hosting," suggesting it was actually located on a server run by the Internet giant.

    According to Tubul, his group controls 450,000 "Trojaned" systems, most of them home computers running Windows with high-speed connections. The hacked systems contain special software developed by the Polish group that routes traffic between Internet users and customers' websites through thousands of the hijacked computers. The numerous intermediary systems confound tools such as traceroute, effectively laundering the true location of the website. To utilize the service, customers simply configure their sites to use any of several domain-name system servers controlled by the Polish group, Tubul said.

    [ via boing-boing, channeling Wired ]

    Posted by johndan at 05:37 PM | TrackBack

    October 09, 2003

    DMCA & Research

    Dan Gilmore reports on SunComm's pending lawsuit against John Halderman, a Princeton University graduate student who published research showing SunComm's copy protection mechanisms were easily breakable. From Halderman's site:
    SunnComm claims its product facilitates "a verifiable and commendable level of security," but in tests on a newly-released album, I find that the protections may have no effect on a large fraction of deployed PCs, and that most users who would be affected can bypass the system entirely by holding the shift key every time they insert the CD. I explain that MediaMax interferes with audio copying by installing a device driver the first time software from the CD is executed, but I show that this provides only minimal protection because the driver can easily be disabled. I also examine the digital rights management system used to control access to a set of encrypted, compressed audio files distributed on the CD. Although restrictions on these files are more relaxed than in prior copy protected discs, they still prohibit many uses permitted by the law. I conclude that MediaMax and similar copy-prevention systems are irreparably flawed but predict that record companies will find success with more customer-friendly alternatives for reducing infringement.
    A BusinessWire report contains more info about SunComm's proposed lawsuit. SunComm initially alleges that Halderman's report contains misleading and incorrect information that damaged SunComm's market value--if true, this seems actionable. However, the real thrust of SunComm's legislation centers on a second claim:
    [...] SunnComm believes that Halderman has violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) by disclosing unpublished MediaMax management files placed on a user's computer after user approval is granted. Once the file is found and deleted according to the instructions given in the Princeton grad student's report, the MediaMax copy management system can be bypassed resulting in the copyright protected music being converted or misappropriated for potentially unauthorized and/or illegal use. SunnComm intends to refer this possible felony to authorities having jurisdiction over these matters because: 1. The author admits that he disabled the driver in order to make an unprotected copy of the disc's contents, and 2. SunnComm believes that the author's report was "disseminated in a manner which facilitates infringement" in violation of the DMCA or other applicable law.
    In short, SunComm is using the DMCA in exactly the way that the EFF and many people warned it would be used: to prevent important research that could help consumers and other companies judge claims of security. Consider it from this angle: SunComm was planning on marketing the software as an effective copy protection scheme. Halderman showed that claim was wildy unaccurate. SunComm responds not by thanking Halderman or, at the very least, apologizing to shareholders and potential customers. Instead, they use the DMCA to shut him down and to discourage anyone from seriously investigating industry claims to security. An interesting aside: Suppose a company hired Halderman to assess the validity of the security contained in various copyright protection schemes. Would Halderman's research then fall uder the realm of caveat emptor--buyer beware--or would SunComm then be able to sue the other company and Halderman if they published their findings. My guess is that the DMCA trumps such research and responsible social activities.
    Posted by johndan at 04:42 PM | TrackBack

    Usability, Marketing, and eBay

    eBay has made some dramatic changes to their default main page. ebay.jpg The "why does this page look different" link at the bottom of the main page explains
    This new, "light" version of the home page will only be shown to those users who are not already registered on eBay. Registered users should still see the previous design. If you are registered with eBay, you can sign in here to get the registered user version of the home page. The objective of this new home page is to educate new users on how eBay works. Our customer research indicated that many new users needed additional information about eBay and consequently, we tested several different designs over the past year to learn what would be the most compelling to this audience. Our final design, a version dedicated to education content, performed the best in helping new users to get started and use eBay.
    I'm of mixed opinions about this. I like the simplification of the new default page--less clutter and a task orientation are useful. And allowing registered users to use the old interface make sense--they've already developed a cognitive framework for dealing with the amounts of information contained on old-style pages. At the same time, the new task orientation does push PayPal as the only option for payment. (PayPal is an eBay company--this information is made obvious on the main screen.) Users will discover after they register that other methods are allowed (ranging from direct credit card through money order, etc.). eBay's contention, I expect, would be that PayPal is the preferred option and the easiest method for paying. And maybe that's their right--it is, after all, their site. But I've not been happy with my experiences with PayPal (which include denying that my bank account info was valid, even though I was taking it directly from my bank statement--probably an issue with my bank, but not something I was ever able to resolve in order to transfer money into PayPal).
    Posted by johndan at 01:00 PM | TrackBack

    October 08, 2003

    Neil Postman Dies, Film at 11

    I can't say I agreed with everyting Neil Postman wrote--Technolopoly seemed a little luddite but he was without doubt a critic blessed with intelligence and eloquence. The NYT obit recounts some of his influential publications: Amusing Ourselves to Death, "Teaching as a Subersive Activity," How to Watch TV News (with Steve Powers), and more. I used Amusing Ourselves to Death as textbook when I taught first-year composition in the 1980s. Postman's perceptive observations about the influences of television on culture (including education) never failed to make students think critically about themselves and their relations to media. Some quotes from the text that I can still recall:
    The best thing on television is crap. If God is speaking through Billy Graham, then God is a blockhead.
    Posted by johndan at 11:54 PM | TrackBack

    What is truth? And does it matter?

    Good metafilter rant on Jessica Lynch, war movies, journalism, and history:
    Saving Private Lynch From Misinformation.
    John Fasano (screenwriter of such classics as Darkness Falls, Megiddo: The Omega Code 2, and Another 48 Hours) offers a very interesting caveat regarding his in-production film about the icon apparent (or not) of Operation Iraqi Freedom. This begs the question: With a public undoubtedly waiting for this made-for-TV movie to know "what really happened to Jessica" and such a blurred line between truth and propaganda, is this responsible movie-making? Many Americans turn to Hollywood for their history lessons, so I have to wonder...
    Given the fact that much of the news surrounding the original event was itself staged and filtered, won't this be sort of like make a movie of a movie?

    [via metafilter.com]

    Posted by johndan at 11:47 PM | TrackBack

    The Perils of Electronic Voting

    It seems like such a great idea: simplify the voting (and tabulation) process by using touchscreen voting machines. But as expert after expert argues, reliable and secure e-voting is a long way off. Wired News reports on problems with e-voting systems and procedures in the run-up to the recent California recall ballots.
    However, information obtained by Wired News at a training session for Alameda County poll workers indicates that security lapses in the use of the equipment and poor worker training could expose the election to serious tampering. Voting-machine experts say the lapses could allow a poll worker or an outsider to change votes in machines without being detected. And because other problems inherent in the software won’t be fixed before the recall, experts say sophisticated intruders can intercept and change vote tallies as officials transmit them
    No word on whether these issues were fixed prior to yesterday's vote, but it seems unlikely. Furthermore, these are the sorts of issues that have plagued this technology from the start. Computers aren't magic.
    Posted by johndan at 05:39 PM | TrackBack

    October 07, 2003

    Does he read his own weblog?

    kottke.org offers this info from a New Yorker article by Andy Borowitz, which
    pointed to this AP story on George Bush's news consumption habits: Bush said he insulates himself from the "opinions" that seep into news coverage by getting his news from his own aides. He said he scans headlines, but rarely reads news stories. "I appreciate people's opinions, but I'm more interested in news," the president said. "And the best way to get the news is from objective sources, and the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world."
    I guess you can do this if you make all the news.
    Posted by johndan at 05:37 PM | TrackBack

    "There Goes the Neighborhood,"

    says Simon Willson's weblog: "Blogs just stopped being cool." (Perhaps they were never cool and it's just a case of kicking a dead horse. Still....)
    Posted by johndan at 05:31 PM | TrackBack

    October 06, 2003

    Mapping the London Underground

    The standard London Underground map is considered an information design classic: The relatively orderly and rectilinear map people use severely distorts the geometry of the actual routes. But that distortion is useful. The map takes an extremely complex and convoluted structure, abstracts, simplifies, and codes it in ways that make it easy for people to situate themselves in relation to origins, destinations, and routes. london underground map The London Transport Museum has an excellent interactive map [Flash warning] illustrating both the abstracted and "real" versions, allowing you to switch between the two, show/hide stations, and overlay a street map so that you can see how (and to some extent, why) the London Underground Map works. [via The Map Room ]
    Posted by johndan at 09:57 AM | TrackBack

    October 05, 2003

    Architecture and Schizophrenia

    Normally, I'd make the connection between architecture and schizophrenia under the label of postmodernism, but some visionaries are before their times:
    house.jpgThe most plausible example in the world of true schizophrenic, as opposed to merely eccentric or fantastic architecture, would have to be the Junker House in Lemgo, Germany. Its creator, Karl Junker (1850–1912), was a highly trained architect, whose entire career and only building was this house. The explanation for this peculiar state of affairs was the onset of a chronic schizophrenic illness when Junker was in his mid thirties, schizophrenia which found concrete expression in the architect’s personal environment. The house represents a true gesamtkunstwerk which includes, not only the architectural environment (largely the interior of the house), but also all of the furniture, murals and panel paintings, sculpture and carved reliefs. Every aspect of the artist’s living space gave expression to his internal reality. Only outside of an asylum, could such a complete life work be created. Junker was never hospitalized.
    Oddly, the house itself represents schizophrenia at the micro-level rather than at the middle- or macro-levels. For example, the rooms appear to be structured and arranged normally in relation to each other, and rough shape of the house overall is that of a typical house. It is only within certain rooms that schiziphrenic tendencies emerge. In other words, Junker was a postmodernist operating within the confines of a modernist framework. gehry.jpg Contrast this to Frank Gehry's work, for example, which approaches schizophrenia and postmodernism at the macro level as well as micro, involving both the visual aspects of a room (or a building) as well as movement through space, from room to room. Gehry's Westin Bonaventure, for example, was famous for (among other things) causing confusion for people who attempted to move about (or even enter) the building. A friend whose high school prom was hosted at the Bonventure told me about seeing his date, one floor up and across the atrium on a balcony, waving to him, but being unable to navigate his way to her location. (Which, in any hotel besides the Westin Bonaventure, would indicate a date trying to ditch you. Which is, perhaps, a good description of postmodernism.) None of this is to say that Junker didn't have schizophrenia, or that Gehry did (both of which are more or less false statements), only that Junker's schizophrenia was built in modernist times, while Gehry's was built during postmodernist.
    Posted by johndan at 01:24 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    October 04, 2003

    "The first rule of Google AdSense is..

    Don't talk about Google AdSense," according to a post at Kotke.org, which itself points to

    Google's new terms of service for its AdSense service includes item 17,

    Except as required by law, You may not, without Google's prior written consent, issue any press release or make any public statement about the subject matter of this Agreement or use or display any Google logo or trademark in any manner (except as otherwise provided to You by Google as part of an Ad Unit).
    Russell Beattie reads this to mean users are signing away their rights to prohibit criticism of Google once they've agreed to the AdSense license. (Technically (from a linguistic and grammatical perspective, anyway) it seems that the prohibition regards the subject matter of the agreement (which is a list of terms of service) rather than the service itself (which is free).)

    Most of the comments posted to Beattie's site criticize Beattie for complaining about a free service. They have a point, but it misses the larger issue of why Google would try to sneak restrictions on the first amendment in by a backdoor such as this. Or what the point of the restriction is, given Google's usually progressive and user-community-oriented philosophy. I'm reminded of NPR's boneheaded restriction on deep linking last year, which they eventually rescinded; another case where NPR were within their rights--they were providing a free service to the community, but were restricting free speech in a way that seemed contrary to their overall ethos.

    Posted by johndan at 06:26 PM | TrackBack

    Usability

    From asterisk*:
    Your Web application is very hard to use, oh and it’s ugly too. Yes, I know the back-end code is wonderfully functional, and I understand that you feel that is the important part, but does it really matter if nobody can use the damn thing?
    Usability--and the ultimate success--of a product rely heavily on the match between what the user wants to do and how the system lets (or doesn't let) them do it.

    We've all suffered through innumerable clunky interfaces, confusing menu options, inconsistent or nonexistent navigation schemes, and accusatory status messages. And in many cases, we've taken the time and effort to sort out the hazy logic of the interface, used trial and error to complete a task, or spent time working with tech support to figure out what was going on.

    But here's the big question: If the goal of the site or program is to help the user do something, why doesn't the design of the site or program start with the user as the foundation of design? Is that too complicated? Are programmers and website designers just too arrogant? Are conventional models of usability limited or flawed? Asterisk* points to this article by Gerry McGovern, "Your Website is for Your Customer, Not You." Not to point fingers or diminish what is a very good argument, McGovern's site raises the issue of how complex audiences and goals are: The design of his site is very densely crowded with information, some of which relates to the ostensible goal of dispensing wisdom about site design--but a significant chunk of information on the main page is designed to convince readers to become clients--testimonials on McGovern's work from clients, links to, among other things,

    • additional information about clients
    • and upcoming seminars and workshops,
    • books he's authored on websites
    • subscription form for his newsletter
    • relatively large logos (unlinked) from eight of his client
    • search forms
    • contact info
    • privacy statement
    • and more.
    If the goal here was to inform readers about a specific problem with site design, do these links belong on the page, competing for attention? (And they do compete--the fonts are large and overall, the non-article info takes up more than half of the available screen real estate on a 1280x854 screen.) It depends on the designer's goal. As with many commercial (and other sites), the site has many goals, only one of which is directly related to the immediate needs of the viewer--marketing, product placement, ego, etc.
    Posted by johndan at 11:00 AM | TrackBack

    Ignorance

    The Philadelphia Inquirer released as a study on misconceptions about the justification for war. According to their research, a majority of U.S. citizens had at least one misconception about the War, based on being polled on the following statements (all generally agreed to be unproven at this point):
    • U.S. forces found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
    • There's clear evidence that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein worked closely with the Sept. 11 terrorists.
    • People in foreign countries generally either backed the U.S.-led war or were evenly split between supporting and opposing it.
    Although this might sound like the start of a media rant, a good deal of the blame for these misconceptions lies with individuals. Although there is a strong tendency for people who listen to traditional network media (80% of those who relied on Fox news held at least one misconception, while the number was 47% for newspaper and 23% for PBS or NPR), one also has to question the ability of people in general to sort out at, think critically, and build coherent pictures of information from a variety of sources over time.

    For example, although there were early government reports that contained misinformation--and those reports were frequently passed on uncritically by many media sources--most conservative and government sources have corrected those misconceptions publicly on numerous (and sustained) occasions. And even nearly a quarter of people who rely on "liberal" sources (PBS and NPR--which are still relatively mainstream) continue to hold misconceptions about the justifications for war.

    What causes this? Are U.S. citizens in general so predisposed to want revenge for 9/11 that they're merely interested in finding a scapegoat? Are they listening to media reports and consciously discounting them, based on some gut-level instinct that they understand the global political situation better than a variety of media? Are people just stupid?

    On NPR just before the invasion of Baghdad, a reporter interviewed a soldier who proclaimed his eagerness to "get some payback for 9/11." When the reporter commented that, as far as the knew, no Saudi Arabians were involved in the 9/11 attacks," the soldier didn't argue the point. He merely said, "I don't know--all that stuff is over my head. I'm just gonna' get some payback."

    [via metafilter.com]

    Posted by johndan at 10:43 AM | TrackBack

    October 03, 2003

    On eBay: Air Guitar (Non-Electric)

    From an eBay Auction: air.jpg"YOU WILL BE BIDDING ON AN APPROX 17 YEAR OLD NON ELECTRIC AIR GUITAR "THIS EXCELLENT ITEM IS FOR SALE WITH A LOW RESERVE "THIS AIR GUITAR WAS ONCE NOT PLAYED BY THE LEGENDARY ERIC CLAPTON IN HIS MOST RECENT WORLD TOUR" Current bid is £10,000,000.00, so act fast. Ends 05-Octo-03 18:41:40 BST. [via Boing-Boing]
    Posted by johndan at 12:17 PM | TrackBack

    Mapping the Lunatic Fringe

    The biggest criticism I hear is, 'Nicholas, you're not crazy enough -- the lab should be nuttier'," he told a corporate audience on a visit to Dublin-based Media Lab Europe, or MLE,
    says Nicholas Negroponte in a Wired interview. The problem, it seems to me, is the MIT funding structure, which is largely tied to corporate funding and government contracts. On one hand, this money gives the Media Lab the resources to do some dramatically ambitious work, farther out on the edge that many companies can be today. On the other hand, those very resources tie the Media Lab to issues like ROI and technology transfer. In effect, the Media Lab has become a cheaper version of the now-waning corporate R&D divisions.

    So while Negroponte describes the Media Lab as a "demilitarized zone" and "on the lunatic fringe", they're probably not out there as far as they could be, due to limitations in their business model.

    Such has become the function of academia in many places--a cheaper version of an R&D Department for many companies. Academics work for peanuts--indeed, almost free, grateful for funds to purchase equipment and hire research assistants. So as corporations limit funding for internal R&D, the funneling of resources to academic sites and think tanks has had the effect of reeling innovation back in, adding heavy tendential force to the need for ROI and time to market. The boundaries and location of the "lunatic fringe" depend on where you're standing and how the weather is on that particular day.

    [via Wired News]

    Posted by johndan at 08:03 AM | TrackBack

    October 02, 2003

    Online Picasso Archive

    picasso paintingEnrique Mallen, at Texas A&M, hosts The On-Line Picasso Project. Nearly 7,000 images, timeslines, bio, and more. Very cool.

    [via metafilter.com]

    Posted by johndan at 08:42 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    October 01, 2003

    Die, die, die

    In addition to expected entries like landmines and coal-based power, Bruce Sterling's "Ten Technologies That Deserve to Die" (in MIT's Technology Review) bashes DVDs:
    Most loathsome of all is the fiendish spam hard-burned into DVDs, which forces one to suffer through the commercials gratefully evaded by videotape fast-forwards. The Content Scrambling System copy protection scheme doesn’t work, and the payoff for pirating DVDs is massive, because unlike tapes, digital data don’t degrade with reproduction. So DVDs have the downside of piracy and organized crime, without the upside of free, simple distribution. Someday they will stand starkly revealed for what they really are: collateral damage to consumers in the entertainment industry’s miserable, endless war of attrition with digital media.

    [via Boing Boing, who got it from Kottke]

    Posted by johndan at 04:45 PM | TrackBack

    User Interface Design for Programmers

    Useful Slashdot review:
    ellenf contributes this review of User Interface Design for Programmers. "Aimed at programmers who don't know much about user interface design and think it is something to fear, Joel Spolsky provides a great primer, with some entertaining and informative examples of good and bad design implementations, including some of the thought process behind the decisions. Spolsky feels that programmers fear design because they consider it a creative process rather than a logical one; he shows that the basic principles of good user interface design are logical and not based on some mysterious, indefinable magic."
    But as someone points out in discussion at Slashdot, one of the problems is that programmers often think they are good at interface design.
    Posted by johndan at 04:38 PM | TrackBack

    On the Art of Brilliant Titles

    Mark Morford's SFGate article, Lick Me, I'm A Macintosh" asks the question,
    What the hell is wrong with Apple that they still give a damn about design and packaging and feel?
    to which he provides his own answer,
    Oh right like you even care.
    Sarcasm aside, Morford has a good point: Apple takes a lot of flack for spending time on design and packaging and "feel" (whatever that is). Their products are more expensive. Their niche market means that some good Windows software is never released on the Mac, or isn't upgraded as quickly as its Windows counterpart. There's something to be said, though, for paying serious attention to design. "Form follows function," as Frank Lloyd Wright (and others) have said. Or to put it more strongly, as Wright did later--there is not a cause and effect system where forms are caused only by functions. Instead, "[f]orm and function should be one." Good design is not simply an aesthetic issue, or a matter of making the computer look pretty. In some cases, good design is the deciding factor between success and failure. Good design encourages use; good design makes work (and play) more enjoyable. (See also, Don Norman's forthcoming Emotional Design: Why We Love or Hate Everyday Things.)
    Posted by johndan at 03:55 PM | TrackBack