March 2003

The WiFi phone

A prototype phone can open a voice-over-IP connection if there’s an open WiFi node available. Very, very interesting. If you had one of these and never left Manhattan, you’d probably never need to subscribe to cellular service.

Politics on the Net

I don’t know where to begin when it comes to this ridiculous war. Everything about it is wrong. So I won’t even start.

Already ramping up for the 2004 elections, it is interesting to note that the Howard Dean campaign has a blog and is using Meetup to organize people. I don’t know much about Dean, but I like what I’ve seen (apart from these factors, which I like too).

More on fighting spam

I recently wrote about some thoughts to combat spam, that would involve cash micropayments for some e-mail. I wasn’t entirely happy with that idea, and I’ve refined it a little.

My idea, as it currently stands, is this:

Everyone who receives e-mail would maintain a blacklist (of pestilential senders) and a whitelist (of good senders). Anyone not on either of these lists is said to be on the “graylist.” Everyone who sends e-mail would be required to put a small amount of money–perhaps one dollar–into an escrow account.

When Alice sends Bob a piece of mail, before Alice’s mailserver actually delivers the message, it checks to see whether she is on Bob’s blacklist or whitelist.

If Alice is on neither, that is, she’s on the recipient’s graylist, a “hold” is placed on one cent in her escrow account by her mailserver, and the message is delivered. When Bob receives her e-mail, he can choose whether her e-mail is legitimate or not. If it is legit, the hold on that penny is released. If not, the penny is deducted from her account (perhaps paid to Bob, his ISP, a charity, or some combination). When declaring a message to be legit, Alice is added to Bob’s whitelist. If not, it goes on his blacklist (this process could be simplified a bit so that responding to a message automatically whitelists the sender).

If she is on the whitelist, the message is delivered without involving the escrow account at all.

If she is on the blacklist, the message is not delivered and one penny is automatically deducted from her escrow account.

The problem with this is that it adds quite a lot of overhead to graylist and blacklist correspondences, and some overhead to whitelist ones. The Internet hasn’t had any successful micropayment systems yet.

What about using a non-cash system? In theory, this system could work using valueless certificates. One would apply to a “trusted certificate-issuing authority” for a bundle of, say, 100 certificates. The process could be designed to thwart scripts that would simulate human action, and one could be prevented from receiving more than 100 certificates/month (for example). The authority would deposit 100 signed and encrypted certificates in your “escrow account,” and in all other respects, the system would function similarly. When Bob’s mailserver (or perhaps Bob’s own mail software) receives Alice’s message, it checks the certificate against the certificate-issuing authority; if it is valid, the message is presented to Bob (who can still choose to blacklist it, if he wants). If not, the message is bounced.

Note that this system is pretty similar to the authenticated e-mail that some people would like us to use anyhow. This would also involve a similar amount of processing overhead. And in fact, the cash-based system would need to use pretty much the same system of signed and encrypted certificates.

There are some broader differences between the cash-based and cashless systems. If everyone can receive a bounty for identifying spam, even a tiny one-penny bounty, more people are likely to actually do it, making spam less tenable. (A system like this would also make it attractive for technically savvy users to create “honeypot” e-mail addresses to attract spam, automatically blacklist it, and collect lots of pennies.) And the idea of a certificate-issuing authority is problematic, as they would, in effect, be gatekeepers: if you can’t get your certificates, you cannot communicate by e-mail. The authority could charge money for issuing certificates, or otherwise abuse this power. If these certificates were issued automatically and solely as digital representations of pennies, the system should be less prone to abuse. There would need to be more than one authority.

So if I’m saying that the whole validation process should be added on without a surcharge being imposed (which I am), how would this be funded? All e-mail host operators should pitch in to fund the system. I have no idea what the numbers on this would look like, but I suspect that they would save more thanks to reduced traffic than the system would require them to contribute.

Side note: there’s now an official Anti-Spam Research Group. Maybe I should try to get this idea in front of them.

[Later] Interesting to note that Robert Cringely came up with somewhat similar micropayment system for fighting spam.

[Later still] David Nunez pointed out this article on a “spam tax.”

Emergent democracy and money politics

Adina writes about emergent democracy and political fundraising.

It’s important to remember that fundraising is a means to an end for politicians. The end is buying votes.

What happens when people organize in opposition to a politician, either through modern means or traditional ones?

My first response was “each vote gets more expensive.” That is, the politician needs to work harder to get enough votes to win. Strong opposition to money-grubbing politicians could simply result in more money-grubbing. This nicely accords with the wisdom that, in a crisis, creatures do what they’re accustomed to doing, only moreso.

On further reflection, though, I’m not sure if that’s how it would work. If the opposition can be neatly compartmentalized and seems to be monolithic within that pigeonhole, the politician might logically reason “well, I’m not going to bother trying to reach group X. I’ll save my energies for groups Y and Z.” In which case, the opposition could be doing the politician a favor, by allowing him to target his message more accurately. He’d get more bang for his buck.

If the opposition appears to be very broad-based or the race is very tight, only then would a politician respond “Damn those Xists, I need their votes, I’m going to have to throw them a bone.” I wonder how often this would actually happen. If a politician came out against pie, the “pie is good” coalition would certainly be broad-based. Anything short of that, and I expect opinions would be more fragmentary.

Of course, a politician’s strategy team could make mistakes: it could read the opposition as being broader or narrower than it really is, in which case it would pick the wrong strategy. The trick here for any opposition would be to appear as broad as possible (which is generally true anyhow).

That’s how things look from the politician’s perspective. How do they look from the public’s perspective? Organizing can have a polarizing effect: it can help people crystallize their opinions and causes opposition groups to accrete. But this works both ways: can also cause the other side to organize and work harder.

Name dropping

A couple people suggested that I should go to Bruce Sterling’s for the post SXSWi party he was throwing. Although I prefer to get invitations from the host, I decided to show up anyhow. After all, he lives just a few blocks away…

Being there was sort of like being at a wrap-party for a Hollywood blockbuster, only all the celebrities are geek celebrities, not beautiful-people celebrities. Ben Trott and his lovely wife Mena. Anil Dash, who I spoke with for a bit. Cory Doctorow. Dan Gillmor. Probably lots of other people I should have recognized but didn’t (at one point, Anil buttonholed some former Pyra employee to corroborate a point about features for Blogger Pro that existed in the beta but were dropped from the final). A little while after I got there, Gwen joined me.

Gwen and I chatted with Rebecca Blood at some length, and told her details of the construction of the house we were in–I had never been there before, but had seen it under construction. We talked about 37th Street, right around the corner, where I used to live.

In one of Bruce Sterling’s earlier novels, The Artificial Kid, the story opens with his protagonist surrounded by a swarm of his own tiny, flying cameras; he edits the footage of his life down later and makes it generally available (as do, apparently, many of his peers). Although this bears a vague resemblance to a certain popular activity today (cough-blogging-cough), what recalled this to my mind last night was seeing a trashy-pretty woman approaching the Sterling residence with a tiny digital camera in hand. She was holding it high and shooting pictures of herself as she walked up.

Liberty vs security

“They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security.” The quote by Ben Franklin has gained an unfortunate currency of late.

An article in today’s New York Times discusses an effort by the OMB to quantify this tradeoff in terms of time or money. Which is…interesting, and might actually rein in some of the more abusive measures being taken in the name of security. And while measuring these tradeoffs is the OMB’s job, and I’m glad they’re addressing this issue, on a broader level I find the bean-counting approach to be disturbing. There are some tradeoffs you just shouldn’t make. Looking at the way things are headed right now, I’d rather live with the slim possibility that I’d get blown up than the certainty that my country has become a police state.

Manor ride

Rode out to Manor on Saturday with DuShun. About 30 miles total, though I forgot to reset the cyclometer until we were a little ways into the ride. Much less hard on me than the last ride we took together. He wanted to go farther. I told him “Look, I don’t want to ride so much that I don’t want to ride anymore.”

We stopped at the Manor grocery, and DuShun noticed, alongside all the usual “pigs for sale” signs and such, that someone had drawn a | inside a circle on the back of their receipt and taped that to the window. He speculated this must be some cryptic signal for a secret society. Anyone have any idea what that means?

On the ride back, we saw a truck in the ditch. It was hitched to a trailer fully loaded with 2x4s; the truck was perpendicular to the road, nose-first, and the trailer was jackknifed past 90°, digging into the side of the pickup. As we rode by, we marveled at this feat of vehicular contortion and wondered how, exactly, it had gotten into that position.

SXSW doings

As a rule, I don’t do SXSW. In fact, the last SXSW event I attended was a Kim Wilson show at Antone’s back when it was on Guadalupe–probably in ’93 or ’94. It was a great show, but it was more crowded than the Marunouchi line at rush-hour. I decided it wasn’t worth it and that was the end of that.

This year, I broke that rule, sort of. There’s a free way to get into the trade show. So I took it. Several friends I know through Austin Bloggers were staffing a EFF-Austin booth at the SXSW-interactive tradeshow. And I had recently corresponded with Rebecca Blood about weblog ethics. She asked if I’d be at SXSW–I said I generally leave SXSW to the out-of-towners, but I’d stick my head in at the trade show, and if I saw her there, I’d say Hi.

So yesterday, Gwen and I rode down. Gwen, who had worked the trade show in years past, observed that it was much smaller, and that there wasn’t much of an Austin focus. I had a chance to pester my friends at the EFF-Austin table, did indeed meet Rebecca Blood, avoided picking up any swag whatsoever, and much to my delight and surprise, bumped into long-lost friends Greta and Chester. I ran across a neighbor, Susan, and we commiserated over this country’s current regime administration.

War Leaflets

Shortly after Bush’s Thursday-night “get ready for war” speech, a variety of anti-war leaflets (clearly run off on a laser printer in a hurry) were stapled to utility poles around my neighborhood. By Sunday morning, these had been joined by leaflets reading “TERRORISM IS WAR,” (clearly run off on an inkjet printer in a hurry) which I can only suppose is an anti-anti-war message.

I just went out to get pictures of these, but they’re all gone.

La vache qui rage

A new site, Raging Cow (which I will not link to lest I boost their googlejuice, but you’re smart, you can probably find it if you want) takes the concept of astroturf marketing and applies it to blogs. The site purports to be a blog, but is really a marketing tool concocted by project blogger, which exists solely for the purpose of creating faux-blogs (flogs? faugs?), apparently. All the little site badges link to other faux-blogs.

And I though the Barbie Blog was bad.


Memo to those guys out there who come up with names for high-tech widgets. You do nothing to endear yourselves to me or anyone else required to actually type the names of your products when you use intercapping, punctuation marks in the middle of the word, gratuitous exclamation points, and intellectual-property warning signs all over the place (as if anyone would want to embarrass themselves by infringing your use of names like FlabiNatör 2000!™). I am taking time out of my busy, important schedule, in the midst of a super-exciting press-release translation (which the media will hungrily gobble up and regurgitate to an equally eager public in its original form, miraculously unmolested by the editorial digestive processes) to tell all of you to cut it out already.

Mental hyperlinking

It’s been said suggested that the Web caught on because hyperlinking is “how our brains work” Of course, I think this was said by a guy with attention-deficit disorder, but that’s another matter. And it just struck me how dated the term “hyperlinking” sounds. Never mind.

Anyhow, a few days ago, I was discussing with Jenny a little kerfluffle in the local blog-land that erupted as a result of that Chronicle article (for which I wrote a special blog entry a while back). In the course of which, Jenny mentioned a different issue: the supposed blogger vs journaler tension.

Aside: I wasn’t aware of “journaling” as an activity distinct from blogging until a journaler pointed it out to me. As I understand it, journaling is more writing about oneself; blogging is more writing about the rest of the world.

More specifically, Jenny mentioned that blogging apparently gets more media attention than journaling, and wondered why that might be. In male-answer syndrome mode, I speculated that the mainstream media has a certain fascination with blogs, because blogs intrude on their turf: this is the blogger vs journalist tension. A bunch of people writing about themselves is not news, perhaps unless they’re famous. Well, moby has a blog (I take it back, he calls it a journal), and he writes about not having anything to write about and cleaning his kitchen. So, ok, a journal may not be news after all, even when it is by a famous person. Where was I?

Right. Like I was saying: the media doesn’t see journalers as intruding on their turf, so they aren’t interested, meaning they don’t cover them.

Anyhow, today I see a pointer in Electrolite to “smart observations about the Laurie Garrett affair.” (which I know nothing about). Turns out Laurie Garrett is a journalist of some repute who wrote a lengthy and candid e-mail message about the WEF at Davos. This e-mail was intended only for her friends, but (obviously) wound up being distributed more widely. She was quite upset when she found out, but it’s an interesting read.

Where was I going with that? Oh yeah. As the “smart observations” post mentions, this “in a roundabout way, brings us to blogs.” When we read the unvarnished and unedited thoughts of a journalist, we realize how much the mainstream media sands off the rough edges of reality for us. Blogs provide us with those rough edges. Laurie Garrett apparently isn’t ready for blogging, but blogging is ready for her.


Just finished reading David Sedaris’ Naked. Like his other writing, it’s hilarious, and consists mostly of personal anecdotes that he’s embellished perhaps just a bit.

This one includes a more schmaltzy (but still hilarious in spots) essay on his mother when she had lung cancer.

The book’s last essay, the one from which it draws its title, is upbeat, in a disturbing sort of way. Two words: pudding toss.

Lazyweb: help me pick a CMS

I’m trying to find a content-management system, mostly for running a limited-access discussion forum. I’ve already looked at Drupal, which is pretty nice, but I have not yet figured out how to make it fully support Japanese, which is a make-or-break feature.

I can get limited success writing Japanese in Drupal, but (in the best-case scenario so far) the characters wind up being escaped to numeric Unicode entities, which are not editable after being posted, and apparently are not searchable.

I also looked at the Slash engine, but A) the installation instructions assume you are root, assume you are more technically adept than I am, and are very sketchy all around, and B) has the same problems with Japanese.

I suspect the Japanese-handling problems in both Drupal and Slash could be fixed with some minor coding changes, but I don’t know where to start. Messing with the template charsets doesn’t do it.

Other desirable features:
Threaded message structure
Moderation/karma points a la Slashdot
Flexible permissions setup
Straightforward templating for admin

None of the other CMSs or web-BBSs I’ve looked at so far have forum threading,

[Later] Seems that I can almost get Japanese working right in Drupal (why do I think of towering drag-queens every time I say that?) after all: there was a configuration issue that was causing the Japanese to be escaped. I turned that off, and now everything is close to hunky-dory, except for one thing: searching on Japanese terms always returns no results.

[Still later] Turns out a Japanese drupal user has developed a patch. This helps some of the problems I was having (and was already groping towards solving). Still doesn’t enable Japanese searching, though.