September 2004

No soup for you!

Last night I saw an ad placed by the Center for Consumer Freedom, an astroturfing, misleading bunch of asshats. The premise behind the ad is that someone, somewhere, is trying to take away your right to stuff your face with Heart-Attack Specials, McCrispeties, and Munchee-os. The ad actually features the Soup Nazi (from Seinfeld) doing his schtick. The website actually uses phrases like “food fascists.” Both the ad and the website are trying to whip up hysteria surrounding problems that do not exist.

While there have been a couple cases of people suing McDonald’s for their obesity, these have been thrown out of court. This organization is clearly a sort of pre-emptive strike against any further actions to hold major food manufacturers accountable for the content of their products. It’s hard to imagine that bad food will be regulated the way tobacco and alcohol are, the terrifying future that fast-food fearmongers foretell. Restaurant food (like tobacco and alcohol) does not even carry labeling disclosing its contents, and the fast-food lobby is a hell of a lot better organized and funded than the, uh, lobby for people who don’t like fast food.

Apparently these industry tools have set up a sort of link farm, with websites to bash the Center for Science in the Public Interest, another to tell the inside story behind such radical groups as the Sierra Club.

On their “about us” page, they say they are “supported by restaurants, food companies and more than 1,000 concerned individuals.” What concerns me (among other things) is that food companies may include industrial ranching operations, which receive government subsidies. Meaning that, in some way, my tax dollars are funding these clowns.

Code 46

Released with no fanfare that I know of, Code 46 is one of the best SF movies I’ve seen in a long time.

The movie tells of a bustling, gleaming future where everyone in the world speaks perfect English, liberally sprinkled with Spanish, French, Arabic, and Chinese (five of the six official UN languages–I didn’t notice any Russian). It’s a world that looks very much like our world today–the same cars and clothes, though the cities are perhaps shinier.

I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who doesn’t want it spoiled, so I’ll discuss the rest of it inside. Go watch it and then read the rest of this post.

Allegro non Troppo

Continuing its fine tradition of showing movies with live sound, the Alamo had a showing of the animated feature Allegro non Troppo, accompanied by Peter Stopchinski and another three musicians, who played variations on the music in original score. These were quite good–they fit with the action on the screen, and nodded in the direction of the originals without being retreads. But I have to say, you can’t do justice to Bolero (or anything like it) with a quartet.

I’d seen Allegro non Toppo back in high school. It was great seeing it again, and the live accompaniment was a real treat.


Out in Hunt, Texas, not far from Kerrville, there is a reproduction of Stonehenge.

I first encountered it in 1999, when Jenny and I were working on a book about bike touring (never completed). She and I were out on a very long, difficult, and inadequately hydrated (but beautiful) ride that we referred to as the “Mountain Home butt-grinder.” We were well into the ride, and feeling very discouraged in general when we rounded a bend, I looked up, and exclaimed “Holy shit, it’s Stonehenge!” Watched over by a pair of Easter Island heads, no less.

A couple weekends ago, Gwen and I went to a wedding out in Hunt, right near Stonehenge. This time, I had my camera.

stonehenge in Hunt, Texas

More photos inside

Date authentication

In the slow-motion controversy over the gaps in the record of GW’s Texas Air National Guard Duty, the latest wrinkle has been the emergence of some damning documents that some people are concerned might be forgeries. While I’d be delighted to see Bush publicly embarrassed for shirking his military duty, I have to admit that the documents do look suspicious, and if they are forgeries, whoever is responsible is really fucking stupid.

But enough about all that. This got me thinking: today in the electronic world, there are ways to prove that you are the author of a document. But is there a way to prove that you authored the document on a certain date?

Currently, I don’t think there is a verifiable way to do this. But I can imagine a system that would make it possible.

First, we need to review the general ideas behind public-key cryptography (often abbreviated PKI, for “public-key infrastructure”). Traditional cryptography encoded a text using a single key, and both sender and recipient had to have copies of this key. Moving the keys securely was obviously a very serious problem.

PKI solves this. Everybody has two keys: a public key and a private key. The operations of these keys are complementary: a document encrypted with one’s public key can only be decrypted with the private key. So anybody can look up your public key, and secure the document so that only you can read it. Conversely, a document encrypted with one’s private key can only be decrypted with one’s public key. This allows you to “sign” a document electronically: your public key can be considered well-known, and can only be paired to your private key, so if a document can be decrypted by your public key, that’s evidence that it was encrypted with your private key, and either you wrote it or you left your private key lying around for someone to abuse.

Another important concept is the “secure hash.” A secure hash is a relatively short string of gibberish that is generated based on a source text. Each hash is supposed to be unique for each source text. It is trivial to generate the hash from the source text, but effectively impossible to work out what the source text might be based on the hash. Hashes can be used as fingerprints for documents. (Recently, a “collision” was discovered in a hashing algorithm, meaning two source texts resulted in the same hash, but it would still be effectively impossible to work out the source text or texts from any given hash.)

Now, PKI is fine for authenticating authorship, but doesn’t authenticate date of authorship. Not without some help.

PKI relies on key-servers that allow you to look up the public key of other crypto users. Imagine if we set up trusted date-servers to authenticate that a document was actually written when we claim it was written. It might work something like this: An author wishing to attach a verifiable date of authorship to a document sends a hash of that document to a trusted date-server. The date-server appends the current time and date to the hash, encrypts it under its own private key, and sends it back as a “dateprint. The author can then append the dateprint to the original document. If anyone ever doubts that the document was authored on the claimed date, they can decrypt the dateprint using the date-server’s public key; this will give them the claimed date and the document hash. The skeptic then takes a hash of the current document and compares it to the hash contained in the dateprint: if they match, then the current document is identical to the one submitted for dateprinting.

The new iMac

Everyone else is talking about it, so why not me?

There are two categories of reactions to Apple products: emotional and rational. Most technology companies don’t evoke much of an emotional reaction, and when they do, I suspect it’s more often negative than otherwise. But Apple’s got the kavorka. You can look at the spec sheets and form a reasoned opinion of their machines, but before you do that, you have to get through the visceral response.

My gut reaction to the new iMac was mild disappointment. Don’t get me wrong–in the grand scheme of things, I like it. But the fact that so many people did such a good job of predicting what the new machine would look like suggests a lack of inspiration at Apple. The new design is clean, uses almost no desk space, and probably will prove to have a host of merits once people start getting them on their desks. But it doesn’t wow me the way its “iLuxo” predecessor did: that machine, although the base did look a little clunky, had an innovative, unexpected design. Another surprising disappointment about the new iMac is that it is plainly a step backwards in terms of ergonomics: the iLuxo’s screen could be moved in three degrees of freedom; the new, in one (two if you put it on a lazy susan). This may have been a cost-cutting move (those swingarms must have been expensive). Apple may have discovered that most people didn’t really take advantage of all that adjustability, and chose to invest in other features. I wonder.

I’d been planning on making my next Mac a powerbook, but I could see using this iMac instead. Which brings me to my other point: the rational side. It’s interesting looking at the tradeoffs Apple made in speccing this machine, to reach a price point and/or to avoid cannibalizing sales from other machines. In many ways, the iMac seems to be best compared to the 17″ Powerbook in terms of value for money. They both have the same screen, which accounts for a disproportionate amount of their price. Here’s a quick comparison of some major features for the base 17″ iMac and the 17″ Powerbook (the better spec shown in bold):

  iMac Powerbook
CPU 1.6 GHz G5 1.5 GHz G4
Ethernet 10/100 10/100/1000
Firewire 400 800
Video NVIDIA GeForce FX 5200 ATI Mobility Radeon 9700
Video out Analog, mirror Digital, 2nd display
Portability OK Good
Bluetooth Optional Standard
Wifi Optional Standard
Optical drive Combo drive Super drive
Price US$1300 US$2900

Updating the iMac to add Bluetooth, Wifi, and a Superdrive gets it up to about $1600, still a lot less than the powerbook. Apple is charging a huge premium for portability (which is kind of weird, because the iBook is a pretty good deal) and a few geeky features. The G5 chip itself probably could command a premium for its performance benefit, but in reality is cheaper than the G4 (though the supporting circuitry may not be). This suggests to me that Apple’s pricing on the 17″ Powerbook is out of line.