It looks like we'll soon be able surf the net on United Airlines. I wonder how it works over the ocean. Must be a satellite feed. They'll have to start installing plugins for laptops in economy now too. Hopefully costs drop to free soon, but considering the dire financial status of the airlines (free flights to non-employees on some airlines aside), that is unlikely to happen soon. Personally, I enjoy not having access in the air. It's good to get away.
How in the hell do bloggers do it? I'm already cracking under the weight of my challenge to myself. I realize that most blogs are vanity projects, but even those... what aren't people doing when they are updating their blogs all the time? I've got so many irons in the fire that I barely have time to read stuff of interest, much less find time to write it up in a worthwhile format. Maybe I'm setting my bar too high or maybe I'm incapable of concise discussions. I never wanted to let this space just be my public diary, but I may have to resort to guerrilla tactics to get this challenge done right.
But I'm thinking about this blogging phenomenon. Yes, its clear that bloggers have a productive role to play in society, especially one with such a degraded public media system. But in general, what are bloggers doing? They spend a lot of time blogging, if they are any good at it. But unless they are one of the big blogs, are they accomplishing anything or just letting themselves *feel* like they are accomplishing something?
As blogging gets more and more press (although now that it has emerged as a challenger to the existing media structure, the coverage isn't as good as it used to be), more and more people are going to be doing it, or at least trying it. More and more people are going to be indulging in thought (a good thing) but spending way too much time at the computer to write it down ( a bad thing). Blogs are going to turn us into asocial soapboxes!
I dunno why I'm so fascinated by the editorial process of blogging but I can't stop analyzing what I'm doing as I work on this. The anthropologist in me won't stop looking in the mirror and extrapolating to others. Blogging takes up a lot of time for me, both in terms of how much I think about doing and think about posting and how much time I spend writing items up. Most of the blogs worth reading regularly are run by people smarter than me with better analysis to boot: do they spend less time than I do on their blogs? If so, what I am doing wrong?
So are blogs an indicator of the fracturing of society, of people more content to talk to themselves on the internet than get out in the real world and socialize with others? Are we losing our sociality, or is there something even more subversive here as we shift our sociality into the virtual world, essentially submitting ourselves to the next wave of evolutionary development in Earthside intelligence? Will historians millennia hence identify widespread blogging as an indicator of a society with too much time on its hands and too many rents in the social fabric? I blog because I live in a foreign country with no compatriots to commiserate with and few opportunities to discuss my ideas about the world outside of my family. What's everyone else's excuse? Is it because blogs are cool? Vanity? Mass media subversiveness?
Feck, I'm done with this. This introspection is just spinning my wheels and is pure hyperbole considering that only 12% of the world (although 2/3 of North America) are even online and only a small fraction have active blogs. Even if this theory is accurate, we are probably far from the critical mass. Feel free to contribute by starting your own blog or at least commenting on mine. I am interested to know how much time others spend on their blogs though. My friends on the PolySciFi blog seem to put up a fair amount of material between the three of them with a nice balance of links and commentary. I like it.
I guess it's FINALLY time for VoIP to take off. For those not in the know, Voice over IP is simply using the network that delivers our email and web pages to carry phone calls. The idea is that once the phone call data (your voice) gets translated into internet-speak, it travels across the Internet for the same price as your email, namely free. There are costs associated with the translation from phone call to internet-speak and then back again on the other end, but it makes phone calling extremely cheap, especially internationally.
It's been possible for a while now to take advantage of this possibility with a few different companies (there are links at the bottom of the Wired.com article linked earlier here), but I've heard the lag times and sound quality weren't good enough to make it an first choice option for many beyond the brokest college students. But the tech has matured and the street claims that up to or over 10% of all phone calls are carried over the Internet now and most people don't even realize it. As this becomes more popular, phone rates should plummet even more. Imagine getting 1¢/ minute all day, every day for your long distance charges. I don't know if it will fall that low for international calls, but anything better than the current 27¥/ minute I pay now will be nice.
Before I go on to explain my technological idea that really is the basis of this post, I have to wonder if VoIP is going to affect surveillance technology. It seems on the one hand that putting phone calls over the net can make it easier to eavesdrop (all your email is totally naked, essentially being sent as postcards that every mailman/ISP can read along the way, but of course VoIP calls are encrypted) because the authorities don't have to tap into privately owned phone lines. Then again, the path that the packets take from source to destination aren't predictable, so unless the VoIP call is intercepted at the entry or exit ISP, it might be harder to capture. I don't know enough about the technology behind VoIP to know if this structure of delivering phone calls is more or less likely to exploitation. If it does turn out to be easier to listen in on calls, I'm less concerned about being listened to as I am about the authorities getting overloaded with mostly benign data. It dilutes their power to pay attention if it is too easy to gather info.
But the real issue is that internet packets can be copied and archived as it passes from server to server. This means that old phone calls can be archived and mined well after the fact. So even if the authorities aren't tapping phone calls as they happen, if they want/ need to, they may be able to go into the servers and pull up data on phone calls made days, weeks, months ago. I don't know if I like that at all. Of course, I am fairly uneducated about this tech and maybe regular phone calls are archived like this, or maybe it isn't possible with VoIP, but it seems logical to me. We all saw what happened to Microsoft.
(Sidenote: I am consistently amazed at my inability to get to my intended point when I write these entries. I end up taking a full featured run-up to what I want to say that usually ends up being fully featured enough and far enough off course of the initial idea that it ends up being its own post and the original idea falls by the wayside. Here I go, finally getting to my point though....)
One of the problems with VoIP is that it does have to use phone lines at least part of the way, unless you want to require both parties to use their computers with headset microphones. But people want to use their phones to make phone calls, right?
I use DSL for my internet access which means that my internet and my phone calls travel over the same line. The DSL just uses a higher frequency range (or some other technical element), but the phone line comes out of the wall and runs into a splitter that sends a line to my router and a line to my phone. So I started thinking about why that splitter couldn't be used to transfer phone call data into a format that could be sent out over the DSL bandwidth?
THEN I started really thinking. I have a modem on my computer that hasn't been used and never will be as I prefer to pay the premium price for premium speed. Why can't this modem port be used? Run a line from the phone to the modem port for the voice data to run into and then use the computer to translate and send the data out over the cable or DSL line. I don't know what kind of bandwidth a phone call needs, but audio data is easy to compress rather substantially, so the bandwidth at the modem shouldn't be a problem. Even it if it is, it shouldn't be too tough to build a better modem for cheap (and whatever happen to v.92?).
Anyway, that was my idea. We all have phone ports and ethernet ports, why can't we run the phone into the computer and let it do the heavy work of translating the phone call into VoIP? I'm sure there are good reasons why this isn't possible or hasn't been thought of, but I thought it was a good one.
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As usual, Bob X. Cringely has really come up with a great solution to the current debacle known as electronic voting in the U.S. Anyone interested really should take 10 minutes and read that article as well as the one before where he talks about the problems a bit more.
Basically he points out how utterly odd it is that there is not a paper trail built into the voting machinery that would allow an audit in the case of a recount or other such situation. As it stands, there is no way to confirm that the machine counted your vote as you cast it, nor is there any way to go back and recount or check or anything. Black boxes of sin!! What is really odd though is that Diebold, the company with the greatest skid-streak on its underwear with regard to electronic voting machines, actually specializes in ATMs and subway/ train ticket machines, machines that all have paper trails that allow for internal checks on function and whatnot. Why wouldn't they have included such a function in their voting machinery? Were they just in such a rush to cash in on the $3,900,000,000 (3.9 billion dollars) the U.S. government is throwing at the problem following the fiasco of Election 2000?
It all doesn't matter though, as Cringely points out that there is a much better solution available to us. We've gotten so addicted to technology we not only make the mistake of thinking that it can solve everything but we twist that further into thinking that it HAS to solve everything. Got a problem? Digitize it!
Why don't we just have a basic system of voting where you check/ mark an X on a sheet of paper with public counting of the pieces of paper afterwards? As Bob points out, Canada has such a simple system and is able to count their national elections in a matter of hours (4) instead of the complete and total inability we had in 2000 to get it done at all. Canada's system costs $1.81 (U.S.) per person to run; the new voting machines that don't guarantee stability, accuracy, accountability or security costs $10/ person.
Part of the reason Cringely rules so much is that he is capable of seeing when the tech is needed and when it isn't. I think that our national faith in technology is almost if not more dangerous than our substance addictions (not just illicit drugs, but pharmaceuticals from the government subsidies on down). Maybe I'll get around to talking about that some other day.
In case you haven't heard, Amazon has started a new total text search service. They've scanned the complete text of 120,000 titles so far and plan to get everything online eventually.
This is really cool.
Of course it doesn't really matter when you are searching for something specific. But when you plug in an author search now, you get results for all the books they've authored as well as every mention of them in any other book. This has huge implications for doing bibliographic searches.
Take RAW for example. Searching for his name, Robert Anton Wilson, shoots back an incredible 5443 returns. A bunch are for him, but as you page through the results you start to find titles with text blurbs underneath them showing where the search item appeared in the text of the title.
If anything, this is a little too powerful. 5443 returns for someone like RAW, who, in spite of my belief that he is one of the most intelligent and insightful beings to have walked the earth in the last 200 years, is still rather obscure; what about big names?
Anyway, I thought I'd post about it just in case no one has seen it yet. Slashdot has it here and a discussion of how the Writer's Guild might try to stop them here. Hopefullly that doesn't happen. There is also a longish Wired article available online now that won't publish for a few weeks.
Here is a nice article that explains why Microsoft software products are inherently more insecure and a greater threat to network security than Linux and Mac OS X. The few people who read this site are almost surely aware of this, and I think that close to two-thirds of the forum posters are non-Windows users. But this is an important point that bears consideration by the general person, as it is yet another front on the war against ignorance and the struggle to actually make the world a better place.
Microsoft's software and OS are fundamentally flawed and structured in ways that make it much easier to infect with viruses and worms. Even after the big virus attacks of the late 90s, people (vendors, users and administrators) still didn't learn their lessons and ship software in insecure default modes, use such software in such modes, and have failed to maintain up-to-date systems, respectively. If Linux and/or Mac OS X were ever to achieve the penetration and domination on the desktop and in the workplace that Microsoft currently enjoys, we would most definitely NOT see the same types of virus attacks perpetrated against them. They are just build in fundamentally different ways. Virus infections would still be possible and would still occur, but not on the insanely grand scale we see with Microsoft products.
Just to be clear, I'm a Mac user, but I don't think that what I'm about to say is really all that biased. The state of the Mac platform is excellent right now, both for pros and consumers. Arguments about Macs being incompatible are nothing but ignorant, and stability isn't even a question. They are more secure than Windows as well. It is true that entry level Dell's have a faster clock speed processor than you'd get on an entry level Apple machine, but performance is on par. Price isn't a difference anymore either: similarly configured machines cost the same. Yeah, you can build your own from raw components cheaper, but I'm talking about regular consumers like parents.
The software offerings on Macs are incredible. The iLife software package for music, video, pictures, and DVD authoring are wonderfully easy to use. On the pro side, high end applications are best run on Macs, be it audio/visual stuff or workstation applications. A lot of miniscule shareware isn't executable on Macs, but that is a good thing due to the security risk and system instablility introduced by 3rd party software so often.
Linux is a decent system too but it just isn't a consumer operating system. I can't imagine anyone responsibily recommending that their parents download and install linux.
The point of this gushing rant is that we need to work to help convert people away from Microsoft. It makes the world a better place. If you have a chance, recommend a Mac. If they complain that it is too expensive, show them that it really isn't. If they persist, remind them of the cost of dealing with a virus infection.
I meant to just talk about the problems of complacency that persisted when an inferior product achieves market dominance and I ended up evangelizing about Macs. Sorry about that.
Marvin Minsky, co-founder of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, seems to think so. He lashes out at the focus on robots and laments the lack of vision and grand directive towards true intelligence, sacrificied in favor of smaller bits of working knowledge and robotics.
But it seems to me that this criticism is likely to be misplaced. Correction, it's probably a great criticism to have been made, as it keeps people focused and prevents drifting too far in one direction or the other, and I suspect that if the research trends had been solely in the direction of processing at the expense of robotics, Minsky probably would be complaining that we have all this intelligent capacity but no way for it to interact with the world.
But two things in the article stand out to me. The lesser of the two is at the end of the article when a fellow AI researcher points out that once we solve a particiular problem, it ceases to be seen as intelligence and gets relegated to just part of the standard repertoire of stuff that computers do. The whole definition of what is intelligent behavior by a computer tends to shift, often unintentionally.
The other thing was more important, or at least more substantial. Neuroscience has shown our minds are highly dependent on feedback from our physical bodies. I'm not just talking about the conscious senses, but also the unconscious senses. Our brains are constantly monitoring the state of our physiology and our minds are constituted, in part, from the information provided by this constant feedback.
Imagine if you were to be transplanted into someone else's body. If you close your eyes and relax, you can bring your sense of awareness about the rest of your body to the conscious forefront. But even when you aren't aware of, say, the weight of a shirt on your shoulders or the pressure from an elastic waistband, your brain is nevertheless monitoring it and sending reports to your mind. When something happens that it outside of some learned or conditioned range of 'normal,' our brains then prioritize this information and our minds bring it to the front, and we respon accordingly.
What this means is that building robots may not only be useful for creating artificial intelligence but that it may actually be necessary. I don't know if AI can be formally programmed or only prepped via programming, but either way, its going to need a physiological matrix of self to define its entity-ness from which to percieve and interact with the outside world.
So I guess I'm saying I don't think that the future of AI is as bleak as Minsky fears (but I pray to god its better than movie of the same initials).
(Editor's note: Astute readers may notice that the last two entries today both ended with references to shitty movies. We apologize for this inconvenience; It was solely a coincidence and we assure you we are doing everything we can to avoid future expressions such as this. This was not an editorial decision for the future tenor of this webspace. Respectively, ---The Editor.)
We need to have laws that hold software companies liable for shitty products. Not necessarily all software, of course not, but if someone wants to sell a product that doesn't work as advertised and ends up propagating virii or spilling private information out to the world or just plain sucks, they should be held liable. We use that standard for anything but software.
And while we are at it, we need to get rid of patents on software, genes, and business practices. Stupid shit, that.
Note: Slashdot picked up this story too, but this is one time at least that I was going to post on it first. I'm just
lazy too busy to get entries posted efficiently. Anyway, mea culpa aside, here is what I wanted to say:
Ah, the 15th of the month, which means the delivery of the Bruce Schnier's Crypto-Gram, his monthly newsletter dealing with cryptography and security as well as links to a bunch of interesting stories. Usually pretty good stuff.
This month's newsletter was relatively brief, but had some very good sections. The first topic described how easy it has become to literally flood people with junk mail of the paper kind. Some people are aware of the email spammer who got buried under junk mail after his address got posted publicly and many people signed him up for all the stuff they could find.
Schnier points out that using a google search and a simple script for completing forms it would be very easy to sign someone up for this kind of mass mailing. Here is a brief NewScientist article on it too. Imagine the hassle of getting pounds and pounds of crap in the mail every day and trying to sort through it for the phone bill and whatnot, not to mention what it would take to get off the lists. And if you got signed up for the "ship now, pay later" book or CDs clubs, you could rack up serious debts. Not that you'd have to pay, but you'd have to deal with it.
Your postman would hate you too.
I thought it was a neat hack and instructive about the emergent properties of the technological environment we live in. While this was a rather malevolent product, it really is just yet another example of the surprising things that come out of an established physical system when tied into something like the internet, with its democratization of information access and speed of communication, not to mention the lowering price barriers to entry.
I know we keep hearing the same mantra regarding communication access and speed, cheaper technology, and greater access to information, but I think that at times we hear it so much we may forget that it truly warrants being repeated, as it has these types of consequences.
Back to the topic though, I wonder what effects widespread use of this technique would have? Would it drive mailers into more 'secure' systems of signup that require a human intelligence stage, in spite of the reversal of convenience this would entail? Would they stop offering such types of free mail entirely, thus altering the commercial climate we live in? Would we just have to deal with new script kiddies fucking around and letter-bombing some random address? Who knows? I doubt it will happen, but its a fine topic for pondering around a campfire drunk off your ass, I suppose.