Blown To Bits

Archive for October, 2009


Sunday, October 25th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Just finished Logicomix, the delightful history of modern logic told as a “graphic novel.” Full disclosure: author Christos Papadimitriou is an old friend, in fact we wrote a theory of computation textbook together. It’s a story told at many levels, of which the top level is the authors and artists writing the book itself. The principal narrative is, however, Bertrand Russell in his maturity narrating the development of logic as a drama involving people, ideas, and events. It’s a success!

For those in the Boston area who may be interested, Christos will be speaking at the Brattle Theater on Wednesday night (October 28) at 6pm. It will be my pleasure to act as interlocutor at this event, which is sponsored by the Harvard Book Store. Should be fun!

Using Copyright to Censor Parody

Friday, October 23rd, 2009 by Harry Lewis

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act is the gift that keeps on giving. It is the Swiss Army Knife of laws. Every time you think you’ve seen a pattern in the ways it is misused, somebody comes up with a new idea. It was once subtitled “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning.” The encouragement was provided by a temporary monopoly on intellectual works, to give the creator an incentive to create them. Now it is, among other things, a handy tool for censoring those who make fun of you.

Today’s complainant is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. On Monday a group of prankster environmental activists managed to stage a fake press conference, right in the Press Cub in Washington DC. A few members of the actual press were joined¬†for effect¬†by some hoax journalists. The hoax Chamber of Commerce announced that it had decided that climate change was, after all, a problem that could not be solved by cap and trade legislation and a carbon tax was the way to go–a position opposite to that espoused by the real Chamber of Commerce–which broke into the meeting, causing some shouting and mayhem.

Having regained its composure, the Chamber of Commerce now moves against the fakers, known as the Yes Men. The Chamber wants the Yes Men’s web site shut down for copyright violation—it is, to be sure, a pretty good look-alike of the real site. But that is what parody is—it’s a fake for humorous or critical purposes. Parody is legally protected.

Unfortunately, the takedown provision of the DMCA protects the ISP from liability only if it pulls the allegedly infringing material while the parties sort out their dispute. The Yes Men have the same gripe that John McCain had when a TV network demanded that YouTube pull an ad because it contained a short clip of an evening news anchor. The anchor was complaining that the press were mean to Hillary Clinton; McCain wanted in a sarcastic way to make the same point about the press treatment of Sarah Palin. Perfectly reasonable, but YouTube took the video down to protect itself.

In this case, the fake web site quickly got reducplicated–mirrored–in a way that made the censorship effort moot. And the Electronic Frontier Foundation is stepping in to help. But that is just in this case. Minor players, whom the Chamber of Commerce is actually supposed to help, might not have the same opportunities.

A Step Forward for Net Neutrality

Friday, October 23rd, 2009 by Harry Lewis

The Federal Communications Commission voted yesterday issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (press release) to guarantee that the Internet would remain open, predictable, and transparent, as its architects intended it. The Commission had previously endorsed four Internet principles:

  • To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected¬†nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of¬†their choice.
  • To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected¬†nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of¬†their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement.
  • To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected¬†nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices¬†that do not harm the network.
  • To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected¬†nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to competition among network providers,¬†application and service providers, and content providers.

These principles get at a lot of what has made the Internet succeed, but fail to address the problems that arise when the carriers enter the content industry. The conflicted interests became most apparent when Comcast began to introduce fraudulent packets to slow down the Internet delivery of movies–raising the suspicion that it might be doing so to encourage its Internet subscribers to buy movies from its pay per view cable service instead. We blogged this several times (here for example). Exactly the same situation arose more than a century ago when Western Union cut an exclusive deal with one “wire service,” which to the profit of both would have ended the delivery over Western Union’s telegraph wires of news from alternative sources. That is what started the government’s interest in regulation of telecommunications.

The FCC decided to adopt a fifth principle:

  • Subject to reasonable network management, a provider of broadband Internet access¬†service must treat lawful content, applications, and services in a nondiscriminatory¬†manner.

Of course, that “reasonable” leaves a great deal to the imagination, and that is why this is a policy, not a rule. The rules remain yet to be written, though the Notice gives plenty of information about what to expect.

Because this, like everything, is political, the vote split along party lines, and carried because the FCC is majority Democratic. All five commissioners issued individual statements. The major telecomms, such as Verizon, and stoutly opposed. The Drudge report dramatically screamed, “JULIUS AT FCC WANTS TO ‘REGULATE’ INTERNET,” combining fear-mongering and condescension. Yes, this is an area that needs regulation. You don’t want Verizon to have the legal right to refuse service–either telephone or Internet–to the headquarters of one political party, say, just because it might prefer the policies of the other party.

All the FCC documents are available via the home page,¬† You need to scroll down to the heading “Commission Seeks Public Input on Draft Rules to Preserve the Free and Open Internet.”

As for whether it’s bad for business, I am always astonished that the Republicans so easily forget that the big businesses they so love to protect from regulation were all once small businesses that got started because they saw an opportunity in an open space. Google got started because it could count on how the Internet worked. So did tens of thousands of other businesses, some of which failed, and some of which, like Napster, were closed down as illegal. That’s the way the system should work. The Internet is a fertile place, and in a world where, sadly, most American households have zero, one, or two choices for Internet service, regulation of Internet monopolies and duopolies is needed to help new business ideas can take root.

I also recommend the¬†Berkman Center’s exhaustive study of broadband access around the world, plainly establishing that all the supposed benefits of open and unregulated competition among private entities have left the US, which invented the Internet, a middle of the road country as far as access and speed. The FCC is soliciting comments both¬†on the Net Neutrality proposed rule-making and¬†on the broadband study.

The Information in Your Plumbing

Saturday, October 17th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

In Chapter 2 of Blown to Bits we spend a lot of time on the way that cheap, distributed sensors have greatly increased the data we produce doing ordinary things. Our cars generate data just by braking and accelerating, and by going through toll booths; our supermarket purchases generate data when the barcoded items are scanned; everybody with a cell phone generates data, whether or not they are talking on the phone. These data trails produce footprints and fingerprints — records of our lives that we may or may not realize we are leaving behind.

Last week I heard a talk that made me realize how limited this mental framework was. Shwetak Patel, a 27-year-old assistant professor at the University of Washington, simply observed that lots of things people always did around their houses in the pre-digital era generate signals, which we are only now in a position to digitize and analyze.

Consider your plumbing, for example. Water comes into your house in one place, and the input is connected to a closed network running through all your faucets and toilets and even your water heater. If you were to bang on a pipe anywhere, it would ring every other pipe in the house.

Every time water flow is started or stopped–every time a valve is opened or closed–a shock wave is generated. When the shock wave is strong enough, for example if you shut a full-flowing faucet off abruptly, you cause a “water hammer” that audibly shakes pipes all through the house. But even small valves closing gently cause a mini-hammer–your automatic dishwasher shutting off, for example.

What Patel figured out is that every kind of valve causes its own distinctive ring. Your toilet is different from your shower, which is different from your lawn sprinkler. Patel figured out that you can listen to the pipe in one place–think of those old Western movies in which the Indians (as they were then called) listened to the rails for an approaching train–and monitor the plumbing activity in the whole house. By gathering data over an extended period, you can figure out how often people go to the bathroom, and which bathrooms they are using.

This is, of course, potentially very useful for monitoring utility usage, and for learning how people live. It is also, needless to say, quite creepy.

That’s just water. Patel can do the same thing with electricity. Your electric wiring is a big antenna. Flip a switch anywhere and it causes a transient in the wiring which produces electromagnetic radiation, which can be detected and analyzed. Oh, so I see you aren’t actually using compact fluorescents in your house.

Same for gas lines. Same even for HVAC systems–get a sensor inside an air duct and you can tell when people enter or leave the room, because they cause pressure changes that result in small air flows.

For different utilities, Patel requires different kinds of sensor installation. For different levels of specificity, he may need to calibrate the house. Other things he can figure out just by getting access to the utility line at any point, even where it enters the house from the outside.

Patel is a remarkably energetic and creative character. H is a winner of the Technology Review TR35 competition for inventors under 35. He has a fascinating history–he earned plumbers and electricians licenses while he was in high school and working for Habitat for Humanity, but wanted to do something more interesting than hammering nails. The intuition he gained there about how utility systems work meshed beautifully with his electrical engineering training in college.

We say in Chapter 8, about electromagnetic radiation, that one person’s noise is another’s signal. Patel’s work illustrates that beautifully. Listen to any of these utilities and you will hear random noise, which has made it hard, for example, to use domestic electric wiring for IP broadband diffusion. Turns out that noise has lots of information within it–you just have to know how to listen to it and what to do with the results.

Do It Yourself Book Scanning

Saturday, October 10th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

I am just back from D is for Digitize, James Grimmelmann’s conference on the Google Books Settlement at the New York Law School, where he teaches. It was an excellent meeting, about which I will report more in a followup post. But there was one clear star in the day-and-a-half of panels, each with four or five speakers. The prize goes to Daniel Reetz of — that is, Do It Yourself Book Scanner. Reetz, a book freak and mechanical genius, figured out how to make a book scanner out of stuff you can find in dumpsters, or buy cheaply, including off-the-shelf, cheap digital camers. He has put the instructions online so we can all build our own. It’s amazing to see — Reetz demonstrated it, and then in just a few minutes folded it up and put it into a bag small enough to take on an airplane. It works fast — and it’s really well designed. The slowest part is turning the pages, which you do by hand.

This is the equivalent for books of the tape recorder for music and the VCR for movies. We can all digitize our own books and throw them away now.

Or make them publicly available. I said “can,” not “may” or “should.” But the existence of the device has the potential to raise lots of the same kinds of questions those other duplicating technologies raised. It empowers individuals, and enough empowered individuals could produce a Wikipedian digital library, collectively assembled, imperfect and incomplete, but growing and expanding.

While everyone else at the conference was ruminating about whether Google had a library monopoly or whether Amazon or Microsoft might imaginably be able to compete, along comes this dude with his Rube Goldberg contraption and says, hey, let’s all just start doing it, and we’ll catch up eventually.

Astonishing idea. At the conference, it took about thirty seconds for an author to ask Daniel why he should ever write another book, since the first person who bought it could instantly make it available to the entire world. Of course, Daniel replied something like what he has on the Web:

I¬†love books. There is some truly fantastic knowledge and information hidden out there in hard to find, rare, and not commercially viable books. I find that I want my books with me everywhere. But that’s where the problems begin. Buying, moving, storing, and preserving books means environmental costs… and when I loan a book to a friend, I no longer have access to it.

Digital books change the landscape . After suffering through scanning many of my old, rare, and government issue books, I decided to create a book scanner that anybody could make, for around $300. And that’s what this instructable is all about. A greener future with more books rather than fewer books. More access to information, rather than less access to information. And maybe, years from now, a reformed publishing/distribution model (but I’m not holding my breath…).

Check it out. And if Daniel comes to a show near you, go see him. He’s cool in the way many a game-changing techologist has been cool.

Added October 11: I’ve received two interesting pointers since posting the above. First, an account of how Google’s scanner works; and second, a pointer to Snapster, commercial software for using your digital camera as a cocument scanner. The point is that there are a lot of things that are possible in this space, in mechanical design, image analysis, and coding, and it’s going to be interesting to see if Reetz can build a open community around his scanner, contributing both engineering and content.

The FTC Decides to Regulate Bloggers

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

We have a very well-intentioned initiative from the Federal Trade Commission to require people who blog about a product reveal if they have a financial interest in the product’s success. No phony “product reviews,” for example, written by people who are being paid by the manufacturer.

This is a classic case of that with which the road to hell is paved. The FTC is attempting to translate conventions used in TV and print into a very different medium. There are so many edge cases to consider. What about a 14 year old blogger raving about a skateboard her daddy brought home from the company where he works? What about a book reviewer who reviews a book he was given to review (as reviewers invariably are)? What about just mentioning that you are drinking a Coke when your brother-in-law works for the Coca-Cola company? What about tweets–do you have to include your disclosure in the 140 word limit (the FTC commissioner apparently thinks that might be possible).

And the big question: Is this really a role we want for government?

Many good blog posts on this. I recommend Dan Gillmor’s, and those to which he points. Dan proposes that the FTC just doesn’t understand the Web.