June 3rd, 2008
Professor Edward Felten and his colleagues have come up with beautifully simple strategy to improve the way that governments provide information to their citizens:
In order for public data to benefit from the same innovation and dynamism that characterize private partiesâ€™ use of the Internet, the federal government must reimagine its role as an information provider. Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, it should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that "exposes" the underlying data. Private actors, either nonprofit or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens and can constantly create and reshape the tools individuals use to find and leverage public data. The best way to ensure that the government allows private parties to compete on equal terms in the provision of government data is to require that federal websites themselves use the same open systems for accessing the underlying data as they make available to the public at large.
April 5th, 2008
Joe Kissell on Instant Messaging for Introverts:
From time to time, someone I know asks me an ordinary and reasonable question: "What's your iChat (or Skype) ID?" My usual reply is to give them the information along with a big disclaimer: I'm almost never logged in. In fact, let me be completely honest and say I thoroughly dislike instant messaging (IM) except in a few specific situations. For months, I've been thinking about why this is – both the technological and psychological aspects – along with whether it somehow exposes a fundamental character flaw, and whether it's something I should attempt to change. [...]
My work doesn't require me to use IM, so I'm at least spared the problems of arranging IM sessions with colleagues that Kissell describes. I do have IM accounts on ICQ, AIM and Yahoo!, but prior to my firing up Adium five minutes ago I don't think I've launched an IM program in about two years.
My personality type (which is similar to Kissell's) isn't the sole reason for my failing to adopt IM, but it clearly played a part. In the unlikely event that I find myself having to use IM for work, I'll have to remember some of his tips for making IM work for introverts.
March 2nd, 2008
Producing joined-up government, one web site at a time: TellThemWhatYouThink.org acts as a centralised index of the many consultation exercises run by UK government departments.
(As with many other sites hosted by mySociety, it's the sort of thing that any government that bangs on about modernity and e-government really should be doing for itself. On the other hand, perhaps the government's efforts would be better focused on publishing data in a standardised, open format that allows citizens to pick up this data and put it to whatever uses they wish. I don't envy the guy behind this site the task of scraping consultations data from umpteen different web sites.)
[Via Open Rights Group]
February 20th, 2008
The current issue of The Atlantic has a rather good article, perfectly accessible to non-techie readers, by James Fallows about the Chinese government's attempts to control the types of content Chinese internet users can access:
Chinaâ€™s Great Firewall is crude, slapdash, and surprisingly easy to breach. Hereâ€™s why itâ€™s so effective anyway. [...]
February 19th, 2008
Joel Spolsky answers the question thousands of computer users have been asking themselves for years: Why are the Microsoft Office file formats so complicated?
Last week, Microsoft published the binary file formats for Office. These formats appear to be almost completely insane. The Excel 97-2003 file format is a 349 page PDF file.
If you started reading these documents with the hope of spending a weekend writing some spiffy code that imports Word documents into your blog system, or creates Excel-formatted spreadsheets with your personal finance data, the complexity and length of the spec probably cured you of that desire pretty darn quickly. A normal programmer would conclude that Officeâ€™s binary file formats:
- are deliberately obfuscated
- are the product of a demented Borg mind
- were created by insanely bad programmers
- and are impossible to read or create correctly.
Youâ€™d be wrong on all four counts. With a little bit of digging, Iâ€™ll show you how those file formats got so unbelievably complicated, why it doesnâ€™t reflect bad programming on Microsoftâ€™s part, and what you can do to work around it.
Sadly, that last part amounts to two options: buy a copy of Microsoft Office and use it to translate the files between formats, or use a non-Office format which Office can understand but which will fail to support at least 20% of the features you need. (The hell of it being that your 20% probably doesn't overlap with my 20%.)
It's a damn shame that Lotus and Borland and WordPerfect failed to keep up in the early-to-mid 1990s when Microsoft started pushing Office really hard; if there was still a competitive market in the general purpose office suite market then Microsoft wouldn't be able to get away with this nonsense.
February 17th, 2008
Dan Hill's The street as platform paints a picture of a 'smart' street:
The way the street feels may soon be defined by what cannot be seen with the naked eye.
Imagine film of a normal street right now, a relatively busy crossroads at 9AM taken from a vantage point high above the street, looking down at an angle as if from a CCTV camera. We can see several buildings, a dozen cars, and quite a few people, pavements dotted with street furniture.
Freeze the frame, and scrub the film backwards and forwards a little, observing the physical activity on the street. But what canâ€™t we see?
Three kids are playing an online game on their mobile phones, in which the physical street pattern around them is overlaid with renderings of the 19th century city. They scuttle down an alleyway behind a furniture showroom as the virtual presence of another player, actually situated in a town forty miles away and reincarnated as a Sherlock Holmes-ian detective, indicated on their map by an icon of a deerstalker and gently puffing pipe, stalks past the overlaid imagined space. The three play a trio of master criminals, intent on unleashing a poisonous miasma upon the unsuspecting and unreal caricatures generated by the game.
[An...] elderly lady stumbles over a pothole in the pavement. Helped back to her feet by a younger man, she decides to complain to the council about the pothole. The man suggests he can do that right now, from his iPod Touch and using the libraryâ€™s open public wifi, by registering the presence of a pothole at this point on the local problems database, Fix My Street. The old woman stares at him quizzically as it takes him fifty seconds to close the website he had been looking it on his mobile (Google Maps directions for â€œhairdressers near SW4â€, a phrase heâ€™ll shortly have to type in again, having neglected to bookmark it) and access fixmystreet.com. He spends the next few minutes indicating the presence of a pothole outside the library on Fix My Street (unaware of the postcode, he has to select one from a few possible matches on street name), before he moves on, satisfied with his civic good deed for the day. The elderly lady had long since shuffled off, muttering to herself. Although Fix My Street smartly forwards on all issues to the corresponding council, a beleaguered under-trained temp in the also underfunded 'pavements team' is unaware of fixmystreet.com and unable to cope with the levels of complaint, and so the pothole claims five more victims over the next two weeks until someone rings up about it.
A prototype of a [...] monitoring system, but embedded in the bus-stop opposite the library, records the performance of the lights, travel information displays, large plasma-screen advertising display, and the chilled-beam cooling system newly installed for comfort. The travel information displays themselves receive updates in real-time via a slice of radio spectrum allocated to such data, indicating the proximity of the next five buses. This same system also conveys the latest information on the whereabouts of the no. 73 in particular, in the form of an SMS to a prospective passenger who has selected this as her â€˜favourite busâ€™ via the transport companyâ€™s website. Around the corner, she breaks into a trot accordingly. [...]
I strongly recommend reading the entire post. The technology required to make all this happen is either already here or capable of being rolled out within a couple of years.
February 16th, 2008
If I had to use a Windows PC at home, I'd be utterly paranoid after reading reports like this:
An insidious computer virus recently discovered on digital photo frames has been identified as a powerful new Trojan Horse from China that collects passwords for online games – and its designers might have larger targets in mind.
"It is a nasty worm that has a great deal of intelligence," said Brian Grayek, who heads product development at Computer Associates, a security vendor that analyzed the Trojan Horse.
The virus, which Computer Associates calls Mocmex, recognizes and blocks antivirus protection from more than 100 security vendors, as well as the security and firewall built into Microsoft Windows. It downloads files from remote locations and hides files, which it names randomly, on any PC it infects, making itself very difficult to remove. It spreads by hiding itself on photo frames and any other portable storage device that happens to be plugged into an infected PC.
The good news (unless you own shares in Microsoft) is that there are measures you can take to protect your computer:
Protecting against these new computer viruses, which so far are aimed at PCs running Windows, is hard – and sometimes impossible.Â [...] Deborah Hale at SANS suggested that PC users find friends with Macintosh or Linux machines and have them check for malware before plugging any device into a PC.
Mac users shouldn't be too smug about this; one day the bastards behind Mocmex will turn their attention to Mac OS X and there'll be carnage, not least because a lot of non-techie Mac users probably think there's no need for anti-virus software and a degree of care in how you deal with downloaded content because their computer is so "safe."
[Via Daring Fireball]
February 11th, 2008
The BBC's NowPlaying prototype looks very promising:
The idea is to take the basic now-playing data from our music radio networks, throw it at the web, and see what we can get back. We could then use this, and other BBC APIâ€™s to create a pretty rich visualisation console pretty much automatically. We had a quick brainstorm and decided that weâ€™d use the excellent Last.fm, the incredible MusicBrainz, and the usual suspects Flickr, YouTube, and LyricsFly.
Now, before we let you take a look, some caveats…â€¨
- This is a functional data demo â€“ thereâ€™s been no visual treatment at all. In fact, it looks pretty pants [...]
- Thereâ€™s still some work to do to optimise the results (When we play â€˜Oasisâ€™ you can guess what kind of images we get back from Flickr…)
February 1st, 2008
The online store for Dutch retailer HEMA is a wonder to behold.
Load it up, then leave the front page to its own devices for a minute or two…
[Via Very Short List]
January 25th, 2008
Charles Arthurs says All this online sharing has to stop:
The IFPI – the International Federation of Phonographic Industries – is the global music industry organisation whose very name tells you how long ago progress overtook it. On Thursday it published its digital music report for 2008, which says boldly that "the spread of unlicensed music on ISP networks is choking revenues to record companies and investment in artists, despite a healthy increase in digital sales in 2007, up approximately 40% on the previous year". [...]
The IFPI's solution? Sort it out at the internet service provider level. "ISP cooperation, via systematic disconnection of infringers and the use of filtering technologies, is the most effective way copyright theft can be controlled. Independent estimates say up to 80 per cent of ISP traffic comprises distribution of copyright-infringing files."
You know what I say? Damn right. Let's get ISPs to stop copyright infringement. But, um, music people? Better form an orderly queue. You think you were the first to suffer from your content getting ripped off and spread to the four corners of the earth? Get to the back of the line, bud. There's a few people ahead of you. [...]
January 15th, 2008
Idiomag attempts to generate a personalised online music magazine, based on information you enter about your favourite bands or (more intriguingly) on your profile at an online music profiling service like last.fm.
The site is quite attractive and easy to use, but I'm not sure it's all that useful. I fed it my last.fm account details and it produced a 'taster' intended to show what I could expect if I registered:
- A Billboard magazine article about the 20th anniversary edition of U2's The Joshua Tree.
- A review of last year's compilation album by Garbage.
- A review of an album by an R&B artist I've never heard of by the name of Baby Boy Prince.
- The Wikipedia article about industrial rock.
So, having picked up the four top artists from my profile, idiomag came up with two reviews of old material re-released last year, one article picked up because the artist's name overlaps somewhat with that of Prince Rogers Nelson, and a Wikipedia article about the genre in which my number four artist works. Not a very inspiring taster.
In fairness, it probably didn't help that with Garbage on hiatus and U2 between albums there's not much new material to be found about them online right now. If I'd trialled the service when the bands were releasing new material, doing interviews and so on it's quite possible that I'd have found myself reading articles that told me something I didn't know. The sampler might do better to concentrate on showing the user more extensive information about two acts, to give a better taste of how the service will work when an act is doing the rounds of the media.
Alternatively, the taster could have been more interesting if it had covered, say, four artists from my top 20, or six acts scattered throughout my top 50 with at least one from between 40 and 50. I assume the strategy is to show potential users articles about their very favourite artists as this'll help encourage them to sign up, but if your musical tastes are as mainstream as mine then this seems to just pick up rather dull, not especially timely content. Perhaps this is a sign that the service is better suited to people whose tastes are more obscure, who may appreciate the service as a way to locate information about their favourite artists, or perhaps it's just that you need to use it over time with a greater range of artists to get the full benefit.
It's not a bad concept, but I don't think the taster does it any favours.
[Via Fabric of Folly, via city of sound]
January 8th, 2008
When I read John Scalzi's description of the Sony MusicPass system I was convinced he was joking.
Sony BMG spokesperson: Weâ€™re pleased to announce we are the final major music corporation to release electronic tracks without that pesky DRM! All you have to do is leave your house, go to a selected retail outlet, buy a special card there, go back to your house, scratch off the back of the card to find a code, go to our special MusicPass Web site, enter said code, and download one the 37 titles we have available, from Celine Dion to the Backstreet Boys!
I wonder how Sony found a way to get a scratchcard to install a rootkit on your PC…
January 8th, 2008
Three articles looking at different facets of the problems facing print journalism.
Roy Greenslade visits three newsrooms coping with the transition to delivery of content in print and online.
In a sense, the online revolution is like a train journey without a destination. As soon as one paper arrives at a station that had once appeared to be a terminus, another title has built a new line and sped onwards. Despite the differences, everyone seems clear about the general direction to take towards an otherwise mysterious objective: the future of news-gathering and news delivery is tied to the screen
David Byrne spends an afternoon at the New York Times and sees the process of putting together a front page from the inside.
Yesterday there was no obvious or massive breaking story, so some larger, ongoing stories (the credit debacle, for example) continued to evolve and develop in important and significant ways – although there was really nothing spectacular to hang these developments on. At one point the metro desk suggested a story about non-operating elevators at the Bronx Family court. I thought it was a good piece, as the families and children were often denied assistance or legal help because of the damn elevators – "For the want of a nail, the battle was lost" sort of thing. But OK, in the context of everything else that day, maybe it seemed that more "weight" was desired.
Haggling over the front page might seem anachronistic; soon readers might be customizing their own front pages or an algorithm might do it for them. I would argue that, as in a lot of fields (like music), a filter is more valuable than sheer information. In fact, a filter is information, in the strict sense. And a front page – whether material or virtual – is a filter that tells us what news the paper has decided we should be aware of at a glance. Granted. a nice picture (they're getting increasingly arty these days) will draw in browsers at a newsstand as much as a headline. But for most of us, this aggregator that is that daily conference meeting is still a pretty good system.
Homicide: Life on the Street creator David Simon bitterly regrets the arrival of "the white guys".
"I love this place," Simon told the Stoop audience last April, speaking of his frame of mind at age 22, when he was starting his career as a Sun reporter:
This is the place of H. L. Mencken, of Frank Kent, of William Manchester. It's like you can touch things that you can be proud of. I just have to do good work for its own sake … I'm basically happy, and it's like the least ambitious I am in my life. Until … it gets sold out of town. And these guys come in from Philly. The white guys from Philly. And I say that with all the contempt you can muster for the phrase white guys. Soulless motherfuckers. Everything that Malcolm X said in that book before he got converted back to humanity – no, no, he was right in the first place. These guys were so without humanity. And it was the kind of journalism – how do I describe bad journalism? It's not that it's lazy, it's that whenever they hear the word Pulitzer, they become tumescent. They become engorged … All they wanted to do was win prizes … I watched them single-handedly destroy The Sun.
[For the benefit of British readers, Simon is referring to the Baltimore Sun, not Rupert Murdoch's tabloid.]
[Roy Greenslade story via Memex 1.1, David Simon profile via kottke.org]
December 11th, 2007
I thought only Sony were so schizoid as to sabotage their own hardware in the interests of protecting us from ourselves. It turns out that Western Digital are at it too:
Due to unverifiable media license authentication, the following audio and video file types cannot be shared with different users using WD Anywhere Access.
||Advanced Audio Coding
||Audio Interchange File
||Audio Interchange File
||Audio Interchange File Format
||DSMIA/Asylum Module File
||Advanced Streaming Format
||Advanced Stream Redirector
||Audio Video Interleave
||Farandoyle Tracker Music Module
||Cubic Player/Cross-View Music Module Description
||MPEG Layer 1 (Audio)
||MPEG Layer 2 (Audio)
||MPEG Layer 3 (Audio)
||MPEG Layer 4 (Video)
||MPEG Audio Stream, Layer I, II or III
||MPEG Layer 3 (Audio Stream)
||MPEG Audio Stream, Layer II
||Oktalyzer Tracker Module
||PTM – Poly Tracker Module (Audio)
||Video Object (DVD Video)
||Creative Labs Sound
||Windows Media Audio or Video
||Windows Media Audio
||Windows Media Video
That's a pretty comprehensive list of … well, of precisely the sorts of files users might want to use their 1 Terabyte networked disk drive to make available to their friends and families.
I don't think Western Digital are going to sell very many of their My Book World Edition hard disk drives.
December 4th, 2007
Stephen Fry nominates Tim Berners-Lee as the greatest living Englishman:
Who is the greatest living Englishman? It would be hard to argue against the merits of Tim Berners-Lee, the sole begetter and inventor of the world wide web, an organism whose initials, www, have (in some languages, including our own) three times more syllables than the phrase theyâ€™re abbreviating, which is perhaps the only flaw in Berners-Leeâ€™s grand design.
Incidentally, that flawâ€¦ the unwieldy name and initials, www, came about as a result of the inventorâ€™s extraordinary and entirely endearing modesty. Originally he had come up with the name The Information Mine, but he found the initials, TIM, embarrassing. No less egocentric (especially in French-speaking Switzerland, where he was working) was another thought, the Mine Of Information, so he settled on good old www. [...]
Note to would-be commenters: anyone posting that Bill Gates invented the World Wide Web when he wrote Internet Explorer will have their Internet Driving License revoked with immediate effect.
October 29th, 2007
Rejection letters for famous papers in Computer Science:
R.L. RIVEST, A. SHAMIR, AND L. ADELMAN
"A Method for Obtaining Digital Signatures and Public-Key Cryptosystems."
According to the (very short) introduction, this paper purports to present a practical implementation of Diffie and Hellman's public-key cryptosystem for applications in the electronic mail realm. If this is indeed the premise, the paper should be rejected both for a failure to live up to it and for its irrelevance.
I doubt that a system such as this one will ever be practical. The paper does a poor job of convincing the reader that practicality is attainable. For one thing, there is the issue of the number n used to factor the message.
Electronic mail on the Arpanet is indeed a nice gizmo, but it is unlikely it will ever be diffused outside academic circles and public laboratoriesâ€”environments in which the need to maintain confidentiality is scarcely pressing. Laboratories with military contracts will never communicate through the Arpanet! Either normal people or small companies will be able to afford a VAX each, or the market for electronic mail will remain tiny. Granted, we are seeing the appearance of so-called microcomputers, such as the recently announced Apple II, but their limitations are so great that neither they nor their descendants will have the power necessary to communicate through a network.
October 23rd, 2007