Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

November 13, 2006

The Web is Old Enough to Drive

Filed under: — Different River @ 11:21 pm

In most (U.S.) states, anyway.

The World Wide Web is 16 years old today.

October 13, 2006

A Chilling Effect on Free Speech

Filed under: — Different River @ 2:19 am

One of my favorite blogs, Likelihood of Confusion reports that it is in danger of being shut down by draconian regulations. See, that blog is written by a lawyer licensed in New York, and if certain proposed rules are put into effect, blogging will considered a prohibited form of advertising for lawyers:

Public Citizen’s CL&P (Consumer Law and Policy) Blog wrote last month that New York is considering draconian advertising rules that would essentially make it impossible for lawyers to maintain blogs. I am excerpting liberally, but urge you to follow the link and the discussion at the CL&P Blog:

Stripped to their essence, the proposed amendments would define the term “advertisement” extremely broadly as any public communication made “by . . . a lawyer . . . about a lawyer.” Sec. 1200.1(k). This definition explicitly includes all forms of communication on the Internet, including websites, email, and instant messaging. Sec. 1200.1(m). There is no requirement that the speech be commercial in nature or related to the lawyer’s practice of law.

You might think, given my opinions on some issues, that I’d think it’s a good idea to shut lawyers up. But you would be wrong.

First, I am a strong believer in free speech, and I don’t think one’s speech should be restricted because of one’s choice of profession. I understand there are certain things about their professions that people can’t talk about (e.g., attorney-client privileged information, classified information, trade secrets, etc.), but that’s no reason to restrict speech that is not “related to the lawyer’s practice of law” or anyone else’s practice of any other profession.

Second, any damage that might be done by lawyers (as a class) to society is not done by lawyers blogging, or exercising free speech in any other way. It usually comes about by abusing the court system, with or without the assistance of an equally abusive client. (“Without” in the case of class actions.) How this can happen is a subject for another post — but it has nothing to do with blogging, emailing, instant messaging, or writing articles for newspapers or journals. Or even, usually, with advertising. While there are no doubt some sleazy “ambulance-chaser” types who advertise for socially damaging services, that’s not a big part of the problem, in my view.

Third, there are an awful lot of very good blogs written by lawyers. Likelihood of Confusion by Ronald Coleman is a fascinating blog about trademark law. The Volokh Conspiracy is a great group blog about (mostly) constitutional law and law education. There are several more linked on the blogroll to your right.

But the over-riding concern here is free speech. I’d be against this rule even if all the law blogs were bad. The great thing about the internet is that if thery were bad, they wouldn’t be read.

As Mr. Coleman points out:

You can comment on the proposed rules by writing to:

Michael Colodner, Esq.
Office of Court Administration
25 Beaver Street
New York, New York 10004

by November 15, 2006. I encourage it.

Meanwhile, before it’s too late, I’d be interested in Mr. Coleman’s opinion on this case:

“The producer of the canned pork product Spam has lost a bid to claim the word as a trademark for unsolicited e-mails. EU trademark officials rejected Hormel Foods Corp.’s appeal, dealing the company another setback in its struggle to prevent software companies from using the word ‘spam’ in their products, a practice it argued was diluting its brand name. The European Office of Trade Marks and Designs, noting that the vast majority of the hits yielded by a Google search for the word made no reference to the food, said that ‘the most evident meaning of the term SPAM for the consumers … will certainly be unsolicited, usually commercial e-mail, rather than a designation for canned spicy ham.’”

Seems to me that if Hormel had acted earlier — before the use of the word “spam” for junk e-mail were so widespread, they might have had a better case. Is that right? Then again, that’s based on what I (think I) know about U.S. trademark law. The E.U. could have different rules.

September 5, 2006

Google Is Listening To You

Filed under: — Different River @ 2:17 am

I remember the first time I saw a computer with a microphone attached to the monitor — it was 1991 or 1992, and it was a brand-new Mac on the department secretary’s desk at a major university. I asked her what she used it for, and she said, “I don’t know how to use it yet — it came with the new computer.” I was immediately intrigued and a bit alarmed — this was in the days when the internet was ubiquitous on university campuses, but virtually unheard-of by the general public. And computer security was very rudimentary. My first thought — literally, my first thought — was that somebody, somehow, could probably use that microphone to eavesdrop on conversations in the office.

And now, 15 years later, Google has plans to do just that.

The Register is reporting that Google is going to deploy software — “sooner rather than later” — to listen in on users, analyze the sounds in their environment, and serve up appropriate advertisements:

The idea is to use the existing PC microphone to listen to whatever is heard in the background, be it music, your phone going off or the TV turned down. The PC then identifies it, using fingerprinting, and then shows you relevant content, whether that’s adverts or search results, or a chat room on the subject.

And, of course, we wouldn’t put it past Google to store that information away, along with the search terms it keeps that you’ve used, and the web pages you have visited, to help it create a personalised profile that feeds you just the right kind of adverts/content. And given that it is trying to develop alternative approaches to TV advertising, it could go the extra step and help send “content relevant” advertising to your TV as well.

Now a lot of people find using personal information to deliver ads offensive to their privacy. I am not really scared of ads, but I’m scared of other uses the same technology could be applied to. As The Register points out:

Pretty soon the security industry is going to find a way to hijack the Google feed and use it for full on espionage.


Google says that its fingerprinting technology makes it impossible for the company (or anyone else) to eavesdrop on other sounds in the room [besides TV], such as personal conversations, because the conversion to a fingerprint is made on the PC, and a fingerprint can’t be reversed, as it’s only an identity.

This is complete baloney. Sure, maybe the currently-proposed version just listens for TV and just sends information about what show is on, but that doesn’t mean someone else — at Google or otherwise — couldn’t use the technique to capture the actual audio content, or even an automated transcript of personal conversations. With sufficient data, they could even use audio “fingerprinting” to determine who’s talking — even if they aren’t using the computer.

Moral of the story: Unplug your computer’s microphone.

Plug it in only when you need it.

That may be never. Personally, I’ve been waiting 15 years for an actually useful purpose for the PC microphone. The potential seems endless — Internet telephony, voice chat — even encrypted voice chat, voice recognition instead of typing, voice annotations on documents, etc. But it never seems to pan out. In all that time, I’ve known only one person who ever had a use for that, and it was voice recognition instead of typing — because she had a wrist-pain problem. The system was OK, but it wasn’t good enough for her to abandon typing when her wrist pain wasn’t flaring up, and it wasn’t good enough to capture significant market share among people without severe wrist pain.

I don’t know, maybe the rest of you all use voice IM, and I’m just behind the times — but if you do that, unplug your microphone when you’re not using it.

And be careful.

Big Sibling is listening to you.

August 17, 2006

Airport Security Theater

Filed under: — Different River @ 7:02 pm

Security expert Bruce Schneier points out this very salient fact about airport security — both the “since 9/11″ restrictions and the “since last week” restrictions — and the recent arrests in London: (Boldface emphasis mine.)

Hours-long waits in the security line. Ridiculous prohibitions on what you can carry on board. Last week’s foiling of a major terrorist plot and the subsequent airport security changes graphically illustrates the difference between effective security and security theater.

None of the airplane security measures implemented because of 9/11 — no-fly lists, secondary screening, prohibitions against pocket knives and corkscrews — had anything to do with last week’s arrests. And they wouldn’t have prevented the planned attacks, had the terrorists not been arrested. A national ID card wouldn’t have made a difference, either.

Instead, the arrests are a victory for old-fashioned intelligence and investigation. Details are still secret, but police in at least two countries were watching the terrorists for a long time. They followed leads, figured out who was talking to whom, and slowly pieced together both the network and the plot.

The new airplane security measures focus on that plot, because authorities believe they have not captured everyone involved. It’s reasonable to assume that a few lone plotters, knowing their compatriots are in jail and fearing their own arrest, would try to finish the job on their own. The authorities are not being public with the details — much of the “explosive liquid” story doesn’t hang together — but the excessive security measures seem prudent.

But only temporarily. Banning box cutters since 9/11, or taking off our shoes since Richard Reid, has not made us any safer. And a long-term prohibition against liquid carry-on items won’t make us safer, either. It’s not just that there are ways around the rules, it’s that focusing on tactics is a losing proposition.

It’s easy to defend against what terrorists planned last time, but it’s shortsighted. If we spend billions fielding liquid-analysis machines in airports and the terrorists use solid explosives, we’ve wasted our money. If they target shopping malls, we’ve wasted our money. Focusing on tactics simply forces the terrorists to make a minor modification in their plans. There are too many targets — stadiums, schools, theaters, churches, the long line of densely packed people in front of airport security — and too many ways to kill people.

Security measures that attempt to guess correctly don’t work, because invariably we will guess wrong. It’s not security, it’s security theater: measures designed to make us feel safer but not actually safer.

Airport security is the last line of defense, and not a very good one at that. Sure, it’ll catch the sloppy and the stupid — and that’s a good enough reason not to do away with it entirely — but it won’t catch a well-planned plot. We can’t keep weapons out of prisons; we can’t possibly keep them off airplanes.

Bruce has a summary of the new UK and US security rules here. He points out that this is reasonable in the short run. We’ll see how long these rules stay in effect. The post-9/11 US rules have lasted a lot longer than I initially expected — no doubt, in part, because they involved creating a new federal government agency.

And Sean at Cosmic Variance has this clever take on the whole thing:

[F]or the first time, the Department of Homeland Security has deemed an entire state of matter to be a national security risk.

If you remember from chemistry or physics what a phase diagram here, this will put things in perspective.

This is even worse!

August 7, 2006

“Oil Companies Care Only About Short-Term Profits”

Filed under: — Different River @ 2:29 am

Yet another myth was shattered today — the myth that oil companies don’t care about anything but short-term profits, and will do anything to get them unless government regulators control them. BP Exploration Alaska, Inc., a unit of British Petroleum, annouced they are shutting down the entire Prudhoe Bay oil field — accounting for half the production of Alaska North Slope oil. They are doing this because they found some corrosion in the pipeline that carries the oil out — in other words, there’s a risk of leakage, which would be an environmental disaster.

Major Alaskan Oil Field Shutting Down

Aug 6, 10:40 PM (ET)

By Mary Pemberton

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) – In a sudden blow to the nation’s oil supply, half the production on Alaska’s North Slope was being shut down Sunday after BP Exploration Alaska, Inc. discovered severe corrosion in a Prudhoe Bay oil transit line.

BP officials said they didn’t know how long the Prudhoe Bay field would be off line. “I don’t even know how long it’s going to take to shut it down,” said Tom Williams, BP’s senior tax and royalty counsel.

Once the field is shut down, in a process expected to take days, BP said oil production will be reduced by 400,000 barrels a day. That’s close to 8 percent of U.S. oil production as of May 2006 or about 2.6 percent of U.S. supply including imports, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The shutdown comes at an already worrisome time for the oil industry, with supply concerns stemming both from the hurricane season and instability in the Middle East.

“We regret that it is necessary to take this action and we apologize to the nation and the State of Alaska for the adverse impacts it will cause,” BP America Chairman and President Bob Malone said in a statement.

Malone said the field will not resume operating until the company and government regulators are satisfied it can run safely without threatening the environment.

Of course, the “regulators” wouldn’t have even known there was a problem if the company hadn’t said so.

This will, unfortunately, increase oil prices, and thus the price of gasoline and anything else made from oil. Here’s the estimate:

A 400,000-barrel per day reduction in output would have a major impact on oil prices, said Tetsu Emori, chief commodities strategist at Mitsui Bussan Futures in Tokyo.

“Oil prices could increase by as much as $10 per barrel given the current environment,” Emori said. “But we can’t really say for sure how big an effect this is going to have until we have more exact figures about how much production is going to be reduced.”

Some cynics will say that this is a plot by BP to increase oil prices. But that’s wrongheaded — BP can only benefit from high oil prices to the extent that they can sell oil. When they are selling less oil, they make less. The ones who will make money off of this are all the other oil companies — in other words, BP’s competitors. Shutting down the oil fields hurts consumers a little, helps competitor’s a little, and hurts BP a lot. But in the long run, it’s the right thing to do.

June 30, 2006

I want one of these

Filed under: — Different River @ 4:46 pm

Not a cellphone. A smellphone.

June 20, 2006

Big Sibling is Watching You

Filed under: — Different River @ 2:26 pm

This is the second article I’ve seen on this in the past couple of weeks:

The future of law enforcement was launched into the smoggy Los Angeles skies at the weekend in the form of a drone aircraft intended to bring spy-in-the-sky technology to urban policing.

The unmanned aerial vehicle, called the SkySeer, looks like a remote-controlled toy and fits into a shoulder bag. In the air, the craft is guided by global positioning system coordinates, and a camera fixed to the underside sends video to a laptop command station.

A prototype is being tested by the LA county sheriff’s department, which says the SkySeer will accomplish tasks too dangerous for officers, and free helicopters for other missions. “This technology could be used to find missing children, search for lost hikers or survey a fire zone,” said Commander Sid Heal, head of the sheriff’s department technology exploration project. “The plane is virtually silent and invisible.”

The SkySeer, which has low-light and infrared capabilities and can fly at speeds of up to 30mph, would also be able to spot burglary suspects.

“A helicopter can be seen and heard and one can make behaviour choices based on that,” said Beth Givens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. “Do we really want to live in a society where our backyard barbecues will be open to police scrutiny?”

Police say the concerns are unwarranted because everybody is already under surveillance.

“You shouldn’t be worried about being spied on by your government,” said Commander Heal. “These days you can’t go anywhere without a camera watching you, whether you’re in a grocery store or walking down the street.”

That’s supposed to make us feel better?

(By the way: If this won’t intrude our privacy any more than what they’ve got already, why do they need it?)

June 15, 2006

SHOCK: Bill Gates to Leave Microsoft

Filed under: — Different River @ 5:36 pm

Matt Drudge is headlining this Reuters story:

Microsoft’s Gates says to reduce role

Thu Jun 15, 2006 4:54pm ET

SEATTLE (Reuters) – Microsoft Corp. said on Thursday that chairman Bill Gates will stop taking a day-to-day role in the software giant he founded in order to do more work with his charitable foundation.

Gates said that by July 2008 he will work full-time for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation he started to promote health and education projects around the world.

“Obviously, this decision was a very hard one for me to make,” Gates told a news conference. “The change we’re seeing today is not a retirement, it’s a reordering of my priorities.”

In July 2008, Bill Gates will be 52 years old.

That sounds like a retirement to me. By my definition, retirement doesn’t mean you do nothing, it means you collect the benefits of years of working — and philanthropy counts as that, since he’ll be spending the money he spend the previous 30 years earning.

By the way, I’d like to be a philanthropist, too. So far, I’m still stuck on step 1: “Make a lot of money.” :-(

Reconstructing Maimonides

Filed under: — Different River @ 1:40 am

… As literally as possible. A reader alerts me to this story:

British university to reassemble crumbled works of medieval Jewish scholar

Tue Jun 13, 01:02 PM EST

LONDON (AP) – Scientists at a British university hope to use digital technology in reassembling some 300,000 tiny fragments of an 800-year-old Jewish philosopher’s oeuvre.

The University of Manchester’s Centre for Jewish Studies is reassembling the life works of Moses Maimonides, a scholar and writer whose findings were hugely influential on modern Judaic thought.

Maimonides worked as a physician, lawyer and scientist in the Middle Ages, project leader Philip Alexander said. His writings were obtained from a medieval document storeroom – called a “genizah” – discovered in a Cairo synagogue.

Documents gleaned from the Cairo genizah, both by Maimonides and other Jewish scholars, are in repositories all over the world, said Stella Butler, head of special collections at Manchester’s John Rylands University Library. More than 10,000 pieces from the ancient manuscripts are in the Manchester library.

“Internet technology means we can collaborate with colleagues around the world to solve some of the puzzles contained in the genizah collections,” Butler said.

“We hope to link together fragments from our collections with those held in other libraries, and so achieve greater understanding of the genizah as a whole,” she said.

The grant money will enable the centre to buy a special camera to take digital images of the fragments.

“Until we got image technology, it was very difficult for people across the world, if they’ve got one bit of a document, to know if another fits,” Butler said.

I can’t help but imagine that Maimonides (often known among Jews by the Hebrew acronym for his name, which is pronounced “Rambam”) would have really loved the internet. He corresponded with people all over the world, which took quite a lot of doing 800 years ago. (He would have loved weather satellites even more, since his brother died when his ship went down in a storm — taking the family fortune with it.)

By the way, this story is also a reminder of the bad new for people who shred their confidential documents. If computers can scan the decayed fragments of an 800-year-old handwritten document and reconstruct it, imagine what they can do with a document that’s printed in a stable font and “shredded” into pieces with nice, straight-line edges. Someone who is willing to spend the money can get the document reconstructed.

June 9, 2006

Stuck on Stupid

Filed under: — Different River @ 5:46 pm

Stealing a cellphone isn’t just illegal and immoral. It’s really, really stupid. Especially if it’s a cellphone that takes pictures and e-mails, and automatically uploads those pictures and e-mails to a server where the rightful owner can see them.

May 31, 2006

Saved by a Defibrillator Salesman

Filed under: — Different River @ 12:13 am

Thanks to a reader for alerting me to this story, which is almost too good to be true:

ST. PETERS, Mo. — A driver who suffered a heart attack and crashed into a guardrail was saved by a defibrillator salesman and two nurses who happened to be passing by.

The salesman, Steve Earle, was transporting an automated external defibrillator, a device used to shock the heart into a normal rhythm.

This article has some more details, if less dramatic wording:

Four people stopped to help her. Two of them were registered nurses. A third was Steve Earle, who makes a living selling automatic external defibrillators, the devices used to shock a patient’s heart into a regular rhythm.

It was kind of crazy luck that it was me with the device and two nurses that were three of the first four on the scene,” Earle said.

Earle grabbed the defibrillator he uses for demonstrations and rushed to help. Meanwhile another motorist used a trailer hitch to break out the rear passenger window of Holt’s car, unlocked the front passenger door and dragged her to the pavement.

The two nurses – Mary Blome and a woman identified only as Laurie – started cardiopulmonary resuscitation, but Holt wasn’t breathing. Earle and one of the nurses hooked Holt up to the defibrillator and delivered a shock. Holt got a pulse back, and St. Charles County paramedics rushed the woman to the hospital.

She underwent surgery Tuesday to have an automatic internal cardiac defibrillator implanted and is expected to fully recover.

She’s got one built-in now, so she doesn’t have to depend on another defibrillator salesman to happen by if she ever has another heart attack. There’s gratitude for you! ;-)

Seriously, though — it’s really good to have one of these things around if you can swing it. It is probably worth having if you run an establishment with large numbers of people — or to have at home if you are have enough of risk of a heart attack, but not enough to get the built-in version. Amazingly, you can buy these things on Amazon.com — here’s a home model, another home model (with free carrying case!), and another model, I guess for when you’re not home. They start at $1,135, which I’m sure is a tenth or a hundredth of what the hospital versions cost a few years ago.

Marty Limpert, spokesman for the St. Charles County Ambulance District, said Tuesday he hopes the $1,400 devices will become as common at places of business as fire extinguishers.

And oh yes — get a fire exthinguisher, too. They’re a heckuva lot cheaper, and they can save your life, too. I have one for the kitchen, one for the room with the fireplace, and one for the car. If I could convince Different Wife, I’d have one for the van, too….

March 2, 2006

Be Wear the Spelling Chequer

Filed under: — Different River @ 2:46 pm

Law.com reports:

In an opening brief to San Francisco’s 1st District Court of Appeal, a search-and-replace command by [Santa Cruz lawyer] Dudley inexplicably inserted the words “sea sponge” instead of the legal term “sua sponte,” which is Latin for “on its own motion.”

“Spell check did not have sua sponte in it,” said Dudley, who, not noticing the error, shipped the brief to court.

That left the justices reading — and probably laughing at — such classic statements as: “An appropriate instruction limiting the judge’s criminal liability in such a prosecution must be given sea sponge explaining that certain acts or omissions by themselves are not sufficient to support a conviction.”

And: “It is well settled that a trial court must instruct sea sponge on any defense, including a mistake of fact defense.”

The sneaky “sea sponge” popped up at least five times.

Dudley said he didn’t notice the mistake in People v. Danser, A107853, until his client — William Danser, a former Santa Clara County Superior Court judge seeking reversal of his conviction for fixing traffic tickets — called for an explanation.

Well, this is what you get when you (a) rely too heavily on a spelling checker, and (b) are a lawyer with a former judge as a client. He can fix spelling as well as he can “fix” traffic tickets, I suppose.

This little gem comes from law professor Glenn Reynolds (“Instapundit”), who introduces it by saying, “I frequently warn my students about overreliance on spellcheckers. Here’s a good object lesson.”

I think it’s time to reprise this famous poem:

Eye Halve a Spelling Chequer

Eye halve a spelling chequer
It came with my pea sea
It plainly marques four my revue
Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.

Eye strike a quay and type a word
And weight four it two say
Weather eye am wrong oar write
It shows me strait a weigh.

As soon as a mist ache is maid
It nose bee fore two long
And eye can put the error rite
Its really ever wrong.

Eye have run this poem threw it
I am shore your pleased two no
Its letter perfect in it’s weigh
My chequer tolled me sew.

(Sauce unknown)

February 22, 2006

Indiana Time

Filed under: — Different River @ 2:00 am

For those of you who have ever either (a) travelled to (or from) Indiana and gotten confused about what time it is, or (b) found Indiana’s interesting combination of multiple time zones and multiple daylight-savings-time rules to be fascinating trivia, then either (a) your troubles, or (b) the party, might be over, according to the “What time is it in Indiana?” web page:

On October 30, 2005, at 02:00 DST, all areas currently operating on Daylight Saving Time adjusted clocks to 01:00. In Indiana, 77 counties were already operating at 01:00 EST and made no adjustment. However, five Indiana counties near Cincinnati, OH, and Louisville, KY, adjust from EDT to EST and five near Chicago, IL, and five surrounding Evansville, IN, adjust from CDT to CST.

If the April 28, 2005, Indiana state legislation stands up, on April 2, 2006, Indiana will no longer be counted as one of three states which do not Spring ahead from “standard” to “daylight saving” time or Fall back from daylight to standard six months later. The Indiana Legislature voted to approve Daylight Saving Time for Indiana and to petition the US Department of Transporation to hold hearings to determine the location of the dividing line between the Eastern and Central time zones, relative to Indiana.

Yes, the US Department of Transporation is supposed to hold hearings about this. Your tax dollars at work! ;-)

Of course, those of us who are trivia hounds still have Arizona. Arizona is in the Mountain Time Zone but does not observe daylight savings time, which means has the same time as Utah and (most of) New Mexico in the winter, but the same time as California and Nevada in the summer. But that’s not exactly true, either:

The Arizona portion of the Navajo reservation, which consists of most the northeastern corner of the state, DOES observe DST. And to further complicate matters, the Hopi Partitioned Land, which lies in the midst of the Navajo reservation, follows the the Arizona standard, remaining on Mountain Standard Time year round.

This means that when driving through Arizona during the summer, you might have to reset your watch five times, depending on what route you take. The Hopi reservation is completely surrounded by the Navajo reservation. So you’d go from northwest to southeast: into Arizona from Utah (-1), into Navajo reservation (+1), into Hopi reservation (-1), out the other side of the Hopi reservation back into the Navajo reservation (+1), out of the Navajo reservation, but still in Arizona (-1), and into New Mexico (+1). Of course, you could skip one of these by entering from California, and another by exiting Arizona at a point within the Navajo reservation.

Within the Navajo reservation, there is a place called “Four Corners” — the only place in the U.S. where four states meet (Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado). I have no idea what time it is on that dot….

February 21, 2006

F-14 Retired

Filed under: — Different River @ 1:47 pm

Donald Sensing notes a historic day in naval aviation. The F-14 fighter has been retired after 32 years in service.

James Joyner has some more thoughts.

February 1, 2006

The Telegram: 1844-2006

Filed under: — Different River @ 3:42 pm

Western Union has gotten out of the telegram business. Six days ago: January 26, 2006.

This truly a historic event. The telegram was the first method of communication ever that allowed a person to send a message to someone too far away to see or hear, without moving a physical object (such as a piece of paper) to the recipient.

There have been, in human history, five major advances in communication:

  1. Invention of writing (about 5,000 years ago(?)`): For the first time, one could trasmit information without having to be there to speak to the recipient or send a messenger who might forget or garble the message. And, for the first time, one could store information without memorizing it, and thereby convey information to future generations.
  2. Invention of the printing press (1452): For the first time, it become possible to make a large number of copies of something without having a person individually write each copy. The importance of this cannot be under-estimated: Before printing, large numbers of educated people (i.e., people able to write) were employed in the monotonous drugery of copying the work of others, leaving little time for creative work of their own. And, even more vast numbers of people remained uneducated because the labor to create a copy of a book made books too expensive for all but the wealthy. A single copy of a single book could take months or even a year to write, making the cost of a book equal to the cost of supporting a full-time, educated worker for months. See why most people couldn’t afford it? Could you afford to pay a high-school (or even college) graduate six months of salaray for every book you own? Of course, without the previous major advance (writing), the printing press would have been irrelevant.
  3. Invention of the telegraph (1844): For the first time, it becomes possible to transmit a message over long distance without transmitting a physical object over that distance. Before that, if you wanted to communicate with someone in another city, you needed to send a piece of paper (or equivalent) with the message written on it. Now, you could key a telegraph in Baltimore and send your message electronically to Washington … and once they strung the wires, to practically anywhere. (Yes, I know that before the telegraph there were smoke signals, and fire signals relayed over long distances, but these were specialized and not useful for general-purpose communication.) The wires connected to telegraph keys were eventually connected to telephone sets, and we got something much better, but essentially the same in character — transient, on-demand communication with people far away.
  4. Invention of radio (1895): For the first time, it becomes possible to transmit a message without having any physical object (such as a metal wire) connecting you to the recipient. Again, the radio transmitters were first connected to telegraph keys, and then to (basically) telephones. Plus, the fact that radio signals can be received by anyone within range, not just a pre-selected recipient at the other end of the wire, broadcasting became possible — that is, for the first time, it became possible to transmit the same information to a large number of people without transmitting a physical object to each person. This was basically “printing press plus telegraph” — a combination of the two milestones above.
  5. The Internet: The internet is basically a really sophisiticated switching system attached to millions of really sophiticated telegraph sets (computers) that can do what a telegraph key does, only much faster — and it can store the messages to be sent or reviewed over and over again. (And now with wireless networking, you can dispense with the physical object connecting the two parties as well.) There’s really nothing you can do with the internet that you can’t do with a printing telegraph if you have enough time — but you can do it so much faster and more effieciently, I think it really counts as a major advance anyway. It combines the best features of the wired and wireless communication (speed over long distances) with the best features of a postal system (information can sit there until you retrieve it; you don’t need to be “on the phone” at the same time to receive e-mail) and the best features of the printing press (large-scale copying — only just about infinitely faster and cheaper).

Note that these inventions have been coming at a faster rate — four or five millenia from writing to printing, four centuries from printing to the telegraph, five decades from telegraph to radio (and another three decades from radio to radio broadcasting and another decade or two to TV, which is basically radio with a more complex signal). Note also that each of these advances was unimaginable shortly before it became reality. I’ll bet Thomas Jefferson couldn’t imaging a telegraph, and Abraham Lincoln, who used the telegraph all the time, couldn’t imagine radio. And when I was telling people about the internet in the late 1980s, most of them couldn’t imagine it even though it already existed!

I can’t imagine what’s next — but I can’t wait to find out! :-)


Yes, I’m aware of the (quite credible) claim that before Marconi in 1895, Mahlon Loomis demonstrated wireless communication as early as 1868. Loomis asked the government for $50,000 to do research to make his wireless system practical, but he never got the money and didn’t make much progress with the research. Marconi was from a more wealthy background and managed to do it himself.

To answer your next question, I am also aware that Alexander Graham Bell essentially stole the patent for the telephone for Elisha Gray, thanks to a corrupt official in the patent office who sold Gray’s working design to Bell’s lawyer allowing him to replace the non-working design Bell’s lawyer had submitted to the patent office two hours before Gray’s lawyer submitted a working design.

And, Western Union is still alive and well. The got into the telegram business in 1851. In between, Western Union built the first transcontinental telegraph line (1861), the first standard time broadcast (1870), invented the the wire transfer of money (1871), introduced the first charge card (1914), and launched the first dedicated communications satellite (1974) and the first pre-paid phone card (1993). Not a bad run. Money transfer has been its main business since 1871, and still will be for a while.

January 3, 2006

Serious Windows Security Vulnerability

Filed under: — Different River @ 3:00 am

Matt Drudge is red-lining an article in the Financial Times reporting:

Computer security experts were grappling with the threat of a newweakness in Microsoft’s Windows operating system that could put hundreds of millions of PCs at risk of infection by spyware or viruses.

The news marks the latest security setback for Microsoft, the world’s biggest software company, whose Windows operating system is a favourite target for hackers.

“The potential [security threat] is huge,” said Mikko Hyppönen, chief research officer at F-Secure, an antivirus company. “It’s probably bigger than for any other vulnerability we’ve seen. Any version of Windows is vulnerable right now.”

“We haven’t seen anything that bad yet, but multiple individuals and groups are exploiting this vulnerability,” Mr Hyppönen said. He said that every Windows system shipped since 1990 contained the flaw.

As you might imagine, the FT article is short on technical details. You can find those details at the Internet Storm Center.

Microsoft does not have a patch available. But, Ilfak Guilfanov, a Russian programmer in Belgium, wrote a patch himself. Download it, and get instructions, here.

I think it really is telling that one guy in Belgium was able to get a patch out faster than the huge, powerful company that wrote the program and has access to the source code. Hmm.

The patch is for Windows 2000, Windows XP, (SP1 and SP2), Windows 2003.

ISC says:

Note: If you’re still running on Win98/ME, this is a watershed moment: we believe (untested) that your system is vulnerable and there will be no patch from MS. Your mitigation options are very limited. You really need to upgrade.

Well, I still have an old laptop runing Windows 98. Maybe I’ll switch it over to Windows 3.1. ;-)

My main computer runs Linux. If you don’t want to worry about this sort of thing, use Linux. (Or Mac, or BSD, or …)

December 22, 2005

Britain to Monitor All Cars, All the Time

Filed under: — Different River @ 4:04 am

A few years ago, I thought of an idea for a futuristic short story, in which the government tracks the location of every car in the country by means of the GPS receiver installed in the car that transmits its own position to a central tracking facility — and possibly other information, such as speed, seatbelt status, and maybe even audio from a microphone secreted in the car — maybe even video showing who’s in the car. I pictured a control center with a huge electronic map, allowing “whoever” to zoom in on roads, pick out individual cars, clicking on a car and listening to the conversation inside it. Of course, they could always search for a particular individual’s car based on DMV data and find out where that person’s car was.

I never wrote the story. But it is becoming reality much quicker than I thought. In Britain. And it won’t use GPS receivers, but cameras with license-plate readers, so there’s really no way a creative driver could disable it. (And it doesn’t have the audio-bug feature — not yet, anyway.)

And of course, it’s being introduced in the name of “crime control.” After all, if you watch everybody all the time, you must be watching all the criminals, too — right?

Matt Drudge points to this story in The Independent:

Britain will be first country to monitor every car journey

From 2006 Britain will be the first country where every journey by every car will be monitored

By Steve Connor, Science Editor
Published: 22 December 2005

Britain is to become the first country in the world where the movements of all vehicles on the roads are recorded. A new national surveillance system will hold the records for at least two years.

Using a network of cameras that can automatically read every passing number plate, the plan is to build a huge database of vehicle movements so that the police and security services can analyse any journey a driver has made over several years.

The network will incorporate thousands of existing CCTV cameras which are being converted to read number plates automatically night and day to provide 24/7 coverage of all motorways and main roads, as well as towns, cities, ports and petrol-station forecourts.

By next March a central database installed alongside the Police National Computer in Hendon, north London, will store the details of 35 million number-plate “reads” per day. These will include time, date and precise location, with camera sites monitored by global positioning satellites.

Already there are plans to extend the database by increasing the storage period to five years and by linking thousands of additional cameras so that details of up to 100 million number plates can be fed each day into the central databank.

They don’t even have it yet, and they’re already planning to expand it! Maybe they’ll never delete anything…

Senior police officers have described the surveillance network as possibly the biggest advance in the technology of crime detection and prevention since the introduction of DNA fingerprinting.

But others concerned about civil liberties will be worried that the movements of millions of law-abiding people will soon be routinely recorded and kept on a central computer database for years.

Not like anyone cares about those weirdos who are “concerned about civil liberties” … those extremists…

This is bad. Very, very bad.

Synthetic Life?

Filed under: — Different River @ 3:52 am

Matt Drudge links to this story in the Globe and Mail:

Work on the world’s first human-made species is well under way at a research complex in Rockville, Md., and scientists in Canada have been quietly conducting experiments to help bring such a creature to life.

Robert Holt, head of sequencing for the Genome Science Centre at the University of British Columbia, is leading efforts at his Vancouver lab to play a key role in the production of the first synthetic life form — a microbe made from scratch.

I can’t help but be reminded of this joke:

One day a group of scientists got together and decided that man had come a long way and no longer needed God. So they picked one scientist to go and tell Him that they were done with Him.

The scientist walked up to God and said, “God, we’ve decided that we no longer need you. We’re to the point that we can clone people and do many miraculous things, so why don’t you just go on and get lost.”

God listened very patiently and kindly to the man and after the scientist was done talking, God said, “Very well, how about this, let’s say we have a man making contest.” To which the scientist replied, “OK, great!”

But God added, “Now, we’re going to do this just like I did back in the old days with Adam.”

The scientist said, “Sure, no problem” and bent down and grabbed himself a handful of dirt.

God just looked at him and said, “No, no, no. You go get your own dirt!”

December 5, 2005

First One-Way Rocket Plane Flight

Filed under: — Different River @ 1:00 am

Dick Rutan sets another record.

(Hat tip: Varifrank.)

November 27, 2005

EU Bans Safe Electronics

Filed under: — Different River @ 9:02 pm

OK, the title is a slight exaggeration. But only slight. The EU is going to ban lead solder in electronic devices, but the only available substitute can cause short-circuits, leading in the best case to device failure and in the worst case to fire. So why ban solder? To appease the environmentalists.

Environmental groups around the world have been campaigning for years to replace lead-containing solders and protective layers on electronic components with non-hazardous metals and alloys. In response, the European Union (EU) will ban the use of lead (and five other hazardous substances) in all electrical and electronic equipment sold in EU nations starting in July 2006.

However, pure electroplated tin and lead-free tin alloys tend to spontaneously grow metallic whiskers (thin filament-like structures often several millimeters long) during service. These defects can lead to electrical shorts and failures across component leads and connectors.

Aside from placating environmentalists, there is an alternative explanation for the ban on solder. It might be a form of trade protectionism:

U.S. manufacturers must comply with this requirement in order to market their products overseas.

Which may (or may not) be the reason the (U.S.) National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is looking into solving the problems with non-lead solders.

Meanwhile, the rest of us have a good reason to avoid buying electronic products sold in EU countries — or if we must use them, at least keep our fire insurance up to date.

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