Science Addiction

A dormant blog by Devanshu Mehta

Month: November, 2008

I Can Haz Worldcats??!


For context, read the continuing adventures of OCLC, WorldCat and the intricate scandals of the librarian community. It’s fascinating stuff– librarians fighting back against a monster of their own creation. Copyright, fair use, creative commons, an old behemoth trying to change with the times, it has all the ingredients of a magnificent geek activism tale.

Above image is based on “Cute cat” by Per Ola Wiberg (former ponanwi and Powi) and was generated using the lolcats generator.

The New DRM’ed Macbook, Now with Reduced Functionality

The new MacBook from Apple comes with the new digital video output connector. Great news, you say. What Apple has avoided mentioning is that these connectors allow movie studios to force the computer to authenticate any monitor or display you have connected. That is to say that if the movie studios haven’t approved your monitor, it won’t display HD content from iTunes.

Says Fred von Lohmann:

This is a remarkably short-sighted move for both Apple and Hollywood. This punishes existing iTunes customers: several have reported that iTunes purchases that played on external monitors on their old Macbooks no longer will play on their new Macbooks. In other words, thanks to the Macbook “upgrade,” Apple just “downgraded” everyone’s previous investment in iTunes content.

I’ve written about this many times before- but any DRM’ed content– like iTunes movies– is at the mercy of the vendor, a board room somewhere in California, back room deals or the crashing financial market. Basically, forces outside your control can snatch your investment from you at any time. And this is not some dystopian future- it has happened to many people already. Walmart, MSN Music, Yahoo! Music and Google Video have all decided to stop supporting the content of paying customers, rendering their videos and music in to junk bits.

Facebook Awarded $873 Million in Spam Damages

Facebook awarded $873 million in spam case, but nothing for the poor users who actually got the spam. According to Max Kelly of Facebook, this is the largest judgment in history for a case brought under the Can-Spam Act.

“Grey Hat” Guide: To Disclose or Not to Disclose

Jennifer Granick, Civil Liberties Directory at the Electronic Frontier Foundation is putting together a “Grey Hat” guide for security researchers. The problem, says Granick, is that the law has been a real obstacle to solving vulnerabilities.

The muddy nature of the laws that regulate computers and code, coupled with a series of abusive lawsuits, gives researchers real reason to worry that they might be sued if they publish their research or go straight to the affected vendor. By reporting the security flaw, the researcher reveals that she may have committed unlawful activity, which might invite a lawsuit or criminal investigation. On the other hand, withholding information means a potentially serious security flaw may go unremedied.

The guide seems to be a work-in-progress and Granick has solicited constructive feedback.

Change Watch: Say No to YouTube, Mr. President

Chris Soghoian makes an excellent case against using YouTube as the default for the President-elect’s weekly addresses. There are many issues he touches on including the privacy of the viewers from Google, the free Obama-endorsed publicity for YouTube, the embracing of a closed-format, and so forth.

The Continuing Adventures of WorldCat: Conditions, not Restrictions

I won’t blame you if you haven’t been following the librarian/blogosphere coverage of the new OCLC/WorldCat use policy. Long story short: OCLC, the non-profit that controls the database of books that most libraries use and contribute to just released a new policy that makes reuse a lot more restrictive. There has already been a lot of Orwellian, corporation-like and pre-Internet thinking from the OCLC. Now for some more.

The OCLC released the newest version of the policy, but only as a PDF. Library-bloggers had already run ‘diff’s on previous HTML versions to see how each successive version changed, but now with the differently formatted (and harder to manipulate) PDF, the OCLC must be clicking their telegraphs in joy at how they foiled the new-age blogger librarians. Not so fast.

There’s already a ‘diff’ with the new version– and it gets more Orwellian. Instead of any change in actual policy, the newest version simply replaces every occurrence of the word ‘restriction’ with ‘condition’. Oh, that makes it so much better.

ALSO: the OCLC policy is nothing like Creative Commons, so I would advise them to stop making that comparison. CC does not require approval for reuse.


UPDATE: I can haz Worldcat?!?

The Barefoot Criminal of the Future

shoe print

Threat Level blogger Ryan Singel writes about Dr. Sargur Srihari, a computer science professor at Buffalo University, who is building a search engine to allow police to search shoe prints.

It would work by allowing forensic units to submit a photographs of a print and have the system figure out the gender, size and brand. No, CSI: Boise, that problem hasn’t been solved yet.

Of course, says Srihari:

Still Srihari says any would-be criminals would be smart to avoid sneakers. “Go in a suit if you commit a crime — there are no prints on dress shoes,” Srihari said.


Matthew Lasar at Ars Technica makes a point I’ve been thinking about for a while now– that looks like it was designed 10 years ago and has not been changed since.

Lasar makes five recommendations. The first four are actually about the usability of the web site, the fifth is about how FCC operates in general. Improving the ease of search and commenting is obvious– but the suggestions about RSS and requiring indecency complainers to certify that they’ve actually seen the program are inspired. Good stuff.

Avast! It be Anti-Pirate Technology!

pirate ship and dragon

Maybe we can blame it on the three Disney movies, but pirates are back in full strength– these days off the horn of Africa.

Nick Davis who, for $30,000, will arrange a team of private guards to travel on your boat and scare away pirates. Without any lethal weaponry.

He runs a company called APMSS- Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions (Non-Lethal). I would have thought they would have gone something cooler, like “Avast Ye Lilly Livered Scallywag“. Alas!

While I don’t know what technology APMSS uses specifically, these are the kinds of things that are used against pirates.

  • Long Range Acoustic Device
    This is a crowd-control device that can emit high frequency and high volume sounds that are capable of permanently damaging hearing.
  • Magnetic Audio Device
    This can be used as a modern version of the bullhorn in its simplest capacity- to notify, direct or warn the enemy.
  • Thermal Imagers
    To see in the dark, through smoke and so forth.
  • Night Sun Torches
    Not sure what these are, but they sound like something I’d want.
  • Anti-Boarding Systems
    Things like 9000 vole electrifying fences and alarms that will activate floodlights and a siren on detecting pirates. The shock is supposed to be painful but not fatal.
  • Finally, knives
    On NPR, when confronted with the possibility that a pirate may get on board, Davis admitted that they may resort to knives. And they are trained Marines and former Special Forces types.

And then, there are the lethal variety of technology. Of course, as Davis said, if they fire first, they are the pirates.

Change Watch: A National CTO is not a Fairy Godmother

Everybody seems to have a wishlist for the incoming president. Some organizations have even put together humongous documents with recommendations for the new administration. I’ve been covering some of them here— when they seem interesting and within my areas of interest– but the sheer volume of “what I really want from the new president” is astonishing. Many on the left are already disappointed with Obama, 60 days before his inauguration.

One position that everyone on the Internet seems to have an opinion about is the mythical Chief Technology Officer that Obama had promised the nation. has been formed– not by the campaign- to solicit ideas for a CTO agenda.

Jim Harper makes an excellent point. A CTO can’t undo legislation or executive orders or court orders. Says Harper:

I’ve got some news or you: These are policy proposals that would be beyond the purview of any CTO. Policy proposals go through Congress and the President, advised by his policy staff. They do not go through a CTO.

If the Baltimore Ravens asked the team physician to kick field goals, the results would be about what you’d get from asking a federal CTO to carry out these policies.

Excellent point. The CTO cannot repeal the DMCA or the USA Patriot Act or mandate Net Neutrality. What the CTO can do is shine sunlight (thanks Jim Harper). A CTO can open up federal government data with portable and open data formats. RSS, XML, APIs– ways for people and machines to process, visualize and analyze the governments (our) data.
Obama’s official agenda says the following:

  • Open Up Government to its Citizens: Use cutting-edge technologies to create a new level of transparency, accountability, and participation for America’s citizens.
  • Bring Government into the 21st Century: Use technology to reform government and improve the exchange of information between the federal government and citizens while ensuring the security of our networks. Appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to ensure the safety of our networks and lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices.

UPDATE: I’ve added this as a suggestion on the web site- “bring expectations for CTO in check. CTO is not Santa.”

A CTO will not have power over courts, legislation and executive orders. A CTO will have power over how government uses technology- so bring your expectations down to earth, and ask for things like more transparency in Federal government and use of open standards in federal communications, documents, etc.

Vote for it! Use the system to change the system.