28 June 2008

Is your e-mail bring transparently modified?

Revealing Errors brought attention to "medireview" and "clbuttic", two instances where automated systems were known to silently make substitutions for certain words in e-mails or other documents. (These attempts were figured out because the software was quite ineptly designed, often making substitutions for offensive strings like "ass" even when they were not surrounded by word boundaries, thereby creating many nonsensical words.)

This sort of technique is often used to prevent XSS attacks or to substitute offensive words with innocuous ones. But there may be much subtler applications of this technique with more nefarious motives. One could imagine that this could be used for censorship, and to shape or interfere with certain kinds of discourse.

The fact that these sorts of techniques are now known to be widespread (even if they are not generally malicious) might encourage more people to digitally sign their email with programs like GPG.

24 June 2008

Two Bits; The Future of the Internet (And How to Stop It)

I learned about two interesting books recently.

Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software, by Christopher Kelty, is an anthropological study of the people behind free software. Kelty sets out to answer (among others) some questions about free software: first, what are the defining components and conventions of a free software community? What are the characteristics of software (and of the geeks that create it) that have made free software so powerful and seemingly eternal? Naturally, this can help us better understand other fields which are trying to adopt some of the principles of freedom and openness (education, biology, music and film, to name a few) and figure out how they can better reach their own goals.

The Future of the Internet (And How to Stop It), by Jonathan Zittrain, examines the latest generation of electronic devices that interact with the internet (typified by the iPhone) and laments that their locked-down nature threatens the cycles of innovation that made the internet— and those devices— possible in the first place.

Happily, both of these books are available for download and remixing under Creative Commons licenses (Attribution Non-commercial Share-alike 3.0). When I saw him at MIT, Kelty remarked that he could not in good conscience write a book about freedom and free software and then not make that book free. But it is also fortunate that this freedom allows these books to reach the widest possible audience. Naturally, if you read either of these books online and enjoy them, I would encourage you to buy a paper copy.

12 June 2008

Quitting cold turkey

$ tail -n3 /etc/hosts
127.0.0.1       reddit.com
127.0.0.1       slashdot.org
127.0.0.1       digg.com

I made this change to my /etc/hosts a few weeks ago and have not looked back since.

The only side effect I've observed is that I now go to Google News about once an hour, but that is probably less than I used to check Reddit, and Google News does not have anywhere near the addictive qualities of Reddit.

09 June 2008

Wii Fit

I played Wii Fit at a friend's house last night, and it is really fun. I am going to buy one for myself as soon as I can get my hands on one.

Who would have ever guessed that one of the hottest video games of 2008 would be... exercise?

07 June 2008

Popular policies are not necessarily effective

From Charles Krauthammer, via Greg Mankiw:

You want more fuel-efficient cars? Don't regulate. Don't mandate. Don't scold. Don't appeal to the better angels of our nature. Do one thing: Hike the cost of gas until you find the price point.

Unfortunately, instead of hiking the price ourselves by means of a gasoline tax that could be instantly refunded to the American people in the form of lower payroll taxes, we let the Saudis, Venezuelans, Russians and Iranians do the taxing for us -- and pocket the money that the tax would have recycled back to the American worker.

A gas tax won't happen, but gas prices are more effective at spurring changes in the auto industry than any government regulations ever could:

[Last December's new fuel efficiency standards] involved, as always, dozens of regulations, loopholes and throws at a dartboard. And we already knew from past history what the fleet average number does. When oil is cheap and everybody wants a gas guzzler, fuel efficiency standards force manufacturers to make cars that nobody wants to buy. When gas prices go through the roof, this agent of inefficiency becomes an utter redundancy.

At $4 a gallon, the fleet composition is changing spontaneously and overnight, not over the 13 years mandated by Congress. (Even Stalin had the modesty to restrict himself to five-year plans.) Just Tuesday, GM announced that it would shutter four SUV and truck plants, add a third shift to its compact and midsize sedan plants in Ohio and Michigan, and green light for 2010 the Chevy Volt, an electric hybrid.

Now, isn't that funny?