Topic

Encrytped text that looks like plaintext, thanks to spammers.

You may be familiar with Stegonography, the technique for hiding messages in other messages so that not only can the black-hat not read the message, they aren’t even aware it’s there at all. It’s arguably the most secure way to send secret data over an open channel. A classic form of “stego” involves encrypting a message and then hiding it in the low order “noise” bits of a digital photograph. An observer can’t tell the noise from real noise. Only somebody with the key can extract the actual message.

This is great but it has one flaw — the images must be much larger than the hidden text. To get down a significant amount of text, you must download tons of images, which may look suspicious. If your goal is to make a truly hidden path through something like the great firewall of China, not only will it look odd, but you may not have the bandwidth.

Spammers, bless their hearts (how often do you hear that?) have been working hard to develop computer generated text that computers can’t readily tell isn’t real human written text. They do this to bypass the spam filters that are looking for patterns in spam. It’s an arms race.

Can we use these techniques and others, to win another arms race with the national firewalls? I would propose a proxy server which, given the right commands, fetches a desired censored page. It then “encrypts” the page with a cypher that’s a bit more like a code, substituting words for words rather than byte blocks for byte blocks, but doing so under control of a cypher key so only somebody with the key can read it.

Most importantly, the resulting document, while looking like gibberish to a human being, would be structured to look like a plausible innocuous web page to censorware. And while it is rumoured the Chinese have real human beings looking at the pages, even they can’t have enough to track every web fetch.

A plan like this would require lots and lots and lots of free sites to install the special proxy, serving only those in censored countries. Ideally they would only be used on pages known to be blocked, something tools behind the censorware would be measuring and publishing hash tables about.

Of course, there is a risk that the censors would deliberately pretend to join the proxy network to catch people who are using it. And of course with live human beings they could discover use of the network so it would never be risk-free. On the other hand, if use of the proxies were placed in a popular plugin so that so many people used it as to make it impossible to effectively track or punish, it might win the day.

Indeed, one could even make the encrypted pages look like spam, which flows in great volumes in and out of places like China, stegoing the censored web pages in apparent spam!

(Obviously proxying in port 443 is better, but if that became very popular the censors might just limit 443 to a handful of sites that truly need it.)

The true invention of the internet, redux, and Goodmail/Network Neutrality

I wrote an essay here a year ago on the internet cost contract and how it was the real invention (not packet switching) that made the internet. The internet cost contract is “I pay for my end, you pay for yours, and we don’t sweat the packets.” It is this approach, not any particular technology, that fostered the great things that came from the internet. (Though always-on also played a big role.)

It’s time to re-read that essay because two recent big issues uncover attacks on the contract, and thus no less than the foundation of the internet.

The first is the Goodmail program announced by AOL. The EFF has been a leading member of a coalition pushing AOL to reconsider this program. People have asked us, “how bad can it really be?” Why is putting a price on E-mail so bad?

One particular disturbing thing about the goodmail program is that it reminds me a bit of a protection racket. Goodmail hopes its customers will pay it hundreds of millions of dollars because they are afraid of spam filters. They are selling those customers (who are required to be legitimate mailers sending solicited mail) protection from the spam filters of AOL. Problem is, those spam filters shouldn’t be blocking the legitimate mail at all — it is a flaw in the filters that makes people want to buy protection from them. They’re buying protection from something that shouldn’t be harming them in the first place. An ISP, like AOL, would normally be expected to have the duty to deliver legitimate mail to its customers. To serve those customers, they also block spam. Now, unlike the mobster selling protection, AOL’s spam-blockers are not blocking the legitimate mail maliciously, but that’s about the only difference, and part of why this smells bad.

This has been my direct criticism of the program on its own. Goodmail says it’s really a certification program. There have been IETF standards to sign E-mail and get certificates for signers for a long time, and many “Certificate Authority” companies of all stripes who sell such a process. They don’t charge per message, though.

The charging per message sets a nasty precedent which is an attack on the internet cost contract. It violates the rule about not sweating the individual traffic. I pay for my end, you pay for yours. As soon as we start deciding some traffic is good and bad, and some traffic has to pay to transit the pipes or get through the filters, we’ve taken a step backwards to the settlement based networks that the internet defeated decades ago.

In the 70s and 80s the world had many online services you paid for by the hour. It had MCI mail, which you paid to send. It had packet switched X.25 networks you paid for by the kilopacket. They were all crushed by the internet, not just in cost, buy in innovation. AOL, the last of the online services, had to adopt the internet model in almost all respects to avoid a slope to doom.

The idea of a two-tier internet, which many have been writing about recently, has generated the debate on a subject called network neutrality. Sometimes the problem is attempts to block services entirely based on what they are (such as blocking VoIP that competes with the phone service of the company that owns the wires.) Other times it’s a threat that companies providing high-bandwidth services, like video and voice, should “pay their share” and not get a “free ride” on the pipes that “belong” to the telco or cable ISPs.

Once again, the goal is to violate the contract. The pipes start off belonging to the ISPs but they sell them to their customers. The customers are buying their line to the middle, where they meet the line from the other user or site they want to talk to. The problem is generated because the carriers all price the lines at lower than they might have to charge if they were all fully saturated, since most users only make limited, partial use of the lines. When new apps increase the amount a typical user needs, it alters the economics of the ISP. They could deal with that by raising prices and really delivering the service they only pretend to sell, or by charging the other end, and breaking the cost contract. They’ve rattled sabres about doing the latter.

The contract is worth defending not just because it gives us cheap internet or flat rates. It is worth defending because it fosters innovation. It lets people experiment with services that would get shut down quickly if people got billed per packet. Without the cost contract, great new ideas will never get off the ground. And that would be the real shame.

Give us TVoIP, not IPTV

A buzzword in the cable/ilec world is IPTV, a plan to deliver TV over IP. Microsoft and several other companies have built IPTV offerings, to give phone and cable companies what they like to call a “triple play” (voice, video and data) and be the one-stop communications company.

IPTV offerings have you remotely control an engine at the central office of your broadband provider which generates a TV stream which is fed to your TV set. Like having the super set-top box back at the cable office instead of in your house. Of course it requires enough dedicated bandwidth to deliver good quality TV video. That’s 1.5 to 2 megabits for regular TV, 5 to 10 for HDTV with MP4.

Many of the offerings look slick. Some are a basic “network PVR” (try to look like a Tivo that’s outsourced) and Microsoft’s includes the ability to do things you can’t do at your own house, like tune 20 channels at once and have them all be live in small boxes.

I’m at the pulver.com Von conference where people are pushing this, notably the BellSouth exec who just spoke.

But they’ve got it wrong. We don’t need IPTV. We want TVoIP or perhaps more accurately Vid-o-IP. That’s a box at your house that plays video, and uses the internet to suck it down. It may also tune and record regular TV signals (like MythTV or Windows Media Center.)

Now it turns out that’s more expensive. You have to have a box, and a hard drive and a powerful processor. The IPTV approach puts all that equipment at the central office where it’s shared, and gets economies of scale. How can that not be the winner?

Well for one, TVoIP doesn’t require quality bandwidth. You can even use it with less bandwidth than a live stream takes. That’s because after people get TVoIP/PVR, they don’t feel inclined to surf. IPTV is still too much in the “watch live TV” world with surfing. TVoIP is in the poor-man’s video on demand world (like NetFlix and Tivo) where you pick what you might want to see in advance, and later go to the TV to pick something from the list of what’s shown up. Tuns out that’s 95% as good as Video on Demand, but much cheaper.

But more importantly, it’s under your control. Time and time again, the public has picked a clunkier, more expensive, harder to maintain box that’s under their own control over a slick, cheap service that is under the control of some bureaucracy. PCs over mainframes. PCs over Network Computers and Timesharing and SunRays. Sometimes it’s hard to explain why they did this for economic reasons, or even for quality reasons.

They did it because of choice. The box in your own house is, ideally, a platform you own. One that you can add new things to because you want them, and 3rd party vendors can add things to because you demand them. Central control means central choice of what innovations are important. And that never works. Even when it’s cheaper.

If the set top box were to remain a set top box, a box you can’t control, then IPTV would make good sense. But we don’t want it to be that. It’s now time to make it more, and companies are starting to offer products to make it more. We want a platform. Few people want to program it themselves, but we all want great small companies innovating and coming up with the next new thing. Which TVoIP can give us and IPTV won’t. Of course, there are locked TVoIP boxes, like the Akimbo and others, but they won’t win. Indeed, some efforts, like the trusted computing one, seek to make the home box locked, instead of an open platform, when it comes to playing media (and thus locking linux out of the game.) A truly open platform would see the most innovation for the user.

Disclaimer, I am involved with BitTorrent, which makes the most popular software used for downloading video over the internet.

Browsers: Time to have a default margin

In most browsers, the default style presents text adjecent to all sides of the browser window, with no margin. This is a throwback to early days of screen design, when screen real estate was considered so valuable that deliberately wasting it with whitespace was sacrilige.

Of course, in centuries of design on paper, nobody ever put text right up to the margins. Everybody knows it’s ugly and not what the eye wants. Thus, when you see a web page using the default style, which I end up with myself out of laziness, people have a reaction to it as ugly.

Screens are now big enough that it’s time to change the default style to be one that is easier to read. And that means margins. If a page designer wants to put stuff up against the edges, they can easily define their own stylesheets now to do this, so let them do it. I doubt they ever will put text there, though they might put graphics or their own custom margins. If text to the edges is a choice that nobody would make if given the option, it sure seems like silly default to have. It won’t break anything, you can just make the window wider, or make it a user option (which I believe it is in some browsers, but rarely set).

And then more people could use the default for quick pages without having to think about style every time they spit out a web page.

Reputation system for cars and the selfish merge.

George Carlin once proposed a system where people would shoot suction cup darts at cars when they did something annoying, like cutting you off, and if you got too many darts the cops would pull you over. Another friend recently proposed a lot of interest in building some sort of reputation system for cars using computers.

Though Carlin’s was a satire, it actually has merits that it would be hard to match in a computerized system. Sure, we could build a system where if somebody was rude on the road, you could snap a quick photo of their licence plate, or say it into a microphone or cell phone for insertion into a reputation database. But people could also just do this to annoy you. There’s no efficient way to prove you actually were there for the rude event. The photos could do that but it’s too much work to verify them. The darts actually do it, since you could not just stick them on my car when I’m stopped, or I would pull them off before driving.

One problem I want to solve with such a system is the selfish merge. We’ve all seen it — lanes are merging, and the cooperating drivers try to merge early. Then the selfish drivers zoom ahead in the vanishing lane until they get to its end. And always, somebody lets them in. Selfishly zooming up does get you through the jam faster, but at the same time these late mergers are a major contributor to the very jam they are bypassing.

We’ll never stop people from letting in the drivers, and indeed, from time to time innocent drivers get into the free lane because they are not clear on the situation or missed the merge.

…More…  read more »

Hybrid Personal Rapid Transit

When I was in high school, I did a project on PRT — Personal Rapid Transit. It was the “next big thing” in transit and of course, 30 years later it’s still not here, in spite of efforts by various companies like Taxi 2000 to bring it about.

With PRT, you have small, lightweight cars that run on a network of tracks or monorail, typically elevated. “Stations” are all spurs off the line, so all trips are non-stop. You go to a station, often right in your building, and a private mini-car is waiting. You give it your destination and it zooms into the computer regulated network to take you there non-stop.

The wins from this are tremendous. Because the cars are small and light, the track is vastly cheaper to build, and can often be placed with just thin poles holding it above the street. It can go through buildings, or of course go underground or at-grade. (In theory it seems to me smart at-grade (ground-level) crossings would be possible though most people don’t plan for this at present.)

The other big win is the speed. Almost no waiting for a car except at peak times, and the nonstop trips would be much faster than other transit or private cars on the congested, traffic-signal regulated roads.

Update: I have since concluded that self-driving vehicles are getting closer, and because they require no new track infrastructure and instead use regular roads, they will happen instead of PRT.

Yet there’s no serious push for such systems…

Read on.  read more »

Mimic caloric restriction as a means to birth control?

I’ll admit that female endocrinology is not something I know a great deal about, but I do know that most of the birth control pills today follow a general strategy of fooling the body into thinking it is pregnant. This stops ovulation and implantation.

It is also the case that certain types of stress, notably caloric restriction and extremely high levels of physical activity can also retard both ovulation and menstruation. In fact, young girls who are serious athletes often do not experience menarche until years later than ordinary girls. (On the other hand, for reasons not fully understood, the average age of menarche has been gettting significantly younger in recent decades.)

The evolutionary reason for the late menarche seems obvious — if times are tough, and food is scarce, it may be best to not have babies right then.

Anyway, there must be some hormonal signals which these levels of stress generate which trigger the reproductive system not to operate. My question is — might it be possible to mimic these signals, without other harmful effects, as a method of birth control and even menstrual supression?

Of course, we’re very interested in other ways to mimic the signals of caloric restriction without the actual restriction, since in all the animals tested so far, caloric restriction results in serious extension of lifespan and youthspan.

4th Amendment Shipping Tape

Looking at printed wedding gift ribbon some time ago, Kathryn thought it would be amusing to put the 4th amendment on the ribbon, and tie it around our suitcases.

That turned out to be hard to make, but I did make a design for shipping tape which you can see below. The printed shipping tape has the text slant so that as the pattern repeats, the 4th amendment appears as a long continuous string, as well as a block.

You can put this shipping tape on your packages and your airplane luggage. Every time I fly, my luggage gets a card in it telling me how “for my protection” they have searched it.

Now, when they open my luggage, they will have to literally slice the 4th amendment in half in order to do this.

Too bad we can’t wrap it around our phone wires, but at least the EFF is suing AT&T to stop the NSA wiretaps.

We ordered several cases of this tape for the EFF. You can get it as a gift if you join the EFF or buy it directly from the EFF Store. There is a fat markup of course, which goes to protecting your civil rights. Buy some for your own shipping tape gun, or give the gift of privacy rights to a friend.

And yeah, I know it probably won’t stop them from searching. But if, like John Perry Barlow on his way back from Burning Man, I have to go to court over it, it will be nice to tell the judge that they cut the 4th amendment up to search my bags.

(Minor note: The printer could not always get the repetitions to line up perfectly, so sometimes there’s a vertical gap.)

Do our secure passwords in a bluetooth cell phone.

Password security on the web is a troublesome issue. We have hundreds of web accounts, some of them with access to all our money, and it must be secure, not just from phishers and people snooping the web line, but from viruses and keyloggers that can take over our own computers or roaming computers we want to use to access password protected web sites.

The only way to be secure if you can’t trust the very computer you’re logging in from is to have a security dongle which contains the real secrets and does the logon negotiation, plus confirmation of any big actions like large cash transfers. People have carried login dongles for years, typically which have a screen with a constantly changing number (securid) or which can do challenge/response.

Most of the world is moving now to having a smart phone, in particular one with a standardized data protocol such as bluetooth. I propose a protocol so that web sites can, given a limited channel to the phone, do a login dialog with the phone. The computer would just be a conduit for the data, it would not matter if it were compromised, as the passwords would not be sent in the clear.

More thoughts…  read more »

Digital Piano keys with computer controlled resistence

The sound of digital pianos continues to improve, and expensive ones also have a good feel, often by building individually weighted keys that go beyond simulating a key on a real piano.

What might be done with more modern technologies, such as super-fast servos, and fluids whose viscoscity can be varied based on the strength of electric or magnetic fields applied to them. (Some of these fluids are being applied to the development of dynamicly responding shock absorbers.)

So the first step would be to build an action to connect to a keyboard, be it either a servo, a fluid or just a plain powerful magnetic coil, so we can adust, with millisecond resolution, how much backwards force the key applies to the finger of the player. Of course we must also accurately and quickly measure the force being applied by the finger to drive the process.

Next, we would build a device to measure the force-response of a real piano keyboard. It would press the keys in various ways that real players press them -- slowly, quickly, hard, soft and with other forms of varying touch measured from real pianists. Then attempt to develop a model of how the keys on the real piano respond.

With this, we could measure all sorts of great pianos. The concert Steinways, the finest pianos available. These all feel different. In some cases the feel is not necessarily "superior" but just what people have come to expect from that type of piano.

Then we would program our dynamic resistence keys to model any piano that had been measured. Throw a switch and change how it feels from Steinway to Yamaha. Just as you can throw a switch to change how it sounds. Ideally, the equipment would be light so the keyboard would not have to be heavy, as today's weighted MIDI keyboards are. (Of course they are still much lighter than grand pianos.)

How web sites can do a much smarter 'pledge drive'

There is buzz about how Jason Kottke, of kottke.org, has abandoned his experiment of micropayment donations to support his full-time blogging. He pulled in $40,000 in the year, almost all of it during his 3 week pledge drive, but that's hardly enough. Now I think he should try adsense, but I doubt he hasn't heard that suggestion before.

However, PBS/NPR are able to get a large part of their budgets through pledge drives, so it's possible to make this happen. I think we should be able to do it better on the web.

For example, on PBS/NPR, when they start the pledge drive, they get into a pretty boring endless repeat of the basic message. They tell you that if they reach the goal, they can end the pledge drive early. But this rarely happens, and even when it does, if you pledge early, it doesn't stop the begging.

On the web it could. You could do a pledge drive here where, after a person donates, the drive is over for them. This is not the same as sites that simply charge a subscription fee to get past the ads (such as Salon and Slashdot). This would be an organized pledge drive which is over for everybody after a set period, but over even sooner for those who donate. (There's a touch of work to do for people who use multiple machines, of course.)

Indeed you could even have a "turn off pledge drive I'm never going to give" button for the freeloaders as an experiment. Or it might turn it down a notch. Hard to say if this would work. Of course, people could also write filters for web begging if you make the drives too long. Of course, the drive could even be started at an individual time for the less frequent visitors, though that punishes those who disable cookies or switch machines.

Nominate for EFF pioneer awards

Each year since 1992 the EFF has given out the EFF Pioneer Awards to a wide array of online pioneers. Check out the lists on the web site.

We’re seeking new nominees for this year’s awards, to be given at CFP 06. We need them by Feb 28. Check out the web page, and e-mail us the nominee’s name and contact info with a description of their contribution. Organizations and Systems can be nominated, as well as individuals.

Who do you think has helped make the cyberworld what it is? Get them recognized.

Olympics notebook

Found a thread on avsforum where NBC's engineers are participating. Turns out it would be very simple for them to include a second audio stream without the commentary. In addition, this has apparently been done by some European broadcasters.

I would like to even propose we expand the standard a bit here, to indicate when two streams are "mixable." If Stream 1 had the full audio, and stream 2 had it without commentary, one could also mix these streams, to effectively adjust the volume of the commentary if your equipment knew enough to do so. You could also subtract them if you wanted just the commentary. In a perfect world, each audio channel would come in its own stream so that you could mix yourself, and edit out Scott Hamilton for example, but that's not likely to happen.

So let's encourage them to do this for all sports. Give HD viewers a true "being there" sense. Other interesting things learned: The SD stuff is being shot with widescreen PAL (625 line, 50hz) cameras, cropped and coverted to 525line 60hz for SDTV, upconverted with no need for crop for 1080i60hz viewers.

Sport inflation: It keeps going. Just too many sports. I must admit I am of two minds on Snowboardcross. On the one hand, sports where people physically race one another (like in track) are much more exciting to watch. On the other hand, both Snowboardcross and short-track speed skating tend to have too much luck in them because of this, as people both fall, or are hit by those who fall. Those who are innocent have been getting free passes from the heats (fair) but are just out of luck in the finals.

At least there is no "program component." In spite of Figure Skating's efforts to revamp the terrible judging system which ended in scandal last time when a French judge was bribed to reduce the score of a Canadian pair, it seems that "reputation" remains a huge hidden component in the scores.

It probably wouldn't get the audience, but I would switch figure skating to a pure, non-judged event like high-jump. You keep raising "the bar" (difficulty level on a series of jumps and moves) until only the gold medalist can do it. You would end up with more medals (at least one for the Axel and Toe Loop, or just a general for toe jumps and edge jumps.)

It's not that the dances and choreography aren't pretty and fun to watch. It's just that they are artistry rather than pure athletics -- and thus depend on reputation too much.

These olympics are doing poorly in the ratings. I would have figured with all the HDTVs out there the reverse would happen. Of course, I watch with MythTV. It would be unbearable to watch these games without Myth or Tivo or similar, and most HD users don't have those things.

Interesting issue with Ice Dancing. One of the teams featured a U.S. man and Canadian woman, who could not compete in 2002 because of this. They competed this year after some lobbying got U.S. citizenship for the woman via act of congress. I wonder if we'll see more Olympic gamesmanship with modification of citizenship rules. (It's been common for years for people with dual citizenship who can't get on one country's team to just compete for the other country, particularly small ones.)

I suppose one could just allow a bi-national team like this one to compete. I mean they give 2 gold medals to the winning team, what harm is there if it's one for each country? Seems like something grand in the spirit of international cooperation. The problem is the rules about how many competitors a country can send. Both nations might be afraid to send half of a team if it counted the same as sending the full team against their quota. If it only counted half, they would need to send half of two teams, but it might work.

The national borders are becoming less important in the big money sports. The US-Canadian ice dancers train in the US. I recall at least one eastern team which trained in Calgary. (Such training in richer countries is common.) Why not present the world with the best team?

Power through flash hotshoe

I’ll be moving soon to the Canon 5D camera from my 20D. It’s better in just about every way, but like many “pro” cameras it does not have a built in flash.

It’s not that there isn’t a reason for this. Built in flashes usually suck, and nobody would use them for any sort of serious photography, except for fill. So if you’re going out on a shoot, you would of course carry along some quality flashes and the built-in would be a waste of space.

On the other hand people use cameras like the 5D and 1Ds for more casual shooting, and if you don’t bring a flash and you find yourself wanting an indoor shot, you may find yourself out of luck with your multi-thousand-dollar camera. And, as noted, there is the need for fill. Pro flashes are big and unweildy, you don’t strap them on if you don’t need them.

So here’s a compromise. Add lines to the hotshoe for power, with a smart power bus that only applies real power when a smart flash is confirmed in place, and communicates digitally about voltages and current levels. This would have several benefits.

First, one could sell a small add-on flash that needs no batteries, it’s just capacitor, controller and flashtube, no more than the built-in flash used to be, but perhaps on a telescoping stick so it can raise up high over the camera as a flash should. In fact the camera batteries are pretty powerful, so you could consider making this a decent flash, at the cost of sucking your camera battery faster. But why not? Why not just carry more of one type of battery rather than having two different types for flash and camera? In addition, some people use a special grip on the camera that holds extra battery power.

This power bus could actually even have value with a flash that has its own batteries. You might elect that when those batteries get too low, you could switch to internal batteries. If it means getting a shot that you could not get due to dead flash batteries, of course this is worth it. In Canon cameras, internal battery is 7.2v and flash uses 4xAA meaning 6 or more likely 5 with NiMh, but a flash can easily take this range of voltages. (A fancy camera power supply might even be able to work in reverse, sucking power from the flash batteries when the camera battery is the one dead.)

Of course, I still want all the other goodies I’ve asked for — making infrared flash control standard in the camera bodies, instead of a $200 add-on. (At least with the power available the add-on transmitter could be smaller and cheaper.) And the dream we’ll never get — some standarization among vendors.

This power bus could also power other things — GPS receivers, radio transmitters, audio recorders, portable microdisks, anything people can think of.

"Topographic" map based on zillow-like data

Ok, like a lot of people I find it fascinating to browse Zillow and see the estimated values of my neighbour’s houses, and yes, I admit it, my friends. Another example of the little shock you get when data that was always technically public becomes truly public thanks to some new internet application.

Of course Zillow is adding to the data, by taking the public info (house sale figures, house size and features from county records and MLS) and applying algorithms to guess current values. However, they’re often quite innacurate. High for my house, way low for a number of others I checked. (Diane Feinstein’s new house, which just sold for $16 million, shows as only around 5 million. I wonder if she played some tricks to keep the value out of the records?)

Anyway, as this data becomes more available it would be nice to do other things with it. The idea I thought about was a something like a topographic map, so you could soar, Google Earth style, over “hills” of high value. Or plot other metrics like cost per square foot etc. Might also help people neighbourhood shop, and an interesting lesson in real estate capitalism.

Map of the restaurants on Irving St. / Outer Sunset, San Francisco

We’ve been working on an inherited house in the Irving Street/23rd avenue neighbourhood of the Outer Sunset of San Francisco. This is one of SF’s “new chinatowns” — the original one on Grant St. long ago given over to the tourists. Irving is where the real asians go to shop and eat. I’ve been impressed at the incredible quality to price ratio of the food here, I think it’s the best locus of value in the city.

As such I have prepared a map of the Irving Street/Sunset Restaurants with some commentary for those visiting the area. I did it as an HTML table to mimic the streets. Of course, this is mostly for readers in the Bay Area. The Sunset is rarely visited by tourists, and has notoriously bad fog in summer, but it has a lot more character than I expected. The street is also full of asian grocery stores and miscellany shops.

It’s also just one block from Golden Gate Park. One can readily gather food on Irving and walk to picnic tables in the park at 25th or 18th.

How to build a "great firewall of China" -- do it poorly

I’m not in the business of helping countries be repressive, but I started thinking what I would do if I were the Chinese internet censor. I don’t think I’m giving them any secrets, but these thoughts may affect our own plans on how to fight such censors.

The most important realization was that I wouldn’t want to make my great firewall really strong. That it was not only easier, but possibly better, to make it possible to bypass it with a moderate amount of determination. Not trivial, as in “hold down the shift key” but not requiring cypherpunk level skills.

The reason is that if I allow such holes, I can watch who uses them, and watching them is more valuable to the secret police than plugging them. And if the holes don’t require fancy data encryption and hiding techniques, most people seeking to bypass the firewall will do so unencrypted, making it far easier to watch what is done. But even if people encrypt, they do reveal who they are. So long as there are not immense numbers, that’s enough to give me a good dissident watchlist.

My goal as censor would be to tune the filtering so that the true dissidents can all bypass it, but make it hard enough that I don’t get so many people on my watchlist that I can’t handle the size of it. The censors know they can’t keep information from the truly determined, even in the most repressive regimes. They just need to keep it from the masses. (Even the masses will hear rumours in any society, but they will always just be rumours.)

This explains why many of the proxies people have put up to let people bypass the firewall remain themselves unblocked. This also can be explained by inefficiency of maintaining the block-list, but this time I am prepared to attribute something to malice rather than incompetence. Especially if the proxies are unencrypted I would not want to block them — unless they go so popular that I could no longer track the users.

This is one of the problems with the Google China decision. In the past, use of the firewall-blocked google.com was not suspicious, though typing certain phrases into it may have been. Now, with censored google.cn, use of google.com suggests you are trying to get past the censorship at least. A big win for surveillance. Google is, wisely, not keeping logs in China, but that doesn’t stop the international gateways from keeping the logs.

(Read on for some anti-censor techniques.)  read more »

Laundromat machine / locker

I haven’t been to a laundromat in ages, but we’re fixing up a house that has no washer/dryer yet and has a laundromat 200’ away. Long ago, when I lived in an appartment tower, I would go to the basement laundry room, and leave my clothes there. Worst case was they ran out of machines and somebody tossed them in a basket. And even though the odds of somebody stealing your clothes are low, most people are not as willing to leave their stuff unattended in a city street laundromat.

So how about combining the machines with a timed airport style locker system. You would insert the coins and pull out a key which you could use to open the washer or dryer. The lock would auto-reset about 10 minutes after the cycle ends, so in addition, you could put in more coins, which would act as insurance. If you didn’t get to the machine in time, these coins would be taken, and give you more time on the lock. If you did get to the machine shortly after the cycle ended, you could get back your extra coins in the coin return…  read more »

HDTV to SDTV cropping in the camera, and NBC SD widescreens

Note 1: NBC doesn’t have nearly enough HD cameras for the Olympics, and I can’t really blame them for not having one for every section of luge track to show us something for half a second.

But it seems in many areas they are showing us a widescreen image from an SD camera, and it looks more blurry than the pillarboxed SD footage they show of past scenes. I wonder, are they taking a cropped widescreen section out of their 4:3 SDTV camera? If so, that’s not what I want. Or are there a lot of 16:9 SD cameras out there?

Note 2: I haven’t researched much how people are using broadcast HD cameras for live events, but notes I have found suggest the camera crews shoot in 16:9 and compose the frame so that the 4:3 frame in the middle will look good for downconvert.

I propose a fancier scheme. Sometimes you want HD to get more detail on the same scene. Sometimes you want it to get the same detail and a bigger view, especially in sports. It would be good if somebody (camera operator or directors in control room) could set the crop box dynamically. It could just be a 4:3 box in the middle, or panned left and right, but it could and should also be a smaller box anywhere in the frame, perhaps 2/3rds of the frame height (a 480 line section of a 720 line field) or even a 480 line section of a 1080 line field.

The camera operator would have to see a clearly marked box in their viewfinder, to show what the current 4:3 SDTV view is like, and compose to assure the main action is in that box. In the meantime HD viewers would see the whole scene. When it makes more sense to show both viewers a similar view, the box would pull out. In theory, the box could pull out all the way so the SDTV viewers see a letterboxed view, though I doubt many networks would use that.

It would be confusing for the camera operator to do this at first, and it might make sense for the control room folks to do this at least some of the time.

This would also be a sort of digital zoom for the SDTV viewers, and the UI might be integrated into the zoom control. Possibly a button would control whether an optical zoom was done, or the SDTV view was shrunk.

Anybody know if they’re doing it this way? I’ve certainly seen TV shows like SNL recently that are clearly composed for 16:9. Are we seeing a crop of the 4:3, or are the 4:3 people seeing letterbox? I would have to tune both programs to find out.

Why Google took the wrong course over China

Google’s decision to operate a search service in China, implementing Chinese censorship rules into the service, has been a controversial issue. Inside Google itself, it is reported there was much debate, with many staff supporting and many staff opposing the final decision, as as been the case in the public. So it’s not a simple issue.

Nonetheless, in spite of being friends with many in the company, I have to say they made the wrong decision, for the wrong reason.

Google, and many others including other search engines, argue that their presence there, even censored, will be good for the ordinary Chinese people. The old uncensored google.com is just as available today as it was before, which is to say it works much of the time but is often blocked by the so-called great firewall of China, and blocked in frustrating ways. So, Google can claim it hasn’t taken any information access away from the Chinese, only added more reliable access to the information not banned by the Chinese regime.

To some credit, Google could have moved into China much earlier. Competitors, like Yahoo, got more involved sooner, with poor results for press freedom.

Furthermore, most people agree that search engines, including Google, have been a great and powerful force for increasing access to information of all sorts, and that it will help the Chinese people to get more access to them. We can even take heart that the Chinese regime’s censorship efforts will be futile in the face of the internet’s remarkable ability to route around such barriers.

The point that is missed is that all these claims of benefit can be true, and it can still be the wrong decision.

15 years ago, when I was publishing an online newspaper, I got a customer at a university in apartheid-ruled South Africa. I did not want to do business with South Africa, but I hadn’t investigated things much. My feed was not to be censored, so it would only be a positive influence. They convinced me to do it.

However, later, I asked South Africans about the boycotts. Most agreed that the boycotts were hurting the ordinary South African, the poor black South African, more than they were hurting the ruling Broderbund. That “engagement” (non-boycott) resulted in more good than harm at the individual level. But, in spite of this, many of them said, “Please boycott!”

Why? Because it was doing something. Selling to South Africa was the ordinary path, acting like nothing was going on there. It sent no message, made no statement, was even a light endorsement. Boycotting was the active course, an act of defiance, an act of protest.

Google’s course, however, turns out to be clearer. There are many levels of engagement. We all do business with China; it seems half our clothes and manufactured goods come from there. Only a few call for a boycott of China entirely. Even though we’ve seen, painfully, that just by doing business in China, Yahoo has felt itself compelled to turn over the identity of a reporter to the police so that he could be jailed for a decade.

But Google decided to go beyond doing business in China. They are not just doing business in a repressive country. They have agreed to become the actual implementer of the repression. Their code, their servers, do the censorship.

They are not just selling goods to a repressive country, they are selling arms, to put it in extreme terms.

And that’s too far. That is collaboration, not merely engagement. And that’s where the line must be drawn to “not be evil.”

Serving queries may help the individual Chinese in the short run. Not serving them, however, makes a bold statement, a message to China and to Google’s competitors that can’t be missed, and helps the Chinese people even more in the long run.

Addendum: There’s another reason this is a problem — it makes the people using google.com easier to spot.