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The self-appointed censors at GoDaddy


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION On the morning of Jan. 24, Fyodor Vaskovich awoke to discover that his Web site, SecLists.org, had been transformed into a giant error message. The message said his domain couldn’t be resolved. This troubled him greatly: SecLists is an archive of several computer security–related mailing lists that contains more than 50,000 pages of technical information. It has thousands of visitors per day and nets Vaskovich a fair amount of income from Google ads. Where had the site gone? He checked with the registrar that sold him his site, GoDaddy, and discovered the megacorporation had changed the site’s name servers — addresses that tell your browser how to find the place where a Web site is hosted. Instead of his Web host’s name servers, he found this name server: ns1.suspended-for.spam-and-abuse.com

What the hell? Vaskovich checked his answering machine and found a message from somebody in the abuse department at GoDaddy telling him they were going to pull the plug on his domain. Based on his logs, it appeared that his name servers had been changed less than a minute after the call was made. Essentially, he’d been given a few seconds’ notice before a major Internet resource (and source of revenue) was shut down.

For the rest of the day Vaskovich was on the phone with GoDaddy trying to untangle what had happened. Luckily, he kept careful records. These records corroborated his story that he’d been given less than a minute’s notice and that GoDaddy repeatedly refused to give him customer service for several hours. At last he learned that SecLists had been yanked offline because MySpace contacted GoDaddy and requested it. One of the 50,000 pages on SecLists contained an e-mail in which somebody had listed the names and passwords of several MySpace users. Instead of asking Vaskovich to take down the page with passwords — which is standard industry practice — MySpace asked GoDaddy to squash the whole site. GoDaddy should have contacted Vaskovich first, and they could have asked for a legal takedown notice. But they didn’t.

What makes GoDaddy’s actions even more disgusting is that the passwords in question had been leaked about 10 days before GoDaddy took SecLists down. They appeared on dozens of other security-related and hacker Web sites. Security expert Bruce Schneier had even written a column in which he analyzed the quality of about 30,000 of the leaked passwords. (Among the top 10 popular passwords was "fuckyou," which completely mirrors my feelings for MySpace.)

So the point is passwords were already circuutf8g, and MySpace needed to tell its customers to change their passwords. Squelching SecLists wasn’t going to protect anyone. And yet GoDaddy’s general counsel, Christine Jones, defended its actions because she believed pedophiles would get access to children’s names and passwords. "For something that has safety implications like that, we take it really seriously," she told Wired News editor Kevin Poulsen. "I think the fact that we gave him notice at all was pretty generous."

Writing in his blog about the incident, Poulsen added, "Every link in internet service — network operators, hosting companies, and now domain registrars — willing to take on a censorship role increases the likelihood of legitimate content being suppressed." What this GoDaddy disaster makes clear is that instant censorship is possible, with no court oversight, at almost any point in the data chain. And for users who aren’t as savvy or well-connected as Vaskovich, getting shut down by GoDaddy would be essentially a death sentence for speech. Indeed, he told me that he couldn’t get any service from GoDaddy until he told their customer service rep that he spends thousands of dollars on domains with the company every month. Suddenly, he was told his two-day wait for service would be cut down to mere minutes.

In the short term, what this means is do not use GoDaddy as your registrar. Vaskovich has set up a protest site at NoDaddy.com, where you can learn more.

A spokesperson from GoDaddy said the company disagrees with the way Vaskovich characterized his experience. While the legal department at GoDaddy has not yet read the NoDaddy site, the spokesperson said the company will take legal action if any of its statements are untrue. Given that GoDaddy disputes Vaskovich’s story, such a suit seems inevitable. *

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who still isn’t clear on how, exactly, a pedophile would figure out which passwords on SecLists belonged to children.

Bias on eBay


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION Complain about eBay all you like — and I’m sure you have — but the gigantic online auction site has done a few things right. The company has proven that you can create a community where strangers exchange large sums of money and most of the time nobody gets burned. It’s all because of eBay’s reputation system, the software that allows sellers and buyers to give each other feedback ratings. Nobody does business on eBay without a tail of data following behind them, packed with information about what the community thinks of their trustworthiness. Oh how I wish that people in real life had such easily accessed tails.

The cool part of having these reputation tails is that anyone can study them and look for patterns. Often, what eBay researchers find reveals more about life offline than it does about how to make the winning bid for the rare Star Trek Voyager Captain Janeway–as–evolved slug dolls.

University of Maryland researcher Chrysanthos Dellarocas recently told me how eBay reputations may be falsely inflated because people are unwilling to say mean things. He and his colleague Chuck A. Wood wrote a paper on what they call the "sound of silence" in online feedback. That silence is made by all the people who don’t add their opinions to the reputation tails. That absence of feedback, Dellarocas argues, allows certain people to garner better reputations than they should. Dellarocas says he detected a strong reporting bias in reputations on eBay and speculates that people who leave feedback are statistically more likely to be positive in their comments. Those who remain silent are likely to have squelched an urge to make a negative comment — either because they fear retribution in the form of negative scores added to their own reputation rating or because it’s simply less socially acceptable to make negative comments.

To fix this problem, Dellarocas is consulting on a start-up called TheGorb, which is all about allowing people to leave feedback anonymously. The site will let users create reputation tails for professionals such as doctors and lawyers and have the option to leave anonymous comments. Dellarocas is hoping that anonymity will solve the silence vulnerability and allow people to be more candid about the service they’ve gotten. With access to more honest reputation rankings, the people who use TheGoob have a better chance of finding a genuinely good doctor.

Meanwhile, two University of Michigan researchers, Paul Resnick and Tapan Khopkar, have just done some interesting experiments measuring the difference between the ways Indian and American citizens interact with eBay. Apparently, Indians are far less likely than people from the United States to trust sellers. The reputation ratings on eBay India reflect this. Sellers get far more negative feedback. A ranking of 93 percent positive, which would be a death knell on the US eBay, is considered a worthy score on eBay India. Khopkar also found that Indians are more willing than people from the US to buy from sellers they don’t trust. "Indians were willing to send money even if they believed there was only an 80 percent chance that they’d actually get the item they bought," Khopkar says.

In controlled experiments with recent Indian emigrants and US nationals using an eBay-like system, Resnick and Khopkar found that 74 percent of people from the US were trusting enough to buy from strangers, while only 56 percent of Indians were. Khopkar speculates that this difference could be traced to the fact that India is a much more community-oriented culture than the US. Perhaps cultural influences make Indians less likely to trust strangers online because those strangers are perceived as being outside one’s trusted community. In the US, where individualism is intensely valued, there may be more willingness to give cash to unknown people.

In light of Dellarocas’s research, however, it’s also possible to argue that Indians are just more honest than Americans in their feedback. Perhaps if people in the US didn’t silence their criticisms, eBay US would look more like eBay India. Most reputations tails on eBay US show 99 percent good feedback, which seems far too cheery to be realistic. And possibly these unrealistic reputation tails are leading to unwise levels of trust in US consumers. EBay India may be less nicey-nice, but it sounds like its consumers are more willing to give balanced feedback. Frankly, I’d rather live in a world of slightly less trust than one where critics silence themselves. *

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who has never bought anything on eBay but has purchased countless books from strangers on alibris.com.

Anti-Christian mythology


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION For several years I’ve heard Philip Pullman’s young-adult fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials called an antireligious response to the mega-Christian Chronicles of Narnia. Progressive fantasy about troubles with an otherworldly version of the Christian right? I’m there. So I snapped up Pullman’s three novels — The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass — each named after a magical device that aids our heroes in a quest through parallel universes, including a parallel Oxford, England.

Right away, however, I discovered that these are not antireligious novels. Certainly, there are some bad Christians, but there are also a god and tons of angels. Plus, all the universes are united via a spiritual substance called Dust — or, in our world, dark matter. Turns out dark matter is a kind of psychic life-essence that fuels angels and souls. The Dust thing really bugged me. I expect magic in fantasy worlds, but Pullman turns astrophysics into spiritual goo. It was a rhetorical move right out of Jesusland, where believers have managed to convert science into intelligent design. There’s a difference between creating a magical world with its own rules and claiming that scientifically observable phenomena in our own world can actually be explained with angels.

So why has this trilogy been touted by the London Telegraph and countless grumpy evangelicals as anti-Christian? Probably because Pullman portrays the ruling Christian sects in a parallel England as bloodthirsty and cruel. In this enchanted version of our world, all humans have an animal familiar who represents an aspect of their souls — the emotional part that takes pleasure in worldly things. The government is disturbed by the anti-Christian sensuality represented by the human-familiar bond and gives some Christians money to experiment with separating children from their familiars so that they won’t ever become "fallen." After these operations, the "severed" children are either mentally broken or so overwhelmed with grief that they kill themselves. It’s a pretty nifty little allegory for all the freaky shit Christians have done to kids to crush their sexual urges.

But the problem here isn’t Christianity itself. It’s with a bunch of antipleasure adults who want to torture erotic desire out of kids in the name of God. In addition, as we learn in the later books, a similar social problem has emerged in the world of angels. The Christian God is actually a frail old creature being kept alive by fascistic, high-level angels who are using his reputation to reestablish the authority of the kingdom of heaven throughout all the parallel universes. And somehow, because our heroes are fighting to stop these power-mad angels and bad-actor Christians, we’re supposed to think the book is antireligion?

Perhaps the West is so steeped in Christian mythology that we can’t imagine an outside to Christianity. Pullman gets to be antireligious simply because he criticizes one aspect of Christianity. Instead of pushing hierarchy and sexual repression, he celebrates individualism and sexual expression — as long as everybody is heterosexual, in love, and conforms to appropriate gender roles.

Lyra, an adventurous little girl from parallel Oxford who rescues a bunch of children from the evil Christian sect in The Golden Compass, defies God but remains in thrall to biblical gender roles. The closer to puberty she gets, the more she hands off her power to violent, strong men. Eventually, she reaches puberty and falls in love with Will, whose "subtle knife" can cut doorways between worlds. After the two young teens have sex, they radiate enough Dust to help save the world. This moment of sex-positivity is Pullman’s way of signaling to us that the new "republic of heaven" will be better than the old one.

But many other tenets of Christianity remain intact: the belief that spirituality, rather than science, can explain the world; and the idea that it is natural for women to subordinate themselves to men. When Lyra returns to her Oxford, where only men attend university, she can only hope to be educated at a less-prestigious women’s college. And her attachment to Will has robbed her of her only power: reading the golden compass of truth. If Lyra’s transformation from hero to second-class citizen is what passes for anti-Christian storytelling, maybe we should be looking for a new way out of the religion problem. *

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who would rather open the doorways between worlds than kill a God who doesn’t exist anyway.

The Stop Online Expression Act


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION Now that Congress is back in session, I’m bracing myself for the resurrection of the Stop the Online Exploitation of Our Children Act. This is yet another bill, in a long line dating back to the Communications Decency Act and the Child Online Protection Act, that attempts to curtail free expression online by raising the specter of child abuse. First proposed at the end of last session, the bill is the brainchild of Sens. John McCain and Charles Schumer.

Leaked drafts of the Stop Online Exploitation of Our Children Act read like a speech squasher’s gift list. The bill requires the government to create a list containing the e-mail addresses of known sex offenders — probably compiled from various state databases of sex offenders. All online publishers, including bloggers and blog aggregators like LiveJournal, will be forced to police everything posted on their sites, searching for e-mails from this list. If they find a match, publishers must delete the accounts associated with the offending e-mail address — as well as anything the owner has published on the site. Failure to do so will result in steep fines. Fines will also be imposed if publishers fail to report behavior that might involve child porn or obscene behavior.

Here are four good reasons to oppose this legislation:

1. It imposes an undue burden on small publishers. Under the proposed rule even small bloggers, chat room operators, social networking sites, and webzine publishers will have to comb through the content on their site, looking for things that appear to have been written by people on the list of sex offenders that the government will compile. In practice this will probably mean that sites offering community forums, such as Alternet and even Slashdot, simply have to stop allowing people to post. There will be too great a risk that they’ll be fined if they miss a post by an alleged sex offender.

2. It misses the target. Keeping e-mail lists and deleting things written by "sex offenders" is dangerous because the category is very capacious. In states like Texas, people arrested for streaking or public nudity are classed as sex offenders. In Illinois, convicted skinny-dippers (i.e., people engaging in "public indecency") must register as sex offenders. In addition, many databases of sex offenders have been shown to be full of errors — and it’s possible for two people to have very similar e-mail addresses. Too many innocent people will get caught up in this net and find their words deleted from the Web.

3. It will not stop people who are currently committing crimes. This proposed law focuses on persecuting people who once engaged in criminal acts, rather than people currently engaged in criminal acts. If a former sex offender is posting appropriate messages in a therapy group, or talking with other model-train hobbyists, there is absolutely no reason — other than sheer prejudice — for deleting what he or she has written. In fact, preventing convicted sex offenders from having a social outlet online might lead to more recidivism. Moreover, if publishers are throwing all their energies into hunting down and deleting convicted sex offenders, publishers may not have enough resources to track down nonconvicts who are posting comments that are genuinely harmful to children.

4. It sets a bad precedent by asking untrained citizens to report on one another. Certain groups, such as doctors and therapists, are required by law to report if one of their clients is a danger to him- or herself or others. Schools are required to report suspected child abuse. But these groups are full of professionals who are trained to identify dangerous behavior that may affect children. Publishers are not trained to identify such behavior, nor should they be asked to do so. If we force Web publishers to turn in or silence their fellow citizens, which group will be forced to do it next? Sales clerks? Librarians? Rental car agents? Forcing citizens to turn against one another is not going to prevent crime. It’s only going to spark prejudice and lead to greater social injustice.

Be on the lookout for the next version of the McCain-Schumer "Stop Online Expression" bill — especially as election season draws a bit nearer. Don’t let it fool you. This isn’t about saving the children. It’s about scapegoating and censorship. And it will let the real criminals go free. *

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who isn’t in your database.

Sci-fi made me do it


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION Human beings are always bragging how cool we are because we plan for the future. That’s probably why a team of neuroscientists recently did a study on the anatomy of future thinking. Turns out that pondering an upcoming event like, say, the release of Windows Vista, activates a very specific part of the brain.

At least, that’s what researchers at the University of Washington in St. Louis observed when they stuck people in an MRI machine and asked them to think about their next birthdays. The area of the brain for futuristic thought is apparently different from the parts we use to think about the past. Published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, their study is the first to detail an anatomical region associated with future-related thoughts. But it’s certainly not the first to explore the idea that humans have a special gift for thinking about what’s next — despite evidence that other animals obviously have tomorrow in mind when they stock up on food for the winter or build dams.

I often imagine the beginning of a scientific study as if it were a Hollywood pitch meeting. Scientist A goes to Grant Source B and says, "Hey, I’ve got an idea for you — it’s sort of a mix of Nancy Kanwisher discovering the facial recognition centers in the brain and Helen Fisher asking subjects to think about people they love while in an MRI. Except it’s about the future! We’ll ask our subjects to imagine seeing the faces of loved ones next week! It will be the best of neurology and psychology with a time travel twist!" And Scientist A may or may not get the money for the project.

What makes me want to Hollywoodize this grant-begging scenario is the fact that nobody ever seems to have a clear definition of what makes a project too ridiculous to get funded. I’m not saying this University of Washington study is particularly ridiculous, but it skirts silliness. Researchers asked subjects to imagine a past event, a neutral event, and a future event while studying their brains in an MRI. This technique is used in a lot of reputable brain function studies, but this particular version is error-prone and imprecise. What if people are thinking two or three things at once? What if they think about something so far into the future that it verges on fantasy rather than merely planning for next year? Certainly, there are ways to normalize the results, especially with multiple test subjects, but nevertheless, the whole thing is a messy business to say the least.

And as I was saying earlier, there seems to be no good way to articulate what makes this study different from something most of us would agree is patently silly, such as trying to find the science fiction center of the brain by asking people in an MRI machine to imagine a future full of spaceships and aliens. I mean, if we have a future-thought area of our brains, it certainly seems to follow that we might have a science fiction center. Perhaps it even overlaps with the future-thought area? Does that mean sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow and futurist Ray Kurzweil have bigger or more active science fiction centers in their brains? Let’s image them and find out! It would be like the University of Washington study crossed with Philip K. Dick. Want to fund it?

This study could also answer the crucial question of whether a taste for science fiction can be inherited. If it’s a structure in the brain, after all, there’s some set of genes responsible. Does that mean the human brain underwent an evolutionary mutation sometime in the 16th century, when foundational futurist Thomas More wrote Utopia?

One possible outcome of this study would be a way for science fiction writers, futurists, and their fans to explain their predilections as a fact of biology rather than a cultural preference. We can’t help being science fiction lovers and acolytes of the future, you see. We were just born that way. So you can’t reeducate us into liking literature or historical tales. Our brains aren’t suited for it. Moreover, science fiction may compel us to do things we can’t be blamed for, like playing video games and going to conventions full of people in costumes. Perhaps unhappy futurists can be given drug therapies to reduce the activity in the science fiction region of their brains. That way they can get back to leading regular lives that include planning only for birthday parties in the future, not intergalactic societies. Yes, I like the direction this research is going. Let’s get some funding. *

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who volunteers to think about artificial intelligence while getting an MRI during the next study of science fiction centers in the brain.

A geek’s new year


TECHSPLOITATION I’m going to spend New Year’s Eve in Berlin with a large group of hackers gathered by the venerable Chaos Computer Club. Something about the idea of going to a foreign country to celebrate the new year has made me want to do the traditional thing and make a list of resolutions. Just to be sure I follow through on them, I’m presenting to you the unexpurgated list of my top eight geeky resolutions for 2007.

Relearn French. I took French classes from eighth grade all the way through graduate school, and at one (triumphant) point I was actually able to read André Gide’s L’Immoraliste entirely in French. It probably helped that the novel was full of gay sex, which has always been one of my favorite topics. But sadly, my French has withered away — much to the chagrin of my sweetie, who speaks with an enviable accent. Next year I will relearn and go to Paris. J’ai envie de manger le brie et les baguettes à côté de la Seine! Plus, every geek should be fluent in at least two natural languages.

Share more media. I’ve got a terabyte RAID array full of music. I’ve got DVDs full of TV shows I’ve downloaded from the Interwebs. I’ve got movies and games and a disgustingly huge book collection. Next year, I’m going to create more opportunities to share them with friends, acquaintances, colleagues, neighbors, whatever. Set the media free, I say.

Watch out for videomining. Now that Google owns YouTube and everybody is freaking out over video archives, I’m looking out for the ultimate videomining software. Ideally, I’d like a program that could find items in a video archive by genre (e.g., "look up all horror films") or search through them for sequences of images (e.g., "find scenes featuring dragons"). I’d also like a program that could search an individual movie for a scene or phrase (e.g., "find me a scene where Captain Kirk says, ‘Boo!’ ").

Protest the Schumer-McCain privacy-reaming bill. Senators Charles Schumer and John McCain have promised to introduce legislation next year aimed at stopping child porn and sex offenders from traipsing online. It would involve the creation of an "e-mail registry" for sex offenders and would force online service providers to police content on their sites, looking for the aliases of sex offenders and images of child porn. Not only is there a potential here for squelching free speech but also for invading privacy. Keep an eye on this one.

Laugh more frequently at the comments on my blogs. I get bizarrely bent out of shape when people make stupid comments about blog posts I’ve written. Despite the fact that blog comments as a genre are characterized by assholishness and snark, I continue to feel inexplicably wronged by them. This has got to stop. It’s time to view blog comments for what they are: comedies of the human condition.

Install Ubuntu on my desktop. I miss Linux. It just so happens that the two computers I use most are both running Windows XP, and neither is suitable for a Vista upgrade. My cute Vaio laptop has a laughable sticker that says "Vista capable," which roughly translated means "Screw you, hippie." When a friend of mine asked some of the Vista geeks at Microsoft if they’d tried the new OS on my laptop model, they apparently giggled uncontrollably. So it’s back to Linux for me, and I welcome the return of my open-source overlord.

Kill people in Halo. In my living room, nestled beneath my 50-inch plasma screen TV, are an Xbox and an Xbox 360. And yet I rarely use them to kill people. What the hell is wrong with me? Am I insane? The entire purpose of these devices is to turn myself into a cyberkiller and shoot the crap out of 13-year-olds in Singapore or Texas or some other exotic locale. Next year I will spend at least one weekend doing nothing but sitting in front of the TV and practicing my death moves. Watch out for me on Xbox Live — I’m going to hunt you down and blow your guts out. Then I’ll share some of my media collection with you to make up for it. But I will not buy a Wii. Do not try to make me buy one.

Hang out with mechanical engineers. Unlike electrical engineers and computer scientists, mechanical engineers know how to do useful postapocalyptic stuff like build bridges and generators and engines. They study extremely concrete things like, well, concrete. But they also study the way concrete shatters when hit by bombs. I want to know more about the mysterious ways of physical objects. Take me to your mechanical engineering lab. *

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who wishes all the geeks and nerds and dorks and weirdos a happy new year.

Wikipedia vs. women


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION Two years ago tech entrepreneur Joi Ito was spending a lot of time with the managers and editors of the collaborative encyclopedia Wikipedia, and he noticed that there were far more women wikipedians than women bloggers. In late 2004, Ito wrote in his blog:
Wikipedia seems much more gender balanced than the blogging community…. I wonder what causes this difference in gender distribution? Is it that the power law aspect of blogs is inherently more competitive and appeals to the way men are “trained” in society? Or is it that we’re just talking to the “head” of the blog curve and that the more interesting blogs are actually by women in “the long tail”? Or is it something about Wikipedia that attracts powerful women?
He received a handful of comments, almost entirely from men, which all boiled down to “I don’t know” or “maybe women are just more collaborative.” As far as I know, Ito never got any good answers to his questions.
But last month a group of women finally provided an unexpected rejoinder to Ito’s long-ago musings. Dozens of long-term contributors to Wikipedia formed the WikiChix, a group modeled after the female-dominated Linux Chix. WikiChix, who of course have a wiki (wikichix.org/wiki/WikiChix), say they are sick of how male-dominated Wikipedia has become.
One example of this problem, which isn’t explicitly discussed on WikiChix, is the “feminist science fiction” entry on Wikipedia. All wikis like Wikipedia are Web sites that can be modified by people browsing them. Contributors create an account, hit an edit button on any page, and then add their own information. Certain entries, however, get ensnared in “revision wars” — battles between editors who keep changing information back and forth to reflect what they consider true. “Feminist science fiction” was one such entry. Although this is a legitimate genre of science fiction and many famous SF writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson consider all or part of their work to be feminist, the entry was subject to such an intense revision war that at last administrators determined that it should be removed and replaced with “women in science fiction” in 2002. Obviously, “women in science fiction” is hardly the same thing as feminist science fiction, in the same way an entry on “operating systems” could hardly be said to replace an entry on “Linux.” It wasn’t until June of this year that the category “feminist science fiction” was created again, after a great deal of agitation.
As I said, this particular entry wasn’t cited specifically by the WikiChix as their reason for creating the group. But many issues like this one led them to form a women-only wiki to discuss Wikipedia and wiki management more generally. The question their move raises is as old as feminism itself. Is it better for women to segregate themselves or stay in the male-dominated realm of Wikipedia and fight to be given an equal voice? In the WikiChix FAQ, the group writes to men who don’t like the idea of separatism:
Instead of feeling excluded, try to see [WikiChix] as an opportunity to hear a conversation you would not hear otherwise. If men are not talking, what women say to each other becomes a different conversation. When we as women can stop defending ourselves and explaining that bias, sexism, or patriarchy exist, then we can move further in discussion and support of each other.
Is it really separatism if these women are posting in a public forum? I think not. They’ve simply created a public forum where all the speakers are women.
More than that, though, I want to know what happened between 2004 and 2006 that turned Wikipedia from gender-balanced to gender-imbalanced. Glancing at the gender distribution of contributors who list themselves on Wikipedia, it looks like the ratio is nearly equal (as of this writing, there are 77 women and 80 men). That only captures the people who bother to list their names and genders, however. Still, I want to know: Did something change? Or was it just that there were problems all along and the only change is that women are finally speaking out about them? SFBG

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who thanks Laura Quilter for fighting to keep feminist science fiction in Wikipedia.

The meaning of spam


› annalee@techsploitation.com
TECHSPLOITATION I spend an inordinate amount of time wondering why my spam looks the way it does. Until quite recently, I received about 20,000 spam e-mails every day. The poor little Bayesean filter in my Thunderbird e-mail program couldn’t keep up and would routinely barf when confronted with such huge piles of crap from “Nuclear R. Accomplishment” with the subject line “$subject” and a message body full of random quotes from Beowulf.
Before I finally fixed my spam problem — oh blissfully small inbox! — I developed a few vaguely paranoid theories. Briefly, I imagined spammers were spying on my inbox and culling sender names from it that matched those of my friends. In my saner moments, I would wonder why exactly spam evolved to look the way it does. Why do spammers keep sending me pictures of pink, bouncy letters that spell “mortgage,” followed by text from a random Web site? And why, oh why, do they send me e-mails containing nothing but the cryptic line, “he said from the doorway, where she”? How can that be good business sense?
So I called expert Daniel Quinlan, who is an antispam architect at Ironport Systems as well as a contributor to open-source antispam system Spam Assassin. He patiently listened to me rant about my e-mail problems — I think antispam experts are sort of like geek therapists — then explained why I receive spam from random dictionary words strung together into a name like Elephant Q. Thermodynamic. It’s done to fool any spam filter that refuses to receive e-mail from somebody who has already sent you spam in the past. “They want to create a name that your spam filter has never seen before,” Quinlan said. It turns out every weirdness in my spam is “probably there for a good reason,” he said. In the arms race between spammers and antispammers, spammers try every trick they can to circumvent filtering software.
Often, the spam you get is the result of months or years of this arms race. For example, spammers of yesteryear started sending images instead of text, so that spam filters looking for text like “viagra” would be fooled. Instead, the image would contain the word “viagra,” but filters would see only an image and let it through. In response, antispam software began tossing e-mails that contained only an image, since spam containing an image typically has some text with it like “check out my pictures from Hawaii” or whatever. Rarely does a real person send just an image.
Quinlan said spammers figured out their pictures were being chucked, so they started adding a few random words to their mail and got through the filters again. Then antispammers started chucking e-mails with images that also contained random words that didn’t make sentences. And that’s why, today, you get images with chunks of text taken from random books and Web sites. As long as the text fits into sentences and isn’t random words strung together, spam filters have a harder time figuring out if the mail is spam or ham. Spammers also send slightly different images every time, so that spam filters can’t identify the image itself as spam. And they fill the images with bouncy, pink letters advertising their crap because character recognition software can’t read bouncy letters. So any spam filter that uses character recognition software to look at text in images to find spam will be fooled.
OK, so there is a reason behind the madness. But how could Quinlan explain the spam I get that contains no advertisement for anything, no links nor images, and instead merely quotes some random passage from Dostoyevsky? Quinlan said there’s no way to know for sure, but the reigning theory among antispam experts is that it’s part of what’s called a “directory harvest attack” in which the spammer tries to figure out if there’s a real person behind a randomly chosen e-mail address. The spammer sends out millions of innocuous e-mails and may get a slightly different response from the mail server if the mail has reached an actual person. Once the spammer has established that certain addresses are valid, he can send his real spam and be sure that he’s reaching an inbox.
All of this sounds perfectly reasonable. Spammers are doing bizarro things to get their messages out. But why do I sometimes get a spam with the subject line “$subject”? Why would I ever be fooled into thinking that was a piece of legitimate e-mail? “That’s just some spammer who doesn’t know how to use his spamware,” Quinlan said. “Sometimes spammers do things that are — for lack of a better word — dumb.” SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who is in recovery from receiving spam.

This is not progress


TECHSPLOITATION I can’t stop thinking about the Antikythera Mechanism, a 2,000-year-old computerlike device made by some Greeks who wanted to predict the motion of the sun, moon, and stars. Fashioned out of highly-sophisticated interlocking gears, the mechanism was discovered a little over a century ago in a shipwreck off the coast of the Greek island Antikythera. About the size of a shoebox and operated with a hand crank, the machine can also plot the dates of eclipses.
I know all these details because a group of international researchers used cool new X-ray imaging technologies to look at the mechanism, which to the naked eye appears rather like a pile of crusty, corroded plates that have stuck together. Using X-rays, however, scientists could see how the gears fit together. Pictures are available on Nature.com and reveal a machine whose complexity rivals the internals on a Rolex. Researchers say it was probably state-of-the-art technology around 30 BC. It’s likely that Greek astronomers on Rhodes had been perfecting such gear-driven temporal charts of the heavens for decades or even centuries before inventing the Antikythera Mechanism.
As Nature editor Jo Marchant points out, what’s intriguing is not so much that the device existed 2,000 years ago but that the technology behind it ceased to exist for the next 1,000 years until the first mechanical astrolabes and clocks worked their way out of the Arab world and into the West. It’s very possible that gear-driven mechanisms were made throughout the first millennium in the Middle East, but Western scholars have yet to gain access to the ancient texts that describe them.
For people interested in the evolution of technology and so-called scientific progress, the Antikythera Mechanism doesn’t just provoke questions about history. Instead, it asks us to rethink the future. If the ancient Greeks and Romans managed to invent the precursor to information technology 2,000 years ago and then essentially forget about it, what does that say about the kinds of amazing advances we might be throwing away right now?
Tech historians have two theories about why the Greeks and Romans didn’t get into gear mechanisms full bore and invent some kind of clock or computer before the Holy Roman Empire smooshed Europe. First of all, there was no power source for their gear devices other than the hand crank. Weight-powered clocks weren’t invented until the late Middle Ages in Europe. So devices like the Antikythera Mechanism weren’t particularly practical unless you were an astronomer or a rich collector. Plus, who needed to know time down to the minute? As long as you knew the hours and seasons, you could get by just fine in classical antiquity.
More interesting to me is the theory that the widespread practice of slavery in Greece and Rome would have prevented people from trying to create machines that could perform human labor. It’s not that having slaves kept people from inventing gear mechanisms — it just kept them from imagining possible outcomes and applications. If you already have people performing all the manual and intellectual labor you don’t want to do, there’s no need to figure out what kinds of machines would be capable of doing it.
Obviously, it’s impossible to know what stopped our ancestors from connecting the dots and ushering in the information age 2,000 years ago. And it may be equally impossible to figure out what our sociological blind spots are today that prevent us from hurtling into a better world more quickly. Still, there are some missteps in progress we can see and correct before plunging into another Dark Ages. It’s clear that our dependence on oil has halted progress toward finding cleaner, more efficient energy sources. Similarly, the widespread use of cars has halted progress in public transportation.
Who knows what kinds of great discoveries are cast aside when labs lose their funding or graduate students lose hope and slink away from experiments in defeat? Tomorrow’s Antikythera Mechanism is probably sitting in some disgruntled engineer’s garage right now, rusting. Let’s hope we discover it in two years rather than 2,000.<\!s>SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who was actually invented 2,000 years ago but only discovered recently.

Crap of the future


› annalee@techsploitation.com
TECHSPLOITATION Because I write about technology and science for a living, a peculiar burden falls on my shoulders every holiday season. I’m expected to make pronouncements about what stupid gadgets people should buy for the holidays. I’ve already been asked repeatedly if I’d rather buy a Wii or a PlayStation 3. I’ll admit I found it vaguely glamorous that people were shooting and rioting in line while waiting to buy the PlayStation — it gave me that retro concert-trampling-frenzy feeling. But it didn’t make me want to own one.
However, I reserve the right to do another thing that tech-sci writers are supposed to do: predict the future. So instead of bitching about the stupid holiday gadgets of today, allow me to predict what kinds of lameass holiday crap I’ll be bitching about in the future.
1. Peer-to-peer brain distribution client: Everybody is uploading and downloading their brains via the Internet. It’s certainly the best way to travel — just upload your brain in San Francisco and download it into another body in France. The problem is bandwidth. With everybody uploading and downloading their brains around the holidays, the network gets awfully slow. That’s why Yahoo! BitTorrent has introduced the P2P brain distribution client, which allows you to store several copies of your consciousness on multiple computers across the network. Downloading goes a lot faster because you grab segments of your consciousness from different computers at the same time, assembling it piecemeal at your destination. The problem is that sometimes the pieces arrive out of order, so you spend half an hour thinking the Star Wars series has gotten better over time. Also, people often mislabel copies of your consciousness. You think you’re downloading your mind, but actually you’ve gotten Cher’s childhood or somebody’s false memory of being abducted by aliens.
2. DNA DRM: The latest solution to the problem of media copying is a digital rights management (DRM) scheme that relies on identifying the DNA of the consumer. When you purchase a piece of media, your licensed copy is encoded with 13 unique sequences of nucleotides from your genome. Each time you hit the power button on your new DNA DRM Zune media player, a hair-thin needle painlessly pierces your flesh and feeds a drop of blood into an embedded genome sequencer. If you are the registered owner of the media, you are permitted to play it. If you aren’t, the media is deleted from your device and a record of your transgression is reported to the central media certification authority. You will be forced to pay an extra “unlicensed play penalty tax” to license it next time. The only thing good about this system is that biohackers can take the DNA DRM Zune apart, remove the embedded sequencer, and use it to figure out if they have cancer.
3. Animal mashup maker: A home biology kit for kids, the mashup maker lets you create new animals by combining the best of all your favorite pets’ genomes. What could go wrong? The dats and cogs are great, but when you start getting into fish-frogs or bird-fish or snails combined with anything, cleaning the litter box really gets kinky. Also the product tie-ins suck. I’m going to spit if I see another one of those cutsey, knitted lizard-pig holsters.
4. Retinas-B-Gone: While I sympathize with the political project that inspired the invention of this device, I’m not sure the means justify the ends. Retinas-B-Gone temporarily burns out people’s retinas to stop those annoying in-eye ads. But this extreme adbusting technique feels too much like poking out your eyes to spite your own ubiquitous mediascape. Plus, people could get hurt. What if unscrupulous users start burning out everybody’s retinas in traffic? And what if there are people who want to see the price of toothpaste flashed into their eyes as they pass the Walmart-Google store? I don’t like seeing those tiny ads marching up the side of my vision either, but sometimes it’s worth it to see a free movie. At least the damn things are relevant, though admittedly it’s weird to see plugs for cheap funerals when you’re watching the death scene in Romeo and Juliet. Instead of tearing your retinas out and feeding your blood to the Zune this holiday, why not learn how to build a potato launcher or a Tesla coil instead? Or go write some free porn for asstr.org, fer chrissake. This is the season for giving! SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who will be celebrating the holidays by eating your brain.

Happiness science


› annalee@techsploitation.com
TECHSPLOITATION I took a five-question happiness quiz, and it turns out I’m very satisfied but not overly so. If I start feeling down, the quiz advised, I should look inside myself for answers.
No, I wasn’t reading Cosmopolitan or OKCupid.com. The quiz was part of a study by happiness researcher Ed Diener, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois.
Over the past couple of years, happiness has come into vogue as an object of study. Everybody from renowned British economist Richard Layard to philosophers and neuroscientists have been weighing in on what happiness is and how we can make more of it.
While neuroscience struggles to untangle the mystery of whether dopamine boosts our happiness and which parts of the brain are active when people report being happy, social science has an easy answer. Just ask.
Most studies of happiness are based on simple quizzes like Diener’s. Like many psychologists, Diener assumes that people will be honest when asked how happy they are and that they can gauge their own happiness levels. Because there’s no way to measure happiness objectively, most studies call self-reported happiness a form of “subjective well-being.”
It turns out that these subjective tests are quite revelatory.
Economist Layard published a book last year called Happiness in which he discusses one of the surprising results of these tests: money doesn’t make people happier. The only time people’s subjective well-being rises as a result of cash is when the money takes them out of poverty. Middle-class people who become upper-class, however, don’t report feeling any happier. In fact, happiness levels in the United States have remained steady since the 1950s, despite the fact that the nation itself has become much wealthier.
If money doesn’t make us happy, Layard argues, we should be rethinking our priorities. Most people value happiness above all else, but they live in nations where progress and social good are equated with money.
Why not value other things that might make us genuinely happy? After all, the Declaration of Independence promises that the government will safeguard its citizens’ “pursuit of happiness.” The problem is how to implement a pro-happiness policy.
You’d think there would be a lot of disagreement among scientists about what makes people happy, but in fact there are a few basic things everyone agrees lead to happiness. Strong, intimate relationships with others are integral to happiness, as is self-esteem in the face of setbacks. One of the big happiness killers turns out to be “keeping up with the Joneses,” or comparing yourself to other people who are somehow better off than you.
People with a strong sense of self are less likely to engage in this kind of comparing and are also more likely to be stable, which is another ingredient in happiness.
Philosopher Joel Kupperman points out in his recent book Six Myths about the Good Life that happiness isn’t always the nice thing it’s cracked up to be. There are clearly immoral kinds of happiness, such as enjoying murder. Then there’s the problem of mistaking pleasure for happiness. Pleasure is fleeting and based on objects outside us (like good food or a movie or winning the lottery). It doesn’t contribute to a sense of self-esteem. Taking pleasure in our hard-won accomplishments is more likely to lead to the good kind of happiness that builds self-reliance. One can even have too much happiness and never develop the emotional skills required to endure hardship or setbacks.
A healthy consciousness, Kupperman argues, isn’t entirely happy. Indeed, he says, good philosophy should make its readers unhappy because it forces them to confront their ethical and logical vulnerabilities.
I was relieved to read Kupperman’s criticism of happiness, because Layard and many of his cohorts seem to take it for granted that happiness is a good thing. And this leads them down the thorny path of inventing policies to maximize happiness, such as (in Layard’s case) preventing divorce, banning television, and handing out antidepressant drugs in even greater numbers than they are already.
It’s good to know that there’s a scientific basis to the truism that money can’t buy happiness. But trying to legislate how people make themselves happy is an ethical and scientific dead end. All we can do is grant everyone the freedom to find fulfillment and enough money to bring them the happiness created by a relief from poverty. The rest is just subjective. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd whose happiness is bigger than yours.

Microsoft Linux


› annalee@techsploitation.com
TECHSPLOITATION I’m living in a bizarro business deal universe. Microsoft and Novell, which distributes a version of Suse Linux, have formed a partnership. When Microsoft’s notoriously anti-Linux CEO Steve Ballmer announced the deal, he claimed it was because customers demanded it. But the open-source community is worried something else may be afoot.
PC Magazine columnist John Dvorak speculated last week that Microsoft was trying to do an end run around free software licensing, essentially breaking the GNU General Public License (GPL) via legal loopholes. Then Linux Journal’s Nicholas Petreley, speaking for a lot of disgruntled open sourcers, urged Linux users to migrate away from all Novell Suse products over the next five years.
It’s easy to understand why open-source and free-software advocates are up in arms. Members of these communities have worked for decades to build robust, free alternatives to proprietary, big-business software products. And Linux, one of the most successful free operating systems available, has openly challenged Microsoft’s hegemony in countless ways.
Linux isn’t just a good technological alternative to Windows. It’s a symbol. This upstart, community-built operating system creates choice in a market where big players dominate. Plus, everything about Linux is transparent, open, and customizable. You can do whatever you want to your Linux operating system — rewrite the code, turn it into another piece of software, copy it a zillion times for your family and friends.
There’s only one rule: don’t break the GPL. So if you turn Linux into something else, that something else must also be licensed under the GPL.
Now that Microsoft and Novell are shacking up together at a joint research center, it feels like we’re only a few months away from a Microsoft Linux distribution. In fact, Microsoft has said it will officially recommend Novell Suse Linux. Could Microsoft actually undermine the legal foundation of the GPL and create a form of Linux that cannot be modified or copied freely?
The answer is yes and no.
Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Jason Schultz says the deal doesn’t threaten the legal status of the GPL. But he speculates that the products Microsoft and Novell have discussed creating — such as a software package containing interoperable versions of Windows and Novell Suse Linux — could make it very difficult for consumers to modify Novell Linux without also running into problems with Windows.
“This hybrid product could intermingle its Linux and Microsoft parts so that it could be hard to copy the open portions,” he says.
Schultz also points out something crucial about this deal: it’s less a legal threat to Linux than it is a publicity threat. Microsoft’s move is savvy marketing. The more it can confuse customers about what Linux is by attaching Windows products to it, the less name recognition Linux will have on its own. And the less people will understand what free software and open source really mean.
Ballmer has been blabbing to anyone who will listen that he’d love to cut similar deals with other Linux distributors, like Red Hat. No matter what the legal implications of this deal turn out to be, it’s definitely a weird new stage in Microsoft’s fear, uncertainty, and doubt war with Linux.
I think Microsoft is trying to muddy the waters just enough that consumers will stop recognizing the fundamental divide between Windows and Linux.
We’ve seen this problem in the free-software community before, though in a far less insidious form. When the phrase “open source” began gaining currency in the late 1990s, people often confused it with “free software” because many open-source projects are literally free (like free beer). But there are dozens of open-source licenses, many of which permit people to create proprietary software out of the open software.
As more people used open-source software, the popular media and public began to conflate free software and open source — much to free-software inventor Richard Stallman’s dismay. I worry that this Microsoft-Novell deal has the potential to do the same thing to open-source software.
The more Microsoft can absorb Linux, the fewer people will recognize the challenge Linux represents. Linux isn’t just an alternative set of software tools. It’s another mode of production — one that’s more transparent and more sensitive to the public good. That’s something we can’t afford to lose. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who thinks that if Microsoft makes a software shim, Linux developers should make a software shiv and stick those bastards right in the gut.

When sex sucks


› annalee@techsploitation.com
TECHSPLOITATION Are you hoping that breeding with somebody with “good genes” will help you have a child who is somehow better then you are? So are a lot of creatures. Unfortunately, it looks like some good genes can’t be passed on. In fact, the very genes that make your mate seem spicy might actually hinder your kids’ success in the mating game later on.
A couple of Canadian biologists at Queens University in Ontario published a study in PLoS Biology (a Public Library of Science journal) a couple of weeks ago that suggests women who pick mates “fitter” than themselves have very little chance of passing that fitness on to their daughters. Same goes for men who mate with women fitter than themselves: sons born from such a union are actually less fit than sons born to low-fitness ladies. In the genetic war between the sexes, genes that are good for one sex aren’t necessarily good for the opposite-sex children who inherit them.
Biologists Alison Pischedda and Adam K. Chippindale discovered this by forcing a bunch of fruit flies to have sex in various combinations of fit and unfit. Fitness wasn’t measured in sexiness or success in fly politics — the scientists measured it by how many offspring a fly could have. In other words, fitness equals how much influence a fly will have over the gene pool.
When flies choose mates, they’re engaging in a gene crapshoot called sexual selection, the Darwinian process by which the quest for perfect mates influences evolution. Conventional wisdom holds that sexual selection is usually good for a species: it creates babies that are stronger, prettier, fitter. The idea is that sexual creatures tend to be attracted to mates who are fit in one way or another. Maybe that mate is appealing because she’s particularly good at surviving in the desert with a bunch of drugged-out hippies, or maybe he’s shaped so nicely that he’s obviously healthy. If the possible mate is human, it’s possible she’ll come across as attractive because she’s a good problem-solver or skilled at telling jokes. All of these characteristics mean that the creature in question has a higher probability of surviving and spreading his or her genes far and wide by creating fit babies. So sexual selection is the process of picking a mate who will help you in the quest for genetic domination.
But Pischedda and Chippindale wondered if seeking out the perfect mate could ever be detrimental to offspring. The answer is yes.
It turns out that certain fitness genes shared by male and female flies on the X chromosome express themselves differently depending on sex. So a gene on a male’s X chromosome might make him an incredibly prolific father, but that same gene expressed in his daughter would prevent her from reproducing in large numbers. Because males only pass along their Y chromosome to male babies, they never pass along their beneficial X genes to sons either.
Why would genes behave like this if they are selfish, as pop geneticist Richard Dawkins puts it? The answer, Pischedda and Chippindale speculate, is that these genes are acting selflessly.
They’re keeping the population diverse. Imagine if fit parents bred only fit children. Translated into human terms, let’s assume that Britney Spears and K-Fed are fit parents because they keep shooting out babies. If their children inherited the fitness gene from Britney or K-Fed, they would also spawn lots of children. And so would those children. Pretty soon, you’d have a nation of aimless pop stars whose talents lie mostly in the area of gyration.
By cutting off fitness after one generation, we’re guaranteed a population whose genes come from a wide variety of sources. That’s why we have nerdy kids, sporty kids, and freaky kids, as well as eroticized teenyboppers who sing. If Pischedda and Chippindale are right, their experiment could undermine the idea that sexual selection is purely a selfish process. Sometimes genes work for the good of the species rather than the good of individuals.
Interestingly, the fittest fruit flies come from parents who are not very fit themselves. I like that. If humans are anything like flies, this research confirms my feeling that all those dudes with trophy wives and ladies with himbo arm candy are about to get totally screwed out of the gene pool. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who is focusing her energies on the meme pool rather than the gene pool.

TV is history


› annalee@techsploitation.com
TECHSPLOITATION The most interesting social experiments are often the least flashy. A researcher at UC Berkeley’s School of Information Management, Jeff Ubois, proved that last week with the release of his meticulous study on an odd topic: why researchers can’t research TV.
Ubois found that studying one simple event in recent TV history was impossible. Copyright rules and poor archive access meant that even after months of work, he was unable to gain copies of a single primary source related to former Vice President Dan Quayle’s 1992 speech blaming TV character Murphy Brown for the nation’s decline in family values.
In a 1992 speech at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, Quayle claimed the Rodney King riots were spurred on by TV characters like Murphy Brown, who made single motherhood into “just another lifestyle choice.”
At the time the speech was intensely controversial. Many suggested that the first Bush administration was blaming television, not the brutal police beating of a black man, for the LA riots. As Ubois points out, it seems reasonable that future TV scholars will want access to original speeches and media reports of the incident, as well as footage from Murphy Brown in which the character responds to Quayle.
But when Ubois tried to get access to Quayle’s speech in storage at the Hoover Institute, librarians told him that copyright and contractual obligations to the Commonwealth Club prevented them from making a digital copy of the speech for educational use. Warner Bros., which owns the rights to Murphy Brown, refused to give Ubois copies of the show. Absurdly, Warner did tell Ubois he would be permitted to show lawfully obtained episodes to students, even though they wouldn’t give him any. How generous!
Of the TV networks that aired news of the speech, only ABC would allow Ubois to digitize and show segments of its newscasts in the classroom. None would give him those digital copies, though. He would have to purchase them from third-party sources like the Vanderbilt Television News Archive. The cost for getting roughly two hours of news clips ranged from $800 to $5,000, depending on the source.
Ubois concludes that a typical historian, who has little access to money, would be unable to complete a simple study of primary sources in the Dan Quayle versus Murphy Brown incident. Some of this is a result of copyright madness. In 1982 a New York judge found that archiving news clips for educational purposes was unlawful because those clips are “readily available” from rights holders. What Ubois discovered is that they aren’t available in any form for educational use. The basis of this oft-cited decision is simply wrong.
Because copyright laws gum up the process of archiving TV footage, nobody is tracking and indexing TV the way librarians do books and movies. This means scholars can’t access materials simply because they aren’t findable. As Ubois points out, “No single comprehensive catalog of television broadcasts now exists in the United States.”
In an age when digitization technologies would allow us to store all of TV history in a server room and make it fully searchable and accessible to the public, this is simply ridiculous.
Ubois cites a recent European video-archiving study that found TV tape storage begins to degrade after 20 years. That means 70 percent of existing TV footage will be gone by 2025. Imagine if 70 percent of existing books were going to be burned by 2025.
This is quite simply an atrocious situation — not just for scholars but for all US citizens whose freedom of thought requires access to their own history.
For inspiration, networks and rights holders should look to the BBC’s media archives, which aim to make most of the broadcasting company’s footage available to the public in digital form online.
Misguided greed and poorly interpreted copyright law are the only things standing in the way of a people’s history of television. I look forward to a day when the people will write it.
Scratch that — I look forward to a day when the people can research it. SFBG
Read Jeff Ubois’s paper here: www.archival.tv/
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who misses Murphy Brown.

Welcome to the CSA


› annalee@techsploitation.com
TECHSPLOITATION I love a good alternate history yarn for the same reason I love science fiction. Both genres analyze present-day trends by projecting them into another reality. That other reality might be the future or simply a transformed version of the present.
In the United States, there are two incredibly popular alternate history scenarios: 1. What if the South had won the Civil War? and 2. What if Germany had won World War II? C.S.A: The Confederate States of America, a fake British documentary made by Kansas filmmaker Kevin Willmott, answers both questions.
After its limited release in the theaters two years ago, the movie achieved cult status in DVD form, which is really its natural medium. It’s fascinating to watch CSA on a television set because the movie is meant to resemble a snippet from a TV station, complete with freaky commercials and news breaks, that is airing a “controversial” British documentary about the history of the CSA.
Blending dark humor with painstakingly researched historical revisionism, Willmott begins the movie with a fake commercial for insurance. The clip looks exactly like something you might see on ABC, including the fact that everyone in it is white. Then the announcer says, “Our insurance protects you and your property,” and the camera pans over to a smiling black boy who is clipping a hedge. This is a present day in which slavery still exists.
The British documentary reveals how this came to pass. After the South wins the Civil War with the help of France and England, the president heals the rift between North and South by offering Northerners slaves to help reconstruct the bombed-out cities of New York and Boston. Deposed president Lincoln flees to Canada, followed by 20,000 abolitionists including Fredrick Douglass and Henry David Thoreau.
Shortly thereafter, Chinese laborers in California are also declared slaves. The CSA annexes South America and becomes entrenched in a Cold War with what politicians call Red Canada. Several African nations collude with the CSA to maintain the slave trade, and we see historical footage of an African leader reassuring his people that only the “inferior tribes” are sold as slaves.
Hitler retains control over Germany when the CSA refuses to intervene in World War II, although the president does say it’s too bad the Germans are killing Jews instead of enslaving them.
What’s sheer genius about this alternate history is how much of it is drawn from actual US history. We hear about Native Americans being rounded up and put into orphanages, which actually happened; and the fake commercials advertising things like “Darkie Toothpaste,” “Niggerhair Cigarettes,” and “Coon Chicken” are all based on real products sold long after the abolition of slavery.
More chilling are ads for anti-depressants aimed at controlling slaves, and for a TV show based on Cops called Runaway. The message may be heavy-handed, but it nevertheless rings true enough to be thought-provoking: US popular culture is only one degree removed from being that of a slave-owning nation.
The same goes for US political culture. Historical figures and events in CSA also remain virtually unchanged. Kennedy is elected president and calls for abolition right before being assassinated, and the Watts Riots are portrayed as a “slave uprising.” Reagan’s presidency heralds a new spike in the slave trade. Experts explain how the Internet has helped rejuvenate interest in the science of slave control, and we see clips from the Slave Shopping Network, where bidders can choose to break up a family or “buy the complete set.”
Willmott has said in several interviews that CSA is not about what could be, but what is. He points out that African Americans and other people of color may not view the film as an alternate history so much as a reflection of a true history that many whites still can’t quite see. Maybe that accounts for why the film, which received an enthusiastic reception at Sundance in 2004 and critical raves, didn’t make it onto DVD until quite recently. Freed from the confines of traditional movie theater distribution, I think this flick will at last find the audience it deserves in online communities, where people can simultaneously watch, discuss, and recommend it.
In fact, I can’t think of a better movie to share in small pieces on
YouTube or MySpace, enticing people to rent or buy it and get the whole story. Its message should be out there, spreading like the world’s most virulent antiracist media virus, infecting the nation one computer screen at a time. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd whose other favorite alternate history is about what would have happened if Martin Scorsese had directed ET.

GooTube is dead


› annalee@techsploitation.com
TECHSPLOITATION By the time you read this, the meme “GooTube” will already be dead. Everyone will have stopped talking about the freakishly large amount of money Google paid for video-sharing Web site YouTube. They will therefore no longer need to refer to this event as if it were a celebrity marriage like Bennifer or Brangelina.
Despite this extremely desirable state of affairs for the English language, we will nevertheless remain perplexed and obsessed with Google’s latest bid to make all forms of digital expression searchable.
I wouldn’t mind the “make the world searchable” thing if it weren’t for the part where Google accomplishes this laudable goal by owning everything in the world first. As thousands of YouTube contributors have already pointed out grumpily, somebody should be paying them part of that $1.6 billion. Really, somebody should.
Let’s pretend for a minute, however, that Google didn’t buy YouTube for its stellar content. Let’s say — and I know I’m being crazy here, but bear with me — that Google bought YouTube for its audience of millions. News Corp. bought MySpace for the same reason last year. Like News Corp., Google wanted eyeballs, not a bunch of movies with cats freaking out and kids drinking milk until they barf.
Alright, let’s face it: you are the real reason why Google paid all that money to YouTube. And by “you” I mean the person who watched the milk barf video, then watched a bunch of clips from The Colbert Report and briefly searched for videos tagged “kaiju porn.” As those people who are done using the word “GooTube” have already pointed out, Google no doubt plans to turn YouTube into another place to paper with ads, sort of like Gmail or its search engine. It’ll monetize your eyeballs if it’s the last thing it does.
Another possible reason why Google bought YouTube is because it fits with the company’s copyright reformist agenda. Google has already been testing the limits of corporate activism in the copy wars with its frankly awesome Google Book Search. This controversial project, which led to a lot of legal chest-thumping in the publishing industry, allows people to search the full text of thousands of books. Maybe YouTube will be a kind of Google Book for movies, with fully-searchable videos that allow artists, students, and film geeks to appreciate the motion picture in a whole new way.
Even if Google hadn’t intended YouTube to be another Google Book, the media industry is treating it that way. Time Warner president Dick Parsons told the London Guardian last week that his company intends to get its copyright complaints about YouTube “kicked up to the Google level.” And by that I don’t think he means the level where you get free espresso and a lava lamp for your desk.
So Google bought you when it bought YouTube, and it also bought itself a legal headache that will hopefully lead to some better laws around digital copyright. What are you getting out of the deal? Frankly, worse than nothing. You probably won’t see the benefits from Google’s copy war anytime soon. And worst of all, I predict you’ll lose one of the best things about YouTube when Google forces it to submit to the old “make it fully searchable” regime.
The thing is, YouTube isn’t about searchability. You don’t go there to plug in a search term and find information. You go there for the same reason you go to the local independent movie theater — you want a place where somebody has put together a unique and bizarre lineup of films to watch. YouTube rules because of users who act like the owners of very tiny movie theaters or cable stations by finding cool videos and posting them on their “channels.”
These people offer findability, which is practically the opposite of searchability. When you search, you have to already know what you want to find. You have to plug in “espresso” or “fainting goats.” Findability means that you can discover things for which you’d never dream of searching. Findability is what YouTube has now, and what Google has never had.
So what will you lose when Google turns YouTube into one of its searchable data troves? You may lose the ability to find a video of a beautiful thing you never knew existed. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who was once offered $1.6 billion for her Web 2.0 company, but she said, “No way, man. I’m not gonna sell out, ’cause I gotta keep the AJAX real, just like it is on the street.”



› annalee@techsploitation.com
TECHSPLOITATION About 18 people were gathered in the San Francisco offices of Urban Mapping, a company whose mild-mannered founder, Ian White, described their business model to me as “selling polygons.” Instantly, I felt at home. I was among the geowankers, a group of high-tech map enthusiasts whose areas of expertise range from making customizable Web maps (often built out of polygons) and geolocation software to map-based online storytelling and handheld devices that provide information about your environment as you walk through it. Imagine getting a tour of the Mission neighborhood via your smart phone, which pops up information about who painted the cool murals you’re looking at in Clarion Alley, as well as which cafés are in the immediate area. Now imagine using that same phone to upload pictures you’ve taken of the cappuccino at Ritual to your blog, complete with a map showing the exact GPS coordinates of this excellent cafe. If anyone is going to invent that device, it’s going to be a geowanker.
All of us had heard about this meeting via the geowanking e-mail list, founded by überdork Joshua Schachter, where map geeks of all stripes have been engaging in banter and mad science for more than three years. Tonight was the inaugural San Francisco geowankers meeting, and it was the first time many of us had had a chance to meet each other in person. The evening was to be an informal eat-and-chat, with presentations from Rich Gibson, coauthor of the astonishing Mapping Hacks, and Mike Liebhold, a brainiac from the Institute for the Future who said (only half-jokingly) that he wants to invent a “tricorder for planet earth.”
Gibson told us that he’s currently thinking about how to use technology to deal with the “probability characteristics of space.” In other words, how do you create an accurate high-tech map that reflects the fact that a given geographical location has a high probability of being referred to as “the Mission,” but at least 10 percent of the time might be referred to as “Noe Valley”?
This kind of question might sound silly if you look at neighborhoods purely as the creation of real estate companies that have rigid ideas about where the Mission ends and Noe Valley begins. But geowanking is all about making maps democratic and creating representations of space that reflect ordinary people’s lived experiences. The idea of letting a real estate agency call the shots on where your neighborhood’s boundaries are is absurd to a geowanker. Why not just build a digital map in layers so that you can see the real-estate-defined neighborhoods, then click into another layer that shows what ordinary people on the street think are the boundaries, then move to another layer to see where all the rivers run underneath the city?
Liebhold pointed out that as more and more people start creating their own maps and putting them online, we’re going to need to invent a system where we know which maps are “trusted” and which are just somebody rambling about how there are many paths to Blue Bottle Coffee from the Haight. Everybody began specuutf8g about a not-so-distant future when you’ll subscribe to somebody’s map data the way you might subscribe to an RSS feed (and in fact, thanks to smarty-pants Mikel Maron and pals, there is a geoRSS format). Some feeds would be trusted and some wouldn’t.
Then we got sidetracked by potential problems. What happens when the map democratization process goes nuts and so many people are tagging places on digital map services that the spatial data is a mess? And what about map spam, where people buy ads on (for example) Google Maps and suddenly your nice map of the Mission is covered with flags advertising Wells Fargo ATMs and places to buy Bud?
When the conversation wound down, we broke for wine and cookies. I got a chance to chat with Anselm Hook, the hacker who prototyped build-your-own-map service Platial.com. Platial is a mashup of Google Maps and allows you build and store customized maps that you share with friends (try it — it’s insanely addictive). Hook said his newest obsession is trying to create maps with “near-instantaneous information,” kind of like instant messaging and Google Maps rolled into one. “Imagine saying to somebody online, ‘I’m here, what should I do?’ and getting an instant reply with a map,” he enthused. “That’s what I want.”
At last it was time to go, and I headed out into the South of Market area, wishing I had Anselm’s device so I could find a local restaurant and wondering what the probability might be that somebody else would call this neighborhood Mission Bay. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who became a geowanker because she’s always getting lost.

Small pieces unjoined


› annalee@techsploitation.com
TECHSPLOITATION I think ubiquitous digital surveillance and searchability have given me a weird new sense of entitlement. I feel like I should be able to find anybody on the Web, and if I can’t — well, why not hire somebody to search the databases I can’t access? I caught myself having this exact bizarro train of thought the other day, when I was trying to locate an old friend of mine from high school.
I did all the usual things that generally yield results and have helped me find out all kinds of useless things about lost childhood friends. (That hardcore rocker boy is now a real estate agent! No way!) First I searched on his name in Google, but all I discovered was that somebody with his exact (and fairly common name) died in the Twin Towers. There was a catch though — my old friend went by his Korean name in high school but adopted an American name in college. So I started searching on his Korean name, feeling very clever. Unfortunately his Korean name is actually more common than his American one. Then I narrowed my searches, looking for his names in connection with our hometown, his college, and the city where he lived the last time I saw him. I searched news groups, MySpace, LiveJournal, and Technorati.
At last I couldn’t think of anywhere else to search. That’s when I had the aberrant thought: why not just hire a private detective? Everybody’s doing it — even HP! And I’d get one that wasn’t too expensive. Admittedly my subconscious was spiked with reruns of Veronica Mars and memories of This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a documentary in which a guy hires private detectives to figure out who the members of the Motion Picture Association of America ratings board are.
But I think I hit upon this rather extreme idea — hiring a detective to find my old friend — because I’ve become conditioned to think that all information should be accessible. Despite my belief in online privacy and anonymity, my unexamined, knee-jerk response to the situation was that somebody should be able to get this guy’s contact information for me. I mean, all I wanted was an e-mail. I wasn’t trying to get his home address or voting records.
Needless to say, I did not get a private detective, nor have I found my old friend yet. I’ve avoided becoming creepy but I’m left unsatisfied. The old promises of the Web, which David Weinberger famously characterized as “small pieces loosely joined,” have turned out to be quite different from what we all imagined. Many of us are connected, sometimes to a degree bordering on incestuousness, but many of us are not. The threads do not attach to each other. Names are lost in a sea of names. People fill blogs with entry after entry that never get read, never get linked, never receive comments. Certainly there are spirited local debates that bring us together online and amateur writing that’s as findable as a New York Times headline, but these things are rare and getting rarer. The Web is beginning to feel just like a city street: you can see all the houses, but you have no idea what’s in them. Unless you’re a thief.
I feel cheated by the walls that have gone up on the Web — not the walls that protect my personal information, but the ones that prevent me from finding friends (real friends — not friendsters). They aren’t the same walls, by the way. Walls that protect personal information should prevent people from getting access to whatever crap ChoicePoint and Visa have on you. The walls that stand between me and my old friend are the cacophony of filtered data that the Web has become. I’m sure his e-mail is out there somewhere floating around, but because he hasn’t been writing a popular blog or posting obsessively on the Linux kernel list, it’s got no juice on the search engines. Because he’s not socially findable, he’s not technically findable either. And no, it’s not because he has no e-mail. The guy is an engineer. So much for the Web breaking down barriers.
I’m going to try one last time to find him — but this time, I’ll go at it from the other direction. I’ll call his name and see if he hears me. Let’s see if there are any holes in those walls. If you know a guy who goes by Lawrence Kim or Chong Kim and who once lived in Orange County, let me know. Especially if you are him.
Let’s see if my experiment works. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who can find rare, out-of-print books online but can’t find Chong.

Hip buzz phrases


› annalee@techsploitation.com
TECHSPLOITATION Usually I don’t let the PR e-mails get to me. My standard procedure is to review and delete these missives from alternate marketplace universes where people care about incremental changes to the graphic user interface in a piece of useless software. But last week when the bizarrely clueless announcement from domain-name megaregistrar Dotster arrived in my inbox, I just couldn’t stand aside and let it pass.
Maybe I was feeling particularly grumpy because the ongoing Hewlett-Packard scandal is constantly reminding me that all my nightmares about the corporate surveillance of media types are, in fact, true. Whatever the reason, I just got plain pissed off by Dotster’s craven bid to appeal to youth with its new PimpedEmail product for MySpace users. For $7.95 per month, Dotster will sell you access to a “pimped” domain name via your MySpace account. Apparently, according to the press release, these domains “tend to favor hip buzz phrases … for example, if a visitor types ‘Stephanie’ into the DDS search box and clicks ‘Name Search,’ the results might include stephanieisthebomb.com, stephanyshizzle.com, or worldofstephanie.com.”
OK, it’s true that what leaps out immediately here is the slap-your-head stupidity of these “hip buzz phrases” — my personal favorite is worldofstephanie, which has to be one of the buzzingest, hippest phrases I’ve ever encountered. But what pushed me over the line from merely bemused to actually offended is Dotster’s crass attempt to suck money out of one of the most cash-strapped communities on MySpace: unknown musicians trying to get people interested in their music.
Most of the suggestions for how to use PimpedEmail involve using it to promote unknown bands. “A new group calling itself Nikki Blast could use band search to register nikkiblastrocks.com,” suggests Dotster. Then “they can set up as many e-mail addresses as they like using that domain extension. For example, the drummer could be madbeatz@nikkiblastrocks.com, and the band could award loyal fans with their own addresses such as timmy@nikkiblastrocks.com.” Hmmm, could “madbeatz” be another one of those hip buzz phrases? What about “rocks”?
Of course these suggestions won’t necessarily control youth behavior, partly because they’re just lame. And I’ll admit that MySpace teaming up with Dotster isn’t nearly as problematic as MySpace collaborating with state governments to police what kids are doing on one of the world’s largest social networks. But PimpedEmail is more insidious than you might think. It pushes conformity under the guise of cool; it turns the ideal of freely sharing band information into something that requires payment by the month.
No, it’s not surprising that the News Corp.–owned MySpace is figuring out ways to accessorize its free service with little nuggets at teen prices. I still reserve the right to be grossed out when it happens.
More depressing still is the way PimpedEmail pulls the covers over the true process involved in doing one of the most basic tasks of any Web user: getting a domain name and setting up e-mail. The Dotster press release describes its service as a “unique Domain Discovery System (DDS),” adding helpfully that “visitors to the service’s Web site can generate unique domains.”
Huh? There’s nothing “unique” here — this is the usual way one searches for domains and buys them online. Every time I’ve ever bought a domain, apparently, I’ve had a “unique” experience when I searched to see if annaleenewitz.com (for example) was available and then purchased it. The only thing that’s different here is that instead of getting boring suggestions for domains (like annaleecompany.com), you’ll get allegedly cool ones (like annaleeshizzle.com).
The misrepresentations here go beyond the usual “we’re unique” marketing ploys. Dotster makes it seem that getting a domain and getting e-mail are the same thing — and that the easiest way to do both is through MySpace. Let’s leave aside the privacy issues involved in tying your MySpace page together with your e-mail and domain services. I’m more worried that services like PimpedEmail will actually lower technical literacy in Web users by hiding what’s really going on when you create the address madleetz@worldofannalee.com. Not only does PimpedEmail take money away from its users, it takes away their knowledge of how domain names work — and by extension, it takes away just a bit more of their power. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who’s got all the hip buzz phrases, like “get funky” and “far out” and “make the scene.”



› annalee@techsploitation.com
TECHSPLOITATION On a shelf above my fireplace, snuggled next to a Totoro stuffed animal and a stack of books about movies, there is a puffy, tan creature about the size of a Nerf football that has a three-and-a-half-inch computer screen for a face. If you squeeze the creature’s body, a menu pops up on the screen — from there, you can log on to my wi-fi network. This quasi-plush animal is in fact a hardware prototype of a cute little wi-fi thing that’s designed to “think.” It’s called a Chumby, and it’s about to change your life.
Using the Chumby.com Web site, you can register your Chumby, name it (mine’s called Tribble), and then load different “widgets” into its brain. The widgets change what’s displayed on the Chumby’s face: you can have a digital clock, headlines from Digg.com, a stock market ticker, or pictures scraped from CuteOverload.com. Because the Chumby is always online via wi-fi, it can spend the day peacefully cycling through pictures of kittens interspersed with stock quotes. The result is a nontechnological-looking object that’s halfway between being a very lazy cat and a very simple computer.
Chumby-makers Chumby Industries, staffed in part by hardware maestros Joe Grand and Andrew “bunnie” Huang, wanted to create something that would bring the Web into people’s lives without being as intrusive as computers are. When the Chumby is running, you can glance at it every once in a while to see what’s happening in the news, but you can’t grab it and start trolling for data the way you might if it were a laptop. You stay connected to the online world but don’t get disconnected from the real one.
What makes the Chumby dramatically different from other consumer electronics is that its hardware and most of its software are open source. That means you’re permitted to modify, hack, reverse engineer, and optimize the device to your heart’s delight. Chumby Industries encourages people to build new widgets and submit them to the Chumby Web site so other people can use them. Same goes for hardware hacks.
When was the last time you bought an electronic gizmo that was truly yours? Most devices come with warnings not to modify them unless you want to void your warranty. Some companies even threaten lawsuits if you reverse-engineer their products. But the Chumby is designed to be ripped apart and sewn shut again by its users. I mean that literally and figuratively — you can hack its hardware, but you can also take the Chumby’s electronic components out of its plush case and install them inside a teddy bear or leather boot.
This is a piece of consumer electronics in the most meaningful sense of that term. Consumers can do what they want with it.
Right now, the Chumby is only available on a limited basis to people who don’t mind playing around with what bunnie calls “alpha hardware.” That means my Chumby is a prototype. It crashes; it falls off the wi-fi network randomly; it keeps resetting its clock to a random date in 1969.
Once Chumby Industries gets the bugs out, though, you’ll start seeing nonalpha Chumbys for sale.
The Chumby may be unique in openness, but it’s not the first “smart” object on the market. There’s a “smart bunny” called a Nabaztag (www.nabaztag.com) that’s not quite as sophisticated as the Chumby but can still go online and read the weather to you. Looking sort of like a cross between an iPod and a Japanese cartoon character, the Nabaztag can stream MP3s from the Web, light up in different colors, do live traffic updates, and be an alarm clock. Like the Chumby, it’s a paracomputer, a thing that communicates Web data to you without actually being a Web browser.
Futurists predict that in the next five years our homes will be packed with “thinking” things that get their intelligence via wi-fi. Chairs will sing; coffee pots will read you the morning paper; desks will get your voicemail. I’m not interested in any of that. I have enough trouble dealing with chairs that are completely silent. But I do like the idea of having many ways of accessing digital information. Computers can provide rich sources of detail, but other devices will offer just a snapshot framed by waggling bunny ears.
As soon as the Chumby hardware is a little more stable, I’m making it into my alarm clock. I like the idea of waking up to streaming MP3s and a few news headlines. And if I want to shut it off, I’ll just squeeze. I’m telling you, the squeeze interface is genius. Genius! SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who sometimes wishes her cat could display the latest headlines from BoingBoing.

Death by satire


› annalee@techsploitation.com
TECHSPLOITATION In honor of George W. Bush’s efforts to stop torture by setting up secret CIA prisons and promote freedom by expanding government surveillance powers, I think we should spend a few days contemputf8g another great thing this administration has done for the world: it has reinvigorated political satire.
What was The Daily Show before the USA PATRIOT Act? And where would international pranksters the Yes Men be today without this administration’s asshattish policies?
Thanks to the Internet, satire can be instant and lethal. Certainly it’s not always pretty, but it’s more effective as social criticism than it was in an era before jesters could respond within hours to current events and broadcast their pranks globally.
I’m still a big fan of the widely condemned fake execution video made by three San Francisco multimedia geeks in 2004. Benjamin Vanderford, who plays experimental music in several bands, decided to make the video in response to the media hysteria around the Nick Berg execution video. He’s said that the video wasn’t a partisan protest of the war itself, but instead a wake-up call to the media, which he criticized on his Web site (videohoax.ctyme.com) for doing “no fact-finding” and being so “centralized” that they’ll reprint anything from Reuters or the Associated Press without verifying it.
With the help of Laurie Kirchner and Robert Martin, Vanderford filmed himself tied up in a dingy room as if he’d been kidnapped in Iraq. He stated his real name and address and urged the United States to get out of Iraq. Islamic chants played in the background, and every few seconds a picture of a grisly execution appeared. “We need to leave this country alone or all of us will die like this,” Vanderford said before the video cut to a grainy image of somebody sawing his head off with a butcher knife.
He and his buddies made the video available on their hard drives to anyone using the P2P networks Kazaa and Soulseek. Because the Berg execution video was all over the news, thousands of people were scouring P2P networks for anything with the word “execution” in the title. The video soon turned up on an Islamic Web site, which is how the US media got wind of it. AP and several papers published stories about the video without ever bothering to look up Vanderford, verify his existence, or check the address he used in the video (which was his real home address).
Sure, the message was ugly and the video is actually quite disturbing to watch. But it was the very best kind of social satire — it proved Vanderford’s point that the media were so eager to lap up any news that could feed the terrorism frenzy that they weren’t bothering to do even the most rudimentary fact-checking. Of course, the news outlets whose shoddy practices had been unmasked by this prank were quick to condemn Vanderford and cover their asses. Fox ran a bogus segment featuring a “legal adviser” who said Vanderford had broken the law (he hadn’t), and AP deputy editor Tom Kent claimed that his organization did eventually check the veracity of the tape by “banging” on Vanderford’s door at 4 a.m. and filming him in his underwear answering questions about the hoax (you can see clips of this seminaked interview online).
Possibly the stupidest responses to the hoax came from people who claimed that it hurt people and therefore Vanderford and pals should be punished. Stanford professor of communications Ted Glasser told the San Jose Mercury News that releasing the video was “like bombing a building to see if security measures are in place.” Despite the foolishness of this comment, it reveals how strongly people are affected by well-aimed satire.
I’d rather watch a dozen fake execution videos if it would make the media more careful about buying into government and corporate propaganda. I live for the day when satire is like bombing a building — because nobody actually bombs anyone anymore.
See, that’s the beauty of satire — it hurts, but only in your conscience. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who can’t wait to watch videos of the Yes Men masquerading as HUD officials in New Orleans.

Weaponizing data


› annalee@techsploitation.com
TECHSPLOITATION I was in front of a computer when the Twin Towers went down. The morning light flooded Charlie’s tiny studio apartment kitchen, where she’d parked her computer desk in a spot that another person would have used for a breakfast nook.
“Holy shit,” she said. “Look at the Washington Post!” I stared blearily at the monitor, coffee mug in my hand, and saw pictures of smoke. Charlie continued clicking and clicking on news. It was everywhere: live streams and up-to-the-second photographs of the towers as they burned.
One had fallen. Then the other one did. That morning we consumed hundreds of images and lines of electronic text, at the edge of a future I couldn’t fathom. Shit was going to happen, that’s all I knew.
My phone rang an hour later: it was Ed, whose plane from Japan to San Francisco had been diverted to Vancouver. No planes were entering or leaving US airspace.
What happened in geographical space was just the thin end of the wedge.
Shifts more dramatic than anything I could have imagined occurred on our electronic communication networks. The phone system and the Internet formed a new ground zero, a place where “fighting terrorism” became a force more socially disruptive than terrorism itself.
In the weeks that followed, flags and half-baked, vengeful ideas
spattered the mediascape online. ISPs allowed the government to install “carnivore” devices on network backbones, thus allowing the government to eavesdrop on everybody’s Internet traffic. Passage of the USA-PATRIOT Act allowed law enforcement to send secret subpoenas to online service providers for information about their customers.
Those of us critical of the US policies that led to the attack literally whispered to each other about it. We were afraid to say what we thought of the government crackdowns.
Something changed the Internet forever during the surreal years after the attack on the World Trade Center, when we went to war with a country whose citizens and leaders had nothing to do with what happened on September 11, 2001. Data mining was weaponized.
The ability to track hidden information patterns in vast piles of
unsifted data, once the purview of obscure academic articles and some start-ups with weird names like Inktomi and Google, became the touchstone of government efforts to track down terrorists. If a lack of intel is what allowed the terrorists to get us, then by gum, the spooks were going to get as much intel as they possibly could.
As a result, we got John Poindexter pushing misguided programs like Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA), which would allegedly be a giant computer operation in which all the data in the universe would be crunched and “patterns” would emerge to lead government agents to dens of bomb-making bad guys. It also led to the NSA’s now infamous (and probably illegal) surveillance of all the telephone and Internet data passing through AT&T’s wires — as well as the wires of several other major network providers.
Both of these programs rely on the idea that you can find a terrorist
needle in a haystack of data. And both were made far more dangerous by the rise of consumer products like Gmail, Flickr, and MySpace — giant databases of personal information, often tagged with keywords for easy searching. As many pundits (including myself) have said, we’re creating our own surveillance treasure trove.
But what that analysis leaves out is something near and dear to the
American spirit: the people have weapons too. It isn’t just the
government that can turn data mining into a weapon. The citizens can do it too, often better. And so the years since the Sept. 11 attacks have witnessed a blooming of what Dan Gillmor calls “citizen journalism.”
When the mainstream media wouldn’t report what was going on, people turned to alternative sources of news, including online sources. Bloggers became the new investigative reporters.
The groundwork laid by these subversive data miners continues today. The community of online journalists and researchers revealed that an AP photo of the fires in Beirut had been doctored. Bloggers sounded the alarm when upstart photographer Josh Wolf was arrested for refusing to hand over to police video he’d taken of a G-8 protest in San Francisco.
It’s no accident that the rise of blogging coincides with the rise of
government surveillance online. The people are watching too. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who is watching the watchers.



› annalee@techsploitation.com
TECHSPLOITATION Last night, for about the 30,000th time, I pondered whether I should be shredding the stubs of my phone and cable bills before throwing them away. I always keep my credit card statements for a year or two. That shit just seems too scary personal to toss. But what about the other stuff? If someone were to root through my building’s trash bin and find my (unshredded) cell phone bill, they’d know the numbers of everyone I’d called during the past month. Other bill stubs are less revelatory, but someone could still use them to cancel my gas and electricity or order me the most expensive cable package.
But I just can’t muster up the amount of paranoia that would be required to properly eliminate all those pieces of paper with my personally identifiable information on them. And good shredders (not the lame one-sheet-at-a-time ones) are expensive. So every month I leave massive amounts of personal data in the bins outside my back door.
And that’s not all. I also save chat sessions on my computer and SMS messages on my phone. Sure, I fear clutter in the real world, but I also have a highly developed sense of sentimental value. So I keep the little electronic blips my friends write, thinking that one day I’ll be glad to read them again. Some of those blips are e-mails that I keep stored in the vast server fields of a major Web mail provider, which means that system administrators can look at them — and worse, this Web mail provider can hand them over to the government without telling me.
Don’t even get me started on the kinds of personal information I leak about myself in my writing. A dedicated asswipe could, just by combing over my old columns, figure out the general location of my house in San Francisco, my sexual orientation, the kind of relationship I’m in, what kind of computer I have, which ISP I use, where I’ve worked, where I shop, and who my friends are.
All my digital data is, of course, far more vulnerable than those hard copy phone records I dump every month. At least my trash bin is localized: to steal or tamper with my information, somebody would have to break into my building and jump inside the trash bin. But to steal my e-mail? Or read my columns obsessively for personal details? A naughty person could do that from anywhere. Prying members of an HR department could run a background check on me from the comfort of their Aeron chairs.
So what the hell is wrong with me? Why would I compromise my own privacy, knowing full well what the consequences could be? I’ve already confessed to a few reasons: laziness, inability to hoard tiny pieces of paper, sentimentality, chronic column writing. The less frivolous answer is that I’ve weighed the alternatives — shredders, constant data wiping — and chosen to take the risk. I don’t want to be forced to hide everything about myself. If some potential employer doesn’t like my blog, that’s an employer I don’t need. If the government wants to persecute me for what’s contained in my stored messages, then I will fight back as best I can or leave the country.
It’s not as if I don’t protect myself. I never store any data in my Web mail account that I’m not prepared to share with sysadmins and the government. I overwrite data that I want to delete on my computer, which means it can’t be retrieved using typical law enforcement forensics. I rarely enter anything but fake information into online forms. I download and send my e-mail via SSL, which prevents people from reading it while it’s moving over the network. Am I safe from the National Security Agency or a very determined hacker? No. But neither am I leaving myself wide open to identity theft and surveillance.
When somebody breaks into your computer and looks at your private data, geeks say that your computer has been “owned.” And if your computer is utterly taken over, all its information plundered egregiously, you’ve been “pwned” — a bit of geek slang that comes from some dork who made a typo on IRC back in the day. I know that I’m pwned by the government, pwned by Google, pwned by my reliance on Windows OS. But they haven’t pwned my brain, OK? I’m still going to write the truth about myself and the world; I’m still going to throw away bill stubs like a normal person.
Say it loud and clear: we will not be pwned! If that isn’t a 21st-century protest cry, I don’t know what is. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who was thrilled to discover that the Wikipedia entry for “pwn” includes a section on pronunciation.

Snakes in vain


› annalee@techsploitation.com
TECHSPLOITATION I’m the only geek in San Francisco who didn’t go to the drunken flash mob event at 1000 Van Ness where Snakes on a Plane played in dangerous proximity to cartloads of extremely stiff, free drinks. My sources tell me that outrageous costumes were worn; somebody brought a real live snake; and there were many inebriated screams that included the epithet “motherfuckin’ snakes on a motherfuckin’ plane!” Was it glorious dork anarchy? Or was it something more sinister — the kind of media-engineered, snake-eating-its-own-long-tail event that Bill Wasik claims he invented the “flash mob” to parody?
Believe me, I would have been there toasting the motherfucking snakes if I could have been. But Birthing of Millions was playing at Edinburgh Castle, and no amount of serpents and spirits could drag me away from Brian Naas on guitar. So now that we’ve established my complicity in the Snakes meme thing, despite my absence on opening night, we can proceed.
Snakes on a Plane became an Internet geek phenomenon, rather than a pleasure reserved solely for dorks who like bad movies, for the same reasons that the Star Wars kid or the Hamster Dance became Internet phenomena. In short, it was weird and stupid and fun. One day neuropsychologists may discover an area in the brain that lights up when we watch home movies of teenagers fighting with light sabers — or campy action heroes battling snakes. But for now, Snakes’ online popularity can only be explained via cultural analysis.
Bloggers began leaking information about this movie with a deliciously literal-minded title more than a year ago, hailing it as a masterpiece of cheese. It had all the ingredients required for hip ironic consumption: Samuel L. Jackson, an airplane disaster, and a bunch of retro, analog-era monsters (snakes — without CGI!). Soon news about the flick was all over the Net. Some of its popularity was probably inspired by everybody’s frustration with Transportation Security Administration regulations and long lines in airports. Who hasn’t wanted to yell something about motherfucking snakes on motherfucking planes after being made to take off jackets, shoes, belts, earrings, and hats during the holiday rush in an airport, when the floor is covered in muddy, melted snow? (As if to underscore this association, a parody TSA announcement about banning snakes from planes was circuutf8g in blogland last week.)
Internet fascination with the film reached critical mass last year when New Line Cinema threatened to rename it Pacific Air Flight 121 and Jackson convinced them to keep the original. At that point, references to the movie were so commonplace on the Internet that the studio decided to promote it more, beef it up with extra footage, and add a line to the script that had actually been invented by Web fans imagining what Jackson’s legendary Pulp Fiction character Jules would say: “That’s it! I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!” In response, the fans went utterly nuts. The people in movieland were listening to the people in blogland! When this movie comes out, let’s get totally motherfucking drunk and buy a million tickets!
As Quinn Norton pointed out on her blog, it’s important to remember that nobody actually expected to like this movie. To the extent that we do like Snakes, we’re getting pleasure out of it as a joke — a joke on itself for being so flagrantly silly, but also the butt of jokes we’ve made for the past year online. Of course, there’s the less-acknowledged joke Snakes plays on us when we buy tickets to see a movie that can never be as cool or creative as the videos, songs, posters, and satires people have already published about it for free on the Internet.
Trying to imitate the strategy that led to Snakes’ prerelease buzz, the SciFi Channel recently invited its fans to name an upcoming made-for-TV movie “about a giant squid.” Haven’t heard of Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep? Maybe it’s because the name the SciFi folks picked was exactly the sort of dopey thing they’d normally slap on a story about sea monsters. Apparently they passed over some ideas that might actually have gotten them the hipster cachet that Snakes garnered for New Line. Among the discarded titles were Killamari and Tentacles 8, Humans 2.
I vaguely thought that I should go see Snakes, or at least set the DVR to catch Kraken. But the fact is, I’d rather watch all the YouTube parodies tonight.SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who would be happy to buy tickets to see Sharks on a Roller Coaster.