April 2004

CD-Boot Linux Audio Studio

The AGNULA Project (A GNU Linux Audio distribution, originally funded by the European Commission) has just released DeMuDi 1.1.1 Live, a full music-recording, editing and playback suite all on a bootable CD-ROM. It’s all made from existing Open Source components, built on top of a Linux low-latency kernel, the Advanced Linux Sound Architecture, and the JACK audio-connection kit, with applications ranging from soundfile editors & MIDI sequencers to sound-synthesis software, sheet-music preperation software and media players. Pop it into your Intel box, regardless of native OS, boot from the CD-ROM and you’ve got your editing suite! (A Mac-G4 version is in the works.)

(Thanks to Steve for the pointer…)

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I’ve wanted something like iMix ever since I burned my first Lindy-Hop CD mix. Absolutely brilliant.

Now if we could just shift from $0.99 / track to something that suits better for radio-style “let’s see what’s on” kind of play we could give ClearChannel the heave-to once and for all.

(Some of the other new iTunes features look nice too)

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Buy an Erdös number on eBay

Only three more days to buy an Erdös number of 5 on eBay!

For those not in-the-know, the late great Paul Erdös was a prolific mathematician and collaborator, which has made him something of the Kevin Bacon of the mathematics world. Erdös has an Erdös number of zero, any of his 200+ coauthors have an Erdös number of one, anyone who has coauthored a paper with one of them has an Erdös number of two, and so on. Now William Tozier, who has an Erdös number of 4, is selling his collaboration and thus an Erdös number of 5 on eBay. Current high bid is $364.

The interesting thing to me is that the price doesn’t seem to be following scarcity in this case. According to the Erdös Number Project, of the roughly 253,000 people who have collaborated on papers listed in the database of the American Mathematical Society’s Mathematical Reviews (MR), over 80% have an Erdös number, with the mode (most people) and median (mid-point) having an Erdös number of 5. (Heck, even I have an Erdös number of 5, and I’m not a mathematician.) You’d think the real prize would be to collaborate with R.G. Kamalov, who can boast 15 steps in his shortest path to Erdös and thus the largest finite Erdös number identified by the project.

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People still believe in Iraq/al Qaeda links, WMD, and Santa

Before the war I honestly thought Iraq had WMD, but eventually I had to face facts. My hunch that if Saddam had nothing to hide he’d have been more forthcoming was wrong. My hunch that Bush wasn’t so blindingly stupid as to bluff both the UN and Congress without solid evidence was also wrong. I’ve also got some nasty suspicions about why Santa Clause always looked like Dad when I snuck down Christmas Eve to spy.

Anyway, it looks like lots of Americans are still in denial. The Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland and Knowledge Networks have just released their latest report on American beliefs about pre-war Iraq — the results haven’t changed much since they first started running their surveys before the war started. (PIPA’s press release and questionnaire are also available, as is my summary of their October report.)

The quick summary:

  • 57% still think that before the war Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda, including 20% who believe that Iraq was directly involved in the September 11 attacks.
  • 45% believe that evidence that Iraq was supporting al Qaeda has been found.
  • 60% believe that just before the war Iraq either had weapons of mass destruction (38%) or a major program for developing them (22%).

Where are these people getting these ideas? Oh wait, here it is:

  • 56% percent said it was their impression that the Bush administration is claiming the US has found clear evidence that Saddam Hussein was working closely with al Qaeda, and 38% perceived the administration saying the US has found clear evidence that just before the war, Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

It’s good to see they got at least one question right.

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Berkman Center iTunes Case Study

Ars Technica has a nice review of the iTunes Case Study being done by Harvard Law’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. From the study’s overview:

By focusing on the specific iTunes example, the Case Study offers a concrete view of the way law, technology, and business model interact in the post-Napster world.  The Case Study has focused on four important regulatory issues:

  • Interaction between Copyright and Contract Law
  • Digital Rights Management
  • Digital First Sale Doctrine
  • Fair Use Doctrine

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Cute security technology from Beepcard:

The Comdot™ solution is easy and convenient: Users simply hold the card in front of their PC, phone or other networked microphone and squeezes the Comdot™ — a flat button on the card — the card uses sound, carrying a one time 3DES encrypted code, to identify the user to the destination server.

Bruce Schneier’s comments:

This is perhaps the coolest security idea I’ve seen in a long time. They have a demo application where you go to a website and purchase something with a credit card. To authenticate the transaction, you have to put the card up to your computer’s microphone and press the button. The sound is captured using a Java or ActiveX control — no plug-in required — and acts as an authenticator. It proves that the person making the transaction has the card in his hands, and doesn’t just know the number. In credit-card language, it changes the transaction from “card not present” to “card present.”

Even cooler, they are making an enhancement to the system that also includes a microphone on the card. This system will require the user to speak a password into the card before pressing the button.

Why do I like this? It’s a physical authentication system that doesn’t require any special reader hardware. You can use it on a random computer at an Internet cafe. You can use it on a telephone. I can think of all sorts of really easy, really cool applications. If the price is cheap enough, BeepCard has a winner here.

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Sony & TOPPAN announce 25GB Paper Disc

Sony and TOPPAN have just announced a 25Gig Blu-ray Disc made out of 51% paper:

25G Paper Disc

Hideaki Kawai, Managing Director, Head of Corporate R&D Division, TOPPAN CO., LTD commented: “Using printing technology on paper allows a high level of artistic label printing on the optical disc. Since a paper disc can be cut by scissors easily, it is simple to preserve data security when disposing of the disc”.

Masanobu Yamamoto, Senior General Manager of Optical System Development Gp., Optical Disc Development Div., Sony Corporation said: “Since the Blu-ray Disc does not require laser light to travel through the substrate, we were able to develop this paper disc. By increasing the capacity of the disc we can decrease the amount of raw material used per unit of information.”

Details will be announced at the SPIE Optical Data Storage 2004 Conference next week.

TOPPAN is also working with E Ink to produce their paper displays.

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Gmail, privacy and centralization

There’s been a lot of hubbub over Gmail, Google’s new free (advertising-based) Not An April Fool’s Joke email service with 1Gig of disk space. The biggest issue is that Google hasn’t properly communicated where they stand on protecting email privacy, especially in relation to their plan to automatically scan email and present relevant advertisements as a sidebar. In response, a host of privacy organizations have written an open letter demanding that the service be suspended until privacy issues are addressed. The EFF has also been asking some important questions, and Google says they’re “batting about a number of options”.

On the surface, Gmail isn’t that different than existing online email services. It’s a free email account run on company-owned-and-operated servers, just like MSN Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail. It automatically scans and annotate email, just like spam-filters do already. And in spite of criticism about Gmail’s privacy policy, it’s not that different (and in fact more explicit) than the ones you find at MSN or Yahoo!. But look just a little down the road and Gmail isn’t an email service at all, it’s a personal information archival service. This is the real service Google is looking to provide. As they put it: “Gmail is an experiment in a new kind of webmail, built on the idea that you should never have to delete mail and you should always be able to find the message you want.”

My first reaction is “it’s about damn time someone’s doing this.” Since 1995 I’ve kept every email I’ve received or sent (yes, even spam), for a total of over 1.6 Gig and almost 200,000 non-spam email messages. I index it all with the Remembrance Agent (my PhD thesis project) so whenever I get email on, say, some hot new technology I also get links to what other friends, colleagues and mailing lists have said on the subject. (On a different note, when I write love letters I see what I’ve written to previous girlfriends, which is sometimes quite educational.) I’d love to have this kind of thing hooked up not only to my own email but also, say, my favorite 1000 RSS feeds that I’d like to read but don’t have time for. That’s clearly the direction Google is heading (they even cite me — I love it when that happens!)

Systems like Gmail face two problems, both of which are also strengths. The first is that my personal and work email archives contains some of the most sensitive information there is in my life. They include email confirmation of purchases, trips I’ve taken and investments I’ve made. They include love letters I’ve sent and later regretted, discussions of medical issues, and drunken emails complaining about people with whom I’ve lived and worked. They include research ideas not yet patented and drafts of papers not yet published. Often these emails are sensitive precisely because they are powerful and useful, but more often than not information that empowers me can also empower my enemies, competitors and parasites.

The second problem is Google’s centralized architecture, which is easier to maintain and deploy but requires me to trust them with my most sensitive assets. This is a general problem with indexing the Deep Web of proprietary data, and I suspect it was the main failure point for Autonomy’s short-lived Kenjin system and the main reason they moved to an inside-the-firewall search system. This is not to say a centralized approach is untenable; we already have institutions that are trusted with sensitive data, namely doctors, lawyers, and financial institutions. But what these three have in common are a combination of legal and institutional guarantees of privacy, security and longevity of the data they keep. By improving on the usual web-mail model Google plans to join these institutions in terms of trust required, but so far they haven’t improved on the old and inadequate web-mail privacy guarantee. It may not even be possible for Google to make the necessary guarantees without Congressional support, an unlikely prospect given the Justice Department’s current lust for total information awareness.

If Google manages to innovate new trust models as well they do technology, I suspect Gmail will be a good stop-gap technology, though it will never be as trustable as a combination of my personal local data cache, an encrypted backup service, and trusted friends or services who keep backup keys. Call me picky, but I’m still holding out for my personal server. How much longer before I can have the Web in my pocket?


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TV and paying attention (to the facts)

A couple days ago the AP reported about a new study that links the amount of time one- and three-year-olds spend watching TV to subsequent attentional problems at age seven. The study, which was published in the April issue of Pediatrics, analyzed interviews from a U.S. Department of Labor longitudinal study and found that for every extra hour a toddler watched TV per day there was a 10% rise in the likelihood that the child would show attentional problems later. The study and accompanying commentary both suggest that, while Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is known to have a significant genetic component, early television viewing might make already susceptible children more likely to manifest symptoms, and they rightly suggest further study. They also point out, however, that one “cannot draw causal inferences from these associations.” For example, though most experts believe ADHD symptoms don’t manifest until well after age three, it is still possible that parents are more likely to park their fidgetty children in front of the TV. Since parents of ADHD children are more likely to have attentional problems themselves, it is also possible that the results are due to parents with attentional problems being more likely to use the television as a babysitter. The article and commentary are both good science: they present their hypothesis, describe their data in detail, and point out both why they think their data supports their conclusions and how they may still be wrong. Their conclusions are well measured given the data: additional research is needed, and if the results are confirmed then attentional problems should join increased aggression and obesity as reasons to limit television viewing in early childhood.

Unfortunately, since the AP broke with the lead that television might permanently “rewire” the developing brain, most of the editorials have not been so measured. WhiteDot (an anti-TV organization) declares “It’s Official: TV Linked to Attention Deficit” and presents the shocker “Are parents who use infant videos such as ‘Baby Einstein’ and ‘Teletubbies’ putting their child at risk for a lifetime of Special Ed classes, school ‘behavioral therapy’ and Ritalin?” The Boston Globe goes one step further, suggesting that “the passive baby sitter we let into the house turned out to be a drug dealer, altering the brain perhaps even more permanently than a bag of dope.” The Philadelphia Inquirer threw in the specter that even Sesame Street might not be safe: “And it had bad news for parents who congratulate themselves that their kids watch only ‘educational’ TV. It didn’t seem to matter what type of shows babies and toddlers watched — whether Sesame Street or Barney or Cartoon Network.” (Not true — the researchers have no information about what kind of TV the children watched, and only concluded that if educational TV isn’t bad then non-educational TV must be even worse to account for the differences found.)

I take away two lessons from this. First, it’s likely that ADHD is yet another condition where genetics and environment interact (ala Matt Ridley’s Nature via Nurture). Second, the guys writing these editorials clearly watched too much TV when they were toddlers — ’cause they just plain aren’t paying attention!


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