December 2004

One-click disaster-relief donation has set up a one-click donation site for the American Red Cross Disaster Relief fund. All proceeds will go to the fund, and they’ve already collected over $2M. (Get your donation in before the 31st for tax savings this year…)

Before the Net, I would have thought about giving a donation but not gotten around to it — as it is, I just sent $100. I love seeing things like one-click and PayPal making it easy to do good…

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Ted Nelson and Andrew Pam have come out with The Little TransQuoter, a simple (and currently fairly rudimentary) system for doing transclusion of text blocks on top of HTML (see sample).

The concept of transclusion — the quotation of documents by linking directly to embedded text instead of making a copy — has a lot of interesting possibilities, but in the end it feels to me like it’s going in the exact wrong direction for the digital age. Nelson’s whole design seems to be based around the idea of ownership: I own the bits I’ve written, I control the content and modifications, and when you quote from me you owe me a micropayment. That was the shape of publication in the last century, but it’s not how 21st-century publication is shaping up. In so far as ownership means control, information in the 21st century has no owner. Information can have hosts, pedigrees, histories, and even generally-accepted custodians, but in the future that’s being built “my bits” means not what I’ve written but what I’m carrying in my hard drive. Like a new joke or a bad cold that travels around the office, mutating as it goes, each copy of information is controlled by the host that holds it in his possession. I can’t see any technology that tries to buck that trend winning out in the long run, especially not as we ride the technology trends towards the day when I can store the entire Web in my pocket.

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Barlow’s fight for the 4th amendment


So often the system gives us a choice between acquiescing to a little erosion of liberty or taking it on the chin and fighting for the liberty of us all. Salute to John Perry Barlow, the latest hero in the good fight.

(I’m going to skip my armchair legal reasoning for why it’s important that the government not have the right to use the excuse of “we’re looking for terrorist threats” to search someone’s ibuprofen bottle for drugs without a warrant, and why it’s important that evidence found during such illegally-conducted searches not be admissable — if you don’t know the arguments, check out some legal discussion on the Exclusionary Rule.)

Jumping briefly to media technology, when I cross this and my previous post in my head, I can’t help but add a new tech toy to my Christmas wish list: a suitcase that automatically starts recording video and audio whenever it’s opened, so when I recover my bag I can see just how intimate bag-searchers are getting with my personal effects. Think of it as a cross between a radar-detector and an automatic Rodney King video camera for privacy advocates.

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Spies like us…

The latest for that James-Bond or Peeping-Tom wannabee:

  • The Nokia Spyphone, which looks like a normal cellphone but will silently turn on and act as a wireless bug whenever called from a particular phone number. In another mode it can seem to be turned off but silently take calls and listen in (say, when you take a break during a business meeting).
  • The Nokia Observation Camera, which will send pictures to any MMS-capable mobile phone or email address at a certain time, when triggered by a motion sensor or when the temperature goes out of a set range.
  • The Nokia Remote Camera, which includes capabilities of the Observation Camera plus the ability to capture video clips with sound, ability to call and listen in on the microphone, remote control with compatible mobile phone and night-picture mode using its own infrared light source. (No word on whether the night-picture mode has the side-effect of giving you a see-through-clothing mode like with the Sony Nightshot…)

(Thanks to Thad Starner and Ellis Weinberger on the Wearables list for the links…)

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Wikipedia’s defense

(By way of SlashDot) The Wikipedia entry on Sollog is an interesting example of how a community can protect a shared collaborative space. Sollog is a self-proclaimed seer/prophet, who a little over a week ago was the subject of a new anonymously-written Wikipedia entry touting his books and otherwise proclaiming his powers. Since then the entry has been edited, vandalized & blanked back and forth 194 times (several of the vandalizations from the same IP address that wrote the original article), put to a vote on deletion by community members (who decided to keep the article, though in edited form) and finally protected from further edits to keep it from being vandalized.

The part that impresses me most is the amount of work and calm rational discussion that’s gotten done over at the discussion thread on the topic (and even pre-refactored version). I wish I had a metric for how much the success of an online community owes to the communication tools at its disposal (protection, easy version-handling, IP-blocking, etc.), a clear mission statement / rules of engagement and smart dedicated people, but I’m betting the breakdown is something like 20% / 30% / 50%…

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Google Print

Google just announced a new partnership with the libraries of Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, the University of Oxford, and The New York Public Library to digitally scan library books and make them searchable online. In one sense they’re playing catch-up with Amazon, who started putting text online some time ago and is in a stronger position to turn that into more book sales. I’m speculating a bit here, but I expect Amazon is also in a better position to negotiate for the right to make more copyrighted text available than Google, given the easier read-it-to-buy-it pipeline.

One thing that really strikes me about Google’s project is this bit:

Users searching with Google will see links in their search results page when there are books relevant to their query. Clicking on a title delivers a Google Print page where users can browse the full text of public domain works and brief excerpts and/or bibliographic data of copyrighted material. Library content will be displayed in keeping with copyright law. For more information and examples, please visit [URL corrected — ‘Bug].

I’m a little biased since my PhD Thesis was about this kind of application, but I can easily see this sort of show me information related to what I’m doing now app being the next big thing interface advancement. (At least once it’s integrated with good search, the right data, and most importantly a company that doesn’t try to integrate it with an all-too-helpful cartoon character.)

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History repeats itself…

Ignoring things like the wrist watch, the earliest wearable computer was built back in 1961 by Ed Thorp (father of the theory of card-counting in Blackjack) and Claude Shannon (father of information theory) to answer a question that had plagued mankind for generations: is there any way I can cheat reliably at roulette?

Now over 43 years later, history repeats itself yet again as a treo has walked away with more than $2.3 million, allegedly having used a cellphone rigged with a laser range-finder to up their odds of winning from 1 in 37 to about 1 in 6. Police have dropped the investigation after deciding there was no interference with the ball in play. (That wouldn’t fly in Vegas, where laws were put in place after wearables users in the ’70s spooked casinos.)

(Thanks to Steve Schwartz for the link!)

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Walter Lewin’s halo revealed

Walter Lewin's ring picture

A couple months ago, MIT physics professor Walter Lewin posted a photo of an MIT construction site to the Astronomy Picture of the Day webpage with the challenge “explain the bright ring of colors.” Now after answering about 3000 answers (only 5 of them fully correct), Walter Lewin explains all.

(Note also that 75 of Prof. Lewin’s lectures are available online at MIT’s OpenCourseWare site, plus four more at MIT World).

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