Month: February 2006

Secret (software) Agent Man

Saturday’s Washington Post article on the NSA’s domestic eavesdropping program has a short aside I find rather chilling (emphasis mine):

Even with 38,000 employees, the NSA is incapable of translating, transcribing and analyzing more than a fraction of the conversations it intercepts. For years, including in public testimony by Hayden, the agency has acknowledged use of automated equipment to analyze the contents and guide analysts to the most important ones.

According to one knowledgeable source, the warrantless program also uses those methods. That is significant to the public debate because this kind of filtering intrudes into content, and machines “listen” to more Americans than humans do. NSA rules since the late 1970s, when machine filtering was far less capable, have said “acquisition” of content does not take place until a conversation is intercepted and processed “into an intelligible form intended for human inspection.”

When I was in the Software Agents Group at MIT in the late ’90s, we had lots of discussion about whether people would be legally responsible for the actions of automated software programs (agents) they use. If I tell eBay’s software to bid up to a given price, can I be held to that agreement even though the “agent” did the bidding and not me? If I knowingly write and unleash an intelligent virus, am I responsible for the damage it causes? The answer to these questions has to be yes if responsibility means anything in our increasingly automated society, and the question would be completely ludicrous were it not for the complexity of what software can now do without our direct intervention. Imagine the murder defense “I didn’t kill those people, my gun did!” And yet, this is the logic being used by the NSA when they claim eavesdropping only counts if the interception is shown to a human. “I didn’t spy on innocent Americans, my software did it!”

There are times where being watched by electronic eyes is preferable to being watched by humans. For example, I trust that Google’s automated system will only use my email to generate relevant advertisements (and nothing else) more than I would if they had humans reading and tagging every email by hand. However, in the NSA’s case their software is doing exactly what they themselves are prohibited from doing both by statute and the Fourth Amendment, namely looking for illegal activity by trolling through mountains of private domestic communications without probable cause. Even if the software only produced a human-readable summary or a ranked list of suspicious people, that output would be tainted just as surely as if an NSA analyst had produced it.

(Thanks to Nelson both for the link and the reminder to donate to the ACLU.)

DIY Mardi Gras masks

Lately I’ve been experimenting with making hardened-leather face-masks. I’m making a bunch of butterfly-looking ones to adorn my wall, but with Mardi Gras just around the corner I figure people might enjoy a quick DIY guide:

Start with vegetable-tanned (also known as saddle-skirt) leather. I picked mine up at a local Tandy Leather.

Update 2/25/06: Get 5/7-weight leather (that is, between 5/64″ and 7/64″ thick). Thicker is OK, though you’ll get more shrinkage (less soak-time may help that). Thinner won’t harden as quickly, will be brittle and won’t hold a shape very well.

Cut a mask pattern, allowing for about 30% shrinkage.
Soak leather in cool water for 10 minutes.
Heat water to 180°F.
Soak in hot water for around 90 seconds. The leather will shrink, curl and thicken, and then start to uncurl. The longer you soak it the stretchier it will be at the start and the smaller, harder, thicker and more brittle the end result will be.
Once the leather comes out, you have about 5 minutes to stretch and shape it before it becomes stiff. For a good face-shape be sure to add bumps for the bridge of the nose, eyebrows and cheekbones. If you have any dangly bits they can be twisted or braided, and they will harden into whatever shape you set them. Over the next 10 minutes, give it a pinch every now and then to make sure it stays in the shape you want, then let it dry overnight. By morning, it should be hard as wood.
If you decide now that you need to expand the eyeholes or change the outline you can use a drill or saw. Otherwise, you’re ready to paint it, using a paint suitable for leather. I used several coats of “3D” fabric paint. Mardi Gras colors are green, purple and gold. Add ribbon-ties if you like. Have fun!

Update 2/25/06: More masks I’ve been making:

This guide can also be found on

Optimus mini-three keyboard


I’m not sure yet what I’d do with it, but the Optimus mini-three keyboard looks very fun: it’s an auxiliary keyboard with three keys, each with its own little OLED screen displaying the current function (potentially animated). The most compelling examples are where not only is the button’s function displayed but also what effect it’ll have in the current context, like what image, song, or PowerPoint slide is coming up next when browsing through media.

USB 1.0, currently Windows only for the configuration software but others are coming. Pre-orderable for $100 until April 2nd, shipped to arrive on May 15th. This is coming out of the Art. Lebedev Studio in Russia — looks like they’ve also got a complete keyboard coming soon too.

(Thanks to Nerfduck for this link too!)

On the Internet, no one knows you’re a pigeon…


Via Reuters: UC Irvine professor Beatriz da Costa will be releasing 20 pigeons into the San Jose skies during this year’s International Symmposium on Electronic Art. Each pigeon will be equipped with a camera, GPS, air-polution monitor and cellphone, and images and location-based polution data will be automatically posted to a PigeonBlog. (No word on whether PigeonBlog will comply with RFC 1149.)

Thanks to Nerfduck for the link!

iPods for the Senate

The “balanced intellectual-property policy” advocacy group IPac has a new campaign to educate senators about media in the Internet Age by sending them iPods:

Last week, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing on the “Broadcast Flag” and “Audio Flag,” a set of proposals by the MPAA and RIAA that would stifle innovation by giving content holders a virtual veto over new technologies and existing user rights.

But Senator Stevens, the 82-year old committee chairman from Alaska, surprised the audience by announcing that his daughter had bought him an iPod, and suddenly Stevens had a much greater understanding of the many ways innovative technology can create choice for consumers. Content industry representatives at the hearing found themselves answering much tougher questions than they typically receive.

I’d thought this same thing when I first read about Senator Stevens, but figured it’d be illegal for Senators to accept the iPods as gifts. IPac’s FAQ says they’re donating these to the Senator’s campaign offices (for use in campaign-related activities) and so they get around the rules — whether the Senators will accept them given the current scrutiny over lobbying scandals is another question.

(Thanks to Amy for the link!)