December 2006

Christmas Traps for 2006: Under Glass

Remember back to your misspent youth (or recent adulthood) spent playing Dungeons and Dragons, and how your adventuring party sweated as your thief tried desperately to disarm all the traps before opening a treasure chest? It’s in that spirit that my friend Jay and I have exchanged trapped presents every Christmas for the past sixteen or so years.

When people ask me how to disarm a trap I’m giving Jay I’ll often joke that “I just design them, disarming them is his problem,” but I actually like to know that I can get through it before I hand it off to Jay. This year’s trap almost had me stumped, and I spent almost as long figuring out how to disarm my trap as I did designing it. The trap is even more maddening because there’s nothing hidden about it — after you open the box you can plainly see all the trap mechanisms through a glass dome, just as plainly as you can see it’ll be almost impossible to get any tools at them without setting it off.

I’ve just added a write up and video of the design, called Under Glass, to my traps gallery, and I’ll be adding a write-up on Jay’s trap (which was quite cool this year) in the coming week or so.

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Creative Commons launches tool to reclaim rights

From the Creative Commons weblog:

Creative Commons is excited to launch a beta version of its “Returning Authors Rights: Termination of Transfer” tool. The tool has been included in ccLabs — CC’s platform for demoing new tech tools. It’s a beta demo so it doesn’t produce any useable results at this stage. We have launched it to get your feedback.

Briefly, the U.S. Copyright Act gives creators a mechanism by which they can reclaim rights that they sold or licensed away many years ago. Often artists sign away their rights at the start of their careers when they lack sophisticated negotiating experience, access to good legal advice or any knowledge of the true value of their work so they face an unequal bargaining situation. The “termination of transfer” provisions are intended to give artists a way to rebalance the bargain, giving them a “second bite of the apple.” By allowing artists to reclaim their rights, the U.S. Congress hoped that authors could renegotiate old deals or negotiate new deals on stronger footing (and hopefully with greater remuneration too!!). A longer explanation of the purpose of the “termination of transfer” provisions is set out in this FAQ.

Basically their tool is designed to help authors and artists navigate the legal waters and reclaim their copyrights. From Lessig’s blog:

Why is this a Creative Commons project? We’ve seen CC from the start as a tool to help creators manage an insanely complicated copyright system. When we have this running, we’ll offer any copyright owner who has reclaimed his or her rights the opportunity to distribute the work under a CC license. But that will be optional. Right now, we’re just offering the tool to make it simpler for authors to get what the copyright system was intended to give them.

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Evolution and the Samurai Crab

I wasn’t planning on posting anything for the Carl Sagan blog-a-thon marking the 10th anniversary of his death, but as it happens I recently discovered something I’d always remembered from Sagan’s 1978-79 TV show Cosmos was probably wrong.


I still have a mental image of Sagan sitting in a boat talking about how for millennia Japanese fishermen would throw back crabs that resembled a human face, thinking it might be the spirit of an ancient samurai. Over the years, he explained, these returned crabs bred to look even more like human faces, and the result of this unintentional artificial selection is the so-called samurai crabs, which bear a striking resemblance to the face of a samurai.

It’s a great story which has been around at least since a 1952 Life Magazine article by evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley. But according to a 1993 article by crustacean evolutionary biologist Joel Martin it’s almost certainly false. He points out that, though the myth that the crabs in the Sea of Japan are the ghosts of defeated Heike samurai is fairly old, there are three reasons the face-like quality of the crabs can’t be due to selective fishing:

  1. Many crabs look like human faces, whether or not they are from the Sea of Japan or in regularly fished waters. The grooves that make the outline of the face are caused by supportive ridges that serve as sites for muscle attachments.

  2. Fossils of crabs closely related to the samurai crab also resemble human faces, even though they predate man’s appearance on earth.

  3. Most damning of all, the fishermen who make their living from the Sea of Japan don’t eat any of the samurai crab regardless of what they look like: they don’t grow any bigger than 1.2 inches across the back, so fishermen always just throw them back (or rather, they never bother to retrieve them from their nets in the first place).

It’s a shame that the story of unintentional artificial selection isn’t true, because it really is a great teaching story about evolution. The fact that I still remembered it enough to go searching on Wikipedia for “samurai crab” 27 years after I saw the original program may be the best testament to Carl Sagan I can give.

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Things That Fink

Bruce Schneier’s Crypto-Gram points to some impressive work done by researchers at the University of Washington showing how Apple’s Nike + iPod kit can be used to track people. The kit consists of a transmitter that you put in your shoe and a receiver you plug into your iPod. The transmitter wakes up whenever it gets shaken and sends out pedometer info every second, and the receiver then uses that info to give voice and visual feedback on your pace and how far you’ve run. The UW team discovered that each transmitter sends out a unique ID so the receivers can distinguish among several in the area, and then built several PDA-sized units to listen for IDs and log the data either to flash memory or retransmit it over Wi-fi or SMS. They also built software that would trigger a USB camera whenever a particular ID went by, and wrote a visualization tool that shows either historical or real-time overlays of sensor IDs and/or pictures taken on top of Google Maps. Details are in their paper, and they also have a video.

The threat models they lay out aren’t government surveillance so much as jealous/ex-boyfriends and stalkers, and to some extent professional thieves and muggers, unethical organizations tracking their members (or their competition’s members), and stores tracking their customers. Except for muggers (which just involves detecting whether a passing jogger is likely to have an iPod or other cool gadgets on them), all the scenarios they discuss involve the use of a network of their relatively cheap sensors, each one adding a single location to the overall surveillance network. A stalker would place trackers at strategic locations, then wait for them to phone home with the unique IDs they see. To link a a unique ID with a particular person he just has to get close to his target (or for that matter just watch her jog by) and then note the ID that’s being broadcast. Or he can leave one tracker in the bushes by his target’s front door and note what ID it picks up (he gets when she comes and goes that way too). And since consumers are encouraged to “just drop the sensor in their Nike+ shoes and forget about it” the trackers will work even when the target isn’t actually jogging or using the device.

The work is impressive, but I feel like by focusing on the Nike + iPod design it’s pointing to the smoke instead of the fire. Yes, Apple probably could have designed their system to make this sort of tracking more difficult. Ditto the RFID chips in smart cards, passports, highway toll-payment boxes, quick-payment key fobs and consumer products, not to mention Bluetooth devices and cellphones. But the main technology trend that’s making this sort of tracking possible, I would argue, is not the plethora of remotely-readable unique IDs we carry everywhere we go so much as the small, cheap hardware that even a moderately technical attacker can turn into his very own sensor network. RFID and transmitters are a ready-made “fingerprint” that such sensor networks can read easily, but as machine vision and pattern recognition technology improves there will be an increasing number of features will uniquely identify you to a sensor network, including minor differences in hardware you carry, how you walk or what you look like. This is not to say we shouldn’t encourage companies to make tracking by RFID harder to do, but I think it’s at best going to buy us 5-10 years before you’ll be able to buy your own automatic person-tracking sensor network at any online spy-shop. We’d better be thinking now about what kind of social and legal systems we’ll want once that day comes.

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Advertising as a form of violence


Remember the future depicted in the movie Minority Report, where every last inch of real estate is covered by advertisements that demand your attention by any means possible? I couldn’t help think about that as I flew home on US Airways after Thanksgiving. First there was the TV screens, which after the safety take-off script started extolling the virtues of their Skymall shopping opportunities. Then there was the flight attendant who, having just given me potential life-saving information about the flotation abilities of my seat cushion, came through the cabin explaining how we could have a free flight if we just signed up for their co-branded credit card. Finally, just as I thought the barrage was over, I brought my tray table down only to find it was painted with yet more advertising. Good thing I’ve developed a strong stomach to all this advertising, because even their barf bag had ads printed on it!

It seems like everywhere there’s a captive audience nowadays you’ll find it stuffed full of advertising. Movie theaters have finally branched out from advertising movies and concessions to full-on TV-style ads, Wal-Mart has their Checkout TV (designed to “entertain shoppers as well as inform them about new products”), my local Longs pharmacy even has a flat-panel TV showing continuous infomercials. These ads are always delivered with the pleasant-sounding lie that they’re for our benefit. If that’s the case, why do they always make me feel like the airline, theater or store I’m patronizing has just punched me in the stomach?

I’ve tried looking past my gut reaction and thinking about the situation rationally, but oddly enough when I do that I become even more convinced that, at least most of the time, advertising is a direct form of violence. I don’t mean violence in the most limited physical definition — I don’t get a bloody nose from the Trix Rabbit. But consider the following points:

  1. While we like to think we make all our own choices based on the information we have at hand, in fact we humans are highly susceptible to manipulation. (In fact, there’s good evidence that people who think they’re not easily manipulated are the most susceptible.)

  2. Sometimes manipulations are to our long-term benefit. Education is all about changing how someone thinks; so is love. Sometimes we’ll seek out ways to manipulate ourselves directly, be it by throwing out all our cigarettes so we won’t be tempted to smoke or by getting drunk at a party to get over our shyness and meet someone new. Other times we won’t recognize the benefit of a manipulation until much later, like the addict who denies he has a problem until his friends intervene and force him to go into detox.

    That said, commercial advertising is at best neutral about whether its message actually improves our lives. Advertisers often claim they just inform the public about products they want (if only they knew it), but their main job is to install a need for their product regardless of whether the need was there beforehand. And since creating a need where one didn’t already exist takes more repetition than simply informing someone about a solution to an existing problem, most advertising we see is designed to create new needs.

  3. People are naturally resistant to having new needs installed in them. Sure it feels good when we scratch that itch by buying their product, but at some level we also know that it’s the ads that made us itch in the first place. Because of this, the techniques used by advertisers are subtle and deliberately designed to manipulate our desires without our knowledge or consent.

In other words, most advertising is a deliberately deceptive manipulation of our person and our mental state, without our consent or regard for our interests. I can’t see any way how that’s not a form of violence. And they’ve been doing it all our lives, from the first toy we couldn’t live without to the makeup, gadgets and junk food we crave today.

I suspect if you were punched in the stomach every day since you were a toddler, you’d think it was normal. You wouldn’t like it, and no doubt you’d complain about the ones who punched especially hard or always punched you right as you were sitting down to dinner. But but somehow it’d still be seen as a price of living, nothing that could be done about it.

Only there is something we can do about it. The next time your flight attendant runs down the aisles with credit card applications shouting Who wants a roundtrip flight, absolutely free?!?, stop him and very politely explain how horrible you think it is that his company treats paying customers that way. Do the same with your local stores, and write letters to the company heads. Then take your business to those that don’t have such distain for their customers.

There’s no way a corporate policy of “Service with a smile and a punch in the belly” would fly. Why should advertising be given a free pass?

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Double or nothing?

Ouch. A reader of the Talking Points Memo blog comments about the Pentagon’s “Double Down” strategy of one last big push in Iraq:

Since the Pentagon has decided to discuss its new strategy in gambling parlance, it should at least use the proper terminology. Today’s LA Times article says that a Pentagon official has referred to the option of sending more troops in to Iraq as a “double down” strategy. The reference is to a bet in blackjack when, based on the cards that have been dealt, the player seeks to maximize a payoff that is more likely to occur in that hand, given the probabilities. The double down is a calculated bet, made from a position of strength when the odds are favorable to the bettor.

In Iraq, we are certainly not in a situation where the odds are favorable to winning. Our bet is not a double down. Let’s call it what it is: double or nothing. This is is more like the gambler who has been on a bad losing streak deciding to empty the savings account and put all of his chips on red, hoping that the roulette wheel will spin his way and bring him back close to even. Double or nothing is a desperation play. It is an ill-advised way to gamble, with chips or human lives, and such a strategy inevitably leads to another appropriate gambling term. Gambler’s ruin: winding up completely broke.

It’s scary how many of our political errors can be described in terms of psychological disorders…

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Psiphon: censorship circumvention personal web-proxy

Psiphon is a new anti-censorship web proxy just released by U. Toronto. People outside of a censoring country run a Psiphon server, and people inside a censoring country (China&lt/cough>) just go to the server’s URL and enter whatever URL they want to visit in the page’s own virtual toolbar. The server handles encryption and proxying of the web pages automatically, and gets around URL-based and content-based filters.

One interesting aspect is that they’re not doing anything to help people find a particular proxy. Instead they’re relying on social networks, which is to say word-of-mouth:

A social network is a structure of nodes – usually individuals or organizations – that have ties between them, such as families or groups of friends or colleagues. psiphon leverages social networks as the discovery mechanism. The psiphonode administrator and the psiphonite(s) have a trust relationship and the web address is known only to these trusted people. Each network of psiphonode/psiphonites chooses how to grow the network. It can be small and extremely private or large and relatively semi-private. It depends on the specific context and needs of the psiphonites.

The nice thing about this set up is that it doesn’t need any new routing or discovery infrastructure (since it relies on people to set them up themselves) and it makes it harder for governments to find Psiphon servers and block their ports.

(Props to Infothought for the link.)

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