Boing Boing 

Sterling on Ubiquitous Computing and the canard of stalled innovation

Sterling's sent out the text of the speech he gave this week to the CRA Conference on Grand Research Challenges in Computer Science and Engineering in DC. Mostly, it's about ubiquitous computing, a subject near and dear to my utility-fogged heart, and that stuff is extremely choice, in high Sterling style:
I don't need a "smart" package or an "agent" package. I don't much want to "talk" to a package. I don't want a package tugging my sleeve, stalking me, or selfishly begging for attention and commitment. If a package really wants to please me and earn my respect, it needs to tell me three basic things: What is it? (It's the very thing I ordered, hopefully). Where is it? (It's on its way at location x). And what condition it is in? (It's functional, workable, unbroken, good to go). The shipping company already needs to know these three things for their own convenience. So they might as well tell me, too. So I don't have to swallow my ubicomp like castor oil. My ubicomp arrives in a subtle way, as a kind of value-added service.

So the object arrives in my possession with the ubicomp attached. It's a tracking tag. When I sign for that object, I keep the tracking tag. It's mine now. Ho ho ho!

Let's say that it's something I'm really anxious to have: it's a highly evolved mousetrap. The mice in my house are driving me nuts, because I'm a programmer. I eat nothing but take-out Szechuan food, and everything in my house is fatally disordered.

Luckily my new, computer-designed mousetrap quickly and horribly slaughters all my mice. Not one vermin is left alive. That's great service, but now I'm anxious to get rid of it. I really don't need a super-mousetrap attracting attention, if I get lucky and a hot date comes over to help me play "The Sims."

Given that I'm a congenital slob, of course the mice soon return. But by then, I've already forgotten my mousetrap. Out of sight, out of mind. I paid a lot of money for it, but I already forgot where I put it.

This is just the opening of a long, funny and thought-provoking riff on what a smart environment means, and it's very good indeed.

But Bruce opens with something that I think is dead-wrong, retrograde -- something that he talked about during our joint keynote at SXSW, that I've been thinking about ever since.

The computer is a gizmo, and it's a great gizmo, but it's not an ultimate gizmo. Computer science has been the slave of metaphysics ever since Alan Turing invented the Turing Test, but a computer is not a metaphysical entity. It's not free of objective reality. Its bits are bits of atoms. The only ultimate gizmo is a clock. The clock never stops ticking. The clock has been ticking for the computer for quite a while.

It's not just that the pace of basic innovation has slowed in your field, although it has. It's not just that computers have lost the lipstick of their geek gadget romance, although they have. That which was accomplished in the 1980s and 1990s is under attack. There is a backlash.

This ought to be obvious to anybody who uses the Internet. All you need to do is examine your email. Where is Al Gore's idealistic, civilized Information Superhighway? It's a red-light district. A crooked flea market. A nest of spies. An infowar battlefield. That is the state of cyberspace 2002. There are fire sales on every block. It has anything but grandeur. It's decadent and sinister.

I've had the same email address for 13 years, and I'm not budging. That's where I staked my little claim on the electronic frontier, and by gum, I remember the Alamo and I ain't a-goin' to go. Therefore, my email in 2002 is full of 419 fraudsters from Nigeria. And unsolicited porn ads. And a galaxy of farfetched medical scams from malignant, unlicensed quacks peddling Viagra and growth hormone. With unreadable, unicode, collateral bomb-damage from the gigantic spam mills in China, Korea, Thailand and Taiwan.

I think Bruce is way off base here. The computer isn't a gizmo -- a particular computer may be a gizmo, but the computer is a universal machine. It's Turing's (or Von Neumann's) marvellous insight made real: it is as important to assisted cognition as the written word is. The fact that Universal Machines were constrained by their relative lack of power made it seem as though there was fundamental innovation taking place when machines got faster and smaller, but that was an illusion. Depending on your PoV, the innovation took place in Turing's day and stopped, or it has been continuous ever since, but the drop off Bruce describes just didn't happen.

The Internet is an insight as key as the computer. The Internet is a system for connecting anything to anything else. It is the sum total of millions of gentle-persons' agreements to follow some basic protocol, but beyond that, it is nothing more than a design philosophy.

There's a convenient way of visualizing the net: a cluster of thick "backbone" trunk-lines mated to one another with core-routers, ramifying into ever-finer pipes, down to the whiskers of copper that joins the "core" to the "edge" over the "last mile."

Like Newtonian physics, this is so much bullshit. Occassionally useful, but still: so much bullshit. The fundamental rule of the Internet is that any two points can talk to one another -- the end-to-end principle. What's more, anyone can join up, attach a computer to the network without securing permission from a central authority, and once connected, can talk to anyone else. The Internet's role in our world is to connect any two points. There is no "last mile" of the Internet, only millions (and soon, billions) of first miles.

The Internet isn't shaped like a tree. It's shaped like a bush that's contorted into Klein-bottle topology, a continuous plane whose every edge is mated to another edge.

On the Internet, we exchange messages with one another: please send me this file; please search for this record in your database, please display this file in your browser-window.

On the Internet your right to swing your fist never stops, because it only hits my nose if I execute the "hit your nose" instruction you sent me. On the Internet, it's my responsibility to decide whose instructions I want to execute.

Mozilla was designed for use by people who live on the net. It was written by people who live on the net. And because it was designed by the net/for the net, it has excellent features that would never make it into a technology designed by someone who gave a festering shit about "business models." Chief among these is the ability to right-click on any banner ad and select "block images from this server" from a pop-up menu. A little judicious right-clicking on the sites you visit most frequently and the Web is transformed in a kind of anarcho-utopoic marketing-free-zone. Where a decade ago, Mozilla's coders might have been publishing zines like AdBusters, today they're simply busting the ads.

This works because I can tell my browser to simply ignore the directives in the files that some Web server has provided me with. Those directives aren't orders, they're suggestions.

If Bruce is buried in spam, it's not because there are too many criminals sending out dumb come-ons; it's because Bruce has decided to execute the directives those criminals have sent his way. I don't execute those directives. I use Vipul's Razor and SpamAssassin; my inbox has virtually no spam in it (despite the 500-700 spams sent my way every day) because I take part in a collaborative filter, enabled by the network that lets anyone to talk to anyone else, which allows us all to aggregate unnoticeable wisps of effort that tracts the untractable. Link Discuss (Thanks, Stefan!)

Time-Warner's latest evil: Nastygramming open wireless operators

Time-Warner Cable is sending nastygrams to subscribers that have been snitched out for running open wireless access. The letter says that sharing your connection -- no matter what the circumstances -- is forbidden (I guess I won't plug in the next time I visit a neighbor's house, huh?), and throws a bunch of scare-tactic language about the possibility of an open WLAN being used to commit a crime, leaving you on the hook. Interestingly enough, the letter doesn't allege that anyone is actually using the subscriber's connection except the subscriber, just that someone might. It would be interesting to see what would happen if someone were to push on this and force Time-Warner to prove that anyone other than the owner had made use of the connection.

I hope that 802.11a mesh-networks without any connection to an ISP (other than at a major network interchange like MAE West) take off soon, and put these fools out of commission. The closer you get to MAE West, the cheaper bandwidth is, and when you're actually at a major interchange, the bandwidth isn't metered at all -- your only recurring cost is rack-space and service charges.

Meanwhile, it's time for wibos to continue their exodus from clue-free ISPs that frown on making best use of your pipe and switch to wireless-friendly ISPs. In San Francisco, Earthlink DSL allows wireless sharing, as does and Speakeasy. It costs a couple grand to acquire and connect a broadband customer; ISPs that try to keep broadband customers from enjoying the use of their links are going to find themselves in a pile of Northpoint-grade financial fertilizer.

Any other wireless-friendly ISPs? Post in the Discuss link. Link Discuss (via 802.11b Networking News)

Warchalking in government

The State of Utah's CIO writes that he plans to implement warchalking marks in and around his official buildings to alert state employees to the presence of wireless networks.
I'm the CIO of the State of Utah. We network over 250 buildings for 22,000 employees. We're also in the planning phase of deploying Wi-Fi access points at places where cops hang out so they can connect to the net during their shift (they use CDPD for low bandwidth ops, but need a high bandwidth option sometimes). In this kind of environment, warchalking has some important uses beyond finding a free net. I'm hoping to use th warchalking icons to alert employees to the existence of wireless nets in conference rooms and other places.
Link Discuss (via Let's Warchalk!)

Tim O'Reilly on the upcoming Open Source conference

Tim "O'Reilly" O'Reilly (heh) has written a hell of an editorial by way of introduction to the festivities at the upcoming O'Reilly Open Source convention in San Diego (which I will have to miss this year, as I'll be taking some much-needed vacation time then in Toronto and tying up some loose ends). Tim talks about the current state-of-the-industry, the fallacies that led up to the great crash and the enduring truths that survived it. Most of all, he addresses the ongoing clash between free software/open source advocates and the proprietary software world, as epitomized by the most recent, rotten FUD from Microsoft and their sock-puppet analysts.
The willingness to make scurrilous accusations ("open source might facilitate efforts to disrupt or sabotage electronic commerce, air-traffic control or even sensitive surveillance systems") is symptomatic of the disregard for the truth afflicting corporate America these days. The willingness to harness misinformation as a tool of corporate strategy springs from the same corporate "me first at all costs" mentality that led us to the Enron debacle. Just as Enron thought it was appropriate business practice to manipulate the California energy markets to raise its profits, Microsoft seeks to influence public policy to raise the costs of software and prohibit government support for a low-cost alternative.
Link Discuss (Thanks, Sara!)

Franco-Japanese high-concept interactive art

Bruce Sterling points out these amazing Japan-based French interactive artists. This is pure high-weirdness cyberpunk g0ld. Link Discuss (via Schism Matrix)

802.11a card for the price of dinner for two

802.11a cards drop to $70 after rebate. 802.11a is about 1600 percent faster than 802.11b (WiFi) and the chipsets are plummeting in price. At these speeds, 802.11a is well suited to home entertainment appllication (think of a TV that streams video and audio off a home server that you can set up anywhere by velcroing it to a wall) and more importantly, to providing point-to-point "wireless backbone" connections to build out alternative infrastructure to hang 802.11b "downlinks" off of.

This could drive the cost of WiFi cards down so low that they start selling 'em in blister-packs of 10 at the WalGreen's. Link Discuss (via Werblog)

Boombox Museum

The Boombox Museum is a wonderful pictorial history of the personal stereo, from the paleolithic 70s to the golden 80s and the decadent and declining 90s. Link Discuss (Thanks, Steve!)

Wired News on NPR redux

Wired News follows up on NPR's linking policy:
Examples of such "inappropriate" links include "certain kinds of commercial linking," [an NPR spokesperson] said.

"For example, if writes a story about NPR and links to us, that would be fine," because the online magazine wouldn't be using the NPR link for its commercial benefit. "But what wouldn't be fine is if someone sets up a business to link to us and profit from that" -- for example, if someone sets up an online "radio station" whose main content was NPR's programs.

Funny, last time I checked, Salon was a commercial organization. Well, at least NASDAQ thinks so. Maybe NPR thinks than unprofitable is the same as noncommercial? Link Discuss

Legal scholars on linking

Here's an excellent lay summary of the legal issues surrounding links and frames:
Whether meta-sites like TotalNEWS "recast" original works depends on the manner in which "work" is defined. Consider, for example, two computers with monitors A and B. Both machines are running identical browser programs. The browser on Monitor A is displaying the Cable News Network ("CNN") home page and Monitor B is displaying the TotalNEWS site with the CNN page in its browsing window. The two displays reveal two significantly different appearances. The CNN page fills Monitor A’s entire browser display and has the words "" in the "Location Window."151 The same page occupies a slightly smaller window on Monitor B and is bordered by two other narrow Web pages (the TotalNEWS ad and navigational frames), and displays a different URL (""). If the "work" is what appears on the screen, then one could conclude that the original CNN display has been transformed by making it a component of a new creation and TotalNEWS has violated CNN’s copyright.

The objection to this "what you see is what you copyright" approach to meta-sites is that the authorship of the target page has not in fact been altered. Monitor B’s browser is displaying three works, not one. The screen is neatly trifurcated to allow viewing of multiple Web pages, each of which can be properly thought of as containing an "original work of authorship." Two of the pages are created by TotalNEWS, and the third and largest by CNN. Despite the interactivity of the navigational and browsing frames, there is no suggestion that they form one document. Two of the frames are stationary, while the third can be substituted at will, and all three are physically divided by the borders of the frames.152

Link Discuss (Thanks, Stan!)

Early Canada Day party tonight in SF

If you're a Canadian in the Bay Area, don't forget that there's a Canada Day party tonight at Kelly's Mission Rock in China Basin. I'm gonna try to make it. Link Discuss

Harper's Index for fair use freedom fighters

The DMCA Index: Harper's-style index of DMCA factoids:
1. Amount Cornell University Library pays for subscription to "Journal of Applied Polymer Science": $12,495.00

2. Amount charged to University Libraries for subscription to "Journal of Economic Studies": $13.40/page

3. Number of people who find the $13.40 per page ironic: 3 out of 4

4. Number of Project Gutenberg Etexts converted by voluteers: 3,551

5. Current "Cost" per Etext based on 3,481 texts: $2.87 per text

6. Number of Scientists worldwide boycotting Corporate Science Journals beginning September 2001: 26,000

7. Number of college and research institutions "Declaring Independence" by publishing themselves: 200

8. Number of days DMCA arrestee Dmitry Sklyarov spent in jail: 13

9. Number of jails he spent them in: 4

10. Amount charged to taxpayers for those 13 days: $4,000

Link Discuss (Thanks, Fiona!)

How much do you know about Dick?

The Guardian is running a multiple choice quiz to test your knowledge of Philip K. Dick. I only scored 6 out of 10. Link Discuss (Thanks, Tom!)

Automated Evil Overlord plot-generator

Teresa Nielsen Hayden's Evil Overlord Plot Generator for writers who need to get some action into their works has been automated. Follow the link below to get a kind of I Ching reading for your sf story, ideas and elements and restrictions that come together to spur your plot. I just can't stop hitting reload.
I figured that if I could teach the students some low cheap tricks for coming up with plots, it would give them something to work with while Jim was teaching them how to do it for real. Unfortunately, I later mislaid all my notes except for the introduction, so I'm not sure what I told them.

Here's the introduction: "Plot is what maintains a decent separation between the front cover and the back cover of a book. Story is what gives the readers the incentive to read all the pages in order. Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature. And now that we've got that out of the way..."

I recall telling them some basic moves, like how you can get away with hokey crap a lot better if the story's moving fast and other cool things are happening, and how you can make two or three half-baked ideas look deceptively substantial by using them in combination. I fear I may have told them--this is like remembering what you said last night at the party--that it counts as originality if you try to do an outright imitation of some other writer but get it so wrong that no one can tell that's what you were trying to do.

Link Discuss (via Making Light)

Tor needs interns!

Tor Books -- the largest science fiction publisher in the world -- is looking for student interns. Tor's offices are at near (thanks, Patrick!) the top of the Flatiron building in midtown Manhattan, a beautiful turn-of-the-century skyscraper, and their offices are a-burst with wonderful books, mad editors, itinerant copyeditors, and some of the greatest sf writers in the world stopping by for a free lunch. If I was a student in New York, voom, I'd be there like a shot. Link Discuss

Automatic warchalk symbol generation

Yoz "Internet Yiddish" Grahame (who insists that he is a far-less-than-excellent geek) has whipped up a little Web app that takes the specifics of a wireless access point as parameters and spits out a printable PDF of the wibo warchalking mark for it. Here's the one for mine. (Matt Jones adds that the back end for this was written by Dean Hall, credit where credit is due). Link Discuss

Uke video clip from Hawaiian public TV

I usually save my ukulele-related posts for my uke blog, but this clip is too good not to share with the boingers. See what you non-uke players are missing out on? Link Discuss

Infoworld doesn't understand community wireless

Glenn Fleishman nails what's wrong with Infoworld's latest howler on why open WiFi is doomed.
The column completely misses the point of why community networks (or freenets as he describes them) exist at all: because people want them to, not as tools for business. Any business use is incidental to the notion of ubiquitous, free access. They are acts of will. Because they are communities of interest, the notion that they don't serve a business audience has no impact on their growth or utility.
Here's some of what Ephraim Schwartz wrote in Infoworld:
"If you need a presentation from your office and you had access the day before on Folsom and 10th Street [in San Francisco] and it's not there the next day, you are hosed," Pereyra said.

The point is, to get value from a Wi-Fi network, it must be reliable.

And here's a little pre-refutation from an old O'Reilly column I wrote:
Even as cable modem companies are knocking hundreds of thousands of subscribers offline, untethered forced-leisure gangs are committing random acts of senseless wirelessness, armed with cheap-like-borscht 802.11b cards and antennae made from washers, hot glue, and Pringles cans.

The Community Wireless movement is a fantastic example of how something unreliable can be cool, useful, self-sustaining, and utterly devoid of revenue potential. Wireless ISPs like Mobilestar charge a small fortune for network access at airport lounges and Starbucks in a handful of cities, and are still going broke, while a ride in a taxi through midtown Manhattan with an iBook will yield a new open network at every stoplight. Mobilestar's $60/month gets you a service that is only slightly better than what a mass of public-spirited (or security-impaired) WiFi users have accomplished without even trying. It's just too damned expensive to provide the kind of reliability that stress-feeding mobile execs demand. Meanwhile, the cranky, kludgey world of open 802.11 base-stations gains ground every day. It'll never be good enough for people who use phrases like "mission-critical," but it'll be just fine for the rest of us.

Link Discuss