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January 30, 2013

The lyrics to the latest BradSucks album

Brad Sucks’ latest album, Guess Who’s a Mess, is dark, funny, witty, creatively produced, CreativeCommonsed, and totally home-made by a one-man band. You ought to buy it.

I asked Brad for a pointer to the lyrics, and he instead sent me an unpolished version. I’m just now getting around to posting them. Here they are.

So download the album, or get it on iTunes or Spotify, give it a listen, and let Brad know that you love him.

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I wuz robbed by The New Yorker!

The current finalist punchlines for the New Yorkers’ Cartoon Caption Contest have been announced, and mine was not among them. The only possible explanation is that Big Money — you know, the Boss Men, the Ward Heelers, the Gang of 50, the Backstreet Boys — have wielded their influence to lock me out once again.

For this week only you can see the cartoon in question here. For the sake of posterity and in the name of eternal justice, allow me to describe the set-up comic: A mob boss, Godfather-style, is sitting with three henchmen at a table. Standing right behind them, more or less also at the table, is a horse dressed in a suit, ridden by a NYC-style mounted policeman. All are facing forward and all seem to be listening to the boss. High-larious just by itself!

The three finalists are:

  1. I smell a horse

  2. I hope they don’t crack. The cops are riding him pretty hard.

  3. Because PETA said we can’t whack him.

As the quality of the finalists show, this was not a fecund cartoon. Indeed, there is, of course, only one correct punchline, which I courteously supplied:

“And the last item on the agenda: We have to look into this new Preakness Protection Program we’ve been hearing about.”

Look, I’m not saying that The New Yorker owes me anything. No, it’s Justice, Truth, and Science that are saying so.

In any event, I’m voting for #3.

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January 29, 2013

[berkman] “LOIC [low-orbit ion cannon] will tear us apart”: The impact of tool desiogn and media portrayals in the success of activist DDOS attacks

Molly Sauter [twitter:oddletters] (from Berkman and the Center for Civic Media at MIT) is giving a lunchtime Berkman talk. She’s going to focus on Operation Payback, the Dec. 2010 action by Anonymous against those financial services that cut off Wikileaks after Wikileaks made available a massive leak of State Dept. cables. Operation Avenge Assange tried to bring down the sites of those services. Molly sees this as an evolution in media activism, expanding on the use of DDOS tactics by groups in the 1990s; [DDOS = distributed denial of service: flooding a site beyond its capacity to respond, and doing so from multiple sites.]

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Molly begins with a simple explanation of DDOS. The flooding can come from a single computer (unlikely), via a volunteer botnet, or botnets that infect other computers; the botnets communicate with a central computer, pounding on the target until it can’t handle the traffic.

Old school activists think of DDOS as a form of censorship, and thus it is not acceptable. For many digitally-enabled activists (e.g., Electronic Disturbance Theater) DDOS is a form of disobedience. For EDT, DDOS is an auxiliary form of activism: “DDOS is something you do when you’re out on the streets so your computer can be at home protesting.” DDOS is sometimes seen as a type of sit-in, although Molly thinks this is inapt. For some, DDOS is a direct form of protest, and in others, it’s an indirect and symbolic action. Anonymous melds these approaches: influence via technology + influence via media + direct action disruption.

Electronic Disturbance Theater [EDT] used Flood Net, a tool that “hurls bits” but that also lets you send a message to show up in the target computer’s error log. Cleverly, if your issue is human rights, the log might read “Human rights is not found on this server.” But, Molly says, these logs are only read by the admin, so it’s really a way for the activist to yell something for the sake of yelling. The EDT restricted targets of Flood Net and set scheduled times. EDT open sourced it in 1999. The language on the Floor Net site is comprehensible only to people who already know about the issues, e.g., Mexican Neo-Liberalism. It is intimidating for those outside of the circle. It is also very tied to a view of activism that ties actions to individuals â?? anonymous individuals, but using Flood Net requires the action of a person.

LOIC — low orbit ion cannon— was developed maybe around 2006, and forked in 2008. By Dec. 2010, versions could run on just about anything — Windows, Mac, on mobiles, within a browser… Molly goes through the differences in the different versions of it. They let you type in a URL, set some options that are set to defaults, and then you press a button. Done! (LOIC is the boss weapon from the game Command & Conquer). The button you press in the abatishchev version is labeled “IMMA CHARGIN MAH LAZER,” a popular meme. It has the same messaging functionality as Flood Net. The default message derives from a 4chan bestiality rape meme that Molly urges us not to google. This version “is focused on the 4chan Anonymous culture set.”

She then compares this to the NewEraCracker version. Very similar. Same “Imma chargin mah lazer” meme, but the rape meme is gone. Instead, it says “u done goofed,” the popular Jessi Slaughter meme. Jessie pissed off Anonymous, so Anonymous sent lots of pizza to her house. Her father posted a defensive video that wasn’t very smart about the Net, which got widely distributed, and which contained the line “you done goofed.” This message is more confrontational than the other version which the recipient would be unlikely to understand at all. This version of LOIC also has a “fucking hive mind mode” that lets you automate the process entirely by plugging it into an IRC server to use volunteer computers [I think].

These tools, especially the second, created a community of activists, especially in hive mind mode. There are many LOIC tutorial videos on YouTube. This reaches out to new people to join, unlike EDT’s use of language that appeals only to those already in the know. Because anyone can use it, it helps Anonymous become a community of trust.

Anonymous has also pushed DDOS as a media manipulation tactic, and used media for recruitment. Molly doesn’t know if it was a conscious decision, but DDOS ended up as a recruitment tactic.

During the four days of Operation Payback, the media coverage was very confused. For example the media weren’t sure that DDOS is illegal. (It is.) Even Gizmodo got wrong how risky DDOS is for the attacker; it wrongly claimed that the target’s log files don’t record the incoming connections during DDOS. Experienced users know to anonymize their packets, but those who came in new and used this easy-to-use tool often did not protect themselves. The Paypal 16 now under indictment were caught because PayPal stored the top 1000 IP addresses. Much of the coverage just quoted Anonymous at length. “Anonymous is a very horizontal org and there’s no press person to talk to,” but, Molly says, there was a “press IRC channel” but the media didn’t know how to use it. Some mainstream articles linked to download sites for LOIC, which may have encouraged people to download it without understanding the legality of using it.

Conclusions: “Operation Payback’s success was due to a confluence of tech, community, and news media factors. Anonymous’ use of DDOS represent an innovation in participant population and tool design. And Anonymous pushes the reframing of DDOS as a tool of media manipulation and biographical impact [how the participants think about themselves], not direct action.”


Q: Is the paypal list public?

A: Nope.

Q: Can you bring your research up to date?

A: I’m writing my thesis now. So, no.

Q: How does being identified play into the historical mindset?

A: I got into this topic because I wanted to do my thesis on activism and anonymity. Anonymous challenges the assumption that if you’re anonymous, you’re not serious about your activism. The cultural preference for identified activism comes from the 1960s civil disobedience movement, which in turns comes from Thoreau: you break the law and accept punishment for it. But that privileges those who won’t lose their house and their family if arrested. This puts activism on the shoulders of a particular class. Anonymous disagrees. It says you can engage in civil disobedience without personal consequence.

Q: The Federalist Papers were anonymous because it implicitly was saying that the ideas are important enough not to need names attached. Anonymous not only escapes punishment, it makes it effortless â?? the amount of effort you put in is indistinguishable from that of someone whose computer was infected by a bot.

A: This is the slacktivism argument. Slacktivism challenges the expectations about what activism does. One version says you’re supposed to change something or have a solution. But slacktivism (or clicktivism) is valuable for the biographical impact.

A: Studies have looked into whether eating organic food affects your self image so that you do more, or that you merely congratulate yourself.

A: The ladder of engagement says that the big step is getting on the first rung. My view of slacktivism is that it’s widened that run. Pressing the LOIC button gets people started, and I’m in favor of people starting somewhere, when it is in a considered and useful way.

Q: How about The Jester?

A: He’s an Army veteran who explicitly aligns his morals with pro-US, anti-jihadist, anti-Anonymous DDOS. He claims to be working by himself. I don’t think his actions are ethical because they’re about silencing content. [Molly tells us that she has a presentation on DDOS ethics.]

Q: Why is “fuckng hive mind mode” a community? People are donating bandwidth. But the manual mode, where people actively decide to participate in something, is much more like people being in a community. The participants in FHHM don’t necessarily view themselves as joining in a community, although the federal govt is claiming that they are.

A: I agree. My point with FHHM was that it opens up ways of accessing that community in ways that were not possible before.

Q: LOIC is hosted at github and sourceforge, and tutorials at YouTube. Any attempts to remove?

A: LOIC and tools like it are listed as “stress-testing” tools. And it can be used that way if you aim it at your own server. It’s like a head shop selling a pipe for tobacco. During the four days of the operation, Twitter did try to shut down the Anonymous twitter account.

Q: You seem to be saying that Anonymous is becoming more respectful, shifting out of the “otherized” world of 4chan. Is there quantitative data supporting this?

A: Biella Coleman has done the most research on this. That’s where I’ve gotten my data.

Q: How many people participated?

A: It’s been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times.

Q: When an org provides a press contact, a journalist can always orient around that, bounce off of it. But Anonymous doesn’t work that way. How does Anonymous’ play affect coverage?

A: The media doesn’t know how to deal with orgs like Anon and Occupy. They just speak with random people, none of who speak for the org (because no one does). The opening of the press IRC channel was great, for those who found it. It let the press engage at length. But Anon is usefully weird, and thus hard for the media.

Q: [me] So, will LOIC tear us apart? Civil disobedients accept consequences in part to raise the bar so that people don’t too easily break the law. LOIC lowers that bar. If Anon were attacking services that you like, would you be as sanguine?

LOIC isn’t much used now because it’s dangerous, and there are new tools. It’s hard to take down a site.

Q: As the tools get better?

A: Permanent arms race.

Q: Arrest of Sabu?

A: It won’t kill Anonymous.

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What I missed without my mobile phone

I’ve just spent almost two weeks without a mobile phone as mine was being repaired. I’m glad to have it back.

But why? What did I actually miss? Obviously, the following list is quite idiosyncratic â?? e.g., I don’t do a lot of texting â?? but here goes:

  • Making outbound utility phone calls. I don’t do a lot of socializing on the phone, but it’s nice to be able to check in on plans for the evening, etc.

  • Emergency call availability. I travelled for three days during my Mobile Hiatus, and asked a friend at a conference if I could give my wife her number in case of an emergency.

  • Google Maps for navigating. I was back to printing out a map and, mainly, annoying any competent adult near me.

  • Interstitial amusement. Waiting for the bus, I can read on my mobile, whereas reading a paper book or magazine while wearing gloves only works if you don’t ever have to change the page.

  • Bus location-finder. Given the way Boston buses cluster, getting to a stop 30 seconds late can make a 20 minute difference.

Things I did not miss:

  • Any of the dumb games. I like games. But other than my obligatory time with Angry Birds back when they were still angry and not just mildly pissed off, none have stuck with me.

  • Interstitial email. It’ll wait until I’m off the bus.

  • Weather reports. It’s a once-a-day thing for me, and my various work computers are fully weather report capable.

  • The time. I have a watch. And an alarm clock that actually wakes me up.

  • Typing on a tiny keyboard, although the slidy virtual keyboard built in to the Samsung Galaxy S III is pretty good, and Google’s speech-to-text is kind of awesome.

  • Misplacing my phone four times a day, although others might claim that that is not strictly the phone’s fault.

And you?


January 28, 2013

Unstartling presentation

Oy. I fell for an ad today because it promised to tell me four startling things that happen to you before you get a heart attack. The video, which has no pause or fast forward button, is a grating infomercial, with a heavy emphasis on the “mercial.” So, here’s the startling information Dr. Chauncey Crandall so selflessly is imparting to us:

The four things are:

Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back. The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.

Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.

Shortness of breath. Often comes along with chest discomfort. But it also can occur before chest discomfort.

Other symptoms. May include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or light-headedness To prevent heart attacks, cut back on fat intake but most importantly, cut back on sugar.

Yeah, these are the symptoms you will find listed anywhere that discusses heart attacks. For example, try a little place I like to call “Google”: top hit for “heart attack”.

It takes Dr. Crandall forever to get even the slightest piece of information — first promoting himself and pitching his newsletter etc. — that I gave up. So I quoted the above from trogdor1 on a discussion board. Thanks, Trogdor1, for taking the hit for the team.

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January 27, 2013

Alfred Russel Wallace’s letters go online, with a very buried CC license that maybe doesn’t apply anyway

The letters of Lord Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, are now online. As the Alfred Russel Wallace Correspondence Project explains, the collection consists of 4,000 letters gathered from about 100 different institutions, with about half in the British Natural History Museum and British Library.

The Correspondence Project has, admirably, been releasing the scans without waiting for transcription; more faster is better! Predictably annoyingly, the letters, written by a man who died ten years before the Perpetual Copyright date of 1923, seem to be (but are they?) carefully obstructed by copyright: The Natural History Museum, which houses the collection, asserts copyright over “data held in the Wallace Letters Online database (including letter summaries)” [pdf oddly unreadable in Mac Preview]. Beyond the summaries, exactly what data is this referring to? Not sure. Don’t know.

But that isn’t the full story anyway, for the NHM sends us to the Wallace Fund for more information about the copyright. That page tells us that the unpublished letters are copyrighted until 2039, with this very helpful footnote:

Unless the work was published with the permission of his Literary Estate before 1 August 1989, in which case the work will be in copyright for 70 years after Wallace’s death, unless he died more than 20 years before the work’s publication, in which case copyright would expire 50 years after publication.


Eventually it gets to some good news:

Authors wishing to publish such works would ordinarily need to obtain permission from the copyright holder before doing so. However, on July 31st 2011, in an attempt to facilitate the scholarly study of ARW’s writings, the co-executors of ARW’s Literary Estate agreed to allow third parties to publish ARW’s copyright works non-commercially without first having to ask the Literary Estate for permission, under the terms and conditions of Creative Commons license “Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported”

So, are the letters published on the NHM site actually available under a Creative Commons non-commercial license? The Wallace Fund that aggregated them seems to think so. The NHM that published them maybe thinks not.

Because copyright is just so magical.


TWO HOURS LATER: Please see the first comment, from George Beccaloni, Director of the Wallace Correspondence Project. Thanks, George.

He explains that the transcribed text is available under a Creative Commons non-commercial license, but the digitized images are not. Plus some further complications, such as the content of the database being under copyright, although it is not clear from the site what data that is.

Since the aim of CC is to make it easier for people to re-use material, may I suggest (in the friendliest of fashions) that this be prominently clarified on the sites themselves?


January 26, 2013

A place for deadlines and editions?

I’m all for the continuous roil of the Internet. After all, time is continuous, so why should information be punctuated? But I wonder what it would be like if a site that consists of continuous inputs worked toward a moment when an edition is published.

This is not a well-worked-out idea, but imagine a site like Reddit or a service like Twitter that decides that every day at, say, 5pm Eastern Standard Time (it’s where I live and it’s my hypothesis) it will publish an edition that contains the best of that day’s content as determined by some crowdsourced methodology: upvotes or retweets or some such.

Of course we could do that already: every day just pluck out the most upvoted contents and declare them to be an edition. So, for this idea to be more than a mere aggregating, there would have to be consequences to not making it into the edition. The idea is that the contributors would be competing for the limited space on the front page. The items that didn’t make it would be preserved but taken out of the roil. It would thus change not only the rhythm but also the social dynamic.

Maybe for the worse. I don’t know. That’s why we have the phrase “I wonder…”


January 25, 2013

January 24, 2013

Attending to appearances

I picked up a copy of Bernard Knox’s 1994 Backing into the Future because somewhere I saw it referenced about the weird fact that the ancient Greeks thought that the future was behind them. Knox presents evidence from The Odyssey and Oedipus the King to back this up, so to speak. But that’s literally on the first page of the book. The rest of it consists of brilliant and brilliantly written essays about ancient life and scholarship. Totally enjoyable.

True, he undoes one of my favorite factoids: that Greeks in Homer’s time did not have a concept of the body as an overall unity, but rather only had words for particular parts of the body. This notion comes most forcefully from Bruno Snell in The Discovery of Mind, although I first read about it — and was convinced — by a Paul Feyerabend essay. In his essay “What Did Achilles Look Like?,” Knox convincingly argues that the Greeks had both and a word and concept for the body as a unity. In fact, they may have had three. Knox then points to Homeric uses that seem to indicate, yeah, Homer was talking about a unitary body. E.g., “from the bath he [Oydsseus] stepped, in body [demas] like the immortals,” and Poseidon “takes on the likeness of Calchas, in bodily form,” etc. [p. 52] I don’t read Greek, so I’ll believe whatever the last expert tells me, and Knox is the last expert I’ve read on this topic.

In a later chapter, Knox comes back to Bernard William’s criticism, in Shame and Necessity, of the “Homeric Greeks had no concept of a unitary body” idea, and also discusses another wrong thing that I had been taught. It turns out that the Greeks did have a concept of intention, decision-making, and will. Williams argues that they may not have had distinct words for these things, but Homer “and his characters make distinctions that can only be understood in terms of” those concepts. Further, Williams writes that Homer has

no word that means, simply, “decide.” But he has the notion…All that Homer seems to have left out is the idea of another mental action that is supposed necessarily to lie between coming to a conclusion and acting on it: and he did well in leaving it out, since there is no such action, and the idea of it is the invention of bad philosophy.” [p. 228]

Wow. Seems pretty right to me. What does the act of “making a decision” add to the description of how we move from conclusion to action?

Knox also has a long appreciation of Martha Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness (1986) which makes me want to go out and get that book immediately, although I suspect that Knox is making it considerably more accessible than the original. But it sounds breath-takingly brilliant.

Knox’s essay on Nussbaum, “How Should We Live,” is itself rich with ideas, but one piece particularly struck me. In Book 6 of the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle dismisses one of Socrates’ claims (that no one knowingly does evil) by saying that such a belief is “manifestly in contradiction with the phainomena.” I’ve always heard the word “phainomena” translated in (as Knox says) Baconian terms, as if Aristotle were anticipating modern science’s focus on the facts and careful observation. We generally translate phainomena as “appearances” and contrast it with reality. The task of the scientist and the philosopher is to let us see past our assumptions to reveal the thing as it shows itself (appears) free of our anticipations and interpretations, so we can then use those unprejudiced appearances as a guide to truths about reality.

But Nussbaum takes the word differently, and Knox is convinced. Phainomena, are “the ordinary beliefs and sayings” and the sayings of the wise about things. Aristotle’s method consisted of straightening out whatever confusions and contradictions are in this body of beliefs and sayings, but then to show that at least the majority of those beliefs are true. This is a complete inversion of what I’d always thought. Rather than “attending to appearances” meaning dropping one’s assumptions to reveal the thing in its untouched state, it actually means taking those assumptions — of the many and of the wise — as containing truth. It is a confirming activity, not a penetrating and an overturning. Nussbaum says for Aristotle (and in contrast to Plato), “Theory must remain committed to the ways human beings live, act, see.” (Note that it’s entirely possible I’m getting Aristotle, Nussbaum, and Knox wrong. A trifecta of misunderstanding!)

Nussbaum’s book sounds amazing, and I know I should have read it, oh, 20 years ago, but it came out the year I left the philosophy biz. And Knox’s book is just wonderful. If you ever doubted why we need scholars and experts — why would you think such a thing? — this book is a completely enjoyable reminder.

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January 22, 2013

Lotus Notes isn’t as hot a product as it used to be

Dylan Tweney notes that Lotus Notes, which invented a bunch of the enterprise collaboration stuff we now take for granted, has become a drag on IBM’s revenues. Dylan writes:

I used it extensively at several companies I worked with. Initially, it was mysterious and powerful. Like most end-users of Lotus Notes, I used it primarily as an email program. It had its quirks, but it worked. But there was another dimension to Notes, a powerful, programmable backend that let you create databases and workspaces for collaborative work, contact management, information sharing, and communication.

Today, we’d call it a collaboration tool or a corporate social-media tool, and it would be web-based and standards-compliant, like Yammer, Jive, and Huddle. In the absence of standards, Notes’ engineers had to invent everything themselves, making it a clever but proprietary solution.

But long before those web-based startups came along, Notes was already losing its cool. The client software became huge and bloated. It was expensive to implement and difficult to customize.

I think I’m legally not supposed to remember that in about 1995, a company I worked for — Open Text — ran a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal proclaiming “Notes is dead.” ‘Twas the Web that killed it, the ad claimed. I was Marketing VP at Open Text at the time, but the ad was conceived and placed by a different VP. I didn’t hear about it until the morning it appeared; Open Text was that sort of place. And, yes, a lawyer did call us rather promptly.

Anyway, 18 years later, it seems like that bold headline might be coming true.

To be fair, it was true enough at the time. Notes has hung on primarily as an email tool, not living up to its promise as an enterprise collaboration system. And that was indeed because the Web came along with more open solutions that ran in browsers. Eventually. It took a visionary to think that the crappy browsers of that era would someday host fullscale apps — I floated the phrase “client/surfer architecture” but it never took off — but Netscape had such visionaries, and so did Open Text in the form of its CEO, Tom Jenkins.

Lotus Notes was noble software. Brilliant idea. Immensely powerful. But once the Web happened, the jig was up. It took about a decade for enterprises to be willing to trust their mainstream collaborative processes to the Web and its browsers. But eventually Web clients scaled up in power, functionality, and robustness…enabling systems far beyond what the old proprietary backend systems could manage.

Conclusion: There is no escaping Ozymandias.

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