Friday, May 27, 2005

Peter Givler: Stupidity about copyright on a massive scale

So, Google wants to make every book in the world searchable, by digitizing them; and some publishers are mad:

At issue is whether Google Print for Libraries, the company's plan to digitize the collections of some of the country's major university libraries, infringes the copyrights of the authors of many books in those collections. . . .

In a letter to Google dated Friday, the details of which were first reported by BusinessWeek on Monday, Peter Givler, executive director of the press association, said that Google Print for Libraries "appears to involve systematic infringement of copyright on a massive scale."

I have one question for Peter Givler: How, exactly, do you think Google makes the web searchable?

Here's a hint: Google does not, contrary to what Givler may believe, have an infinite army of monkeys who click around in their web browsers looking for your phrase when you hit "Google Search". That would be pretty cool, but alas, infinite monkey armies are in short supply, and also monkeys can't read. Instead, Google has a copy of the entire web on its servers, indexed for fast retrieval based on content and link structure. Actually, Google keeps many, many copies of the entire web on its servers, just as every web search engine has done since hoary old Altavista. And almost all of this material is technically under copyright --- so does Peter Givler believe that Google's web index constitutes "systematic infringement of copyright on a massive scale"? If so, is he willing to urge all members of the Association of American University Presses to boycott all Web search engines, since, after all, it would be immoral and hypocritical for them to patronize a service that so flagrantly disrespects copyright?

I mean, if you use arithmetic similar to that employed by the RIAA/MPAA in similar circumstances, the aggregate value of all the infringing copies of the web on web search engines must be staggering --- hundreds of billions of dollars at least, per copy. In fact, if you added up the value of all the "infringing" copies made by web search providers, then it would probably exceed the total monetary value of everything ever produced by every member of the AAUP by several orders of magnitude.

But, of course, the RIAA/MPAA's arithmetic is nonsense, and so is Peter Givler's allegation. Sorry, but building a digital, searchable, full-text index of every book is no more illegal than building a web search engine; or, for that matter, building a library card catalog.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Spam and the Department of Justice

A recent Politech post, about the prospects of new spam legislation, notes that most existing spam already breaks at least one U.S. law. What's really needed is better enforcement of existing laws.

This past winter quarter, I helped organize a cross-disciplinary seminar (in the UW-CSE dept.) on technical and legal perspectives on software security. We got, among other things, a UW law prof and a US Attorney from the DOJ to come and give talks. (I'd tell you their names, but in light of the other crazy stuff I write on this blog, I suspect they'd rather not be associated with me on random Google searches.) One of the things that we learned was that state and local authorities don't have the jurisdictional rights to investigate and prosecute most computer crimes, and that federal law enforcement on all levels is incredibly underfunded given the amount of stuff that they need to enforce. Hence, enforcement of federal laws gets heavily triaged.

So, if you're an FBI agent or a US Attorney, you're basically going to go after bank robbers, drug dealers, child molesters, and terrorists... and, er, copyright infringers. Everybody else can wait in line. Whatever its aggregate cost to society, spamming is a "mere" crime of annoyance, and investigating it requires technical expertise that's in short supply in public sector law enforcement. Unless the Department of Justice gets lots more funding, and a real mandate comes down from on high to go after spammers, Congress can pass all the anti-spam laws it wants --- spammers aren't going to jail.*

From my own meager understanding of the current budgetary climate in Washington, that kind of budgetary boost for the DOJ, for anything besides anti-terrorism, isn't in the cards --- we're already deep in deficit, and tax cuts for the rich are more important than services for all.

* For strange historical reasons, the Secret Service is in charge of investigating certain kinds of computer crime, and they're now part of the Department of Homeland Security, but similar problems most likely apply.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Word of the Month: Catospheric!

For several years, aerospace consultant Joanne McNeil has had a harmless and rather quiet blog; I don't remember how or when it got onto my roll, but there it is. One of the minor features of her blog is a list of links to people who are, or once were, associated with the Cato Institute; this link list was humbly titled the "Catosphere".

Today my RSS reader delivered to me news that some clueless consultant sent her a nastygram because her use of "Catosphere" allegedly infringes on the service mark of some other service with the same name. Being more clueful than said consultant, and hating obnoxious intellectual property land grabs as much as I do, I did a bit of homework and responded. McNeil's usage appears to predate this consultant's use of the word "Catosphere" by at least six months.

In the words of Jay-Z, "I ain't passed the bar, but I know a little bit/Enough that you won't illegally search my shit", and one funny thing about U.S. service mark law is that the legal theory is based on protecting the market from confusion. Therefore, the strength of one's case w.r.t. protecting a right in a service mark is based, in part, on whether the target market understands the mark to refer to your product and not your competitor's. Now, "Catosphere" is a sufficiently rare string that, in all probability, summer 2004 would have turned up J. McNeil's blog as the top hit on search engines. So McNeil has at least one defense, on the grounds that prior to this consultant's appropriation of her mark, "Catosphere" arguably referred to the think tank and/or McNeil's link list, not the consultant's service, and it is the consultant who's sowing confusion and not McNeil. Indeed, even after significant self-promotion by this consultant, Google's rank for "Catosphere" still places McNeil in the top 20.

But we're not done yet. We can weaken the consultant's case even further by reinforcing the rightful and original usage of the word "Catosphere". The first step, of course, is to link to McNeil's blog using the word Catosphere as the link text.

The second step is to use "Catosphere" and variants thereof in a sentence; for example:

Third, we can sign up for, and use, del.ico.us to categorize a whole mess of links under catosphere.

Fourth, along the same lines, we can categorize all Cato or Cato-related links on our blogs under "Catosphere", using Technorati tags; for example:


UPDATE 28 July 2005: We interrupt this old post to bring you the following announcement: my original understanding of Technorati tags was totally incorrect. I should have read the spec more carefully. This post has been updated to reflect my new understanding.

The following code generates the above link:

<a href="http://technorati.com/tag/catosphere" rel="tag">Catosphere</a>

The rel="tag" part indicates that this link is a tag, and the href="http://technorati.com/tag/catosphere" part indicates that we're using the Technorati tag namespace with the tag name "catosphere".

Here's a few more random, non-tagged links (I'd do more, but I don't want to trip Google's spam detection):

[ Catosphere Catosphere Catosphere Catosphere ]

Lastly, we should point out that the proprietor of Catosphere.com is guilty of employing a link farmer, i.e. "search engine optimization" service, as this screen cap demonstrates. Normal web pages simply do not generate links like that. Well, Google hates automated link farming with a passion --- they view it as a form of spam, which it is --- so if anybody at Google is out there reading...

(As far as this post goes, I plead innocent of link farming, as I am creating a collection of links that add informative value to the Internet's link graph, as opposed to just promoting an individual entity.)

Expect to see a relatively large number of Cato-related posts in the next month.

Moral of Today's Story: unless you've got mountains of money to burn on lawyers, playing the whuffie economy will serve you better than cracking the whip of IP law.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Coming soon: Remote inspection of your wallet

A few recent posts to the Politech email list comment on JP Morgan Chase's plan to embed RFID technology on credit cards, so that they can be used with contactless readers.

For those who don't know, the key elements of RFID technology are the chip and the reader. The chip or "tag" is a small electronic device containing a radio antenna and a small amount of circuitry, which can store some data (typically a unique ID number) and perform a tiny amount of computation. The reader is a combination of directional radio transmitter and antenna that fires radio waves and listens for responses from RFID tags. Passive RFID tags don't need a battery; they get power via induction in their antennae from the reader's radio transmission. RFID tags are durable and cheap (last I heard, less than 50 cents each), and, like all electronics, getting cheaper and more powerful all the time. Most consumers have probably seen RFID tags used as anti-theft tags, though they have many other uses.

RFID tags can be read without physical contact, although they often require that the tag be held in the proper orientation relative to the reader. The range at which they can be read by current technology varies from centimeters to several meters. You can increase read range by using tags with bigger antennas, and by increasing the reader's power output; but the physicists tell us that, for passive tags, the strength of the tag's reply drops as the fourth power of the distance between reader and tag, so it seems unlikely that you'll get much beyond tens of meters in the foreseeable future.

So, anyway, as I was saying, if many companies follow JP Morgan Chase's lead, and decide to embed RFID tags in their cards --- and many of them will --- then your wallet will be packed with RFID tags containing all kinds of interesting information about you. Anybody with a cleverly located reader (one Politech commenter suggests planting one in the seat of a mall bench) will be able to snag the entire contents of people's wallets, without the victims' ever noticing.

Fortunately, RFID readers can be foiled (ha, ha) by all the usual countermeasures that work against radio signals. If you line your wallet with aluminum foil, it will become impossible to read your cards until you take them out. Of course, that countermeasure has the downside that you will have become the kind of person who lines their wallet with aluminum foil.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Gelernter's shameful editorial on public schools

Yglesias points to David Gelernter's shameful editorial on abolishing public education. This editorial's shameful in at least two ways.

First, he opens by citing statistics on how badly our public schools are doing --- "12% of graduating seniors were 'proficient'", and "[g]lobal rankings place our seniors 19th among 21 surveyed countries" --- but neglects to consider a glaringly obvious fact: all the countries that do better rely on public education systems. I can't access Pamela Winnick's Weekly Standard article, which Gelernter cites, but the US Dept. of Education's Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study results for 2003 may be revealing. Students in Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea aren't going to charter schools.* But you shouldn't need recent statistics to realize this; a basic familiarity with history suffices to recognize that public education is one of the cornerstones of the modern nation-state, and common to all advanced industrialized economies. If some nations are doing better than America, then one should study their public education systems for features that could be adopted in our own, not scrap the entire system.

Second, and equally shamefully, the editorial pulls a huge rhetorical bait and switch. Gelernter opens the editorial complaining about the quality of public school education, but promptly switches to a claim that schools no longer "speak for the broad middle ground of American life" --- which, if you translate from bland, homiletic conserva-speak into the sole example that Gelernter gives, means that public schools teach tolerance towards gays.

Let's leave aside Gelernter's regrettable intolerance, and consider the bait-and-switch. If, as Gelernter claims, "public schools have a right to exist insofar as they express a shared public view of education", then educational quality does not matter. A public school that produces excellent educational outcomes but fails to "express a shared public view of education" still has no right, by Gelernter's argument, to exist. So complaining about the quality of public schools is just misdirection. But Gelernter's editorial would strike the average reader as far less convincing if he just stated this outright, so he must first engage in some rhetorical prestidigitation about educational quality.

So, then, what of Gelernter's argument? Well, basically, I think the language and logic of "rights" that Gelernter uses is pretty unhelpful when considering whether public schools should exist. "Rights" can be a useful framework for thinking about entities that, like human beings, are ends-in-themselves, to be protected from certain harms or guaranteed certain goods simply by virtue of what they are. But things like schools, armies, or corporations are not ends-in-themselves; they're instrumental, existing for some external purpose, and the proper way of justifying their existence is to consider their effectiveness at their mission relative to their costs.

Therefore, public schools should exist insofar as they produce better educational outcomes, on average and in the long run, than if they did not exist. All available evidence, across all known space and time (i.e., between nations, and through history), suggests that some form of universal education greatly benefits everybody, and that public education can provide universal education. Call this the public education theory, which merits that name because it has been thoroughly validated. Some have also suggested a hypothesis --- call this the private school choice hypothesis --- that private schools with vouchers or some other parental-choice mechanism would also lead to adequate universal education, and possibly some improvements over public schools. This hypothesis hasn't been evaluated, but it's probably worth experimenting with.

For what it's worth, in my opinion K-12 education in America is clearly a huge mess, but its problems stem from two fundamental facts that have nothing to do with the fact that it's government-run. First, unlike private schools, public schools attempt to educate everybody, including the students who don't care and the students whose parents don't care --- and in America, those two categories include a lot of students. Second, unlike private schools, public schools largely lack the funds to attract first-class people into the teaching profession. Any privatized school system that had to educate everybody, using the amount of money that K-12 education currently receives, would suffer from similar problems. These are, of course, only hypotheses, which is why it's probably worth experimenting with some form of school choice on a small scale.

p.s. One other, lesser quibble with Gelernter's piece: Gelernter cites the "1910" Encyclopedia Brittanica's claim that "The great mass of the American people are in entire agreement as to the principles which should control public education", and expects us to believe it. First of all, this is the kind of vague and sweeping generalization that anyone with an ounce of critical sense should regard skeptically. Furthermore, as any Wikipedian knows, 11th ed. of Brittanica, like every edition of Brittanica including the present one, was full of errors. Moreover, in the absence of modern polling techniques (Gallup's scientific polling revolution didn't happen until mid-century), how exactly was the author even to know what the "great mass of the American people" were in "entire agreement" about? Lastly, does Gelernter really believe that in 1911, when there were still living Civil War veterans and women were still struggling for suffrage, that there were no deeply divisive social issues? Or does he simply believe that no public school taught about these issues in a fashion that was offensive to somebody?


* Actually, IMO, based on stories I hear from my family, the "success" of students in East Asian countries can be attributed to cultural factors that would be incredibly hard to replicate here. And I put "success" in scare quotes because I actually don't think that the educational system of South Korea, for example, ultimately shapes minds properly.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Monday, May 09, 2005

Dream puzzles

Warning: intense navel-gazing ahead.

Amongst other recent musings, AJ describes a dream he had:

I hardly ever remember my dreams, but yesterday I took a pretty long nap, and woke up right after having a dream in which the above situation occurred. I was talking to someone in a very crowded room and he had a cute little kid with him, and he acted very strangely when I asked how old the kid was. It was only later in the dream, after this interaction, that I realized why.

The reason is not important, but this experience totally fascinated me. While dreaming, my own brain constructed a scenario complex and subtle enough that even it couldn't figure it out until later. I don't know much about dreams (since I never remember them), but it kind of blew my mind. Has this happened to you before? I guess I always imagined dreams as a sensory and emotional adventure, reflecting my own thoughts, and not such much a real-world experience involving interactions with other people who actually appear to have independent thoughts and behaviors.

As it happens, this morning I awoke from a funny dream too:

I was in some kind of ersatz Old West scenario, and a cowboy and his cowgirl sister had guns (old-fashioned revolvers, of course) pointed at me. Somehow I had gotten into a situation with the cowboy and he was threatening to kill me unless I solved a puzzle, which he had written, anachronistically, on a whiteboard. The puzzle:

"Complete the following two words, using words meaning two different kinds of harm:
S____ and S____."

Funnily enough, this puzzle would be easy to solve for a waking person, especially if you had people pointing guns at you.* But I couldn't, in my dream state, figure out the answer (although I do remember being annoyed that HURT was spelled with a U instead of an I). Instead, I stalled for time, then waited till the cowboy was distracted and slapped his gun hand away. The rest of the dream was just a fight scene, and I didn't figure out the answer until I was awake and in the shower.

It's pretty cool that my dreaming brain constructed a puzzle that my dreaming consciousness could not solve, but I don't think it's that surprising. If I may speculate half-assedly for a moment, it seems to me that in our waking lives, we skate on the thin ice of our consciousness, but beneath there's a whole rushing river of subconsciousness, doing enormously complex stuff which is usually beyond the reach of our direct perception. But when we dream, two things happen: first, our subconscious mind feeds sensory input directly into our conscious mind; and second, our conscious reasoning skills are much weaker, since the brain is resting or reorganizing the parts that normally do the work of consciousness. So our subconscious minds may always be constructing puzzles, but it's only during dreams that they can feed directly into our conscious minds, and our weakened conscious minds cannot solve them.


* KILL and PAIN: two different kinds of harm that, prefixed with S, form the words SKILL and SPAIN respectively.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Tinypic: Free, anonymous, zero-hassle image hosting

Tinypic allows you to upload images up to 200+KB in size (I forget the exact size limit, but you can fit a full-screen JPEG at decent quality), and gives you back both a web page and a short URL to the bare image. There's no registration required, and the clean, bare-bones interface is compatible with all browsers. The server occasionally goes slightly wonky, and there's no telling how long it will continue to exist, but it's perfect for applications like blogs, where reliability isn't a big deal. It seems too good to be true, but I have yet to find the catch.

Of course, they offer no privacy for uploaded images either, as their random image page makes clear, but that's hardly a drawback given the target application.

I am now using Tinypic to host a portrait in the left sidebar. Perhaps showing my face will encourage me to cap the vitriol, or at least to fling it about less often, thereby helping me live up to my New Year's resolution to exhibit more generosity of spirit and less petulance here. Most of the other resolutions aren't panning out, so I might as well try for this one. Sigh.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Brief words on Ajai Raj

MeFi points to Ajai Raj's open letter explaining why he asked Ann Coulter what she thought of marriages wherein the man does nothing but fuck his wife in the ass.

First of all, logically debating Ann Coulter is like playing chess with a tapeworm. The only acceptable way to deal with jokers like Coulter is either to ignore her, or to mock her viciously. Raj did exactly the right thing. He did not physically assault or intimidate Coulter; he just replied to her nonsensical, vacuous noise with more nonsensical, vacuous noise. Any sensible conservative must believe that Coulter is an embarrassment to the right, and deserves exactly what she got. And anybody who says something like "If only you infantile leftists would behave nicely, Ann Coulter would engage in a civil, grownup debate with you!" must be dropping massive amounts of acid.

Second, Raj's question actually has a certain logic to it (a logic which is, of course, utterly superfluous, but nevertheless if you're going to embarrass somebody then logic does lend your gesture a certain extra panache). It is common for "respectable", "centrist" conservatives (e.g., Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney) to say that gay marriage should not be legally recognized because (1) marriage is inextricably linked to procreation and child-rearing, and (2) we don't know what possibly-damaging psychological effects gay parents have on children. Note that both of these facts, and not just the second, must be true in order for this argument to work: if marriage and child-rearing are separable issues, then it shouldn't matter what effects gay parents have on children, as it's logically possible to permit gay marriage but ban gay parenting. Now, in marriages wherein the husband and wife engage exclusively in non-procreative sex, marriage and child-rearing are not, in fact, inextricably linked. So unless Mitt Romney and his ilk are ready to condemn anal-sex-only straight marriages, their argument for banning gay marriage is unsound.

Of course, Romney and others are never going to come out against non-procreative straight marriages, because straight conservatives only think that it's okay to invade gay people's bedrooms.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Suspected terrorists have a Constitutional right to ride commercial air travel

Got your attention, didn't I? Now that I've destroyed any possibility of a future career in electoral politics, allow me to explain.

A recent post on Politech notes that the odious "Real ID Act" is poised for passage. Among other things, the Real ID Act establishes a national system of identification, allegedly in order to combat terrorism. You can read the Politech post, which contains a letter from the ACLU's Barry Steinhardt, for all the reasons that this act is a terrible idea. But I had a pretty frustrating email conversation with a friend today, so I want to comment on the amazing notion, which Americans and many others have simply swallowed uncritically, that (1) a unified, pervasive identification system and (2) identity-based travel restrictions are not only permissible but desirable for security purposes.

First, let's talk about permissible. The First Amendment guarantees "the right of the people peaceably to assemble"; it is one of the five fundamental freedoms that the Founders judged of paramount importance, and it is possessed by all people in the United States. This right is given to you by the Bill of Rights, not by an ID card. Even a newborn baby without a name possesses this right, merely by virtue of being a human being under the sovereign power of the United States.

And the freedom of assembly implies freedom to travel, an inference that ought to be trivially obvious from common sense and from past court decisions. You cannot assemble someplace if you're not allowed to travel there. And therefore, you have the right to travel, via airplanes, cars, horses, or your own two feet, without the government's permission.

"But," the sponsors of national ID cards and draconian travel restrictions tell us, "some people cannot be trusted with that freedom, so the government must be empowered to take it away." In particular, say the advocates of "presenting papers", the government must require that no provider of commercial air travel permit passengers to board without presenting government-specified identity documents.

But what is the government allowed to do to a human being under suspicion --- not a convict, not someone under arrest, and not someone caught in the process of committing a crime, but someone under suspicion? Is it allowed to take away fundamental rights? Is it allowed to take away such a person's freedom of speech, or of the press? Is it allowed to force such people to renounce their religion? No, obviously not. The government is allowed to stop a suspect from committing criminal acts, no more and no less, and to punish those duly tried and convicted of crimes.

So, in short, the government is not allowed to prevent a suspected terrorist from exercising his freedom to travel, any more than it is allowed to force a suspected terrorist to renounce his religion. Suspected terrorists have a Constitutional right to ride commercial air travel.

(Of course, they'll need to find an airline that will take them, but the government now makes it illegal for anybody to run such an airline.)

Now, if there were no other way to prevent planes from being hijacked, apart from stopping certain "undesirables" from riding on them, then some restrictions on the freedom of assembly would be permissible. These restrictions would be akin to the classic "shouting fire in a crowded theater" exception for freedom of speech --- that freedom is revoked, in these narrow circumstances, because of the imminent potential for harm, and because no other measure would suffice to prevent such injury.

But it's total, unadulterated nonsense to conclude that infringing on people's freedom to travel is a necessary measure, or even an effective measure, to prevent hijackings. There are four other highly effective measures that, when put together, can protect planes from being hijacked:

  • Screen passengers and carry-on baggage for weapons.
  • Screen checked baggage for explosives.
  • Reinforce cockpit doors, and instruct pilots not to open them under any circumstances.
  • Instruct passengers to fight back in the event of a hijacking.

As Bruce Schneier has pointed out, the last two of these are the most important; and none of the four relies on the identity of the passengers. And that's a good thing, because screening procedures are incredibly bad at detecting the intent of a passenger. Until you figure out how to give TSA employees mutant psychic powers, you'd best rely on metal detectors, not data mining.

And what makes us think that a passenger's identity even matters? Would you permit a 92-year-old grandmother to bring an M-16 on board an airplane? Why would it matter whether she's a 92-year-old grandmother or not? Weapons should not be permitted on airplanes, period. Would you leave the cockpit door unlocked if you knew all the passengers fit the FBI's profile of "law-abiding citizens"? Of course not. The cockpit doors should be locked, period. Any security measure that effectively prevents hijackings will work equally well against 92-year-old grandmothers, Girl Scouts, and swarthy young men with odd religious beliefs.

And speaking of effective security measures, let's consider the desirability of a national ID system. "What's the harm?" one might ask. Well, there are plenty of harms, but one of them is that identity theft is on the rise, and encouraging the growth of a centralized ID infrastructure creates a really juicy, inviting target for attack.

Consider the following proposition: "If everybody in the world used Microsoft Windows, then Windows would be more secure." This sentence strikes you all, I hope, as insane. If everybody in the world used Microsoft Windows, then crackers would still break into Windows, and their cracks would just be much more dangerous. In fact, since the value of a crack would be higher, more crackers would try to break into Windows, and there would be more cracks than exist today.

Just so with a national ID system: by establishing a system of interlinked identity databases, you effectively get the sum of the individual databases' vulnerabilities, plus the sum of the databases' value for the potential attacker. It's going to be a freaking bonanza for identity thieves, or for anybody else who wants to commit identity fraud.

Years ago, it was common for banks, colleges, and other institutions to demand your social security number. Therefore, your social security number was effectively a pervasive, centralized identity document, and it was stored in many places, which was perfect for people who wanted to commit fraud of various kinds. Predictably, social security numbers got stolen; fraud and privacy invasions resulted; and the government soon made it illegal for institutions to require disclosure of your social security number.

If I were overhauling the nation's identity infrastructure, I'd learn from the lesson of social security numbers, and go in exactly the opposite direction as current advocates of a single national ID. I would create a compartmentalized, mission-specific ID card system for each legitimate application requiring identity, and make it illegal for identity data to be used for purposes other than those for which they were intended. So, for example, a driver's license would only be treated as proof that you passed the state's requirements for driving; it would be illegal for companies to store your driver's license number in their (large and breathtakingly vulnerable) databases; and even if you faked such a license, it wouldn't get you anything except the ability to drive. Under this system, you'd have a whole suite of identity documents, and none of them would be substitutable for any of the others.

Inconvenient? Sure. Security often entails some loss of convenience or functionality. But if you decided that accurate identification was important to security, that's the sort of system you'd devise, not a single, centralized national ID card.

So, to sum up: national ID cards are a dangerous idea that doesn't increase our security, and in fact actually reduces it in important ways; and preventing people from traveling based on their identities is both unconstitutional and stupid.

On the other hand, a single national ID card system will make it much easier for governments and private-sector database vendors to compile dossiers on every citizen. Granted, these dossiers will frequently be full of errors, but they'll still contain enough information to harass, intimidate, or blackmail you if the holder of that information so desires. So somebody will get some value out of it.

The killer aggregator feature waiting to be written

Four words: Google News meets Bloglines.

That should convey the idea to anybody who would understand what I'm saying, but I'll elaborate anyway. Basically, it would be far preferable to have a feed aggregator that presented blog entries from your subscription list grouped by content, not just by feed or by date. This would avoid the situation, presently all-too-common, wherein you see the same link seven times --- once via Atrios, and then again via all the people who read Atrios. It would also give you a way of reading the posts about each topic as a coherent thread of conversation, instead of a pointillistic series of textual bites.

It wouldn't even be that hard to hack up a prototype. A large fraction of blog posts --- especially the sort that you'd want to cluster --- consist one or two links, some quoted text, and commentary; the outgoing links and quoted text (easy to detect: hyperlinks and <blockquote>'d regions) provide strong hooks for the clustering/threading algorithm to grab onto. A competent Python hacker, armed with Mark Pilgrim's feed parser, could probably write a web-based aggregator with this feature in a week. (And then, of course, spend another week tweaking the algorithm to catch important special cases and such.)

Alas, I do not have a week to kill, so the world will have to wait longer for the magnificence of clustered feed aggregation. Unless somebody's already done it...

Monday, May 02, 2005

Brain Facts, for free

A friend informs me that the Society for Neuroscience is giving away Brain Facts, either as a downloadable PDF, or as a 52-page printed book, which they will mail to you free of charge (!) for single copies. Many funny/cheesy high-school-textbook-ish illustrations (check out the ones for "pain" and "the stress reaction", pages 17 and 26 respectively), and text written at a level suitable for educated laypeople.

I only wish it were licensed under a Creative Commons license, rather than an "all rights reserved" copyright. Maybe we should start an email campaign. I've already sent a suggestion using this form, but you can also email info (at) sfn (dot) org.