Sunday, May 30, 2004

Emerge Card Services employees must die, screaming in pain

Every day or two, for the past month at least, I have been getting unsolicited telemarketing calls from a company called "Emerge Card Services". Most telemarketers, once they realize you're not going to pick up the phone, give up. Not these motherfuckers. They just call and call and call and call, each time insinuating that they've got some intriguing offer for Emerge card members. This, in spite of the fact that I have changed my answering machine message to say the following:

Hello, you have reached (my land line number). Please place this number on your permanent do-not-call list, as you are required to do by Federal law. This includes if you work for Emerge Card Services, as there is no Emerge card member at this residence. Thank you.

I'm pretty sure that this language requires them to stop calling me, or else go to jail and/or pay large fines. I think they persist in calling because they actually don't listen to answering machine messages, only human beings; and because they believe that some unfortunate rube who is an Emerge card member lives at this address. But the amount of effort required on my part to actually make these Emerge assholes poor, and put them in prison, is so great that I'll probably never do it. At most, I'll report them to Qwest and get my phone number changed. And that's why these Emerge scumbags keep calling: because they know they can. It costs them nothing to harass people. They don't care what's right. They do it because they can.

If I could, by pressing a button on my telephone, anonymously make these people, their children, their parents, and their parents' friends die immediately, in excruciating pain, then I would. If I could, by pressing a button on my telephone, anonymously set fire to the houses of every manager at Emerge Card Services, I would do it. I would do it because I can.

Social software in global cultures

Interesting post at Many to Many:

An interesting interview with Intel anthropologist Genevieve Bell challenges assumptions of technology in disparate cultures. “My hypothesis was that there was no variation, that there was a global middle class engaged in the same kinds of relationships with technology. It was a hypothesis that was rapidly disproved.” We have highlighted the use of social software to support third places, between work and home, by early adopters in the West, however:

One of the things that became clear in Asia, and is becoming true in the West, but we’re not really good at seeing it, is that people are using these technologies for those third activities. In Asia, it’s visible in the way people use mobile devices to support religious activities. The nicest example is people using their mobile phones to find Mecca. LGE, a Korean handset company, has produced a Mecca-finding handset with GPS technology in it. So it’s a tool of religious devotion. They anticipated selling 300 million units in the first couple years.

The world is turning into a Bruce Sterling novel.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

New media crit nonsense from Susan Sontag

While I'm on the subject of nonsense, Susan Sontag's recent NY Times Magazine piece contains the following puzzling passage:

After all, the conclusions of reports compiled by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other reports by journalists and protests by humanitarian organizations about the atrocious punishments inflicted on ''detainees'' and ''suspected terrorists'' in prisons run by the American military, first in Afghanistan and later in Iraq, have been circulating for more than a year. It seems doubtful that such reports were read by President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney or Condoleezza Rice or Rumsfeld. Apparently it took the photographs to get their attention, when it became clear they could not be suppressed; it was the photographs that made all this ''real'' to Bush and his associates. Up to then, there had been only words, which are easier to cover up in our age of infinite digital self-reproduction and self-dissemination, and so much easier to forget.

What the hell is Sontag talking about in that last sentence?

First, in what sense are digitally stored words self-reproducing and self-disseminating? I'm quite familiar with digital things that are self-reproducing and self-disseminating; they're called worms, viruses, and Trojans. English words alone are generally not self-reproducing and self-disseminating. They are reproduced and disseminated by the conscious intentions of humans using software (like email clients and blogs). Sontag's phrase sounds interesting, but it doesn't make any sense.

Second, and more importantly, in what sense do reproduction and dissemination make words easier to cover up, or to forget? In the past, when the only record of a written word was ink on a physical piece of paper, words were really, really easy to cover up or forget: you burned the paper, flushed it down the toilet, or ate it, and it was gone. Poof. By contrast, digital computing technology makes words harder to cover up or forget: digitally stored data are trivially easy to copy, back up, or distribute widely, all of which are bulwarks against covering up and forgetting. (See: Sontag's got the facts exactly backwards.

In fact, digital technology has essentially nothing to do with the fact that words had less impact than pictures. The dominance of visual media over verbal media long predates the digital age. In the extremely long view, the primate brain became highly visual not long after we diverged from the rodents. In the more recent view, it was the analog technologies of photography and television that caused images to displace words as our culture's most powerful form of discourse. Digital technologies have actually led to a resurgence of words, in the form of (among other things) email, instant messaging, and blogs.

Sontag's article is mostly correct in its larger take on the Abu Ghraib photographs and their effects. But Sontag made her intellectual bones as an art critic and media theorist --- On Photography and Against Interpretation being the preeminent volumes in the Sontag canon --- and therefore it's fair to take her to task for such lazy, sloppy thinking about the meaning of digital media, particularly since she strains, elsewhere in the article, to draw parallels between video games and Internet pornography, on the one hand, and the Abu Ghraib photos on the other. Sontag draws these parallels rather breezily and moves along as if merely raising the subject proved her point. But her argument can't be persuasive when she evinces such elementary misunderstandings about the properties of electronic media.

Larry Everest: Feckless speaker

Speaking of crappy radio, KUOW (Seattle's NPR station) is now broadcasting a speech by Larry Everest, who has an incredibly irritating speaking style, rather reminiscent of the vegetarian hippie Waterfall Jr. on the Futurama episode The Problem with Popplers. He has a high-pitched, nasal voice; his speech cadences oscillate between overwrought hectoring, sarcastic whining, and stiffly rhythmic droning; and he presents his material in a way that is practically guaranteed to preach only to the choir --- he started hitting the inflammatory notes about imperialism and capitalism right up front, gestures that stroke the sensibilities of people who already completely agree with him, but are unlikely to win over anyone.

He's also rather sloppy with his rhetoric; for example, early in the speech, he said: "The war in Iraq was not about finding weapons of mass destruction; it was about making sure that America had more weapons of mass destruction than anybody else." Uh, America has more weapons of mass destruction than anybody else, and will for the foreseeable future. Our military supremacy over the rest of the world hasn't been in doubt for a decade and a half. Maintaining military supremacy was not the motivation for the war. To suggest such a thing is nonsense --- and I mean that literally: it just does not make any sense. It's like suggesting that Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor of California because he wanted really big muscles. But this sort of thing strokes the right spots for a certain kind of listener.

More excerpts from his speech: "...a war on terror that is a war of terror... globalization at gunpoint... the shadow war going on behind the scenes that people don't understand... the United States confronted the Soviet Union, a nuclear power, for thirty years, it was a huge impediment to United States power..." (Uh, Larry, the Soviet Union was deeply evil.) "...the Right wants to change the dime, instead of FDR facing left, they want Reagan facing right... gay marriage isn't just an issue in its own right, it's a wedge issue to enforce patriarchy... people say we can't leave Iraq, we can't just leave. Why not?" (audience clapping) "...I'm not for the Shia clerics, don't get me wrong... no good can come from this occupation..." (Uh, Larry, there are good reasons to fear what will happen if we leave Iraq; you may disagree, but it is not prima facie ludicrous to believe we should stay.) "...terrorizing people, putting wire around whole villages..."

The thing is, I agree that the Iraq war was about building an American empire (hardly a controversial assertion among those in the know), and I still find Everest annoying. After about fifteen minutes I had to turn it off.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Understanding how the Bush administration works

I've gotten to the point where Bush jokes are rarely funny anymore. The unending barrage of daily outrages has kind of worn me down. There's practically no joke you can make about the Bush administration that isn't outstripped by the reality. Nevertheless, via Kos...

How many members of the Bush Administration are needed to replace a lightbulb?

The Answer is SEVEN:

  1. one to deny that a lightbulb needs to be replaced,
  2. one to attack and question the patriotism of anyone who has questions about the lightbulb,
  3. one to blame the previous administration for the need of a new lightbulb,
  4. one to arrange the invasion of a country rumored to have a secret stockpile of lightbulbs,
  5. one to get together with Vice President Cheney and figure out how to pay Halliburton Industries one million dollars for a lightbulb,
  6. one to arrange a photo-op session showing Bush changing the lightbulb while dressed in a flight suit and wrapped in an American flag,
  7. and finally one to explain to Bush the difference between screwing a lightbulb and screwing the country.

It's not just another light bulb joke. It's a frighteningly accurate description of the Bush administration's modus operandi.

Kinsley on Brooks

Also in today's Times Book Review: Michael Kinsley takes down David Brooks. Agree 99%. Minor quibble: "David Brooks has been every liberal's favorite conservative." Uh, no. I can scarcely stand Brooks more than I can stand Dowd, and I hate them both. They're both writers of immense triviality. At least the Kristols, père et fils, have something that resembles a set of serious ideas to promote. At least Safire is reliably insane and evil, which has something to be said for it. Brooks is just a twee wanker in love with his own cuteness.

Lad lit, romance novels, and the objectification of men

Laura Miller's Last Word column in today's Sunday Times Book Review analyzes the underwhelming sales of recent "lad lit". I haven't read these books, but they sound roughly like a variation on "shopping and fucking" books, except told from a male perspective. We learn some interesting tidbits (e.g., that men constitute only 20% of the market for adult fiction), but overall the article's basic premise --- that lad lit was meant to appeal to women --- is dubious. Isn't it more likely that these books were published based on the distinct, though equally faulty, premise that the men who subscribe to "lad mags" like Maxim and FHM would buy a book that catered to the same fantasies, thereby opening up a hitherto untapped market? Miller's citation of an "events planner at a Chicago bookstore chain" who says Smith and Mebus "might attract women readers" seems like a bit of desperately speculative wishful thinking ("OK, the men aren't buying it... maybe, uh, women might buy this book?") rather than a reflection of the promoters' primary strategy.

However, the article does have one astute moment in the next-to-last paragraph:

Lad lit authors may be truthful about young men's preoccupations, but the recipe for great escapist reading does not include ample servings of stuff people would rather not know. The promoters of lad lit confuse the way women exhaustively analyze a boyfriend's smallest words and gestures with genuine curiosity about men's inner lives. What could be mistaken for a process of detection is actually an act of construction on the part of women who already have a pretty good sense of what's going on in the locker room and prefer to imagine something more appetizing.

Heh. In our culture, women spend a lot of time being objectified in a really obvious way, and for whatever reason most women have developed the facility of understanding their own objectification --- or, at least, the facility of maneuvering under these conditions. Men are, in their own way, objectified just as much. However, unlike women, I think that most men aren't too aware of their own objectification. In fact, I think that most of the time, it doesn't even occur to men that they could be objectified. Hence the error.

This puts me in mind of a totally fascinating post that I ran across on Usenet's rec.arts.sf.written a while back, discussing niche marketing in genre romance fiction:

When people object to porn, one of the things that comes up is the targeting, the way there's "big boob" porn, "shaved" porn, "tall girls" porn, blonde porn, brunette porn, and so on, and the way this divvying up of the female body objectifies porn and turns women into "sex objects."

But romance novels are no different. If women are "sex objects" in porn, then men are "success objects" in romance novels.

Consider, first, how _much_ "healthy sex" you want in a romance novel: You've got four lines from Silhouette to choose from: Superromance, Intimate, Temptations, and Blaze. The Superromance typically has one sex scene which fades out before they "do it." Initmate has one sex scene, which lasts the entire event, but uses different adjectives and gentler language. Temptations has one sex scene and uses the regular words we're used to in erotica; the characters may never "fuck" when they can "make love," but they have cocks and breasts, although "womanhood" is still a popular term for pussy. Blaze is pure smut; multiple love scenes, hot sex, deliberately targeting an audience that wants more. In used bookstores these books are so densely packed you only see the spine, where the letters "S", "I", "T", and "B" stand out clearly in black against the red cover at the top of each spine.

After that, consider your favorite scenario: A clock means that the protagonist finds the man of her dreams in a whirlwind romance that proceeds from introduction to love scene to marriage proposal within a weekend. A stork means that the woman finds the man of her dreams, love scene, marriage, and gives birth to a perfect baby before the book ends. A carriage, on the other hand, indicates the "unwed mother" scenario. A badge means that the protagonist wants and needs a protector, a strong man who can defend her against something, and usually he's a perfect lover and companion and ultimately husband as well.

I find this hilarious. When I read this, I knew at last how women feel when they look at the cover of a typical porn video. It's like, this is what they want? Ha ha! Get real!

(Disclaimer: Of course, none of my fine friends who read this blog objectify men this way. They objectify men in completely different, and much less laughable, ways. Right.)

Stability in Iraq: A Modest Proposal

On today's Times front page, we learn that, last night, American forces raided a weapons cache held by insurgents in Karbala. Now, for years, pro-gun activists from the NRA and elsewhere have informed us that the widespread possession of arms reduces crime dramatically, thereby improving social stability; and that confiscating people's weapons is both the worst kind of tyranny and a recipe for disaster. Well, here we are, in Iraq, confiscating people's weapons, and it's turned into a total shitstorm. Could there be any more potent demonstration of the wrongheadedness of gun control?

The National Rifle Association's patriotic duty is clear: it must start a fundraising drive to purchase millions of rifles and ship them to Iraqi civilians. Once every Iraqi possesses a rifle, stability in Iraq will improve dramatically.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

More on Ignatieff

Recently I criticized Michael Ignatieff at length for his combination of supercilious prose and ignorance w.r.t national ID cards. Yesterday, Jon Mandle of Crooked Timber discussed Ignatieff's new book, coming to similar conclusions (although in a more politely worded form) about his more general program for civil liberties and security.

In fact, I think J. Mandle is much too easy on Ignatieff. Mandle claims that Ignatieff basically agrees in substance with both the principles and the conclusions of civil libertarians, but chooses in rhetoric to caricature civil libertarians as extremists and foes of security. I find this rhetorical move less excusable than Mandle does. By caricaturing civil libertarians as extremists, Ignatieff frames the debate in a way that discredits the very people who are most likely to argue for the right outcomes. Ignatieff is a star writer at the New York Times, and so he's about as influential as anyone in the press when it comes to framing the debate. In fact, because of the way that discourse works, his framing of the debate will probably be much more influential than his conclusions --- particularly when powerful voices in government are echoing his framing but contradicting his conclusions.

Ignatieff is therefore incredibly irresponsible, and incredibly stupid, to participate in the marginalization of civil libertarians. If the junta currently running our government succeeds in dismantling our freedoms, then people like Ignatieff will be partly responsible.

Radio must die

I've recently started listening to the radio sometimes while I work or cook. My conclusion is that there's almost nothing on AM or FM radio worth listening to. The music sucks, the news sucks, the talk sucks. It's one huge waste of bandwidth.

We should reclaim this portion of the public spectrum and use it to carpet the nation with wireless Internet access over an ad hoc networking protocol. I suspect that if you recruited a gaggle of grad students from the nation's top EE/CS programs, you could have the protocol designed in a year (researchers have already proposed several such protocols; an intense Manhattan Project-style push could hammer out the kinks pretty quickly). Most of the hardware could be built from commodity off-the-shelf components: the only custom part would be the antenna/DSP assembly itself, which could be a straightforward modification of existing wireless network designs. This would eat maybe another year, to get the hardware fabbed out. Then it's a matter of rolling out the network. My wild-ass guess is that the cost of buying every household in America a wireless Internet base station would be less than half the cost of the Iraq war.

Well, whatever. When I am king of the world, I will blow away radio and fund pervasive network connectivity instead of imperialism and torture.

The only thing that is worth listening to on the radio is the BBC World Service, which happens to be on NPR. NPR itself is mostly crap. Honestly I don't know what liberals see in NPR. It's a lot of boring, self-indulgent rambling.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Futurist fun in Wikipedia: elevators and fountains

Savvy science fiction fans and futurists should be familiar with space elevators. And, sure, those are a pretty cool idea, but the other day I read the Wikipedia article on this subject and came across the truly mindblowing idea of a space fountain: a floating platform that's kept aloft not by orbital velocity, but by a continuous stream of mass accelerated upward from the planetary surface. The station at the fountain's summit stays aloft by absorbing kinetic energy by deflecting the mass back down to the base station.

Imagine keeping a dinner plate aloft by firing a tennis-ball gun at it. Every time the plate starts to descend, the gun shoots another tennis ball. When the tennis ball hits the plate, the plate absorbs some of the tennis ball's energy, and it gets to stay in the air for another tiny fraction of a second. Now imagine that the dinner plate is a space station floating a couple of hundred kilometers in the air, and the gun is firing billions of tiny tennis balls at incredibly high speed every second. And instead of bouncing off the plate, the plate has electromagnets on it that bend the stream of microscopic tennis balls in a U, sending them shooting back down to the tennis ball gun at equally high speed.

OK, so the analogy breaks down. It's still a cool idea.

Incredibly enough, judging by the Wikipedia articles, it even seems that (apart from the fact that it requires incredibly massive, massive, gi-normous energy input) a space fountain appears to be easier to build than a conventional space elevator. For Earth-orbiting elevators, a conventional space elevator would require material with tensile strength exceeding diamond.[0] Space fountains can be built from ordinary materials.

Now we just need a whole lot of energy. Nuclear fusion, maybe?

Speaking of energy, the space fountain article's "near-term applications" section is almost as fascinating as the idea itself:

A closed loop projectile system could be used for energy storage, similar to a very large flywheel, providing load leveling for terrestrial power grids. If the closed loop was long enough it could even be used for power transmission.

A very small-scale fountain tower could be used for constructing tall antenna masts rapidly, perhaps for news events and military operations. A larger and more permanent fountain tower could be ten or twenty kilometers tall, allowing one facility to provide radio and television broadcasts to enormous areas such as the steppes of Asia. Fountain towers might also prove to be an economical alternative to communication satellites for point-to-point television and FM radio communication between the various islands of some of the smaller nations in the Pacific Ocean. An elevator and observation platform could also be added as a tourist attraction.

Arched fountain structures similar to the launch loop could also have useful small-scale applicaions, notably the construction of bridges. Projectile-supported fountain bridges could be made arbitrarily long, without the need for support pillars anywhere along their span.

A couple of other links, closely or marginally related:

[0] Interesting fact: according to the Wikipedia space elevator article, diamond actually has a tensile strength only marginally higher than quartz; and neither is even remotely strong enough for a space elevator. Carbon nanotubes seem to be the best current hope.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Caveat blogger

The Blogger relaunch finally adds things like individual post pages (meaning "good" permalinks) and built-in comments. This is nice. However, switching over to the new system appears to bork the post UIDs, which means Haloscan comments in turn got borked. Oh well, like anyone cares, for this blog anyway, but all Blogger-using friends should beware.

OTOH I may simply have borked my template, and I'm too lazy to fix it up.

Update: Yes, I borked the template. Fixed now. Until Blogger allows non-anonymous non-registered comments I'm going to leave the Haloscan links as a backup.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

This gmail bullshit has gone too far

EPIC is alleging that Google's proposed gmail service violates "wiretapping" laws. What a fucking crock of shit. This discredits EPIC in my eyes, perhaps permanently. Dammit, if you don't like the idea that a mechanical algorithm will be reading email sent to gmail purely in order to insert contextual ads, then guess what: don't sign up for a gmail account. I am frankly amazed --- flabbergasted --- at the completely bizarre, disproportionate backlash that people like EPIC and Liz Figueroa are stirring up in opposition to this mostly innocuous and completely voluntary service.

Guess what bozos: all these people who sign up for gmail could also, uh, hire a secretary to scan all their mail and clip magazine advertisements related to that mail. Holy shit, full PRIVACY RED ALERT, MAKE SECRETARIES ILLEGAL! They're wiretapping their bosses!

Reality check: All gmail does is offer massive amounts of highly reliable, highly available, backed-up mail storage to the masses, whereas before this was basically only available to rich people or employees of rich corporations. You pay with a tiny amount of attention, and (possibly) a tiny invasion of your privacy, instead of shelling out lots of hard cash. And if you don't like the deal, don't sign up (and don't send email to people at gmail accounts).

The anti-gmail squad's misdirected ire is particularly outrageous given that other entities online are way worse and nobody's raising hell about them at all. For example, online ad networks like DoubleClick store your complete web browsing behavior across all client sites, plus the referrers (which, if you clicked from a search engine, includes the search terms used to reach the site). And these ad networks don't even have users click through a terms of service agreement.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Michael Ignatieff is an ignorant, ignorant motherfucker

Today's New York Times Magazine carries an article by Michael Ignatieff which combines astounding arrogance with astounding ignorance. Ignatieff writes with a voice of supreme superciliousness, lecturing his readers that "we need to change the way we think, to step outside the confines of our cozy conservative and liberal boxes". Meanwhile he recapitulates basically every incorrect argument, every "cozy" bit of received wisdom, that I've ever read about security and civil liberties.

The biggest unspoken assumption is that reducing civil liberties is likely to increase security. It is true that security and liberty are sometimes in conflict, but in many cases the most effective security measures do not decrease liberty at all.

The most egregious example of Ignatieff's ignorance is his support for a national ID system:

But being absolutely right on this issue doesn't make a civil liberties position right on every other issue. Consider the question of a national ID system. Instead of crying ''1984,'' the civil liberties lobby should be taking an honest look at the leaky sieve of the existing driving license ID system and admit how easy it was for the hijackers to talk their way into the ID's that got them onto the planes. Instead of defending a failed ID system, civil libertarians should be trying to think of a better one. One possibility is for Congress to establish minimum national standards for identification, using the latest biometric identifiers. Any legislation should build in a Freedom of Information requirement demanding that the government divulge the data it holds on citizens and purge data that is unsound.

Aarrrrrggghhh!!! When I read this, I literally leapt from my couch and punched the nearest chair. Civil libertarians do not merely "cry '1984'" in objection; that is a ridiculous straw man. And civil libertarians are not "defending a failed ID system" when they criticize proposals for national IDs; they are claiming that ID systems in general are open to tremendous abuse, and that therefore a heavy burden of proof falls on those who propose to extend their reach and pervasive influence in our society.

Furthermore, and more importantly, civil libertarians are not the only ones who oppose a national ID system. Mr. Ignatieff, you're a reporter, so perhaps you should, you know, interview some actual security experts before you go shooting your mouth off about security? The notion that a national ID system would increase national security has been comprehensively debunked by world-renowned security expert Bruce Schneier, several times. He points out numerous powerful objections, and most of them stem from pure security analysis:

What good would it have been to know the names of Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber, or the DC snipers before they were arrested? Palestinian suicide bombers generally have no history of terrorism. The goal is here is to know someone's intentions, and their identity has very little to do with that.

This objection, like many others, has never been credibly countered by advocates of a national ID system. Yet writers like Ignatieff and Nicholas Kristof (what is the deal with New York Times writers and this national ID system fetish?) persist in pretending that such a system would make us safer. Free Clue for the Clueless: A reliable ID system would not have prevented the 9/11 attacks.

The idea that national IDs would increase security sounds vaguely plausible at first, until you examine the specifics, at which point you realize it's a giant steaming mound of horse shit. (And, in retrospect, I think that the only reason it sounds plausible at first is that we've become conditioned, socially, to "present our papers" in all kinds of contexts --- many hotels, for example, now require you to present ID when you check in; if you think about it, there's actually no good reason for them to do this.) Notice that Ignatieff does not actually point out any specific scenario in which hijacking might have been prevented by a national ID system. Some of the hijackers had completely clean records. Among the ones who didn't, it's not clear that the blemishes would have been significant enough to prevent them from flying. Are we going to ban all convicted felons from commercial air flights? All Middle Eastern immigrants? All rural white people? Anybody who holds radical political views? In short, does Ignatieff propose even a single realistic scenario in which knowing someone's identity helps you defeat a terrorist attack? No, he does not. Ignatieff's writing is either extremely stupid or extremely irresponsible, and he should get the fuck off his high horse in caricaturing civil libertarians and security experts as a bunch of silly crybabies.

As for the notion that the government should "purge data that is unsound", well, duh, but that's far easier said than done. If Ignatieff had even the tiniest bit of experience with managing databases, or had spoken on the phone to someone who manages databases professionally for, say, thirty seconds, then he would recognize that maintaining security, integrity, and consistency of a database of this size over time is a stupendously difficult undertaking. Schneier thinks it is actually impossible, given the current the state of the art in computer security and database management. As a computer scientist, I'm inclined to agree.

In short, with respect to security, Michael Ignatieff is an ignorant, ignorant motherfucker who should stick to stuff that he's actually good at, like writing about foreign policy.

Saturday, May 01, 2004

Dodgeball: Now playing in NYC, SF, LA, Boston, Philly

A while back I told MS that social networking sites like Friendster and Orkut were dumb because there were no applications. You type in all this information about your social network; you harass your friends to join; and in the end it's good for a couple minutes' amusement, no more. It's just inert data. There's no integration with your mail client, your address book, your instant messenger, your text messaging service, or whatever.

Well, meet Dodgeball. At last, an application:

Q: What does it do?
A: The idea is simple: tell us where you are and we'll tell you who and what is around you. We'll ping your friends with your whereabouts, let you know when friends-of-friends are within 10 blocks, allow you to broadcast content to anyone within 10 blocks of you or blast messages to your groups of friends.

Q: Give me an example.
A: Okay, so you're having drinks at Luna Lounge. Send us a text message telling us where you are and we'll send out a text message telling all your friends where you are AND send you back a message letting you know if any friends-of-friends are within 10 blocks. If you have a camera phone, we'll even send you their picture.

(Sounds like the more civilized, social cousin of toothing.)

This solves one of the problems of social networking sites. But it doesn't solve the bigger meta-problem, which is that all these sites are currently closed: their database isn't published in a form accessible to other software. As a result, you have to wait for the site owners to provide the applications. There's no possibility that some random programmer with a great idea can simply hack up an application and try it out. Result: glacially slow pace of advance in application development, and when applications do arrive they're frequently locked out of the best data (which is in the databases of Friendster etc.).

Consider the consequences of closed networks for a service like Dodgeball. I'm on Orkut and Friendster (though, as this post implies, I don't use them for anything). There's no way in hell I'm going to harass all my friends to join yet another social network. And that's just the beginning: when tomorrow's social networking site comes along with some new and compelling application, am I going to go through the whole process again? What about the multiplicity of effort required when I add someone to my network on a half-dozen sites? What about version skew between my various networks?

This isn't sustainable. In the long run, I can see three possible outcomes:

  • Social networking turns out to be a passing fad that goes totally bust.

    (Unlikely, IMO; social networks are a powerful idea, and the Internet isn't going away. Even if the current generation of networks withers, someday somebody will probably figure out how to make them compelling.)

  • Someone will figure out that sites must provide a (suitably authenticated) protocol so that people who are not the site owners can access social network data, using software of their choice. This may lead to a universe where some sites specialize in providing and aggregating the social network data itself, and third parties specialize in providing applications that operate on this data.

  • The marketplace converges on one or two social networking sites that everyone's on. Any smaller company that comes up with a cool new social network application finds itself rapidly preempted by the behemoths, who simply copy those applications and make them available on their (much larger, and hence much more compelling) social networks.

For a variety of reasons, I think that the second of these alternatives would be the best possible world. But the conventional wisdom with the current crop of sites seems to be: "The data we have is our main asset; by maintaining a stranglehold on access to that data, and thereby locking people into our web site, we increase our competitive edge." And FOAF looks too disorganized and unfocused to provide a credible alternative any time soon. So, it looks like we're headed to the last of the above alternatives.

In this scenario, if Dodgeball works, then sooner or later Friendster or one of the other big sites will copy Dodgeball, and Dodgeball will go out of business. And then, the next group of bright hackers who has some interesting idea for social networks may get discouraged, and decide not to pursue it.

Bush administration goes after salmon

D. Neiwert reports that the Bush administration is gutting environmental protections for wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest.

In related news, dog bites man.

Creationist theme parks

From today's Times:

PENSACOLA, Fla., April 29 - Robert and Schön Passmore took their children to Disney World last fall and left bitterly disappointed. As Christians who reject evolutionary theory, the family scoffed at the park's dinosaur attractions, which date the apatosaurus, brachiosaurus and the like to prehistoric times.

"My kids kept recognizing flaws in the presentation," said Mrs. Passmore, of Jackson, Ala. "You know - the whole `millions of years ago dinosaurs ruled the earth' thing."

So this week, the Passmores sought out a lower-profile Florida attraction: Dinosaur Adventure Land, a creationist theme park and museum here that beckons children to "find out the truth about dinosaurs" with games that roll science and religion into one big funfest with the message that Genesis, not science, tells the real story of the creation. Kent Hovind, the minister who opened the park in 2001, said his aim was to spread the message of creationism through a fixture of mainstream America - the theme park - instead of pleading its case at academic conferences and in courtrooms.

Mr. Hovind, a former public school science teacher with his own ministry, Creation Science Evangelism, and a hectic lecture schedule, said he had opened Dinosaur Adventure Land to counter all the science centers and natural history museums that explain the evolution of life with Darwinian theory.

Weep for America.