Books, culture, fishing, and other games

January 28, 2004

Who Needs Them Anyway?

Reading through SANS NewsBites earlier today, I got a chuckle from one item. Chuckling is not my normal response to the security notes in that weekly newsletter. Mixed in with reports of the latest phisher scams and virus and worm outbreaks was the news that a Federal judge has ruled a lawsuit by Sharman Networks, the owner of the KaZaA peer-to-peer file sharing software, can proceed against music and movie companies. The suit alleges that those companies violated Sharman's copyright and license agreements.

The interest here is that those music and movie companies were seeking to file their own suits against KaZaA users who were using that software to, they allege, violate their copyrights on music and films. Apparently (perhaps among other things) the defendents had used KaZaA Lite to send warning messages to other users on the network, which violated the license agreement of KaZaA Lite.

As the Associated Press article points out, irony abounds. The companies in question had previously sued Sharman for copyright infringement in 2002. Their claim was that Sharman was liable for the illicit use of the software in sharing illegal, unlicensed copies of their intellectual property, though the software was also used for sharing properly licensed, legal copies. Sharman countersued on anti-trust grounds, claiming they were blocking the legal sharing of authorized copies.

How all this will shake out remains to be seen. What is clear to me is that the model for handling this intellectual property in the current evolving technological environment has some serious flaws. I am no "free information" radical, not by a long shot, but artistic expression walled off from the market is silly. To some degree it has always been so, but back in the day it was impossible to share the Mona Lisa with the world. It may be impossible to share the full impact of that piece of art universally today, but we are much closer to the point where that is possible. That change mandates other changes.

Current distribution channels for art, especially music and movies, are badly flawed. They clearly serve neither the artist nor the end consumer's best interest. They serve the interest of the middlemen. That "middlemen" is somewhat new historically. Looking back at the various golden ages, the arts had patrons and sponsors, but those were not usually middlemen. They were themselves consumers first. The birth of middlemen came with the printing press and the advent of the publisher. Books follow a slightly different trajectory, and are, perhaps, ahead of the curve slightly in some ways still. "Books" as we know them may not live much longer (sad to say), but the act of sharing words will remain, and is already handled more casually than are either the legal sharing of music or film.

When a market, both the supply and demand ends, is served as poorly as this one is, it of necessity changes. The middlemen have a vested interest in conserving the existing system. That is a losing battle. It would be wiser of them to seek to control the change themselves rather than trying to hold the status quo.

That they are battling to keep things as they are creates opportunities for others to use their own efforts against them. When they create rules to protect themselves they had better live by those rules too. In this case they quite possibly did not.

The tone of the AP article suggests Sharman has an uphill battle. If the facts are as alleged, I think Sharman as an easy case. The music and film companies can't afford to win this battle in the war to preserve their status quo because doing so will put them one step closer to eventual defeat. If they indeed violated the license agreement, as alleged, and they successfully argue they should not be liable for damages, they may well see similar judgments come their way from the other direction from users they allege have violated their copyrights and licenses. Many of those suits are already underway.

But their current business model is dying fast anyway. Those with foresight will begin looking for a way to continue to make money in delivering intellectual property to consumers, but in a manner and at a price that satisfies the market's demand. If they do not, someone else will, or the role of middleman will simply vanish (as is already happening with written words).

The market is already asking the question, "Who needs them?" Their answer to that question will determine their survival.

Posted by dan at 02:35 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 23, 2004

Headlining Dean

I read a headline in WaPo this morning on the Metro in to the office: "Dean Tries a Self-Deprecation Strategy ." The word that interested me is "Tries." Why did the headline writer choose that word and not another? A few came to mind immediately: "changes to," "switches to," and "moves to." Yet the editors went with "tries."

One possibility is that "tries" is simply more concise. Headlines should be terse. Against that we have the less than terse conclusion, however, "a self-deprecation strategy." An obvious shortening would be "Dean Tries Self-Deprecation," and, in fact, the WaPo web edition uses exactly this on the main page. Thus, WaPo itself suggests it went with "Tries" on the dead tree edition intentionally and not simply to keep the headline short.

Few words are islands. They all carry a long reefs of associations from past usage, from phrases which they routinely inhabit, and even from the bedrock words from which they thrust up above the surface. I don't intent to probe the foundations (my reference works are still in Atlanta), but we can cast more than a passing glance at the implications inherent in this headline. Before looking at the chosen word itself, let's look at some alternates and their connotations.

"Changes to," "switches to," or "shifts to" seem to me the most neutral possibilities. These phrases carry no immediately obvious negative connotation. Perhaps it's the use of "to" which implies a positive change that counters and balances the unsaid "from." When we change to something we necessarily also change from something. We might be forced to make the change because the old state is no longer possible or because it has proven to be unproductive, but we could as easily simply be changing for the sake of change itself. While allowing that we all have individual experiences of and with language, I think I can posit these are neutral without too much disagreement. WaPo did not choose any of these constructions, and there are many others that could be substituted.

One that doesn't quite fit nicely is "moves to." This one calls to mind others that group more comfortably here than in the prior category, and they help illuminate the difference: "proceeds to" or "advances to" add implications of a positive motion and a plan. Where the prior category captures more of a sense of a change of direction or state, this one suggests actual movement. Again the "to" is a positive. While the first, "moves to" is the least positive, all of these give a sense of action and of action done in a positive sense. WaPo did not use any of these.

Yes, we can argue that all of these have a "from" and a "to" side in their pure denotative senses. And we can rationally prod and poke at them and show how they all mean the same thing, at their most basic level: all of them indicate a change in state from one to another. But language doesn't work that way in daily practice, and newspaper headllines most certainly are not careful legal or philosophical arguments. In the way they use language they share more in common with poetry than with a Supreme Court brief. The latter can carefully define any less than well-defined term, building on the foundation of agreed-upon words to construct a comparatively tight structure that communicates a very complex idea, explores it, and derives a reasoned conclusion. A poem, seeks to cram as much as it can into as few words as possible, so it seeks to employ words in ways that force them to do double and triple duty.

WaPo went with "tries." "Try," some might argue, has positive connotations too. "Try try again" is an admonition to persistence, that keeping at it will in the end prevail. But that is removing the context: "If at first you don't succeed." The admonition is a remedy to failure.

Then we have circulating still things such as Avis's (misbegotten in my opinion) slogan "We try harder." Why they chose that instead of "we work harder" I'll never understand. I'd much rather have a car rental company working to give me good service than trying to give me good service. "Try" describes intent; "work" requires action.

"Try" also reminds us that the possibility of success is balanced by the possibility of failure. "Try" is tentative, not positive. "Trying times" are times that test us. Encapsulated in "tries" in that headline are Dean's apparent failure in the Iowa Caucus, which is probably appropriate, but also an implicit suggestion that this is not part of a plan. He's trying self-deprecation, but it may not work. There's a feeling of desperation on Dean's part in the headline. That may actually be accurate.

Oddly, the "tries" makes the "strategy" tag into irony. The baggage that "try" carries of tentativeness clashes with the planning implicit in "strategy." The tension between tentativeness and planning makes it seem as if WaPo is poking fun of Dean. Perhaps it is.

We could assume that this headline was casually dashed off, not carefully considered. But that would (aside from giving WaPo less credit than it is due for caring about the importance of headlines) suggest that the chosen word was the first that came to the writer's mind when dashing off a hurried headline, which would be indicative of unconscious thoughts. So that would in no way diminish the value of this examination.

But now that I've read the article in question I can safely opine that the construct was intentional. The article is very negative about Dean's campaign, pre-supposing he has lost and must do something to again have a chance to win in the primary process. It's a good headline in the sense that it summarizes the article well. The tension between "tries" and "strategy" expresses the gist that while the Dean campaign may be spinning their shift to self-deprecation as a strategy, WaPo sees it as a desperate attempt to get back into the primary popularity contest. And by saying so, WaPo diminshes Dean's chances of success.

Posted by dan at 10:06 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 21, 2004

Frozen Ears and Email

I do wish the Canadians were less generous with thier disapproval. This icy stare is uncomfortable. Even when I dive down out of sight it finds me. I wore a sweater over my shirt and tie (and undershirt, layering up), and my tweed jacket over that, and then wrapped a scarf around my neck and topped it with a ball cap (RSA Security) and my ears and fingers still froze in the two block walks. They hurt now as the circulation returns. Did I mention I grew up in the Amazon? Any green left in my blood is wilted and turned to an ugly brown sludge in this. It reminds me of my 14-month residence in Bayonne, New Jersey. That's a memory I'd as soon lose.

At least I'm getting exercise. I walk up the escalator from the Rosslyn Metro station, in addition to the walks on either end. Now, that may sound like nothing, but you have to ride the escalator to believe it. By the time I got off my thighs were numb and not from the cold. I was wheezing like an asthmatic steam engine. I'm sure passersby thought I was drunk as I staggered out into traffic. For all that, my fingers and ears still went numb in minutes. There's a good stiff breeze out there too. That effectively punches the temperature down into the icy levels.

Speaking of ice, I'd better go see if I'm about to be removed from the rolls of institutional non-persons. No reply from my "boss" (the quotes denote that she's my superior in the reporting chain, but not literally my boss, a nuance of working as a consultant) on my status, but it's rather possible she got none of the three attempts I made to email her yesterday. My connection was flakey and my webmail attempts kept erroring out. I need to find out what sort of status reporting I'm supposed to do and where my stinking badge stands.

Ah, yes, the joy of anti-spam and the frustration of trying to mate up properly with SMTP servers! I spent a couple hours yesterday fiddling bits trying to set up my email so I can migrate away from my existing spam magnets to a fresh one. Actually, I want to kill off some old accounts I can't justify keeping, like my DSL account in Atlanta, and move all my email to the account associated with this blog site. That's independent of ISPs, and as such is far more "portable." My shift to portability with this wireless was a qualified success. As I mentioned below the performance isn't up to my standards, but the flexibility is simply stunning. Already I am the envy of this little bureau I inhabit. I'm waiting for someone to question the security angles (and I'm prepared to discuss those), but so far it's been pure envy.

In any case, after much fiddling and tweaking and trying of things just to see what happened, I seem to have figured out how to get my email out without resorting to webmail. Half the issue, roughly, was buglets in Netscape 7.0. The other half was the anti-forwarding setup of the mail server against which I was running afoul in my tests because I had two mail accounts set up at once in my mail program. If I am not careful to ensure the sending address is the new one, the server refuses to allow a connection (or so the error message claims). My dansch.net server will not allow outbound mail from my bellsouth.net account, which while sensible, is a pain in the lower portions of my anatomy. How all this should work is through real authentication. The server shouldn't care what tricks I play with return addresses as long as it's sure that it's me doing the sending. If I'm breaking the ISP TOS, sending spam or other dirty tricks, they can prove it was me and cancel or otherwise persecute and prosecute me. If I'm sending mail with return addresses from other, legitimate accounts of my own, that should be perfectly fine.

But real authentication is expensive, or so everyone claims. Expensive in time and effort. It is and it isn't. What they are really doing is a typical capitalist/human shift of today's problems off into tomorrow. It's procrastination on a bugetary level. Because they don't set things up sensibly up front, they get more customer service and maintenance issues on an ongoing basis (or they deliver lower quality of service, which "costs" them revenues) and in the end will have to deal with some serious breaches of security. Spam goes out no matter what. Already I got my first Nigerian plea for aid in shifting large amounts of currency on the new account that I set up yesterday. (Of course, I suspect that resulted from someone trolling blogs for email addresses. I did change my contact information in the sidebar.)

The reason I go to the trouble to set up my email this way is because I am not a one-computer person, nor a one-connection person. I want to be able to outbound mail from any of my devices and connections. I want to be able to have a standard, known-good setup. One method I considered was running my own mail server. That would give me the known-good setup, but would throw a wrench into the mobile part. I think I have both with my third-party host arrngement, as long as they don't go out of business on me.

Posted by dan at 09:48 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 16, 2004

Life as an Acronym

"I'm POD," she introduces herself, "What are you?"
"FM. Just started Monday."
"Great! Jim here is DFO, and Sally LS. I guess we can get the meeting started."

Okay, that's fictional, but barely. Here in this office are several groups of consultants. There are a few "primes," the companies actually holding the contracts for projects that report directly to the government agency. Those are the "names." Then there are the "subs," sub-contractors brought in for specialized expertise or to help score points as "minorities." For the first time in my working life I am part of an official minority. The company that I work for is Vietnam-era disabled veteran-owned. With a recent law that makes me worth roughly the same points, to those for whom these things matter, as a female Hispanic single mother of a disabled child. Or something.

That's not to say I don't bring specialized expertise. I like to think I do, at least. I'm here because I did (sub)contract work for this prime with another agency for the past eight or nine months and they (and apparently that agency) found me useful and reliable. Both of those characteristics appear to be exceptional here.

What do I do? So far, I officially do nothing. This is because my security paperwork is still slowly winding its way through the bowel of this agency, occasionally surfacing in a sort of burp of discomfort when some scribble I rushed ("We need you to start as soon as possible!") proves indigestible. "You didn't go back seven years on your employment history. Please reply by email with your places of employment for the years 1997-1998." Above that section is the education section which made rather plain (I thought) that I was in school full time during that period.

As a result of this I have no badge, which means I have to be let in and out to use the restroom which is out in the hall near the elevators. Since I hate incoveniencing PODs or LSs for my bodily needs, this means my consumption of Diet Coke is curbed sharply, which in turn means the level of caffeine in my blood falls dangerously low. I am prone to developing odd patterns on my forehead that look suspiciously like reverse imprints from a notebook keyboard.

Oh, I have been doing some background research. Of course, I'm not officially doing any background research because I'm officially not here (this is why it's called background research). And my non-research background activities are limited by my non-access to to certain files which are too much in the foreground.

I've decided that the reason there was such pressure to get me here as soon as possible is not that there was work that needed doing immediately. It's simply an inefficient system struggling to defeat its own inefficiencies. By getting me here as soon as possible we started the influx of paper (or electronic pulses) into the maw of the system which must masticate it, mix it with appropriate lubricants, stir it about, expell certain noxious gases, compress it, staple, mutilate and spindle it, and in the end extrude(reluctantly) a tightly pressed wafer known as an ID badge. Until I can display said tribal identification device suspended from about my neck (whether as a medal extolling my persistence and patience or a collar binding me to the plow) I remain an invisible other. While I may obstain sustenance, and may, in fact, interact in a limited manner with society, even contribute in some small way, I am of no real import until that badge, bearing appropriate acronyms, defines my role and empowers me mystically to insert myself into the flows of power, diverting this bit here, that byte there.

I did get to attend one meeting this week. Oh, and have another scheduled for next week. It's important to have lots of names on the attendance lists for meetings. One can easily judge the importance, and success, of a meeting by measuring the length of the attendance list and the number of different acronyms sitting as suffices to those names.

Like most forms of armor, cynicism isn't attractive. It does keep one going when the shrapnel of boredom fills the air.

Is it lunchtime yet?

Posted by dan at 11:02 AM | Comments (1)

January 15, 2004

My Impressions of This "Inside the Beltway" Place I Now Inhabit

It's January, and it's cold. This may be the same temperate zone as Atlanta (which has also been cold), but it isn't Atlanta. I walk four or five blocks from my temporary hotel suite to the 11th floor office. By the time I reached the front door of the office building, this morning, I could not feel my ears. Now, before you suggest that ballcap-style headgear might be insufficient and that I should investigate something more appropriate to Minnesota winters with earmuffs, let me clarify. I could not feel my ears because I had put my hands into my pants pockets and they were frozen to my thighs.

People are fat here. Certain parts of Atlanta seem to cluster people with physiques similar to these, but here the ratio seems higher. It's making the term "beltway fat cats" take on a whole new kink. Especially since the ratio seems twisted more towards the female side of the sexual spectrum. This does not exclude the consultants in the offices around me, all of whom must earn incomes proximate to six figures. It's not a race or income-driven phenomenon. Maybe there's a meme loose here that encourages taking in more than one gives out.

Posted by dan at 02:50 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 14, 2004

Life, Death, Change, and Wireless

When I last made time to blog I was in Atlanta. I write this now from the 11th story of a building in Arlington, VA. When I look out the window (if a could see a little more to the left) I look over the Potomac towards the Mall. The Iwo Jima Memorial is just down there.

I've moved, yes, sort of. Back in November I was scrambling to try to land a post in privacy at USPS, but the contracts we were hoping to use as vehicle to park me there were not the van the prime contractor had hoped, more of a specialized sports car or something, so another prime was designated because their vehicle fit the parking spot better.

While all this was going on I was playing far too much Star Wars Galaxies to keep from stressing too much. (It works, really!) This had sife-effects, about which I will probably write at some time in the near furture.

Then near the end of November, with the crash of hopes and fears of a move to D.C., the prime contractor called the sub (my "boss") who called me with another opening, this at a large Federal agency. It was all rush-rush (for government). Could I start January 5th? I replied that it wasn't out of the question, but I'd need to know pretty fast so I could get started managing the logistics. I heard nothing for two weeks.

The week before Christmas, no, the Friday before that week, I got copied on emails that affirmed that of course I had the position, wasn't that made clear two weeks earlier? (No.) So now I had two weeks to arrange to move to start on January 5. Have you ever tried to find a place to live over the Christmas and New Years holiday? Don't.

So I sit here typing this. I'm camping in a suite-style hotel while trying to talk to apartment managements. It gets dark earlier than I expected (D.C. really is east of Atlanta) and they all close at 6pm. Weekends appear to be my best hope. My start date was delayed to Monday the 12th, which helped a little. Now I sit and wait on paperwork that needs processing before I can DO anything.

To compound everything, insanely, the morning after Christmas my Dad died. He was back in the Amazon with Mom, filling in for a missionary on furlough. He went out for his morning walk (he's been a runner all his life, but at 74 his concession to age was to slow down to a fast walk), came back early, and Mom saw him collapse on the porch. He rallied three times briefly, once to say "no!" when Mom wanted to rush him to the hospital, then was gone on ahead. He'd just recently passed the Brazilian pilot's physicals, so it was a bit of a surprise. Those involve very stringent stress tests for the cardio-vascular system, and he passed easily. The cause of death was undetermined, but involved some sort of circulatory system failure.

He was buried there, in Benjamim Constant, Amazonas, Brazil. A couple of my sisters managed to make the trip in time for the burial. My passport was expired. I plan to go down there later this year, that had been the plan before.

The Verizon wireless I put into this notebook is both wonderful and disappointing. I love the flexibility, but the performance is subpar. I had the notebook on the whole trip up from Atlanta and I was in touch with a friend the whole way. We were connected via chat, even if we only really sent anything when I paused for a brief break from driving. I stayed mostly connected with a couple breaks. At the Georgia-South Carolina border there was a dead spot in coverage. Just south of Charlotte I had another 20 miles of broken connectivity and then a long one up on the North Carolina-Virginia border. But I was connected about 8 of the 9.5 hours I was traveling. That was pretty impressive.

But, despite words from a user here in DC to the contrary, the service here is not that good. The performance is lower than advertised, and there are more drops and infrastructure problems than there should be for an "established" telecom company. It appears that I have to look up domain names twice to succeed when browsing, no idea why. Sometimes DNS fails completely. Disconnecting and reconnecting usually solves the problem. They may have some flakey DNS servers and it may be that reconnecting assigns me a different one, but the every-second-lookup failure is pretty consistent.

Sometimes packets just get dropped. I don't lose the wireless link, and some traffic inbound comes in, so it does not appear to be the wireless end of things. It looks more like it's the backend infrastructure connecting them to the internet. Oh, yes, I do run for hours at a time with no visible loss of packets. Then everything starts dropping. Sometimes it corrects itself after a while. Sometimes a disconnect and reconnect fixes it. Occasionally not, and I just have to wait a while to get back the service I'm pay for. Eventually I'll start hassling customer service, but not until I have a viable alternative. (Need an apartment with DSL!)

And the client end of things is eating enough RAM that SWG is locking up about twice as often as it does otherwise.

My review, then, is: if you need flexibility and anywhere-service, it's pretty darned good. If you need reliability, it rates about a D+ or C-. Okay, I'm spoiled. I'm used to BellSouth's DSL service. That isn't perfect, but Verizon makes me appreciate just how good BellSouth is.

Posted by dan at 11:40 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack