"Big Brother with a Bang"? -- Marc Hedlund on Yahoo 360

Marc Hedlund at OreillyNet: Reading Yahoo! 360 through "The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat"

Hedlund looks at the new Yahoo 360 through the prisms of two previous perspectives: "Is it really My Yahoo? Or is it theirs?", Hedlund's own 2001 take on the risks of having a Yahoo control your online identity; and "The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat, a seminal paper from 1990 about online communities coauthored by Randall Farmer, now on the Yahoo 360 team.

A sample:

Now comes Yahoo 360 -- invite-only, of course, for discipline is complete when the subject-line disciplines itself -- and my fingers itch to write "Does Yahoo 360 Mean I'm Completely Surrounded?" But why, why bother, I ask you! It's just not an interesting article any more, if ever it was. Yes, Yahoo distinguishes itself from Google through the depth of the profiles it holds on its users -- the customers they own, or want to. Yes, here Yahoo brings together their knowledge of you with unified services you can use to tell them still more. It's Big Brother with a Bang at the end! Or not! The privacy community and I will get together around a very small table and tip over our coffee cups with the vigorous nodding of our heads. Let's just skip all that, here. Let's leave it aside. Let's talk about something else, rearrange the deck chairs and hope the water's not too cold. Heaven forfend that our profiles, crawled and indexed and blogged and networked, should be updated with the opinions expressed herein, marked with the "privacy freak" bit, leaving us forever without invites to the Panoptical Ajax Apocalypse.
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America's chief censor gets First Amendment backwards

NYTimes: Under New Chief, F.C.C. Considers Widening Its Reach

'Certainly broadcasters and cable operators have significant First Amendment rights, but these rights are not without boundaries,' [new FCC chair Kevin J. Martin] wrote. 'They are limited by law. They also should be limited by good taste.'
The First Amendment's imperative language doesn't grant any rights. Rather, it limits what Congress can do -- and thus also what any bureaucracy created and funded by Congress, like the Federal Communications Commission, can do. For reference:
Amendment I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Note that key phrase: "Congress shall make no law..." Martin's got it almost exactly backwards. The First Amendment is not itself "limited by law" -- the First Amendment itself limits what laws can be passed and enforced.

Here's a simple idea: "broadcasters and cable operators" should have exactly the same expressive rights as anyone speaking to a room or writing in a periodical, book, or pamphlet. There should be no extra "limits" because of the chosen medium of communication. This principle should be self-evident -- and yet because people have become accustomed to the the FCC's 70-year reign, the idea appears radical.

I agree with Declan: the FCC should be abolished.

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Technology Research News (via Slashdot):Tool turns English to code

Metafor organizes a natural-language description of a program into the skeleton of a program by mapping the inherent structure of English -- parts of speech, syntax, and subject-verb-object roles -- into a basic programmatic structure of class objects, properties, functions, and if-then rules, said Liu.
This brings us one step closer to my longtime dream: a PPT-to-executable-code cross compiler. You input a PowerPoint presentation about your planned software and service, and it spits out the software. Add-on modules could also compile your PPT to patent filings and incorporation/finance/options paperwork.

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Cross-browser invisible word-break in HTML/CSS

Problem: you want to provide a 'hint' that a long string can break (word-wrap) in a certain place, but don't want anything -- no hyphen, space, whatever -- to appear there if the break isn't necessary. This is often important when you want to prevent certain text content from forcing layout elements from overgrowing in the horizontal direction.

Peter-Paul Koch's Quirksmode has a rundown of the options and their limitations:

  • The entity ­ -- a 'shy hyphen' -- works nicely in IE. (It even displays a hyphen only when the break is taken.) However, it doesn't work in Mozilla, and is buggy on IE/Mac and Safari.
  • The entity &8203; -- zero-width space -- works properly in Mozilla, Safari, and Opera. But it leaves a block glyph in IE everywhere used, not just at taken breaks.
  • The HTML element <WBR> works in Mozilla and IE, but doesn't cause a break in Safari and Opera.
Koch suggests <WBR> -- at least it works or doesn't work cleanly -- and uses it in Quirksmode's tables.

I think I've got a solution that extends <WBR>'s usefulness to Opera, and maybe Safari. (I don't have a Mac to test.) The trick is to use the CSS 'content' property to insert the character that does work in Opera/Safari after all <WBR> elements. That is:

wbr:after { content: "\00200B" }
("\00200B" is the CSS escape for &8203;.)

Works for me in Opera 8b3 -- which otherwise did not respect <WBR>. Seems to be harmless in IE, perhaps because of problems with the :after pseudo-element. (If it did start rendering the block glyph in IE, some other tactic could be used to hide the style sheet from IE.)

UPDATE (2005-03-27 16:34): Doesn't work in Safari 1.2.4. Shucks.

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The power of Wikipedia, illustrated & narrated by Jon Udell

Jon Udell has created a screencast -- narrated screen-capture animation -- which engagingly demonstrates the evolution of a Wikipedia article, revealing a lot about the power of Wikipedia collaboration (and incidentally, the power of screencasting for both demos and didactery).

While I usually find the timing of videos and multimedia presentations excruciatingly sluggish, Jon moves through his points at a brisk pace that had me wanting to back up and take a closer look at a few points. Enter via Jon's weblog entry: (You'll want Shockwave installed and your volume up.)

Jon Udell: Heavy metal umlaut: the movie

This screencast could help a lot of people "get" Wikipedia in ways that a unguided visit or plain written/spoken explanation might not provide.

(It also makes me ponder the potential for Wikipedia or the Internet Archive to offer rapid animations of page histories directly in the browser, via DHTML/Javascript. Say, controlled in real-time by a draggable slider timeline.)

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San Francisco: 19 McDonald's, 37 medical marijuana clinics

SFChronicle: Pot clinics just keep growing / Third dispensary planned for same street in S.F.'s Ingleside district

"There are 44 McDonald's in all of Manhattan -- more than any location in the world -- and we have 37 marijuana dispensaries in San Francisco,'' fumes Dogpatch Neighborhood Association President Susan Eslick, who just learned of plans for a new dope dealership down the street from her, at the corner of Third and 20th streets.
For comparison, San Francisco has only 19 McDonald's.

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Waiting in long airport lines for safety's sake? Consider this.

LATimes: LAX Resigned to Long Lines, Despite Cloud of Terrorism

Some people rationalize long waits in airport lines by thinking, "if this is the cost of safety, I can bear it." Problem is, at some point the lines themselves, outside the 'secured zone,' can become an attractive target. So there is some margin at which rigorous entry-control, because of the lines it creates, decreases overall safety.

(For another example of a scale vs. security tradeoff, see Brad Templeton wondering "Do we need security on small planes?")

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Mr. Fusion one step closer

NYTimes: Tiny Bubbles Implode With the Heat of a Star
"'Will it lead to desktop fusion generators?' Dr. Suslick said. 'I can't answer that yea or nay right now.'"
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Killing click-fraud (and the competition) with one stone

There's growing angst over click fraud -- how it will impact advertisers and the big cost-per-click networks, especially Google.

Good coverage is at the Got Ads? blog ("Google is very susceptible to the click fraud meme") and SiliconValleyWatcher ("But the competitive battle [between Google and Yahoo] could be tempered by click-fraud, a growing problem that threatens both companies")

I think the worry is misplaced -- at least as far as the top operators are concerned. There's a straightforward solution to click fraud that falls somewhere between ridiculously simple and diabolically clever. Namely:

Offer a money-back-guarantee, no-questions-asked, on every click delivered. "Pay for only the clicks you like," Google could say.

Each click would get a unique ID, and any advertiser could get a refund on any set of clicks just for asking. There's already evidence many such refunds are happening, but via a case-by-case appeal process which requires logs or other evidence to be presented. This just needs to become routine, automatic, and expected.

So what's to stop an advertiser from refusing to pay for all clicks?

The catch is, in response to your requests for refunds, Google will "down-weight" (or curtail altogether) your ad placements in exactly those "places" which generated unwanted clicks. If you choose to pay for no clicks, your ad soon stops running everywhere. It's in your interest to pay for the clicks that were truly valuable, so your ads continue to run in exactly the right and honest "places".

(The definition of "place" here is intentionally vague and fluid: it might be particular websites, IP ranges, browser behavioral profiles, whatever.)

At the far extreme, this becomes Cost-Per-Action (CPA) or commission-like advertising, but it'd be up to every advertiser how far along this continuum they want to move. Do they want to pay only for clicks that actually convert? They can, but they may then have to bid a lot higher for their ads to still get scheduled in random new places, if they're rejecting most of the clicks they get. Other advertisers may be happy with a spray-and-pray approach, only asking for refunds on the clicks that generate the most shallow or suspicious prospect web visits.

One unified system can accomodate many preferences -- it just needs to send everyone whatever kind of clicks they're most comfortable paying for, and drop the rest as chaff.

Once this guarantee and feedback mechanism is in place, click fraud -- to either impoverish a competitor or enrich a dishonest content site -- will become much harder, maybe even impossible, to pull off. Any flow of clicks that doesn't deliver value to advertisers will just be written off.

Google is uniquely positioned to implement and benefit from such a policy. They already rank AdWords ads not by raw bid, but by actual profitability over time. They already reserve for themself overwhelming placement discretion, and keep raw performance, price, and payout rates to themselves. All they ask of advertisers is, "are you getting sufficient value for value paid?" -- and that'd be the core proposition at the heart of a pay-per-click-you-like system, too. (Pay no attention to the half-million computers behind the curtain.)

The patterns of unpaid-for clicks would become just another massive and valuable data stream for Google to mine, along with web crawls, query logs, toolbar data, per-browser/per-IP address web-trail info, and whatever other tricks they have up their sleeves. Their core competence is discovering patterns that reveal implied value in giant dynamic datasets, and there's market power in having the biggest dataset.

So the day Google adopts this kind of policy, click fraud ceases being a major problem for them and starts to be a giant club they can use to beat off their smaller competitors. Who else will have as large and detailed a map of which clicks are wanted? And once you've been with Google for a while, and fed it months of data about the clicks you like and don't, switching to any other advertiser would involve a big cost and efficiency hit while the patterns are relearned.

Mmm, economies of scale and customer lock-in. Call it Pay Per Wanted Click (PPWC)/Cost Per Wanted Click (CPWC) advertising. And if Google doesn't eventually do this, someone else looking to leapfrog them will.

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Use Microsoft, get 0wned by USGov

Reuters: Microsoft to Offer Patches to U.S. Govt. First

Problem is, security patches are like treasure maps pointing to exactly where a vulnerability exists, and how it could be exploited. Exploits that would be hard to find otherwise can be reduced to practice in a matter of hours after seeing a patch. (See, for example, the NYTimes on this issue back in 2003: "Fixing Flaws, Microsoft Invites Attack.")

So a consequence of giving the US Government early access to patches, before anyone else has a chance to apply them, is giving those close to the government's IT oeprations backdoor access to other Microsoft-based software in the private sphere and worldwide.

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Use AOL Instant Messenger, get 0wned by AOL

Ben Stanfield, Thrashing Through Cyberspace: AOL Eavesdrops, Grants Itself Permission To Steal Your AIM Conversations

AOL's Instant Messenger terms of service seem to grant AOL total rights to republish your private conversations anywhere and anyhow they see fit. "You waive any right to privacy," they say.

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For the art: Niall's blog propaganda poster recreated

Mostly lost in the brouhaha over Niall Kennedy's withdrawal of a blog posting, after concern about how it would reflect on his employer, is the subject of his original visual composition. It was a merging of blog-industry logos with a WW2-era education/propaganda poster.

Though Niall is no longer offering his composition, he does describe it in sufficient detail to understand. I think his combination of graphics from two different eras and spheres was clever and thought-provoking.

So that others may enjoy the important questions it raises, I've recreated Niall's poster, working from Niall's description, to the right. (Click for full-size image.)

I've also taken the artistic liberty of adding the Technorati logo to the roster of included corporate logos. After all, if your enemies -- be they wartime armies, corporate competitors, or just the easily-offended -- wind up using your blog posts against you, there's a good chance they'll use a tool like Technorati to get the goods.

Also submitted for your approval, another layer of commentary, below. (Click for full-size image.)

Further recursion is left as an exercise for the reader.

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Read fine print: win money, cure syphilis!

Two recent stories show it sometimes pays to read the fine print.

First, a software maker buried a $1,000 prize in its clickthrough "end user license agreement," free to the first person requesting it. Only after 4 months and over 3,000 downloads did anyone collect.

Now it turns out that for years, the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center was dispensing the wrong penicillin formulation for syphilis -- one that had only half the recommended dosage. After 5 years and more than 650 undertreated patients, someone finally "read a package insert stating the medicine he received was not intended for the treatment of syphilis.". Astounding!

Read -- or at least skim -- the fine print every once in a while!

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The Osborne Effect, 2005? Samsung's big LCDs

promo photo of Samsung's 82-inch LCD I was just about to spring for a nice desktop Samsung 213T 21" LCD monitor when I came across the photo at right, via CNET. Now, I'm gonna wait until I can get one of these 82" models -- and have the desk space to support it.

(Seriously, though, Samsung can reasonably expect this massive show-unit to achieve the opposite of the Osborne Effect: boosting current sales by cementing their image as a leader in LCDs.)

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AdWords gone wild: 90 ads on single search results page

tall image of 90 google adwords ads on single page I remember the good old days when Google only showed at most 8 AdWords ads down the right of their search results. I just tried a search for "green tea" and got the eyeful you see to the right.

That's 90 -- count 'em! -- 90 AdWords ads for a single query.

Oddball of the bunch? Seven from the bottom, headline "Nuclear Testing Grounds."

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Enlargez Moi Beaucoups

I've got an idea for a film. It's like Super Size Me, except instead of eating all meals for a full month at McDonald's, I'll be eating all my meals at 5-star French restaurants.

Betcha I could make myself just as fat and ill as Morgan Spurlock was at the end of his flick. Think McDonald's PR department will bankroll me?

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Fratrority ΔΥΚΣ event sends eleven to the hospital

Boston Herald: Wellesley girls gone wild: Hard-partying students go to hospital instead of ball

When something like this happens in conjunction with traditional 'greek' events, hosting organizations are punished for up to a full year, and there are calls to regulate (or ban) the whole system. I wonder if and how Wellesley will punish Spectrum, the lesbian/bisexual/transgendered organization sponsoring the "Dyke Ball."

Last year, the same event also sent about the same number of people to the hospital, which the school somehow thought would be ameliorated this year by "delivering pizza and hot chocolate to dorms."

Note that I don't think the organization should suffer -- such collective punishment is unjust -- just that it would suffer, if held to the same standard as other college student organizations.

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Gojomo Blog, reenvisioned

Previously, this blog's tagline was...
Gordon Mohr's irregular musings on technology, culture, business, politics, and the hidden meaning of it all.
As of today, that tagline changes to the larger mouthful...
News and opinion on technology, culture, business, politics, and the hidden meaning of it all. Offered as an online periodical in weblog format. Usually published Mondays, and more frequently as circumstances permit. Reported, editted, and published by Gordon Mohr.
I've also added Google AdSense, making this a (meagerly) compensated endeavor.

If push ever comes to shove, I want it to be clear: I'm the press, too, and deserving of every free speech protection any other reporter, editorialist, editor, or publisher would get.

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You can have the "long tail." I want the "tall neck."

What's the opposite of "The Long Tail"?

Why, "The Tall Neck," of course. And when people get tired of a maze of twisty little works, all obscure, they'll flee the long tail and rush back to the warm, familiar comfort of the tall neck. You'll see.

(As of now, Google doesn't seem to show any usage of "tall neck" to contrast with "long tail", except in the animal kingdom. See [ "tall neck" "long tail" ] or [ "tall neck" ].)

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