Author: Deven Desai


AOL’s Treasure Hunt for Spammer’s “Nazi” Gold

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AOL is prospecting for gold. Literally. CNET reports that AOL won a $12.8 million verdict against three men one of whom is Davis Wolfgang Hawke, an alleged neo-Nazi and spammer sending ads pushing penile implants and diet pills. The judge in the case “granted a motion giving AOL the right to any property that Hawke left with his parents or his grandparents.” So AOL is planning on using sonar and radar to search Mr. Hawke’s parents’ property. His parents, Hyman and Peggy Greenbaum, (according the article Mr. Hawke changed his name from Andrew Britt Greenbaum to cover his Jewish heritage) are not pleased and think their son is not a spammer and that “their son would [not] be ‘stupid’ enough to bury gold bars on their property.”

Curiously, CNET reports that Mrs. Greenbaum believes gold bars do exist, just not on her property. She also thinks her son is hiding in Belize.

With all the oddity on the defendant’s side, AOL’s spokesperson may be the winner in the understatement category as he noted “This particular defendant may have a colorful and outrageous history–there are some conditions that might make this case unique” but asserted that AOL always goes after assets and property and cited past examples such as AOL’s taking a Porsche, a Hummer, and gold coins.

So my question is does AOL sell these items on its site or on eBay?


So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

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I wanted to say thanks to the folks at Concurring Opinions and to the readers for having me as a guest.

In addition, as some have posted about writing, blogging, and what it takes to write a novel (and perhaps even have it published), I offer John Scalzi as a lovely parting gift. As I mentioned before, John is one of my oldest friends. He also happens to blog at Whatever and his novel, Old Man’s War, has been nominated for both the Hugo Award (one of the top awards for science fiction writing) and the Campbell Award which goes to the best new writer in science fiction. So yes, his first published novel is nominated for both categories. John managed all this by publishing his novel in serial form on his Web site.

But lest you think that online, self-publishing works for novels at all times, John is quite honest (link fixed) about that:

[G]iven the choice between placing or serializing one’s work online, and creating a kickass blog/Web site that draws people in and has them returning on a repeat basis, I think it’s much smarter to build that kickass Web site. No one would have read either Agent or Old Man’s War if I had simply put them up cold

what it takes to be paid to write, and other matters of interest to bloggers and writers. Two recent interviews one at Meme Therapy and one at Some Fantastic (warning it is 2.2 MB pdf) give good slices of his insights and explain how blogging and being known by people like Instapundit affect writing.

I think John’s advice applies to anyone interested in writing. So if you want to see how one person has turned blogging and writing into a well-paid profession from home, take a read of the interviews and visit his site. Then send him email, tons of it, because he usually responds and I know he is finishing up the third novel in the Old Man’s War series.


Can Dead People Still Vote on an Electronic Voting Machine?

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With close votes apparently the norm for now and recounts causing all sorts of upheaval, one group has claimed that a certain electronic voting machine can easily be manipulated to change votes.

According to the Open Voting Foundation (OVF), Diebold’s TS voting machine has a major security flaw. (Note: The group and site are quite new. The link is to a press release on the home page, so it may move). OVF asserts that “with the flip of a single switch inside, the machine can behave in a completely different manner compared to the tested and certified version.”

OVF’s President has stated “Diebold has made the testing and certification process practically irrelevant,” … “If you have access to these machines and you want to rig an election, anything is possible with the Diebold TS — and it could be done without leaving a trace. All you need is a screwdriver.”

In addition, OVF claims that the model in question lacks a verified paper trial against which votes could be cross-checked. For those who want to see the innards of the machine OVF has posted pictures and the most important one is of the boot configuration.

Why does this matter? If this assertion is correct, “in the TS, a completely legal and certified set of files can be instantly overridden and illegal uncertified code be made dominant in the system, and then this situation can be reversed leaving the legal code dominant again in a matter of minutes” it appears that dead people can again vote and entire groups of votes can be excluded. As VerifiedVoting details the Help America Vote Act may have great potential to eliminate punch cards and other dubious voting systems but just because new technologies are available that does not mean that we should blindly assume the dangers of voter fraud and election rigging are gone. They may indeed simply be harder to detect.

HT: Slashdot


Wiretap Update, Now With Briefs

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Just a quick note. Declan McCullagh has an article updating the ATT wiretap flap. As the article notes the administration is arguing that “Permitting the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s lawsuit to proceed would endanger national security and possibly expose classified information.”

For those wishing to read the opinion and dig into the arguments, the article has links to the opinion , the government’s brief, and EFF’s brief


French Interoperability: Reversed, Pinned, and Twisted into a Pretzel?

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In what has been a whirlwind of changes, the French law to promote interoperability has apparently been eviscerated as unconstitutional. What began in around March as a strong stance mandating that owners of proprietary DRM systems share information to allow interoperability and prevent one company from dominating the online music market has become what appears to be an industry influenced law that, as the article notes, may generate the opposite results. The law is called the Dadvsi law (wikipedia entry here)

The law was seen by some as aimed against Apple because “iTunes files downloaded through Apple’s music service are protected by the company’s FairPlay DRM technology, designed to play exclusively on Apple devices such as the iPod.”

So how much influence did Apple and other industry players exert on this process? I ask this because not only did the interoperability mandate vanish but according to the article reverse engineering to gain interoperability (formerly allowed) is not only prohibited but may be fined; a new licensing system will be established so that those wishing to use the systems will pay a license; and the decriminalization of file sharing with “fine[s] of 150 euros ($191) or 38 euros ($48.50) for uploading or downloading music respectively” is now “a criminal offense and potentially face several years in prison or a fine of 500,000 euros ($638,200).”

Although the fines dor file sharing seem to have been almost written by the music and tech industry, perhaps most interesting change is the licensing system. What do patent, market defenders, and others think? It is unclear what rate the French government will impose through the licensing authority but nonetheless will a system that requires a company to license its technology help or hurt interoperability?


Alleged Air Marshal Quotas: Do Nothing Wrong; End Up on a List

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According to a report by a Denver news station, air marshals are under a quota to create one Surveillance Detection Report, or SDR a month.

The article quotes air marshals as saying that they may add someone to a watch list even though there was nothing to report just to meet the quota. If true, this article seems to support Dan’s points about information gathering and relates to his Nothing to Hide post . The idea that one could be added to lists for suspected terrorist activity simply to show some illusory level of effectiveness points to why some restraint on information gathering practices must be in place. In some cases this function may be performed by insiders who try to raise objections. That ideal, however, does not seem to work in this case. One air marshal apparently lost his job when he objected to the policy.

According to the article, some choice language from two July 2004 memos about the subject include “Each federal air marshal is now expected to generate at least one SDR per month” and “There may come an occasion when you just don’t see anything out of the ordinary for a month at a time, but I’m sure that if you are looking for it, you’ll see something.”

HT: Slashdot

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Closing Public Access to Social Networks: Should Web Sites or Parts of Them Have Ratings?

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CNET reports that the House just passed (by a 415 to 15 vote) the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) (text of the bill here)

The bill seeks to reduce, if not eliminate, the ability of sexual predators to use social networking sites to prey on teens at least when the teen user is at a school or library that receives federal funding which according to the article is at least two-thirds of libraries in the United States. The goal is laudable but the bill, which leaves the definition of social networking to the FCC (nice dodge there), mandates the FCC shall consider whether the site: “(i) is offered by a commercial entity; (ii) permits registered users to create an on-line profile that includes detailed personal information; (iii) permits registered users to create an on-line journal and share such a journal with other users; (iv) elicits highly-personalized information from users; and (v) enables communication among users.”

As the article note the language is so broad that not only MySpace but Amazon, Slashdot, and even the conservative would be subject to the law. Indeed, blogs, parts of Yahoo!, and more would no longer be available to students or those who do not have computers at home. Of note to this readership, a Pew report found that 38% of 12-17 year olds read blogs and 19% create them. To me encouraging young people to write and read more is a goal we should keep in mind as well as protecting them from online nuts.

Another Pew report on teen Internet usage found 87% of teens are online. 81% play games but 76% read news. The report points out that of the 13% who are not online, they are “clearly defined by lower levels of income and limited access to technology. They are also disproportionately likely to be African-American.” Yet despite the possibility that the bill will take away access to lower income groups, note that in general 78% access the Internet at school and 54% at a library.

What does this move say about access to information by teens? It seems crazy to try and have schools or libraries police teens’ activities and the definitions are so broad that healthy activities are curtailed. Maybe some sort of rating system would make sense. I am not sure that it would, but as a quick thought it seems better than shutting off access to a growing, key part of American social and in some cases mental growth (in a sense I think Zittrain’s Generative Internet has some some insights here in that it addresses the tensions between openness and security on the Internet). I could be missing something here and I would love feedback on ways to protect youth users without cutting them off from the Web in public places. My instincts are that parents should be sitting down with kids and continually teaching them about the online equivalent of “Don’t Talk to Strangers.”


He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice

A friend just sent me an article from Wired News about a new license plate tracking technology. Right now police are the main users of the technology. An infrared beam reads license plates and then the information is checked against a database of choice to see whether the registered owner has outstanding warrants, tickets, or even perhaps overdue library books. I guess one will have to be a bit more careful about borrowing a car.

As slashdot notes this excerpt shows where the company that makes the technology wants to go with it:

[Andy] Bucholz, who designed some of the first mobile license plate reading, or LPR, equipment, gave a presentation at the 2006 National Institute of Justice conference here last week laying out a vision of the future in which LPR does everything from helping insurance companies find missing cars to letting retail chains chart customer migrations. It could also let a nosy citizen with enough cash find out if the mayor is having an affair, he says.

I can just hear the pitch: Find out the correlations between where one shops, eats, drinks, or relaxes so you can hound the gym-goer with coupons for Whole Foods! Paparazzi? Reporter? Whoever you are track those sleazy, politicians! Follow those crazy [choose conservative, liberal, or your own label].

To be fair there seem to be some valuable applications of the technology. According to the article, the typical system costs around $25,000. New Haven bought one and “In the first 12 hours after New Haven, Connecticut, deployed a G2 Tactics LPR to crack down on parking violations, the city towed or booted 119 cars, resulting in a $40,000 windfall, according to Bucholz.” Now that’s ROI.


Specter Looking to Sue President Bush Over Signing Statements

Apparently Arlen Specter “plans to introduce legislation this week that would give the U.S. Congress the right to bring a lawsuit against Bush’s ‘signing statements.'” The move comes on the same day that the ABA’s taskforce on the matter issued its report and recommendation. To date President Bush has used the device more than 750 times. For a recent discussion of the matter and some links to Richard Esptein’s defense of the device go to this page on the ACSblog.

From the ABA’s press release:

Presidential signing statements that assert President Bush’s authority to disregard or decline to enforce laws adopted by Congress undermine the rule of law and our constitutional system of separation of powers, according to a report released today by a blue-ribbon American Bar Association task force.

The task force is bipartisan. The list of members is: Neal Sonnett, William S. Sessions, Patricia M. Wald, Mickey Edwards, Bruce Fein, Harold Hongju Koh, Charles Ogletree, Stephen A. Saltzburg, Kathleen M. Sullivan, Mark Agrast, Tom Susman, and adviser Alan Rothstein. Their bios may be found here.


Amazon’s Text Stats and a Little Orwell

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Watching changes on is a good way to see how much one’s information can be stretched. The continual refinement of suggested books and other items is a little disturbing, but it often yields titles that I find useful. The Gold Box with its game show approach to sales is an example of the information mining. To use the Gold Box one clicks on the box and then one is offered an item that ususally relates to something you purchsed before or at least looked at. When the item is on screen, one must choose between accepting the sale offer or passing on it to see the next offer with no chance to go back to the previous offer. All decisions must be made within one hour of opening the box. I have opened the box a few times and am often surprised by some of the items that show up in there. Given how often Amazon seems to correlate interests, when what seems to be an aberration pops up, I wonder whether it is a random shot to see if it will stick or whether in some deep way Amazon has discerned that I have a hidden desire for vitamins, herbal remedies, or hairdryers. So when I saw that Amazon had added Text Stats I had to poke around. After all who knows what information would come my way by seeing the statistics (whatever they may be) on a book?

I found that not all books have this information but it seems that when publishers play along Amazon will give a book’s statistics including syllables per word; words per sentence; total number of characters, words, and sentences; and my favorites, the “Fun Stats,” words per dollar and words per ounce. Amazon takes this information and gives scores for Readability (explained below). Apparently the Bible, depending on the edition, requires either a twelfth grade reading level or a tenth grade reading level . Yet, one study of government Web sites states that “half of Americans read[] at no higher than the 8th grade level.” You may draw your own conclusions.

Text stats also gives information about where the book is in relation to all other books (and in some cases one can compare within classes of texts). So I started to poke around and it seems that (if we take the numbers seriously and there is reason not to do so when one examines exactly what readability means) perhaps the best writing correlates to simpler writing which reminded me of Orwell’s Politics and the English Language but I’ll get to that later. To have fun and play with that idea I looked at the Modern Library’s list of 100 best novels to see how they compared to all text in the Amazon set and then within literature.

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