Cryptonomicon

by Kieran Healy on June 29, 2005

My usual few years behind the curve, I picked up Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0060512806/kieranhealysw-20/ref=nosim/ yesterday. Right now I’m about a hundred pages in, and I’m wondering whether I should keep reading. The prose is flat. Stephenson keeps lathering-in in chunks of his background reading. Much of that material is interesting, but it’s applied with a trowel. Most of all, a strong whiff of “Mary-Sue”:http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/004188.html wish-fulfillment pervades the whole thing. Here is the author/soldier in Shanghai on the eve of the second world war, earning the respect of Nipponese soldiers by composing haikus, eating sushi and learning judo. Here is the author/genius talking about computability and mathematics with Alan Turing, impressing the hell out of him with his raw, untutored brilliance. Here is the author/unix nerd putting down a bunch of cardboard-cutout cult-stud poseur academics about the _real_ meaning of the Internet. And so on. Does the book warm up at all, or are the next 800 pages more of the same? If the latter, I think I’d be better off finding some of the stuff Stephenson relies on for detail (like Andrew Hodges’ brilliant _Alan Turing: The Enigma_) and just reading that, instead.

Roundup

by Ted on June 29, 2005

If I had all the time in the world, I’d have more to say about these links that I’ve been sleeping on:

[click to continue…]

Protecting the nation’s milk supply

by Henry on June 29, 2005

An interesting story in the “Chronicle”:http://chronicle.com/temp/email.php?id=kvt034h8b46fjlf16jbtzmxjeg9v0e6l (link should work for 5 days or so) on the ethics of scientific research. The National Academy of Sciences has decided to publish a paper describing the vulnerability of the nation’s milk supply to terrorist attack (yes, it’s a serious paper), despite a letter from the Department of Health and Human Services saying that publication would provide”a road map for terrorists” and not be “in the interests of the United States.”

bq. In their paper, Mr. Wein and Mr. Liu describe how the milk industry is vulnerable because individual farmers send their product to central processing facilities, thereby allowing milk from many locations to mix. Terrorists could poison the supply by putting botulinum toxin into one of the 5,500-gallon trucks that picks up milk daily at farms or by dropping the toxin into raw-milk silos, which hold roughly 50,000 gallons each. Pasteurization would destroy some but not all of the toxin, and a millionth of a gram of toxin may be enough to kill a person.

The authors’ reasons for making these findings widely known (and the National Academy’s for publishing them) seem legit. There are safeguard measures that could be taken to make this kind of attack more difficult; for instance the simple step of locking milk trucks and tanks. While the government has issued voluntary guidelines recommending that milk suppliers take these precautions, it’s been unwilling to require them by law. In essence then, the government seems to be relying on voluntary compliance and security-through-obscurity, neither of which provide much protection as any system administrator worth his or her salt will tell you. As one of the paper’s authors notes, “Using Google, … it would take you all of 30 seconds to pull up these things.” It doesn’t seem at all unreasonable to raise a public stink about this, in the hope that it will provoke a serious response.

Bottom-up creativity and its new challengers

by Eszter Hargittai on June 29, 2005

A propos the spread of social bookmarking and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this week that file-sharing programs can be held responsible for copyright infringement, this article in today’s NYTimes does a nice job of summarizing some of the ways in which various new online services are leading to more and more bottom-up creativity and content whose sharing does not necessarily constitute copyright infringement.

But bottom-up creativity may depend on more traditional avenues at times and the article doesn’t address this other side of the issue at all. For an example, take note that some photo labs (e.g. Walmart, like they really needed to come up with more reasons to alienate people) have decided not to print people’s photos if they look too professional. The burden seems to be on the amateur photographer to prove that the picture was really taken in her own back yard. ARGH.

French fail to notice Irish independence

by Chris Bertram on June 29, 2005

From Slugger O’Toole comes the news that “corporate France appears to be unaware that Ireland is an independent nation”:http://www.sluggerotoole.com/archives/2005/06/ireland_barely.php , and has been since 1922. Regular readers of CT will, of course, be aware that Ireland is indeed separate from Britain, although Irish people who achieve sporting excellence become “British” even faster than “Zola Budd”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zola_Budd .

Social bookmarking goes mainstream (or attempts to anyway)

by Eszter Hargittai on June 29, 2005

The speed with which the major online players are coming out with new services these days is quite impressive. Yahoo! just launched the Beta of My Web 2.0. An important new feature is that they are now offering social bookmarking. Think del.icio.us (or Furl or Spurl or Jots or .. you get the point), but now available to millions of Yahoo! users without them having to find their way to such a site and create a new user account. It’ll be interesting to see if social bookmarking takes off at a larger and more mainstream level (read: past super-savvy Web users). If you have no idea what social bookmarking means (as tends to be the case with most of my friends who are not in geek world) you can start by reading a review of related tools or Yahoo!’s FAQ for a better idea of My Web 2.0 in general.

Using del.icio.us has allowed me to find some great sites that would have been unlikely to show up in my browser otherwise. You go to a Web site, you decide to bookmark it (but doing so on del.icio.us is like bookmarking it publicly) and then you can add tags to it to classify it according to your liking. The exciting feature of del.icio.us (and other such services) is that they show you how many other people have also tagged that same page. Clearly you share some interest with those people. You can then click to see their entire list of bookmarks or just the ones they have tagged similarly to the shared link. Chances are good that you’ll find some additional pointers of interest.

Yahoo!’s twist on all this is that you don’t have to make all the bookmarks public. You can make them completely private (you’re the only one with access), available to your community (people you’ve linked to your Yahoo! account) or completely public. I do think – just like with Yahoo! 360 – that Yahoo! should allow you to distinguish between different communities (e.g. “make available to friends”, “make available to colleagues”) and am hoping they will implement that feature at some point. My hunch is that they will also have to offer all the features available on sites like del.icio.us (and do so without requiring the installation of an additional toolbar) to get users of that system to bother with Yahoo! for social bookmarking purposes.

Apologies if My Web 2.0 is not available to everybody. I can’t quite tell. I was required to sign in to my Yahoo! account, but I don’t know if it let me proceed only because I am already a Yahoo 360 user.

UPDATE: Reading this article I just noticed that Yahoo! is calling the ranking of pages that comes out of this new way of organizing content “MyRank”, which is cute given Google’s famous “PageRank” algorithm.