Friday, May 30, 2008

Learning to Write by Listening

Fascinating blog post by my onetime colleague Susan Gerhart about dealing with the challenges to writing and editing imposed by steeply declining vision. One of the things I found most interesting is how many of her suggestions seemed to be things that would help a sighted writer or editor do a better job.

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Secrecy vs. Homeland Security

Interesting blog post from the Federation of American Scientists, taking off from testimony by Stephen Flynn at a May 15 hearing of a House Homeland Security subcommittee.

The basic thesis is that often secrecy undermines, rather than supports, security, particularly in situations where the public itself constitutes the bulk of “first responders.”
On September 11, 2001, Mr. Flynn recalled, the only hijacked aircraft that was prevented from reaching its target was stopped not by security professionals with Top Secret clearances but “by one thing alone: an alert and heroic citizenry.”

Yet “overwhelmingly, the national defense and federal law enforcement community have chosen secrecy over openness when it comes to providing the general public with details about the nature of the terrorist threat and the actions required to mitigate and respond to that risk.”

“The discounting of the public can be traced to a culture of secrecy and paternalism” that is rooted in the Cold War, when the Soviet threat dictated adoption of a highly compartmented security regime. “Despite the passage of nearly two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, this secretive system remains almost entirely intact.”

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Is this the future of reading?

I ordered my Amazon Kindle within 24 hours of its announcement last winter. No surprise there, I'm a technophiliac. I'd previously tried two other electronic books. They didn't work out well, but hope springs eternal, and the Kindle seemed to offer things that they didn't, like the size, weight, and readability of a paperback book. I looked forward to a much larger selection of books and periodicals, because Amazon already dealt with all the major publishers.

After nearly six months of using my Kindle, it seems like time to reflect on a) Has it has met my expectations and hopes? and b) Is it a preview of how most publication and reading will be done in a decade? My answers are a qualified Yes, and Probably. I'll first mention some of the reasons for these answers and then discuss some areas where the Kindle could still be improved.

Although it had been mentioned by many reviewers, it was still surprising to me how quickly the experience stopped being "reading on the Kindle" or "using a Kindle" and became just "reading a book." The difference between reading a Kindle book and reading a paperback or hardback became as subliminal as the difference between reading a paperback and reading a hardback edition of the same book. When I'm reading at full tilt, I'm just reading. The Kindle doesn't get in the way at all.

One nice feature is that the Kindle offers a choice of six type sizes that I can change at will. I could not easily read anything smaller than size 1, even with my reading glasses. Anything larger than size 6 would not fit enough material on the page to seem like a book anymore. Mostly, I use size 3, but if my eyes are tired, I may shift to size 4.

A major attraction is Kindle's seamless integration with the cellphone system, which is handled and paid for entirely by Amazon, and is essentially invisible to the user as long as there are "enough bars." This enables real-time shopping on Amazon from the Kindle. The power of instant gratification should not be underestimated; the promise of delivery of new-bought books "within one minute" is very conservative (at least in Palo Alto and various places I've traveled). And the availability of free samples of most books is actually an improvement over the browsing I typically do in a bookstore.

When I travel, I no longer take along a paperback to read on the plane or a newspaper. Subscriptions to the New York Times and Reuters (with real-time updates) keep me at least as well connected to the news while traveling as I am at home; a Kindle is a lot easier to read on an airplane than a paper newspaper, and I'm not stuck with USA Today at my hotel.

The guideline that the Kindle's memory will hold about 200 books seems conservative--and I increased that by a factor of ten with a $15 SD flash memory card. But there's no need to keep my entire library on my Kindle. Amazon keeps track of what I've bought, plus all my annotations and bookmarks, and I can download it again in a minute as long as I'm in cellphone (or computer) territory.

So yes, the Kindle has basically met my expectations and hopes.

A major surprise is that my wife Jane--who is severely technophobic and wouldn't click a mouse for a bet--saw me using the Kindle regularly and decided to try it. Now we are a two-Kindle household. Jane reads a lot more than I do, averaging well more than a book a day. Kindle books are always cheaper than the same content sold by Amazon in any other format; often as much as 60% cheaper than hardbounds. I figured that the financial breakeven point would come in 3-4 months (without even taking into account the cost of new bookcases) if she actually used it. She really does. She no longer makes two trips a week to the bookstore, and has started buying paper books only if the title is not (yet) available on Kindle. And she can download any book I've already bought, at no extra charge.
[Note: My computation was before the recent $40 reduction in the Kindle's price.]

Selection: Amazon claims 120K Kindle books, including 90% of the best-sellers from the New York Times and similar lists. This seems fairly accurate, but there are a few caveats:
  1. New books tend not to be available in Kindle format until they become best-sellers, so there's a good chance that I won't get instant gratification when I try to purchase books when I read their reviews.
  2. 20th Century books that are still in copyright are very under-represented, so I didn't find troves of some of my favorite authors' books. J.R.R. Tolkien, James Clavell, Dorothy Sayers, Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart, Eric Ambler, et al. are either poorly represented, or not available at all.
  3. Books that are not in copyright are over-represented. If multiple publishers have brought out cheap editions, chances are that they are all available for the Kindle (and presumably counted separately in the 120K).
Is Kindle the future of reading? Well, not the future of all of reading, but I'm convinced that it is pointing the way to how a major chunk of the world's reading will be done a decade from now. Good ergonomics, vast local storage, almost instant access to new materials, and value-added features like searching, highlighting, annotating, and clipping (with the results saved by Amazon and available anytime, anywhere), combined with lower prices, make a really compelling proposition. It can only get more attractive as Amazon moves towards its stated goal of eventually making available everything that has ever been published anywhere (to the extent allowed by the copyright owners). And it will help to solve a serious overpopulation problem in the bookcases of my house.

But the current Kindle isn't perfect. Here are some areas where I hope to see some improvement before too long:

  1. Grip: To make page-turning really easy, the Next Page and Previous Page bars consume both sides of the Kindle device in the area where one would naturally hold it. In my experience, the Kindle cannot be comfortably held for reading without a cover. The Amazon-supplied cover isn't too bad, once some Velcro is added to hold the Kindle securely in place, but I expect to see many improved cases and covers cropping up soon from third parties.
  2. Keyboard: Having a keyboard is critical to the Kindle's local search and Amazon search capabilities; it vastly enhances the value of the device. Having a full QWERTY keyboard makes the device a little larger (or, depending on your point of view, makes the reading area a little smaller), but not enough to be a problem. I prefer the larger Kindle keyboard geometry to the thumbs-only geometry of my Treo, but the keys themselves have a squishy feel, and aren't good enough for touch typing. So the keyboard doesn't really support some of the Kindle's theoretical capabilities, like typing in reviews of books, or email. For those, I want a real keyboard.
  3. Color: Would be nice for illustrated books, and is rumored to be on its way (even outside Amazon's April Fool announcement).
  4. Booklists: I have enough content now that I'd like more flexible ways of organizing it. The built-in options of sorting by most/least recently viewed, author, and title are useful. However, I'd like to have one list of professional books, another of science fiction, one of classics that I really should read someday, another of books that I re-read regularly, and ...
  5. Web browsing: There's a primitive Web browser incorporated as an Experimental Feature, but it does really, really poorly on rich sites with structured content--most notably, on Amazon's own website. You'd think they'd at least find a way to handle that well!
  6. Kindle-to-Kindle communication: I'd like to be able to send evaluations, samples, perhaps even purchased books, to Jane's Kindle without having to leave my reading chair and go to my computer.
  7. Dictionary: Yes, there's a decent built-in dictionary included in the price of the Kindle, and yes, there's a feature to invoke it directly from a book as I'm reading if I encounter a word I don't know. Great in theory. However, in practice, it only looks up the first definition for each word, which is frequently not the definition that I'm looking for. Also, since it looks up common as well as uncommon words, and displays definitions for just four or five words, it often doesn't get to the word I needed to look up. Also, the documentation says that I can choose the dictionary to use, but the only choice I am given is the built-in dictionary.
  8. Search: Searching for all occurrences of a word or phrase in my entire Kindle library is really amazingly fast (think seconds, not minutes), especially considering that my library contains (on the SD card) the complete works of Shakespeare and several other authors, the King James Version of the Bible, and several massive reference books in areas of interest to me (e.g., movies). But I would like to be able to restrict the search to the book I'm currently reading (think milliseconds, not seconds). And there are odd little anomalies. Some books apparently only get indexed if I store them in the Kindle's main memory, others, only if I store them on the SD card. Some books seem to repeatedly fall out of the index, although I can add them back. The anomalies do not appear to be correlated with any obvious property of the book, such as its length or format. So there are probably other books that are not indexed and aren't being searched that I haven't even noticed.
  9. Formatting: Because it has to adjust to six different type sizes, text has to be dynamically reformatted. For most books, there's a choice between being justified (straight margins) on both sides, or just on the left. I prefer left-justified (as in this blog), because it reduces the situations where a huge amount of white space has to be put between words to stretch out a line. But even with left-justification, the Kindle generates more visually obnoxious lines than it needs to, because it refuses to break lines at hyphens and en- or em-dashes, all of which are just as good as whitespace as points to break. It's astonishing that they would slip up on that. Don Knuth will not approve.
  10. User interface: The thumb-and-click wheel isn't the selection mechanism I would have chosen, but it's tolerable. When I think of the Kindle as a smart book, it doesn't seem bad. It's when I think of it as a portable computer that I start to get frustrated. E.g., "This ought to be ideal for crossword puzzles: It has plenty of screen real estate, a keyboard, and a built-in dictionary. I wonder why the Times doesn't include their crossword? Oh, no 2D pointing. Doh."
It sort of seems like I had more items for this list, but I'm having a senior moment. Anyhow, on a different day, I might have a different list of peeves, with at least three or four different items rising to the level of being mentioned.

Updated 6/3/08 to add: I've remembered the 11th item for the list: Specular reflection. One of the great advantages of the Kindle is that it uses a passive display technology. Black and white are created by controlling reflectance, not transmission. So there is no backlight, and no power is consumed while displaying a page, only while changing it. This means that the display does not "wash out" in bright surroundings like LCD and plasma displays do.

However, the Kindle screen does not seem to have an anti-reflection coating. This means that it is prone to specular reflection in any environment that has small, bright light sources--think of the sun, or any light small enough to cast a sharp shadow. To read the Kindle in the presence of such light sources, you must find a way to position it so the lights do not reflect off the screen into your eye. "Glossy" paper has the same problem, but has the advantage of a much higher contrast ratio than the Kindle provides. I expect an aftermarket of anti-reflection films for the Kindle to develop.



Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The power grid? Why would hackers want to mess with that?

Interesting story by Andy Greenberg at on a few folks who are uncomfortable that the US power grid is hackable, and that neither DHS nor the power industry seem to be working very hard to improve its security.
Last June, the Department of Homeland Security leaked a video documenting a disturbing experiment. Using only digital means, researchers hacked into a power plant's generator and caused it to cough and shake before shutting down in a cloud of black smoke.

That clip, demonstrating what has since become known as the Aurora vulnerability, served as a wake-up call for regulators, highlighting the need to guard against cyber-security threats to critical infrastructure like power plants and the telecom system. But at a hearing Wednesday, members of the House Committee on Homeland Security warned that those regulatory bodies aren't moving fast enough.

"I think we could search far and wide and not find a more disorganized response to a national security issue of this import," said Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity and Science and Technology...

The subcommittee hearing also highlighted a new example: a report by the Government Accounting Office released Wednesday reveals a litany of cyber-security vulnerabilities in the systems of Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation's largest public power company. The GAO report said that that TVA had failed to implement simple security measures like updated firewall and anti-virus software. Many access points to the company's network lacked password protection, and some insecure systems connected to TVA's systems for controlling power generation, GAO director of information security Greg Wilshusen told the subcommittee.
Meanwhile, the states are chafing under pressure from the federal government to do more to protect their roads from improvised explosive devices (IEDs)...

Updated to add: Meanwhile, in Russia...

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Virtual Water

Close on the heels of the carbon footprint comes the concept of virtual water, as explained by Fred Pearce in an article in NewScientist.
... The term was the invention of water scientist Tony Allan from King's College London [winner of the 2008 Stockholm Water Prize] and, I think, it goes a long way to explaining why the world is currently in the grips of a food crisis.

Most crops take extraordinary amounts of water to grow: a thousand tonnes for a tonne of wheat, for instance. In fact, two-thirds of all the water abstracted from the world's rivers and underground reserves goes for crop irrigation. Unsurprisingly, dry countries, like most of the Middle East, don't have enough water to feed their growing populations.

So they import water. They import virtual water. This trade is huge, the equivalent of 20 times the flow of the world's longest river, the Nile...

Meanwhile global demand for virtual water is soaring, especially from China, where water is the main constraint on food production. China has effectively run out of water in its traditional breadbasket region in the north of the country, where the Yellow River now rarely reaches the sea in any volume. China can't feed itself any more...
In another article, NewScientist has one of those graphics that are worth a thousand words.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Ants "shock and awe" computers, entomologists.

ComputerWorld has an article by Sharon Gaudin about the threat to computers of the "Crazy Raspberry Ants" that are spreading around Houston.
A flood of voracious ants is heading straight for Houston, taking out computers, radios and even vehicles in their path. Even the Johnson Space Center has called in extermination experts to keep the pests out of their sensitive and critical systems.

The ants have been causing all kinds of trouble in five Texas counties in the Gulf Coast area. Because of their sheer numbers, the ants are short-circuiting computers in homes and offices, and knocking systems offline in major businesses. When IT personnel pry the affected computers open, they find the machines loaded with thousands of ant bodies...

The Johnson Space Center called in Rasberry a month or two ago in an attempt to keep the ants out of its facilities. Too late. Raspberry said he found three colonies at the NASA site, but all were small enough to control.

"With the computer systems they have in there, it could devastate the facility," said Rasberry. "If these ants got into the facility in the numbers they have in other locations, well, it would be awful. I've been in this business for 32 years, and this is unlike anything I've ever seen. Anything. When you bring in entomologists from all over the U.S. and they're in shock and awe, that shows you what it's like."
Rather reminiscent of the conclusion of Stephen Vincent Benet's "Metropolitan Nightmare" (1933):
"--and reaching down,
He pried from the insect jaws the bright crumb of steel."
Updated 5/20/2008 to give the specific Stephen Vincent Benet reference. (Most everything he wrote is worth reading, and surprisingly timely, but some folks won't have the time to search.)

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

ISIPS 2008 Notes

As I previously noted, the Rutgers University program on Interdisciplinary Studies in Information Privacy and Security sponsors an annual workshop on the topic. This year's workshop was last Monday. The conference proceedings will be published in the series Lecture Notes in Computer Science (LNCS) published by Springer.

The caliber of the participants was high; they were interesting people with interesting things to say. For me, much of the benefit came from the fact that at least half of them were people that I would probably not otherwise have met, representing viewpoints that I don't generally encounter. (I plan to say more about this in future posts.)

Given the diverse backgrounds and interests of the participants, the discussions were remarkably amicable and constructive. The atmosphere was that everyone had good reasons for what they were trying to do, and that it was worthwhile for the rest of us to understand the reasons, the approach, the results, and the limitations.

I probably learned the most from the presentations by Joan McNamara of the Los Angeles Police Department on "Suspicious Activity Reporting," and by Timothy Edgar of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on "Protecting Civil Liberties & Privacy in the Use of Advanced Analytic Tools."

Joan's talk was a lesson in the power of even simple taxonomies (event codes) when applied broadly and consistently.

Timothy's talk provided me with a lot of new information about the policies and processes within "the IC" (the US national intelligence community) intended to ensure that information about "US persons" (citizens and legally resident aliens) is collected and disseminated only as allowed by US law and regulations (e.g., EO 12333). One of the surprises was the extent to which he said that the policies and processes are matters of public record--even though information about their application to particular cases is closely held (because "you don't want a potential terrorist to be able to discover whether or not he is on the watch list"). In fact, Timothy expressed some frustration at ODNI's inability to interest the national press in reporting on these policies and processes--"We'd have much better success if we stamped them SECRET and 'leaked' them to the Washington Post than we have had with putting them on our website.") I plan a further post on this topic after I gather more information.

I gave a short talk focusing on the various meanings of the words "privacy" and "security," and the confusions that can result from using the words without ensuring that your audience knows which meanings you intend (e.g., despite the similarities in the titles, there was very little overlap between the subjects discussed at ISIPS 2008 and those that are discussed at the annual IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy and in the journal IEEE Security and Privacy). The talk seemed to be well-received and drew some good questions. Only time will tell whether I persuaded my audience to use these words more carefully in the future.

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Do you think this is where

... IBM intended this ad to be displayed?

Link to story.

Link connected to ad.

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