Driving away customers with inefficiency.

Forty-five minutes at my local Kinko's has left me with a sour taste in my mouth. Even with the help of the friendly staff, I was unable to accomplish one simple goal: get a digital scan of my student photo identification onto my laptop. Stopped at every turn by limitations of their operating system as configured, the only immediately alternative was to spend five times as much money to get my data. My card was refunded for my time, and I'm taking my business to somewhere that can be of actual service: a friend with a scanner, for free.

Things started off well. I put my debit card into their machine, logged onto the computer (after accepting a ten-page terms of service agreement), and spent the first minute locating and opening Photoshop. Two more minutes were spent working around their misconfigured scanner drivers. Another minute to do the actual scanning, and I have (2) three megabyte files. Now the fun starts.

When I logged in, I presumed that their toolset of software would include applications for sending files to remote fileservers, a feature corporate types often require from their network administrators. In this, I was wrong: Kinko's does not provide functionality through their Macintosh installations to upload files to the Internet.

After logging out to the consider the situation, I realized that the web browser could be (ab)used as a file transfer agent. As I attached my laptop to the Ethernet connection one cubicle away, it occured to me to try file sharing from the PowerBook (since OS 9 should be able to talk to OS X). Unfortunately, this is not the case: my attempts to see the laptop's file sharing from their workstation failed, even with AppleTalk enabled.

I spent thirty minutes (!) on IRC, discussing both my dissatisfaction with Kinko's and possible solutions to the problem with several groups of people (altogether, about two hundred people were present to hear my complaints). Several solutions presented themselves during this time, none of which were viable or cost effective:

  • Purchase a USB dongle hard drive
  • Email the files (somehow) to Kinko's at $10 per CD
  • Use a webmail interface to upload the files (too large)
  • Use a file upload form to get the files to a webserver (requires access to a public webserver)
  • Print the scans (print.. scans?)
  • Burn them on a CD (can't burn CDs at the workstation)
  • Buy and save them to a Zip disk (I have no Zip drive)

The careful application of money, or the forethought to carry a pile of spare connectivity cables, would probably have saved me much of this experience. In a business such as Kinko's, where customer service is key, neither of those should be a prerequisite to use their facilities; if I had chosen to apply such forethought to my spur-of-the-moment Kinko's attempt, I would have gone with a friend's scanner instead.

So, all in all, forty-five minutes of my lunch hour wasted. This is completely unacceptable, for what should have been five minutes at 20 cents a minute. Thank you for trying, Kinko's; I'll call on a friend next time instead.

Link: Chuq Von Rospach points out that this is a very one-sided story; I concur. I recommend reading his counterpoint to this post; it's the grain of salt I didn't include.

Lessons learned from online journals

There are lessons to be learned from the first round of online journals, hammered out over time in the private spheres of close friends and associates. Many from that time have moved on to other things, but their legacy remains at the core of blogging's foundations.

Write for an audience of friends.

When you have an audience of a million people, there's no way to anticipate what the best viewpoint to reach them all is; remember that your writing is an expression of your viewpoint, and express it as such. Express your viewpoint as if you were talking to a group of friends: clear, to the point, and perhaps a dash of humor.

Aesthetics speak a thousand words.

The appearance of a site frames the content contained within, setting the tone for the reader. If your color schemes makes it painful to read, they won't. If your paragraphs blend together and your punctuation is rare, they won't. Aesthetics are reflected unconsciously in the mind of the reader, directly affecting their interpretations and feelings.

Passion and eloquence garner respect.

There's nothing more boring than a long-winded essay on a topic that the author can't seem to find inspiration to write about. Keep your words focused, on topics you personally care about; whether they agree or not, your readers will thank you.

Relationships are built on honesty.

Many forget that the Internet isn't a faceless crowd, it's a crowd of invisible faces. Each reader will remember you; perhaps not by words, but they will take away some small thing. Your writing has a direct effect upon anyone who listens, and some will remember you. These days, the world is a very small place; you may find yourself discussing what you've written face-to-face someday.

Continue reading "Lessons learned from online journals" »

Withering spheres of privacy

We talked about the fact that many blogs are abandoned, and yet many others go on posting, unlinked-to and perhaps unread. You have to admire these people.
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Many bloggers are bringing to the table the online journal experiences from the end of the last century, before LiveJournal had collected a force of online diarists. If you wrote an online journal, it was for your own benefit, and for the benefit of your immediate friends; random visitors were a curiosity. As Google brought the masses into the journal communities, many writer locked or shut down their sites, in an effort to keep out the prying eyes of the many. "The private intermediate sphere, with its careful buffering, is shattered."

Nowadays, we've turned things on their end; no one is safe any longer from the prying eyes of the indexers; anything that is said on a journal may very well show up in a digital archive somewhere, locked permanently away in stone. I think this has dimmed the light of the journal writers, somewhat; some amazing works have been shuttered forever.

Danny wrote an insightful piece yesterday about O'Reilly's FOO camp, discussing the implications of public, private, and secret. Within is a brilliant quote: "The public is what we say to a crowd; the private is what we chatter amongst ourselves, when free from the demands of the crowd; and the secret is what we keep from everyone but our confidant." Highly recommended.

Six Degrees of Dean

Dean's campaign seems to be learning to take advantage of social networking. Last night's meetup included a directive from the official campaign to "bring a friend" to the meeting on November 5th. Coincidentally, I read "Emergence" this week; it seems as though the campaign is taking a leaf from emergent network theory to build a base of voters.

There's currently more than 100,000 people (120,167, right now) participating in the Meetup system; by asking each of them to bring a friend to the next meeting, there's huge potential for growth. If 15% of the people bring one friend to each meetup, each month, the population of the meetup could more than double. If 30% bring one friend, the population reaches close to 500,000 people. If 50% bring one friend, the population grows to a million people in six months, in meetup alone.

Maciej Ceglowski's girlfriend had dinner with Dean earlier this week, and seems to be heavily involved in Meetup. Maciej's been working with directed networks and search technology; it's eerie that a week later, Dean's campaign introduced activities evidencing a clear knowledge of network theory.

One of the videos shown at the meeting was Dean with a group of GenDean members, asking them to get people involved to vote; not for him, necessarily, but simply to get them on the rolls and in the booths.

First he stumps for participation, then he taps the Internet with meetup, and now he taps social networks. Dean's tapping the power of people to take action, when guided; at this rate of growth, he could very well develop a force to contend with the entrenched lobbyists, businesses, and religious conservatives.

Configuring Sendmail on OS X 10.2 to use an SSH tunneled smarthost

After a couple days of using Mutt to read my mail, thanks to the constant crashing of Mail.app when presented with six years of email, I've recorded the steps I took to get sendmail communicating over an SSH tunnel to my actual host.

  1. Tips:

    • I've added a '\' where each of the long commands is wrapped, to indicate that it's all one line.
    • sendmail.mc and sendmail.cf are two distinct files. If you're not copy-pasting these instructions into your terminal, double-check these filenames before executing the commands.
    • At various points throughout I use the monikers such as relayhost.com to indicate the mail server through which you'll be relaying mail. Please replace these with the public hostname of your relay server.
    • It appears that 10.3 no longer uses sendmail; as such, these instructions are intended only for 10.2.

  2. Open a terminal and become a superuser.
        sudo -s
    
  3. Create a local copy of the generic sendmail.mc file.
        cp \
          /usr/share/sendmail/conf/cf/generic-darwin.mc \
          /etc/mail/sendmail.mc
    
  4. Add the following lines into /etc/mail/sendmail.mc, above the MAILER lines near the end of the file.
        define(`RELAY_MAILER_ARGS', `TCP $h 10025')
        define(`SMART_HOST',`relay:[127.0.0.1]')
        DAEMON_OPTIONS(`Port=smtp,Addr=127.0.0.1, Name=MTA, Family=inet')
        FEATURE(`accept_unresolvable_domains')dnl
    
  5. Backup the system-installed sendmail.cf.
        mv \
          /etc/mail/sendmail.cf \
          /etc/mail/sendmail.cf.dist
    
  6. Regenerate sendmail.cf from the modified sendmail.mc.
        m4 \
          /usr/share/sendmail/conf/m4/cf.m4 \
          /etc/mail/sendmail.mc \
        > /etc/mail/sendmail.cf
    
  7. Create a local copy of the generic submit.mc file.
        cp \
          /usr/share/sendmail/conf/cf/submit.mc \
          /etc/mail/submit.mc
    
  8. Add the following lines into /etc/mail/submit.mc, above the last two dnl lines near the end of the file.
        FEATURE(`masquerade_envelope')
        FEATURE(`allmasquerade')
        MASQUERADE_AS(`mail.relayhost.com')
        FEATURE(`accept_unresolvable_domains')dnl
    
  9. Backup the system-installed submit.cf.
        mv \
          /etc/mail/submit.cf \
          /etc/mail/submit.cf.dist
    
  10. Regenerate submit.cf from the modified submit.mc.
        m4 \
          /usr/share/sendmail/conf/m4/cf.m4 \
          /etc/mail/submit.mc \
        > /etc/mail/submit.cf
    
  11. Modify /System/Library/StartupItems/Sendmail/Sendmail, adding an "&" character after each of the two occurences of /usr/sbin/sendmail.
        /usr/sbin/sendmail -bd -q1h &
        /usr/sbin/sendmail -C /etc/mail/submit.cf -q1h &
    
  12. Strip group writability from certain system directories, to satisfy security checks.
  13.     chmod g-w /etc/mail /etc /
    
  14. Start sendmail; issues will be logged to /var/log/mail.log.
        /System/Library/StartupItems/Sendmail/Sendmail start
    
  15. Optionally, modify /etc/hostconfig to start sendmail on boot.
        MAILSERVER=-YES-
    
If everything worked out properly, you now have sendmail listening at 127.0.0.1, port 25. Messages received for delivery will be queued until an SSH tunnel is available on port 10025. Follow these steps to send the queued mail:
  1. Open the SSH tunnel to your smarthost.
        ssh \
          -f -N -L 10025:mail.relayhost.com:25 \
          username@relayhost.com &
    
  2. Instruct sendmail to send the queued mail, if any.
        sudo sendmail -q
    

Continue reading "Configuring Sendmail on OS X 10.2 to use an SSH tunneled smarthost" »

Can the paparazzi survive in a world of DRM?

Recent discussion has shown that there are a few who think they can identify certain places -- movie theatres, for instance -- and ask devices within that place to, say, not ring audibly. Some have built Faraday wood, isolating the outside electronic world from within.

I propose a device that allows individuals to state their preference regarding their public "image", so to speak; those who don't mind being filmed without permission (potential actors, for instance) could purchase a small radio-responsive device indicating their willingness. Introduce a forced blurring function into the camera for the likeness of those not indicating otherwise, and now Digital Rights Management serves the purpose of protecting my likeness from media attention, if the manufacturers were to comply.

This aspect of DRM provides a mechanism for controlling the "spotlight" effect of public fame -- where one's life becomes public for all who care to see. Requiring media organizations to honor this DRM (industry-wide Macrovision, so to speak) protects the concerned citizen from media exposure without their explicit consent, provided in person or electronically.

Combined with a modified Creative Commons "attribution" license, I can indicate that I prefer to receive a copy of any media in which I participate, unwitting or not. Sometimes it's not feasible, but if I was worth taping, I'd like to see too -- currently there's no way to indicate that.

With limits stated by individuals and the cameras required by law to run DRM, privacy is honored in a way that it cannot be guaranteed today. At what cost? The crowd may have a few blurred faces in the family's Disneyland vacation videos.

The technological possibility to do this seems within reason, given the presence of face-identifying cameras -- and sometimes I just want to control distribution. The benefit to individuals seems a remarkable gain for such a cost.

Continue reading "Can the paparazzi survive in a world of DRM?" »

Add this SMTP server to your contact list?

Instant messenger has proven relatively immune to the scourge of spam that affects email today. Tagging messages from those on your buddy list, you can implement a system similar (in theory) to SPF, prioritizing mail from your buddies.

For an extra layer of authentication, write a plugin for the instant messenger that communicates "i've sent you message-id foo", to confirm that the email is indeed from a known contact. At this point anything with a From: address that matches a contact, but a Message-ID: for which no notification was received, is automatically trapped as questionable and held for review (unless, at some point, the Message-ID: is received from the sender in question).

Cooperative, distributed reporting

Tonight's bout of insomnia gave me the opportunity to participate in something very cool. People from SpyMac, MacRumors, MacNN, MacTeens, MacCentral, and Mac-TV came together on IRC in just a few minutes before the Apple Expo keynote, with the intent to share information with the entire community. As information came in from various sources, it was redistributed through four different IRC channels and three websites (four, if you count the KevTV hoax) to a waiting community of listeners.

The immediacy of the flow of information was eerie to watch, even as a blogger; something would be posted in one channel, a few seconds later it'd be in three, then both websites and all the channels would have it. In the span of sixty seconds every unique droplet of relevant information was spread to every listener by just a few speakers.

One of the major channels I was a part of was directed for the duration by someone not accustomed to using IRC, that had never done this before or seen it happen; two hours of unplanned effort behind me, I feel that I've made a valuable contribution to something unseen but valuable: community.

I counted over sixty people in the channel I moderated; apparently on IRC across the four channels I watched there were more than a thousand people, and I can't even begin to wonder how many people watched on the websites. I guess next time I'll have to plan to be here; I don't want to miss the opportunity.

Viewpoint Routers

One trend in intelligence gathering and analysis is 'open source' - and we're not talking Linux and GPL here. Simply put, as electronic media have proliferated around the world, more information that is useful for security purposes becomes openly available. The problem is digging out the useful bits, assessing their reliability, synthesizing and analyzing the bits together, then using the results to guide clandestine information gathering if needed.

Open source in this sense seems to have started inside the intelligence agencies, but you don't need a government ID card to play the game. For instance, the NOSI site is essentially a blog that compiles military intelligence with a naval skew into one convenient location. One might also consider Rantburg, run by an ex-intel guy, to be an open source site, with a bit of an attitude.
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An alternative definition of the word "open source" appears here, as intelligence agencies begin to base more and more of their information sources on that which is available to the public — "open" knowledge, as it were. I must admit some curiosity as to how long the intel community has been using the term, but that answer is probably classified.

This concept of "open source" intelligence leads to an insight into blogging, and why it has grown so as a social phenomenon. Intelligence has, for many years, taken advantage of the human instinct for gossip; by collecting information that seems unremarkable at the time, collecting it together, and through massive human and computer effort turning the mass of information into coherent, organized data.

In David Brin's book "Earth" (spoiler warning! this gives away a key aspect of the plot), one of the key protagonists is a person working from home, observing and collecting information through a high-speed internet connection. As the book progresses, we learn that she wields a power stronger than any other single individual in the book; eventually, however, she is defeated by cooperation (and coincidence).

Like the protagonist in "Earth", the blogging community wields a great amount of power, mostly untapped. The events surrounding Trent Lott's dismissal from the government for holding a viewpoint unacceptable to the community demonstrate the power of the group to turn what was formerly described as "gossip" into immediate, highly effective influence over a regime. Unlike the book, however, we do not act alone.

Bloggers have, in a short period of time, begun developing the ability to take the same information that intelligence agencies; each individual collects the data they feel relevant, assembling it into a conclusion (or summary, or post) that is then shared with all who care to read it. Each of the thousand voices, using different information, reach different conclusions; sometimes in agreement, more often not, but in the end all are given a chance to share their view. Unlike before, however, bloggers have the Internet at their disposal.

The NSA has recognized the power of the Internet as a tool for distributing information; influenced by Gore, they developed at the turn of the century a private network that rivals the mass media in sharing information to anyone with access. Around the same time, online journals began changing their focus; many began discussing viewpoints along with the trivia of their day-to-day lives (the root of the thing we call "blogging" today); today, the propagation of information through the blogosphere has begun to rivel the AP wire, and may be approaching equivalence with the NSA's billion-dollar system.

We link to each other almost unconsciously, creating a community of a form that no one has seen before. The onus is upon each of us to make our voice heard; once that has been done, entry to the community is almost certain, with a minimum of barriers (be civil, be interesting, be unique). Within the community, information flows at a rate faster than any one human can discern; with a thousand of them looking, though, suddenly it's not so unmanageable. When I miss an article at New Scientist discussing the origins of pulsars, it turns up in the blog elsewhere in the community; in turn, I link to that article at my blog, thus ensuring that someone, somewhere, will see the information that they otherwise would miss.

Like ants (carpenter ants!), we're crawling the information space in its totality — even though each ant only sees a tiny portion of all that is out there. Unlike the government, however, we don't have to pay ten thousand people to do our work for us; each of us puts out a few hours a month (or, perhaps, a day), and perhaps a few dollars for connectivity, hosting, etc. In return, we're granted a skill that was formerly limited to corporations, governments, and (rarely) activists; efficient information routing. With this skill comes great power; if we use it responsibly, the world will change in ways that sci-fi writers have only dreamed of.

Continue reading "Viewpoint Routers" »

Less talk, more action.

I've started a second blog, to pair with this one. It's called link lagoon; you can read the introductory post there as well, or subscribe to the RSS feed.

The new blog is where I'll be posting things that are mostly content from elsewhere; occasionally, I'll add a line or two to the mix, but the content is highlighted from elsewhere. I've far too many posts rotting away in my news reader that deserve the attention of others — but aren't necessarily topical or relevant to this blog.

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