Friday Jan 15, 2010

Last Days at Sun Microsystems

The Sun is setting - so an Oracle has told me - and my days at this company, one of the best I have ever worked for are nearing their end.

I will be moving my blog over to http://bblfish.net/ as soon as I get the right software set up there. You can follow me on twitter or identica for updates.

Sun will continue to pay me for the next 8 month at a salary very close to the one I am earning now, so in gratitude to them, I will essentially just keep doing what I have been doing while here. I will keep working on foaf+ssl and securing the social web. As I won't be getting any travel money, I will be happy for anyone willing to sponsor those costs for me.

So to all a happy new 2010.

Chaos Computer Club reveals massive airport security hole

The Chaos Computer Club yesterday revealed on German Television, in a program entitled "Data theft via wireless - security risks at German airports", a massive security hole, that could easily allow intelligent terrorists - if such a being is possible - to gain access to the secure parts of many airports, thereby bypassing any of the more and more restrictive and intrusive measures being introduced to scan normal citizens, and which led the pirate party to demonstrate in underpants as I reported earlier this week.

The trick is simple. Employees at many airports use badges that are read wirelessly by scanners. Using a trick similar to that described by Chris Paget's RFID cloning presentation - a massive security scandal in the US - it is possible to capture the signals emitted by these cards and use that to produce fake ones. Having created one such card, the CCC members were able to gain access to secure parts of the Hamburg airports without going through any of the security checks imposed on the passengers.

It is not surprising that such a hole and many more should be found of a similar nature. Increasing security in one part of the airport will not make anything more secure if not all parts are secured equally. But since the threat of terrorism is so minute - you are 8 times more likely to be killed by a cop in the US than by a terrorist - any security measures will end up creating more danger than that posed by the terrorists themselves. Add more police and the danger of accidental killing by the police can only go up faster than the terrorist threat itself.

Wednesday Jan 13, 2010

Faviki: social bookmarking for 2010

faviki logo

Faviki is simply put the next generation social bookmarking service. "A bookmarking service? You must be kidding?!" I can hear you say in worried exasperation. "How can one innovate in that space?" Not only is it possible to innovate here, let me explain why I moved all my bookmarks from delicious over to faviki.

Like delicious, digg, twitter and others... Faviki uses crowd sourcing to allow one to share interesting web pages one has found, stay up to date on a specific topic of interest, and keep one's bookmarks synchronized across computers. So there is nothing new at that level. If you know del.icio.us, you won't be disoriented.

What is new is that instead of this being one crowd sourced application, it is in fact two. It builds on wikipedia to help you tag your content intelligently with concepts taken from dbpedia. Instead of tagging with strings the meaning of which you only understand at that time, you can have tags that make sense, backed by a real evolving encyclopedia. Sounds simple? Don't be deceived: there is a huge potential in this.

Let us start with the basics: What is tagging for? It is here to help us find information again, to categorize our resources into groups so that we can find them again in the rapidly increasing information space. I now have close to ten years of bookmarks saved away. As a result I can no longer remember what strings I used previously to tag certain categories of resources. Was it "hadopi", "paranoia", "social web", "socialweb", "web", "security", "politics", "zensursula", "bigbrother", "1984", ... If I tag a document about a city should I tag it "Munich", "München", "capital", "Bavaria", "Germany", "town", "agglomeration", "urbanism", "living", ...? As time passed I found it necessary to add more and more tags to my bookmarks, hoping that I would be able to find a resource again in the future by accidentally choosing one of those tags. But clearly that is not the solution. Any of those tags could furthermore be used very differently by other people on delicious. Crowd sourcing only partially works, because there is no clear understanding on what is meant by a tag, and there is no space to discuss that. Is "bank" the bank of a river, or the bank you put money in? Wikipedia has a disambiguation page for this, which took some time to put together. No such mechanism exists on delicious.

Faviki neatly solves this problem by using the work done by another crowd sourced application, and allowing you to tag your entries with concepts taken from there. Before you tag a page, Faviki finds some possible dbpedia concepts that could fit the content of the page to tag. When you then choose the tags, the definition from wikipedia is made visible so that you can choose which meaning of the tag you want to use. Finally when you tag, you don't tag with a string, but with a URI: the DBPedia URI for that concept. Now you can always go back and check the detailed meaning of your tags.

But that is just the beginning of the neatness of this system. Imagine you tag a page with http://dbpedia.org/resource/Munich (the user does not see this URL of course!). Then by using the growing linked data cloud Faviki or other services will be able to start doing some very interesting inferencing on this data. So since the above resource is known to be a town, a capital, to be in Germany which is in Europe, to have more than half a million inhabitants, to be along a certain river, that contains certain museums, to have different names in a number of other languages, to be related in certain ways to certain famous people (such as the current Pope)... it will be possible to improve the service to allow you to search for things in a much more generic way: you could search by asking Faviki for resources that were tagged with some European Town and the concept Art. If you are searching for "München" Faviki will be able to enlarge the search to Munich, since they will be known to be tags for the same city...

I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to think about other interesting ways to use this structured information to make finding resources easier. Here is an image of the state of the linked data cloud 6 months ago to stimulate your thinking :-)

.

But think about it the other way now. Not only are you helping your future self find information bookmarked semantically - let's use the term now - you are also making that information clearly available to wikipedia editors in the future. Consider for example the article "Lateralization of Brain Function" on wikipedia. The Faviki page on that subject is going to be a really interesting place to look to find good articles on the subject appearing on the web. So with Faviki you don't have to work directly on wikipedia to participate. You just need to tag your resources carefully!

Finally I am particularly pleased by Faviki, because it is exactly the service I described on this blog 3 years ago in my post Search, Tagging and Wikis, at the time when the folksonomy meme was in full swing, threatening according to it's fiercest proponents to put the semantic web enterprise into the dustbin of history.

Try out Faviki, and see who makes more sense.

Some further links:

Tuesday Jan 12, 2010

Food Envy - a short silent comedy

This weekend I went to a birthday party in Berlin, where one of the guests presented this very short (5 min) Laurel and Hardy style movie he shot on super 8 film a couple of years ago with his friends. I convinced him to put it up on youtube. Here it is for your enjoyment:

As it happens the day before I had been discussing the relation between jealousy and envy, two emotions that are often confused. The Wikipedia article on Envy, confirms the widespread nature of this misunderstanding. Whereas envy is an emotion relating two or more people and an object, jealousy involves three people and a shifting relationship between them. In this film the object of envy is the food, and this film very clearly illustrates what envy is. We all remember such episodes from our childhood I bet. It would be fun to do a film like this on jealousy, and all the other emotions...

Pirate Party gets naked in Berlin to protest airport scanners

The 60ies are back, and so is getting naked at protests :-) The Pirate Party in Berlin has just protested the intrusiveness of planned scanning technology at the Tegel Airport, with the motto "No need to scan we are already naked". Here is the video:

There is a very serious need to put the terrorist threat back into perspective and laugh a little. As argued very cogently in the recent Register article "Trouser-bomb clown attacks - how much should we laugh?" there is no need to respond any further with security increase to such attacks. All that has been done is done. There is nothing more one can do. Life is fundamentally insecure. According to John Baker, you are "8 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist". When one responds to a crisis one has to keep the relative dangers in perspective, and deal with the most important ones first. And it is not completely unthinkable that the threat of government intrusion into our private lives is just simply a much bigger danger than terrorism right now.

This recent article in Wired "Airport Scanners Can Store, Transmit Images" details the power of these new scanners that the German government plans to introduce as an attempted response to the underpants bomber. If you accept that, then why not just go all the way and make nudist (FKK in German) planes available, as the Pirate Party demonstrators cheekily suggest.

Beyond airport security, which has so clearly now gotten completely out of hand, the demonstration is aimed to wake citizens out of the slumber which has allowed us all to give one part of society - the "security" services - completely disproportionate power over the rest of society. As Mr Security shows so well, there is no reason we should not set limits to their action, by allowing us, citizens to monitor them too, by re-establishing our rights in public spaces, and by not just accepting any irrational request for security increase, and intrusions into the private sphere.

And speaking of intrusions into the private space, we should also be careful to trust our privacy to large firms: see the recent ReadWrite web article "Facebook's Zuckerberg Says The Age of Privacy is Over". Privacy like freedom, is something one has to fight for to keep.

Other links:

Saturday Jan 09, 2010

Mr Security: patrolling public spaces

Mr Security is a brilliant piece of performance art exploring with seriousness and humor the fast encroaching surveillance society growing in our midst and in our souls. The product of their work consists in realistically crafted PDF security marketing material (in German and English), in which they describes the team's security performances, which consist in watching public spaces and documenting the reactions to it.

A very telling example is the very short surveillance of the street around the American Embassy in Berlin. After taking a few pictures of the street a few police officers arrive. The dialog is noted as:

POLICE OFFICER 1
Excuse me, please put your camera away. Hello young man, did you hear me?
POLICE OFFICER 2
Hello. Do you have some identification?
MISTER SECURITY
Yes!
PO 1
Why are you taking pictures of us here?
MS
I'm observing
PO 1
Who?
MS
The street.
PO 1
Why?
MS
For Security.
PO 1
Oh!? Where are you from?
MS
Private security service.
PO 1
Where are you from? Your badge doesn’t help us at all. Where are you from?
MS
What do you mean, where am I from?
PO 1
Well, where from? A security service? Who?
MS
Here, Mister Security!
PO 2
Young man, please take your hands out of your pockets! I feel happier that way. What security company do you work for?
MS
Mister Security, private security service!
PO 2
Yes, and your area of operation is the American embassy, or what?
MS
Private security reinforcement.
PO 2
Oh!
PO 1
For what? For who?
MS
For public safety.
PO 2
Who hired you?
MS
The public itself!
PO 1
Oh! Let’s get this straight, it’s not entirely clear what you’re saying here. Let me tell you what I think. I don’t buy this private security service story – look at your shoes. They look like my last pair of work shoes, to be honest. I don’t believe you’d be dressed like that if you were working for the public.
MS
There’s not that much money in the private sector anymore!
PO 1
Well, I’d have thought your employer would provide you with what you need.
MS
I have to see to my clothes myself.
PO 1
No, really, this is not okay!... What’s on your film? What kind of a camera is that?
MS
It’s not switched on. It’s a digital camera, but as you can see, it’s not turned on, look – nothing!
PO 1
Okay! Well I do want to get clearance here. We’ll have to inform the sector. And I’m going to ask you to wait so that we can be sure about your identity. You can stand under the shelter here, that way you’ll stay dry. This’ll take a few minutes.
PO 2
Are you a one-man business?
MS
Well, it’s not that big yet – but I’m trying to grow.
PO 2
How did you get this commission and who gave it to you? What assignment are you working on?
MS
I am not at liberty to say!
PO 2
Oh, you’re not at liberty to say?!
MS
I think it’d be a good thing if there were more surveillance.
PO 2
You do?
MS
You need reinforcements here. It’s not enough that you’re here with just three people on this side.
PO 2
Oh! And where do you see the security problem?
MS
Yes, well you could have twenty well-prepared guys come and run right past you here!
PO 2
Right, and what do you want to do about that, if I may ask? Perhaps we could exchange some ideas?
MS
Yes, that’s exactly the issue. We’re working for several embassies right now. We’re revising the security concept, which we’ll then introduce personally.
PO 2
Right! Great! And the private sector will deal with it then?
MS
Exactly! It’s cheap and effective!

You can read about the continuation of this conversation, and others involving a number of different actors (including anti-fascist demonstrators, for example) in their PDF.

Mr Security presented his work in detail at the 26th Chaos Computer Congress "Here be Dragons" in Berlin on 27 December 2009. There he revealed how the camera's sound had in fact continued to function during the whole conversation. What does not appear in this PDF is his later experience going to the US, where he received a stipend at a New York art institute. On appearance of the FBI to the studio he was promptly ejected by his artist colleagues who clearly lacked the courage (see my recent article on "After Virtue") to support him. Not that surprising perhaps given the extraordinary high amount of people in US jails, with 3.2% under direct police surveillance at any one time.

Can one still have a democracy in such an atmosphere of fear? If yes, then for how long?

Friday Jan 08, 2010

After Virtue: history, ethics and identity

While walking around Blackwell's bookstore in Oxford I picked up Alasdair MacIntyre's "After Virtue", a book that I had seen in philosophy sections for over 20 years now after it having been recommended to me by my undergraduate Philosophy discussion partner Mark Pitt.

When I finally started reading it a few weeks later, I could no longer put it down. This is a philosophy book that starts like a novel, reads like a novel, and indeed it's main thesis is that our understanding of ethics and life has to be that way, because we have to understand ourselves and our interactions with others as parts of a developing, interlinked, enmeshed and developing narrative.

Virtues are those character traits that are necessary for individuals-in-communities to work together to a common goal, that will enable the good of man, understood itself as an evolving historical self understanding. This type of analysis requires teleological thinking - the idea that a person can only be understood by understanding the good of man, the aim of a life being that of having a coherent story to tell - which was the basis for the Aristotelian account of society and nature.

Where Aristotle failed was by applying telos to the physical sciences: explanations that stones fall to the ground because they want to be there, were put to an end by Newtonian mechanics. With that Newtonian insight and the massive success of the physical sciences that followed, started a process of questioning the philosophy that Saint Thomas Aquinas had integrated so well into Christian thought, itself underpinned by Jewish historical religion. The philosophers of the enlightenment attempted one after the other to replace telos and history with some form of Rational grounding where it was thought that reason in some sense gave us access to the divine point of view. But without the understanding of telos, MacIntyre argues, the project was bound to fail. Hume had to resort to intuition to ground a very specific moral outlook; Kant resorted to universalisable rules that would complement the laws of nature which could be used as criteria to evaluate actions viewed non historically; and Bentham and the other utilitarians up to this day tried to devise mathematical calculi of happiness, ignoring the issue that this cannot be measured. Historically minded philosophers such as Hegel still held onto a rationalistic conception of evolution of spirit, that fatally believed that history was deterministic, since science seemed to be. Since science did not make value judgments, neither did Marx, leading to the creation of some of the worst political systems of the 20th century - and that is not a major feat. Within the western tradition amoral bureaucracies gained ground, under the Weberian motto of utility, and slowly all understanding of the basis of right and wrong disappeared, as it did in the 1930ies when it was found reasonable in philosophical circles to hold a position that to say that something is good, is just to say "I like it, do so too", preparing us for the ravages of consumer culture.

Since the book was first published, the Soviet empire collapsed, and it might even be that the latest financial crisis is revealing some of the deep flaws in non critical implementations of capitalism. So the message seems just as relevant now as it did 30 years ago when the book first appeared.

The above review, needless to say does no justice to the depth of argumentation found in the book. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a much more detailed overview of MacIntyre's philosophy though it does not read nearly as well as "After Virtue" itself.

Tuesday Jan 05, 2010

MISC 2010 and the Internet of Subjects

The International Conference on Mobility, Individualisation, Socialisation and Connectivity (MISC 2010) will be taking place in London from Jan 20 to 23 under the rallying cry "Personal Data It's Ours!". It will cover a very large number of topics in the space of Identity, the Social Web, Privacy and Data Ownership, (see the Agenda). I will be presenting on the developments of the Secure Social Web with foaf+ssl.

The conference will also be the launch pad for the Internet of Subjects foundation, whose manifesto starts with the following lines (full version)

The place digital technologies have now dwelled in our lives is leading to an ever-increasing flow of personal data circulating over the Internet. The current difficulties experienced in personal data management, like trust and privacy, are the revealing symptoms of a growing contradiction between an architecture that was primarily designed to manage documents, with the growing expectations of individuals of a more person-centric web. This contradiction will not be resolved by adding a simple patch to the current architecture; a second order change, similar to Copernican revolution, is required to move from a document-centric to a p erson-centric Internet, and create the conditions for a more balanced and mature relationship between individuals and organisations.

I completely sympathise with the feeling expressed by this message. But just as the Copernican revolution did not require an actual change in the movement of the planets - they have been turning around the Sun quite happily for billions of years - but 'only' required a change in how the humanity thought about the movement of the planets, so Web architecture as it currently stands, is perfectly adequate for an Internet of Subjects. It has been designed like that right from the beginning. Tim Berners Lee in his 1994 Plenary at the First International World Wide Web Conference, presented a Paper "W3 future directions" where he showed how from the flat world of documents as shown here

one could move to a world of objects described by those documents as shown here

This is what led to the development of the semantic web, and to technologies such as foaf that since 2000 have allowed us to build distributed Social Networks, and foaf+ssl that are allowing us now to secure them. Using the semantic web then to describe the authors of the documents and hence turn the web of objects into a web of subjects making statements about objects, does not require much technological innovation: it's built into the semweb architecture.

Still to someone who does not know this - the conference as well as the Manifesto are aimed at people who don't - their feeling will be that something is fundamentally wrong with web architecture. This is indeed the feeling the pre Copernican astronomers would have had as their models became more and more complicated to accommodate the always increasing amount of information they gathered about the stars. What should have been simple and beautiful, revealing the mind of God, must have seemed more and more confusing. Until one day, the way the world looked, suddenly changed...

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