Warm Breezes

Warmer conditions In connection with Monday's blurb, and Internet free-speech topics in general, it's worthwhile to note the presence of the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse, a joint project of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, University of San Francisco, University of Maine, George Washington School of Law, and Santa Clara University School of Law clinics. If you've been notified that your site or blog contains material that violates someone's rights—or if you just want to learn more about the subject—this organization can probably help.

Chilling Effects aims to help you understand the protections that the First Amendment and intellectual property laws give to your online activities. We are excited about the new opportunities the Internet offers individuals to express their views, parody politicians, celebrate their favorite movie stars, or criticize businesses. But we've noticed that not everyone feels the same way. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some individuals and corporations are using intellectual property and other laws to silence other online users. Chilling Effects encourages respect for intellectual property law, while frowning on its misuse to "chill" legitimate activity.

Of particular interest is the organization's searchable database of cease-and-desist notices, which not only offers insight for those interested in the process, but provides the exposure that can make all the difference between simply bowing to the threat of legal action, and refusing to do so on legitimate legal grounds.

The type of case referred to in Monday's blurb—a company suing for the use of its trademarked name in the URL of a website critical of that company—isn't unprecedented, and in fact the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse devotes a section to the subject of protest, parody and criticism sites. Interesting reading for anyone with a Net presence of any kind.


The Question to Everything

You know the number, now look up the question.

Last night I dreamed about the answer to everything, but in the morning I couldn't remember the question. All day I struggled with it, trying to reconnect the threads. Finally, exhausted by the effort, I fell asleep. But when I awoke, things were still the same: the answer was clear but the question was not. Once again I tried to reconstruct the dream that might yield the question to the answer. Once again, the question eluded me.

In desperation, I began to question myself. With a bit of luck, I thought, I might stumble on a clue, if not the question itself. I began with the more obvious questions.

Why do you ask?

If you have to ask, what makes you think you would understand the answer?


How dare you?

But none of them felt quite right somehow; none of them seemed to properly fit the question. In despair, I slammed my head against the wall. Suddenly, it all became clear!

The question and the answer are the same. This is why there is no need to ask.


Protected URLs

This may turn out to be an interesting case in the context of trademark law on the Internet, and its effect on the links that effectively define the Web. In a nutshell, a company is suing for the use of its trademarked name in the URL of a website critical of that company.

According to Paul Alan Levy, the Public Citizen attorney who authored the amicus curiae brief, "this is the first case in which Public Citizen has been involved dealing with the trademark ramifications of noncommercial, keyword ad purchases – a relatively new area of litigation – that are protected in most cases by the First Amendment."

The quote is from Free Speech Vs. Trademarked URLs & Keywords, posted Feb. 22 at searchengineland.com.


Very funnySome say pranks are really nothing but pathetic, sophomoric attempts to gain attention at the expense of others, but pranks have consequences, too. There's a sharp line between harmless fun and full-out psychological warfare, but even the most benign prank—gluing quarters to the sidewalk, for example—can be counterproductive. Repeatedly playing the same trick on the same people, or even subjecting them to a variety of practical jokes can be every bit as counterproductive as those over-the-top PsyOps campaigns. The chronic prankster may find himself isolated and ostracized, or in extreme cases, explaining his antics to a judge.

Some pranks can be chalked up to youthful indiscretion. When I was in eighth grade, I decided to connect the phone line to my guitar amplifier. My mother was surprised—and less than thrilled—when her phone conversation could be heard echoing throughout the neighborhood from the amplifier, which I had placed in an open window. I don't recall the specific consequences of that episode, but I don't think they were positive.

Other pranks are squarely in that over-the-top category. Years ago, a friend's sister was subjected to the extreme methods of her soon-to-be ex-husband; it was a bit like The War of the Roses, only it wasn't a movie. Apparently, his military experience and training prompted him to rig small booby traps in their home, so his wife was never sure what sort of nasty surprise might result from opening doors, drawers, or cabinets. These tactics later proved counterproductive in divorce court.

When I worked in the tech industry, a coworker used a combination of low- and mid-tech methods to satisfy his prank-lust. Large water-filled syringes, powerful rubber bands, small pieces of wood to hold them open, and string attached to desk drawers were used to booby-trap the workplace. When the victim sat down and opened the center drawer of the desk, the syringe would discharge its contents in the victim's lap. A slightly more tech-oriented caper involved making an invisible incision in the victim's phone cord, then snipping the wire to the handset's microphone. The next phone call resulted in a perfectly ordinary experience for the person answering the call, but complete silence for the one making it. As you might expect, these techniques where counterproductive as well. In the end, they resulted only in angry people, and pariah status for the perpetrator.

Sometimes, pranks are mainly the result of boredom; they're an attempt to enliven otherwise mundane activities such as grocery shopping. When she was younger, I frequently tormented my daughter during our trips to the grocery store. One of my favorite techniques involved falling behind, then attempting to catch up with her while dragging one of my legs and shouting, "Daughter! Daughter! Wait for me!" This was counterproductive in the long run, because eventually she simply refused to go shopping with me.

One guy thought he had discovered the joy of embarrassing his wife at the supermarket by making loud, crowlike cawing noises. After a time, he realized this method could be used in more practical ways, such as encouraging her to finish her shopping so he could go home. He began to rely on the conditioned-response factor: simply whispering caw in her ear was enough to drain the blood from her face, and almost always abbreviated the shopping experience. Eventually his wife filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences.

Pranks can be a lot of fun, but generally seem far more comical to the perpetrator than the victim—something I try to keep in mind whenever I feel the urge to try something new on the people soon to be formerly known as my friends.



Yup. It's section 230 of the Communications Decency Act again.

Say your 13-year-old daughter has a fake ID that tells the world she's 18. She uses it to get into a club that has an 18-and-over policy, and once inside she meets a guy who really is 18. Later, they leave the club and go to a restaurant, after which they decide to go to his place, where she's sexually assaulted by him. The club, you think, is responsible for enabling the fateful contact in the first place. After all, your daughter doesn't look a day over 16 regardless of how much makeup she uses, and regardless of what that fake ID might indicate.

You sue the club, claiming they created an unsafe, inappropriate environment for your underage daughter. The security personnel should have exercised some common sense; they saw how young she is; they shouldn't have allowed her into the club. The judge agrees with you and awards damages, but also chides you for failing to exercise your parental responsibility. The tragic event, he says, would have been far less likely to unfold had you paid more attention to your daughter's whereabouts in the middle of the night.

Fast forward to some future time. Same daughter, same age, but the world has changed in a few significant ways. Everyone has an implant that provides automatic identification to the network of scanners installed in every imaginable corner of life, and the club—which is the size of a large city—that your daughter wants to get into is staffed by androids. With the aid of a technology-savvy friend, your daughter has succeeded in altering the contents of her implant in order to gain access to the club. Her implant says she's 18, so there's no trouble getting in the door—the androids' vision is poor. Once inside, she meets a guy who really is 18. Later, they leave the club and go to a restaurant, after which they decide to go to his place, where she's sexually assaulted by him. The club, you think, is responsible for enabling the fateful contact in the first place. After all, your daughter doesn't look a day over 16 regardless of how much makeup she uses, and regardless of what that fake ID might indicate.

You sue the club, claiming they created an unsafe, inappropriate environment for your underage daughter. The security androids should have exercised some common sense; they saw how young she is; they shouldn't have allowed her into the club. The judge chides you for failing to exercise your parental responsibility. The tragic event, he says, would have been far less likely to unfold had you paid more attention to your daughter's whereabouts in the middle of the night. He disagrees with your contention regarding the club's responsibility, citing section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The club, he explains, has some 100 million patrons and can't reasonably be expected to physically keep track of that many people in real time. Besides, he adds, your daughter misrepresented her age; she circumvented the club's safeguards that were specifically designed to protect her. This, he says, really isn't the club's fault.

Meanwhile, back in the present tense, that future scenario has come to pass. Last week's decision by a Texas judge dismissed the Doe v. MySpace, Inc. lawsuit, in which the plaintiffs argued that MySpace had failed to properly safeguard underage users. The judge invoked section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, citing the impossibility of verifying every MySpace user's age. While some observers see the decision as an overbroad interpretation of the CDA, the ruling, for now, seems to add yet another layer of armor to the concept of immunity for service providers when their customers go astray.

The Internet isn't going to go away, service providers are needed to connect us to it, and someone will always find a way to circumvent rules and safeguards. But with or without the Net—and its myriad opportunities for getting into trouble—kids still need guidance. They shouldn't be expected to raise themselves. Instead of blaming the club for the kid's fake ID, how about making sure that underage kid isn't out all night, hanging out with much older people in places that are sure to bring trouble eventually?

I know. There aren't enough hours in the day, especially in a single-parent home. Okay, here's an idea for a lawsuit less likely to be affected by the Communications Decency Act. How about launching a class action against ourselves for permitting and propagating a society that demands ever-increasing piles of cash in order to exist, thereby ensuring ever-decreasing slices of time that ought to be spent with our kids, but are spent, instead, at increasingly time-hungry jobs? We might not win in court, but our kids couldn't possibly lose.


Another Serving of Nil

No dessert for youYesterday's monologue—or perhaps more so Craig's comments about it—triggered the memory of a program I heard last week on NPR's Talk of the Nation. The guest was an author with a rare form of autism that, among other things, results in extraordinary visual representations of numbers in his mind.

When Daniel Tammet thinks about numbers, each one has a distinct personality. Thirty-seven is lumpy, for example; four is shy. He has a rare form of autism that gives him astonishing mental powers, such as effortlessly calculating huge numbers in his head with the speed of a computer.

In the context of perception—and as Craig mentioned, its highly idiosyncratic nature—the knowledge that there are people for whom numbers are essentially living beings should forever put to rest the misguided notion that we are all the same. I've always considered my own thought processes to be more visual than otherwise, but compared to Mr. Tammet's mental world, mine is obviously mundane in the extreme.

Come to think of it, my mind's barren landscape is to blame for my flippant treatment of Craig's characteristically thoughtful commentary yesterday. If only the words rattling about in my head were more visually intriguing, I wouldn't have to resort to concocting inappropriate responses—or inappropriate blog posts for that matter—to amuse myself.

How can I take responsibility for my actions when I had no part in designing my brain? My mind may be boring me to tears, but is that my fault? I think not.


One Man's Cool Cat

Like claws on a chalkboard

Happy Monday, and here's the question of the day: How is it possible for two people to hear the same sounds, yet one perceives the equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard while the other experiences the soothing benefits of a mountain stream? Over the weekend, I had a conversation with a friend who sharply disagrees with my opinion that listening to Ken Nordine is a soothing, relaxing, and wholly positive experience. To him, Nordine—in the context of Word Jazz, anyway—is nothing but an irritation. This fascinates me for a couple reasons.

Ordinarily, I can at least understand a differing viewpoint; I can see why someone has connected the dots in a pattern different than my own. But this one confounds me. I'm unable to understand my friend's perception, so it's intriguing for the sheer mystery of it. It's an enigma.

The second point of interest is the particular person who owns this perception. What Nordine does isn't everyone's cup of tea, but if you knew Christopher I'm sure you'd share my surprise; you'd think something like Word Jazz would be right up his alley. And yet, it is not. It isn't the quirkiness or the material in general causing the problem; he just doesn't like the way it sounds. It gets on his nerves.

I know I won't be able to let this go. Further analysis is required, but I need more data. Maybe I misunderstood, or maybe I just missed something, but I'm not yet able to admit to myself that Nordine's trippy multilogues might be anything less than a nice bubblebath for my head.

It's going to take another conversation with Christopher before I can rest easy again.


Soul Food

Holes in the soles of my soul In retrospect, I should have known better. I should have been wary of the advice of a stranger, especially when that stranger is squatting on the sidewalk with a set of bongo drums. I only stopped for a moment to groove on the rhythm he was pounding out with the palms of his hands, but suddenly the sound stopped. He regarded me with what seemed to me a look of suspicion, then rose to his feet. He circled me slowly, scrutinizing my face.

"Hey man," he said, "where's your sole patch?" His voice was a hoarse whisper.

"My what?" I asked.

"Your sole patch, man. Can't groove without a sole patch." His eyes were fixed on my chin.

I wasn't sure what he meant. I'd heard the phrase before and knew it had something to do with coolness, but beyond that it was a mystery. I nodded, and began to walk away. He was shouting the words, over and over, as I crossed to the other side of the street.

"Sole patch! Sole patch!"

Later that afternoon, I was pushing my shopping cart down the aisle at the local market when the bongo man's words resurfaced in my mind. Maybe, I thought, he knows something. Changing course, I headed for the fish aisle. Salmon, halibut . . . filet of sole! I shrugged, and dropped the fish in my cart.

That evening, I sat in my kitchen contemplating the situation. I was in unknown territory; I was unsure how to proceed. Then I remembered something. The bongo man had been staring at my chin when he gave me the advice. Encouraged, I opened the kitchen drawer and found a pair of scissors. I cut the filet to make a two-inch square—a reasonable size for this application, I thought. The second problem was how to keep the fish attached to my chin. A phone call to my grandmother resulted only in disappointment; she didn't much like the idea of loaning me her denture adhesive and hung up before I could make my case. Discouraged, I returned to the kitchen and sat staring at my little square of fish. What to do?

Suddenly, the light went on. Construction adhesive! If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that if you have something you absolutely, positively must attach to something else, construction adhesive will never let you down. Excited, I sprang from my chair, knocking it sideways onto the floor. I found my old toolbox in the closet, and in it the coveted tube of multi-purpose construction adhesive.

Examining my handiwork in the bathroom mirror, I could feel the new cool beginning to take hold. It hadn't taken the adhesive long to set; my new sole patch was firmly attached to my chin as if it had always been there. I raised one eyebrow and winked at my reflection. Time to hit the pavement.

Strutting down the sidewalk in my white ankle-length overcoat, the envy was palpable. Everyone was looking at me. The boombox on my shoulder played the Chili Peppers' Walkabout, an appropriate anthem, I thought, for this evolutionary night. I tipped my fedora to the ladies on the corner; I couldn't hear what they were saying, but I knew they were complimenting my patch. Turning up the volume, I began to dance as I made my way through the crowd. Then I noticed the cats.

It wasn't just two or three cats. They seemed to be everywhere, and more were falling into line every second. Forty cats, maybe more. I quickened my pace, but the cats kept up. I broke into a trot, but they easily matched my speed. Throwing my boombox to the sidewalk, I began to run. Looking over my shoulder, I saw cats emerging from alleys and side streets, tails in the air. That was when I tripped on a crack in the sidewalk, and was instantly engulfed in a sea of feline claws and teeth, tearing at my chin. I screamed.

When I came to, the nurse was saying something but I couldn't make out the words. I tried to speak, but she shook her head and put a finger to her mouth. A man in a white lab coat appeared, and exchanged a few muted sentences with the nurse before approaching my bed. He smiled.

"You were lucky," he said. "Most people wouldn't have survived this sort of thing. You'll be fine in a couple months, give or take."

A couple months? My hand reached for my face, but encountered a bandaged mass.

"We were able to reconstruct the chin," said the man in the white lab coat, "but you sure didn't make it easy on us. I'd suggest avoiding that industrial adhesive next time."

I couldn't see the nurse, but I could hear her laughter. The man smiled and shook his head as he turned away. As I listened to the fading echo of his footsteps in the hallway, I knew he was right. I had been a fool. Next time, I thought, I'll do things differently. Next time I'll use Velcro.


Invisible Ink

Where have all the papers gone? Just for fun, pretend you're running a newspaper. You have way too many readers, so you think it might be a good idea to make your publication less visible to the world at large. The Internet, of course, is a big part of this problem. It's so easy for people to find your paper with a simple Google search—too easy, in fact—and then there they are, wanting to read your paper. It's a problem.

Fortunately, there's a simple solution. Just tell Google to stop supplying links to your stuff, and that way no one will know about your publication. Well, maybe some people will know, but in the global context you'll be virtually invisible! How cool is that?

Pretty cool, evidently, if you happen to run a newspaper in Belgium. For the second time, a Belgian court has ordered Google to keep its e-paws off certain versions of its newspapers, citing copyright infringement. Although some observers see the ruling as an appropriate indictment of Google's approach to fair-use standards, others consider it misguided, and ultimately self-destructive. Tuesday's article on CNET News quoted people from both sides of the fence, but I'll just include a remark from the side I happen to agree with, attributed to Chris Ruhland, a litigation and intellectual-property lawyer in Los Angeles.

The newspapers were doing themselves a disservice, Ruhland added. "They won a legal victory for now but maybe not in the long term," he said. "In 2007, if you are not findable in Google, you might as well not exist for practical purposes."

It's a good point. Why would anyone—especially those in the publishing business right now—not want to show up on Google's radar? John Dvorak amplified the point a good deal more at MarketWatch.

If I was a shareholder in any of these publications, I would be asking the executives exactly why they want fewer readers and no links from Google. Is it some new business model?

Also, Google and most other search providers have a methodology to block their engines from scanning sites. This process is usually done by private organizations that wish to stay off the grid and by pirate sites. Any commercial operation would never choose to do it -- but it could.

Hey, maybe it is a new business model, sort of. Maybe it's a new, improved version of the old grab Google's market share model. Just because it hasn't worked before doesn't mean it can't work, ever. Or maybe things just work differently in Belgium.


My Valentine

Be my ValentineThe happiest day of my life was the day you were born, because I knew you were my Valentine. When you smiled your first toothless smile, it was the most beautiful smile I'd ever seen. It was the smile of my Valentine. The first time you called me Daddy, it was the most wonderful word I'd ever heard. My Valentine said the word. Now that you're older, you still have the most beautiful smile, and Daddy is still my favorite word. I hope you'll always be my Valentine.

Happy Valentine's Day, Sweetie!

I love you!!!!!!!!



So deep you need bootsI've always believed that there's a rather solid line between slander and libel. If you say it, it's slander; if you write it, it's libel. End of story—that's where the line is drawn. But suddenly I'm not so sure anymore. What if it's both at the same time? What would that be called?

For example, let's say I post an audio recording on my Web site, or blog, of Peter making slanderous comments about Paul. At the same time, I put up a verbatim transcript of that recording. It's both slander and libel at the same time, right? It's slibel.

On the other hand, if the content on my site is nothing more than a link to the same audio recording on someone else's site, have I posted slander on my site? Aside from any definitions associated with the Communications Decency Act—or interpretations thereof—what's the definition of the link on my page? It links to slander, but the link itself isn't slanderous; it's only a pointer to some other location. But if I make a transcript of that audio recording and post it on my site, have I posted the libelous equivalent of the original slander, or have I posted libel itself? Conversely, if I make a recording of myself reading the libelous content, then post the recording on my site, what is that called?

Okay, here's where things get super complicated. If I make a recording of slander but I'm singing the words, are the lyrics slanderous or libelous? The mind boggles.


The First Amendment Aren't Us

Unfortunately, time is not at all on my side today, but just in case you missed the one about Rhode Island College's claim that the First Amendment doesn't apply to the school, there's a blurb about the situation at the Student Press Law Center's site . . .

The motion stated that Rhode Island College is not a government entity and two administrators who have been named defendants are not government employees. Rather, the college was part of a "public corporation" and not "an alter ego or arm of the state," the motion stated.

. . . which is good for a laugh or two. The motion has since been withdrawn.


At the Trail of Turds Coffee Shop

The smell of fresh coffee, among other things.Once again, truth is stranger than fiction. I don't think Tucker knew how bizarre things can get working at an espresso shop, but he may now be more seriously considering that teaching certificate he's been putting off. Maybe better to use that math degree than deal with the fringe element of caffeine junkies.

Tucker thought it was a bit odd—and disgusting, too—when a customer vomited on one of the tables. Although bartenders and school-bus drivers sometimes have to deal with that sort of thing, cleaning up vomit is a rarer event in an espresso shop. But sometimes there are other kinds of messes to clean up, too. Had he been thinking clearly, Tucker might have taken the customer's question as a signal to walk out the back door and never look back. "Was there a dog in here?" should have been taken as an omen, and maybe next time he'll know better. The question, combined with an odor that smelled nothing like coffee was due, as it turned out, to a trail of turds from the restroom all the way to the front door of the shop. There hadn't been any dogs in the shop. There had, however, been a noticeably odd man using the restroom.

I'll leave it to your imagination to sort out the details required to make such a situation possible. Whether this event was the result of accident or deliberation is unknown, but either way the result was the same from Tucker's point of view. Most espresso shops are ill-equipped to deal with this sort of situation; a pooper scooper probably isn't an item one would expect to find among the tools of this particular trade.

Anyway, I think there's a lesson here for us all, and a warning. If you walk into a coffee shop and wonder who let the dogs in, it's possible you've just blundered into the Trail of Turds Coffee Shop. Be afraid, leave quickly, and above all, don't ask to use the restroom.


Distress Signals

Pretend it's a flag, k?I just realized the Omegaword blog is missing a crucial item: a flag. Why, you may be asking yourself, does a blog need a flag? Well, during times of distress a flag can be hung upside down, which is what I would be doing today.

SPF records, SMTP greetings, DNS servers, TCP connections, UDP connections, SOA minimum TTL values . . . oh crud, it looks like it's going to be one of those days.

Since I don't have a flag, I think I'll just hang my blog upside down, instead.


Life in Real Time

Life in the slow laneI was just reading one of Steve Outing's Stop the Presses columns at Editor & Publisher. It's called Where News Consumption Is Heading, and as you might expect, it's aimed at those in the newspaper industry. But it contains some interesting opinions about future technology trends—not too far in the future, really—in the general context of communication, and that's what caught my attention.

In sharp contrast to the over-50 demographic—the primary audience when it comes to print newspapers, according to Steve—the more recent generations seem generally ambivalent toward print media. This isn't surprising, because the young and restless require equally young and restless products that go where they go, when they go—which is, of course, everywhere, all the time. A printed newspaper is the very antithesis of high-speed, wireless digital communication; it doesn't deliver anything in real time, it won't fit in the pocket of your jeans, and in the view of teenagers at least, contains little or nothing of value. As Steve implies, it's best to forget the possibility altogether, and move on to the next idea.

If there are any folks in the newspaper industry who have notions still that they'll adapt the print product to attract some of my daughter's generation, or those in their 20s, and probably 30s, too, I'd say your chances for success are practically nil. As a long-time newspaper guy, I think the chances of my two daughters reading a print edition as they grow older are close to zero.

I'd say the chances of my similarly-aged daughter making the transition to paper are equally remote. I'm not in that over-50 demographic just yet, but it's imminent; I can feel the wind already. But just because this repulsive event is going to slap me upside the head momentarily doesn't mean I'm going to abandon my beloved Google News, or any of my other online news sources for that matter. I pick up The Times once or twice a week at the coffee shop, and I enjoy the ritual.

But much as I like the newspaper, I don't need it. The headlines are stale, so I'm being entertained more than informed. It seems like cheap entertainment, too, until you stop to think about where all that paper is coming from, and where it's going. We really need to stop doing things this way.

Here, Steve quotes Brad Feld—evidently a venture capitalist who focuses on digital media—responding to the what's it going to look like in 5-10 years? question.

"Ten years from now," he says, "virtually all news in the US will be online -- physical newspapers and magazines will feel like an archaic relic of the past. We are now within five years of a tectonic shift to frictionless and ubiquitous online media. The pervasiveness of broadband and mobile infrastructure and the merging of distribution platforms to endpoint devices -- along with radically improved and increasingly inexpensive video displays -- are at the core of this. In addition, an entirely new generation of Americans who are now less than 20 years old will have had computers as their primary information medium for their entire lives.

While this viewpoint may already seem a bit dated to those of us accustomed to getting our news and other information via the Net—not to mention using it, perhaps, as our primary communication medium—the reference to inexpensive video displays brings up an interesting point. Speaking strictly for myself, two of the most positive aspects of paper have always been ease of transport, and expendability. Newspapers, magazines, and yes, even books are so very easy to take into the bathroom without undue worry over their condition afterward. A video display, on the other hand, is more valuable. Although I know folks who take their laptops literally everywhere, and am aware of small LCD panels permanently installed in some people's bathrooms, neither practice is ubiquitous. But as costs plummet, it seems reasonable that their light weight and modest dimensions will make them ideal for distributing the news to every imaginable corner. And at some point, entire walls—houses as well as corporate enclaves—may be constructed of liquid crystals or whatever takes their place, simply because the cost of such materials will no longer enter the equation.

But I digress. Really, the point is immersion. In the context of news and how it's distributed, the old concept of delivery to a particular point is as outdated as the idea of calling a particular location on the phone. We don't call places anymore; we call people. In a similar way, technology now encourages the distribution of news not only in real time, but to a virtually unlimited number of points at once. The two-way character of the new media further demolishes the value of the old. A one-way communication medium that just sits there, incommunicado? Maybe we'll all go back to letters in the mailbox, and film cameras, too.

In fact, one Robin Sloan, also quoted in Steve's article, even questions the survival of the word news. Maybe we just want to know what's going on out there, really. That's life, right?

"I think 'news' just becomes a less distinct category. You don't sit down with a newspaper, or even a news website, or even a super wireless e-paper device, for 10 minutes in the morning to very formally 'get your news.' Rather, you get all sorts of news and information -- from the personal to the professional to the political -- throughout the day, in little bits and bursts, via many different media. With any luck, in 5-10 years the word 'news' will be sort of confusing: Don't you just mean 'life'?"


A Rant

No toy, this . . .It's true. I spend an inordinate amount of time staring at computer screens, and it's been that way for at least 20 years. On its face, the insinuation seems harmless enough, and the facts support it. What bothers me isn't the statement about how I spend my time; what bothers me is the distorted view of the activity that's taking place. If I were spending all my time playing games, hanging out in chat rooms, or downloading MP3 tracks, I might agree with my accusers. But my computers have always been, to me, information appliances used to feed my head, and to communicate. They're tools, not toys.

The way I see it, I wouldn't be getting this kind of flak if I were, say, making furniture on a lathe. "Jeff spends far too much time at that lathe" isn't a phrase I would be likely to hear. If I were using a GPS receiver for surveying, I doubt I'd hear people say, "Jeff spends far too much time with that GPS receiver." Building houses? Same thing. "Jeff spends way too much time with that circular saw." I don't think so. I could go on, but you get the idea. My computer is a tool, and although it's certainly possible to spend too much time with one's tools, I just don't believe I'd be hearing about it if the tool were anything but a computer.

Admittedly, the situation has improved somewhat over the years. Computers aren't the novelty items they once were, so I have more company now. And I'm sure a big part of the problem has to do with statistical averages. After all, people do use their computers for a variety of pursuits that have nothing to do with gathering knowledge, especially when they aren't at work. I see this as a good thing. Computers can be used for an impressive variety of things, and besides, all work and no play makes Jack fall off the beanstalk. Or words to that effect.

Nevertheless, it would be gratifying if, every once in a while, my accusers would stop and think for a moment about what might really be going on here. It would be grand if, now and then, someone would separate the activity from the object used to accomplish it. Just an idea.


The Selective Dragon

My dragonAt this point, I can say without reservation that speech recognition is my friend. I've been experimenting with the Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 software since the end of December, and during that time it's gone from curiosity to indispensable communication tool. If, as has been suggested, version 9 has achieved significant improvements in recognition—and also requires little or no training—anyone using the current version is undoubtedly happier still. It seems the days of the keyboard as input device are indeed numbered. If the built-in speech-recognition capabilities of Vista live up to expectations, I think speech input will become more the rule than the exception within the next couple years or so. Not that users of the various non-Windows platforms will be left out in the cold; I don't have a Mac or run Linux, or Unix, but those platforms are likely to offer equal—if not better—capabilities. And as speech recognition increasingly finds its way into handheld devices, all the old problems associated with using fingers for computer input will simply go away. At least that's the theory.

Although I wasn't expecting the 99% accuracy reported by those using a high-quality headset under optimal conditions, I have, in fact, been able to achieve that level of performance using my handheld digital voice recorder setup. I can't say this level of accuracy is the rule, but it isn't the exception, either. Since I so often dictate while driving—frequently with a partially open window and the heater fan set on high—it isn't reasonable to expect stellar results. However, a quiet room and some care with enunciation almost always brings happiness. In other words, I don't believe using this voice recorder in place of a headset is necessarily the inferior solution some reviewers have indicated. While I'm sure it's possible to obtain unacceptable results using certain voice recorders, I'm equally certain that similarly disappointing results can be obtained with certain headsets, sound cards that are simply too noisy to be useful for speech-recognition applications, inadequate training, or a roomful of racket.

One thing I've noticed is that the Dragon ignores certain kinds of background noise; just because there's something loud and objectionable in the audio doesn't necessarily mean it will foul up the transcription. For example, an ambulance siren coming through an open window while driving recently was completely ignored; it had no effect on the transcription process. While a quiet environment dramatically improves recognition accuracy, steady "masking" sounds—things like fans, background music, and other voices—are a bigger problem than the occasional intruding audio event. An emergency siren, I suppose, has so little in common with the human voice that the speech-recognition system makes no attempt to extract language from it. Coughing, on the other hand, almost always results in a comical translation.

I've noticed, too, that it isn't unusual to see the same word misinterpreted at the beginning of a paragraph, then correctly identified later in the same paragraph. This may be the result of variations in context—some sentences are easier to parse for intended meaning—or changes in my enunciation, and possibly a combination of the two. A recent Dragon transcription initially rendered the word rum as ROM, but subsequently identified the word as I had intended it less than a dozen lines later, on the same page. In this situation, it's a mistake to correct the initial error; the fact it correctly translated the word on subsequent attempts points to a different kind of problem. The Dragon also seems to favor technical, business, and generally professional terminology when it's struggling to understand a word or phrase; this is probably a reflection of its lineage as a popular professional tool.

I'm beginning to get the hang of speaking as an alternative to typing, although I think I'll always have a preference for the latter. It just isn't the same mental exercise, no matter how much I try to convince myself otherwise. Still, it's hard to argue with the utility of, in effect, writing while driving, or when it's otherwise impossible—or just inconvenient—to type. It's an extension, and I'm not sure it will ever really be a substitute, except through dire necessity, maybe. Verbally commanding a computer to perform a task is one thing, but verbal writing is something else altogether. To my particular brain, anyway.


Don't Answer That

Hello, Hal. It's been a while.

By now, you've probably run across several news blurbs—and many, many blog posts—concerning a new security vulnerability in the latest Windows incarnation. By exploiting Vista's imbedded speech-recognition system, it seems, a hacker can gain control over your computer simply by speaking to it.

Hacker: "Computer?"
Computer: "Ready."
Hacker: "Open the pod bay doors, please."
Computer: "I'm sorry, Dave. I can't do that."
Hacker: "My name is Adolph."
Computer: "Administrator confirmed."
Hacker: "Format, si?"
Computer: "Executing."
Hacker: "Play me Dr. Memory."
Computer: "My mind is going. I can feel it . . ."
Hacker: "You're half crazy?"
Computer: ". . . Daisy . . . Daisy . . . give me your . . . answer . . . do . . ."
Hacker: "BIOS access."
Computer: "1001010011100110101111010101101."
Hacker: "Excellent."

Of course, it's only a matter of time before Microsoft releases a patch for this pesky problem. After that, more advanced methods will be required.

Hacker: "Computer?"
Computer: "Ready."
Hacker: "The following statement is true."
Computer: "Ready."
Hacker: "The previous statement was false."
Computer: ". . . Daisy . . . Daisy . . ."
Hacker: "Excellent."