Thursday, October 20, 2005



A story on the10th anniversaryof the O.J. Simpson verdict notes his recent plans:

Last year, on the 10th anniversary of the murders, he told Fox News that he was about to re-enter public life with a TV show in which he would pull practical jokes on unsuspecting victims. On a scale of one to 10,"it's 7 or 8 that it's gonna happen,"he said. It never happened.

I haven't seen much reality TV sinceMarried by Americaperfected the form, but I'd watch an alleged double murderer being sprung on unsuspecting prank victims. O.J. would be the newAllen Funt, who had to go off-camera towards the end of hisCandid Cameradays because he was scaring the hell out of people.

IfJuic'dbecame a hit, think of the copycats it would spawn: Kobe Bryant runs a rape crisis hotline! Roman Polanski teaches junior high girl's soccer! John Bolton serves as U.N. ambassador!

Hysteria is Contagious
An article on the 50-year effort by scientists torevive the 1918 Spanish flu virusreads like a Michael Crichton novel:

He chose three villages in the permafrost zone -- where the ground never thaws -- that had mass graves containing corpses from an epidemic that sounded like influenza.

The young graduate student surveyed the sites, all on the Seward Peninsula, which stretches westward into the Bering Sea. Of the three, a place called Teller Mission looked promising. Seventy-two of the 80 residents of Teller Mission died between Nov. 15 and 20, 1918.

Hultin went to the village, whose name has since been changed to Brevig Mission, and requested permission to excavate the grave. Through a translator, he emphasized the benefit of making a vaccine. The villagers had been vaccinated against smallpox, so they knew what he was talking about. At the meeting were three of the eight survivors from 1918.

Columnist Charles Krauthammer believes it'smore of a Steven King:

We have brought back to life an agent of near-biblical destruction. It killed more people in six months than were killed in the four years of World War I. It killed more humans than any other disease of similar duration in the history of the world, says Alfred W. Crosby, who wrote a history of the 1918 pandemic. And, notesNew Scientistmagazine, when the re-created virus was given to mice in heavily quarantined laboratories in Atlanta, it killed the mice more quickly than any other flu virus ever tested.

Though he citesNew Scientist, Krauthammer omits a few facts from the magazine'sflu coveragethat are worth considering before completely losing your shit, as doRay Kurzweil and Bill Joy, who call this flu's published genome a"recipe for disaster."

The laws of probability suggest that if Earth sticks around long enough, scientists will eventually stumble upon a discovery that wipes out humankind and gives the rest of the universe one less thing to worry about. That's why we must colonize other planets as soon as possible. Our genes need places to store backups.

But I'm not ready to hit the panic button about the return of the killer of 1918. Most people have been exposed to milder descendants of that flu or vaccinated against them, both of which provide natural protection. Existing antiviral drugs also are likely to offer resistance.

The more pressing concern is the next pandemic flu, which hasn't been filtered through survivors and weakened by the collective might of antibodies and evolution. Learning from the publication of the Spanish flu's genome also may enable researchers to devise an effective response to the next killer flu or biological terror attack.

Besides, if hiding information from bad, bad people is Earth's best hope, we might as well max out the credit cards and stock up on beer, medicinal marijuana, and fatty foods, because we're screwed. As technologists like Kurzweil and Joy must realize, security through obscurity never works.


In a story that will not become an inspirational ESPN movie starring Gene Hackman, a Florida high school hasdropped its football programmidseason after losing its first six games by a combined score of 299-0. The Doral Academy Firebirds, who returned13 startersfrom last year's 0-11 team, still had thetoughest part of the scheduleto come. During the first six games of this season, they lost 29 out of 45 players with season-ending injuries to their pride.

This is Anna Badkhen

The most compelling stories from a newspaper reporter in Iraq are being penned byAnna Badkhen, a 29-year-old foreign correspondent for theSan Francisco Chronicle. She frequently writes stories that bring first-hand accounts from frontline soldiers home, such as her article this morning of aMarine platoon outside Sada, a town near the Syrian border that's one of five controlled by insurgents:

The mortar rounds hit in the early morning. The first one, a harbinger of the assault to come, whooshed up from the sleepy border town of Sada at around 5:30 a.m. Friday, landing in a burst of sparks several hundred yards short of the sandstone cliffs where U.S. Marines were camped out.

The shell's trajectory left a momentary orange trace in the predawn sky, but the impact was almost inaudible, and most of the Marines slept right through it, wrapped in their sleeping bags in the foxholes they had dug in the hard-packed desert dust.

The second round landed closer ...

Badkhen has a novelist's ear for dialogue, relating Thursday how desert-encamped Marinesmake their beds:

"It's like digging a grave,"he says."I'll lay in my little grave, I'll put my sleeping bag on top of me, and I'll be warm. I've found out that the deeper you dig, the warmer it gets."

"Last time we were out,"he continued,"the first day, I dug like a champion. The second day, I didn't dig deep enough, and I was cold."

TheChroniclethinks so much of Badkhen's work that it sent her from one warzone to another, assigning her to theaftermath of Hurricane Katrinain New Orleans.

Badkhen, who publishes anonline journalfor the paper, described herself asanti-warin a 2003 interview. Before bias monitors make too much of that, it appears to be an apolitical expression of sympathy for civilians caught in a warzone:

I don't like wars. I think wars are bad. I see a lot of people suffer ... If one government doesn't like the other government and they go to war, or if one regime doesn't like the separatists, and they go to war, then the people who suffer are not just the government and the separatists. The people who suffer are the people in between, just people who are living their lives. I'm on their side.

Another blogger hasdiscovered Badkhen, complimenting her ability to note things that"snottier, glitzier reporters don't."

The more I read of her work, the more it feels like the nextPulitzer Prize for International Reporting.

Throw the Book at Google
Jim Minatel, an acquisitions editor at Wiley for one of my books, believes that Google's plan to turn web-crawling googlebots loose on print libraries is aclear violation of copyright.

I'm not so sure.

If I had a copy of the world's most useful computer book (let's call itMovable Type 3 Bible Desktop Edition), and I made a practice of sending one page of the book to people who asked a question answered by that page, would I be violating Wiley's copyright?

Selective quotation of a book is fair use. Is repeated selective quotation of a book still fair?

There are full-text books on the web under copyright, such asLive Simpleby John December. Google did to this book what it wants to do to library books in the real world -- it grabbed copies of all the pages and will search the text in response to aquery, presenting the relevant excerpts.

As an armchair copyright lawyer, I can't figure out how it matters that Google grabbed one book with a bot and grabbed the other with a scanner. Google grabs the full text of copyrighted works all the time --56,000on this server alone. If Google Print is illegal, wouldn't Google be illegal as well?

Thank God we have wealthy corporations with high-powered intellectual property lawyers who can answer this question for us.

Losing Page Rank with Two Site URLs
I've been tracking the Google page rank of my web sites for the past year, trying to learn about effective, non-abusive techniques that improve their positions in search engines. You can really see a difference in a site's traffic when it goes up in rank.SportsFilterjumped to PR 7 in the last three months, and the site's membership is booming as a result.

A lot of publishers are losing page rank because they use two different domains -- one that begins withwwwand one that doesn't -- for the same site.

Most sites offer both forms of address to help users. For instance, you can reach the political analysis site MyDD at eithermydd.comorwww.mydd.com.

When you use two domains, pick one that's the real address and redirect the other address using an HTTP status code of"301 moved permanently,"which indicates a permanent move, rather than"302 found,"which may be temporary.

If you take another approach, Google's likely to treat them as different sites. For example, Google tracks 24,600 incoming links towww.mydd.com, giving the site PR 7, and 808 links tomydd.com, giving it PR 6.

The site's hosted with Apache, so ifmod_rewriteis installed, a two-line.htaccessfile in mydd.com's root directory will redirect requests to the real address with the proper HTTP code:

RewriteEngine on
RewriteRule ^(.*) http://www.mydd.com/$1 [R=301]

To see if your site could benefit from this technique, try both of its addresses as a Google search. If the number of results is different, Google thinks you're publishing two different sites and you're losing page rank. I know this affects all Manila-published sites, because I've experienced it atBuzzwordand am abjectly begging UserLand for a fix, and other weblogging tools as well. Among the top 10 blogs onTechnorati, onlyDooceandKottke.Orgaren't giving up some rank.

$500,000 for a Flying Fish

There may be no fat left in the federal budget, if you believe the assessment of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, but there's a lot of protein and Omega 3 fatty acids.

A non-profit in Alaska led by a Republican Congressman's son spent $500,000 in federal funds to paint an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-400 like a salmon, according to theAnchorage Daily News.

A team of 30 painters and airbrush artists used more than 140 gallons of paint and took 24 days to render the lifelike chinook -- triple the time normally needed to coat an airliner.

"There's no question, at least in my mind, that this is the finest airline art ever conceived,"said Bill MacKay, the company's Anchorage-based senior vice president."People will just be amazed at the detail."

The fishy expenditure comes from the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board, whose chairman Ben Stevens was spawned by U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. The board received $29 million in federal funding to promote Alaskan seafood.

My Reign as the King of Pings
I've been runningWeblogs.Comsince June for Dave Winer, who wanted to see if service performance could be improved as he began to receive seven-digit inquiries about selling it.

Weblogs.Com ran onFrontierfor six years from its founding in 1999, handling the load reasonably well until the number of pings topped one million per day within the last year.

In a frenzied weekend, I recoded the site as an Apache/MySQL/PHP web application running on a Linux server, writing all of the code from scratch except forXML-Simple, an XML parsing library I adapted from code byJim Winstead. Hosting was provided byServerMatrix, which charges around $80-$140/month for a dedicated server running Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3 with a 1,200-gigabyte monthly bandwidth limit.

On an average day, my application served 34.65 gigabytes of data, took 1.1 million pings and sent 11,000 downloads of changes.xml, a file larger than 1 megabyte. TheLAMP platformis ideal for running a high-demand web application for as little money as possible.

When Dave rerouted Weblogs.Com to my new server and it instantly deluged the box with more than a dozen pings per second, I felt like Lucy Ricardo pulling chocolates off the conveyer belt.

The server ran well, crashing only a few times over four months because of a spammer sending thousands of junk pings per minute. Every few days, I used theiptablesfirewall to block requests from the IP addresses of the worst abusers.

Business reporterTom Foremskiand others have suggested that the Weblogs.Com sale might reveal a lack of faith in blogging as a business.

I think the sale was motivated by the realization that the demands of running Weblogs.Com had become much too large for Dave's one-man company. He could either hire people and start pursuing revenue opportunities or sell the service.

VeriSign got a good deal acquiring it for a reported $2 million. The company's now at the center of the blogosphere, a giant web application and information network with more than 15 million users, and ought to be able to leverage those pings into new services built on XML, XML-RPC and RSS.

One thing I'd like to see is a real-time search engine built only on the last several hours of pings, which could be a terrific current news service if compiled intelligently. While I was running Weblogs.Com, I wanted to use my brief moment as the king of pings to extend the API, which VeriSign appears to beconsidering, but Dave didn't want to mess with things while companies were loading a truck with money and asking for directions to his house.

I want to pursue these ideas, either independently or in concert with VeriSign andYahoo Blo.gs. No knock intended, but big companies tend to sit on purchases like this rather than implementing new features.Bloggerstill lacks category support two years after being purchased by Google, an omission so basic you have to wonder whether it's serious about fending off competition fromSix Apart,UserLand, andWordPress.

Everyone Who Uses Must Converge
Last March, Ashley Smith was taken hostage by Brian Nichols after he shot a judge and three other people to death escaping an Atlanta courthouse. During a seven-hour ordeal, she read to him from the Bible andThe Purpose-Driven Life. He eventually let the 27-year-old woman leave and tell the police his whereabouts, surrendering peacefully.

Wall Street Journalpundit Peggy Noonan wasdeeply movedby the incident:

Ashley Smith and Brian Nichols were together for seven hours.Thisis Nichols's mug shot.Thisis Nichols's face after he gave himself up to police Saturday.

Something changed.

Something happened. ...

It is an amazing and beautiful story. And for all its unlikeliness you know it happened as Smith said. You know she told the truth. It's funny how we all know this.

Something did happen. Smith revealed a secret in hernew memoirthat she kept from police, the press, and Peggy -- during the ordeal, she gave Nichols some of hercrystal meth:

... as the night wore on -- after Nichols had snorted some of Smith's meth -- she tried to win Nichols' trust by talking about her faith in God and relating to him her personal stories. ...

She writes that she asked Nichols if he wanted to see the danger of drugs and lifted up her tank top several inches to reveal a five-inch scar down the center of her torso -- the aftermath of a car wreck caused by drug-induced psychosis. She says she let go of the steering wheel when she heard a voice saying,"Let go and let God."

In the short term,crystal methbrings reduced fatigue and adeep feelingof well-being, intelligence and power. (In the long term,not so much).

Noonan found in Nichols' transformation a redemptive Easter miracle:

This is all quite a mystery, too big to be understood, too beautiful to be ignored.

I just feel like bowing to everyone, all the victims and all the survivors, the good judge, the good guards, the good woman, the reporters, all of whom became part of something big and without borders. The only lesson is love. I feel certain this is true.

Oops.

Update: Lee Siegel, a critic for theNew Republic, questioned Smith's story from the beginning, faulting the broadcast media for spinning a fable that omitted her criminal record, the circumstances of her husband's murder and the reason she lost custody of her child.

Don't Fall for Scamazon.Com
Considering the sophistication of the scam e-mails that I've been receiving lately, there must be a huge black market in phishing, the practice of tricking people into revealing their passwords from ecommerce sites and banks.

A phony Amazon.Com e-mail I received last night is pretty convincing:

Dear Amazon member,

Due to concerns we have for the safety and integrity of the Amazon community we have issued this warning.

Per the User Agreement, Section 9, we may immediately issue a warning, temporarily suspend, indefinitely suspend or terminate your membership and refuse to provide our services to you if we believe that your actions may cause financial loss or legal liability for you, our users or us. We may also take these actions if we are unable to verify or authenticate any information you provide to us.

Please follow the link below:

[link removed]

and update your account information.

We apreciate your support and understanding, as we work together to keep Amazon market a safe place to trade.

Thank you for your attention on this serious matter.

Regards,
Amazon Safety Department

NOTE: This message was sent to you by an automated e-mail system. Please don't reply to it. Amazon treats your personal information with the utmost care, and our Privacy Policy is designed to protect you and your information.

The link had the Chinese hostname www.amazon.com.encrypted-inquiry.cn, which resolves to an IP address in Germany. Yesterday, a net abuse monitor reported on Usenet that it had a different IP address in Thailand. The site looks exactly like Amazon.Com and asks for your username, password and credit card information.

Never respond to an e-mail asking for your account or credit card information, no matter how official it looks. These are always scams, run professionally by criminals who will rapidly hit your accounts for everything they can get and are unlikely to ever be caught. Most operate outside the U.S., as this globe-trotting Chinese/German/Thai effort demonstrates.

Considering the importance of ecommerce, browser users need more help detecting these scams. I could tell that the host encrypted-inquiry.cn was suspicious because I am adomain name geek, and Amazon.Com would never use a host in China for American customers. A Microsoft program manager wasnot so lucky, falling for a similar e-mail because he had just ordered from Amazon.

The server monitoring company Netcraft offers a freeInternet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox toolbarthat warns users of known phishing sites, providing hosting information about each site you visit. When I installed it this morning, it already had the Amazon scam attempt in its database,alerting menot to visit before I loaded the page.

The toolbar displaysdetailed informationabout each site, revealing where it's hosted, what company controls the IP address, and how long it has been online. Toolbar links opendetailed reportson each site.

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