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Sunday, August 28, 2005

I took some time out this weekend to upgrade Movable Type to the newly released 3.2 version. Despite appearing to be a small number increase in versions, it actually contains a huge amount of enhancements and new functionality, much of it focusing on combating spam.

Not so long ago, I took some measures to deal with comment spam, but trackback spam almost immediately picked up and the options for dealing with trackback spam were, at the time, very limited. For those unaware of the concept, the trackback system is a way for a website (it was designed for blogs, but could be applied to any website) to list out other websites that link to the first website. This is accomplished by allowing people to "ping" an entry, thereby alerting that blog that someone has linked to that entry. The site receiving the ping typically displays the trackback information (typically including a title, a link, and a short excerpt) below the entry. It's an open system, meaning that anyone can ping any site they want, even if they haven't linked to that site. And that's why the spammers love it.

After getting hit by a few hundred spam trackbacks one week, I decided to completely disable trackbacks on my blog, but I found that my options were limited. There was no easy way to do so, though I did eventually find a way that was easier than going back to every entry and disabling it manually. Then Six Apart announced that they were working on the 3.2 release and that it would include all sorts of ways to deal with trackback spam. For one, they've included a quick and easy way to disable all trackbacks (without having to resort to fiddling with the database directly), but they've also included some interesting spam filters which appear to be working well.

It seems to be working well so far, but I'm still considering whether or not to keep trackbacks. Aside from the spam, there are a lot of other issues with it. It's not like everyone uses it. In the past few years, I've been linked by other blogs many times, but I've only gotten something like 5-10 trackbacks (and I lost several when I upgraded my database). But the whole experience has got me thinking about open systems and the potential for abuse. On the internet, it seems like such systems are almost always ruined by spam. It would be a shame if a service like del.icio.us were ruined by spam, but at least it isn't quite as open to blatant abuse as trackbacks were, so perhaps there's a chance.
Posted by Mark on August 28, 2005 at 06:58 PM .: link :.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Mastery II
I'm currently reading Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky. It's an interesting novel, and there are elements of the story that resemble Vinge's singularity. (Potential spoilers ahead) The story concerns two competing civilizations that travel to an alien planet. Naturally, there are confrontations and betrayals, and we learn that one of the civilizations utilizes a process to "Focus" an individual on a single area of study, essentially turning them into a brilliant machine. Naturally, there is a lot of debate about the Focused, and in doing so, one of the characters describes it like this:
... you know about really creative people, the artists who end up in your history books? As often as not, they're some poor dweeb who doesn't have a life. He or she is just totally fixated on learning everything about some single topic. A sane person couldn't justify losing friends and family to concentrate so hard. Of course, the payoff is that the dweeb may find things or make things that are totally unexpected. See, in that way, a little of Focus has always been part of the human race. We Emergents have simply institutionalized this sacrifice so the whole community can benefit in a concentrated, organized way.
Debate revolves around this concept because people living in this Focused state could essentially be seen as slaves. However, the quote above reminded me of a post I wrote a while ago called Mastery:
There is an old saying "Jack of all trades, Master of none." This is indeed true, though with the demands of modern life, we are all expected to live in a constant state of partial attention and must resort to drastic measures like Self-Censorship or information filtering to deal with it all. This leads to an interesting corollary for the Master of a trade: They don't know how to do anything else!
In that post, I quoted Isaac Asimov, who laments that he's clueless when it comes to cars, and relates a funny story about what happened when he once got a flat tire. I wondered if that sort of mastery was really a worthwhile goal, but the artificually induced Focus in Vinge's novel opens the floor up to several questions. Would you volunteer to be focused in a specific area of study, knowing that you would basically do that and only that? No family, no friends, but only because you are so focused on your studies (as portrayed in the novel, doing work in your field is what makes you happy). What if you could opt to be focused for a limited period of time?

There are a ton of moral and ethical questions about the practice, and as portrayed in the book, it's not a perfect process and may not be reversible (at least, not without damage). The rewards would be great - Focusing sounds like a truly astounding feat. But would it really be worth it? As portrayed in the book, it definitely would not, as those wielding the power aren't very pleasant. Because the Focused are so busy concentrating on their area of study, they become completely dependent on the non-Focused to guide them (it's possible for a Focused person to become too-obsessed with a problem, to the point where physical harm or even death can occur) and do everything else for them (i.e. feed them, clean them, etc...) Again, in the book, those who are guiding the Focused are ruthless exploiters. However, if you had a non-Focused guide who you trusted, would you consider it?

I still don't know that I would. While the results would surely be high quality, the potential for abuse is astounding, even when it's someone you trust that is pulling the strings. Nothing says they'll stay trustworthy, and it's quite possible that they could be replaced in some way by someone less trustworthy. If the process was softened to the point where the Focused retains at least some control over their focus (including the ability to go in and out), then this would probably be a more viable option. Fortunately, I don't see this sort of thing happening in the way proposed by the book, but other scenarios present interesting dilemmas as well...
Posted by Mark on August 21, 2005 at 09:25 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Encrypted Confessions
Bruce Schneier points to an AP story about a convicted child-molester and suspected murderer who used cryptography to secure his tell-all diary:
Joseph Duncan III is a computer expert who bragged online, days before authorities believe he killed three people in Idaho, about a tell-all journal that would not be accessed for decades, authorities say.

Duncan, 42, a convicted sex offender, figured technology would catch up in 30 years, "and then the world will know who I really was, and what I really did, and what I really thought," he wrote May 13.
Schneier points out that such cases are often used by the government to illustrate the dangers of allowing regular people to encrypt data. "How can we allow people to use strong encryption, they ask, if it means not being able to convict monsters like Duncan?"

Schneier does a good job pointing out a few reasons why, but he dances around one of the most obvious: If Duncan thought the diary would be readable now, he never would have written it. His goal was a delayed release. He wanted to wait 30 years before the details of his confession were known. I guess it was an attempt to secure some sort of perverted legacy. But he never would have done so if he thought it would be released now (and used against him).

Encryption didn't allow him to commit the crimes, nor did it allow him to cover up the crime, as the data was encrypted under the assumption that it could not be broken for 30 years (which seems to be to be an unwise assumption, but look who we're talking about here). Indeed, since it is quite possible that the authorities will break the diary in the short term, you could even argue that encryption is actually helping the authorities prosecute the man (as he wouldn't have written the diary in the first place if he knew it would be broken so quickly). Could the fact that he knew he could encrypt a confession contribute to his motivation for the crimes? I doubt it, but stranger things have happened.

All technology is a double edged sword: they have good and bad uses and they're used by honest citizens and criminals alike. Except, as Schneier notes, the good usually outweighs the bad for almost all technologies.
Posted by Mark on August 16, 2005 at 12:25 AM .: Comments (2) | link :.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Do you believe in miracles?
Yes! Starz was showing Miracle for the bazillionth time today (not that I mind - the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team's victory over the seemingly invincible Soviets is great stuff, and Disney's film nails it), and it occurred to me that this sort of concept would make a fantastic video game.

Long time readers know that I'm a big fan of Hockey video games (despite the fact that most readers aren't, heh), and I think this idea has legs (or would have, if launched around the same time as the movie). Back in the halcyon days of NHL 94 for the Sega Genesis, all you needed for a good hockey game was some good gameplay, decent graphics, and reasonable statistics. As time has gone on, hockey games have improved along all axis, until the main area of innovation at this point are minutiae like player-specific dekes, and (more importantly) franchise or dynasty modes where you play a general manager and shepherd a team through 20 or so seasons, dealing with contracts, ticket and concession prices, drafting and developing rookies &c. This meta-game has become my favorite part of the experience, and this is where the Miracle video game would excel because it is essentially a story.

As a player, you'd be tasked with defeating the Soviet national team and you'd be given 4 years to do so. Those 4 years could be filled with any number of sub-plot like tasks. Perhaps you have to play a season in a college league, scouting out the players you want for your team U.S.A. The process of scouting players could be done through a tryout camp where players compete in scrimmages but also in the typical hockey drills (speed skating, hardest shot, accuracy, &c.) Take as long as you want to scout (and perhaps allow players to sim the scouting competitions) and cut players until you have your Olympic team. Once you build your team, you'll be able to scrimmage teams from all over the world. And so on. There's a lot of potential there for varied and interesting play, along with a significant portion of administrative tasks. All along, you'd get updates on how the Soviets are crushing their opponents. (Except, of course, for that fateful day on January 11, 1976 when the Flyers beat the crap out of the Soviets (and played some hockey too).) Getting into the social-political mood of the times might be a little much for a video game like this, but it could also lend some gravity to the proceedings.

The mechanics of gameplay are well established, and a developer like EA would simply need to leverage their already developed gameplay code (perhaps with minor alterations). Also, since we're talking about amateur players, licensing fees would be minimal. There would probably be a fair amount of visual design work needed to simulate the vintage uniforms and equipment (however, vintage uniforms are a common feature in newer video games, so that's perhaps not a big deal). The biggest challenge would be setting up the administrative challenges and making sure they're not tedious (and if they are, allowing a way to bypass certain features if you want). If done right, you could end up with a series of very fun and playable sub-games along with the traditional gameplay.

Indeed, you could extend the game to continue on past the 1980 Olympics or even apply the model to other scenarios. In the original version of SimCity, you could start a city from scratch, or you could start with an existing city that had been beset by some disaster (my favorite being the Monster Attack on Tokyo) and rebuilding it. I'm sure there are all sorts of spin-offs that could result from this sort of game. Alas, despite what looks like a compelling concept and low production cost, it was not to be. Yet!
Posted by Mark on August 14, 2005 at 07:28 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Five Years of Kaedrin Blog
Yes, you read correctly. I started this blog a little over 5 years ago. Of course, it was much different back then and there have been some periods of inactivity, but the blog in it's current form pretty much began about 2 years ago. It was about that time that I resolved to post at least once a week, a schedule I've held to pretty well and even exceeded for a while. Unfortunately, I've mostly regressed to the once a week schedule, which is part of the reason this blog has never really caught on (in terms of readers and links), though I have built up a small and loyal following (which I'm grateful for).

One thing that's become more and more prevalent here is that I'll latch onto a concept and explore it from several different angles. Over the past few years, a few thematic threads have been consistently drawn, notably including the need of moderation and tradeoffs (which is part of the reason I identify with Bruce Schneier's approach to security as a series of tradeoffs) and how self-organization can aid in information aggregation. Naturally, there are some topics (movies, in particular) which I can usually fall back on when the idea well runs dry (or when I lack the motivation to produce something more weighty). In fact, one of the things I wrote about this year was just how difficult it is to run a popular blog. Never having written for a popular blog, it's mostly speculation, but I suspect that I'd have a reaction similar to Steven Den Beste's "Screw this, I'm only going to write about Anime from now on!"

Anyway, since one of the major frustrations about running a blog is that all your hard work essentially smolders in the largely unvisible archives, here are some of the best entries from the past year (all of my best entries from the past 5 years are collected here, and of course the archives are also worth pursuing as well if you really enjoy what you read): It's been a reasonably good year, though I feel like the good content has been declining a bit recently. Motivation isn't especially high lately either, but blogging is all about ups and downs, so I expect to come out of this soon. In the meantime, feel free to peruse the archives and let me know if I missed anything...
Posted by Mark on August 07, 2005 at 08:54 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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