November 2004

RFID Everywhere? Think again.

by on November 24, 2004

Many otherwise nice people are dizzy about RFID, which, they think, will see worldwide pervasiveness in the all-too-near future. Think again.

In a unique essay about the real world, Larry Shutzberg of Rock-Tenn Co. (consumer packaging, promotional displays, and recycled paperboard) notes that the costs of RFID include “tags, readers, printers, middleware, infrastructure, consulting, R & D, system changes, implementation, training, change management, and service provider fees.”

So just settle down, people: ubiquitous RFID will only follow ubiquitous funds to put it there, which is quite a long way off.

Last week, I posted a comment on the Monday Night Football/Desperate Housewives tempest, arguing that rather than have the FCC censor broadcasts, Americans should tune out offensive material the old fashioned way, with our thumbs on the remote control.

The post garnered a sprited dissent from a reader who argued that because broadcasting is so pervasive, viewers don’t really have a choice. I suggested that he should get out of the house more. Uh oh. The reader really launched on me after that one, writing:

“Yeah, you’ve got a point James. Let’s let all the shit in the world over the public airwaves. Hardcore porn in primetime. Anybody who doesn’t like it doesn’t have to own a tv. Or go to stores with tv’s. Or own cars with radios. Or let your kids have friends with either. How about a little full frontal nudity on the nightly news? It’s my fault for watching tv at all. “Get out more?” You’re basically telling me that it’s a parent’s responsibility to shield their kids from anything they don’t want them to see, but the only way to do that is to become Amish. Tell me, do you support having ANY decency standards on tv or radio at all? If so, what is that line?”

Wow. I really got him mad, which is probably my fault for being so flip. (And it’s not like we have so many readers here we can afford to offend any of them!) And he does raise points which deserve an answer.

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Information wants to be free, and thanks to the decision of a federal court, online real estate listings will be unencumbered by California licensing requirements. Congratulations to the Institute for Justice, who represented ForSaleByOwner.com, a company that runs a classified advertising website that allows individuals to buy and sell homes. California’s demand that websites obtain a real estate broker’s license to publish real estate advertising and information was held a violation of the First Amendment. California law exempted newspapers, and the California Department of Real Estate argued that a listing in a newspaper is somehow different than on a website – the court labeled this as “wholly arbitrary.”

This case exemplifies the disparities in laws that favor brick-and-mortar companies over e-commerce. I wrote this NRO article about a similarly situated company in New York City that provides online real estate listings. LaLa Wang, owner of MLX.com, ran into the powerful New York state regulators (who are just as bad as their California brethren) and against a bad license requirement to be an apartment information vendor. The circa-1974 law requires anyone providing real estate rental or sale information to save paper copies of transactions and correspondence – not particularly applicable to a 24/7 website. This open letter to the NY Secretary of State on her behalf was a principled gesture from which I received no response.

So you want to know what all the cool kids (read as content pirates) are up to these days?

There’s a new Java BitTorrent client called Azureus that supports plugins. Some enterprising fellow wrote an RSS parsing plugin, which enables a user to point the application to an RSS feed and download anything that matches specified filter settings.

In practice, this allows the user to automatically download HDTV television programs with the commercials already edited out.

This is particularly interesting for a number of reasons:

  1. Most people’s computer monitors are capable of displaying an image of significantly higher resolution than their television. I don’t own an HDTV, but my LCD computer monitor can handle 720p without breaking a sweat.
  2. You don’t even have to bother fast-forwarding through commercials. TiVo is so 2003.
  3. The HDTV files you download are even better than the DVD content you would get if you bought the complete season of your favorite program.
  4. Programs turn up on the feeds much quicker than you would expect, often within an hour of the time the broadcast aired.

There are already enough HDTV capture cards out there to keep this going until television becomes completely irrelevant, so the broadcast flag isn’t going to mean jack. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how the networks try to fight this one.

Rather Out

by on November 23, 2004

Dan Rather has just announced that he will retire from his CBS anchor position in March of next year. At least that’s what’s being reported. However, I hear the resignation letter was typed in courier font, and is still being examined by specialists.

No word on what either of the remaining CBS News viewers will do now.

“Stealing” Wi-Fi

by on November 23, 2004 · 2 comments

A recent Slate article goes over the ins and outs of “stealing” your neighbors’ Internet connection via wi-fi:

Every techie I know says that you shouldn’t use other people’s networks without permission. Every techie I know does it anyway. If you’re going to steal–no, let’s say borrow–your neighbor’s Wi-Fi access, you might as well do it right. Step one: Lose the guilt. The FCC told me that they don’t know of any federal or state laws that make it illegal to log on to an open network. Using someone’s connection to check your e-mail isn’t like hacking into their bank account. It’s more like you’re borrowing a cup of sugar.

This techie doesn’t say that you shouldn’t use other people’s networks without permission. In fact, I deliberately leave my wi-fi network unprotected, in case my neighbors have problems with their service and need a backup. They also have wi-fi, and do the same. I have no idea if they’re doing it on purpose or don’t know any better, but in either event my mooching doesn’t seem to have bothered them.

Technically speaking, you probably are violating your ISP’s terms of service by “sharing” your connection. But those provisions are vague enough, (and, if interpreted literally, silly enough) that I don’t have any real qualms about ignoring them. It doesn’t cost them appreciably more to occasionally carry traffic from my neighbors, and the benefit of having a backup Internet connection in a pinch is substantial.

My geeky ex-co-workers would kill me for saying this, but I really don’t think it’s a big deal from a security standpoint. Yes, if you happen to have a determined hacker next door to you, opening your wireless network makes his job easier. But the fact is that there are only a few thousand determined hackers in the country. My chances of landing one of them as a neighbor is remote. And besides, being my neighbor would make them pretty easy to catch if they did something illegal with my connection.

Assuming you don’t have a determined hacker next door, locking your computer down isn’t that difficult. Turn off services you don’t need, like file sharing. If you must use a local network service, make sure you pick a decent password for it. And never send personal information like credit cards via email or over other non-encrypted channels. Really, you should be taking all those steps whether you’re leaving your wi-fi network or not– the unencrypted Internet is inherently secure, and you should assume any open service could be hacked and any data sent in the clear could be snooped.

So I say: share and share alike. Let your neighbors use your wi-fi service, and go ahead and use theirs. Information, after all, wants to be free.

HT: J. Lo.

The puritans over at the Parents Television Council are at it again. They have issued a new report entitled “Basic Cable Awash in Raunch” which documents what they believe to be immoral language or behavior on basic cable. They want the government to start regulating “indecency” on basic cable, or at least force cable operators to just sell subscribers they few stations they want.

I’ve addressed the problems with such “a la carte” regulatory schemes elsewhere, so I won’t discuss that again. Rather, I want to specifically address the question of whether the government has any business regulating cable television, a subscription-based service. The PTC thinks so, of course, arguing that: “Children are watching these programs and are being exposed to content that is far more explicit and potentially far more damaging than what they are seeing on broadcast television.”

But why are they letting their children watch these programs if they find them so offensive? Oh, wait, I get it… They’re saying OTHER PEOPLE’S children might be watching these shows, and for God’s sake–and they do mean GOD’S SAKE–we can’t possible let other people’s kids watch these shows, right? We have to make these decisions for all the stupid parents out there who might not understand the ungodly nature of this programming. Parents are just stupid, stupid, stupid! They’re not doing their job! The Almighty State must do their job for them and censor basic cable!

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Those readers who know me could tell you I’m a calm, gentle sort. I’m fond of gardening, meditation, and fish tanks. But this one has got me mad. I speak of the German court ruling that professional ebay sellers must allow returns. Pile taxes on my phone bills or regulate television programming or some other old-school tech if you absolutely cannot help yourselves, but don’t mess with my bargain hunting! Ebay is the triumphant, splendid return of caveat emptor and for all the occasional disappointment (fabric interfacing that smelled!) has saved me hundreds of dollars (my most recent triumph being waterproof Teva hiking shoes). When I’m having a bad day, I sometimes just go and read my feedback to cheer up.

There’s so many new blogs out there, and TLF’s market share is so low as it is, that I’m always hesitant to plug new blogs here. Yet I’ll make an exception for one just started by my colleague here at The Heritage Foundation, Mark Tapscott, who directs Heritage’s Center for Media and Public Policy. His just-launched blog is called “Tapscott’s Copy Desk” and is worth a look. Among recent entries, a discussion of whether bloggers are the dominant media today
and a (perhaps too hopeful) post asking if bloggers can do for (to?) the government what they’ve done for the mainstream media.

Sen. Brownback is on a crusade to rid the ‘Net of pornography. According to this article, members of a panel organized by Brownback compare pornography addiction to heroin or crack. As Reason Magazine Senior Editor Jacob Sullum has pointed out in his book Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use and elsewhere such comparisons are geared to to instill fear about one thing by comparing it to something the reader already believes is extremely harmful, thereby obviating the need to prove that the first thing is harmful.

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