30 June 2003

Is Google God?

Thomas Friedman's rhetorical effusion in his latest column on Google is another illustrative instance of mainstream reporters who just don't get the internet. Brushing aside the factual errors, his pointless diatribe is still full of logical holes. He's won multiple pulitzer prizes, yet I must regard any of his written words with suspicion, as when he writes on any subject that I am intimately familiar with, he appears to be nothing more than a clueless, ill informed hack.
Says Alan Cohen, a V.P. of Airespace, a new Wi-Fi provider: "If I can operate Google, I can find anything. And with wireless, it means I will be able to find anything, anywhere, anytime. Which is why I say that Google, combined with Wi-Fi, is a little bit like God. God is wireless, God is everywhere and God sees and knows everything. Throughout history, people connected to God without wires. Now, for many questions in the world, you ask Google, and increasingly, you can do it without wires, too."

Um, no. The power of Google still a minor blot compared to your local library. Content in Google is ephemeral - it disappears after a relatively short duration. Even the massive server farms of the great Google cannot catalog the explosion of web domains fast enough. But even if they did, the historical record derived from the net is purged regularly, and even for major newspapers and news services, only the past few weeks content is available. Perhaps you can go back to the mid 1990s, but be prepared to fork over your credit card at $3 per article (NY Times archive cost). Contrast that to your local library where you can travel to any point in time, view and print an article after locating it via a annotated index. Not to mention the exhaustive research resources, that are nowhere to be found online. Google has got a ways to go before you can "find everything".
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27 June 2003

RFID Chips Are Here

Bar codes are going out and RFID chips are in. Tiny chips that can act as transponders (transmitter/responders) that can brodcast a unique ID number back to a transreceiver. Typically, the distance is limited to several feet but increasing the range is possible with a more sensitive RFID receiver.

A Security Focus column by Scott Granneman details how our privacy is at stake with the embedding of these microchips into virtually any physical object.

Michelin, which manufactures 800,000 tires a day, is going to insert RFID tags into its tires. The tag will store a unique number for each tire, a number that will be associated with the car's VIN (Vehicle Identification Number). Good for Michelin, and car manufacturers, and fighting crime. Potentially bad for you. Who will assure your privacy? Do you really want your car's tires broadcasting your every move?

The European Central Bank may embed RFID chips in the euro note. Ostensibly to combat counterfeiters and money-launderers, it would also enable banks to count large amounts of cash in seconds. Unfortunately, such a move would also makes it possible for governments to track the passage of cash from individual to individual. Cash is the last truly anonymous way to buy and sell. With RFID tags, that anonymity would be gone. In addition, banks would not be the only ones who could in an instant divine how much cash you were carrying; criminals can also obtain power transceivers.

But let's not stop there. Others are talking about placing RFID tags into all sensitive or important documents: "it will be practical to put them not only in paper money, but in drivers' licenses, passports, stock certificates, manuscripts, university diplomas, medical degrees and licenses, birth certificates, and any other sort of document you can think of where authenticity is paramount." In other words, those documents you're required to have, that you can't live without, will be forever tagged.

Consider the human body as well. Applied Digital Solutions has designed an RFID tag - called the VeriChip - for people. Only 11 mm long, it is designed to go under the skin, where it can be read from four feet away. They sell it as a great way to keep track of children, Alzheimer's patients in danger of wandering, and anyone else with a medical disability, but it gives me the creeps. The possibilities are scary. In May, delegates to the Chinese Communist Party Congress were required to wear an RFID-equipped badge at all times so their movements could be tracked and recorded. Is there any doubt that, in a few years, those badges will be replaced by VeriChip-like devices?

Scary stuff, eh? Soon, all of those employee badges that get you through the doors of your work site will have these smart chips in them. If only Orwell were alive to see that his '1984' world wasn't even as totalitarian as what is now becoming.

20 June 2003

GIF Liberation Day

Today US Patent 4,558,302 expires. It is the patent for the LZW compression algorithm used in .gif files, held by Unisys. There are two main types of image files on the web - .jpg (or .jpeg) typically used for photos and .gif which is still heavily used because of it works better for graphics, can do transparency, and supports animation. There is another format, .png, which can do all that .gif can do and accomplish it much more efficiently (smaller file sizes), but the big hangup with its acceptance is that the popular web browsers of the day don't support all of .png features. Microsoft Internet Explorer, which is used by a majority of net travelers does not properly support even the transparency features of .png. The cash cow for Unisys is about empty. Though I'm not sure what the status is in other countries that uphold software patents.

I still find it incredulous that an entity could claim a trademark on an algorithm. It's like someone saying you can't use the pythagorean theorem or that pi is protected and everytime you use a practical application of a mathematical truth, you are compelled to pay a royalty to the owner of that mathematical "algorithm".