Archive for May 20th, 2005

Saddam to Sue Over Prision Photos

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We couldn’t make this stuff up…

Saddam Hussein plans to take legal
action after a British newspaper published photos of him half-naked in
his prison
cell
and doing
his washing.

"We will sue the newspaper and everyone who helped in showing these
pictures," said
Saddam Hussein’s chief lawyer Ziad Al-Khasawneh, speaking from Jordan.

The Sun newspaper said it would fight any legal action and said it planned
to publish more photos on Saturday.

from the BBC

Easy Rider, Ride On

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WASHINGTON, May 20 – Laura Bush said today that her husband should
have been interrupted on a bicycle ride last week and told that an off-course
plane had prompted a frantic evacuation of the capital. Her comments
were the first in public from the White House to question the Secret
Service’s decision to keep President Bush in the dark.

The president was not informed of the incident until 40 minutes after
the single-engine plane had been forced turn away, a decision that
gave ammunition to Mr. Bush’s critics who view him as out of touch. The
plane,
which violated the restricted air space regulations put in effect around
Washington, prompted the Secret Service to move Vice President Dick
Cheney, Mrs. Bush and Nancy Reagan, who happened to be visiting, to the
underground
complex of the White House.

Thank goodness he wasn’t informed! There’s no telling how he
might have reacted, drunk on power and flush with endorphins and adreneline.
He might have actually thought Laura and the girls were in danger and
started
issuing
bizarre,
panicky
orders to the military, declaring martial law, grounding all aircraft,
who knows,
invading
some unsuspecting small nation against which he holds a grudge, real
or imagined.

Much better to know that cooler heads were in charge, the grownups
were at home, no need to call little Georgie who’d gone out to play
with his
friend. Frankly, the danger that Geroge is going to be at home
one of these days, at a crucial moment in national
history, and convinced now that he is really in charge, scares the shit
out of us.

from the New York Times

Boston Wi-Fi Summit

7

Yesterday
was the long awaited Wi-Fi
Summit
at the Museum of Science,
an informational half-day conference organized by City
Councilor John Tobin
, the Boston Wireless
Access Group
, and local consulting company BTS
Partners
.

Boston is among a handful of American cities (and some foreign burgs as
well) considering initiatives to offer some form of city-wide wi-fi access.
The technology to do this is available today, and much of the infrastructure
is already in place. However, there are a number of important issues to
be resolved before one of these plans becomes operational: opposition from
current ISP’s and wireless phone providers, differing business models for
paying for and possibly charging for the service, which of several competing
technologies to support, and the proper role of municipal and state government
in regulating access and content.

So it was with considerable interest and some excitement that we pointed
the White Whale towards the Museum, which lies astride a bridge connecting
the cities of Boston and Cambridge.  We were a little worried about
paying for five hours of parking in the museum garage. which we remembered
as being quite dear. We we worried about our laptop, which only
had a 54% charge, and our digital camera, which was useless indoors since
the
flash died last month.  Most
of all, we were worried about our appointment at three that afternoon at
the Boston University Goldman School of Dentistry for a double extraction,
but one of our hopes for the summit was that it would keep our mind off
the looming oral surgery.

As we parked and headed inside we selected an appropriate last tune for
our iPod, and cranked up the volume for the walk into the museum: Van Morrison’s
"Wavelength". Inside, beneath the glossamer wings of the man-powered flight
exhibit, was a table with nametags for the pre-registered. For some reason,
our name was not there, but the ubiquitous and efficient Sooz was – and
she made us feel like a VIP as she ushered us upstairs to the pre-conference
breakfast
buffet.

Appropriately enough, the session was scheduled for a large conference
room right next to one of our favorite exhibitions at he Museum – Optical
Illusions.  As we drank coffee and ate a bagel, we perused the crowd
and amused ourself with optical disoreintation.

The diversity and heterogeneity of the crowd jumped out at us immediately.
There was a smattering of suits, ranging from off the rack polyester
to the tailored European models favored by jet setting entrepreneurs. A
good number of academics were in evidence, with elbow patched tweeds and
herringbones, as well as obvious community activists, bearded and pony-tailed
and comfortably chic. Also, politicians, members of the media, ambitious
young
aides and organizers, high school students and a row of housing project
residents. Luckily, we didn’t see any obvious anarchists.

Of the approximately 300 people in the hall, about 60% were men, and about
half were wearing suits. In the front were the organizers and bigwigs;
the Mayor, City Councilor, Director of the Museum and the rest of the organizing
committee.  In the back were five separate camera crews, including
ace video-blogger Steve
Garfield
.

The
session was called to order at 9:20
with a slide show from Adam Weiss, the museums’s point man for the wi-fi
project, giving an overview of what wireless technology is all about, and
how the electromagnetic
spectrum
is divided
up into hundreds
of regulated and unregulated segments. Despite
the
well-known axiom that Powerpoint-type presentations have the highest noise
to signal ratio
known to man, this was a surprisingly useful overview, especially as it
resonated in later references to open spectrum technologies. (click on
the frequency chart for a larger
view
)

Next, Ioannis Miaoulis, president of the Museum, gave a particularly
insipid welcome featuring an extended but completely off-topic anecdote
about middle school students designing small animal habitats.
Yet even this shone as a brilliant discourse in comparison to the next
speaker – Mayor
Tom Menino
.

Every time we hear the Mayor speak in person we are amazed that he has
survived in a profession in which public speaking is part and parcel of
his daily job performance. His
speaking style
is stilted, hurried, faulty
in timing, timbre and stress patterns and borderline incomprehensible.
Frankly, he makes Mayor Quimby of the Simpson’s cartoon Springfield
sound like Demosthenes in
comparison.

It was a lesson in political boilerplate 101: "It is an honor to
be here today to kick off this very important conference on …Important
initiative….digital divide….blabla bla."  Most of his mercifully
short intervention was a self-congratulatory rundown of anything and everything
his administration
has done related to technology.

Mayor Mumbles gave way to the political instigator of the summit (although
not the originator of the idea), City
Councilor John Tobin
. Young, sharp
and ambitious, Tobin has a speaking style orders of magnitude superior
to that of the mayor.  The sincerity, intensity and relevance of his
remarks put the Mayors blatherings to shame, and brought the audience back
to attention.

He defended Boston’s rightful place in the vanguard of the wireless revolution
by putting it in historical context. Within a mile of where we were sitting,
he said, a lantern hung in the belfry of the Old North Church communicated
the intentions of the British troops to an anxious community; Alexander
Graham Bell uttered his historic words, "Come here, Watson, I want
you";
and Robert Metcalfe invented Ethernet in a grungy lab at MIT.

We had been impressed by Tobin since he first came to address the Thursday
Berkman Blogger’s group
, and like all good instinctual politicians
he showed a talent for listening as much as talking, and made us bloggers
feel important
and appreciated. Just the other day, driving up to visit a friend in Nahant,
we had been thinking about how Tobin seemed to be a new breed of pol, coming
up from the grass roots and really representing his working class constituents
in Jamaica Plain, not more of the same old political scions that have
dominated
Boston politics for generations. Then we noticed that we were having these
thoughts about young John Tobin as we drove across the old Tobin Bridge,
and we had to wonder…

As soon as Tobin finished speaking, before he even had a chance to sit
down, the Mayor got up and left, without shaking Tobin’s hand or even saying
goodbye. He looked as though he’d seen the ghost of election days future.

By the time the first panel hit the stage, it was after 10 and so far
all we had heard was a series of self-congratulatory speeches. The first
panel
consisted of: Nyvia Col?n, a smart Latina with a voice reminiscent of Rosie
Perez, who is the Director of Technology Programs at the Madison Park development
and represented the minority community considered one of the core beneficiaries
of the initiative; Vinit Nijhawan, President of TIE-Boston,
a non-profit organization with a mission to foster and support entrepreneurship;
and representing the public sector, Robert Tumposky, Deputy Director of
Management Information Services for the Boston
Redevelopment Authority.

Unfortunately, these guys continued in the same vein, giving 10-minute
infomercials about what their respective organizations were doing to foster
technology initiatives in the city, and answering some softball questions
from the moderator, Doug Shremp.

It was becoming obvious that we had arrived with somewhat unrealistic
expectations as to the nature of the whole Summit concept. Perhaps we had
been spoiled by attending a number of events modeled along the lines of
Dave Winer’s Un-Conferences,
which
break down the barriers between the presenters and the audience.

We
had been hoping for a little interactivity, or at least some creative
mud slinging between representatives of the Major Incumbents (Verison,
Comcast,
etc.)
and the champions of community access. Some give and take, some inspired,
improvisational oratory. Instead, we felt like we were at home in our pajamas,
watching C-SPAN.

They weren’t even taking live questions.  Instead, inside the stylish
white glossy folders inscribed with the Boston Foundation logo we had been
given upon
entry, there were two 3 x 5 index cards, one yellow and one blue.  As
we were dismissed for a short break between panels, we were instructed
to write our questions on these cards, together with our names, organizational
affiliation
and
contact
information,
and
our
questions
would be answered via email!

On our yellow card we carefully wrote "We feel like we are watching
C-SPAN. Why are you afraid to face the opinions of the PEOPLE?" and
handed it to an efficient-looking aide and left to look up another cup
of coffee. If the
second panel was
anything like the first, we were going to need it.

When we returned, however, it was obvious that someone had read the yellow
cards, because the MC announced that the second panel was going to be more
interactive than the first. The second panel consisted of dyed-in-the-wool
techies; three slef-proclaimed MIT graduates.  There was Michael
Oh, President and Founder of Tech
Superpowers
,
the friendly folks behind NewberryOpen.net,
the successful sponsor-funded wi-fi
net covering Boston’s chic boutique boulevard; Russell Newman, Campaign
Director of Free Press, and co-author of The
Future of Media
; (by the way, Russell, "Free Press" is a
terrible name as it is impossible to find within the bramble of homonyms
in Google, and
whose campaign are you directing anyway, and what are they running for?);
and Richard O’Bryant, a Professor and Research Fellow at Northeastern.

These guys
were, at least, a bit more juiced and visionary than the first bunch, and
the audience responded, applauding each of them at the conclusion
of his spiel. Jock Gill started things off with the most provocative statement
of the day. After two hours of verbal and virtual pussyfooting he
came out with a bold statement, or aim, or prediction, or challenge: "Ubiquitous
10 Gigabit connectivity for everyone in New England by 2015". Spontaneous
applause,
the first sign of life from the audience.

It was a pretty vision, and more entertaining than the infomercials which
preceeded it, but seemed to be papering over a lot of potential pitfalls
between here and
there. Those visionary geeks, we thought, blinded by science again, overly
optimistic about the essential goodness of human nature as reflected in
technological innovation, and overly naive about the functioning of "free"
markets.

Finally, a few minutes before noon, the interactive part of the event
was unveiled. Wireless microphones started circulating in the audience,
and a few live questions were addressed by the panel

Always willing to speak up on subjects he knows little or nothing about,
the Dowbrigade asked for, and received, one of the circulating microphones.
Our question: "My name is Dowbrigade and I am a Blogger. I am not
a MIT graduate, and do not understand a lot of the technology you have
been discussing."
(We always like to start our with a self-depreciating comment, to engender
sympathy and lower expectations. We neglected to mention that we had graduated
from that other Cambridge univeristy). "However,
I do understand a little bit about economics. You are talking about offering
free wireless
internet
access to a million people who live or work in the city of Boston, but
today powerful companies like Verison and ATT are making millions or billions
of dollars
selling
that
same service to the same market. Plus, if free wireless internet is available
in Boston people and businesses are going to start using it to make VoIP
phone calls,
and stop
paying the phone companies. Isn’t it unrealistic to think that these companies
are going to leave all of those millions of dollars on the table? Do you
really think that they are just going to go away?"

All six of the panelists and the moderator jumped to answer that one –
and they each had a different answer:

1) The incumbants are already gone – or going. We invited them to participate
in this panel, but they are scared to death of us and didn’t show up.

2) This is the way business and technological innovation works; old-line
companies adapt or die.

3) Nobody said for sure the service is going to be free.  Free access
is one of the business models being studied, but not the only one.

4) China and India have huge, growing ISP’s who offer service comparable
to what we get from Verison or Comcast for a tenth of what the US companies
charge, and still make a healthy profit. Maybe one of them will buy Verison.

5) Declining Dinosaurs always exit the scene kicking and screaming, but
when the climate changes they are doomed.

6) Wireless technology is not really wireless – only the final few hundred
meters are. The big telecom companies can still control the backbones
and fiber nets and switches right up to the wireless nodes.

7) Someone will have to install and maintain the nodes, as well as offer
customer service, training and ancillary services, so there are many possible
niches for the incumbent companies.

Clearly, none of them was worried about the potentially viscous, underhanded,
career-threatening counter-measures of the old-line companies in the current
climate of unbridled cutthroat capitalism. As recent developments in Pennsylvania
show, these
companies
have had a
lot of money for a long time, and money buys lobbyists, and lobbyists buy
votes.

Sure, in an ideal world and a true open market, non-adaptive older companies
will wither and die, but in the real world they sink their tentacles deep
into the vital organs of politics and high society, and will squeeze the
life from those organs before they let go. They think nothing of destroying
careers and even private lives of people who stand in the way of their
reaping the rewards of decades of bribery, blackmail, sweetheart deals
and influence
acquisition.

Which is why the Dowbrigade would NEVER cross these upstanding
American corporations
or
disparage their
altruistic
dedications
to bringing
the
best of technology to American consumers.

It is clear that all of this maneuvering and establishing of positions
are the opening moves in a great game, perhaps the greatest of our generation,
the end result of which will be the creation of the inevitable, ubiquitous
Net.
What it
will
look
like,
who will control the content, and who the delivery, how much it will cost
and who will foot the bill, what should be the role of government in providing
or regulating service: all these key questions are up in the air right
now.  Eventually,
they will be answered; for now, at least, the discussion has been opened.

Nevertheless, we remain deeply pessimistic that we will see an effective
wireless city emerge first in Boston, or at all in the foreseeable future,
for two main reasons.

First of all, because this is Boston, and in Boston nothing gets done
fast, especially if there are politicians involved. Look at the Big Dig
– what choice do we have, it has been staring us in the face for over 10
years now, a yawning money pit which now appears to need exhumation to
fix myriad nasty leaks. Our baseball park is the oldest and smallest in
the country because nobody can agree on where to build another one. There
is a law still on the books from the 1680’s prohibiting Indians from entering
the city that is putting the kabosh on a conference at a local university
concerning indigenous peoples.

We talk a good game here in Beantown, but when it comes to actually getting
stuff done, the halls of power are so labarynthine that sooner quickly
become later. It took us 86 years to win the world series, after all.

Second, we
don’t see a rapid and peaceful passing for the incumbent corporations.
This is America in the 21st century, and between PAC’s, soft money, informational
junkets, after-term employment, veiled stock options, interlocking directorships
and mutual social circles, the interconnections between the highest levels
of government and business insure that major corporations are protected,
to a certain extent, from the vicissitudes of market forces. The politicians
justify this by reasoning that these companies are solid corporate citizens,
major
taxpayers and essential employers. This may not save them in the long run,
but it is sure to prolong a vicious rear-guard action as they fight tooth
and
nail for the billion-dollar market they currently control for providing
access to the internet.

What we see emerging in the mid-term, and perhaps as the permanent model
for the ubiquitous, omnipresent internet of the future, is a multi-tiered
approach, along one of several possible axes.

1) Level of service.  Basically, the cable TV model – a certain packet
of access would be free, or completely subsidized for low-income areas,
consisting of on-line 911, access to municipal government services, employment
listings, public-service sites, sexually dangerous predators database,
poison control center, basic internet search, commercial sites of sponsors
and
city businesses,
weather
reports,
etc.
For more complete access, equivalent of what any user has now, a reasonable
few would apply, and gradient access levels, and commensurate fees, could
extend upwards to the point where for a million dollars you could read
the President’s morning security briefing.

2) Time control. This is the cell phone model. Each user could
get 10 hours a month free, and if you use more, you pay.  This would
probably create a secondary market for free minutes, where derelicts would
end up selling their password and monthly allotment of hours for a few
hits of crack.

3) Speed controlled.  Free service could chug along at 56k while
an Andrew Jackson could get you 1g of connectivity for a month.

4) Advertising funded model.  The free service would be full of ads,
a la Net Zero, and for a slight monthly fee you could make them disappear.

Which model gets adopted? Who gets to own the infrastructure and cash
the checks? When is this going to happen? Stay tuned, folks, but don’t
hold your breath. It ain’t happening fast.

On the way out of the museum we happened to wander by the new Butterfly
House.  Inside
a glass-enclosed hothouse are a variety of tropical plants and thousands
of multicolored butterflies. It is supposed to cost $4.00 extra on your
museum ticket, but since we didn’t have a ticket for the museum, just a
Wi-Fi summit name tag, and had already inadvertently passed the teenaged
ticket taker while staring at a fabulous, phosphorescent display of pinned
butterflies on the wall outside
the
hot house, we just walked right in.

Inside, it was over 90° and humid as a sauna.  The glass walls
looked out over the Charles River, and a bright sun shone through, adding
to the heat. It was not a big space, perhaps the size of a normal living
room, but there were butterflies everywhere. A few were flying back and
forth across the room, but most were alit on leaves or branches, sunning
their wings, waving their antennae, testing the air.

We saw yellow and white Giant Swallowtails, large and distinctive Paper
Kites, the black and white Zebra Longwing and the petite but colorful Eastern
Tiger Swallowtail.

We sat down on one of the slatted wooden benches and made ourselves very
still. After a minute the butterflies came close, and an orange and yellow
fellow we couldn’t identify  landed on our knee.

We tried to clear our mind of all thoughts, to stop the internal dialog,
but were unsuccessful. We thought about the dim prospects for free, city-wide
wi-fi in our lifetime.  We were reminded of the only place we had
ever seen more butterflies than this room; a riverside in the Ceja de Selva,
the Jungle’s Eyebrow, in the upper Amazon, where the butterflies gathered
in thick orange, blue and silver clouds.

We wondered if these captive butterflies, which a museum curator told
us had come from Costa Rica and the Everglades, even knew they were thousands
of miles from their natural habitats. Could they smell the different pollen
in the air, different bird smells? Could they smell the shampoo, the deodorant,
the dried sweat, the greasy burgers and fries, on the constant stream of
people who tramped through their artificial ecosystem? Could they sense
the tension, the fear, the lust, the quiet desperation of their viewers?

We sat there
transfixed, helpless before this impossible passel of questions without
answers. Unfortunately, we realized our oral surgery was only two hours
away. As we stared out the window, a dark red Juno butterfly dropped into
our range
of vision
and
hung there
as if
looking
us in the
eye, somehow
suspended
in
space.
Completely
wireless.

 

Note: Incredibly, the alacritous
videoblogger Steve Garfield
has already
posted 18 video clips of
this morning’s sessions.  Check them out
here. He is also responsible
for the photos in this post. (Thanks, Steve)