Starting to Learn Ajax

AJAX is Asynchronous JavaScript and XML. What it lets you do is have pages that can update without reloading a page--they can pull information in from a server using JavaScript and push them into parts of a page. I'm reading a book on this now as online information about Ajax is rather scattershot, with a tutorial here and a recipe there.

The big problem I see with Ajax is that because the tasks are all performed in JavaScript, that means all authentication is revealed in the HTML page that a user can view the source of. So you can't hide anything and you can't even keep tricks from a determined user.

I have already wrestled in the past with throttling bad behavior from RSS scrapers. I currently also have a governor in place that I call "excessive host usage" which prevents any one IP address from making thousands of queries, running up my Web bills, and hurting my servers. It's been quite effective, as out of control non-major robots or other scripts tend to be very out of control, and my governor clamps them down right away.

So part of the issue with AJAX is that if I expose a server interface in which data can be queried--say the price of a given book at a given bookstore, which is what I would do with isbn.nu--I have to also make sure that that data can't be hijacked. AJAX has one great bit of a security model, which is that JavaScript won't make these queries except to the same precise domain in which the page was server. If I serve a page from isbn.nu, then I can make AJAX queries to isbn.nu. That apparently can't be easily spoofed, at least as far as I know. So that prevents someone from directly copying my AJAX code and making slight changes to reap the rewards.

Now someone could set up their own server to run the queries from my server and then pass them to their own AJAX pages. I can use a governor to prevent that. Individual users could make some number of requests over reasonable periods of time, but thousands of requests of a certain type would indicate behavior that needs to be blocked.

Dun Dunn

The Wall Street Journal says disgraced former director and chair of Hewlett Packard Patricia Dunn told a House committee, "she had been assured that phone records had been obtained lawfully from public sources. Ms. Dunn said the word ``pretexting'' never cropped up in the conversations."

Because, as anyone knows, the records of individual phone calls have no privacy implications whatsoever.

Were I told that an employee believed that phone records could be obtained from "public sources," I would send that person to a headshrinker, an ethics class, or fire them. Luckily, she resigned.

She still won't take responsibility for it. " 'I deeply regret that so many people, including me, were let down by this reliance' on such advice," Dunn told the panel. Because she had no personal responsibility in understanding that information that would clearly require subterfuge and privacy violations to obtain weren't unethical and perhaps illegal to obtain--because a lawyer (she alleges) told her they weren't.

Way to go on that personal responsibility!

The lawyer in question, Larry Sonsini, some email from whom have been released over the last few weeks, told Congress that laws around pretexting needed to be clarified.

Yeah, because there's some doubt that calling a phone company and claiming to be someone you are not to obtain information in an investigation or identity theft scam is unethical.

One often-missed point is that HP certainly had the right to hire private investigators to find the leak. It's not the fact that people were trailed (which has been cited as sketchy behavior) or that links were followed. It's clear, potentially illegal, certainly unethical violations of privacy and reasonable corporate behavior standards that are the problem. HP should investigate leaks, but it shouldn't hire firms that hire firms that plant viruses on reporters' computers, should they?

The Guilty Pleasure of Project Runway for an Art Major

I confess that I actively enjoy Project Runway. The show has its cheesy elements, to be sure, because it has to follow the reality show model of having back-stage drama, strange revelations, and somewhat difficult personalities.

But, in the end, it's about art and critique. The designers they recruited are talented people. Much more so here in Season 3; we've been watching Season 1 on DVD, and it's much more wacky and with people who have less skill on average, although some have quite good art and craft abilities.

VisegripFashion design isn't graphic design, but they share a remarkable number of properties in common. It's a combination of art, craft, commerce, and communication. You need unique artistic vision to create someone. You need craft to take the idea in your head and put it on paper, on a manikin, cut it out, sew it, fix it. That's a sculptor's combination of two-dimensional and three-dimensional visualization and enactment, coupled with a filmmaker's insight into how a 3D object moves through space.

The communications comes from taking elements that in themselves have little or no semantic meaning, no symbolism of any real kind, and through assemblage, produce a message that someone can read visually. And that each person may read slightly differently, too.

Finally, the commerce. You have to sell the thing you make. Or sell yourself as the person who has the idea of the thing you made.

Graphic design's key difference is that we have a streamlined relationship from conception through realization typically in two dimensions. Graphic designers now work through a lot of 3D and 4D media, of course, and even a poster has to be conceived as viewed on 2D plane from many angles. Monumental design, even flat, has 3D and 4D properties.

In a terrific class I had at the Yale Summer Program in Graphic Design in Brissago, Switzerland, we studied for a week with Richard Sapper, the designer of the Tizio lamp and a thousand other interesting projects. We had to create a sculpture from a single sheet of white heavy paper stock that, as it rotated through 360 degrees, had a constantly changing and surprising view. A good exercise for a graphic designer.

Tim-2Project Runway poses challenges that are not unfamiliar to those of us who studied art, architecture, or other forms of design. Short periods of time to accomplish some unique, interesting, and well made. We didn't get fabulous prizes (just grades), and the periods of times and oddity of the tasks were kept within normal parameters.

But whenever Tim wanders through the room, I'm reminded of John Gambell, now the Yale University Printer, who critiqued and led in that gentle way--Tim's a bit sterner at times. No vagueness. Lots of specific direction. An assumption that the artist can actually create something worthwhile. I get a lot of frission from watching the show because so many elements remind me so much of that idyllic period of life when I could just make and see what came of it.

I Tried Scrubbing and Scrubbing

B0007Ms5B2.01. Aa280 Sclzzzzzzz I had one of those Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman moments this morning. Lynn and I were rushing to get ready to go to the birthday party of another two-year-old--just a few weeks younger than Ben--and a tiny can of Coke balanced on a shelf fell to the floor and exploded without any of us hearing it in our temporary pantry. We just had our basement seismically retrofit (retrofittedly seismicized?) and thus we have weird stuff in a corner of the kitchen.

I come into the kitchen while Lynn is playing with Ben and say, Oh, no, whatever has happened? I piece the narrative together--the can slipped off, hit the floor, exploded, covering the floor and adjacent objects with Coke spittle--and then grab our amazing new Hoover FloorMate SpinScrub 800 Floor Cleaner! (Go, Hoover. Go, Hoover. Go, Hoover.)

We just bought this thing a few days ago because our house is full of wood floors and we don't have an upstairs utility sink. It's frustrating to mop, and it's very labor intensive, too. We have a good vacuum cleaner, but with a toddler, we need to mop regularly. The reviews on this particular model were pretty good, and I understood its weaknesses.

It's actually pretty fabulous. It's a dry vac, wet vac, and scrubbing vac. You use a cleaner that's supplied in small quantity, and which Amazon reviewers recommended substituting half the recommended does with vinegar, and thus you're always spraying clean liquid on the floor. Spinning scrubbing brushes break up crud and dirt on the floor, and the wet vac sucks it into an easy-to-clean separate compartment. A separate set of attachments and hose plug into a side panel so you can access hard-to-reach places. There's also a separate set of grout scrubbers (both for the main unit and the hose).

I tackled the Coke explosion (which had no Mentos involved, thankfully), and within about five minutes, the floor was gleaming, cabinets cleaned, and with a little elbow grease, all trace of proprietary high-fructose corn syrup beverage removed. I turned my beatific face to the invisible camera and said, "No more waxy yellow build-up!"

Chugga Chugga Choo Choo Internet Blowing Wiiiii-Fiiiiii

In the Sept. 21st Economist, you can read my article about railways equipping their trains with Internet access. One item left out of the article for space was the simultaneous addition of power plugs in most cars, and in all new cars. Railways already needed the electricity to power commuter laptops, and this becomes a natural fit for adding Internet access. Fun article to write as it allowed me to combine a mild love of trains and a large love of wireless data.

Sentient Trains

From: Board of Directors, Sodor Railroad Ltd.
To: Sir Topham Hatt, Esq., managing director
Re: On the advisability of the use of sentient trains

Sir Hatt,

The board of directors would first like to commend you on the overall excellence of the Sodor Railroad's operations. Under your leadership, new branch lines have been opened, unsafe lines repaired, and freight shipments have increased 20 percent year over year for the past five years. Bravo, Sir.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that we must once again question your decision to employ sentient railway engines and cars in lieu of the more typical non-sentient trains found on most railroads. These self-aware trains, especially the engines, have produced continued disruptions only outweighed by your hands-on management style, and forceful manner in dealing with them.

Reports and accompanying videos cross the boardroom nearly every work day, from 8 am to 8.30 am, in which these sentient engines refuse to perform certain work, are incapable of cajoling their carriages, or destroy expensive railways and customer equipment.

In one recent five-day period, two Scottish engines destroyed the narrow-gauge winch, one green engine demolished most of our island's chocolate factory, another pushed recalcitrant--or as you term them, "troublesome"--trucks into a duck pond, an express engine smashed through the wall of a new station, and a small blue engine wound up with fish in its boiler.

Sir Hatt, this behavior cannot be tolerated. The board has voted on a resolution that either requires you to take a firmer hand in dealing with sentient train behavior, in which confusion and delay are generally abolished, or you will be cashiered. Sir Hatt, would you truly like yourself, Lady Hatt, and your apparently several eternally small children to lose your home, fish dinners, and breakfasts with marmalade? Would you like to find yourself working in a diner converted from old train cars, in which those ancient cars are your only friendly companions?

We think not, and we hope it does not reach this point. Tell the trains, especially Thomas, to do the things they're told to do.

Respectfully yours,

The Board of Directors

Random Xeni Sighting, Siting, Citing

My officemate and I were walking back from local natural food store PCC to our office in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, when who should we bump into but Xeni Jardin, a BoingBoing contributor, as well as a regular reporter for NPR's Day to Day (Xeni Tech), The New York Times, Wired News and Wired Magazine, and so forth. I met Xeni some time ago and we correspond about tech issues and such. BoingBoing's ads are sold by John Battelle's Federated Media, which also represents my Wi-Fi Networking News family of sites.

Xeni was in town to interview [omitted] about [omitted], and then was off to [omitted] and is working on [omitted] for [omitted], which she thought would be [omitted]. She had an exclusive [omitted] with [omitted] this morning, too. (Yes, those [omitted]'s are intentional, not later additions.)

This is the difficulty of writing about talking to other journalists. There's always a story or five that's in progress that you can't spill publicly because you'll be scooped or you've promised embargoes. We chatted about her recent time in India and Tibet that she wrote up and produced audio segments on all over the place. I don't have anything that's simmering, so I could spill what I was working on.

I'm a Xeni fan because she does that thing that I aspire to: in her writing and audio reporting connects tech to people, not tech to other tech, which tends to be the result of my writing. But I'm working on it.

Update: Okay, one of those [omitteds] was that she had an exclusive BoingBoing interview with Al Gore this morning about a Yahoo/Current partnership for video that's trying to emulate YouTube.

Herr Fleishman, der Fleisch ißt

That's a German pun in the headline.

When I was in a graphic design program in Brissago (Ticino), Switzerland, back in 1989, for several weeks over a summer, we stayed in two hotels owned by the Ferrari family, a lovely group of people. (One set of rooms was a "garni," sort of a B&B hotel; the other a hotel with a certified pergola, which served breakfast to guests and had a dinner.)

Mama Ferrari, a 4' 10" woman with some command of English (and excellent command of several other languages), and a superb sense of humor, was talking to me one day and couldn't recall my last name. We were speaking, I think, in German. I said, "Herr Fleishman." Since I was a vegetarian, she laughed, and said, "Herr Fleishman, der kein Fleisch ißt."

(The joke is that Fleishman as Fleischmann is literally "meat man," like a butcher. Metzger is the actual German word in High German for butcher, but nonetheless, Fleischmann might have been the Yiddish word. So I'm a meat-man, right? The word "ist" is "is" in German, but the third-person of "essen," to eat, is spelled ißt (isst), and pronounced the same way. So the pun is, Mr. Meat Man who who (does not eat/is not made of) meat. Ha! Okay, that took too long.)

As of a few weeks, ago ich esse Fleisch. Yup, I'm a carnivore again. (I was only a vegetarian for a couple years; I've been largely a pescetarian since 1990.)

I read Omnivore's Dilemma and went on a metabolic cleanse with Lynn. The book led me to understand how you could eat meat in a sustainable, even productive way, with humane treatment for the animals; the metabolic cleanse made me crave meat like I haven't in 18 years. The rise in concern about the toxins in fish have been part of this motivation, too. Eating the right kind of meat is probably better from a heavy metals, pesticide, and general perspective than eating most fish.

After some fits and starts, I started with chicken, liked it, moved onto turkey and ham, and then...hamburgers. The trick here is that I want to eat meat that isn't raised unpleasantly, isn't full of antibiotics, and where the cows are being fed grass, not grain. Since I live in Seattle, this is available and affordable. Lynn and I just signed up for a meat CSA, and we'll be receiving 1/8 cow, I believe, from yesterday (our first pickup) until June.

I have always believed our bodies will tell us what to eat, and mine is saying meat. I've never been an anti-meat vegetarian; death is a part of our lives, and raising animals for slaughter can be done in a way that respects the animal, our ecosystem, and ourselves. I'm back at the top of the food chain.