Saul Bass changed how audiences view movie credits

From Christian Annyas’s “Saul Bass Title Sequences“:


This is the text of a note that was stuck on the cans when the reels of film for “The Man With the Golden Arm” arrived at US movie theatres in 1955.

Until then the credits were referred to as ‘popcorn time.’ Audiences resented them and projectionists only pulled back the curtains to reveal the screen once they’d finished.
Saul Bass’ powerful title sequence for “The Man With the Golden Arm” changed the way directors and designers would treat the opening titles.

“For the average audience, the credits tell them there’s only three minutes left to eat popcorn. I take this ‘dead’ period and try to do more than simply get rid of names that filmgoers aren’t interested in. I aim to set up the audience for what’s coming; make them expectant.” — SAUL BASS

David Pogue’s insights about tech over time

From David Pogue’s “The Lessons of 10 Years of Talking Tech” (The New York Times: 25 November 2010):

As tech decades go, this one has been a jaw-dropper. Since my first column in 2000, the tech world has not so much blossomed as exploded. Think of all the commonplace tech that didn’t even exist 10 years ago: HDTV, Blu-ray, GPS, Wi-Fi, Gmail, YouTube, iPod, iPhone, Kindle, Xbox, Wii, Facebook, Twitter, Android, online music stores, streaming movies and on and on.

With the turkey cooking, this seems like a good moment to review, to reminisce — and to distill some insight from the first decade in the new tech millennium.

Things don’t replace things; they just splinter. I can’t tell you how exhausting it is to keep hearing pundits say that some product is the “iPhone killer” or the “Kindle killer.” Listen, dudes: the history of consumer tech is branching, not replacing.

Things don’t replace things; they just add on. Sooner or later, everything goes on-demand. The last 10 years have brought a sweeping switch from tape and paper storage to digital downloads. Music, TV shows, movies, photos and now books and newspapers. We want instant access. We want it easy.

Some people’s gadgets determine their self-esteem. … Today’s gadgets are intensely personal. Your phone or camera or music player makes a statement, reflects your style and character. No wonder some people interpret criticisms of a product as a criticism of their choices. By extension, it’s a critique of them.

Everybody reads with a lens. … feelings run just as strongly in the tech realm. You can’t use the word “Apple,” “Microsoft” or “Google” in a sentence these days without stirring up emotion.

It’s not that hard to tell the winners from the losers. … There was the Microsoft Spot Watch (2003). This was a wireless wristwatch that could display your appointments and messages — but cost $10 a month, had to be recharged nightly and wouldn’t work outside your home city unless you filled out a Web form in advance.

Some concepts’ time may never come. The same “breakthrough” ideas keep surfacing — and bombing, year after year. For the love of Mike, people, nobody wants videophones!

Teenagers do not want “communicators” that do nothing but send text messages, either (AT&T Ogo, Sony Mylo, Motorola V200). People do not want to surf the Internet on their TV screens (WebTV, AOLTV, Google TV). And give it up on the stripped-down kitchen “Internet appliances” (3Com Audrey, Netpliance i-Opener, Virgin Webplayer). Nobody has ever bought one, and nobody ever will.

Forget about forever — nothing lasts a year. Of the thousands of products I’ve reviewed in 10 years, only a handful are still on the market. Oh, you can find some gadgets whose descendants are still around: iPod, BlackBerry, Internet Explorer and so on.

But it’s mind-frying to contemplate the millions of dollars and person-years that were spent on products and services that now fill the Great Tech Graveyard: Olympus M-Robe. PocketPC. Smart Display. MicroMV. MSN Explorer. Aibo. All those PlaysForSure music players, all those Palm organizers, all those GPS units you had to load up with maps from your computer.

Everybody knows that’s the way tech goes. The trick is to accept your
gadget’s obsolescence at the time you buy it…

Nobody can keep up. Everywhere I go, I meet people who express the same reaction to consumer tech today: there’s too much stuff coming too fast. It’s impossible to keep up with trends, to know what to buy, to avoid feeling left behind. They’re right. There’s never been a period of greater technological change. You couldn’t keep up with all of it if you tried.

Don DeLillo on how film has changed our society completely

From Adam Begley’s interview of Don DeLillo in “The Art of Fiction No. 135” (The Paris Review: Fall 1993, No. 128):

Film allows us to examine ourselves in ways earlier societies could not—examine ourselves, imitate ourselves, extend ourselves, reshape our reality. It permeates our lives, this double vision, and also detaches us, turns some of us into actors doing walk-throughs. In my work, film and television are often linked with disaster. Because this is one of the energies that charges the culture. TV has a sort of panting lust for bad news and calamity as long as it is visual. We’ve reached the point where things exist so they can be filmed and played and replayed.

Woody Allen’s atheism

From Robert E. Lauder’s interview with Woody Allen, “Whatever Works” (Commonweal: 15 April 2010):

Well, you know, you want some kind of relief from the agony and terror of human existence. Human existence is a brutal experience to me…it’s a brutal, meaningless experience—an agonizing, meaningless experience with some oases, delight, some charm and peace, but these are just small oases. Overall, it is a brutal, brutal, terrible experience, and so it’s what can you do to alleviate the agony of the human condition, the human predicament?

I’m really impotent against the overwhelming bleakness of the universe and that the only thing I can do is my little gift and do it the best I can, and that is about the best I can do, which is cold comfort.

I also feel that humor, just like Fred Astaire dance numbers or these lightweight musicals, gives you a little oasis. You are in this horrible world and for an hour and a half you duck into a dark room and it’s air-conditioned and the sun is not blinding you and you leave the terror of the universe behind and you are completely transported into an escapist situation. The women are beautiful, the men are witty and heroic, nobody has terrible problems and this is a delightful escapist thing, and you leave the theatre refreshed. It’s like drinking a cool lemonade and then after a while you get worn down again and you need it again.

there are these oases, and life is horrible, but it is not relentlessly black from wire to wire. You can sit down and hear a Mozart symphony, or you can watch the Marx Brothers, and this will give you a pleasant escape for a while. And that is about the best that you can do… I feel that one can come up with all these rationalizations and seemingly astute observations, but I think I said it well at the end of Deconstructing Harry: we all know the same truth; our lives consist of how we choose to distort it, and that’s it. Everybody knows how awful the world is and what a terrible situation it is and each person distorts it in a certain way that enables him to get through. Some people distort it with religious things. Some people distort it with sports, with money, with love, with art, and they all have their own nonsense about what makes it meaningful, and all but nothing makes it meaningful. These things definitely serve a certain function, but in the end they all fail to give life meaning and everyone goes to his grave in a meaningless way.

I feel that is true—that one can commit a crime, do unspeakable things, and get away with it. There are people who commit all sorts of crimes and get away with it, and some of them are plagued with all sorts of guilt for the rest of their lives and others aren’t. They commit terrible crimes and they have wonderful lives, wonderful, happy lives, with families and children, and they have done unspeakably terrible things. There is no justice, there is no rational structure to it. That is just the way it is, and each person figures out some way to cope…. Some people cope better than others. I was with Billy Graham once, and he said that even if it turned out in the end that there is no God and the universe is empty, he would still have had a better life than me. I understand that. If you can delude yourself by believing that there is some kind of Santa Claus out there who is going to bail you out in the end, then it will help you get through. Even if you are proven wrong in the end, you would have had a better life.

I didn’t see [Shane, from the movie Shane] as a martyred figure, a persecuted figure. I saw him as quite a heroic figure who does a job that needs to be done, a practical matter. I saw him as a practical secular character. In this world there are just some people who need killing and that is just the way it is. It sounds terrible, but there is no other way to get around that, and most of us are not up to doing it, incapable for moral reasons or physically not up to it. And Shane is a person who saw what had to be done and went out and did it. He had the skill to do it, and that’s the way I feel about the world: there are certain problems that can only be dealt with that way. As ugly a truth as that is, I do think it’s the truth about the world.

Errol Morris on film noir

From Errol Morris’s “Film Legend Errol Morris Salutes New Graduates At 2010 Commencement” (Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism: 10 May 2010):

There are many things I liked about noir. But in particular, there are images of one benighted character after another struggling to make sense of the world – and sometimes failing in the effort. [Their failure could be chalked up to many things. But most severe among the possibilities, was the thought that the world might be intractable. That you can never figure out how it works, what makes it tick. A terribly, sad thought. There has to be, there just has to be the presumption that you can figure things out.]

Coppola on changes in the movie industry

From Bloomberg’s “Francis Ford Coppola Sees Cinema World Falling Apart: Interview” (12 October 2009):

“The cinema as we know it is falling apart,” says Francis Ford Coppola.

“It’s a period of incredible change,” says the director of “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now.” “We used to think of six, seven big film companies. Every one of them is under great stress now. Probably two or three will go out of business and the others will just make certain kind of films like ‘Harry Potter’ — basically trying to make ‘Star Wars’ over and over again, because it’s a business.”

“Cinema is losing the public’s interest,” says Coppola, “because there is so much it has to compete with to get people’s time.”

The profusion of leisure activities; the availability of movies on copied DVD and on the Internet; and news becoming entertainment are reshaping the industry, he says. Companies have combined businesses as customers turn to cheap downloads rather than visit shops or movie theaters.

“I think the cinema is going to live off into something more related to a live performance in which the filmmaker is there, like the conductor of an opera used to be,” Coppola says. “Cinema can be interactive, every night it can be a little different.”

Various confidence scams, tricks, & frauds

From “List of confidence tricks” (Wikipedia: 3 July 2009):

Get-rich-quick schemes

Get-rich-quick schemes are extremely varied. For example, fake franchises, real estate “sure things”, get-rich-quick books, wealth-building seminars, self-help gurus, sure-fire inventions, useless products, chain letters, fortune tellers, quack doctors, miracle pharmaceuticals, Nigerian money scams, charms and talismans are all used to separate the mark from his money. Variations include the pyramid scheme, Ponzi scheme and Matrix sale.

Count Victor Lustig sold the “money-printing machine” which could copy $100 bills. The client, sensing huge profits, would buy the machines for a high price (usually over $30,000). Over the next twelve hours, the machine would produce just two more $100 bills, but after that it produced only blank paper, as its supply of hidden $100 bills would have become exhausted. This type of scheme is also called the “money box” scheme.

The wire game, as depicted in the movie The Sting, trades on the promise of insider knowledge to beat a gamble, stock trade or other monetary action. In the wire game, a “mob” composed of dozens of grifters simulates a “wire store”, i.e., a place where results from horse races are received by telegram and posted on a large board, while also being read aloud by an announcer. The griftee is given secret foreknowledge of the race results minutes before the race is broadcast, and is therefore able to place a sure bet at the wire store. In reality, of course, the con artists who set up the wire store are the providers of the inside information, and the mark eventually is led to place a large bet, thinking it to be a sure win. At this point, some mistake is made, which actually makes the bet a loss. …

Salting or to salt the mine are terms for a scam in which gems or gold ore are planted in a mine or on the landscape, duping the greedy mark into purchasing shares in a worthless or non-existent mining company.[2] During the Gold Rush, scammers would load shotguns with gold dust and shoot into the sides of the mine to give the appearance of a rich ore, thus “salting the mine”. …

The Spanish Prisoner scam – and its modern variant, the advance fee fraud or Nigerian scam – take advantage of the victim’s greed. The basic premise involves enlisting the mark to aid in retrieving some stolen money from its hiding place. The victim sometimes believes he can cheat the con artists out of their money, but anyone trying this has already fallen for the essential con by believing that the money is there to steal (see also Black money scam). …

Many conmen employ extra tricks to keep the victim from going to the police. A common ploy of investment scammers is to encourage a mark to use money concealed from tax authorities. The mark cannot go to the authorities without revealing that he or she has committed tax fraud. Many swindles involve a minor element of crime or some other misdeed. The mark is made to think that he or she will gain money by helping fraudsters get huge sums out of a country (the classic Nigerian scam); hence marks cannot go to the police without revealing that they planned to commit a crime themselves.

Gold brick scams

Gold brick scams involve selling a tangible item for more than it is worth; named after selling the victim an allegedly golden ingot which turns out to be gold-coated lead.

Pig-in-a-poke originated in the late Middle Ages. The con entails a sale of a (suckling) “pig” in a “poke” (bag). The bag ostensibly contains a live healthy little pig, but actually contains a cat (not particularly prized as a source of meat, and at any rate, quite unlikely to grow to be a large hog). If one buys a “pig in a poke” without looking in the bag (a colloquial expression in the English language, meaning “to be a sucker”), the person has bought something of less value than was assumed, and has learned firsthand the lesson caveat emptor.

The Thai gem scam involves layers of con men and helpers who tell a tourist in Bangkok of an opportunity to earn money by buying duty-free jewelry and having it shipped back to the tourist’s home country. The mark is driven around the city in a tuk-tuk operated by one of the con men, who ensures that the mark meets one helper after another, until the mark is persuaded to buy the jewelry from a store also operated by the swindlers. The gems are real but significantly overpriced. This scam has been operating for 20 years in Bangkok, and is said to be protected by Thai police and politicians. A similar scam usually runs in parallel for custom-made suits.

Extortion or false-injury tricks

The badger game extortion is often perpetrated on married men. The mark is deliberately coerced into a compromising position, a supposed affair for example, then threatened with public exposure of his acts unless blackmail money is paid.

The Melon Drop is a scam in which the scammer will intentionally bump into the mark and drop a package containing (already broken) glass. He will blame the damage on the clumsiness of the mark, and demand money in compensation. This con arose when artists discovered that the Japanese paid large sums of money for watermelons. The scammer would go to a supermarket to buy a cheap watermelon, then bump into a Japanese tourist and set a high price.

Gambling tricks

Three-card Monte, ‘Find The Queen’, the “Three-card Trick”, or “Follow The Lady”, is (except for the props) essentially the same as the probably centuries-older shell game or thimblerig. The trickster shows three playing cards to the audience, one of which is a queen (the “lady”), then places the cards face-down, shuffles them around and invites the audience to bet on which one is the queen. At first the audience is skeptical, so the shill places a bet and the scammer allows him to win. In one variation of the game, the shill will (apparently surreptitiously) peek at the lady, ensuring that the mark also sees the card. This is sometimes enough to entice the audience to place bets, but the trickster uses sleight of hand to ensure that they always lose, unless the conman decides to let them win, hoping to lure them into betting much more. The mark loses whenever the dealer chooses to make him lose. This con appears in the Eric Garcia novel Matchstick Men and is featured in the movie Edmond.

A variation on this scam exists in Barcelona, Spain, but with the addition of a pickpocket. The dealer and shill behave in an overtly obvious manner, attracting a larger audience. When the pickpocket succeeds in stealing from a member of the audience, he signals the dealer. The dealer then shouts the word “aqua”, and the three split up. The audience is left believing that “aqua” is a code word indicating the police are coming, and that the performance was a failed scam.

In the Football Picks Scam the scammer sends out tip sheet stating a game will go one way to 100 potential victims and the other way to another 100. The next week, the 100 or so who received the correct answer are divided into two groups and fed another pick. This is repeated until a small population have (apparently) received a series of supernaturally perfect picks, then the final pick is offered for sale. Despite being well-known (it was even described completely on an episode of The Simpsons and used by Derren Brown in “The System”), this scam is run almost continuously in different forms by different operators. The sports picks can also be replaced with securities, or any other random process, in an alternative form. This scam has also been called the inverted pyramid scheme, because of the steadily decreasing population of victims at each stage.

Visitors to Las Vegas or other gambling towns often encounter the Barred Winner scam, a form of advance fee fraud performed in person. The artist will approach his mark outside a casino with a stack or bag of high-value casino chips and say that he just won big, but the casino accused him of cheating and threw him out without letting him redeem the chips. The artist asks the mark to go in and cash the chips for him. The artist will often offer a percentage of the winnings to the mark for his trouble. But, when the mark agrees, the artist feigns suspicion and asks the mark to put up something of value “for insurance”. The mark agrees, hands over jewelry, a credit card or their wallet, then goes in to cash the chips. When the mark arrives at the cashier, they are informed the chips are fake. The artist, by this time, is long gone with the mark’s valuables.

False reward tricks

The glim-dropper requires several accomplices, one of whom must be a one-eyed man. One grifter goes into a store and pretends he has lost his glass eye. Everyone looks around, but the eye cannot be found. He declares that he will pay a thousand-dollar reward for the return of his eye, leaving contact information. The next day, an accomplice enters the store and pretends to find the eye. The storekeeper (the intended griftee), thinking of the reward, offers to take it and return it to its owner. The finder insists he will return it himself, and demands the owner’s address. Thinking he will lose all chance of the reward, the storekeeper offers a hundred dollars for the eye. The finder bargains him up to $250, and departs.…

The fiddle game uses the pigeon drop technique. A pair of con men work together, one going into an expensive restaurant in shabby clothes, eating, and claiming to have left his wallet at home, which is nearby. As collateral, the con man leaves his only worldly possession, the violin that provides his livelihood. After he leaves, the second con man swoops in, offers an outrageously large amount (for example $50,000) for such a rare instrument, then looks at his watch and runs off to an appointment, leaving his card for the mark to call him when the fiddle-owner returns. The mark’s greed comes into play when the “poor man” comes back, having gotten the money to pay for his meal and redeem his violin. The mark, thinking he has an offer on the table, then buys the violin from the fiddle player (who “reluctantly” sells it eventually for, say, $5,000). The result is the two conmen are $5,000 richer (less the cost of the violin), and the mark is left with a cheap instrument.

Other confidence tricks and techniques

The Landlord Scam advertises an apartment for rent at an attractive price. The con artist, usually someone who is house-sitting or has a short-term sublet at the unit, takes a deposit and first/last month’s rent from every person who views the suite. When move-in day arrives, the con artist is of course gone, and the apartment belongs to none of the angry people carrying boxes.

Change raising is a common short con and involves an offer to change an amount of money with someone, while at the same time taking change or bills back and forth to confuse the person as to how much money is actually being changed. The most common form, “the Short Count”, has been featured prominently in several movies about grifting, notably Nueve Reinas, The Grifters and Paper Moon. A con artist shopping at, say a gas station, is given 80 cents in change because he lacks two dimes to complete the sale (say the sale cost is $19.20 and the con man has a 20 dollar bill). He goes out to his car and returns a short time later, with 20 cents. He returns them, saying that he found the rest of the change to make a dollar, and asking for a bill so he will not have to carry coins. The confused store clerk agrees, exchanging a dollar for the 20 cents the conman returned. In essence, the mark makes change twice.

Beijing tea scam is a famous scam in and around Beijing. The artists (usually female and working in pairs) will approach tourists and try to make friends. After chatting, they will suggest a trip to see a tea ceremony, claiming that they have never been to one before. The tourist is never shown a menu, but assumes that this is how things are done in China. After the ceremony, the bill is presented to the tourist, charging upwards of $100 per head. The artists will then hand over their bills, and the tourists are obliged to follow suit.

David Foster Wallace on David Lynch

From David Foster Wallace’s “David Lynch Keeps His Head” (Premier: September 1996):

AN ACADEMIC DEFINITION of Lynchian might be that the term “refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” But like postmodern or pornographic, Lynchian is one of those Porter Stewart-type words that’s ultimately definable only ostensively – i.e., we know it when we see it. Ted Bundy wasn’t particularly Lynchian, but good old Jeffrey Dahmer, with his victims’ various anatomies neatly separated and stored in his fridge alongside his chocolate milk and Shedd Spread, was thoroughgoingly Lynchian. A recent homicide in Boston, in which the deacon of a South Shore church reportedly gave chase to a vehicle that bad cut him off, forced the car off the road, and shot the driver with a highpowered crossbow, was borderline Lynchian. A Rotary luncheon where everybody’s got a comb-over and a polyester sport coat and is eating bland Rotarian chicken and exchanging Republican platitudes with heartfelt sincerity and yet all are either amputees or neurologically damaged or both would be more Lynchian than not.

What passwords do people use? phpBB examples

From Robert Graham’s “PHPBB Password Analysis” (Dark Reading: 6 February 2009):

A popular Website,, was recently hacked. The hacker published approximately 20,000 user passwords from the site. …

This incident is similar to one two years ago when MySpace was hacked, revealing about 30,000 passwords. …

The striking different between the two incidents is that the phpbb passwords are simpler. MySpace requires that passwords “must be between 6 and 10 characters, and contain at least 1 number or punctuation character.” Most people satisfied this requirement by simply appending “1” to the ends of their passwords. The phpbb site has no such restrictions — the passwords are shorter and rarely contain anything more than a dictionary word.

It’s hard to judge exactly how many passwords are dictionary words. … I ran the phpbb passwords through various dictionary files and come up with a 65% match (for a simple English dictionary) and 94% (for “hacker” dictionaries). …

16% of passwords matched a person’s first name. This includes people choosing their own first names or those of their spouses or children. The most popular first names were Joshua, Thomas, Michael, and Charlie. But I wonder if there is something else going on. Joshua, for example, was also the password to the computer in “Wargames” …

14% of passwords were patterns on the keyboard, like “1234,” “qwerty,” or “asdf.” There are a lot of different patterns people choose, like “1qaz2wsx” or “1q2w3e.” I spent a while googling “159357,” trying to figure out how to categorize it, then realized it was a pattern on the numeric keypad. …

4% are variations of the word “password,” such as “passw0rd,” “password1,” or “passwd.” I googled “drowssap,” trying to figure out how to categorize it, until I realized it was “password” spelled backward.

5% of passwords are pop-culture references from TV, movies, and music. These tend to be youth culture (“hannah,” “pokemon,” “tigger”) and geeky (“klingon,” “starwars,” “matrix,” “legolas,” “ironman”). … Some notable pop-culture references are chosen not because they are popular, but because they sound like passwords, such as “ou812” (’80s Van Halen album), “blink182” (’90s pop), “rush2112” (’80s album), and “8675309” (’80s pop song).

4% of passwords appear to reference things nearby. The name “samsung” is a popular password, I think because it’s the brand name on the monitor that people are looking at … Similarly, there are a lot of names of home computers like “dell,” “packard,” “apple,” “pavilion,” “presario,” “compaq,” and so on. …

3% of passwords are “emo” words. Swear words, especially the F-word, are common, but so are various forms of love and hate (like “iloveyou” or “ihateyou”).

3% are “don’t care” words. … A lot of password choices reflect this attitude, either implicitly with “abc123” or “blahblah,” or explicitly with “whatever,” “whocares,” or “nothing.”

1.3% are passwords people saw in movies/TV. This is a small category, consisting only of “letmein,” “trustno1,” “joshua,” and “monkey,” but it accounts for a large percentage of passwords.

1% are sports related. …

Here is the top 20 passwords from the phpbb dataset. You’ll find nothing surprising here; all of them are on this Top 500 list.

3.03% “123456”
2.13% “password”
1.45% “phpbb”
0.91% “qwerty”
0.82% “12345”
0.59% “12345678”
0.58% “letmein”
0.53% “1234”
0.50% “test”
0.43% “123”
0.36% “trustno1”
0.33% “dragon”
0.31% “abc123”
0.31% “123456789”
0.31% “111111”
0.30% “hello”
0.30% “monkey”
0.28% “master”
0.22% “killer”
0.22% “123123”

Notice that whereas “myspace1” was one of the most popular passwords in the MySpace dataset, “phpbb” is one of the most popular passwords in the phpbb dataset.

The password length distribution is as follows:

1 character 0.34%
2 characters 0.54%
3 characters 2.92%
4 characters 12.29%
5 characters 13.29%
6 characters 35.16%
7 characters 14.60%
8 characters 15.50%
9 characters 3.81%
10 characters 1.14%
11 characters 0.22%

Note that phpbb has no requirements for password lengths …

What happens to IP when it’s easy to copy anything?

From Bruce Sterling’s “2009 Will Be a Year of Panic” (Seed: 29 January 2009):

Let’s consider seven other massive reservoirs of potential popular dread. Any one of these could erupt, shattering the fragile social compact we maintain with one another in order to believe things contrary to fact.

2. Intellectual property. More specifically, the fiat declaration that properties that are easy to reproduce shouldn’t be reproduced.

Declaring that “information wants to be free” is an ideological stance. A real-world situation where information can’t be anything but free, where digital information cannot be monetized, is bizarre and deeply scary. No banker or economist anywhere has the ghost of clue what to do under such conditions.

Intellectual property made sense and used to work rather well when conditions of production favored it. Now they don’t. If it’s simple to copy just one single movie, some gray area of fair use can be tolerated. If it becomes easy to copy a million movies with one single button-push, this vast economic superstructure is reduced to rags. Our belief in this kind of “property” becomes absurd.

To imagine that real estate is worthless is strange, though we’ve somehow managed to do that. But our society is also built on the supposed monetary worth of unreal estate. In fact, the planet’s most advanced economies are optimized to create pretty much nothing else. The ultimate global consequences of this situation’s abject failure would rank with the collapse of Communism.

Real-life superheroes

From John Harlow’s “Amateur crimefighters are surging in the US” (The Times: 28 December 2008):

There are, according to the recently launched World Superhero Registry, more than 200 men and a few women who are willing to dress up as comic book heroes and patrol the urban streets in search of, if not super-villains, then pickpockets and bullies.

They may look wacky, but the superhero community was born in the embers of the 9/11 terrorist attacks when ordinary people wanted to do something short of enlisting. They were boosted by a glut of Hollywood superhero movies.

In recent weeks, prompted by heady buzz words such as “active citizenry” during the Barack Obama campaign, the pace of enrolment has speeded up. Up to 20 new “Reals”, as they call themselves, have materialised in the past month.

The Real rules are simple. They must stand for unambiguous and unsponsored good. They must create their own Spandex and rubber costumes without infringing Marvel or DC Comics copyrights, but match them with exotic names – Green Scorpion in Arizona, Terrifica in New York, Mr Xtreme in San Diego and Mr Silent in Indianapolis.

They must shun guns or knives to avoid being arrested as vigilantes, even if their nemeses may be armed. Their best weapon is not muscle but the internet – an essential tool in their war on crime is a homepage stating the message of doom for super-villains.

[Citizen] Prime patrols some of the most dangerous streets in Phoenix but, like most Reals, is reluctant to speak about the villains he has dispatched with a blow from his martial arts-honed forearm. He does admit helping a motorist change a flat tyre.

Bruce Schneier on security & crime economics

From Stephen J. Dubner’s interview with Bruce Schneier in “Bruce Schneier Blazes Through Your Questions” (The New York Times: 4 December 2007):

Basically, you’re asking if crime pays. Most of the time, it doesn’t, and the problem is the different risk characteristics. If I make a computer security mistake — in a book, for a consulting client, at BT — it’s a mistake. It might be expensive, but I learn from it and move on. As a criminal, a mistake likely means jail time — time I can’t spend earning my criminal living. For this reason, it’s hard to improve as a criminal. And this is why there are more criminal masterminds in the movies than in real life.

Crime has been part of our society since our species invented society, and it’s not going away anytime soon. The real question is, “Why is there so much crime and hacking on the Internet, and why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?”

The answer is in the economics of Internet vulnerabilities and attacks: the organizations that are in the position to mitigate the risks aren’t responsible for the risks. This is an externality, and if you want to fix the problem you need to address it. In this essay (more here), I recommend liabilities; companies need to be liable for the effects of their software flaws. A related problem is that the Internet security market is a lemon’s market (discussed here), but there are strategies for dealing with that, too.

How movies are moved around on botnets

From Chapter 2: Botnets Overview of Craig A. Schiller’s Botnets: The Killer Web App (Syngress: 2007):

Figure 2.11 illustrates the use of botnets for selling stolen intellectual property, in this case Movies, TV shows, or video. The diagram is based on information from the Pyramid of Internet Piracy created by Motion Picture Arts Association (MPAA) and an actual case. To start the process, a supplier rips a movie or software from an existing DVD or uses a camcorder to record a first run movie in the theaters. These are either burnt to DVDs to be sold on the black market or they are sold or provided to a Release Group. The Release Group is likely to be an organized crime group, excuse me, business associates who wish to invest in the entertainment industry. I am speculating that the Release Group engages (hires) a botnet operator that can meet their delivery and performance specifications. The botherder then commands the botnet clients to retrieve the media from the supplier and store it in a participating botnet client. These botnet clients may be qualified according to the system processor speed and the nature of the Internet connection. The huge Internet pipe, fast connection, and lax security at most universities make them a prime target for this form of botnet application. MPAA calls these clusters of high speed locations “Topsites.”

. . .

According to the MPAA, 44 percent of all movie piracy is attributed to college students. Therefore it makes sense that the Release Groups would try to use university botnet clients as Topsites. The next groups in the chain are called Facilitators. They operate Web sites and search engines and act as Internet directories. These may be Web sites for which you pay a monthly fee or a fee per download. Finally individuals download the films for their own use or they list them via Peer-to-Peer sharing applications like Gnutella, BitTorrent for download.

Anonymity and Netflix

From Bruce Schneier’s “Anonymity and the Netflix Dataset” (Crypto-Gram: 15 January 2008):

The point of the research was to demonstrate how little information is required to de-anonymize information in the Netflix dataset.

What the University of Texas researchers demonstrate is that this process isn’t hard, and doesn’t require a lot of data. It turns out that if you eliminate the top 100 movies everyone watches, our movie-watching habits are all pretty individual. This would certainly hold true for our book reading habits, our internet shopping habits, our telephone habits and our web searching habits.

Other research reaches the same conclusion. Using public anonymous data from the 1990 census, Latanya Sweeney found that 87 percent of the population in the United States, 216 million of 248 million, could likely be uniquely identified by their five-digit ZIP code, combined with their gender and date of birth. About half of the U.S. population is likely identifiable by gender, date of birth and the city, town or municipality in which the person resides. Expanding the geographic scope to an entire county reduces that to a still-significant 18 percent. “In general,” the researchers wrote, “few characteristics are needed to uniquely identify a person.”

Stanford University researchers reported similar results using 2000 census data. It turns out that date of birth, which (unlike birthday month and day alone) sorts people into thousands of different buckets, is incredibly valuable in disambiguating people.

6 reasons why “content” has been devalued

From Jonathan Handel’s “Is Content Worthless?” (The Huffington Post: 11 April 2008):

Everyone focuses on piracy, but there are actually six related reasons for the devaluation of content. The first is supply and demand. Demand — the number of consumers and their available leisure time – is relatively constant, but supply — online content — has grown enormously in the last decade. Some of this is professional content set free from boundaries of time and space, now available worldwide, anytime, and usually at no cost (whether legally or not). Even more is user generated content (UGC) — websites, blogs, YouTube videos — created by non-professionals who don’t care whether they get paid, and who themselves pay little or nothing to create and distribute it.

The second is the loss of physical form. It just seems natural to value a physical thing more highly than something intangible. Physical objects have been with us since the beginning of time; distributable intangible content has not. Perhaps for that reason, we tend to focus on per-unit costs (zero for an intangible such as a movie download), while forgetting about fixed costs (such as the cost of making the movie in the first place). Also, and critically, if you steal something tangible, you deny it to the owner; a purloined DVD is no longer available to the merchant, for instance. But if you misappropriate an intangible, it’s still there for others to use. …

The third reason is that acquiring content is increasingly frictionless. It’s often easier, particularly for young people, to access content on the Internet than through traditional means. …

Fourth is that most new media business models are ad-supported rather than pay per view or subscription. If there’s no cost to the user, why should consumers see the content as valuable, and if some content is free, why not all of it? …

Fifth is market forces in the technology industry. Computers, web services, and consumer electronic devices are more valuable when more content is available. In turn, these products make content more usable by providing new distribution channels. Traditional media companies are slow to adopt these new technologies, for fear of cannibalizing revenue from existing channels and offending powerful distribution partners. In contrast, non-professionals, long denied access to distribution, rush to use the new technologies, as do pirates of professional content. As a result, technological innovation reduces the market share of paid professional content.

Finally, there’s culture. A generation of users has grown up indifferent or hostile to copyright, particularly in music, movies and software.

Scarcities and the music, movie, and publishing businesses

In Clay Shirky’s response to R.U. Sirius’ “Is The Net Good For Writers?” (10 Zen Monkeys: 5 October 2007), he takes on the persona of someone talking about what new changes are coming with the Gutenberg movable type press. At one point, he says, “Such a change would also create enormous economic hardship for anyone whose living was tied to earlier scarcities.”

It’s not just writing and writers and publishers that now face that change. Scarcities drove the music and movie businesses, and those scarcities are disappearing. When music is no longer tightly controlled in terms of creation, availability, manufacture, and distribution, when it’s possible to download or listen to anything at any time, those businesses face rapid, discombobulating change.

Is it the government’s – or society’s – duty, however, to put those scarcities back into place, either through technologies or law?

Best headline ever

From Entertainment News, 21 March 2004:

“Zombies Push Jesus from Top of North American Box Office”

(About Dawn of the Dead and The Passion of the Christ)