Scoble is laying down fertilizer

Mark Hughes reacts in much the same way (but far more entertainingly) than I have to the cheerleading that Scoble is doing for his corporate puppet masters. The best part:

Robert, you haven’t been fired for what you say because you’re not a “journalist”, you’re not any kind of respected voice, you’re just a dancing bear. Microsoft desperately needed a marketing shill like you to make it look like they were more open, but you haven’t actually produced any of this “openness”, “innovation”, or in the latest round of Gatesian NewSpeak, “interoperability”.

If real Microsoft programmers went ahead and said what they think without fear of censorship, that would be open. Linux developers say whatever the hell they want, and are only judged on the quality of their software. Even our insanity is better–our crazies are crazier than your crazies. Even Sun developers can say what they think these days, now that Schwartz openly kicks sand in the face of corporate rivals on his blog.

I know it’s beginning to look like I’m gunning for Scoble, but I find his apologetics for Microsoft to be annoying. Scoble is the amiable face to a vast, unsympathetic and largely inept corporate behemoth. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but he is spreading fertilizer. It might just be possible that occasionally he is able to serve his corporate puppet masters and you, his customer.

But I’m not betting on it.

More Long Hair Hippy Talk

Back on February 9th, I wrote a post about how I was feeling like a podcasting hippy, because I asserted that I wasn’t going to beg people to vote for me on any of a number of different sites which attempt to rank podcasts.

I didn’t really expect it to be noticed, but Dave Slusher mentioned it in his February 13th podcast. Dave apparently tried really hard to walk the past to “podcast purity”, but finds himself asking that people vote for him on podcastalley, and expressed the opinion that I would be disappointed with him.

Dave, fear not! I’m not disappointed. I wasn’t really trying to act as anyone’s conscience, although in reading my posting again, I see that it could be taken that way, and there are several other related points I could have made more forcefully. Let me try again, and perhaps in the repetition my point will be made more clearly.

First of all, I’m not immune to the call of popularity. I get a charge with every email that I get regarding my weblog and my podcasts. The idea that people the entire world over may be looking forward to the new episode of Brainwagon Radio just rocks my world. I’m averaging about three hundred downloads per episode. That’s three hundred people who have volunteered fifteen minutes of their day to find out what I’m doing and what I have to say. That rocks my world.

When I began podcasting, pubsub.com gave a linkrank for my blog somewhere in the eight hundred thousand range or lower. Today, my blog is ranked about fifty thousandth. Why do I know these things? Why, because I’d like to know how popular I am, of course. I also noted that you are ranked about 1000. Man, that’s really cool. If we assume that popularity scales as Zipf’s law, that means that you should be reaching about fifty times as many people as I am, or fifteen thousand people per episode. Yeowza! Good job, man.

A couple of months ago I asked myself a question: “What are these guys doing to attract readers and listeners that I am not doing?” After all, I was podcasting really close to the beginning. Many popular podcasts began significantly after me. Why have some podcasts gone through explosive growth in popularity, while mine has trudged along with fairly meager growth in popularity? You see, I wanted to be one of the popular kids too.

A few days worth of contemplation gave me a few answers.

One reason that people are more popular is quite simply that they work harder than I do. Take for example Todd over at Geek News Central. That guy is obviously busting his ass to promote his podcast, develop ties to others who are doing podcasting, trying to line up sponsors, checking every statistic he can find to see who is linking to him, and begging his listeners to vote for him. He’s doing everything he can to make every objective measure he can find as positive as possible.

The second reason that people are more popular is that they have offer a better product. Take Michael Geohagen and his outstanding Reel Reviews. Oh, my, god. That guy is simply outstanding! He takes a popular topic (movies) and delivers terrific content every time.

Lastly, the third reason that some podcasts are more popular is because some of the people behind the podcast are more popular. Take for example Adam, or Dawn and Drew. They are successful as podcasters not so much because of their message, but because they are the ones saying the message. The triumph of personality over content.

So, after introspection, I had my answers. If I wanted to be popular, if I wanted to climb into the stratosphere of elite podcasters, I saw what I needed to do.

But I also saw that what I needed to do wasn’t what I wanted to do.

My friend Tom runs an experimental music series in here in Berkeley. One time I asked him why he did it, why he poured his energy and his cash into it, and he said “nobody else is promoting the kind of music that I want to listen to, and if I don’t do it, nobody else will”. That conversation popped back into my head as I thought about podcasting.

Underneath all of the talking about gadgets and geeky computer science and audio and the like, I have a message:

The Internet will allow you to communicate with people you’ve never met, and exchange information about any topic, no matter how niche, no matter how small. You can use whatever medium you desire: text, audio or video and directly reach people in their spare moments throughout the day. And most importantly, no matter what skill level you have, even if your budget is miniscule, you can do it.

To me, my audience isn’t an audience, they are all potential bloggers and podcasters. Perhaps all they need is an example of one guy podcasting for the sheer fun of it to realize that they can do it, that they can participate. The world would be better if everyone were blogging, if everyone were recording their stories and ideas, and sharing their photographs. Just as my friend Tom is trying to create an environment where music is created, encouraged and shared, I’m podcasting in part to show that your thoughts and ideas can be shared.

People will fight for fame and fortune. I’m not surprised or even disappointed that it happens. But I’m interested in podcasting because it gives an outlet for individuals in the long tail. Maybe some of us will become famous out here, but regardless, this is where the good stuff is, even if it isn’t popular. I know why I blog and podcast, and that’s enough for me.

Elementary Crypto Lesson

I’ve been interested in codes and cryptography for quite some time. I find them at the fascinating intersection of history, mathematics and computer science: all topics that I like to read about and experiment with. Let me give you a basic crypto lesson, with a moral at the end.

Let’s say that all your messages are coded just with capital letters, and you remove all spaces. This gives you an alphabet of (suprise!) 26 letters. Let’s say that you wish to encode a message. You think to yourself: golly, I know what I’ll do. I’ll convert each letter its corresponding number in the range of 1-26. That will make it confusing! So my message HELLO will translate into

8-5-12-12-15

But that doesn’t seem very hard. People could crack that pretty simply. What to do… what to do…

Well, I could scramble the letter order. Perhaps if A was represented by 13, and B by 8, and so on, they couldn’t figure it out. But if you do cryptograms in the newspaper, you know that even with a modest amount of code text, you can crack these things pretty easily using frequency analysis and the like.

Let’s go back to our simple code again. Imagine that we had a second text, the same length as the first that we could use as a key. To encode we add the two numbers together, and if the result is greater than 26, we subtract 26. That will certainly jumble up the frequencies, preventing some kinds of analysis, and since the key is long, techniques for polyalphabetic ciphers won’t really work either.

But there is a serious flaw. Imagine that you could guess a word in the cipher text. Perhaps if the message were addressed to me, it would contain BRAINWAGON or even worse VANDEWETTERING. You could try to subtract these words out of the cipher text, and if normal words popped out the other side, you would have a partial decrypt of both the message and the encoding stream. This may seem difficult if all you are used to is normal substitution ciphers, but in fact it is dead simple to break.

One way to avoid this problem is to use what is called a one time pad. If the encoding stream is truly random, then when you can’t recover the encoding stream (it is, after all, perfectly random). One time pads are perfectly secure, with the caveat that you can never, ever, ever reuse a one time pad. Why? Because then you could subtract the two messages, the one time pad data drops out, and you are left with the simple, easy to break case listed above.

Why the cryptography lesson? Because Bruce Schneier (author of the excellent book Applied Cryptography) points out that no less than Microsoft makes this exact error. When you save a Word document, it reencodes it with precisely the same stream, and therefore if you have access to multiple versions of the same document, you can recover the entire document with elementary cryptanalysis.

This is one of the reasons I like open source: you can audit software to find errors like this, and work to correct them quickly.

Anyway, if you like cryptography, privacy and information issues, subscribe to Bruce’s Cryptogram. It’s good stuff.