The Laboratorium
October 2002

Burn Before Reading


Last week, spammers discovered blogs. Many blogs -- not this one! -- use tools to crawl their referrer logs; these tools then update the blog to include a list of "incoming links." It's a step towards a nice idea -- I've ranted before about how good it would be if all links on the Web were bidirectional -- but it suffers from a fatal weakness. Reload a page a few thousand times with a fake source URL and that URL will jump to the top of the "incoming links" list.

This is exactly what a few enterprising spammers have started doing; they're placing text ads on blogs that didn't even realize they had commerical "sponsors." So far, the big money appears to be in selling these tools to desparate (and dumb) online marketers.

I was pondering this business model today with a measure of awe. It's brilliant, and it's wholly evil. And then I thought of something even more evil. Comment forms.

It's so ridiculously easy. Many blogs -- not this one! -- have comment forms attached to every post. All you have to do is go to a blog, click on a "comment on this post" link, type MAKE MONEY FAST into the "Comments" field, and hit the submit button. Bingo: that's an ad.

If you're a robot, you can do this to an awful lot of blogs awfully quickly. Finding blogs is no problem. There are central indices of blogs -- and lots of blogs link to other blogs in very standard ways. Parsing for the comments links is easy -- there are only a few major blog tools with significant market share and each has a standard HTML format for comments links. And the forms themselves are trivial -- they're just CGI scripts; all you need is a target URL (easily parsed out from the source) and you're all set.

The bad guys are going to figure this out soon. Someone out there is probably already writing a script to do it. And when this villain unleashes his dastardly tool on an unsuspecting blogiverse, the devastation will be profound. Comments sections are going to become unusable, and probably almost overnight.

There are other comments architectures that are more secure against such attacks. The anti-spam vigilantes have a whole toolkit: centralized IP block lists, heuristic text-matching filters, (technically) mandatory registration, moderation, and others besides. But retrofitting these features onto existing blog-comment systems will take time, programming effort, and user upgrades. A long time, a lot of effort, and many, many upgrades.

Get started now, guys. Now.

Update (2 Nov 2002): It turns out this is one of those Darwin-Wallace cases of multiple simultaneous independent discovery. Someone out there has been trying this attack, albeit in a crude form. And several very good discussions of the security implications and possible responses have been taking place over the last few days. dive into mark has what seems to be the canonical summary.

Ironically enough, I found this discussion by reading my referrer logs. I discovered I'd been linked from BoingBoing. The discussion forum there contained a note saying "This Laboratorium guy needs to get out more" and linking to Mark's discussion. Now, while it's an open and notorious fact that I need to get out more, I had never heard of any of the blogs on which this issue was being discussed until today. Nor did the thread make any of the meta-blogs I follow. Since the discussion is so recent, it's not in Google.

In short, I had no way of knowing that there was a thriving discussion of these issues already taking place. It would be nice if there a way of finding existing -- including recent -- discussion (which would, of course, taking some form of searchability). If the Ted Nelson-style Internet Utopia is going to be built on the backs of blogs, some sort of functionality of this sort will be an important prerequistite.

But Where Will They Find Their Wives?


They distributed the school's policy on the "rights and duties of members" of its intellectual community today. Well, truth be told, this is the second time they distributed it; thanks to a printing error, the previous version was missing every other page. Rights only, I suppose.

There's a section on "Teacher-Student Consensual Relations," basically to the effect that the school is categorically not a consensual participant in such relations. More technically, the school forbids sexual relationships in cases of direct supervision -- which is to say, in any situation in which the school itself, as an institution with academic policies and intellectual street cred, becomes involved.

I'm on board with the policy, of course, but I'm put in mind of Harvey Mansfield's line about Harvard's policy to the same effect: "But where will the professors find their wives?" (Mansfield has shown, over the years, a remarkable talent for putting his foot in his mouth. My favorite Harveyism was a line no quasi-authoritarian conservative should ever, ever risk uttering: "We had our enemies and we got them. We got them good on Halloween.")

Anyway, thinking about Harvey and his pet fixations in this context got me thinking about the real implications of a zero-tolerance policy for faculty-student relationships. After all, here in law school, the first thing you learn is that the written law is only a starting point, never an answer in itself.

In some sense, the point of such a rule is that these relationships are inextricably bound up with power issues: the power of a professor to pass or to fail, to launch a career or to destroy it. So, it might be said, the University wants to preserve this power relation and reserve it for its own uses. No fair squandering the erotic charge of such power on sex games; you're here to work, dammit.

What the announced rule actually does, however, is to invert the power dynamic. It devolves on the student the power to fail the professor by talking to the Dean, a power that trumps the professor's supervisory powers. The policy is not self-executing, nor can it be; it relies on people to lodge compaints and launch its procedures. The policy is, quite literally, empowering to students. This is the point.

Economists might say that professors are in a better position (in many senses) to decide whether or not to initiate such a relationship; therefore placing the liability on them achieves a more efficient result. I think the economists need to go outside, play with a puppy, and make some flower garlands. It's enough to note the altered power relations and leave it at that.

Because once you look at things this way, the real complaint of the Mansfields of the world is a lot clearer. Here you have doms who've gone into the professoriat only to have the universities turn around and decree that tenure is for subs. Of course they're upset.

Think I'm straining my point? Well, chew on this: next semester, Mansfield is teaching a class on manliness.

Unblinded by Science


I discovered last night that you can see your own static electricity well enough to see by. In fact, without glasses, you see more of a pale yellowish-green glow than individual sparks -- I remember it as being a sort of firefly color.

This discovery was immediately followed by a period of rubbing my cotton robe on my hair and scuffing my feet on the carpet in a (successful) attempt to replicate the phenonmeon.

Absolute and Absolve Come From the Same Root


Rivi once said to me, "No statement that general can ever possibly be true!" At the time, I was amused by the paradoxical quality of her claim; it was, of course, a statement in the most general terms possible, and therefore denied its own truth. Still, she had a point.

I am suspicious of generalizations, of absolutes in any form. I'm wary of religious rectitude, of political theorists and their perfect systems, of physicists who swear by the tangible reality of their theories, of all certainties and necessities, no matter how utter. I will not swear that something is always right or always wrong; "right" and "wrong" themselves are such contingent human contrivances that the possibility of exceptions to even their most general rules seems wholly plausible.

About two years ago, I turned this principle on myself and went rooting through my other principles, ripping out instances of undue certainty. Among the casualties was my confidence that the death penalty is always and invariably wrong. Not that I decided to endorse executions as the cure for all society's woes; I just concluded that, whatever else might be said against it, state-sponsored killing was not categorically forbidden by an invariable moral rule valid in all circumstances.

It's a shame, in the sense that such a rule is the single strongest argument against the death penalty as practiced in this country. It is the argument that brooks no argument. From William Lloyd Garrison to Randall Terry, absolutists have deployed their moral inflexibility as a tool of persuasion. But I think there is strength, too, in being able to maintain one's principled position in the face of honest debate without needing to rely on the artificial prop of the absolute.

What remains is a set of observations about the death penalty as it operates: who is killed, on what (slender) basis, and under what grotesque and arbitrary circumstances. To this, add the false promises -- of closure, of safety, of so much more -- with which executions distract a society from healthy responses to its crimes. And continue with the thought that of all the things Leviathan may do with the power placed in its hands by the people who constitute it, killing those people is surely one of the least defensible. Every execution is a murder in which we all share. (True, we all share in every murder, but with an execution, the chain of culpability is more direct). But that, in itself, will still not prove that they are per se indefensibly wrong and necessarily, intrinsically, forbidden forever and always.

For now, my thoughts are on criminals and death because of the D.C. sniper. The sniper and his unknown dread are the toughest test I can remember for my stance on the death penalty. The clues are few and scattered, but what few details we have all point in the same direction: heartless, calculating depravity combined with contempt for humanity and personal greed.

In his way, I think he qualifies as distinctly more evil than the 9-11 hijackers. They were certainly a lesson in the gross evil worked by absolutism, but at the same time they were willing to die for their twisted principles and they connected their killings to making the world a better place (for a certain narrow and subjective version of "better"). The sniper's obscure motivations seem to lie somewhere between pure, murderous misanthropy and ugly opportunism.

You also have to admit that the death penalty would appear to be a much better deterrent to would-be suburban snipers than to would-be homicdal suicides. So if they catch the sniper -- and we all hope that "if" is really a "when" -- I would find it harder to make the claim that he should live than to make such a claim on behalf of an African-American teen convicted by an all-white jury on the testimony of unreliable police informant for a convenience-store robbery gone wrong. Much harder.

Hard enough that I'd say he should be killed, or fall silent and be counted among those silently acquiescing? I don't know. There are terrible political calculations involved; a principle maintained in the tough cases is worth more than one that only pops up to weigh in when it doesn't matter. Can I say that I'd be opposed to his execution, but less opposed? Will anyone understand me if I do? Our political discourse is so attenuated that such gradations of meaning are mistaken for waffling, or for nothing at all. But what else is there to say? The death penalty is wrong, just not absolutely wrong. And the sniper is evil.

But not absolutely evil.

New Ideas Old Buildings


Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.

-- Jane Jacobs

Sticks and Strings


I shared an apartment with David the summer after sophomore year. The music he liked, I'd never heard of. In the middle of the summer, he bought the new album by his favorite band, and proceeded to play it over and over. And over. Every day when he came home from work, the first thing David would do was pop the album in the CD player and hit play. I grew to hate the Tindersticks. Hate hate hate them.

Well, David came to town yesterday with an extra ticket for the Tindersticks show. I went, and it was good, and I'm probably going to go buy that very same album and play it over and over. And over. When I get home from school, I'll start by popping it in the CD player and hit play.

It's funny how tastes change over time. I've experienced the shifts in my musical habits almost as a matter of stumbling towards maturity. In college, I was simply not musically mature enough to like the lugubrious Tindersticks sound. It was my good fortune that David's Tindersticks obsession came round for a second chance at my ears now that I'm older, sadder, and wiser.

Of course, I still don't care much for most of the other bands he likes . . .

Mill On Eccentrics


That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.

-- John Stuart Mill

Civic Duties


I went down to the town hall today to be a better citizen. First, I registered to vote, which was easy and satisfying, even if they insisted on having the clerk fill out the form instead of me. Weighing the equities, I decided to put myself down as "Green;" watching the Democrats surgically remove their own backbones this last year has been an alienating experience.

Getting a resident parking permit, though, was an exercise in bad government. First of all, you have to be paid up on your parking tickets to get a permit. It turned out that there were a couple tickets in their computer that I'd never heard of; as if to compensate, their computer didn't recognize one of the tickets that I'd found on my car. The clerk didn't seem to understand my concern that among these these mystery tickets might be two halves of the same clam.

The other thing about this system is that they won't actually give me my permit for 30 days -- even though they now have in hand all the information they need to issue one. Between now and then, I don't have to pay new parking tickets. On the other hand, if I have outstanding parking tickets, they won't grant me the permit, and my tickets for the next month will count -- and, in fact, will double in price if I sit on them for more than two weeks. I just need to hope there's not another phantom ticket out there that was issued to me, never actually slapped on my car, and not yet in their computers. The circularity of the system strikes me as characteristic of municipal government.

While I was filling out my form at the Traffic and Parking office, a woman came in with a street-sweeping-day ticket she considered unjust. Unfortunately for her, her English was only good enough to say, "I'm sorry, I need someone to speak Spanish to me," -- far better than the Spanish of anyone working in the Traffic and Parking office.

But maybe there was someone upstairs, one of the janitors maybe, who spoke Spanish. Carmine? No? Carlos, then? Soneone went upstairs to check if Carlos was still around, while the rest of the folks on duty sighed loudly and explained the problem to each other. This is America, we speak English here, one of them said.

Those perfect rejoinders come only in hindsight. Spanish was spoken in what would become this country long before English was.

Law School in a Nutshell, Part III


The third part of my geek guide to law is up at LawMeme. Have at.

Scratch That


The New Yorker came today. Suitably mindless -- plus two wonderfully out-of-nowhere cartoons.

Where’s Hollywood When You Need It?


Long day. Brain fried. Need passive entertainment.

But this movie season, much like every other movie season in recent memory, performs sex acts on farm animals. What few moviegoing pleasures this season might offer are not available in this hick burg. The nearest showing of Spirited Away is 35 miles from here; the nearest showings of Heaven and Das Experiment are 80 miles away.

Of course, not one of these movies is genuinely American. Where's the mindless amusement we're supposed to be so good at when you really need it?

Samuel Nelson on War


Now, in one sense, no doubt this is war, and may be a war of the most extensive and threatening dimensions and effects, but it is a statement simply of its existence in a material sense, and has no relevancy or weight when the question is what constitutes war in a legal sense, in the sense of the law of nations, and of the Constitution of the United States. For it must be a war in this sense to attach to it all the consequences that belong to belligerent rights. Instead, therefore, of inquiring after armies and navies, and victories lost and won . . . the inquiry should be into the law of nations and into the . . . fundamental laws of the Government. For we find there that to constitute a . . . war in the sense in which we are speaking, before it can exist, in contemplation of law, it must be recognized or declared by . . . the Congress of the United States. . . [W]ar, therefore, under our system of government, can exist only by an act of Congress, which requires the assent of two of the great departments of the Government, the Executive and Legislative.

Those words were written by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Nelson, in a time of great national crisis, to defend the Constitution againt an overreaching President who had called out troops without explicit Congressional authorization.

Before anyone gets too eager to apply Nelson's ringing phrases to current events, let me add a few details. The President in question was Abraham Lincoln, the war was the Civil War, and in the case at hand, Nelson was arguing that the blockade of Southern ports Lincoln imposed in the weeks after Fort Sumter was unconstitutional.

Ideas have a funny way of jumping ideological fences, don't they?

Law School In A Nutshell, Part Two


Now up at LawMeme (actually, it's been up for several days, but I forgot to link it) is the second part of my geek guide to law. Today's theme is the interplay between "fact," "law," and clever lawyering.

I Spleen New York


There are two Metrocard machines, but only the one on the right is taking bills. Its line stretches back twenty people or more. I have quarters, so I hop behind the three confused teens in the line on the left. They're trying to got a $1.50 card. No, not a single-ride card. They want a regular card with $1.50 on it. After a minute of confused frustration at the machine's recalcitrance, they give up and wander away. I step forward and start hitting the buttons.

"Hey, there's a line!' shouts a guy to my right. I turn around. "Do you have coins?" I ask him. "Go ahead." I step aside and wave him in front of me. He doesn't move; neither does anyone else waiting in theline. After a few monents of this madness, I turn back to the machine, feed it my quarters, take my single-ride card, and go on my merry way.

His combination of voluntary inconvenience with untethered anger strikes me as being distinctive to New York.

Roles and Rules


The former dean told me two stories today. In the one, a group of students had arranged to bring a speaker to campus, a speaker whose message, although empowering in some ways, was also quite clearly filled with hate in others. A second group of students came to him, and asked him to cancel the event. He refused, saying that as the dean, he considered himself charged with upholding the school's commitment to free speech, a commitment he valued. The speaker came, the second group of students picketed the event, and the dean joined them, carrying a sign as he picketed his own school.

In the second story, he had helped start a holiday party for all of the children associated with the school in one way or another: the children of faculty and students and staff, little brothers and sisters from community mentoring, and so on. One of the faculty members traditionally dressed up as Santa Claus; the dean dressed up as an elf, in tights and a cap.

You must find your own way of being dean -- or of doing whatever job it is that you choose to do -- he told me. You must uphold the commitments you take on when you enter the job, but you must also shape the job to your own sense of right and wrong.

I asked some questions to clarify my sense of what he was telling me; please forgive me if what I say here is a poor paraphrase of his point. He didn't picket or wear tights as a private citizen, he picketed and wore tights as dean. At the same time, picketing and wearing tights were in no way part of the job description for dean of the law school. In every office, there is space between what is required and what is allowed, and every officeholder has the choice of how to fill that space. An office is not simply a set of powers and a set of restrictions; it is something which must be brought to life.

It may be the wisest thing I've ever heard anyone say.

A Metaphor


You know how knife sharpening works? You have a wheel, solid and rough, studded with tiny stones, that rotates at an almost unimaginably fast speed. You take the knife, and you bring the knife up against the wheel like so, and the wheel spins and grinds, ripping away bits of the knife as it removes everything besides that focused edge.

This is like that, only the knife that you must hold against the wheel is yourself.