The bridge

Seven months ago, Mastodon was fretting about Meta’s newly-launched Threads. The issue: Threads, which was built on top of Instagram’s user database, had said it complied with the Activity Pub protocol, which allows Mastodon servers (“instances”) to federate with any other service that also uses that protocol. The potential threat that Threads would become interoperable and that potentially millions of Threads users would swamp Mastodon, ignoring its existing social norms and culture created an existential dilemma: to federate or not to federate?

Today, Threads’ integration is still just a plan.

Instead, it seems the first disruptive arrival looks set to be Bluesky, created by a team backed by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and facilitated by a third party. Bluesky wrote a new open source protocol, AT, so the proposal isn’t federation with Mastodon but a bridge, as Amanda Silberling reports at TechCrunch. According to Silberling’s numbers, year-old Bluesky stands at 4.8 million users to Mastodon’s 8.7 million. Anyone familiar with the history of AOL’s gateway to Usenet will tell you that’s big enough to disrupt existing social norms. The AOL exercise was known as Eternal September (because every September Usenet had to ingest a new generation of incoming university freshmen).

There are two key differences, however. First, a third of those Blusky users are new to that system, only joining last week, when the service opened fully to the public. They will bring challenges to the culture Bluesky has so far developed. Second, AOL’s gateway was unidirectional: AOLers could read and post to Usenet newsgroups, but Usenet posters could not read anything on AOL without paying for access. The Bluesky-Mastodon bridge is planned to be bidirectional, so anything posted publicly on one service would be accessible to both – or to outsiders using BridgyFed to connect via website feeds.

I haven’t spent a lot of time on Bluesky, but it’s clear it and Mastodon have different cultures. Friends who spend more time there say Bluesky has a “weirdness” they like and is less “scoldy” than Mastodon, where long-time users tended to school incoming ex-Twitter users in 2022 on their mistakes. That makes sense, when you consider that Mastodon has had time since its 2016 founding to develop an existing culture that newcomers are joining, where Bluesky has been a closed beta group until last week, and its users to date were the ones defining its culture for the future. The newcomers of the past week may have a very different experience.

Even if they don’t, there’s a fundamental economic difference that no technology can bridge: Mastodon is a non-profit cooperative endeavor, while Bluesky is has venture capital funding, although the list of investors is not the usual suspects. Social media users have often been burned by corporate business decisions. It’s therefore easy to believe that the $8 million in seed funding will lead inevitably to user data exploitation, no matter what they say now about being determined to find a different and more sustainable business model based on selling ancillary servicesx. Even if that strategy works, later owners or the dictates of shareholders may demand higher profits via a pivot to advertising, just as the Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming services are doing now.

Designing any software involves making rules for how it will operate and setting defaults. Here’s where the project hit trouble: should it be opt-out, so that users who don’t want their posts to be visible outside their home system have to specifically turn it off, or opt-in, so that users who want their posts published far and wide have to turn it on? BridgyFed’s creator, Ryan Barrett chose opt-out. It was immediately divisive: privacy versus openness.

Silberman reports that Barrett has fashioned a solution, giving users warning pop-ups and a chance to decline if someone from another service tries to follow them, and is thinking more carefully about the risks to safety his bridge might bring.

That’s great, but the next guy may not be so willing to reconsider. As we’ve observed before, there is no way to restrict the use of open protocols without closing them and putting them under centralized control – which is the opposite of the federated, decentralized systems Mastodon and Bluesky were created to build.

In a federated system anything one person can open another can close. Individual admins will decide for their users how their instances will operate. Those who don’t like their choice will be told they can port their accounts to one whose policies they prefer. That’s true, but unsatisfying as an answer. As the “Fediverse” grows, it must accommodate millions of mainstream users for whom moving servers is too complicated.

The key point, however, is that the illusion of control Mastodon seemed to offer is being punctured. Usenet users could have warned them: from its creation in 1979, users believed their postings were readable for a few weeks before expiring and being expunged. Then, in 1995, Steve Madere created the Deja News archive from scattered collections. Overnight, those “ephemeral” postings became permanent and searchable – and even more so, after 2001, when Google bought the archive (see groups.google.com).

The upshot: privacy in public networks is only ever illusory. Assume you have no control over anything you post, no matter how cozy and personal the network seems. As we’ve said before, the privacy-in-public afforded by the physical world has no online counterpart.

Illustrations: A mastodon by Heinrich Harder (public domain, via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

To tell the truth

It was toward the end of Craig Wright’s cross-examination on Wednesday when, for the first time in many days, he was lost for words. Wright is in court because the non-profit Crypto Open Patent Alliance seeks a ruling that he is not, as he claims, bitcoin inventor Satoshi Nakomoto, who was last unambiguously heard from in 2011.

Over the preceding days, Wright had repeatedly insisted “I am the real Satoshi” and disputed forensic analysis – anachronistic fonts, metadata, time stamps – pronouncing his proffered proofs forgeries.. He was consistently truculent, verbose, and dismissive of everyone’s expertise but his own and of everyone’s degrees except the ones he holds. For example: “Meiklejohn has not studied cryptography in any depth,” he said of Sarah Meiklejohn, the now-professor who as a student in 2013 showed that bitcoin transactions are traceable. In a favorite moment, Jonathan Hough, KC, who did most of the cross-examination, interrupted a diatribe about the failings of the press with, “Moving on from your expertise on journalism, Dr Wright…”

Participants in a drinking game based on his saying “That is not correct” would be dead of alcohol poisoning. In between, he insisted several times that he never wanted to be outed as Satoshi, and wishes that everyone would “leave me alone and let me invent”. Any money he is awarded in court he will give to charities ; he wants nothing for himself.

But at the moment we began with he was visibly stumped. The question, regarding a variable on a Github page: “Do you know what unsigned means?”

Wright: “Basically, an unsigned variable…it’s not an integer with…it’s larger. I’m not sure how to say it.”

Lawyer: “Try.”

Wright: “How I’d describe it, I’m not quite sure. I’m not good with trying to do things like this.” He could explain it easily in writing… (Transcription by Norbert on exTwitter.)

The lawyer explained it thusly: an unsigned variable cannot be a negative number.

“I understand that, but would I have thought of saying it in such a simple way? No.”

Experience as a journalist teaches you that the better you understand something the more simply and easily you can explain it. Wright’s inability to answer blew the inadequately bolted door plug out of his world’s expert persona. Everything until then could be contested: the stomped hard drive, the emails he wrote, or didn’t write, or wrote only one sentence of, the allegations that he had doctored old documents to make it look like he had been thinking about bitcoin before the publication of Satoshi’s foundational 2008 paper. But there’s no disguising lack of basic knowledge. “Should have been easy,” says a security professor (tenured, chaired) friend.

Normally, cryptography removes ambiguity. This is especially true of public key cryptography and its complementary pair of public and private keys. Being able to decrypt something with a well-attested public key is clear proof that it was encrypted with the complementary private key. Contrariwise, if a specific private key decrypts it, you know that key’s owner is the intended recipient. In both cases, as a bonus, you get proof that the text has not been altered since its encryption. It *ought* to be simple for Wright to support his claim by using Satoshi’s private keys. If he can’t do that, he must present a reason and rely on weaker alternatives.

Courts of law, on the other hand, operate on the balance of probabilities. They don’t remove ambiguity; they study it. Wright’s case is therefore a cultural clash, with far-reaching consequences. COPA is complaining that Wright’s repeated intellectual property lawsuits against developers working on bitcoin projects are expensive in both money and time. Soon after the unsigned variable exchange, the lawyer asked Wright what he will do if the court rules against him. “Move on to patents,” Wright said. He claims thousands of patents relating to bitcoin and the blockchain, and a brief glance at Google Patents shows many filings, some granted.

However this case comes out, therefore, it seems likely Wright will continue to try to control bitcoin. Wright insists that bitcoin isn’t meant to be “digital gold”, but that its true purpose is to facilitate micropayments. I haven’t “studied bitcoin in any depth” (as he might say), but as far as I can tell it’s far too slow, too resource-intensive, and too volatile to be used that way. COPA argues, I think correctly, that it’s the opposite of the world enshrined in Satoshi’s original paper; its whole point was to use cryptography to create the blockchain as a publicly attested, open, shared database that could eliminate central authorities such as banks.

In the Agatha Christie version of this tale, most likely Wright would be an imposter, an early hanger-on who took advantage of the gap formed by Satoshi’s disappearance and the deaths of other significant candidates. Dorothy Sayers would have Lord Peter Wimsey display unexpected mathematical brilliance to improve on Satoshi’s work, find him, and persuade him to turn over his keys and documents to king and country. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have both Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes on the trail. Holmes would get there first and send him into protection to ensure Morarty couldn’t take criminal advantage. And then the whole thing would be hushed up in the public interest.

The case continues.

Illustrations: The cryptographic code from “The Dancing Men”, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Review: Virtual You

Virtual You: How Building Your Digital Twin Will Revolutionize Medicine and Change Your Life
By Peter Coveney and Roger Highfield
Princeton University Press
ISBN: 978-0-691-22327-8

Probably the quickest way to appreciate how much medicine has changed in a lifetime is to pull out a few episodes of TV medical series over the years: the bloodless 1960s Dr Kildare; the 1980s St Elsewhere, which featured a high-risk early experiment in now-routine cardiac surgery; the growing panoply of machcines and equipment of the 2000s series E.R. (1994-2009). But there are always more improvements to be made, and around 2000, when the human genome was being sequenced, we heard a lot about the promise of personalized medicine it was supposed to bring. Then we learned over time that, as so often with scientific advances, knowing more merely served to show us how much more we *didn’t* know – in the genome’s case, about epigenetics, proteomics, and the microbiome. With some exceptions such as cancers that can be tested for vulnerability to particular drugs, the dream of personalized medicine so far mostly remains just that.

Growing alongside all that have been computer models, mostly famously used for metereology and climate change predictions. As Peter Coveney and Roger Highfield explain in Virtual You, models are expected to play a huge role in medicine, too. The best-known use is in drug development, where modeling can help suggest new candidates. But the use that interests Coveney and Highfield is on the personal level: a digital twin for each of us that can be used to determine the right course of treatment by spotting failures in advance, or help us make better lifestyle choices tailored to our particular genetic makeup.

This is not your typical book of technology hype. Instead, it’s a careful, methodical explanation of the mathematical and scientific basis for how this technology will work and its state of development from math and physics to biology. As they make clear, developing the technology to create these digital twins is a huge undertaking. Each of us is a massively complex ecosystem generating masses of data and governed by masses of variables. Modeling our analog selves requires greater complexity than may even be possible with classical digital computers. Coveney and Highfield explain all this meticulously.

It’s not as clear to me as it is to them that virtual twins are the future of mainstream “retail” medicine, especially if, as they suggest, they will be continually updated as our bodies produce new data. Some aspects will be too cost-effective to ignore; ensuring that the most expensive treatments are directed only to those who can benefit will be a money saver to any health service. But the vast amount of computational power and resources likely required to build and maintain a virtual twin for each individual seem prohibitive for all but billionaires. As in engineering, where virtual twins are used for prototyping or meterology, where simulations have led to better and more detailed forecasts, the primary uses seem likely to be at the “wholesale” level. That still leaves room for plenty of revolution.

Nefarious

Torrentfreak is reporting that OCLC, owner of the WorldCat database of bibliographic records, is suing the “shadow library” search engine Anna’s Archive. The claim: that Anna’s Archive hacked into WorldCat, copied 2.2TB of records, and posted them publicly.

Shadow libraries are the text version of “pirate” sites. The best-known is probably Sci-Hub, which provides free access to hundreds of thousands of articles from (typically expensive) scientific journals. Others such as Library Genesis and sites on the dark web offer ebooks. Anna’s Archive indexes as many of these collections as it can find; it was set up in November 2022, shortly after the web domains belonging to the then-largest of these book libraries, Z-Library, were seized by the US Department of Justice. Z-Library has since been rebuilt on the dark web, though it remains under attack by publishers and law enforcement.

Anna’s Archive also includes some links to the unquestionably legal and long-running Gutenberg Project, which publishes titles in the public domain in a wide variety of formats.

The OCLC-Anna’s Archive case has a number of familiar elements that are variants of long-running themes, open versus gatekept being the most prominent. Like many such sites (post-Napster), Anna’s Archive does not host files itself. That’s no protection from the law; authorities in various countries from have nonetheless blocked or seized the domains belonging to such sites. But OCLC is not a publisher or rights holder, although it takes large swipes at Anna’s Archive for lawlessness and copyright infringement. Instead, it says Anna’s Archive hacked WorldCat, violating its terms and conditions, disrupting its business arrangements, and costing it $1.4 million and 10,000 employee hours in system remediation. Second, it complains that Anna’s Archive has posted the data in the aggregate for public download, and is “actively encouraging nefarious use of the data”. Other than the use of “nefarious”, there seems little to dispute about either claim; Anna’s Archive published the details in an October 2023 blog posting.

Anna’s Archive describes this process as “preserving” the world’s books for public access. OCLC describes it as “tortious inference” with its business. It wants the court to issue injunctive relief to make the scraping and use of the data stop, compensatory damages in excess of $75,000, punitive damages, costs, and whatever else the court sees fit. The sole named defendant is a US citizen, María A. Matienzo, thought to be resident near Seattle. If the identification and location are correct, that’s a high-risk situation to be in.

In the blog posting, Anna’s Archive writes that its initial goal was to answer the question of what percentage of the world’s published books are held in shadow libraries and create a to-do list of gaps to fill. To answer these questions, they began by scraping ISBNdb, the database of publications with ISBNs, which only came into use in 1970. When the overlap with the Internet Archive’s Open Library and the seized Z-library was less than they hoped, they turned to Worldcat. At that point, they openly say that security flaws in the fortuitously redesigned Worldcat website allowed them to grab more or less the comprehensive set of records. While scraped“>scraping can be legal, exploiting security flaws to gain unauthorized access to a computer system likely violates the widely criticized Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (1986), which could be a felony. OCLC has, however, brought a civil case.

Anna’s Archive also searches the Internet Archive’s Open Library, founded in 2006. In 2009, co-creator Aaron Swartz told me that he believed the creation of Open Library pushed OCLC into opening up greater public access to the basic tier of its bibliographic data. The Open Library currently has its own legal troubles; it lost in court in August 2023 after Hachette sued it for copyright infringement. The Internet Archive is appealing; in the meantime it is required to remove on request of any member of the American Asociation of Publishers any book commercially available in electronic format.

OCLC began life as the Ohio Library College Library Center; its WorldCat database is a collaboration between it and its member libraries to create a shared database of bibliographic records and enable online cataloguing. The last time I wrote about it, in 2009, critics were complaining that libraries in general were failing to bring book data onto the open web. It has gotten a lot better in the years since, and many local libraries are now searchable online and enable their card holders to borrow from their holdings of ebooks over the web.

The fact that it’s now often possible to borrow ebooks from libraries should mean there’s less reason to use unauthorized sites. Nonetheless, these still appeal: they have the largest catalogues, the most convenient access, DRM-free files, and no time limits, so you can read them at your leisure using the full-featured reader you prefer.

In my 2009 piece, an OCLC spokesperson fretted about “over-exploitation”, which there would be no good way to maintain or update countless unknown scattered pockets of data, seemingly a solvable problem.

OCLC and its member libraries are all non-profit organizations ultimately funded by taxpayers. The data they collect has one overriding purpose: to facilitate public access to libraries’ holdings by showing who holds what books in which editions. What are “nefarious” uses? Arguably, the data they collect should be public by right. But that’s not the question the courts will decide.

Illustrations: The New York Public Library, built 1911 (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Irreparable harm, part II

Time to revisit the doping case of Karmila Valieva, the 15-year-old Russian figure skater who was allowed to compete in the February 2022 Winter Olympics despite testing positive for the banned substance trimetazidine on the grounds that banning her from competition would cause her “irreparable harm”. The harm was never defined, but presumably went something like careers are short, Valieva was a multiple champion and the top prospect for gold, and she could be later disqualified but couldn’t retroactively compete. An adult would have been disqualified there and then, but 15-year-old was made a “protected person” in the World Anti-Doping Agency’s 2021 code.

Two years on, the Court for Arbitration of Sport has confirmed she is banned for four years, backdated to December 2021, and will be stripped of the results, prizes, medals, and awards she has won in the interim. CAS, the ultimate authority in such cases, did not buy her defense that her grandfather, who is prescribed trimetazidine, inadvertently contaminated her food. She will be eligible to compete again in December 2026.

In a paper, Marcus Camposa,b, Jim Parrya, and Irena Martínková conclude that the WADA’s concept of “protected person” “transforms…potential victims into suspects”. As they write, the “protection” is more imagined than real, since minors are subjected to the same tests and the same sanctions as adults. While the code talks of punishing those involved in doping minors, to date the only person suffering consequences for Valieva’s positive test is Valieva, still a minor but no longer a “protected person”.

A reminder: besides her positive test for trimetazidine, widely used in Russia to prevent angina attacks, Valieva had therapeutic use exemptions for two other heart medications. How “protected” is that? Shouldn’t the people authorizing TUEs raise the alarm when a minor is being prescribed multiple drugs for a condition vastly more typical of middle-aged men?

According to the Anti-doping Database, doping is not particularly common in figure skating – but Russia has the most cases. WADA added trimetazidine to the banned list in 2014 as a metabolic modulator; if it helps athletes it’s by improving cardiovascular efficiency and therefore endurance. CNN compares it to meldonium, the drug that got tennis player Maria Sharapova banned in 2016.

In a statement, the World Anti-Doping Agency said it welcomed the ruling but that “The doping of children is unforgivable. Doctors, coaches or other support personnel who are found to have provided performance-enhancing substances to minors should face the full force of the World Anti-Doping Code. Indeed, WADA encourages governments to consider passing legislation – as some have done already – making the doping of minors a criminal offence.” That seems essential for real protection; otherwise the lowered sanctions imposed upon minors could be an incentive to take more risks doping them.

The difficulty is that underage athletes are simultaneously children and professional athletes competing as peers with adults. For the rules of the sport itself, of course the rules must be the same; 16-year-old Mirren Andreeva doesn’t get an extra serve or a larger tennis court to hit into. Hence 2014 bronze medalist Ashley Wagner’s response to an exTwitter poster calling the ruling irrational and cruel: “every athlete plays by the same rules”. But anti-doping protocols are different, involving issues of consent, medical privacy, and public shaming. For the rest of the field, it’s not fair to exempt minors from the doping rules that apply to everyone else; for the minor, who lacks agency and autonomy, it’s not fair if you don’t. This is only part of the complexity of designing an anti-doping system and applying it equally to minors, 40-something hundred-millionaire tennis players, and minimally funded athletes in minority sports who go back to their day jobs when the comptition ends.

Along with its statement, WADA launched the Operation Refuge report (PDF) on doping and minors. The most commonly identified doping substance for both girls and boys is the diuretic furosemide followed by methylphenidate (better known as the ADHD medication Ritalin). The most positive tests come from Russia, India, and China. The youngest child sanctioned for a doping violation was 12. The report goes on to highlight the trauma and isolation experienced by child athletes who test positive – one day a sporting hero, the next a criminal.

The alphabet soup of organizations in charge of Valieva’s case – the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, the International Skating Union, WADA, CAS – could hardly have made a bigger mess. The delays: it took six weeks to notify Valieva of her positive test, and two years to decide her case. Then, despite the expectation that disqualifying Valieva disqualifies her entire team, the ISU recalculated the standings, giving Russia the bronze medal, the US the gold, and Japan silver. The Canadian team, which placed fourth, is considering an appeal; Russia is preparing one. Ironically, according to this analysis by Martina Frammartino, the Russian bench is so strong that it could easily have won gold if Valeeva’s positive test had come through in time to replace her.

I’ve never believed that the anti-doping system was fit for purpose; considered as a security system, too many incentives are misaligned, as became clear in 2016, when the extent of Russian state-sponsored doping became public. This case shows the system at its worst.

Illustrations: Kamila Valieva in 2018 (via Luu at Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon