May 26, 2024

Archives for April 2007

Miracle Fruit: Tinkering with our Taste Buds

Miraculin, the extract of a West African fruit, is said to make sour foods taste sweet. It’s not sugary, but it’s said to trick your taste buds into misreporting the flavor of the food you’re eating. One of my students, Bill Zeller, bought some miraculin and a group of us tried it out. Here, in the interest of science, is my report.

Miraculin is a lumpy powder, dull red in color, that results from freeze-drying the flesh of the so-called miracle fruit. Here’s about twenty-five grams of miraculin, with a lime for size comparison.

Bill bought fifty grams of miraculin, which came by mail from Ghana. Both Ghana and the U.S. required customs paperwork before the fruit-based product could be shipped. Here’s the Republic of Ghana export permit.

I took a lump of miraculin, weighing a gram or two, and carefully ate it, pushing it around on my tongue as it dissolved.

It didn’t have much taste, and the texture was a bit gummy. Once it was all dissolved I waited a minute or so for the effect to kick in. The effect is said to wear off after about twenty minutes, so it was time for the taste test to begin.

As predicted, the miraculin made sour things taste sweet. Lemon wedges tasted like sweet lemonade. Lime wedges were sweet too. I could still sense the acidity of the fruit, and there was a detectable sour taste but it seemed to be covered over with a pleasant citrus sweetness. I could have eaten whole lemons or limes with no problem.

The grapefruit was stunning, perhaps the best-tasting fruit I have ever eaten. The ones we had were pretty sweet already as grapefruit go, but with miraculin they were distinctly but not overly sweet, and the underlying grapefruit flavor came through beautifully. I had to stop myself from wolfing down several grapefruit.

After the fruit I tried some other foods that were handy. Pizza tasted about the same as usual, though the tomato sauce had a slightly sweet tinge. Diet Dr. Pepper tasted normal. I tried some Indian food – samosas and curried chickpeas – and found the flavor unchanged except that the spiciness was intensified. The normally mild potato-based samosa filling had a spicy kick. Miraculin did nothing for a sweet dessert.

My verdict on miraculin? It’s pleasant and I’m glad I tried it, but it’s not a life-changing experience. I can imagine it becoming popular. It makes some healthy foods taste better, and it’s not too expensive. The amount I had would cost less than a dollar today if you bought in bulk, and there must be unexploited economies of scale.

Thanks to Bill Zeller for getting the miraculin,

to my co-investigators,

and Alex Halderman for taking the photos.

Botnet Briefing

Yesterday I spoke at a Washington briefing on botnets. The event was hosted by the Senate Science and Technology Caucus, and sponsored by ACM and Microsoft. Along with opening remarks by Senators Pryor and Bennett, there were short briefings by me, Phil Reitinger of Microsoft, and Scott O’Neal of the FBI.

(Botnets are coordinated computer intrusions, where the attacker installs a long-lived software agent or “bot” on many end-user computers. After being installed, the bots receive commands from the attacker through a command-and-control mechanism. You can think of bots as a more advanced form of the viruses and worms we saw previously.)

Botnets are a serious threat, but as usual in cybersecurity there is no obvious silver bullet against them. I gave a laundry list of possible anti-bot tactics, including a mix of technical, law enforcement, and policy approaches.

Phil Reitinger talked about Microsoft’s anti-botnet activities. These range from general efforts to improve software security, to distribution of patches and malicious code removal tools, to investigation of specific bot attacks. I was glad to hear him call out the need for basic research on computer security.

Scott O’Neal talked about the FBI’s fight against botnets, which he said followed the Bureau’s historical pattern in dealing with new types of crime. At first, they responded to specific attacks by investigating and trying to identify the perpetrators. Over time they have adopted new tactics, such as infiltrating the markets and fora where botmasters meet. Though he didn’t explicitly prioritize the different types of botnet (mis)use, it was clear that commercially motivated denial-of-service attacks were prominent in his mind.

Much of the audience consisted of Senate and House staffers, who are naturally interested in possible legislative approaches to the botnet problem. Beyond seeing that law enforcement has adequate resources, there isn’t much that needs to be done. Current laws such as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and anti-fraud and anti-spam laws, already cover botnet attacks. The hard part is catching the bad guys in the first place.

The one legislative suggestion we heard was to reduce the threshold for criminal violation in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Using computers without authorization is a crime, but there are threshold requirements to make sure that trivial offenses can’t bring down the big hammer of felony prosecution.

The concern is that a badguy who breaks into a large number of computers and installs bots, but hasn’t yet used the bots to do harm, might be able to escape prosecution. He could still be prosecuted if certain types of bad intent can be proved, but where that is not possible he arguably might not meet the $5000 damage threshold. The law might be changed to allow prosecution when some designated number of computers are affected.

Paul Ohm has expressed skepticism about this kind of proposal. He points to a tendency to base cybersecurity policy on anecdote and worst-case predictions, even though a great deal of preventable harm is caused by simpler, more mundane attacks.

I’d like to see more data on how big a problem the current CFAA thresholds are. How many real badguys have escaped CFAA prosecution? Of those who did, how many could be prosecuted for other, equally serious violations? With data in hand, the cost-benefit tradeoffs in amending the CFAA will be easier.

Senator Bennett, in his remarks, characterized cybersecurity as a long-term fight. “You guys have permanent job security…. You’re working on a problem that will never be solved.”

Internet So Crowded, Nobody Goes There Anymore

Once again we’re seeing stories, like this one from Anick Jesdanun at AP, saying that the Internet is broken and needs to be redesigned.

The idea may seem unthinkable, even absurd, but many believe a “clean slate” approach is the only way to truly address security, mobility and other challenges that have cropped up since UCLA professor Leonard Kleinrock helped supervise the first exchange of meaningless test data between two machines on Sept. 2, 1969.

The Internet “works well in many situations but was designed for completely different assumptions,” said Dipankar Raychaudhuri, a Rutgers University professor overseeing three clean-slate projects. “It’s sort of a miracle that it continues to work well today.”

It’s absolutely worthwhile to ask what kind of Net we would design if we were starting over, knowing what we know now. But it’s folly to think we can or should actually scrap the Net and build a new one.

For one thing, the Net is working very nicely already. Sure, there are problems, but they mostly stem from the fact that the Net is full of human beings – which is exactly what makes the Net so great. The Net has succeeded brilliantly at lowering the cost of communication and opening the tools of mass communication to many more people. That’s why most members of the redesign-the-Net brigade spend hours everyday online.

Let’s stop to think about what would happen if we really were going to redesign the Net. Law enforcement would show up with their requests. Copyright owners would want consideration. ISPs would want some concessions, and broadcasters. The FCC would show up with an anti-indecency strategy. We’d see an endless parade of lawyers and lobbyists. Would the engineers even be allowed in the room?

The original design of the Internet escaped this fate because nobody thought it mattered. The engineers were left alone while everyone else argued about things that seemed more important. That’s a lucky break that won’t be repeated.

The good news is that despite the rhetoric, hardly anybody believes the Internet will be rebuilt, so these research efforts have a chance of avoiding political entanglements. The redesign will be a useful intellectual exercise, and maybe we’ll learn some tricks useful for the future. But for better or worse, we’re stuck with the Internet we have.

Is SafeMedia a Parody?

[UPDATE (Dec. 2011): I wrote the post below a few years ago. SafeMedia’s website and product offerings have changed since then. Please don’t interpret this post as a commentary on SafeMedia’s current products.]

Peter Eckersley at EFF wrote recently about a new network-filtering company called SafeMedia that claims it can block all copyrighted material in a network. We’ve seen companies like this before and they tend to have the warning signs of security snake oil.

But SafeMedia was new so I decided to look at their website. My reaction was: what a brilliant parody!

The biggest clue is that the company’s detection product is called Clouseau – named for a detective who is not only spectacularly incompetent but also fictional.

The next clue is the outlandish technical claims. Here’s an example:

Pirates are smart and innovative, and so is Clouseau. Our technology is dynamic, sees through all multi-layered encryptions, adaptively analyzes network patterns and constantly updates itself. Packet examinations are noninvasive and infallible. There are no false positives.

Sees through all encryption? Even our best intelligence agencies don’t make that claim. Perhaps that’s because the intelligence agencies know about provably unbreakable encryption.

Wait a minute, you may be saying. Perhaps SafeMedia was just making the usual exaggeration, implying that they can stop all bad traffic when what they really mean is that they can stop the most common, obvious kinds of bad traffic. Good guess – that’s the usual fallback position for companies like this – but SafeMedia doesn’t shrink from the most outlandish claims of infallibility:

What if illegal P2P no longer worked? What if, no matter how intelligent, devious, or well-funded an Internet pirate was, they absolutely could not transmit copyrighted material via P2P? SafeMedia’s goal was to create the technology that would achieve exactly this. And we succeeded.

Employing our new technology, Clouseau and Windows + Transport Control, makes illegal P2P transmission of copyrighted material impossible. IMPOSSIBLE. Not difficult and not improbable. IMPOSSIBLE!

The next clue that SafeMedia is a parody is the site’s blatant rent-seeking. There’s even a special page for lawmakers that starts with over-the-top rhetoric about P2P (“America is at war here at home within our own borders. And we are taking casualties. Women, men, and children.”) and ends by asking the U.S. government to act as SafeMedia’s marketing department:

We need the Congress to pass legislation appropriating funds for installing the technology on every Federally-supported computer network in the country, most importantly in educational institutions (schools, colleges, universities, libraries)…. We need the Department of Commerce to promote using the technology in all American businesses big and small, and to push for its international adoption. We need the Department of Education to insure that every educational institution in the USA, private and public, primary and secondary, college and university, is obeying the law.

You now have the right weapons. Let’s end the war!

Add up all this, plus the overdesigned home page that makes maddening fingers-on-a-blackboard noises when you mouse over its main menu area, and the verdict is clear: this is a parody.

Yet SafeMedia appears to be real. The CEO appears to be a real guy who has done a few e-commerce startups. The site has more detailed help-wanted ads than any parodist would bother with. According to the Internet Archive, the site has been around for a while. And most convincingly of all, an expensive DC law firm has registered as a lobbyist for SafeMedia.

So SafeMedia really exists and company management thought it a good idea to set up a parody-simulating website and name their product Clouseau. What an entertaining world we live in.

(Thanks to Peter Eckersley for sharing the results of his un-Clouseau-ish investigation of SafeMedia’s existence.)

Cablevision and Anti-Efficiency Policy

I wrote recently about the Cablevision decision, in which a judge appeared to draw a line between two kinds of Digital Video Recorder (DVR) technologies. (DVRs let home viewers record TV shows and play them later.) The judge found unlawful a Remote Storage DVR (RS-DVR) in which recorded shows are captured and stored in the cable TV company’s data center, but he apparently would have allowed a Set-Top Storage DVR (STS-DVR) in which shows are recorded on a device kept in the customer’s home.

Why should the law prefer that recorded shows be stored in the customer’s home? The judge’s reasoning was that the cable company is more involved in an activity if that activity happens in its data center. This appears to follow from the judge’s reasoning even if the alternative in-home STS-DVR is owned and controlled by the cable TV company. But I’m not asking what the law says; I’m asking instead what it should say. Why should the law prefer STS-DVRs over RS-DVRs?

If the goal of the law is to protect copyrighted material – and remember that this was a copyright case – then you might expect it to favor solutions that are more controllable or more resistant to content ripping. But the court got the opposite result: Cablevision was liable because it had more control. The result will be more customer control, which is a benefit for many law-abiding customers.

The court’s ruling also has implications for technical efficiency. Central storage is arguably more efficient than set-top storage in the customer’s home, because of economies of scale in managing a central facility. The court’s decision pushes companies toward set-top storage, even though it is probably less efficient and offers virtually the same functionality as central storage.

It might seem at first glance that public policy should never try to increase the cost of a lawful activity, but in fact there are exceptions. It can sometimes make sense for policy to raise the cost of an activity, if that activity has benefits but can harm nonparticipants. Raising costs rather than banning the activity outright can prevent marginal uses while allowing those uses that provide greater benefit. Of course, if you want to argue that raising the cost of DVRs is good policy, you’ll have to make several assumptions about the costs and benefits of DVRs – assumptions that are very likely untrue.

Even before the suit was brought, Cablevision was already reducing the efficiency of its system in the hope of improving its legal position. For example, their storage facility had a separate storage area for each customer, even though it would have been much more efficient to use a single shared pool of storage. If 5000 customers asked to record last week’s episode of Lost, Cablevision would store 5000 identical copies of that episode, one in each customer’s areas. It would have been easy, and much more efficient, to store a single copy. The only sensible reason to keep redundant copies is that a system with individual storage areas might look to a judge more like a set-top DVR system, thereby bolstering the argument that the system is just like a (presumably lawful) STS-DVR. In other words, even before the recent ruling, legal factors were pushing Cablevision toward a less efficient implementation.

For the companies who filed the suit, the goal was not to serve the public but to maximize their own economic advantage. What they cared about, most likely, was simply establishing that one had better come to them for approval before doing anything new. By that standard, they must see the suit as a big success.