Monday, March 28, 2005

Real ID Theft Threats

When most people think of computer security issues, they think of viruses, worms, firewalls, etc. In other words, all sorts of technical stuff that they don't understand. However, a survey at the Infosecurity Europe trade shows, once again, that biggest threat to computer security remains the users themselves. 200 people were offered a chance to win free theater tickets for answering a 3 minute survey regarding theater-going attitudes. The results:
  • 100% provided their names upon request.
  • 94% provided pet's names (common passwords) and their mother's maiden name (common second form of authentication) when told actors frequently use both to create stage names.
  • 98% gave their address in order to receive a winning voucher.
  • 96% divulged the name of their first school. Combined with mother's maiden name, the two are key pieces of information used by banks for verification.
  • 92% provided their date of birth and the same number supplied their home phone number.
So, most people are willing to hand out information that could be used for identity theft simply for the chance to win something free. Frightening...

Tsunami, Part 2

My friend Jeanne pointed out that BBC has just reported that an 8.2 magnitude earthquake has just hit 200 miles off the coast of Indonesia. This is the same faultline that caused the tsunami just after Christmas. One seismologist describes this earthquake as almost certainly an aftershock of the quake that caused that tsunami. An 8.2 magnitude aftershock. Thailand and Indonesia have already issued tsunami alerts. Let's hope everyone's more prepared this time, both citizens taking precautions and the world-wide community in sending aid as needed.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Religious complaints about science

So, I was just reading Mike the Mad Biologist's post concerning the scientific definition of theory, which mostly just quotes an article from the Washington Post. I'm not really going to discuss that topic here, because the Post said it wonderfully. What I did want to write about, though, was a statement that I have heard several times from people of a religious persuasion. This statement always disturbed me a bit, because it always seemed so inept despite the fact that I couldn't exactly explain why. It just hit me...

So, the statement that I am referring to is that science teaches you nothing about morality and gives you no answer to the big "Why are we here?" types of questions. The big bang theory offers no explanation of what existed before the singularity or why the event occurred. The theory of evolution does not offer an explanation of the soul. In short, science does not explain the meaning of life. Therefore, religion is superior to science. I guess it's more of an idea than a statement...

The solution to the conundrum hit me a short while ago and seemed so obvious I don't know why I didn't think of it before. The statement offers a perfectly true premise, but a flawed conclusion. It is entirely true that science alone does not provide answers to the major questions of the human drama. I could study biology, chemistry, and physics to my heart's content and never come across an answer to the question of what constitutes a good act. There is absolutely nothing wrong with admitting this fact. However, the religious conservative implies that this is a flaw of science. That is the problem. This fact is not a flaw of science, but a description of the fundamental basis of science. The purpose of science is to explain what is happening in the universe and how it happens. That is all. Unbiased, nonjudgmental explanations of fact. Questions of truth, epistemology, ethics, etc., are outside the realm of science. You do not go to chemistry expecting to learn about the Vatican's views on birth control. Similarly, you do not go to an ethics class to learn about the laws of thermodynamics.

This is the problem. Many Christians, especially fundamentalist creationists, learned "facts" about the world from their religion. They learned that the world was created in 7 days and the first humans were Adam and Eve. When you point out that scientific observation of the world leads to a conclusion that the modern world was not, in fact, created in 7 days, they view this as an attack on their entire world view. They believe that every fact they learned from their church must be true because it came from church. There is no room for doubt or discussion. As a result, they try to push such religiously inspired beliefs into the classroom so that future generations will believe as they do. I guess there's safety in numbers. If everyone believes in Creationism, it must be true. It's democracy in action. Whichever viewpoint has the most believers is automatically true.

So, I addressed the premise, that science does not address ethical and meaning-of-life questions. What frightens me the most about the idea is actually the conclusion described above. I.e., because science does not address those issues, religion is superior and should thus be granted authority when the two fields are in conflict. In other words, religion addresses questions of truth and goodness, but science only addresses questions of truth, therefore religion is superior. This is both ludicrous and arrogant. The validity of religious dealings of goodness does nothing to imply the validity of religious dealings of truth. Buddhists believe it is wrong to kill. That is a moral (i.e., goodness) issue. This does not guarantee that it is true that the Buddha was born from his mother's side instead of her vagina. Christians believe it is wrong to steal. That does not absolutely guarantee that it is true that a guy named Cain killed his brother Abel.

I know many people who are both religious and scientific (including everybody who will read this). They all understand that the two branches are separate and can be used in conjunction to provide a more complete world-view. Sadly, it appears that such moderate viewpoints are either silent or outnumbered. I can't really tell which.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Wonderful Tom DeLay

So, I was just reading an article on Time about Tom DeLay asking conservatives to defend him as they have Terry Schiavo. I'm tempted to make a quip about DeLay comparing himself to someone who is brain-dead, but I will hold back out of respect to Schiavo. The real point of his speech is that evil, insidious liberals are attempting to use any means necessary, be it the courts or character assassination, to destroy conservativism. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. This is the same DeLay that has been censured by a House ethics panel. And the same one being investigated for illegal fundraising and money laundering (3 of his associates had been indicted as of November 2004). And the same one that tried to get federal officials involved to bring Texas State House Democrats back from Oklahoma as they were boycotting a redistricting vote. Talk about using whatever means necessary for political ends.

The whole time article was rather a hoot, but I wanted to highlight a couple of interesting quotes. First, he says, "This is a critical issue for people in this position, and it is also a critical issue to fight that fight for life, whether it be euthanasia or abortion." So, if it's about the critical issue of the fight for life, where is the mention of capital punishment? But we don't care about them as much, because they were convicted of heinous crimes. That means they're evil and deserve to die. Well, this presupposes the faith that a conviction beyond "reasonable doubt" is tantamount to absolute truth. Need I even mention the names Sacco and Vanzetti? "No single account nor any ballistics test has been able to put all doubts about innocence or guilt completely to rest." Their innocence or guilt is irrelevant. They were executed. Killed. Dead. Where is that critical fight for life? Granted, this is only one case. But can you tell me that it is absolute truth that every single person on death row committed the crime that put them there? That there is absolutely no possibility of forged or missing evidence to the contrary? If so, then you, Mr. DeLay, can address the ethics of putting a person's life to an end when they pose no more threat to society. But you must still do so while emphasizing the sanctity of life.

He then goes on to state that, "the other side has figured out how to win and to defeat the conservative movement, and that is to go after people personally[...]" Because the Republicans have never done that. Do a search on Richard Clarke, Joseph Wilson, Paul O'Neill, Lawrence Lindsey, Gen. Anthony Zinni, Gen. Eric Shinseki, or Richard Foster.

A little further down the page, he talks vaguely about a law from the 60s that LBJ used to keep religious people out of politics (no clue what law he's talking about, probably one of many reinforcing the First Amendment). He says that law and the liberal fight for the separation of church and state "forces Christians back into the church." My reaction is that, if all Christians were like Mr. DeLay (which I know they're not), I would much rather force them back into their church than allow them into my bedroom and my hospital room. It's really a simple compromise. Let me make my own personal decisions about my life, and I will let you continue to spout off whatever you wish. I don't want you to believe what I believe. I just want to be free to follow my conscience, my brain, and my heart.

And the last quote, "We can do anything we need to do to pass any bill that we need to pass." Sounds a little ethically dubious to me. Now who's talking about doing anything necessary for political ends?

I must admit that, though I can't wait until DeLay gets his ass booted back to Texas, I will miss the easy opportunities to rip through his rhetoric.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Digital Rights Management

From Slashdot, I saw an article today that hacker/consumer rights warrior DVDJon has created a way to purchase music from Apple's iTunes Music Store without the DRM encoding. The way iTunes works is that it sends the MP3 file from its servers to your computer without the DRM encoding. The iTunes application then adds the encoding. For those not familiar with DRM, once this encoding has been done, you can only do things with the song specified by the terms of the download. The terms vary depending on the song, but this typically means you can burn it onto a normal music CD, or you can transfer it to your iPod, or you can copy it into you Winamp MP3 playlist. But you can't do all 3. To do all 3, you must purchase the song 3 times. DVDJon created a program that takes advantage of this loophole.

DVDJon's program, PyMusique, interacts with Apple's servers, bypassing the iTunes program on your computer. This is a definite violation of Apple's Terms of Service, since they state that all interaction must be done through the iTunes client. It is also of dubious legality according to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA...which can also stand for Damn Music Corporation Act since their lobbying was a driving force behind it). The DMCA declares software intended to bypass DRM restrictions to be illegal. The loophole and legal breathing room that DVDJon has here is that PyMusique is not bypassing DRM restrictions. It simply prevents the DRM restrictions from being applied. A very thin distinction, but it is there nonetheless.

As a side note, it is interesting to point out that the DMCA applies to newer technologies, such as DVDs and iTunes, but not to CDs. Because CDs were around before DRM, the DMCA does not apply. The music industry is kind of stuck there. If they start putting out CDs in a different format that contain DRM protections, they run the risk of these CDs not being compatible with existing players. Imagine buying the new Dave Matthews CD, popping it in your car's CD player and no music comes out. The backlash would be fierce. The new format would not be adopted. That's why they've focused their efforts on just suing the P2P network (Kazaa, Napster, etc.) users. The profit margin is higher and less risky there. DVDs and iTunes, however, have DRM built into them, so they are protected. That's why it's legal to rip a CD onto your computer, but illegal to do the same with a DVD.

Whenever I read articles like the one above, I think about the evil that is DRM and the DMCA and the effects they have on individual choice and consumer rights. I understand the intent is to protect artists' livelihoods and musical innovation, and I respect that. If an artist spends a year working in a studio (which gets pretty expensive), they need a way to make that money back. Not all musical artists can make their living by live performances. Your typical rock band, yes. But not all, and we consumers must respect that. However, the DMCA as it currently exists needs to be repealed and replaced with legislation that balances the rights involved. To get such legislation, technology innovators must also be involved, not just corporate lobbyists. To show what I mean, let me provide a real example of an innovation the DMCA killed.

Here's an old article about a Hollywood organization suing a company called Kaleidoscope. Last I heard, Kaleidoscope lost and no longer exists. Kaleidoscope created a DVD jukebox that lets you copy up to 500 DVDs and play them back later without physically having the disc. Furthermore, you can hook every TV in your house up to this device and not have to buy separate DVD players for them. It is important to note that Kaleidoscope was trying to play by the rules. You could copy the DVD into the player, but you couldn't copy things back out. In other words, this jukebox gave you no way to get the software copy of the movie to transfer to anyone else. Theoretically, you and 499 friends could all go out and by one of these, then each by 1 DVD and share them amongst yourselves, thus cheating the movie industry out of all those sales. This seems a bit unlikely, though, if you crunch the numbers. Let's assume a typically price tag of $20 (that's actually a bit high) for a DVD. Multiply that by the 500 you would normally have to buy and you get $10,000. Had each and every one of you all bought the DVDs, that number should be $5,000,000. That's a big loss for the industry. But keep in mind, each of you could have bought all of these for $10,000. The cost of the DVD jukebox was $27,000. Obviously, the people buying the jukebox are not doing so to rip off the movie industry. If they're spending $27,000 on a piece of electronic equipment, they're not going to have a problem spending another $10,000 on the DVDs individually. Furthermore, this leads me to a simple rhetorical question: How is this so different than borrowing the individual, physical DVD? How many times do you watch a movie? Once, twice? If it's one you really love, let's say, 10 times. If a friend of mine and I both have 500 movies in our collection, the odds of him watching one at the exact same time I want to watch it are pretty slim. If he is, I could just go and join him. If he's not, I could borrow it. I.e., I am not purchasing it and am costing the industry money. If I want to watch it again later, I could simply borrow it again.

The point of the previous paragraph is that you have an area of innovation (creating different methods of storage and playback in the home) that is being stifled by the overly-broad DMCA. The jukebox, because it got around the copy-protection scheme of the DVDs, was ruled to violated the DMCA because it intentionally bypassed DRM protections. This is a bad precedent. Companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Sony are looking at taking the computer outside the box. I.e., making computer chips pervasive throughout the home. Imagine listening to music in the dining room. Then, when dinner is done, you go into the kitchen to do the dishes and have the music continue playing in there. You have one source for the music in both places and the sound continues uninterrupted in both places. This idea of pervasive computing is threatened by knee-jerk legislation sponsored by companies that want to cling to outdated means of product distribution. The movie companies don't care if the jukebox makes it easy for you to enjoy their product. They would rather have you buy a $20 DVD for the living room, and another $20 DVD for the player in your bedroom, and another $20 DVD to play on your laptop on a business trip. The cost of manufacturing another DVD is extremely small. The more of these physical media you buy, the more their profit. If you could buy a copy of a movie for $30 and do whatever you like with it (copy it into the jukebox, copy it onto your laptop, etc.), it is a simple business analysis that this is bad for the movie industry. That's only $30 of profit versus the $60 they made using the old DVD media version.

All this may seem like random rambling (in a way, it is), but the point is that the DMCA is an overly broad piece of legislation that needs to be repealed. Innovation should be rewarded. Not stagnation.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Capital Punishment

As many of my friends know, I have long been opposed to capital punishment. It does nothing to prevent future crime. It does nothing to bring back lost loved ones. It simply adds to the bloodshed and culture of violence.

I get especially saddened when I see news items like the one today on CNN about a man repeatedly proclaiming his innocence while being executed in Oklahoma. The man, Jimmy Ray Slaughter, is quoted as saying, "I've been accused of murder and it's not true. It was a lie from the beginning[.] You people will know it's true some day. May god have mercy on your souls." What makes this case especially interesting is the appeals testimony of Larry Farwell, a Seattle-based neuroscientist. Farwell tested Slaughter using a technique known as "brain fingerprinting," that is based on the idea that recognizing images will cause an involuntary response in the brain. Farwell testified that his tests indicated Slaughter did not commit the crime. The article points out that brain fingerprinting "has yet to gain much legal acceptance."

I am not a neuroscientist, so I cannot evaluate the validity of brain fingerprinting. I also cannot proclaim any knowledge of the facts presented in the case. However, if this technique is later validated as scientifically (and legally) sound, what do we, as a society, say to Slaughter's 3 daughters who witnessed the execution? Do we sort of mutter, "Sorry we killed your father even though he was innocent?" Or do we rationalize it, saying that the evidence at the time indicated he was guilty? No such rationalization is sound if an innocent man dies. If society can use this excuse, why can't defendents? "I'm sorry, your Honor. The evidence at the time indicated that person was planning to break into my house and kill me. Little did I know he was actually just going to knock on my door to let me know I left my car's headlights on." A life sentence at least offers the possibility of reversal. Once you kill the inmate, his guilt or innocence is irrelevant. He is dead. You can no longer set him free if new evidence comes to light.

Again, I do not know if Slaughter was innocent or guilty. However, as long as a human is the one judging such innocence or guilt, there is the possibility of error. Any rational society must acknowledge this fact and ban the practice of capital punishment.

Ominous Warnings

Just saw an article on BBC News about UN staff pulling out of the Darfur region of the Sudan. So, you have a lawless Arab militia (the Janjaweed) aligned with the government threatening the UN presence that is trying to stop them from continuing the systematic rape and murder of the native black (non-Arab) Africans. The latest estimates I've seen are 70,000 killed and over 2 million have fled their homes. The Sudanese government claims no connection to the Janjaweed, but shows no sincere desire to disarm the militia, as they also keep rebel groups SLA and Jem in check. The parallels to the Rwandan genocide continue to grow. I applaud the US government for previously attempting (yet failing) to apply the term "genocide," which would legally obligate the UN to intervene. This latest news, though, is frightening and it appears that it will only be a short time before the situation explodes. Shall we wait for thousands more to be killed, then proclaim, "Never again?" I can't help but wonder, if our administration hadn't insisted on Iraq, would they have had more stature to push the UN into acting? Sad...