Thursday, June 30, 2005

Too Good For Words

I had to laugh when I saw this article about Microsoft's talks to buy Claria. I mean, wow. I'm flabbergasted. Perhaps the two most despised companies in the tech world could be merging. Microsoft, with its horrendous security mechanisms. And Claria (formerly Gator), one of the most notorious spyware companies to have existed. I guess this way Microsoft can profit off of their shoddy security.

Seriously, though, the article gives a hint where some of the motivation could be coming from: Claria's BehaviorLink software. Claria pays programmers to bundle their software in with programs (e.g., Kazaa). Then marketers pay Claria to have ads pop up on your computer. BehaviorLink tracks your Web surfing habits to Claria can help the marketers customize the ads for your particular habits. The current solution is to avoid installing any software that has Claria bundled. Now imagine Microsoft bundling this software in with Windows. Egads. What's that I hear? Could that be the sound of Apple execs offering prayers that this deal goes through?

Addendum: I was just reading the comments on Slashdot about this. There's a comment that's just too good not to pass along. Here's the exchange:

Original post: "What are they thinking, don't they realize what this is going to do to their image? Microsoft, the company cherished for it's warm human point of view and high quality software, associating itself with such a low-life company."

Response: "'...the company cherished for it's warm human point of view and high quality software...' I think you misspelled 'crap.' It's a common typo, they [sic] keys are like, right next to each other."

That just made my day...

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Tom Cruise Is An Idiot

So, I normally wouldn't bother with drivel such as this, but I have to comment on this article in which renowned astronomer (*cough* *cough*) Tom Cruise declares that aliens exist.

When asked if he believed if they exist, he replied, "Yes, of course. Are you really so arrogant as to believe we are alone in this universe? Millions of stars, and we're supposed to be the only living creatures? No, there are many things out there, we just don't know."

So let me get this straight. We don't know. But he can say definitively that they exist. Wow, scientology must provide the brain with some awesome powers of omniscience. I need to get me some of that. And people suggesting we could be alone are arrogant?

Please, someone give me the 5 minutes I wasted reading that article and commenting on it back...

The Ten Commandments

I've read many articles and opinions lately regarding the Supreme Court's rulings regarding the posting of the Ten Commandments. Here's one great post critiquing Scalia's dissent in McCreary County v. ACLU. There's one point that I think is missing in some of this discussion. That is, the choice of the Ten Commandments is arbitrary and implies bias. [I'm sick of hearing conservatives use that word as an inherent insult of the media, so I'm using it as an insult of conservative activists.]

The influence of the Ten Commandments on the Framers is, at best, indirect. The strongest influence was the Magna Carta [what the text of the Magna Carta is doing on a computer science department's server is beyond me...]. "We have also granted to all freemen of our kingdom, for us and our heirs forever, all the underwritten liberties[...]" Sounds a little like "inalienable rights" to me. The Magna Carta, truly, was influenced by the Ten Commandments, Christianity in general, etc. So why do Christians true to post the Ten Commandments in government buildings that do not have displays of the Magna Carta? Simply put, bias and proselytization. They are more interested in display of their religious views than actual historical influence.

I have a proposal for a quote for display in a courthouse or state capitol: "Perform your obligatory duty, because action is indeed better than inaction." It's a nice, inspirational message. It's from the Bhagavad Gita. Why the Gita? Well, Henry David Thoreau, one of the most enduringly influential American philosophers, was greatly influenced by the Gita and other Hindu texts. So, the Gita influenced Thoreau, who in turn has a large influence on American thought and culture. Therefore, the Gita influenced American thought and culture. And the quote is so inspirational. I can picture it over the entrance to the Senate as a nice reminder to Senators to get some work done instead of playing politics. So why should we not have this quote in such a place?

Because it is an arbitrary quote with religious connotations that are not appropriate as a special display in a secular building!!

I will change my views on this when I go into a Baptist church and see a copy of the Declaration of Independence. Or when every Ten Commandments display is dwarfed by one of the Magna Carta. This issue is not about suppressing religious expression. This is about calling bullshit on revisionist histories created by religious conservatives. This is about having appropriate displays of historical relevance in government buildings. And this is about preventing the de facto establishment of a sanctioned religion by the United States government.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Reading Case Law Is Fun

Wow, I haven't had a post in a while. Apologies for that. In the past 10 days, I've been in 6 different states, a couple of them multiple times. Moving across country is just so much fun.

There have been so many interesting news stories lately that I'm going to try to post a few times in the next few days to catch up on commentary on some of them. For today, it's this ruling by the Supreme Court regarding access to broadband. The case was brought by several smaller ISPs (Brand X, Earthlink, etc.) and a consumers rights union against various cable telecommunications groups. The purpose of the suit was to force cable companies to open up their lines to competitors. This is similar to the way that local phone companies are legally required to offer competitors access to offer phone service. This would allow customers to sign up for broadband access through Brand X or Earthlink instead of Comcast or Adelphia.

As a side note, I will admit that I was rooting for the underdogs here. Comcast and Adelphia are not exactly known for providing quality customer service. Many customers, like myself, would like for some competition in this area to force improvement of service. You know, that whole free market thing.

According to the article, the case "turned on the technical classification of cable modem services under federal communications law." Curious to find out more about the ruling, I looked it up on FindLaw. The technical classification referred to above is whether cable companies are offering an information service or simply telecommunications service. I.e., are they just passing information on, or are they doing something to the information?

It looks like the inital blame rests on the accursed FCC. Here's a relevant portion of the ruling:

For the Commission, the question whether cable companies providing cable modem service "offe[r]" telecommunications within ยง153(46)'s meaning turned on the nature of the functions offered the end user. Seen from the consumer's point of view, the Commission concluded, the cable wire is used to access the World Wide Web, newsgroups, etc., rather than "transparently" to transmit and receive ordinary-language messages without computer processing or storage of the message. The integrated character of this offering led the Commission to conclude that cable companies do not make a stand-alone, transparent offering of telecommunications. [italics are the emphasis of the court, bold is mine]

This seems to be saying that, because the end user is ignorant of the difference between internet access and computer programs, we should assume everything is bundled. Joe Schmoe just knows that he types something on his computer and Adelphia goes and gets it for him. Therefore, Adelphia is offering an "information service." However, many users know and understand that the translation of the streaming digital data is converted to usable information by their computers. I can set up a Web server on my computer at home and access it from other computers on my home network. No cable provider is involved. The only difference between this case and when I am trying to visit Google is that the cable company is transmitting the data. Adelphia is simply an intermediary offering telecommunications service, nothing more.

Justice Scalia understands this. He points out that "DNS, in particular, is scarcely more than routing information, which is expressly excluded from the definition of 'information service.'" I.e., the routing of data from your computer to another, then transmitting the response back is not an information service.

So the original blame falls with the FCC, for, well, making yet another ignorant ruling. The judges in the majority are correct in stating that the Chevron framework applied. However, the last part of that framework requires that the "agency's construction is reasonable." I don't believe that the Commission's construction was reasonable because it was based too much on some users' ignorance. Just because some novice users mistakenly assume that Adelphia is selling the Internet, rather than simply selling access to it, does not make it reasonable to conclude that the services are bundled.

Wow...I actually agreed with Scalia on something. In truth, I also agreed with him on another recent ruling that I will post on soon. That ruling was the one that said it is acceptable for the government to seize private property to give to others for private commercial development. More on that one later...

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Sad But True

Yesterday's Non Sequitur comic sadly rang true. I've felt like that before...

Thanks Bernie

After I leave Vermont, one of the things that I will look back on with pride is that I had the privilege of voting to have Bernie Sanders as my representative in the House. For those of you who don't know Bernie, you can read more about him at his website. He is an Independent from Middlebury, VT, with a strong progressive background. Progressive tax reform for the protection of the middle and lower classes, sound environmental policies based on science, solid funding of education, equality regardless of race, gender, and sexual orientation, worker's rights, and national health care, are typically his highest priority issues.

So I am offering my thanks to Bernie for the work he has done in getting Congress to reduce the powers given by the Patriot Act. This particular vote was to restrict the ability of the FBI to search library and bookstore records. Bernie was quoted as saying this vote would help "rein in an administration intent on chipping away at the very civil liberties that define us as a nation."

So, thanks, Bernie!

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Evangelical Christian Political Activism

Jarvis has a post with a couple of comments in addition to a quote of most of this piece written by an evangelical Christian. It's refreshing to hear someone from that background acknowledge that the unrestrained use of influence in current government could result in an extreme backlash in the future. My favorite quote: "The Gospel is not reducible to the institution of laws amenable to Christian morality." I.e., putting Christian morality (ignoring the obvious question of which denomination's morality) into law does not deliver society to salvation. It is better to write the morals into hearts than into laws.

Oklahoma Beats Kansas to the Punch

According to this story on CNN, the Tulsa Zoo will add a display featuring Christian creationism. This isn't even intelligent design pseudo-science. Public money will be going to create this religious display. Opponents included both zoo employees and religious leaders.

Supporters argued that the zoo already had two religious "displays" and therefore opposing the creationism display would have been religious discrimination. I use the term "displays" loosely. The two sited were a statue of Ganesha outside the elephant exhibit and a globe inscribed with the American Indian quote, "The earth is our mother. The sky is our father."

The statue of Ganesha is one of many elephant statues showing representations of elephants in various cultures around the world. Those statues include one of the elephant as a symbol of the Republican Party. Does that mean the zoo is obligated to create an exhibit that shows the Democratic Party's view that global warming is real and needs to be addressed? Of course not, because the GOP statue, like the Ganesha statue, are not the point of the exhibit. The point of the exhibit is the elephant. You know, the animal. No religious intent whatsoever.

The second display, containing the quote, is just as straightforward. The quote is an innocuous, poetic inscription. It is simply a quote. There is nothing else there to imply that this is truth. To argue that it is displayed with the intent of indoctrinating patrons with this belief is ludicrous. My suspicion from reading the article is that this globe is more of a space filler than anything. If anything, it is intended to express the cross-cultural belief that we, as humans, have a connection to the world around us. That is not espousing a religious belief.

The creationism display, however, will do just that. The fact that it will be an actual display, including the illustration that God created the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th, indicates that this is going well beyond a simple representation. According to the article, "The new display will include a disclaimer that says it represents one view." The fact that it says it represents "one view" instead of "one religion's view" demonstrates the intent to indoctrinate. By labelling it "one view," the creationists are implying that the view has the same scientific validity (this is in a zoo, after all), as any other view of the creation of the world.

The way that the creationists are hiding behind the "discrimination" accusation is inexcusable. A zoo is no place for overtly religious displays. The article points out that the city's attorneys recommend including other cultures' views of creation. This is a pathetic attempt to avoid the issue. This is a zoo. Not a museum of natural history. Remember, "zoo" is the root that means "animal." Not "earth." Not "ocean." Not "land." "ANIMAL." If you want a display about the creation of the earth, do so in a museum.

My last point, again, comes from the city's attorneys' recommendation. That is to include other cultures' views of creation. If we want to be egalitarians and not discriminate, let's make sure we include the atheist evolutionists. Have a display that states that there is no supernatural force and that all forms of life evolved from lower forms. Somehow, I don't believe the supporters of the creationism display would support that.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Coincidental Synergy

From The Public Trust (originally from driftglass), I read an article from the New York Times about evidence (yet again) that the Bush administration has manipulated science to fit policy. Then I also saw this comic from today's Non Sequitur that echoed the same theme. I love when non-related things coincide to strike a chord.

In the case of the NY Times article, the guilty party is Philip Cooney, a lawyer with a bachelor's degree in economics. I.e., not a scientist. And add to that his history as a lobbyist at the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group representing oil interests. Apparently all of this qualifies him to discard parts of scientific reports for "straying from research strategy into speculative findings/musings." So his law and economics background has apparently helped him learn to decide what is sound scientific research. And note the word "strategy." It implies that there is a preconceived notion of where the research is to go. My understanding is that research works like this: You make observations, then you formulate possible explanations of what happened. Repeat until you reduce the possible explanations to a leading candidate. I.e., forming speculative findings is part of the process. So, what is this atrocious speculation? Here's what was removed from the report:

Warming will also cause reductions in mountain glaciers and advance the timing of the melt of mountain snow packs in polar regions. In turn, runoff rates will change and flood potential will be altered in ways that are currently not well understood. There will be significant shifts in the seasonality of runoff that will have serious impacts on native populations that rely on fishing and hunting for their livelihood. These changes will be further complicated by shifts in precipitation regimes and a possible intensification and increased frequency of extreme hydrologic events.

The first two sentences seem pretty obvious. If the air temperature surrounding glaciers is warmer, then the ice will melt faster. If the ice is melting faster, then the rate of water running off the glacier will probably change. I cannot comment on the rest of it because I willingly admit that I am not a climate scientist. So, instead, I defer to those who are and give the writers of this report the benefit of the doubt. I guess I shouldn't hold my breath waiting on a job offer from the White House...

My favorite part of the article was the reference to the statement by Myron Ebell, a long-time campaigner against limits on greenhouse gases. The article states that Ebell "said such editing was necessary for 'consistency' in meshing programs with policy." I would be curious to see Ebell's original quote. But this phrasing is, again, interesting. It's implying that science and policy must be consistent. In order to make them so, notice that it is the science that has been changed. Not the policy. Sounds a bit like the preconceptual scientist Danae is trying to become in the comic.

Again, none of this is news to me (probably not to you, either). It's just a neat thing when I see two unrelated sources talking about the same thing at the same time.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Hopefully a Sign of Future Rulings

Ars Technica has a good article on the Supreme Court's rejection of Lexmark's request for a hearing regarding their extreme bastardization of copyright law. I've ranted on the horrible piece of legislation known as the DMCA before. This is an example of how a company will go to great lengths to usurp the intent of a law in the name of profit.

Lexmark had written two programs, one residing on a printer and one residing on a toner cartridge, that would force consumers to buy their proprietary cartridges. Another company, Static Control Components (SCC), wrote their own program and sold it to vendors that would allow other cartridges to interact with the program on the printer. I.e., SCC wrote software intended to circumvent Lexmark's access control mechanisms. So Lexmark got creative, claiming that the programs were copyrighted works. To see how this is a stretch, read the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's explanation of what patents, trademarks, and copyrights are. According to the DMCA, "No person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title." So if the program on the printer was a copyrighted work and the program on the cartridge was the technological measure to control access to said work, SCC has created an illegal circumvention. In the end, all levels of the courts agreed that the program on the printer was not copyrightable.

This does lead to some interesting discussions, though. If a software program is not copyrightable (though it is an original work of intellectual authorship), what protections can it have? If Lexmark had really thought ahead, they could have tried to patent the method of accessing the code on the printer. Then, of course, you get into the question of what is a program? It is a series of 1s and 0s. What is data? Also, a series of 1s and 0s. How can one set be copyrightable and the other not be? As a programmer, it's offensive to imply that software is not creative. So I understand (though strongly disagree with) Lexmark's argument. How can you balance the protections of the song, movie, etc., with the right of individuals to create software? Or to create a new device? Another part of the DMCA states that it is prohibited to create a product that "has only limited commercially significant purpose or use other than to circumvent a technological measure" to control access to copyrighted works. That goes back to the DVD jukebox that I discussed before. That device has a significant purpose other than circumventing the DRM technologies of DVDs. It is to allow consumers to create a central repository of movies where they can watch any of them without fiddling with discs.

The DMCA simply does not provide adequate protection to consumers or innovators. Instead, as is the case with most industry-sponsored legislation, it gives big businesses legal leverage to keep the status quo to preserve profits based on outdated business models. Though I strongly disagree with Lexmark's case, I secretly hope for more such lawsuits. Perhaps enough of them will result in a court striking down the DMCA. Or it will raise the visibility enough to force Congress to act and revisit this poorly written law.