Tuesday, November 22, 2005

On A Personal Note

I should go to bed, but I still want to say a little bit more here. I haven't had the chance to post for a while, so I want to take advantage of the momentum.

I've been rather listless lately. I really need to get an assistantship next year. Continuing to work for my team remotely has been more draining than I expected. It's just a bit of a distraction. It's very hard to switch from that work to coding C++ or assembly language or completing formal methods projects. Four hours tomorrow then I'm gone until next week. That'll be nice.

Adding to the downer lately (and kind of related to the previous paragraph) has been this feeling that I'm not doing anything. Yes, Brianne and I are making wedding plans. I cannot complain about that in anyway. She is wonderful and I love the time we get to share. And, yes, I am studying. So I'm getting some of that personal development. But I'm not doing anything with that. I'm attending lectures Monday through Thursday for 2 easy (to me, anyways) undergrad courses and 1 grad course that I just can't see the use for. I want to start playing around with some electrical engineering type of stuff. I.e., get out a Dremel, a circuit board, some components and build something. I very much would like to write more. Not just blogging, but also fiction. I want to take classical guitar lessons. I want to get a good electric piano and start playing again. I want to play around with composing a little bit.

The problem is that I lack both the confidence and time to invest in these things. The time issue is obvious. I'm a full-time graduate student who is also working 20 hours a week in a very stressful, demanding job, while maintaining a relationship with my fiancee who lives 4 hours away. Not many free moments to give up there. As for the confidence...

I've always felt that others expected great things out of me. That pressure led to a bit of egocentrism and possibly some delusions of grandeur. In other words, because everyone had such high expectations for me, I must be capable of turning water into wine myself. However, the older I get, the more I realize that I don't know. I will never understand the intricacies of evolutionary biology. I will never be able to compose an opera. I will never be president. I am okay with all of that. But I feel that I am capable of more than I am doing now. I think about people doing creative things and feel inadequate. Jonathan's in a band with a couple of CDs recorded. Keira Knightley (she was on the Daily Show earlier) is an amazing actress, yet she's only 20. I'm going to be 30 next year. What have I got to show for myself? I can't help but feel utterly paralyzed by fear. I frequently talk to others and mention something that I had just learned, only to find out they have known that for years. For example, I'm starting to look into tinkering around with electronics in ways that teenage geeks do. I'm terrified that whichever creative outlet I attempt, I will fail. I sometimes even wonder if getting rejected from 5 out of 6 CS grad programs was a sign. Perhaps I don't have the creativity and ingenuity that it takes to get a Ph.D.

I think of all this and my mind goes back to Brianne. She worries when I start speaking like this. Her fear is that I will get stuck in one of these funks at some point in the future. I do my best to reassure her that it's only temporary. (I know she'll read this, but I need to get it out.) The honest response would be to admit to her that if this is a small concern for her, it is a mind-numbing terror for me. She thinks me brilliant and strong. I worry that one day I'll be exposed for the coward and idiot I fear that I am. Irrational fears, I know. But still there, nonetheless. I am also scared that she will misinterpret any of this. Yes, I want my obituary to identify me as "husband of Brianne, and father of children X, Y, and Z." However, I do not think I can be content with just that. I need to feel complete so that I can contribute just as much to our union.

This quote (a longtime favorite) seems applicable: "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them."

Links Roundup

Comedian Bill Hicks on Creationism. Funny stuff.

Charles Krauthammer, in an unusually good column for him, on Intelligent Design.

The top 20 geek novels. I've read numbers 1-4 and 17. I also own 9, 13, and 19 (kind of own number 8 if you count Prelude to Foundation). I'm kind of surprised by a few omissions here. No Tolkien. No Timothy Zahn Star Wars novels. No Kafka. No Bradbury. No Samuel Delany. I guess for some of those, it depends on your definition of geek.

The FDA decision regarding Plan B was politicall motivated. Gee, imagine that. I never would have guessed. I mean, it's not like the scientific advisers overwhelmingly approved it. OK, enough snark.

President Bush is getting a little desparate for speech material. I saw on another site where he used the same speech a third time. Maybe if he just repeats it 500 more times some idiot will buy the lies again...

A long article on avian influenza. It still doesn't look good. Pharmaceutical companies don't seem to be making enough vaccine. "We really don't see the pandemic itself as a market opportunity." In other words, it comes down to money. Preparing for a pandemic isn't profitable.

Bottled water is causing tooth decay. Well, not directly. It's just that people are drinking less tap water and, thus, getting less flouride. Gotta love unintended consequences.

Texas was apparently a little overzealous, and executed a man now possibly believed to be innocent. The lone eyewitness and co-defendant both are recanting, claiming they were pressured by police. Well, if that's the case, the police can just release the falsely accused. Oh wait, they can't...

So, that's enough for now...

Sony Follow-up

This post is an addendum to my earlier post regarding the way that Sony's DRM technology (i.e., the stuff that tries to keep you from making copies) installs a rootkit, a very dangerous piece of software. First, this article points out that security researcher Dan Kaminsky has found the "probable existence of at least one compromised machine in roughly 568,200 networks worldwide." Note that's the number of networks, not computers. There could be multiple computers on each network infected. Oh, and that was as of November 15th. Or you can look here for a visual representation of the areas infected.

As if the rootkit wasn't bad enough, the patch is worse than the original problem. To get the patch, you visit a Sony website. The site installs a program called CodeSupport on your computer. CodeSupport is then used to remove the rootkit. Sound good? Well, not according to Princeton CS professor Edward Felten:

CodeSupport remains on your system after you leave Sony’s site, and it is marked as safe for scripting, so any Web page can ask CodeSupport to do things. One thing CodeSupport can be told to do is download and install code from an Internet site.

CodeSupport does no verification of the source. Any website can make a request to CodeSupport to install programs onto your computer without your knowledge or consent. Um, Houston, we have a problem. This is supposed to be a fix?

And it gets even more fun for Sony and First4Internet (the company that wrote the original DRM software licensed by Sony). It appears this software uses copyrighted code. The code in question is a program called LAME and demux/mp4/drms.c. They are licensed under the LGPL and GPL, respectively. The GPL is a licensing scheme that requires (among other things) that the original code authors be given credit. No such reference exists in XCP (the DRM software). While the GPL has never been tested in a court of law, Sony and/or First4Internet could be looking at copyright infringement charges. We'll have to wait and see about that...

And, to make it oh so wonderful for Sony, the Texas attorney general has filed suit with them for all of this nonsense. Texas is seeking $100,000 per violation. The RIAA (which represents recording labels and companies like Sony) like to try to sue people for some egregious amount (more than $1000) per song illegally downloaded. Given the relative damage between a single illegal download and the installation of a rootkit, I say, "Go Texas!" A couple thousand computers infected could produce a fine in the hundreds of millions of dollars. I have no pity for them at all.

This last note is a little unrelated, but not entirely. When companies like Sony pull some sort of crap like this, they are not just hurting themselves. Sony, after all, is a large, respected name. If you can't trust them, who can you trust? Perhaps that helps to explain why less than 1 in 5 people trust websites to handle personal information properly. You don't say.

Update: I meant to include this link in my post, as well. If you thought the rootkit and the patch were bad enough, try checking out the EULA (i.e., the terms that you supposedly agree to whenever you install software). A couple of the gems:

  • If you file for bankruptcy, you must delete all digital copies of the CD.

  • If the CD is stolen, you must delete any copies you have on your computer.

  • You cannot hold Sony-BMG liable for more than $5, no matter what happens.

Man, I can't stop laughing over here...

Friday, November 18, 2005

"More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones."

Due to popular demand, here is another movie review for you...

Today, I caught a matinee of Capote, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. For those unfamiliar with the movie, the story is that of Truman Capote as he researches and writes his true crime masterpiece, In Cold Blood. I think that this is one of the best character study films I've ever seen, if not one of my favorite movies overall.

Hoffman's performance was sublime. During the screening, I completely lost any previous role he has played. Every posture, every gesture, every pause, every line, was perfectly crafted. Hoffman's Capote was entirely egocentric and arrogant, but definitely human. For most of the film, he is completely remorseless about how he manipulates both people and events. What I found remarkable was that he truly did not care if Perry Smith, the convicted murderer, was guilty or innocent. The only thing that mattered was his book, which he claimed would be "the nonfiction book of the decade." Capote was aloof to everyone and everything around him.

Perhaps the most telling scene is after Capote gives a reading from his book. Capote and others are celebrating backstage when a member of the audience stands in the doorway, awestruck, and tells Capote that his descriptions of the murderers was truly horrifying. Capote thanks him and continues the celebration, ignoring how obviously disturbed this person was by the book. After the guy leaves, Capote calls out for him to come back. He wants to hear more praise of how moving his book is.

Capote's egocentrism is complete until he realizes that these are people's lives and Smith will be executed. Capote wants to be perceived as good and insists that he did everything he could do to help them. His grief is sincere, but too little, too late.

While the movie is not perfect (I would have liked to see more of the initial interaction between Capote and Smith before Capote leaves Kansas), it was extraordinary. Many movies with an obvious lead acting Oscar contender sometimes suffer because of a lack of balance. One example would be Philadelphia. Tom Hanks was great, which made the rest of the cast seem that much worse. Capote does not suffer from that problem. Clifton Collins, Jr., playing the role of Smith, was mesmerizing. Chris Cooper, Catherine Keener, Bob Balaban, and Bruce Greenwood were all very good.

My previous favorite for best actor this year was David Strathairn in Good Night, and Good Luck. He has been quite readily replaced. I cannot see how Hoffman cannot win for this superb performance. In case you were wondering, the quote used as the title of this post was Capote's inscription on his last unfinished novel.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Little Factoid That Only Interests Me

I caught part of a Drew Carey Show rerun last night. Diedrich Bader, who plays Drew's friend Oswald, was wearing a shirt with the Medeski, Martin, and Wood logo on it. This is the second time I've seen him wearing a MMW shirt on the show (no, it wasn't the same episode). I don't think this is a coincidence. As a side note, when I looked him up on IMDb, that was the first time that I noticed his character's full name is Oswald Lee Harvey. The best stuff is always in the details...

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Priceless Quote of the Year

As some of you may have seen, Sony is in a little bit of trouble. It started with Mark's Sysinternals Blog reporting that if you try to play certain Sony music CDs on your computer, the CD installs a rootkit. Oh, and to boot, if you discover and try to uninstall it, you're left with a dead PC. From the Register article:
A 'root kit' generally refers to the nefarious malware used by hackers to gain control of a system. A root kit has several characteristics: it finds its way onto systems uninvited; endeavors to remain undetected; and then may either intercept system library routines and reroute them to its own routines, or replace system executables with its own, or both - all with the intention of gaining system level ownership of the computer.

What makes Sony's CD digital media software particularly nasty is that using expert tools for removing the parasite risks leaving you with a Windows PC that's useless, and that requires a full reformat and reinstall.

So a rootkit is very, very, very bad. Evil hacker type of stuff. But this quote is priceless (I've seen it quoted several places, but have not listened to the audio myself...I should just to be safe): "Most people, I think, do not even know what a Rootkit is, so why should they care about it?" That's from the head of Sony BMG's Global Digital Business. Yes, because if you don't know what something is, then it can't hurt you, right? Unbelievable. Oh, and apparently, Sony is still being uncooperative about letting users get a patch.

As I said before, Sony's in a bit of trouble with several lawsuits getting filed. I hope they get their asses nailed to the wall for this ridiculous nonsense. I would say, take the amount that Sony claims to be losing because of piracy (even though that number can be debated), then quadruple it for violating criminal hacking statutes.

Update: The first trojan horse to take advantage of Sony's screw-up has been found. So let me reiterate the main point of all of this. Sony, being overzealous about piracy (the damage of which many people believe to be overstated), is directly responsible for exposing people's computers to security holes. I would love to see an agressive attorney general (Eliot Spitzer, maybe) send a nice billion dollar class action suit Sony's way. The costs lost to piracy will pale in comparison. If you're worried about whether or not this affects you for a CD you've bought, check here. They have a list of CDs, as well as some pictures of what to look for here (note the little "Content Protected" logo).

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Who Needs Reality-Based Reality?

This is truly unbelievable. Apparently the Bush administration doesn't believe in transcripts that are accurate. Check out this page. It's the press briefing from October 31. Here's what the transcript says a short way down the page:
Q Whether there's a question of legality, we know for a fact that there was involvement. We know that Karl Rove, based on what he and his lawyer have said, did have a conversation about somebody who Patrick Fitzgerald said was a covert officer of the Central Intelligence Agency. We know that Scooter Libby also had conversations.

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think that's accurate.

Watch the video on the same page. Apparently McClellan can speak at supersonic speeds. Those three words, "I don't think," are never spoken. They are a figment of the imagination of the transcriber. But having them in the official transcript sure does come across as an attempt to un-speak McClellan's words. Nah. Our highly moral government would never stoop to such levels...

What a Wacky Week

First, Peyton breaks the Foxboro curse, sending the defending champs to 4-4. Cool.

Then, Kansas decides to go all stupid again. I'm guessing what happened last time they did this will happen again: Last time, all the board members that pulled this crap got voted out in the next election. I would also like to direct you to this comments page. Crooked Timber is cool, I recommend them. You've got to love a blog that makes comments like, "Unfortunately they didn’t adopt my suggestion that science be further redefined to include sitting at home drinking a beer and watching the game on TV. This would have greatly enhanced my weekend contributions to science." Seriously, though, I do like that Crooked Timber's discussions tend to be, on the whole, more civilized than most blogs...

Speaking of voting education board members out for pushing intelligent design, some good folks in Pennsylvania did just that. Eight pro-ID Republicans out. Eight Democrats in.

And, yesterday's election results show a lot of victories for Democrats. Of course, Ohio and Texas had to be idiots make poor choices as usual. As a whole, though, could this be a sign of things to come? Could we be making the first few steps out of the modern Dark Ages? Could I make any more hyperbolic extrapolations based on a single day's off-year election results?

Update: I just saw yet another wacky story. Thai officials held a wedding ceremony for two pandas. No word yet from American fundamentalists ranting about the "sanctity of marriage" and how it should be protected from the moral dangers of sex with animals... Damn, I hate it when I can't think of a clever wording for a witticism.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Another Movie Recommendation

Go see Jarhead. It's a nice bitter war flick without the war. But it has some very funny parts to it. There were some classic parts, like when Swofford shows up for "bugle auditions" that are actually the recruiting session for the scout snipers. Or the strip tease in front of the news team. Funny stuff.

Oh, and just a little side note for the many reviewers who say that the story doesn't go anywhere, that is the point. Did you not understand why they included the scenes from Apocalypse Now as a contrast? The movie is based on the book of the same name, written by Anthony Swofford himself. Yes, it is autobiographical. He was making the point that modern war isn't like the Iwo Jima invasion or Normandy or any other large-scale ground forces war. Why risk the casualties when you can have a jet come in and blow everything all to hell?

Avian Influenza

I just wrote my first opinion letter to the State News (Michigan State's daily newspaper). Here are the contents:

As a liberal outraged by many Bush administration policies, I was disappointed to read the staff editorial, “Ill Intention.” In writing the piece, the State News staff has contributed to the cheap politicization of science.

Avian influenza (H5N1) poses a very grave threat and demands immediate preparation. Since early 2004, the virus has spread from southeast Asia into parts of Europe. That's quite a distance since it has primarily spread through saliva, nasal secretions, and feces. While most human infections have been through direct contact, there have been rare cases where the virus has been passed from one human to another.

That's all in the past. From the CDC's web site: “[B]ecause all influenza viruses have the ability to change, scientists are concerned that the H5N1 virus one day could be able to infect humans and spread easily from one person to another. Because these viruses do not commonly infect humans, there is little or no immune protection against them in the human population.” Our immune systems cannot fight this virus, which could lead to a mortality rate as high as 50%. A highly communicable version of H5N1 would be horrific. “Last time we checked, Asia was still pretty far from the United States,” was your snide remark. It gets a lot closer when an infected person boards a flight from Istanbul to New York.

No one can say for sure if a pandemic is imminent or inevitable. That does not mean that we cannot prepare for the worst. Vaccines and anti-viral medicines take time to invent and to manufacture. The proper response to this rare move should be a reminder that this is only a first step. A good next step would be funding for the teaching of evolution (not intelligent design) in science classrooms to further our understanding of the way that viruses can change. That knowledge could help us fight viruses like H5N1.

While I can appreciate that the timing of this announcement is curious, this acknowledgment dignifies the Bush administration's attempts to make science yet another political playground. There are topics that are far too important for this. Avian influenza is one such topic.

If you want some more information, you can check out the CDC's page that gives some basic facts. Or, check out Mike, the Mad Biologist. As he describes in a recent post, I don't have faith in him, just trust.