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Sunday, March 25th, 2007

Funny APoD

I had to laugh at today’s Astronomy Picture of the Day, NASA’s daily picture and “brief explanation written by a professional astronomer”, usually chock full of links. The picture was the famous 1972 pic of the Earth, as taken from Apollo 17. The write-up concludes:

… Earth supports a large variety of life forms, including potentially intelligent species such as dolphins and humans. Please enjoy your stay on Planet Earth.

“Potentially intelligent?” I’ve been trying to think of some snarky comment about that, but the more I thought about it, the more I tend to agree.

Posted by Greg as General Science, Society at 00:49 PST

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Monday, July 17th, 2006

Reading “The Jesus Myth”

Over the last two weekends, I had picked up what turned out to be a very interesting book – The Jesus Myth by George A. Wells. It was my first real exposure to the position of mythologists. It’s an impressively scholarly work, but as I picked my way through it (sometimes I had to jump ahead to his conclusions before I could follow where he was going on certain points), one thing that stood out to me was the way he countered the arguments of Christian apologists. It would be unfair of me to analyze his technique off the top of my head, but what struck me was the way he could be so dismissive of the arguments of some of his opponents, when his own arguments where often founded on very tenuous interpretations. I don’t have the scholarly expertise to judge the validity of his positions, but it did cause me to do a little online research into early Christian history, and the lack of contemporary records was quite striking. It must have been very difficult for the leaders of the early Christian church in the second and third centuries to assemble the canon that became the New Testament.

That limited research was enough to confirm a previously held belief on my part – that those who insist on interpreting the Bible, particularly the New Testament, as the literal word of God, not the work of men, have hobbled themselves. I think it’s an excellent guide, but only that.

This book was apparently one of Wells’ later ones, and I understand from researching the man that he has softened his position from his earlier works. As I expected, for as much as the mythologist view has been expounded, there has been just as much effort, if not more, put into countering the arguments upon which it is based.

I’m not trying to stake out a particular religious view with this post. I just read an interesting book and thought it was worth mentioning.

Posted by Greg as Posts About Me, Society at 06:41 PST

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Sunday, July 2nd, 2006

Update or Die

Unnecessary software updates are bad. If it’s not a security fix, leave it for the next major release. But aside from feature bloat, the Powers That Be have been steadily incorporating such nasties as DRM into “our” computers (see “Who Owns Your Computer“) through the update process, and have realized that such methods give the potential to exert an unprecedented level of control over all our personal information, which is steadily approaching greater significance than our physical selves.

I’ve brooded over whether I’ve sounded too strident as anti-Microsoft before, but no longer. Thanks to Bruce Schneier for pointing me to Ed Bott’s chillingly understated concern that MS is incorporating a “kill switch” – an antipiracy tool designed to stop Windows from running if you don’t install every update that they deem necessary – meaning, those petty security fixes aside, Microsoft’s more-powerful antipiracy tools. Ed quotes some MS reps averring that the antipiracy tool will become mandatory, and updates his post with MS’s later PR denial of their program as unable to “turn off your computer.”

Microsoft is Ed’s beat, and it was clear to me from reading the article that he’s become jaded to the horrors that must be going on there on a daily basis. A comment in and of itself.

Much earlier today, I replaced the processor and motherboard on my primary home XP Pro box, and with much trepidation. I wasn’t afraid of messing it up; I was afraid of Microsoft shutting down my operating system. Sure enough, when I rebooted with my OEM cd in the drive and repaired the install, I was bombarded with alarms that I needed to reauthorize. Pity that one of the problems with the repair that I was having was with my wireless card – my only link to the Internet. (The driver disk for that was in the other dvd drive.) After multiple installs/uninstalls and reboots, and getting continuously harassed, starting with two separate pop ups before even logging on, I finally called a halt to my attempts to get Windows to see the card, and called the phone line for reauthorization. That turned out to be an unnecessarily long delay – my whole “conversation” was with a computer generated voice, and I had to report a 60-some digit code number using voice recognition. Anyone ever heard of using the touch-tone pad?

Oh-oh. I can see myself getting into a full-blown rant here, so I’ll try to cut it short, at the risk of losing out on getting on the record about the doom I see coming.

This is really, really bad for Microsoft customers; meaning, potentially, the vast majority of the world. To try and recoup the billions of dollars they’re losing to piracy, they’re willing to enslave the source of the trillions they’re getting or going to be getting from the rest of us, and they’re in principle aligned with more than a few major corporations that want to make sure that they’re getting their billions and trillions from us, too, and could make a few more bucks selling the technology to them. And so far, everything’s going their way.

The only bright side to this, putting aside <sarcasm> my favorite IT professional’s retort to my concern about MS dependency – “their stuff just works!” </sarcasm> – is that it is so brazen that there might actually be a row in the technical press about it, and maybe enough to translate into some significance in the mainstream press. People might realize that they’re giving up all their choice (and therefore their freedom) to the people that make the software that runs their lives. They might start migrating towards, dare I say it? open source. And if the general populace really puts some thought into it, maybe they’ll start questioning the entire legal construct of licensing that gives software and entertainment companies this sort of power.

Could you imagine it? Scared politicians, shaken by the complaints of the the voting faithful that if they pay for something, they own it, passing laws that prohibit the retention of ownership by software companies, and stripping the whole licensing construct down to conditions on resale? Would you be willing to give up tech support for a product that works, all the time and every time, in the first place? (I’m sure I’m missing more than a few implications on the legal and economics side of this issue, and alternatives that make more sense under by the traditional understanding of property / means of production / ownership / compensation aspect. Let me just posit that licensing a commodity, or the means to produce other commodities, seems to distinguish the dividing line between the Industrial Age and the Technology Age. But what do I know – this stuff is only the roots of paltry concepts such as capitalism, socialism, and communism – and what affect do they have on our daily lives?)

Yeah, imagine it. Just like John Lennon dared to do. Fat lot of good it did him. So I’m left with my original assertion – DOOM! Hey, it wasn’t so bad for Dark Ages serfs, right?

P.S. I saw the Windows Genuine Advantage update, because I review my updates before installing them, and I declined to install it. Later, out of conditional obedience, I went back to the WindowsUpdate site and tried to find it again, listed with other suggested updates that I had asked not be installed, and couldn’t even find that list any more. My guess is that it got installed anyway using Automatic Updates.

P.P.S. I didn’t seem to do a very good job avoiding a rant, eh? You don’t know the half of it.

Posted by Greg as Politics, Society, Software at 00:16 PST

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Thursday, May 4th, 2006

Who Owns Your Computer?

For those who don’t get the point of why I’m concerned about computer privacy and security, and am so quick to look for non-Microsoft alternatives, especially open-source operating systems and software, Bruce Schneier has written a brief essay that beautifully summarizes the dangerous trends:

When technology serves its owners, it is liberating. When it is designed to serve others, over the owner’s objection, it is oppressive. There’s a battle raging on your computer right now — one that pits you against worms and viruses, Trojans, spyware, automatic update features and digital rights management technologies. It’s the battle to determine who owns your computer.

You own your computer, of course. You bought it. You paid for it. But how much control do you really have over what happens on your machine? Technically you might have bought the hardware and software, but you have less control over what it’s doing behind the scenes.

Using the hacker sense of the term, your computer is “owned” by other people.

It used to be that only malicious hackers were trying to own your computers. Whether through worms, viruses, Trojans or other means, they would try to install some kind of remote-control program onto your system. Then they’d use your computers to sniff passwords, make fraudulent bank transactions, send spam, initiate phishing attacks and so on. Estimates are that somewhere between hundreds of thousands and millions of computers are members of remotely controlled “bot” networks. Owned.

Now, things are not so simple. There are all sorts of interests vying for control of your computer. There are media companies that want to control what you can do with the music and videos they sell you. There are companies that use software as a conduit to collect marketing information, deliver advertising or do whatever it is their real owners require. And there are software companies that are trying to make money by pleasing not only their customers, but other companies they ally themselves with. All these companies want to own your computer.

In the essay, he lists several specific ways some big companies are trying to own your computer. He mentions Sony, Microsoft and Google, but there are are lot more out there that are just as interested. The teenage wunderkind hacker, while still a threat, is chump change compared to the forces that want to control what you do and how you do it on your computer. Bruce concludes:

Just because computers were a liberating force in the past doesn’t mean they will be in the future. There is enormous political and economic power behind the idea that you shouldn’t truly own your computer or your software, despite having paid for it.

And it’s not just the software on your computer – it’s the connection to it. Yesterday I called and emailed my congressman’s office to urge him to vote against the COPE Act, which moved out of committee last week. Telecommunications companies want to control your access to the Internet, and want to profit from selling preferential treatment to the highest bidder, effectively turning over control of Internet content over to corporations. I don’t know how that can’t scary the willies out of anyone who likes being able to hear all sides of an argument.

Posted by Greg as Politics, Society, Software at 18:39 PST

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Monday, April 10th, 2006

Research Yourself

On a recent post I casually mentioned that it was a good idea to search your own name in the Internet search engines every so often, so you can find out what’s out there about you and available to all. You want to do at least the top three – Google, Yahoo, and MSN.

Coincidentally, that point was made for me earlier today when I was reviewing my site visits and I saw a hit from Google using the name of an old boss and the company he still works for. Because I thought he would be interested, and just to catch up with him, I gave him a call to let him know. I had checked myself, and if you Googled the name of his company and his name, my site came out on top of the list. The original searcher must have been disappointed, because that wasn’t much else to find, and my hit was only a casual reference. A few hours later, someone entered exactly the same search terms from a different geographic location, so I figure it was Pete checking out what I had told him. Funny, I never would have pegged him for an Apple man.

One other thing I did tonight was check the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse website. Maybe all this stuff had gotten under my skin, but I was also checking to see if they’d put up an RSS feed yet. About a week or so ago I had corresponded with Beth Givens, the founder and director of that great organization, to ask her if they had any plans on putting up a feed, and she had seemed very interested. I really like their Alerts page, but I’d like to be able to catch anything new right away. I subscribe to feeds from EPIC, EFF, Privacy.org and DRM News that I check every day, and I’d like to add PRC to the list. While I was there, I saw an even better and more complete recommendation for checking readily available information on yourself. PRC recommends checking your credit history, medical records, bank account history, insurance claims, and public records in addition to search engines, and provides links for doing so. Yep – all this stuff is out there for the taking, and that doesn’t even begin to cover what the private data miners know about you! I went over to Slashdot to find a good recent article on those trolls, but there were so many about data mining, identity theft, phishing, and stupid government and civilian blunders revealing private information, you may as well go over and read them yourself if you’re interested.

All of this led to a must-post moment. I know I keep bringing this up, but my interest in personal privacy was born in the early eighties when I did a little bit of hacking myself and found out how easy it was, and knew then just how much easier it was going to get. Not so long ago, a friend of mine went missing and we were worried about whether he was lying dead in a ditch somewhere, and it only took me a couple of hours to find his bank account and social security numbers, and with that I was able to find his most recent ATM transactions and find out generally where he was, and I knew he was ok. He had just wanted some time to himself, but I think that I shouldn’t have been able to do what I did, and I only did it out of real concern.

But I know I’m picking a losing side. Government and private institutions just can’t keep pace with technology; and regulations, like gun laws, mean that only the bad guys will have access. I just hope, forlornly I’m afraid, that social acceptance of our personal peccadillos will follow at a rapid pace behind, because it’s not just how much we make and what we owe and own that is becoming knowable, it’s intimate details, like a credit card purchase in an adult bookstore, a cell phone call from a place you weren’t supposed to be, and what you were talking to that therapist about that is being compiled, archived, and available.

Oh – and by the way, folks – if you don’t want me to see every time you drop by, what pages you read, and how long you spend doing it, try subscribing to my feed. You can just click on the Bloglines or Feedburner images in my right sidebar. It’s been a long time, but I think if you don’t already have an account, they’ll start one up for you. Or, if you’re using Firefox, just add me as a live bookmark.

Posted by Greg as Society at 23:47 PST

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Sunday, February 5th, 2006

TaxAct User Review and Ethereal Report

Earlier I tauted the TaxAct Standard version as free (as in beer) software for computing and e-filing federal tax returns, even if you didn’t qualify for free filing with IRS e-file partners. I discussed my security concerns, the software EULA and website privacy policy, and my assessment was that the software was free because it was nagware, and it seemed to be secure and without spyware.

Now that I’ve completed and electronically filed my taxes, I can say that the TaxAct software was relatively easy to use. There are definitely some features missing that might be in the pay version, but none that I absolutely had to have. I was able to complete everything over several sessions – I was even able to transfer the incomplete datafile from one computer to another – and I not only have a printed copy of my return, I can reopen the software for review and editing. I guess that would be helpful if the IRS found an error in your return or if you had to file an amended return.

The nagware part was omnipresent but not a hindrance. I just clicked past all the prompts that offered the benefits of the pay version, and learned to ignore the tax adviser links; all tax help (not software help) required the pay version, but you were always able to summon the IRS instructions for form lines. The navigation was a little tricky. The whole thing is structured in a question and answer format, so when I wanted to look up what I had entered for a particular line on a particular form, I sometimes had to hunt around. The sitemap function was pretty helpful for this, but I often had to browse through several question pages to get to a point where I was able to view the form. There is no free state version – that’s their last hook to get you to cough up some money – but I used CalFile to file my California state tax return for free.

There are built in review functions that are supposed to spot potential errors – I wasn’t able to evaluate this, because I didn’t go through the review until my forms where complete, and from what I could tell, I didn’t make any mistakes. There aren’t any audit warnings, unless I was really good – which I somehow doubt. Maybe only the industry versions have those – I once watched the H & R Block software in action and saw a lot of tips and warnings, but that software was for use in their instant-expert training method, and was probably meant to make sure a low-level peon knew to call over a supervisor when he was supposed to.

I was running Ethereal when I clicked the submit button. All traffic went through one ip address through a secure protocol, which resolved to taxact.com by reverse dns, so I believe the site privacy policy applied to your actual tax forms as well, not just registration information. Still, I suspect that the filing information is more vulnerable to subpoena and strong-arm tactics by law enforcement under the Patriot Act than if it had been sent directly to the IRS, but the IRS doesn’t allow this.

To summarize – this software satisfied all my requirements – free to use, free to file, usable, and secure. I highly recommend it.

Posted by Greg as Society, Software at 22:28 PST

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Friday, February 3rd, 2006

Picked Up a Book

Since I got into this website stuff and the baby came, I haven’t been reading much, not like the novel-a-week I used to go through. But a couple of days ago I realized that I don’t actually have to watch that tape of Barney with him, especially for the second and third time, and I picked up a book to keep my mind occupied.

For some reason there are some great books out there, classics that I know about and have been meaning to read, but I just haven’t gotten around to it. On this occasion I was able to address one of these omissions – I picked up a copy of Neuromancer by William Gibson, the novel that defined the cyberpunk genre.

Sometimes, when you read a ground-breaking book a long time after it came out (in this case, twenty-five years later), you end up being disappointed. The style has been copied and used in other books that you’ve read in the meantime, and often expanded upon and improved. The most extreme example that I’ve encountered of this was picking up Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, expecting to read a great detective novel. There was no such disappointment in Neuromancer. It’s still fresh – prophetic, dystopian and relevant. Twenty-five years is an eternity in science fiction, and we are still tramping directly down the path envisioned by Gibson.

Posted by Greg as Posts About Me, Society at 08:24 PST

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Sunday, January 29th, 2006

Less vs. Fewer Revisited

A friend took pleasure in pointing out that I used a grammatical construct in my last post that I had criticized in the post immediately prior. At least he thinks I did. Clearly, he didn’t bother the read the supporting link that I posted:

According to this rule, less should modify plural nouns only when they suggest combination into a unit, group, or aggregation. Thus “less than three miles” (with “three miles” being a single distance, not three individual miles), “less than $50” (fifty dollars as a sum of money, not fifty one-dollar bills).

I used the construct “less than two weeks”, which indicated an approximation of a specific period of time in a manner that fits into the acceptable use listed above. The “10 items or less” construct refers to a specific enumerated quantity – nine is ok, but eleven is not, and is therefore more correct to use “fewer”.

Of course, everything is relative. The English language, particularly as used by Americans, is extremely flexible and adaptive. Perhaps I shouldn’t pick on Americans – after all, it was in the land that came to be known as England that the language evolved from Old to Middle to modern English. No one is formally in charge of policing the correct use of English, unlike French, and since the prime function of language is to communicate thought between individuals, one can see the advantages in adhering to “common usage”, even when the standard of common usage starts deviating from old, accepted rules. To illustrate my point, I’ll bring up another example – how peeved I am that the word “gender” has come into standard use to replace the word “sex”. “Gender” is, or was, a grammatical term that referred to the masculine, feminine or neuter quality of a noun in languages where it made a difference, and English isn’t one of them. The noun “sex” refers to “The property or quality by which organisms are classified as female or male on the basis of their reproductive organs and functions.” (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition), but we’re mostly familiar with another usage – the contraction from “sexual intercourse.” It’s always been my belief that squeamishness about discussing this other usage in public (especially in America) is what lead to adoption and adaption of the term “gender” to refer to whether a person is male or female. But the use of “gender” to refer to sex has become common usage, and it would be pointless of me to try to get everyone to change back.

Now, I am in no way an expert on English grammar, as a quick perusal of my writing here on this blog would readily reveal. My interest in adhering to more formal grammar, whether I achieve it in practice or not, is rooted in my life experiences. I was initially educated in Australia in the seventies, back when they still referred to the principal of the school as the headmaster, which taught me to aspire to formalism, even if it screwed me up on spelling when I came to the States. In high school, in the US, I studied Latin, which taught me more about the rules of grammar than I ever learned in English classes. My entire life I’ve been an avid reader of both fiction and nonfiction, which exposed me to the ins and outs of usage and taught me the value of good editing; and I’ve often kept a dictionary handy to look up words I encountered when I wasn’t exactly sure as to their precise meaning. And I’m an engineer because my nature prizes precision and detail, which is reflected in my approach to writing.

So when I get on my soapbox about language, I’m really just exemplifying the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, how linguistic determination shapes not only how I approach my world, but reveals who I am. Now there’s a chewy morsel to sink your teeth into.

Well, it’s ten o’clock. Time for me to listen to A Way With Words!

Posted by Greg as Posts About Me, Society at 10:11 PST

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Friday, January 27th, 2006

10 Items or Fewer

It’s one of those little annoying things to me that even I will admit is pretty inconsequential, but I hate seeing the supermarket checkout lanes marked “10 items or less.” Less is used to indicate a smaller amount when the quantity cannot be enumerated. When a number is given, as in the supermarket sign, the correct term is fewer. Apparently I’m not the only one going around complaining about the grammar error, because I am seeing more and more “10 items or fewer” signs.

So it’s disappointing to me to see today’s Brevity cartoon (this link won’t work until tomorrow, but then it will stay good for 30 days. The current day’s cartoon is always here. ) I know Guy and Rodd are just reflecting what most people see, which makes the impact of the visualization more immediate. I guess cultural satire is not the appropriate venue for a grammar crusade, but it would have been nice to see “fewer” in the cartoon.

And damn it, I wish they would enforce that rule!

P.S. I see that the Random House Word Maven agrees with me about the traditional usage, but doesn’t think it’s worth correcting. Am I elitist, or is she a slacker?

Posted by Greg as Family & Friends, Society at 07:13 PST

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Thursday, January 26th, 2006

Australia Day 2006

Today is Australia Day – a day of national celebration in my birth land. It’s been 218 years since the arrival of the first colonists.

I take pride in having been born Australian – everyone should feel proud of their birthplace – but as an immigrant and naturalized citizen of the United States of America, and particularly as one who served in the armed forces of his new home, there is, of course, some internal conflict. Australia no longer recognizes me as a citizen, and my oath upon becoming American obligated me to renounce any “allegiance and fidelity” to Australia. Here’s the full text:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God. In acknowledgment whereof I have hereunto affixed my signature.

I think it’s an unfortunate circumstance that you can only belong to one country. On a practical and legal basis, as long as the idea of “nations” exists, it is absolutely necessary. I also don’t understand how you can hold dual citizenship when you have given an oath such as this – apparently, some countries are willing to disregard these words, and will still recognize you as their citizen. Fortunately for me, the odds of me ever being placed in a situation where I had to choose between doing what is right for the USA and what is right for Australia is very remote; because I gave my oath and I mean it. I have been asked to risk my life in the service of the Constitution and have done so willingly and obediently, and I would do so again whenever asked. If I were ever placed in a situation where I was asked to betray the United States on behalf of Australia, I would have to report myself to the proper authorities as a potential risk, even if I refused to cooperate. I love America.

And of course, one of the things I love about America is that you can feel proud of your heritage. It’s ok to call yourself an Australian-American, and to show your pride in your country of origin. My family has roots in Australia that are very deep for an Anglo. My ancestors have been there for so long that there’s statistically little doubt as to how they got there in the first place – most likely as British convicts. But that’s ok, hell, it’s even chic nowadays, but I remember a time when the idea would have been unmentionable.

Australia professes many admirable national principles – foremost is the idea of “a fair go for all.” As a nation and a people there have been many failures to live up to those principles, especially in the treatment of the indigenous Australian aboriginals. But what righteous person doesn’t want to confront and deal with their failures when they become aware of them? Even on Australia Day, there is a strong recognition of the past abuses dealt out, and a call to recognize and respect the feelings of those who were done wrong. I think an example has been set for many others, and I am still proud of my roots, and of the vast majority of Australians who continue to sympathize and support efforts at reconciliation, and how all of them debate with respect how best to address these issues.

Australia has a culture in continuous transition – I feel way behind the times in many ways. I don’t know what the current popular opinion is in many current issues, or even what constitutes the current issues, but everything I hear leads me to believe that the principle behind the positions is still the same – “a fair go for all.” I hereby honor Australia, my birth land, a place and a people that have left an indelible mark on who I am and who I ever will be, and I join you in celebrating your national day.

Without violating my oath, I can still say that

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror –
The wide brown land for me!

-Dorothea MacKeller, from “My Country“.

Posted by Greg as Posts About Me, Society at 00:01 PST

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