January 30, 2008

Jogging Your Memory

A fascinating article was posted on the Daily Mail today. Apparently some scientists were trying to curb the appetite of a patient suffering from obesity by stimulating his brain with electrodes. They didn't cure his eating disorder, but they did end up improving his memory. As the article points out, the potential for this to be used as a treatment for patients with Alzheimer's is going to be something a ton of people are going to want to explore. I'm no neurologist, so I don't know if this is possible, but I think it would be interesting to see if this would also be viable in treating people with amnesia.

Of course, I think there are going to be some interesting situations that come out of this. Let's say that this ends up working reliably, and it becomes common practice to use it as a treatment. There's no way that the doctors are going to be able to control which memories return. They may be able to single out short-term and long-term memories, as they are in different sections of the brain, but there's no way they'll be able to help you remember specific items or events.

That leads us to a problem. Who is to say that the memories retrieved will be good ones? The article states that the patient "experienced vivid memories of an event that occurred 30 years earlier." How vivid are we talking here? Is it like reliving it all over again? What if the doctors trigger a particularly horrible memory that had previously been blocked by the brain in order to protect the person? This kind of recovery could lead to other medical problems, such as the creation or recurrence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder or even, depending on the intenseness of the memory, hallucinations or delirium.

Of course, this all depends on the type of life that you've led. If you've lived a relatively uneventful and happy life, this treatment may be nothing but good for you. But if you were, say, a POW in Vietnam or a police officer in a particularly violent area, use of this treatment may have more adverse than positive effects. Of course, everyone has bad memories of some sort, and there's always the chance that the doctors will bring back something the patient doesn't particularly want to think about.

The ethical question arises when we return to the point of the initial article: treating Alzheimer's. A patient with this disease, depending on it's severity at the time, may not be able to make the decision for treatment on their own. Should a spouse or relative be allowed to ask for this treatment? Some would say that the benefits outweigh the risks, but I'm not so sure. For all you know, the memories that you want the patient to have won't be the ones retrieved, and you may end up just making the situation worse. Keep in mind that this isn't going to cure Alzheimer's, just treat a symptom.

I think that people would end up filling out an Advance Directive for this type of treatment in the event they contract Alzheimer's in their old age. This is probably the best solution, since it would allow the patient to make the decision themselves as well as avoid any crazy controversy like that which surrounded Terri Schiavo. Whether this ends up becoming a commonplace treatment or not, it is definitely something that will be interesting to follow as it is explored. I'll be keeping my eyes open for anything new regarding this discovery.

January 28, 2008

How To Lose A Customer In Three Easy Steps!


  1. Sell faulty software.

  2. Assume that your customer is a criminal.

  3. Refuse to accept a return of faulty software.



A lot of retail stores have the official policy of not accepting returns of opened software because they are afraid that people will just copy the software and return it. While this is a valid concern, I have a very big problem with a store automatically assuming that I am a criminal. In fact, a lot of stores don't even actively enforce this policy too hard. I've returned open software to places like CompUSA, EB Games, and GameStop in the past when I have had problems. But Best Buy seems to have adopted the policy that the customer can not be trusted.

The incident in that linked article is a bit more mind-blowing in terms of audacity, but my personal incident is no less offensive (at least in my mind). Yesterday, I used part of a Best Buy gift card that I received for Christmas to purchase the Myst 10th Anniversary Edition. I am not linking this particular product because I don't want anyone to actually end up buying it. This product states on the box that it is XP and OSX compatible, but this claim is false, and the distribution of this software is borderline (if not outright) fraud. I do not blame Best Buy for this part; the onus of software quality is pretty much entirely on UbiSoft, a company which has had previous quality issues with their use of Starforce copy protection. It was so bad that it landed them in court.

But this particular product didn't use Starforce, and my computer more than met the minimum specifications, so I thought I would be safe. Wrong. Based on what I have read online, almost no one can get this to run on a Windows XP machine even after uninstalling the most recent version of Quicktime (which breaks iTunes) and reinstalling an older one and running under various compatibility settings. People are also having the same problem running the game in OSX, although I don't have a Mac so I'm not as familiar with the specifics. The thing is, two of the games in this collection pre-date Windows XP and Mac OSX, so they were not designed at the time of development to run on those operating systems. One would assume, given the system requirements on the box, that UbiSoft or Cyan had gone over the code and updated it to run on the most recent systems. This is apparently not the case.

After trying fruitlessly for several hours to get the game to work, I went back to Best Buy to return it. My conversation with the head customer service person went something like this:

Me: "I'd like to return this software. It will not run."

Best Buy Guy: "Ok, we can certainly exchange it for you..."

Me: "No, you don't understand. The software is faulty. You need to pull it from your shelves because it does not work. The system requirements on the box are wrong."1

BBG: (looking at box) "Well, we can't take this back, sir. This box is open."

Me: "I just bought this like two hours ago, and it doesn't work. Please take it back. I am planning to spend at least $3000 on a home theater in the next couple of weeks. Do you really want to lose that over a $20 piece of software?"

BBG: "That has nothing to do with this receipt, sir." (I almost burst out laughing at him when he said this.)

Me: "No, it has everything to do with this receipt. You just lost any future business."

As you can see, Best Buy will not be getting any more of my money. If I happen to get gift cards to the store as presents, I will use them, but I won't be purchasing Best Buy gift cards for anyone else or any more of their products. The problem with most consumers today is that they won't stand up for themselves when they are being wronged. Sure, I could write to Best Buy Corporate and get some freaking form letter apology in response, but that won't make them change. Neither will the $3000 in home theater sales and probably $10000+ of future business I would have given them, for that matter. Not as long as everyone else continues to bend over and let corporations treat them like crap. They exist because we allow them to. If enough people would grow a spine and say "enough is enough", the world would be a better place.


1When I originally bought the game, there were three copies on the shelf. Two of the three looked like they had been previously opened and then resealed, and now I can see why.

January 25, 2008

Followup: Ford Makes Amends

As I wrote about previously there was a lot of discussion around the internet about Ford refusing to let the Black Mustang Club print its calendars of their members' cars. It seems that after a bit of back and forth Ford is allowing the project to go forward. Cory Doctorow summarizes everything better than I could in the BoingBoing article, so check it out.

If you're too lazy to do that, here's a quick summary of the summary:


  • Ford says they never told CafePress that they couldn't print the Black Mustang Club calendars, although they had previously sent them "very stern letters" about similar projects before.

  • CafePress told the Black Mustang Club that Ford said they couldn't do the calendar specifically, or Black Mustang Club misinterpreted the message as such. Either way, CafePress was under the impression that such projects were forbidden.

  • Ford has contacted both parties and stated that the calendar (and other future projects) are ok if they don't imply an endorsement by Ford.

  • Ford needs to tell their legal department to take a chill pill.

  • CafePress needs to back their customers and not be pansies when the law is on their side.



I think it's a pretty gray area in terms of the law being on the side of the customer in this case. It's obvious where Cory stands, but he's a devout Fair Use advocate, possibly to the point of unintentionally misinterpreting the law. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for Fair Use; I'm just not sure that printing and selling the calendars without Ford's express permission is conclusively within the intent (if not the letter) of the law as it stands. I'm not even sure if there is much case law to support either side in this particular incident, and I've read very convincing opinions from people on both sides who are more knowlegable in the area of trademark than I am.

However, it's a valid point that companies like CafePress need to at least appear to try to back their customers in cases like this and not just bend over to any cease and desist letter from some newbie lawyer trying to get on the boss' good side. Whether CafePress retained their own legal council on this is not clear in the correspondence that's been made public, but I would advise them to do so in cases like this. It would benefit them to get a second opinion on this kind of thing and let their users know that they are at least following the council of their own lawyers and not those of another company, who is only looking out for itself. It would go a long way toward building customer confidence.

January 23, 2008

Traffic Sucks, So Help Make It Better

There are many reasons that bad traffic occurs, and many of these we aren't able to fix easily. Things like an overcrowded population, poor infrastructure, and outdated designs are issues that must be addressed on the city and state levels and can not be fixed overnight. There are, however, things that you and I can do as motorists to help alleviate the traffic problem. I think that if everyone followed some of these recommendations, even well known problem areas would become noticably easier to navigate.

I think that the overall goal in driving in traffic should be to reach what is called a Nash Equlibrium with the other drivers. Basically, you want to make the best possible decision while driving while taking into account the decisions of the other drivers around as well as your own needs. Let me give a very simple example.

(Please pardon my lack of graphics skill.)



You're driving down the right lane of an interstate in busy, but not bumper-to-bumper, traffic where everyone is doing pretty much the same speed, and a vehicle pulls up beside you on the on-ramp to merge into the traffic. It seems to me you have three choices here: 1) Accelerate and tail-gate the car in front of you so the new vehicle is forced to merge behind you, 2) Decelerate to allow the car to merge in front of you, or 3) Change lanes to create a vacant spot for the vehicle to merge into.

All of these choices are doable, but the choice that best brings the situation into a Nash Equlibrium is to change lanes. In the first choice, you are increasing the danger to yourself and others around you should something unexpected happen and you either hit the car in front of you or are forced to slam on your brakes, causing one of the vehicles behind you to hit you. In the second choice, you are causing the vehicle behind you to slow down (and any vehicles behind that as well), increasing the traffic for everyone approaching this section of road. While this option is safe, it is not optimal. In the third choice, everyone is able to maintain speed, and the new car is able to safely merge into the traffic lane.

This is a pretty common scenario, but let's add some standard variations on it, along with their solutions.

Variation: Your exit is less than a mile ahead, and you do not think you will have enough time to get back over in the right lane.
Optimal Solution: Choice 2, since you are able to safely allow the car to merge while maintaining your lane.

Variation: Cars are not driving at the same speed. The car in front of you is driving slightly faster than you, and the car behind you in the left lane is speeding.
Optimal Solution: Choice 1 becomes the optimal solution at this point, as changing lanes risks you being rear-ended by the speeder, but accelerating to match speed with the car in front of you allows everyone else to maintain speed as well as safely creating space for the new car to merge in behind you.

Driving, even if it's just down the street to the store, can be filled with lots of decisions like these, and from what I've seen after 10+ years of driving, most people do not make the optimal choice when these situations present themselves. When the majority of the drivers on the road are not behaving in ways that are in the best interest of everyone, this will cause traffic. How many times have you been stuck in a bumper-to-bumper situation, only to have it miraculously clear up fifty yards later? I've noticed that this kind of situation is created by a few people making sub-optimal decisions which then cause more people to make similar decisions, and it just causes a cascading effect down the road.

Several primary factors are at fault which contribute to poor decision making:

1) Lack of proper driver education. (For instance, in Maryland, you don't have to take a road test to get your license. You just drive around a parking lot.)

2) Selfishness. People (especially in today's society) are constantly thinking about what's best for themselves, even if it's getting just one more car ahead of the rest.

3) Distractions. The use of cell phones, MP3 players, Blackberries, etc all contribute to less than smart driving.

4) Lack of planning. From what I've seen on the roads, many people do not properly plan their routes for the trips they are taking, causing them to brake suddenly or cut across multiple lanes to make their necessary turns.

5) Being unaware of your surroundings. Many drivers pay attention to no one but themselves and the car in front of them.

As motorists, it is our responsibility to mitigate these factors and try to create a more optimal driving environment, not just for ourselves but for everyone around us. So the next time you're driving, try to consciously make better decisions that will help create a better overall traffic environment.

1) If you feel that your state is lacking in driver education, try attending classes offered by a private company. I did this before I got my license, and even though my teenage mind thought it was boring, I do feel that I benefitted from taking such a course. You can also get insurance reductions from some companies for taking classes like this.

2) Try thinking of others as you are driving. If someone needs to merge in front of you, then let them. One more car in front of you is not going to make you late, and it will better increase the flow of traffic around you.

3) Don't talk on the phone while you're driving, if it's avoidable. The same goes with playing around with an MP3 player or texting on your Blackberry. Unless it's a dire emergency, those things can wait.

4) Plan your route. If you know where you're going, this shouldn't be hard. Get in the lane you need to be in and stay in it. If you don't know where you're going, get directions from Google Maps or something similar. If you know you're going to need to make a left, but you're not sure where, at least be in the left lane.

5) Pay as much attention to the drivers around you as you can. I have avoided being rear-ended multiple times because I pay constant attention to my side- and rear-view mirrors. Just because you are driving smartly doesn't mean that everyone else is.

Imagine if everyone on the road did their best to make the driving environment the best that they could make it for everyone and not just themselves. All the effort spent weaving in and out of traffic wouldn't be necessary because traffic would be less in the first place. Obviously, these suggestions won't fix all problems, especially those related to accidents or population and infrastructure, but it would alleviate a lot of problems associated with day-to-day driving.

January 21, 2008

Maryland To Get Rid Of Touchscreens

I'm just posting a short follow-up post today, as it is a federal holiday, and I am in full-on lazy mode. It looks like Maryland is taking one of the first steps to improving the voting process and getting rid of touchscreen machines. It just sucks that the close to $65 million that was spent on the touchscreens has mostly been flushed down the drain. Next time they should just give it to me.

January 18, 2008

Space For The Next Generation

For centuries mankind has been fascinated by outer space and the promises and dangers that it might hold. This all seemed to culminate during the Space Race between the USSR and the United States from the 1950s to the 1970s. In the span of twelve years, mankind went from launching the first man-made satellite into orbit to walking on the moon, and the entire world was captivated.

My parents' generation grew up during this time, and I'm sure many of them (like my dad) passed on their passion for all things related to outer space to their children. For me, it started when my dad introduced me to the original Star Wars and later to Star Trek: The Next Generation. Granted, this movie and this television series were fiction, but they were born out of a generation of people who grew up during the Space Race. Watching these shows got me hooked on the idea of exploring outer space and other planets, and this desire still burns in me to this day.

My love for outer space reached its peak sometime in middle school, when my class took a field trip to the Discovery Place, a science museum in Charlotte, North Carolina. At the time, they had a NASA Space Mission exhibit for classes to attend. Before you went to the museum, your teacher decided which of three teams you were going to be on: Mission Control Team, Shuttle Flight Team, or Probe Team. Most of the class fought over who got to be on the Shuttle Flight Team, but I went straight for the Probe Team, as this combined my love of outer space with my love of all things electronic. During your time in the exhibit, you had manuals to follow, and things went a bit like this:


  1. Mission Control and Shuttle Team prepare shuttle for flight.

  2. Shuttle team launches shuttle and enters orbit around earth.

  3. Probe team assembles and launches deep space probe for scientific research.

  4. Probe team takes readings from probe and records data.

  5. Shuttle Team and Mission Control work together to land the shuttle.



I'm sure the equivalent of this exhibit with today's technology would be absolutely amazing (what they have at Space Camp sounds similar), but even back then it was more than enough to capture the attention and awe of my 5th grade mind. It was probably one of the single greatest educational experiences of my life, not because of any specific facts I learned, but because the little things that I did pick up instilled in me the desire to learn more. I think that if something does that, whether intentionally or not, you can consider it an educational success.

But our country's fascination with space seems to be dwindling. Science fiction shows used to be prevalent on prime-time television, but now the only thing that is a remote success is Battlestar Galactica. It's almost as if people feel like since we've gone to the moon that there's nothing left to do, and I find this very disheartening.

I don't think all hope is lost, though. Space exploration is still a big theme in modern video games. Mass Effect, for instance, is a recent release that has been a resounding success, both critically and commercially. While this may all be good to keep kids (and adults) interested, does it really spark any desire to learn?

There may be something to answer that question in the next few years. NASA is seeking information from the software community about producing a massively multiplayer online learning game based around the exploration of outer space. I'm sure the word "learning" in that description would immediately turn off some kids, but if the game is actually fun, then learning just becomes an awesome side-effect of playing the game. Much like the experience I had as a kid, they wouldn't even know that they're learning, and their curiosity may just be piqued enough for them to do some more exploring on their own.

I would love to see this project succeed, as it combines my love of outer space, computers, and video games all into one package. I would even purchase it myself if it was well-received. Whether this particular endeavor succeeds or not, I do hope that my generation does it's best to keep the next generation looking to the stars. Whether it happens soon or not, the future of the human race does lie out there in that vast expanse. I just hope we don't forget and put it off until it's too late.

January 16, 2008

Repeat After Me: IT'S A GAME

I'm sure that most of you have heard of the online massively multiplayer computer game called Second Life. Basically, the point of this game is that it is a virtual world where everything is created by the players. No rules. No regulations. Just build stuff and do whatever you want. As a social experiment, I can see how playing this game could be very interesting. You would be able to observe, in a relatively small amount of time, how societies form and how the "understood" rules that govern such a society come about.

But somewhere along the way, a lot of the players of this game crossed a line. People started investing real money into this. Linden Dollars, the currency used in the game to buy different things, started to gain actual value. You can buy these Linden Dollars directly from the game developer, but more fascinating is the fact that real businesses have sprung up around the manipulation of this "currency" which has no legal value. Because of this, businesses have also sprung up in the game itself. There are even people who make their living entirely by playing Second Life. I bet Linden Research never saw this coming in their wildest dreams.

What happens when you create a business environment with no regulation? Well, everything you would expect to happen. Every con that was ever run on the simple-minded is going to be run again: ponzi schemes, pyramid schemes, you name it and it's probably been done. The problem that Second Life is facing now is a total economic collapse because Linden Research is now regulating virtual banks, which would seem to go against the point of their game. You're supposed to be able to do anything, right? Of course, this is not the first time that Linden Research inserted regulations into their virtual world.

Allow me to take a couple of steps back. The banks in second life are, of course, horribly run, as many are run by regular people with no financial background. They promise enormous amounts of interest (some up to 60%!) on deposits made. Amazingly, this was actually sustainable for a while, as the banks would use gambling as means of gaining funds. However, in July of 2007, Linden Research stepped in and banned gambling in Second Life. With the loss of this revenue source, it was only a matter of time before banks began to fail. There was an outcry among the population for regulation, and so Linden Research has stepped in and declared that no one may run a bank in Second Life, unless you are able to run a bank in the real world.

For a while there, it almost sounded like I was talking about a real world economy. The line has definitely blurred beyond recognition in Second Life. The amount of money changing hands in this game is now in the equivalent of millions of dollars (US). Now, I can't for the life of me figure out what on earth possessed people to invest their hard earned real money into a virtual economy. I seriously can not understand it. Is it just basic human greed? The hope to get something for nothing? I can bring myself to accept that part, but how can you justify investing your funds into a system that has no regulation? We have a hard enough time dealing with corporate fraud (Enron anyone?) in the real world with a huge amount of regulatory oversight. How could you possibly think it would be smart to invest into a system with not only no regulations but, for all legal purposes, doesn't even exist?

In my opinion, I think that where Linden Research went wrong was in the handling of its currency. If you wanted to buy some Linden Dollars to play the game, the only legal source should have been the development company itself, and buying from any other source should have been against the terms of service. Instead, they have allowed, if not encouraged, the use of third parties in the handling of this currency. Once this happened, they lost a lot of the control of their in-game currency. Also, the purchase of Linden Dollars should have always been a one-way transaction; selling Linden dollars should never have been an option. Sure, there are going to be people who will set up sites which would violate the terms of service, much like the gold farmers in World of Warcraft, but the impact would be far less severe, especially if Linden Research did their best to ban accounts guilty of violating the terms of service.

I think their second mistake was to introduce any sort of regulations. Their stance was and should have always been that the world is what you make it and we will have no part in it. If you're stupid enough to invest tons of real money into it, then tough luck. This sort of message should appear in huge bold letters every time someone logs in to the game, as well as being a part of the terms of service. They should never have accepted any responsibility for what was happening. I think that once they did that, their legal position became a lot more dangerous.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the near future. Will there be runs on the banks that are going to have to close? Is the entire virtual economy going to collapse? Will Linden Research be forced to create even more regulations, turning this game more and more into an online government? All I know is that I'm leaving this planet when Second Life applies for membership to the UN.


Random Parting Thought:
Seriously, why don't people think? I blame reality TV.

January 14, 2008

Ford Shoots Itself In The Foot

There are a couple of blurbs floating around the internet about yet another Ford crisis. But this one doesn't have to do with slowing sales or workers on strike. No, this one is Ford's lawyers doing their best to destroy what little positive press Ford has left by threatening to sue a group called the Black Mustang Club for wanting to print calendars of their members' cars at CafePress. Now, printing items with trademarks is against the CafePress policy, but I'm pretty sure that even if it weren't, Ford would still have done shut this project down.

I have many problems with this incident. First, Ford is claiming that they own the rights to all of the photos taken, even though they were taken by the BMC members themselves. So, if I were to take a picture of my wife's Ford Focus, they would claim to own said picture. I find this hilarious. They don't even own the car (well, in two months they won't), much less my picture of it. Yes, Ford has trademarks, but they do not have a copyright. Your picture is copyrighted by you, not Ford. In all likelihood, I expect that this calendar will eventually be published, and in the unlikely event that this does go to court, Ford will be laughed out. I'm sure my wife will have some interesting comments on the IP aspect of this incident.

But what really makes me laugh and shake my head is that Ford is throwing away free advertising. I mean, if people were taking pictures of Ford vehicles and making fun of it, I could at least understand the possible motivation for this. But why on God's green earth would you stop a group of people who adore your product from printing calendars and spreading the good word of Ford as far as possible? The answer, plain and simple, is corporate greed, and it is destroying this nation, as well as the rest of the world. (Now, the AFL-CIO is not the most unbiased of organizations, but I think I can trust you to read past any embellishment to the facts. Some of the examples of exploitation on their site are pretty disgusting.) The line of thinking Ford is taking here just boggles my mind. Whoever approved this bone-headed move needs to be fired; Ford has enough problems as it is without people on the inside destroying what little good will people have left for the company.


UPDATE:

After lots of further research and discussion with my wife (who knows a lot more about the trademark side of things than I do), it looks to me that what Ford did was not legally out of line and may have, in fact, been legally necessary. However, I do think it was a bit heavy-handed. I think that it could have been handled much better on the PR side of things, but then PR and lawyers seem to mix about as well as water and oil. It's all about appearances, and no matter what Ford says, most people who look at this are going to view it as a big corporation picking on the little guy. Hopefully, BMC will be able to get permission to print the calendar through proper channels (I see no reason why they shouldn't); the question will be if Ford is going to charge them some outrageous licensing fee. It will be interesting to see what direction this goes in.

January 11, 2008

DRM Is Failing

The big media companies should have known from the beginning that Digital Rights Management would never work. The complexities and hurdles of such an idea, both technical and social, are just too vast. Most likely, the technical people tried to tell the management that this was a bad/non-sustainable idea, the management people said "Do it, or you're fired," and the technical people reluctantly began working on a project that was already doomed to fail.

Basically, the media companies claim that DRM is necessary to keep people from making unauthorized/unpaid for copies of their property in order for them to maintain steady revenue streams. However, the issue with DRM is that in order for it to work, they need to not only control the content, they also need to control the hardware, such as computers, televisions, and phones. This is beyond the reach of any one company.

For an example, let's take the download of a music file with DRM from Apple's iTunes. In order to download this song, you need to, of course, have iTunes. So far, Apple is in control of all of the software and content here. If you download the song to your computer, and do nothing but copy it over to your iPod (also from Apple) to listen to with your headphones, then the chain of protection is preserved, as Apple controls the hardware also. But what if you want to play it on your computer? Or hook your iPod up to speakers? This is where DRM will fail, because Apple doesn't have control of all aspects of your hardware, even if your computer is a Mac.

The reason is that the audio needs to be processed and delivered as a standard audio stream which can be recognized by the huge variety of speaker systems available. Once the content leaves the control of your hardware in the form that users want it, you have lost all control. All someone has to do now is hook a recording device up to the speaker output of the computer or iPod, and you have wasted millions of dollars on something my seventeen-year-old sister could work around. In order for this to be successful, you would have to establish a proprietary protocol which encrypted the audio stream so that it could only be interpreted by hardware which licensed your technology, and you would have to get all of the speaker companies on board with this. This would never happen, as the speaker companies have no reason to pay you to license this technology because no one else will be using it. Even if you gave it to them for free, they still wouldn't do it because people aren't going to buy them.

Even if you happened to manage to get the speaker companies to lose money doing such a silly thing, this would not stop dedicated pirates. All they have to do is record what is played by the speakers/television. Sure, it's not going to be the same quality, but pirates will take a sub-par product for free over your high-quality version which costs money. The thing is, if they're not paying for it now, they will never pay for it. There are songs in our music library that I listen to because my wife purchased them. Would I have purchased them myself? Probably not, but I like them enough to listen to them for free. This is the mindset of a lot of the casual music and movie pirates out there.

The impossibility of DRM (or, rather, the improbability of getting all tech companies on board with it) is the primary reason that it is failing, but there are several secondary reasons which have accelerated this downfall. In late 2005, Sony BMG released CDs with DRM that, when placed in your computer, would install a rootkit without telling you. This is not only morally wrong in and of itself, but this rootkit was so insecure that if it was on your machine, a hacker could get access to your machine.

Another problem with DRM that is speeding its demise is that it is preventing users from exercising their fair-use rights. Users are no longer able to easily create backups of their music or movies in case it becomes corrupted. Even libraries are unable to loan material with DRM for extended periods of time. DRM is so broken that it is astounding it has even lasted this long.

Well, maybe not. You see, the entertainment industry lobbied Congress to do something to save their "failing" businesses, and we were graced with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This law criminalizes the act of circumventing DRM, even if it's so you can exercise your fair use rights. Both DRM and the DMCA have been a constant controversy since they were introduced, and the people are lucky to have groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation looking out for their rights in this age of technology and society's dependence thereon.

It's not all bad news, though. As I said, DRM is failing. As I write this, companies like EMI, Universal, and now even Sony are offering music free of DRM. Now if only we could get the media companies to ditch the DRM-heavy Blu-ray format. Unfortunately, that looks like it's going to be a longer battle.


Random Parting Thought:
I hate the eight hour work day. I think the ideal work day should be six hours. Someone make this happen.

January 9, 2008

It's Not A Flying Car But...

...it may be the next best thing: automated cars. It seems like something everyone would want, right? You wouldn't have to be stuck doing nothing while sitting in traffic, it could help alleviate pollution and accidents by driving more efficiently, and it could save you time! The idea has been around forever in science fiction, but whether you realize it or not, it's been a reality since 1989 with the ALVINN project at Carnegie Mellon University. That little guy, which learned how to drive by "observing" other drivers that pilot it, has been putting around the CMU campus by itself for years.

Larry Burns, vice president of R&D at General Motors, seems very optimistic in the AP article linked above, claiming the driverless cars could be in production and on the roads by 2018. While it's a nice thought, I'm pretty sure that this isn't going to happen. The system described in the article works by networking cars together to help them avoid each other, but the problem with this is that you're not going to be able to roll out this system all at once. Not everyone is going to be able to immediately trade in their current car for a driverless one, and there are going to be a lot of people who won't even want to. So, not only is this system going to have to be able to network with the other cars on the road that contain this system, it's also going to have to be able to drive without being in communication with most other vehicles on the road. That problem alone is going to add several man years to the current description of the project.

That, in effect, is the biggest problem this project faces. Since the driverless mode on the vehicle is optional, the biggest obstacle is going to be the human motorist. Computers, by definition, are logical, and humans, by nature, are not. The vehicles that are being controlled by computers are going to be driving in the most efficient way possible, and this is going to drive the human motorists who prefer to control their vehicles themselves absolutely insane. Allow me to give you a few examples:


  • A computer will always obey a posted speed limit. This fact alone will make human motorists' blood pressure go through the roof (especially if they're from the DC metro area), as these cars won't be going "fast enough." Granted, if enough of these cars hit the streets, the speed limits could be raised, but the human drivers will still want to go that extra five to ten MPH faster.

  • If a computer senses a light turning red, it's going to just let off the gas and coast up to the red light. It's not going to burn unnecessary fuel speeding up to the light and then hitting the brakes hard. This will infuriate those people who think that getting to the red light faster actually decreases the amount of time they will be spending in their vehicle.

  • A computer is also not going to slam on the gas when a light turns green, either. It is going to slowly accelerate in the most fuel efficient manner. I can hear the horns already.



These are just a few things off the top of my head that I know will annoy human drivers, and possibly even human passengers, regardless of how efficient the process might be in terms of fuel efficiency or obeying the law. I'm sure if you think about it, you'll be able to come up with some good ones yourself. Of course, there are some motorists who live to infuriate impatient drivers1, and they will absolutely love all of the aspects mentioned above.

In addition to the aspects above, the automated driver will also lack the ability to view and interpret the body language of a human driver. While driving down the road, a human can glance at another driver, process an insane amount of visual input in less than one second, and determine that another driver is impatient/aggressive/otherwise dangerous and take action to avoid this person.2 I don't see artificial intelligence reaching the ability process this amount of visual information efficiently in the next century let alone in the next ten years.

Of course, all of these issues I've mentioned boil down to the fact that the automated driver is an option instead of a requirement. I think the only way that this system is going to work any time soon is that they are going to have to slowly phase in cars that have support for this system. Once everyone has them, they will be able to activate it and phase out human-operated vehicles. Once activated, you're not going to be able to enter a manual mode without a damn good reason, and how the car is going to determine whether a reason is acceptable is a very good question and yet another roadblock to this project. The only other way this is going to be feasible in the near future is if huge advances in artificial intelligence are made. Unfortunately, I just don't see that happening in my lifetime.



1Umm, so I've heard. I wouldn't know any of these people personally, mind you.
2Or, if you're one of those people, see exactly how much you can piss them off.

January 7, 2008

Improving The Voting Process

The New York Times ran a very long but interesting article yesterday about the current troubles with electronic voting in the United States. I'm sure pretty much all of you are aware of at least some of the many problems that have plagued electronic voting since it was instituted after the huge "hanging chad" debacle in the 2000 presidential election in Florida. The thing is, many of the problems are not related to the fact that precincts are using electronic voting but, more specifically, touch screen voting. In addition to the hardware/software problems, the whole system seems horribly broken to me (as a software engineer) in terms of redundancy and the ability to verify said redundancy in a reasonable amount of time.

Consider this: according to a spokesperson for Net Bank quoted in an article for the Colorado Springs Business Journal, close to one third of banking customers never set foot in their bank branches. Are you telling me that we are able to manage millions of people's finances online, and yet we can't solve a comparatively simple problem such as voting? This boggles my mind.

Many of the problems mentioned in the Times article have what I think are very easy and elegant solutions. One of the things that confuses me is that people seem to swing to the extremes in terms of being in favor of paper ballot voting or electronic voting, when it seems to me that the most logical solution lies somewhere in between. I don't claim to have all of the answers here, by any means, and I'm sure that there exist some flaws in what I present below. I'm only one person, and designing an entire voting system in an afternoon is surely beyond my expertise. But that's the great thing about the internet: it allows for the easy exchange of thoughts and ideas among millions of people almost instantly. If you see something wrong with an idea I present, let me know; I'm always up for learning something new. Who knows, maybe we'll come up with the "next big thing" here. So, without further ado, I give you seven ways to improve the voting process.

1) Have Technically Savvy Professionals At All Polling Locations

Let's face it, the voting process in a country the size of the United States is going to be complicated, even more so if it's done even partially using electronic methods. Having the responsibility of maintaining electronic voting equipment fall on a 65-year-old volunteer who has no experience with computers other than their one day election official training course is just absurd. Each polling location needs to have at least one technical professional to handle any technical issues that come up, and they will come up. Whether it's an ethernet cable that's loose or a machine that simply needs to be rebooted, there needs to be a trained "voting engineer", if you will, at each location.

These technicians would still be volunteers, but they would be paid more than your typical election judge. These people would be required to be certified in a computer related field (computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering, etc) with at least five years of professional experience on the job. They would attend an (at least) week long intensive training program where they learn the ins and outs of the entire voting system, from individual voting units to network and server infrastructure. Having technicians on site is a must for the voting systems of today and in the future.


2) Permanent Voting Locations

The days of holding elections in school gyms and local churches are over. The entire foundation of the current government of this nation runs on the electoral process. Treating it like something that should be set up and torn down a couple of times a year is not acceptable. Permanent voting locations need to be established and secured year-round. All hardware needs to be permanent to the location and not allowed to leave the location unless for repairs. Said location and hardware should be inspected randomly at least once every few months, and several times prior to upcoming elections.


3) Get Rid Of The Touchscreens

I don't know who decided that touchscreens should be used in the election process, but it seems like a horrible idea to me. Why would you choose a more expensive and less accurate form of input over a traditional mouse interface? The only reason I can think of is in order for the contracting company to turn a higher profit. Using a standard mouse with a voting machine would remove several of the issues mentioned in the above article that result from using a touchscreen, including the user touching the screen in more than one place at once, as well as the user dragging their finger on the screen.


4) All Voting Software Should Be Open Source

This is, perhaps, the most important of my suggestions to improve the system. The software used in the voting process MUST BE OPEN TO PEER REVIEW BY ANY CITIZEN. I can not emphasize this point enough. Any citizen of this country (or any person in the world for that matter), should be able to take a look at the software that runs the United States voting system and see how it works. This would allow any software professional or hobbyist the ability to examine said code and report any possible errors or vulnerabilities to the board of elections in order that it may be fixed promptly.

The whole security through secrecy mentality has no place in the voting process. In addition to open sourcing the software, the machine configuration, operating system, and hardware of each machine and server should also be known. The point is to force the process to be so secure that even if you know most aspects of the system, you are still unable to hack it. Obviously usernames, passwords, and connection strings shouldn't be divulged, but I see no problem in the people knowing that this specific software is running on this version of Linux (face it, Microsoft would never open source Windows) on this specific hardware.

I would also encourage the establishment of a reward process for those who find bugs in the software that would cause problems. These rewards would scale based on the severity of the bug and the potential impact it could have on any given election. Who knows, a hobbyist could find a show-stopper (the worst kind of software bug) and never have to work again. They could even be offered a job on the voting software team. Obviously, the team in charge of writing and maintaining this software would have to be some of your most talented and trusted programmers in order to prevent the intentional introduction of bugs in order to exploit the reward system. Of course, if you pay these people enough, the temptation is almost non-existant.


5) Improving Redundancy: Paper Trails

The biggest problem with electronic voting right now is the lack of a proper paper trail. That is not to say that there is no paper trail at all. One of the systems in the article is described as printing out each vote onto a spool of paper (protected behind a plastic screen to prevent tampering) that the voter can check before they leave. However, the voter has no record to take with them.

The method I propose would be simple to implement, allow the voter to take a record of their vote with them, and be extremely easy to validate in the event a recount is required. Allow me to reintroduce you to our friend, the barcode:



After each vote is cast, the electronic vote is stored, and two pieces of paper are printed out. The first piece of paper has the voter's choices in a human readable format and those same choices printed as a bar code at the bottom of the page. The other piece of paper has the barcode and a unique confirmation number printed on it, which the voter takes home with them. We'll get more into the confirmation number in the last point. No human readable information is stored on the page taken home to help curb voter intimidation.

On the way out of the polling location, the voter will enter a separate booth, scan the paper copy without the confirmation number, verify their choices on a display screen, and deposit it into a secure container which will be retained by the board of elections in the event a recount is necessary. The container would not accept the sheet of paper with the confirmation number printed on it in order to prevent the voter from leaving the wrong sheet. Having a paper trail in this way protects the voter by maintaining anonymity as well as allowing for redundant confirmation by the voter.


6) Improving Redundancy: Multiple Servers

This seems like a simple solution to a common problem, but the article in the New York Times made it sound like this was not being implemented properly at all. In one instance in the article, the author was at an election headquarters witnessing the tallying of the votes. The votes are tallied by taking the flash memory card from the individual voting machines and inserting them into a server, where the votes are read and stored. However, during this process, the server counting the votes crashed multiple times. My question is, WHY DO YOU ONLY HAVE ONE SERVER?

Seriously, we are talking about the election of members to the government of the most powerful country on this planet. This process should be executed in triplicate at a minimum, meaning at least three servers collecting and storing these votes. If one, or even two, of these servers have problems you still have another. This does not seem like a difficult solution to come up with, and it is most definitely a no-brainer engineering decision. This would also allow for easy validation of votes, as the votes stored in each server could be compared against each other to check for differences. If a difference is found, the vote (which is associated with a unique confirmation number) is marked as invalid.


7) Improving Redundancy: User Validation And Correction

My last idea to improve the electoral process is to have an easy way for the voter to validate and correct/dispute their vote on record. The solution here is the unique confirmation number that is printed on the bottom of the paper ballot the voter takes with them after they leave the polling location. The voter would be able to access a secure webpage online, enter in the barcode number, along with the confirmation number and be able to check exactly what votes are stored for them on the server. If a problem had occurred during the tallying of their vote on the servers, the voter would be notified here and have to register for a re-vote. Also, if they deem that some other problem exists with their vote, they could mark the vote as invalid themselves and register for a re-vote.

The voter would be given an additional couple of days to recast and validate their vote. No personal information would be needed to register for a re-vote, just the barcode number and the confirmation number. The voter would return to the polling place, the ballot would be scanned and the confirmation number entered to confirm an invalid previous vote. The voter would then repeat the process.

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Now, obviously I don't think that these suggestions would completely solve all of the problems inherent with the current electronic voting system (or a paper balloting system for that matter). The fact is, the process is very large and complicated with many places where errors can occur, whether through human or computer error. However, a lot of these problems would be eliminated if all or some of the suggestions above were implemented on a national level. Where does the money come from to pay for this, you ask? Well, this is something that I would be more than happy to have my tax dollars spent on. Problems like these are what our government should be solving with our taxes, not some of the crazy pork spending that both parties are guilty of.

Do you agree? Disagree? Have better ideas? The purpose of this site is to make you think! You might as well share with the rest of us, so leave a comment!


Random Parting Thought:
LSU beats OSU by less than 10 points based on the fact that Les Miles will call some insane play on a fourth down that for some reason ends up working.

January 4, 2008

Breaking The Addiction

An article has been making its way around the internet over the past few days which I find interesting on many levels. Apparently some researchers at Baylor College in Houston are working on a vaccine which may help to cure cocaine addiction. If this turns out to be successful, this could be a great boon to those who truly would like to break the drug habit, but it would also raise a few questions.

Let's address the positives of the completion of this vaccine first. There is, obviously, the ability of health professionals to be able to help those who struggle with a cocaine addiction. According to one study, around 1/5 of women and 1/3 of men treated for drug addictions relapsed within six months of their treatment. The use of this vaccine could reduce those numbers to almost zero, as the use of cocaine after being treated with this vaccine would have no effect.

Another positive aspect of this vaccine would be the ability to prevent a cocaine addiction before it even occurs. So we have not only curative aspects but also preventative aspects to consider. If you know that you are a person who is prone to addiction, you would be able to take a step which would help prevent you from falling into a dangerous dependency in the future.

Interestingly enough, it is the preventative benefit of this vaccine which raises the most interesting questions. A cocaine vaccine doesn't really provide the best subject for discussion, though, as it is almost universally considered to be "bad" since there are a plethora of health problems which accompany its use, not to mention the whole legality issue. So in the interest of argument and as a thought experiment, lets assume that scientists have invented an alcohol vaccine. This vaccine would have the same effects as the cocaine vaccine, both curative and preventative.

Would you give your kids this vaccine? What if alcoholism runs in your family? Do you give your child this vaccine in order to prevent the possible destruction of their lives in the future? What if drinking alcohol is against your religion? Do you vaccinate your child in order to remove a spiritual temptation from their lives?

Basically, what I think this comes down to is the removal of choice from someone's life. You are making a personal/moral decision for a person and basically forcing them down a certain path in life. Yes, alcoholism may run in your family, but your child may be able to be responsible in their drinking and never have a problem with it. Yes, alcohol may be against your religion, but is removing the temptation altogether really a good thing? You may be reducing the spiritual growth of your child that would come from being confronted with a situation where they could drink but choose not to. For that matter, if drinking alcohol has no intoxicating effects, is there any reason for it to be against your religion anymore? It's these kinds of questions that I find fascinating, and I don't think that there is an easy answer here.

Personally, I don't think that I would give the vaccine to my kid, either in the case of alcohol or cocaine. (As a side note, I would like to point out that I see the choice of giving your child this vaccine as very different from choosing his/her eye color or the removal of a genetic predisposition to a disease prior to his/her birth, as these are not things a person would be able to change during their lifetime anyway.) I don't think it is my place to make that kind of decision for my child. I think that they have the right to make their own choices, even if those choices end up being costly mistakes. Making that kind of decision is part of the human experience and how we learn and grow as people, and I would not presume to force my particular sentiments on such a matter onto my child in such a permanent way. I think that the act of making such decisions is sacred and an integral part of one's individuality. I don't think that I could take something like that from my child, even if it may be in what I think is their best interest.


Random Parting Thought:
That girl in the DLP "It's the mirrors" commericals creeps me right out.

January 1, 2008

And We're Off

I've never held much regard for New Year's Resolutions. I'm not sure I've even made one before. I suppose I've always thought that the idea was a little silly. If you're going to resolve to do something, do you really have to wait for an arbitrary date on the Gregorian calendar in order to do so? (Or, if you happen to be a member of the Berber people of North Africa, the older Julian Calendar. I would hate to exclude my Berberian readers in my opening post!) This is the 21st century, people! The age of the internet! Why hang on to an outdated tradition which will be promptly discarded less than a month later once we realize that such idealizations require actual effort on our parts?

Of course, everything above is now pure hypocrisy, as the blog before you is the result of one said New Year's Resolution, an act which apparently dates back to ancient Babylonians and their intentions of returning borrowed farm equipment. The only validation of this theory that I could find online were a couple of personal blogs and webpages, and an article from Tehachapi News, so I'm not entirely sure of the accuracy of this information. However, since I've already remitted all combines and tractors to their respective owners, I don't see how this aspect of the tradition is of any relevence. But I digress...

I have been meaning to write more, but something would always hinder my efforts, whether it be work, a social life, or the myriad other hobbies I attempt to entertain. I attempted to participate in National Novel Writing Month this year, but my efforts stalled sometime in the second week. Whoever decided to make November the month for this personal contest of will definitely has a certain sense of sadism. November has to be the busiest month of the year next to December, and attempting to write a novel on top of preparing for the approaching holiday turmoil as well as attempting to maintain some semblance of productivity at one's place of employment is just ludicrous. For those of you able to accomplish such a feat, I salute your ability to sleep for a mere five minutes in thirty days.

Novel writing does not seem to be the ideal mode of authoring for the erratic life of a married man who spends entirely too much time trapped on the abortion of transportation efficiency that is the Washington DC Beltway. In fact, it doesn't seem to be the ideal mode for a few authors given some of the gems that grace our nation's bookstores1, so I decided that maintaining a blog on a regular basis seemed like a more rational endeavor.

But Matt, you say, you already have an outstanding personal journal as well as a well-respected poker blog. Given your already prolific writing, certainly you can't seriously expect to keep yet another blog! And you would be correct. Sometimes my talents amaze even myself. Unfortunately, the day to day events of my daily life are rather dull, and one can write only so many posts about poker before sounding like a broken record.

In addition, neither of those outlets seem to be the proper venue to discuss the broad range of topics that I expect this blog to cover. And what topics are those, you might ask? Well, I'm certainly glad you did. The answer: I have no idea. Well, that is to say, I have very little idea. I have a few topics mulling around in my head at the moment, but I certainly don't have even a month's worth planned out. The intent right now is to write about things that I think are interesting and will spark the synapses in your brain to make you at least think about what I'm saying, even if it's just "Matt, you're a complete buffoon. Go back to your D-level personal blog and inadequate poker journal and leave the insightful commentaries to the professionals!" If I've accomplished at least that much, then this blog will have been a success.

So now the only problem is maintaining some sort of schedule. Writing every day is certainly too much for me and would be doomed to failure from the start. Remember, this is a New Year's Resolution! This should last at least two weeks to make it look like I tried. I think that an update schedule of three times a week should suffice, and I will attempt to make these updates regularly on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. All other days will be spent frantically trying to come up with reasonably intriguing topics.

So, to recap:

  • Return all of your borrowed farm equipment.

  • There should be something interesting here for you to read three times a week. How you survive the other four days is up to you.

  • This is a New Year's Resolution. At some point, without warning, this blog will cease to be updated. I'm sorry, but changing the laws of physics is beyond the scope of this blog.



It promises to be a very interesting 2008! Hopefully I will be able to keep you captivated for at least part of it. Thank you in advance for joining me on what could very well be an extremely short ride!



1 It is left as an exercise to the reader to determine which works are deserving of this author's scorn.