July 22, 2024

Archives for 2002

NYT: Wi-Fi Interferes With Military Radars

In today’s New York Times, John Markoff writes that the Wi-Fi standard for wireless networking may interfere with certain military radars. If the interference turns out to be serious, this is a major headache. Wi-Fi is one of the best new technologies to come along in a while, and it seems to be headed for near-universal adoption. Now the military apparently is worried that Wi-Fi will be too popular.

Google in the Spotlight

Interesting article by Josh McHugh in the January 2003 issue Wired, on Google’s attempts to keep itself on the right side of various policy issues. It’s much easier to steer clear of the tough issues when you’re small. Now that Google is so popular and powerful, policy challenges abound.

Sloppy Science

New Scientist reports on how scientists prepare their papers for publication:

A cunning statistical study has exposed scientists as sloppy reporters. When they write up their work and cite other people’s papers, most do not bother to read the original.

The discovery was made by Mikhail Simkin and Vwani Roychowdhury of the University of California, Los Angeles, who study the way information spreads around different kinds of networks.

They noticed in a citation database that misprints in references are fairly common, and that a lot of the mistakes are identical. This suggests that many scientists take short cuts, simply copying a reference from someone else’s paper rather than reading the original source.

Can you spot the fallacy here? (And if you can, why couldn’t the editors of New Scientist?)

The fallacy is in the assumption that if a scientist copied the text of a citation from another paper, this proves that he never read the cited paper. No justification is offered for this assumption, and it seems dubious on its face.

Certainly it contradicts my experience. Many times I have read a paper one day and looked up its bibliographic information elsewhere on another day. If there are typos in the citations in some of my papers – and I’m sure there are a few – that is unfortunate but it doesn’t mean I haven’t read the cited papers.

I’ll bet Simkin and Roychowdhury spent plenty of time double-checking every detail of their citations. Perhaps they should have spent more time thinking about the contents of their own paper.

We're #22!

Seventeen Magazine has released its long-awaited “100 Coolest Colleges” list. Princeton ranks 22nd. Yale ranks second, probably due to the influence of the ultracool LawMeme crowd.

You have to wonder, though, about anybody who ranks my alma mater, Caltech, as the fifteenth-coolest school in the country. Caltech has many virtues, but coolness is definitely not among them.

Of course, Princeton outranks you all on the not-quite-as-bogus US News & World Report list. So there.

Privacy Technology vs. Privacy Laws

Politech reprints an anonymous, somewhat overheated essay arguing for a technology-only approach to privacy, as opposed to one based on laws. It’s easy to dismiss an essay like this just because of its obnoxious tone. But we should be skeptical of its ideas too.

Certainly, we ought to use privacy-enhancing technology when it is available, and we should try to figure out what we can do technologically to keep information from falling into the hands of people we don’t trust.

The problem is that out here in the real world we often do have to hand over information in order to live our lives. I have to tell my doctor about my health; and I have to tell my pharmacy about my prescriptions. How am I to keep my medical information out of the wrong hands? A law might help.

Even the most basic rights of citizenship cannot be exercised without disclosing information. To vote, you have to tell the government where you live, and you have to show them ID (which means you have to disclose more information to an ID-issuing agency). If you buy land, that land holding is a matter of public record, along with the price you paid for it.

And what about taxes? The tax authorities require you to disclose all sorts of information about your finances, including any anonymous offshore accounts you might have. Unless you lie to them, they’ll find out everything. And lying is, to say the least, problematic. First, there’s a chance of getting caught. Second, you have, or ought to have, moral qualms about lying. Third, underreporting your income is unfair to your fellow taxpayers (or at least the honest ones) who will end up paying more because of your lie. Fourth, if many people lie, this will trigger an increase in invasive auditing and enforcement activity, which raises new privacy problems.

Now maybe we should have a tax system that requires less disclosure. Probably the author of the essay would think so. And how are we going to get such a system? By passing laws, that’s how.

In fighting for privacy, we need to hold technology in our left hand and law in our right. We can’t afford to fight the battle one-handed.