May 30, 2024

Archives for March 2004

Implementing EFF

Recently, the EFF issued a white paper suggesting an approach to the problems of music distribution. The proposal would let people buy a blanket license allowing unlimited access to music from any source, in exchange for a payment of about $5 per month into a fund that would be distributed among copyright owners in proportion to the usage of each copyrighted work. The plan is voluntary, with neither consumers nor copyright owners compelled to participate. Commentary on the plan has been generally positive, though the RIAA said it wasn’t interested.

Ernest Miller pointed out a problem that would need to be resolved. Consumers who bought a license would be free to use P2P networks to download music; but it wouldn’t do to let them upload freely, as those uploads would be an unstoppable source of unpurchased music for non-participants. Peter Eckersley suggests that this problem could be solved by publishing an (unforgeable because digitally signed) list of the IP addresses of licence participants, and allowing anybody to transfer files to the people at those IP addresses.

It seems to me that if the EFF plan is going to happen, it will start with a deal between the RIAA and a university, in which the university creates a fund to pay out to copyright holders, in exchange for (a) free rein to do anything at all with copyrighted music within the campus (but not to distribute it outside the campus), and (b) permission for anyone, either on the campus or off, to transmit music to people on campus.

The university could help ensure compliance by blocking P2P traffic that would otherwise lead to outgoing transfers of music. (As always, the blocking would be easily circumvented by those who wanted to do so. Its only purpose would be to let well-intentioned people share music within the campus without accidentally making it available to outsiders.)

This is a much better deal for universities than a Penn State-style transaction, in which a university buys its students subscriptions to a limited music service. An EFF-style license allows unlimited use of music in courses, and it allows students and faculty to experiment with new uses of music. It also allows cross-university sharing and collaboration on music projects, if multiple universities join.

This might be a good deal for some university, if the price is right.

Dueling Viruses

There seems to be an active rivalry between the authors of competing computer viruses, with back-and-forth insults included in the textual comments within each virus, according to a Mike Musgrove story in today’s Washington Post.

Witty repartee it’s not: “Bagle – you are a looser!!!” But one does worry about what will come next, if the loosers decide to escalate from a war of words to an e-war. If that happens, the next step will be new virus versions that try to inoculate victims’ machines against rival viruses. And don’t expect the kind of clean, surgical inoculation you get from a good antivirus product, but a crude rewiring of the victims’ software configuration, causing all sorts of trouble.

In the worst (but unlikely) case, this could escalate into a full-on game of distributed core wars, with rampaging malware armies clashing in the computers of people foolish enough to click on the wrong attachments.

Let’s hope this doesn’t happen. And let’s all remember to update our antivirus software and be very suspicious of email attachments.

Avi Rubin's Election Judge Experience

Avi Rubin, the John Hopkins computer science professor and leading critic of e-voting, has posted a fascinating account of his day as an election judge in Baltimore, Maryland, using the new Diebold machines.

UPDATE (11:00 AM): It must be noted that the polling place where Avi worked was not typical. Everybody seemed to know in advance who he was. One of the other poll workers just happened to be an experienced Diebold trainer. Very senior Diebold executives just happened to show up before the polls opened to make sure everything was okay.

Super Tuesday

Today is a major primary election in several U.S. states. In Maryland, it will be the first use of the controversial new Diebold e-voting machines that were the subject of several negative security evaluations.

Unless there are very large, obvious problems today, expect stories later in the week in which e-voting advocates say there were no problems with the new machines. What they will really mean, of course, is that they didn’t notice any problems, which isn’t too surprising since the machines are essentially black boxes.

Avi Rubin, a prominent computer security expert and e-voting critic, is working as a volunteer election judge in Maryland. I’m eager to hear what he has to say after spending a day in the trenches.

Must-Read Books: My List

Below is my list of six must-read books on science and technology. I know: I asked you for five, and now I’ve allowed myself six. I just couldn’t narrow it down any more.

Naturally, I include only books that I have read; and I must admit that I haven’t read many of the books suggested by readers. You all have added considerably to my books-to-read list.

The hardest aspect of this task was that I read most of candidate books long ago, so I no longer remember clearly what I learned from which book. And I’m sure the forty-year-old me of today would disagree with the twenty-year-old me who read some of these books. With that caveat, here is my list, in alphabetical order:

Harold Abelson & Gerald Sussman, Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs. A serious computer science textbook, this imparts more computer science ideas than any other book I have seen. It will be a challenging book for many people, but heeding Dan Simon’s advice to respect my audience, I’m including it anyway. If this book goes over your head, try Hofstadter’s Goedel, Escher, Bach which is easier to read, but is longer, shallower, and less focused.

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything. This is a light and entertaining whirlwind tour of modern science. If you’re going to learn science and technology in only six books, you’ll need to have one general survey to fill in the gaps, and this is it.

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. Evolution may be the most important single idea in science, so we need a book about its mechanisms and implications. Darwin’s Origin of Species is very good, but it’s too far out of date. This is a good modern introduction to evolutionary thinking.

Richard P. Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Another challenging book. (It’s probably not a coincidence that I chose serious, challenging books in the two fields I know best.) Feynman may be the best physics teacher who ever lived. This book is based on his legendary Physics 1 lectures at Caltech. I took the same course years later, and it still bore Feynman’s stamp.

Henry Petroski, The Evolution of Useful Things. I had a hard time with this one. I felt I needed a book on general engineering, but no book stood out from the crowd. This book examines how the design of everyday objects like forks and paperclips has evolved over time. Petroski uses this history to illustrate the interplay between form and function, and how engineers go about improving even the most mundane objects.

Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate. This is by far the best book I have seen on the nature vs. nurture debate. It points the way to a more civil and sensible discussion of the impact of biology on human nature and social policy.

Given only six books to introduce science and technology, I had to omit entire disciplines. The biggest absence on my list is mathematics, which is covered only partially and indirectly by Feynman. Probability and statistics are especially important, but I just couldn’t think of a good introductory book about them.