April 25, 2014

avatar

Must-Read Books: Readers’ Choices

Last week, I asked readers to name five must-read books on science and technology. The results are below. I included nominations from my comments section, from the comments over at Crooked Timber, and from any other blogs I spotted. This represents the consensus of about thirty people.

The most-mentioned book was Hofstadter’s Goedel, Escher, Bach, which received eight votes. Interestingly, GEB was the only book that received negative votes (urging me not to include it). One of the negative voters called it a “show-off book”.

The results:

Rank Book Author Votes
1 Goedel, Escher, Bach Hofstadter 8
2 Guns, Germs, and Steel Diamond 6
3 (tie) On the Origin of Species Darwin 5
3 (tie) The Character of Physical Law Feynman 5
5 (tie) A Brief History of Time Hawking 4
5 (tie) What is Mathematics? Courant, Robbins 4
5 (tie) The Selfish Gene Dawkins 4
8 (tie) QED Feynman 3
8 (tie) The Visual Display of Quantitative Information Tufte 3
8 (tie) The Double Helix Watson, Crick 3

Six books received two votes: Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Feynman’s The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Medawar’s The Limits of Science, Pinker’s The Blank Slate, and Schneier’s Beyond Fear. Eighty-five books received a single mention.

As in the university presidents’ survey, the respondents to my query showed a notable lack of consensus.

I’ll post my list tomorrow.

avatar

California Court: DeCSS Not a Trade Secret

A California state appeals court has ruled in DVD-CCA v. Bunner, holding that the DeCSS program is not a trade secret, so a lower court was wrong to order Andrew Bunner not to post the program on his website.

DeCSS, you may recall, is a program that decrypts data from DVDs. It’s posted at hundreds or thousands of places on the net. Since the program was already widespread before Bunner posted it, DVD-CCA had no argument that Bunner’s posting posed any additional danger. The court also noted that Bunner played no role in the initial disclosure and spread of DeCSS.

This is a sensible ruling. The only surprise is that it took the California courts so long to reach this conclusion.

(I should note that the court left open the possibility that DVD-CCA could present more evidence to prove the trade secret status of DeCSS; but it’s hard to imagine what evidence could exist that they haven’t already presented.)

Jason Shultz has a collection of quotes from the opinion.

avatar

Paris Hilton: Auteur

Some day a great book will be written, dissecting the current copyright mania. And the page-three example, showing just how ridiculous things got, will be this: a legal dispute over whether Paris Hilton can claim authorship of the infamous video.

[Link credit: James Grimmelmann at LawMeme.]

avatar

U.S. Fed Trojan-Horse Technology to Soviet Spies

The U.S. fed booby-trapped technology to Soviet economic spies in the 1980′s, according to a new book by former Air Force secretary Thomas C. Reed. This was reported in a front-page story by David E. Hoffman, in today’s Washington Post. Reed says that the CIA, on discovering secret Soviet purchases of sensitive U.S. technology, decided to poison the well by feeding the Soviet technology collectors booby-trapped versions of U.S. products.

The effort was successful, according to Reed, with the biggest impact being an enormous gas pipeline explosion, caused by time-triggered code hidden in the pipeline control software. This confirms a story told by William Safire several weeks ago.

avatar

Great Books vs. Must-Read Books

Dan Simon has an interesting reaction to my post on must-read books in science and technology. I can’t do Dan’s post justice with a single quote, but here’s a sample:

[T]he Great Books of science–and they do exist: viz., Euclid’s Elements, Newton’s Principia–simply don’t occupy the same place in the scientific world that the Great Books hold in the humanities and related disciplines. No half-decent undergraduate curriculum, for example, would allow its literature students to escape deep familiarity with Hamlet, its philosophy majors to avoid studying The Republic, its classicists to skimp on the Odyssey, its divinity students not to delve deeply into the Bible, or its budding political scientists to pass on The Prince.

But few geometers feel any need to familiarize themselves with geometry as Euclid explained it; nor do physicists feel incomplete without understanding Newton’s original notation for his laws of motion. And I would much sooner encourage students to master a few basic college texts in math, sciences and engineering than push them to grapple with the same concepts by studying the original works that introduced them. The originals, after all, each represented one farsighted individual’s brilliant-but-still-hazy insight, which has since been clarified and extended far beyond that first attempt at elucidation.

In formulating my own must-read list, I found myself identifying the most important ideas in science, and then asking which books best convey those ideas. An example: evolution is one of the great ideas in science; but which book should we recommend to students? Darwin’s Origin of Species was a tremendous achievement and remains interesting today. But with the benefit of more than a century of further work and discussion, today’s scientists understand the mechanisms and implications of evolution much better than Darwin did. We just can’t justify withholding the best ideas from our hypothetical student, and so Darwin gets bumped off the list. Origin of Species is still a Great Book, but it’s no longer a must-read book.

avatar

Shielding P2P Users’ Identities

New P2P technologies are more effectively shielding the identities and net addresses of their users, according to a John Borland story at news.com. This is not surprising given that the past generation of P2P systems did essentially nothing to hide their users’ addresses. Agents of the RIAA exploited that lack of protection to identify people uploading copyrighted music, leading to the wave of lawsuits against P2P users.

Given the lawsuits, and the relative ease with which P2P technologies can be redesigned to shield users’ addresses, it’s not surprising to see such redesigns. If anything, the surprise is that this didn’t happen sooner.

It will take some time for address-shielding technology to be adopted, but eventually it will be. And this will be bad news for copyright owners, because it will thwart their current identify-and-sue tactic, which seems to be having some effect.

Copyright owners’ best hope in the short run is that users will have trouble telling the effective shielding technologies from the bogus ones, and so will come to doubt that any of the shields work.

BayTSP CEO Mark Ishikawa is already trying to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the shields; he says in the article that his company will still be able to defeat the all of the shields. He is wrong, in the sense that BayTSP-proof shields are certainly possible and probably already exist; but it’s easy to see how his claim advances his company’s interests.

The adoption of address shields is just the latest step in the ongoing co-evolution of P2P systems and media business models.

avatar

Support the Grey Album

Today many websites have turned themselves grey, to protest EMI Records’ decision to try to block the Grey Album, DJ Danger Mouse’s clever and widely acclaimed musical work, in which he mixed a capella vocals from Jay-Z’s Black Album with backing sounds sampled from the Beatles’ White Album. EMI, which claims copyright in the Beatles album, has sent cease and desist letters to sites that post the Grey Album.

I don’t know whether the Grey Album’s use of Beatles samples meets the legal definition of fair use; so I don’t know whether EMI is within its rights to do what it is doing. What I do know is that EMI was not compelled to suppress the Grey Album, but instead it chose to try to suppress a popular work that is doing nothing to harm the sales of the Beatles’ music. Worse yet, EMI tries to put a “creators’ rights” spin on its actions, even as it works to suppress a new creative work. Let’s hope that public opinion shames EMI into reversing course and freeing the Grey Album.

avatar

Great Books

Arnold Kling points to a recent survey that asked university presidents to name five books every student should read.

The top ten books on the list are: The Bible, The Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, Democracy in America, The Iliad, Hamlet, The Koran, The Wealth of Nations, The Prince, and The Federalist Papers.

Arnold rightly laments the absence of modern books on the list. More interesting to me is the lack of consensus. The top-scoring book, the Bible, was recommended by only 20 of the 128 presidents; and the Federalist Papers made the top ten despite being mentioned by only three percent of the respondents (four out of 128).

On the topic of science and technology, depressingly few books were mentioned at all. The top sci/tech scorer was Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, with three mentions. Also mentioned were Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Ridley’s Genome, and, oddly, Brockman’s Greatest Inventions.

Readers: tell me in the comments which five science and technology books you would have every student read. I’ll summarize and give my own list once your lists are in.

avatar

Want to Know Who’s Googling You?

Phil Libin at Vastly Important Notes points out a way to discover how often you’re being Googled. The trick is to buy a Google AdWords advertisement keyed to your own name. Whenever somebody searches for your name, your ad will be displayed. Later, Google will give you statistics about your ad’s placement, which you can use to infer how often people searched for you.

This does cost money, but it’s cheap enough that I can imagine many people doing it.

What Phil doesn’t say is that you can use the same method to learn search statistics about other people’s names, or other search phrases. This is impractical for popular search phrases, since they already have many advertisers, whom you would have to outbid for space on the page. But for a great many search phrases, it would be quite affordable.

I wonder what Google would think of this.

avatar

Diebold Looking for Help

A reliable source tells me that a headhunter, working for e-voting vendor Diebold, is calling security experts, trying to find somebody to help Diebold improve the security of their systems.