Category Archives: Current Events

The Coldplay/Satriani Issue

If you’re not yet familiar with the Coldplay/Satriani issue the basic premise is that guitar artist Joe Satriani is suing the band Coldplay because he believes that a member of the band who attended one of his concerts copied some of his music and used it in one of their songs. We’re not talking about sampling or copying a part of a recording but actually copying the musical thought behind one part of the song. In any event you can get a brief idea of what I mean by watching one of the many videos on YouTube where they play the two sections one right after the other. To further complicate things it seems the original idea may have come from a third artist.

Being a bit of a music geek and copyright activist I find this all rather fascinating. After all there a a limited number of original chord progressions. My personal feeling is that you should not be able to own a chord progression at all. Music is built collectively over time by different artists listening to and learning from one another, it’s just how it works. In classical and solo piano music we have this as “variations on…” and the entire development of the Jazz genre is about artists hearing each others “sound” and tweaking it.

I would argue that allowing ownership of chord progressions is similar to allowing ownership of the writing concept that “the butler did it” or one of the many standard plots found in movies and TV. This is plain silly and should not be allowed. Clearly, despite having similar sections and feelings, they are different songs (they are not identical). While it is nice, courteous and polite to acknowledge your inspirations it should not be legally required, nor should you be required to get permission nor should you have to pay for these rights.

Much of the YouTube coverage of this is the simple laying of one track over (or next) to the other. If you’re interested in a much more in depth look at the music theory of chord progressions and knowing how the to melodies and harmonies relate to each other I highly recommend looking at the two part series on the music theory behind the accusations put together by the Creative Guitar Studio in Canada, which also has an accompanying web site.

Congressional Media Access

In January of this year I wrote about congressional media access. Specifically the concerns I had related to C-SPAN’s attempt to gain independent camera access to the floor of the house and senate which could prohibit the redistribution of proceedings should copyright be enforced. At the same time the independent camera C-SPAN access to committee hearings was already preventing them from being redistributed freely. At that time I lamented that a situation such as this would occur when the Internet provides such a low cost way for the government to make itself more accessible to the people.

Since January a lot has been going on, primarily thanks to Carl Malamud and the great people at who are truly dedicated to bringing public domain government documents and media to the people via the Internet. Thanks to their efforts the Internet Archive has already started getting access to and posting committee hearings online, the archive page also has a good overview of the current state of things. The goal, and what I consider a great solution is that “By the end of the 110th Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives could achieve the goal of providing broadcast-quality video of all hearings and the floor for download on the Internet.” Obviously this would be a huge step forward and I would hope the Senate would follow suit.

I really hope that all this comes to pass as it would be a giant leap forward in making government produced content freely accessible to the people. There are other targets (such as NASA TV archives, FCC proceedings, etc.) which could be similarly targeted. Ideally state legislature proceedings would be online as well. The government produces a huge amount of material which belongs to us, the taxpayers, and there are a lot of interesting things that go on in the government. I believe it is only fair that we have access to these proceedings, and other government documents, collections and media, at the highest quality possible so that we may reuse and distribute them.

Thoughts on the Virginia Tech tragedy

I have a fe thoughts on the tragedy that occurred yesterday at Virginia Tech that might provide interesting points for discussion. As our understanding of the situation continues to unfold there will undoubtedly be more calls on the administration at VT to provide answers. For example, there are already a great number of media outlets wondering about the use of email as a notification mechanism as well as the decision to hold of notifying students and canceling classes. Some of the criticisms will be fair and deserve to be heard but many are just the media pandering to those who have little connection to the education system and minimal understanding of the situations faced by school administrators and faculty. Here I will lay out a few of the questions being asked and provide information about why or why not they may be appropriate criticisms.

First, I remain amazed at how such a great number of people will instantly seize the opportunity to use a tragedy such as this to push an agenda which may not even have much to do with the event at hand. So far today I’ve already heard from anti violence in media and games groups blaming video games and a culture of violence for acts such as this. While it may or may not be true to any variety of degrees it seems rather early to be pushing this agenda with the little we know about the impetus for the attack. These groups would certainly have egg on their face if the assailant turned out to be a Luddite who turned out to avoid all media, this is unlikely by my point stands that it’s simply too early to be saying anything like this. I’ve also heard from both sides of the gun control issue saying that either there are too many guns which enables this kind of attack and conversely that if more people had guns it would have been stopped earlier. While I personally believe the second amendment has it’s uses (particularly in the original intent of overthrowing an oppressive government) and have no significant issues with sport hunting I think it is overused to justify things such as conceal and carry weapons. I do think it’s rather silly, naive and agenda pushing to think that if everyone were carrying a weapon this kind of attack could either be dissuaded to begin with or quickly contained. It’s easy to get facts about gun control but much more difficult to get meaningful contextualized and realistic ones. My own feeling is that a great number of people carrying guns are ill prepared to use them and are likely to make a situation worse rather than better. On the other hand let’s be realistic gun control would not prevent violent crimes such as this, laws are easily ignored and bypassed. What gun control is really about is stopping people from committing crimes of passion, someone who upsets someone who just happens to be carrying an easily accessible gun and decides to use it in the heat of an argument. But enough on that rats nest.

Secondly, I think one of the most difficult things for the VT leadership to deal with, at least from a PR perspective, will be the question of student notification and the delay in the decision to cancel classes. As far as the method of notification goes there has been a lot of talk about the use of email by the media and whether this is appropriate. My response is that it is most likely the only way to reach as many students as possible in a short amount of time. Unlike a K-12 school where students are typically confined to a single or small cluster of buildings college students are widely spread out at any given time and I know of no college or university with a site wide paging or notification system so the only alternatives to email I can think of would be broadcast media (which was most likely already reporting the incident) and driving police cars around using their PA to address students though this is only a realistic way to reach people outdoors and not those in buildings. As for the delay in official notification, there is a legitimate question about why it took so long but it’s not unusual in college scenarios. Most college administrations tend to avoid sharing details about much at all with students or anyone else until their hand is forced. It seems to be an unfortunate culture which has developed because they want to avoid riling up students over the many unpopular decisions they make. Here I do see room for criticizing the administration but it’s unlikely we’ll see wide scale change of this behavior of withholding information from students on a broad scale because it is so deeply ingrained into the administrative structure.

Finally, there is the issue of the delay in canceling classes. This is really a different issue than notification as it could occur before or after notification and independently of any other notification. Again, the decision to hold off canceling classes until quite a while after the first shooting is a legitimate place to criticize the administration and is similarly ingrained within the educational culture. For several reasons, some to do with academic freedom and others to do with logistics and the history of continuing classes through many situations, administrations in general tend to shy away from canceling classes college wide in favor of leaving it to individual instructors many of whom share similar beliefs that the “show must go on”. For example, the University of Minnesota prides itself that it cancels classes university wide on very rare occasions and there was much discussion about a closing this winter for one day due to weather. On a more related note when I was doing my undergraduate in Wisconsin we actually never canceled class on September 11, 2001 and I continued to attend classes all day knowing full well the state of terror found throughout the country that day. Many professors fully expected students to continue to come to class and have regular discussions despite the events of the day. Not until the next day did the University cancel classes as a day of mourning and reflection. This seems to be rather typical in the college and university environment and something that may indeed be changed by this incident.

I would not at all be surprised to hear that VT will be sued by the parents of victims, especially those from the second attack, who feel the university was negligent in not canceling classes and warning students. I would not be surprised if the parents would prevail either. Barring significant evidence from the school that they acted reasonably I think most juries would be inclined to hang them out to dry. Again, I think there is a legitimate complaint that they failed to make decisions that could have prevented a great number of the deaths and I think they will have a hard time convincing people otherwise.

Happy Birthday Square One

Today is the twentieth birthday of Square One Television, the 1980s and 90s television show produced by Children’s Television Workshop (CTW, now Seseme Workshop). Many of us remember watching both Square One (for math) and 3-2-1 Contact (for science) as children. To some extent educational science programming continued after the discontinuation of 3-2-1 Contact, both Newton’s Apple (for adults) and Bill Nye (for students) continued the trend of high quality educational science programming, though both of those programs have also ceased production. Yet there has never been another successful attempt at educational math programming that I’m aware of. The same fate was met by Ghostwriter (for reading/writing) and Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego (for geography/social studies) which were also popular educational PBS programs. Although these programs may sometimes have been of dubious educational value, they were certainly more educational than much of what is found on afterschool television today and they were enjoyed by a great many people.

Aside from a reprise in this creative and clever educaitonal television writing for school-aged students (most educational programming these days seems aimed at the pre-school to 2nd grade crowd) I would hope that the producers of these early pioneering shows would see fit to release DVDs. Much of this programming is still used in schools because nothing better has come along and the episodes would also be enjoyed by a wider populace which either remembers them or is looking for quality educational programming. Until the day these are available on commercial DVD I’ll have to be satisfied by the tape collection which I have traded with other collectors and converted to DVD.

For more information on Square One Television visit the fantastic Square One Television fansite and forums. For more information on 3-2-1 Contact and early science programming read 80s Science TV at Inkling Magazine.

The Holiday Train

I heard on the news last week that Canadian Pacific Railways has a lit up holiday train which rolls across the countryside, at least on the CP tracks, this time of year. Living in the upper midwest this is my neighborhood, unfortunatly by the time I heard, it was too late to see one of the stops but I’ll have to remember to get out next year and take some pictures!

The Facebook Privacy Problem

Regular readers may remember the this short article I wrote on how the information on the internet is going to be a problem for people in the future. Recently the online social networking site made some changes and people could easily see just how easily this information can be disseminated on the Internet. The change was followed by shock and revolt by Facebook users but the changes remain in place as of today. I wrote the following opinion for an online discussion list and thought blog readers may enjoy it as well.

As a Facebook user as well as a graduate student and computer professional the current controversy over the changes made by Facebook are of particular interest to me. My own experience and discussions with other members of the Internet generation leads me to believe that these users still do not see the “privacy light at the end of the tunnel“. Most users remain unaware of the risks associated with putting any kind of personal information on the internet and grossly misunderstand the ability of individuals and organizations to aggregate such data into profiles of users for anything from relatively benign marketing purposes to something more sinister such as identity theft.

The thing that’s really important to remember here is that the changes made to Facebook did not and have not made any information that was previously private available to the public. Clearly, this is the viewpoint of the Facebook team as can be read on their blog. In other words the only difference is that you are now presented with a list of all the recent changes your “friends” have made. Of course this information was available to you before, but you had to seek it out on each users’ page. Personally I find the feature to be quite a useful one and think it has been a long time in coming. In my opinion the usefulness of social networks such as this is to allow you to stay current with the lives and events of a great number of acquaintances quickly.

Where the problem comes in is that people have been hiding behind “security through obscurity” for some time. Most users don’t think twice about what information is available (to their friends) on their user page. Suddenly the information in thrust into the light and they are alarmed. Of course their have been newspaper stories around the country warning students that employers can and do look up prospective employees on the internee before hiring to see what kinds of people they are, but in my experience most students feel so removed from the employment process they aren’t concerned about this. Secondly, their is an incorrect perception that Facebook is a closed network. Because of this students feel free to post things they normally wouldn’t want “public”. Still others feel that they will be able to change or “clean” their pages before looking for a job. The problem with this is that I have no doubt this information is being crawled and archived by many people and could still be used against you in the future. Obviously alumni now employed in various field still have Facebook accounts and are typically quite accommodating when employers ask them to look up a prospective hire on Facebook. Still other users may be running bots through the network and collecting as much information as possible about as many people as possible for any number of reasons.

As mentioned by Alessandro in a recent message to the list there do exist a number of granular privacy controls which can be exercised within the Facebook environment. Few students take advantage of these tools as they fail to see the ramifications of having so much information public. My real concern is that this will soon blow over and people will go back to ignoring the implications of sharing so much data with the public. Even after several years of incidents being reported in the media there remains a problem with individuals and businesses understanding that once something is out on the Internet the cat is out of the bag. There’s no going back. By its very nature the Internet is a public place and is going to be crawled, indexed, cached and stored. It amazes me that people (especially those who have grown up with computers and the Internet) still fail to grasp this concept.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the implications of people sharing data on the Internet and certainly not the last. For more thoughts on how this might effect the ability of people to hold various jobs in the future or perhaps change our notions of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior I encourage you to read this short article I wrote on the topic back in March.

Obviously I don’t expect that people will remove all personal data from the Internet, nor do I think they should. Much of the usefulness of computers and the Internet springs from the ability to search vast databases of information. As a Facebook user and someone who has had a personal website for much longer than that I provide a lot of personal information about myself. The key here is for people to understand the ramifications of doing so and, most importantly, to think about what they say and do in public before they do it.

Thoughts on the TSA liquid ban

In a recent post to Dave Farber’s Interesting People email list by Perry Metzger makes a number of good points about the current ban on carry-on liquids during air travel. I share many of his sentiments and encourage you to give it some critical thought as well.

First they came for the nail clippers, but I did not complain for I do not cut my finger nails. Now they’ve come for the shampoo bottles, but I did not complain for I do not wash my hair. What’s next? What will finally stop people in their tracks and make them realize this is all theater and utterly ridiculous? Lets cut the morons off at the pass, and discuss all the other common things you can destroy your favorite aircraft with. Bruce Schneier makes fun of such exercises as “movie plots”, and with good reason. Hollywood, here I come!

We’re stopping people from bringing on board wet things. What about dry things? Is baby powder safe? Well, perhaps it is if you check carefully that it is, in fact, baby powder. What if, though, it is mostly a container of potassium cyanide and a molar equivalent of a dry carboxylic acid? Just add water in the first class bathroom, and LOTS of hydrogen cyanide gas will evolve. If you’re particularly crazy, you could do things like impregnating material in your luggage with the needed components. Clearly, we can’t let anyone carry on containers of talc, and we have to keep them away from all aqueous liquids.

See the elderly gentleman with the cane? Perhaps it is not really an ordinary cane. The metal parts could be filled with (possibly sintered) aluminum and iron oxide. Thermit! Worse still, nothing in a detector will notice thermit, and trying to make a detector to find thermit is impractical. Maybe it is in the hollowed portions of your luggage handles! Maybe it is cleverly mixed into the metal in someone’s wheelchair! Who knows?

Also, we can never allow people to bring on laptop computers. It is far too easy to fill the interstices of the things with explosives — there is a lot of space inside them — or to rig the lithium ion batteries to start a very hot fire (that’s pretty trivial), or if you’re really clever, you can make a new case for the laptop that’s made of 100% explosive material instead of ordinary plastic. Fun!

No liquor on board any more, of course. You can open lots of little liquor bottles and set the booze on fire, and besides, see the dangers of letting people have fluids. Even if you let them have fluids, no cans of coke — you can make a can of coke into a shiv in a few minutes. No full sized bottles of course, since you can break ’em and use them as a sharp weapon, so no more champagne in first class either, let alone whiskey.

Then, lets consider books and magazines. Sure, they look innocent, but are they? For 150 years, chemists have known that if you take something with high cellulose content — cotton, or paper, or lots of other things — and you nitrate it (usually with a mixture of nitric and sulfuric acids), you get nitrocellulose, which looks vaguely like the original material you nitrated but which goes BOOM nicely. Nitrocellulose is the base of lots of explosives and propellants, including, I believe, modern “smokeless” gunpowder. It is dangerous stuff to work with, but you’re a terrorist, so why not. Make a bunch of nitrocellulose paper, print books on it, and take ’em on board. The irony of taking out an airplane with a Tom Clancy novel should make the effort worthwhile.

So, naturally, we have to get rid of books and magazines on board. That’s probably for the best, as people who read are dangerous.

And now for a small side note. It is, of course, commonly claimed that we have nitro explosive detectors at airports, but so far as I can tell they don’t work — students from labs I work in who make nitro and diazo compounds for perfectly legitimate reasons and have trace residues on their clothes have told me the machines never pick up a thing even though this is just what they’re supposed to find, possibly because they’re tuned all the way down not to scare all the people who take nitroglycerine pills for their angina.

Now, books aren’t the only things you could nitrate. Pants and shirts? Sure. It might take a lot of effort to get things just so or they will look wrong to the eye, but I bet you can do it. Clearly, we can’t allow people on planes wearing clothes. Nudity in the air will doubtless be welcomed by many as an icebreaker, having been deprived of their computers and all reading material for entertainment.

Then of course there is the question of people smuggling explosives on board in their body cavities, so in addition to nudity, you need body cavity searches. That will, I’m sure, provide additional airport entertainment. By the way, if you really don’t think a terrorist could smuggle enough explosives on board in their rectum to make a difference, you haven’t been following how people in prison store their shivs and heroin.

However, it isn’t entirely clear that even body cavity searches are enough. If we’re looking for a movie plot, why not just get a sympathetic surgeon to implant explosives into your abdomen! A small device that looks just like a pace maker could be the detonator, and with modern methods, you could do something like setting it off by rapping “shave and a haircut” on your own chest. You could really do this — and I’d like to see them catch that one.

So can someone tell me where the madness is going to end? My back of the envelope says about as many people die in the US every month in highway accidents than have died in all our domestic terrorist incidents in the last 50 years. Untold numbers of people in the US are eating themselves to death and dying of heart disease, diabetes, etc. — I think that number is something like 750,000 people a year? Even with all the terrorist bombings of planes over the years, it is still safer to travel by plane than it is to drive to the airport, and it is even safer to fly than to walk!

At some point, we’re going to have to accept that there is a difference between real security and Potemkin security (or Security Theater as Bruce Schneier likes to call it), and a difference between realistic threats and uninteresting threats. I’m happy that the police caught these folks even if their plot seems very sketchy, but could we please have some sense of proportion?

This airplane will self destruct in…

The purported recent plot to explode a number of airplanes traveling from the UK to the US using liquids mixed in-flight to created improvised explosive devices reminded me of an article I had read some time ago about a much simpler option. As far as I know the method described in this article has never been used in a terrorist attack but the possibility exists and would be difficult to detect. This just goes to show that the current ban on liquids (and in some areas electronics) in carry-on luggage is simply an exercize in futility and making people feel better. Futhermore, it would be foolhardy to spend untold millions (billions?) upgrading airport security with detectors for liquid explosives. When will people learn that anything less than chaining naked passengers who have had full body cavity searches to their seats and flying luggage on a seperate cargo plane will do much to stop terrorists. Yet we continue with the farce of security as our rights and privladges are stripped away by a bloodthirsty federal government led by the so-called “states’ rights” supporters of the Republican Party. But I digress, this story is really about the science of destroying an aircraft in mid-flight with only a single easy to obtain and hide substance.

Unless you are a representative of a national meteorological bureau licensed to carry a barometer (and odds are you’re not), bringing mercury onboard an airplane is strictly forbidden. Why? If it got loose, it could rust the plane to pieces before it had a chance to land. You see, airplanes are made of aluminum, and aluminum is highly unstable.

The entire story can be read at the Popular Science website. The general gist of the article is that airplanes, held together by aluminum parts, are vulnerable to complete disintigration by a chain chemical reaction started by a small amount of mercury. It would be simple to hide such a small amount of mercury or mercury paste in any number of products carried on to an aircraft. Just another example of how simple everyday products could be used in an act of terror and the impossibility of protecting people from such an attack.

Survey on putting electronics in checked airline baggage

I received the following message today and I encourage all readers to respond. I think it will be interesting to see the results and I will forward them along as I can.

Please distribute widely, as considered appropriate

I’m (Lauren Weinstein) conducting a little unscientific survey on whether or not airline passengers are willing to place their expensive or important electronic equipment in airline checked baggage (whether “locked” or not, but on most flights unlocked will be required), and how this would affect their flying patterns.

With the above as preface, there are three questions:

1) Are you willing to place all of your significant electronic equipment (including laptop or other computers, cellphones, DVD players, iPods, etc.) in checked baggage for airline flights?

2) If you are required to place such electronic equipment in checked baggage, would it have a significant negative impact on your willingness to fly?

3) Do you mainly fly for business or pleasure?

I will only publish aggregated statistics from this survey, unless
individual persons specifically note that their responses may be
released publicly.

To participate in the survey, please e-mail a note with your responses to:

Only a one word reply is necessary to each of the questions
unless you wish to add comments, which are invited.

Thanks very much.

Lauren Weinstein
Co-Founder, PFIR
People For Internet Responsibility
Co-Founder, IOIC
International Open Internet Coalition
Moderator, PRIVACY Forum
Member, ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy
Lauren’s Blog

Your Digital Life

I’ve often wondered who will be able to run for political office in forty or fifty years. People, especially youg people, seem to be so naive about posting things online. For years online forums and messageboards have been a place where people vented. Now sites like Myspace, Facebook and others are creating such a low barrier to entry that almost every middle and high school child in the United States has some kind of web presence. What many fail to understand is that once something is posted or “said” on the internet it never goes away…ever. The internet is also quite easy to search if you know what you’re doing. This dangerous combination means that everything you write to a messageboard can be found at some point in the future and “can and will be used against you”. Any kind of off-color comment or joke you ever made online, even if your intention wasn’t to hurt anyone, is public knowledge.

Employers already know about this. BusinessWeek recently ran an article called “You are what you post” that talked about some of the implications for job seeking but I think the arena where this will really get the consultants salivating is politics. There are so few people who are able to hold their tounge and never offend anyone. In the past politicians have relied primarily on obscuring and making it difficult to find embarassing things about their past. When today’s teens start running for political office these things will only be an internet search away. Remember that posting to that email discussion list about STDs you made when you were 15? How about that time someone on a messageboard got you mad and you called them a racial slur? You may have forgotten these incidents but the internet has not and neither will your enemies.

I wonder if the politicians of the future will need to be groomed from birth to have no defects and think very, very carefully before ever speaking. On the other hand our society may end up becoming more accepting of faults which would not be an all bad outcome. This remains to be seen but in the meantime those of us who have always tried to think about how what we say today could come back (for better or worse) in the future are going to be much better off than the indiscriminate masses.