Monday, March 30, 2009

Conan versus the Copyright Lawyers

Copyright was invented to encourage the production of works of art and literature (not necessarily fine literature -- even pulp novels have their place in a society). Well, technically the original copyright law was intended as a form of censorship: it was a bribe from the British government to the book publishers guild, giving them a monopoly on books so long as they didn't publish anything that the government and church didn't like, and were vigorous in stomping hard on anybody who did. But putting that aside, modern copyright law was created with the motive to promote the useful arts and sciences. The intention is that since the creation of a work of art is of doubtful profitability, since an author could spend months or years creating a work only to have some other publisher copy it and make the profit, society as a whole is better off if we grant that author a limited monopoly on the publishing of said work. The good to society (more works of arts and sciences) was the intention, the author's profit, if any, merely the mechanism to get that good.

An admirable intention, but over the centuries, it has become corrupted by the involvement of corporate interests. Copyright law is now, de facto, treated as a method for the promotion of profit. The emphasis is on the copyright owner's profit, rather than the benefit to society. The historical record is unclear on whether copyright ever really did lead to more works being produced, but it seems clear to me that today copyright is a barrier to be overcome rather than a tool for the promotion of useful arts.

From New Zealand comes an example of how copyright law is used to reduce rather than increase the amount of useful arts available to society. Copyright law in New Zealand lasts for fifty years after the death of the author, and consequently Robert E. Howard's Conan The Barbarian stories are in the public domain. The New Zealand non-profit, all-volunteer website BrokenSea Audio produces audio dramas based on Howard's work.

Alas, the Conan stories are not in the public domain in the US, where the monopoly on Howard's work is owned by a corporation, and they see New Zealand's volunteer, non-profit Howard fan as a threat to their bottom line:

All Conan audio dramas and audio books produced by its volunteers have been removed from the website, and a major project — a production of Howard's only full length Conan novel, Hour Of The Dragon, which Mannering had adapted into a full cast audio drama script — has been cancelled.

We see this over and over again: copyright law being used to reduce the amount of useful arts produced, instead of increasing it.

The inhuman Flash vulnerability

A reliable security exploit for Flash is big news, or at least it should be big news, because Flash is on nearly every graphical browser on nearly every operating system, and there's only one supplier. (Sure, there's Gnash, but that's not yet ready for prime-time, and may never be.) A good exploit against Flash could allow Bad People to p0wn nearly every desktop everywhere. So even though this is a year old, this is still important.

Cyberdyne Systems, er, sorry, IBM researcher Mark Dowd demonstrated an incredible vulnerability that allows a single Trojan to exploit Flash in either IE or Firefox while leaving the Flash runtime operating normally. And it can bypass Vista security. Although Dowd doesn't explicitly mention other OSes, I see no reason to believe the same technique wouldn't work on Linux as well.

Start with the vulnerability.

It’s an integer overflow, but not a simple one.
The net result of this silliness is that it’s hard to do what attackers normally do with a write32 vulnerability, which is to clobber a function’s address with a pointer back to their buffer, so that their shellcode is called when the clobbered function is called. So Dowd’s exploit takes things in a different direction, and manipulates the ActionScript bytecode state.
Clobber the right value in the length table, and you can make an unused bytecode instruction that the verifier ignores seem much longer than it is. The “extra” bytes slip past the verifier. But they don’t slip past the executive, which has no idea that the unused bytecode has trailing bytes. If those trailing bytes are themselves valid bytecode, Flash will run them. Unverified. Giving them access to the whole system stack. Game over.

Security is hard.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Early morning walk

I'm normally a night-owl, but once in a blue moon I wake up unassisted at a very early time. Today was such a day: I woke before daylight, read my email, and just after first light decided to go for an early morning stroll around the neighbourhood.

It had been raining just before I went out, so everything was damp, the air was clean and moist, the temperature was just perfect -- not too hot, not too cold. To the west, the sky was completely covered by the sort of grey rain clouds that I love, with a double rainbow appearing over the houses: a broad but short rainbow with clear pastel colours, and a second, fainter, narrow rainbow by its side. To the south I could see three hot air balloons serenely floating off in the distance. To the east, the sun was barely peeking out from behind the clouds, just enough for there to be patches of blue and yellow visible against a backdrop of grey-and-white clouds. Flocks of random birds wheeled across the sky, and right nearby a half-dozen or so brilliantly coloured wild parrots of some kind feasted on a fig tree. If only I could have reached the figs myself :(

The only downside is that it was the start of peak-hour traffic, so the main roads were busy busy busy, and even the side-streets had traffic going by. Can't you people telecommute or something? But apart from that, it was glorious.

I must do it again next year.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Fashion adverts

One of Melbourne's biggest (or at least most pretentious) department stores, David Jones, has started running a massive advertising campaign for something call "Industrie". I can't find a copy of the advertisements I see on the backs of buses everywhere, but this will give you an idea of what they look like:

David Jones Industrie photo
In the adverts, the female model is standing behind the shirtless male model and quite obscured, the background is black instead of light grey, and the words "David Jones" and "Industrie" are written in the appropriate corporate fonts. That's about it.

Pop quiz: what are they selling? Has David Jones perhaps started their own chain of tattoo parlours?

Answer: what they're actually selling is dreams and illusions, but the product they're selling is menswear. To be precise, Industrie is a "youth-oriented menswear fashion brand". Yes, that's right, the way they are promoting men's clothing is to show a male model not wearing any of the clothing they're selling.

If your brain hasn't just shut down in self-defence, then you've drunk the fashion Kool-aid (in a nice raspberry flavour, peach being so last year) and there's no hope for you.

Another question: given that David Jones has presumably sunk millions into the promotion, why can't I find anything about it on their website? Why can't I find copies of their advertisement campaign on the net?

(For more photos, see here .)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Ex-Bush official confirms innocents at Gitmo

If it wasn't obvious by now, it should be: most of the people rounded up and jailed without charge at Guantanamo Bay were guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Retired Army colonel and former chief of staff to the then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, Lawrence B. Wilkerson, told The Associated Press last Thursday that many of the detainees were innocent men, and that there was no meaningful attempt by US forces to distinguish actual terrorists from civilians.

Not only were they unable to separate civilians from fighters, but they had no desire to. Wilkerson revealed that he learned from military commanders that they had determined early on that the men were innocent, but decided to keep them imprisoned regardless: "It did not matter if a detainee were innocent. Indeed, because he lived in Afghanistan and was captured on or near the battle area, he must know something of importance." [Emphasis added.]

Wilkerson wrote, "U.S. leadership became aware of this lack of proper vetting very early on and, thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released." Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney prevented the situation from being addressed, because "to have admitted this reality would have been a black mark on their leadership."

Wilkerson also confirmed that many detainees had no connection to either the Taliban or to al-Qaida, and had been turned in for the $5,000 per head reward money.

Of the 800-odd prisoners at Guantanamo, of which 240 remain, Wilkerson claimed that two dozen are actual terrorists. (That's a ratio of over 32 innocents per terrorist.) He also revealed that the US government couldn't try them even if they wanted to, "because we tortured them and didn't keep an evidence trail."

More here.

This is a good time to remember that while President Obama has promised to close Guantanamo Bay, he has so far refused to do the same for the even more secret Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Not only has Obama refused to close Bagram, or open it to oversight, or at least to trials, but there are plans to increase the number of people disappeared into the secret prison.

Holy hand grenade!

From the Department of You Can't Be Too Careful, a British pub was evacuated after workmen came across a prop from the 1975 movie "Monty Python And The Holy Grail". Bomb disposal experts were called in to inspect the "Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch", and declared it safe after nearly an hour.

Holy Hand Grenade Holy Hand Grenade whoopee cushion

Left: the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch; Right: the Holy Hand Grenade Whoopee Cushion.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Another earthquake

Australia is usually one of the most geologically stable continents, and yet less than two weeks after the last earthquake, Melbourne experienced another one.

According to Professor Malcolm Wallace from the earth sciences department at Melbourne University, today's earthquake was likely an aftershock from the one twelve days ago, and the chances are that there will be a few more aftershocks. However, Professor Wallace does not believe that we're at any greater risk of a large earthquake.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Where has all the money gone?

The CEO of the Blackstone Group, Stephen Schwarzman, has claimed that over the last eighteen months 40-45% of the wealth in the world has been lost.

Lost? How can people lose trillions of dollars? Did they check behind the sofa or in their spare pants? Did some super-villain break into Fort Knox and teleport all the gold away? Perhaps they put it in a Swiss bank vault and lost the key and now can't get it back.

No, the reality is that most of the money lost never really existed -- it was all in our heads, and by "our" I actually mean mostly the jokers on Wall Street and bankers and crooks like Bernie Madoff. These guys fooled themselves that they were producing value when all they were doing was shuffling electrons in computers: a shell game, a confidence trick, where so long as everybody stays confident we don't notice the trick. Money is, when you get right down to it, a shared illusion, and often based on some really weird ideas too. Gold, too soft to make into either swords or plowshares, is considered valuable, while good clean air, without which we sicken and die in as little as minutes, is valueless.

Another example of the illusion of money is the diamond trade. Diamonds never wear out, they don't rot or break down. Almost without exception, virtually every gem-quality diamond every found still exists. Every year, the total pool of diamonds available in the market continues to increase. In truth, diamonds are not really that rare, and getting less rare every year. By the accepted laws of economics (to say nothing of common sense), diamonds should depreciate in value. But they don't. Under the cunning marketing of De Beers, diamonds are massively over-valued relative to the number of diamonds potentially available. De Beers' genius was to convince people for the last half century to buy diamonds, but not sell them. And now, with a Depression looming, they fear that this massive stockpile of diamonds may suddenly re-enter the market, flooding the market for diamonds and causing the price to crash drastically.

This is what happens when you value something under the assumption that it is far rarer and more precious than it really is. Sound familiar? Tulip mania, the South Seas bubble, the dot-com boom, the various housing bubbles, Worldcom, Enron... the list goes on and on.

By the way... what's wrong with Forbes? How can a magazine with their reputation write something as ridiculously stupid as this?

In 1920, Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant, began advertising that he could make a 50% return for investors in only 45 days. Incredibly, Ponzi began taking in money from all over New England and New Jersey. By July of 1920, he was making millions as people mortgaged their homes and invested their life savings. As with all frauds, he was discovered to have a jail record and was indicted on 86 counts of fraud. Some tens of millions of dollars were invested with him.
(Emphasis added.)

All frauds have a jail record? How can they make this claim in an article about a fraud with no previous jail record?

(I was also interested to see that Wikipedia seems to suggest that all financial futures are martingales. If this is the case, and I haven't misunderstood something, then futures are mathematically guaranteed to lose money in the long term.)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Schultz City

Thanks to ninjaink at DeviantArt, what if Frank Miller wrote Peanuts?

Schultz City thumb

You can see the whole image here, or visit ninjaink's page here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

WikiLeaks cracks secret Pentagon documents

News from Wikileaks:

Wikileaks has cracked the encryption to a key document relating to the war in Afghanistan. The document, titled "NATO in Afghanistan: Master Narrative", details the "story" NATO representatives are to give to, and to avoid giving to, journalists.

The news doesn't seem hugely interesting: NATO lies, the Pentagon lies, they try to manage journalists to spread the message they want spread rather than the truth. Well duh. After eight years of Dubyah and his propaganda, anyone surprised by this is terminally stupid.

There are two bits of interest though: the password cracked by Wikinews was... "progress". Yes, that's right, the best and brightest NATO and the Pentagon can hire are utterly clueless about choosing passwords. Ain't it grand?

The other bit of interest is that the documents reveal that Jordan is secretly part of the US occupation forces, the ISAF. I'm sure that won't go down well in the Middle East.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Why loony leftists matter

The consequences of giving power to the far-left -- whether the loonies in the London city council, Politically-Correct socialists in the ivory tower of macademia[1] or the genocidal criminals in Soviet Russia and Cambodia -- has been baneful and calamitous. As James Wimberley of the Reality Based Community says:

The record of these people in power is so disastrous that it would be tempting to wish them gone, as has more or less happened in the USA. Tempting but wrong. Like the gene for sickle-cell anaemia, the far left plays a useful irritating and balancing role, so long as it stays in a permanent minority.

I'm a great believer in the value, no, the necessity, of a few irritating trouble-makers, malcontents and enfants terrible who can stop us from becoming complacent, arrogant and self-satisfied. In the late 1800s and first few decades of the 1900s, capitalism was scared of communist revolution. Marxism was still a vigorous intellectual paradigm. The workers were flexing their muscles and demanding improved working conditions, better conditions and a measure of justice. Consequently, those hard-hearted and selfish capitalist leaders feared for their profits and their lives, and (eventually, reluctantly) modified their behaviour, and so the 20th century saw massive improvements in quality of life for those who weren't at the top of the social pyramid: pensions, universal health insurance and education, the 40 (or even 38) hour week, holiday pay, unfair dismissal laws and much more.

But in countries like the USA, where the masses turned their backs on unions and swallowed the lie that class warfare is by definition the lazy and envious poor against the deserving rich, things are very different. It seems like at least half the country -- even many of those going hungry because of medical expenses -- believes that having the government use its massive purchasing power to buy medicine at a discount is one tiny step away from outlawing private property and sending everyone to the gulag. Far-right wingers pose as centrists and moderate right-wingers are vilified as communists. Consequently, the fat cats in the capitalist classes have been behaving like the fox in the henhouse for decades now, with crisis following bubble every couple of years. Every crisis is followed by an even bigger one, and those perpetrating the disasters get rewarded each time. After losing inconceivably large amounts of money, the banks have gone to the US government begging for bailouts. No social safety net for the tellers, but the CEOs and executives get to give themselves massive pay rises.

Pigs at the trough
And why not? What have they got to be scared of? The working class in the US is convinced that all they need is a couple of lucky breaks and they too will be as rich as Bill Gates, or at least comfortably middle-class, when the reality is that income inequality has exploded over the last thirty years. It's not clear whether the current economic crisis will level things out again, or simply punish those who work for a living while allowing the mega-rich even more opportunity to buy up assets. A lot will depend on moral outrage, and very few people do moral outrage over pigs-at-the-trough like old-school leftists. So let's give three cheers for the Loyal Opposition of Loony Leftists, may they prosper, but not too much, just enough to keep the bastards honest.

[1] Caution: May Contain Nuts. Back

Perverse incentives

Bruce Schneier has written an article on perverse security incentives. The concept of a perverse incentive comes from economics, where it refers to an incentive that, deliberately or accidentally, rewards inefficient or bad behaviour.

Such "perversely" inefficient behaviour isn't necessarily bad. It's an economic term focusing on a single aspect of the human condition: a rather narrow view of economic efficiency. Spending money on taking Granny to the doctor instead of selling her to the glue factory would, according to some definitions, count as inefficient, and therefore love, loyalty, affection and kindness might be counted as "perverse incentives". This isn't a bad thing -- we'd all be a lot happier if we admitted that we're all pervs in one way or another, and besides it's not the job of economists to make value judgements. Their job is to tell us how efficiently we're spending, or making, money, and it's our job to make the value judgements that, all things considered, Gran's got a few more years left in the old bird, and besides one day we'll be that old too.

So remember that while perverse incentives are often harmful as well as inefficient, this isn't necessarily the case. Schneier discusses the case of a store who fired an employee for stopping a shop-lifter escaping with hundreds of dollars of stolen food. Sounds ridiculously stupid, yes? But not if you look at the big picture: a few hundred dollars worth of food is nothing compared to the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars the store could be liable for if the staff member tackled and injured an innocent customer, or if the thief pulled out a weapon and killed somebody. As Schneier explains (and so many of the commenters on the blog fail to grasp), "You Will Not Attack Shop-Lifters" is a security measure: it protects the store against worse consequences than a backpack full of groceries being stolen.

For the same reason, banks typically have a strict No Heroics rule. It's not worth the life of a teller to save the insurance company from suffering a slightly lower profit in one quarter. This sort of economic reasoning comes hard to most people. It comes hard to me -- even knowing all the reasons why it would be stupid to put yourself in danger for somebody else's profit, the very thought that thieves are getting something for nothing offends every fibre of my being[1]. As a species, we have a deep hatred of cheaters who break the social contract (unless it is Us breaking the contract against Them -- we're a moral species, but also a hypocritical species).

[1] As a 19 year old, when I was young and invincible, one of my fellow uni students and I almost walked into a bank robbery in progress at a bank on Melbourne University campus. We saw these two masked gunmen, and came *this close* to deciding to tackle them when they came out of the bank. Fortunately, we decided to walk around the building once first, and if the robbers were still there, then we would tackle them. They weren't. Back

Monday, March 09, 2009

Whatever happened to bin Laden's Super-Fortress?

In the lead-up to the US invasion of Afghanistan, there was a lot of press about Osama bin Laden's super-fortress buried deep under the mountain of Tora Bora. The British press told us that bin Laden was holed up in a vast redoubt, a fortress buried as deep under the mountain as the World Trade Centre was high, powered with its own hydroelectric generators, housing 2,000 fanatical fighters and equipped with at least one Russian tank in perfect working order.

This story caught the imagination of the press corps, especially when the basic claims were repeated by American officials such as Donald Rumsfeld.

In December 2001 Afghan mujahadeen forces attacked the "impenetrable" fortress, assisted by American and British air-strikes and a small number of American, British and German special forces. According to Time Magazine, the battle cost the lives of one mujahadeen and seven Taliban fighters. Afterwards, American troops combed the mountain for bin Laden. No fortress was discovered, no hydroelectric generators, no massive hotel housing thousands of fighters, and no Russian tank.

They did however find a tube of deodorant.

(On a related note: Edward Jay Epstein also casts serious doubt on the box-cutter story from 9/11.)

Friday, March 06, 2009

Did the earth move for you too?

(Update, Monday 9th March: I seem to have forgotten to actually publish this post. Oops.)

Just before 9pm tonight Melbourne experienced an earthquake measuring 4.6 on the Richter Scale. There was no serious damage reported.

Mrs Impala and I were home when the entire house wobbled -- it was a fascinating and exciting experience to have a solid brick house built on a concrete slab wobble like jelly on a plate for two or three seconds. I'm glad it was only a minor earthquake, almost one hundred kilometres away from my house, and apparently 8km deep under ground. It certainly puts you in awe at the power of moving tectonic plates -- and Australia is an ancient, quiet continent, far from active. I can't imagine the forces involved in the Ring of Fire.

My cat came into the house just moments before, and sat calmly in the middle of the living room during the quake. My chickens slept through the whole thing, and the next door neighbours' hell-hounds were quiet. My mum's dog and cat were also surprised by it. Talk about mysterious animal senses...