Geekonomics: The Real Cost of Insecure Software

Geekonomics_cover
An interesting new book by David Rice. From the book’s website:

Geekonomics is about the astonishing lack of consumer protection in
the software market and how this impacts economic and national
security. Software buyers are literally crash test dummies for an
industry that is remarkably insulated against liability,
accountability, and responsibility for any harm, damages or loss that
should occur because of manufacturing defects or weaknesses that allow
cyber attackers to break into and hijack our computer systems. As a
matter of good public policy, this is unacceptable and must change.

Geekonomics is also about us and why we behave the way we do
when it comes to protecting ourselves in cyber space. As such,
Geekonomics is about incentives. Specifically, Geekonomics is about
incentives that affect three groups of people: consumers, software
manufacturers, and hackers. Each group has incentives for making,
buying, and breaking into computer systems that are rife with defects,
errors, and weaknesses. This book explains these incentives and how new
and different incentives are necessary to address the problem of “bad”
software.

Finally, Geekonomics is a book for everyone, not just for geeks or
technophiles, because frankly, in modern civilization, how and when
software touches us is less our choice every day.

Cellphone health risks

Okay, maybe I’m naive to argue that the wifi-resisters deserve a hearing.  But how about cellphones?  Questioning whether cellphones might cause cancer will also get you ridiculed in many circles, yet studies keep coming out that say there’s a risk, particularly for children.  Studies that don’t find increased cancer risk also keep coming out, so the issue is far from decided.

The best source I’ve found for following news of cell phone health risks is textually.org: archive of health risk posts.

The Solitary Vice: Against Reading

Solitaryvice
The Solitary Vice: Against Reading
by Mikita Brottman starts with some provocative questions:  What if reading isn’t as important as we’re led to believe?   What if reading doesn’t make you a better person?   Is it "Cool 2 Read," is reading "Fundamental," is it necessary to "Get Real @ The Library"?  Brottman bristles at slogans like this and questions whether forcing reading on people is a good thing.  She believes reading can in fact be a uniquely valuable activity, but it’s all in how you do it: read what excites you, read what helps you grow.  Don’t read the classics if they bore you (watch a movie version instead).

The "anti-reading" provocation is only the hook for Brottman’s book.  The remainder is a reading memoir.  Brottman shows by example the value she found by reading in genres that are normally looked down upon — celebrity biography, true crime, comics.  She teaches literature and knows her way around the classics and literary theory, yet she also knows much about the different ways that people learn and think.  Brottman is not so much against reading as against the simplistic rhetoric and elitism that surrounds it.  I liked this book for taking a more subtle stance than most debaters in the perennial "is reading dead?" discussions.

Mikita Brottman has a website with more about the book and her other writing.

Hackers Assault Epilepsy Patients Online

Wow. This is disgusting. From Wired:

Internet griefers descended on an epilepsy support message board
last weekend and used JavaScript code and flashing computer animation
to trigger migraine headaches and seizures in some users.

The nonprofit Epilepsy Foundation, which runs the forum, briefly closed the site Sunday to purge the offending messages and to boost security.

"We are seeing people affected," says Ken Lowenberg, senior director
of web and print publishing at the Epilepsy Foundation. "It’s
fortunately only a handful. It’s possible that people are just not
reporting yet — people affected by it may not be coming back to the
forum so fast."

The incident, possibly the first computer attack to inflict physical
harm on the victims, began Saturday, March 22, when attackers used a
script to post hundreds of messages embedded with flashing animated
gifs.

The attackers turned to a more effective tactic on Sunday, injecting
JavaScript into some posts that redirected users’ browsers to a page
with a more complex image designed to trigger seizures in both
photosensitive and pattern-sensitive epileptics.

[…]

Circumstantial evidence suggests the attack was the work of members
of Anonymous, an informal collective of griefers best known for their
recent war on the Church of Scientology. The first flurry of posts on
the epilepsy forum referenced the site EBaumsWorld, which is much hated
by Anonymous. And forum members claim they found a message board thread
— since deleted — planning the attack at 7chan.org, a group
stronghold.

Link: Hackers assault epilepsy patients via computer.

Genetic Dystopia Movie News

Gattaca
A new movie version of Brave New World is planned, with Leonardo DiCaprio starring and Ridley Scott directing: Times (London), LA Times.

Last week Gattaca was rereleased as a special edition DVD.  Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society writes about it at Alternet:

But what about the real-life prospects of the horrors portrayed in Gattaca?
In 1997, fertility clinics weren’t advertising delivery of a boy or a
girl — you choose — using the embryo screening technique portrayed in
the film. The world didn’t yet know about Dolly the cloned sheep. Far
fewer genes had been mapped to far fewer traits. Genetic scientists
hadn’t yet created the monkey or the bunny engineered with a jellyfish
gene to glow in the dark, or the goats and sheep that lactate spider
silk, or the mice that run mazes faster than their nonengineered
counterparts yet also display increased sensitivity to pain.

These
technical feats are not the only portents of a future in which genetic
engineers take it upon themselves to create designer babies and
"enhanced" humans. Perhaps even more troubling is the small but
disturbing number of prognosticators who predict this future with
eagerness rather than caution; they just can’t wait for Gattaca and Brave New World to transcend fiction and become real life.

Who
are these promoters of human redesign? A few are researchers for whom
the "sweetness" of the science eclipses its social consequences. A few
more — most notably Princeton’s former mouse biologist, Lee Silver —
have shifted their careers from the lab to the talk show in order to
push scenarios of a "GenRich" ruling class and a hoi polloi composed of
"Naturals."

Then there’s the coterie of bioethicists who can’t
say no to anything that any scientist dreams up, and another crew of
libertarians who can’t say no to anything that the market might wish to
offer. And there’s the whacky band of futurists who call themselves
"transhumanists" and natter about "homo perfectus" and the
"Singularity" — the messianic moment when human technology will
suddenly cause superhuman, superintelligent "entities" to appear among
us.

Nearly all these crystal-ball gazers acknowledge that Gattaca-like
inequalities would be part of their longed-for picture. But this does
not seem to dampen their enthusiasm. From their perspective, it seems,
self-evident truths about human equality are way outdated, and dreams
of social justice and the common good are so 20th century.

Link: Are we headed for a sci-fi dystopia?

Google’s Energy Addiction

Harper’s has a little piece about Google’s energy habits: Keyword: Evil — Google’s addiction to cheap electricity.

Fake Steve Jobs gives us a summary:

I was gratified to see this article in Harper’s
which describes the obscene amount of energy Google eats up with its
data centers ("a new heavy industry, an energy glutton that is only
growing hungrier") and the slick trickery that Google employed in
Oregon so it could keep getting us taxpayers to pay part of their
electric bills. The Bush administration wanted to privatize a utility.
Google and a friendly congressman persuaded Bush not to do it so they
could keep getting below-market-rate electricity — ie, electricity
subsidized by us, the taxpayers.

Starting to see the pattern
here? We subsidize Google’s electric bills so they can run their giant
data centers. But those data centers cause global warming. So Google
and the VCs create new companies to solve global warming. We subsidize
those companies too. Google and the VCs get rich. We get a nice card at
Christmas, and a free Gmail account. Right on, dudes. Don’t be evil.

Link: Larry Page, friend of the environment.

How to address fear about WiFi health risks?

Dale Dougherty writes at O’Reilly Radar about supposed health hazards of wifi, and how a small number of residents used this fear to force Sebastopol, CA to stop a plan to permit city-wide public wifi.  An excerpt:

One can see the fear spreading. Science should be a way to dispel
such fears but it is clear with this group of people that science
cannot be trusted. They put forth the idea that science should be able
to prove that there is no harm and therefore eliminate any risk, and
without such proof, we should not move forward. They use this logic to
recommend a "precautionary" approach, which is their keyword for a
"know-nothing, do-nothing" approach.

[…]

Now, I don’t know that wireless (or electricity) is without harm. I
can read the research that does exist and learn more — if I have the
time and reason to do so. However, I do not like the smell of fear, and
when people justify actions based on their own fears, I become
suspicious that the concern is unwarranted. If it wasn’t wifi, it would
be flouride. Something is needed to affix to their anxiety. I can only
be glad that they weren’t alive when the city decided on
electrification a century ago.

Link: Hazards of Wifi – O’Reilly Radar.

Like Dougherty, I’m willing to bet that wifi isn’t dangerous, but I still have problems with what he says.  For example: "it is clear with this group of people that science cannot be trusted."  Well, we do have examples where scientists has been wrong in similar situations and should not have been trusted as quickly — think pesticides and radiation fallout from nuclear tests and accidents.  How do scientists earn trust?  By having a good track record and by providing evidence.  Have they provided enough evidence that wifi is harmless?  I don’t know, but what I’ve read seems to suggest that more studies could be done.  The precautionary approach does not (I think) call for absolute proof, but only for strong evidence — I think Dougherty’s characterization of it is simplistic.

Dougherty doesn’t like people basing their decisions on emotion, but how different is it when he bases his decision on blind faith in the scientists’ word?  It’s right to be suspicious when the critics offer nothing but blind fear, but I think it’s also right to be suspicious when the advocates offer nothing but blind faith.

Stephen Fry’s Tech Column Best When Written by Others

Stephen Fry’s technology column in the Guardian is best when someone else writes it for him.  This week Douglas Coupland, having been sent for review some European gadgets that are useless in Canada, muses instead on the relationship between time and gadgets. An excerpt:

Time is measured in tech waves, and not only do these tech waves demarcate eras, they also define them.

I
remember in the 80s when cellphones first started to pop. I remember
how, if you saw someone using a cellphone on a street, you immediately
thought they were an asshole: gee, my phone call is so important I have
to make it right here and right now! Twenty years later, we’re all
assholes. We’re assholes at the supermarket’s meat counter at 5:30pm,
phoning home to ask if we need prosciutto; we’re assholes driving in
traffic; and we’re assholes wandering down the streets. And with
cellphones and handhelds, we collapse time and space and our perception
of distance and intimacy.

Link: Dork Talk: Douglas Coupland.

Recently Jeannette Winterson tested out some "beauty machines":

What no one needs is a thing called the Hydro Test (£24.99, from iliftuk.com).

This
mascara-tube size device claims to measure the moisture content of your
skin. You press it against whatever bit of the body you long to reveal
its watery secret, and the digital display pops up a number that
corresponds to a table that tells you just how desiccated you are.

I
tried this all over my poor old bod, and the reading was so dismal that
I felt compelled to ring my friend who is a GP. She advised immediate
hospitalisation and a saline drip. Crestfallen, but determined to
further my experiments for the sake of Guardian readers, I tried the
thingy on my cat – I can tell you now that it doesn’t work through fur.
Luckily, this cat had recently had a little shaved patch at the vet, so
I tried it on that. Result? Cat obviously ready for taxidermist.

Taking my dried-out self and my wrung-out cat to the pond, I laid a
chamois-leather car sponge (skin, right?) on the surface of the water.
The Hydro Test revealed that what I have always called the pond is, in
fact, a sandpit. At this point I thought of chucking the thingy
straight in the bin where it belongs, but it has a disclaimer on the
info that says it mustn’t be disposed of via "the waste stream". I
expect to see lots of these at Bring & Buy sales quite soon.

Link: Dork Talk: Jeannette Winterson – Beauty Machines, and see also Dork Talk: Jeannette Winterson – Camcorders.

WWGD? (What Would Google Do?)

Jeff Jarvis has announced that he’s writing a new book called What Would Google Do?  He says:

I’m reverse-engineering Google, taking the lessons and rules I find in
their singular success in the internet economy and applying them to
other companies, industries, and institutions. And then I’ll
pontificate about the greater importance of Google and links on society
and life.

Link: WWGD? – The book

Sounds like Jeff wants to help bring forth the Googlization of Everything and the title is perhaps further evidence that Google is God.