The Null Device
Security guru Bruce Schneier turns his professional paranoia to the Papal election, and looks at how vulnerable it is to fraud or rigging. The answer: not very. There are a few minor flaws, though much of the mechanism is quite robust.
What are the lessons here? First, open systems conducted within a known group make voting fraud much harder. Every step of the election process is observed by everyone, and everyone knows everyone, which makes it harder for someone to get away with anything. Second, small and simple elections are easier to secure. This kind of process works to elect a Pope or a club president, but quickly becomes unwieldy for a large-scale election. The only way manual systems work is through a pyramid-like scheme, with small groups reporting their manually obtained results up the chain to more central tabulating authorities.
And a third and final lesson: when an election process is left to develop over the course of a couple thousand years, you end up with something surprisingly good.
In the U.S., a small minority of pharmacists are refusing to sell birth-control pills to women, sometimes even confiscating their prescriptions, on "moral grounds". State legislatures are divided between outlawing such actions and enshrining them in law:
At a Brooks pharmacy in Laconia, New Hampshire, Suzanne Richards, a 21-year-old single mother with a 3-year-old son, was denied the morning after pill because of the pharmacist's religious convictions.
Richards says she felt "humiliated and traumatised", and was too frightened to approach another pharmacist the next day, allowing the 72-hour limit for taking the pill to pass.
One can understand people getting squeamish about the abortion of developed foetuses with nervous systems and such, but refusing to sell morning-after pills is just stupid. For one, it ignores the fact that between 60% and 80% of fertilised embryos are naturally spontaneously aborted, in much the same way that the morning-after pill would do (an argument which, when combined with pro-lifer ideology and a dose of logic, implies that much of the population of Heaven would be comprised of never-born embryos). This is clearly not about saving lives but rather about assertion of power; the Religious Right flexing its muscle and seeing how much it can get away with in Bush's America.
Someone has written a program for generating random computer-science papers, designed to scam dubious conferences, apparently with some success:
One useful purpose for such a program is to auto-generate submissions to "fake" conferences; that is, conferences with no quality standards, which exist only to make money. A prime example, which you may recognize from spam in your inbox, is SCI/IIIS and its dozens of co-located conferences (for example, check out the gibberish on the WMSCI 2005 website). Using SCIgen to generate submissions for conferences like this gives us pleasure to no end. In fact, one of our papers was accepted to SCI 2005!
The authors intend to attend the conference in question and deliver a randomly-generated talk.
A sample of its output (without the authentic-looking graphs), excerpted from a paper titled "Refining DNS and Suffix Trees with OWLER":
We have taken great pains to describe out evaluation setup; now, the payoff, is to discuss our results. We ran four novel experiments: (1) we deployed 86 Atari 2600s across the underwater network, and tested our checksums accordingly; (2) we ran 34 trials with a simulated instant messenger workload, and compared results to our hardware deployment; (3) we measured flash-memory space as a function of ROM speed on a Motorola bag telephone; and (4) we asked (and answered) what would happen if mutually replicated vacuum tubes were used instead of I/O automata. All of these experiments completed without LAN congestion or 10-node congestion.
I take my hat off to them. When I wrote the Postmodernism Generator, all those years ago, I was sceptical of the possibility of successfully generating convincing random text in a more objectively verifiable field, such as computer science. I guess that, if those responsible for reviewing the paper aren't bothered to actually read it and attempt to assemble a mental model of what it states, one can get away with anything.
Skype have just added Scandinavia to their SkypeIn offerings; now one can buy phone numbers in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland and have them directed to one's Skype client anywhere on the internet (along with the U.S., UK, French and Hong Kong numbers previously on offer). Hopefully they'll roll more countries out soon.
It's interesting to note that, of the eight countries on offer, France restricts its phone numbers to those resident in French metropolitan areas, while the others will happily allocate them to anyone. Dirigisme, anyone?
This book looks potentially quite interesting:
It was Mr. Levitt who nailed a bunch of Chicago public-school teachers for artificially inflating their students' standardized test scores. I'm dying to tell you exactly how he did it, but I don't want to spoil any surprises. His account of the affair in "Freakonomics" reads like a detective novel.
The evidence is right there in front of you: Mr. Levitt actually reproduces all the answer sheets from two Chicago classrooms and challenges you to spot the cheater. Then he shows you how it's done. He points to suspicious patterns that you almost surely overlooked. Suspicious, yes, but not conclusive--maybe there is some legitimate explanation. Except that Mr. Levitt slowly piles pattern on pattern, ruling out one explanation after another until only the most insidious one remains. The resulting tour de force is so convincing that it eventually cost 12 Chicago schoolteachers their jobs.
Then it's on to another question, and another and another. Were lynchings, as their malevolent perpetrators hoped, an effective way to keep Southern blacks "in their place"? Do real-estate agents really represent their clients' interests? Why do so many drug dealers live with their mothers? Which parenting strategies work and which don't? Does a good first name contribute to success in life?
Back in 1999, Mr. Levitt was trying to figure out why crime rates had fallen so dramatically in the previous decade. He was struck by the fact that crime began falling nationwide just 18 years after the Supreme Court effectively legalized abortion. He was struck harder by the fact that in five states crime began falling three years earlier than it did everywhere else. These were exactly the five states that had legalized abortion three years before Roe v. Wade.
The BBC Creative Archive site is now up. There's no content yet (they're still working on negotiating the licenses), but the details have been officially announced. It's going to be distributed under something very similar to a Creative Commons by-nc-sa-style licence, only with a "no endorsement" clause prohibiting use of material for campaigning or defamation (which presumably stems from English copyright law's concept of moral rights). This licence will be used not only by the BBC, but also by other organisations such as Channel 4 and the British Film Institute for their own online archive efforts. In other details: there will be no DRM whatsoever, though the archive will only be accessible from British IP addresses (though I'm told that the people behind it are pushing to lift this restriction), and peer-to-peer technologies will be used to help distribute it (which, presumably, means that the BBC's download site will act as a BitTorrent tracker/seeder).
While we're on the topic, an article on the push to bring Creative Commons licensing to Britain.
In the U.S., abortion-clinic and gay-bar bomber Eric Rudolph, who hid from police in the North Carolina mountains for five years using survivalist techniques, has confessed to the Atlanta olympics bombing.
So far, he appears to have declined to give a theological argument against sporting events. His explanation for bombing the Olympics is here; apparently it has to do with the Olympics' "despicable" Lennonist-socialist ideals; that and abortion.
Meanwhile, in Britain, another one of God's soldiers has been convicted for planning ricin attacks on the public. Kamel Bourgass, linked to al-Qaeda and a militant Islamist group centred at the Finsbury Park mosque, was found to have plans and raw materials for making the deadly poison; it is believed his plans for it included spraying it on car door handles around that hotbed of Zionist-Crusader Infidelism, Holloway Road. Bourgass, also known as Nadir, is already serving a life sentence after stabbing a police officer to death when facing arrest.