Archive for March, 2006

And here I thought bars were the one place it was alright to be drunk in

March 26th, 2006

Having laws against being drunk while driving is pretty common, happens in a lot of countries, and is something I see as perfectly fine and correct.

But in Texas they take further, too much further, I think. Now it seems they’re arresting people for being drunk while drinking inside bars.

It doesn’t matter if they don’t plan on getting out of the pub until much later when they’re sober. Or if they intend to go out and walk, not drive. Or if they really won’t do anything bad while drunk.

No, being drunk is the offence. Not doing anything problematical because of being drunk.

Being in a bar does not exempt one from the state laws against public drunkenness, Beck said.

The goal, she said, was to detain drunks before they leave a bar and go do something dangerous like drive a car.

This is Marvellous. Most people who get drunk do not hurt each other. Someone getting overly drunk and hurting someone, while getting much more publicity than someone being drunk and going to sleep (not exactly a news event, is it?) is rare. And the most common way this does happen is by people driving drunk. Something which people are mostly aware of, and can choose not to do, even while intoxicated.

So if someone wants to go to a bar to drink, either to try and drown some big sorrow (doesn’t work, but people still try), celebrate something, or just have a fun evening which includes drinks, this is now dangerous to do in Texas. Anyone getting drunk, without doing anything wrong, without harming anyone, without even thinking about driving, can get arrested.

This is not going to be good for the bars, I bet. Most bar patrons don’t plan in advance to get totally drunk, just to have a drink or a few, but I guess most aren’t entirely and completely sure they won’t drink a little more than planned. And now it’s dangerous. They drink to much, they can get arrested for it. Getting into a bat to have a couple of drinks now carries risks. Bye bye bars, hello coffee shops and restaurants.

And I can’t help but wonder about the next step. They’re arresting drunk people because they may do things. Things which they’re not doing, didn’t do, and don’t plan on doing. But because they’re theoretically capable of them, they get arrested. How is arresting drunk people, because they may drive, different from arresting angry people because they may decide to hit someone? Or arresting people who carry firearms because they may decide to shoot someone?

If you want to go and arrest people before the do something dangerous, well, you might as well just hit the streets and arrest every single person you see. Some of them are going to do dangerous stuff. Why take the risk, when it’s obvious they’re capable of it?

Anyone not bed-ridden should be arrested, and the sooner the better. Everyone will be much safer that way.

I never gotten really drunk in my life, but right now I’m very happy that I don’t live anywhere near Texas…

Study claims atheists in the US are the most distrusted minority group

March 24th, 2006

A research by the department of sociology in the University of Minnesota claims that Atheist are the most distrusted minority group in America.

From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.

I’d really like to see some more technical info about this study. Sociology isn’t exactly my field, but this thing is just so strange that I have a very strong feeling they haven’t done something, or quite a few things, right.

Starting with the poll. Telephone sampling? For these type of questions? How exactly does that work?

Imaginary phone call:

Q: Hi. I’m calling from the department of sociology in the University of Minnesota. Can I please ask you a few questions for a research project we’re having?

A: Sure, go ahead.

Q: Would you say Muslims share your vision of American society?

A: What? Those terrorists?! Heck, no!

Q: How about recent immigrants?

A: Yeah, coming to steal our job with their cheap labor. Sure they share my vision of American society. Land of opportunities, right?

Q: What about gays and lesbians, do they share your vision of American society?

A: Those darn *censored*?! No way! They should get their head examined, and go find themselves a good woman. Err… Except for those lesbo *censored*, they should go find themselves a good man. No way they share my vision of American society!

Q: I see, sir. What about atheists then?

A: Atheists?

Q: Yes, atheists. How much do you think they share your vision of American society?

A: Those dumb *censored* don’t even notice that God exist. Even those crazy *censored* Muslims knows God exist, even if they have this funny name for him, and they don’t have a clue what he wants them to do. But the atheists, they don’t even believe there’s a God. I don’t want to live in an America where people can deny God. This is a shame. They should all be shot the damn *censored*, before they ruin America for all of us. And it would be fun to see the look on their face when they realize that they do have immortal souls, and that they got sent to hell because they’re dumb *censored*.

Q: I see, sir. And how do you think are they in comparison to gays and lesbians? You expressed dissatisfaction with both minority groups. Can you say which one do you think is further from sharing your vision of American society?

A: Are you *censored* kidding me? There’s no question! Compared to a *censored* atheist I’ll take a lesbo any time. Heck, I’d marry a lesbo before letting one of those atheist creeps through the door. I’ll have my daughter marry a lesbo, a lesbo named Muhammed even, if it was that or marry an atheist!

Q: Thank you very much sir, you’ve been a great help.

A: You’re most welcome. God bless you, dear.

How does one even start such a conversation? Calling people and asking them who share their vision of American society more? Heck, who will seriously answer someone asking them a question like that on the phone?

And I’d really want to know who they asked in order to surmise the answers they got are representative of the entire US population. Spread evenly across states, or by population size? All states, or selected states? Large cities, or small desolate towns? On a question like this I think they’ll find very big variations, so not controlling for a lot of factors, or separating the data sets, is problematical.

I also really don’t think that their idea of comparing these “minority” groups is sound, if that’s really the way they did it. I mean, comparing atheist to gay people? WTF?! Didn’t it occur to anyone that maybe some of those gay people are not exactly good Christians, and are not spending their lives being worried if they’re really going to hell for breaking some obscure biblical verses?

I’m not saying gay people can’t be, or aren’t, religious. But we get lots of press from religious figures going on and on about how being a homosexual is an abomination unto god and so on. Stand to reason that the gay people at least don’t follow those specific streams.

There will be a correlation. Which makes a question about preferences very complicated. Did they ask more specific questions about lesbian Muslims, lesbian Christians, and lesbian atheists?

The press release actually mentions “other minority groups”. The possibilities for interactions here are immense. Second-generation Puerto-Ricans are probably a minority group, but nothing stops them, or any other minority memeber, from being gay, or from being a Muslim or an atheist.

So claiming atheists are the most distrusted, compared to other groups which contain atheists… Doesn’t sound too good to me.

Also, with the amount of prejudiced people around, I have a hard time believing that most Americans will be happier having their kids marry Black/Hispanic/Muslim/Wiccan/Gay/etc, or a combination thereof, before marrying an atheist. My belief is of course meaningless from a statistical standpoint. But a sample size of merely 2,000 people can’t be that much more significant.

Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public. “Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years,” says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the study’s lead researcher.

I was also surprised by that 3 percent figure. I know most Americans are religious, but I didn’t think it was by that high a majority. Though it’s important to notice that they very probably don’t include agnostics here. Still, the way they define Atheist for the research can have quite an effect. A pity they don’t make it more clear on this press release.

And being a threat to the American Way of Life(TM)? Did they really get that without asking extremely leading questions?

Oh, well, what do I know? I’m probably just a *censored* atheist myself, most of the time.

Amazon gives special treatment to abortion

March 22nd, 2006

One feature which is being increasingly offered by search engines is automatic spelling suggestions. Usually for a term that doesn’t return results, but also for terms which return fewer results than other similarly-spelled words.

This happens with general search engines, but also with some stores that allow customers to search their stock. Stores like Amazon. And it makes perfect business sense. They want to sell. And anyone running a search may want to buy. So if someone may want something a little different than what they typed, at least offering to amend the search is the way to go.

As sometimes happens, though, they ran afoul of another case where the usual automatic algorithm naturally fails to take into account politically charged terms. In this case a search for “abortion”, while returning the results for the search, suggested a corrected spelling of “adoption”.

And, as often happened, someone who saw this decided to ignore the fact he was working with a generic algorithm, and complain about the affront.

Amazon, in response, manually changed the result page not to suggest this correction. This was even the correct thing to do. In this particular case it is extremely unlikely that someone will make this particular mistake as a simple typo. Offering a usually-unhelpful correction is a little annoying, and should go. And with this specific search, if they can prevent customers, even a few customers, from getting offended, that’s a good thing.

What bothers me is the reason they provided:

But the company says it ditched the question because the e-mailer raised a valid question. People who type in the term “adoption” don’t get a prompt asking: “Do you mean abortion.”

What? They cancelled it because the correction wasn’t symmetrical? Not because it was a mistake not likely to happen? Not because it was politically charged? Not because it could drive away a few customers? But because the other direction wouldn’t have gotten the same correction offer?

That seems absurd. These things are hardly ever symmetrical. They shouldn’t be. If I run a search for “splling” I want to get back a “did you mean spelling?” question. If I run a search for “spelling” however, I would be surprised to be offered to search for “splling” instead.

This sort of search isn’t exactly a dictionary search, but the same logic applies. It should try to offer more common spellings as correction to less common ones. If a lot more people are searching for “adoption” than are searching for “abortion”, then as far as the algorithm is concerned offering a correction from “abortion” to “adoption” will make perfect sense, while offering a correction in the other direction will not.

Same thing, depending on how the algorithm works, if there are many more items in stock that would fit a search for “adoption” than there are that would fit “abortion”. One way correction is proper, the other isn’t. It will merely inconvenience searching customers with irrelevancies, a lot more times than it would help them.

Cases where it would be proper to offer corrections both ways would be extremely rare. Maybe if there are two search terms which are very similar, and both extremely popular. This doesn’t really happen a lot. Even if it does happen, it’s not the rule but rather the exception.

And Amazon knows that. They have to know that. Their technical people, and their marketing people, know that. So making a public statement to the contrary is odd. Especially when the likely real reason isn’t problematical. It doesn’t require hiding. Nobody would take it hard that Amazon want to give customers better search results, and want to avoid offending customers.

Is the sense of having to hide real and nefarious business reasons so strong that they can’t go out with the real reason even when the real reason is perfectly valid? What does it say about the times when what they say does make sense? Should we understand they’re hiding something then too, because that’s the way they work? Peculiar…

Three strikes and you’re ou…tragous.

March 22nd, 2006

There’s this guy called Chaym Hecht who sometimes gets on the air with a series about some big problem in the country, and proceed to throw lots of hype and possible-nonsense about what he considers to be a terrific solution that will end the problem.

Personally I never watched any of these shows, and there are enough people making noise out there that I didn’t find any reason to give him more attention than I give the rest.

Today, however, I received a forwarded email from a friend, regarding another project of his. The big problem this time is crime, or more specifically the high rates of property crimes, and the potentially insufficient enforcement.

The email contained a link to the show’s site (Hebrew only, sorry), hosted under the site of the television network which broadcasts his show. Something which one would expect will give some credence to what is said there. Sure, people sometimes get their facts a little wrong, but a reputable television network won’t put pages full of outright lies, hype, and misinformation, right? Well, wrong.

I was actually amazed by how much nonsense they managed to stick into so little text. And that’s what is supposed to convince people to support his idea. They even have a petition page there, allegedly going to the ministers of justice and internal security, and to the law committee in the Knesset. So what’s on the site is supposed to be enough for people to be able to declare that they agree and support the suggested legislation.

Now, my problem isn’t exactly with the proposed legislation. That is, I don’t support that law he’s suggesting, but that’s not why I’m writing this post. People have a right to suggest law I don’t support. What they shouldn’t do is present background and supportive facts which are not true and not factual.

The law he suggests is presented as being similar to the Three Strikes law in the US, where judges should be lenient on a first offence, strict on a second, and have a mandatory large jail time for a third offence. And it shows some info about the law in the US, which is supposed to convince us it will be a good idea to do the same here.

Except that much of the information presented is false. And that the laws, while similar on the outline of escalation for three offences, are different in their most important characteristics.

The main page tells us that the proposed legislation could reduce crime rates by 50 percent. This value is taken from another paragraph on the page, telling us that after two years from when the Three Strikes law was accepted in the US the crime rates there dropped by 50 percent.

A second page is then provided with some background information about the origins of the law in the US. That page discusses… California. No mention of the fact that Washington approved such a law first. It only talks about California. And tells it like it was enacted there first. Not critical, but not exactly true.

I just mentioned it to get the dates, for that two years reference. Because that page mentioned it being enacted in California in 1993, and mentions President Clinton making it a US Law in 1995.

It’s not clear if we should expect a 50% reduction in crime rate in California between 1993 to 1995, or between 1995 to 1997. Let’s look at both, and try to find out.

First, here’s a site dedicated to supporting the Three Strikes law in California. We can expect them to be biased, but we can expect them to be biased in favour of the law. That is, showing the highest possible improvement, the highest possible reduction in crime rates. And what do they say on their front page (emphasis mine)?

California’s crime rate is down 32.7% versus a 13.0% drop for the rest of the nation! New York state added 34,000 police to achieve an even greater reduction than California – 33.4% in the 6 major categories.

32.7% is a very nice figure. It’s not 50% however. Not even close. And, as they themselves note, the law enforcement is important, but it’s the investment in enforcing the law, not merely having a Three Strikes law. Put more cops, you get lower crime rates.

They even post nice comparisons, over the five years from 1993 to 1998, showing countries with the Three Strikes laws, and without. And you can see for example Connecticut, with the law, getting a 18.6% reduction, while Arkansas, without this law, getting a 21.3% reduction. Doesn’t say that the law isn’t helping, but it does say that the law can certainly not account for the entire reduction, maybe not even for most of it.

And still no mention of that 50% figure. And if two of these years would have had such a drastic improvement, they would have been mentioned. If they can have a page in 2006 showing the five years until 1998, then I’m sure they could have just as well shown two years, if those had a much more impressive crime reduction number. Remember, this site is really pro the law.

But let’s not trust them to be biased, let’s check more facts, for the exact years we want. Let’s check the year-by-year crime rate statistics provided by the FBI through the Disaster Center.

Year Index Violent Crimes Property Crimes
1993 2,015,265 336,381 1,678,884
1994 1,940,497 318,395 1,622,102
1995 1,841,984 305,154 1,536,830
1996 1,660,131 274,996 1,385,135
1997 1,569,949 257,582 1,312,367
1998 1,418,674 229,883 1,188,791

Anyone notices a two year period there in which the drop was at 50% ? I don’t see it either.

Never mind the number, there’s a much more obvious way to see the lack of such a big jump. The Office of the Attorney General of California has a few charts with information about crime in the state. Like this lovely graph, showing crime rates over all the relevant years, with a separation between violent crimes and property crimes. What does this graph show? It very clearly show that property crime rates started to drop before 1993, although violent crimes seem to change at about that year. It also shows that the drop is for less than 50%, and that there weren’t any two years there with a much higher rate than the others around them.

Or, to put it bluntly, that 50% figure is an outright myth. Where did they take the figure? I don’t know, but I have two options. One is that they just made it up, since it sounds impressive. The other is that it has something to do with this Attorney General statement, from 2002, on the drop in crime rates in California in the 1990′s:

Between 1991 and 2000, California’s overall crime rate plummeted 50 percent. The homicide rate fell 47 percent. California’s crime rate made history in 1999 with the largest one-year drop ever, 14.9 percent. During the decade of the 1990s, California’s violent crime rate declined at almost twice the rate of the rest of the United States.

Except that it talks about the entire decade, not any specific two years. And mentioned the largest drop to be in 1999, surely quite a few years after California, and other states, enacted the Three Strikes law. And it mentions that the crime rate drop there is the lowest in the US, while California is far from being the only state with the Three Strikes law. That petition site of Mr. Hecht mentioned 24 other states, implying they all saw similar crime drop rates… Guess what? They didn’t. Not a one.

That statement says some more, though:

There is considerable debate among criminologists about which strategies were most effective in the 1990s. Some point to helping at-risk youth, getting guns out of the hands of criminals and tougher sentencing laws. Others point to more police on the streets, community policing and the abatement of the “crack epidemic.” Still others point to the economy, after-school programs and other prevention programs.

Anyone else missing the line there saying that the drop was mostly due to the Three Strikes law? It’s there under “tougher sentencing”, I imagine. Doesn’t seem to be the focal point from this, though.

OK, change of subject. That show site has another page, giving some statistics about the crime rates in Israel. Some is taken from the police, stating that there’s a an attempt at thefts, roberry, break-ins, etc, every 44 seconds. And such rates for murders, rapes, and drug trafficking and usage. That serves to illustrate that there’s a problem, so fine. Though I doubt very much we’re worse off than some US states with a Three Strikes law.

But then they go on to list, on the same page, results from a survey they did on the show. 68% of Israeli citizens have had a break-in, or had their car stolen, apparently. Notice, this is not according to the police, this is according to the survey. Guess what? People who didn’t have any such problems are less likely to want to participate in such a survey.

Also, according to this survey, 69.6% protect their houses against burglaries. I assume this includes putting locks on the doors, and installing an alarm system. If so, it sounds to me like it’s way too low, and should be much much higher. Even in areas where crime is extremely rare it’s still good sense to keep your house, and your possessions, secure.

Another fascinating bit from this survey, only 9% believe that the police is capable of handling property crimes. Not sure what handling means, but that numbers seems… practically meaningless. Lack of faith in the police is nothing new. And is usually true even when the police operates spectacularly. Still, I’m willing to accept most people don’t have much faith in the police. Fine. Why is that relevant? Guess who will have to track down the people committing the crimes if a Three Strikes law will be enacted? Right, the police. Guess who will have to keep track of how many times they were charged with the crimes? Right again, the police.

As far as I could see the proposed law does not include replacing the police, or even restructuring the police. If anything, it only deals with the idea that judges are too lenient with people who they find guilty of repeatedly committing property crimes. The law doesn’t deal with actually tracking and arresting them, nor does it deal with the ones not found guilty (For lack of evidence, or other reasons).

93.9% of the people asked do not agree to a condition where thieves deserves compensations when they are hurt during their “job”. Is that terribly irrelevant, or am I missing something here? This is a much bigger problem in the US than here. Any real cases like that here are extremely rare. And, most importantly, this has nothing to do with the Three Strikes issue, or with generally the crime condition in Israel. At all.

And last, 87.6% believe that thieves should be incarcerated for a long duration. No mention how long is long. And are we only talking about someone entering your house, taking all the electronics, jewels, and silverware, and then trashing the place? Because in the way this is written, that also applies to someone who swipes a money bill you leave on a counter in a bar unattended.

All in all, lots of survey info which is not relevant, and not really informative. The only purpose it serves, especially under a heading of “Crime Status in Israel”, is to aggravate people, and make them annoyed. Because annoyed people will be more inclined to think that yes, there’s a problem, and this solution of making sure the guilty will be punished is good. Except that, as I said, it doesn’t say anything about the actual crime conditions, or about the effectiveness of the suggested law.

Mob inflammation techniques, pure and simple.

OK, having gotten through the measly background, the adrenaline pumping techniques, and the false factoids on how good the concept is, there’s the page detailing the exact suggestion. Though “detailing”, and “exact”, may be too strong to refer to the the four very short paragraphs. And yet, this is all there is, and what people are expected to sign a petition saying they want to become law. Nearly as good as saying “I trust Mr. Hecht, just ask him what the law should be, and don’t bother me with specifics”.

The page starts with the claim that the system is focused on property crimes, because these crimes are the crime base in Israel (No, I’m not sure what crime base is supposed to mean either, it’s not like anyone wanting to commit a violent crime has to commit some property crimes to build it on). And as an example of how more common they are (Personally, if violent crimes were more common than property crimes, I’d be really worried) we are told that in 2004 property crimes were 64% of the crimes in Israel.

Remember that nice graph from the Office of the Attorney General of California? Go take a second look. Or, if you don’t trust your ability to get ratios from graphs, go check the data tables. Now, did you get the impression that in California there are, or were when the Three Strikes law was enacted, more violent crimes than property crimes? No, I don’t see it either. I see a ratio much bigger than 64%, actually.

So we want to base the law on their law, but change it to deal with property crimes and not violent crimes, because we have a bigger problem with property crime than they had? That’s what the site is saying. But it’s obviously not true, and a complete non-sequitur. If simple property crimes don’t seem like a good call for this law to people having such a law for years, why would that be enough for us to think it’s a good idea here?

The second paragraph deals with the suggestion for first offence. During the first offence judges will be required to consider all the extenuating circumstances when sentencing. Though of course they will still be allowed to jail the accused for the maximum 5 years allowed under the law. Then the paragraph goes on to present the condition as it is today. It being that only 6% of property felons are sentenced to jail.

That 6% is presented as too small, and a problem. But the new suggestion claims to only change the current law by forcing the judge to consider all extenuating circumstances. So, if only 6% are jailed now, it can be expected that less than 6% will be jailed there. It is the idea behind the law, that since second and third offences are harsh, first offence will be easier for someone with an excuse. But sticking this 6% problem there is exactly counter to the point. He’s presenting it as a problem, together with a suggestion which will make this particular alleged problem worse.

And there’s no mention of what exactly does the statistic refer to. Big crimes, small crimes, attempts at theft and burglary or only the real things? It doesn’t even say if those 6% are from the people convicted as guilty, or only of people accused.

The third paragraph deal with second offence. For a second offence there will be a mandatory four months jail time, no probation. Currently, it says, only 11% are sentenced to jail.

This is not detailed enough. Some things deserve jail time, some don’t. Some more, some less. This is why judges have discretion. And the Third Strike law, while intended to reduce this discretion for third offences, isn’t supposed to do it for a second offence without any ability to reconsider. This suggestion, as is, doesn’t even treat cases where the required jail time would be longer than four months. Four months for everything, and that’s that. The end. I do assume they allow a judge to set longer sentences, if not shorter, and if not any other sort of rehabilitation techniques, but it doesn’t say it. So again, the petition is to support a law which is either flawed, or with details the supporters don’t know.

The fourth, and last, paragraph deals with third offences. Anyone convicted in a third offence will be sentenced to three years in jail. And there are a bunch of exclamation marks there, tucked up to help put people in the right mood.

All in all, not very inspiring, unless you got here already mad enough not to think about what you’re reading.

And all this, the push for a Third Strike legislation for property crimes, when California, for example, is considering making their own law even more lenient for non-violent offences, is very out of place.

California, the state that launched a national get-tough-on-crime movement with its “three strikes, you’re out” measure in 1994, is poised to reconsider whether to ease the stiffest provision of its landmark law: locking up third-time offenders for the rest of their lives.

Two ballot initiatives – both led by Los Angeles area prosecutors – are aiming to put more flexibility in the three-strikes law, in a bid to address concerns that it is imprisoning too many nonviolent criminals at too great a cost to taxpayers. The measures would come before California voters in November if they qualify for the ballot.

The Americans, living with this law for years, aren’t all in agreement whether it’s good or not. They publish studies, some supporting this side, some the other. Certainly the idea has benefits, but it also has its drawbacks. Anything like that needs to be considered carefully, not driven forth by populism.

The suggestion for this law is similar to the Three Strikes law in that it has escalating conditions for the first three offences. But here the similarity ends. It targets different areas of crimes, for different reasons. Any attempt to justify this one on the basis of that one is unfounded.

All that, of course, is pretty meaningless. Because, you see, on-line petitions are meaningless anyway. They don’t do anything, they don’t achieve anything, and nobody who is the target of one takes them seriously. They’re too easy to falsify, too hard to verify, and too hard to know how to judge. So the chances of our Ministers, or Knesset committees, deciding to pay attention to one are slim at best. Less than that, even.

All it serves is to allow Mr. Hecht to say in the future that he had a brilliant solution to drastically reduce our property crime rate (Oh, go check that graph again. Did you notice that property crime rates in California started climbing after 1999? Without anybody cancelling the Three Strikes law?), and nobody did anything about it.

There’s an old joke, saying that it’s a pity that all the people who really know how to run a country are too busy cutting people’s hair, serving them drinks, and driving them around. I think we need to add running television shows to the list, maybe.

A suggestion that has merit would not be presented using hype, hyperbole, and false information. These things do not indicate an idea that can survive because it’s good. Nor does it indicate that the one coming forth with the idea really thinks it’s a good one.

Integer sequences

March 15th, 2006

This is rather cool, in a very math-geeky sort of way. A site with a searchable database of integer sequences.

All those number sequences with the “what’s the next number in this series?” questions? There’s probably an answer there.

The frightening thing is, there are probably lots and lots of answers there, for each individual sequence. Even for the number sequences which have an ‘obvious’ next number, there are apparently tons of other numbers that could fit the same sequence. Some of them have very complex, or wacky, rules and mathematical conditions behind them, but they’re there, and are real.

The next number on 2, 4, 6, 8, … can indeed be 10, but can also be 14, 12, 27, 1, 6, and quite a lot more

This really brings home the point that all those “what’s the next number?” questions don’t say much about anyone’s mathematical grasp. Certainly not if those tests only compare against the “right” answer. There are simply too many right answers, and many more possible reasons.

Purim, revisited

March 15th, 2006

Not really a post, I just thought that since it’s Purim again, I’ll link to my post from last year, So what is this Purim all about?.

The post is a humorous recounting of the story from the Scroll of Esther. There is one extra character not included in the original bible version of the story, but what makes the post funny is how very very close the rest of it is. Except the interpretations of course, those aren’t in the original. The actual deeds and happenings are, though.

I do realize that it could use some extra styling and editing, but I’m too lazy to do that, so it will just stay as-is for now. Maybe next year…

Researcher hacks Microsoft fingerprint reader

March 15th, 2006

Apparently the connection between the fingerprint reader and the computer isn’t properly encrypted, so it’s possible to connect to it and read the fingerprint data. Or to send fingerprint data that was recorded earlier.

It’s not really much of a news item, though, because the device isn’t intended for security purposes, and Microsoft doesn’t sell it for security uses. The research was to find why they don’t, because fingerprint readers are pretty much smack down in the category of security and authentication gear. That’s their classic, and most obvious, use (Despite the many problems with biometric, which now is not the time to go into). So the fact that the research found a problem shouldn’t surprise anyone too much.

Even if some customers assumed that it can be used for security despite the manufacturer’s recommendations.

The point I found interesting is this response by the CTO of Digital Persona, the company from which Microsoft licensed the technology for the device:

Digital Persona would not comment on why Microsoft may have turned off the product’s encryption capabilities, but one company official said that this decision is unlikely to affect the security of its users.

“The fact that they turned the encryption off, I would argue, does not in a practical sense open up any security holes,” says Chief Technology Officer Vance Bjorn. “Even with the encryption off, you’re going to have to basically have physical access to the person’s machine to crack into it.”

He claim that it’s not a problem, because it would require physical access to the computer. This is, while accurate, totally silly and besides the point.

Fingerprint readers are intended to be used against people with physical access to the computer the scanner is attached to. That’s the only case in which they work. A legitimate user with no physical access will not be able to have their fingerprint scanned. Physical access is required by design.

So saying security holes are not opened just because it would require physical access, is actually saying that the device is meaningless from a security standpoint. You need physical access to hack into the machine around the fingerprint scanner. But you also need physical access to use the machine by using the fingerprint scanner. Ergo the fingerprint scanner is meaningless.

Which is basically what Microsoft implied to begin with, but entirely not the point the CTO was trying to make here.

Happy birthday to me

March 15th, 2006

Just saying

Some Israeli news sites object too loudly to being included in Google News

March 15th, 2006

This is actually a too-common problem with quite a few news sites around the world. They see their pages being included in a search engine, or a news portal, as someone stealing their content. Instead of seeing it as someone helping them get more readers.

And now a few of the big Israeli news sites are joining the fry, making a lot of noise, a lot more than they need to, about this.

The letter went on to say that collating news items from leading sites in Israel crossed boundaries. “All over the world, the issue of copyright infringement is gaining momentum, with an emphasis on the Internet. We believe there is no place to injure original Israeli content, which, to the contrary, should be encouraged. I am confident that the other leading sites in Israel will not lend a hand to injury of their property and will demand that Google refrain from using their content.”

Dimwits. Being included in a search engine index, or in a popular news aggregation service, doesn’t injure anyone’s property. It doesn’t hurt anyone. On the contrary, it helps them.

They don’t want their content copied, because they want readers to go to their own sites to read it. That’s fine. But that’s exactly what will happen. Sites like Google News don’t usually show the full stories anyway, they show headlines and briefs. Anyone who wants to read the story will have to go to the site which published it.

And a lot more people go to places like Google News, Yahoo News, etc, than directly to the news sites. And for a very good reason.

If someone is searching for a story, or for coverage of an issue, they originally don’t know which paper covered it best, if at all. So option one is to go to one news site, search there, go to another, search there, go to a third, search there, etc. And to go on until something good enough was found, or until the searcher is tired.

But if there are sites that allow to search for the story in a few of the papers at the same time, and show enough of of the story to decide which is the most interesting or relevant version, or even to directly open all the stories, that’s a much more appealing destination.

So true, if the story is bad, people won’t go to read it. But any paper which believe they’re in the business of writing bad stories probably can’t expect too many readers to go to them directly anyway.

By being excluded from the index a newspaper just assures that less people will come to them, because they will only get the readers who wanted them specifically to begin with. Anyone else will not find them, will not stumble upon their stories, will not discover that they covered the issues. That’s an attitude that doesn’t make much sense.

Additionally, search engines have covered some of these Israeli news sites for years now. It’s possible to run a search on a general search engine, in Hebrew, and get news results. Not from all of them, some Israeli sites don’t play for a long time now, but from the rest.

So this new outburst is because of the localized Hebrew version of Google News which is coming up. But it’s not all that different from what was available before, beyond presenting a page dedicated to news in Hebrew. It does make for a more obvious entry point for people looking for news, but it won’t index any content which Google didn’t index anyway.

The way these protests were made is also telling. There’s a very simple way to ask for civilized search engines not to include your pages in their index. And all the big players, Google included, are civilized this way. Put a robots.txt file on the site, and exclude either all web crawlers, or the ones you specifically object to.

Most page crawlers, of the types search engines use to go over sites and index them, look for the presence of this file, and check in it what parts of the site they’re asked not to index. It’s very simple to do, and it works.

Feder said that the Ynet site manager, Yacov Netzer, had written to Google Israel manager Meir Brand asking that the site refrain from using Ynet content.

One of the news sites mentioned in the article, Ynet, already have that file:

User-agent: *

Disallow:

This file explicitly says that all crawlers and web robots are allowed to access each and every page of the site. They’re saying that explicitly. Come index us, they say. It’s right there.

All they need to change is to add a single character:

User-agent: *

Disallow: /

This would be different, it would be blocking access to the entire site, news section included, by all crawlers. This means that their content will not appear on Google News. It’s that simple. Not only that, it’s nearly done. They don’t have to do anything else but adding that slash character. They don’t have to appeal to Google directly. Their manager doesn’t need to waste his time writing to the manager of Google Israel. There’s no point to it. They’re making the wrong choice, but they made it, and Google will indeed refrain from using their content. Problem solved before it started.

The letter on Walla!’s behalf was sent by the prestigious law firm of Herzog, Fox & Neeman. The letter said that as Google knew, articles appearing on the Walla! Web site were Walla!’s exclusive, copyright-protected property. “Therefore, unauthorized use that your company is making of these items on its Web site constitutes a grave infringement on my client’s property rights, by infringing copyright,” the letter said.

And that letter from a law firm on behalf of Walla!, what about it? I bet it took a lot of time, and money, to draft and present. Lawyers charge for consulting with them, for their work, for writing letters. Getting the site designer to write a robots.txt file would have been much simpler, much cheaper, and much quicker. As of right now, however, the Walla and Walla! News sites do not have it.

On today’s Internet, not having a robots.txt file is the equivalent of saying, but implicitly instead of explicitly as Ynet is currently doing, “Please come, index me, and allow to search my content, thank you” to the entire world. So Walla! are doing that, while at the same time having their lawyers billing them for talking with Google’s lawyers.

Brilliant. Just brilliant. And we’re supposed to trust these guys as our news source. Newsflash, people, robots.txt file is an old, old, standard by these days. And Google also respects newer meta tags that do the same thing, which can be (but are not, in Walla!’s case) embedded on individual pages.

They’re all so clueless that it’s quite staggering…

Context counts, even in spam blocking

March 15th, 2006

Different kinds of spam, while all being spam, are still different. As such, tools useful in limiting one kind are often not at all appropriate for another.

And lately one of those right tools for the wrong job is becoming very popular. In this case the DSBL list of open SMTP relays.

Open SMTP relays are basically mail servers set so that anyone could connect to them and send email messages through them. There’s nothing wrong with having a mail relay, but there is a problem with them being totally open an unauthenticated. They’re very popular with spammers, because the spam senders can connect to these relays and send their spam messages through them, instead of directly from their own computers.

Which is why things like the DSBL list exists. Mail servers can choose to check all incoming messages against the list, and if an incoming message came from one of those known open relays, they can treat the message as probably being spam. It won’t always be spam, but there’s good enough a chance that the false positive ratio isn’t too big.

The problem starts when people try to use the exact same list to decide if comments on blogs are spam. There is no real connection between the two. Blog comments are not sent as email messages, and do not transfer through those mail relays. And many of these relays are not intentionally so, but are rather just badly configured. Blocking email from them is legitimate, because they’re open to abuse. But blocking blog comments from them isn’t, because nothing on them indicate that they’re used by comment spammers instead of real people.

My problem isn’t with the concept of checking against problematical lists. There are alternative lists like the Blitzed DNSBL which are based on open proxy servers. Proxy servers are ones which allow to transfer through them regular web access methods, such as the ways used to post comments to blogs. And comment spammer do use these.

It’s just that more and more people are blocking against the wrong kind of list. They’re protecting themselves against the wrong kind of spam. Meaning that large majority of the addresses they block will be false positives. And that’s a bad ratio.

This is becoming a larger problem because it becomes easier to use. Many of the popular blogging platforms have plug-ins to fight spam. And a few, which are increasing in popularity, allow to check the IP address of the comment poster against such lists. And the DSBL list often comes on by default, for reasons I can’t quite grasp.

Pointless, and irrelevant. Fighting spam is good, but people should do it properly, not with the wrong methods. People sometimes don’t notice this, though, because these lists are often combined, including both mail relays, and some proxies. Which mean they may sometimes also block what people think they will. But using just a combined list is too blunt an instrument. It’s akin to blocking all English speaking people because there are spammers in the US.

Another thing which complicates using such lists, and blocking based on computers’ IP addresses in general, is dynamic addresses. Many internet users receive a dynamic IP address from their ISP whenever they connect to the internet. This means that when they disconnect, and then reconnect, they get a different address. And the previous address gets back into the pool of addresses, to be given to a different user.

If someone has a badly configured server on a home computer with a dynamic address, and it manages to get into such a list, that will not prevent them from sending spam (whether email, comment, or other kind), but will block other users of the same ISP instead.

The reason for this rant is, well, that this happened to me. More than once. I was blocked a few times posting to different blogs, because my IP address, my dynamic IP address that I possibly never used before that day, was included on the DSBL as an open mail relay.

And they were added to the list over either a single incident, or two incidents, which occurred no later than 2004. Someone had a server that allowed people to send mail messages, and because of that I was blocked years later from posting comments on a blog.

The first time this happened I thought it was a non-issue. But it’s becoming one very fast.

Yes, any form of automatically detecting spam will have false positives. But that’s not a reason to go with forms who will only happen to have non-false positive by pure luck. There are other ways to fight spam than methods who will interfere with legitimate users more than they will interfere with spammers

Militant dolls

March 8th, 2006

I have no idea what this site is about, or what the images are supposed to represent, since it’s probably written in Japanese, which I can’t read. But the images on the various pages linked to from this index page are certainly amusing.

They’re mostly of dolls, and I mean delicate women’s dolls with the typical feminine clothing, in various combatant and military positions.

Some come next to what may be sketches from military manuals, or photos of soldiers, and the dolls are arranged in the same positions, holding similar weaponry.

Other seem to be images depicting stories in which those dolls are seen attacking and taking military outposts and vehicles, manned by real soldier dolls.

Quite hilarious, seeing a delicate doll in a bikini attaching mines to a jeep, or well armed and sneaking on a bunch of soldiers…

Maybe it’s just payback for the fact that everyone likes to torture their Barbie dolls.

Massive phone blunder for the British Foreign Office in Iraq

March 6th, 2006

In my own army unit they had strict limitations on phone usage. Well, not all that strict, we needed to talk on the phone, and we could. But there was a limit. And if a department strayed from the limit, they noticed. Quickly. And the department was reprimanded. In some cases repeat offenders simply had their phones cut off, or limited to only certain outgoing numbers, for a time.

The British Foreign Office, in comparison, is much more lax on phone usage. It can take them more than a year to notice very excessive charges. To destinations which were not related to operational needs. On phones that were stolen (but they didn’t notice this too, so that may be a good excuse). In Iraq.

It certainly was not part of Britain’s plans to win the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq. But the Foreign Office has been apparently paying for an adult sex chatline in a Baghdad street for 17 months without knowing it.

FO officials had already admitted that the lost phones had cost them £594,000 in unauthorised phone bills but it is now bracing itself for an extremely critical report from the Commons public accounts committee on how it came to pay phone bills, which at one stage hit £212,000 in one month, without asking questions.

Sir Michael said initial inquiries had revealed a series of blunders. The phones were already activated when they were sent to Baghdad and they were not properly logged in – so no one realised at first that they had been stolen. None of the bills were initially challenged until people realised the phones had gone missing.

This is such a long string of errors and blunders, one after the other, that it would have been really sad if it wasn’t so funny. Or maybe the other way around.

When shipping something abroad, they should track it. Always. If it was sent, and nobody received it, someone should have noticed. Private companies track inventory. Military units track inventory. Why can’t the British FO track inventory? Yes, there are items which aren’t tracked individually, but come on, a mobile phone isn’t exactly a paper-clip.

The fact that they didn’t monitor the billing for those phones is also amazing. The 17 months the article mentions is over a fiscal year. The charges should have been noticed after a month, I think, but not to notice such a bill after a whole year is almost beyond belief. I can’t think of any organization with such a free calling policy.

And these aren’t phones in an office at their HQ. These are phones sent to a foreign country, with all the confusion and potential problems that this entails. How can anyone expect that everything will be alright, and that no monitoring at all will be needed?

Not to mention, they also obviously didn’t screen the phones for permitted and forbidden destination. In an office, in the UK that would have been understandable. Too many places someone may need to call. But in the field, in Baghdad? These phones should have had a pretty limited list of allowed destinations, with a procedure set in order to allow others. And tight monitoring to make sure they’re not used otherwise. I believe those phone sex lines were not officially approved by anyone.

At least that’s one sex scandal that will be duly paid for by the guilty authorities, and in hard currency too.