May 2006

Report documents worst voting-machine security flaw yet…

An inexcusable number of security flaws have been found in Diebold voting machines the past few years, but a new report from BlackBoxVoting documents what Ari Rubin and Ed Felten at Freedom to Tinker say is the worst one yet:

A report by Harri Hursti, released today at BlackBoxVoting, describes some very serious security flaws in Diebold voting machines. These are easily the most serious voting machine flaws we have seen to date — so serious that Hursti and BlackBoxVoting decided to redact some of the details in the reports…

The attacks described in Hursti’s report would allow anyone who had physical access to a voting machine for a few minutes to install malicious software code on that machine, using simple, widely available tools. The malicious code, once installed, would control all of the functions of the voting machine, including the counting of votes.

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On humor and Stephen Colbert

I’ve been thinking lately about Stephen Colbert’s uneven performance and audience reaction at the this year’s White House Correspondents Association Dinner. (If you haven’t seen it yet the video is still floating around the the Net, though C-Span has their own limited-time Real Media feed and is asking other websites to remove their links.)

I tend to agree with Colbert’s message and politics, but in this post I’m more interested in how humor works and doesn’t work than the message itself. Something I love about both Stephen Colbert and John Stewart is how they’re willing to step outside of their characters and actually analyze what they do as comic, but I think that hurt Colbert that night. Rewatching the video, I still liked Colbert’s message but I thought his performance was just as uneven as the audience’s reaction.

The great part of his act, when it works, is that he plays a Bill O’Reilly type and then either makes plain that type’s underlying messages and underhanded motives or just plays at being inept and catching himself in metaphors that don’t work. But that evening he didn’t seem to convincingly inhabit that character. First he told the joke about “somebody shoot me in the face,” which cast him as a comic telling jokes rather than as an inept pundit. That could have been OK, since he hadn’t really started, but I think the killer was when he messed up his “the glass isn’t half empty, it’s 2/3 empty” joke. I thought he was quite respectful by saying “it’s important, Mr. President, to set up your jokes correctly…” but that joke was a pivotal one — it was the joke that would have both cemented his beginning rant about how great Bush was and that set himself up as being incompetent about his attempted praises. As it was, he was suddenly seen as a comic again, just as he was about to launch into the really biting part of his act where he lashed out against the press itself. Suddenly his mask was stripped away and instead of playing The Fool in the guise of an overly harsh pundit he became a Stephen Colbert speaking in a fighting-words tone and lecturing the press on how they should behave. Still ballsy of him, still something that needs to be said… but for me and I think that audience it lost a lot of the humor it could have had.

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Could the music industry actually be getting a clue?

Honestly, I never expected something this sensible (albeit obvious) to come out of a Big Music executive’s mouth:

“If we can convert 5, 10, 15 per cent of the peer-to-peer users that have been obtaining our product from illegitimate sources to becoming legitimate buyers of our product, that has the potential of a huge impact on our industry and our economics,” Kevin Tsujihara, president of the Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group, said.

Context: Warner Brothers has inked a deal with BitTorrent to help them sell online movie downloads. It sounds like they still want to charge monopolistic prices (’cause hey — they’re a government-protected monopoly) and I wouldn’t be surprised if they include DRM that forces paying customers to enjoy their viewing experience while locked in a small cupboard and peering through a keyhole, but it’s a start!

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Bob Garfield on Stephen Colbert

Speaking of On The Media, Bob Garfield has an interesting take on Stephen Colbert’s somewhat chilly (or at least uneven) audience reaction at the White House Correspondent’s Association Dinner:

The question shouldn’t be “Why was Stephen Colbert so rude?” The question should be, “Why is the press gathering to toast a sitting politician in the first place, socializing with the government officials they’re supposed to be covering?” How cna you sit there in your formal wear over boeuf and cabernet and maintain an arms-length distance from the person less than an arms-length away from you? The problem with the White House Correspondent’s Dinner on Saturday was not the Master of Ceremonies it was the ceremony itself. Democracy requires a vigilant press. It doesn’t much need the Friar’s Club.

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What rights?

Guest-blogging for Larry Lessig, Tim Wu asks why movie studios pay for the rights to newspaper stories:

In 1997, the New York Times reported on the story of Tim “Ripper” Owens, who rose from being a lifelong Judas Priest fan to becoming the actual lead singer of Judas Priest…

Great writing and a great story. Good enough to inspire the 2001 film Rock Star, starring Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Aniston, for which, I am told, Warner Bros. paid the New York Times for the movie rights.

But wait — what movie rights? According to basic copyright law, and as interpreted by the Supreme Court, the facts of Ripper Owen’s life are free to be used by anyone. There is, according to the law, almost nothing to purchase. Reading the story out loud during the film would be a copyright violation, but under U.S. law, little else would borrow the expression as opposed to the facts.

It’s a question I’ve asked myself a couple times in the past few months. The first time was when I saw a booth selling old historical photos at a local arts festival. The company, Photos of Old Amercia, had claimed to have a copyright on each of the photos, even though the woman in charge said she mostly found old pictures from libraries and collections and usually never had any clue who the original photographer was. Some of the photos have been retouched, and Photos of Old America would own the copyright on those changes. However, near as I can tell the company is itself violating the copyright on most of these photos, figuring (correctly) that they’ll probably get away with it.

The second time was when I learned about Zorro Productions, Inc., which decades ago bought all the rights to Zorro™, the legendary masked hero first introduced by Johnston McCulley in The Curse of Capistrano in 1919. Apparently if you want to make a play, movie, book or even appearance at a local mall about Zorro™ you have to license the rights from Zorro Productions first. But what rights? The copyright on The Curse of Capistrano expired ages ago and is in the public domain, as is the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks classic movie The Mark of Zorro. That leaves trademark law, which (in theory anyway) only applies so far as consumers might be confused as to the source or producer of a product or service. Raise your hands out there if you knew Zorro Productions, Inc. owned the licensing rights to Zorro™ before now, or would assume when you went to a Zorro™ movie that it would be protected by that company’s good name.

Unfortunately, in practice it doesn’t seem to matter what the law actually says. By licensing these non-existent rights, powerful companies like Sony Pictures gain a powerful threat over potential competitors, namely the ability to scare away financiers and potential partners with a simple cease-and-desist letter. When it comes to intellectual property, might makes rights is all too often the true law of the land.

Where’s Zorro when you need him?

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On demos and Heisenbugs

If I were to write a kind of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying kind of guide to giving demos of your research, it would probably include the following list of things to avoid:

  1. Infrastructure: the only time people notice the plumbing is when it doesn’t work, and the challenges involved are subtle and non-obvious. Stick with pretty interfaces that demo themselves.
  2. Multiple caches: Cached information can mask what’s really going on in a system and change the results from one demo to the next. This is even worse when some of those caches involve software that isn’t yours.
  3. Multiple threads: Multi-threaded applications are a bear to debug, and are a great way to introduce race conditions and deadlocks that invariably only pop up when you’re giving a demo to someone important.
  4. Anything involving networking: Networks are complex and cantankerous creatures that can fail for a number of reasons beyond your control.
  5. Wireless: That goes double for wireless. Especially since wireless acts differently when you’re in a room full of audience members who all have their own laptops out and broadcasting.
  6. Asynchronous communications: Throw in multiple machines (read: multiple potential failure points) where the same exact user action might produce different effects depending on the timing of how messages are sent and you’ve got a situation where you can successfully test the same demo 10 times in a row and still not know for sure if it’ll work on the 11th try.

Never one to take the easy route, my current research project contains every one of these features. No matter how many successful trials I run, I never really know whether this time it’ll go boom.

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