Digest 5

Digest the Fifth. Some items are several days old; others are fresh. For my next digest I plan to post a wikileaks special edition rounding up links about them. For now, have fun! Or not, as the case might well be. Some of this stuff is pretty bleak, folks. Any comments from y’all on how I should or shouldn’t post digests differently are welcome; this is still unfamiliar, and somewhat awkward, territory for me.

  • The BBC reports that a tech security expert demonstrated the possibility of creating booby-trap websites that, as I understand it, imitate your (local) computer asking your router for its Media Access Control (MAC) address; once the website successfully acquires your router’s MAC address, the website couples it with geolocating info from your browser and then with Google Street View database info. In short, the booby-trap website now knows where you live, down to “nine metres” in at least one case.

    “This is geo-location gone terrible,” said Mr Kamkar during his presentation. “Privacy is dead, people. I’m sorry.” […]

    “The thought that someone, somewhere on the net can find where you are is pretty creepy,” [Mr Hypponen] said.

    “Scenarios where an attack like this would be used would be stalking or targeted attacks against an individual,” he added.

    “The fact that databases like Google Streetview […] can be used in these attacks just underlines how much responsibility companies that collect such data have to safeguard it correctly,” said Mr Hypponen.

    If there’s one thing with the Net that by now should be obvious to everyone, it’s that, uh, it’s really easy to copy stuff digitally. All that data mentioned above, I think, just plain isn’t going to be safeguarded successfully against the human element in the long run. You know those periodic news stories about hackers stealing portions of credit card companies’ databases and the like? What do you think happens to that copied information, even if the hackers are eventually arrested? I think we can presume it’s copied again, and again, and again. Probably resides on darknets, and will eventually make its way out to the public; we’ll all be astonished — until non-privacy becomes the new norm. The sooner you adjust yourself to this forthcoming reality the better off you’ll be. Read science fiction to prepare, e.g. William Gibson, Cory Doctorow.

  • Timbuctoo was a real, secret town, NPR’s All Things Considered explains; it was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

  • Were you too once a middle-schooler sequestered in a computer lab forced to play The Oregon Trail to kill time? Then watch this trailer on YouTube for an (hypothetical? imaginary?) Oregon Trail movie.

  • Brain Mysteries adapts a Stevens Institute of Technology news release about research to be conducted testing the ability (or inability) of crowds to evolve creative solutions to problems.

    “We think that the crowd can innovate, providing new and specific solutions to broad social problems, such as those related to our need for energy.”

    To test this conjecture, Nickerson and Sakamoto will perform a series of graduated experiments. First, members of the public will be asked to generate, evaluate and modify ideas, without any interaction with each other. Next, members of the public will interact with each other while creating the ideas. Finally, the public will be asked to design its own unique creative process and pursue its own problems.

  • According to Talking Points Memo, Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, Republican, implied Muslims might not be entitled to freedom of religion.

    “Now, you could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life, cult whatever you want to call it,” Ramsey said. “Now certainly we do protect our religions, but at the same time this is something we are going to have to face.”

  • Do you really need Bristol Palin – Levi Johnston drama? If so, NPR haz it.

  • The WSJ mentions eBook antitrust scrutiny rumbling in the distance.

  • Republicans are calling for hearings on repealing the 14th amendment, which gives automatic birthright citizenship: if you’re born in the United States, you’re automatically a citizen, regardless of your parents’ legal status. About the Republican idea of hearings, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat, said:

    The authors of the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed citizenship to all people “born or naturalized in the United States” for a reason. They wished to directly repudiate the Dred Scott decision, which said that citizenship could be granted or denied by political caprice. […]

    Then Reid said of Republicans pushing the issue, “They’ve either taken leave of their senses or their principles.”

    Am I the only philosophy nerd for whom that last statement’s specificity — “their senses or their principles” — sounds as if Reid’s been brushing up on his 17th-18th century Western philosophy? =p

  • More on those Republican 14th Amendment attacks. The Service Employees International Union says that not only would calls for mass deportation of illegal immigrants remove “12.6% of the US population” (where do they get that 12.6% stat, I wonder?), but also putting an end to birthright citizenship would have meant the following Americans never would have been citizens: Olympic Gold Medalist Henry Cejudo; Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales; Republican National Hispanic Assembly Minnesota Chapter Chairman Rick Aguilar; USA NASA Astronaut Jose Hernandez; more. Talking Points Memo points out that without the 14th Amendment, people could be born without citizenship with any country.

  • Wifely @cckaty82 found this NYT note on lima bean cooking. Actually I was showing her a NYT post on something — probably wikileaks? — and she pointed to the sidebar with the lima bean link and told me to click there.

  • Education experts push for Texas to hire more minority teachers, the Associated Press reports.

    “The research shows that if you can match the ethnicity and race of teachers and students, teachers tend to be more effective,” said Ed Fuller, associate director of the University Council for Educational Administration at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s important for role modeling and pushing those students to go to college. Of course, you want to make sure teachers are well-qualified and not just thrown into a classroom because of race or ethnicity.”

    For sociology statistics, it’s important to remember that there always individuals who for whatever reasons break a trend, e.g., a minority student who seems to perform better with majority teachers. But humans, as for any other animal, plus human cultures, exhibit patterns in behavior, including in response to environmental influence. And so many people deny how much the environment contributes to their makeup; acknowledging it would make them feel less in control. It’s important to take charge of yourself, but also important to acknowledge the influence of your environment — and to acknowledge both in political decisions, too. Yes, this is an axe I like to grind. Honestly, though, it’d be useful for anyone uninformed (including me) to read good material on how sociological statistics work … Labeling, for instance, can give rise to excuse-making (rightfully and wrongfully).

  • Working wonkishly on the data of problems like these would make for a curious life, I think. From this NYT piece on the infrastructrure in Iraq as a reflection of the country’s state:

    What is clear is that Iraqis’ expectations of a reliable supply of electricity and other services, like their expectations of democracy itself, have exceeded what either Americans or the country’s quarrelling politicians have so far been able to meet. […]

    The United States has spent $5 billion on electrical projects alone, nearly 10 percent of the $53 billion it has devoted to rebuilding Iraq, second only to what it has spent on rebuilding Iraq’s security forces. It has had some effect, but there have also been inefficiency and corruption, as there have been in projects to rebuild schools, water and sewerage systems, roads and ports.

  • Also in the NYT, Wikipedia and the FBI’s spat over Wikipedia’s use of the FBI seal.

    Cindy Cohn, the legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, called the dust-up both “silly” and “troubling”; Wikipedia has a First Amendment right to display the seal, she said.

    “Really,” she added, “I have to believe the F.B.I. has better things to do than this.”

  • A WSJ piece reports on the increased number of illegal immigrant deportations by the Obama Administration.

    Matt Chandler, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said the administration had “fundamentally reformed immigration enforcement using our resources to focus on identifying and removing criminal aliens who pose a threat to public safety.”

    Critics said the administration’s numbers were misleading.

    “It is a misrepresentation to say that these are criminal aliens,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, an immigrant-advocacy group in Los Angeles. “Many are just regular workers driving with broken tail lights or stopped and don’t have a license,” Ms. Salas said.

  • Speaking of illegal immigration (“undocumented workers”?), here’s a college professor explaining how his voluntary work on a small organic farm is apparently illegal because he’s doing it for free.

    I was up at 5 AM, working by 6 AM, and dead tired by noon, but it was a tiredness I could live with and not the mental fatigue that I experience as a college professor. I learned about farming by farming. I believe that all Californians and indeed all Americans could learn about the value of small, organic farms by going to farms to plant, weed, cultivate and harvest. It’s just what our society needs – ordinary citizens getting away from their computers and into the outdoors to work with their hands alongside farmer workers.

    I have to admit that I’ll stick to cutting vines out of my crepe myrtles. The vines have grown back quickly, by the way, as eerily as plant-monsters in a Stephen King story. Think I’ll now have to go after the root of the problem, pun intended. Maybe I’ll present Wifely the root/trunk like a head on a platter.

  • Krugman says in the NYT that the recession isn’t going to get any better without stronger government intervention. Ever since Krugman’s surprise appearance as himself in the otherwise lowbrow comedy flick Get Him to the Greek, I’ve paid his real work special attention. Call me a consumerist defeated by branding — or just call Krugman awesome for having a sense of humor.

  • Indonesia tries to censor Internet porn, but one technical worker trying to implement the government demands finds it “almost an impossible task” — welcome to the Internet. Apparently in response, (horny?) hackers managed to broadcast porn for 15 minutes into the Indonesian Parliament while they were in session. I have some jokes, but I’m trying to keep Babel Krieg PG-13 or so, although parental discretion is always advised.

  • Rachel Maddow, in the context of racial and gender segregation in the military, lectures on the difference between inalienable constitutional rights and mob democracy (originally via Sociological Images):

  • Google has just made it possible to have multiple accounts running at once without complex rigging; for instance, you can have your personal Google Reader account open at the same time as you’re using you and your Wifely’s joint Google Calendar account to schedule a dinner party with cooked lima beans. LifeHacker explains how, and hopefully I’ll soon get around to implementing what for me would be a very useful option. Because someday the lima beans are coming, I bet.

  • Iran’s Supreme Leader says “promoting and teaching [music] is not compatible with the highest values of the sacred regime of the Islamic Republic”; apparently he’s been reading Book X of Plato’s Republic. And by the way, I often link to Boing Boing instead of directly to the source article because 1) you can click through Boing Boing if you want, and 2) the comments on Boing Boing are worthwhile — usually pretty amusing.

  • I’m not an atheist, not really, and I don’t like militant atheism, but this xckd comic is excellent:

    XKCD comic

    Yay for xkcd’s Creative Commons licensing allowing me to easily figure out I could embed the cartoon without running afoul.

  • For its Internet Explorer 8 browser (use Firefox instead!), Microsoft undermined privacy settings for the express purpose of benefiting advertisers. Because advertisements are really improving our society. Right?

  • Publishers Weekly reports that Williams-Sonoma is partnering with Omnivore Books; PW calls it a coup for the indie bookseller.

    Cookware heavy hitter Williams-Sonoma is acknowledging the expertise and power to move books of one independent bookseller. […]

    Williams-Sonoma initiated the partnership

  • The NYT mentions the military using thriller fiction-writers to entertain troops.

  • The blog Oscillatory Thoughts says EEGs were invented to test psychical phenomena.

  • Saudi Arabia joins India and United Arab Emirates in Blackberry-banning efforts. The countries are having a hard time surveiling Blackberry communications; my understanding is that they come by default, for their local drives at least, with unbreakable encryption. The New Yorker has good discussion:

    because the devices are simply too difficult to monitor. It’s as if the Bush administration had come right out and confiscated our home phones because, really, wire-tapping was such a pain. The announcement is a hard-line statement of authority that also sounds oddly like an admission of incompetence.

    One of the more troubling aspects of the story was that the U.A.E. made little attempt to conceal the reason for the ban

    Don’t forget your Fourth Amendment, folks:

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

    It’s unreasonable for governments to surveil the Internet, as they do, regardless of a few people living in caves who sometimes succeed with terrorist attacks. Why? The chilling effect that turns necessary freethinking into thoughtcrime is more destructive of democracy, not to mention individuals; and, remember those databases in the first bullet-point above? What happens when governments’ surveillance of citizens spills its way to the general online public, if unredacted? Furthermore: America, in conformed, frightened obedience, seems to be ditching the notion of warrants altogether. Uh, people? Didn’t you read 1984? The goal of terrorists is to terrorize; victory over terrorism means not being afraid; destroying civil liberties means we’re afraid; ergo, cutting off civil liberties means the terrorists win.

  • A gamer gives a thoughtful response to Roger Ebert’s strong (and also thoughtful) criticism of the notion that video games are art.

  • In 2004 sportscaster Mary Carillo really showed how to fill dead air time, improvising a very clever and surreal imaginary story about backyard badmitton.

  • Sociological Images discusses a NYT article about the intense competition between especially smart Manhattan kids entering public and private … kindergarten.

    Whereas at one time teachers recommended students to these programs, today entrance to both public and private schools for gifted children is dependent entirely on test scores. […]

    The owner of Bright Kids confesses that “the parents of the 120 children her staff tutored [this year] spent an average of $1,000 on test prep for their 4-year-olds.” This, of course, makes admission to schools for the gifted a matter of class privilege as well as intelligence.

  • Tipping tends toward sadly predictable patterns, says a study discussed by The Cornell Daily Sun.

    Though most customers say they reward service, Lynn reports that quality of service has less than a 2-percent effect on the actual tip.

    Instead, he found that waitresses with larger bra sizes received higher tips — as did women with blonde hair and slender bodies.

  • Joan McCarter at the DailyKos says almost every state faces forthcoming, budget-cutting teacher layoffs, some facing layoffs of between 2000-5000 teachers. But Republicans haven’t signed up to vote for a “modest health and education funding bill” that’d help, and neither has conservaDem Ben Nelson.

  • A NYT article discusses the perils of statistically analyzing differences between generations, and some of the consensus that has been reached about my generation (sort of; born in 1982, I’m at a threshold), the Millennials, also known as Generation Y — the current crop of twenty- and thirty-somethings.

    In recent years some have sketched a portrait of the current crop of twenty- and thirty-somethings that is low on greatness and high on traits like entitlement and narcissism. […]

    the Millennials are more tolerant of people of other races and different sexual orientations, research suggests. They appear to be more likely than previous generations to do volunteer work […]

    [But] researchers tend to work with samples, like college students, that are not representative of the generation at large. Nor is it even clear that outside events can alter a person’s fundamental traits by much. […]

    In short: Generation Y’s collective personality, if such a thing exists, is not likely to be much different from other generations’. Still, small differences may matter.

  • NYT discusses an inclusive school district in Madison, and the effects of such inclusion on students with and without autism.

  • A seventh-grader and her genealogist grandfather discover that all USA presidents except one — Van Buren — are distantly related and have a common ancestor: John “Lackland” Plantagenet, a king of England and signer of the Magna Carta. What Van Buren did wrong (or right?), the KSBW article does not say.

  • Matt Zoller Seitz at Salon.com says that though many online anonymous comments are terribly vicious, at least they expose us to the full range of humanity instead of social masks.

  • The Huffington Post interviews James Hynes (Twitter), the novelist behind NEXT. I found this part helpful:

    Hynes: Right from the beginning, I knew Next was going to be a day-in-the-life novel (which, I only just learned, is also called a “circadian novel”), and I knew I’d finally have to read Ulysses all the way through, if only so I could answer questions like this one. I’d tried two or three times before and failed–but manfully, even heroically, with no shame attached. I was the Ernest Shackleton of Ulysses readers. But finally, with the help of a couple of books about Ulysses (one of which was Anthony Burgess’s Re: Joyce, which I recommend), I made it all the way through.

  • Northwestern University, Brain Mysteries says off a press release that “when researchers knew in advance specifics of the planned attacks by the [role-playing] ‘terrorists,’ [the researchers] were able to correlate P300 brain waves to guilty knowledge with 100 percent accuracy in the lab.” I’m not a terrorist, but since this stuff freaks me out in general, pardon me while I go stock up on tin foil.

  • A NYT report on New Delhi police crowdsourcing traffic-coppery via facebook.

  • The NYT says students’ perceptions of plagiarism are blurring in the digital age. Maybe for some, but having worked at a university writing center, I don’t buy it, litcrit about intertextuality notwithstanding … not for most students — except maybe undereducated freshmen. In my admittedly limited experience, students plagiarize because they’re short on time, maybe because of outside employed, but what I not infrequently observed was nothing more than kids wanting to go out and get drunk and party and call that higher education. Meanwhile we have this aggravating piece of barely-disguised bragging from Salon: “I will write your college essay for cash: I’m a broke writer who can’t find a gig in the recession, so I decided to save myself — by helping students cheat.” I cannot abide by this. JuliaCollier has wise, and impressively empathic, words in the Salon comments:

    I know what it’s like to struggle as a freelancer but what you do is dead wrong on so many levels. If you want to stay in the middle class, give up on these $100 cheat fests that are bad for your soul and bad for your clients and bad for your portfolio. Living and working in bad faith is wrong. As a longterm strategy to stay economically viable it’s a waste of time since it will pay for a few days’ rent but can’t be leveraged into progress in your field. Find another career and fast. It’s not going to get better for you as a writer in the years ahead; on this path, you’ll end up broke and soul-sick when you need to have money and a clear conscience when you’re older.