Wednesday, March 31, 2010

8 Bit Cover Of Dark Side Of The Moon

Dan C sent me this.  It is the greatest thing I've ever heard.  Dark Side of the Moon as covered by an 8 bit NES.


Direct downloads:

First track on Youtube:

Court Says President Bush Violated Wiretapping Laws With Warrantless Wiretap
If you haven't been following the fight over the legality of warrantless wiretapping, this case, involving lawyers working with the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, is extremely important. When it was revealed that the Bush administration was wiretapping phonecalls without a warrant, lawsuits were filed -- but the "problem" was that the parties (such as the ACLU) that filed the lawsuits didn't have "standing" because they had no evidence that they, personally, were impacted by the warrantless wiretapping. This created a ridiculous Catch-22 situation. As long as the government hid its illegal activities and never said who it spied on, it could spy on anyone illegally. No one could bring a lawsuit, since there was no proof that they had been impacted by the illegal spying.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

New Litigation Targets 20,000 BitTorrent-Using Downloaders

"The Hollywood Reporter reports that more than 20,000 individual movie torrent downloaders have been sued in the past few weeks in Washington DC federal court for copyright infringement and another lawsuit targeting 30,000 more torrent downloaders on five more films is forthcoming in what could be a test run that opens up the floodgates to massive litigation against the millions of individuals who use BitTorrent to download movies. The US Copyright Group, a company owned by intellectual property lawyers, is using a new proprietary technology by German-based Guardaley IT that allows for real-time monitoring of movie downloads on torrents. According to Thomas Dunlap, a lawyer at the firm, the program captures IP addresses based on the time stamp that a download has occurred and then checks against a spreadsheet to make sure the downloading content is the copyright protected film and not a misnamed film or trailer. 'We're creating a revenue stream and monetizing the equivalent of an alternative distribution channel,' says Jeffrey Weaver, another lawyer at the firm."
The difference between the MPAA's past approach and the new one being offered by the US Copyright Group is that the MPAA took a less targeted approach going after a smaller sampling of infringers in a single suit for multiple films, to send a message. In contrast, the US Copyright Group is using the new monitoring technology to go after tens of thousands of infringers at a time on a contingency basis in hopes of coming up with the right cost-benefit incentive to pursue individual pirates."
1. Media companies begin using lawsuits as a revenue stream.
2. Since only a small fraction of people are paying the amount paid must be very high.
3. There is a small chance of having to pay a large sum of money.
4. People begin taking out insurance policies to protect from the rare but large payouts.
5. ???
6. Profit!

The Cybersecurity Act of 2009 Passes Senate Panel

"The Cybersecurity Act of 2009 passed a Senate panel, giving the president unprecedented power to issue a nation-wide blackout or restriction on websites without congressional approval. The bill, written by Sen. Jay Rockefeller [D-WV] and revised by Sen. Olympia Snow [R-ME], was drafted in an attempt to thwart internet-based terrorist threats, and gives the president this 'kill switch' without oversight or explanation. The bill is up in for Senate vote."

Friday, March 26, 2010

Correlation Between Gun Laws and Deaths?

Gun laws are a subject many people feel strongly about, and as with any subject people feel strongly about there are no shortage of data and statistics that seem to support either side.  I decided to look into any correlation I could find between gun laws and deaths in the US.  Just like with political parties and deficit spending I didn't really have any expectations, but would probably guess that there wasn't much correlation.

Before I go any further I'll pretend like it is necessary to give a brief background on my stance on guns in general.  I've never owned a gun, and don't really have any strong desire to own one.  On the other hand I was in the Marines for 4 years and certainly am not uncomfortable around guns (I literally slept with a rifle for 22 days straight).  I am opposed to gun laws as I believe the largest threat to our society is government itself.  A well armed populace will be harder to subjugate.  A slight increase in deaths would be worth adding a layer of protection of our basic freedoms.  I'm also a big fan of personal freedoms, and I think people should be free to make decisions for themselves.  I think most of the opposition to guns in general comes from people that simply don't like guns because they are scared of them, and not because of any rational reason.

I've seen both sides of the gun control debate claim statistics support their side.  I'd like to think I'm being as impartial here as possible (as opposed to most people, who think they are biased).  I decided to do this comparison after I read this web page, which implies a correlation between Brady score and murders.  The Brady Campaign is an anti-gun group; they give each state a score 0-100 based on how strict its gun laws are.  I'll use their scores as a gauge of how strict gun laws are.  It is simply the only convenient measure I can think of, and I think it is likely to fairly accurate.

The first problem though is what to compare the score to.  This is likely the first place people looking to make statistics support their cause will diverge.  There are a number of different stats that could be used, all of which would appear similar to a causal inspection.  Deaths from guns are sure to higher in states with more guns.  Deaths from X are sure to be higher in states with more X.  On the other hand it is no secret that the upper New England states have both some of the laxist gun laws and lowest crime rates out of any states in the Union.

It is important to remember the old adage: "Correlation does not imply causation".  If it turned out that states with less gun laws tended to have less crime it wouldn't necessarily mean that the lack of gun laws caused the lesser crime.  Rather, it could be that the lesser crime caused the lack of gun laws, or that some third unknown variable caused them both.  Of course, it could be that the lack of gun laws did cause the reduction in crime.  The point is that if you do discover a correlation it is a starting point, not an ending point.  You need to find out what is causing the correlation.  You can't just assume that one thing causes the other.

I grabbed a bunch of different stats and found the correlation for all of them.  I got the data from here:
I then popped them into OpenOffice Calc, and used the correlation function, which "Returns the Pearson correlation coefficient of two sets of data".  If you don't know what correlation coefficient is, it is a number that ranges from -1 to 1 and tells how strongly related two sets of data are.  A correlation of 0 means no relation at all, while 1 means completely dependent.  In practice anything < 0.1 is no correlation, 0.1 to 0.3 is small, 0.3 to 0.5 is medium, and 0.5 to 1.0 is large.  A correlation of -1 is also completely dependent but in the opposite direction.  For our data this means that as the number gets closer to 1 there is a connection between a high score (stricter gun laws) and a higher whatever rate.  As the number gets closer to -1 it means there is a connection between higher score and lower whatever rate.  Since we are generally measuring something negative (murder, robbery) this effectively means that closer to -1 supports gun control, while closer to 1 supports gun freedom.

Here are the correlation results:
More Lax Gun Laws
Gun Deaths-0.545
Property Crime-0.219
Murder Rate-0.029
Serious Assault-0.025
Gun Murder Rate-0.001
Violent Crime0.020
Motor Vehicle Theft0.216
Murders Total0.434
Population Total0.476
More Strict Gun Laws

First allow me to explain some of the categories "Gun Deaths" is the only one that doesn't come from Wikipedia.  Based on the description from the site it appears to be exactly what it sounds like, all deaths from a gun, accidental or intentional.  I would guess "Rape" is only forcible rape (and not statutory rape), although the Wikipedia page doesn't specify that.  All of them are the per capita rates, except the last two, "Murders Total", and "Population Total".

What does the data tell us?  It should be no surprise that as the number of guns increase the number of deaths from them increase as well.  The pro gun counter would be that the increase in accidental deaths would be countered by the decrease in murders.  The rape one is interesting.  However, the fact that the rest of the violent crimes are so close to 0 leads me to believe that it is arbitrary.  The property crimes are pretty much meaningless.  You'd be hard pressed to convince me that an increase in guns somehow leads to an increase in burglary or larceny.  Yet there is a clear small to medium correlation between the two.  If nothing else this should show how meaningless these connections are.

Then come the big four.  Murders, Serious Assaults, Gun Murders, and Violent Crimes.  They are all amazingly close to 0.  I wouldn't have guessed there would be so little correlation, negative or positive, between violent crimes and gun laws.  I doubt gun laws have any effect on car theft so, like rape, I'd guess that is just noise.  Robbery is fairly high, I suppose it is possible that the fact that a potential victim could be armed could be deterring some robberies.  Perhaps it is distinct from the other violent crimes in that if someone is going to murder someone else a gun won't stop them; while if they are only looking for some money the thought of getting into an armed conflict may stop them.  Still I'd lean towards just random chance or some other factor as the reason.

The last two, "Murders Total" and "Population Total" don't mean much as far as gun laws and murder go.  It's no secret that as population goes up so do murders.  The only mildly interesting thing here is that there is a clear correlation between high population states and stricter gun laws.  Really though, that shouldn't be a surprise either.

So in summary it would seem gun laws have little correlation with violent crimes.  Feel free to distort and skew these results to fit whatever your pet beliefs are.

First Anti-Cancer Nanoparticle Trial on Humans a Success

"Nanoparticles have been able to disable cancerous cells in living human bodies for the first time. The results are perfect so far, killing tumors with no side effects whatsoever. Mark Davis, project leader at CalTech, says that 'it sneaks in, evades the immune system, delivers the siRNA, and the disassembled components exit out.' Truly amazing."

Facebook Goes After Greasemonkey Script Developer

"The popular Facebook Purity greasemonkey script (now renamed Fluff Buster Purity) has been used by thousands to rid their Facebook feeds from the likes of Mafia Wars, Farmville, and other annoying things. Now, Facebook is threatening the developer of this script. Does Facebook have the right to govern their website's design and functionality once it's in the browser?"

A shrewd business move, generate tons a bad publicity and accomplish nothing.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937
The Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937, frequently called the court-packing plan, was a legislative initiative to add more justices to the Supreme Court proposed by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt shortly after his victory in the 1936 presidential election. Although the bill aimed generally to overhaul and modernize all of the federal court system, its central and most controversial provision would have granted the President power to appoint an additional Justice to the U.S. Supreme Court for every sitting member over the age of 70½, up to a maximum of six.

During Roosevelt's first term in office, the Supreme Court had struck down several prominent New Deal measures intended to bolster economic recovery during the Great Depression, leading to charges from New Deal supporters that a narrow majority faction of the court was obstructionist and political. Since the U.S. Constitution does not limit the size of the Supreme Court, Roosevelt, having won an expanded electoral mandate in his reelection, sought to counter this entrenched opposition to his political agenda by expanding the number of justices to create a pro-New Deal majority on the bench. Opponents viewed the legislation as an attempt to stack the court leading to the name "Court-packing Plan".

Bill Would Require Public Information To Be Online

"A bill that was introduced in the US House of Representatives last week would require all Executive Branch agencies to publish public information on the Internet in a timely fashion and in user-friendly formats. The Public Online Information Act would also establish an advisory committee to help craft Internet publication policies for the entire US government, including Congress and the Supreme Court. Citizens would have a limited, private right of action to compel the government to release public information online, though common sense exceptions (similar to those for FOIA) would remain in place."

Two questions.  Why wasn't this done 10 years ago?  Why does it only apply to the executive?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Copyrights, Patents, and Trademarks

There is a lot of confusion over copyrights, patents, and trademarks.  I'll attempt to explain them somewhat, as well as rant on how things should be.  I'll start by explaining each:

Trademark is probably the least important to most people.  The purpose of trademarks is to ensure that when someone buys something they know who they are buying it from.  They protect logos and brands for an indefinite time.  In order to get trademark protection you pretty much have to start using the logo for commerce.  Later, if someone else tries to use the same name or symbol you can sue them.  Trademarks can be generic words (Apple, Delta, or Shell), but the word can't be connected to the industry.  You couldn't get a trademark for "computer" for a company selling computers.  You probably could get it if you sold fruit (the opposite case of Apple).  Also multiple entities can trademark the same word, as long as they are totally different industries.  You could probably start a car company called Apple and trademark it.

As said above, trademarks last forever, as long as they are used and defended.  You must defend your trademark if others try to use it.  If you fail to sue people using your trademark then you will lose legal protection.  The question to ask yourself in regards to trademark is this, "when people hear X in relation to industry Y, do they think of this specific brand?" If a brand becomes too well know, and becomes synonymous with that item then it becomes a genericized trademark and can lose its protection.  Some examples from Wikipedia, Aspirin - Bayer AG, Escalator - Otis Elevator Company, Zipper - B.F. Goodrich, Kerosene - Abraham Gesner, Heroin - Friedrich Bayer & Co, Videotape - Ampex Corporation.  However, not all genericized trademarks have lost their protection.  Examples again from Wikipedia, Band-Aid (Adhesive bandage) - Johnson & Johnson, ChapStick (Lip balm) - Wyeth Consumer Healthcare, Frisbee (flying disc) - Wham-O, Jell-O (Gelatin dessert) - Kraft Foods, Post-its (Sticky notes) - 3M.

Patents typically apply to physical objects or inventions.  Their purpose is to encourage people to disclose the workings of their inventions, by giving them a monopoly for a limited time, after which all may benefit from having the workings known.  The way a patent works is you come up with some new way of doing something, then you submit the details of the process to the patent office and receive a patent.  If someone else comes along and copies your idea then you can sue them and win, as long as you can prove they likely copied your idea.  Out of the three, patents are the only ones that require registration to enforce.  You must detail the workings in order to receive a patent, so that when the patent expires others may use your idea and build upon it.  As opposed to what I implied above you can patent abstract ideas and processes, those patents are usually rubbish.

Copyright is the big one today.  Copyright has a similar concept to patents, it gives the creator an incentive to create by granting them a limited monopoly.  However, since things that should be copyrighted are media you don't have to disclose anything.  If you write a book the text of the book is copyrighted, you don't have to submit the text for a copyright because everyone will have access to it if they have the book.  You don't have to submit for a copyright, everything you create automatically has one.  However, getting a formal copyright will make it easier to prove your creation in court, and increase the damages you can collect.

So now that I've explained how they work, it is time to explain the way things should be.  Trademarks, for the most part, are fine as they are today.  Patents are pretty good as well.  The current term  in the US is 25 years, which is a bit too long.  I would rather it be 10 years, with the ability to renew for another 10 years, for a maximum of 20 years.  The fee for the first 10 years should be rather small ($25), however the second 10 years should require much more ($500).  It would only make sense to renew patents on things that actually were worth something.  Patents on abstract things are usually worthless, however not always.  The key is having experts in the fields to review the patent requests and reject them if they are attempting to patent something obvious to someone in the field.

Copyrights, however, are a mess.  For a work created today in the US it will be protected for the creator's entire life plus 70 years.  Or if created by a non human entity it will be 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation whichever is shorter.  What possible added incentive to create could there be in knowing your work will be protected for 70 years after you die?  If something you create is still profitable after a few decades then it was profitable enough to make any additional incentive meaningless.  It is absurd to think that Led Zeppelin wouldn't have made their music if they knew they would get less than a century of protection for it.  You can't legitimately argue that 20 years of monopoly on a work isn't enough to cover all the costs and provide a massive profit (as long as people are willing to pay).  Allowing people to earn money on something that was created before they were alive only prevents those people from having to create things of their own.  Why should any media company bother to create new works when they can just earn money for things created decades ago?

Copyright should be the same as patents, 10 years, with an optional 10 year renewal.  The difference being that the first 10 year period would be automatic, as it is now.  The second 10 year period would still cost a larger sum ($500), and require submitting for copyright.  Under this system anything made prior to 1990 would be public domain today.  Can you honestly argue that if this system were in place, that people and companies would have been less likely to create new works in the 1980's, knowing that they could only milk them for 20 years?

Also you should only be able to patent or copyright something which has actual scientific or artistic worth.  You shouldn't be able to copyright a business card, a sign, or a 128 bit number.  Likewise software doesn't belong in the copyright group.  The source code to a program can't be compared to something like a book, or picture.  It is more accurately compared to something like a blueprint.  Thus software should be patented and not copyrighted.  In order to get a patent on a program you'd have to submit the full source code.  Then in 10 or 20 years when the patent ran out that source code would be known for others to use.

You may be asking if there is really any benefit to society to letting people build on others' works.  As an example look at Disney, every story they have is based on a public domain work.  The irony here is that Disney is one of the biggest reason why we have such absurd copyright terms now.  Since they make the bulk of their money from stuff that was created long ago they have a very strong interest in extending copyrights forever.

These large companies have created the term "intellectual property" to cover trademarks, patents, and copyrights.  The idea is that creative works are somehow property which should last forever.  Just like if you build a house that house will remain yours forever, they think a copyright should last forever.  The key difference here is that a house a real object.  I can't enjoy the house without depriving you of it.  On the other hand a creative work can be enjoyed by everyone at once.  The purpose of copyright is just to give the creator a way to make some money from it, so they have some reason to create it in the first place.

We will never have copyright reform though.  One the major industries the US exports is this "intellectual property", thus it has an interest in extending its legal protections throughout the world.  This is the reason why we have such lengthy copyright terms now.  It is also the reason the US is pushing so hard for ACTA.

Switzerland Passes Violent Games Ban

"Sadly, Switzerland has now passed the law that paves the way for an outright ban on violent video games in the country. The full implications of the ruling will not be known until the government reveals the exact requirements that will be laid down by the new legislation – a decision that has not yet been made. What is certain though is that the Swiss authorities have now obtained the power to introduce any measures they see fit. The likeliest outcome seems to be an outright ban on the production, distribution and sale of any games deemed to be unsuitable – most likely anything with either a PEGI 16+ or PEGI 18+ certificate."

Edit: It would seem this isn't a law yet.  It is merely the first step in the direction of a law.

Canada's Top Court Quashes Child Porn Warrant

"The CBC is reporting that the Supreme Court of Canada has handed down a decision quashing a search warrant used to obtain the computer of a man accused of possession of child porn. 'Urbain P. Morelli maintained his charter rights were violated when police searched his computer for child pornography after a technician who had visited his home to work on the machine expressed concerns to police.' What the Slashdot community may find notable about this decision is the distinction drawn between 'accessing' and 'possessing' digital images, most particularly the recognition that a user does not 'possess' cached data. From the decision: '[35] When accessing Web pages, most Internet browsers will store on the computer's own hard drive a temporary copy of all or most of the files that comprise the Web page. This is typically known as a "caching function" and the location of the temporary, automatic copies is known as the "cache." While the configuration of the caching function varies and can be modified by the user, cached files typically include images and are generally discarded automatically after a certain number of days, or after the cache grows to a certain size. [36] On my view of possession, the automatic caching of a file to the hard drive does not, without more, constitute possession. While the cached file might be in a "place" over which the computer user has control, in order to establish possession, it is necessary to satisfy mens rea or fault requirements as well. Thus, it must be shown that the file was knowingly stored and retained through the cache.'"

Before you praise Canada for having common sense keep this story in mind:
A man got the minimum sentence of 14 days in jail Thursday for possessing child pornography — stories about sex involving teen girls and incest he wrote himself and never tried to publish or share. 
Thomas has to submit a DNA sample to the national registry and will be a registered sex offender for a decade.
During a two-year probation order, he has to take any treatment suggested by a psychiatrist, stay off the Internet and away from girls under 18 without supervision

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Why Three Prongs
If you were to build your own electric power distribution system, you'd quickly discover some unexpected and strange effects. Sometimes your customers' appliances would fail for no apparent reason. And sometimes when you reached for a light switch, a foot-long spark would leap out to your hand and knock you senseless! What the heck?! It takes a huge DC voltage to make a foot-long spark. Why are high DC voltages appearing on your AC power lines?
This is a repost, but I felt it was relevant as it does a really good job of explaining electrical systems, and 100% of my readership is currently buying a house with old electrical wiring.
Also this Slashdot story on different countries' plugs has a lengthy nerdy discussion of electrical systems in the comments.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Court Says Parents Can Block PA "Sexting" Prosecutions

"In the first federal appeals court opinion dealing with 'sexting,' a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled Wednesday that parents could block the prosecution of their children on child pornography charges for appearing in photographs found on some classmates' cellphones. Miller vs. Mitchell (PDF) began in 2008 when school officials in Tunkhannock, Pa., discovered seminude and nude photographs of some female students on other student's phones. George Skumanick Jr., the DA at the time, said the students and their parents could be prosecuted if they did not participate in an after-school 'education program.' The unanimous ruling of the judges, Thomas L. Ambro, Michael A. Chagares and Walter K. Stapleton, criticized the district attorney's reliance on the girls' presence in the photographs as a basis for the potential charges. 'Appearing in a photograph provides no evidence as to whether that person possessed or transmitted the photo,' said the opinion, by Judge Ambro."

Note that they didn't say that arresting people for taking pictures of themselves was insane.  Rather that people being in cell phone pictures wasn't proof they took them.  Either way this is a great quote from the DA:

"Participation in the program is voluntary," the letter said. "Please note, however, charges will be filed against those that do not participate or those that do not successfully complete the program."

I mean I guess in that sense everything is voluntary.  "That guy voluntarily gave me his wallet, I just let him know that if he didn't I'd shoot him."

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

This Is Why Cats Make Good Pets
And by "good pets" I mean ruthless assassins.

5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted

He invented the "Skinner Box," a cage containing a small animal that, for instance, presses a lever to get food pellets.

If you want to make him press the lever as fast as possible, how would you do it? Not by giving him a pellet with every press--he'll soon relax, knowing the pellets are there when he needs them. No, the best way is to set up the machine so that it drops the pellets at random intervals of lever pressing. He'll soon start pumping that thing as fast as he can. Experiments prove it.

They call these "Variable Ratio Rewards" in Skinner land and this is the reason many enemies "drop" valuable items totally at random in WoW. This is addictive in exactly the same way a slot machine is addictive. You can't quit now because the very next one could be a winner. Or the next. Or the next.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Scientology Tries To Block German Documentary

"The Guardian is reporting on the strained relationship that Scientology is having with the German government and the airing of a pesky documentary on Southwest Broadcasting. Until Nothing Remains, a $2.3 million documentary, is slotted to air on German television at the end of this month. It recounts the true story of Heiner von Rönn and his family's suffering when he tried to leave the Church of Scientology. A Scientology spokesperson called the film false and intolerant and also said they are investigating legal means to stop the film from being aired. More details on the film can be gleaned here."

Obama Backs MPAA, RIAA, and ACTA

"In a move sure to surprise no one, Obama has come out on the side of the MPAA/RIAA and has backed the ACTA: 'We're going to aggressively protect our intellectual property,' Obama said in his speech, 'Our single greatest asset is the innovation and the ingenuity and creativity of the American people [...] It is essential to our prosperity and it will only become more so in this century. But it's only a competitive advantage if our companies know that someone else can't just steal that idea and duplicate it with cheaper inputs and labor.'"

Saturday, March 13, 2010


Every year for the last couple years I celebrate Pi Day by eating a pie at 1:59 on 3/14.  Pi Day this year is this Sunday.  If you are going for Pi minute too make sure you set your clock for DST, least you anger the gods.

Pi Day and Pi Approximation Day are two holidays held to celebrate the mathematical constant π (pi) (in the mm/dd date notation: 3/14); since 3, 1 and 4 are the first three digits of π. March 14 is also the birthday of Albert Einstein and the two events are sometimes celebrated together.

Sometimes Pi Minute is also celebrated; this occurs on March 14 at 1:59 p.m. If π is truncated to seven decimal places, it becomes 3.1415926; making March 14 at 1:59:26 p.m., Pi Second (or sometimes March 14, 1592 at 6:53:58 a.m.).

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Sad Day For the New Zealand Internet

"Another one bites the dust, as New Zealand's Internet filter stealthily goes live with two smaller ISPs, and three of the largest already rumoured to have signed up to do the same. However, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is apparently 'committed to helping people to circumvent government internet filtering,' so perhaps the USA will launch an invasion to free the poor downtrodden Kiwis from their own evil government?"

An Early Look At Civilization V

"IGN and Gamespot have each released a preview of the recently announced and eagerly awaited Civilization V. Apart from the obvious new hexagon shape of tiles and improved graphics, the articles go on to outline some of the major changes in the game, such as updated AI, new 'flavors' to world leaders, and a potentially game-changing, one-unit-per-tile system. No more will the stack of doom come to your city's doorsteps. Some features which will not be returning are religion and espionage. The removal of these two have sparked a frenzy of discussion on fan-related forums."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Value of BASIC As a First Programming Language
"Computer-science legend Edsger W. Dijkstra famously wrote: 'It is practically impossible to teach good programming to students that have had a prior exposure to BASIC: as potential programmers they are mentally mutilated beyond hope of regeneration.' The Reinvigorated Programmer argues that the world is full of excellent programmers who cut their teeth on BASIC, and suggests it could even be because they started out with BASIC."

Blind hatred of anything is usually a bad thing.  A common question is, what is the best first programming language for someone to learn?  I say it depends on who is learning.  If someone is learning how to program because they intend to become a professional programmer, then I'd have to say C or Perl would be the best place to start.  In fact I'd argue anyone aiming to professionally program should learn them regardless of what they eventually plan to use.  They both lay the ground work for their respective types of language.  However, not everyone that learns to program will ever do it professionally; in fact, most won't.  The hatred of BASIC and GOTOs comes from professional programmers that have to maintain code that was horribly written.  It makes sense they would grow to hate BASIC for making it so easy to self teach programming (and along with it these bad habits)

But at the end of the day professional programmers don't rule the world, and our every choice isn't done so as to make life most convenient to them.  The ability to make simple quick and easy programs to automate tasks is an invaluable skill.  I have never, and likely never will, had a job that required professional programming.  Yet, programming has saved me countless hours automating tasks that others did by hand.  The ability to manipulate large chunks of data in minutes or hours instead of days or weeks is simply beyond description.  I don't think I can overstate just how great of a skill basic programming is for anyone that uses a computer; it borders on magic.

The key about BASIC is that it is simply so easy to learn.  Anyone with a basic understanding of algebra, a bit of patience and curiosity, and some intelligence can go from not knowing what programming is, to making useful programs in a week of free time.  Read some QBASIC code; it reads like English.  There are almost no characters you wouldn't see in math or English.

Now I realize that few people know if they will be professionally programming later on in life when they first learn to program.  However, it doesn't matter.  Later when it becomes clear that they want to do that as a career they can start to learn a real language.  If they are unable to unlearn what they picked up in BASIC and relearn what is needed then they likely wouldn't have been a good programmer regardless of first language.  I'll admit that it may add some extra work to the learning, but I'll argue that it is worth it for the ease with which people can learn to program for personal use.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

European Parliament Declaring War Against ACTA

"The European Parliament is preparing to take on ACTA. A joint resolution (DOC) has been tabled by the major EP parties that threatens to go to court unless things change. The EP is calling for public access to negotiation texts and rules out further confidential negotiations. Moreover, the EP wants a ban on imposing a three-strikes model, assurances that ACTA will not result in personal searches at the border, and an ACTA impact assessment on fundamental rights and data protection."

NSA Still Ahead In Crypto, But Not By Much

"Network World summarizes an RSA Conference panel discussion in which former NSA technical director Brian Snow said that cryptographers for the NSA have been losing ground to their counterparts in universities and commercial security vendors for 20 years, but still maintain the upper hand in the sophistication of their crypto schemes and in their ability to decrypt. 'I do believe NSA is still ahead, but not by much — a handful of years,' says Snow. 'I think we've got the edge still.' Snow added that that in the 1980s there was a huge gap between what the NSA could do and what commercial encryption technology was capable of. 'Now we are very close together and moving very slowly forward in a mature field.' The NSA has one key advantage (besides their deep staff of Ph.D. mathematicians and other cryptographic experts who work on securing traffic and breaking codes): 'We cheat. We get to read what [academics] publish. We do not publish what we research,' he said. Snow's claim of NSA superiority seemed to rankle some members on the panel. Adi Shamir, the "S" in the RSA encryption algorithm, said that when the titles of papers in NSA technical journals were declassified up to 1983, none of them included public key encryption; 'That demonstrates that NSA was behind,' said Shamir. Snow replied that when technologies are developed separately in parallel, the developers don't necessarily use the same terms for them."

US Immigration Bill May Bring a National Biometric ID Card

"Lawmakers working to craft a new comprehensive immigration bill have settled on a way to prevent employers from hiring illegal immigrants: a national biometric identification card all American workers would eventually be required to obtain. Under the potentially controversial plan still taking shape in the Senate, all legal US workers, including citizens and immigrants, would be issued an ID card with embedded information, such as fingerprints, to tie the card to the worker. ... A person familiar with the legislative planning said the biometric data would likely be either fingerprints or a scan of the veins in the top of the hand. It would be required of all workers, including teenagers, but would be phased in, with current workers needing to obtain the card only when they next changed jobs, the person said. The card requirement also would be phased in among employers, beginning with industries that typically rely on illegal-immigrant labor."

Ignoring the questions of why the Federal Government thinks it has the authority to do this, and if it is even a bad thing to have non US citizens working in the US, I'd like to know why this is more secure than SS card + drivers license?  Protip: The same employers that aren't checking SS card + driver license now aren't going to check this.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Ultimate Frisbee

Last fall I became obsessed with a game called ultimate, aka ultimate frisbee or frisbee football.  We stopped playing for the winter, but now, with warmer temperatures and later sunsets we will be playing again.

Here's my summary of the game. Both team starts in their endzones, and throw the disc to the other team (known as a 'pull' similar to kick off). You can't run with the disc, you have to throw it to someone. If the disc is dropped there is a turnover. You can only hold on to the disc for 10 seconds, but that must be counted out load by a player within 10 feet of you. If you fail to get rid of the disc before 10 is counted there is a turnover. There is no contact, and any time there is contact that interferes with play a foul may be called.  A point is scored when you catch a pass in the other endzone.  We generally play to 5 points, then change up teams.

It's a pretty fast paced game that is surprisingly exhausting.

Picture summary:

This is a good summary of the rules:

More in depth rules plus basic strategy:

Pretty sweet rules flow chart, answers questions about what happens if...

Official UPA 11th edition rules:

There are a couple different types of throws, Youtube is great for learning these:

Buy some discs:


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Officials Sue Couple Who Removed Their Lawn

"The LA Times reports that Orange County officials are locked in a legal battle with a couple accused of violating city ordinances for replacing the grass on their lawn with wood chips and drought-tolerant plants, reducing their water usage from 299,221 gallons in 2007 to 58,348 gallons in 2009. The dispute began two years ago, when Quan and Angelina Ha tore out the grass in their front yard. In drought-plagued Southern California, the couple said, the lush grass had been soaking up tens of thousands of gallons of water — and hundreds of dollars — each year. 'We've got a newborn, so we want to start worrying about her future,' said Quan Ha, an information technology manager for Kelley Blue Book. But city officials told the Has they were violating several city laws that require that 40% of residential yards to be landscaped predominantly with live plants. Last summer, the couple tried to appease the city by building a fence around the yard and planting drought-tolerant greenery — lavender, rosemary, horsetail, and pittosporum, among others. But according to the city, their landscaping still did not comply with city standards. At the end of January, the Has received a letter saying they had been charged with a misdemeanor violation and must appear in court. The couple could face a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for their grass-free, eco-friendly landscaping scheme. 'It's just funny that we pay our taxes to the city and the city is now prosecuting us with our own money,' says Quan Ha."

Note this isn't one of those terrible HOAs it's the county government.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

German Data Retention Law Ruled Unconstitutional

"The German Federal Constitutional Court has ruled the country's current data retention law unconstitutional. All stored telephone and email communication data, previously kept for six months in case it was needed by law enforcement, now must be deleted as soon as possible. The court criticized the lack of data security and insufficient restrictions for access to the data. The president of the court said continuing to retain the data would 'cause a diffusely threatening feeling of being under observation that can diminish an unprejudiced perception of one's basic rights in many areas.' While it doesn't disallow data retention in general, the imposed restriction demands a complete reworking of the law." An anonymous reader contributes the Court's press release and more information on the ruling, both in German.

It seems that just about every country has both great reasonable policies and horrible inspired by fear policies.  Just about any area you can think up has at least one nation that did it right, and one that does it wrong.  The problem is no country does everything right.