Monday, June 28, 2010

A little taste of the future

Lauren Weinstein called out a proposal last Friday by the White House called National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace. I haven't read through it yet, but it's certain to be interesting. I'll post some impressions when I have gone through it. I'm eagerly awaiting commentary by Bruce Schneier and Ed Felten.

This could turn out to be a defining moment for the internet.

What's at issue here is how you are defined as an individual on the internet. How does anybody know you are you? Do they know you're a dog? Sometimes it doesn't matter. Sometimes it does. If you're trying to purchase something online, it seems reasonable for the other party to want to be certain that you are not a mugger who stole your credit card (and for you to want to be certain that you are communicating with a legitimate merchant and not a fake web site). If you're a whistleblower, it seems reasonable for you to wish to hide your identity. If you are a stalker, it seems reasonable for law enforcement to have the capacity to identify you despite pains you may have taken to hide your identity. The ability of the merchant and law enforcement to identify you unambiguously may be in direct opposition to the whistleblower's need for anonymity.

At this point, as I understand it, the proposal claims to be voluntary for "the public". Of course, once the infrastructure is in place, the foot is in the door and it becomes easier to turn it into a legal matter to mandate it for all internet access.

Which is why we should pay attention now.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Good Omens

Just got done listening to a fantastic audiobook, Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. And because the narration is so awesome, I'll mention it was narrated by Martin Jarvis.

I was first introduced to Terry Pratchett's work reading The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents to Annapurna a few years ago. It is one of my favorite kid books.

Pratchett's sense of humor and lovely, light voice are a pleasure to read. It has a distinctly Wodehouse/Douglas Adams feel. But he has more to say, a deeper philosophical message than either Wodehouse or Adams. (I say "Pratchett" though it is co-authored with Gaiman...I haven't read Gaiman, but there is a strong Pratchett feel, and I've read that he did most of the actual writing.)

Good Omens is, if you can believe it, a farcical rendering of the days leading up to Armageddon. There are two things you need to know about this story. First, Pratchett is a fairly vocal humanist. Second, the story was published in 1990, which is around the time that the Soviet Union was breaking up, and no one knew which way it was going to go. Though the story does not directly refer to the unfolding world drama, the parallels are obvious in the interaction between the two main earth-based agents of Armageddon: angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley. Through their scheming conversations, Gaiman and Pratchett manage to pose many deep philosophical questions about entrenched mindless animosities, good vs. evil, theodicy (God's goodness in the face of evil), the intentions of creation, innateness vs. acquisition of evil, determinism vs. free will, etc.

In this story, it seems that the "Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan and Lord of Darkness" is mistakenly placed at birth in a stuffy middle class British family (think of a dad somewhat like Hyacinth Bucket), instead of with a US ambassador, where he could have gotten up to a lot of good mischief. Neither side realizes the mistake until it becomes apparent that none of the expected harbingers of the apocalypse are appearing in the vicinity of the putative Spawn. It then becomes a race between Aziraphale and Crowley on one side, trying to save the Earth they have come to enjoy, versus the assembled hosts of heaven and hell who are determined to have it out.
And meandering through the text we have the "nice and accurate predictions of Agnes Nutter", a book full of correct but cryptic (and ultimately pointless) predictions from the seventeenth century, including the actual location of the actual Spawn.

The book mainly pokes fun at the concept of "our side vs. their side" and the myriad ways in which people have found to misunderstand and abuse it. There is a theme of tolerance that seems to pervade Pratchett's work, at least as much as I've read. Which is another reason I like it so much.

And finally, I will say this is one of the best audio renditions I've listened to lately. Jarvis is brilliant at creating distinct (and funny) voices and accents for each of the characters. The only one that I found a little off was that of the young Spawn, but I suspect there was a deliberate decision to make him sound like his stuffy adoptive father, rather than the 11 year old boy leader he is supposed to be. And interestingly, he puts on an American accent for the characters War and Pollution (two horsemen of the apocalypse), though as far as I could tell there is nothing in the text that calls for this.

Listen to the book.