Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 books

Just as a prompt to my own memory, I'm going to list the books I've read in 2010, in more-or-less chronological order. It's been a very good year. Some real winners in there, and even most of the non-winners were quite good (unlike 2009 which was, for the most part, a disappointment)

X=Stay away
  • The Brothers Karamazov: Dostoevsky
  • Things Fall Apart: Chinua Achebe
  • X Snuff: Chuck Palahniuk (audiobook)
  • * The White Tiger: Aravind Adiga (my review here)
  • Ethan Frome: Edith Wharton (my review here)
  • * An Enemy of the People: Henrik Ibsen (my review here)
  • Hedda Gabler: Henrik Ibsen
  • * Fear of Flying: Erica Jong (I'd read it maybe 20 something years's so much more meaningful now :-)
  • The Wild Duck: Henrik Ibsen
  • X Lovers' Vows: Elizabeth Inchbald (my review here)
  • * Good Omens: Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (audiobook) (Probably the most fun read I had this year -- my review here)
  • X The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: David Wroblewski (audiobook)
  • Herland: Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • For the Win: Cory Doctorow (I'd put this as a * if you're willing to put up with a lot of discussion about computer gaming -- excellent intro for teens to a lot of economic concepts -- Annapurna loved it; very thought provoking)
  • Unaccustomed Earth: Jhumpa Lahiri (audiobook)
  • Up in Honey's Room: Elmore Leonard (audiobook)
  • The Graveyard Book: Neil Gaiman (audiobook)
  • * Remarkable Creatures: Tracy Chevalier (audiobook) (my review here)
  • X High Plains Tango: Robert James Waller (audiobook) (I'm a little hesitant to put an X -- there was a lot I liked in this one, but...where was the editor???)
  • The Odyssey: Homer, via Butler (with Annapurna)
  • Delivered from Distraction: Edward Hallowell and John Ratey (I'd put this as a *, but it's really for the ADD/ADHD crowd)
  • The Lady and the Unicorn: Tracy Chevalier (audiobook)
  • The Mission Song: John LeCarre (audiobook)
  • Disobedience: Jane Hamilton (audiobook)
  • Helen: Euripides, via E.P. Coleridge
  • X A Way With Words IV: Understanding Poetry: Michael Drout (audiobook) - Very focused on the syntactic, and organized purely chronologically...very shopping list feel to it.
  • Babbitt: Sinclair Lewis (audiobook)
  • Tropic of Capricorn: Henry Miller (audiobook) (Not sure I can really claim to have read this one...the prose is lovely, but it's only marginally easier to follow than Quentin's portion of The Sound and the Fury -- I confess my mind wandered more than a little.)
  • Northanger Abbey: Jane Austen (for only about the 3rd's my second least favorite Austen)
  • Ghosts: Henrik Ibsen
  • The History of Tom Jones, a foundling: Henry Fielding (I'd put this as a * if you're willing to put up with 18th Century-speak)
  • A Mercy: Toni Morrison (audiobook) (This one could probably stand another round of reading, to really say I've read it. It's got a fairly complex structure. And it's a little hard to follow on audio for two reasons: first, the narrative keeps shifting points of view, without much of a cue; second, it is read by Morrison, herself, with a lovely poetic voice, but with phrase breaks that made it hard for me to parse.
  • How to Read and Understand Poetry (audiobook): Willard Spiegelman, via The Teaching Company (I liked this one much better than the one by Michael Drout, though I'm still stumped)
  • About 6 zillion OMB memoranda and NIST Special Publications from the 800 series...especially 800-53 (Many are quite good, really -- highly recommended if you're in the IT Security business, or even just IT.)
  • Neuromancer: William Gibson -- just haven't been able to get into this's been recommended to me several times...I'll keep trying
  • Nuclear Jellyfish: Tim Dorsey (audiobook) -- too many in jokes about Lynyrd Skynrd and Florida for me to follow...just wasn't compelling enough for me.
  • Transmission: Hari Kunzru (whose "The Impressionist" I loved) -- nothing wrong with this one...just it's on paper, and my life does not permit much paper reading
  • Malgudi Days: R.K. Narayan -- I absolutely loved the parts I read...just it's on paper
  • Vindication of the Rights of Woman: Mary Wollstonecraft -- I'm sure it was controversial and exciting in its time, but it harped a bit too much on the moral and chastity advantages of educating women to get me really worked up enough to plow through it.

And with Sidharta:

  • * Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH: Robert C. O'Brien
  • * lots and lots and lots of Calvin and Hobbes: Bill Watterson
  • The Lightning Thief: Rick Riordan
  • The Titan's Curse: Rick Riordan
  • The Battle of the Labyrinth: Rick Riordan
  • The Last Olympian: Rick Riordan
  • lots of Asterix
  • Assorted "educational" books on UFO's and cryptids
  • Assorted Amar Chitra Katha comics on various characters from the Ramayana and Mahabharata
  • Part of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (he read most of it himself -- Thank You, Rick Riordan, for waking him up to the joys of reading!)

And with Annapurna (who has very little time for stories these days) parts of:

  • The Wee Free Men: Terry Pratchett
  • Grimm's Fairy Tales
  • Frankenstein: Mary Shelley

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Beware of reading your wife's email

One man in Michigan could go to jail for 5 years for logging into his wife's email account and reading her messages. He is being charged under a Michigan statute that is intended to protect against identity theft and hacking into corporate systems for the purposes of intellectual property theft.

I'm having a bit of a hard time wrapping my head around this one. IANAL.

Here's the ostensible story: Husband #3 logs in and reads wife's email and figures out (a) that wife is having an affair with abusive ex-Husband #2 and (b) wife's child with ex-Husband #1 is endangered by this. Husband #3 then forwards wife's emails to ex-Husband #1, apparently out of concern for the child.

A few points strike me as possibly relevant, but then IANAL.

  1. Mr. Walker (Husband #3) apparently went out of his way to log in to the email account. Would it have been different if his wife had just left her email logged in and he happened to see the messages? I don't know.
  2. He claims it was a shared computer. She claims it was hers, only, though he bought it for her. Does this make a difference? I don't know. I tend to doubt it. The email was in a gmail account which could have been accessed just about anywhere in the world.
  3. Independent of having read the emails, does forwarding them to a 3rd party make things worse? I don't know. Intuitively, I would say yes. Forwarding them to law enforcement rather than an interested party might have been more justifiable, though I can understand that many people might not want to get on the law enforcement radar, if they believe they can get things settled privately.
  4. Did Mr. Walker have independent reason to fear for the child? Had he, in the past, taken any actions to protect the child? This would establish that he was acting in good faith, rather than trying to take some sort of revenge against the wife.
  5. In what way is this different from a husband opening physical mail addressed to his wife? Is it a crime to do this? If so, I doubt that it is ever enforced to the extent of a 5 year jail sentence.

If it turns out that there was independent cause to fear for the child's safety, I think that charges against Mr. Walker will probably be dropped. I don't see any judge or jury coming to the conclusion that anything, much less privacy, trumps a child's well-being. In fact, played right by Walker's defense attorney, even if there was no prior fear of harm to the child, simply raising the possibility may be sufficient to get charges dropped.

What disturbs me most about this case is that while Mr. Walker's motives appear admirable (protecting the child), I would hate this to turn into a green light for just anybody to poke around in their spouse's emails at will. I can see abusive spouses monitoring email to micromanage or to find out about plans to combat the abuse. I can see thoughtless spouses forwarding emails to 3rd parties as a humiliating prank. I'm sure they do this, already, but I don't like to give them the legal air cover to do it with impunity. We no longer question the concept of spousal rape, though we may argue over specific instances. I would submit that pawing through a spouse's emails without an invitation to do so can be a violation in many cases.

For the record, I advise never putting anything in email that would do more than make you look silly. Just a suggestion. YMMV.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I love a good conspiracy theory here's a good one.

It seems that slightly over 10 years ago, the FBI may have arranged for some "backdoor" code to facilitate eavesdropping on VPNs (Virtual Private Networks -- things that people use as secure communication lines between computers to prevent eavesdropping) in the OpenBSD operating system, specifically in the implementation of IPSEC. That's right. The FBI apparently wants to be able to eavesdrop on secure communications. And they're willing to sneak the code to do it into widely-used software (think something like Windows).

The allegations come from what ought to be a fairly reliable source: Gregory Perry, the former CTO of NETSEC, a company responsible for some of the OpenBSD development. You would think that such an individual would not make claims like this frivolously. And what makes the situation even more interesting is that the "open" in "OpenBSD" is for open source: the source code (i.e. the computer programs that make up the operating system) is available for scrutiny by essentially anyone in the world. This means that (1) it's in use by a number of organizations because it's free (so there may be a lot of vulnerabilities out there) and (2) lots of folks can be pawing through this code to see if the alleged backdoor code does, indeed, exist.

It is hard to imagine that a backdoor would not have been noticed long before now, given that the code has been freely available for 10 years. This calls into question the validity of the allegations. It is possible, however, that the backdoor was, indeed, discovered some time back, and the offending code removed from earlier versions, attributed to coding errors rather than FBI interference. All of this will be fleshed out as people look through the current version of OpenBSD as well as earlier versions and other operating systems that evolved from OpenBSD.

It is tempting to chalk this up to the Bush-era penchant for secret eavesdropping (aka warrantless wiretaps), but if it turns out to be true, I'm afraid we'll have to lay this one to the credit of another backdoor bad boy. Yes, I'm talking about Bill "Clipper Chip" Clinton.

A good summary of the story is to be found here.

The original email and the announcement to the OpenBSD community can be found here.

And further information provided by Gregory Perry can be found here.

It will be very interesting to see whether Perry's allegations are confirmed over the coming weeks. I don't think it will take long, if they are true.

Edited to add: Declan McCullagh has some good context information here.

Edited to add (12/22): report indicating that head of OpenBSD acknowledges that Netsec may have been paid to create backdoors, but believes that these were never actually released (except possibly in Netsec variants).
Edited to add (12/23): Another report with a bunch of, what I believe is misleading title and text, but with some interesting technical details at the end.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Brain power

Annapurna informed me the other day that the human brain runs on about 15W. I couldn't believe that so I looked around a bit. Seems like 15's a little bit of an underestimate, but only a little. Most sources I could find (and I will be the first to admit that I have not done a thorough investigation...I really couldn't find any super-trustworthy sources, like say NIH/NIMH/NLM) say that the brain operates on 20-40W of power. That's kind of like the lightbulb in your fridge or oven.

Now I understand why the human species is, on the whole, rather dim-witted.