Sunday, January 27, 2008

Propositions on California's ballot

When Californians get to pick their Presidential nominess on Tuesday, Feb 5, 2008, they will also be asked to vote on 7 propositions. The decision is simple: follow the recommendations of the San Jose Mercury News and vote No on all the propositions.

Here's a brief summary of the issues; read the Voter Information Guide and the Mercury News editorials for more details.
  • Proposition 91: This is a good proposition requiring fuel taxes to be used for transportation funding. However, proposition 1A passed earlier has already made its recommendations into law, so even the official proponents of this proposition recommend a No vote.
  • Proposition 92: This proposition amends the state constitution with regard to how Community Colleges are funded and governed, and decreases Community College fees. The proposition would increase Community College funding by about $300 million, without saying how we'd pay for it. The lower fees would only save a student about $150 per year, which doesn't really address the problem of affordability of education (fees are a small part of the expense). It's also not clear that there are any accountability provisions that constrain how this money is spent. While Community Colleges are very important and deserve to be supported, it seems Proposition 92 is not the way to do it. (MN editorial)
  • Proposition 93: This proposition changes the term limits law. Current law restricts a legislator to spending 6 years in the Assembly and 8 years in the Senate for a maximum total of 14 years. This law decreases the total number of years in the legislature to 12. But it allows a legislator to spend all 12 years in one house. It's also got some "transition" rules to allow current legislators to spend 12 years in their current legislative house, irrespective of how much time they've spent in the other. This allows Assembly Speaker Nunez and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata to extend their grip on power. Even though the proposition appears to decrease the term, in reality it increases the term for most legislators. (MN editorial)
  • Proposition 94, 95, 96, 97: These four propositions dramatically increase the number of slot machines in four, already rich, Indian reservations. The claim is that this would increase revenues to the state. But it's not at all clear that state revenues would increase by a significant amount (e.g., sales tax money would be lost as entertainment money moves to gambling). Interestingly, the people opposed to these propositions are Nevada casinos who fear they'd lose clients to these California casinos. So neither side is particularly "pure". The bottom line is that there appears to be no great benefit to significantly increasing the number of slot machines available in California, and many down sides. The MN editorial discusses this well.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Thugs watching The Wire

For those of you who've read Freakonomics, you'll remember Sudhir Venkatesh. He's the sociology graduate student who accidentally runs into a drug gang. This evolves into a fascinating account of how drug gangs are organized like modern corporations with a few successful people at the top and a lot of poorly paid employees at the bottom.

Venkatesh is now a Professor of Sociology at Columbia where he continues his research on "...ethnographic investigation of urban neighborhoods in the United States". Recently, he's been a guest blogger on the Freakonomics blog where he is writing about watching HBO's The Wire with a collection of New York City "street figures" (aka thugs)! In his first post he explains:

Last year, I learned a lot by watching a few episodes of The Wire with gang leaders in Chicago. So, a few weeks ago, I called a few respected street figures in the New York metro region to watch the upcoming fifth season. I couldn’t think of a better way to ensure quality control.

He then proceeds to describe what happened as they watched the first episode of the current season. His second post is focused on:

What price, a cop? I posed this question to several self-described “thugs” after the airing of the second episode of The Wire, season five.

Not surprisingly, it makes for fascinating reading.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Wireless network security

Bruce Schneier, a well known expert on security and applied cryptography, writes an interesting blog called Schneier on Security. Recently he wrote a post on his open wireless network. That's very interesting! Here's a security guru and he's arguing that you should not secure your wireless network (even though he agrees that the WPA protocol is very good):

To me, it's basic politeness. Providing internet access to guests is kind of like providing heat and electricity, or a hot cup of tea. But to some observers, it's both wrong and dangerous.

Schneier is unmoved by concerns that strangers might use his open wireless network to indulge in various criminal, or at least unseemly, activities. More interestingly (to me at least):

I'm also unmoved by those who say I'm putting my own data at risk, because hackers might park in front of my house, log on to my open network and eavesdrop on my internet traffic or break into my computers.

And why is he unmoved? It's because: computers are much more at risk when I use them on wireless networks in airports, coffee shops and other public places. If I configure my computer to be secure regardless of the network it's on, then it simply doesn't matter.

And this is essentially the policy I've followed---almost. I dont' encrypt by wireless network. Instead, I depend on the firewall running on our Macs to protect us from prying eyes (if there are any). And I'm assuming that any eavesdroppers on our Internet traffic won't see anything sensitive---if it's sensitive then it had better be going over https, for otherwise there are plenty of other points on the Internet where plaintext passwords and such can be intercepted.

However, I have enabled Mac address filtering, but that doesn't really protect you from a determined hacker. I guess I don't quite agree with Schneier's "basic politeness" argument above.

Talking about open wireless networks, when I was in India in December I found an open wireless network at my parents' house (my parents don't have Internet access). So I used it to quickly read my email. But later my sister told me that in India Internet access is paid for by the megabyte downloaded...! So, unlike in the US, my use of the open wireless network really did amount to "stealing" from my parents' neighbor...:-( After that, I wasn't too keen on using the open network.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Edmund Hillary

Since we're talking about exploration, I have to mention the recent passing away of Edmund Hillary, one of the great explorers of our time. His exploits on Mt. Everest, together with Tenzing Norgay, are well known. What I didn't know was how much he's done for Nepal:

...he formed a foundation, the Sir Edmund Hillary Himalayan Trust, that raised millions and built more than 30 schools, a dozen clinics, two hospitals, a couple of airfields, and numerous foot bridges, water pipelines and other facilities for the Sherpa villages in Nepal. In 2003, Nepal conferred honorary citizenship upon Sir Edmund, the first foreign national to receive that distinction.

Quite a remarkable life.

Space exploration

A recent post on the Freakonomics blog was a quorum on the question of whether space exploration is worth the cost. The six members of quorum were all affiliated with space exploration in one way or other (current or ex-NASA employees, the host of The Space Show, and the director of the Space Policy Institute). Not surprisingly, everyone was in agreement that space exploration was definitely worth the cost. While there was nothing new in the justifications, it is still a good summary of the main reasons for doing manned space exploration. The reasons range from the economic and technological spin-offs:

Unquestionably, manned exploration ... created unintended economic consequences and benefits, such as the spinoff of miniaturization that led to computers and cell phones.

to national pride:

We need to keep the flame of manned space exploration alive as China, Russia, India, and other countries forge ahead with substantial investments that challenge U.S. leadership in space.

to the most basic "because it's there" reason:

Exploration is intrinsic to our nature. It is the contest between man and nature mixed with the primal desire to conquer. It fuels curiosity, inspiration and creativity. The human spirit seeks to discover the unknown, and in the process explore the physical and psychological potential of human endurance.

The one downside of the post is that none of the quorum members presented opposing viewpoints, whether arguments about the social good that could be done with the money spent on space exploration or about the benefits of privatized space exploration (e.g., the X Prize and Space Ship One). Fortunately, the blog comments are full of opposing viewpoints. So read it all and enjoy!

I, for one, am a strong supporter of space exploration, primarily for the scientific payoff. I'm most familiar with unmanned, robotic explorers and the valuable science they produce (e.g., George Smoot, referenced in a previous post, used the COBE satellite to get his Nobel prize). The manned program is much more expensive and I don't know how much science we're getting out of it. However, the Freakonomics post notes:

... Steve Squyres, the principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rovers, has frequently said that he wished that Spirit and Opportunity were working in partnership with humans on the surface of Mars; that combination, he argues, would greatly increase the scientific payoffs of the mission.

So maybe there's a strong scientific argument for manned missions.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Backup and recovery

Some time ago I wrote about backing up ones home computer. Since that post, I started down the path of developing a backup system: I bought an external hard drive. On our older computer, I even acquired some shareware backup software (Deja Vu for the Mac) and was backing up my home directory regularly. However, we then bought a new computer (a beautiful new iMac with a 24" monitor), and I stopped doing regular backups (my version of Deja Vu didn't run on the new Mac and I didn't upgrade).

That's when disaster struck... I was traveling for much of the last 3 weeks, and while I was gone the disk drive on the new Mac failed completely. AppleCare couldn't restore any data from the drive.

Fortunately, by a stroke of pure luck, I had backed up our main home directory (the one with our photographs) to the external drive the night before I left on the trip! Nothing fancy---I simply used the Finder's drag and drop functionality. So I was able to restore most of our data. Not all of it though: the morning of my trip I realized that my camera still had some photographs, so I downloaded them onto the computer and deleted them from the camera. Those photos were not backed up and we've lost them... :-( We also lost some documents created after my trip began, but nothing of much importance.

AppleCare put in a new drive for me, and I've been able to get the system back to the pre-failure state. But now I'm looking at a better backup system. Here's what I have in mind:
  • I'm probably going to use SuperDuper for backup. It's shareware that comes highly recommended.
  • I'm going to try and configure SuperDuper to do automatic backups. That way our data's safety won't depend on dumb luck!
  • I'm going to buy a portable drive, try and do a regular (weekly?) manual backup to it, and store it at work. That will protect against loss due to burglary.
Hope all this works. Do you have a reliable backup system? If not, you better do something. Apparently, disk drives do fail!
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