Month: July 2011

A question of a few centimetres

It’s funny to see that in a short span of time, a few centimetres can make a difference. This month, Austria authorised Niko Alm to wear a pasta strainer as “religious headgear” on his driving-licence (BBC). This month too, Belgian law banned women from wearing the full Islamic veil in public (BBC).

Well, the Belgian law doesn’t exactly formally forbid the Islamic veil although it was often named as the “anti-burqa law”. The exact terms are:

Seront punis d’une amende de quinze euros à vingt-cinq euros et d’un emprisonnement d’un jour à sept jours ou d’une de ces peines seulement, ceux qui, sauf dispositions légales contraires, se présentent dans les lieux accessibles au public le visage masqué ou dissimulé en tout ou en partie, de manière telle qu’ils ne soient pas identifiables.
Toutefois, ne sont pas visés par l’alinéa 1er, ceux qui circulent dans les lieux accessibles au public le visage masqué ou dissimulé en tout ou en partie de manière telle qu’ils ne soient pas indentifiables et ce, en vertu de règlements de travail ou d’une ordonnance de police à l’occasion de manifestations festives.

The automated Google translation gives:

Shall be punished by a fine of fifteen to twenty-five euros euros and imprisonment from one day to seven days or one of these penalties, who, unless required by law, occur in places accessible to public masked or concealed in whole or in part, in such a way that they are not identifiable.
However, are not covered by paragraph 1, those that circulate in places accessible to the public masked or concealed in whole or in part in such a way that they are not identifiable and that, under regulations of work or Order of Police on the occasion of festivities.

This is even more scary: the law basically asks everyone to clearly show her/his face in public spaces except for work (e.g. construction workers with dust protection) or when the police explicitly authorised it during events. If it’s too cold in winter and your hood is hiding part of your face, you may be arrested. On top of that, you add the increasing number of CCTV in operation in Belgium as well as some good face recognition software and you have a tightly controlled society. 😦

Photo credits. Left: Masked by Katayun on Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa). Right: Heiliger Führerschein (Episode #6 – Das Finale) on Niko Alm’s blog.

OS need an immune system and not a CDC-like

In an IT World article, Tom Henderson gives many details about a US-government-led CDC-like organisation to fight malware. In summary, he states that companies and consultants providing security and prevention around operating systems don’t have any real motivation to eradicate malware. And in case of an “outbreak” of these malware, he added one needs a US government body to look after every computer “health”, coordinate the surveillance and the response. He even pushes the comparison with the human medical system by introducing a Hippocratic Oath for computer healthcare.

With all the respect I have for someone I’ve never heard of before, I think Tom Henderson misses one crucial point that make his flight of lyricism totally irrelevant. The missed point is that human beings (as well as every animal species and especially vertebrates) have a immune system. It’s our immune system that gives the first answer to any external “invasion”, it’s our immune system that can adapt to the diversity of threats out there, it’s our immune system that allow our body to recover.

Today computers have a nice body, nice mechanics. Operating systems are behaving like we tell them, not as separate entities. We constantly add foreign bodies (software) and they are constantly in contact with potential external aggressions (via file exchanges, media insertion, network connections). What we begin to give them are sentinels monitoring critical parts of the system, a kind of basic neural system. We invented the body-in-the-body (virtualization) to prevent one failing organ (software) to contaminate the remaining parts of the body (a.o.). We also give some vitamins (firewalls e.g.), strengthening  some defences. And finally we think that “anti-virus software” are enough while it’s only some kind of very basic, un-natural innate immune system.

Before thinking of a CDC-like body for our computers security, one should maybe think of adding a immune system to our computers. At least a basic one, where there is a response even to currently unknown threats. Then we might think of something more sophisticated, with memory and specific response. Look, there was no network, no communication outside: the body/computer can easily cope with the threat by itself. Research is already looking at such applications. And, yes, finally, if you insist, bring your CDC-like organism.

Aaron Swartz versus JSTOR

Boston Wiki Meetup Aaron Swartz, a 24-year old hacker, was recently indicted on data theft charges for downloading over 4 million documents from JSTOR, a US-based online system for archiving academic journals. Mainstream media (ReutersGuardianNYTTime, …) reported this with a mix of facts and fiction. I guess that the recent attacks of hacking groups on well-known websites and the release of data they stole on the internet gave to this story some spice.

First, I really appreciate what Aaron Swartz did and is currently doing. From The Open Libraryweb.py, RSS, to the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto and Demand Progress, he brought a lot to the computer world and the awareness of knowledge distribution.

Other blogs around the world are already talking about that and sometimes standing up for him. I especially liked The Economics of JSTOR (John Levin), The difference between Google and Aaron Swartz (Kevin Webb) and Careless language and poor analogies (Kevin Smith). I also encourage you to show your support for Aaron as I think he’s only the scapegoat for a bigger process …

I also think Aaron Swartz went too fast. If you do the maths (see appendix below), the download speed was approximately 49Mb per second. Even in a crowded network as the MIT one, this continuous amount of traffic coming from a single computer (or a few if you forge your addresses) is easily spotted. I understand he might have been in a hurry given that his access was not fully legal (although I think it initially was). It was the best thing to do if he wanted to collect a maximum amount of files in the shortest period of time.

This lead me to wonder what was the goal behind this act.

People stated it was his second attempt at downloading large amounts of data (which is not exactly true), depicting him like a serial perpetrator. Others stated that his motives were purely academic (text-mining research, JSTOR Data For Research being somewhat limited). One can also think of an act similar to Anonymous or LulzSec that were in the press recently. Or money, maybe (4*10^6 articles at an average of $15 per article makes $60 million), although this seems highly unlikely. The simple application of his Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto?

What is also puzzling me is the goal of JSTOR. It constantly repeats that it is supporting scholarly work and access to knowledge around the world. From its news statement, it says it was not its fault to prosecute Aaron Swartz but US Attorney’s Office’s. But at the same time, they assure they secured “the content” and made sure it will not be distributed. And the indictment doesn’t contain anything related to intellectual property theft. The only portion related to the content is a fraudulent access to “things of value”.

I think one of the issue JSTOR has is that it doesn’t actually own the material it sells to scientists. The actual publishers are dictating what JSTOR can digitize and what it can’t. And unfortunately, they only see these papers as “things of monetary value”.

However these things are actual scientific knowledge, usually from a distant past and usually without any copyright anymore. Except the cost of digitizing and building the search engine database (which are both  provided by Google Books and Google Scholar for free, or the Gutenberg project in another area), all the costs related to the dissemination of these papers are already covered, usually since a long time. The irony is that some of the papers behind the JSTOR paywall are sometimes even freely available elsewhere (at institutions’ and societies’ repositories, e.g.).

It wouldn’t have cost much to put all these articles under an Open Access license while transferring them to JSTOR. JSTOR would then charge for the actual digitizing work but wouldn’t have to “secure the content” in case of redistribution since it would then be allowed. The not–for–profit service provided by JSTOR would then benefit to the knowledge instead of being one additional roadblock to it.

JSTOR, don’t become the RIAA or the MPAA of old scholar content!

Appendix. The maths

In “retaliation”, Gregory Maxwell posted 32Gb of data containing 18,592 JSTOR articles on the internet. This is an average of 1.762Mb per JSTOR article. Aaron Swartz downloaded 4*10^6 articles from JSTOR that represents approximately 6.723Tb of data. That took him 4 days (September 25th, 26th and October 8th and 9th, 2010) at an average of 1,721.17Gb per day. If we assume the computer was working 10 hours per day (he has to plug and unplug the computer during working hours), the average download speed id 172Gb per hour or 2.869Gb per minute or 48.958Mb per second.

Photo credit: Boston Wiki Meetup by Sage Ross on Flickr (CC-by-sa).

forbidSleepingMode

I just put my first small tool on GitHub: forbidSleepingMode. It will forbid your (Windows) computer to enter into sleep mode, acting as if there was activity all the time. I’m sure you can think of 1001 productive uses for such tool.

Technically, it just sends a “tickle” to the computer every 10 minutes forcing the display to remain on (hence: don’t set your screensaver to come before 10 minutes). Build it with Visual Studio 10 (I know, I know …).

The mandatory screenshot (very, very useful):

forbidSleepingMode screenshotI intend to re-publish old tools on GitHub as I find them.

Road traffic: real-life and virtual visualization

During lunch time, I discovered an old street art video (well, old = 2010) where people poured hundreds liters of painting on Rosenthaler Platz (Berlin, Deutschland) to visualize traffic patterns (below: screenshot and video).

Rosenthaler Platz with painting

This reminded me that I recently discovered that Google Maps now includes traffic for Brussels. It was the case for Berlin since a long time and the Rosenthaler Platz looks quite quiet for the moment:

Rosenthaler Platz traffic in Google Maps (July 18th 2011)

It’s not exactly the same colours 😉

(found via Olybop ; original page)

Calendar of events about India in Belgium

Nachda Sansaar Bhangra group at Bozar in 2006

Although its presence in Belgium is more discreet than China or other European countries (for obvious reasons in the latter case), India has always something to show in Belgium. I decided to put some (most of?) events related to India in Belgium in a calendar so everyone can be aware of them. Here you are:

If you organize or know that something related to India in Belgium will happen, just let me know and I’ll add it to this calendar.

P.S. Although I post the information today (July16th, 2011), the calendar will continue to be updated even after tomorrow 😉
Photo credit: Nachda Sansaar Bhangra group at Bozar from myself 🙂 on Flickr

Today is World Population Day

Today, 11th of July 2011, is World Population Day. For that occasion, and as the world population is expected to surpass 7 billion this year, the UNFPA is launching a new campaign: 7 billion people – 7 billion actions.

7 billion actions poster - UNFPA

They highlight 7 key issues to explore:

  1. Poverty and inequality: reducing poverty and inequality also slows population growth.
  2. Women and girls: unleashing the power of women and girls will accelerate progress on all fronts.
  3. Young people: energetic and open to new technologies, history’s largest and most interconnected population of young people is transforming global politics and culture.
  4. Reproductive health and rights: ensuring that every child is wanted and every childbirth safe leads to smaller and stronger families.
  5. Environment: all 7 billion of us, and those who will follow, depend on the health of our planet.
  6. Ageing: lower fertility and longer lives add up to a new challenge worldwide: providing for aging populations.
  7. Urbanization: the next two billion people will live in cities, so we need to plan for them now.

These issues are not new. They are not even original: most bodies or meetings looking at issues for the future have approximately the same issues. But at least it’s another initiative to raise awareness, to think about them. And, most importantly, to act to tackle them.

I don’t think it’s wishful thinking to write that everyone can help. Besides being in the introduction brochure, teaching a child to read, planting a tree, visiting a senior, finding a cure, standing up for others and making someone smile are all simple actions we can do (even if we can’t do all of them, we can do some of them). We can start with our own kids, our own family, our own environment.

What will be your unique story?