Category: Reading

References, references, references!

When I studied biology as well as when I did my Ph.D., our professors were always after us because of references. I think with their precious help we learnt the art of referencing: choosing good references, citing them at the appropriate location in a text and, of course, giving enough information at the bottom of the text to allow the reader to find these references.

I just finished reading two articles in a recent edition of The Economist and they reminded me how important are these references. These articles are What would Jesus hack? and Worrying about wireless.

First an aside: it might be an editorial choice but I would prefer to know who wrote an article rather than anonymity. I don’t have (and won’t have) anything personal against any author. I just like to know if I’m reading something written by a young Mr. I-know-everything with no background in the topic of the article or by a Mrs Specialist who appears to work in the field she’s writing about. In this blog, who I am is in the “About” section in the bar above.

In What would Jesus hack? the anonymous author is throwing a mix of everything and anything to make a story. And actually it works: the article has some logic in its sequence of statements. From an external point of view you may even think it’s a nice article. You discover news and organisations that you may have missed: an opinion from Antonio Spadaro in “Hacker ethics and Christian vision” (Google translation of the abstract), the reply from Eric S. Raymond, Elèutheros, … But you will also be staggered at the hotchpotch mixing Open Source, internet, Twitter, … Why not add Facebook then, the archetypal anti-privacy web service?

Richard Stallman changes my lifeThe only point that the article might get right is that some software programmers are somehow seeing themselves and / or seen by others as gods: Richard Stallmann, Linus Torvalds, Bill Gates (god turned philanthropist), Steve Jobs (god turned designer), etc. On top of that, every programmer had her/his Eureka moment when she/he solves a bug after hours trying to fix the code. Otherwise, I agree with what the unnamed author puts in the mouth of Kevin Kelly and that I can summarize by: “with more power comes more responsibilities”.

And, as I pointed out in the beginning, there isn’t any reference at the bottom of the paper version, any link in the digital version. Statements and people in this article could have been 100% fictional, no one would have known that (until you look for them on the web).

I have the same issue with Worrying about wireless: no sources, no references. I don’t forbid the anonymous writer to have an opinion on the topic. Just let the others also make their own opinion by citing the sources you are using. This article is just shaping the opinion of  readers in a hurry by using a partisan language and not citing sources. Even when indirectly citing sources (e.g. the WHO IARC classification), the anonymous coward succeeds in using negative wording to dismiss what doesn’t please his / her theory. I would have liked to have more information about the potential adverse effects of wifi waves in the long run, for instance. But I will unfortunately not believe such one-way gibberish.

Now you’ll tell me I don’t have to read The Economist and you’ll be right 🙂

Illustration credit: Duty calls by xkcd and Richard Stallman by Pladour on Flickr (CC-by-nc)

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).

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)

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?

Sometimes people are really stupid

I just read that orange agent is used in Brazil to clear the Amazon. I am not judging people who may be forced by their living conditions to do this (although I doubt people who did this are poor since they sprayed it by plane). It may be the cheapest way to clear a forest to use the land for pasture (although I doubt buying chemical and spraying it by plane is cheap). But …

Agent OrangeBut this is already very stupid because since at least the Vietnam war, we know that the orange agent is a very toxic product with detrimental effects on human health (in the USA, the Veterans Affairs are busy with that). On top of already using the orange agent to clear forests for mining, these guys thinks it will be interesting to go there and take care of the livestock. They will of course quickly earn money from selling meat from animals that grew there. But they will face health issues, at some point, for them and most probably for people who will eat that meat.

Because that’s the second stupid thing they are making: cows, horses, goats, sheep, etc. that will graze there will also be contaminated. In the worst case (for them), their meat will immediately be unfit for human. In the worst case (for everybody), the meat will be sold to people outside contaminated zones and these people will also be contaminated …

I will not be surprised if I read news about baby malformations in the coming years in Brazil. And I’m wondering why Monsanto is still selling orange agent anywhere in the world. Is money so important compared to human health?

Photo credit: Agent Orange by Emilio Labrador on Flickr (CC-by)

The Top 5 Killers of Men

From Delicious, I saw that Yahoo had an article about the top 5 killers of men. I thought it would be nice to see from where they get there data.

First, I have to mention that the article is really about American men, nothing else (not about mankind, not about men around the world, not about women, children, etc.). The article is related to the US National Men’s Health Week (the US National Women’s Health Week was in May 8-14, 2011). Although the article is giving advices, there are no sources of information.

However, it’s rather easy to obtain these numbers …

For the US, the CDC FastStats website is a hub to data about health in the US. Here is the CDC ranking for the top 5 killers in 2007 (in both US women and men):

  1. Heart disease: 616,067 deaths
  2. Cancer: 562,875 deaths
  3. Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 135,952 deaths
  4. Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 127,924 deaths
  5. Accidents (unintentional injuries): 123,706 deaths

If you look at the whole world (data from the UN), the picture is somehow different! The UN ranking for the top 5 killers in 2008 (in both women and men) is:

  1. Lower respiratory infections: 1.05 million deaths
  2. Diarrhoeal diseases: 0.76 million deaths
  3. HIV/AIDS: 0.72 million deaths
  4. Ischaemic heart disease: 0.57 million deaths
  5. Malaria: 0.48 million deaths

All of them causes more than 45% of deaths around the world. These diseases with high-mortality vary in an important manner when we compare the USA and the whole world. The main caveat is that the data I presented above are for men and women. It would be interesting to use the UN data API project to dig further into details.

World Cancer Day

It doesn’t seem jolly but last Friday, it was the World Cancer Day. About this, the WHO set up a nice website about cancer control.

Following my previous post on Jamie Oliver and the top 15 causes of death in the USA, I started to collect similar data from other countries. Linking this to cancers, the annual statistics on cancers in Belgium can be found on the Belgian Cancer Registry. The latest numbers are however from 2006. Here are the top 15 cancers in Belgium in 2006 (all sexes and regions mixed):

Rank Classification Cancer type Cases Remark
1. C50 Breast 9556  
2. C61 Prostate 9254 male only
3. C34 Bronchus and lung 6956  
4. C18 Colon 5233  
5. C44 Malignant neoplasms of skin 3110  
6. C20 Rectum 2264  
7. C67 Bladder 1986  
8. C82-85 Non-Hodgkin-lymphom 1925  
9. C43 Malignant melanoma of skin 1572  
10. C64 Kidney 1377  
11. C16 Stomach 1356  
12. C54 Corpus uteri 1320 female only
13. C25 Pancreas 1172  
14. C80 Unknown primary site 1168  
15. C15 Oesophagus 920  

It’s interesting to note a few things:

  • These figures represent cases of cancer and not deaths by cancer. Note also that prostate cancer is in third position but only concerns males.
  • The latests data is from 2006. The website doesn’t seem to be updated since 2008 (and 2008 seems to be the year when data from 2006 are available ; if we follow the 2-years-gap logic, I guess the data from 2009 are available somewhere but not on this website)
  • Data accessibility seems to be average. Data is there in Excel format (and PDF which is pretty useless if you want to reuse the data). On one side, these Excel files can be opened by almost every office suite. On the other side, some open format would have been preferred. And some direct interaction with the data on the website is now the norm (ok, I just wrote it doesn’t seem to be updated since 2008)
  • The classification is quite good since it uses the “Classification Internationale des Maladies” which is the “International Classification of Diseases” in English better known as ICD-10 (online).

WikiRebels, the documentary

I just watched “WikiRebels – The Documentary”, a “rough-cut of first in-depth documentary on WikiLeaks and the people behind it” by the Swedish Television. It doesn’t show much new information but give a nice perspective on the past events.

http://svt.se/embededflash/2264028/play.swf

Note: this video is said to be available until January 16, 2011. It may not appear above after this date.