Nov 142014
 

Kim Lane Scheppele is a professor of sociology and international affairs at Princeton University. She is also an expert on constitutional law in Hungary. Her writings frequently appeared in publications such as The New York Times.

A few days ago, Dr. Scheppele gave a video interview to an English-language Hungarian newspaper, the Budapest Beacon. In the interview, she explains how, in her opinion, Hungary can no longer be considered a constitutional democracy: how the system of checks and balances has been gutted and a constitution more resembling the country’s 1949 Stalinist constitution than the supposedly “communist” 1989 constitution it was intended to replace, was enacted unilaterally by a ruling party enjoying a two-thirds parliamentary supermajority.

Dr. Scheppele is not some liberal hack. She is an internationally renowned scholar. Her opinions are not arbitrary. Unfortunately, I do not expect to see meaningful change to happen anytime soon in the country of my birth, and I don’t think anything Dr. Scheppele says can alter this sad fact.

 Posted by at 8:24 pm
Aug 242013
 

InspireSpring2013_Page_01I advise my good friends in the United Kingdom and perhaps in Australia to pause and think before clicking on the following link:

http://publicintelligence.net/aqap-inspire-issue-11/

The link is to a blog site that is dedicated to discussions about the public’s right to access information. Specifically, to a blog entry that discusses the latest issue of Al Qaeda’s “open source terrorism” magazine, INSPIRE. They also provide an archive of present and past issues of INSPIRE.

And herein lies the problem. Apparently in the UK, and perhaps also in Australia, mere possession of INSPIRE is a crime, regardless of the reason.

Having grown up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, I find this deeply troubling.

 Posted by at 12:08 pm
Jul 172013
 

Browsing the Web this morning, I ran across a reference to a Judge A. Sherman Christensen, also known as the “sheep case” judge, who tried a case in 1955 when Utah ranchers sued the federal government for the death of much of their livestock due to radioacive fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests conducted in Nevada.

Christensen, relying on evidence offered by government expert witnesses, ruled against the ranchers.

Astonishingly, 23 years later Christensen set aside his own judgment, having become convinced that fraud was committed in his courtroom by the Federal government.

Even more astonishingly, an appeals court rejected Christensen’s findings. The ranchers never had a chance. Neither did their sheep.

 Posted by at 4:58 pm
May 252013
 

As I was watching the news unfold about the gruesome court case of an Ottawa husband who is accused of first abusing and then torturing his wife to death by scalding her and then denying her medical treatment, I was reminded of an award-winning Hungarian commercial about spousal abuse.

Incidents

There are uncanny similarities between some of the details of the Hutt case and this commercial.

 Posted by at 11:54 am
Apr 192013
 

Minutes ago, a tweet from the Boston Police Department: “Suspect in custody. Officers sweeping the area. Stand by for further info.”

If true: if these two were indeed the clowns who committed mass murder on Monday, then congratulations are in order. They may have shut down a major metropolis for a day, but the result was worth it. This was not a shutting-the-barn-door-after-the-horses-left overreaction, but appropriate action in light of the fact that an extremely dangerous clown with explosives was on the loose. If I lived in Boston, I’d seriously consider intercepting a random off-duty police officer and inviting him for a beer.

An interesting side note, though, about how information flows (or doesn’t flow) in the 21st century: despite the massive media presence and the non-stop breathless reporting, in the end Anderson Cooper broke the news by reading the above tweet from the Boston Police Department. Not sure what it says about the freedom of the press and the authorities’ ability to control the message in this day and age.

 Posted by at 8:58 pm
Feb 252013
 

moneySo, well, I don’t wish to jump on a politically motivated populist bandwagon over what, in the big scheme of things, is just (very) small change but still, let me try to get this straight.

Apparently, if I defraud the Canadian government to the tune of a hundred thousand dollars and I am dumb enough to get caught, all I have to say is “oops, I made a mistake”, offer to repay the funds I stole, and all is forgiven.

If only the world worked this way. Except that, well, it does, at least if you are a Canadian senator, like the honorable (?) Mike Duffy. Claiming that it was just an accounting mistake (the forms were apparently too complicated) Mr. Duffy not only offered to repay the $100,000 (give or take) that he stole, he now has the audacity to call the attention surrounding his case a “distraction” that interferes with the important work he is doing for his “home province”, Prince Edward Island, where he hasn’t lived in many decades.

No, Mr. Duffy, it’s not a distraction. It means simply that you tried to steal our money and you got caught. And what you did, embezzling the government to the tune of a hundred grand, is something that would land most of us ordinary mortals in jail for a significant amount of time as common criminals.

 Posted by at 3:41 pm
Feb 212013
 

I have been password protecting my smartphone ever since I got one, and more recently, now that Android supports encryption, I took advantage of that feature as well.

The reason is simple: if my phone ever gets stolen, I wouldn’t want my data to fall into the wrong hands. But, it appears, there is now another good reason: it seems that at least in Ontario, if your phone is password protected, police need a search warrant before they can legitimately access its contents.

Privacy prevailed… at least this time.

 Posted by at 3:21 pm
Feb 092013
 

Kafka was a Jew. No, I am not trying to engage in anti-Semitic racial stereotypes. It’s just that this is the only way I can make sense of the Kafkaesque event that happened to an Israeli student in Tel Aviv the other day.

Namely that city workers appeared next to her legally parked vehicle, painted disabled parking signage under her car, and then had the car towed.

And when she complained, they called her a liar. Fortunately, the building across the street had security cameras that recorded everything. If only such cameras had been commonplace in Kafka’s time.

 Posted by at 7:44 pm
Jan 162013
 

mancardI dislike stereotypes, regardless of the target. I especially dislike stereotyping people or ideas with which I disagree. Stereotypes do not promote understanding; they promote hatred and miscomprehension, the inability see the real nature of the other side, obscuring it with a meaningless caricature.

The idea that “gun nuts buy guns to compensate for their unmanliness” is one such stupid stereotype.

Or so I thought until today. Until I learned that the famed Bushmaster rifle, the one that was used to mow down children in Newtown, was in fact advertised with the concept of a “Man Card”, which can be revoked if you like, say, a kitten better than a gun, but can be reclaimed if you buy a Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle.

No, I didn’t make this up and I don’t think CNN did either.

The Constitution of the United States of America contains a Second Amendment that guarantees the right to bear arms, in the context of forming a well-regulated militia. Some argue that this is part of America’s spectacularly successful system of political checks and balances, a “last resort” if you wish. Some argue that it is an obsolete leftover from revolutionary times, or worse yet, a relic of slavery when state militias were used to round up escaped slaves and states about to join a freshly minted Union were concerned that the right to maintain such militias will be taken away. Whatever the reason, I am pretty damn sure that none of the Founding Fathers, be they slaveholders or abolitionists, peaceful hunters or revolutionaries, ever conceived the idea that one day the Second Amendment will be used to issue “Man Cards”.

Groan.

 Posted by at 10:54 pm
Dec 312012
 

google-indiaFor a while today, Google India had a solitary candle on its start page. It was in memory of the “Delhi braveheart”, also called Damini (lightning in Hindi) by some. She was the 23-year old woman who was brutally raped and sodomized on a bus in New Delhi. Her identity remains undisclosed for now for legal reasons; some argue that she should be named in order to properly honor her in death, others suggest that the power of her legacy is amplified by the fact that her identity is not known.

Either way… what happened to her is sickening and unconscionable. The details are too brutal even to think about. It is difficult to comprehend that there are males on this planet who think of women not as soulmates, companions for life or mothers of their children, but as objects to be brutally abused and then discarded, left to die in a ditch.

I am opposed to the death penalty on principle but I will not shed a single tear if these six animals are executed. In fact, I am ashamed to admit that I’d probably torture them to death if it were up to me. But then… two wrongs do not make a right. Nothing will bring Damini back to life. So perhaps instead of thinking about retribution, we should think about preventing future attacks of this nature. Communicating the idea that there is nothing “macho” about treating a woman like a used blow-up doll might be a good beginning.

 Posted by at 8:15 pm
Oct 292012
 

I use PayPal a lot. I initially started using the service for eBay purchases, but since, I’ve used it to sell calculators, to receive payments from advertisers, even to send money to family. I generally like PayPal. Indeed, I always considered them one of the “good guys”. After all, isn’t it PayPal’s very founder, Elon Musk, who seems to have single-handedly established the era of commercial spaceflight with his SpaceX venture?

But now PayPal is notifying me of a policy update. A policy update that is specifically designed to prevent users from using the court system. Yes, you can opt out, but you can only do so in a manner that is made intentionally difficult:

“You can choose to reject this Agreement to Arbitrate (“opt out”) by mailing us a written opt-out notice (“Opt-Out Notice”).  For new PayPal users, the Opt-Out Notice must be postmarked no later than 30 Days after the date you accept the User Agreement for the first time.  If you are already a current PayPal user and previously accepted the User Agreement prior to the introduction of this Agreement to Arbitrate, the Opt-Out Notice must be postmarked no later than December 1, 2012. You must mail the Opt-Out Notice to PayPal, Inc., Attn: Litigation Department, 2211 North First Street, San Jose, CA 95131. “

Yes, you need to use snail mail. Yes, the world’s leading digital payments company apparently lacks the ability to process an opt-out request electronically.

Of course what it really is about is that they are counting on you and me not making the effort to put a stamp on an envelope.

Which indeed I won’t. I never tried to sue PayPal in the past, nor do I have plans to do so in the future. And I will still use their services.

But, I no longer consider them one of the “good guys”.

 Posted by at 8:55 am
Oct 162012
 

The news today is that hackers associated with the Anonymous group have found the identity of the pedophile who blackmailed BC teenager Amanda Todd into suicide. My immediate reaction was probably not unusual: Good, I thought, I hope the creep gets what he deserves.

But then… how do we know that Anonymous is right? What if they made a mistake? Isn’t this why we have a system of courts and judges instead of vigilante justice?

Indeed, it turns out that the same YouTube account that was used to post details on the alleged pedophile today posted another video yesterday in which they suggested that Amanda Todd isn’t even real. Their “proof”? A Facebook group dedicated to Amanda Todd that was created weeks before her death. One YouTube commenter used rather direct language to indicate his disapproval: “Are you a fucking idiot? The title of a Facebook page can be changed by the admin at ANY TIME. This means that a page made in June with an unrelated title like ‘Anonymous is fucking gay’ can be changed after Amanda Todd’s death to say ‘R.I.P Amanda’. ”

The wheels of the justice system grind frustratingly slowly at times, but if this YouTube video represents the quality of the investigation conducted by Anonymous, then I still prefer to wait for the courts rather than see a raging mob go after the wrong person.

 Posted by at 10:15 am
Sep 232012
 

Protesters at the US Consulate in Toronto yesterday demanded that American authorities do something about the infamous anti-Islam video, the Innocence of Muslims. They held up signs claiming that “free speech does not mean disrespecting any prophet”, among other things.

But, my friends, that is EXACTLY what free speech is. It is precisely the right to disrespect, even insult if I wish, God, Yahweh, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Christ, Mohammed, Buddha, Ra, Moses, and every other living or imaginary prophet, deity, political or religious leader. Even using crude or obscene language and bad humor, if that happens to suit my fancy.

Do you want to know what hate speech is? Why, it’s easy: holding up (not to mention handing to 4-year olds to hold up) signs that demand the beheading of people as it happened the other day in Australia:

No, I am not ready to join the ranks of Islamophobes worried about the coming Caliphate, but I still categorically reject these Islamist attempts to limit the right to free speech in Western societies and the implied or, in this case, explicit threats. As an immigrant myself, I think I have the right to say something that might appear a tad more distasteful if uttered by persons born here in Canada: if you don’t like it here, you are free to leave.

Perhaps go to Pakistan. After all, that fine country’s Minister of Railways thinks that offering a $100,000 bounty for the head of the filmmaker is the right thing to do. How enlightened and civilized. I am sure people who think about free speech like these protesters do would fit right in.

 Posted by at 8:44 am
Aug 202012
 

I tend to sympathize with Julian Assange and Wikileaks. That said, the facts may not necessarily be on Mr. Assange’s side, according to an excellent New Statesman article. In particular, the article asserts that he is less likely to be extradited to the United States from Sweden than from the United Kingdom. The author also makes a very good point about Ecuador’s presumed commitment to freedom of the press: the country is about to extradite a blogger who sought asylum there in 2008, Alexander Barankov to, of all places, Belarus, where he may face the death penalty. I also wonder if we are going to see Wikileaks publish Ecuadorian secret documents now. My guess is… not anytime soon.

 Posted by at 11:14 pm
Aug 162012
 

In the fall of 1956, after Soviet forces crushed Hungary’s anti-Communist revolution, cardinal József Mindszenty sought refuge inside the American embassy in Budapest, where he remained for the next 15 years.

Not even the Communists claimed the right to withdraw the diplomatic status of those embassy grounds or threatened to storm the embassy to arrest Mindszenty.

I am not particularly impressed by Julian Assange’s narcissism, nor by the latest shenanigans of Wikileaks, including the production of a fake newspaper editorial. But the notion that the United Kingdom might use force to remove Mr. Assange from Ecuadorian embassy grounds is just unthinkable. If this threat was meant to impress and intimidate, well, it didn’t seem to work very well, did it? If they were serious about it, I think Mr. Cameron might need to have his head examined.

 Posted by at 8:34 am
Aug 082012
 

I am reading with astonishment an article in IEEE Spectrum on the origins of DOS. The author, a self-proclaimed expert on software intellectual property analysis, describes his attempt at a forensic comparison of early versions of MS-DOS and CP/M, to prove or disprove once and for all the allegation that MS-DOS was a result of theft.

But I find the article poorly researched, and also a thinly veiled attempt to plug the author’s company and analysis tools. Childish comparisons of identifier names and code fragments… really? The issue was never verbatim copying but the extent to which QDOS (which is the operating system Microsoft purchased and renamed) was derived from CP/M. It is clear that it was heavily influenced by CP/M, just as CP/M was heavily influenced by its predecessors, including operating systems written for the PDP-11. Does this constitute infringement? I certainly do not believe so. Indeed, something very similar (albeit more formal) occurred a little later, when the first IBM-compatible “clones” hit the market, and companies like American Megatrends, Award and Phoenix created binary-compatible versions of the IBM PC BIOS using “clean room” reverse engineering.

Some online commenters went so far as to ascribe ulterior motives to the author and question his sincerity. I think that is uncalled for. However, I do believe that this article should not have been published in its present form. At the very least, the author should have been advised by competent editors to tone down the plugs; to do a little bit more research on the topic; and to shift the emphasis from meaningless code comparisons to an analysis of the functional similarities between the two operating systems, the possible origin of these similarities, and the question of whether or not they might constitute infringement (and the extent to which the law may have changed, if at all, in this regard between 1982 and 2012).

 Posted by at 5:40 pm
Aug 052012
 

Julian Assange might be a weird fellow, but until now, I had no reason to distrust Wikileaks.

But that was before Wikileaks concocted up a fake New York Times article, combined with a spoofed PAYPAL official blog site to back it up.

Now I regret having sent them money once. My respect for them was based on their perceived moral authority, taking considerably risks for the sake of public transparency. But apparently, their high moral standards apply only to others, not to themselves.

 Posted by at 7:27 pm
Jul 242012
 

Today would be the 115th birthday of Amelia Earhart, the pioneer female aviator. Google is celebrating with a Google Doodle, showing Ms. Earhart climbing onto a what appears to be a Lockheed Vega 5B (which is not the same as the famed two-engine Electra 10E in which she disappeared.)

Ms. Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937, during an attempt to circumnavigate the globe. The exact circumstances remain a mystery. At the request of her husband, she was declared legally dead on January 5, 1939, by a California court.

The reason why I looked up her official date of death was that I came across “the official Website” of Ms. Earhart. I put this in quotes because I found it odd that a person who disappeared 75 years ago can have an “official Website”, but then, what do I know? So I went and looked to see what the site was. While the site’s stated purpose is “to honor the life, the legend and the career of Amelia Earhart”, it is fairly evident that the real goal is to market the Earhart brand. Indeed, in the Site Purpose section, they warn would be users with stern language: “Any use of the name, image or likeness of Amelia Earhart , without the express written consent of the estate is strictly prohibited.”

Now I know precious little about personality rights in the United States, but I found this warning curious. Be it far from me to pick a fight with lawyers, but exactly who are these people doing the prohibiting, and on what grounds?

The site is marked “© Family of Amelia Earhart”, but the FAQ states that any e-mail sent through this site “goes to the webmaster of CMG Worldwide, the company that represents the name/image/likeness of Amelia Earhart”. So this is a full-fledged marketing operation. Nothing wrong with that (in fact, I appreciate their candor) but that still leaves my question unanswered: exactly what rights do they have to Ms. Earhart’s name?

Well, if Wikipedia can be believed: none. Had Ms. Earhart been domiciled in Indiana at the time of her death, her estate would hold the rights for another 27 years or so. But in California, the personality rights for a celebrity expire after 70 years. So to the best of my knowledge, Ms. Earhart’s likeness and indeed, anything related to her personality, are now in the public domain. (Not necessarily photographs. The copyright status of those may depend on when the photographer died.)

But then it occurred to me to check Ms. Earhart’s site using archive.org’s Wayback Machine. Unsurprisingly, the site has been in existence for many years. Although its visual style changed, much of the text remains the same, including text in the Site Purpose section. And back in 2003 (the date of the earliest version archived by the Wayback Machine) Ms. Earhart’s personality rights would still have been protected under California law.

Meanwhile, Ms. Earhart’s disappearance must remain a mystery for now. The latest expedition to locate her aircraft was called off as it ran into unexpected difficulties.

 Posted by at 9:01 am
Jun 202012
 

Parliament passed Bill C-11 Monday evening. That means that we are one Senate approval away from having a law in Canada that criminalizes acts such as watching a foreign DVD (even one with expired copyright!) using region-free software.

I am really ticked off about this. So much so that I am contemplating doing just that: breaking the law every day by watching a Hungarian DVD or ripping a DVD to my hard drive, and announce publicly what I have done.

But then… life is too short. There are more important things to be outraged about. And realistically, this government knows fully well that the letter of this law is unenforceable; that in reality, nothing has changed insofar as our daily lives are concerned, except that there is now one more law on the books under which all of us can be treated as criminals at the pleasure of the Powers That Be. Just what Ayn Rand warned us about.

Still, if someone were to start such a civil disobedience campaign, I would be sorely tempted to join it…

 Posted by at 3:01 pm
Jun 162012
 

Just as Canada is about to enact its most Draconian copyright law yet (yes, simply watching a foreign DVD using region-free software will make you a criminal) there are signs that the software gaming industry is finally seeing the light. Reportedly Marcin Iwinski, one of the founders of CD Projekt, known for their best selling Witcher game franchise, declared that “we will never use any DRM anymore”. The reason? Witcher 2 was cracked within two hours of its release. Perhaps that in itself is not particularly surprising, but consider this: this game was simultaneously released DRM-free on GOG.COM. But it was the DRM retail version that was cracked in two hours! “What really surprised me is that the pirates didn’t use the GOG version, which was not protected. They took the SecuROM retail version, cracked it,” said Iwinski.

The reality is that DRM only inconveniences legitimate law-abiding customers. You pay for the game, you get a copy crippled with a software component that might break your computer. You download the cracked version from a “warez” site, you get a DRM-free copy. What, pray tell, is the VALUE a legitimate customer gets in exchange for paying good money?

Finally, it seems that at least some in the gaming industry began to ask this very question. Perhaps one day, we may even be able to convince dinosaur politicians…

 Posted by at 12:24 pm