Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Next up: A lock-picking contest for students

Saturday, June 1st, 2013

I often read news stories about the special kind of foolishness exhibited by schools.  They leave me scratching my head wondering, what were they thinking?  How could they have possibly believed this was a good idea?  Most of the time, these stories concern hysterical overreactions to trivial misbehaviors, lame-brained “zero tolerance” policies, and dumb grading practices (such as half credit for zero work). 

Then I came across the story of a nearby school (Peru, Indiana) deliberately encouraging criminal behavior.  In this case, a misguided employee of the district decided it would be a great idea to interest students in the wholesome pursuit of computer hacking.  We’re not talking about hacking a game to inflate a player’s score.  Nor are we talking about hacking Lego Mindstorms or Roomba vacuum cleaners to add functionality.  No, we’re talking about a contest to see who could be the first to hack into the school’s computer network.

The entire hacker subculture is predicated on the idea that breaking and entering is acceptable if it happens in cyberspace.  This is not the legal view, of course.  Hackers – when caught – are routinely tried and sentenced to prison terms for breaking into servers.  In a recent case a “brilliant” hacker, who believed that his special cause justified his assault on servers at MIT, committed suicide rather than face the consequences of his clearly illegal enterprise.  Is this a culture to which we want to introduce our children?  Peru High School thinks it is.

The excuses are pretty flimsy: “They’re going to be sitting in the dark at home finding bad ways to use their skills.”  The solution to this alleged problem is to enhance those skills by substituting a “good” way to use them.  This is the same “they’re going to do it anyway” reasoning that leads to taxpayer-funded condoms for 12-year-olds (no parental consent required).

The employee responsible for the contest also claimed that “It tells us how much our students might know, how much danger they pose to our network.”  This sounds plausible on the surface, but in reality, it’s just lazy.  Current students are hardly the only threat.  For example, in a famous case involving an East German spy, the first step to gain entry into U.S. military networks was to hack into a server used by astronomers at Lawrence Labs at UC Berkeley. 

Learning the limitations of current students yields no useful information anyway – a student actually finding an unknown vulnerability would be bad news indeed.  Any network administrator should learn and apply best practices to securing the school’s servers and not worry about what complete amateurs (the winner “didn’t know anything when she started the contest”) might be able to do.

The contest was presented as an exercise in computer security, with students challenged to “inspect the security of [a client’s] network and find any potential security risks”.  But learning how to pick a lock does not confer the knowledge to design a better one.  Hacking was the only skill required and success in hacking was the only obvious outcome.

As a software developer for 40 years, I can understand why the programmer who ran the contest might enjoy putting this challenge before students.  But as a professor for 20 of those years, I have to ask, where were the teachers?  What professional educator thought it would be a good idea to promote skills that are used almost exclusively by criminals?

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Thoughts on Lance Armstrong

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

A lot of the discussion about Lance Armstrong is about ends justifying means, whether he deserves any credit for the LIVESTRONG Foundation, and so on.  Most commentators want to paint him either black or white.  Like most of life, it’s just not that simple:

The second does not justify the first; the first does not invalidate the second.  He did wrong; he did right.  Me too.  The difference between us is that his worst was worse than mine and his best was better than mine.

Shame on you, Lance Armstrong.  And thanks.

Posted in Culture, Sports | 1 Comment »

No More Monuments

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

Every time someone speaks or writes the name of the evil little worm who turned our attention to Sandy Hook Elementary School, a stone is added to his monument.  One day, another evil little worm, who is as willing to violate gun control laws as he to violate laws against murder, will decide he wants a bigger monument.  God help us all.

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Romney v. Big Bird

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

People seem to be all excited about Romney’s pledge to cut funding for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).  Perhaps he should have said that he would cut funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) which in turn helps fund PBS. Funding for PBS is rather tangled.  For example, much of its support comes from member stations which also receive funding from the federal government via other, less visible avenues.  I suspect Romney picked PBS because more viewers would understand what he was talking about.  But eliminating CPB would be a good start.  Why?  There are at least two reasons. 

First, there is no Constitutional warrant for the federal government to provide financial support for either the arts or journalism.  There are lots of really rich Americans who, according to Obama, are paying practically nothing in taxes.  They could easily increase their support for the arts; there is no need for the feds to be a part of it.  Besides, being generous and visible patrons of the arts might make the 1-percenters smaller targets in the class war Obama and the Democrats promote.

Government funding of journalism (or what passes for journalism in PBS-land) is a much more troubling than propping up Big Bird or Great Performances.  The First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press because the Framers – wisely – didn’t trust government.  While they created a system of checks and balances within the government, the only check on the government as a whole was intended to be a free press.  It is obvious that a press beholden to government handouts is not free.  It is equally obvious to anyone who watches or listens that PBS and National Public Radio (NPR) know not to bite the hand that feeds them and the fail to act as watchdogs on the whole of government.

The second and much greater reason to get rid of CPB lies in the nature of the beast itself. CPB describes itself as “a private corporation funded by the America people”.  It should be obvious to even the most ardent supporters of Big Bird and Jim Lehrer that this is fundamentally wrong.  After all, what do you suppose they would say if the “private corporation funded by the America people” were Caterpillar or Shell Oil?

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Forgiveness by any other name is still liberating

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

One reason that I don’t understand why some Christians fear open-ended scientific investigation is that there is only one source of truth – God.  Every path that leads in the direction of truth leads in the direction of God.  Any open-minded researcher who does not contort his particular path to point in a philosophically preferred direction will inch closer to that one source, even if that source is itself supernatural and therefore beyond the reach of science.

So I would expect (and have seen countless times) that observations in the secular world often confirm truths revealed in the Bible.  Paul Graham is a computer scientist/entrepreneur who has provided examples – very likely unintended – in his essay “The Top Idea in Your Mind".  He says of forgiveness (“it doesn’t deserve space in my head”),

Turning the other cheek turns out to have selfish advantages. Someone who does you an injury hurts you twice: first by the injury itself, and second by taking up your time afterward thinking about it. If you learn to ignore injuries you can at least avoid the second half. I’ve found I can to some extent avoid thinking about nasty things people have done to me by telling myself: this doesn’t deserve space in my head. I’m always delighted to find I’ve forgotten the details of disputes, because that means I hadn’t been thinking about them.

As both an entrepreneur and professional problem-solver, Graham appreciates the utility of free-floating thought – “what you think about when you take a shower in the morning”.  These thoughts are driven by our “top idea”, i.e. the most pressing or interesting problem we are confronting.  His experience matches my own exactly, so I assume it’s fairly common (although the setting may differ).  As he observes,

You can’t directly control where your thoughts drift. If you’re controlling them, they’re not drifting. But you can control them indirectly, by controlling what situations you let yourself get into. That has been the lesson for me: be careful what you let become critical to you. Try to get yourself into situations where the most urgent problems are ones you want think about.

Graham points to money and disputes as especially destructive “top ideas” – a short list that ought to resonate loudly with Christians.  Money and disputes (relationships and forgiveness) are important topics in the Bible generally and in Jesus’ teaching in particular.  Graham’s observations provide practical guidance to Christians:  Don’t focus on money and attend to our relationships; this will make room for a better “top idea”.  Pursue God’s will for our lives and let him pick the problem that our drifting thoughts will attend to.

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Is the World Cup over yet?

Monday, July 5th, 2010

I know; it still drags on for a few more days. What little interest I had evaporated when the U.S. team lost to Ghana. I watched about 15 minutes of that match, an experience that only confirmed my dislike of watching soccer in general and the World Cup in particular

What I hated about watching this World Cup

Why I think soccer is a lousy spectator sport

I know that ESPN and millions of soccer moms have done all they can to make us want to watch soccer, but they have failed. Yes, I’ll watch my grandson play, but I’ll watch him play Go Fish too. The appeal is the kids, not the game; the experience does not translate into a desire to watch grown men who are not my grandson. Soccer is mostly just boring to watch – scoring is rare, teams are often content to play to a tie, and the game consists mostly of watching people running up and down a very large field chasing and kicking a ball. Leaving aside auto racing (which may not be a sport at all), I find at least four sports much more interesting to watch:

Things I dislike about soccer in general

At least this foolishness only happens every four years. ESPN will continue to promote soccer, with off-year tournaments, English soccer leagues, and America’s own irrelevant MLS, but it should be less intrusive. Until 2014 of course.

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Posted in Culture, Sports | 1 Comment »

Unlike Solomon, Supreme Court divides the living baby

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

The First Amendment, the first of the ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution known collectively as the Bill of Rights, is short:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

On Monday, the Supreme Court cut the living – if nearly comatose – First Amendment in half.  In Christian Legal Society v. Martinez the court announced its decision that you can have freedom of assembly or free exercise of religion, but not both.  Briefly stated, the Supreme Court ruled that the Christian Legal Society at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco cannot bar from leadership any student – Muslim, atheist, Wiccan – on the campus.  If the Christian students at Hastings want to peaceably assemble, they must give up the free exercise of their religion.

The fascism of the left has grown suddenly more powerful. 

You can read the legal society’s summary of the case here.  Some useful commentaries can be found at Human Events, Beliefnet, and First Things/On the Square.

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