Open Source 1, Proprietary Software 0

I bought a new HP laptop this week after my old one died.  I decided on the HP after looking at Macs, Dells, Lenovos, and a few others.  I was tempted but couldn’t justify the extra expense of the Mac, both for the computer itself and for the Windows XP or Vista I would need to run the PC-specific software I use.  The HP dv3 weighs about 4.5 pounds and has all the space, speed, and features I need from a laptop.   Like most PCs these days it came with software pre-installed that I immediately including  Norton Anti-Virus and a demo edition of Microsoft Office Suite.  I’ve committed to weaning myself from Word, Excel, and Power Point and using the OpenOffice Suite.  It is open source, opens documents created in Microsoft Office, saves documents in multiple formats including .doc and .xls, fully-featured, and free.  I’ve been using it on my desktop PC for about a month.  Its menu is similar to Word but not identical, so there is a learning curve.  After 20 minutes trying to format and print labels I put that learning experience aside and printed them from Word, where I know all of the steps.  I’ll conquer that task another day.  It feels very good not to pay Microsoft–or any company–the hundreds of dollars I would spend on Office 2007.

OpenDNS

With Security at Risk, A Push to Patch the Web in today’s NY Times reminded me about OpenDNS, a free domain name system service.  The article, which deals with a serious security flaw discovered in the operation of the domain name system earlier this year by Dan Kaminsky, an Internet security expert, notes that individuals and small businesses can protect themselves from the flaw by using OpenDNS.   I configured my home network router for OpenDNS a few years ago and never thought about it again.  The router failed six months ago and, reading this article this morning, I realized I never changed the default server settings on the new router to use OpenDNS.  Making and implementing the changes took just a few minutes.  The OpenDNS site provides simple instructions for configuring popular routers and changing DNS settings in Macs, PCs, and other devices.  Take five minutes and do it.

Isn’t It Ironic

I’ve determined the cause of my recent PC problems, in which Windows XP gets hung up while rebooting: Windows XP Service Pack 3. I isolated the other variables and allowed Windows to download and install XP SP3 and reboot, and it never completed rebooting. It took another hour-plus to restore Windows to a pre-Service Pack 3 time when everything worked, and even with that I spent another half-hour reinstalling device drivers. Just another day in PC world. My fingers were itching to dial the Apple store during the entire ordeal.

PC2: Potential Convert

I think I have fixed my PC problems, which means I’m 70% confident that the computer will return to functioning status each time I reboot. The fix–not cure, fix–came by doing a Windows XP repair reinstallation, updating device drivers, and applying other Microsoft spells and rituals of which Mac owners live in blissful ignorance. Like Eve with her apple I began to fall under Mac owners’ spell, to the point where I planned a visit to the local Apple store Thursday night if the pc had not rebooted properly. Reboot properly it had; I was disappointed, although happy not to spend $2,500. I expect that day will come. It’s just a matter of time.

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PS: From the 5/1 Business Week: The Mac in the Gray Flannel Suit

PC: Problems Compounded

I am involved in my annual computer meltdown. Every year since 2004–every single year–I’ve had major computer problems sometime between mid-April and mid-May. This is a particularly bad time for me compared to, say, July–and yes, I have PCs. (I hear chuckles from the Mac users. You know who you are.) Over the years I’ve seen Blue Screens of Death (a Windows crash-and-reinstall and hard drive failures on a desktop and laptop), fatal driver incompatibilities, and this year’s endless reboot hang-up. I caused it, apparently, by moving the computer in my home office. I failed to replug all of the USB peripherals into the exact same ports they’d previously enjoyed and, when I turned the computer on again. Windows XP played the role of xenophobic INS agent to a non-resident alien. “This USB connection wants to be part of your computer. I don’t trust it. If you allow it then anything bad that happens is ALL YOUR FAULT.” It warned me thus about 20 times and, when I rebooted, Windows got hung up, the little progress bar cycling endlessly as if it was working overtime to compensate for my irresponsible ownership. Since Sunday I’ve fiddled with registry clean-ups, system restore points–a friend said that if I keep restoring to earlier points soon I’ll be using DOS (students may be too young to remember DOS. It was the earliest Microsoft operating system. One booted up by turning a hand crank)–and have twice installed Windows XP Service Pack 3. Right now I’m reinstalling Windows XP. I’m not optimistic. A sledgehammer might be next.

These problems are less problematic than in the past because I’m obsessive about protecting my data. My redundant backups have redundant backups.

I browsed Macs at the Apple store a few weeks ago. I’m not there. Not yet.

Apple Apostasy

A month ago the media was filled with stories about the New Jersey teenager who hacked the iPhone to work on cell carriers other than AT&T. Not one of the dozen or so articles I read then addressed the most obvious questions: Won’t this hack invalidate the iPhone’s warranty? Isn’t this hack vulnerable to an Apple counter-hack? Doesn’t it violate the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provisions? Last week, after Apple issued a software update that turned hacked iPhones into $400 paperweights, the media was filled with headlines such as this from the New York Times: Altered iPhones Freeze Up

Duh. Without reading the iPhone’s Terms of Use I know that Apple’s contract specifically prohibits the carrier-switch hack and disclaims liability for user installation of non-approved software on the iPhone. I know because such provisions are boilerplate in retail tech products licenses and contracts and Apple is as PC–programatically correct–as any tech company. Exhibit 1 is iTunes, which is easy and intuitive and countenances almost no user modification of how it chooses to organize your music on your hard drive. Which makes statements like this from an editor of Gizmodo just silly: “[Disabling a phone] instead of just relocking it . . . is going way too far; I’d call it uncharacteristically evil.” Irritating, annoying, consumer-unfriendly, reason not to buy another Apple product, maybe, but since when does naked pursuit of economic self-interest upset techies? Maybe this is a corollary of last week’s a liberal is a conservative who has been arrested: “a consumer advocate is a techie whose hacked iPhone has been bricked.”

Speech, Chilled

Johns Hopkins student Justin Park posted on Facebook an invitation to attend his fraternity’s “Halloween in the Hood” party. After the school’s director of Greek Affairs notified Park that he found the invitation to be offensive Park removed it, replacing it with another that eliminated (in Park’s estimation) the troublesome language. The second invitation played up the school’s concerns over the first, made fun of O.J. Simpson and Johnnie Cochran, and referred to Baltimore as an “HIV” pit. Members of the Hopkins’ Black Student Union attended the party and found its themes offensive. Soon thereafter the associate dean of students notified Park that he was charged with “failing to respect the rights of others,” violating the university’s anti-harassment policy, “failure to comply with the directions of a university administrator,” “conduct or a pattern of conduct that harasses a person or group,” and “intimidation.” Following a hearing Johns Hopkins suspended Park for year, required him to complete 300 hours of community service, attend a university workshop, and read twelve books and write a paper on each. Johns Hopkins also adopted a new, stricter speech code than the one Park violated, one that announces ““[r]ude, disrespectful behavior is unwelcome and will not be tolerated.” (Source: Grug Lukianoff and Will Creeley, Facing Off Over Facebook, The Phoenix, 27-Feb-2007) [Lukianoff and Creeley are the president and senior program officer, respectively, of the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education]

Johns Hopkins is a private institution. The First Amendment does not apply to its speech-limiting actions. It is free to establish and enforce a code of acceptable speech according to its internal disciplinary policies. This is not a First Amendment case, but it is a free speech case.

University speech codes are an abomination. In theory a speech code can help shield a school from liability for discrimination claims brought under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. But, just as employers generally adopt and enforce zero-tolerance sexual harassment policies that are more restrictive than the current state of sexual harassment law, university speech codes often limit speech that would not be actionable under Title IX. Such over-reaching codes are almost impossible to enforce as written, and are honored only in the breach. The result is uneven enforcement and furthering of a climate of crabbed, truncated, too-cautious speech. If there is any place where diversity of opinion, thought, and speech should be nurtured, it is in a university. Who to blame? The Phoenix article notes “the campus free-speech movement of the 1960s and ’70s was highly successful. The sad irony is that many from the generation that fought so hard for free speech in the ’60s and ’70s were the pioneers of speech codes and PC restrictions in the ’80s and ’90s and that we still see today.”

You’re welcome, kids.

Porn Conviction Causes Outrage

This is a strange case. Based on the reported facts the result is so wrong, so unfair, that at first I questioned their accuracy. Subsequent articles confirm the story. Julie Amero is a substitute teacher in Norwich, Connecticut. In October 2004 she substituted in a 7th-grade class at Kelly Middle School in Norwich. Before class started she used a classroom computer to email her husband. She left the classroom for a moment. When she returned two students were using the computer to look at new-hair-styles.com. She sent them away from the computer and started class. A short while later pornographic images began popping up on the computer monitor. She tried unsuccessfully to close them but did not turn off the computer because she had been told to leave it on. Students saw images of naked men and women, including an image of a couple engaged in oral sex. The prosecution claimed that Amero caused the images to appear by clicking on a web site. Amero’s defense argued that malware installed on the computer before the day in question caused the pornographic images. On these facts a jury last month convicted Amero, after a three-day trial, of impairing the morals of a child. She faces a sentence of up to 40 years. Juror Mark Steinmetz was quoted after trial: “So many kids noticed this going on . . . It was truly uncalled for. I would not want my child in her classroom. All she had to do was throw a coat over it or unplug it. We figured even if there were pop-ups, would you sit there?” John Christoffersen, Substitute Teacher’s Porn Conviction Sparks Tech Debate, Law.Com, 14-Feb-07 (Subscription Required)

I think she would have received a lesser sentence for selling crack in the classroom.

Amero’s conviction has provoked outrage. For a representative sample see here, here, here, and here. Among the jaw-dropping facts and allegations:

  • The prosecution failed to examine the computer for the presence of spyware, which could generate images without a user electing to do so.
  • The computer was running Windows98 and Internet Explorer 5.0, its antivirus software had expired, and it lacked firewall and antispyware protection. This security-challenged computer ran unprotected in a 7th-grade public school classroom.
  • The trial judge did not allow Amero’s expert witness to complete testimony that Amero did not cause the images to appear.

It seems the jury applied a strict liability standard: Amero was the adult in the room when the porn bomb went off, so she is guilty.

Keeping the Moat Up

Earlier this week the China Internet Network Information Center issued its annual report, estimating China had 137 million Internet users aged 6 or older who spend at least one hour a week online. That’s about ten percent of China’s population and represents growth of over 23% compared to 2005’s numbers. The next day Chinese Premier Hu Jintao, in a speech to a Communist Party Internet study group, urged creation of more content “that is in good taste” and promotes Chinese culture. The goal, he said, is to “promote civilized running and use of the Internet and purify the Internet environment.” (See stories here and here.)

“Purify”–that’s a loaded word to western ears. China maintains strict control over the Internet within its borders, blocking access to certain foreign websites and running what is, in essence, an intranet. In the words of Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu in Who Controls the Internet, “physically, the Internet within China looks more and more like a giant office network, centralized by design.” What is paradoxical, from a western perspective, is that China’s political control goes hand-in-hand with dynamic utilization of the Chinese network as a platform for e-commerce. Businesses, online and offline, must accommodate–or, at least, not alienate–China’s control over political expression.

In light of that, the Yahoo story linked above ads an interesting note: Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and Vodafone Group recently agreed with the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, the EFF, Reporters Without Borders, and other organizations to establish a Code of Conduct to promote freedom of expression and privacy rights around the globe. It is unclear how participation in the Chinese market will square with this code’s objectives.

For posts on global press freedom see here and here

Online Gaming Smorgasbord

The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act has created interesting ripples. Before the recent election there was speculation that the Republican-sponsored Act, which imposes civil and criminal penalties on financial institutions that process transactions with online gaming sites, could affect the fortunes of some house races. “‘I’ve been a loyal Republican for over 30 years, and I’m quitting the party I once loved,’ said Jim Henry, 55, who lives outside San Francisco. ‘Not because of the Mark Foley scandal or Middle East policy. But because the Republican Party wants to stop me from what I love to do: play poker over the Internet.'” The Republicans, of course, lost the control of both houses of Congress, although I’ve read nothing that suggests opposition to the Act materially affected the outcome. Reactions to the Act underscore a split in Republican voters, between religious conservatives who oppose gambling on moral grounds and libertarians who object to government regulation of a private recreational activity.(1)

Since President Bush signed it into law on October 13 the Act has had serious financial consequences for online gaming companies. Traffic to Internet gaming sites by U.S. residents dropped 56% in the month following the Act’s passage and companies such as Sportingbet PLC (60% U.S.-based business) and Party-Gaming PLC (80% U.S.-based business). Investors sold off shares of publicly traded gambling companies; PartyGaming PLC saw more than half of its market capitalization disappear (£2 billion), Sportingbet PLC lost £500 million, and other publicly-trade companies experienced major losses.(2) Companies like PokerStars continue to operate, offering online poker games that they argue are games of skill, not chance, and therefor outside the Act’s reach.(2)

Meanwhile, BetOnSports PLC settled a civil lawsuit filed by the U.S. Attorney in St. Louis by agreeing (a) not to take any bets from U.S. residents, (b) to take out advertisements in U.S. newspapers telling readers that online gambling is illegal in the United States, and (c) to establish a toll-free number to advise customers how to obtain refunds of wagers placed before the suit was filed. BetOnSports, which did not admit any wrongdoing in settling the case, said it plans to concentrate its business on the Asian market. BetOnSport’s CEO David Carruthers, who was arrested in July along with other BetOnSports employees for conspiracy, fraud, and racketeering charges, still faces criminal charges and is in custody in St. Louis.(3)

The U.S. has also stepped-up enforcement of existing criminal statutes. One week ago law enforcement officials announced the prosecution of a “billion-dollar-a-year gambling ring,” charging 27 people with “enterprise corruption, money laundering, and promoting gambling.” The gambling ring allegedly centered on a web site through which bettors, supplied with a secret code, could track bets placed with bookies on football, baseball, basketball, and other sports. Police say that defendant James Giordino, the putative mastermind, ran the gambling operation from a laptop that he never let out of his sight–until he left it behind in his hotel room while attending a wedding on Long Island in 2005. Police hacked into the computer (presumably subject to a warrant) and discovered information that led to the recent arrests. Prosecutor seek forfeiture of $500 million in assets.(4)

  1. Adam Goldman, Did Republicans overplay their hand with the anti-Internet gambling bill? FindLaw, 2-Nov-06
  2. Sean F. Kane, New Legislation Forces Gaming Sites to Decide When to Hold ‘Em and When to Fold ‘Em, Internet Law & Strategy, 3-Nov-06; Associated Press, Traffic to online gambling sites drops in wake of new U.S. law, SiliconValley.com, 14-Nov-06
  3. Associated Press, U.S., BetOnSports Settle Civil Case, 10-Nov-06, The Wall Street Journal; CBS/AP, 11 Charged in Web Gambling Crackdown, CBSNews.com, 18-Jul-06
  4. Associated Press, Criminal charges brought over online gambling, MSNBC.com, 15-Nov-06