Chad Perrin: SOB

3 November 2009

Think Security

Filed under: Cognition,Geek,Metalog,Profession,Security,Writing — apotheon @ 04:18

A few days back, I quietly launched a new security Weblog I’ve decided to call Think Security, for lack of a better name. The inspiration for this new Weblog was actually a case of turning lemons into lemonade, so to speak, because it grew out of the desire to do something I was essentially being told I couldn’t do any longer in the venue where I have done so in the past.

That probably seemed pretty cryptic. I’ll try to be a little more direct:

I’m the primary IT Security writer for TechRepublic. Some things have been changing there in terms of how the site and its contributing writers (like me) are managed, and the way TR presents itself to the world. I suspect some of this has something to do with the fact that TR’s parent company, C|Net, was bought by CBS. That network of sites is now grouped under the heading of CBSi, or “CBS Interactive”, along with the rest of the CBS online presence.

One of the recent changes — a change that was announced just last week, in fact, and was apparently effective immediately — was a requirement for increasing the percentage of writing that constitutes “actionable content” to at least 75%. By my understanding of things, “actionable content” is basically corporate buzzword code for “howtos and checklists”. Apparently, the TR format is moving a little further away from things like news, opinion, and discussion of principles.

It’s that last part that really bothered me. I take a principles-based approach to security, because I believe (as I stated in the About the Site page at TS) that it is important for people to learn principles that will serve them well in a variety of circumstances rather than just memorize rote behaviors that are considered “industry best practices”, to be used once and thrown away without thinking about what you are actually doing in each step of the process or why you do it that way. The moment your focus on security has been reduced to knee-jerk reactions based on popular practices indoctrination, you have begun losing the battle for security.

I posted a new TS article today: Update Cautiously. If you are one of my readers at TR, I recommend you add TS to your reading list as well. In the future, material that is not appropriate for a given article of mine at TR because it is not specifically “actionable content” will get shunted into TS instead. In some cases, where I would previously have written an article for TR about principles first and, later, written one about specific implementation practice based on those principles, I will now write the former for TS and the latter for TR. The idea is to create a mutually complementary relationship between my articles at TS and TR, so that each will benefit from traffic directed to it from the other — and to actually better focus the direction taken with my articles in each venue.

This will mean a substantial increase in the amount of time and effort I have to put into writing security articles, of course. I expect it to double my article writing workload. It’s something I feel I need to do, though, because I am not content to merely let the principles of security I feel a need to share evaporate just because there isn’t enough room in TR amidst the actionable content any longer.

That’s not to say that TechRepublic is necessarily doing anything wrong. Every site needs its business model (if it’s a business) and its subject focus (unless it’s SOB, apparently). Without that focus, it becomes too scattered and vague in terms of the content it provides to really grab a strong, core readership, or to set itself goals for refining policy. It’s not like I haven’t written howtos and checklists for TR in the past, anyway. The increase in percentage of the total that needs to be actionable content, however, leaves a type of writing that is very important to me largely unaddressed. With the addition of Think Security to my lineup of writing outlets, this is ultimately more of an opportunity than a bandaid. The cure is, in this case, better than never having had the disease in the first place, to mangle a metaphor.

Of course, a little bit of real thinking will still sneak into my howtos and checklists at TR, I’m sure. In fact, it’s likely that my next article there will contain some hints of what I already said in Update Cautiously at TS.

Now that I think about it, though, it would be nice if this didn’t happen concurrently with National Novel Writing Month. My writing output already at least doubles in the month of November each year, even when I’m just using NaNoWriMo as campaign preparation for a roleplaying game, like I am this year. I’m not as serious about cranking out the word count this year, though, so if one of TR, TS, and NaNoWriMo has to get neglected this month, it’s not going to be either TR or TS.

In fact, so far I’m just kind of keeping pace with the daily necessities of being on track to complete 50,000 words in 30 days. Last year, I tended to stay quite a bit further ahead of the curve than that. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how it goes.

18 September 2009

Animal Metacognition

Filed under: Cognition,Liberty — apotheon @ 10:46

The Wall Street Journal featured the article, Among Dolphins, Tool-Using Handymen Are Women. Its subheadline reads:

In a Sign of Animal Ingenuity, the Marine Mammals — and One Cross-Dresser — Are Seen Making Hunting Implements

The facts presented in the article seemed to strongly imply that we should rethink the notion that dolphins are “mere” animals. They certainly seem to address the question of whether dolphins are capable of abstract reasoning, which is a characteristic of humans in the general case that helps to distinguish us from most of the rest of the animal kingdom at least. My criteria for whether we should treat some creature (humanoid or otherwise) as having ethical significance, of being considered to have rights per se, are somewhat different from the usual “Is it intelligent?” question that probably comes to most people’s minds, however.

I would limit such consideration to those beings capable not just of abstract reasoning, but of ethical reasoning. If they cannot reason about right and wrong, they have no more ethical significance than a pet. Surely, we should not be cruel to our pets, but that doesn’t mean that killing one is worthy of the appellation “murder”. A fair number of humans don’t even meet such criteria for ethical significance, though, as an accident of birth or later acquired defect, thus making mine an unpopular set of criteria.

A while back, I remember an occasion where a friend and I debated the matter of whether any animals might meet the criteria of ethical significance. Considering I have a stricter set of criteria for ethical significance than most, it might seem surprising that in this discussion I was the one suggesting that a nonhuman species has shown strong evidence of such ethical significance. In particular, I argued that while dogs (for instance) have only shown, first, signs of evolutionary development of pack behaviors, and second, that they are trainable, dolphins have exhibited behaviors that seem strongly indicative of making decisions on ethical grounds.

The friend — I’ll call him “Justin” for purposes of this discussion, since he isn’t online often enough for me to ask his permission to “out” him as the other party in the discussion — disagreed that any observed dolphin behavior really provided a convincing case for ethical reasoning. It was a long time ago, so I don’t really recall for sure, but I think Justin may have disagreed with me on the subject of what constitutes ethical significance, too; I think he found it strange that I’d exempt a sufficiently mentally limited (but still nominally functional) human from ethical significance.

The kinds of behaviors to which I referred in my arguments included acts of obvious, wanton cruelty, and apparent vindictiveness, neither of which really seemed to derive from any evolutionary benefit other than perhaps intelligence. That alone is not enough, however. Coupled with that was the fact that many cases of dolphins choosing to risk themselves to preserve the life of a human, particularly a child, have been documented. They have also been known to disagree on such matters, just as humans do on whether dolphins should be preserved from the dangers of tuna nets. Alas, I don’t have any links for such instances right now, in part because I haven’t found the earlier online discussions I’ve had on this subject.

All of this came to mind today when I stumbled across an article in Science Daily, Evidence Points To Conscious ‘Metacognition’ In Some Nonhuman Animals. The term “metacognition” refers to not just abstract reasoning, but reasoning so abstract that it encompasses reasoning about the act of reasoning. From the article:

[J. David] Smith recounts the original animal-metacognition experiment with Natua the dolphin. “When uncertain, the dolphin clearly hesitated and wavered between his two possible responses,” he says, “but when certain, he swam toward his chosen response so fast that his bow wave would soak the researchers’ electronic switches.

This description of a dolphin’s behavior shows some sign that it was considering the relevance and trustworthiness of its own thoughts in determining a correct answer. I recognize that behavior in myself from time to time, such as when I’m driving and pull up to a stoplight, considering whether I should get in the turn lane at this intersection or go straight and turn at the next intersection when my destination is further down a parallel street. As long as I don’t have another car behind me that I would hold up unnecessarily, I might let off the accelerator and coast forward, giving me more time to decide on a course of action, and find myself questioning my own reasoning.

Smith explains that metacognition is a sophisticated human capacity linked to hierarchical structure in the mind (because the metacognitive executive control processes oversee lower-level cognition), to self-awareness (because uncertainty and doubt feel so personal and subjective) and to declarative consciousness (because humans are conscious of their states of knowing and can declare them to others).

Doctor Smith understates the importance of this kind of research:

In fact, he concludes, “Metacognition rivals language and tool use in its potential to establish important continuities or discontinuities between human and animal minds.”

It is much more important than that, at least for me, because it draws much closer to definitively proving a case for calling the unnecessary killing of a dolphin “murder”, rather than simply an unjustified act of callousness.

In somewhat unrelated news, it seems that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor may be showing evidence of ethical reasoning, too! I find this even more surprising. I had initially thought her merely well-trained by societal pressures. Of course, it’s still possible this is just a particularly extreme form of far-leftist trained behavior, but it’s still encouraging.

(Thanks to medullaoblongata for pointing out the Sotomayor article, and to a long-ago Chipping the Web for the tool-using dolphins article.)

26 August 2009

The Mythology of Intellectual Property

Filed under: Cognition,Liberty,RPG,Writing — apotheon @ 04:41

Intellectual Property may be the most pernicious myth of our time. The lies, misunderstandings, and myths of Intellectual Property so obscure the truth about copyright, patent, and trademark law that even those of us who oppose such legalisms must still work to shake loose our last remaining illusions. It seems like every few months I stumble across yet another insight into the nature of so-called Intellectual Property that leaves me surprised I never noticed the flaw in my thinking, and aghast at how deeply rooted the mythology of Intellectual Property has become.

The Product of the Intellect Isn’t Property

The first, most obvious, and perhaps most difficult to fight among all the superstitions surrounding Intellectual Property is the notion that it is property at all — at least in the way people talk about it being a matter of property. People talk about “owning” copyright, and needing the protection of law to defend one’s ability to profit from what one “sells”. The truth of the matter is that copyright and property laws have nothing in particular to do with each other. They are entirely distinct bodies of law.

Even the law doesn’t recognize copyright as “property”. If you violate copyright laws, it is not called “theft”; it is called “copyright infringement”.

Here’s a quick litmus test for your notion that copyright is property: Why does copyright have a limited period under law, while property is forever? While you’re at it, look into the US Supreme Court rulings on the subject starting with Wheaton v. Peters.

People Who Oppose Copyright Aren’t Thieves

Try disabusing someone of notions of the “obvious” moral imperatives of copyright law in a public online discussion forum, and you will almost certainly find yourself being called a thief. The “argument” tends to go something like this load of claptrap:

[You] like to steal things that [you] like. [You] have come up with several longwinded rationalizations for why [you’re] entitled to have everything that anyone in the world creates without paying for it.

Cries of “Thief!” are apparently the equivalent of calling someone a Nazi when it comes to a discussion of the ethicality of copyright law. Similarly to Godwin’s law, we seem unable to escape from the Law of Copyright Discussion Fallacy: As a discussion of copyright law grows longer, the probability of someone’s argument being fallaciously dismissed as mere justification for theft approaches one. The thief card gets played more often and with greater certainty in discussions of copyright than the Nazi card ever did in Usenet, and it doesn’t prove a thing about the rightness or wrongness of copyright law. Try telling that to some self-satisfied copyright-wing conservative who isn’t willing to actually think through the opposing argument, however, and you will find yourself frustrated by the difficulties of teaching a pig to sing.

Patents Don’t Encourage Innovation

Milton Friedman once articulated the core economic fallacy of patent law quite clearly:

For one thing, there are many “inventions” that are not patentable. The “inventor” of the supermarket, for example, conferred great benefits on his fellowmen for which he could not charge them. Insofar as the same kind of ability is required for the one kind of invention as for the other, the existence of patents tends to divert activity to patentable inventions.

In short, patents don’t encourage innovation; they simply skew market activity toward patentable innovations.

I remember, back in the ’80s, that the Big Thing for eco-hippies to complain about was the vanishing rainforests. All kinds of crazy excuses were advanced for why we should stop the slash-and-burn farming practices of South America, including the lunatic notion that we’d destroy the Earth’s ability to renew the oxygen content in the air and we’d all end up suffocating as a result, completely ignoring the fact that the vast majority of plant-based oxygen production happened in the ocean. Such arguments ultimately only harmed the eco-hippies’ case, when arguments based on real concerns over vanishing rainforests would surely have been much more successful. One such crazy argument was that the cure for cancer could be hiding in that forest, waiting to be discovered, amongst its many uncategorized species of life, and all we had to do to preserve it is ensure that nobody ever destroys plants in the Amazon rainforest again (thus preventing them from finding the cure for cancer).

The real problem there, however, is that nobody will fund the search for a cure for cancer (or HIV, or ebola, or whatever) that comes from a natural source. Extracts from natural sources are not patentable. Only the process of creating synthetic compounds is patentable, which makes pharmaceutical research focus much more on developing salable synthetic compounds that require only the most minimal “innovation” rather than cures for the most problematic diseases. An artificial advantage has been granted to any pharmaceutical research firm whose focus is on convenience synthetics, creating a skewing of market forces away from pursuit of necessary cures regardless of source.

Copyright Isn’t the Natural State

People seem, for some reason, to think that copyright is an integral part of a natural state of property ownership. Self-styled libertarians in particular are often guilty of this line of thinking, particularly when the “we have rights because we own ourselves” set starts jawing about Intellectual Property. The truth is that copyright isn’t about property at all; it’s about censorship.

People may balk at the notion that copyright is censorship. They think of censorship as being something government does to suppress original speech. The truth of the matter, though, is that speech doesn’t have to be original to be censored. Simply repeating something you were told is a form of free speech — and if someone else said it first, that person has the power of law on his side to censor what you’re saying.

Even when confronted by obvious evidence of the fact that copyright is just a subset of censorship policy, as in the case of people who are threatened with DMCA takedown notices when they post customer service emails online while complaining about the company that sent the emails, people typically express their dismay that copyright is being “abused” to enact “censorship” when that’s “not what copyright is for at all”. Bad news, sweetie; that’s not abuse of copyright. That’s just the way copyright works.

Copyright is, in fact, such an unnatural state of affairs that it didn’t even exist as a policy until a mere 77 years before provision for copyright and patent law was written into the US Constitution, with England’s Statute of Anne.

Trademark Law Is Not Trouble-Free

Even many who oppose copyright and patent law subscribe to the notion that trademark law is the exception to the “Intellectul Property law is bad” rule. It seems clear, at first glance, that trademark law just protects us against fraudulent behavior — and for a while, I thought it was exempt from the problems of copyright and patent laws. The truth of the matter is much more insidious, however.

Trademark law is not at all necessary to protect us from such fraud. The law should simply recognize malicious deception as a violation of rights in and of itself, regardless of any trademark claims. Meanwhile, trademark law has been used as a means of circumventing grants of license when distributing derivative works. An accidental case of this sort of problem is that of the trademark brouhaha over Firefox that caused the Debian project to rebrand it as Iceweasel. A much more intentional and malicious case is that of the way some third-party publishers deal with the OGL.

Take a look at the “open content” and “product identity” statements accompanying the OGL inside your D&D-derived game books at some point in the future (if you have any). Many of them will contain severely limited language about what qualifies as “open content”, such as the following from the Iron Kingdoms Character Guide, published by Privateer Press:

“Open Game Content” means the game mechanic and includes the methods, procedures, processes and routines to the extent such content does not embody the Product Identity and is an enhancement over the prior art and any additional content clearly identified as Open Game Content by the Contributor . . .

This boils down to saying “Anything copyrightable isn’t Open Game Content unless we specifically say it is, and anything that falls more into the realm of patents is Open Game Content.” Considering that there’s already case law pointing out that anything that falls under the rubric of patent law isn’t subject to copyright anyway, Privateer Press is just saying “Yeah, all that OGL stuff? Fuck you.” The publisher is just trying to get away with something. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if WotC/Hasbro wanted to, it could destroy the entire Privateer Press line of Iron Kingdom RPG books and do some severe financial damage to this third-party publisher by taking it to court over violation of the OGL.

It gets worse when you see the Product Identity identification:

“Product Identity” means product and product line names, logos and identifying marks including trade dress; artifacts; creatures characters; stores, storylines, plots, thematic elements, dialogue, incidents, language, artwork, symbols, designs, depictions, likenesses, formats, poses, concepts, themes and graphic, photographic and other visual or audio representations; names and descriptions of characters, spells, enchantments, personalities, teams, personas, likenesses and special abilities; places, locations, environments, creatures, equipment, magical or supernatural abilities or efects, logos, symbols, or graphic designs; and any other trademark or registered trademark . . .

Hell, I’m probably violating their asinine license-violating version of the license by discussing it with you, all because of this misuse of “product identity” — which is essentially a euphemism for “pseudo-trademark”. For those of you familiar with Microsoft’s antics, think “look and feel”.

Plagiarism Isn’t a Subset of Copyright Law

Plagiarism is deception. Copyright infringement is copying. Even giving credit to someone is copyright infringement if you copy the part of the work that gives credit to the original author. Ironically, leaving out attribution for the original author actually reduces the amount of copyright infringement of which you’re guilty. I have no fucking clue how anyone can possibly think that eliminating copyright law is the same as endorsing plagiarism. If you copy something and redistribute it, as long as you don’t claim you created it when in fact someone else did, you aren’t committing plagiarism.

For some incredibly stupid and unfathomable reason, some people actually think that without copyright law plagiarism is “okay”, though.

Copyright Law is Not Enforceable

I recommend giving my recent TechRepublic article The Pirate Bay is back with a vengeance (which you’d already know about from an email if you were involved in the copyfree community . . .) for more on this subject. I’ve written about it before, and don’t feel like padding the word-count of this SOB entry much more.

And So On

I’m sure I’ve left a lot out that I could say. I could write a book on the subject, but you’re not here to read a book, and I have other stuff to do tonight — like eat dinner and do some work on some RPG materials (which I will be releasing under an open content license when it is “done enough” to bother, most likely the Open Works License).


I am not a lawyer. None of this is legal advice.

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All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License