Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Have CAPTCHAs gone slightly too far...?

I like a bit of security just like the next man. But I wonder if this piece of "security" is going slightly too far. It appears that in order to make a posting on Facebook, we are now required to fill in a CAPTCHA consisting of words in two different alphabets...?

Now, I was trying to decide if this was some kind of perverse general knowledge test, or the latest CIA "initiative" to track down terrorists. Mention the wrong keyword and show an ability to type Arabic, and you're suddenly on the list of America's most wanted...?

(Oh, and even if I could have read Arabic, I would have still got stuck with the mysterious blob on the left. Answers to that one a postcard...)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Why lawmakers' ignorance matters

The other day I blogged on the apparent ignorance shown towards what is now basic technology infrastructure by members of a committee hearing in the current UK libel law reform case.

It appears that our lawmakers, possibly with similar knowledge of Internet infrastructure to those on the libel reform committee, have now allowed us to reach a stage where putting a link on a web site is an extraditable offence. I'm just going by what I've read in the media and cannot confirm any of the details. And the aforementioned article doesn't appear to mention What Law Has Actually Been Broken. But if true, I am slightly curious as to why the focus of the Powers That Be is on removing sites linking to the offending material rather than just removing that material from the sites hosting it. If I put a note on my web site saying "There's illegal stuff on the Internet and if you do a Google search for it you might find it", is that also illegal...?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The lawmaking process and technology

A process is currently underway in the UK to reform the libel law. Before people outside the UK click their "back" button thniking this is just a piece of local trivia, I'd like to suggest that the procedure highlights some more general symptoms of how the Internet may be understood (or not) by those involved in the lawmaking process which are probably applicable in many countries.

In this session, various members of the science community who have in one way or another been on the receiving end of libel cases (notably Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre for their attempts to alert the public to instances of bogus medicine) give their opinion on changes that they believe should be included in the reform. Very telling are several instances where they appear to be educating the panel on some basic concepts about the Internet, blogs and ISPs. Some key points to look out for:

- at 17'50, where Simon Singh is practically describing what the Internet is
- at 18'10, where Ben Goldacre is pretty much explaining what a blog is, and making some very fundamental statements about how basic and prevalent they are to the Internet
- at 18'27, where it is asked what the witnesses think of a "Prior system whereby a claimant could write to a web host ... and the web host would be under the obligation to put up a notice alongside the story", and Ben is forced to explain some extremely basic information about the relationship between ISPs and their clients.

Now on the one hand, I should emphasise that I don't begrudge this level of transparency in a world where not all citizens are so fortunate in seeing their lawmaking process in action. On the other hand... I worry about how this demonstration of an apparent oblivion to basic technology and "social infrastructure" is going to be translated into a new law that truly fulfils the wishes of those calling for reform.

Making the difference with lego

There are various methods for evaluating a polynomial. But perhaps one that may not have occurred to you is to build a difference engine out of lego. According to this story in Wired, that's the approach that Andrew Carol decided to take.

Whether further lego difference engines will be built is not yet clear. A difference engine is currently used in the banking sector as part of the processing of international transfers as, despite adding several days on to the time taken for transfers to complete in some cases, difference engines are deemed to be more reliable than conventional microprocessors. However, banking officials openly admit that the decision to use a solid gold difference engine has prohibited rolling out similar machines across Europe to speed up transactions. Now that this cheaper, lego version is available, industry leaders may be looking to see whether it has the reliability required to allow the rolling out of these cheaper machines and hence enable banks to speed up the processing of international transfers. However, it is unlikely that a decision will be reached before 2012. For the time being, those of us transferring money between accounts in different countries will have to continue to wait up to 5 days for transfers to complete.