Saturday, December 27, 2008

So Close...

British Culture Secretary Andy Burnham wants to apply movie-style ratings to websites. His plan is to have major ISPs provide child-friendly services based on these ratings. He's getting close to a good idea, but he's not quite there.

He also begins with a false premise:

“It worries me - like anybody with children,” he says. “Leaving your child for two hours completely unregulated on the internet is not something you can do."
Leaving your child for two hours completely unregulated on the internet is not something you should do. You shouldn't leave your child for two hours to watch television unsupervised, either.

Here's the problem. You're going to try to separate out websites that are child-friendly, or age-range friendly, from other sites. Trying to do this via government regulation is doomed to failure. What if the content of a site changes? What about sites where comments are allowed? Take a site like Bad Astronomy, run by Dr. Phil Plait. Phil generally keeps it PG, if not G, but very occassionally he'll slip in some saltier language. The commenters do, too, but are generally good. What rating do you give this site? Who is going to validate the ratings that sites are given?

Another problem is that you're pushing the enforcement (at least partially) onto the ISPs. If they have to provide different levels of service, that involves either redundant networking or filters that run on all traffic, based on the subscriber. The redundant networking might be the cheaper option, since it doesn't require a lookup over a possibly-sparse set of subscribers for every packet or session. Plus, at the ISP level, you're probably going to be stuck with a pared-down internet or no filtering. That means keeping your children "safe" locks you out of quite a number of useful sites, even if the kids aren't even in the house.

There's a market solution here, and it could be implemented fairly easily without any government regulation or intervention. I call it .ratedg, or for the more network-geeky of you out there, RATEDG-DOM. The idea is that a new top-level domain (TLD) is created, where the sites are vetted initially and periodically for standards of content. On end-user computers, optional filtering software would be installed that only allows connections to sites in the .ratedg TLD. Traffic to other TLDs, or to numeric IP addresses, would be blocked. This isn't completely trivial, since all connections have to be addressed numerically, but a local DNS cache could handle this.

The TLD would be maintained by a nonprofit organization, which is funded by the fees paid by sites wishing to be listed. Some accommodation would need to be made for sites of nonprofits, hobbyists, and other cash-short groups. The fees could, for instance, be determined site-by-site based on the website's circumstances. This adds complexity, of course, but is not insurmountable.

The filtering could be provided by free software (funded by governments, the nonprofits, or volunteers), and disabled by password so that adults can have less-fettered access. One drawback of this is that software-based filters are notoriously susceptible to circumvention by clever youngsters. Of course, you're not letting your kids surf unsupervised, are you? The filter provides you with a no-accidental-bad-stuff net. You see the "Rated G" certification immediately, and if you click on a .com, .edu, .org, or whatever link by mistake, the filter blocks it for you with a friendly warning.

Another option, perhaps better for parents who insist on letting their children use the internet unsupervised, is a hardware filter. This would be inserted into your computer either between the network interface card and the wire, or between the card and the rest of the system (the latter is probably better). Filtering is now physically enforced by a key, which the parents can carry along with them. The case would have to be locked, as well, to keep the filter card from being removed.

This system also has extensibility. A RATEDPG-DOM could be created as well, or TLDs corresponding to other countries' standards. A hierarchy of allowed TLDs would arise naturally: a filter set for PG websites would allow both .ratedpg and .ratedg.

Note also that this would not force sites out of other TLDs that are otherwise descriptive. We already have websites that are in both, say .com and Having disney.ratedg would not preclude the same site being available via, though Disney would probably maintain pieces of its website other-than the G-rated portion.

Enforcement places some burden, but again the registration fees help fund this. It isn't feasible to completely verify a site's content, certainly not with any great frequency, but a combination of random compliance checks and public problem reporting can have great impact. If, say, Goggle contributes some of its resources to compliance monitoring, a much more complete picture could be obtained.

There are potential problems with this solution, as there are with any solutions. Filtering based on TLD punishes sites that do not or cannot register, and students who need access to information on non-registered sites. The Smithsonian Institution comes to mind, since there's likely to be photos of art that some would consider inappropriate for children. As the popularity of .ratedg grows, non-registered but compliant sites would feel pressure to register. Other sites might re-structure their content into G-rated and non-G-rated components, on separate IP addresses (though not necessarily different hosts). Still, other volunteer-run educational but not specifically child-oriented would likely be excluded. I'm sure there are other potential problems as well.

So that's my suggestion. It's an opt-in filtering system, both on the user and content provider ends. ISPs don't need to add or modify infrastructure. Governments don't need to add regulation or oversight. At-home implementation could be done by either hardware or software. The system is extensible. Implementation can be phased in, and some of the technical design could precede full implementation (such as prototype software that filters on .org or .edu). Since it doesn't require a strong-arm approach or extensive new infrastructure, the whole system could probably be implemented and deployed in under a year.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Newtonmas!

For someone who's 366, he's holding up pretty well. Sure, he doesn't do so well with very heavy objects and can't move too quickly, but he still puts in a fairly reliable showing.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Natural

There's currently a lawsuit filed that claims President-Elect Barack Obama is not eligble to be President because his father being Kenyan means Obama isn't a natural born citizen, as required by the Constitution. The case (on appeal to the Supreme Court, which is not likely to be hear it) hinges on the fact that "natural born citizen" never seems to have been defined. It would, in a way, be nice for the Supreme Court to weigh in on this, for the sake of precedent.

Here's what I'd consider a reasonable set of criteria to be eligible for the Presidency:

  • Either:
    1. at least one parent was a U.S. citizen at time of birth; or
    2. the person was born in the United States of America (yes, I'm excluding territories, but not embassies).
  • The person does not currently hold citizenship for any country other than the United States of America.
  • If the person has the right to citizenship of any other country by birth or circumstance, that right must be alienated.

What I find particularly interesting is that all of these criteria could be established by a Supreme Court ruling in regards to President-Elect Obama's eligibility.

Feel free to weigh in. Abusive comments will be deleted. Links to informative sites are welcome, but comments linking to propaganda (on whatever side) will be deleted. Yes, I get to decide where the line is between "informative" and "propaganda", but then it's my blog. Blogger hands them out for free, so go ahead and start your own if you disagree. I'll keep deleted comments available for re-posting if you want to try to convince me that something shouldn't have been deleted.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Metaphor for Our Times

I've been watching Mayor Booker (of "luxuriating in our deliciousness" fame) (and Newark) on the Colbert Report. Oh, and drinking homebrew. OK, the "Newark" part isn't fame so much as, well, that's where he's Mayor.

That's not my point, though. He was comparing America to a somehow-delicious symphony, among other things. It struck me that this isn't the "deliciousness" metaphor. Nor is the currently popular "tossed salad" metaphor of modern America. Face it, when is the last time you luxuriated in the deliciousness of a tossed salad? And how many of you chuckled when you read "tossed salad"?

No, my fellow Americans, I have a new metaphor for America. And it's one that we can all agree practically epitomizes deliciousness.

America is a banana split.

We've got chocolate and vanilla ice cream. We already understand that part of it. We've got bananas, which are yellow, or at least yellow-ish. Close enough, say I. Maraschino cherries are red (Hey, I didn't come up with the label. I'm a uniter, here.), as is strawberry ice cream, if that's your thing.

Now, I know what you're saying. "All that's left are whipped cream (whiter than vanilla) and hot fudge (which is more chocolate). Isn't that rather glaringly omissive?"

To that I reply, caramel sauce is just as delicious. Just make the chocolate ice cream double-chocolate or chocolate fudge, and you'll never miss the hot fudge. Trust me. Butterscotch is pretty delicious on a banana split, too.

Where am I going with this? I could really go for a banana split, and I'd wager manyboth of you could, too. And when you're eating that banana split, luxuriating in its deliciousness, give a thought to the deliciousness that is our National Banana Split.

On a final note, which is eerily synchronicitous, Thomas Friedman is currently on the Report re-broadcast, and he kind-of looks like a dollop of whipped cream.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Very Poor Housekeeping

I think my house spiders are developing an attitude. And, if I'm not mistaken, a taste for human blood.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ballot Questions in Montgomery County, MD

This year there are two statewide ballot questions and two county ballot questions. Of these, Ballot Question A is the least clear, so here's some background information.

The following excerpts of the County Charter with editorial remarks are © 2008 American Legal Publishing Corporation:

Sec. 311A. Limitations on Expenditures for Landfills in Residential Zones.

No expenditure of County funds shall be made or authorized for the operation of a landfill system of refuse disposal on land zoned for residential use. (Election of 11-7-78.)

Editor's note—See East v. Gilchrist, 296 Md. 368, A.2d 285 (1983); holding section 311A cannot be given effect under circumstances involving an order of the secretary of health and mental hygiene and requirement of local funding under public general law.

Sec. 311B. Limitations on Expenditures, Contracts, and Permits for Burying or Trenching Sewage Sludge in Residential Zones.

No expenditure of County funds shall be made or authorized for the construction or operation of a system for burying or trenching sewage sludge on land zoned for residential use, nor may the County purchase or contract for the service of burying or trenching sewage sludge on land zoned for residential use. Also, the County may not seek federal or state permits for the burying or trenching of sewage sludge in residential zones. (Election of 11-4-80.)

Sec. 313A. Purchasing, Contracting for Goods, Services with C&P Telephone Company.

The County Government may not purchase and contract for goods and services with the C&P Telephone Company (C&P) unless C&P includes telephone subscribers in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and Montgomery Village in the Washington Metropolitan Area Telephone Exchange (MET) at local rates no higher than local rates charged MET subscribers in Bethesda, Silver Spring, Kensington and Rockville telephone exchange areas. (Election of 11-2-82.)

Editor's note—In Rowe, et al. v. The Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company of Maryland, et al., 65 Md. App. 527, 501 A.2d (1985), it was held that Charter section 313A could not be given effect because it conflicted with a state Public Service Commission Order.

The League of Women Voters has a discussion of all four ballot questions, including (in part) the following on Question A:

Present Practice – The County Charter provides a framework for the governance of the county. Three provisions in the County Charter: 311A, 311B, and 313A currently have no legal force and do not affect how county government operates. The Maryland courts blocked implementation of 311A and 313A because each directly conflicted with some aspect of state law. More fundamentally, neither of these provisions are proper “Charter Material” because they do not address a fundamental aspect of the form and basic structure of county government. In addition, they attempt to legislate through a charter amendment, which the Maryland Constitution prohibits. Although the Maryland courts have not blocked the operation of 311B, a consistent line of Court of Appeal opinions makes clear that this provision, like the ones above, is in conflict with the Maryland Constitution’s prohibition on legislating through a charter amendment.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Quite Possibly the Funniest Spam Message I've Ever Received

From: (Cron Daemon)
Subject: Cron <root@s119> /etc/webmin/sysstats/
X-Cron-Env: <SHELL=/bin/sh>
X-Cron-Env: <HOME=/root>
X-Cron-Env: <PATH=/usr/bin:/bin>
X-Cron-Env: <LOGNAME=root>

WARNING (eval)( 176)  : ERROR while updating i3.rrd: opening 'i3.rrd': No such file or directory

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Be Young And Beautiful Forever, Or At Least For Twenty Years!

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For over two centuries, travelling salesmen have been selling age-defying cosmetics made from flaxseed and flaxseed by-products to passengers on the trains criss-crossing North Africa! And now this practically age-obliterating (up to about 20 years) miracle has crossed the ocean! And it's available now! For you! To purchase!

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Monday, October 20, 2008

The Past 32 Hours

Yesterday morning, I was mowing my lawn. This was quite the endeavor, since it had been a couple of weeks, the weather was good for growth, and I have a push-reel mower. This meant that instead of my usual mowing each row twice (up and back), I had to mow each four times, the first pass being substantial effort.

I'd finished the front, which is the worst part of my yard, mower-wise, and started mowing the side. The side is a bit of a pain, since it's on a slope, but it's small, so it's not generally that bad. As I'm pushing the mower up and back, I glance at one of my basement windows. And see a squirrel looking out at me.

Of course, I immediately cease mowing, and go inside. After pounding on the basement door a few times, I open it, turn on the stairway light, and close the door behind me. The squirrel is still sitting in the window, trying in vain to get out. I open another window, and it immediately runs over to it, but neglects to jump up to flee to safety. I figure that the window's too high for the squirrel to reach (a fact belied by the signs of gnawing I later notice), and stack a couple of boxes by the window. The squirrel won't go back, though.

At this point, the squirrel is, so I think, behind my TV and stereo setup, so I start looking around the basement to survey the damage (which at the moment seems minimal). That's when I see something that doesn't look right. There's a hole in the wall, through which I can see daylight. It's clearly a hole that was created by a human being. Not yet sure what the hole's for, I notice the dryer exhaust hose lying partially coiled behind the dryer.

I continued my survey of the basement, and find no sign of the squirrel. Now, I'm hoping that it found a way out while my back was turned. I close the window and go outside to take a look at the hole. It's behind a big plastic mini-shed that holds my garbage cans to keep the raccoons out. I see the remains of the vent hood, but no sign of the pieces of plastic that were formerly part of it. Given its placement behind the shed, I'm not sure how long it was like that. It could easily have been in that condition when I had the house inspected prior to purchase, though I'd hope the home inspector was more diligent than that.

The rest of the day was squirrel-dominated. After finishing the lawn, I went to Home Depot to pick up a new vent cover. While getting advice from the retired plumber working in that section, another customer (who was waiting to ask a question) ventured her own opinion. She claimed the plastic vent covers were useless, and that squirrels would just chew through them again. Of course, the store had nothing better. She finally asked her question, and was on her merry way, so I asked the plumber, "What would you use?" He didn't put much stock in the woman's claims, which are really probably more relevant if the squirrels have nested in the house, so I made my purchase and left.

Of course, with the current temperatures, it's not the best time to try getting caulk to set, but needs must win out, so my new cover is slowing sealing itself to the outside wall. However, I'm getting ahead of myself. After home depot I went over to Marco's to keg our latest batch of Winky Dink Marzen. Then I came home to replace the vent cover, which remains un-gnawed.

The day's manual labor done, I went over to my parents' house to borrow a squirrel trap. I didn't think the squirrel was still inside, but better safe than sorry. After baiting it with peanut butter, I called it an evening.

This moring, after getting ready for work, I went down to the basement again to check on the trap. I didn't get that far, though, because I could see the squirrel sitting at what it must have come to regard as its window. I opened a window, but it wouldn't budge. Figuring noise would stir it, I turned on the stereo and played NPR's pledge drive at high volume. That got it moving. Not to the open window, though. It was away from its window, however, so I opened that one as well.

There's a particular state of mind, helped along by wanting to get to work, that causes you to try to reason with a squirrel. It, however, was being thoroughly unreasonable. Fed up, I moved the trap into the finished part of the basement, close off the doors to keep it from going back to the laundry or furnace rooms, and left for work.

Knowing there's a squirrel in your house, trapped with your 42" flat-panel TV among other electronics, can make it difficult to focus on your work. I soldiered on, though, and put in a good innings. By the end of the day, however, the stress had my stomach a bit twisted.

Once home, I put on some old clothes (what I used yesterday to mow the lawn), a denim jacket, and a pair of reasonably thick gloves. Then I ventured into the basement. Sitting patiently in the trap was the squirrel. It didn't object when I approached, and only slightly when I lifted the trap and carried it up the stairs and outside. Outside—that was something it recognized, and became considerably more animated. I set the trap on the ground, with the door facing the large tree in my back yard, and carefully openened the trap. Squirrels can be, well, squirrelly, so I was prepared for it to view me as its foe rather than its liberator. No such occurrence, though, as it flew from the trap and up the tree.

I am now relaxing in an ostensibly squirrel-free house, enjoying some homebrew (Whitey's Gone Fishin' Pale Ale). And, of course, recording this for your entertainment. The clean-up will wait for another day.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The World Collectively Held Its Breath

It's Olympics time, and this year in Beijing the world is collectively holding its breath.

This has nothing to do with the suspense of the games.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Maryland Driver's Licenses

You'll find the following in the Maryland Code, under Transportation, §16-106:

(a)   Each application for a driver’s license shall be made
      on the form that the Administration requires.

(b)   The application shall state:
      (1)   The full name, Maryland residence address,
            employer, race, sex, height, weight,
            general physical condition, and date of birth
            of the applicant; [emphasis added]
Evidently, the Maryland General Assembly believes that the MVA needs to know for whom you work in order to determine whether you are a legal resident of Maryland capable of safely operating a motor vehicle.

This repulsive change to the law, which was passed in April 2003 and took effect in October 2003, was House Bill 838. The bill page lists the sponsors, and has links to how Delegates and Senators voted.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The SMC is Back!

The Self-Made Critic is back, reviewing Cloverfield. I was laughing through the whole review, which is in perfect SMC style. I was also laughing through the comments. Of the 13 that were posted when I read the review, none of them seemed to realize that it was in jest.

No word if The Editor is going to make a return appearance, as well.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

On Pigeon Populations in European Cities

In the mid-1400's, the waning Hundred Years' War and the brutal Wars of the Roses left much of Europe, and England in particular, with greatly reduced populations. With nations eager to boost their numbers, various folklore traditions emerged regarding fertility. One popular myth linking pigeon consumption and fecundity emerged in London, from which it spread through most major European cities.

So great was the demand for pigeons that it drove quite a few technological and culinary advancements. The two most enduring developments from the 15th-century pigeon mania were the invention of crampons and gravy.

While the wealthier individuals could maintain private coops, for most people the typical pigeon on the plate was a wild bird. Pigeon wranglers had to locate and reach the wild pigeon rookeries, which necessitated new wall-climbing technologies. Eye-bolts were installed in many walls, and notches, called "pigeon toe-holds" (the origin of a common expression), were cut into many outside corners. The crampon (invented in Prague in the year 1483) allowed pigeon hunters to quickly attach to and release from installed eye bolts, without the need to repeatedly tie and untie knots. Hunters with this technology could collect many more birds than their competition, bringing in more profit.

We owe the existence of gravy to the foul taste of pigeon, especially the wild variety. Cooks would experiment widely with different ways to mask the taste of wild pigeon, preferably with something with superior flavor. Early gravies, being experimental, were largely pastiches of whatever was at hand.

The word "pastiche," in fact, derives from these culinary experiments. One early (and not particularly successful) gravy used orzo as a thickening agent, and crushed cherries as the flavoring. The resulting concoction was called "pasta and cherries," which was shortened to the portmanteau "pastiche."

The end of widespread pigeon consumption is credited to King Henry VIII of England. Concerned with his legacy, he consumed at least three pigeons in gravy with every meal (breakfast, elevenses, lunch, tea, and supper). In spite of this, he produced only three children, largely discrediting the pigeon consumption-fecundity link. Further, his death was the result of choking on a pigeon bone while enjoying a midnight snack. This was widely publicized at the time, though the official histories covered this up with a less embarrassing cause of death, namely syphilis.

Because of the taste and proven lack of efficacy, pigeon consumption dropped precipitously. With a century of cultivating the wild birds, most cities possessed sufficiently large breeding populations that pigeon eradication became impossible. One early attempt involved introducing hawks to Paris, but this was quickly ended when the hawks began preying on poodles. Since then, pigeons have become an endemic part not only of European cities, but (due to long-distance shipping) major cities throughout the world.