Archive for September 18th, 2006|Daily archive page

Reviewing Homelessness

Over at her blog, Reading, Writing, and… What Else is There?, Kathleen Popa has a quick review of Squat by Taylor Field, a faith-based book about homelessness.

She finds the book to be convincing without being overbearing. But instead of trusting her instincts she asked Kevin Barbieux, The Homeless Guy how he felt about the book. His opinions were less kind:

Would you recommend this book to volunteers seeking to help the homeless?
Would you recommend this book to someone looking for a good read?

     The best “faith-based” read on homelessness that I’ve
     encountered so far is Under the Overpass which I still
     recommend to people who ask.
     The best book of any kind, including so-called secular
     books, is this one.  In my opinion, this book best relays
     the realities of homelessness.

Well, that answers that.

On the other hand, I’m still trying to get my brain around RWaWEIT. A blog about books. *heavy sign* Got some reading to do.

Slate Reviews Junk (Food)

After reading Dan Kois’ article review of pre-made school meals, I think there’s a real market for custom catered school lunches. Oh, it would cost more than the evil mass-made stuff, but nothing is too good for those future Masters of the Universe. Right?

And of course we all have spent time wondering which mothers have time or money to supply their kids with Bento. (Oh! Look! Pictures!)

Congratulations to Anousheh Ansari!

Just a quicky.

According to the NYT,  Anousheh Ansari has launched from the space port in Baikonur becoming the worlds first female space tourist.

I first heard of Ms Ansari when she and her familiy donated $10 million dollars to the former X-Prize. The prize was renamed the Ansari X Prize and was given to the first company to launch a reuseable spacecraft into space (not orbit) twice in two weeks. This was won by the SpaceShipOne team led by Burt Rutan, a well known aerospace designer and funded by Paul Allen, investor, philanthropist and former Microsoftie.

I’d just like to congratulate Anousheh Ansari both for her commitment to space travel and her success at becoming the first female space tourist.

BTW. I’m not a real fan of manned space fight, but this is lady has done a lot to help poplularize space science.

P is for Payment

The LA Times has a piece about Proposition 83 which would restrict where former sex-offenders can live, where they can go and a required life-long electronic tracking device.

Proposition 83 on the Nov. 7 ballot — dubbed Jessica’s Law by proponents — would lengthen prison and parole terms for the most violent sex offenders and make possession of child pornography a felony.

In addition, its most controversial provision would ban all released sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park. Local governments could declare additional locations off-limits, and sex offenders would be monitored for life with an electronic tracking device.

Is it just me, or is this not what I was taught under the heading of “paying your debt to society?”

I’m always sceptical of one-size-fits all laws. I have only read a couple of articles about this but the following quote from the Times article sums up the problems:

Citing the experience of other states, some scholars say the residency rule would banish the former convicts from urban settings that offer the services, jobs and family connections that help them remain law-abiding — and dump them on rural communities ill-equipped to supervise them. In Iowa, prosecutors who once backed such a law said the residency limit had backfired, and they now want it repealed.

Think about the consequences of this kind of law. You are not only restricting the person to where they can live but where they can go. By restricting where they can go, you might also limit what kind of employment they can have. Any job where travel is a remote possibility is out because the (former) offender might end up next to a park or a school. By inacting some of these restrictions, you almost ensure that the criminals become either homeless are at best marginalized to areas and jobs least capable of coping with them.

Some would say that’s OK; evil gets what evil does. The person was convicted and should be punished. It seems to me that if you want someone punished, you should convict them to life in prison without parole. (I will do another post about LWOP someday.) Unfortunately, the prisons are filled with the drug dealers so that’s out. And spending $200 million per year on supervision, cultural training and care programs is out. (Stupid wishy-washy liberals – always throwing money at attempted solutions. Pah!) Especially when most offenders know or are related to the children involved, can’t look to the parents, grandparents or other relatives, they did nothing wrong and need no training, no long term help.

Again, the eclectic in me sees both sides of the issue. I really do understand trying to keep children safe. This is a deep visceral feeling; many would like to see child molesters publicly pilloried at best and drawn and quartered at worst. People with paedophile tendencies should not be around children. It is unclear whether many of these people can be effectively treated. Schools, sports teams and clubs should be required to vet possible employees and volunteers. Failing in this duty should be punishable with draconian fines and/or prison sentencing for those who failed the most simple background check.

But in subverting the criminal justice system into something that marks criminals for life, even those who have ‘paid their debt to society,’ is neither humane nor the American way. Perhaps the supporters of these kinds of bills should finally show their true colors. The Aleutian Islands are largely unpopulated, let’s just create prison islands. Perhaps we should simply feed the offenders to the kodiak bears. (Oh, wait – the wish-washy liberals will probably not like either of those due to environmental issues – stupid bear huggers.)

With all due respect to Nathaniel Hawthorne, perhaps we should simply mark them with Scarlet P. P for Payment.

Up in a Lather about Brothel

Todays Spiegel-Online (in German) has a short piece about a city irritated by a proposed mega-bordello in a historical mill.

The problem is that, after years of searching, the historical commission finally found an investor willing to renovate the historical grain mill in the city. The hitch – the investor plans on making a mega-brothel (approximately 40 prostitutes) out of the mill. It gets worse. The historical commission is planning on supporting the renovation with about €250,000. This doesn’t seem to sit very well with all the citizens in the community.

“There are already more than enough sex services in Weinheim” according to Hans Bayer, former judge and founder of a citizens group [opposing the brothel]. He points to “six brothels, two swinger-clubs, S&M dominatrix (dominatricies?) and various homosexual parking lots [parkplätze].”

Most of my American readers might find this rather surprising. After many years of allowing prostitution to exist more or less in the shadows of society, Germany recognised prostitution as a legitimate profession in 2002. Even before that, prostitution was allowed (and to some extent regulated) in most areas of Germany.

There were a number of reasons for moving prostitution from ‘something women did for money’ to being a recognised profession. Most important for the German government was that it eased taxation. (Something near and dear to any government’s heart, Oh, wait they don’t have hearts.) On a more social level it allowed prostitutes protection on several levels. They now qualify for normal health insurance. They can also sue for wages earned.

On the down side, it appears the number of sex slaves imported from Eastern Europe, Asia and South America has increased in recent years. Whether this is due to the change in regulations or due to the reduction of travel limitations is difficult to tell. Former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer got his hand slapped before the last elections because the restrictions on travel visas from Belarus (White Russia) were too lax. This supposedly lead to a storm, nay a flood, of women coming to Germany to work in brothels and strip-joints. Still human trafficking is an increasing problem and there really doesn’t seem to be many solutions. Read a really long rant article about legalizing prostitution and human trafficking here.

Of course,  if you feel all this uncontrolled sexuality is slowly pushing the world toward the apocalypse or perhaps  ‘The Third Awakening‘,  that’s your right. You might think of it this way. If the world does finally collapse in an apocalyptic spasm because of all the evil Germans (the Dutch, etc., etc.), well, they are just bringing you closer to your maker – um – designer.

So the next time you hear about an evil, broadcast wardrobe malfunction, remember, it could be much, much worse; it could be state supported brothels in historical buildings.

Of Slaves, Code Rings and Cryptography

I have always been fascinated by cryptography. Actually, I’m fascinated by what cryptography used to be. You see somehow, computers have taken quite a bit of the cloak and dagger out of the subject. It is now possible to create nearly perfect codes for everyday use and perfect codes for one time use. Anyone can reach a level of cryptographic sophistication with the click of a mouse unimagined by the kings and poets of earlier centuries. Math and engineering have usurped 3000 years of ingenuity.
Oddly, I’m not one of those persons who spent hours and days trying to decipher the secret message Tony the Tiger was trying to send me during breakfast. I also didn’t grow up during the age where you could get a secret decoder ring for your favourite Saturday Matinee feature. (Although I sometimes feel I need one listening to George W. Bush.)  Finally I’ll admit to being addicted to Fargo North Decoder on The Electric Company.

Seriously however, I always wanted to know more about why some people seem to be able to solve these things easily and why people are always warned not to try to think of their own code because it has been done and will have problems. I want to look through a keyhole and discover what ideas people tried to hide and what their secret methods were. Trying to keeping information secret and having those secrets exposed has affected history more often than many people realise.

Thus, I found my perfect book in the classic tomb The Code Breakers by David Kahn. Originally published in 1967, he has put together the definitive history of codes and ciphers and their effect on war and peace. Beginning with the steganographic techniques used by the Greeks (shave slave, tattoo message on the head of slave, let hair grow back, send said slave to recipient, shave slave…), through Elizabethan England (the day Mary Queen of Scots really lost her head), into the European black chambers (when the ambassador of one country forwards the mail to a second because spies got the envelopes mixed up), to the trenches of WWI (where the Germans never got anything quite cryptographically right), historical topics are extremely well covered. Unfortunately more modern topics are less fulfilling. The book, even in its revised form from 1996, is dated. There is a long, almost obsolete section on the NSA. I would argue that the discussion of the more modern versions of cryptography, asymmetric keys, PGP or quantum cryptography are better left to the shorter, more modern The Code Book by science author Simon Singh.

There are several reasons why any book on cryptography will be out of date almost before publication. Governments try to keep modern ciphers and effective algorithms secret and often outlaw (or at least try to outlaw) those methods that can’t reasonably be subverted. Thus any book discussing modern techniques will of course not be able to reflect current affairs. This is clearly shown in Kahn’s book. Published a mere twenty years after the Second World War but before the breaking of the German Enigma code was declassified; Kahn’s on this account is justifiably thin.

In addition, most modern methods have moved from something that can easily be mastered in an afternoon to something that can only be understood with a Masters in mathematics. The discussion of the more modern methods is where Singh’s book shines. He devotes most of his book bringing life to Bletchly Park (where the WWII English code breakers were headquartered), the ideas of Rivest, Shamir and Aldeman (the creators of the RSA algorithm) and the legal battles waged by Phil Zimmerman the author of the pretty good privacy software. (Aside: Phil Zimmerman is not to be mistaken for Arthur Zimmermann, the German foreign minister who almost single-handedly brought the United States into the First World War when the English broke the code in the infamous Zimmermann Telegraph. But that’s another crypto-story.)

Finally, cryptography is one of the fastest moving branches of computer science today. Some form of cryptography often hides behind the headlines that a DVD ‘encoding’ has been cracked or a password file compromised. Cryptography, both trying to find ways to quickly and securely encrypt as well as efficiently and correctly decrypt information, is increasingly important and increasingly invisible in our modern world. The only way to remain abreast of these changes would be to work in the field itself.

Neither of these books is directed at the person looking to start a career in cryptography; that’s not their goal. They try to give a historical backdrop to an almost timeless endeavour, keeping secrets secret. These are the antidotes, the stories of bygone days, those looking for modern methods should look somewhere else.

I will be relating some of the stories, gleaned from these and other sources in the weeks and months ahead. I’ll also show the methods of breaking some of the classic ciphers in addition to showing some of the mathematical methods used to determine which of the classic ciphers might have been used. I find things like this a wonderful way to spend a rainy weekend. Who knows, maybe you’ll find something interesting.

If you don’t want to wait for me to get around to writing about this stuff, run don’t walk to the local bookstore and get these books. (Actually drive don’t run because the bookstore is probably too far, you’ll get there faster and the books are rather heavy. You could also order them online. But, hey, if running floats your boat…I was just saying.) You might even try nabbing these little guys at the local library.

Both books, The Code Breakers by David Kahn and The Code Book by Simon Singh, are fun reads and I’m sure you’ll learn more about why some things happened the way they did and not the way you might have thought. And that message doesn’t need a code ring.