Florida Activates System for Citizens to Call Each Other Terrorists

Florida Activates System for Citizens to Call Each Other Terrorists

Or, in other words, a very, very, very bad idea… but sadly not the first time we’ve seen something just like this.

There’s the “if you see something, say something” campaign that you see plastered all over the place in the greater NYC metro area (and probably elsewhere), as well as the “anti-terrorist hotline” in the UK – among many other examples.

uk anti-terrorist hotline billboardThe problem with systems like this is that they’re often very poorly thought out and ripe for abuse. Really, these systems are just ways for people to snitch on one another for vague and ill-defined reasons.

A system like this can only work if:

  •  People are capable of making reliable judgements on risk (they aren’t)
  •  People can be trusted to only make objective reports (they can’t)
  •  Few people will abuse the system for personal gain (they won’t)

People being people, you will see people reporting others that they don’t like, or trying to submit false reports to harass others – especially if the system is anonymous. Anonymous tips from the public are fine, but if you treat every anonymous tip as legitimate (and with terrorism tips like this, you almost have to, or else what’s the point) you are quickly going to find yourself chasing a LOT of dead ends, wasting time and effort, and just generally getting drowned in the noise of the system.

And if the system isn’t anonymous, what sort of review process is there? Where does this fit in the context of judicial review? What sort of penalties are their for false statements? If the penalties are too low, then the system is ripe for abuse just like if it was anonymous. If the penalties are too high, then people won’t use it for fear of making a mistake – thus nullifying the entire point of the whole thing (and easy way to report “suspicious” activity).

Even if somehow a middle ground is found for this system… where do these reports go? How long are they stored? Can you submit a plausible (but false) report about someone you don’t like, and then have that person get subtly harassed for years afterwards (getting “extended” pat downs whenever they travel, finding themselves on black lists, the subject of needless surveillance, etc.).

Finally, can  you trust the public to really know what “suspicious activity” is? The answer is, resoundingly, “no.” Unless the would-be perpetrator is being astoundingly obvious about his/her intentions, the likelihood of anything they do seeming “suspicious” is practically nil. And of course, there are far more ordinary and innocent things that people do all the time that might (incorrectly) appear suspicious if you don’t know the whole story (or are already in a paranoid mindset).

When you consider all of these problems – and these are all legitimate, real problems with a system like this – you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it. Is the thing you’re trying to prevent (terrorism) worth all the mistakes and harassment and wasted time, effort, and money? Because terrorism is, realistically, a rare thing – despite what some people would like you to believe – and it’s unclear whether it’s worthwhile to try and prevent these rare events, when it’s unproven whether such methods would even have an effect at all!

If terrorism were something mundane, like say, tooth decay, we’d NEVER even consider measures like this – you’d be a laughing stock if you even suggested such an insane idea. Even if it were something equally (or even more) deadly, but less emotionally charged, like say, wearing seat belts or motorcycle helmets (all of which are the cause of far more death & pain & suffering than terrorism is), there would still be heavy political and civil opposition to such a heavy-handed approach, not to mention lots of arguments about all the money it would cost.

I know it’s hard to do, but it really is very important to take the “emotional” aspect out of the question when you’re dealing with policies like this – because it just skews things so far into the realm of the unreal that it’s not even funny… and in many ways, it’s quite dangerous, especially to those principles we hold dear.

How Copyright Has Gone Copywrong

Yep, that’s right – I’m talking about copyright again. Specifically, I’m following up on my previous post, Copyright & Fan Creations.

In that post, I talked about how all fan art is copyright infringement – whether you sell it or not is irrelevant; as soon as you draw it, it infringes on copyright. Now it’s just a matter of how much damages you are liable for.

In ye olden times, copyright infringement was strictly a civil matter, up to the copyright holder to decide to sue – just like it is up to individuals in, say, a contract dispute to decide whether or not to sue. The state doesn’t typically get involved in civil matters (that’s why it’s called civil).

But now it does. Copyright infringement, though still nominally a civil matter, is being treated, prosecuted, and sentenced like a felony – right up there with robbing a bank or murder.

This is insane.

On top of that, copyright is extremely broad, and the only “exceptions” to the law (fair use) are actually just defenses, not actual exceptions – meaning they only come into play once you end up in court (and they are by no means guaranteed).

This is so heavily skewed that it’s a miracle anyone can produce anything new anymore without someone making a claim that it infringes (often just by resembling) another intellectual “property.” (In point of fact, this actually does happen quite a lot.)

This partly explains the resurgence of old, nostalgia-driven media lately – old comics made and re-made into movies, old franchises re-made, or even board games made into movies – because the copyright on these things are already well established, and companies don’t have to go through the potential trouble of investing in new properties, only to find out at the end that someone else has a copyright on something similar.

Keep in mind that I make my living from copyright & intellectual propery – so I’m not advocating for the total abolishing of copyright. What I’m calling for is some restraint, some sanity in copyright law.

For something that was intended to foster and encourage creative works & reward creators for doing so, it is now much too heavily skewed towards protecting existing creations.

Eventually, this is going to come back around and start biting the hands of those who advocated for stronger copyright laws.

Copyright is painted with such a broad brush, and it lasts for such a long time, that it is now having the opposite effect than what was intended – or what is necessary.

Creativity still happens, of course, but the rewards & incentives copyright was intended to give simply no longer exist (or are outweighed by the risks of infringement). Copyright is stuck 100 years ago, even while copyright enforcement is using cutting edge technology.

This is terrible, and it needs to change.

Copyright is important, don’t get me wrong, but we need to stop treating it as though it is some fundamental, inalienable right which must be protected at all costs. Copyright law needs to strike a reasonable balance between protection and re-use, one that encourages and rewards creation, without discouraging new creation for fear of potential infringement. And perhaps most importantly, it needs to set some clear guidelines on what is and is not permissible vis-a-vi re-use and fair use, instead of just saying “well, we’ll know it when we see it… in court.”

These sorts of changes will go a long way towards bringing copyright into the 21st century, helping it make sense again, and put a stop to the utter madness that is the state of copyright law and enforcement today.

Keith’s Anime Reviews: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Make a contract with me as we take a look at a relatively new anime called “Puella Magi Madoka Magica,” and see what all the fuss is about.

Madoka Magica

“Anything is possible if you make a contract with me!”

Puella Magi Madoka Magica (or just “Madoka Magica,” for short) is a very surprisingly deep, somewhat dark, and very thought-provoking series – especially given that at first glance it looks like “just another magical girl anime.”

For those not familiar, the idea of “magical girls” is sort of a staple in anime – it’s a bit of a twist on the more traditional “superhero” story you see more often in western media. The basic idea is similar: person gains some sort of super-power and secret identity and has to fight bad guys/evil while trying to balance a normal life.

The basic premise of a magical girl story has the potential for a lot of interesting development, character growth, and so on – although it can also be used as just an excuse to have characters dress up in cute costumes.

Madoka Magica is… not like that. At all.

This is a series that is very hard to describe without spoiling things – A LOT – but I’ll do my best, because it really is worth watching without knowing the spoilers.

The basic premise here is that our main character, Madoka (and her friend, Sayaka) are suddenly asked if they want to become magical girls by the weirdly cute (but also somewhat creepy) talking cat-like creature Kyubey. In exchange, he will grant them any one wish they desire.

Getting any one wish you want granted in exchange for magic powers, a secret identity, and the duty to battle evil sounds like a not-too-bad trade, but this series really explores the depths of this seemingly inconsequential plot device.

Consider: should you be “selfish” and make the wish for yourself only, or use it to grant someone else’s desire – someone you care about? What if your wish turns out to not be what you want – or what the person you care about wanted? The price of your wish may turn out to be more than you can bear.

The characters in this series are very well developed – each one has a very interesting back story and motivation (which for the most part is filled in slowly with hints and suggestions, rather than being spoon fed to you), and they all grow and change over the course of the series.

This is an extraordinarily well put together and well thought out series, with lots of attention to detail and subtlety, which benefits from a second (or third) viewing. You will absolutely notice things the second time through that you didn’t notice before, and you’ll go “ah-ha!” or “oh, so that’s what that means!”

So if you’re a bit tired of the usual fare in this genre of anime, or if you’d just like to see something that really twists your mind (and your heart!) and explores some very deep concepts in a new and interesting way, I’d highly recommend that you give Madoka Magica a try.

A Third (and Final) Look at Windows 8

After living with Windows 8 for a full 6 months, it’s time to take a measured final look at Microsoft’s ambitious attempt to merge the desktop & tablet OS.

windows 8So I’ve been living with Windows 8 for a full 6 months now, on both my main desktop computer and my laptop, and now I think it’s time for a third (and final) look at the pros and cons of Microsoft’s latest Windows incarnation.

Where Windows 8 gets it right:

Trying to delete a file and getting notification of what program has it open: This has been a long time coming. It is so nice to finally know why you can’t delete (or move) a file, so you can just close that program and move on with your day.

Multi-monitor taskbar: FINALLY. Something that power-users have been using 3rd party programs to provide for years is now built into the OS. The ability to customize how application buttons appear on the different taskbars (on all monitors, or only on the monitor where the application’s main window is) is also a nice touch.

Connected accounts & settings: This isn’t that big of a deal, but with people replacing computers more and more frequently, it’s a real nice touch to log into a new computer and have it automatically bring over your desktop settings, backgrounds, and other customizations. Although it’s not a totally perfect solution, it is very nice to have, and a welcome addition.

“Reset” Windows option: I know a lot of people think you need to reinstall Windows every so often as a matter of course, and while I disagree with this concept (I’ve talked about it before), I will admit there are cases where you need to “reset” everything back to factory defaults. Since each PC manufacturer tends to have their own way of doing this, having a way to do it in the OS itself is kind of a nice touch, and will certainly be handy for a lot of people.

Ribbon in Explorer: This is a welcome addition in my opinion, although I know some people hate the concept of the ribbon. Still, I think the ribbon is a useful UI tool (when done with care and thought), and in the case of Explorer, it works, and it works well.

Improved boot speed: This is always nice to see in any new version of Windows. It is especially noticeable with an SSD, although even computers with ordinary hard drives should see some improvement. It’s not much, but it’s still nice.

Lock screen: Again, this may just be a little thing, but for the longest time the Windows lock screen was just a boring “Press CTRL+ALT+DEL to unlock” window. Now though, not only is it a customizable screen (separate from your desktop background), but you can add other information on there, such as your unread email count, the weather, and other info – which can be handy!

Where Windows 8 gets it wrong:

The Missing Start Button: I think I’ve harped on this before, but it bears repeating – the Start button should not have been removed. I know that “technically” a corner is “easier” to hit with a mouse (or with a finger), but you could have still left the button there for the visual reminder and just to make it that much of a bigger target. Removing it was just plain silly.

Horizontal scrolling: I know many screens these days are widescreen, but it still feels terribly, terribly wrong for the screen to move side to side when you scroll up or down on your mouse or trackpad. (Not to mention that far too many things require this kind of scrolling.)

Hot Corners aren’t that hot: The idea is sound, but the execution is poor – especially if you have multiple monitors, where the corners are hard to hit on the border between screens.

Splitting search up between files/apps/settings: This is a change I just don’t quite understand – in the past two Windows versions, searching on the Start menu searched your files AND shortcuts on your Start menu AND some basic system settings. But now in Windows 8, you have to click to choose which are you want to search, and sometimes it’s not easy to know which one to use. Some system settings can be found under “apps,” for example. At the very least there should be an option to search “everything,” which can be set as the default should the user wish.

Windows 8 “Modern” (formerly Metro): I understand what Microsoft is trying to do here, I really do – but they need to re-think their UI guidelines for “Modern” apps. There seems to be too much of a focus on avoiding UI entirely and just displaying things as big as possible. This is OK for certain types of applications (e.g., a video playback app), but when your UI across an entire range of apps is “hidden,” it just invites confusion.

Too much inconsistency: This is perhaps my BIGGEST gripe with Windows 8 – there is simply a terrible lack of consistency across the OS. It is very much like using two separate operating systems, and it always seems to be a surprise which one you will end up in when you try to do something new.


If you noticed that most of the good things I’ve pointed out about Windows 8 are aesthetic or basic performance improvements, you’ve seen right to the point I’m trying to make here.

Windows 8 was a very ambitious project – one effectively forced on Microsoft with the rapid increase in popularity of tablet devices (or, one that Microsoft had been planning all along – but who knows). Nevertheless, there are just some things about Windows 8 that should not have been done, or that should have been fixed or changed before it was let out the door.

For the power user, it is not at all a “bad” operating system – but then again, power users are the ones most likely to be able to puzzle their way around the problems (or find workarounds or alternatives).

Ordinary users, on the other hand, are going to be frustrated. There just is no avoiding it. Windows 8 is going to drive a lot of ordinary people away from Windows – or at the very least, it will leave a very sour taste in their mouth.

I can only hope that Windows 9 improves upon the shortcomings of Windows 8, and that the lessons of this version of Windows (don’t mix UI conventions, keep conventions consistent, don’t hide too much of the UI, etc.) are well-learned and heeded by Microsoft and the Windows team.

New Laptop

After an extended power outage forced me to work from my netbook, I realized it’s time for me to get a proper laptop – and this is what I ended up with.

Back in October of 2012, I was stuck without power (and thus, unable to work) for the better part of two weeks in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. During this time, I tried to keep up with my job using my little 10 inch Acer Aspire One netbook, Ryo-Ohki.

Unfortunately, even with a SSD to help speed things up, this little netbook just couldn’t keep up. With only 1 GB of RAM and (perhaps worst of all) just a tiny little 10 inch screen, trying to work all day on this was… difficult, to put it mildly.

So once life returned to normal, I decided it was time to upgrade to a newer, better laptop – one with a decent sized screen that I could actually use to get work done, should I ever need to be away from my desktop computer.

The landscape of portable computers has changed a lot in the intervening years since I bought my little netbook. For one thing, netbooks have basically disappeared – that niche instead being filled by tablets and low-end (but normal-sized) laptops.

My criteria for a new laptop were pretty simple:

  • 14 or 15 inch screen – big enough to get work done and for most modern web pages to fit on the screen without having to scroll too much.
  • Lightweight – one of the main reasons I have a laptop is so I can use it when I travel, and I don’t want to be lugging around a big heavy laptop.
  • Good battery life – as a portable computer, it wouldn’t make much sense if it didn’t last a while when unplugged – especially since I plan to use it while traveling (i.e., on a plane).
  • Good keyboard – I can be a bit picky about keyboards – but really all I want is one that is easy to type on and doesn’t mess with the standard placement of important keys like some laptop keyboards do.
  • Decent, relatively modern CPU – basically, something that won’t be obsolete in a few months, and can handle playing video with ease.
  • Not too expensive – my budget was basically “less than $500.”

After doing some research (and a bit of price-stalking), I settled on another Acer – specifically, an Acer Aspire Timeline X 4830T-6682 (geez Acer, what’s with the ridiculously long model names?).

Acer Aspire Timeline X 4830T notebook

This laptop hit all the right points for me – the 14 inch screen was just the right size, it’s not too heavy, has a very respectable Core i3 CPU, a good-sized 6-cell battery, and a nice keyboard that reminds me of the keyboards used on Apple’s Macbook Air computers.

To make things even better, I swapped out the SSD I bought for my old netbook and put it in this new laptop, which took this from being a relatively decent laptop to being an absolute speed demon.

I’m not even kidding here – from the GRUB boot loader (I still dual-boot Windows and Linux, of course) it boots up completely in just about 12 seconds.

Oh, and have I talked about the battery life yet? The battery life on this laptop is pretty good on its own – easily reaching 5 or 6 hours with light usage – but when you throw an SSD in (which uses less power than the traditional spinning-disks hard drive), along with Windows 8 (which is really good at conserving power), I easily find myself getting 8 hours of battery life with light to normal usage. Even my old netbook couldn’t approach that kind of life, not even with the extra-big 9-cell battery I bought for it!

Of course it also has all the other standard features you’d expect from a laptop these days, including a very handy USB 3.0 port, HDMI, a DVD/RW drive, a memory card slot, and even an option to let one of the USB ports remain “powered” even while the laptop is turned off, so you can charge something off of it (a handy feature, though one I’ll probably never use).

As usual for me, I dual-boot both Ubuntu Linux and Windows (Windows 8 in this case, but I’ll talk about that in another post), and both operating systems are just great (although for some reason, Ubuntu still can’t use the built-in webcam microphone – a problem I think is particular to Acer computers).

Naturally, as with all my computers, I had to give this one a name as well – and since this one happened to come in a dark-blue color, which happened to match this particular wallpaper picture I had handy very well, I ended up going with the name “Luna.”

luna desktop (windows)
Luna (Windows 8)
Luna desktop (ubuntu linux)
Luna (Ubuntu)

All in all I’m quite happy with this new laptop – I’ve had the opportunity to take it with me when I traveled recently, and it was both great for entertainment use on the flight, as well as occasional work-related stuff while I wasn’t at home.

So if you are looking for a nice, inexpensive but well-balanced laptop, something along the lines of the Acer Aspire Timeline X series of laptops (combined with a SSD, if you can swing it) is not a bad way to go!