Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

The Future of Television, in Hindsight

Posted on January 12th, 2010 in Entertainment, Television | No Comments »

Last September, Time Magazine proclaimed that Jay Leno’s new primetime show was the future of television. Less than six months later, NBC is scrambling to figure out what to do with Leno’s show, which has been a ratings disappointment. NBC has announced a plan to move the Leno show back to 11:35 pm and started ordering pilots to fill hours of primetime with new dramas. Guess the future of television will have to wait.

Leno’s predicament amuses me. It takes some hubris to try and bring back the primetime variety show, particularly when you’re copying segment ideas like racing celebrities on your own private track. (Ahem, Top Gear rules!) I’ve always been more of a Letterman fan than a Leno fan, in part because I’m from Indiana, but mostly because Letterman is just funnier. Apparently, Leno’s predicament also amuses Letterman:

Unfortunately, this is serious business and not everyone is amused. In particular, Conan O’Brien is clearly not amused. I thought Kottke’s take on O’Brien’s statement was really good as well, despite not linking to The Colbert Report:

I think companies should hire comedy writers to write their press releases. Why not, right? They already produce our most trusted news sources.

Pretty good idea, in my opinion. People might actually read them, care about them, and become interested in your company if you hired a comedy writer to do your press releases.

I’m not sure what will happen as a result of the Leno debacle, but I do wonder how much this situation has been influenced by the pending GE – Comcast deal. If you’re really interested in the future of television, then that deal is the more interesting story by far. Online content delivery (see YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix) is big and still has even bigger upside, but it’s still too early to tell if this deal is a genius move or another AOL – Time Warner.

Hiring Felons to do Computer Security?

Posted on October 13th, 2009 in Computer Security, Movies, Television | 3 Comments »

Last week Bruce Schneier commented on a story about a prison that let an inmate convicted of credit card fraud reprogram a prison computer. Schneier believes this sort of thing should be an “obvious” no-no, and I agree. However, it isn’t obvious to a lot of intelligent and well-intentioned people. In fact there’s consistently been debate on whether or not criminals should be hired for computer security positions. There are people who fervently believe the myth that being an excellent criminal carries over into being an excellent law enforcement officer or security adviser.

Unfortunately, pop culture continues to prop this myth up with TV shows like the USA Network’s upcoming White Collar. The show is about an FBI agent who teams up with his nemesis-turned-good-guy to solve crimes that no one else could solve. Another TV series, called Dexter, which appears on Showtime, portrays a forensics expert who secretly murders the criminals he finds through his work. Both of these shows operate on the premise that experience committing crimes is useful in preventing them.

In reality, committing crimes and preventing crime are fundamentally different activities not because of the skill sets but because of the motivation and interests involved. In fact, the skill sets may be strikingly similar in a lot of ways. Some pirates are excellent sailors, some outlaws can shoot extremely well, and some hackers know a lot about computers. Don’t focus on asking whether the skill sets overlap. Instead, focus on questions like these: Are they dependable? Can they work well with other people in your particular work environment? How do you know they are actually interested in helping your organization? How do you know they are truly reformed?

After focusing on these questions, the truth comes to light: it is very rare that an excellent criminal history translates to an excellent crime-prevention future. There is a reason that police departments do a criminal background check before hiring someone. There is a reason that day care providers don’t hire convicted child molesters. There is a reason that banks don’t hire convicted felons to do security. Why wouldn’t the same rationale carry over to information or computer-based crimes?

Now, there are instances of convicts making amends and turning their lives around. Frank Abagnale is perhaps the most famous of these reformed con men. Hollywood capitalized on his story with the highly successful movie Catch Me If You Can. I know several people who have heard him speak at security conferences, and they have told me that he continues to apologize for his life of crime at the beginning of his talks, decades after they occurred. In fact, he may be a good model of how to lead a life of contrite contribution to law enforcement after being an extremely skilled criminal. He worked long and hard to earn the trust of banks and the FBI. He was initially paid only for positive results, and used the money he earned as a security consultant to pay back his debts.

Still, as a general rule, it should be obvious that hiring anyone convicted of computer fraud to do computer security work is a bad idea. Why take the risk? There are a lot of extraordinarily talented computer security experts who do not have the baggage of a criminal record. If you find, after searching for a non-felon, that you need the particular skills or expertise of a convicted computer fraudster, then don’t put them in a position of power. Don’t trust them without oversight. Don’t get caught up in the Hollywood story. The Frank Abagnales of the world are exceedingly rare; hiring a felon to do computer security almost never ends well.

Trusting the Government

Posted on March 8th, 2009 in Life, Politics and Law, Television | No Comments »

Larry Lessig spoke at Google about his Change Congress movement on February 19th of this year. Although I respect Larry Lessig deeply for the incredible way that he articulates his concerns, I can’t agree with his approach to improving trust in the government and fighting corruption in Congress. Essentially, he believes that money engenders mistrust, even when it doesn’t actually affect policy decisions. He thinks we need to radically change the way funding for elections works in the government by making elections publicly funded. The goal of this is to reduce corruption in Congress by allowing the public to trust their politicians, or at least to eliminate a major barrier to trusting politicians. If you are interested, I have embedded the video below:

My primary problem with his view is best visible around the 49.5 minute mark, which is during the Q&A session after the presentation. The questioner asks about other forms of money influencing policy. Lessig’s response is essentially to say that other forms of money are acceptable so long as the direct tit-for-tat is eliminated. He claims that the change he desires isn’t as impossible as we might think. He is alright with money being spent to advocate for a political position so long as the money is not being used to bribe a particular politician. Essentially, he wants to remove any possibility that a politician will be paid for a political position.

This is an extraordinarily fine distinction to make simply because there are so many different forms of “payment.” He talks about politicians choosing a political position because a lobbiest would fund a swimming pool for them if they did. This is a relatively black and white case that almost everyone can agree is bad. However, what about a policy conference in Hawaii? Does the answer change if the conference is held in Lincoln, Nebraska? Certainly it should be legal for an organization to cover travel expenses to enable face-to-face discussions with legislators, but where do you draw the line? When does an important policy conference turn into a junket?

The problem is not just about trying to split hairs over what constitutes a direct payment to a candidate. There are so many other ways that money affects an election. Special interest groups can buy issue ads, which are effectively unregulated since all they have to do is pass the pathetic magic words test. Celebrities have a megaphone through which they can speak. How much money would it cost a random soccer mom from Iowa to match the impact of Oprah’s endorsement? Powerful CEOs, Union leaders, academics, and other non-politicians can sway an election by speaking, organizing rallies, putting together publicity events, and generally campaigning for their chosen politician. At what point does this “speech” count as “money?”

The money quote (pardon the pun) of his entire presentation is part of his answer to that same question (transcribed from his speech):

Until you focus on how this economy has changed in the last 12 years and realize that all we’re talking about is just getting us back to 40 years ago, like the balance of 40 years ago, then I think it’s not such an extraordinary, radical change.

Lawrence Lessig

The official Presidential Photograph of Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States

Richard Nixon, 37th President of the United States

Ahh, the balance of 40 years ago, when Richard Nixon had just been sworn into office. Truly, such is the picture of trust in the government. Perhaps I’m just taking advantage of a verbal miscue (though if you’ll listen to his talk, I don’t think I’m taking this out of context), but more broadly, has there ever been a time when any government was not, quite simply, just generally corrupt? These are human institutions with built-in human flaws.

Let me be clear, I agree with Lessig when he says that we can’t trust our politicians. I might even be convinced to support some form of public funding for elections. I simply disagree that public funding of elections will affect corruption in government in any revolutionary fashion. There are just too many ways that “money” can influence an election. I’ll paraphrase something I first heard years ago on an episode of The West Wing: “Money in politics is like water on cement; it finds every crack and crevice.”

I’m not saying anything new here. Perhaps Tim Lee said it best:

Lessig seems to think there once was, or someday can be, a pristine political process untainted by “money in politics.” But that represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what the political process is and how it works.

Timothy Lee

Government, not money, is the problem. The whole point of politics is to apply one rule to a group of people who disagree about what to do. Of course the process is going to be corrupt; that’s the only possible outcome. The political elite always get better outcomes than the average citizen. So what is a better solution? If you can’t eliminate corruption in government, then you should limit government as much as possible. Limited government is the best, the only, way to reduce corruption in government.

Book: Ordinary Men

Posted on August 27th, 2008 in Books, Computer Security, Entertainment, Life, Music, Television | No Comments »

Ordinary Men by Christopher R. Browning is a book on Nazi Germany’s Reserve Police Battalion 101, which participated in the Holocaust. The primary discussion in the book is on how a group of ordinary, middle-aged Germans became mass murderers. He attempts to understand how this transformation took place, and he uses insights from the Milgram experiments and the Stanford Prison experiments. However, he is quick to point out in the forward of the book that “explaining is not excusing; understanding is not forgiving.”

The book was recommended to me by Lucas Layman after a discussion on the importance of the human element in computer security led to a discussion on the Milgram experiments and the Stanford Prison experiments. Certainly there are many elements of computer security and computer crime that can be better understood through studying human psychology. For example, the simple fact that as the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were removed from direct participation (e.g. pulling the trigger themselves) to indirect participation (e.g. leading Jews to death trains) they were more easily able to cope with their actions psychologically. Similarly, computer crime is easily disassociated because of the impersonal nature of dealing with computers rather than humans. However, after reading the book my strongest reaction has been broader than just computer security.

When I was in high school I had to read quite a few books on the Holocaust. It seemed that every year we read a different book on the subject, and I tired quickly of the extremes that were pushed. Nazi Germany in general and Hitler in particular have become famous for being the most extreme extreme. This is perhaps best identified by Godwin’s Law.

Ordinary Men suffers from over-extremism to some extent as well. For example, Browning causally refers to the Holocaust as the “most extreme genocide in human history” without offering much in the way of proof or comparison. The number of Native Americans systematically killed by Europeans and the number of Russians killed by Stalin’s regime could each easily exceed the numbers of Jews killed by the Holocaust. The rate of killing in Rwanda could easily surpass the rate of killing in the Holocaust. The brutality of groups like the Khmer Rouge and leaders like Genghis Kahn could be argued to be greater than that found in the Holocaust. Is it even possible to classify something like the “most extreme genocide in history?”

My point is that our only reaction to events like these cannot be the emotional one; we must attempt to understand why and how these things happen so that we can learn from them. We aren’t good at rationalizing emotions, and we are rarely able to draw objective conclusions based on them. However, if we can take a look at some facts, then we may be able to learn important lessons. For example, before the brutality caused by Nazi Germany and in former Yugoslavia, we see extreme hyperinflation. Do we know anywhere else in the world where that is happening right now? I think so. This is something to be concerned about.

More generally security is a field that suffers from extremely emotional reactions. The air travel response to the September 11th attacks is a good example. How many of these responses have been the result of reason rather than emotion? How many of them have actually improved airport security? These are questions that we will probably continue to struggle with for years because of the highly charged emotional response most Americans have to the September 11th attacks.

On the whole though, Browning does a good job of ensuring that we don’t view the people of Reserve Police Battalion 101 as caricatures of themselves. As a result, there are many lessons to be learned from this book. The Holocaust should not be thought of as an abstract evil thing, but instead as a real consequence of human plans and actions. As Browning says, “Ultimately, the Holocaust took place because at the most basic level individual human beings killed other human beings in large numbers over an extended period of time.” The book offers an objective take on how ordinary people are capable of such a thing. I found it to be a very worthwhile read.

Slate V on Life Imitating The West Wing

Posted on February 28th, 2008 in Entertainment, Life, Politics and Law, Television | No Comments »

Allison passed me a link to a video about the comparisons between Barack Obama’s campaign for President of the United States and the fictional Santos Campaign on the TV show The West Wing via email today. I have mentioned that I’m a fan of The West Wing before. I didn’t necessarily agree with the politics in the show. In fact, sometimes I strongly disagreed with them. However, the show portrayed politicians of every stripe as people who earnestly want to improve the world in which they live. Sure, they talked about the seedy side of politics from time to time, but on the whole the picture was one of politicians actively caring about the people. The American people yearn for that. This Slate V video is just another example of (in part) why Barack Obama has been so successful.

Hypocritical IBM Commercials

Posted on January 16th, 2008 in Technology, Television | No Comments »

In a recent IBM commercial, the company implies that virtual worlds are a fad and, as a result, a waste of both time and money. For those who haven’t seen it, the commercial starts with an employee showing off his avatar to someone else, presumably a boss. The employee is all pumped about how he can conduct business in this virtual world and how he owns an island there. The boss asks if he can make money. The employee responds with something like, “Virtual money or real money?” This sets up the boss’s response that “The point of innovation is to make actual money.”

There are many reasons why this commercial is unintelligibly stupid. First, the point of innovation is actually not to make money; it is to improve quality of life. For some, this translates directly to making money, but not everyone is that shallow. Second, implying that innovation is only worthwhile if there’s a foreseeable profit in the future fails to recognize that many of the most successful businesses got there because they saw something that other businesses didn’t see. (Not to mention a significant number of scientific discoveries that were made with no clear profit motive in mind.) Third, this commercial, and really the whole series of commercials, implies that actions are unilaterally more important than words, but the reality is that there is extreme value in planning. Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” This absolutely applies to business as well. Actions are important; this is why people talk about what to do before going out and simply doing something for the sake of acting.

Amazingly, this commercial seems to have actually resonated with someone. The author believes the commercial “plays right to the heart of the matter” and claims that businesses are making decisions based on technology that doesn’t really do anything. Unfortunately this seems to equate “the matter” to some fixed context in which businesses can act on new technologies without thinking about them and still make money. Technology is not a fixed context. (Other bloggers have at least left the relationship between doing and talking as something to consider.) More surprisingly, the author takes this twisted logic and then actually concludes with the right observation by saying “we need to ensure that we pick the [tools] that best fit our business versus playing the ‘me too’ game.” This is exactly correct, but the only way to do that is by thinking about what tools are right for your business; simply “doing” won’t cut it.

Of course, there are many stupid commercials on TV. Why focus on this one in particular? Because of the extreme irony in the fact that IBM has invested heavily in virtual worlds! (Seriously.) Yes, that’s right: They have been doing exactly the thing that they were advertising as something they could help your company avoid. Now, at some point your business might benefit from a technology like virtual worlds, but then, how would you know unless you take a break from all that “doing” to think?

Perhaps this commercial shouldn’t have bothered me as much as it did. IBM has a history in hypocritical commercials.

CNN – YouTube Republican Debate

Posted on December 2nd, 2007 in Politics and Law, Television | No Comments »

A few months ago, I made a few predictions about the CNN – YouTube Democratic Debate. This past week saw the CNN – YouTube Republican Debate actually come to pass. I have to say that I was disappointed. One of the predictions I made was that there would be 30,000 videos submitted. I was way, way off. There were about 5,000 videos submitted. This was in spite of the fact that the debate was delayed as the Republican candidates couldn’t all get on the same page about when to have the debate.

I also commented that I felt in the Democratic debate that the format hearkened to Al Gore’s book The Assault on Reason in that it was an example of how the Internet can restore democracy in America. I’m not sure I feel quite so strongly about it now. They did have two thirds again as many videos submitted, so the format was obviously popular and growing in popularity. However, since the folks at CNN were picking the videos to use, there’s still a lot of corporate influence on the actual content used. I think it’s a step in the right direction, but certainly not as big of one as I felt it was after the first debate.

As for the actual debate, I was again disappointed. I wanted to see a question about healthcare, but there wasn’t one. I wanted to see a question about public education, but the only education question was about college tuition. I wanted to see the questions make a distinction between themselves and George W. Bush, but there really wasn’t a whole lot of that either. The best question in my opinion was about the national debt:

Unfortunately, later in the debate there was a very similar question about repaying Social Security. I thought that one of these questions should really have been replaced with something else – healthcare, the environment, electronic voting, privacy, whatever. There were a lot of things that weren’t covered.

I still like the idea of the debates. The format is he best one we have these days (though it doesn’t replace actively researching a candidate’s positions yourself…). However, we could make a few changes that would improve it. I would introduce a voting system that would allow people to vote on a few questions to make sure they were included. I would also try to eliminate questions that are only answered by one candidate. I think the kinds of things that should be asked are the kinds of things that require debate, not the kinds of things that can be handled in an interview.

Battlestar Galactica: Razor

Posted on November 25th, 2007 in Entertainment, Television | No Comments »

It is so good to see Battlestar Galactica again. There’s something very special about this series and it was present in large measure in this movie. For anyone who might have missed it, it will be out on DVD on 4 December, 2007. Also, here’s a teaser preview:

I don’t want to divulge too much about this since there are surprises in the show that don’t deserve to be spoiled. I will say that the show in particular is poignant from the standpoint of reflecting the realities of war in a way that only a fictional setting can.

I’m not sure why it is easier to consider difficult sitations when they are fictionalized and abstracted away, but it certainly seems that way. For example, take two examples from Battlestar Galactica that aren’t spoilers for Battlestar Galacita: Razor. First, the concept and danger of an insider threat is played out beautifully. The cylons that look just like humans prove that ultimately one of the most dangerous things that can happen is for an insider to betray an organization. This is by far the most dangerous computer security threat for most networks and systems for exactly the same reasons that it is so devastating on the show.

Second, the recognition that humans tend to see their enemies as two faced is eloquently displayed by the fact that the Cylons have two basic models: the warlike raider model and the deceptive humanoid model. This gives the humans the chance to view them all as monsters or to see that they have some commonalities. How many wars in human history have played out like that?

In the end, Battlestar Galactica: Razor is an excellent picture at another way that people could have reacted to the surprise attack by the Cylons. It mostly follows the story of a crew member who was new to the Pegasus the day that the Cylons attacked, but it heavily involves the regular cast from the television series. It’s an excellent movie and will do a lot to tide folks over until March for the last season of the series. (It’s hard to believe that the fourth season will start airing nearly an entire year after the third season ended…)

Battlestar Galactica Season 4

Posted on October 10th, 2007 in Entertainment, Television | 1 Comment »

There have been two truly excellent television shows that I have been lucky enough to catch while they were / are at their very best. The first was The West Wing, which is arguably the best television series of all time and certainly gets my vote as the best ever. The second is Battlestar Galactica, which will begin it’s fourth and final season in 2008. If you are interested, there’s an interesting preview up on YouTube.

For those who might not know about either series, I should provide some background. Battlestar Galactica has not won nearly as many awards as The West Wing and appeals to a smaller audience, but I think they both tackle societal issues in a provocative way. The writing in both shows is excellent.

After Aaron Sorkin, the creator and lead writer on The West Wing, left the show, the quality of the scripts dropped off and the show went from being the best around to canceled in a few short years. This was my only real complaint with The West Wing. It always sucks to see a TV show or athletic team you love slowly get run into the ground by contract or ego disputes.

Ronald D. Moore, the vision behind the re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica, will be able to see Battlestar Galactica from start to finish. Plus, Battlestar Galactica will only be four seasons long plus a few smaller spin-off stories such as the introductory miniseries and the Battlestar Galactica: Razor movie. All of this means that it will probably avoid the inevitable slump that The West Wing and all longer running shows have. Also, there’s only three seasons of shows to try and catch up on so that you can enjoy the last season as it airs in 2008.

Clarence Thomas on 60 Minutes

Posted on September 30th, 2007 in Life, Politics and Law, Television | No Comments »

Clarence Thomas was interviewed on 60 Minutes tonight. I was still rather young when Thomas was going through his confirmation process and I didn’t realize that he only had about one year of experience as a judge at the time. There were a lot of political machinations that were going on with his nomination. I didn’t really understand them all at the time, but I do remember thinking it was far more of a circus than I thought it should be.

Daniel Solove was commenting recently on the idea of ending life tenure for Supreme Court Justices. His argument was inspired by the New York Times article and contained some of the same kinds of things that I disliked about the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. Solove argues that life appointments make the process even more politicized, put pressure on Presidents to nominate inexperienced justices that will be able to serve longer and are dangerous because of the unpredictable nature of which political entity would be in power when a seat comes open.

Life appointments make sense today for the reasons they did when they were initially chosen. The position is too important to have justices worried about what they will do after their time on the bench. Anything that can be done to ensure their independence in decision making should be done. Arguing about life expectancy differences doesn’t make sense to me. Ben Franklin was the perfect example to those writing the Constitution that it was possible a justice could live far longer than average and have an impact on the bench for decades. Regardless of what term limit there is, the process is going to be politicized to no end simply because it’s the Supreme Freaking Court. In the US, this is the last say in all things judicial, so why wouldn’t it become politicized? As for President’s nominating young and inexperienced people to the court, that is a serious problem and it’s out of hand. Youth isn’t nearly as big of an issue as inexperience, but it’s not a Presidential nomination problem so much as it is a confirmation issue. There’s a reason that the Senate has to confirm nominations. If the nomination is young or inexperienced, then the Senate should not confirm the nomination.

I recently read an excellent article on John Paul Stevens by the New York Times. I definitely don’t agree with all his opinions, but it is hard to argue that his voice and experience with decades of serving on the Supreme Court are detrimental. I don’t know that Justices are constantly able to think broadly in terms of history, but I expect it would be easier if you had broad experience with it.

I would hope that we could avoid messy confirmation battles like the one that Clarence Thomas went through, but I would prefer having those battles over changing a system that has worked pretty darn well for so long. With the political battles that have been fought recently, it seems more important than ever to make sure that the Supreme Court Justices are as independent and removed from the political process as possible. Lastly, term limits would cut short the time that once in a generation minds could serve. What if Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was only allowed to serve 18 years? What about John Marshall? What about Louis Brandeis?

[Edit: I wanted to add that Clarence Thomas's recent autobiography and interview on 60 Minutes have caused Anita Hill to speak out. This seems like one of those stories for which we may never be able to fully know the truth. It also is exactly the worst kind of story in politics in that it has almost no significance on the national level but yet we still devote tons of time to trying to understand it.]

[Edit2: More commentary on cnn.com that argues Clarence Thomas has a right to be angry.]