Misc: January 2007 Archives


January 25, 2007

Schneier writes about the little lojacks they put on your baby in the hospital.
So why are hospitals bothering with RFID bracelets? I think they're primarily to reassure the mothers. Many times during my friends' stay at the hospital the doctors had to take the baby away for this or that test. Millions of years of evolution have forged a strong bond between new parents and new baby; the RFID bracelets are a low-cost way to ensure that the parents are more relaxed when their baby was out of their sight.

Security is both a reality and a feeling. The reality of security is mathematical, based on the probability of different risks and the effectiveness of different countermeasures. We know the infant abduction rates and how well the bracelets reduce those rates. We also know the cost of the bracelets, and can thus calculate whether they're a cost-effective security measure or not. But security is also a feeling, based on individual psychological reactions to both the risks and the countermeasures. And the two things are different: You can be secure even though you don't feel secure, and you can feel secure even though you're not really secure.

The RFID bracelets are what I've come to call security theater: security primarily designed to make you feel more secure. I've regularly maligned security theater as a waste, but it's not always, and not entirely, so.

I'm not saying that security theater isn't a lot of the reason for the RFID bracelets, but you do need some kind of tag for people's babies, which, after all, look pretty much alike. Tags let you ensure that you match the right mother with the right baby. Obviously, you could (and for many years people did) get away with old-style non-RFID plastic bracelets, but it's probably not that much more expensive to make them RFID, especially since it saves you the trouble of having more expensive security theater—guards at every exit. And of course having RFID tracking means that you can use the system to track where infants are even inside the hospital, which presumably is useful if/when you lose track of patients.

The leading systems seem to be made by VeriChip. They make infant protection gizmos, Hugs which had a cut-detecting band which triggers an alarm if it's tampered with and HALO which works with commodity bands but senses if it's attacked to skin. A related product is RoamAlert, a "wander prevention" solution designed to let you keep track of patients in nursing homes (and presumably mental hospitals).


January 24, 2007

At the SOTU last night, Bush called for an increase in the use of alternative fuels like ethanol. The claimed goal is to replace 15% of gasoline use with alternative fuels by 2017. There are two potential reasons you might want to do this:
  • To replace imported sources of automotive fuel (i.e., oil) with domestic sources.
  • To reduce the total level of global greenhouse gas emissions.

There's a lot of debate about the energy balance of corn ethanol (what's mostly produced in the US). The USDA's The Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol An Update, which is on the optimistic side of the range, estimates a 1.34 energy ratio (though a 6.34 liquid fuel ratio because you can use coal and natural gas to power a lot of the production process). So, you should expect that you'll get quite a bit of that 15% as a substitution of domestic energy sources for imported oi, but the overall reduction in GGG emission is going to be closer to 5% than 15%.


January 23, 2007

The Times is running an article on the challenge of HDTV for pornographic movies (also see this Slate article from 2003). The problem here is that the improved resolution of HD is a bit too revealing of flaws that were easier to hide in standard def.
They have discovered that the technology is sometimes not so sexy. The high-definition format is accentuating imperfections in the actors from a little extra cellulite on a leg to wrinkles around the eyes.

Hollywood is dealing with similar problems, but they are more pronounced for pornographers, who rely on close-ups and who, because of their quick adoption of the new format, are facing the issue more immediately than mainstream entertainment companies.

Producers are taking steps to hide the imperfections. Some shots are lit differently, while some actors simply are not shot at certain angles, or are getting cosmetic surgery, or seeking expert grooming.

They may not be the only ones. Here's Neal Stephenson writing in 1995:

All of the politicians currently in power will be voted out of office and we will have a completely new power structure. Because high-definition television has a flat gamma curve and higher resolution, and people who look good on today's television will look bad on HDTV and voters will respond accordingly. Their oversized pores will be visible, the red veins in their noses from drinking too much, the artificiality of their TV-friendly hairdos will make them all look, on HDTV, like country-and-western singers. A new generation of politicians will take over and they will all look like movie stars, because HDTV will be a great deal like film, and movie stars know how to look good on film.

I haven't seen enough politicians in person to know if that's true...


January 22, 2007

Stumbled upon this morning: Find A Grave. You never know what you'll find on those darn Internets.

January 15, 2007

Mrs. Guesswork and I are watching The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, starring the distinctly un-Arab-looking Kerwin Mathews as the Iraqi Sinbad. I got to thinking about who you typically see getting generic "swarthy guy" roles:

ActorActual EthnicityEthnicities Played
Art MalikPakistaniIndian (Booty Call), Arab (True Lies), Greek (Year of the Comet)
Tony ShalhoubLebaneseLebanese (The Siege), Italian (Big Night)
Ricardo MontalbanMexicanHispanic (Spy Kids and others), Japanese (Sayonara), Indian (Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan) (thanks to Wikipedia)

I'm not sure how much of an improvement this is over the days when you could have Charleton Heston playing a Mexican.


January 3, 2007

DOJ has refused a request by Senator Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee to turn over the CIA General Counsel's opinion about what interrogation techniques are permissible.
In his address to the Nation, the President acknowledged the existence of the CIA program, but there are many details about the program that he did not, and could not, share publicly. One example is the specific interrogation techniques that were authorized for use on these high-value terrorists. As the President explained, to disclose that sensitive operational information would be to "help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning, and to keep information from us that we need to prevent new attacks on our country," Id. Al Qaeda seeks information on our interrogation techniques—their methods and their limits&mdsah;and trains its operatives to resist them. We must avoid assisting their effort.

There are two ways in which this argument could make sense. The first is that there are some techniques which we use that Al Qaeda doesn't know about. If they did know about them, they could potentially train their operatives to resist them. The second way is that knowing that we don't use technique X would allow Al Qaeda to save training effort by not training their operatives to resist X. I don't find this second theory very strong: even assuming there's some set of officially off-limits techniques if I were an Al Qaeda planner I wouldn't want to count on some American interrogator not exceeding those limits.

This leaves us with the possibility that there are some secret techniques which we'll stipulate can be resisted if you're trained for it. If there are techniques which can't be resisted there's not too much point in keeping them secret (though it might be useful to keep the fact that you had irresistible technques secret if you thought that the enemy would assume otherwise and continue with plans known to people you'd captured).

In any case, there can't be an unlimited number of these techniques, which creates the question of what you do once you've applied them. It only takes one released victim of technique X to tell everyone in Al Qaeda that you're using X. You don't even have to release him; if you let him come in contact with other prisoners and he tells them about X, then they can tell others if they're eventually released. At the end of the day, this logic leads to keeping anyone you use X on in solitary confinement more or less for the rest of their lives. As I understand the current state of the law, even suspected "high-value terrorists" are entitled to some review of their status. What happens if they're determined to be innocent?