Monthly Archives: October 2013

EFF: “Thank You, Patent Trolls” #

The EFF, lauding the Innovation Act of 2013, also offers thanks to patent trolls:

But, really, the trolls have done all the hard work for us. They targeted app developers for using generally available technology. They sued small city governments for using bus tracking software. They went after businesses for using scan-to-email technology and the kind of WiFi routers you would buy off the shelf at Best Buy.

Julie Samuels, “EFF Thanks Patent Trolls for Best Troll-Killing Bill Yet”,, 23 October 2013

Ars has a great write-up of the bill too. Time to contact your Congress-person.

Mavericks Install Stuck in Reboot Loop #

I attempted the Mavericks upgrade on my old (2009) Mac mini, which is several versions behind (10.6.8).

After the lengthy download (with no progress bar in the old version of the Mac App Store), the computer rebooted and attempted the install. A few minutes into it, I encountered the following error message:

The OS X upgrade couldn’t be started because the disk Macintosh HD is damaged and can’t be repaired. After your computer restarts, back up your data, erase your disk, and try installing again.

Click Restart to restart your computer and try installing again.

Clicking “Restart” leads to a restart loop, as on rebooting it reattempts the Mavericks install, resulting in the same error message. Apple’s online support was unable to fix the issue (and recommended Recovery Mode, which of course didn’t work, as this feature was introduced after 10.6.8.).

So, the long and short is, my computer is now unusable, thanks to attempting the Mavericks upgrade.

Thank goodness I have a backup. I hope it’s usable.

(The install on my much newer MacBook Pro took some time, but went without a hitch.)

UPDATE: After a trip to the Apple Store, the tech wiped the disk and installed Mavericks. In the end, I had to hang around the mall for a couple of hours during the install, and restore from backup when I returned home. All together, it ended up taking most of the day.

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First Children Are Smarter #

Science proves what I’ve always known: First children are smarter. Now, if only my seven younger siblings would agree …

Sure, the paper [pdf] hasn’t yet been peer reviewed, and journalists are notorious for not accurately communicating the crux of a paper (parent’s perception of school performance was used, not “smartness”), but it’s still worth sending a link to my little sister.

Via Next Draft

Free Speech in Schools #

Follow the link for a very thorough dismantling by the ever-flamboyant Popehat of misguided school administrators (arbitrarily and capriciously) punishing students for wearing certain T-shirts.

This was something we had to deal with at the state level, when crafting rules for districts should they adopt uniform policies. As attorney Ken White neatly lays out, schools are a limited open forum, and selectively prohibiting certain T-shirts based on fear of potential disruption rather than actual disruption is simply an invitation for a (likely to be upheld) lawsuit.

Definitely worth a read.

BSA Enforces “Leave No Trace” #

Two men involved in toppling an ancient boulder in Goblin Valley State Park were kicked out of Boy Scout leadership positions Monday. … The decision comes from the council leadership, which referred to the men’s behavior as “reprehensible” and a violation of the Scout principle of “leave no trace.” Jim Dalrymple II, “Men who toppled Goblin Valley rock removed as Boy Scout leaders”, The Salt Lake Tribune, 21 October 2013

BSA is a huge proponent of Leave No Trace, and requires understanding of Leave No Trace principles very early in rank advancement. It’s plastered all over the Boy Scout Handbook, including:

Leave What You Find

  • Preserve the past: examine, but do not touch cultural or historic structures and artifacts.
  • Leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them.

“The Leave No Trace Seven Principles”

Maybe they need to somehow be clearer about it.

I’m disappointed that it happened, and that it happened in Utah. (But if it was going to happen, I guess it was most likely to happen there.) Unfortunately, it is my experience that LDS scouting leaders are, as a whole, chronically undertrained.

There’s a criminal investigation too (these guys put a video of themselves knocking over the rock formations on the Internet), but I’m not sure it will go anywhere.

Obamacare’s broken website cost more than [your senator] #

It’s been one full week since the flagship technology portion of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) went live. And since that time, the befuddled beast that is has shutdown, crapped out, stalled, and mis-loaded so consistently that its track record for failure is challenged only by Congress.Andrew Couts, “We Paid Over $500 Million for the Omabacare Sites and All We Got Was This Lousy 404 [UPDATED]”, , 8 October 2013

Zing. And this, from a guy who claims to be totally in favor of Obamacare.

Couts continues throwing volleys:

The site itself, which apparently underwent major code renovations over the weekend [despite taking more than three years to build], still rejects user logins, fails to load drop-down menus and other crucial components for users that successfully gain entrance, and otherwise prevents uninsured Americans in the 36 states it serves from purchasing healthcare at competitive rates –’s primary purpose. The site is so busted that, as of a couple days ago, the number of people that successfully purchased healthcare through it was in the “single digits,” according to the Washington Post.

The reason for this nationwide headache apparently stems from poorly written code, which buckled under the heavy influx of traffic that its engineers and administrators should have seen coming. But the fact that can’t do the one job it was built to do isn’t the most infuriating part of this debacle – it’s that we, the taxpayers, seem to have forked up more than $500 million of the federal purse to build the digital equivalent of a rock.


The “poorly written code” he links to, is in my not so humble opinion, a horrifying example of the type of code one might get back from very low-paid outsourcers and consultants, typically in countries on the other side of the world. I’ve seen awful code generated right here in the U.S. of A., mind you, but in my limited outsourcing experience, and with the exception of working with some incredibly smart people in first-world countries (specifically, in Europe and Australia) on open source projects, I have yet to get back code from overseas outsourcers that I would be willing to maintain.

For some context to the numbers, Couts shares the amount of money raised by popular, oft-used, if somewhat less complex, Internet companies. The comparisons aren’t totally apt, as these companies bootstrapped some equity the old-fashioned way (you know, selling stuff), but it does provide a sense of scope.

But for the sake of putting the monstrous amount of money into perspective, here are a few figures to chew on: Facebook, which received its first investment in June 2004, operated for a full six years before surpassing the $500 million mark in June 2010. Twitter, created in 2006, managed to get by with only $360.17 million in total funding until a $400 million boost in 2011. Instagram ginned up just $57.5 million in funding before Facebook bought it for (a staggering) $1 billion last year. And LinkedIn and Spotify, meanwhile, have only raised, respectively, $200 million and $288 million.Ibid.

The $500 million number is called into question by Mark Thompson (“How $55.7 Million Doesn’t Equal $634 Million”), but even $55 million (what Thompson claims has been paid) or $97 million (what Couts says is the initial contract award amount) seem ludicrously high for three years of work building a site that doesn’t function.

Via Popehat

UPDATE: Also worth reading: Megan McArdle, “Republicans Didn’t Sabotage Health Exchanges, Obama Did”,, 7 Oct 7, 2013.

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Judges Outsource Workloads to Complex Cases #

Judges typically have appointed special masters to broker settlement negotiations or monitor enforcement of consent decrees in school-desegregation cases. But contending with tight courtroom budgets and facing increasingly complex patent litigation or product-liability disputes that can involve hundreds—even thousands—of plaintiffs, judges increasingly are farming out other aspects of litigation to special masters as well.

A special master’s responsibility can be broad, with duties set out by court order, though the judge has ultimate authority and can overrule a special master’s decisions. Special masters’ fees are paid for by the parties, who generally want to expedite litigation, ultimately saving on legal fees and other costs.

Comprehensive data on the numbers of special masters is scant. But lawyers and judges say the appointments are becoming staples of consolidated cases involving plaintiffs from multiple jurisdictions and high-stakes intellectual-property cases.

That presents a business opportunity for attorneys, mediators and retired judges. Rates range roughly from $300 to $1,000 an hour, negotiated by the parties and the court, and can be based on such factors as the special master’s experience and private billing rate and the nature of the case.

Dionne Searcey, “Judges Outsource Workloads as Cases Get More Complex”, Wall Street Journal, 29 Sept 2013.

As I’m helping with an masters-level outsourcing course, where one of the premises of the course is outsourcing of those things that are not a core competency.

<snark>Of course, the list of things that the government does not demonstrate competency in is staggering.</snark>

I like that the additional cost of a special master—which both parties admit results in overall savings—is paid by the parties, not by the courts.

Lavabit appeals #

The secure email service Lavabit shut down in protest, after being required by a U.S. court to reveal its SSL private key. The certificate was later revoked because they hadn’t kept it private. The crux: the same certificate protected all 400,000 of its customers, so the government would have been able to intercept and decrypt private private emails. Lavabit refused and was slapped with contempt charges. Eventually, Lavabit complied, and then immediately closed its doors in protest, rendering the government’s possession of the key useless.

They’re now appealing the contempt citation in court, and asking for a further finding that the forced sharing of their security keys was unconstitutional:

First, the government is bereft of any statutory authority to command the production of Lavabit’s private keys. The Pen Register Statute requires only that a company provide the government with technical assistance in the installation of a pen-trap device; providing encryption keys does not aid in the device’s installation at all, but rather in its use. Moreover, providing private keys is not “unobtrusive,” as the statute requires, and results in interference with Lavabit’s services, which the statute forbids. Nor does the Stored Communications Act authorize the government to seize a company’s private keys. It permits seizure of the contents of an electronic communication (which private keys are not), or information pertaining to a subscriber (which private keys are also, by definition, not). And at any rate it does not authorize the government to impose undue burdens on the innocent target business, which the government’s course of conduct here surely did.

Second, the Fourth Amendment independently prohibited what the government did here. The Fourth Amendment requires a warrant to be founded on probable cause that a search will uncover fruits, instrumentalities, or evidence of a crime. But Lavabit’s private keys are none of those things: they are lawful to possess and use, they were known only to Lavabit and never used by the company to commit a crime, and they do not prove that any crime occurred. In addition, the government’s proposal to examine the correspondence of all of Lavabit’s customers as it searched for information about its target was both beyond the scope of the probable cause it demonstrated and inconsistent with the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement, and it completely undermines Lavabit’s lawful business model. General rummaging through all of an innocent business’ communications with all of its customers is at the very core of what the Fourth Amendment prohibits.

Finally, the grand jury subpoena was oppressive, unduly burdensome, and ought to have been quashed. Compliance with the subpoena inflicted grave harm on Lavabit. It was required either to cease operations entirely or perpetrate a massive commercial fraud on its customers and business partners, by lying to them about the security of services that were purchased because of their security. While the grand jury’s investigative powers are broad, courts have never hesitated to quash subpoenas that intrude so gravely on the interests of innocent people. To commercially ruin a third-party small business using a grand jury subpoena is per se oppressive—indeed is close to the Platonic ideal of an unreasonable demand that ought to have been promptly quashed, especially in light of Lavabit’s ability to provide the government with the information to which it was entitled by other, far less intrusive, means.

United States of America v. UNDER SEAL; Record No. 13-4625(L) [pdf]. Filed 2013-10-10

Whoo-boy. Not all of the metaphors in the brief explaining the technical stuff are sound enough, I think, but I sincerely hope the legal argument is.

Via Ars Technica.

View of Mount Rushmore Blocked #

Even the view from what is presumably a state road is subject to the federal shutdown. Daft.

Further evidence this is more about inconveniencing the public than actually shutting down expenditures.

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How the Broken Media Helped Break the Government #

The triumph of opinion-driven cable TV and the collapse of newspapers has created an American news media that does an increasingly poor job of informing the public. And an excellent job of dividing it.

Creating cable television and social media bubbles where one’s political views are affirmed has proven popular and profitable. Angrily declaring one’s opponents imbeciles enriches pundits, corporate executives and stockholders. The result for many Americans, though, is confusion, cynicism and division.

David Rohde, How the Broken Media Helped Break the Government”, The Atlantic; via Next Draft

This is why I can’t stand to listen to most news/opinion channels. The polarization and demagoguery are huge turn offs.

UPDATE: This isn’t just limited to politics, but is perhaps most visibly present there. As Rene Ritchie points out (via Jim Dalrymple), the state of tech reporting—even in national outlets—isn’t much better.

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