Fourth Amendment In The Cloud

The Fourth Amendment in the United States Constitution reads:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

James Madison slipped up and failed to account for advancements in technology like computers and the Internet. Are digital files considered “papers and effects”? Is law enforcement copying files considered “searches and seizures”? If your files live on a server is that considered your “house”? Of course back in his day, this wasn’t even comprehensible. The amendment is a bit dated.

Electronic Communications Privacy Act (EPICA) was an effort in 1986 to clarify how such laws applied to electronic communications. It too is somewhat outdated and heavily focused on the transfer than the storage aspect, something the modern SaaS model has completely disrupted. It’s also been weakened and contradicted by court rulings and things like the Patriot Act.

This creates enough of a legal quagmire to concern a seemingly bizarre list of companies and organizations to form the Digital Due Process Coalition to revise and clarify these laws. For companies like Google and Microsoft it makes sense. Their business relies on making companies and individuals feel comfortable trusting them with personal data. They are also increasingly stuck in odd positions thanks to contradictory and untested laws.

The outcome of this will possibly be as long-lasting and as iconic as the fourth amendment itself. Given our culture, information, and way of life is becoming increasingly digital it will impact a large part of how we function and will function in years to come. For anyone working in IT, this will impact the way you do business.

Einstein Nobel Paradox

Albert Einstein and Alfred Nobel share a unique bond in the form of a paradox resulting in their accomplishments. While there’s no explicit answer on how to avoid such a situation it’s interesting to look at how these two bright minds made history.

Alfred Nobel

Alfred Nobel is generally remembered as the guy behind the Nobel prize. The good thing is that this is exactly what he wanted. Some will recall he is also the one who patented dynamite. Note that dynamite is essentially nitroglycerin, something he didn’t invent mixed with an inert absorbent ingredient to make it more stable and safer to handle. The combination is his invention. Alfred’s brother Emil years earlier died in nitroglycerine explosion at the family factory. The very nature of the business was somewhat controversial due to the safety issues.

Nobody knows the exact reason why Alfred Nobel created the Nobel prize because the man was reclusive and somewhat eccentric. The most accepted story is that when his brother Ludvig visited him in 1888 and died a newspaper confused the brothers and accidentally printed his obituary instead. The headline read “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead.”). Needless to say he was likely not thrilled about his potential legacy.

Alfred Nobel’s invention was used for a time for military purposes (though dynamite was hardly an ideal military weapon and was eventually replaced). His actual intent was the complete opposite of his reputation. His very invention was designed to make explosives safer to use and potentially make mining safer.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein is best known as the father of modern physics, the author of extremely complicated papers, and as an eccentric brilliant professor. Fewer people know that he had some involvement in the development of the atomic bomb.

His involvement came in the form of a letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt known as the Einstein–Szilárd letter which helped kick off the United States development of the bomb. The letter was largely written by a physicist named Leó Szilárd, the man who conceived the nuclear chain reaction and warned that Germany may be working on such an effort.

To put this into context, by 1939 Albert Einstein was already a very prominent scientist. He actually won a Nobel prize in 1921 “for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect”. The letter was delivered to the president by prominent economist Alexander Sachs. Needless to say FDR listened. The rest is history.

It’s worth noting he didn’t participate in the actual development as he was a German (he gained US citizenship a year later in 1940) who supported left-leaning activities. He couldn’t have had security clearance. Einstein clarified his involvement and reasoning in the short essay “On my involvement in the atomic bomb project“.

History suggests that Einstein was well-intentioned by signing the letter but later regretted after the bomb was dropped.

On Monday August 19, 1946 the New York Times printed a story on the front page titled “Einstein Deplores Use of Atom Bomb“. You can pretty much guess the tone of that article.

In 1955 The Philadelphia Bulletin quoted Dr. Linus Pauling as being told by Einstein before his death “I made on great mistake when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made” in an article titled “Scientist Tells Of Einstein’s A-Bomb Regrets“. Dr. Linux Pauling was also a member of Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists along with the aforementioned Linus Pauling and Leó Szilárd. The group was intended to raise awareness to the danger of atomic weapons and promote peaceful use of nuclear energy.

On Feb 19, 1979 Time magazine wrote:

Later, when A-bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Einstein expressed deep regret. After the war, he apologized personally —and in tears—to visiting Japanese Physicist Hideki Yukawa. On another occasion, he said, “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in developing an atomic bomb, I would have done nothing for the bomb.”

That quote is likely originally from Newsweek in the 1950’s.

Einstein is also often quoted as stating: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” It is sometimes quoted as “rocks” in place of “sticks and stones”. I’ve yet to find the definitive origin of it.

Einstein was really a pacifist and a scientist, not a weapons engineer. One can’t help but think this really bothered him.

The paradox

Both of these brilliant men dedicated their lives to inventions, research, theories and acts that were intended to better humanity. Dynamite likely did save many lives and allow for mining quicker and cheaper which affected society in many indirect ways. We likely still don’t fully grasp what Albert Einstein was writing about yet he managed to completely change physics.

If it’s not grossly apparent already, both men had a great impact in the world and it would be a different place without them.

Both of these brilliant men also had the misfortune of having their life work used in ways they had never wanted or intended and died with the thought that their work had brought misfortune to others. “No good deed goes unpunished” I guess is another way to put it.

IPv6 By January 2012?

From ComputerWorld:

John Curran, President and CEO of the American Registry for Internet Numbers, is warning Web site operators that they must enable IPv6 by Jan.1, 2012 or risk disenfranchising a significant number of their visitors

While I agree IPv6 deployment is important, I don’t think most websites will be even close to making this deadline, nor do I think it will be necessary. I think ISP’s would rather stretch their existing IP allocations by using NAT’s in some markets than tell Grandma to update her Windows ME computer and telling most customers that their home router isn’t IPv6 ready.

FWIW I don’t have IPv6 support enabled on this server. I won’t explicitly rule it out, but I’m not sure I’ll make that deadline.

Debugging Sherlock Holmes and Dr. House Style

The psychology of computer programmers is interesting stuff. The classic view of a programmer is someone who sits around creating all day like an artist or writer. It’s a creative job, trying to be the next Bill Gates. The reality is that the most spend a significant amount of their time diagnosing problems and debugging. That includes analyzing bug reports, tracing bugs, finding solutions, implementing, and testing. In practice this part is much more detective than artist.

After years of observation, I’ve come to the conclusion that most good programmers bare a striking resemblance to both Dr. House, and Sherlock Holmes (whom the Dr. House the character is partly based upon).

Overlapping Traits

  • Reluctance to accept cases they don’t find interesting – Both Dr. House and Sherlock Holmes hate cases that they aren’t interested in. Programmers always gravitate towards bugs that interest them, and shun bugs that don’t. Very few will even attempt to dispute this.
  • Otherwise lazy – When not solving something that interests them, they are what most would call lazy.
  • “Rubik’s complex” – Obsession with puzzles.
  • Reliance on a related science – Dr. House and Sherlock Holmes rely heavily on Psychology. Programmers gravitate towards user experience which Wikipedia defines as incorporating “psychology, anthropology, computer science, graphic design, industrial design and cognitive science”. Coincidence?
  • Substance dependence – Dr. House prefers Vicodin, Morphine and Sherlock Holmes went for Cocaine, Morphine. For programmers it’s often an extraordinary dependency on caffeine that keeps them going.
  • Overconfidence to the point of arrogance – I don’t think any further explanation is necessary. Programmers are as arrogant and defensive on their work as Dr. House and Sherlock Holmes are about their diagnosis/solution.
  • Introvert – Both Dr. House and Sherlock Holmes are introverts. So are many/most programmers.
  • Strong deductive reasoning skills – The best programmers are the ones who can analyze a bug report and using knowledge of the application and related technologies can diagnose the problem with accuracy that surprises even those with many years more experience.
  • Use of alternate names – Holmes and Dr. House call people by their last names. Programmers have this habit of using network names, usernames, IRC nicknames.
  • Showmanship for their skills – Dr. House diagnosed a waiting room full of patients in about a minute with surprising accuracy without meeting with each patient. Sherlock Holmes has a love for elaborate traps to show off. Programmers love to show off. That’s why so many blog. Accomplishments are the rare things they willingly document.

Slightly higher occurrence of the following personality traits may apply: “moody”, “bitter”, “antagonistic”, “misanthropic”, “cynical” “grumpy”, “maverick” and a “curmudgeon”.

Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock HolmesThe most distinct Holmes trait is that he refused guessing or theorizing before having the necessary clues or data to reach a conclusion and solve the case.

Programmers who fall in the Holmes party refuse to make guesses without seeing some evidence and immediately tries to reproduce the bug and starts tracing to gather data. Once there is a mountain of data they start to deduce the problem and the solution. Once they reach a conclusion they will break it down into a very concise deductive argument.

Pipe smoking is optional.

Dr. House

Dr. HouseThe most distinct part of the House approach is the willingness to make an educated guess based on limited information.

Programmers who fall in the House party are willing to make guesses early on and immediately start debugging in very calculated parts of their code base. As they come to realizations and learn new information they are willing to adjust or completely abandon their former approach and go with a new hunch.

They often find themselves soliciting ideas from others and using good ones however they almost enjoy shooting down ideas as invalid based on their skills and knowledge.


I’m pretty sure there is no “better” approach. It’s just two different ways of going after a problem. It’s completely possible to be a hybrid. I think it’s more of a spectrum of personality and technique.

Cell Phones And Toilets

There are an estimated 6.8 billion people on this planet at the time of this blog post. There will be 5 billion cell phone subscriptions by the end of this year. Granted some people have several, most have 1.

To put this in perspective 884 million people in the world do not have access to safe drinking water (WHO/UNICEF [pdf]). The same report notes 2.5 billion “are without improved sanitation”. Roughly 1.17 billion (18% of the 6.5 billion population in 2006) still use “open defecation” or to put it in more crude terms, they crap in the woods, fields, streams, and rivers under the open sky.

There’s something a little disturbing about these trends. In my ideal world more people will always have access to toilets that don’t contaminate their own drinking water than use cell phones.