Browse Month: December 2003

12/18/2003

Interesting stuff:

A week and a half ago, police in Johannesburg South Africa arrested fourteen people accused of operating a bootleg human-organ operation.

Apparently they would fly poor Brazilian citizens to South Africa, where they underwent surgery and had a kidney removed. They were paid between ten and thirteen thousand dollars for the procedure, and then flown back home (all expenses paid).

The kidneys were then implanted in wealthy South Africans who paid over $100,000 for the operation. After leaving the hospital, they didn’t have to worry about dialysis any more and could return to a normal life.

The Brazilian donors were all volunteers, and the money they received was often enough to buy a house, open a business, or realize other financial dreams (I imagine $13k goes farther in Brazil than in the U.S.). The South African recipients were all in dire need of a transplant and had the money to do it. And the doctors involved made a handsome profit along the way.

Everyone wins, right?

Well, it turns out there are international laws forbidding the sale of human organs. There are doubtless some moral and ethical issues. There’s the omnipresent discussion of rich versus poor, and who’s taking advantage of who.

So, the question of the day: should this sort of thing be legitimized? If everyone goes home healthy (and often wealthy) is there really a reason why it shouldn’t be allowed? Personally, I don’t have a problem with this sort of thing and in fact, it seems to me that making it illegal will accomplish two things: (1) make it more expensive and thus harder to do for those who have some money and dire medical need, and (2) make it more prone to mistakes and bungled operations, as the doctors are forced to operate underground.

There are some 83,000 people on the kidney donation list in the U.S. alone; this shortage only encourages the sort of behavior described above. If I had serious kidney problems, and knew I’d be on a list for ten years, but had the option of scraping together some cash (maybe taking out a second mortgage or whatever) and receiving the kidney of some Third World farmer who would then be the richest guy in town, I’d do it.

12/15/2003

Francis Bacon once quipped, “Knowledge is power”.

But in today’s world of technology, I wonder if that’s still true. I would say that a more accurate statement might be “data is power”.

Consider: in Bacon’s day (late 1500’s) the printing press was still relatively new, and printed material (“data”) wasn’t yet in widespread use, nor was it easily accessible to the common person. Thus, those who possessed knowledge were powerful– they were highly paid, highly regarded, and sought by those in power. I’ve heard it said that Benjamin Franklin was one of the last people who “knew” something about almost every area of human knowledge. In those times, people with knowledge were indeed powerful.

Today, it is impossible to know something about everything. Cultural and scientific advances have brought us so much information that no single person can possibly have that degree of “knowledge”. So now, rather than a handful of polyglots we have huge numbers of specialists who are extremely well-versed in their narrow field but do not possess the general knowledge that Franklin did.

Thus, it seems that knowledge is not as powerful as it once was. Said another way, one man’s knowledge is another man’s trivia.

We see that data is everywhere. Those narrow-minded scientists who study a particular variety of bacteria publish their research and make it available in journals and the internet. The garage musicians who specialize in grunge-ska music upload their songs to their web site or burn CD’s and hand them to friends. The journalist who once wrote for a hometown paper has the ability to spread his words throughout the world via the hometown paper’s web site. All of those people take their knowledge, transform it to data, and share that data with the world.

So in my mind, it is the data– or more accurately, the control of that data– that defines power today. The network administrator who keeps the web site running, the panel that approves or denies journal articles, the editor who tosses out the news story… these are the people who have power. They can allow or prevent one man’s knowledge from reaching his audience.

Granted, such control also existed in Bacon’s day, and Franklin’s, but with the vast abundance of data available today– many orders of magnitude greater than either of those men could conceive– the role of the “gatekeeper” of the data is rising in importance.

Knowledge cannot be saved; data can. (To “save” knowledge you have to write it down or put it in some format other than electrochemical impulses in your brain, at which point it becomes data.) Data can be copied, and transferred, and changed. It can also be destroyed, lending a particular power to those in control as they can cause information to be lost forever– at least until the next person comes along and re-discovers it.

I think it’s a sign of the times, and an interesting commentary on our technological society, that data has become more powerful (more important?) than knowledge.

So what is “power” in today’s world?

12/14/2003

I built a new computer for the kids yesterday.

Their old one, from perhaps a year ago, was a pretty pathetic old Pentium 150 or something. It ran Windows 98, because nothing more recent (from Microsoft) would run on it, and in the end it had so many issues that it simply wasn’t worth using. I figured the kids would be better off without a computer than struggling through various Windows crashes and failed software installations.

But they’ve been getting training in school, and playing on Laralee’s laptop a bit, so I figured I should set up something a little nicer for them. I cobbled together some nicer components I had laying around, and came up with a pretty nice P3-600 system that was actually faster than our laptops anyway.

After a brief debate with myself, I decided to completely forego Windows and head straight for Linux. The stuff they’re doing is pretty much web surfing and playing MP3 tunes, so there’s no reason I should worry about all the goofball kids’ software that only runs on Windows 98 or ME or whatever. I broke out my Jinux installation CD’s and set up KDE for them.

However, my usual mode of logging in– typing a username and password at the command prompt, and then running X manually– was obviously a bit more convoluted than a five-year-old might be expected to handle. So I messed around with the KDE login screen and managed to come up with a beautiful, easy to use, highly customizable login page. They can click the “kids” icon, then click “Go!” and they’re in. But even better, I made the system auto-login for them so it just pops right up into KDE and they can click the little desktop icons (one is the Lego logo, and the other is the Barbie logo) to launch the Konqueror web browser and play their little Flash games.

Adding a couple more desktop icons for MP3 playlists gives them the ability to click on, say, Mickey Mouse and get a bunch of Disney music playing in XMMS (the open-source alternative to Winamp). A big red “power” button lets them shut everything down with a click. Pepper it with some fun cartoonish icons, and they have a fun system that’s easy to use.

Ahh, ain’t Linux grand?

12/10/2003

For the fourth year, the House Committee on Government Reform evaluated the computer security practices of federal agencies. And for the fourth year, it looks like our federal computer security sucks.

The overall grade was “D”, with several agencies earning the coveted “F” mark. The Department for Homeland Security– evaluated for the first time– got a big fat “F”. That’s particularly interesting, as one of their missions is to secure the national computer networks. Apparently they can’t even secure their own.

So, this begs the question: we appear to be dumping vast sums of money into the Homeland Security initiatives, yet we’re constantly reading about how airport security is just as lax as ever (although far more irritating), and now it seems the computer networks are in terrible shape. What, exactly, are the money and all the new agencies doing for us?

Maybe it’s because of my vocation, but I’d argue that in the 21st century it’s computer networks that are the “targets” for the Bad Guys. Physical security is important, but no one’s going to crash a jet any more– they’re going to try to take down the power grid, or disrupt the water supply, or just throw the federal government into chaos by scrambling computer links. Cyber-terrorism and bio-terrorism are the ones to watch out for.

Sigh. If only I was in charge…