from my mind to yours...

April 2006
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On Child Pornography, the Law and Technology
Filed under: Technology and the Law
Posted by: site admin @ 4:15 pm

This link points to an article that describes a potential bill to be introduced by US Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO). As much as I hate child pornography, I cannot tolerate such an invasion of privacy as described in this article. As the concept is described, it is not limited to retention of records of people vising child pornography web sites. In fact, it doesn’t appear to be limited at all.

I see this as another example of well intentioned people without any real understanding of technology crafting a solution that forces a conflict between values important to this country. What appears to have happened in this case, as in so many others, is that those involved in public policy have failed to clearly delineate the problem they are trying to solve. Further, they have failed to put enough effort into finding a solution - and, as a result, have come up with a solution that in fact does not solve the problem, but does create other ones.

Keeping track of everything everyone sees on the Internet won’t stop child pornography. But it may be used to get people in trouble when they stumble onto a site unintentionally. And it reduces this country to a place little different than China in terms of the level of government watchers looking over our shoulders.

Let’s keep in mind what the real goal is here: To stop the distribution of this filth. Prosecuting users after the fact is limited by the resources required for prosecution. So keeping records, even to aid the prosecution, is at best imperfect.

A more appropriate solution would be to simply create a national registry that tracks child porn sites and require that all ISPs block those sites. This list can be easily distributed using an RSS feed (that’s not the only way to do it, but I wanted to give an example that most people can understand). And since every ISP already has the technology to block requests geographically - this has already been demonstrated in such cases as Yahoo and the sale of Nazi-related items1, it wouldn’t be difficult for them to check this list before honoring the request. Keep in mind that the producers of child porn are a much smaller number than the consumers2. Blocking access to those sites would make it more difficult for people to consume - which is really what we want. Further, this can be done under the auspices of any law that outlaws the distribution of child pornography (since that’s exactly what happens when you honor an http request).

Granted, blocking access in this country won’t necessarily result in no access at all to child porn. However, since we aren’t talking about interdicting just hosting, but also blocking http requests, the effect would be to block not only child porn hosted in this country, but to block child porn hosted ANYWHERE. While this isn’t a complete solution, it raises the level of effort required to get around the ban, which, in turn, limits the number of people who will attempt to do so3. Moreover, since child porn is illegal in EVERY country, it would be relatively simple to convince other governments to follow our lead, and even use our database. As more and more countries adopt this approach it would become harder for child pornographers to find a place to hide.

We should also keep in mind this same mechanism can be used to block ANYTHING. This means we must be careful what gets blacklisted4. Our country is vibrant because we constantly seek to limiting the limits of freedom. To the degree that we can preclude things with no positive value, while limiting the impact on things such as free speech, to that degree we can flourish in freedom. If we fail to find that balance, we can easily create a chilling effect that will cause people to censor everything in an attempt to censor the bad and marginal - and destroy the creativity that makes the country great. We need only look at the former Soviet Union to see what happens when people live in a censored society.

1. eBay, Amazon avoid French knot
2. Statistics on Porn & Sex Addiction
3. While I could outline several ways to get around this, I see no reason to make it easier for anyone.
4. The Chinese would just as soon use it to block access to websites dealing with freedom, democracy and the like (Oh wait - they already do that…).

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On Educaton, Competitiveness and the Future of the US Economy
Filed under: Politics and Economics
Posted by: site admin @ 8:06 am

Recently, President Bush has made noises that something needs to be done about the level of science and math education in the US1. He voices concern that the the slide in interest in these areas will affect US competitiveness. While the President continues to talk about improving the tax environment, and No Child Left Behind, he misses the biggest point: If you want people to do something, you need to create incentives. And those incentives need to be tailored for each target audience. While the politicos seem to have figured this out in relation to employers (no doubt because successful businessmen know how to communicate to the politicians exactly what they want), they don’t seem to have figured this out in relation to potential employees. In order to save the politicians some time, I’ve created a short list below to educate them on how to educate others.

First, if you want someone to do something, you have to make it appealing. The TV Show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” has done more to create interest in forensics and all it’s attendant science/ math curricula than anything in prior history of criminal justice, albeit with some unrealistically high expectations2. I expect the show “NUMB3RS to have a similar, though probably more muted, impact on the field of mathematics. The “Matrix” movie series( at least the first 2 - the last one devolved in to an ADMITTED Deus ex Machina ending that was completely disappointing), showed that audiences, even young ones, enjoy philosophy. If politicians want to encourage something, they should create strong incentives for Hollywood to help them out. Hollywood seems to have figured this out somewhat - politicians need to encourage it in the tax code. Further, if we want Science and Engineering (S & E) types to be the rock stars of the future, then we should treat them like that3. Right now, it’s easier to find the top selling musicians than the most prolific inventors4. Who do you think contributes more to society in the long term?

Second, once you have someone’s interest, you have to make the journey enjoyable. In many cases, a far out payoff (like a career) fades into intangibility compared to the realities of trying to survive the high school experience. Our schools have become a source of free daycare for parents who may or may not have an interest in their children’s actual education. A large percentage of those who do care seem to place a premium on getting enough of an education to qualify their kids for after school sports. Meanwhile, students with a primary interest in learning often find themselves the targets of ridicule and bullying5. The bright kids are the ones most likely to contribute to the economic success of this country, yet they are so often placed on the bottom social rungs. My oldest son experienced this first hand - and went “underground” where he has hidden his intellect for the last 6 years. He may never recover. If we want our smart kids to follow paths that will improve the lives of many, we need to give them safe places to grow - which the current public education system rarely provides. Since it is unlikely that politicos can change a culture overnight, it is unlikely that simply telling parents and other students to value the smart kids will have any impact. A more pragmatic approach is to simply segregate / “track” kids by interest. This not only enables those with common interests to encourage and challenge each other, it also lessens the likelihood of destructive interactions between groups with different interests. Given the “gang” style behavior of groups more focused on physical prowess, this segregation may need to be at the school level - using specialized schools for Science and Math, Arts, etc. , while allowing those less interested in education to attend the general purpose schools.

Some might decry this as elitist, but the fact of the matter is every group of humans evolves a dominance hierarchy6 or “pecking order”. In other words, there are ALWAYS elites in every group. The only question is who they are and what criteria is used to select them. By segregating students by interest, we enable multiple dominance hierarchies to form, many of which will be based on criteria that actually benefit the community as a whole by encouraging beneficial behaviors and attitudes.

Third, once you have people’s interest and curiosity, you need to make sure they see a payoff. While there has been an upsurge in interest in forensics because of CSI, the unrealistic expectations created by those shows must eventually be confronted by reality. And when that confrontation occurs, interest can fade very rapidly. The same holds true for many professions that require a high degree of skill. Many kids may believe that the success of Microsoft and Google means that they too can become as rich as Bill Gates. When confronted by a job market where jobs are moving overseas faster than they can get a degree and the potential for large school debt, some may decide to seek careers in fields less volatile. While the data7 indicate that Science & Engineering enrollments continue to climb, the most recent recession has had an unprecedented impact on those in the techology fields as jobs begin to shift overseas at a rapid rate. Students watching their parents lose jobs may rethink what fields they want to work in.

If jobs continue to move overseas, it will become impossible to sustain a system where the smartest people are encouraged to spend years of their lives going into significant debt in order to obtain jobs where they work for a pittance. The people most likely to succeed in S & E fields are not dumb - they will go where the incentives take them. In order to give the appropriate incentives, we should consider the following:

1) Limit government spending to only pay for US based jobs and materials. Company ownership is not the issue here. The issue is where the jobs are. Federal, state, and local spending should be limited to only those vendors who can demonstrate that their products/ services contain a certain (very high) percentage of content produced in the US. Further, this content percentage must apply to what the company produces AND the content it receives from suppliers. Keeping the money in the country keeps it circulating here, which is good for the US economy.
2) Targeted educational subsidies - If students no longer need worry about significant debt, they can take more risks in their educational choices. These subsidies should be targeted at the areas of study deemed important to the US economy (Science & Engineering)
3) Percentage payment for intellectual property - Rock stars make a percentage on every album that sells. If we want S & E types to be the rock stars of the economy, let’s start paying them that way. It’s amazing how creative people can get when they have a stake in the outcome. Right now most inventions are assigned to large corporations that pay the inventors enough for a downpayment on a new car.


1. President Participates in Panel on the American Competitiveness Initiative
2. The CSI Effect
3. The TV Show American Inventor takes a step in this direction, but since if focuses mostly on wannabes, it tends to come off as a laundry list of oddballs and putzes with a few gems sprinkled among them. We need something that celebrates known successes that isn’t a documentary (and I LIKE documentaries).
4. Search for the most prolific inventors is a patent struggle
5. Study: Gifted Students Become Bully Magnets
6. Dominance Hierarchy - Definition
7 Science and Engineering Indicators 2006

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On Illegal Aliens and Immigration Reform
Filed under: Politics and Economics
Posted by: site admin @ 7:57 pm

I’m completely baffled again - this time by the current upheaval over immigration reform and illegal aliens. What baffles me is this: Why isn’t anyone talking about the cause of illegal immigration(1)? We hear that the cause is the availability of jobs here in the US.

That’s not the real cause - the cause is the LACK of jobs in Mexico, Central and South America. That and the corruption that prevents the creation of those jobs. If there were real jobs in Mexico (which there are beginning to be), we wouldn’t have a problem with illegal immigration. Why would someone go through the effort to get here when they have something as good or nearly as good close to home?

If we want to really solve the problem of illegal immigration, we need to stop looking at amnesty, increased border security, national ID cards, etc., and start focusing on the real problem - pushing the Mexican government to clean up the corruption and improve the investment climate in the country. Remember the Zapatista’s in Chiapas? That was in 1994. Why were they upset? Because the locals had been consistently shortchanged by the Mexican state and federal governments. The locals ended up being essentially slaves in their own land. Who wants to live like that? Their situation may have been extreme - but it wasn’t unusual.

Yes, Vicente Fox has vowed to clean up corruption. Supposedly he has done some so far. And yes, Mexico is starting to have a middle class. Hopefully this will continue to improve. As it does, the immigration problem will take care of itself. And it will do so regardless of how much we do or don’t do to stop it. The key thing we need to do is stop allowing ourselves to be distracted by the effect and keep focused on the real cause.

(1) Since the vast majority of the illegal immigrants in this country are from Mexico, I’m focusing on Mexico for now.

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