Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A worthy quote

"What the gods have been expected to do, and have failed to do through the ages, man must find the courage and intelligence to do for himself. More needful than faith in God is faith that man can give love, justice, peace and all his beloved moral values embodiment in human relations. Denial of this faith is the only real atheism." - A. Eustace Haydon

Olds, Mason. American Religious Humanism: Revised Edition. Hamden, CT: HUUmanists, 2006. p. 13.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Blog post that wasn't

I have a topic I've wanted to Blog about for some time but have been unable to put into words. After a couple of aborted attempts I've decided that I don't really want to Blog about it after all. Generally the topic encompasses the subjects of existentialism, theism, atheism, religion, humanism and spirituality.

What an obscene waste of time, thought and energy! My energy, time and thought are better spent keeping current in my profession and interacting with others on a fully human level (professionally and socially.)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Terminally lazy

There are just three more days to go before I have eleven consecutive days off. We don't take all of the national and state holidays off at work (we take some of them) instead we batch them all together at the end of the year. That makes for a nice break at the end of the year. I better wash my bathrobe and stock up on groceries because I don't intend to leave the apartment that week. Well, I'll have to leave at least once, I'm going out with a group of friends for Christmas dinner on Christmas day (maybe they won't mind the bathrobe.)

I am suffering from a condition commonly called the "terminal lazy". Long warm summer days, and a good dose of motorcycles, is the only known cure. I didn't do much of anything over the weekend. I watched some TV Saturday - one of the "A Christmas Carol" movies, and a 1938 movie staring Lionel Barrymore and Jimmy Stewart called "You can't take it with you". I read most of the day Sunday. Sunday was the shortest day of the year. Monday will have 4 more minutes of sunshine. The days are getting longer now. The "terminal lazy" will clear up in a few more months.

I had an odd experience a couple of weeks ago. I had decided not to use Twitter and had deleted the few Tweets I had posted, but kept the account. My Twitter page sat empty for about 3 weeks when out of the blue I got an Email from Twitter telling me I had a new "follower" - the next day I got another one! Who would follow a blank Twitter? So, I decided to give Twitter another go.

I had surgery to relieve the Carpal Tunnel on my right hand last Wednesday. I had the same surgery on my left hand a month ago. I haven't had much pain from the surgery since Thursday; oddly my left wrist is having some discomfort - probably because I'm using my left hand more while my right hand is all bandaged up.

This is the most profound and insightful Blog post I've written all week. I'm exhausted; time for a nap.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Magic staircase

I was eating my lunch a few days ago when this staircase and wall caught my attention. I've seen this wall and staircase almost every day for the past eight years but they've never caught my attention this way before. This time I was sitting down directly in front of them looking straight at them.

It wasn't the artistic shapes on the wall that caught my eye - it was the curvature of the staircase. The panels on the wall do enhance the attractiveness of the scene - they seem to serve as a counter balance to the curving staircase. The panels are actually acoustic panels used to reduce the noise in the room and absorb echos. The room was insufferably noisy before they hung acoustic panels on the ceiling and walls.

I used my little pocket camera. This isn't the best picture in the world but I like it. A sophisticated camera with adjustments on the lens and film (image) plane would be able to eliminate the key-stoning at the top the panels.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Moonrise over Denver

Moonrise over Denver
December 10, 2008 4:18 P.M. MST
Casio EX-277
f5.4, 1/160sec, Fl 16.5mm
facing east (away from the mountains)

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Hot Tub of Death

We had a very unpleasant event happen in the apartment building last week.

Two elderly people, husband and wife, who lived in the building for many years were both found dead in the buildings hot tub last week. They had been shopping earlier in the day and must have decided to use the hot tub to relax.

No foul play is suspected and they didn't find anything wrong with the hot tub. Autopsies will be performed on both of them (I don't know if those will be made public.) The rumor going around is that they each had medical problems that may have made them less tolerant of heat. They might have had trouble getting out of the tub too (though we'll never know.)

I didn't know them well but they were both very nice people and I am very saddened by their tragic deaths. They had a pair of Cockatiels (birds) and the husband would have a bird on each shoulder whenever he came down to pick up the mail.

I'm also shaken up by the manner in which they died; I've used the hot tub myself. I'm not sure I'll be able to use a hot tub ever again.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The ethical hackers dilemma

Earlier this year I worked through a short course on general philosophy, I read "The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" a couple of months ago, I re-read "Man's Search for Meaning" a few weeks ago, and I just finished a short course on the history of moral thought and ethics. You can begin to see where my head-space has been for the past year.

I received an odd e-mail message last week that was rather serendipitous. The sender asked for my opinion about the proposition: "Ethical hackers, which cause no harm or damage to anyone else's property, should never be arrested, or prohibited to use a machine, especially when their knowledge of security is so desperately needed in today's society." Here the word hacker is used to mean someone that breaks into computer systems. I ignored the message for several days before dashing off a half-baked reply. I've since giving the proposition more thought.

Owing to my background, my age, and where my head has been lately I identified some problems with the proposition as it is written. At first glance the proposition seems simple enough, however on closer examination it is open to many avenues of enquiry. It raises concepts such as: property, ownership, rights, responsibilities, civics, justice, risk, knowledge, skill, experience, professionalism, ethics, and wisdom - I'm sure there are others. I don't think I'm able to take on any of the deep weighty philosophical issues, but I will try to address some of the easier issues closer to the surface.

The statement "Ethical hackers, which cause no harm or damage to anyone else's property, ..." seems no different than "it is ethical to throw rocks at houses as long as you don't break any windows." I don't think that's what was intended. The real problem has to do with a failure to distinguish between behavior and the means by which the behavior is carried out. For example, many people have no qualms about downloading copyrighted music or video, which they have not paid for, but they would never go into a store and steel a CD or DVD. Yet, the behavior is the same, it's still theft, only the means by which the theft is carried out is different.

I live in a city with streets, sidewalks, traffic lights, stores, houses and apartments. There are a couple of restaurants up the street and a grocery store within walking distance. As I walk about the city there isn't anything to physically prevent me from randomly walking up to a house and trying the doors and windows to see if I can find one open. If I found a window open there is nothing physically preventing me from crawling inside. If I go home and use my computer to break into someone else's computer system, how is that behavior different? To me there is no difference in the behavior only the means by which the behavior is carried out is different.

There is something that stops me from such behavior - it's my ability to empathize with others, my understanding of "the social contract", my understanding of privacy, property, ownership, my understanding of civic duty, my sense of fairness and justice, and my own sense of ethics.

It is a common practice for a company to contract with a team of professional penetration testers to test the company's security systems. The important distinction is - permission! The company hired the penetration testers, under contract, to test the their security; they have the company's permission to hack into their systems. For example: a company hires a security firm to patrol their plant and check all the doors. The company instructed the security firm that there is one particular door that they should check but never open the door or go inside that room. Inside that room is the worlds most dangerous bacteria, if unleashed it could wipe out the entire human population. Along comes a self-appointed so called ethical hacker, who hasn't been hired by the company and hasn't been briefed about that one door, they pick the lock, go inside and without intending to, unleash the deadly bacteria. Substitute a network for the door and a computer for the lock. Was that ethical or was it reckless hubris? The professional security firm knew what they were doing and understood the risks - the self-appointed so called ethical hacker did not. The only difference between a hacker and a penetration tester is permission.

The claim "Ethical hackers, which cause no harm or damage to anyone else's property,.." is inaccurate. The self-appointed so called ethical hacker, who breaks into systems without permission, is not in a position to know the potential harm (risks) their activities can cause nor are they in a position to know when their activities do cause harm. The absence of real or perceived harm doesn't make hacking ethical; the absence of permission, and the potential to cause harm, make it unethical!

Our beliefs and actions (behavior) have consequences. Consequences can be good or bad, and consequences can be intentional or unintentional. Regardless, we are solely responsible for our actions and their consequences (good or bad.) Being responsible for our actions means that we are accountable for our actions.

In a perfect world everyone would know what is right and good and would behave accordingly unfortunately our real world isn't so perfect. Our society creates laws to address the more extreme problems. Law is not the measure of ethical conduct; law is the measure of last resort. Law is for when ethics fail! I generally lean towards "let the sentence fit the crime." I am opposed to mandatory sentencing guidelines. I believe our courts need to have the liberty to consider other factors when determining a sentence. For example: the persons age and maturity. Did they understand what they were doing? How often did the badness occur? How wide spread was the badness? Was there real harm? How serious was the harm? What is their environment like? How much supervision do they have? How likely is the behavior to reoccur? Then let the sentence fit the crime.

We make ethical decisions every day, usually with little or no thought, but ethics isn't always so easy. An apparently simple proposition such as "Ethical hackers, which cause no harm or damage to anyone else's property, should never be arrested, or prohibited to use a machine, especially when their knowledge of security is so desperately needed in today's society." can unwind into a tangle of philosophical and ethical dilemmas.

My head hurts.

Photo credit: Conscience and law, Wiki Commons, Marcel Douwe Dekker (2007), public domain.