Monthly Archives: February 2014

Self Driving Cars

This is a topic that has been fairly prevalent on automotive news and I thought I would bring it up. Nowadays, automation is becoming more of a reality in our lives. We no longer have to put in our own labor in our everyday tasks, a lot of the time; we simply click a button and a computer takes full control. This brings me onto Google, who have been in the process of innovating an “Autonomous Vehicle” , among several other major car companies. This in itself raises some interesting ethical questions. For instance, how comfortable would you be with potentially leaving your lives in the hand of a computer driven vehicle? Obviously, the concept is still in its very early stages of testing and won’t surface on the market for a considerable amount of time but the idea still might trouble a lot of people.

There have been arguments that autonomous vehicles will result in drastic reductions in traffic accidents as it will completely eradicate driver error. However, to what extent could an automaker argue that their vehicles are that safe, and when an accident does inevitably occur, who is to blame? In terms of moral rights theory, a person has a basic right to life, which implies that ‘people’ have a duty to not harm them or take their life. Could we impose this duty on a computer and how would we enforce it? If it is somehow possible to hack the integrated systems on these vehicles, that could be a means for a disaster. Most of these cars are expected to communicate with one another wirelessly in order to make travel as efficient as possible and if this communication were to be affected, serious consequences could result. Would you say that autonomous vehicles are the right direction for the future of transit?

Hacking Team’s RCS and Government Surveillance

Hacking Team, a company based in Milan has been making headlines lately due to its product: RCS (Remote Control System). RCS is a piece of software which is capable of logging passwords, recording internet communication (e-mail, VOIP, and instant messaging), using a PC’s webcam to take pictures, and transmitting locally stored files. RCS is, by even the most conservative definitions, spyware. What makes RCS particularly interesting is that it is sold in the open, rather than on the black market like most malware. Additionally, it is marketed specifically to governments around the world – specifically governments known for suppressing free speech.  There isn’t a whole lot of information available on what RCS users are specifically using the software for, but The Citizen Lab recently linked RCS to an incident where it was being used to spy on Ethiopian journalists.

This raises some obvious ethical questions about Hacking Team’s business model. Is it ethical to sell intrusive software like this? Hacking Team defends itself by claiming that the tool is made to be used for crime-fighting and anti-terrorism. The company also notes that it only sells directly to clients, and that all clients are reviewed by a board of engineers and lawyers who can veto a sale if it appears it will be used in human rights abuses.

Verizon VS Netflix

Over the last couple months when Verizon (VZ fortune 500) users have been using Netflix the streaming of their movie or TV show that they are watching has been slowed down.  Verizon wants Netflix to pay them for using their FIOS network.  Netflix traffic can take up to a third of FIOS’s network in the United States at peak times.  This is out of the norm because broadband service usually doesn’t make each other pay for using their networks because they both benefit from the traffic.  Netflix states that Verizon is not improving their network (VZ fortune 500), and they are using their monopoly to put in a “toil road” for Netflix using Verizon’s network.  While Verizon said that they wanted to do whatever will benefit both services.

This whole dispute relates to net-neutrally.  The question is does Verizon have the right to make Netflix pay for using the network VZ fortune 500.  The simple answer is that they don’t have the right because Netflix cannot help if some of their customers use VZ fortune 500 to stream movies and TV shows.  If we look at the act utilitarianism; if Verizon would improve their network it would coast them in the short run but, in the long run it would strengthen their relationship with Netflix.  Also giving VZ fortune 500 users a better network and faster streaming speeds which would increase their happiness.  Plus Netflix would be happy that they won’t have to pay for the people streaming on Verizon’s network.  If Verizon makes Netflix pay for the broadband service, Netflix may not stream on XZ fortune 500 networks.


Aereo is a New York based company that provides an online service streaming over-the air broadcasts on live and time-shifted streams. Retransmitting over-the-air broadcasts usually requires licensing fees to be paid to the original broadcasting agency. Aereo is attempting to create a legal loophole by requiring each subscriber to rent a unique antenna and unique DVR storage space, users are also required to be within the range of the broadcast that they are streaming or the service will be cut until the user reenters broadcast range . Regardless, a coalition of broadcasters including CBS, Comcast, Disney, 21st Century Fox, and others filed suit against Aereo. The legal ramifications of this are pretty far reaching. On one hand, there is legislation that requires Cable and satellite providers to pay licensing fees in order to retransmit over-the-air broadcasts. On the other there is a legal precedent, from the same district court that would have jurisdiction over Aereo, which says if a unique recording is used for a private performance the location of the recording device does not change its legality. In July 2012 a federal judge sided with Aereo and the decision was upheld at an appeals court in April 2013. The coalition of broadcasters filed a petition with the Supreme Court in October 2013 and as of January 2014 the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case. This case exemplifies several of the issues were have discussed regarding copyright. It is very hard to argue that retransmitting or DVR services steal from the original broadcaster; by opening the broadcasts to a wider user-base, advertisements would reach more people and recover allow the original distributer to recover any lost profits by charging more for advertisements. If Aereo is able to survive this lawsuit, it could be step in the right direction for broadcast media.

Covering songs and Copyright

I decided to do a little research on how covering songs and copyright works. As stated in class, copyright attempts to protect distribution, performing, reproduction, displayed, and adapted. So when someone records or performs a cover song there must be some sort of rules that go along with putting it in front of the public. I found an article written by a guy who went through the process of making it legal to distribute covers on a CD. It turns out there are 2 types of licensing, mechanical and digital, which are self explanatory. Also, there are 3 main ways to do this, paying a legal firm specializing in musical licensing, going straight to the publisher to get legal right, or go to the library of Congress. All of which cost some amount of money, 8.50 cents for songs 5 minutes and then there is usually a filing fee. From Dan’s experience is mostly just seems like a lot of paperwork but not difficult (unless you get denied which there is nothing you can do about).

I was also interested in performing covers at concerts. And apparently it is completely legal to do so as long as the venue has the proper license. There is a fee  that venues pay to PRO, performing rights organization, and that makes it okay for bands to perform covers at there venue.

Also they covered Youtube covers, which is kind of complicated. But sometimes publishers and put ads and monetize cover videos, or the videos might be taken down.

Basically, it seems that as long as the publisher gets their royalties for the song, they will be happy.

Flappy Bird and Unhappy Dong


To many aspiring programmers, creating a game whose popularity spreads like wildfire would seem to be a great stroke of luck.  However, as the simple-yet-infuriatingly hard game known as “Flappy Bird” rose to the top of the Apple App Store and Google Play, its creator, Dong Nguyen, demonstrated increasing amounts of stress and disappointment over his twitter account.  Eventually, he made the decision to pull the game off the App Store and Google Play, despite speculation that he was generating as much as $50,000 per day in ad revenue.  In his first interview since taking down the game, Dong acknowledges that the game is wildly profitable, yet still elaborates on why he felt it was right to take it down.  In short, Dong stated that Flappy Bird “was designed to play in a few minutes when you are relaxed”, but that it turned into “an addictive product”.

While analyzing the moral implications of a game creator taking down his own free game may seem trivial, there are still some interesting questions to be raised.  Was what Dong did the right thing to do?  From an act utilitarian standpoint, it would seem that the small amount of relief Dong can now experience is much less important than the millions of people who enjoy the game, making Dong’s choice wrong.  Or perhaps these players are subconsciously unhappy, but are too addicted to the game to realize its toll.  Furthermore, the moral rights theory approach would likely say that Dong has complete control to do what he wants with the game, seeing as it is a product of his own skill and creativity.  Does anyone else think removing Flappy Bird was or was not justified?


CyanogenMod is an open source OS(Operating System) for android based tablet and smartphones. All of its code can be found on a common open source site, Github. Common neat features CyanogenMod has are supportsare  native theming support, FLAC audio codec support, a large Access Point Name list, an OpenVPN client, revoking application permissions, support for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and USB tethering, CPU overclocking and other performance enhancements, soft buttons and other “tablet tweaks”, toggles in the notification pull-down (such as Wi-FiBluetooth and GPS), apppermissions management, as well as other interface enhancements.

CyanogenMod was started by Steve Kondik who goes by the name Cyanogen. He started this project back around February 2011 with the Android 2.3 GingerBread.

Since then CyanogenMod has slowly developing. It is becoming more and more stable. There are three parallel and active major versions: CyanogenMod 10 (Android 4.1), 10.1 (Android 4.2), 10.2 (Android 4.3) and 11 (Android 4.4). Which are split into different categories such as Stable, Release Candidate, M-series and Nightlies.

This leads me to my questions, what do you guys think of CyanogenMod versus the rest of the mods out there. Is is better than the Android Stock? How does this tie in with what we are learning in class about open source? Could open source software like this be easily exploited by hackers?

The War of the Androids

Google vs. Samsung

Samsung owns the vast majority of the market share for Android, 29.6% in fact.  That may not seem like a big number, but it dominates the competitors: in Q4 2013 alone Samsung shipped 86 million phones.  That’s on top of a platform that already owns the vast majority of smartphone OS market share at a good 81%.  This puts Samsung in a very good position to dictate what the current state of Android is….and it’s very far removed from creator Google’s vision.

It starts with Touchwiz as pointed out in a recent Forbes article.  A Samsung technology to provide a new user experience and frontend to Android that replaces or adds many different features to the Android smartphone.  Some good, some bad….while many critics argue that Touchwiz is a terrible and bloated interface, you can’t argue with sales numbers and hardware.  This extended to other Samsung products including it’s popular television sets and a new OS in development at Samsung to replace Android: Tizen.  But that hides the core of the “Android experience” as it’s been dubbed in the media.  And Google wants Samsung to sit down, shut-up and keep licensing Google technology.

This is where Motorola came into play.

Acquiring Motorola for 12.5 billion dollars and then selling it for 2.91 billion on the surface seems like a bad business decision.  And surely enough there were many pundits that made that call.  But what the majority are forgetting are the numerous patents acquired from the sale for mobile technology (around 17,000 to be precise).  This sale occurred in 2011.  A few years later, Google decided to use Motorola to teach Samsung a lesson.

Enter the Motorola Droid RAZR, X and G.  Three popular phones that run almost bare stock Android.  The purpose of these phones were simple, show users what fast, simple Android could do on it’s own.  Google also began focusing more effort on the Nexus line, dropping Samsung as the manufacturer and taking on LG to release the Nexus 4.

Clearly the growing popularity of these phones and the market share of Motorola under Google was threatening to Samsung.  So they decided to cut a deal in which they would license Google technology for 10 years.  Effectively cutting off Tizen and with promises that Samsung would stop cutting out stock Android apps for it’s own Touchwiz interface.

The next day, Lenovo bought Motorola from Google for 2.91 billion dollars.

The Great Init Debate

Recently, Debian GNU/Linux (“the universal operating system”) has come under fire for it’s politics, centered around which init system to use by default.

So, what’s an init system? Well, in Unix and Unix-like operating systems (I’ll refer to them as *nix, or just nix) init is the first thing that starts when your computer turns on. It starts everything else (usually things called daemons) that makes your system work. In the past, System V init has been used, that is, there is a program that executes a set of shell scripts in 5 different levels, each of which are started in alphabetical order. Historically stable and portable (working on all *nix systems) it is slow, but powerful.

Recently, there have been calls to replace the default init system in Debian, a historically stable and slow-to-change distribution of GNU/Linux (where distribution means Linux+GNU in a nice package). With this, comes a great debate on what to choose.

On the one hand, there is Systemd. Systemd is fast, and can use dependencies for init scripts (ie, wait for one to finish before starting another). It also makes logging easier, works much faster (for faster boots), and most of all, writing system services is exponentially easier. However, with these benefits come negatives. For one, it is not POSIX compliant, that is, it is specific only to Linux and doesn’t work on any of the other unixes (or unicies, unixen). Additionally, userland applications like logind and udev are now included or explicitly dependent on systemd. Is it ethical for software to be written in such a manner that it only benefits a subset of the community? Is it ethical to ignore alternatives in which all could benefit?

Another option is Upstart. Developed by Canonical (the company behind the popular distribution Ubuntu), it is event-based instead of dependency based. This means that, when events happen on the system, Upstart can react. Originally designed to make Ubuntu boot faster, it offers numerous advantages over a System V init system. However, in order for people to contribute, Canonical reserves the right to relicense their work later under a closed source license. Although Upstart could work on multiple platforms, it hasn’t been done in the past so it would require work. Is it ethical for a software project to require that contributions be allowed to be re-licensed under whatever they please?

A final option is openRC. POSIX compliant, and fast, it offers most of the advantages of a System V system while also staying minimal. However, it is experimental and as such has been largely ignored by the debate.

As of this writing, the Debian project chose Systemd. Do you think that was the right option? I look forward to comments


Open source, opportunity, and women in software

Linux Journal recently ran a thoughtful essay by Susan Sons about females in open source and hacking communities.

Sons starts by talking about how she first engaged with the Linux community. It was the 1990’s, and Sons was around age 12. She applauds that community for including anyone who was interested and skillful — even a 12 year old girl living on a farm.

Sons goes on to talk about how her way of learning technology is very different than the way girls are typically introduced to tech nowadays, like in high school STEM courses. She seems to feel like she was introduced to technology in a healthy way. But she thinks that, unfortunately, most girls are not given the opportunity to learn about computers the way she did.

Twelve-year-old girls today don’t generally get to have the experiences that I did. Parents are warned to keep kids off the computer lest they get lured away by child molesters or worse—become fat! That goes doubly for girls, who then grow up to be liberal arts majors. Then, in their late teens or early twenties, someone who feels the gender skew in technology communities is a problem drags them to a LUG meeting or an IRC channel. Shockingly, this doesn’t turn the young women into hackers.

Her main point seems to be that, as she learned technology (on a computer at home, communicating over IRC), it did not matter whether she was male or female, and it didn’t matter how old she was. But the way we introduce most girls to technology now is much less healthy. We expect them to live up to certain gender roles — wearing make-up, dressing stylishly, projecting femininity — and emphasize those things instead of encouraging them to hack and create. Then, when girls who have never had the opportunity to learn about computers get to high school, we act like there must be something wrong with them and act like they need special help (like special classes for women in STEM).

Sons also explains how these differences in learning technology result in differences in the ways women and men are treated later as adults in technology and computer occupations. Sons also seems to think that the situation has become a lot worse over the last 20 years.

I’ve never had a problem with old-school hackers. These guys treat me like one of them, rather than “the woman in the group”, and many are old enough to remember when they worked on teams that were about one third women, and no one thought that strange. Of course, the key word here is “old” (sorry guys). Most of the programmers I like are closer to my father’s age than mine.

The new breed of open-source programmer isn’t like the old. They’ve changed the rules in ways that have put a spotlight on my sex for the first time in my 18 years in this community.

Maybe Sons’ underlying message is this: We treat girls and women unfairly when it comes to computers and technology. But the main problem is not individual cases of prejudice. It is an educational system and a technology culture that puts women at a disadvantage from an early age — primarily by having very different expectations for women and men. Is that right? If so, then it is clearly very unfair.

Sons has an interesting perspective, and I wonder if it matches what you have seen in the tech world — in school, in online communities, in the workplace.

Google Glass App to help see taxpayer waste everywhere they look

Developers have come up with an app for Google Glass, called Augmented Advocacy, that would display government wasteful spending in your field of vision, using Google’s head-mounted computer.  Just stand next to a government building, and it will display information in the form of a Glass information card directly in your field of vision.  The app knows where you are, but currently it works only in Washington DC.

This idea, on the surface, looks like a good idea.  It gives the public an easy, quick view of how wasteful the government is with taxpayer’s money, although the information strictly comes from conservatives.  This app would appeal to the Republican, but Democrats may not be very interested in this app.  If it is successful, we may see a similar app come out that may have information submitted by left-wingers.

What’s not clear is how far this app will go.  Will it display information for the public sector only in the future, or will it expand into the private sector as well?  Will it be possible for the common Joe to upload information about, say, the price of houses in a neighborhood?  What would it be like to have friends/coworkers/etc. know how much your house is just by using Glass.  Sure, you can get this information online, but this information could be so much easier to access in the near future.