Monday, September 30, 2013

Credit for Articles

As a lifelong hypochondriac, I often use Wikipedia to look up diseases and medical conditions.  Some of the articles are lengthy and somewhat technical and seem reliable, but most of the time, I have no idea whether the information is good or bad.  I then turn to a site with vetted content, such as WedMD or the Mayo Clinic; both of these sites are directed at laypeople, and tend to be rather superficial, at least in my experience.  Today I read about a new initiative from the University of California at San Francisco; fourth-year medical students will be able to earn academic credit at UCSF by editing Wikipedia articles, adding images, reviewing edits made by others, and adding citations where needed.  Eighty articles are targeted for improvement; these are articles that tend to be accessed often (they are on important subjects--tuberculosis, syphilis) but lack citations and have uneven content.  The project, which is part of Wikiproject Medicine, will help medical students learn how to communicate better with their patients, which would certainly be a good thing.  Today's New York Times has an article that provides more details about the initiative. 

Reading about the project made me wonder if a similar project undertaken by a law school would improve the quality of legal information on Wikipedia.  The opportunities and challenges would be similar in both fields.  One major difference would be the intended audience.  Wikiproject Medicine is aimed at a global audience as a way of disseminating reliable medical information to people who might not otherwise have access to it.  Such a project undertaken by a U.S. law school would necessarily be limited in scope.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Stewardship, and Our Responsibility to Future Generations

I just read Roy Balleste's excellent post at Circle ID blog, Privacy and the Future: Are We Good Trustees of the Internet? He speaks eloquently about the need to safeguard against the government encroachment on privacy online.  But something about the post makes me think about a conversation I had weeks ago with my 23 year old daughter.

I was talking about the revelations of the NSA and DEA tapping citizen and foreign e-mails, phone conversations, and building or accessing huge databases of both types of traffic. I was just amazed and dismayed when my daughter's reaction was, "DUH! We always assumed they were listening. What are you upset about?"

It is one thing to be cynical about your government.  (and sneer at your parents regarding technology)  It is something else entirely to cede your Fourth Amendment rights without a blink. 

Once you give up Constitutional rights, I think you probably will have to shed blood to get them back. Just like the Minuteman decorating this blog post. Frederick Douglass told us, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will."

The image is the The Minute Man, a statue by Daniel Chester French erected in 1875 in Concord, Massachusetts. The photo was originally at the National Park Service page,, which now is a 404 message. The image is on Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Courthouse Dogs!

Everybody has heard about therapy dogs in libraries.  And people all know about junkyard dogs.  But I never heard about Courthouse Dogs until our student newspaper featured a little article about them.  The article begins with our Massachusetts courthouse dog, Wena, who works with Community Voices, a Chelmsford, Massachusetts organization for child protection and crime victim advocacy in the courts. 

Since 2003 courthouse dogs have provided comfort to sexually abused children while they undergo forensic interviews and testify in court. These dogs also assist treatment court participants in their recovery, visit juveniles in detention facilities, greet jurors and lift the spirits of courthouse staff who often conduct their business in an adversarial setting.

Courthouse dogs specialize in assisting individuals with physical, psychological, or emotional trauma due to criminal conduct.  These facility dogs should be graduates from assistance dog organizations that are accredited members of Assistance Dogs International to ensure that they do not create a public danger and are stable, well-behaved, and unobtrusive to the public. Courthouse facility dogs are handled by criminal justice professionals, such as a deputy prosecutor, a law enforcement officer, a victim advocate, or a forensic interviewer.

From the home page of Courthouse Dogs,  a national organization. There will be a national conference of Courthouse Dog folks in Seattle, Washington on November 8, 2013. They will be hosting guests from  Chile, where they have the only Courthouse Dog program in Latin America. 

Besides work as Courthouse Dogs, the service dogs who can be placed, do many other types of service.  I was fascinated to read about them at Canine Companions for Independence, which is one of the leading breeders and facilities for providing service and assistance dogs. They trained both the courthouse dogs featured on websites, Wena and Molly B. in Seattle. They rely on volunteers to raise puppies and help do basic etiquette training.  

They also have a page on Facebook!  :-)  The image above it the logo of the organization from their Facebook page.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Fore-edge paintings in books - hidden pleasures

The Boston Globe Ideas section has a brief article today, Secrets of the fore-edge in the Brainiac feature in print (p. K8, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013), and the Ideas Blog online.  Kevin Hartnett reports on a lovely discovery at the University of Iowa where a student discovered four books by 19th-century Scottish science writer Robert Mudie.  Fore-edge paintings are invisible when books sit closed, or open entirely.  But when they are fanned slightly, a painting appears on the page edges.

The library at University of Iowa has posted GIF animations of the pages being fanned open here, along with more information and another photo of one of the books.  The Mudie books are about the changing seasons, and the illustrations are the four seasons.  The Globe photo appears to show spring or summer, with blossoms.  And the Iowa website shows autumn. 

The Boston Public Library has a web page dedicated to images of their outstanding collection of fore-edge paintings.   This first is a (loooong!!) series of thumbnail images of the paintings.  What is best about the BPL site is the articles about Fore-edge painting here. From the article, Fore-edge Painting - An Introduction, by Anne C. Bromer:

[In the 17th Century,] Samuel Mearne, a bookbinder to the royal family, developed the art of the “disappearing painting” on the fore-edge of a book.

“Imagine a flight of stairs, each step representing a leaf of the book. On the tread would be the painting and on the flat surface would be gold. A book painted and gilt in this way must be furled back before the picture can be seen.” (Kenneth Hobson, 1949) 

The Globe article includes a link to a special provider of "presses" to display such books. Such presses must also be used to create the paintings, holding the pages in place while the artist paints the image and it dries. This webpage shows several examples of fore-edge art, and has more links to explain fore-edge paintings, including more examples.  Be sure to link to the Boston Public Library link "What is a Fore-edge Painting?" to see some beautiful video clips of books from their collection being fanned.  One of these clips is used without attribution on the press website, but the BPL link has two more examples, and the books are just amazing.

The image decorating this blog post is a fore-edge painting from the Boston Public Library collection, an image of the White House which decorates A History of New York by Washington Irving.  What an interesting thought process that led to White House in Washington, D.C. as a decoration for this book! 

Saturday, September 07, 2013

NSA and British counterpart cracking Internet codes

The Guardian, in partnership with The New York Times and,reports on how the National Security Agency (NSA) and its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) have successfully cracked much of the code that people rely on to guard security across the Internet.   The NSA has been working for 10 years, concentrating on eliminating encryption algorithms as a possible source of security risks to the country.  In 2010, they made a breakthrough with allowed them to "exploit" vast amounts of Internet traffic which previously was inaccessible.  And now, both the NSA and the GCHQ are working in some collaboration with Yahoo, Google, Hotmail and Facebook to build "backdoors" to these systems and insert exploitable vulnerabilities into their encrypted traffic. From the Guardian article:

The agencies insist that the ability to defeat encryption is vital to their core missions of counter-terrorism and foreign intelligence gathering.

But security experts accused them of attacking the internet itself and the privacy of all users. "Cryptography forms the basis for trust online," said Bruce Schneier, an encryption specialist and fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "By deliberately undermining online security in a short-sighted effort to eavesdrop, the NSA is undermining the very fabric of the internet." Classified briefings between the agencies celebrate their success at "defeating network security and privacy".

Chillingly, the documents from the NSA refer to the regular customers of the commercial systems such as Google or Facebook as "adversaries" and seeks to make the exploitable vulnerabilities in the system invisible to such persons. The NSA lists a number of goals in the document, several of which it has achieved. For instance, it has successfully introduced major weaknesses into international standards for encryption systems. The NSA continues to "shape" the worldwide marketplace, and attempts to make commercial encryption software 'more tractable" to NSA attacks.  They continue to try to break the encryption for 4G phones. The funding for the program, more than $250 million, dwarfs Prism, which looks like a bargain at $20 million. They have not yet cracked all encryption, and have not yet subverted all of the Internet.

The other danger is that by building in backdoors, the NSA and GCHQ are opening the door to others who may gain entrance besides themselves.  From the Guardian article:

"Backdoors are fundamentally in conflict with good security," said Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist and senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union. "Backdoors expose all users of a backdoored system, not just intelligence agency targets, to heightened risk of data compromise." This is because the insertion of backdoors in a software product, particularly those that can be used to obtain unencrypted user communications or data, significantly increases the difficulty of designing a secure product."

Read the 3 articles in depth.  They overlap a good deal, but are somewhat different from each other.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

More on US government data gathering: Project Hemisphere, Spying on Brazil & Mexico

Well, just as President Obama is asking the Congress to grant him extraordinary powers to attack Syria, a couple more stories are popping up about extensive data gathering or spying by the United States. 

Brazil and Mexico are both summoning U.S. ambassadors to discuss how their sovereignty has been violated by spying. This is more fallout from the revelations of Edward Snowden about National Security Agency (NSA) activities.

And, more disturbing to U.S. citizens, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents appear to have had access for six years to a database of telephone calls that dwarfs that used by the NSA.  The New York Times reported on the Hemisphere Project, where employees of AT&T were actually embedded with the DEA and would thus be available on short notice to use the AT&T database as soon as a subpoena was received. The database was owned and housed by AT&T, and not accessed directly by the government agents, which raises interesting questions under the Fourth Amendment for Search and Seizure afficionados. 

But the DEA agents had access to far more data than the NSA agents through the Hemisphere Project. The database includes every phone call that passed through an AT&T switch for the past 26 years, not just AT&T customers.  That is a huge swath of the telephone calls made in the world, and certainly across the North American continent.  The metadata includes the city and state of the caller, and is aimed largely at trying to identify and track the cell phones that criminals buy, discard and replace to avoid tracking by law enforcement.  

The database was actually available to other agencies besides the DEA, and was also largely used by Homeland security, and to a lesser extent by the FBI and several agencies in Washington state.  A portion of the PowerPoint slide show that was released, eventually, to the New York Times (probably accidentally), discusses the importance of protecting the program from discovery.  Project Hemisphere is not classified, but is "law enforcement sensitive."

While the slides show several success stories about arrests enabled by Project Hemisphere, we should ask at what price these arrests are coming.  How much access to records, to privacy, are we willing to cede to government officials?  In an era of increasing digital collection, we should consider, as a society, where we stand on the search and seizure, Fourth Amendment rights enshrined in a different age.