Saturday, December 30, 2006

Elections & Trade Secrets

For those not keeping score, the recent federal elections are not completely over. The race for Florida 13, while certified by the Secretary of State, is not yet settled to the satisfaction of the losing party. In this case a Democrat who appears to have lost because many other people who voted Democrat on other races failed to vote in her race.

At the heart of the controversy are fancy touchscreen voting computers, which lack paper-trail verification, and have been the target of sustained criticism from voter rights groups for the past several years.

The Herald Tribute reports that the challenger's motion to see the voting computer source code has been denied. Based on the article, which lacks sufficient legal description for this law school graduate, the judge felt the case as presented was mostly one of "conjecture" and was insufficient to override the trade secret protection of the voting machine manufacturers.

And so we enter the final realm of IP protection. I've spoken before on copyrights, patents, and trademarks... but trade secret just doesn't make it into the news all the often and yet is the single most important form of protection in the computer industry. The idea is simple: if a company has information they produced and they take reasonable steps to keep in secret, then it is consider a "trade secret" and entitled to protection.

The most common situation in which I've encountered this protection is when one tech company sues another and source code is at the heart of the matter. If one company seeks to discover the source code, the other can argue trade secret protection to prevent a competitor from accessing the source, or worse yet, the code entering public knowledge and losing all protection.

But there is a standard remedy which seems relevant to this election case. Known as a protective order, the moving party can request the source code be reviewed by lawyers (and their experts) who are may review the code and determine if their suspicions are correct. The lawyers are required to keep the information from their client. If the code reveals something relevant to the case, they can go to the judge and say "look, this has a direct impact on the case it must be disclosed to the parties." Then the judge can rule on something substantial.

In the present case, trusted experts could look at the code and make a determination on whether votes could have been improperly counted, present that determination to the judge who could make an informed ruling. Instead the judge seems to have bought the manufacturer's claim of software perfection. Mind you, Microsoft has been saying for years that it is impossible to make bug-free software and thus they should not be liable for damages as a result of their bugs.

I hope the Florida Appeals Court thinks about the precedent being set here when legitimate claims of voter fraud are weighed against trade secrets.

Monday, December 18, 2006

In Town

I arrived in Seattle on Friday (having walked, ridden on three buses, and airplane, and a car) and I couldn't be happier to be back. The why behind my love for this place is certainly still true. I won't bore you with details, but it has been great to see the city lit up (well, the parts that have electricity, anyway) and see friends and family.

Hopefully if you are someone who reads this blog, I will contact you soon to setup a time to meet while I'm in town. If I don't, chances are I don't know you read this self-defacing trash. Contact me.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Webcomics For Life

A friend of mine sent me a humorous webcomic that deserves to be shared with a wider audience. I've never heard of this particular strip before, but if you are into math, technology, and humour, it may be for you.

If not, I still think this one is a particularly excellent reflection of me, as a person. I'm not saying the girl has ever left before, but the scenario certainly started out the same way.

Make sure to hang your mouse over the image for a few seconds to uncover one of my life's guiding philosophies.

Here's the strip.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Thoughts on Digital Video

For those who don't regularly browse youtube content or browse slashdot obsessively... I suggest something which I think is well worth the bits to download.

Here's a link.

But you don't come to Pro Bono Geek for links to the latest media content. There are better blogs written by much more interesting people out there for such things. So, in addition to the link above (which I repeat again here for your convenience), here are some thoughts on digital video...

I've been considering getting Sarah a digital video (DV) camera for Christmas. Not really sure if I can afford to the level of quality I would want to get her, so it may have to be pushed off until after I strike it rich playing the California Lotto. They have a lotto down here, don't they? Anyway, since the idea came into my mind I've been thinking about what I might do if I had access to such technology.

So far... haven't come up with much. Sarah wants/needs the camera for school. Learning how to use it now will make doing ethnographic film making easier when she gets to that point in her graduate studies. So she's got a rationale for the expensive little bobble. I, on the other hand, have really no justification other than it has cool buttons.

I'm an avid fan of The Show with Ze Frank and his show is made possible by a DV camera. But I'm sure not that funny, nor committed, to doing such a thing. It's already risky that I, a person with political ambition, write a blog... heaven forbid if there were sound bytes!

There are other uses for a DV camera. Like, I'm told that a group of guys once went to Los Vegas with a fancy camera and took a bunch of pictures of their exploits. But that may or may not be true. But how often do you really produce that kind of footage? And, after you've created the footage, what in the world are you supposed to do with it? How often do you rewatch home movies?

All of these questions got me thinking... maybe I'm approaching the question all wrong. Perhaps a DV camera is not a means to a particular end, but a tool for general innovation. For example, I have this new case for my media server. The case includes a vaccum florescent display. At first I thought, wow... what am I going to do with that. Now, about a month later, I've written little display and control apps that allow me to manage my media collection without having to turn on the TV. Neat and energy efficient!

So the question becomes, would I have thought of the idea had I never owned the case? Probably not. But since the tool was available my mind got thinking and eventually innovation struck. Perhaps a DV camera, then, is not technology to be purchase because I have particular goals in mind... but because having the technology will present opportunities I would never have even considered... oh, and because Sarah would like it

Sunday, December 03, 2006

So Upsetting, It Actually Hurts

Democrats, as you may have heard, won big in November. What you may not have heard is that Keith Ellison, the new Minnesota Congressman and a Democrat, is the first Muslim to be elected to the House of Representatives. In accordance with his faith he has decided to take his oath of office using the Qur'an, instead of the Bible. This has upset some folks.

The article, if you can call it that, actually hurts to read. It is so full of inaccurate legal and cultural statements that I cringe to think about it. But allow me to share a few quotes which I assure you I am not taking out of context.
What Ellison and his Muslim and leftist supporters are saying is that it is of no consequence what America holds as its holiest book; all that matters is what any individual holds to be his holiest book.
Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress.
Ellison's doing so will embolden Islamic extremists and make new ones, as Islamists, rightly or wrongly, see the first sign of the realization of their greatest goal -- the Islamicization of America.
When all elected officials take their oaths of office with their hands on the very same book, they all affirm that some unifying value system underlies American civilization. If Keith Ellison is allowed to change that, he will be doing more damage to the unity of America and to the value system that has formed this country than the terrorists of 9-11.
Which brings me to one last quote I think is worth sharing on this topic. I think we can all agree that if there is one writing every member of Congress should uphold it is the United States Constitution. It has a valuable passage which I am reminded of everytime someone screams about the need to elect Christian legislators. You'll find this in Article VI of that most venerable document.
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Quick Post on Standing and the First Amendment

Washington Post has an article on the Supreme Court's decision to hear a challenge to the Bush Administration's faith-based initiative program. There are a lot of opinions flying around about the faith-based thing, and I'm not really interested in getting into it (for discussions on religion, I suggest checking out my friends' discussions).

What I am interested in is the Administration's effort to get this case booted on procedural grounds. They argue the plaintifs in the case lack standing, which means the plaintifs have not personally suffered a harm. The plaintifs are suing as tax-payers, meaning the only harm they allege is that their tax dollars are being spent in an unconstitutional manner.

The administration is not wrong in that tax-payer suits are dangerous... to allow any old tax-payer to bring a suit would flood the courts with law suits while providing little context for the court to rule. See, the problem with the average tax-payer is that they have no specific facts, no information, nothing to bring to the table that a judge can consider. As such, we have a doctrine that says general tax-payer status does not count for standing.

The administration, however, is dead wrong when "[i]n written arguments filed with the Supreme Court, Solicitor General Paul Clement said the appeals court had transformed a narrow exception in law into a "roving license" for citizens to challenge any action of the executive branch of government." See the mention of the narrow exception? That's what is known as a bald face lie.

The narrow exception he's referring to, and the only exception I know of to the tax-payer standing doctrine, is for establishment of religion cases. The argument is simple... if the government is, in fact, using tax dollars for unconstitutional establishment of religion (as the plaintifs argue in this case), who exactly suffers a harm other than the general tax-payer? Who, without this exception, has standing to challenge? Certainly not the religious institution receiving the funding. If no one has standing, then the behavior continues without scrutiny.

Which, I suppose, is exactly what the Bush Administration wants in this instance.