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September, 2019

Counter-factual computation is counter-factual

Last year we reported on a Nature paper that purported to show that a light-based quantum computer could make a calculation, even when no light entered the computer. To summarize; light entered the computer and was split so that half traveled down one path (path A), and half down a second (path B). The light in the second path enters the device that actually performs the computation, which also splits the light so that some travels along a third path (path C). The computation is performed by changing the distance light must travel along the third path. The three paths of light are then sequentially recombined. The upshot is that results can be obtained, even when the photon is known to have never entered the part of the computer that performs the calculation—counter-factual computation. HangZhou Night Net

Research published this month in Physical Review Letters shows that this is not really the case. If one carefully examines the chance of finding the photon in each path during the computation, a paradox is quickly revealed. The idea is that the entrance to the computer preselects a set of photon states and the exit of the computer post-selects from the preselected states. The upshot is that if the photon didn't pass through the either paths B and C, it couldn't have entered the computer at all.

This is not to say that Horsten et al wasted their time. Their experimental results have revealed an interesting paradox, which throws some light on the effects and limitations of quantum non-demolition measurements—measurements that don't actually make a measurement. As an aside, the author notes that the Bohmian interpretation of quantum mechanics does support quantum counter-factual computation. This may mean that there is fruitful line of experimental work that might distinguish between the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics and Bohmian mechanics opening up.

Former Apple General Counsel in hot water with the SEC

There has been a lot of allegation and investigation in the Apple stock options backdating probe, but it appears the SEC is getting ready to throw the book at a few people for the roles they apparently had in the backdating. In particular, the SEC looks to be taking action against Apple's former General Council Nancy Heinen and former CFO Fred Anderson. HangZhou Night Net

While backdating of stock options isn't necessarily illegal, in this case it does appear to have been done illegally. In particular, Heinen is alleged to have approved the forging of documents involved in the backdating of the options. Rather unsurprisingly, forged documents make backdated options illegal, so Ms. Heinen may have a hard time mounting a defense. She is also implicated in another backdating transaction which she and Fred Anderson benefited from, along with a number of other Apple executives. In this case, Heinen and Anderson chose to backdate options and chose the date as well. This means that they earned more from the options than they should have, which the SEC also doesn't like.

It's important to note that these aren't criminal charges—only securities fraud charges brought by the SEC. But these charges are still a fairly big deal, as getting in trouble with the SEC isn't a good thing… particularly if you're a CFO, since the penalties range from fines to restrictions on what jobs you can hold. Both Heinen and Anderson are arguing that they were merely following the instructions of other board members, and/or that they weren't familiar with the rules for backdating. Given that Heinen was the general counsel, I would expect her to be familiar with the rules; and after the Enron and related scandals, I suspect that both defenses won't hold very much weight with the SEC.

Presidential debates to go online in 2008: will it matter?

Some debates between presidential candidates will be going online in 2008 in an entirely new format, according to the Associated Press. Questions for the candidates will be submitted in advance by the general public. The candidates will then debate with each other "live" via individual cameras from their respective locales and hosted online, where viewers will be able to comment and blog realtime in response to the candidates' answers. HangZhou Night Net

The decision to host an online presidential debate sprung out of a partnership between political blog The Huffington Post, Slate Magazine, and Yahoo! The brain and name behind The Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington, contacted Slate editor Jacob Weisberg and PBS host Charlie Rose to get the ball rolling. "It was clear to me, the 2008 campaign was going to be dominated by what's happening on line — new technologies, new media like never before," she told the AP.

The debates will be hosted and produced by Yahoo!, with Rose moderating, and Huffington and Weisberg organizing the event.

Huffington, Weisberg, and Yahoo! maintain that the online format will change how the debates, and the candidates, are viewed by the public. Yahoo!'s Scott Moore told the AP that he feels the online debates will be "a really significant, historic opportunity for the candidates to test their debate skills in a brand new format."

But is it really that revolutionary to take the tired, old and broken "debate" format and slap it up online?

Not quite there

When speaking to the AP, Moore compared the change in formats to the first televised debates between Kennedy and Nixon—members of the public who watched the debates on TV had a much different view who had "won" than those who had listened to it on the radio. But the technical difference in format, from TV to the Internet, won't be as drastic of a change—the debates will still be presented as videos for viewers to watch, just like they were before. In fact, aside from no longer being in the physical presence of one another, it doesn't seem that there will be much difference at all.

Sure, candidates will be addressing questions from denizens of the Internet, but this "town hall meeting" style isn't new, either. If candidates' responses have become so preplanned and scripted that presidential debates in general have become nothing more than a traditional dog and pony show, how will taking filtered questions from online readers change that?

Don't get me wrong, these new and improved debates could seize an opportunity to enliven the communication style of the discussion. What would make the presidential debates much more interesting to citizens of the 'Net would be to allow viewers to ask questions realtime—moderated, of course—of the candidates and have them answer right then and there, with no pre-approved topics. That seems like an unlikely situation, though, as it would be taking the candidates too far out of their strategic comfort zones.

But that's exactly what this whole "online" thing is supposed to be about, is it not? For presidential debates to truly be worthwhile online events, we'd like to see realtime communication, flowing in two directions. We'd like to see users not only ask the questions, but also be able to follow-up to the answers. Maybe then someone might point out when these politicians have dodged the questions or flubbed their numbers. Do you think we'll ever see a candidate get down and dirty, arguing online through true blogs, chat rooms, and forums sans kid-gloves moderation?

Microsoft triples number of security labs

With the Forefront Client Security product schedules to be released next month, Microsoft has decided to open two additional centers to increase its ability to detect and address software flaws. InformationWeek is reporting that the two new labs will be located in Dublin and Tokyo and will concentrate in creating signatures to assist administrators in the detection and removal of malicious programs. HangZhou Night Net

Until now, Microsoft has only had a single location for this kind of research, located on its Redmond campus. Now that the company is pushing hard into both the home user security market with its struggling Windows Live OneCare, and businesswith Forefront, an integrated suite ofcombined antivirus and antispyware solution for desktops and servers, it is starting to invest more resources into early detection for exploits. In the past most security problems with Microsoft software have come to light when third parties have posted abouttheir existence or even offered code which enabled malicious users to take advantage of the flaws. Perhaps now we will see a shorter time between the time problems are documented and when Microsoft releases a patch to mitigate the problem.

Other software security companies like McAfee and Symantec have invested heavily in centers that monitor the Internet for suspicious activity or look for flaws with new software—Microsoft is just following suit. What I'd like to know isif those of us who do not use Microsoft's security products but still use their other software will reap the benefits from the company's new efforts.This is a good chance for Microsoft to address claims that it spends too much time sitting on vulnerabilities and only fixes them once they are disclosed to the public.

DNA analysis confirms a recently described mammal is a living fossil

Because of a combination of interest and improved technology, new species have been described at a fairly high rate in recent years. But new mammals remain fairly hard to come by; perhaps one new mammalian species a year is typical, and many of these are simply variants of well-described species. That's why the discovery of the Laotian rock rat was exceptional. Although it was clearly a rodent, it was visually distinct from the rodent species we're familiar with. When video of the rat appeared, its strange gait and comfort with humans enhanced the otherworldly impression it made. What exactly was this creature? HangZhou Night Net

Its discoverers named it a new species. But a later publication suggested that the creature's strangeness wasn't because it was new, but rather because it might be old: it was proposed that the Laotian rock rat (Laonastes aenigmamus) was the last surviving member of a once-large group of rodents that was known only by fossils. Although the group had vanished from the fossil record 11 million years ago, the morphological similarities were striking. The rock rat, it was proposed, is a living fossil.

DNA sequence analysis has now joined the argument and comes down strongly in favor of the living fossil contention. Not only is the rock rat like nothing we've ever seen before, it's not much like anything we've ever sequenced before.

The authors of the new report sequenced a small set of genes (six genes totaling 5.5 kilobases) in species from every major group of rodents. They also examined a number of repetitive sequence elements from the same groups. The data suggested that the rock rat split from the rest of rodents about 44 million years ago. For context, all existing primates derive from a speciation event about 50 million years ago.

Given this sequence data, it appears that Laonastes is the only living member of an entire family of mammals, the otherwise extinct Diatomyidae. When I first reported on the rock rat, I suggested that it might provide a unique opportunity to test our ability to accurately resolve evolutionary trees based on little more than the appearance of fossils. It is a pleasure to report that the paleontologists got it almost exactly right: the relationships they proposed, as well as the dates of separation, are strongly supported by the new molecular data. This suggests that we can view relationships proposed solely due to fossil evidence with a bit more confidence.

Apple Q207 Results Conference Call (UPDATED)

After the delayed launch of the Apple TV and an announced delay of Leopard until October, a difficult quarter ended with some good news for Apple. Oh, there was an earnings report too. It shows just how important the apparent results of the SEC investigation clearing Steve Jobs over the stock options scandal is compared to more mundane issues like products sold and profits. Nonetheless, the numbers are in, and they are not too bad. HangZhou Night Net

Apple Estimates and Results

Street Q207Q206Q107 Revenue$5.17 billion$ 5.26 billion $4.36 billion $7.1 billion EPS $0.64 $0.87 $0.47 $1.14 Macs 1,450,000 1,517,000 1,112,000 1,606,000 iPods 10,700,000 10,549,00 8,526,000 21,066,000

Not surprisingly, Steve Jobs, speaking for Apple, was pleased.

“The Mac is clearly gaining market share, with sales growing 36 percent—more than three times the industry growth rate,” said Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO. “We’re very excited about the upcoming launch of iPhone in late June, and are also hard at work on some other amazing new products in our pipeline.”

Has there ever been a time when "amazing new products" weren't in the pipeline?

Getting back to the important news at Apple, that is Steve Jobs, Apple Board members Bill Campbell, Millard Drexler, Albert Gore Jr., Arthur D. Levinson, Eric Schmidt and Jerry York got their chance to turn Apple's website into a personal blog and not exactly call Fred Anderson a liar.

We are not going to enter into a public debate with Fred Anderson or
his lawyer. Steve Jobs cooperated fully with Apple’s independent
investigation and with the government’s investigation of stock option
grants at Apple. The SEC investigated the matter thoroughly and its
complaint speaks for itself, in terms of what it says, what it does not
say, who it charges, and who it does not charge.

While underway, the conference call is 90 percent "we don't comment on future product" non-answers to the whining questions of analysts. Feel free to listen, or simply wait for sad little nerds like myself to listen for you and update as appropriate.


As calls go, that one was more lame than most. The obvious question regarding Apple TV sales, or the lack thereof, was not answered. One of the only bits of information worth repeating concerns software updates to the Apple TV and iPhone. Apple promises to "surprise and delight" Apple TV and iPhone users with new features and software free of charge.

DrinkOrDie warez ringleader cops to piracy charges

Hew Raymond Griffiths, known in the cracking and pirating circles as "Bandito," has pleaded guilty in a US federal court to one count each of criminal copyright infringement and conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement. Griffiths, 44, was the head of the cracking group "DrinkOrDie," an underground software and media trading group. He had been extradited to the US in February from his home in Bateau Bay, Australia, after three years of fighting the charges. HangZhou Night Net

Griffiths faces up to 10 years in prison and $500,000 in fines at the upcoming sentencing, which is currently scheduled for June 22 in the federal court in Alexandria, Virginia. Prior to his arrest and extradition, DrinkOrDie was estimated to have illegally copied and distributed more than $50 million worth of pirated software, movies, games, and music. Of course, the $50 million figure is the total retail value of all the software distributed by the group, much of which is downloaded by teenagers who would never have the income or inclination to purchase said software legally. Therefore it is difficult to argue that this represents $50 million in lost revenue to the software industry.

DrinkOrDie was founded in 1993 in Moscow by a pair of hackers named "deviator" and "CyberAngel." The group achieved fame and prominence in the piracy circles by releasing a cracked copy of Windows 95 over the Internet two weeks before Microsoft's official release. It also released a DVD ripper in 1999 shortly before the release of DeCSS. The group was never a for-profit entity but merely competed with other pirate groups for prestige in releasing software and movies. By 2000 the group was no longer considered to be in the top tier of pirate groups, but it had attracted the attention of the FBI. In 2001, as part of an effort called "Operation Buccaneer," the federal agency busted DrinkOrDie and arrested many of its members.

Griffiths is accused of being a member of other groups besides DoD, including Razor1911 and RiSC. Prosecutors claim that he boasted in a published report that he ran all of DoD's daily operations and controlled access to more than 20 of the top pirate "warez" servers.

Illegal downloads remain a concern of content creation companies worldwide. While organizations such as the Business Software Alliance (BSA) attempt to play the "good cop" by encouraging countries to value the benefits of buying software, the US government continues to play the "bad cop" by coming down hard on the ringleaders of piracy organizations such as DoD. Whether either approach will work remains an unresolved question, but the BSA recently released a study showing that young children are downloading pirated content less than they were a few years ago.

Meat the latest iPod accessory, the iGrill

I've got to hand it to George Foreman: he's always taking things to the next level. Just when you thought grilled food had to be fatty, he rocked the world with the "Lean, Mean, Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine," known to you and I as the George Foreman Grill. I've got news for you, though: you're about to be rocked by George Foreman again, and this time, the rocking will be literal. HangZhou Night Net

The device that will be doing the rocking is the George Foreman iGrill. That's right, the great minds at Foreman Labs (or wherever) have managed to combine meat and music, two of life's greatest pleasures. The iPod is going where it previously hasn't, and in a ridiculously ingenious way, too. As far as specifics go, the iGrill is somewhat of a departure from the traditional Foreman grill. It's electric just like the rest of the Foreman grills, but it seems to be geared a bit more towards indoor and outdoor use. It has a 200-square-inch cooking area, which is comparable to a small gas or charcoal grill, and it's a bit bigger than typical George Foreman grills.

In terms of speakers, it comes with a 10-watt sound system, an amplifier, and the usual 3.5mm audio jack. You can hook any iPod, Zune, or other player up to the iGrill, and although 10 watts isn't a whole lot of power, it should be enough to give you something to rock out to when you're cooking or have a few friends over. Just don't plan on using it to throw massive backyard keggers.

It's hard to put the awesomeness of this device into words, but if you like meat, music, and especially the combination of the two, the iGrill is pretty sweet. Best of all, it'll only run you $150, which isn't too bad for something that will cook and play music. You can grab an iGrill at all of the usual stores, or order one online.

Attack of the “evil twin” WiFi networks

Open wireless networks are rapidly becoming an important part of urban culture as modern digital nomads increasingly eschew offices in favor of coffee shops. With the rise in popularity of WiFi-enabled mobile computing devices and publicly accessible access points, a new kind of WiFi security threat is beginning to emerge. Security researchers are beginning to note increasing instances of so-called "evil twin" attacks, in which a malicious user sets up an open WiFi network and monitors traffic in order to intercept private data. HangZhou Night Net

Security expert Phil Cracknell, president of the UK's Information Systems Security Association, claims that evil twin attacks are easier to perpetrate than conventional phishing schemes. Discussing WiFi security with InfoWorld, Cracknell points out that identity thieves can set up rogue WiFi access points designed to capture private user information using little more than a laptop with a USB WiFi adapter and some special software. According to Cracknell, these schemes can be difficult to trace, and allow culprits to "harvest some incredible information in a short span of time."

How easy is it to set up software that can intercept packets? A few years ago, we wrote about Pcap, a packet sniffing programming library originally devised by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for use with their tcpdump utility. With Ruby bindings for libpcap, any programmer can trivially write highly sophisticated programs capable of extracting and logging specific kinds of information that are traveling across a network. In that article, we demonstrated the ease with which a developer can create a specialized program that extracts and displays messages from instant messaging conversations.

Generic packet filtering can be done with only a few lines of code, and additional filtering and manipulation is trivially easy. There are also a wide variety of free tools and utilities like Ethereal and Ngrep that can be used for packet interception and analysis. The following is an extremely simple example that displays packets:

#!/usr/bin/env ruby
require "pcaplet"
for packet in Pcaplet.new("-s 1500 -i eth1")
# Custom filtering, logging, and analysis can be done here
puts packet.tcp_data

How can users protect themselves from this kind of malicious data interception? Corporate users can protect themselves by using virtual private networks, but the rest of us will have to rely on common sense. Approach free hotspots with a bit of caution. Better yet, use SSH to connect through your home computers.

MPAA: We are committed to fair use, interoperability, and DRM

At a LexisNexis conference on DRM this week, MPAA boss Dan Glickman said the movie studios were now fully committed to interoperable DRM, and they recognize that consumers should be able to use legitimate video material on any item in the house, including home networks. In a major shift for the industry, Glickman also announced a plan to let consumers rip DVDs for use on home media servers and iPods. HangZhou Night Net

Unfortunately, this plan is not yet well developed. In his speech to industry insiders at the posh Beverly Hills Four Seasons hotel, Glickman repeatedly stressed that DRM must be made to work without constricting consumers. The goal, he said, was "to make things simpler for the consumer," and he added that the movie studios were open to "a technology summit" featuring academics, IT companies, and content producers to work on the issues involved. He also pointed to the $30 million MovieLabs project that the studios are currently funding as proof of their commitment to interoperability.

Speaking to Ars after the speech, Glickman acknowledged that the plan was still in the early stages. I asked him specifically about DVDs, which are currently illegal to rip under the DMCA, and how the law would square with his vision of allowing consumers to use such content on iPods and other devices. "You notice that I said 'legally' and in a protected way," Glickman responded, suggesting that some form of DRM would still be required before the studios would sign off on such a plan. He noted, however, that no specific plans have been made.

The MPAA does recognize that progress on DRM needs to be made soon, or impatient consumers will increasingly turn to unauthorized sources for content. "We're working on this right now, trying to find ways to make it interoperable," he said, but added that pricing and business models for such a system are "way beyond my pay grade."

Dean Garfield, VP of Legal Affairs for the MPAA, told me that he has confidence in the market to sort all of these issues out. "You have to give some thought to how young the digital distribution market is," he said. "I suspect that the issues confounding people today won't be the issues challenging the industry six months from now."

But will consumers sit idly by, twiddling their thumbs while content owners and consumer electronics manufacturers get their act together? Garfield recognizes that consumers are impatient, which means that "we also have to be impatient."

In his speech, Glickman said that the industry needs "a collective philosophical commitment" to move forward on issues of interoperability and authorized use, and said that the MPAA has now made that commitment. He called on other companies in the industry to sit down and work out a solution. Though he never mentioned Apple by name, it's clear that the Cupertino-based company was number one on the list of companies that need to get involved; whether interoperable DRM and legitimate DVD ripping actually mesh with Apple's own business priorities is another question, though.

Despite the lack of specificity, Glickman's speech marks a step forward for the MPAA, which says it is now committed to allowing content to play on any device, from any manufacturer. As other presenters at the conference made clear, this is largely a result of self-interest: consumers are frustrated with current limitations, and movie studios aren't thrilled about having to sign off on Apple's terms in order to get content onto iPods. Still, hearing Glickman speak with conviction about consumer rights to use material in "fair ways" and to wax eloquent about interoperability was an encouraging sign—even if he views DRM as a necessary "enabling tool" that's not going away anytime soon.