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February 23, 2007

Equal prizes

It's been quite a week for women. Wimbledon has announced equal prize money "across the board" for men and women, and a woman has won the Alan M Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery. (Please don't confuse that with passing the Turing test; Frances Allen is a pioneer in computer science, not a cleverly built robot.) That concrete pig a friend gave me as a sort of anti-garden gnome is adjusting his aviator goggles and getting ready to take flight.

In the scheme of things, a woman's winning the Turing Award ought to be the less surprising of the two events. Although few women make the mainstream news in computing, there have been enough of them in computing history that it surely had to happen. The All-England Club, which stages the Wimbledon tennis championships every year, is a private club that can do anything it wants, and has for years insisted that the surveys it's carried out show that the audience prefers men's tennis. (To which I say, "Who did you ask?") Anyway: the silly arguments are finally over now, and the best part of that is that we won't have to read the same debate every June. It had gotten boring. Twenty years ago.

The list of Turing Award winners includes some pretty impressive and famous people – Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy for artificial intelligence, Vint Cerf and Robert E. Kahn for the protocols underlying the Internet, Maurice Wilkes, who went on from designing and building the first computer with an internally stored program to inspire generations of computer scientists at Cambridge. The first female winner's work, like many of the other winners' is less familiar as it's in high-performance computing rather than something as mainstream as the Internet. It's not a sign of prejudice that she wasn't better known until now.

I wish I could say that Allen is the first of many. That's not clear. She's almost certainly the first of some. But the truly sad thing is that the numbers of women in computer science have been dropping steadily over the last decade or two, in both Britain and America (and other countries, too). I recently had occasion to interview Nigel Shadbolt, the head of the British Computer Society (the ACM's British equivalent), and he was quite open about it. He named several female BCS Fellows (a designation you need experience and kudos to get), and concluded, "They are there, but not in the numbers we'd like." Only 6 percent of BCS Fellows are women, though the BCS is determined to improve on that. (Bear in mind also that the average age of Fellows is 60, although it's beginning to drop as the generation who grew up with computers in their homes begin to take advantage of that substantial head start.)

Shadbolt blamed early socialising in schools, where girls get the message early that computer science is a hard career to juggle with the demands of any families they might want to have – and also that the geek image is not one you want to have if you're a girl.
Nonetheless, Shadbolt said the BCS numbers are getting a little better. Of the membership as a whole, 14 percent are women. But of the new members the BCS has been recruiting, 20 percent are female.

Does it matter?

Shadbolt thought so. "Modern IT is about social skills as much as technical skills," he told me.
That statement doesn't fill me with as much delight as it might, I'd rather hear that women are needed for their technical genius than the old saw about how they're better with people. Note that Allen has won her awards for fundamentally changing a technical field.

The odd thing is that there are more women in the history of computing than most people realize. Six female mathematicians programmed ENIAC. Contrary to today's idea that only young males could be obsessive enough to spend all that time with their computers, 50 years ago it was thought that only women had the patience to be programmers.

There are several reasons why it does matter to get women into computer science. The first is for the women themselves: why should they miss out on interesting, challenging careers because of some stupid stereotype? The second is simple numbers and applies to all the hard sciences: we need all the talented people we can get entering those fields. The third is practical: computers pervade every part of life. The greater the diversity of the people designing them, the better.

Daily Tennis points out today that equalizing prize money at Wimbledon, while an important gesture, goes only a small way to redress the prize money gap. The women's tour overall has 22 percent less prize money on offer than the men's (men, by the way, play almost exclusively three-set matches away from the Grand Slams), and the Wimbledon change goes only about 1 percent of the way towards narrowing that gap. The chief effect, therefore, is to make the All-England club stop looking like ante-diluvian, misogynist dorks.

Percentagewise Allen's win is smaller than that. But it will remind an entire generation of girls that it's cool to be a computer scientist,

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

February 16, 2007

Quick fix

The other day, I noticed that the personal finance software I've been using since January 2, 1993 (under DOS!), Quicken, had started responding to requests to download stock quotes this way: "Quicken was unable to process the information in the file that was downloaded. We recommend that you try again." (It's their version of Sisyphus's torture: trying again produces the same message.)

It must be a couple of years since I started seeing warnings that Quicken was going to disable quotes in older versions of its software. My version, 2000, probably should have stopped functioning in 2004. But I'd begun to think it would never happen.

I recognize that by this time I am a valueless customer to Quicken's maker, Intuit, I tried the 2002 version (mostly so I could synch with Pocket Quicken on the Palm) and hated it; I found useless the 2005 version that came on a laptop. Intuit's idea for turning me into a valuable one is apparently to force me to upgrade to Quicken 2007. Even if 200x versions had been good, this wouldn't be a perfect idea: In 2005 Intuit dropped its UK product, and while its US product now handles multiple currencies, what about VAT? Worse, in two (or three) years' time I will be forced to do the whole thing again because of Intuit's sunset policies.

This is, of course, an entirely more aggressive approach than most software companies take. Even Microsoft, which regularly announces the dates on which it will stop supporting older software, doesn't make it inoperable. It's odd remembering that we used to cheer for Intuit, partly because it was a real pioneer in usable interface design, and partly because in the 1990s it was one of very, very few companies that had to compete with Microsoft and succeeded.

The bad news is that this is likely to be what the future is going to look like. Cory Doctorow, who has spent years following Hollywood's efforts to embed copy protection into television broadcasts and home video systems, has warned frequently that the upshot will be that things unexpectedly stop working. TiVo owners have already seen this in action: the company proposed to disable the 30-second skip popular among the advertising avoidant, and also in some cases can how long you can save programs and whether you can make copies.

I'm sure there are other examples that don't spring instantly to mind. It's part of the price of a connected world that the same features that allow benefits such as downloaded information and automatic software updates give the manufacturers options for changing the configuration we paid for at their own discretion. If these were hackers instead of software companies, we'd say they'd installed a "back door" into our systems to allow them to come in and rummage around whenever they wanted to, and we'd be deploying software to disable the back door and keep them out. Instead, we call these things "features" and apparently we're willing to pay software companies to install them.

All software has flaws; part of learning to use it involves figuring out how to work around them. When I bought it, Quicken was one of only two games in town; the other was Microsoft Money, and its notable how few competitors they have. Quicken did a far better job, at least at the beginning, of understanding that personal finance software only really works for you if you can integrate it into the world of banking and credit cards you already live in. Intuit pioneered downloading bank and credit card data. Had I ever learned to use it right, it would have prepared my VAT returns for me.

But I never really did learn to use it right, and it's gotten worse over time as the software has disimproved (as the Irish say). The Quicken files on my computer have become hopelessly lost in confusion over split transactions that don't make sense, invoices that may or may not have been paid; mortgage interest I've never been able to figure out correctly; and stock spin-offs it's adamantly put in the wrong currency. Early on, Intuit created a product called Quick Invoice that did exactly what I wanted: it wrote invoices, simply and reliably, in about five seconds. This functionality was eventually subsumed into Quicken, which made it laborious and unpleasant. My least favorite quirk was that its numbering was unreliable.

I now realize that I had come to hate the software so much that I more or less stopped dealing with it other than for invoices and stock quotes. The original purpose for which I bought it, to save money by keeping track of bank balances had long since been forgotten.

So, I say it's spinach and I say to hell with it. It will cost me at least $50 more than the price of Quicken 2007 to buy a decent piece of invoicing software and something like, say, Moneydance, and quite a few hours to start over from scratch. But at least I know that two years hence I won't be doing it again.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

February 9, 2007

Getting out the vote

Voter-verified paper audit trails won't save us. That was the single clearest bit of news to come out of this week's electronic voting events.

This is rather depressing, because for the last 15 years it's looked as though VVPAT (as they are euphoniously calling it) might be something everyone could compromise on.: OK, we'll let you have your electronic voting machines as long as we can have a paper backup that can be recounted in case of dispute. But no. According to Rebecca Mercuri in London this week (and others who have been following this stuff on the ground in the US), what we thought a paper trail meant is definitely not what we're getting. This is why several prominent activist organisations have come out against the Holt bill HR811, introduced into Congress this week, despite its apparent endorsement of paper trails.

I don't know about you, but when I imagined a VVPAT, what I saw in my mind's eye was something like an IBM punch card dropping individually into some kind of display where a voter would press a key to accept or reject. Instead, vendors (who hate paper trails) are providing cheap, flimsy, thermal paper in a long roll with no obvious divisions to show where individual ballots are. The paper is easily damaged, it's not clear whether it will survive the 22 months it's supposed to be stored, and the mess is not designed to ease manual recounts. Basically, this is paper that can't quite aspire to the lofty quality of a supermarket receipt.

The upshot is that yesterday you got a programme full of computer scientists saying they want to vote with pencils and paper. Joseoph Kiniry, from University College, Dublin, talked about using formal methods to create a secure system – and says he wants to vote on paper. Anne-Marie Ostveen told the story of the Dutch hacker group who bought up a couple of Nedap machines to experiment on and wound up publicly playing chess on them – and exposing their woeful insecurity – and concluded, "I want my pencil back." And so on.

The story is the same in every country. Electronic voting machines – or, more correctly, electronic ballot boxes – are proposed and brought in without public debate. Vendors promise the machines will be accurate, reliable, secure, and cheaper than existing systems. Why does anyone believe this? How can a voting computer possibly be cheaper than a piece of paper and a pencil? In fact, Jason Kitcat, a longtime activist in this area, noted that according to the Electoral Commission the cost of the 2003 pilots were astounding – in Sheffield £55 per electronic vote, and that's with suppliers waiving some charges they didn't expect either. Bear in mind, also, that the machines have an estimated life of only ten years.

Also the same: governments lack internal expertise on IT, basically because anyone who understand IT can make a lot more money in industry than in either government or the civil service.

And: everywhere vendors are secretive about the inner workings of their computers. You do not have to be a conspiracy theorist to see that privatizing democracy has serious risks.

On Tuesday, Southport LibDem MP John Pugh spoke of the present UK government's enchantment with IT. "The procurers who commission IT have a starry-eyed view of what it can do," he said. "They feel it's a very 'modern' thing." Vendors, also, can be very persuasive (I'd like to see tests on what they put in the ink in those brochures, personally). If, he said, Bill Gates were selling voting machines and came up against Tony Blair, "We would have a bill now."

Politicians are, probably, also the only class of people to whom quick counts appeal. The media, for example, ought to love slow counts that keep people glued to their TV sets, hitting the refresh button on their Web browsers, and buying newspapers throughout. Florida 2000 was a media bonanza. But it's got to be hard on the guys who can't sleep until they know whether they have a job next month.

I would propose the following principles to govern the choice of balloting systems:

- The mechanisms by which votes are counted should be transparent. Voters should be able to see that the vote they cast is the vote they intended to cast,

- Vendors should be contractually prohibited from claiming the right to keep secret their source code, the workings of their machines, or their testing procedures, and they should not be allowed to control the circumstances or personnel under which or by whom their machines are tested. (That's like letting the psychic set the controls of the million-dollar test.)

- It should always be possible to conduct a public recount of individual ballots.

Pugh made one other excellent point: paper-based voting systems are mature. "The old system was never perfect," he said, but over time "we've evolved a way of dealing with almost every conceivable problem." Agents have the right to visit every polling station and watch the count, recounts can consider every single spoiled ballot. By contrast, electronic voting presumes everything will go right.

Guys, it's a computer. Next!

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

February 2, 2007

One copyright does not fit all

I had a piece in the Guardian this week that caused me to rethink a portion of the giddy optimism with which I've typically embraced the notion of "free culture". Not, I hesitate to add, that I want to take back anything I said previously about the disproportion of the fees charged for Corbis's pictures versus their actual value to a taxi business.

However, in the process of writing that piece the comments from the photographers I interviewed made it clear to me that the discussion about copyright and free culture generally focuses on intellectual property that starts with writers: movies (screenwriter), music (songwriters), books (authors), and so on. Photography doesn't start there, and the more I spoke to photographers the less convinced I was that it ends up in the same place, either.

"What separates photography," Tony Sleep said to me while I was researching that article, "is the insertion of agents and middlemen, who have disproportionate power." Photography now is dominated by three mega-agencies, whereas the literary world is still awash in tiny few-man shops who provide writers of all stripes with personal representation. That used to be true in photography, but is no longer.

Those differences are why Sleep (who took the picture I have, by permission, on my Web site) can simultaneously love free culture and condemn the Gowers Report as a disaster for photographers. Gowers does not even mention photography, though submissions from the National Union of Journalists and other groups did.

Like a lot of people, I cheered Gowers for recommending against extending the term of copyright for music recordings and his general approach towards free culture, and the necessary public balance between the interests of creators and artists and the interests of the public. However, it's a sign of how used we have all become to the realities of daily work in journalism that Gowers' failure to consider redressing the commercial imbalance that now exists between creators and rightsholders, something I remember pleading for ten years ago, passed without comment. If, as Tony Sleep argues, we're going to revise the 1988 copyright act, why not make it illegal to assign copyright and sign away moral rights? A lot of the reason some artists get so angry over run-of-the-Net copying and file-sharing is that they've been so badly burned in the commercial arena. Redress some of that unfairness, and then the public's interest might seem more reasonable to them.

I have always thought that a situation where someone must ask permission to exploit his own work was morally wrong. The longstanding exception is people whose creations are made in full-time employment (which Sleep equates to Thomas Macaulay's "patronage"), where your employer pays you a salary, provides you the equipment you need to work, gives you paid vacations and sick leave, and a pension (and, these days, backdated shares in the company). For freelances, though, the tradeoff was always that although you didn't have any of those things in return you kept your copyrights.

The Web has largely (though not entirely) ended the opportunities wordsmiths had for reselling the same articles into different markets; as recently as ten years ago I was still hearing about freelance writers for whom foreign sales were a substantial portion of their income. But the same is not true for photographers, whose overheads are far higher in any case: every new article needs illustrations. Images that mean little one day may suddenly be extremely valuable the next – or on another day 30 years later; some images are reused endlessly. Photography is also, of course, a service, as in corporate awards ceremonies and weddings, where what you're buying is less the photographs themselves than the expertise and equipment that ensures the photographs will be on time and to specification.

Besides, while you could say that individual photographers and other creators have the same right to pursue copyright infringements as Big Copyright, in practice, as Mike Holdnerness said in the Guardian article, it doesn't work that way. Hence his suggestion to create a Copyright Small Claims court to give freelance creators better access to the courts.

Big Copyright has, therefore, done two sorts of damage, and they're interlinked. First, is to make it significantly harder for many creators to make a living than it was 20 years ago. Rates haven't budged, and most contracts demand all rights, so with inflation you're looking at significantly less income than you might have had back then. Second, as Sleep points out, is that by taking absurd and disproportionate actions – Corbis and Getty; the RIAA versus Napster, Grokster, and a generation of file-sharing customers; the MPAA and more file-sharing customers – Big Copyright has alienated public opinion into seeing copyright as legalized theft from the public.

That said, I still can't agree with the photographer who said to me, "I don't see why copyright should ever expire." Ownership of a house doesn't, he pointed out. But, as I seem to keep saying, creators are net consumers of intellectual property, and copyrighted materials really aren't houses. If the only way we could create new works was to stand on the shoulders of giant houses, we'd be trampling up rights-of-way quickly enough.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).