28 January 2016

When it snows 30 inches in a major east coast city, where do you put all the snow?

In the parking lots around M&T Bank Stadium. This picture does not do it justice. These piles are 25-30+ feet high and cover several acres.

18 January 2016

Hacked casino sues Trustwave over security breach cleanup

A Las Vegas-based casino, Affinity Gaming, hired Chicago-based security firm Trustwave, to investigate a data breach. According to Affinity, Trustwave claimed to have identified the source of the data breach and contained it. Instead, however, further investigation by Mandiant found that Trustwave failed to contain the breach, which continued to occur even while Trustwave was investigating. According to the ZDNet article linked below, Trustwave denied the claims and plans to defend itself in court.

The complaint filed in federal court is available here.

Affinity's claims are:

1) Fraudulent Enducement
2) Fraud
3) Constructive/Equitable Fraud
4) Violations of NRS Chapter 598; Fraud Upon Purchasers; Misrepresentation
5) Gross Negligence
6) Negligent Misrepresentation
7) Breach of Contract
8) Declaratory Judgment under 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201-2202

Here are links to articles from arstechnica, ZDNet, and TheHill.

11 January 2016

RateMyProfessors.com data breach: Here's what is known so far

On Monday, the website RateMyProfessors.com sent an email notifying its registered users about a data breach. This is what we have so far:

1. A decommissioned website was still online and vulnerable to some exploit.
2. The passwords were apparently stored in the clear.
3. In addition to the notification email, the front page of the website has a tiny banner in the bottom left corner to notify its users of the breach.

Here's the text of the notification email:

Notice that the language of the notification refers to "passwords." Not encrypted passwords. Not password hashes. Just passwords. In the clear? Really? If true, this is not good for them.

Here's a screenshot of the front page of the website. This is how Rate My Professors is choosing to notify visitors about its data breach:

No red arrow, of course. Just cute cat pictures and a very small red banner notice that could very easily be overlooked.

How many affected users? No numbers yet. All registered users, potentially.

18 December 2015

First Impressions and Initial Thoughts from Star Wars: The Force Awakens (spoiler warning!)

Warning: This post contains SPOILERS. DO NOT READ further if you don't want to see them!

Seriously, I mean it. Don't read any further if you don't want to see spoilers.
I saw "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" last night. It was an awesome experience to see Episode VII the night before it opened! It will take some time (and perhaps another viewing or two) to form a fuller opinion of this new episode, but I wanted to provide some of my initial impressions and post some questions raised by the movie. To be very clear, Some of these questions may be answered in The Visual Guide, which was released today and which I haven't seen yet. Some answers may also be found in other parts of the canon. This post deals exclusively with the characters and plot as revealed in the movie itself. Lastly, these comments represent my first impressions, raw and unvarnished thoughts without having read any additional spoilers or without having talked extensively without anyone else about the movie. This blog post is intentionally critical and shouldn't be seen as a negative view of the movie. I reserve the right to change my opinion based upon further information and discussions.

Finn is a First Order Stormtrooper (FN-2187) who participates in the attack on a village on the planet Jakku. After seeing a fellow trooper (and presumably a friend) killed, he hesitates to continue the attack and refuses to participate in the assassination of the villagers. This is all that it takes for Finn to defect. We learn very little about his background other than that, like other troopers, he was taken away from his parents at birth. Is there a larger motivation for what Finn does?

Finn is also surprisingly good with Luke's lightsaber. There has been some suggestion that this means Finn is a Jedi. I don't think this is the case. The lightsaber aside, Finn appears to show no Force awareness. And besides, non-Jedi have used light sabers before--Han used Luke's in Episode V (The Empire Strikes Back) to cut open the tauntaun. But if Finn night be a Jedi, his lineage might be important. However, we haven't seen any of that yet.

Captain Phasma is Finn's stormtrooper captain. She shows up in a few scenes, and ends up turning off the shields under duress. Why not die for what you believe in?! She is otherwise a non-factor and seems like an add-on (perhaps to add another female to the cast...which seems irrelevant given she's a stormtrooper with a helmet on). What's the point of her character? Assuming she didn't die in the trash compactor, I'd hope that Phasma has a more meaningful role in Episode XIII.

Kylo Ren is the movie's black mask-wearing, light saber-wielding primary villain. He's also, to me, the movie's oddest character. Soon enough, we learn that Ren is actually Ben Solo, the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa Solo. Why he wears a mask is not clear. In one scene, he is shown speaking to his "grandfather," which is revealed to be the burnt-out mask of Darth Vader. Is Ren trying to emulate Vader? It seems this is the case, right down to the modified voice. When I first heard Ren speak, I actually thought there might be something wrong with the sound. It just seemed odd, and sometimes difficult to make out certain words. It's almost as if Ren's voice modification was trying to emulate Vader's, but poorly (and intentionally poor?). When Ren takes his mask off, there is nothing surprising about his face (other than that he is very young, and that we know it's not Luke). Why does he need a mask in the first place? Was Ren just a Vader-fanboy?

Ren obviously has some powers--he has mind control, he can throw people and objects, and he stops the laser from a blaster in mid-air. But he's also surprisingly weak: Rey (before she even knows who she is) is able to resist his mind control (maybe this is another sign of his emotional weakness), Finn does an admirable job fighting him with a lightsaber, and he is later wounded. But perhaps oddest of all, no one really seems scared of Ren. In an early scene, Ren confronts the captured resistance pilot Poe Dameron. After a few seconds of awkward silence, Poe makes a joke about who is going to speak first. Poe is obviously a cocky pilot (a parallel to a young Han Solo, perhaps). And perhaps his humor is a false bravado to hide his fear. But he just doesn't fear Ren. Really, no one does. Lastly, Ren has a few incidents of what I can only think of as ragequit-style temper tantrums with his lightsaber. By the second time he does this, the audience is laughing at him. Maybe I'm missing something here (and I assume Episode VIII will add some clarification). And Maybe Ren's apparent weakness is intentional. I do think his character was intentionally made to be emotionally vulnerable. But this plays against his villainous streak. So far, without further character development, Kylo Ren appears to be the least formidable villain in the entire Star Wars universe.

Snoke originally appears a dark, shadowy figure who appears to be gigantic in size. We later see that Snoke is just a hologram. So why does the hologram need to be so large? I wonder if Snoke is, in reality, a small character and the large hologram is made to compensate. Remember the Wizard of Oz? Like Ren, I didn't get the sense that Snoke was really that evil. But only time will tell how he turns out. 

In Episode IV, Han Solo was a skeptic of the rebellion who didn't believe in "hokey religions and ancient weapons." He was the human element. In this movie, he's come full circle: "It's all true." The role of his character has been taken over in parts by Poe and Finn. I didn't like to see him go, but his screen time was his swan song.

Luke Skywalker. Luke's absence from the movie poster and the trailers (except for a voice-over in the second trailer which didn't even appear in the movie) led to some speculation that Luke might be Kylo Ren (or some similar villian). We know now he was not. There was also speculation that Luke might play a minor role. Indeed, we know now this is true. While the plot centered on finding Luke, Mark Hamill only appears briefly in the final scene and does not say a word. Will Luke return to the resistance? Or will he turn his back on them? Could it still be possible that Luke is a villain (perhaps even Snoke)? Plausible, but only future episodes will tell. Luke's story is for another movie.

Humor and Prior Movie References. The plot is littered with humor, often in reference to the previous movies and sometimes using the same or similar quotes from those movies. In some places, these references are clearly appropriate. In other scenes, they seem out of place. Ren's confrontational silence with Poe is broken by a Poe joke; humor just seems odd here. The wookie Chewbacca has more than a few funny "lines" which seem out of place. And the scene where the resistance plans the attack on Starkiller Base seems like one long joke recalling the original Death Star attack plans. As if it wasn't even a serious attempt. I get the humor and the references to the original movies. In many scenes they are well-placed and totally appropriate. In other places, they seem like too much. C-3PO shows up in only a couple of scenes, but his typically fatalistic humor ("We're doomed!") gets lost among all of the other "funny" lines.

Plot Parallels. There are obvious plot parallels which link us back to the original movies. Just a few off the top of my head:
  • An idealistic young person left without their parents on a desert planet turns out to be a Jedi.
  • An unlikely droid serves as both the comedic element and holds the key to the entire plot.
  • The plot centers around a father-son struggle.
  • A thousand-year old wise elder provides guidance.
  • The bad guys build a planet-size space station as their primary weapon.
  • Cocky pilot helps save the day.
I'm sure there are more. But are these too much? Is this just the same story told again with different characters? I wonder if there was a struggle to satisfy the original fans while still bringing some freshness to a younger generation. I just don't know.

Chain of Command. What exactly is the chain of command in the First Order? Both Kylo Ren and General Hux speak to Snoke on various occasions, and appear to be more-or-less equals (minus the Force, of course). After Ren's plan to capture BB-8 fails, Snoke seems to rely on Hux's plan and abandons Ren's advice. After Snoke, who was really in charge?

Starkiller Base. What happens after Starkiller Base drains all of the energy from the nearby sun? If the base is truly a planet, it can't exactly move like the Death Star did. So what does it do then? Also: Starkiller, of course, was Luke's last name in George Lucas's early drafts.

Republic, Resistance, and the First Order. The Republic controls the galaxy, but the Resistance fights the First Order. Why isn't the Republic defending themselves? Perhaps because it makes the Resistance look like underdogs, and people root for underdogs.

Best of the Movie. A few things that stood above the rest:
  •  I thought Daisy Ridley was fantastic as Rey. She is the new Luke and she has a bright future in the rest of the franchise and beyond. Is she Luke's daughter? I think that's the general consensus belief so far.
  • The new cast. There's a lot of potential chemistry between Finn and Rey; and the scenes with Finn and Poe reminded me of Luke and Han.
  • For an older fan like me, the best scenes were those with Han and Leia. Totally took me back 30 years. I felt as if I could see their relationship in their eyes.
Summary. Episode VII was the first of a new trilogy. It left a lot of threads untangled, as any good movie would do, wanting to bring us back for the next edition.The movie was obviously not going to answer every question it raised. But it also had some odd elements that don't necessarily lend themselves to later answers. As I said above, it will take some time for me to form a fuller opinion of The Force Awakens. For now: It was not the best movie I've ever seen. But it was a very good movie and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I suspect my overall opinion of the movie will change as the subsequent episodes are released. I will surely go back again to see the many things I likely missed in this episode. I'm looking forward to see how the story progresses in Episode VIII.

01 December 2015

Is this man a terrorist?

Many people across my Facebook feed are quick to call Christian pastor Josh Feuerstein a terrorist for a video he posted to his Facebook page back in July:

In case the video gets taken down, here's what Feuerstein said:
Planned Parenthood has hunted down millions and millions of little innocent babies, stuck a knife into the uterus, cut them, pulled them out, crushed their skull with forceps, ripped their body apart, sold their tissue, and threw them bleeding into a trash bin.
I say, tonight, we punish Planned Parenthood. I think it’s time that abortion doctors should have to run and hide and be afraid for their life.
This is pretty detestable stuff. But I don't think Feuerstein is a terrorist. In fact, I think his speech is probably protected. Let's review a little history...

In 1966, the NAACP ran meetings in Mississippi to organize protests and boycotts against white-owned businesses. The NAACP "store watchers" wrote down names of blacks who violated these boycotts. Names of boycott violators were read aloud at meetings and published in a local black newspaper. At one meeting, Charles Evers, the Field Secretary of the NAACP, stated: "If we catch any of you going in any of them racist stores, we're gonna break your damn neck."

This was a direct threat aimed by an NAACP official toward specific blacks who had been named, listed, and published as boycott violators. This is a much more direct threat than Feuerstein's video posted above. Yet the Supreme Court found that the store watchers' actions, and Evers' speech, was protected.

Unless speech is directed to inciting, and is likely to incite, imminent lawless action, it's protected by the First Amendment. It would be very difficult to argue that a Facebook video (posted last July) meets this standard. The mere advocacy of violence is not enough. No, in my opinion, this is not terrorism. Rather, it's very possible that this is protected speech. And yes, I'd stand up for his right to say these abhorrent things. That doesn't mean I agree with him.

30 September 2015

A few thoughts on the law school's absurd and bizarre reaction to an offensive word

Recently, a law student from the University of Maryland made a Facebook post that included an allegedly offensive word. At some point the student realized the post might be offensive. She took it down and apologized.

At some point (whether before or after the apology is unclear), the administration of the law school became aware of the post and the Dean sent the following email:
Dear Members of the Community: 
It has come to my attention that a racially offensive term appeared on one of our student’s Facebook page. Among the features that most attracted me to this law school was the community’s longstanding commitment to diversity and to the highest levels of professionalism as part of its core values. https://www.umaryland.edu/about-umb/strategic-plan/about/core-values/.  Racially offensive remarks have no place in the discourse of those who aspire to become guardians of the legal profession. This student is now aware of the offending nature of the post, and is appropriately contrite. In consultation with members of the administration, the student is taking appropriate affirmative steps to convey apologies, and the student has recognized the gravity of the offense. 
Being a part of the profession of law is a great privilege, and it carries with it considerable responsibility. This includes sensitivity to the manner in which each of us comports himself or herself privately and in public. In addition, posts on social media remain there indefinitely and can continue to harm others. I cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of giving great thought to anything you intend to post, e-mail, or tweet. In the era of social media, this is part of professional responsibility. 
Donald B. Tobin
Dean and Professor of Law
The exact text of the post has not been made public, but the student apologized to the law school community in a mass email:
...I posted about my new access to Wi-Fi, flippantly mentioning an old neighbor and their inappropriate choice for a network name. I later realized how offensive it was, so I deleted it and posted an apology....
The offensive word this student used in her Facebook post was the WiFi network name of an old neighbor. According to this student, the context of her post was to point out that the network name was inappropriate. Maybe it wasn't smart for this student to use an offensive word in her Facebook post. In that case, the student's apology to her Facebook friends certainly seems like enough. A lecture by the Dean and a school-wide apology seems a bit much, no? Context matters here, doesn't it?!

Nonetheless, the Student Bar Association sent a follow-up email strongly condemning any use of "certain words, phrases, and symbols carry with them an abhorrent history of a violence, discrimination, and oppression...These words are INHERENTLY wrong, in and of themselves...." More: "these words...directly represent a system of unfathomable injustice whose dregs continue to linger in the lives of every single American." The SBA explains how we should be offended: "Terms categorically saturated with racial animus should offend each and every one of us." I suppose it's not appropriate for me to determine what's offensive to me.

We are in the age of the Offending of America, where every week comes a new thing to be outraged about. Even so, this situation is absurd and the reactions by the Dean and the Student Bar Association are bizarre. This reaction ignores the reality and context of the situation to push a heavy-handed message that, in my opinion, chills the discussion of anything that might be considered offensive. Steer clear of any words that might be offensive because your career depends on it. Got it.