Desert of My Real Life

{July 31, 2013}   Whistle-blowers

Two whistle-blowers are in the news today: Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. Manning is the Army soldier who was convicted yesterday of 17 of the 22 counts against him. He leaked top secret documents to Wikileaks and was convicted of espionage and theft although found innocent of aiding the enemy. He is now awaiting sentencing. Edward Snowden is the contractor working for the National Security Agency who revealed details of several surveillance programs to the press. He is currently on the run from charges of espionage and theft but is continuing to make headlines with further revelations. Some see these two as heroes and others see them as traitors. I think history will judge which they are. What interests me most are the ways these two cases are being discussed.

We already know that Bradley Manning has been found guilty of most of the charges against him. The prosecutor in the case has said that Manning is not a whistle-blower but is instead a traitor looking for attention via a high-profile leak to Wikileaks. Manning’s defense attorney countered by saying that Manning is naive and well-intentioned and wants to inform the American public. “His motive was to spark reform – to spark change.” Why is his motive important? Since when is intent important in determining whether someone committed a crime or not? Next time I get stopped for a traffic infraction, I’m going to try saying “I didn’t intend to break the law” to the officer. What do you think my chances of getting off will be? I also find it interesting that the prosecutor seems to think that Manning is not a whistle-blower because he believes that Manning wanted attention. A whistle-blower is “a person who exposes misconduct, alleged dishonest or illegal activity occurring in an organization.” Manning might not be a whistle-blower because the activity he revealed was not misconduct, was not dishonest or illegal. But to argue that he’s not a whistle-blower because he didn’t have the proper intentions seems to lead us as a society down a dangerous path. Of course, the Zimmerman verdict might have already sent us down that path.

The Snowden situation is more recent than the Manning case so we don’t know what Snowden will be found guilty of. He’s accused of disclosing details about some secret surveillance programs being conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States. The NSA is supposed to gather information about foreign entities strictly outside of US boundaries. Edward Snowden revealed the existence of several NSA surveillance programs focused on domestic as well as foreign communications. He then fled the country with several laptops “that enable him to gain access to some of the US government’s most highly classified secrets.” The question that interests me most about this case is how a contractor, an employee of a private company, an employee who probably should have failed his background check on the grounds that his resume contained discrepancies, was able to gain access to such secret information. “Among the questions is how a contract employee at a distant NSA satellite office was able to obtain a copy of an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a highly classified document that would presumably be sealed from most employees and of little use to someone in his position.” Yes, that IS among the most important questions to answer. The NSA director, Keith Alexander, has said that the security system didn’t work as it should have to prevent someone like Snowden from gathering the sensitive information that he did. Snowden claims that he was authorized to access this information. The NSA claims that he was not authorized. Why does the NSA think it’s preferable that an unauthorized person gained access to its information?

I’m going to pause here to say that I’ve been reading a lot of speculation about how Snowden gained access to this information that he shouldn’t have had access to. There may be some people who know how he gained this access but in the dross of the Internet, the methods aren’t yet clear. From a technical standpoint, however, I find it incredibly disturbing that someone with Snowden’s computer security background (which appears to be rather mundane–he was no genius computer hacker) was able to gain access to all of this sensitive information within the agency that is supposed to be most expert in the security game. No matter what you think of Snowden and his intentions, I think you have to be concerned about the ease with which someone was able to gain access to these “secrets.” Having now read a whole bunch of information about this case, I feel like it is similar to the one in which the high school student is punished by the school’s IT staff for pointing out how weak the school’s computer security setup is. Perhaps we should be focused on the (lack of) security around this information rather than the fact that it has been disclosed.

In the Senior Seminar that I teach, we often discuss whistle-blowing. If I use the term “whistle-blowing,” my students generally feel that the person doing the disclosing is doing a service to society. If, instead, I say that the employee is revealing corporate secrets, my students generally feel that the person is betraying his/her employer. The cases of Manning and Snowden are more complex than I can easily comprehend but I guess I generally feel that shedding light on situations is better than trying to maintain security by secrecy, by obscuring the facts. In a democracy, sunshine is a good thing.

{July 23, 2013}   Unconventional Play

My aunt sent me a link to a Forbes Magazine online article about Words With Friends, Zynga‘s Scrabble rip-off. (An aside: I got sidetracked by the fact that Zynga’s business model seems based on cloning other people’s ideas for games and found that it is really difficult to protect against such clones. I’ll write about this in a future post.) The author of the Forbes article, Jeff Bercovici, quit playing Words With Friends awhile ago because the game allows players to try out combinations of letters with no penalty. That is, a player can guess at high-scoring words until s/he finds one and not suffer a penalty for doing so. The rules of the Scrabble board game prohibit this by allowing an opponent to challenge a word and if that word is not found in the dictionary, the player who played it, loses his/her turn. Bercovici would like Words With Friends to enforce the rules of the Scrabble board game and prohibit random guessing of words because it isn’t fun for him to play against someone who engages in that behavior.

One person’s flaw truly is another person’s feature. Bercovici is particularly annoyed that the authors of Words With Friends refuse to say that this is a “flaw” in the game but instead insist that it is a “feature,” something they designed into the game from the beginning. And Bercovici is apparently not the only one infuriated by this “flaw.” Penny Arcade calls it “The Brute Force Method.” John Hodgman calls it “Spamming the Engine.” I would call it “Playing the Game.”

Although we call Words With Friends a “clone” of Scrabble, it actually differs in a number of ways. The size of the board is different. The placement of special spaces such as Triple Word  and Double Letter scores is different. The way the game starts is different–in Scrabble, the score for the first word played is always double the face value of the letters while in Words With Friends, the first word score is not doubled unless one of its letters covers a Double Word space. For Bercovici, there is something special about changing the rules so that the player doesn’t have to know about the existence of a word before playing, something that goes against the spirit of the game in a way that the other rules changes do not.

In the mid-90’s, Richard Bartle published an article laying out a simple taxonomy of MUD player types. The most important point of the article in looking at play activities other than MUDs is that players have a variety of motivations for why they play particular games. In other words, not everyone is playing for the same reason or to get the same experience from the activity. For Bercovici, randomly trying letter combinations until the game accepts one violates his idea of what the game should be about. He personally would not get pleasure from playing like that and he finds it infuriating to play against others who play like that. He wants the game to stop his opponents from playing like that, to enforce his idea of what the conventions of the game should be. Unconventional players frustrate him to the point of giving up the game. Bercovici goes on to tell us a story in which he consistently beat a “better” tennis player by using “junk” shots. The other player was annoyed and frustrated because Bercovici wasn’t playing conventionally and therefore, he was difficult to beat using conventional skills and strategies. It wasn’t until Bercovici tried to develop those conventional skills and strategies himself that he understood his opponent’s frustration. Bercovici tells this story to explain why the fact that Words With Friends allows this unconventional behavior is a flaw and not a feature.

I think Bercovici should indeed stop playing any game that is causing more frustration than pleasure. But that doesn’t mean there is something wrong with the game. Texas Hold ’em is a great example of how unconventional, “junk” play can improve everyone’s game. The popularity of Texas Hold ’em exploded in 2003 when then-amateur Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker. Suddenly, everyone was playing Texas Hold ’em. And just as suddenly, amateurs were beating professionals in all kinds of tournaments. Many of these amateurs violated the conventions about the “right” way to play the game. They were gambling on hands that professionals would have folded. They were making bets that made no sense given the conventional wisdom of how to play the game. Sometimes those professionals behaved very badly as they were getting beat by these unconventional amateurs because they didn’t like how the amateurs were playing. Has the influx of amateurs playing unconventionally been bad for the game? Some might say yes but I think it’s good to mix things up, to have different people playing in different ways and for different reasons.

All that said, I think Bercovici shouldn’t blame Words With Friends for not being Scrabble. Why not go play Scrabble instead? I would note that the version of Scrabble on Facebook by Electronic Arts also allows random guessing of words with no penalty. And there’s a dictionary built right into the game for the players to use.

et cetera