Monday, October 14, 2013

Ethnocentrism and Genocide

In honor of Columbus Day, here is another installment of my series of reprints of my coursework. This is from a history class I took last year, in which I spent the better part of a semester studying European Expansion. When we celebrate Columbus Day, this is mostly what we are honoring. While I am very much against blind Nationalism, I think the response should be informed rather than flippant. I suggest readers look into at least a few of the works cited, but I offer this as a summary.

European history is fraught with genocidal tragedies inextricably linked to imperialism, racism, and ethnocentrism. Since the 15th century, Europeans and their colonial descendants have perpetrated countless acts of slaughter in the name of their own betterment. This essay will review some of these links in various eras, from the expansionist period of early 16th century through the 19th century, with conclusions on what we might learn from this terrible history.

Genocidal Expansion

Genocide is not an occurrence unique to European societies. The history of conquest tells us that many expansionist cultures have slaughtered and enslaved conquered peoples. For European societies, this conquest commenced from a standpoint of moral and genetic superiority. 

From the very first encounters with indigenous people by Columbus, it was clear that Spain had no interest in honoring any human rights that stood in the way of their personal profit. Almost immediately the explorer began to disenfranchise the inhabitants of these new, coveted lands. This primarily happened through deception and exemplary displays of brutality. Though these initial exchanges were not nearly as violent as typical conquest, they would still exact a similarly high toll on the losing party. 

The next wave of Spanish ships sent to the Americas did not consist simply of merchants and explorers, but conquistadores sent to find new riches for the Spanish crown. This trend of assumed dominance, followed by trickery and violence, would continue for the remainder of the Spanish colonization of the Americas. As the Spanish encountered a new civilization, they would seek to decapitate it by killing or subjugating its leadership. Failure would result in a bloody battle for control, often using rival tribes and factions to augment Spanish manpower.

The conquest of the Mexica was not only among the largest of the conquistadores’ prizes, however it was probably the most brutal of their conquests. The devastation was immense, as many as 240,000 Mexica were slain in the capture of Tenochtitlan alone (Cocker 72). The Mexican capital was completely destroyed. Not long after, the new rulers would enslave much of the remaining population and put them to work mining valuable silver. The brutal labor and treatment would soon deplete the Mexican workforce to the breaking point, spurring the Spanish to switch their cheap slave labor to imported Africans.

The story of the Mexica was not unique, though. The Caribbean saw much the same treatment on a smaller scale. Indigenous peoples were conquered by decree and enslaved on plantations, later to be replaced by African slaves. The Incas were victims of a shock and awe campaign, giving the Spaniards an edge that allowed them to take control of the kingdom and strip it of gold. The indigenous population of the Americas was reduced by as much as 90% between 1492 and 1800 through conquests and imported disease (Kalivas).

Spain was not alone in its genocidal colonization. Portugal’s colonization of Brazil was less violent but no less costly due to imported disease, instigating the beginnings of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Tignor 536-537). English colonies in North America began the push that would ultimately lead to the near extinction of natives in the area now known as the United States. In the century spanning 1775-1875 at least 56,750 Native North Americans were killed, though some estimate the toll to be much greater (Jaimes 35). England would later colonize Australia where the settlers would crowd out and battle with Aborigines until their population would dwindle from as high as 1,000,000 down to as low as 50,000 (Cocker 177-178). The toll on Tasmanian Aborigines due to English settlement was worse still, they were driven to the very brink of extinction. In Africa colonization and colonial war by the Belgian, British, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish would cost 330,000 African lives, further dwindling a population ravaged by the slave trade (Cocker 292).

Attitudes and Excuses

Christian Europeans faced a dilemma with their colonization and slavery. The brutal acts of violence and subhuman treatment of Native Americans, Africans and Aborigines were contrary to their religious beliefs and the professed moral stance of the day.  To make up for these discrepancies, Europeans developed a number of attitudes towards indigenous peoples and excuses for their actions.

Upon Columbus’s initial voyage his goal was for profit and to increase the power of the Spanish kingdom (Kalivas). He achieved this goal in a very different way than he planned, but it never ceased to be his goal. Thus, when he landed at San Salvador on October 12, 1492 his intent was to establish new trade, not to discover new land. The discovery became an opportunity for profits and the expansion of the reach of both the Spanish and Christian empires.

The expansion of the Christian empire was perhaps more important. The idea of spreading Christianity not only gave Europeans a perceived moral authority, but a divine mandate. With this mandate in hand, any newfound land could be claimed in the name of Spain or Portugal upon its discovery. In 1512 the Laws of Burgos were put in place, stating that colonists must convert Caribbean people to Christianity. The following year the Requerimiento was added to these laws, allowing conquistadores to decree the land in the name of its new masters (Cocker, 15).

Another religious aspect of the European views on indigenous people is the un-Christian culture of their societies. One of the first differences noticed in the Caribbean and South Pacific was that many societies went without clothing. The people of these lands held differing views on agriculture, especially in island societies with smaller populations where large farming operations were unheard of. Europeans saw this as uncivilized and un-Christian, and sought to instill a more traditional – in their view – work ethic. 

The work ethic and farming practices of indigenous peoples would serve another purpose to justify European land seizure. These different practices were seen as neglectful of the land, and thus forfeit any ownership claims that may otherwise be afforded. European ideas of ownership hinged on work put into that land. When work was not evident, the Europeans conveniently interpreted the land as free to claim.

The most disturbing attitude taken against indigenous people by Europeans is the belief that they were not people at all, or were at least less evolved than white Europeans. Several early conquistadores took this view before the Pope declared Indians to be “true men” in 1537 (Cocker 13). However this fallacy continued to be applied throughout the world, especially towards black people. The Germans would employ the same attitude in Africa (Cocker 348). The British too would take this stance when dealing with Aborigines. The United States also clung to various interpretations of this concept until after the Civil War.

It is to be expected that with this belief of genetic superiority came inhumane treatment. In virtually every case of colonization some form of slavery was enacted to provide cheap labor for the betterment of colonists or their mother countries. In cases such as Tasmania the non-human status would lead to incidents where Aborigines were hunted like animals.

Even as some of these attitudes and theories lost favor they were replaced by other, similarly repugnant ideas. The most notorious of these ideas is a theory known as “Social Darwinism.” Social Darwinism is a sociological theory that implements natural selection at a societal level. The adherents to this theory believed that the European societies were predestined to dominance because their conceptualization of society was superior.


At the dawn of the 16th century European societies began an expansionist colonization period that lasted for centuries. This colonization ravaged nations, robbing them of wealth and disempowering or slaughtering indigenous people. European expansion began for reasons of commerce and religious expansion, but soon turned into brutal imperialism. Europeans developed ways to excuse their imperialism in every instance. This was necessary for Europe to continue to enjoy the benefits of colonization while ignoring the cultural inconsistencies of colonial effects.

The outcome of this colonization could have been better. In most cases the Europeans were greeted peacefully and natives welcomed the initial contact. There is no justifiable reason for the genocide that followed such a reception. The collective conscience of European societies knew these acts were wrong. Instead of correcting their actions, they developed a line of excuses to justify them. Such excuses should be recognized and openly rejected, lest we repeat the results.

Works Cited

Cocker, Mark. Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold: Europe's Conquest of Indigenous Peoples. New York: Grove Press, 1998. Print.

Jaimes, M. A. The state of native america, genocide, colonization, and resistance. South End Pr, 1992. 35.

Kalivas, David. "Discovery and Expansion." World Civilization II. University of Massachusetts Lowell. 6 Feb 2012. Lecture.

Kalivas, David. "The World and Implications of the Atlantic Slave Trade." World Civilization II. University of Massachusetts Lowell. 3 March 2012. Lecture.

Tignor, Robert, Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Aron, Stephen Kotkin, Suzanne Marchand, Gyan Prakash, and Michael Tsin. WORLDS TOGETHER, WORLDS APART: A HISTORY OF THE WORLD FROM THE BEGINNINGS OF HUMA. 2nd. W W Norton & Co Inc, 2008. Print

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Predictive Factors of Psychological Effects on Children of Divorced Parents

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. In this case it is the final report from a psychology course I took last year. It's my hope that posting my academic works will help others. As always, I warn against plagiarism, as it will be incredibly easy to uncover since this paper is published online and was submitted in class as well. Another warning is that I am not an expert in this field. This is my work as a student doing research, and this report should be viewed as such.

The Issue

The dissolution of a marriage can be a traumatic, stressful series of events with psychological implications for all parties involved. Much of the focus during this process rests on the adults, but often children are involved and can be greatly affected by these events. What are the long-term consequences for children after the stress of marital dissolution? What is the nature of these consequences? Is it possible to identify children who will be impacted negatively by their parents’ divorce? The focus of this report will be the lasting effects on children of divorced parents, with a special focus on predicting negative effects based on qualitative factors. This information can be helpful in assessing the risk of long-term negative psychological effects on children and providing proper remedial counseling.

Summary of Internet Information

It is well understood that parental divorce can be difficult for children. This difficulty is believed to manifest itself as stress and psychological pain, and rarely as clinical problems such as depression.  Even without the manifestation of long-term clinical problems, children can be significantly affected by parental divorce with effects lasting into adulthood. The negative consequences for these children include behavioral, emotional, and academic problems (Amato, 2010; Featherstone & Cundick, 1992; Frisco, Muller, & Frank, 2007). Many of these problems stem from either the after-effects of the short-term stress of divorce or from recurring stress due to continuing family conflict. The state of the family unit before, during and after divorce may be the most important factor in determining the effect on children (Amato, 2010; Fincham, 1998). Important aspects of family relations include the psychological state of the parents, parents’ relationship, and attachment to parents.
The family environment before divorce can be informative in determining outcomes for children. The period before divorce is often the most contentious part of the marriage. During this period children are more likely to have lowered academic performance and exhibit anxiety, depression or antisocial behavior (Amato, 2010). Research indicates that children may experience positive psychological effects when parental separation ends a highly stressful situation at home. A child that is not experiencing stress before separation is more likely to experience stress and emotional pain after the dissolution (Amato, 2010).
The quality of life after divorce, measured by economic and emotional factors, can also have significant effects. Research shows that children of single parent households have lower performance academically and lower socioeconomic status later in life (Featherstone & Cundick, 1992; Frisco, Muller, & Frank, 2007). However, remarriage or shared custody may not positively influence the child’s situation; instead these events often lead to continuing levels of increased stress (Amato, 2010). Remarriage, in particular, may not help because a high percentage of second marriages also end in divorce.
Parental attachment and influence plays a vital role in children’s adjustment to life after dissolution. When a child has a stronger attachment to the parent without custody there may be increased stress levels and longer periods of adjustment after marriage dissolution (Videon, 2002). There may also be disadvantages for children when the same-sex parent leaves the household. In this respect, gender could be considered a factor, as the parent departing the household is typically the father (Fincham, 1998). In cases of shared custody there is often concern over the child’s ability to form secure attachments to both parents (Pruett, Williams, Insabella, & Little, 2003).
The age of the child at the time of divorce can affect the development of attachment and academic performance. Divorce, and the increased stress and conflict surrounding it, can disrupt important developmental stages of young children. Young children are less likely to properly understand the divorce and are more likely to have difficulty adjusting afterwards (Pruett, Williams, Insabella, & Little, 2003). Older children may understand the marital conflict better, but they are also susceptible to related stressors. In Featherstone & Cundick (1992), family disruptions were found to lower several academic performance factors in teens. Similarly, Frisco, Muller, & Frank (2007) found a causal relationship between union dissolution and academic performance in teens. This later study found a lowered desire and expectation to attend college for children of divorced parents.
Other factors for determining child outcomes after divorce are also under consideration and in research. Amato (2010) details recent research on genetic models to predict child adjustment after divorce. This research attempts to prove that child outcomes are dependent on heritable traits that are often demonstrated by one or both parents during divorce. More ambiguously, Amato (2010) notes that several studies have attempted to find evidence of a causal relationship between child outcomes and race or culture. The article notes no strong findings in any one direction.

Summary of the Research Study

In The Effect of Parent-Adolescent Relationships and Parental Separation on Adolescent Well-Being conducted by Tami Videon in 2002, data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) was analyzed to assess changes in delinquent behavior and depression among adolescents after divorce. In the study, a subset of data from Add Health Wave I and Wave II was compared. This subset was formed of adolescents living with both biological parents as of Wave I who were still living with at least one biological parent as of Wave II, and restricted to only children of Black, Hispanic, or White race. Of these respondents, there were 203 who experienced parental separation between the two waves. The study measured independent variables of parental separation, parent-child relationships, and demographic characteristics (such as age, race, and parental education), with dependent variables of delinquent behavior and depression. Results for boys and girls were calculated separately. The study found that divorce alone was not a predictor for increased likelihood of negative outcomes. Instead, the parental relationship of both the residential and nonresidential parent after separation has a correlation with child well being. Specifically, for boys a strong relationship with the father before divorce predicts an increased likelihood of delinquent behavior, but the maternal relationship is more highly correlated with depression. Girls displayed similar results for delinquent behavior, in that some increase was noted in connection to the paternal relationship, but depression was found to have a stronger correlation. This indicates a very clear set of factors that can influence a child’s outcome after divorce.
The study Parents’ Union Dissolution and Adolescents’ School Performance: Comparing Methodological Approaches (Frisco, Muller, & Frank, 2007) also uses data from Add Health, including the Wave III data, to analyze the effects of parental divorce on academic achievement and review new predictive statistical models. Similarly to Videon (2002), a subset of data was selected using the criteria that students in the Wave I survey lived with two resident parents, that the parents completed the in-home component of the survey, that all components of the Wave II survey were also completed and the student still resided with at least one biological parent. The respondent data was further limited to students only in grades 9 through 11 as of Wave I of the survey, resulting in a final count of 2,629 respondents including 60 students who experienced union dissolution between waves. Unlike Videon, this study also included Wave III data from Add Health, which includes data from the Adolescent Health and Academic Achievement Study, giving this study insight into academic performance. Instead of further limiting the respondent data to only those who completed the first three waves of the survey, the study uses statistical models to calculate the propensity from Wave I and Wave II data that a child will experience union dissolution and apply that likelihood to the academic results. Three statistical models were used to compare the results and confirm consistency. This allows researchers to predict academic outcome using a smaller, representative dataset.
The primary dependent variable in Frisco, Muller, & Frank (2007) is academic achievement, which is measured using change scores of students’ mathematical course work completed, GPA, and course failures. The primary independent variable is parents’ union dissolution. The results of the study show that parents’ union dissolution has a causal relationship with lowered GPA and increased course failures, but does not cause a significant change in mathematical course work completion. This indicates a short-term affect on academic performance with long-term consequences, as these lowered grades during high school can affect future academic and occupational performance.

Critical Analysis of Internet Information and Research Study

Both Amato (2010) and Fincham (1998) are overviews of then current research on child development in relation to marital status. Fincham is instructive in that it is a very detailed analysis of not only the then current research, but also the methodology and its application. However, this article is not always useful in forming conclusions, and much of the research included is out-of-date. Amato’s article is a more recent summary of the trends and results produced in this area of research. This summary is not nearly as detailed as Fincham, but it covers a wide range of research topics with an informed analysis of recent studies and comes to an important conclusion: marriage dissolution does affect children and the majority of research going forward will focus on the types of effects and their scale.
 The research selected for this report highlights two decades of data supporting the theory that parental divorce affects child well being. The oldest study included is Featherstone & Cundick (1992), which helps to establish a relationship between family structure and academic performance. The primary finding of the Featherstone study is a strong correlation between single parent or reconstituted families and decreased academic performance. A problem with this study is that it was not conducted on a representative population sample, which could mean that similar studies on other geographic or demographic populations may not yield supporting results. Also, the behavioral data is compiled from teachers’ observational coding, the composure of which is not divulged in the study. Still, the core finding of affected GPA is strongly represented and confirmed in other research such as Frisco, Muller, & Frank (2007).
Pruett, Williams, Insabella, & Little (2003) uses data from Connecticut families already involved in union dissolution proceedings. The respondents in this survey may suffer from some selection bias, as Family Court and Family Services professionals initiated their inclusion. Their demographics match that of their locality, but do not match national demographic numbers. The model used in this study is quite complex, studying the interaction of many variables at once and drawing many causal conclusions on this data. Strong conclusions include the effects on parental relationships and parental health to child outcomes.
Frisco, Muller, & Frank (2007) and Videon (2002) use the same basic data, the Add Health survey. This gives both studies a solid base of a large, representative dataset. The most obvious problem with the source data is the low probability of marriage dissolution between waves. This limits the amount of information one is able to obtain from this data. For example, Frisco, Muller, & Frank notes that the remaining sample was not large enough to consider race or gender in their study. In Videon we must consider that the research is not supported by much prior work of the same nature, however some findings are supported by Pruett, Williams, Insabella, & Little (2003). Even with these considerations these studies draw strong conclusions on solid statistical models.


The effects of marital dissolution on children are well documented with mounting evidence over the last twenty years. There is strong evidence that divorce can affect academic performance on a short-term basis, and moderate evidence that these children may experience long-term negative academic consequences. Research indicates that these children may experience depression or an increase in delinquent behavior. Young children are also vulnerable to attachment disorders as a result of union dissolution, though more research should be conducted in this area. Some of these direct effects of parental divorce may only last a short amount of time, but they can disturb key phases of development with lasting consequences.
Knowing how children are affected by divorce is only a step in determining why children are affected in these ways. Evidence points to parental conflict and the timing thereof as influential on child outcome in several ways, including academic performance. The family structure after divorce also has strong causal links to several factors of child well being. Some research shows that parent-child relationships with both the residential and nonresidential parents are related to child outcome.
After establishing the likelihood of a negative outcome, remedial action is easier to plan. More research is necessary to determine whether any of these effects can be countered, and by what means. This research could be instructive not only to psychologists, but also in the policy of family law.


Amato, P. R. (2010). Research on Divorce: Continuing Trends and New Developments. Journal of Marriage & Family, 72(3), 650-666. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00723.x
Featherstone, D. R., & Cundick, B. P. (1992). Differences in school behavior and achievement between children from intact, reconstituted, and.. Adolescence, 27(105), 1. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Fincham, F. D. (1998). Child development and marital relations. Child Development, 69(2), 543. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Frisco, M. L., Muller, C., & Frank, K. (2007). Parents’ Union Dissolution and Adolescents’ School Performance: Comparing Methodological Approaches. Journal of Marriage & Family, 69(3), 721-741. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2007.00402.x
Pruett, M., Williams, T. Y., Insabella, G., & Little, T. D. (2003). Family and legal indicators of child adjustment to divorce among families with young children. Journal of Family Psychology, 17(2), 169-180. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.17.2.169
Videon, T. M. (2002). The Effects of Parent-Adolescent Relationships and Parental Separation on Adolescent Well-Being. Journal of Marriage & Family, 64(2), 489-503. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Unrecognized Page Types in Sharepoint

Note: I've described the problem at length. If you're just here for a solution feel free to scroll down the page.

The Problem

One of the Sharepoint projects we're currently deploying is for our internal teams to collaborate together. This not only replaces Public Folders, but also other collaboration tools such as custom sites we'd built for our Intranet. Our policy is to give full control to an administrator from within the user group if necessary and possible. This is to alleviate our staff from making endless customizations to these sites and to give the users a sense of empowerment and ownership to aid adoption. So far, it's worked pretty well. I'm writing this because of one of the times it did not, and an unforeseen pitfall of Sharepoint 2010.

If you've been working with Sharepoint for any length of time you're surely familiar with Sharepoint Designer. I won't spend too much time going over that tool except to say that we found it ill suited for any of our purposes very early on in working with the platform. Thus, we didn't think too much about the "Edit in Sharepoint Designer" menu item. That is, until I received this email:

I messed something up…. My entire Health and Safety Statistics page isn’t working… Is there any way to get it back??

The problem was that her page was no longer recognized as a web page. Instead, it was shown as an unknown file type and when you clicked on it in the SitePages collection you were prompted to save the file, rather than shown the content. Even more peculiar, you couldn't rename the file in the web interface such that it regained its extension, nor could you upload a file to overwrite it. Yet, Sharepoint still recognized that the page should contain content and the version history showed previews of that content and allowed for restoration of content versions... but doing that wouldn't restore the file extension and saving the file didn't save the content. Thus, the only way for her to have gotten into this mess, and the only way to fix it without digging into the nasty innards of Sharepoint, was Sharepoint Designer.

It was then that I clicked on the "Edit in Sharepoint Designer" menu item and to my horror I was presented with a very easy to use download page. See, in the past versions we didn't worry about Sharepoint designer because the user would have to go out of their way to get it and our users typically aren't that persistent. Everything changes when the installation process is one of Microsoft's simpler ones. This meant that we not only needed to correct the file name, but also to prevent this in the future by removing Sharepoint Designer from the equation.

The Solution

First, to fix the file we opened the site in Sharepoint Designer, selected the SitePages library, then right clicked on the problem page and selected Rename. At that point it was clear how the problem arose, it renames the whole file - meaning that you can remove, edit, or add the extension. Renaming the file to add ".aspx" fixed the problem.

Next, to remove the "Edit in Sharepoint Designer" menu item we used some CSS. The CSS was added directly to the Master Page file, because we use a custom one and that way the customization is fairly easy to find and change on a site-by-site basis. The process is described here, but this is the specific snippet I put in the head of the Master Page:

   /* this hides the Edit in Sharepoint Designer menu item. Remove this code to enable that feature. */
   #mp1_0_9, #mp1_0_10 {

After placing that in the Master Page file, and in the one used by new sites, we've hidden this troublesome option from most users. With any luck, those smart enough to find and use it otherwise will know enough not to mess up their site.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The iPhone Connector is the New 19.2 Modem

The consuming world is abuzz with the announcement of the stretch iPhone, but there was a collective groan over the new connector that was announced. It did not take long, however, for the fanboys to take Apple's side in the matter. I was also initially disappointed in the connector, but I've since stepped back from that opinion. I am, however, very much reminded of the old U.S. Robotics proprietary HST technology that brought us 19.2 kbps modems, along with some minor headaches.

The Groan Heard Around the World

I'm not sure why anyone was surprised at the proprietary connector. I certainly wasn't surprised, except when I saw that it had shed a multitude of its pins. At first glance it's advantages were that it is proprietary, which is a financial advantage for Apple, and that it is reversible.

The problem, of course, is that it is not standard. No other phone will have this connector, and Apple has patents to assure this. Nothing on the iPhone is standard, everything is proprietary. This is fine for Apple because it forces everyone to kowtow to their dominance. It sucks for everyone who doesn't own an Apple device. It's not that Apple couldn't set standards here, it is that everything Apple does with their i-devices is anticompetitive.

The problem for the consumer, and the reason for the groans, is that this means more i-device-only cables, more expense, and more waste. The proliferation of cables and adapters is a problem that other tech companies are attempting to solve. Apple was always part of the problem and they have now doubled-down on their selfish commitment to it.

The Fanboy Cavalry and a Slight Redemption

It didn't take long for the fanboys to do a 180 on this topic, that is if we assume they didn't celebrate the new adapter out of brazen consumer idolatry. The same old arguments arose, that USB standards were not up to the task and that this connector is somehow physically better than USB, and that this connector will allow added functionality that i-device users enjoy. Mix that in with some claims that reversibility is a killer feature and you have their argument. Yawn. Fanboys will be fanboys, but we shouldn't dismiss their arguments on that basis alone. Let's offer some counterpoints.

Point: The USB standards are subpar for video.
Counterpoint: This is false, but even if we assume it is true there are alternative standards that could be supported. For instance, there is MHL which builds on micro USB to deliver higher transfer rates and is able to output to either USB or HDMI. I'll backtrack a little and say that the claim that USB as fast is true if we focus purely on the current micro USB spec. Apple's cable should be faster than most micro USB cables, but that is easily overcome without this wasteful proprietary move.

Point: The new connector is physically better than micro USB.
Counterpoint: I think this claim is somewhat valid but with the caveat that the port is better but the cable itself is likely not. If you look at the port on the new iPhone you will see a very solid construction. I believe that this port will have less problems with wear and tear than micro USB ports have. Instead, I think the rigidity of the port will likely mean more wear on the cable. That's actually preferable because a cable is easier and cheaper to replace than a port. The one counterpoint I can offer is that there are designs for more durable micro USB ports that don't take up any more space. Still, I'll give this one to Apple, and I think in a few years when older micro USB devices become harder to charge and iPhones do not we'll fully understand the benefit of this.

Point: This connector will allow added functionality that i-device users enjoy.
Counterpoint: I call BS on this. The added functionality comes from supporting Apple's proprietary systems. This is essentially the same benefit that users of Microsoft Word enjoy. There is no reason why a standard micro USB connector couldn't deliver the same ability to stream audio (though for video you should see my first counterpoint above). The cable is not requisite for this or the other end of the cable would not be a standard USB connector, only the proprietary software interface is required. The connectors are about bandwidth more than anything, everything is digital so there's no reason for this except perhaps the absence of a competing software standard.

Point: The new connector is reversible.
Counterpoint: This is a good usability feature, but it comes at the cost of usability otherwise. Think about this, would you rather have a single, ubiquitous cable standard or to not have to spend an extra half second flipping the cable over? Ideally, I'd rather have both. Apple has created a world where we can have one or the other. From a convenience and waste perspective, I would absolutely rather have the standard.

As you can see here the counterpoints to some of these arguments are not very strong. Apple clearly didn't create their own connector without ensuring it would be a quality product. The problem I have with this is that the only party that benefits fully from this connector is Apple. Consumers lose out because standards are bucked again. The world loses out because non-standard connectors contribute to waste.

An Allegory at U.S. Robotics

I mentioned U.S. Robotics in this article because the story is so similar. USR was notorious for constantly developing their own technologies when the rest of the industry had long since agreed on a Hayes standard. As with Apple piggy-backing USB in their proprietary connectors, USR would start with standards and build proprietary technologies atop them.

The result of USR's hijinks was increased sales to BBS operators and ISPs. The reason is that only USR devices could support their version of HST. If a customer had a 19.2 modem and they connected to a modem that was not made by USR, their connection was the same 14.4 as everyone else. No consumer is going to accept the argument that you object to USR's practices, so service operators simply switched to USR.

For customers this wasn't transparent, though. USR's HST standard could've been better, and it showed. Most connections were no better than 14.4 anyway, so the promise of better performance was never met. Modems equipped with their HST technology cost more and delivered the same performance, which is likely what we'll see out of Apple's new cable.

Eventually the industry would top out with a standard of 56 kbps. USR couldn't offer a stable proprietary competitor that topped that, so they lost their speed advantage. They won against Hayes, as they outlasted that company before being gobbled up by 3Com. They lost out in the end, though, because generic competitors were able to undercut them using standards.

That's where the stories diverge, though. While I have no doubt that Apple will eventually come crashing back down to Earth, this cable will not lose out to standards as easily. The biggest reason for this is because the cable exists for connecting to Apple's products, and Apple is the number one company in the world at making people believe they need their products. USR did not control either end of the connection so thoroughly and their modems had to talk in a standards compliant way to both the client computer and the host modem.

What's more is that Apple has filed two patents on their cable. The rumor is that Apple intends to use these patents to go after cheap copies. If Apple can prevent third parties from selling cables cheaply, they can make a lot of money when the cables fail. If I'm right about the design favoring the cable failing, this will translate into another boost in profits for Apple. Even if the cable does prove to be sufficiently durable, Apple will still control the entire add-on market at the expense of the consumer.

How to Fix the Problem

There is a way for Apple to fix the entire problem. They won't do it, of course. Rather than snubbing their nose at standards, they could participate in the process or allow the industry to use theirs. Apple is terrible about standards. They constantly come up with proprietary technologies that ensure lock-in and are incredibly favorable to their devices, yet they rely on standards that others spent millions to develop. This poor neighbor standing and Apple's frivolously litigious nature are the only reasons I can support suing the company for using patented standards. 

I won't hold my breath for Apple to change. No company ever changes if their tactics bring them so much profit. This cable design is but a microcosm of their entire ethos, and I'm sure they'll profit from it.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Advice on Input Validation

Wrote this today for school and I thought it was good enough advice to put it out there for the everyone. Same disclaimer as all my school posts applies, as well as that this is an opinion piece. Enjoy.

First, everyone will beat validation into your head. Stop. Take a step back, and realize that for most applications ease of use is more important. When you design you should not ignore good design patterns, but you should focus on what will make the program work and what will work for the user. If you are too worried about security from the onset then you are likely to make programs that "suck", not because they're not useful or they're poorly written, but because the primary concern was avoiding malicious users rather than designing great software.

Second - and this will seem counterintuitive - is that security also shouldn't be an afterthought. It should come second, and eventually it should come naturally with good design patterns, but every program you write should have some programming time budgeted to make sure it is as secure as need be. If it'll take you a week to make it right, then be sure to budget an extra day to button it down.

Third, it should be part of every layer of the program. Even if you're not doing a strict MVC pattern  it's best to note that most web apps have those layers anyway, they're just jumbled up a bit. Sure, your forms need to be checked for bad input, but if you have data objects behind them you should probably check there too, at least to some extent. (This is where having a strongly typed language helps, you can control what data hits your mid-tier in a very natural way.) This one is especially important if you ever work as part of a group. Do not trust your fellow programmers to validate. Even if they are competent, they may believe that you're doing the validation and skip it themselves.

Fourth is an extension to the third, but it's so important it needs its own paragraph. Always check things going to your database. Sure allowing the wrong form input can enable an XSS attack, but your database is almost always your lifeblood. Guard it appropriately. A design pattern you should pick up in this area is that whenever it is available you should not quote a variable into a SQL statement, that is how SQL injection vulnerabilities are born. The article you linked to missed this. If you're using PHP 5 you should use the PHP Data Objects library and use bindParam to add the parameter value.

Fifth is that input validation is not the only way you will be protecting yourself. One of the biggest problems you'll find in the real world is test code left active in deployment. For example:

I had to check a bug in a classic ASP script a few months back. It was the login page for an external application. To my horror I found that after the standard input validation done on the username, the password was passed in untouched by concatenation to a SQL query. Worse, this entire query was written back to the login page in an HTML comment. It'd been years since this was touched, and the keys were under the mat the whole time.

Probably the best way to guard against security holes is to develop and stick to best practices. Using SQL parameters is a best practice. Get yourself into the habit of doing this. When you develop these practices they'll soon become second nature, and that will allow you to go back to step one and focus on the design first. It'll also make step two easier but still necessary.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Password Security - Summary

The idea of using a password is thousands of years old, but today it is most commonly associated with computer authentication. Passwords are kept secret and used to prove the identity of a user on a computer system. Today passwords are used more than any other time in history. Almost every person in the United States has a password of some sort tied to a computer system. This includes new uses such as passwords associated with mobile technology.

Overwhelmed with passwords, many people fall victim to bad habits that weaken the security the passwords were intended to provide. Users often use weak passwords because they are easier to remember and reuse passwords across multiple services. Services often fail to address these problems as well. Poor practices for password storage and site security allow malicious users to access password databases, putting all users of the service at risk.

The people trying to gain access to your passwords are better known as crackers. A cracker might use your password to access the site of origin, but often their motivation for stealing passwords is to gain access to other services. Crackers have a number of tools at their disposal to combat modern password safety measures such as rainbow tables, key loggers, man-in-the-middle attacks, and social engineering attacks such as phishing.

There are ways to protect users against many of these techniques. Services can follow best practices for storing passwords and authenticating users. Alternatives to passwords exist. Users can pick better passwords. Software can help users manage their passwords securely. Some effort is required, but users can combine both convenience and security.

Next time I will introduce passwords with some history and the concept of authentication.

Password Security - Foreword

Computer security is an important topic for me. While I don't consider myself to be an expert, and I know several people who are more committed to secure computing than I am, I still am very interested in the topic. I try to take a pragmatic approach to security where every decision I make considers risk, reward, and cost. In the last few years I have become increasingly concerned over my password security habits, and more so over the habits of others. So much so, that when the opportunity arose I chose to study it and write at length about it.

Earlier this year I took a course in technical writing. The design of the course was fairly neat. Students had to pick the topic for their final paper at the beginning of the course. Each week students had to hand in a writing assignment related to this topic. At the end of the course the final paper largely consisted of the previous assignments with some additional content to glue it together. As you can guess, my topic was password security.

I was inspired by recent high profile hacks and password leaks, as well as my recent switch to using a cloud-based password manager. My report was based largely around these events, though the final version included less examples than I originally intended. It is, to some extent, an elevator pitch to attempt to convince others that there is a real danger in insecure password practices.

Of course, a pitch that is never presented has no chance of success. To date, probably only four or five people have read my paper, and at least one of those people learned nothing from it. So, in the spirit of both my efforts to contribute to the world via my school work and to help get the word out that these practices must stop, I will be splitting up my paper into several blog posts to share with anyone who will read it. I will attempt to add value to the paper where possible, such as links to reference articles and examples that I could not fit in the original.