Computing Applications Forum


  1. When Is a Computer More Like a Guitar than a Washing Machine?
  2. Corroboration the Only Way to Determine Web Accuracy
  3. How to Teach Critical Thinking about Web Content
  4. Create a Random Number Service Based on the Mersenne Twister
  5. Make Fair Uses a Legal Requirement in DRM Systems
  6. "The Missing Customer" Redux
  7. Enthusiasm, Drive, Wisdom, Patience Not Tied to Age
  8. Author

I agree wholeheartedly with the observations of Susan A. Brown and Viswanath Venkatesh ("Bringing Non-Adopters Along," Apr. 2003), particularly about the folly of a computer industry that produces larger and computationally more demanding programs full of largely useless features—that look good only in marketing brochures and that force users to upgrade their machines every three years—while there is little that most of us couldn’t do with a 10-year-old machine running intelligently designed software.

Does everyone need a computer? Does 100% adoption have to be our goal? While true that almost everyone in the U.S. owns a TV or a washing machine, not everyone owns a guitar. It may be that a computer is more like a guitar than a washing machine—a thing some of us find interesting, entertaining, or intriguing but about which not everybody is interested.

Guitar manufacturers don’t publicly fuss about the situation, and, if computers turn out not to be for everyone after all, the computing industry should consider following the guitar manufacturers example. Otherwise, we risk artificially increasing our dependence on a product—useful as it may be to some of us—as happened with automobiles.

Automobiles are convenient transportation, but there are at least three ways in which our dependence on them has been artificially increased. First, with the systematic destruction in many cities of public transportation (mainly in the 1940s and 1950s, sometimes paid for by the automobile manufacturers); second, by driving the urban design of our cities in a direction that makes use of the automobile indispensible (those of us in the U.S. far from the East Coast know this well); third, by refusing to explore options other than individual ownership of the physical vehicle (how about ownership of the usage rights of a vehicle in a shared pool), a rejection facilitated in part by emphasizing the automobile as status symbol.

Computer and software manufacturers seem to have realized they can’t maintain sales based solely on the usefulness of the machines alone and appear to be following a similar strategy. They promote the mystique of the "high-tech toy" to be owned for its status value, independent of utility. They push universal ownership of the latest model of computer, though many of us would be well served by either not having a computer at all or using the ones at our public libraries.

Rather than trying to be everything to everyone, the computing industry should concentrate on the areas of human activity in which the machines provide a meaningful contribution; there are certainly enough of them to keep the industry busy for a long time to come. A first step in this direction would be, as the authors concluded, for the industry to realize that trying to force everyone to keep up with the technoenthusiasts is an even more shortsighted strategy.

Simone Santini
San Diego, CA

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Corroboration the Only Way to Determine Web Accuracy

While I concur with Peter G. Neumann’s assessment of the poor state of critical thinking with respect to Web-based information ("E-Epistemology and Misinformation," Inside Risks, May 2003), I think his proposed solution is somewhat unrealistic. The notion that users should be educated in critical thinking is certainly valid. But the methods he describes, including examining a Web site’s sponsors, affiliations, and information sources, all depend on its developers’ honest and open disclosure.

If only all developers were so inclined. Finding such information on Web sites is very rare indeed. Trusting that information to be complete and accurate is rarer still.

I would instead suggest following the methodology outlined by the other article ("Of Course It’s True; I Saw It on the Internet!," May 2003) on the same subject in the same issue by Leah Graham and Panagiotis Takis Metaxas. Diligently searching for corroboration appears to be our only chance of really assessing the accuracy of anything found on the Web.

Ralph Castain
Fort Collins, CO

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How to Teach Critical Thinking about Web Content

I have long suspected the scary trend documented by Graham and Metaxas in their fascinating and well-written "Of Course It’s True; I Saw It on the Internet!" (May 2003). Having students read this article may now serve as an antidote.

There is something of a movement among secondary school educators of having students create Web sites to show off their work. I have not been much of a fan (I have a daughter in grade 9); it seems too much time is spent on the nonessential details of putting up a site (HTML, JavaScript, and the like) at the expense of developing content. But I wonder: Would research like this show that students who have developed Web sites be more likely to be skeptical and think critically about the sites they browse and read?

William F. Dowling
Philadelphia, PA

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Create a Random Number Service Based on the Mersenne Twister

At the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, we face problems similar to the ones George Marsaglia discusses in his Technical Opinion column ("Seeds for Random Number Generators," May 2003). The heart of the problem is that if one repeatedly reseeds a random number generator after generating only one number, then the seeding mechanism itself is the de facto generation mechanism, albeit filtered through the ostensible generator. The de facto generator may have poor statistical properties, even if the ostensible generator has good statistical properties.

Our solution was to create a random number "service" based on the Mersenne Twister. We seed the generator once and let it run forever. Applications request a random number from the service and receive the next value in the generator’s sequence.

The internal state of the service is "persisted" to disk after each request, so the service could, say, pick up where it left off after a server reboot.

This solution would not be practical for applications requiring a larger number of random values. But it is ideal for the kinds of problems Marsaglia cites, where the difficulty is precisely the fact that only isolated values are needed.

John Cook
Houston, TX

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Make Fair Uses a Legal Requirement in DRM Systems

The special section on digital rights management and fair use by design (Apr. 2003) was a welcome exploration of an incredibly significant and complex subject. Concerns were repeatedly raised—perhaps most succinctly by Edward W. Felten ("A Skeptical View of DRM and Fair Use")—that DRM systems inevitably endanger many of our long-accepted uses of protected material.

The core danger seems to be that systems seeking to prevent fraudulent uses (such as large-scale piracy and unlicensed sharing) can also prevent fair uses (such as backups, criticism, parody, and time-shifting), accidentally, of course. At the heart of the issue seems to be the legal primacy of the rightsholder over the everyday fair user, forcing the fair user to fight (at great expense) to be allowed to continue to do things that were previously accepted.

An alternative approach might be to reverse this primacy, making the maintenance of fair uses a legal requirement in the design of any DRM system. This would force those rightsholders who wish to deploy DRM to tackle a priori the complexities of the issues Felten raises, rather than allowing them to hide behind the convenient defense that they are "only protecting their rights" when deploying draconian DRM "solutions."

Such an assertion of the public good might ensure that the balance between private and public interests remains a balance.

Simon Dobson
Dublin, Ireland

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"The Missing Customer" Redux

Lawrence Stabile thanks us for reminding him that we all have customers (Forum, May 2003, pg. 11). Then he says we oversimplified because we seemingly spoke only of individual customers. He asks, "When should a customer be viewed as an abstract entity and when as an individual?" We think Stabile raises an interesting question. How do you design offers for a large number of customers? The process of "abstracting the customer" seems necessary because no one individual has all the characteristics the offer appeals to. But this process hides an important reality: there is no abstract customer, only a group of real customers. Every sale becomes a promise to an individual to deliver the product. If the product fails, each aggrieved customer will call customer support. The pitfall is that the abstracters may use their abstraction to decide what is best for their customers, rather than consult with them. Let us stay connected with our customers’ concerns. Aggregate their data, yes; abstract them, no. Professionals forget this to their peril.

Peter J. Denning
Robert Dunham

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Enthusiasm, Drive, Wisdom, Patience Not Tied to Age

Communications allowed an agist stereotype to be promulgated in its pages. Dennis Tsichritzis wrote in "Life Beyond the Bubbles" (Viewpoint, May 2003): "Young people have enthusiasm and drive but not always wisdom and patience."

Enthusiasm, drive, wisdom, and patience are properties that are not tied to age. We all can think of aged crusaders and patient youths. The only combination that is real is that the young cannot have as much experience as the old, but experience is not always a virtue but not always a liability either.

Tsichritzis also wrote: "We should not cast aside people with valuable experience as they get older." I think we can agree on that, though it is not just experience that an older person might bring to an organization but also novel ideas and the will to see them come to fruition. It all depends on the individual, not on age.

Jef Raskin

Author Responds:
I am sorry if my remark was interpreted as an agist stereotype. I tend to agree with these comments. However, I should point out that in Europe we are not so sensitive on issues of age, as it is socially quite acceptable to age gracefully.

Dennis Tsichritzis
Sankt Augustin, Germany

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