Thursday, November 30, 2006

David Friedman, Harald

David Friedman's novel Harald has been nominated for the Prometheus award. It will probably be a finalist, but the libertarianism is muted. It's an enjoyable read, though not deep or with a very broad scope. Harald is accepted as a leader among his people, though they don't have any formal government. He is wealthy, and a brilliant (unerring) strategist and tactition. Actually, that's the biggest weakness of the book; Harald always out-plans the opposition. When they occasionally try to think one step ahead of him, those are the occasions on which Harald has planned two steps ahead. Harald is also an accomplished field doctor, though no one else seems to even be familiar with the rudiments of first aid. He knows a story for every occasion, and is a charismatic leader. For some reason his extraordinary abilities stand out even compared to the standard hero stories we're used to.

But if you're willing to forgive this conceit, it's a good adventure story, with plenty of pitched battles, a few battles won by stealth, and a plausible depiction of how a society without government might defend itself. Unfortunately, we can't tell whether it would work if they couldn't count on the constant attention of a superior general. Harald is alway monitoring developments, and imagining what his old enemies might do if they were to decide to attack again.

There are plenty of incidents showing people making choices freely, and bearing the consequences of their choices. No government intervention, except among the citizens of the emperor. Even those who live under kings seem to be allowed to live their own lives, and choose to accept the protection of the local ruler as long as it's worth the cost.

In this society, women are warriors on a par with men, though they maintain their own separate force ("The Order"), and join the battle only when their leaders decide that their interests are at stake. The conflict starts when the young king tries to take control of The Order to ensure that they will help him if the empire attacks. If Harald hadn't stepped in, the king would have ended up with a rebellion, cutting his forces rather than augmenting them. Harald shows him that persuasion works better than force.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

John Scalzi, The Ghost Brigades

John Scalzi's The Ghost Brigades is likely to be a strong candidate for this year's Prometheus award. It may be the best I've read so far. (Since the competition includes Vinge, a past winner, and Stross, a past nominee, that's an achievement.)

Humankind is one of many species competing for living space around the galaxy. There's a little cooperation, and a lot of war. Our government is keeping most of the population in the dark about who our friends and enemies are, and how we're fighting them. Our best weapon is an army of vat-grown, genetically enhanced soldiers who are effectively brainwashed slave labor.

The conflict arises when Charles Boutin, the genius scientist who has helped develop the technologies, becomes convinced that the government was careless about protecting his wife and daughter, and in his grief, lends his assistance to some of humanity's enemies. In order to help track him down, his memory backup is loaded into the mind of Jared Dirac, a custom-designed soldier. Since the mind transplant doesn't take at first, Dirac develops his own personality, with idiosyncratic quirks and abilities. This isn't on the program for the enhanced soldiers, which results in a lot of trouble.

Many of the tropes of near-future technological enhancements are on display here: mind melding soldiers, nano-suits that protect the wearer from minor injury, instant access to information. Scalzi does a decent job of merging them into a plausible society: Dirac is as likely to use his tools and skills while joking around with his buddies as he does in battle.

The deeper issues include Dirac and the other soldier's ability to make choices and control their own fate, the moral issues surrounding combatants and bystanders in war, and the morality of allowing population pressures to force the choice of going to war. Scalzi lets Dirac and his fellow soldiers explore the issues without forcing particular answers on them or us.

I liked the answers Dirac came up with better than those Ken Chinran came up with in Michael Williamson's The Weapon. Chinran was a nearly omnipotent military force on his own. He accepted his assignments without question, carried them out as best he could and worried about ethics after the fighting was done. Chinran sometimes made morally doubtful tactical choices in the heat of battle that undermined his strategic objectives, and ended up several time regretting his choices. But he never learned to make better choices in battle.

Dirac considers the possibilities as he proceeds, and limits his tactical choices to behaviors he has already decided are morally acceptable acts of war. In one incident, Dirac and his squad are tasked with abducting the immature heir to the throne of one of humanity's enemies, the Eneshan. The squad recognizes that the morality is questionable. Some members, while willing to participate in the raid, ask to be left out of the dirty work, so the squad leader asks for volunteers. Dirac recognizes it as dirty, but accepts the necessity in a time of war. The important point for the story is that Dirac and his companions are making moral choices, even though they weren't given any choice about being soldiers.

Dirac continues to make moral choices right through the end.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

ID Theft Report Discourages use of SSNs

The front page of the latest issue of Privacy Journal has the headline "Feds Now Discourage Use of SSNs". The article reports on the interim recommendations from an interagency task force on identity theft. Privacy Journal focuses on the report as the first indication that the federal government finally recognizes the danger that SSNs pose, and may start to take steps to remedy the harm they've caused by helping make SSNs ubiquitous in government and many private databases.

This report, by itself, doesn't change government policy, so you can't cite it as authority when trying to get assistance from government agencies without revealing your SSN. But you can refer to it when working to convince administrators that agency policy should change or that training of the people who collect information from the public should be updated. I suspect that it would also serve as useful ammunition when arguing with people in private industry. The report isn't directly addressed to them, and doesn't hold any legal authority, but it is a recommendation from the government, and it does represent a significant change of heart.

  • Recommendation 1: OMB should provide guidance to all federal agencies about giving notice in the event of data breaches.
  • Recommendation 2: OMB and DHS should identify best practices and mistakes to avoid.
  • Recommendation 3: on SSNs
    1. OPM should accelerate its review of the use of SSNs in its collection of human resource data, and take steps to reduce their use (including the assignment of employee identification numbers).
    2. The commentary suggests that agencies assign employee ID numbers to replace SSNs. They also suggest that Executive Order 9397 (which encouraged use of SSNs in Federal databases) might need to be "partially rescinded" in order to reduce use of SSNs.

    3. OPM should develop and issue policy guidance to the federal HR community on the appropriate use of SSNs in employee records, including the proper way to restrict, conceal, or mask SSNs.
    4. OMB should require all federal agencies to review their use of SSNs to determine which uses can be reduced or eliminated.
  • Recommendation 4: All agencies should add disclosure of information in response to a data breach to their published "routine use" list under the Privacy Act.
  • Recommendation 5: The task force should investigate reliable methods of authenticating individuals to reduce openings for identity thieves.
  • Recommendation 6: Congress should add restitution for time spent remediating harm from identity theft to the criminal statutes.
  • Recommendation 7: The FTC will develop standardized forms for reporting identity theft to police.