May 29, 2020

The Ethicist: Bankrolling the Botnets

Many of the questions I receive inevitably boil down to the same fundamental problem: Is it ethically acceptable to do one bad thing if that transgression benefits the world at large? Most of the time, I argue that it is (and then subsequently receive a dozen e-mails from outraged readers quoting Kant’s Categorical Imperative). But this query is a little more complicated. Giving $1,000 to a spammer isn’t like giving an AK-47 to a terrorist, but it does assist a socially abhorrent person who makes the world slightly worse (and could, in theory, proliferate a virus). Moreover, the data you’re learning in exchange does not appear to irrefutably help anyone — according to your letter, the principal upside is that you learn “interesting information.” So the question is really this: Is it morally acceptable to reward an annoying, semi-innocuous criminal in order to better understand how annoying, semi-innocuous criminals operate?

In the broadest sense, the answer is yes. Any serious attempt at improving our collective understanding of reality justifies a reasonable cost, assuming that cost does not directly violate anyone’s human rights. The situation you describe probably qualifies — but only if you can answer yes to the following questions:

1. Is this the best way to study underground economies? I can’t say for certain — but I know it can’t be the only way.

2. Does the intent of your investigation represent any level of practical utility? I generally support “knowledge for the sake of knowledge,” but if you’re rewarding someone who’s making the world slightly less livable, there needs to be a degree of counterbalance. If successful, what you’re learning here should have a real-world application.

3. To the best of your intellectual ability, do you fully understand the damage this action could inflict?

Regarding your second query (“How sure should we be of a positive scientific outcome before entering into these transactions?”): This is an exploration. If you predecide what your findings need to be in order to validate the experiment, it will push you toward potentially false conclusions. For a researcher, that’s intellectually unethical. The possibility of total failure is an acceptable (and a necessary) risk.

E-mail queries to, or send them to the Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018, and include a daytime phone number.

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State of the Art: Sony’s RX1 Camera: Compact, Full-Framed and Expensive, Too

The color of the body. (“Ooh, I like the shiny red one!”)

The camera buyer for a national electronics chain told me that. We both slapped our foreheads.

Please. If you’re buying a camera, shouldn’t picture quality be the most important detail?

If so, what you should care most about is the flat, rectangular light sensor inside the “film.” In general, the bigger the sensor, the happier you’ll be with the results and the more you’ll pay.

At the low end, snapshot cameras with tiny sensors (0.4 inches diagonal) cost $150 but give you blurry, grainy low-light shots. At the high end, those professional, big, black S.L.R. cameras cost $2,000 to $6,000 but come with full-frame sensors. That is, these sensors are as big as an old piece of 35-millimeter film (1.7 inches). They deliver unparalleled low-light quality, richness of color, detail and soft-focused backgrounds.

(You can buy cameras with even bigger sensors — medium-format cameras that cost $20,000 and military cameras that cost millions — but let’s say you live in the real world.)

All of this explains why Sony’s 2013 camera/camcorder lineup is so startling. The company has put full-frame sensors into three new cameras, at prices and body sizes that nobody has ever attained.

For example, there’s the A99, which Sony says is the world’s smallest and lightest full-frame S.L.R. It’s meant to compete with professional cameras like the Canon 5D Mark III ($3,200) and Nikon D800 ($3,000) — for $2,800. (These prices are for the bodies only.)

The A99 is sort of homely, but it has a long list of distinguishing features: fast, continuous focusing, even while filming or shooting something running at you; two memory-card slots; built-in GPS function that stamps every photo with your location; 1080p, 60-frames-a-second high-definition video; microphone and headphone jacks; and an electronic viewfinder whose video shows you the results of your adjustments in real time.

Sony says the A99 is also the only full-frame camera with a screen that flips out and tilts.

Then there’s the VG900, Sony’s first full-frame camcorder. It costs $3,300 — about $10,000 less than any other full-frame camcorder, Sony says. And its sensor is about 45 times as big as a standard camcorder’s sensor.

Now, a huge sensor may not seem to make sense in a camcorder. One frame of hi-def video has only about two megapixels of resolution; what’s the point of stuffing a 24-megapixel sensor into the camcorder?

Answer: It’s about picture quality. A big sensor gives you amazing low-light video, gorgeous blurry backgrounds, greater dynamic range and better color.

Thousands of filmmakers use full-frame S.L.R. still cameras to shoot video, because of the superior quality and because they can use different lenses for different video effects. S.L.R-based camcorders like Sony’s VG900 offer the same features in a camcorder shape. They’re much more comfortable to hold, and their buttons are better placed for video operation.

The VG900 accepts Sony’s E-mount camera lenses, of which there are 13; they don’t quite exploit the full area of that jumbo sensor. But the camera comes with an adapter for the older, more plentiful A-mount lenses. Alas, those lenses don’t autofocus with that adapter.

The most astonishing new full-frame Sony, though, is the RX1. It’s the world’s first compact full-frame camera.

Now, you’re forgiven if you just spewed your coffee. “Compact” and “full-frame” have never gone together before. Everyone knows why: a big sensor requires a big lens, meaning a big camera. You can’t change the laws of physics, no matter how much photographers would love it.

E-mail: pogue

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Link by Link: Speed Bumps on the Road to Virtual Cash

MONEY is accumulated, traded and transferred online every day, but can there be a form of currency that exists only online and yet has real-world value?

That is the premise of Bitcoin, an open-source virtual currency system that since 2009 has grown to a market worth more than $100 million.

But the past few weeks have shown that a virtual currency can be just as vulnerable as the paper kind. Bitcoin accounts have been subject to hacking and theft; the currency itself experienced a bubble and a crash. And at least one group that was collecting donations in Bitcoins has decided against using them because of possible legal entanglements.

Gavin Andresen, who is the lead developer of the open-source software that operates the currency, said in an interview from his home in Amherst, Mass.: “I expected it to have lots of speed bumps along the way — but I didn’t expect there to be so many speed bumps in a row.”

There are several appeals to the idea of an online currency. The standard way to ensure the validity of online transactions, according to Jerry Brito, a technology expert at George Mason University, is “to have an intermediary to keep the ledger,” that is, a service like PayPal or a credit card company that takes a percentage of the transaction.

A virtual currency would not need an intermediary. It would also make it harder for authorities to track transactions (particularly appealing for gambling sites or other quasi-legal activities).

Bitcoin began as a kind of thought experiment. In 2009, an anonymous programmer published a paper proposing a virtual currency that would elegantly solve many of the problems surrounding currency that exists only on the Internet, including the main one, that the money would simply be copied like, say, music files, and plummet in value.

Another part of the challenge was to create a currency without having to resort to a central bank to issue the currency and track the transactions. In other words, the transactions would be genuinely “peer-to-peer” rather than pass though a virtual bank.

The solution of the Bitcoin programmer, who wrote under the name Satoshi Nakamoto, was to ensure that each “coin” was its own certificate of authenticity — that the coin, in essence, would be nothing more than that certificate.

In the Bitcoin system, a new coin is produced whenever a computer can calculate an answer to a difficult problem, and then attaches that answer to a digital record of every transaction of every Bitcoin ever traded — a breathtakingly large amount of information to carry around in order to buy a pack of gum, but in a time when information can zip around the Internet, not too much to ask. Anyone would be free to create a new coin, within proscribed supply limits, by having a computer do the work needed to prove that it was in fact a valid Bitcoin.

“The incentives are right, they are a check that everyone is following the rules,” said Mr. Andresen. “Early adopters want it to succeed, because they already own the currency. And if you generate Bitcoins no one thinks is valid, you have wasted a lot of computer time.”

In fact, Bitcoin is a rarity for a currency in that it is neither a so-called fiat currency — one like dollars, which are valuable because the government says they are — nor is it a specie currency, one that gets its value because it can be converted into a precious metal like silver or gold.

But why would a Bitcoin have value if it is only a stream of numbers, unsupported by government fiat or by some underlying asset?

“Why does any tool have value?” Mr. Andresen asked. “It is valuable because it is useful.”

Starting almost as soon as the coins were introduced, they have been traded for dollars at online exchanges, serving as a crude measure of the currency’s popularity and health (and also giving a market where owners can trade in Bitcoins for real dollars).

After two years, there are seven million of these “coins” in circulation and the rate of increase — currently 50 coins are added every 10 minutes — will slow each year until the number tops out at 21 million coins around 2025. The coins, which trade for about $17 each at online exchanges, have a cumulative value of about $100 million. “I do think of it as the market cap of Bitcoin,” said Mr. Andresen. Today, a list of businesses that accept Bitcoin currency is a motley collection of companies on the fringe of the computer world, groups that conduct gambling or the like, and, notably, the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks, which accepts contributions in Bitcoins. You certainly can’t stock the pantry or furnish your home with Bitcoins.

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