Sunday, January 22, 2017

With executive order, Trump tosses a ‘bomb’ into fragile health insurance markets

The Washington Post has an excellent analysis of Trump's executive order.  TL;DR: it's going to cause chaos:
Robert Laszewski, president of the consulting firm Health Policy and Strategy Associates, called the executive order a “bomb” lobbed into the law’s “already shaky” insurance market. Given the time it will take Republicans to fashion a replacement, he expects that federal and state insurance exchanges will continue to operate at least through 2018. 
“Instead of sending a signal that there’s going to be an orderly transition, they’ve sent a signal that it’s going to be a disorderly transition,” said Laszewski, a longtime critic of the law, which is also known as Obamacare. “How does the Trump administration think this is not going to make the situation worse?”
Teresa Miller, Pennsylvania’s insurance commissioner, said Saturday that several insurers on her state’s exchange “seriously considered leaving the market last year” and that Trump’s action could propel them to indeed abandon it in 2018. In fact, she added, some have raised the possibility of withdrawing from the ACA’s exchanges during 2017, which would mean consumers could keep their plans but no longer receive federal subsidies to help them afford the coverage. 
“That would create a nightmare scenario,” Miller said. 
As of this year, nearly a third of all counties nationwide have just one insurer in the federal marketplace, and almost two-thirds have two or fewer insurers.
And then there's this:
The White House did not return requests for comment over the weekend.
Imagine that.

New Wyoming bill forbids utilities from using renewables

From the Christian Science Monitor:
Republican legislators recently introduced a bill that would essentially ban large-scale renewable energy in the state.  The new Wyoming bill would forbid utilities from using solar or wind sources for their electricity by 2019... 
Remind me again which party is the one that opposes government regulations and interference in free markets?

A commenter on Hacker News posted a hypothesis:
Republicans are not at all in any way pro free market, that's just a propaganda ploy, a Jedi mind trick for the weak. They are, have always been, classist. They believe in retaining class distinctions. Everything they do is a preservation of differentiation of the American version of the caste system. And it's why some people seem to vote against their economic interests, like coal workers. They voted Republican to preserve their class, not actually get ahead, and to preserve the class of their company's owners, rich landed elite.
That seems to me to be consistent with all the available data.

No tax returns for you!

Turns out that the audit was an excuse and Trump is never releasing his tax returns.

If that surprises you, then you really haven't been paying attention.

There are no lies in Trump's America, just "alternative facts"

From The Washington Post, on an exchange between NBC news reporter Chuck Todd and Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway, regarding White House press secretary Sean Spicer telling lies about the size of Trump's (ahem) inauguration crowds:
“Why put him out there for the very first time, in front of that podium, to utter a provable falsehood?” Chuck Todd asked Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president. “It's a small thing, but the first time he confronts the public, it's a falsehood?” 
After some tense back and forth, Conway offered this: 
"Don't be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. You're saying it's a falsehood, and they're giving — our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts to that. But the point really is —"
At this point, a visibly exasperated Todd cut in. “Wait a minute. Alternative facts? Alternative facts? Four of the five facts he uttered . . . were just not true. Alternative facts are not facts; they're falsehoods.”
OMG, here's an interview with Spicer on Jan 4 where he was asked if he would lie for Trump:
The one thing that [sic] whether you're a Republican [or] a Democrat [is] that you have your integrity.  I may tell a reporter I can't comment on something or I'm not able to discuss it but I'd never lie.  ...  if you lose the respect and trust of the press corps you've got nothing.
I am not at all surprised that Spicer reneged on that, but I'm a little surprised that he did it so blatantly on the very first day of the new administration.

I really feel sorry for anyone trying to raise kids in this environment.

Individual health insurance without a mandate is a scam

Reader Publius writes:
Given President Trump's selection of Sen. Tom Price for HHS Secretary, one should expect the replacement plan to be similar to the Emp[o]wering Patients First Act.
He's probably right, and that scares the hell out of me, for a very simple reason: individual health insurance without a mandate cannot possibly work.  Yes, you will be able to buy something that looks like an insurance policy.  The insurance companies will happily take your money as long as you are healthy.  But the instant you get sick they will drop you like a hot rock.  An individual health policy without a government mandate is necessarily a scam.  No free market mechanisms can possibly change this.  If you have cancer, no one is going to insure you if they don't have to.

Health insurance only has value if an insurance company has some reason to keep you on board after you get sick.  In the case of group plans, that reason is that they can't drop you individually.  The only way they can drop you is to drop the whole group.  The reason employer-based insurance works even in the absence of government mandates is that employers do two things: they aggregate people into groups that are large enough that you can use statistics to manage the risk.  And they filter out the sickest and most expensive people.  If you're over 65, or if you already have cancer, you're less likely to be applying for a job than if you're in your 20s and healthy.  But if you are by yourself, in the absence of a government mandate like the one provided by the ACA, they can drop you individually.  And they surely will.  What makes it a scam is that most people don't get sick, and so most people will think they have insurance (or at least access to insurance) even though in reality they don't.

In California, it doesn't take much to make a group: you only need two people.  So my wife and I started a company, and for the last ten years that has qualified us for group insurance.  But with the advent of the ACA, California changed the rules.  You still only need two people, but now they can't be related to each other.  So I'm now on an ACA individual plan.  If the ACA is repealed I, and about 20 millions other Americans, will be totally hosed.  The only way I can get back on a group rate is to shutter my company and go back to work as an employee, or get divorced.  It is no small irony that I will be faced with this choice because of the party that ostensibly wants to support entrepreneurship and family values.

This is what happens when you deny reality.  You can choose to ignore the laws of physics and the laws of economics, but they will not ignore you.  Sooner or later, if the Republicans are not stopped somehow, sea levels will rise and people will die.

And this is by design.  Read the text of Donald Trump's executive order:
To the maximum extent permitted by law, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (Secretary) and the heads of all other executive departments and agencies (agencies) with authorities and responsibilities under the Act shall exercise all authority and discretion available to them to waive, defer, grant exemptions from, or delay the implementation of any provision or requirement of the Act that would impose a fiscal burden on any State or a cost, fee, tax, penalty, or regulatory burden on individuals, families, healthcare providers, health insurers, patients, recipients of healthcare services, purchasers of health insurance, or makers of medical devices, products, or medications.  [Emphasis added]
Note the complete absence of any mention of impact on the overall sustainability of the system, or the actual health and well-being of patients.  Trump's quality metric is purely financial.  Fiscal burdens are bad, and so they need to be eliminated, period, end of story.  There are no other considerations.  If a few more people die, who cares.

Donald Trump is a legitimate president

Something I was going to mention in my previous post but forgot, and it's important enough that I thought I'd make a separate post: today's Women's march was positive and inspiring, but there was one bit of rhetoric floating around that I don't agree with, and which I think is actually counterproductive: Much as it pains me to say it (and part of me is still trying to remain in denial about it) Donald Trump is the legitimate president of the United States.  He won a majority of the electoral college.  The results were certified by Congress.  That's all that matters.  Yes, the Russians may have tried to influence the election.  They may even have succeeded.  But so did James Comey and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.  There are very few clean hands in American politics.

The Republicans spent eight years arguing that Barack Obama was illegitimate because he wasn't born in the U.S.  The Russian-meddling argument sounds to me every bit as petty as that.  Donald Trump would not be in the White House if tens of millions of Americans hadn't voted for him.  The Russians (or Comey or Schultz) may have moved the needle a little.  They may have even changed the outcome (we can never know).  But at the end of the day the American people voted without anyone putting guns to their heads and the votes were counted fairly (which is not the case everywhere).  Trump won.  Deal with it.  Complaining about Trump's illegitimacy is pathetic and it won't do any good.  So stop it.  There is too much important work to be done to waste time on that kind of bullshit.

P.S.  In no way do I mean to denigrate John Lewis, who is definitely a man of action contrary to Donald Trump's petulant attacks.  But I respectfully disagree with his position that Trump is illegitimate, both on the merits, and as a political tactic.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Good news, bad news

I went to the local Women's march today.  It was the first political protest I've ever attended.  (The Viet Nam war ended when I was in elementary school, and after that protesting kind of went out of style.)  It was quite inspiring.  There was a huge (yuuuuge!) turnout.  Joan Baez was there, so it was a little like going back to the 60s.

There were a lot of very clever signs.



But the best part of the day was watching the news and seeing how big the crowds were around the country and even around the world.  And I confess to indulging in a bit of schadenfreude when I saw Trump's inauguration crowds compared to Obamas:


That's Trump on the left, Obama on the right.  And just for comparison, here's today's Women's march crowd:

Of course, The Donald was not pleased when the press reported on this.  He doesn't like it when anyone suggests anything associated with him is small.  If it's Trump, it's gotta be yuuuuge!

So this is how President Trump choose to spend his first full day in office: leveling false charges at the press because they has the temerity to report (correctly) that his inauguration crowds were smaller than his predecessor's.  Pathetic.  It would be funny if it weren't so sad.

Oh, and there is one other thing that His Donaldness did today: he signed an executive order to begin the process of repealing Obamacare, making good on half of a campaign promise.  The other half, the purported replacement that is supposed to fix the problems and provide "insurance for everybody", is nowhere in sight.

I am currently on an ACA individual plan.  But I'm probably going to lose it after this year.  I will probably have to give up my startup and go back to a regular salaried job as a result.  This is what making America great again looks like.

Friday, January 20, 2017

One thing Trump got right

They're real.  Here's the original.

Amerika uber alles

Trump’s inaugural address was terrifying.
"The bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America..." 
No mention of the Constitution. No mention of democracy. No mention of freedom or equality. Only "total allegiance" to the U.S.A.  Dissent will not be tolerated.

Oh, and apparently your total allegiance will be required whether or not you are a citizen.

Be afraid

Especially if you're black:
The new White House website went live following Donald Trump’s inauguration Friday, and it contained a bracing message implicitly directed to supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement: Your kind is not welcome in Trump's America. 
“The Trump Administration will be a law and order administration,” reads a page on the website titled "Standing Up for Our Law Enforcement Community." It continues: “President Trump will honor our men and women in uniform and will support their mission of protecting the public. The dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America is wrong. The Trump Administration will end it.” 
In case it wasn’t clear who and what the Trump administration blames for this “anti-police atmosphere,” the website clarified: “Our job is not to make life more comfortable for the rioter, the looter, or the violent disrupter.”
In other words: dissent will not be tolerated in Trump's America.  Putin must be proud of his protege.

The great information purge has begun

At exactly noon eastern time, all references to climate change were deleted from the White House website.

This is eerily reminiscent of an earlier episode in history.  That one didn't end well.  I don't expect this one will either.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Dead nation walking

I had a very vivid dream last night.  I was a passenger in the back seat of a small four-seat airplane that was careening wildly out of control and diving towards the ground.  I kept yelling at the pilot to pull up, pull up, but he wasn't paying attention.  I don't think it's a coincidence that I had this dream a day before Donald Trump is going to be inaugurated as president.

Like I said in my last post, I really want to believe.  I want to believe that president Obama is right when he says that "We're going to be OK."  I want to believe that Donald Trump will end up surprising all the naysayers (including me) and turn out to be a great president who will lead the country to continued peace and prosperity.  (I can't say "back to peace and prosperity" because we're already relatively peaceful and prosperous.)  I want to believe in a merciful God who delivers cosmic justice too, and that there is life after death.  But I can't believe in any of these things because the evidence is overwhelming that none of them are true.

I thought I saw a tiny glimmer of hope a couple of weeks ago when Congress tried to abolish the ethics office and Trump helped shut them down.  But then I went back and actually looked at his tweet.  He didn't actually disapprove of shutting down the ethics office at all, he just disapproved of doing that first.  To the contrary, he actually endorsed shutting down the ethics office eventually:
"With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it ... may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS,"
And that snuffed out the very last glimmer of any realistic hope that Trump will anything but a complete disaster.  And it's not just Trump.  But himself he would be bad enough, but with Congress under Republican control there is nothing standing in the way of total calamity.  The potential problems of this toxic combination are too numerous to enumerate, but it can be summed up simply by observing that the war between corporate interests and the interests of individuals is almost certainly lost for a generation.  Environmental regulations, protections for minorities and individuals, fair labor laws, respect for scientific truth, consumer protections -- all at very serious risk.

As scary as all that is, it pales in comparison to the brazen disrespect that Trump and the Republicans have for ethics.  The disbanding of the Congressional ethics office has not been stopped, it has merely been delayed.  Trump and the Republicans really believe that they don't need to be bound by ethics rules.  They have the power to eliminate those pesky rules.  There is nothing standing in their way.

One of the things that has always distinguished the United States and helped make it free and prosperous is our relative lack of corruption.  You could in the past, at least since WWII, mostly count on government officials to do their jobs more or less fairly, and that you could expect to be treated fairly without having to pay bribes.  That may soon change.  Trump and the Republicans (I'm going to have to come up with an abbreviation for that -- how about TATR?) really believe that there is nothing wrong with using positions of public trust to enrich themselves at the expense of others, and that ethics rules are merely "unfair annoyances" standing in the way of this perfectly legitimate enterprise.

There are so many dangers, so many existential threats from TATR, that it is easy to lose sight of this one in the morass.  Making a few bucks off an insider stock trade seems to innocuous.  Who actually gets hurt?  If politicians still vote their conscience (stop laughing, this is a hypothetical) where is the harm if they make a few bucks on the side to augment their meager government salaries?

Well, the harm is that it will ultimately turn the U.S. into the same kind of banana republic that we like to look down our noses at.  In the long run it will undermine public trust in the nation and its institutions.  In the past Americans have been willing to work hard and take risks because they believed that the playing field was level and they had a fair shot at the brass ring.  If that faith is undermined, the entire foundation of the American dream will crumble to dust.  As countries like Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela demonstrate, that kind of loss of public trust can be very hard to recover from.

To reiterate: I fervently hope I'm wrong about all this.  I really want to believe.  But I can't.  TATR are not even trying to hide the fact that they want to enable government corruption.  That is one thing I will say for Donald Trump: he doesn't dissemble, which is somewhat refreshing in today's political climate.  One of the reasons people voted for him is because he speaks his mind.  But sometimes I really wonder if his supporters pay more attention to his candor than to the things he actually says.

Monday, January 16, 2017

I'm still waiting to wake up and find it was all just a bad dream

Regular Ramblings readers (how's that for some alliteration?) may have noticed that I have not been posting much lately.  That's partly because I've been on the road, but to a greater degree because I am still feeling shell-shocked from the election.  Part of my brain just refuses to accept that Donald Trump is actually about to be sworn in as president of the United States of America.  Worse, both houses of Congress are controlled by the Republicans!  I'm still losing sleep over it.

For the fourteen years I have been writing this blog I have tried (though not always succeeded) to avoid political and ideological bias.  I have tried to live up to the ideals of Science (with a capital S) and pursue Truth through evidence, experiment and reason rather than faith or ideology.  I've tried to attract an audience that is diverse in all respects, but particularly in terms of religion and politics.  I'm proud of the fact that I have a number of regular readers who often disagree with me (thanks Publius!)

But I find I just can't bring myself to be detached and objective about this situation.  I believe with every fiber of my being that Donald Trump is a clear and present danger to the United States of America, the country that has been my home for nearly all of my life.  He is an existential threat to everything I love and value in this world: Freedom.  Democracy [1].  Peace.  Tolerance.  Science.  Facts.  Truth.  Complete sentences.

I don't know how many Trump supporters I have among my readership.  I suspect not many, but I don't want to presume.  If you're out there, then to you I will say the same thing that I've often said to the many Christians that I've met over the years: I want to believe.  I really do.  But I just can't.  Not in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The evidence that I see is overwhelming that Donald Trump is not qualified to be president.  He is a petty, vindictive man with delusions of grandeur and no clue about the art of statecraft or governance.    Vladimir Putin is going to have him over a log bleating like a pig [WARNING!  NSFW link!], and Trump won't even realize that he is being played.  If I were living in Estonia or Latvia I'd be very, very worried.  (Heck, I'm living in California and I'm very, very worried.)

If you are a Trump fan, by all means tell me where I'm wrong.  Give me a glimmer of hope.  I want to believe.  Write it up in the comments, or if you want to respond more extensively email me and let's talk about writing a guest post.  But at the moment I see dark days ahead, and objectivity may turn into a luxury that I choose not to afford.  My grandparents fled Hitler because people realized too late the danger he posed.  Trump isn't Hitler (he's nowhere near as smart as Hitler was) but Hitler didn't have nukes.

On the other hand, if you are not a Trump fan I hope you will join me in opposing him by whatever means necessary.  Let's start by pledging to never watch a Trump event on TV, starting with the inauguration.  Trump thrives on ratings.  Let's not feed the beast.

If you are with me on this, I would really appreciate it if you would let me know, either by leaving a comment, or clicking on the "Right on" reaction button below.  (Likewise, if you support Trump, please click the "Bogus" button.  I really do want to know.  But if you do, I'd also appreciate it if you would explain why.)  It has taken me two months to screw my courage to the sticking place enough to write this.  Like I said, I see dark days ahead.  It doesn't take a lot of encouragement to keep me writing, but it does take some.  I need to know I'm not alone.

[1]  Yes, I know that I said that I lost faith in democracy after the Brexit vote.  And I have.  But I still cling to the ideal of liberal democracy as something that we humans should strive for, even if at the moment democracy does not seem to be living up to its full potential.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

What is it with Arkansas?

Sigh, here we go again. Seriously, what is it with Arkansas that makes it such a uniquely fecund breeding ground for social neanderthals?
Arkansas’ highest court on Thursday threw out a judge’s ruling that could have allowed all married same-sex couples to get the names of both spouses on their children’s birth certificates without a court order, saying it doesn’t violate equal protection “to acknowledge basic biological truths.”
Well, that would be true, except for one teensy weensy little detail:
“There’s no requirement that DNA be given or that there be a biological relationship to a child to get on a birth certificate for a father, for the non-birth parent,” she said. “All you have to do is legitimize the child and you’re entitled [to have your name on the birth certificate], if you’re heterosexual."
So if you're straight, the court is more than happy to let you "ignore basic biological truths" but not if you're gay.  That violates Equal Protection.  Honestly, how hard can this be to understand?

Saturday, November 12, 2016

James Comey may have singlehandedly destroyed modern civilization

100 years from now when our grandchildren survey the wreckage, they may look back on October 28, 2016 as the darkest day in the history of human civilization.  When the children of the future contemplate going back in time it will not be Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin that they fantasize about killing to save the world, it will be James Comey, because there is now good evidence that his October surprise swung the election in favor of Donald Trump.  And unless we somehow manage to persuade a man who has never in his life seen reason, who believes that making money is the only virtue, who is about to appoint a young-earth creationist as secretary of education and a climate-change denialist to head the EPA -- unless we somehow manage to persuade this person that climate change is real, then future generations are going to learn it the hard way.

I know that there are climate skeptics among my readers.  A few of you even seem to have come to your views in good faith (as opposed to those who just bury their heads in the sand because they can't stand to face reality) and with a fair amount of thought and research.  It has been on my to-do list for a long time to do a deep dive into this issue to find out whether skepticism is warranted.  But in the meantime here are a few facts that, it seems to me, no sane person can deny:

1.  The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is rising dramatically.  We're over 400PPM now, up from pre-industrial levels well below 300.

2.  CO2 is a greenhouse gas.  If we put enough of it in the atmosphere, we will heat the planet to the point where civilization can no longer be sustained.  The only question is how much is enough.

3.  These processes play themselves out over very long periods of time: decades to centuries.  By the time it becomes evident that we've crossed the Rubicon it will most likely be too late to do anything about it.

4.  The planet is warming.  The 15 hottest years on record have all been in the last 20 years.  The last time we had a coldest year on record was 1909.

5.  The vast majority of the people who study this stuff say that the most likely explanation (indeed, the only plausible explanation) is that the planet is warming because of the CO2 we're adding to the atmosphere.

Now, maybe all of those people are wrong.  Maybe the denialists are right and the warming trend is just a natural phenomenon.  Maybe civilization is more resilient than we think and it can survive more than 2 degree rise in temperature.  Maybe we can relocate all of our coastal cities, or come up with some technological solution that will prevent disaster.  But here's the question we really need to ask ourselves: is this an experiment we really want to do?  Because what if the scientists are right.  Is that really something you want to find out the hard way?  Do you really want to put your children and grandchildren through that?

Friday, November 11, 2016

Well, that sure didn't take long

Donald Trump has been the president-elect for less than a week and he's already starting to reneg on some of his signature campaign promises. I'm shocked. Didn't we vote for Trump because he "tells it like it is"?  Next you'll be telling me he wasn't really the anti-establishment candidate.

I'd write more but I'm still having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that this is actually happening.  I mean, Ben Carson as secretary of education?  Seriously?  I guess it could have been worse.  It could have been Sarah Palin.  But, wait, Carson is a young-earth creationist.  AAAUUUGGGHHH!!!  I think my head is going to explode.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Trump's America, day 2

One day after Donald Trumps conciliatory victory speech where he spoke about unity and coming together as a nation, a good Christian left a helpful note on someone's windshield in North Carolina. It says:
Can't wait until your "marriage" is overturned by a real president. Gay families = burn in hell. #Trump2016 #Repent #GodBless
If you voted for Trump, this is on you, because preventing Hillary from appointing a Supreme Court justice was one of his flagship issues.

Calexit is starting to sound like a good idea to me.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016


I am so stunned I can barely formulate a thought.  The last time I felt this way was in 2000 when George Bush Jr. beat Al Gore.  Back then I thought to myself: well, maybe it won't be so bad.  And I was right.  It wasn't that bad.  It was worse.  Much, much worse.

On the plus side, it's kind of good to know that the people can still stick it to the elites when they put their minds to it.  But oh my God, Trump?  Trump???

I also find myself clinging to one other glimmer of hope: now that the Republicans control all three branches of government they will not be able to blame the coming catastrophe on the democrats.  (Well, OK, they will still blame the Democrats.  But maybe people will stop believing them.)  So even though the Republican party emerged victorious tonight, maybe it will not rise from the ashes when this train wreck ultimately plays itself out.  (But who the hell knows where all the horcruxes are hidden.)

If you are a young person who voted for Trump as a protest vote I pity you, because Donald Trump and his cronies are about to take our last hope of averting a global climate catastrophe and flush it down his gold-plated toilet.

Brace yourselves, folks.  There are very dark days ahead.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Please God, let the Democrats take the Senate

And please let them find the backbone to abolish the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees so that Hillary can appoint a ridiculously liberal justice to replace the ridiculously conservative Antonin Scalia.  Because the Republicans really need to lose this election, and they need to lose it badly.  They need to be utterly humiliated.  Squashed.  Trampled.  The evil stench of racism and misogyny and patriarchy needs to be driven back into the darkness and the shadows, along with the Donald Trump and the cockroaches who crept out of their hiding places to follow him.

The Washington Post thinks it could happen.

I'm not quite so optimistic.  The election is close, much closer than I ever in my wildest nightmares imagined it could be, and Trump and the Republicans might still pull a rabbit out of their asses (because that seems to be where they're pulling everything else from.  I mean, Melanoma Trump is going on a crusade about, of all things, cyber-bullying?  Seriously?  Does she not even know who she is married to?)

So while I'm hoping for a Republican rout, I'm not betting my life savings on it.  But a boy can dream.

However it goes, I just wanted to go on the record before election day as being absolutely, unequivocally, 100% opposed to Donald Trump.  I oppose his racism, his deceitfulness, his glorification of ignorance, his degradation of women, his utter lack of respect for the First Amendment, and his basic lack of humanity.  The man has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  He's not a good business man, nor a good entertainer, nor a good politician, not even a good human being. The only thing Donald Trump is good at is self-promotion.  But at that he is the master of masters.

Please, for the love of all that is good about the United States of America, don't vote for him.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Hacker News ranking algorithm weirdness

Yesterday I submitted this story to Hacker News.  Here you can see it in the record of all the stories I've submitted:

It didn't get a lot of traction at the time, which was not surprising.  Not many people look at the /new page, and there are a lot of submissions.  So most stories languish.  You generally have about a 30-60 minute window to garner enough points to make it to the front page before your story drops off the first new page and enters HN limbo, never to be seen again.

So I was really surprised when this morning my story was on the front page, apparently having been re-submitted somehow five hours previously:

(Both of those screenshots were taken within a minute or two of each other.)

I really wonder how that happened.  I wish I knew how to make it happen reliably :-)

Monday, October 03, 2016

Donald Trump's one mistake

In the 1970's there was a TV show called "Columbo" starring the inimitable Peter Falk.  "Columbo" was a police procedural whose shtick was that we, the audience, knew who the bad guy was from the beginning.  The question was never whether Lt. Columbo would catch the bad guy (he always did) or when (at the end, of course) but how.  Up to the very end of every episode it would look like the bad guy was going to get away with it, until Columbo foiled him (or her) with his signature line, "You made one mistake."

Watching this presidential election has on occasion felt a lot like watching an episode of Columbo.  It was obvious from the beginning who the bad guy was.  But somehow for fifteen months of gaffes, bumbles, childishness, offensive antics and a brazen disregard for the truth, Trump managed to get away with it.  He won the Republican nomination (much to my surprise) and even managed to seem competitive in the general election at times (much to my chagrin).

But no more.  Trump seems at long last to be having his Columbo bad-guy moment.

Ironically, the thing that looks like it might finally do him in was far from the worst of Trump's many, many transgressions against truth, justice, and the American way (to say nothing of mom, apple pie, and basic human decency).  There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking all the tax deductions you are legally entitled to.  There is nothing wrong with not paying taxes if you're not legally required to.  Assuming that the $950M loss was legitimate, the fact that Trump didn't pay taxes for 20 years (assuming that is in fact the case) is actually something he can be legitimately proud of, at least in a sheepish sort of way.  I freely admit that I haven't paid income tax in ten years, and it's not because I haven't had any income.  It's not that I'm not patriotic or don't believe in pulling my weight -- I am and I do.  It's that the system is badly broken.  It favors the wealthy over the less-wealthy.  This is a serious problem that needs to be solved, and I don't think that it is wise to unilaterally disarm.  The fact that I haven't had to pay any taxes for ten years (and that Trump hasn't had to pay any in twenty) makes me angry, and it should make you angry too.  But it doesn't make me a bad guy and it doesn't make Trump a bad guy.

Trump's mistake was not that he didn't pay taxes.  Trump's mistake was that he thought he had to hide that fact instead of proudly displaying it as the symptom of the broken system that it is.

This could turn out to be the most ironic twist in a story that has had no shortage of irony.  Donald Trump, the man who was not ashamed of saying that Mexicans are rapists, or that John McCain is not a hero, or that Muslims should be banned from entering the U.S., or attacking Ghazala Khan and Alicia Machado -- this man who has no shame is somehow ashamed of admitting that he paid no taxes.

All I can say is: thank God.  Thank God that Donald Trump is such a colossal idiot that he got this exactly backwards.  Because if he'd gotten this one thing right, if he had stood up and said, "I, Donald Trump, billionaire, have paid no federal income taxes for twenty years.  And there's something deeply and fundamentally wrong with that, despite the fact that it was perfectly legal.  No, not "despite" -- because.  The fact that it was legal is the problem.  I should have had to pay something.  And if you vote for me, I'll fight tooth and nail to make sure that in the future I and other rich people like me do have to pay their fair share." -- if he'd said that, he would have won the election.

Thank God he didn't.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Congress raises the bar on hypocrisy

Just when you thought things on Capitol Hill could not possibly get any more insane, some senators are trying to blame president Obama for the negative consequences of the bill that allows 9-11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia because, well, a Bad Thing Happened and Someone Has to Pay.  That bill, if you recall, was passed over Obama's veto, the first veto override of Obama's presidency.

Normally I would take this opportunity to bash the Republicans but this is truly equal-opportunity hypocrisy: the vote to override the veto was 97-1, with only Harry Reid voting against.

All I can do is shake my head in despair.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The greatest traitors in American history

Who is the biggest traitor in U.S. history?  The usual suspects are John Walker Jr., the Rosenbergs, and of course the venerable favorite whose name has become almost synonymous with treachery, Benedict Arnold.  But today the bar has been raised.  I would like to nominate a new candidate for this ignominious title, the editorial board of the Washington Post, for publishing this editorial advocating against a presidential pardon for Edward Snowden.

The arguments for and against pardoning Snowden are complicated, and reasonable people can disagree.  The reason I am calling out the Post editorial board specifically is that their position completely ignores one crucial fact: Ed Snowden never disclosed any of the information he took from the NSA to the public.  He specifically wanted someone else to make the decision about what, if anything, should be disclosed.  In particular, he specifically wanted journalists to make those decisions.  Among the journalists who made those decisions were the ones on the staff of the Washington Post.  And they won a Pulitzer prize for their work.

For the Post to now turn around and say that Ed Snowden should rot in prison for public disclosures that they themselves decided to make is the worst treachery, cowardice and hypocrisy that I have ever witnessed.  It is a catastrophic error in judgement.  That it comes from the same newspaper that set the standard for public disclosure through its reporting of the Watergate scandal makes it all the more egregious.

There is a deeply disturbing trend in the world of ever increased deference to power.  The free press is one of the institutions that was supposed to keep this sort of thing in check, and one of the principal mechanisms by which the free press is supposed to do that job is through the unique relationship between journalists and their sources.  Journalists are supposed to protect their sources, mainly by keeping their identities secret.  Ed Snowden, to his everlasting credit, voluntarily outed himself, but not the documents that he took.  The Post (and the Guardian) did that.  If the Post really thinks that Ed Snowden should go to prison, then they need to turn themselves in to be prosecuted as his willing accomplices, because there can be no question that this is what they are.

But of course they will not do this, because they are cowards and traitors and hypocrites.  And they have probably done permanent damage to the cause of freedom and democracy by bulldozing the covenant between journalists and their sources, that they were in this together, that they had a shared interest in public disclosure of truths that powerful people might not want to be known.

No more.  From this day forward sources will always have to consider the possibility that a journalist will throw them under the bus, that they might go to prison while the reporters are polishing their Pulitzers.  And from this day forward We the People will have to wonder: what have we not been told that we really ought to know because the editorial board of the Washington Post made this fateful decision back in September of 2016?

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Just in case you're still not convinced...

... that Donald Trump must not win this election, you should read this LA Times op-ed by a Minuteman III nuclear launch officer (who also happens to be a Republican):
[C]onsider Trump’s words in a town hall event during the primaries: “Somebody hits us within ISIS, you wouldn’t fight back with a nuke?” Or the words of Trump’s spokeswoman, Katrina Pierson, who also asked the unaskable on Fox News: “What good does it do to have a nuclear triad if you’re afraid to use it?”
Having spent five years of my life as a Minuteman III launch officer, and a year as an instructor teaching young officers how to run that weapon system, I’m equipped to answer the Trump campaign’s question. The very point of nuclear weapons is that they are never used. We have them to dissuade hostile powers from attacking us, and vice versa. 
Deterrence, as this policy is known, has been the backbone of U.S. national security for decades. That a candidate for the highest office in the land needs this explained to him, not once but thrice, should give every voter pause.
During my years in the Air Force, I worked over 300 nuclear “alerts”—24-hour shifts 100 feet below the Wyoming tundra. I sat at my post believing, through both the Bush and Obama administrations, that the president was fundamentally rational and would never ask me to do my terrible duty. Not unless the country was in the direst of national emergencies. 
With Trump as president, the young men and women who are assigned to our nuclear forces will have no such assurances.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

You think Trump starting a nuclear war is unthinkable? Think again.

I was writing up a response to comments on my last post about The Donald and the clear and present danger he presents to the security of the U.S. and the world.  It got so long that I found myself writing, "I should just write a whole post about this," so here it is.

The general tenor of the comments I was responding to was: Yes, in theory the president has the power to launch nukes, but in practice cooler heads would prevail.  Somewhere in the chain of command, someone would realize that Trump had run off the rails and refuse to relay the order or turn the key.

Some select quotes from Steven Lefevre:
[a soldier refusing a nuclear launch order] would prevent a nuclear first strike.  And in the meantime, a response could be organized. Congress could convene an emergency session and rescind the War Powers act. They could impeach the president. They could immediately defund the military chain of command... I have trouble believing that all US military personnel, esp. those literally with their fingers on the button, are just going to blindly follow nuclear strike orders.
and Peter Donis:
Me: Anyone who refused the order would be arrested and court-martialed and replaced with someone else. 
Peter: On whose orders? The President's?  The same President whose SecDef just refused to confirm a nuclear launch order?
These arguments miss this crucial point: the danger is not that Trump would wake up on an otherwise uneventful day and say, "You know, what Kim Jong Il said about my hands really pisses me off, let's nuke Pyongang."  The nightmare scenario goes more like this:  Kim Jong Il says something about Trump's hands. Trump responds by insulting Kim. Kim responds by mobilizing the DPRK army. This alarms the Chinese, who respond by imposing a naval blockade at the Malacca straight and the South China Sea. In the midst of escalating tensions there is sudden news of an explosion in Seattle. Trump goes on TV and announces that the U.S. has been attacked by North Korea. It was a nuclear warhead, but fortunately it failed and only the conventional explosive detonated. Is it true? Who the hell knows.  No independent confirmation is available, but President Trump is on TV saying, "Believe me folks, it was a nuke, and it was the North Koreans."  In retaliation, Trump has just issued orders to counterstrike by nuking Pyongyang and all of North Korea's known nuclear sites because, "We can't just sit around like pussies waiting for another attack hoping the next one will also be a dud too."  Secretary of Defense Chris Christie concurs with the order.

Under those circumstances, do you really expect a member of the military to refuse a launch order?  Or, if they do, for that refusal to stand for more then thirty seconds?

What about the other possibilities?  Yes, Congress could convene an emergency session and rescind the War Powers act.  The problem is that rescission would not become law until the president signed it, which, under the circumstances, would be unlikely.  A pocket veto cannot be overridden by Congress, and least not for two weeks.  By then it's way too late.

The only thing Congress could do immediately without Trump's approval would be to remove him from office through the impeachment process.  But the problem is that in order to stop Trump from launching nukes they'd have to do it not in a matter of days or even hours, but minutes.  That might be theoretically possible, but I sure wouldn't want to bet the planet on those odds.

The danger that Trump poses is not that he'll suddenly go crazy with no warning.  Quite the contrary, he's given us ample warning.  The reason Trump is dangerous is that he gradually, deliberately, and -- what is most distressing -- effectively moves the needle towards crazy.  A year ago it was unthinkable that a presidential candidate who had actively avoided the draft could get away with saying that someone who volunteered to serve in Viet Nam was not a war hero because he was captured and held as a POW.  It was unthinkable that a presidential candidate could casually lob around phrases like "Bomb the shit out of 'em" and survive politically. It was unthinkable that a U.S. presidential candidate could actively condone violence against peaceful protesters and "opening up libel laws" in order to silence the press.  Thanks to Donald Trump, none of these things are unthinkable any more.  They are part of our reality.  In the span of one year Donald Trump has made us forget a big chunk of what sanity and civil society even look like.

There is a long, long list of things that used to be unthinkable that Donald Trump has made normal (in just over one year too!).  Hence I take little comfort in the idea that he won't start a nuclear war because it would be unthinkable, that in some as-yet-to-be-determined way cooler heads would prevail in that case when they have failed to prevail up to that point.  Turning the unthinkable into reality is Donald Trump's stock in trade!  That is why he must be kept as far from the mechanisms of power as possible.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Yes, Trump could go rogue with nukes and no one could stop him

This is according to The New York Times:
The commander in chief can also order the first use of nuclear weapons even if the United States is not under nuclear attack.

“There’s no veto once the president has ordered a strike,” said Franklin C. Miller, a nuclear specialist who held White House and Defense Department posts for 31 years before leaving government service in 2005. “The president and only the president has the authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.”
Some scholars (and Wikipedia entries) insist that a system of checks and balances puts the secretary of defense in the decision loop. But Bruce G. Blair, a research scholar at Princeton University who as an Air Force officer would have launched a nuclear missile if an order had come from the president, said that rule applied in the silos but not at the top of the command chain. 
“There’s nothing the secretary of defense can do,” Dr. Blair, who wrote a book on nuclear command and control, said in an interview. “He has no authority to refuse or disobey that order.”
And as long as we're consulting the Grey Lady, this piece by former CIA director Michael Morell is also worth noting:
During a 33-year career at the Central Intelligence Agency, I served presidents of both parties — three Republicans and three Democrats. I was at President George W. Bush’s side when we were attacked on Sept. 11; as deputy director of the agency, I was with President Obama when we killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. 
I am neither a registered Democrat nor a registered Republican. In my 40 years of voting, I have pulled the lever for candidates of both parties. As a government official, I have always been silent about my preference for president. 
No longer. On Nov. 8, I will vote for Hillary Clinton. Between now and then, I will do everything I can to ensure that she is elected as our 45th president. 
Two strongly held beliefs have brought me to this decision. First, Mrs. Clinton is highly qualified to be commander in chief. I trust she will deliver on the most important duty of a president — keeping our nation safe. Second, Donald J. Trump is not only unqualified for the job, but he may well pose a threat to our national security.  [Emphasis added.]
Worth reading the whole thing.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Trump campaign catastrophes continue

I'm running out of words to express the extent of my flabbergastiness.  The unbroken run of Trumpian train wrecks goes on for yet another day.  I've lost count, but I think that makes a full two weeks where not a single day has gone by without some breaking news that makes Trump look even more horrible than he already did (as if such a thing were even possible at this point!)  The bombshell du jour:   Melania Trump (almost certainly) worked in the U.S. illegally.  As the (third!) wife of a presidential candidate whose platform is built largely on vilifying (and promising to expel!) illegal immigrants, this is a big deal.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention: the Trump Taj Mahal casino is folding.

Now hear this

Anyone who still feels sanguine about Trump's finger on the nuclear trigger needs to read what a former nuclear missile officer has to say about it.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

OMG. what a day

Wow.  Just wow.

Donald Trump asked an advisor why the U.S. can't use nukes.  Three times.  (And the Washington Post has doubled down on its earlier reporting that the POTUS can launch nukes unilaterally.)

Trump refused to endorse Paul Ryan and John McCain (though his running mate, Mike Pence, apparently didn't get the memo) sending the GOP leadership into "a new level of panic."

The idea that Trump is actually mentally ill is getting a fair amount of traction.

And as if that weren't enough chaos for one day, a 777 crashed on landing in Dubai.  That this isn't even close to being the top story of the day gives you some idea of how utterly insane things have become.  Loki would be proud.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Trump is more dangerous than ISIS

If there was any doubt in your mind that Donald Trump must not be allowed to win the election, consider this:
“The president has almost 100 percent control over the launch of nuclear weapons in any circumstance and under any condition he so chooses,” [Macolm] Nance [a counterterrorism and intelligence consultant] told me in Philadelphia last week. “He needs to consult no one and can, if mad with power, personal vendetta or feeling national rage, launch an attack that the Constitution and his staffers cannot control.”
Part of Trump's appeal, according to those who still support him, is that he "tells it like it is."  He's not a politician.  He isn't shackled by the bonds of "political correctness."  And it's true: Trump's transparency is indeed a good thing because with him we know what we're getting: a petulant, vindictive, adolescent tyrant.  We don't have to wonder if he will increase the threat of nuclear armageddon: he has promised us that he will.

If Trump wins, there are only two possibilities: he will either have to walk back just about everything he ever said during the election, or he will destroy the U.S. and quite possibly start World War 3.  If the latter happens, it will not be Trump's fault.  He was straight with us.  If Trump wins and continues to behave in the way that he consistently has during this entire campaign, that will not be on him, it will be on everyone who voted for him, and everyone who supported him.  It will be on everyone who endorsed him.  It will be on you, John McCain and Paul Ryan and Chris Christie.  And if you vote for Trump this November, it will be on you.

Your grandchildren will not forgive you.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

How is this not treason?

Just when you thought Donald Trump couldn't possibly get any more outrageous, he comes up with this:
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press,” Trump said during a news conference at his South Florida resort on Wednesday. 
“They probably have them. I’d like to have them released. It gives me no pause, if they have them, they have them,” Trump added later when asked if his comments were inappropriate. “If Russia or China or any other country has those emails, I mean, to be honest with you, I’d love to see them.”
Think about that for a moment.  Here is a major party candidate for President of the United States urging a foreign government to violate U.S. law in order to damage a political opponent.

I have long since run out of superlatives to describe Trump, but if this isn't crossing the line I don't know what is.  Trump has previously observed that he could probably "shoot somebody and ... not lose any votes."  Do we really have to see blood in the streets before we wake up?  Donald Trump is a clear and present danger to American democracy.  With his finger on the nuclear button, his totally un-nuanced vindictiveness would be a clear and present danger to civilization.  He must not be allowed to win this election.

Republicans, I'm looking at you.  If Trump wins, you won't be able to tell your grandchildren that you didn't know how bad he was or how far he would go.  Trump doesn't even try to dissemble.  He wears his ignorance, his bigotry, and now his contempt for the rule of law on his sleeve with pride.  He thinks they're features!  For the love of all that is holy, don't vote for him in November.  The status quo, bad as it is, is still better than what Trump is selling.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Most incompetent VP rollout ever

Wow.  Just, wow.  If Trump screws up his VP announcement this badly what hope is there for a Trump administration to be anything other than a total train wreck?

[UDATE] And as if Trump's own incompetence weren't enough, now there's a coup in Turkey to steal what's left of his thunder this news cycle.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

I unbricked my MacBook

A couple of weeks back I wrote about how someone put an iCloud lock on a MacBook Air that I'd owned for over three years.  I was about ready to write the machine off and sell it for parts, but I couldn't do that until I had wiped the internal SSD because it contained personal information that I didn't want to fall into the wrong hands.  To do that, I needed some special tools so I could open the machine up, and an adapter so I could connect the SSD to a USB port once I'd gotten it out.  While I was waiting for those to arrive, I decided to take another whack at brute-forcing the EFI PIN using this handy-dandy utility.  It was a time-consuming process, made all the more time consuming by the fact that the Teensy3 that it runs on doesn't have any way to display which PIN code it is currently trying, so even after the machine was unlocked I still didn't know what the PIN code was.  I toyed with the idea of pointing a camera at the screen to keep track of when the unlock happened, but in the end I ended up just running the brute-force multiple times and doing a binary search to find the code.

Once I had the PIN, I was able to remove the EFI firmware lock, but I was still not able to boot from the original SSD.  Apparently, some of the things that Apple told me during the original debugging process were false (imagine that!)  As far as I can tell, there are two locks that you can put on a machine: an iCloud lock, and an EFI firmware lock, and my machine had both.  I was able to brute-force the EFI lock, but unfortunately my previous unsuccessful efforts to brute-force the iCloud lock had uncovered what seems to be a bug in the iCloud lock code: after a few dozen unsuccessful guesses at the iCloud PIN, the machine starts to disable itself for progressively longer periods of time before it will accept further guesses.  In my case, that period of time was (according to the information displayed on the screen) an hour.  But when I waited an hour, it simply re-cycled to the same screen, and still would not accept any further PIN attempts.  So I ended up wiping the hard drive and doing a clean re-install of Mavericks.  And this time, I bound the machine to my iCloud account and verified that I could lock it.  I could.

There was still one potential snag: it was possible that a machine could be bound to more than one iCloud account at once.  After all, if removing an iCloud binding really was as simple as logging in to a different iCloud account and turning on find-my-mac, that would make the lock feature completely useless against all but the most naive of thieves.  So I did the experiment: I created a second iCloud account for myself and tried to log in to it.  I could do that, but when I tried to turn on the find-my-mac feature from that account, I got this:

And that is the smoking gun.  At least on Mavericks, find-my-mac is trivial to disable and hence completely useless.  The only reason that someone else was able to lock my mac was because I didn't know that this feature existed, because I never use iCloud.  Find-my-mac is not a theft deterrent at all, it is a way for Apple to coerce people into using iCloud by allowed denial-of-service attacks to be launched against people who opt out.

There is one additional wrinkle: shortly before my machine was locked (like a week or two) I upgraded it to Yosemite.  Back when I was still dealing with Apple tech support they told me that there was no possible way that this had anything to do with the lock being placed, but I'm not sure I believe this.  The timing was just too close, and removing the lock from Mavericks just too easy, for this to have been coincidence.  I am pretty confident that Apple battened down the hatches somehow, but in order to figure that out I would have to re-upgrade the machine to Yosemite so I can noodle around with it, and I won't be making that mistake again.

But if there's anyone out there with a Yosemite machine who feels like doing this experiment (make two iCloud accounts and see what happens when you try to find-my-mac with both of them at the same time) please do let me know what happens.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Just when you thought it was safe to get back in the EU

When I first saw this story this story I thought I was being punked, because it's not April 1 and it's not The Onion:
Producers of bottled water are now forbidden by law from making the claim [that water can prevent dehydration] and will face a two-year jail sentence if they defy the edict, which comes into force in the UK next month. 
Last night, critics claimed the EU was at odds with both science and common sense. Conservative MEP Roger Helmer said: “This is stupidity writ large.
Suddenly I have a lot more sympathy for the pro-Brexit vote.

To be clear, it's not like the EU ministers got together and made a rule specifically forbidding this statement.  Instead what happened was that two German professors decided to test the limits of EU rulemaking by submitting an application to place the claim that water prevents dehydration on the labels of bottles of water.  The request was denied.

I'm not sure which is the more staggering stupidity: that the EU denied the application to make the almost tautological claim that water prevents dehydration, or that people in Western civilization, where perfectly drinkable water comes out of the taps for free, spend money on bottled water to begin with.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Boris Johnson jumps ship

Not that I should be surprised by this, but Boris Johnson, leader of the Brexit movement, just announced that he will not run for prime minister.

What a sniveling coward.  After getting his country into this mess, he abandons ship and says, in effect, that it's someone else's job to get them out.  Johnson is Gilderoy Lockhart made flesh.  Or maybe Sir Robin.

If there is going to be a silver lining to Brexit, it will be that the causal chain from policy to catastrophe will be so stark and brightly drawn that it will be very hard for anyone to miss or deny (not that that will necessarily stop anyone from trying).  It is most unfortunate that this lesson will be so painful and it will take generations to repair the damage (if indeed it can ever be fully repaired).  But maybe this time the message will stick: conservatives are always wrong about everything.

Friday, June 24, 2016

I no longer believe in democracy

I used to believe in democracy, not because I thought it produced the best outcomes (it clearly doesn't) but because by giving people at least the illusion of having a say in the matter it encourages them to become engaged in the political process and, more importantly, to accept the results without resorting to violence.  At least in America the checks-and-balances built in to the system keep things from spinning too wildly out of control.

Alas, not so in the U.K., where We The People have just voted for secession from the European Union.  I predict this will ultimately be catastrophic, not just for the U.K. but for Europe and the world.  But that is not the reason this has shaken my faith in democracy, it's because, apparently, many British voters thought this was about Boaty McBoatface.  Now that they've voted to leave the E.U., British voters are frantically Googling to figure out exactly what it is that they voted for.
The whole world is reeling after a milestone referendum in Britain to leave the European Union. And although leaders of the campaign to exit Europe are crowing over their victory, it seems many Britons may not even know what they had actually voted for.
Awakening to a stock market plunge and a precipitous decline in the value of the pound that Britain hasn't seen in more than 30 years, voters now face a series of economic shocks that analysts say will only worsen before they improve. The consequences of the leave vote will be felt worldwide, even here in the United States, and some British voters say they now regret casting a ballot in favor of Brexit. 
"Even though I voted to leave, this morning I woke up and I just — the reality did actually hit me," one woman told the news channel ITV News. "If I'd had the opportunity to vote again, it would be to stay."
Talk about too-little-too-late.

This response was my "favorite":
I thought remain would win.  I didn't think my vote would mean anything.  I'm very worried now.
To whoever said that (the quote, unfortunately, was attributed merely to "a leave voter on the BBC"): you should be very worried.  You helped hammer the last nail into the United Kingdom's coffin.  Next year, Scotland is going to try again to break away from the U.K. and this time, with this precedent as a model, they will likely succeed.  And then Northern Ireland will go.  Why?  Because they will want to get back into the E.U.!  Unlike England, Scotland and Wales (God only knows what's going to happen to Wales -- there are nationalist grumblings there too), Northern Ireland has a land border with the Republic of Ireland, an E.U. member, and where, at least for the moment, sanity still prevails.  Border checks are not going to be very popular on the Emerald Isle.  Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to Remain.  Why should they be any happier about having their fates decided in Londan than London was about having its fate decided in Brussels?

But one thing is for certain: England is through.  The "leave" advocates liked to brag about how the U.K. is the fifth largest economy in the world [UPDATE: not any more].  But that was only because it was part of the E.U.  California has the sixth largest economy in the world, but I'm pretty sure it would not fare nearly as well if it seceded from the U.S.

If there is a silver lining to this mess it is that maybe, just maybe, it will awake people from their stupor and make them realize that votes really do have consequences.  Maybe, just maybe, this will help the U.S. avoid a similar catastrophe this November.

But for England, it's too late.  Their last ship just sailed.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Apple bricked my MacBook and there's nothing I can do about it

About two months ago my wife tried to use the MacBook Air that we keep in our kitchen and found that it was displaying a screen that neither of us had ever seen before.  It was showing a message that said:
"Locking down temporarily pending investigation.  Please contact the iCloud account the Mac is linked to."
And it was asking for a PIN code.

Many calls to Apple Technical Support and one visit to the Apple Store later it turned out that this Mac had been placed under an iCloud lock.  This is a feature that is normally used by the owner of a Mac to lock it down when it is stolen.  Except that I was the owner of this Mac.   I had bought it from a private party three or four years earlier, I cannot recall exactly.  (But see the postscript below.)

Now, Apple has the ability to remove an iCloud lock, but they refused to do it in my case because I could not prove that I owned the machine.  They wanted to see an "original receipt", which of course I don't have.  I suppose it is possible that the machine I bought was stolen, except that I have to wonder why the rightful owner waited years before locking it.  If the machine is stolen, I would like to see it returned to its rightful owner.  But the cryptic message on the lock screen gives me no way to contact the person who had initiated the lock.  Apple knows who that person is, but they won't tell me, which is understandable.  But they also won't contact this person on my behalf, which is less understandable.

I wrote a letter to Tim Cook to no avail.  He almost certainly never saw it.  I got a call from a lackey who politely but firmly told me that Apple was not going to change their policy.  They will not unlock the machine without a receipt, and they will not contact the person who placed the lock.

So I am hosed.  I have a locked machine, no way to unlock it, and no way to contact whoever placed the lock.  I can't even safely dispose of this machine because there's personal data on the internal drive that I now cannot erase.

FWIW, the machine is a 2010 11-inch MacBook Air, serial number C02DM1GNDDR0.  If you are the person who locked this machine, please get in touch.

Postscript: When I found out that my machine was under an iCloud lock and Apple wanted proof that I was the owner before they would remove it, I went back through my records and found the correspondence I had with the person I remembered buying it from.  I also went through our basement and found the box that it had come in.  I figured if the machine was stolen, the thief would probably not have taken the box, so the fact that I had it would be pretty convincing evidence that it wasn't stolen.

Unfortunately, when I checked the serial number on the box against the locked machine, it turned out that they didn't match (even though the model was an exact match).  What I think happened is that I had bought a second, identical machine at some point and then re-sold it (I have a vague recollection and some sketchy records of this second transaction).  When I sold it I must have used the wrong box.  The serial number on the box is C02DPD69DDQX.  If you own this machine, please contact me.  I have your box, and you may have mine.

Lessons learned:  If you buy a used Mac from a private party, always take it to an Apple store to make sure that it is not bound to an iCloud account.  If you don't do this, you don't really own the machine.  It turns out that the iCloud lock is implemented in the UEFI secure boot ROM.  Wiping the hard drive and doing a clean install of the OS is not enough to disable it.  Make sure you get and keep the sellers contact information.  Check their ID.  And, of course, keep track of the box.  (And check the serial numbers!)

Monday, June 13, 2016

The biggest obstacle to Martian colonization isn't technical

Elon Musk's vowing to die on Mars has turned up the volume on the discussion of how to overcome the many daunting technical hurdles to colonizing the red planet, even going so far as to speculate about whether it is possible for prospective Martian colonists to remain human rather than evolving into a distinct species.  But there is a much more fundamental problem which has received very little attention, because merely contemplating it will make most people very, very queasy.  If thinking about torturing kittens makes you uneasy, then stop reading now because this is going to get much, much worse.

Last year, Lenny Abrahamson made a movie called Room (based on a true story, though it isn't advertised that way) about a man who kidnaps a nineteen-year-old girl, impregnates her, and keeps her and her child locked in a soundproof shed in his back yard for five years until (spoiler alert!) they manage to escape.  It is every bit as emotionally gut-wrenching as it sounds.  If you can handle it, though, it is a very good movie.  (Warning: more spoilers follow.)

Martian colonization would necessarily entail re-enacting certain aspects of this scenario.  To have a colony (rather than simply an outpost) you have to have a self-sustaining population, and to do that you have to have children.  Those children would be born, live, and die inside an artificial habitat.  This may sound cool if all you know about such places is what you see on Star Trek, but the reality of life in space is actually quite harsh, not so different, really, from being locked up in a shed in someone's back yard.  You can go outside, but only while wearing a space suit.  The rest of the time, you're completely, utterly trapped.  And on Mars, unlike the shed, there is absolutely no hope of escape.

Of course there is a huge difference in that the original colonists would be volunteers rather than kidnapping victims, but the point I'm making is not about them.  It's about their children.  They would not be volunteers.  Their situation would be similar in many respects to that of the children of the kidnapping victims.

So here's a thought experiment: suppose we lined up some volunteers to lock themselves in a habitat in the Atacama desert, and have and raise children there in the name of advancing scientific knowledge.  We'll make it a really habitat, full of cool scientific-looking doodads and other forms of stimulation.  But the children (and their parents) will be locked in for life (modulo short-range excursions in space suits), just as they would be on Mars.  If we're going to colonize Mars, we are going to have to do something like this sooner or later.

The question is: under what circumstances would conducting this experiment be considered ethical?

In all the discussion of prospective Martian colonization, I have never seen this question even raised, let alone answered.  One of the most chilling things about Room is that the kid thinks that being locked up in someone's shed is perfectly normal (because that is the only existence he has ever known) and watching the mother struggle to convince her child that it is not normal and not OK, that there is a world outside Room (they refer to shed by the proper noun), that trees and other people (besides her and her kidnapper) are real things and not just figments of her imagination.

Colonists will, presumably, have the opposite problem.  Their kids will have access to books, movies, video games, Wikipedia, social media (albeit with a time delay, so email rather than chats).  There will be no doubt in their minds that there is a world out there with other people, and that those other people get to go Outside without space suits on and see real trees and clouds and experience rain and shopping and ride bicycles and have pets.  And they will know that this world is forever and utterly denied to them because of a choice their parents made.

Except that in the experiment, the children won't really be on Mars, and that will really change the dynamic of the experiment.  It is one thing to be locked in by the laws of physics, quite another to be imprisoned by an experimental protocol.  And the whole point of doing the experiment is to figure out the psychological effects of being born and raised on Mars.  In order to do that, the children will have to be deceived.

Leaving aside the practical difficulties of maintaining such an elaborate ruse, I return to my original question: assuming such an experiment were possible, under what circumstances would it be considered ethical?

My purpose here is not to answer this question, merely to raise it, and to point out that, AFAICT, on this question the Martian colonization advocates seem to have their heads buried in the sand.  There is so much discussion about the technical and biological problems of merely getting to Mars and sustaining life there that the psycho-social aspects of having and raising children in space have been largely ignored.  (Here's a data point: "I think the biggest concern is the .38 g and how it will affect children's physiological development.")  Part of the reason they are being ignored is that the technical problems are sexy and intellectually challenging.  There's a reason that science fiction plots tend to turn on aliens and black holes rather than dealing with recalcitrant teens.  But the other reason is that I believe that once you start to really think about what it would take to figure out how to raise children off-planet most people will be instinctively repulsed by the answers.  And that may be a harder problem to solve than any of the technical ones precisely because it isn't rocket science.