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.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Donald Trump is a moron

In the wake of the Orlando shooting, Donald Trump renewed his call for a ban on ban on Muslim immigration to the U.S.  I guess he didn't get the memo: the shooter was born in the U.S.  In fact, he was born in Trump's home state of New York.

Maybe we should put a ban on New Yorkers migrating to the rest of the country.  Or running for President.  Now that is an immigration ban I could get behind.


The real tragedy of the Orlando shootings

If you are reading this then you surely know about the Orlando nightclub shooting, the worst such attack in the history of the U.S.  Frankly, I'm surprised it has taken this long for something like this to happen.  The U.S. -- in fact, the entire Western world -- is chock-full of soft targets, and the fact that this sort of thing doesn't happen more often is evidence that run-of-the-mill terrorism is not actually a serious problem.  (By run-of-the-mill terrorism I mean terrorism that does not employ WMDs, which is indeed a potentially serious problem.)

I don't want to minimize the tragedy or the pain of the friends and families of the victims, but the (sad) fact of the matter is that 50 dead is not a very big number in the grand scheme of things.  Twice as many people died in traffic accidents on the same day.  Their deaths are no less tragic, the pain felt by their friends and families no less real, but they don't get the media attention because another 100 people will die in traffic accidents today, and another 100 tomorrow, and another 100 the day after that.  It is really important not to lose sight of the fact that terrorism grabs the headlines in no small measure because it is rare.

We will, of course, go through the usual ritual of handwringing about the second amendment.  Liberals will shout, "Well-regulated militia!" and conservatives will retort, "Right of the people!" and at the end of the day, again, nothing will change because a majority of U.S. citizens seems to believe that 50 innocents dead is not too high a price to pay for the freedom, or at least the perception of freedom.

The real tragedy IMHO is that neither side of the debate actually makes a principled argument, or acknowledges the simple fact that technology has changed the situation on the ground in ways that demand changes in the law.  Physics and economics constrained the carnage in 1791 in ways that it no longer does today.  An automatic assault rifle can do a hell of a lot more damage than a muzzle loader, and even the NRA concedes (tacitly!) that it's probably a bad idea to let people buy RPGs or SAMs or tactical nukes at the Walmart without a background check.

And therein lies the fundamental problem for gun-rights advocates.  The argument that the individual right to bear arms is a line of defense against tyranny is untenable.  An assault rifle might slow the jack-booted thugs down a little, but it won't stop them.  The government has tanks and predator drones.  You don't, and you never will.  If we ever get into a situation where your AK-47 is the only thing standing between us and tyranny, we are screwed.

Guns are not effective defenders of freedom, but they are powerful symbols of freedom.  Freedom means that individuals get to make choices for themselves that other people don't approve of, and in particular, that the government doesn't approve of.  They get to say unpopular things, take unnecessary risks, worship unfashionable deities.  People have a right to bear arms not because AK-47s will stop the government from abusing its power, but because taking people's guns is in and of itself an abuse of that power if the people do not consent to having their guns taken.  And they don't.  The fact that their rationale is bogus doesn't matter.  Making bogus arguments is also one of the privileges of freedom.

Freedom is the ability of people to make choices for themselves.  Sometimes bad things happen as a result of those choices.  That is the price of freedom.  Is it worth the cost?  That is the argument we should be having.  But we aren't because all of the players are firmly dug-in to absolute but unprincipled and hence ultimately untenable positions.  We've been here before.  It doesn't end well.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Could Trump be broke?

One of the big mysteries of Donald Trump's run for the White House is: why would he do it?  It seems like an awful lot of bother even for a self-aggrandizing narcissist like Trump.  And being the President is actually kind of a sucky job.  Yeah, you get a nice airplane out of it, but Trump already has a nice airplane (actually, several nice airplanes and a helicopter).  The White House would probably be a step down for him in terms of day-to-day lifestyle.  And the pay is pretty lousy by CEO standards.

So what's the draw?

It's possible that he really has suddenly become a patriot, that he really does want to be a public servant, that he really does want to Make America Great Again (!).  But somehow I doubt it.  He's never shown any patriotic or public service tendencies before.  Why now?

There is actually only one theory that makes sense to me, that is consistent with all of the available data, and in particular the fact that he's the first presidential candidate since the 70's not to release his income tax returns: Trump is actually broke.

Bear with me here: when you're in the 0.01% being broke doesn't mean what it means to you 99-percenters.  When ordinary shmoe's go broke it means they run out of money and can't pay for things.  When people like Trump go broke, it means he's borrowed more money than he can pay back, and this is very possible.  Trump might have gotten himself in over his head in a business deal and accumulated debt that is close to or even greater than his assets.  It even possible that he has done this without his creditors even being aware of it.  Not likely.  But possible.  And it would explain why he's running for president: it would give him leverage to get his ass out of whatever sling he's gotten it into.

There is a lot of evidence that Trump is not as rich as he claims to be.  Independent estimates of Trump's wealth range from under 3 to around 5 billion, well under his claimed $10B net worth, though still nothing to sneeze at.  But I wonder if those estimates might be wildly off, and Trump's run is really a hail-Mary to save himself from public humiliation.

[UPDATE] Whether or not I'm right about this, running for president has already been good for business.

Friday, May 06, 2016

Just two little problems...

Donald Trump today tweeted "Happy Cinco de Mayo! The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!"

But there are two little problems (apart from the fact that he thinks Latinos are all drug dealers and rapists).  Take a look at the photo:


That photo could not have been taken in the Trump Tower.  See those trees in the window?  The Trump Tower is on Fifth Avenue between 56th and 57th streets.  The nearest tree is two blocks away.

The second problem?  The Trump Tower Grill doesn't have taco bowls on their menu.


The stupidity of this is really staggering.  I mean, how hard would it have been to add an item to the menu to make himself look a little less like an idiot?

UPDATE: Hah!  I just realized that this is not Trump being an idiot, this is Trump punking us all!  The best taco bowls are made in the Trump Tower Grill because, according to Trump, the best taco bowl is no taco bowl!

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Well, I sure didn't see that coming

When I wrote about Donald Trump's prospects to win the Republican nomination it was just before the New York primary, and he had just lost three states in a row.  I did the math and concluded that he had a shot at winning the nomination outright, but that it would come down to the wire on June 7.

Since then there has been a very interesting new development: The Donald won New York, and every primary since then.  Not just won, but totally destroyed Cruz and Kasich, winning 285 of the 300 available delegates across seven states.  If he were anyone else, it would be over.  A slam dunk.

Because he's not anyone else, it's not quite over.  Ted Cruz seems not to have made his peace with the fact that Donald Trump will, almost certainly, be the nominee.  Today he called Trump a "pathological liar," "utterly amoral," "a narcissist at a level I don't think this country's ever seen" and "a serial philanderer."  What he hopes to accomplish with these attacks at this point is a tad unclear.

I am flabbergasted.  Before New York, Trump was ahead, but his path to the magic 1237 number was tenuous, and I was confident that, at the very least, California would matter.  I was even looking forward to a contested convention just because it's a lot more fun to watch a drama when you don't already know the ending.  But (spoiler alert) Donald Trump is (almost certainly) going to be the Republican nominee.  If we were denied the nomination now, it would be the end of the Republican party.  (It might be the end of the party anyway.  A boy can dream.)

I would be more sanguine about Trump's chances (or lack thereof) in the general election if I hadn't been so utterly and completely wrong about his prospects in the primaries.  When he first announced, I, like so many others, wrote him off as a joke.  But Trump is no joke.  If I were a Muslim living in America, I'd be very, very worried.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Can Trump win? Let's do the math

There are a total of 2472 delegates going to the Republican convention in July.  At the moment, Donald Trump has 756.  He needs 1237 to win the nomination on the first ballot (I think it's extremely unlikely he could win any other way), a difference of 481.  There are 769 delegates left to choose, so Trump needs to win about 64% of them.  That's a tall order.  To date, 1703 delegates have been selected, and Trump has only won 44% of those, so he needs to improve his performance by 50% to avoid a brokered convention.  That seems unlikely.

But there is a fly in this mathematical ointment in the form of a huge non-linearity: California, the most populous state, has 172 delegates, and it's a winner-take-all state.  Trump could bag that prize with a plurality of the votes if John Kasich stays in the race that long.  Even if Kasich drops out, it's conceivable that Trump could win California anyway.  Could he win then?

California happens last so we won't know until the very end, but let's suppose Trump wins it.  That would take him to 756+172 = 928.  Of what's left, 238 delegates are selected by proportional vote, so it's probably safe to assume that Trump would win roughly half of those, or 119.  That brings his total to 1047, with 359 delegates in 9 winner-take-all states left to assign.  Trump would need 190 of those to put him over the top, or 53%.  That's very possible.

What is more interesting is the fact that there is no way that Trump could sew up the nomination before California votes.  California by itself is not big enough to swing the decision unilaterally, but four other states vote at the same time, and between them they have 303 delegates.  The remaining 466 to be selected before June 7 are not enough to put Trump over the top even if he wins them all.  Likewise, for Trump to definitively lose before June 7 he'd need to perform spectacularly badly even by Trumpian standards, winning only 177 of the 466 available delegates (38%).  That too, is extremely unlikely.

So the math says that it's going to be a nail biter, and California is going to be the deciding factor.  But don't blame me, I'm voting for Bernie.

Friday, April 15, 2016

You must now get government approval before you can practice your faith in the U.S.

A federal judge today denied a Nebraska inmate named Stephen Cavanaugh the right to practice his religion because Cavanaugh's relgion didn't meet the judge's standards as to what a religion should be.  Cavanaugh professes to be a Pastafarian, a worshipper of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  The judge ruled that Pastafarianism (which Cavanaugh calls FSMism) is not entitled to Constitutional protection because:

FSMism is not a "religion" within the meaning of the relevant federal statutes and constitutional jurisprudence. It is, rather, a parody, intended to advance an argument about science, the evolution of life, and the place of religion in public education.
Now, I actually think the judge is right.  I, too, believe that Pastafarianism is a parody and not a real religion.  But here's the thing: what I believe shouldn't matter, and what the judge believes shouldn't matter.  The only thing that should matter is what Cavanaugh believes, and the only person in a position to judge that is Cavanaugh.

The problem with trying to impose any objective standard on what is and is not a legitimate religion is that people actually believe all kinds of crazy shit.  Some people worship aliens.  Some people believe that humans are infested by immortal ghosts.  Some people believe that the Word of God was literally pulled out of a hat.  Some people worship many gods and some people worship none.  Some people believe that God requires us to love one another and some people believe that God requires us to kill one another (and some people believe that these two imperatives are in no way incompatible).

This is the problem with trying to judge religion: what standard do you apply?  Once you rule out religions that seem like parodies, where do you stop?  Is satanism a parody?  How about the Church of Reality?  Or the Church of Spiritual Humanism, of which your humble correspondent is a card-carrying member?  How about the Church of Happy Science?  (No, I am not making that up.  There is actually a branch in my neighborhood.)  Is Unitarianism-Universalism (not to be confused with Unitarianism) not a legitimate faith because they don't seem to have any idea what they believe?

The only possible answer that does not put you on the express train to religious tyranny is that you have to accept everyone at their word for what they believe, even if those beliefs seem completely ridiculous to you.  Frankly, the idea that Jesus is God (or even that there is a God or even a god) seems completely ridiculous to me.  But I will nonetheless fight to the death for your right to believe it if you want to.

And I will fight to the death for Steven Cavanaugh's right to believe in the Flying Spaghetti monster, not because I think it's a legitimate faith, but because that is not or me to decide.  My freedom to believe things that you find ridiculous can only be protected by my willingness to let you believe things that I find ridiculous free from government interference.

That is why I am calling for the establishment of a legal defense fund for Stephen Cavanaugh.  We need to get this disastrous ruling overturned, not for Steven's sake or for the sake of the Flying Spaghetti monster, but for all of us.  The idea that the government gets to decide for us what we may or may not believe must not be allowed to stand.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

When did deep-dish showers become a thing?

We were in South Africa a few months ago and I encountered something I had never seen before: a shower with a floor pan that was so heavily graded that it was like standing in a giant salad bowl.  The drain was nearly a full foot lower than the edges of the shower.  And this was apparently not an anomaly.  We stayed in two places in South Africa, and they both had this "feature".  It was incredibly uncomfortable, to say nothing of dangerous.  In one case the floor tiles were smooth, and there was a real slipping hazard when they were wet.

I wrote it off as a South African thing and went home feeling smugly superior that we here in the U.S. would never engage in such silliness.

Then a few weeks ago we went to Atlanta, and stayed at a Marriott which had exactly the same kind of "deep dish" shower!  At least this one had some texturing on the tile that made it harder to slip, but it was still incredibly annoying to have to shower while standing on a slope.

Of course, every shower has a have a little bit of a grade so that the water will drain, but making the grade so extreme that you could use the floor of the shower as a splish-and-splash slide is going waaaay too far.  I have seen probably hundreds, possibly thousands of showers in my life.  They have all drained perfectly well without putting me at risk of going down the drain along with the water.

I'm not sure what is more remarkable, the fact that this stupid design exists at all, or the fact that in many decades of traveling I've never seen one before, and then I'd suddenly encounter it three times in a row in two different countries.  The odds against that have to be unfathomably low.

Apple UI design has jumped the shark

Take a look at this screen shot of the App Store app while upgrading from Yosemite to El Capitan:


Click on the image to see it full-size.  Question: how much time before the El Cap upgrade finishes downloading?  Here's a hint:


It's awesome that Apple builds computers that are beautiful to look at.  And they are.  I mean, just look at that panorama of the Yosemite valley.  It's gorgeous.  But one of the reasons it's gorgeous is that it has become largely unencumbered by actual utility.  The one thing I really want to know when I'm looking at that particular screen is how much longer am I going to have to wait for this operation to finish.  Should I hang out, or do I have time to go get a cup of coffee and write a blog post?

Apple's UI is full of this sort of thing nowadays: text that is so light a shade of grey that it's illegible.  Hidden control that don't appear unless you hover over them, often without the slightest hint that there is anything of interest there.  Just vast expanses of the perfect shade of not-quite-white.

At the risk of stating what ought to be painfully obvious, computers are primarily meant to be useful things, not objects d'art.  If I can't see the information on the screen, if I have to read the (non-existent) manual to figure out what to do when "An unknown error has occurred" then it does me precious little good that it looks beautiful and slim.

Of course, the ideal machine is both useful and beautiful.  But if you have to choose one or the other, beautiful is optional.  Useful isn't.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

PSA: Don't attempt to upgrade the built-in openssl on OS X Mavericks

The built-in openssl is version 0.9.8-something-or-other, which is pretty badly out of date.  Today I tried to upgrade that to 1.0.1.  When I did, my laptop suddenly became very, very unhappy.  Mail stopped working.  Safari stopped working.

OK, no problem, I thought, I'll just fire up Time Machine and revert the changes.

Except that Time Machine wasn't working either!  Not only was it not working, it was not working in a particularly nasty way: I could get in to Time Machine, but it didn't actually work.  And once I was in, I couldn't get out.  The only way to escape was to power down my machine.

Then it wouldn't reboot.  I nearly had a heart attack.

I had to boot from the recovery partition and revert the changes from a SuperDuper snapshot I had taken a few weeks before (thank God I had that!)

I had no idea that openssl was woven so deeply into the fabric of OS X that changing it makes the machine unbootable.  In fact, even now I cannot think what mechanism could cause booting to fail.  It didn't even cause a kernel panic, it just never got past the power-up spinner.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Heil Donald!

It's shocking, but hardly surprising.  After promising to torture everyone in sight when he becomes president, Donald Trump asked a crowd in Orlando to raise their right hands and swear allegiance to him.  And they did.



God help us if he actually wins the election.

Man makes musical marble miracle

This has to be the coolest musical instrument ever made.  It's a hand-made wooden machine that would make Rube Goldberg proud.  It runs on a hand crank and 2000 marbles.  Best of all, it makes beautiful music, a real joy to both listen to and watch.  Check out the video at the bottom of the page!


Monday, February 29, 2016

The FBI can (almost certainly) crack the San Bernardino iPhone without Apple's help

The title kind of says it all.  How do I know?  Because of this photo:


That's a picture of the logic board of an iPhone 5C, the same model as the San Bernardino phone.  The chip with the red outline is a Toshiba THGBX2G7B2JLA01 NAND Flash chip.  That's the phone's memory chip.  All the data on the phone is stored there.  It's encrypted, but here's the thing: the encryption key is also (almost certainly) stored in the same chip.  So all the FBI needs to do is de-solder the chip, mount it in its own hardware, and read out the data.  Unless the FBI is completely incompetent, it should be able to do this in less than a day.  And again, unless they are completely incompetent, having read out the contents of the chip they should be able to decrypt its contents in a matter of minutes if not seconds.  And even if they are completely incompetent, they could use a copy of the chip to try five different PIN codes, and then replace the chip with a fresh copy of the original and try five more.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  At worst this would take about a week or so.

How do I know that this is possible?  Because one of the highly touted features of the iPhone 6 is that it has a secure enclave where things like encryption keys can be securely stored in a way that does not make them accessible using the technique I just described.

The FBI knows this.  Everyone in the security community knows this.  But not everyone in the general public knows this, and the FBI is counting on that ignorance to cover up the fact that their lawsuit against Apple is a charade.  They are not worried about the data on the San Bernardino iPhone, because if they were they would have had it by now.

What they are worried about is the secure enclave in the iPhone 6.  That is much harder to crack than the external memory chip on the 5C, which any competent hobbyist could do.  Cracking a secure enclave requires actually getting inside the processor chip itself, a process known as decapping.  That's possible too (the NSA can probably do it) but it's much, much harder and requires very expensive and specialized (and probably classified) equipment.

What the FBI is really trying to do here is to set a legal precedent that will let them use the power of the law to do an end-run around the secure enclave, and any other security technology that any company might produce in the future.  This is not about catching some potential terrorists, this is about effectively eliminating legal access to encryption technology.  Attempts have been made in the past to regulate encryption technology through the democratic process, and they have all failed.  So now the FBI is trying to get a court to do what Congress has on multiple occasions refused to do.

If democracy is to survive in the United States they must not be allowed to succeed.

[UPDATE:] Some commenters on Hacker News are saying that my analysis is wrong because the encryption key has additional entropy in it in the form of the processor's 256-bit unique ID.  While this is true, it does not make the 5C secure.  The limiting factor on attacking the PIN is the fact that the phone only gives you 10 attempts before wiping the flash.  But if you have a copy of the flash, you can just replace the wiped flash with a copy and make another 10 attempts.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

PSA: Beware of low rate limits in letsencrypt

I've been noodling around with letsencrypt, the Mozilla foundation's new free SSL certificate service.  It's pretty cool.  There's no reason to ever pay for (or wait for!) an SSL certificate again.  However, there is a hidden trap in the public beta which I discovered the hard way: there's a rate limit of five certificates per domain per week, and there's no warning about this until you hit the limit.

So... if you use letsencrypt (and you really should!  It's easy!) use a dummy domain or their staging server for experiments, and plan your actual certificate issuance very carefully.  The rate limits should go up eventually, but there's no telling when that will happen.


Saturday, February 20, 2016

The end of an era

Google is removing ads from the right-hand side of search results.  Ordinarily I wouldn't care about where Google puts its ads, but this is a little bittersweet for me because I was on the team that launched the original AdWords platform back in September 2000 and started the whole ads-on-the-right phenomenon.  It makes me just a little melancholy to see that come to an end.


Monday, February 15, 2016

Scalia is dead. Good riddance.

I know it's bad form to speak ill of the dead, particularly those who have dedicated their lives to public service, but I'm sorry, Antonin Scalia was not the great scholar and man of principle that some pundits are making him out to be.  He was a delusional hypocrite, and in the position of power he occupied with no one to answer to but the Reaper, he was dangerous.  I would rather have seen him impeached than dead, but if God wants to fill in where Congress fails to act, well, who am I to question His judgement?

What made Scalia delusional was that he believed he knew the One True Way to interpret the Constitution, and that the One True Way was Originalism.  What made him a hypocrite was that he was perfectly willing to chuck originalism out the window when it didn't lead to the result he wanted.

One could surely write a book about Scalia's hypocrisy, but I don't have time for that so I'll just cite a few particularly egregious examples.  Let's start with Gonzales v. Raich.  That was the case where the Court ruled, with Scalia concurring, that the Commerce Clause gives Congress the power to make it illegal for an individual to grow marijuana for personal medical use even in a state where such use is legal under state law.  That this is untenable under an originalist interpretation of the Constitution is so obvious that a first-year law student would have no trouble making the case.  You may recall that the U.S. federal government tried to impose prohibition once before, but before that first disastrous experiment could be conducted the U.S. had to pass the 18th amendment to the Constitution.  Manifestly then, prohibition was not among Congress's enumerated powers prior to the passage of the 18th amendment.  There are only two possible ways you can squeeze a prohibition power out of the Commerce Clause: you can read something into it that the founders clearly did not intend, or you can argue that the whole sordid affair of passing the 18th amendment and then repealing it again 13 years later was unnecessary, just a colossal waste of time because not a single legal mind in the entire country realized that Congress could just, you know, pass a law.

Another example that sticks in my craw because it hits close to home is Scalia's blatant disregard for the separation of church and state.  In October 2014, Scalia gave a speech where he said:
I think the main fight is to dissuade Americans from what the secularists are trying to persuade them to be true: that the separation of church and state means that the government cannot favor religion over nonreligion. That’s a possible way to run a political system. The Europeans run it that way, and if the American people want to do it, I suppose they can enact that by statute. But to say that’s what the Constitution requires is utterly absurd.
This past January he doubled down on that position:
Government support for religion is not only justified by the Constitution, it was the norm for hundreds of years... 
Slavery was the norm for hundreds of years too, but let's not get sidetracked here.  Let's look at Scalia's claim that government support for religion is justified by the Constitution.  Where exactly is that justification?  The word "God" does not appear anywhere in the Constitution.  The word "religion" appears once, in the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of relgion...
And then the word "religious" appears once:
...no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States
And that's it.   So where exactly is the Constitutional justification for Scalia's claim that government support for religion is justified by the Constitution?  It's not there.  He has to extract it from history somehow, which I suppose is not entirely unjustifiable, except that whenever someone does the exact some thing to support a position that he opposes, all of a sudden that's not allowed:
One case was Romer v. Evans, in which the people of Colorado had enacted an amendment to the state constitution by plebiscite, which said that neither the state nor any subdivision of the state would add to the protected statuses against which private individuals cannot discriminate. The usual ones are race, religion, age, sex, disability and so forth. Would not add sexual preference — somebody thought that was a terrible idea, and, since it was a terrible idea, it must be unconstitutional. Brought a lawsuit, it came to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court said, “Yes, it is unconstitutional.” On the basis of — I don’t know. The Sexual Preference Clause of the Bill of Rights, presumably. And the liberals loved it, and the conservatives gnashed their teeth.
Just for the record, the justification for ruling an a priori license to discriminate against gays to be unconstitutional is the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment.  To which Scalia's response was not to explain why he didn't think this was a valid argument, but rather simply to stick his fingers in his ears and say, "Nah nah nah I can't heeeeaaaar you!"

Like I said, one could write a book.  I'll just point out one final example of Scalia's hypocrisy, one which was particularly egregious and consequential.  When it came to issues like abortion and gay rights, his unwavering position was that these issues should be left to the states and to the democratic process.  (I suppose that if one could somehow muster the votes to repeal the 13th amendment, Scalia would have had no problem with that.)  He was constantly complaining about how activist liberal judges were legislating from the bench.  But he had no problem being the deciding vote when it came time to appoint a Republican President of the United States from the bench.

If that's not enough to convince you that the Scalia-worshipping emperor has no clothes, there's this:
This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is 'actually' innocent
It is hard to imagine a more despicable thing a human being could say.  Not only is Scalia saying that executing innocent people is OK as long as they've had a "fair trial" (whatever the hell that could possibly mean in a situation like this), but he's trying to fob the responsibility of it onto "this court" as if he had nothing to do with this sorry state of affairs!  And besides, how could there possibly be any more cruel and unusual punishment than executing an innocent person?

Bah.

Antonin Scalia was the Donald Trump of the Supreme Court: obnoxious, hypocritical, and dangerously muddled in his thinking.  He made for great entertainment, but absolutely terrible law.  May he rest in peace and trouble us no more.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Is Spirituality Irrational?

Just published my first ever essay in a third-party venue: Is Spirituality Irrational? over at Intentional Insights.  It was written by invitation as a response to this piece by Rev. Caleb Pitkin.


Thursday, February 04, 2016

Not with a bang...

Jeb Bush's campaign for the presidency is literally ending with a whimper:
“I will not trash talk. I will not be a divider in chief or an agitator in chief. I won’t be out there blowharding, talking a big game without backing it up. I think the next president needs to be a lot quieter but send a signal that we’re prepared to act in the national security interests of this country — to get back in the business of creating a more peaceful world,” Bush declared to the crowd Tuesday evening. 
He was met with a long beat of silence. 
“Please clap,” he pleaded, drawing applause and awkward laughter.
Pathetic.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Well, this is stupid

Kenya is about to destroy 270 million dollars worth of ivory.  That is an incredibly stupid thing to do.  They should instead sell the ivory and use the proceeds to fund anti-poaching efforts.  By destroying the ivory, they are reducing the supply, which drives up the price, which encourages more poaching by making it more lucrative.

I fully understand the visceral revulsion at state-sponsored distribution of ivory.  It kind of feels analogous to the government selling seized stockpiles of heroin or cocaine.  But ivory isn't like heroin.  It's not addictive.  People don't need regular fixes of elephant tusk.  Ivory is a Veblen good: people want only it because it's rare.  Increase the supply and demand will go down, along with the price.  Do this long enough and you might even depress the market to the point where you bring about a generational change and make the demand for ivory disappear entirely.

In fact, there is even an argument to be made that governments should actively sponsor the harvesting of elephant tusks (and rhino horns)!  It turns out that it is possible to harvest these things without serious harm to the animal.  Poachers don't do it because it's a lot harder than just killing the animal, but if governments did it they could use the proceeds to fund the activity.

In a perfect world, no one would want ivory or rhino horn, and these animals could just live in peace. But we have to deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.  In this world, the elephants that created the tusks that the Kenyan government is about to destroy are already dead.  Destroying their tusks is not going to help them, nor will it help the elephants that are still alive.  Quite the contrary.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Upgrade or die: Apple's diabolical re-invention of the version ratchet

Now that I'm done with my travel tales I can go back to ranting about geeky things.  Apple just announced an update to an update to OS X Snow Leopard.  It's not that Snow Leopard is suddenly being supported again.  It's now fully five versions behind the current state of the art.  But there are some die-hards who are still running it (I'm actually one of them) and this update is necessary to track updates in the App Store so that if you decide you want to update Snow Leopard, you still can.

This sounds like a positive development, but it's actually an indication of something quite ominous that most people don't realize: for several years now, Apple has been deploying a strategy straight out of Microsoft's Big Book of Dirty Tricks which I am hereby dubbing the version ratchet.  A version ratchet is a software deployment strategy that forces you to upgrade even if you don't want to.  Microsoft implemented it back in their glory days (irony intended) by changing the file formats in new versions of the Office suite so that documents created by newer versions of Office could not be read by older versions, thus forcing everyone to upgrade to the newer version in order to share data.

Apple doesn't have the same hegemony in applications that Microsoft had, so their version ratchet works differently.  Apple's version ratchet is implemented through the App Store.  As more and more applications are delivered through the App Store, the less control you have over the hardware that you ostensibly own.  Apple uses the App Store version ratchet not to force you to not only upgrade your software the way Microsoft did, but also as a way to force you to upgrade your hardware.

Here's how it works: most apps nowadays depend on a server to do what they do.  You, of course, have no control over what a vendor does on their server, so it is inevitable that sooner or later some service that you rely on will make some change that requires a change in the client.  If you've ever used Uber or an on-line banking app you will no doubt have encountered a situation where one day the app works fine, and the next day it says, "Sorry, this version of the app is out of date.  To continue to use this service you must upgrade to the latest version."  And then it gives you a helpful link.

So now you have no choice but to upgrade the app.  But then sooner or later you will encounter an upgrade that will force you to update not only the app, but also the operating system.  This happens both on iOS and OS X, with my poster child being iPhoto.  I've been using iPhoto for years.  I have a vast collection of photos stored in iPhoto libraries.  The collection includes carefully edited and curated collections of photos from various trips I've been on.

But iPhoto uses (or I should say, used, because it's not supported any more) the classic Microsoft version ratchet to force users to upgrade: newer versions of iPhoto changed the format of the iPhoto Library directory in non-backwards-compatible ways.  That meant that if I upgraded my iPhoto and my wife didn't, I could no longer share my iPhoto library with her.  So we stopped upgrading.  Or at least we tried.

I resisted upgrading Snow Leopard for as long as I possibly could.  I skipped Lion and Mountain Lion, but then my old Macbook Pro died and I had no choice but to get a new machine, which left me no choice but to upgrade to Mavericks because new machines wouldn't run Snow Leopard any more. That's fair enough; you can't expect OS vendors to support ancient hardware forever.  The problem is much more subtle than that.

Apple intended for the old version of iPhoto not to run under Mavericks; Mavericks was missing the iLife library that iPhoto relied on.  But it turned out that simply copying the library from Snow Leopard to Mavericks worked, and we've been happily running the old version of iPhoto (version 8) ever since.

Unfortunately, this trick doesn't work on El Capitan, so Mavericks is the end of the line for iPhoto version 8.  When I upgrade to El Cap, I have no choice but to upgrade iPhoto to version 9.

Except that I can't.

When Apple introduced El Cap, it deprecated iPhoto in favor of Photos.  Photos is missing a crucial piece of functionality: the ability to export an album as a web page.  Apple wants you to share your photos using iCloud.  Well, I don't want to use iCloud.  I run my own server, and I want to share my photos there.  But because Apple wants to phase out iPhoto, it is no longer available from the App Store as a new install, only as an upgrade.  But it won't let me upgrade my copy because it wasn't installed from the App Store, it was installed years ago from an iLife DVD.

This is Apple's insidious refinement of the version ratchet: if you don't upgrade regularly, you will eventually end up in a situation where you cannot upgrade any more.  Moreover, your software will stop working even if your hardware is still working fine.  In the old days, you could always rely on being able to roll back an upgrade by re-installing the old version from, say, a DVD.  Now you can't because install DVDs don't exist any more.  Once something is pulled from the App Store, it's gone forever, so if you let the gap between where you are and where the App Store is at get too big you're stuck forever.

And nowadays everything is in the app store, including the developer tools.  And the tools are set up so that you can only build for supported version of the OS.  It is still possible to use XCode to build an application for Snow Leopard because you can still get an old XCode install DVD and an old Snow Leopard install DVD, and if you get Snow Leopard Server you can even run it on a VM.  So no matter what Apple does, you can run Snow Leopard forever if you want to.

Not so for Lion.  You can't get an old Lion install DVD because there is no such thing.  Lion was the first OS X version distributed exclusively through the App Store.  The only way you can run Lion nowadays is if you find a working machine that has Lion installed on it.  And some day, all those machines will be gone.

If your reaction to this is, "Why would anyone want to run Lion?  Lion sucked!" then you are missing the point.  This is not about Lion.  This is about the day five years from now when Apple introduces a version of OS X and iOS that sucks again, or that has some feature that you really hate, or is missing some feature that you really love, and you don't want to upgrade.  What I'm warning about here is that when that day comes you won't have any choice.  You will either upgrade or die.  If you don't upgrade, you will see all of your installed apps stop working one by one as they are upgraded in the App Store, and the servers they rely on stop supporting the old versions.

Microsoft was limited in their ability to leverage their version ratchet by the fact that it was possible (indeed necessary!) for third party developers to write and deploy applications for Windows machines without Microsoft's approval.  Microsoft could play games like limiting access to internal Windows APIs to make their own applications more competitive, but they could not shut out the competition entirely.  This kept them somewhat in check; if they ever released a version of Office that sucked too badly, users might revolt and allow a third-party to take over that market (as indeed has now happened to a certain extent with OpenOffice and Google Docs).  Apple is slowly but surely shutting down that escape route.  It is already not possible to deploy an application on iOS without Apple's approval.  That is not yet true of OS X, but I predict that some day in the not-too-distant future, Apple will release a version of OS X that is as closed as iOS is today.  And on that day there will be a great wailing and gnashing of teeth.  But you will upgrade.  You will upgrade because all of your data will be in iCloud and all of your finances will be in Apple Pay, and you will have no choice: you will upgrade or die.

And then, after that, you will have the buy the new iPhone and the new Mac even if the ones you have are still working perfectly well, because they won't run the new OS.

Even if Apple doesn't implement this strategy, they could, and that to me is cause for concern.  Personally, I don't want the only thing standing in the way of being coerced in this way to buy things I don't want to be the continued benevolence of the largest corporation in the world.  I want an escape hatch to keep Apple in check.  And right now, I don't see one.