Wednesday, July 24, 2013

So that makes, let's see, three accidents?

Salon reported a short piece about a local news reporter who accidentally drew a penis while reporting on a local traffic tie up.  When I happened to mouse over the image, this was the result:


Monday, July 22, 2013

What is a reasonable expectation of privacy?

The Obama administration continues to insist that the NSA wiretapping programming, whose existence was recently revealed by Edward Snowden, is not only necessary to national security but also perfectly legal.  In particular:
[T]he alleged metadata program is fully consistent with the Fourth Amendment. Most fundamentally, the program does not involve "searches" of plaintiffs' persons or effects, because the collection of telephony metadata from the business records of a third-party telephone service provider, without collecting the contents of plaintiffs' communications, implicates no "legitimate expectation of privacy" that is protected by the Constitution.
I don't know about you, but if I call, say, a suicide prevention hotline from my home phone, I would certainly expect that to remain private, and I think that expectation is reasonable.

But leaving common sense aside here (as seems to happen all too often nowadays), the administration is wrong here on technical grounds.  The phone company is not a third party with respect to call metadata.  A phone call involves two separate acts of communication: the call setup, and the conversation itself.  These acts are, of course, related, but they are still two separate acts.  When I initiate a phone call, the metadata is generated as a result of a private communication between myself and the phone company.  There is no third party.

To see that this is so one just has to think back to the days when calls were connected by human operators.  In those days, both the call setup and the call itself involved talking to another human.  If the contents of my conversation with the target of my call is protected by the Constitution then surely the contents of my conversation with the operator is as well.  The fact that nowadays the operator is a machine does not change the protocol, nor the resulting expectation of privacy.

This is why we need fewer lawyers and more engineers running the country.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Court rules journalists can’t keep their sources secret

Considering the way things are going I really shouldn't be shocked by this, but I am.  A federal appeals court overturned a lower court decision and ruled that journalists do not have a constitutional right to keep their sources secret.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the balance of power between the government and the people has shifted dramatically since Barack Obama took office: the government has an absolute right to secrecy, enforceable by any means necessary.  The People, on the other hand, have no right to privacy, the Fourth Amendment notwithstanding, because the need to catch leakers and potential terrorists trumps all other considerations.

This is beginning to get truly scary.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Malcolm Gladwell responds to Ask a Korean

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a response to Ask a Korean's post about Asiana 214 and the cultural theory of airplane crashes (and AaK responded to Gladwell's response).  I note this mainly for the record because I wrote about this earlier, just in case you want to delve deeper and decide the merits for yourself.  For myself, frankly, I don't really know nor care whether it's Korean culture (whatever that word might actually mean) or something else that is the underlying cause of Koreans not knowing the basics of how to fly airplanes.  What matters is the fact, apparently not in dispute, that Koreans do not know the basics of how to fly airplanes.  And until they figure it out I stand by my advice to avoid flying on Korean airlines if you can.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The U.S. takes another step towards becoming North Korea

The NSA has implemented a new two-man rule to prevent future leaks.  In other words, NSA employees will now have minders just like they do in Pyongyang.

In fact, the NSA starting to look an awful lot like a little mini North Korea embedded inside the good old U.S. of A., complete with nukes and a funny looking leader with a tenuous grasp in reality.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Jimmy Carter: The U.S. has no functioning democracy

As reported in Der Spiegel, attributed to a CNN interview.  Why am I linking to the German story instead of the original CNN story in English?  Because I can't find the original.

Here's a translation, courtesy of Google Translate and lightly edited by me:

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, in the wake of the NSA wiretap scandal, criticized the American political system. "America has no functioning democracy," Carter said Tuesday at a meeting of the "Atlantic Bridge" in Atlanta. 
Previously, the Democrat had been very critical of the practices of U.S. intelligence. "I think the invasion of privacy has gone too far," Carter told CNN. "And I think that is why the secrecy was excessive." Regarding the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Carter said Snowden's revelations were "likely to be useful because they inform the public." 
Carter has repeatedly warned that the United States has surrendered its moral authority due to excessive restriction of civil rights. Last year Carter wrote in an article in the "New York Times" that new U.S. laws result in "never before seen breaches of our privacy by the government."
I'm not sure which is more worrisome, the NSA scandal, or the fact that no U.S. news organization is covering this statement about it by a former United States president, not even the one that supposedly conducted the interview.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Open season

The not-guilty verdict in George Zimmerman's trial has confirmed what many rightly suspected: no black man is safe in Florida.  Oh, I know, Zimmerman's apologists insist this wasn't about race, but come on, does anyone seriously believe that a black man who pursued and shot a white kid would get off by pleading self defense?  In Florida?  I suppose it's possible, but I'll believe it when I see it.

In the meantime, the white supremacists are cheering.  Finally they are unshackled to deal swiftly and efficiently with that societal menace known as the young black male.  No more need to wait for the system, with its annoying checks and balances, its technicalities and appeals, its presumption of innocence (and yes, I am fully aware of the irony here).  Because we all know that young black men -- ah hell, why mince words? -- we all know those damn niggers are up to no good.  Gettin' too uppity.  Pokin' their little black noses in places they oughtn't to be.  Trayvon Martin should a knowed better than to be in a respectable neighborhood wearin' a gang uniform (a.k.a. a hoodie).  He deserved what he got.  George Zimmerman is a hero.  Streets aren't safe without good old boys like Zimmerman.  And bonus, he's not even white!  That proves we're not racists!

But you, boy, you better watch yoself.  Because, finally, the tables are turned.  Now we long-oppressed white folk are the ones you don't want to meet in a dark alley because we could be packin'.  What's that you say?  You could be carrying a gun too?  But here's the difference: you see, our skin is white, and we're not wearing hoodies.  What's that?  Mark Zuckerberg wears a hoodie?  You still don't get it, do you boy.  Zuck is rich and famous so he gets to wear whatever the fuck he wants.  You are poor and anonymous and black.  Justice is something that is done to you, not for you.

So you better watch yourself, boy.  Justice has finally come to the state of Florida.  It's open season.


UPDATE: George Zimmerman's brother is apparently with me on this one.

Friday, July 12, 2013

An open letter to president Obama

Dear Mr. President,

I write as one who supported you with my vote and my campaign contributions in 2008 and 2012.  I read in the papers that you are considering ending the NSA surveillance program revealed by Edward Snowden.  I welcome this news, but I worry that you seem to have missed a much more basic and more important point.  The real issue is not the wiretaps, but rather your duplicity.  You ran your campaign specifically on being unlike George Bush and Dick Cheney, saying in 2007:
That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing but protest a misguided war. No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient.
Now, I understand that you have not technically broken this promise.  Now that I understand better how to parse what you say, I see that your comments were very carefully crafted.  You didn't promise "no more wiretapping of American citizens", you promised "no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens."  You didn't promise "no more national security letters", you promised "no more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime."  You didn't promise "no more tracking of citizens who do nothing but protest," you promised, "no more tracking of citizens who do nothing but protest a misguided war."  And you didn't promise "no more ignoring the law," you promised, "no more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient."

These are easy promises to keep if you construe them strictly: simply make wiretapping "legal" and you have no more illegal wiretaps.  Simply suspect everyone of a crime and you have no more tracking of anyone not suspected of a crime.  And you can keep a promise not to ignore the law when it's inconvenient simply by making it convenient to ignore the law.  Which appears to be exactly what you have done.

I don't know whether the NSA wiretaps were technically legal or not.  It is, in fact, impossible for me to know because the law is being kept secret, and, it is being kept secret at your behest.  If you think this is about quibbling over what is and isn't legal, or whether "technically" you fulfilled your promise, then you have missed the point rather badly.

The point is this: implicit in your words was a promise to be different from George Bush and Dick Cheney.  But in this, at least, you have proven to be no different.  You used the FISA court to do an end-run around the Constitution, and you did it in secret.  The real issue here is that you are endorsing the maintenance and expansion of a secret body of law.  The wiretaps themselves are almost a red herring.

The greatest evils in history have been done under the color of the law.  The Stasi was an evil organization, but it was not an illegal organization.  The concentration camps in North Korea are evil, but they are not illegal.  Killing innocent civilians is evil, but it is not illegal, at least not when the government does it.  If you still want to quibble over whether or not the wiretaps were legal, or if you think saying you will end them solves the problem, then you have still badly missed the point.

The point is this: a secret body of law is evil.  It is anathema to everything the United States of America is supposed to stand for.  It is anathema to democracy.  It is anathema to freedom.  It is anathema to government of the people, by the people and for the people.  Secret law is the express route to tyranny.

All this should be self evident to anyone who calls themselves an American.  Of course, we always knew that there were people like George Bush and Dick Cheney (and John McCain and Mitt Romney) who didn't get it.  That is why we voted for you.

But, apparently, you don't get it either.

That is the problem.  You promised us change.  You promised us hope.  You promised us a return to the core values that made this country great.  What you gave us was more wiretaps, more secret government, more doublespeak.  More of the same.

If you really want to make this right, Mr. President, saying you will stop the wiretaps is not enough.  For starters, how can we even trust you any more?  If not for the courage of Edward Snowden We the People would not have known of your current duplicity.  And with you bringing down the full might of the United States of America to hunt Snowden down, who knows if we will have such a savior in the future?

The problem, Mr. President, is that we cannot in good conscience trust you any more.  Worse, how can we trust the next politician who offers us hope and change and a return to the core values that made this country great?  The next time a politician tells us "yes we can" how will we believe them?  I don't know whether you couldn't or you wouldn't.  But I do know that you didn't.

And apparently you still don't.

If you really want to make this right, the first thing you have to do is call off the manhunt for Edward Snowden.  He has been offered and accepted formal political asylum.  The nation's interests are not well served by thumbing our noses at international law.

The next thing you have to do is come clean. Admit you were wrong.  Apologize.  Seek forgiveness.  Repudiate the concept of secret laws as anathema to the spirit of America.  Embrace the individual freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, particularly the fourth and the too-often-neglected ninth amendment.  Embrace the idea that we are stronger, not weaker, when we trust the people, when we assume they are innocent until proven guilty, and when we are once again a place where people seek asylum rather than one against whose power asylum is sought.

Ron Garret
Redwood City, California

Are Korean airlines unsafe? Ask a Korean

The "ethnic theory of plane crashes" was first advanced by Malcolm Gladwell in his book "Outliers."  Gladwell's analysis is ably deconstructed by TK, the author of a blog called "Ask a Korean."  The piece is long, but it can be succinctly summarized as: Gladwell is full of shit.  And I mostly agree.

So does that mean that I am retracting yesterday's advice to not fly on Korean airlines?  No, I am not.  It is a fallacy to conclude that because someone advances a bogus argument for a position that the position is therefore wrong, even if the person advancing the bogus argument is a famous best-selling author.  In my judgement as both a pilot and someone with scientific training, Korean airlines are less safe than other airlines.  The relationship is causal.  It is cultural (not ethnic!).  It is a result of systemic flaws in Korea's training regimen for pilots.  I base these conclusions not on Gladwell's analysis, which is indeed deeply flawed, but on my own analysis of primary sources, specifically, the historic track record of Korea's airlines, the information currently available about Asiana 214, and the anonymous piece written by someone claiming to have first hand knowledge of the current situation in Korea's training program.

One should, of course, be extremely leery of anything anonymous one finds on the internet.  However, in this case I believe that this piece is genuine, that is, it was written by someone who is what they claim to be.  Whoever wrote it is clearly a pilot, or at least intimately familiar with flying terminology and culture.  It is very hard for a non-pilot to fake being a pilot.  There are subtle uses of language that almost always give a faker away.  My favorite current example: TV reporters who call the runway that Asiana 214 landed on "twenty-eight left."  No pilot would ever say that.  It's two-eight left.  The anonymous piece throws around a lot of lingo but contains no such errors.  So if it's a fake, someone would have had to go to an awful lot of trouble to fake it.  And to what end?  I see no plausible motive for forging a piece like that, particularly since the original was deleted.  All the data is consistent with the theory that the piece is what it appears to be, a genuine first-hand description of deep systemic and current problems in the Korean airlines training system written by someone who experienced them first hand and was frustrated in their attempts to try do something about it.

However, I will temper my position with one observation: notwithstanding the problems in Korea's pilot training system, and notwithstanding that Asiana 214 crashed because (based on the currently available information) of basic pilot error under the least demanding conditions possible (visual landing, no wind, perfectly operating state-of-the-art aircraft), flying on a Korean airliner is still fairly safe relative to other risks that people routinely take (like driving to the airport).  So if you have to get somewhere and KAL or Asiana are your only options, sure, go for it.  But all else being equal, I would avoid these airlines until they get their shit together.

UPDATE: The Christian Science Monitor has published a story about this.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Do not fly Asiana or KAL

Until the actual NTSB report is issued it is premature to draw any final conclusions, but a pretty clear picture is emerging of the cause of the Asiana 777 crash at SFO.  There is no way to sugar coat this: the pilots fucked up.  Worse, this was apparently not a fluke [see update below].  It was a result of deep systemic problems in Korean culture.  It has happened many times before.  It was so bad that the Korean airlines were on the verge of being blacklisted by the international aviation community.  They thought they had the problem fixed, but apparently they don't.  As the author of this piece [see update below] rightly points out, it is not so easy to change 3000 years of culture.

Commercial air travel is absolutely the safest form of transportation.  You are safer on a commercial jet than you are in most places on the ground.  But your odds worsen dramatically on Asiana or KAL.  The Koreans build terrific cars.  I love my Hyundai Genesis Coupe.  But sadly they still don't know how to fly airplanes.

UPDATE: The original source that this post was based on has been deleted.  For the time being, a copy can be found here.