Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Halliburton fracking info, week 6

No updates to Halliburton's "fluids disclosure" page since last week.

I'll give Halliburton the benefit of the doubt and assume the marketing folks are on hiatus for the holiday.

Texas tree die-offs

Courtesy the AP, an article about "a vegetative wasteland" near Bastrop, Texas, a bit southeast of Austin. The article claims the likely culprit is a coal-fired power plant that, for most of its operating lifetime of almost 30 years, has operated without scrubbers to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions.

The die-offs are not limited to this area:
Now, extensive tree deaths are being reported elsewhere in Texas, home to 19 coal-fired power plants — more than any other state. Four more are in planning stages. In each area where the phenomenon is reported, a coal-fired power plant operates nearby.
The trouble is that this article is long on accusations and short on evidence. For instance, there's a long-running drought that might well have contributed to the problem, or indeed, might be the primary cause. There's a passing reference to increased irrigation, but it's not clear how widely the recommendation was followed or what farms it covered. It's also not clear if die-offs are occurring in areas not near coal-fired power plants.

Perhaps the best evidence in support of the article comes from Charlie Faupel, who, it is implied, is a "seventh generation rancher" whose family owns what used to be an extensive stand of pecan trees:
On Dec. 9, Faupel filed a formal air pollution complaint against the Coleto Creek plant and demanded the state environmental commission investigate the emissions.

"I have noticed for over 20 years how the Coleto Creek power plant's sulfur dioxide has been damaging hundreds of the trees on our property — live oaks, white oaks and pecans," Faupel wrote. "Most of the white oak trees are already dead. The surviving trees don't have as much foliage and they're becoming more diseased, I believe, from the plant's sulfur dioxide weakening the trees over time."
That historical context is what this article sorely lacks. Without it, how are we to decide if this is just the expected result of a drought? For that matter, it's not clear how much any of these ranchers relies on a ground-water aquifer rather than rainfall or river water.

That all said, I expressed my disdain for Texas' disregard of environmental concerns not long ago, and I'm inclined to believe the ranchers rather than Texas' Commission on Environmental Quality. If it turns out the ranchers are correct, Gov. Rick Perry and his henchmen had better not come begging to the E.P.A. for any bailouts.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas 2010

Trying to get my holiday cards out (calling them "holiday cards" not only avoids denominational issues, it also lets me get them out any time before Presidents' Day), so not paying much attention to current events or this blog.

I commend to your attention a somber, yet hopeful tune, to be listened to if the madness of the season overcomes you: Calexico's "Gift X-change" (from the Aerocalexico compilation).
You say you're leaving
Going back home
Where's your family?
Where do you come from?
Something's missing from your life
Felt it all along
Retrace your steps
Balance and check
Where it all went wrong

Spirit is broken
The path is overrun
You can't move forward
And now nothing gets done
I hope you can find some
Inner peace along the way
Whatever it takes, I pray you'll make it
Home on Christmas Day

In case you don't find what you need
When you finally arrive
And your heart is snowed in
There's no warmth or light
Take this candle with you
And book of matches as well
As you're climbing the walls, no answers at all
Accept the gift you give yourself

I trust you will find some
Inner peace through times that are rough
What will it take to hear you say
The gift you give is love
The gift you live is enough

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

An open mind is not tyrannical

Though I often don't agree with David Brooks, I do expect better of him. In his column "The Arduous Community" he writes admiringly of Erica Brown, "scholar in residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington." My irritation with Brooks arises from his lionization of Brown for providing an alternative (and Brooks' implication is that this alternative is sorely needed) to what Brown calls our "relativistic culture." Specifically, Brooks writes:
Many people have no firm categories to organize their thinking. They find it hard to give a straight yes or no answer to tough moral questions.
And later:
She offers a path out of the tyranny of the perpetually open mind by presenting authoritative traditions and teachings.
What Brooks is oh-so-delicately trying to reinforce in the reader's mind is the standard-issue conservative caricature of hand-wringing liberals who are so paralyzed by guilt and so determined to be tolerant of other cultures that they supposedly cannot stand foursquare for or against anything.

"No firm categories to organize their thinking" -- what does that really mean? In context, Brooks seems to be accusing these people of not having a sense of right and wrong. I can't otherwise explain why Brooks would immediately follow that thought up with the observation that they have a hard time giving "a straight yes or no answer to tough moral questions."

However, I can suggest another reason they might find that difficult: perhaps the questions are tough?

Here's one for you, Mr. Brooks. Which of these options is more "moral": sacrificing the life of a pregnant woman to save her unborn child, or sacrificing the life of the unborn child to save the woman?

Oh, you want that phrased as a "yes or no" question? I can do that: Mr. Brooks, do we let the woman die? If you like, I can rephrase it, too: Mr. Brooks, do we sacrifice the unborn child?

As tempting as it is to beat up on a strawman argument that Brooks didn't explicitly make, I'll be intellectually honest and say that mine almost certainly wasn't the kind of "tough moral question" Brooks had in mind. So let's take one that he included in his column. According to him, Brown feels "it is necessary to expose a friend’s adultery because his marriage is more important than your friendship."

Is Brooks so unimaginative that hesitating to expose your friend's adultery can be rooted solely in a desire to protect your friendship? Perhaps you think his wife could become dangerously self-destructive if her marriage were to collapse. Maybe you don't want to see their kids undergo the trauma of divorce.

In short, maybe you know something about your friend and his marriage that Brooks and Brown don't. I can't imagine all the possible reasons you might think following Brown's prescription would be a bad idea. But to imply, as Brooks does, that not hewing to Brown's clear-cut guidance is somehow morally muddled -- that's simplistic. In fact, it's downright imbecilic.

That Brooks praises Brown's empathy suggests she, at least, would not be so foolish as to embrace Brooks' stupid strawman of "the perpetually open mind." A mind open to the possibility that old strictures might not be universally applicable today -- is Brooks really so contemptuous of that?

Nate Silver on Julian Assange

Last week, Nate Silver thought out loud about the context surrounding the rape charges against Julian Assange.

Silver seems like a bright guy and I'm sure he made valid points. However, he didn't ask a question that I've started to think is absolutely critical to make sense of the news coverage available to Americans today:
Why should I care?
Silver didn't bore me or make me think the charges are bogus. No, I'm saying that he, like a lot of others in the media, seems to have gotten caught up in what the Columbia Journalism Review has called "the hamster wheel" of news. Something that has captured the media's attention, for whatever reason, is acquiring a significance it doesn't deserve, just because everyone is covering it.

Is a rapist evil? Of course. Is Julian Assange a rapist? I don't know. Does it matter to me? If I were thinking about socializing with him, it might, but as things stand, the answer is "no." Whether Assange is or isn't a rapist has absolutely no effect on my life.

As bad as an exclusive concern with "self" can be in many areas of our lives, in our toxic news environment, an exclusive concern with self is the only thing that will keep you levelheaded.

Just because the media -- and Foxheads, this includes your chosen alternative to the "lamestream media" -- is flogging a story, doesn't make it newsworthy to you.

What difference does Assange's guilt or innocence on the rape charges make to the leaked documents on WikiLeaks? None at all. If you think publishing the documents was an evil act, it will remain an evil act even if Assange is innocent of rape. If you think publishing the documents was a good act, it will remain a good act even if he is guilty of rape.

Are various governments trying to distract us from the significance of the leaked documents by pursuing unrelated criminal charges against Assange? Maybe. That's about as relevant as those charges get to the rest of us, because it makes us wonder if we, too, might ever find ourselves in Assange's position.

You might already have decided that the documents on WikiLeaks are irrelevant to your life, and therefore so is any knowledge of Julian Assange. If so, more power to you. I feel differently about the documents, but at least ignoring them altogether makes sense to me as a response to all the shouting.

What doesn't make sense is getting riled up about rape charges that don't involve you, your family, or your friends, even if those charges give you, as they gave Nate Silver, an excuse for a column.

R.I.P. Steve Landesberg

I don't care for cast changes on good TV shows. They throw off the original dynamic between characters that the producers strove so hard to achieve. Even if the show succeeds creatively, it's not the same. A new character that is perceived as having directly replaced another is often resented, justifiably or not.

Barney Miller suffered through the loss of three major characters, only one of whom was replaced. Abe Vigoda's Phil Fish was spun off into his own series and the producers brought in Steve Landesberg to portray Det. Arthur Dietrich, Fish's replacement.

Fish had been an unexpectedly popular character. Like Jimmie Walker's J.J. Evans and John Travolta's Vinnie Barbarino, Vigoda's Fish mugged for the camera and the mid-1970s audience loved it. Landesberg and his character could have sunk the show, but he and the writers were too talented to let that happen. Fish had been prominently weary and decrepit; Landesberg and the writers made Dietrich almost stolid. Yet Landesberg also subtly conveyed Dietrich's carefully hidden desire to show off his considerable knowledge whenever possible. It isn't going too far to say that Landesberg's Dietrich allowed Barney Miller to become a smarter show than it would have been if Vigoda's Fish had remained. The replacement of Vigoda by Landesberg was the rare cast change that worked.

Landesberg died on Monday; the AP provided a brief obituary, as did the New York Times. He was a too-young 69.

UPDATE: The Times got his age wrong: Landesberg was 74. Still too young.

Monday, December 20, 2010

"Law and the Multiverse"

... is a newish blog musing on how the law would apply to superheroes.

If you thought I was the only one odd enough to have an interest in legal theory and comic books, ha! The joke's on you: the site's popularity made the New York Times take note.

Don't skip the comments: a lot of serious thinking goes on there.

Halliburton fracking info, week 5

No updates to Halliburton's "fluids disclosure" page since last week. That, in turn, means Halliburton hasn't bothered updating it since its launch five weeks ago.
Check back often: Many more states to come.
I've done my part: I've checked back often. Halliburton? Halliburton?

Bueller? Bueller?

Hmm. Perhaps responsiveness like this was why the E.P.A. dropped a subpoena on the company.

Bottom line: Halliburton's hydraulic fracturing Web site is still a hollow PR exercise.

Marx was a Founder?

A More Perfect Blog, the blog of the Bill of Rights Institute, recently posted an entry entitled, "Do you think teens know the difference between Madison and Marx?" I'll bet you can guess the answer, you cynic, you.
Sadly, a new national poll reveals that 42 percent of Americans wrongly attribute Marx’s famous communist slogan, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” to one of the country’s Founding documents. Nearly one in five Americans believe this phrase can be found in the Bill of Rights, of all places.
What I'd like to know is whether the respondents who thought that principle originated with the Founding Fathers actually understood what it meant. I'm prepared to believe that some percentage of respondents heard a phrase they knew must have been uttered by a famous someone, and simply decided that anything that portentous had to have been uttered by one of the revered Founders. However, the meaning of the quotation never crossed their minds.

The rest understood. They understood exactly what Marx meant, if not that he said it, and they attributed the underlying principle of Communism to Washington, or Jefferson, or Madison, or Franklin, or ... well, pick your favorite Founder.

That flopping noise ... I think it's Ayn Rand in her grave.

Okay, most of the foregoing was intended to lead up to that gibe. I doubt that more than the tiniest percentage of respondents actually thought about what the phrase meant. Anyway, I still think we poll ourselves too much.

By the way, you might have noticed that the piece's title referred to "teens," but the poll referred to "Americans." That's because the Bill of Rights Institute is geared toward teachers: it attempts to help them educate their students about the Constitution.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ricky Gervais on atheism

Courtesy of Daring Fireball, a quietly provocative piece blogged in the Wall Street Journal. "Provocative" because something entitled "A Holiday Message from Ricky Gervais: Why I'm an Atheist," published just before Christmas, is all but guaranteed to kick up some dust. (There are 1,122 comments as I type this, and the piece is less than twenty-four hours old.)

(I suppose the timing of its publication, and the "holiday message" preface, could be the work of a puckish Journal editor instead. I'd love to know one way or the other.)

In general I'm in full sympathy with Gervais, though I'll dispute him on one point:
Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence - evidence that is constantly updated and upgraded. It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along.
Anthropomorphizing science is, as Greg Graffin among others has argued, highly misleading and creates mistrust among nonscientists. "Science" is not an actor, it is a pursuit, a pursuit of human beings who don't always live up to the high standards science requires. Most of the time they do, but nobody's perfect.

Even Einstein once allowed a preconception of how the universe worked to influence his judgment. He came to regret including a cosmological constant in his original general relativity equations because he later recognized his motive had been to preserve a static universe, which he preferred over the idea that the universe changes over time. That cosmologists later resurrected the constant doesn't change the fact that Einstein introduced it for a reason that was not justified by the evidence then at hand.

So as a proponent of science, I wish people like Gervais would stop making statements about it that create an aura of infallibility. The vast majority of people aren't scientists and therefore take science on faith (distasteful though that may be for scientists to hear), so claiming an easily-disproven infallibility just gives people a reason to believe that science isn't the best way to explore the world around us.

That's my only quibble with Gervais' otherwise well-written essay. Let me close my own thoughts on it by quoting his simple refutation of the tired and offensive notion that virtue rests exclusively on religious, and specifically Christian, foundations:
Forgiveness is probably the greatest virtue there is. Buts [sic] that’s exactly what it is - ‐ a virtue. Not just a Christian virtue. No one owns being good.

"The death of moderates"

In my profound disgust with our current politics -- its players, its behaviors, its terms of debate, its outcomes -- I find myself more receptive than I once was to pieces like Ted Rall's "The Death of Moderates." His argument, essentially, is that compromise in the face of extreme policy proposals results in even worse policies being implemented, or in no action at all.
As we have seen time and time again in American history, compromises usually mean no solution at all. From the status of Missouri as a slave state to last week's tax deal between Democrats and Republicans, compromise usually means kicking the can down the road for another generation of people and politicians to contend with.
The comments to this piece are even more interesting. Pointed, often impatient, sometimes redolent of what I consider stereotypical leftist rhetoric (in spite of being very much to the left of the rightward-skewed center of this nation's politics, I have never had much patience with the "workers unite!" talking points that typify university-centered socialist and communist organizations), yet thoughtful and often persuasive, these comments reminded me I'm not alone in declaring "a plague on both your houses!" to the Republicans and the Democrats.

One exchange caught my eye. Commenter "Unless" wrote:
... I honestly think the best way to initiate change is to engage in grassroots cultural transformation. We can argue about politics and economics till our mouths run dry, but in the end our culture is what influences these factors.

As much as I hate to admit it, John McCain was right in assessing that the United States is a "center-right nation". We need to pretty much reach the "hearts and minds" of everyday American people. We need to change the way their think and live. The standard forms of political activism aren't really working anymore.
(I omitted some of the comment that I deemed irrelevant to this discussion.)

"Two Americas" replied:
Why not focus on power, rather than this vague and amorphous "hearts and minds" stuff? Politics is about power, not beliefs and feelings. Leave that stuff to religion - they have been working on improving people's moral tenor for a long time, with limited success. That field is pretty crowded. We need to focus on objective reality, on improving the conditions that people are actually enduring.

Peaceful social change is not an option that is in our hands, and it is a lie that people are advocating violent revolution as though that were a strategy or a solution. Some are acknowledging that no change is possible without there being a violent reaction (it is actually already happening on a daily basis all around the world) from those seeking to hold on to the power that we have over all of us.

We seek freedom. Those who are holding us in bondage resort to violence to keep us in place, and we need to fight back and to defend ourselves. That is not advocating violent revolution, that is facing reality and abandoning childish fantasies.
Two Americas sounds like a Jacobin. I don't know if we're as oppressed as the French population just prior to the Revolution, but I'd like to think we're not. In any case, we have to try for change within the system before we start taking violent action even in our own defense, or we're guaranteeing a bloody future for ourselves.

It's my "childish fantasy" that we can change this country's direction if we follow Unless' prescription.

Conservatives spent decades laying the groundwork for the Reagan revolution and its aftermath, and so successful were they that even today, our political discourse is carried out pretty much within the constraints of the world view that conservatives like William F. Buckley laid out in the '60s and '70s. A similarly long-lived effort is required of progressives today.

Computer Engineer Barbie

Via Cnet, a last-minute Christmas gift idea: Computer Engineer Barbie.

I once worked in a group with a comely young female software engineer. She would have made a decent real-life model for a doll like this. However, she wouldn't have been caught dead with the pink laptop CE Barbie sports.

(Thanks, Kal, for the tip.)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Senate repeals the ban

In a small sign that the Senate has not entirely relinquished a sense of its responsibilities, it finally repealed the dishonorable policy of "don't ask, don't tell" today. It's about time.

Not that the regressive forces went quietly:
Opponents of lifting the ban said the change could harm the unit cohesion that is essential to effective military operations, particularly in combat, and deter some Americans from enlisting or pursuing a career in the military. They noted that despite support for repealing the ban from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, other military commanders have warned that changing the practice would prove disruptive.
I wasn't around for it, but I would bet real money that these same arguments were advanced (if you can use that term) when the military ended segregation of African-Americans, too.

I already noted that actual research by the Rand Corporation in 1993 showed little risk to unit cohesion from lifting the ban. It's probably too much to expect some Republican members of the Senate to pay attention to facts, but the rest of us ought to be aware of them.

If "some Americans" avoid the military because they can't stomach the idea of serving with openly gay people, I say the military is better off. We don't need to cater to bigots.
“This isn’t broke,” Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, said of about the policy. “It is working very well.”
It's working well only for less-evolved life forms like yourself, Senator Inhofe.
“In the middle of a military conflict, is not the time to do it,” said Senator Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia.
If we waited for peace, the ban would never be repealed. I'm sure Senator Chambliss knows that, too.

The AP quotes Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, boiling down the issue to its starkest, most basic terms:
"No matter how I look at the issue," Mullen said, "I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens."
That terrible truth didn't bother Senator John McCain, who "led the opposition" according to the AP.
He blamed elite liberals with no military experience for pushing their social agenda on troops during wartime.

"They will do what is asked of them," McCain said of service members. "But don't think there won't be a great cost."
Senator McCain, I'm tired of you. It wouldn't have been so bad if you had just stated, right from the start, that you would never support openly declared gays serving in the military. But you weren't that honest: you said you'd defer to the generals and admirals, that you'd let them decide when the ban should go. You thought you could hide behind the military brass forever, that they would never push for repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" in your lifetime.

I wish I could have seen your face when Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mullen declared their support for repeal a year ago. I'll bet you were flummoxed. How the hell would you justify your prejudice now?

You bought yourself a year by demanding a study, even in the face of the Rand Corporation report more than fifteen years prior. A year passed, the report on the latest study arrived, and you got desperate, because it reached the same conclusion the earlier Rand study did. What to do, what to do?

Oh, right: assume nobody will read it, and hide behind an argument that the report discredits: the old standby, vague concern over "unit cohesion."

I laughed when The Daily Show expertly served you up as a hypocrite, but your biind, unreasoning prejudice is no longer funny. Even worse, you tried to hide your prejudice. The rest of your no-voting cabal, like Senator Inhofe, had the courtesy not to pretend their minds could ever be changed by evidence. You tried to play the middle and hoped you would never be called on it. Well, you were, and you finally had to show your true colors.

You're contemptible, Senator McCain.

At least a majority of your colleagues stood for honor over bigotry today.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Gmail, stop looking over my shoulder

Someone sent email to me that included an attachment, and as is often the case the body of the message included the words, "Attached is ...". When I replied, I trimmed most of the original mail but quoted that part of it. When I clicked "Send," Gmail popped up a warning box to the effect that I had included the words "attached is" but that I hadn't attached anything.

A quick test showed that if I simply quoted the entirety of the original message in my reply and composed above it, per Gmail's default behavior, no warning appeared.

Hey, Google, my netiquette predates your irritating default of top-posting. The burden is on Gmail to recognize what is quoted text versus original text, and not to put up the warning unless "attached is" appears as original text.

Better yet, Gmail could stop trying to second-guess me.

"Governments shouldn't have a monopoly on Internet governance"

Vint Cerf has sounded the alarm on a U.N. committee decision to restrict who can be part of a working group to improve the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Specifically, the U.N.'s Commission on Science & Technology for Development decided that the working group would consist exclusively of governments.

Vint Cerf "is recognized as one of the fathers of the Internet," and it's a fair bet that if he sees a problem regarding the Internet, it's real.

On the other hand, I haven't the faintest idea what the IGF is supposed to do. If, like me, you didn't know what the IGF was, its mission statement calls for it to do a lot of talking, and facilitating of talking.

Who's talking?
  • "bodies dealing with different cross-cutting international public policies regarding the Internet"
  • "appropriate inter-governmental organizations and other institutions"
  • "stakeholders"
What are they supposed to be talking about? As far as I can tell, "Internet governance."

What is that? Beats me.

It seems the IGF is supposed to implement the principles set out by the World Summit on the Information Society. Those principles are available in multiple languages. I will admit right up front that I was unable to parse the English-language version, though it is composed of valid English words. I think the problem was that I couldn't stay conscious long enough to finish any of the sentences.

Seriously, though, these principles are banal in the extreme, stating either the obvious or the unachievable. With these as the foundation, it's no wonder the IGF's mission statement is devoid of meaning.

There is another organization, the Internet Society, whose mission statement reads in part:
The Internet Society (ISOC) is a nonprofit organisation founded in 1992 to provide leadership in Internet related standards, education and policy. We are dedicated to ensuring the open development, evolution and use of the Internet for the benefit of people throughout the world.
ISOC has a brief word on Internet governance:
"Internet governance" is a broad term used in many different contexts, applying to activities as diverse as coordination of technical standards, operation of critical infrastructure, development, regulation, and legislation, among others. Internet governance is not restricted to the activities of governments. Many different types of stakeholders have a role in defining and carrying out Internet governance activities and ISOC has always been an active leader in such discussions.
(emphasis is mine)

As far as I can tell, ISOC's mission statement adequately sets forth the concrete goals hidden behind the WSIS's vaporous principles and the IGF's Platonically ideal mission statement. I'm therefore at a loss to see what the IGF could or should be doing that ISOC wasn't set up to do. And ISOC already understands, as the aforementioned U.N. committtee does not, that whatever "Internet governance" is, it involves more than just governments.

If you have a clearer idea of what the IGF is and why the CSTD's decision is a Bad Idea, or you just trust Vint Cerf, by all means, sign the petition to which he linked.

For myself, the IGF seems like a waste of time and money, and I'd rather see it gone.

I'm kind of cranky on this subject because to me the only "governance" required on the Internet is the oversight of technical standards provided by the IETF, the IESG, and the IAB.

Speaking of networking ...

Nicholas Carr names several prominent media types who are carving out time not to be connected to their digital selves.

I might be less connected than they'll ever be, but fundamentally I think we share the same impulse to restore some old-fashioned face-to-face contact to our lives.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Trekkie pizza cutter

Courtesy Comics 101, an informative and entertaining comic book blog, is a pointer to an Enterprise pizza cutter. Yup, it's the NCC-1701, the original, the one true Enterprise, with a saucer section all set to slice your pies. "Exclusively designed and manufactured by ThinkGeek," so you know it looks just like the, er, real thing.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

OpenBSD allegedly backdoored

I posted less before I started reading TechMeme (and Hacker News, for that matter). TechMeme linked into the middle of this thread on the openbsd-tech mailing list whose subject is "Allegations regarding OpenBSD IPSEC." The heart of the controversy is the accusation that the FBI contributed source code to OpenBSD that functioned as a back door "for the express purpose of monitoring the site to site VPN encryption system."

IPSEC provides, among other things, data encryption. The code that turns unencrypted data, or plaintext, into encrypted data would obviously be a desirable place for law enforcement to tap into communications.

That's if the accusation is true. It's going to be difficult to prove, even having access to the source code itself. The code would have been added ten years ago and subject to modification since then. More than one developer noted that any code which contributed to a back door could easily have been perceived as an innocuous bug, and fixed on that basis without anyone realizing it had been added deliberately.

If, again, the accusation has any merit at all.

The very existence of the thread and of the two explicit denials the accusations have sparked so far illustrates yet again how easy it is to start a firestorm that engulfs people's reputations. (One of those denials is part of the thread, while the other was posted in a blog.)

Gregory Perry, who started this particular firestorm, had better have more than the ominous-sounding but vague accusations he made in his original email. Otherwise he can kiss his own reputation in the developer community goodbye.

7 reasons to work at a big company

The title says it all.

Even if you know you hate working in a big company, who's to say you can't learn something from the experience? You don't have to stay forever -- just until you think you're not learning anything any more.

Bradley Manning's incarceration

Daring Fireball is less and less one of my refuges from the troubles of the world because John Gruber keeps noticing pieces like Glenn Greenwald's describing the conditions of Bradley Manning's confinement. Manning, in case all the hullaballoo over Julian Assange has driven it from your mind, is the man alleged to have provided Assange a good deal of the confidential information published on WikiLeaks that has embarrassed the U.S. government this year. He has not been convicted of a crime.

I can't and won't summarize the piece: it needs to be read in its entirety.

I want to touch on one point Greenwald made, though, and that is Manning's apparent motivation for leaking information in the first place. Using the edited chat logs between Manning and Adrian Lamo released by Wired, Greenwald paints a sympathetic portrait of Manning as a patriotic young man who became deeply disturbed not merely by what he saw happening, but by the fact that so much of it was being determinedly hidden from the U.S. public.

With due respect to both Greenwald and Manning, my cursory reading of those chat logs doesn't convince me of Manning's guilelessness. I'm not saying he was deceitful in his chats; I'm saying that I can't read his motivations well enough. Small parts of his chats make him sound resentful for being overlooked, which might offer a less noble reason for his alleged actions. I'd like to believe he was and is an idealist with his country's best interests at heart, but I'm not ready to assume that was the case.

Speaking of those logs, I think it likely Manning was played by Lamo. As "redseeker" noted in the comments following the article:
What this transcript shows is Lamo, for reasons unknown, leading Manning on and on until he had enough info to hang Manning, then he did.

Lamo *could* have said, “look, I’m not your friend and I don’t agree with you, so stop talking to me.” Instead, Lamo went all mirroring, saying as little as he could himself (almost nothing) while keeping Manning talking.
Getting back to the main point: whatever Manning's motivations, whether Lamo led him on or not, indeed, whatever the true damage attributable to the leaks turns out to be, can we not all agree that the terms of his incarceration are unconscionable?

If not -- if even a sizable minority of the U.S. public believes these conditions do not constitute cruel and unusual punishment of a nonviolent prisoner -- can I ask that the U.S. government and the hardest-blowing of our punditry class cease to tout the U.S. as a moral leader in the world?

Condoning such treatment would make us bad enough: I'd rather we weren't hypocrites and liars as well.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Columbia Journalism staff urges restraint against WikiLeaks

Per, a group of faculty and officers of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism is urging President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder "to pursue a course of prudent restraint" against WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.
Any prosecution of Wikileaks’ staff for receiving, possessing or publishing classified materials will set a dangerous precedent for reporters in any publication or medium, potentially chilling investigative journalism and other First Amendment-protected activity.
It beats me how so many people can get so up in arms about Assange and his crew when what they are is the equivalent of a fence for stolen goods. You can go after the fence, but the burglars are going to find another one. The burglar is the one who deserves to have the book thrown at him.

WikiLeaks isn't what I'd call a journalistic enterprise: journalism implies a degree of editorial judgment, which WikiLeaks appears to lack. Nevertheless, the spill has occurred, the damage has been done, and prosecution of Assange will be seen as nothing more than spitefulness by a mean-spirited, insecure U.S. government.

Then again, we're a mean-spirited, insecure nation these days, aren't we?

Appellate court holds email privacy protected by Fourth Amendment

Per the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
In a landmark decision issued today in the criminal appeal of U.S. v. Warshak, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the government must have a search warrant before it can secretly seize and search emails stored by email service providers. Closely tracking arguments made by EFF in its amicus brief, the court found that email users have the same reasonable expectation of privacy in their stored email as they do in their phone calls and postal mail.
A mere pebble on the tracks of that national-security train I mentioned earlier today, but ehh, it's better than nothing, I suppose.

Like the ACLU, the EFF fights the good fight even when the good fight is unpopular. Also like the ACLU, the EFF has no idea of how to rouse public opinion to its causes.

What a haircut taught me

I just finished the latest TomDispatch blog entry entitled, "Tomgram: Stephan Salisbury, Politics in the Terrordome, 2011," which quotes a seemingly endless parade of Republican lawmakers and conservative rabble rousers who, by the evidence, have collectively lost their minds.

Seriously, if I spent as much time being scared (or claiming that I and everyone else ought to be scared and angry) as they do, my head would have exploded by now. Is that how al-Qaeda secretly intends to win, by shattering our skulls? An impressively deep strategy, if true.

It got me to thinking, though: why hasn't there been a backlash against the mass hysteria of the governing classes?

Then I remembered a very brief exchange I had with the guy who cuts my hair. He has family in other parts of the country, so I asked him if he has had occasion to run through the infamous full-body scanners at the airports. He hadn't, but added, "I say, if it helps us be safer, go ahead [and use the scanners]."

There's a good deal of controversy as to how well the scanners work, and how safe they are for frequent travelers. There are also some legitimate concerns about our privacy and how well those scanners are designed to guarantee it. But he hadn't heard any of that. His acquaintance with the controversy has been mere to the core (to borrow from Wodehouse). And that's almost certainly why we've got the circus of security hysteria we have: most of the country just isn't paying attention. It's how most people stay sane.

The upshot is, it will take a seismic upheaval to derail the national-security train as it speeds us all deeper into the Terror Zone, that shadowy place from which all that can be seen are our nightmares. Two types of people are showing us the way: the terrorists, who are laying the track (and boy, are they seeing their employment opportunities expand), and the domestic fearmongers who are pouring on the coals, eager for the power and money to be gained by playing all of us.

Brits as Americans on TV

Dominic West, Idris Elba, Jamie Bamber, and of course Hugh Laurie -- all British actors who have impersonated Americans (or in Bamber's case, an extraterrestrial human who spoke with an American accent) with remarkable success on American television series.

Does the talent go in the opposite direction, too? Are there American actors who have successfully impersonated Brits on British television?

Netezza-IISI settlement

Just under a month ago I mentioned the lawsuit between Netezza and IISI in the context of an entry on why we mistrust government. Netezza allegedly illegally ported IISI's software to its own hardware, a model of drone aircraft used for CIA assassination missions overseas. Netezza appears to have been motivated by heavy pressure from the CIA, which wanted the drones in action far sooner than IISI could do the job.

I was unaware that a full week before my entry, Netezza and IISI had settled.
Netezza will have ownership of all products and related intellectual property developed by IISI for the Netezza platforms, including the geospatial product and extended SQL toolkit. IISI has retained the right to continue to develop, manufacture and distribute those products for use on other platforms. Other terms of the settlement were not disclosed and will remain confidential.
Reading between the lines, it sounds like IISI allowed Netezza to keep its (otherwise illegal) port of IISI's software but is otherwise washing its hands of Netezza. This would be an understandable decision since Netezza apparently botched the work, introducing a navigation bug that could throw the drone's targeting system off.

Halliburton fracking info, week 4

No updates to Halliburton's "fluids disclosure" page since last week.

Still a hollow PR exercise.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Gawker hacked

It's no longer news that Gawker, the celebrity gossip site, was hacked. The usernames and passwords of commenters were obtained, but that's only the start of the damage. Forbes' "Firewall" blog goes into more detail about what the site's attackers got: users' email addresses, employee passwords, source code for the site itself ... really, it's more a question of what the crackers didn't get. (Thanks to Daring Fireball for the link.)

If there were a way to screw up its response, Gawker found and followed it.
In truth, they had over a month to find this problem but diagnosed the early warning signs in November improperly, were very obviously breached (and told they were breach [sic] by others) on Saturday, and it still took until Monday afternoon to say anything to their user base. And in the meantime their representatives were releasing statements via Twitter up until Saturday evening that were either partially or totally incorrect.
Pretty bad. And yet, unlike Forbes' "Firewall" blogger Daniel Kennedy, I'm having a hard time getting too exercised about this.

Yes, the compromise stinks for those Gawker commenters who shared identities (email addresses and/or usernames and/or passwords) between Gawker and other services of arguably greater importance, like Twitter. But I would never have expected a celebrity gossip site to have the greatest security. (In Gawker's case, it appears it had none.) The farther a Web site's business is from technology, the less confidence I place in its commitment to and understanding of genuine security. Gawker trades in gossip. That's how it makes its bones. I would never trust it with any information of genuine importance, like a username/password pair I used for a bank, or even for an email account.

To use the same password for Gawker and Twitter was the kind of mistake inexperienced users make. They'll have to stumble through the consequences, like all newbies to the Internet (and you're a newbie until you've absorbed this kind of lesson, even if you've been online for ages). The quotation from Tolkien's The Two Towers comes to mind: "The burned hand teaches best."

Kennedy has a laundry list of things Gawker should do:
And when they have finished hiring a real security person and drafting an incident response plan, they can create a password composition and management policy, a policy on not writing passwords in chat logs, a patch management policy, and maybe for kicks a policy against bad mouthing their own users internally, users that they themselves put in harm’s way.
Reasonable actions for a hacked business to take, but I doubt Gawker will follow through. Real security means investing a lot of time and money in hardware, software, and training. More importantly, it means imbuing everyone in the organization with the kind of mindset that would make "writing passwords in chat logs" unthinkable.

I'll say it again: Gawker trades in gossip. The security gossipmongers worry about is that which stands between them and their subjects. Gawker will do the minimum necessary to get itself back up and running, and then coast along until the next time it's cracked. If its audience has gotten the hint from this fiasco, the only victims of that next incident will be Gawker and its staff.

More stars than we thought?

A new study of the light from distant galaxies suggests astronomers might have underestimated the number of stars in the universe.

Astronomers typically extrapolate from what they know (or think they know) about the Milky Way to paint a picture of the rest of the universe. The Milky Way contains a certain proportion of "dwarf stars" relative to the number of stars similar to the Sun. Astronomers assumed this proportion held for other galaxies as well, and went on to calculate the stellar populations for those galaxies on the basis of their extrapolations. However, a different method of analyzing galaxies' stellar components, one that relies on the total light spectrum from each galaxy, suggests that the proportion of dwarf stars in some other galaxies is higher than that of the Milky Way, in some cases by an order of magnitude.

That discrepancy could have a significant effect on our understanding of the universe since it could mean astronomers have been underestimating the total mass attributable to stars. If cosmologists are still struggling with the need for previously unimaginable quantities of "dark matter" to account for the observed gravitational influence of mass throughout the universe, this underestimation of aggregate stellar mass might mitigate that struggle. (I say "if" because my layman's knowledge of cosmology is at least a decade out of date.)

It needs to be said, though, that these findings are preliminary and have not, as far as I know, been corroborated by others.

At a metalevel, thinking about how science actually progresses, news like this is a mixed blessing. If you think scientists need to show science is self-correcting, this is welcome news. If, on the other hand, you're concerned that pseudo-scientists and anti-scientific activists will seize on this as evidence that "science doesn't know everything," this isn't such a wonderful development.

Myself, I've never had a problem with the idea that "science doesn't know everything": that's what makes it such a worthwhile pursuit. However, a lot of people are looking for certainty these days. You would think the modern world would have disabused them of the notion that there are certainties these days (except for those perennials death and taxes), but there it is. Religion can offer certainties, or at least some religions can, but a lot of people -- especially in the U.S. -- want religion to stand in science's stead for some questions, or even all questions. That kind of thinking alarms me. Chilly though it can get, I stand naked before the cosmos, and I (and many others) have no desire to be enfolded within the suffocating embrace of religious belief, no matter how warm it makes others feel.

For those who wonder what else there's left to discover, this story should remind them that much of astronomy and cosmology rests on reasonable but sometimes untested assumptions. I've no doubt humanity has tasted the merest morsel of the universe's banquet of knowledge. and we will be feasting on it for as long as we exist as a species.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

More on untrustworthy CAs

I'm very late to this story (Ars Technica last updated it eight months ago): apparently an Arizona company, Packet Forensics, "was covertly selling a piece of hardware designed to perform ... man-in-the-middle attacks" against SSL/TLS connections.

What is a man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack? It's a conceptually straightforward, decidedly dangerous subversion of the initial negotiation that is needed to set up so-called "secure" online connections. The idea is to interpose oneself between the two communicating parties, not to disrupt the conversation, but to listen to it.

Secure Web communications, those denoted by "https" and typically described as "secured by SSL," require the communicating parties to identify one another before they send real data, precisely to prevent MITM attacks. (In practice, servers often do not bother to verify the client's identity, however.) The identification process depends on trusted third parties known as certificate authorities, or CAs. In theory, a MITM attack should be exceedingly difficult against an SSL (or rather, TLS) connection. However, if you can subvert the CA so it's willing to issue fraudulent certificates for you, you have solved 90% of the MITM problem. Your CA can issue a certificate attesting that you are, or Bill Gates, or whoever you need to be; the end user will verify that your CA "confirms" the certificate belongs to Amazon or Bill Gates or whomever. Neither the end user nor Amazon (or Bill Gates, or whoever) will detect your successful MITM attack.

So for Packet Forensics' box to have a market, one or more CAs must be betraying their core mission, and therefore, all of us. All of us.

As Ars Technica (and Wired, in a better article on this topic) notes, Verisign and GoDaddy, two of the largest CAs, both deny they would ever issue a fake certificate, and indeed claim they've never been asked to do so. That doesn't mean other CAs, particularly those that belong to governments, wouldn't agree to do so. In fact, the truly suspicious (and I step into and out of that camp, depending on the weather) will not discount the possibility that Verisign and GoDaddy simply are lying, by choice or under pressure.

I'd guess that when the EFF's concerns about untrustworthy CAs were discussed by the New York Times in August, the EFF was talking about Packet Forensics' hardware and the implications it had. As I mentioned back then, there is really no good technical solution to this problem.

There is one more aspect of this matter that needs to be aired. I said that a corrupt CA gets a malefactor 90% of the way to his desired aim of being able to execute a MITM attack. The other 10% lies in getting the corrupt CA's certificate into the major browsers. (I pulled those percentages out of my ... well, don't take them too seriously.)

To understand how the major browsers are involved, we need to look at how certificates are verified.

Certificate verification requires that one confirm the certificate's digital signature. The signature is a computed value which is (believed to be) proof against tampering: that is, any attempt to alter a signed document will invalidate the signature (as far as mathematicians know). The caveats are for precision: as a practical matter, we can consider a valid digital signature to guarantee a document's integrity and origin.

Every certificate is digitally signed by its issuer. To verify a certificate requires obtaining its issuer's public key, which means obtaining the issuer's certificate. Of course, this chain of verification cannot regress to infinity: in the real world, it terminates with a special certificate that has been self-signed. A self-signed certificate is a document that essentially asserts, "I am I."

As you can imagine, such a certificate either means absolutely nothing, or virtually everything. Why would you trust it?

The answer, for better or worse, is necessity. The chain of trust represented by certificates somehow must be bootstrapped, or the whole enterprise is a non-starter. Yet it is unwise to accept just any self-signed certificate, and in fact, we seldom if ever are asked to do so in our wanderings on the Web. The reason is that the makers of major browsers incorporate a set of self-signed certificates, also known as root certificates, that are automatically trusted by the browser. These root certificates have been issued by "recognized" CAs, and a browser considers certificate verification successful if the verification leads back to one of these root certificates.

How do the browser makers decide which root certificates to trust? That's the $64,000 question. I have suspicions that center around black goats, silver daggers, and hooded adepts chanting under the full moon, but these are mere suspicions. The bottom line is that if a root certificate from a corrupt CA is trusted by your browser, all of your secure Web interactions are at risk.

Regrettably, the browser makers likely don't have much better knowledge than anyone else of who the corrupt CAs are. You could argue that, by assuming responsibility for bootstrapping trust, the makers took upon themselves the responsibility for ensuring our safety, too, but if you push that argument hard enough the browser makers will simply stop shipping with any root certificates and we'll be left to fend for ourselves. That's a prospect that will please few.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Links before I sleep

I'm starting to choke on the Internet firehose, especially as regards WikiLeaks-related stories. Ergo, here are a few links to stories that I found interesting, sans (much) comment:

Wikileaks: Anonymous stops dropping DDoS bombs, starts dropping science

Parsing the impact of Anonymous

The second is a thoughtful blog entry discussing how the DDoS attacks against WikiLeaks' supposed betrayers might affect the debate within the U.S.:
As far as long-term developments are concerned, I think that much depends on whether the WikiLeaks saga would continue being a debate about freedom of expression, government transparency or whistle-blowing or whether it would become a nearly-paranoid debate about the risks to national security. Anonymous is playing with fire, for they risk tipping the balance towards the latter interpretation -- and all the policy levers that come with it.
The writer also notes that much, if not most, of the most fiery and bloodthirsty responses to the leak have been from Congressional Republicans or professional rabble rousers like Sarah Palin. The Obama administration, with the notable exception of Hillary Clinton, largely has been missing in action on this issue. One assumes this is No-Drama Obama at work. I suppose I prefer that to Hang-Em-High Dubya's shoot-first-then-check-your-aim approach.

Europeans Criticize Fierce U.S. Response to Leaks

Vladimir Putin is loving all this sturm und drang.

Senate keeps the ban

Enough Senators couldn't overcome their old prejudices: "don't ask, don't tell" is still official policy. According to the tally, John McCain was in bad company as thirty-eight of his fellow Republicans and one Democrat also voted against cloture, preventing the bill to repeal the ban from moving forward and effectively killing it.

Sixty votes were needed to invoke cloture. If you're counting, you might have noticed that only forty senators voted no, and wonder why that doesn't mean there were sixty "yes" votes. The answer is that three senators did not vote: Sam Brownback (R-KS), John Cornyn (R-TX) and Blanche Lincoln (D-AR). I'll hazard a guess that neither Republican was going to vote in the affirmative, so their faliure to vote had no effect.

Though McCain was hardly the only one to vote against advancing the repeal, he's the one who should be forced to explain, as often as possible, why he went back on his word. He said he'd support repeal if the military leadership recommended it; they did. He said he wanted a study done on the effects of repealing the ban; the study was presented to President Obama on 1 December and it concluded that repealing the ban would not materially harm the military's effectiveness. You're out of excuses, Senator.

Oh, I know: you're going to hide behind Susan Collins' denunciation of Harry Reid for calling the vote before Republicans had finished negotiating procedural niceties. You'll bob and weave and generally do everything in your power to keep yourself from looking like what you are. I'll refrain from using the word.

Actually, no, you're not that word. You're a foolish, frightened old man who has forgotten why he holds a Senate seat. You have no principled reason for your stance, but you cling to it anyway because you don't have the courage to admit you're wrong. In this you are like your fellow Senators who voted no, except you said you would be different.

Senator, it gets worse. And you will deserve every bad moment.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

One last word about Terriers

Sorry, I know Terriers is dead and gone, but I had to mention its greatest virtue because none of my stumbling praise has touched on it. In no other series have the main characters so quickly and so completely earned my affection. Hank, Britt, Katie, Gretchen, Mark Gustafson, even Hank's unstable sister Stephanie -- they're all fully realized, none of them flawless, yet every one appealing in his or her way. Not one moment of the character development rang false. Do you know how rare that is? Other series resort to gimmicks, like utterly implausible tragedies, or soapy machinations to manipulate viewers into feeling sympathy for their characters. Not Terriers. It did the job by getting all the little moments, the small interactions between people, right.

Its demise will probably be seen as a verdict on low-key, witty dramas, meaning we won't see another for quite a while. It's a shame.

FX cancels Terriers

Per The Hollywood Reporter.

I'm bummed. It was easily the best new series I've seen in a long time. I liked it better than even Boardwalk Empire, which was renewed for a second season before its second episode. Of course, HBO actually promoted BwE, something FX evidently couldn't be bothered to do for Terriers.

Halliburton fracking info, week 3

Three weeks on and still no updates to Halliburton's "fluids disclosure" page: it still lists only three of its formulations, though when the whole site debuted on 15 November 2010 the company promised more would be forthcoming.

Like I said, it's a hollow PR exercise.


There's a small irony in my having worked for a time, just prior to the birth of the World Wide Web, on research tools that ran atop, and often were used to test the characteristics of, high-bandwidth, wide-area computer networks. Improving people's ability to communicate runs counter to my ever-increasing predilection for, if not quite complete solitude, then severely limited company. In fact, I think I would be more conventionally sociable were it not for the unrelenting pressure to connect, which runs afoul of a deeply contrarian streak in my nature. Always a bit of an outsider, it was the rise of the social networks, and the swift formalization of their place in our culture, that turned me into a passing stranger.

That's why this passage from a reflection on our fetish for connectivity caught my attention:
The prophets of networks thought that the greatest loser in the digital age would be the child without a modem. Instead, the greatest losers are those who are being forcibly plugged in, and losing authority and status as a result - state institutions, American embassies, old boy networks, publishers, families, political organisations, MPs and so on. It's not so much that these traditional forms of organisation are left behind by the rise of open access networks and fluid forms of association, it's that they are strategically undermined by them, sometimes to the point of unviability.

We were told that power would consist in having more and more connectivity (so the telecom industry hoped), making charisma and bandwidth the most important forms of productive capital. By this account, the city of Birmingham could have been a contender. Instead, power resides with Mark Zuckerberg and Julian Assange, individuals with few friends or capabilities, other than to break down whatever norms, rules and institutions used to enable society and communities to cohere (for better or worse).
Zuckerberg and Assange may or may not be as described, but Facebook and WikiLeaks are disruptive. Disruption is not necessarily bad, but if evolutionary biology teaches us anything, it is that some species don't survive changes to their environment. In the same way, not all people or institutions successfully adapt to social change.

At any rate, I don't have a presence on any of the social networks, and I doubt that will change. I find the effort to maintain a politely enthusiastic front in the face of meeting and greeting many people to be exhausting and unfulfilling. Give me a handful of congenial souls on whom I can focus my attention, and I am content.

On a related note, you might be puzzled as to why an introvert like myself would blog. Well, I have enough of an ego to think that my opinions might be of interest to others. I know how irksome unasked-for opinions are, too. A blog and a search engine are the perfect solution.

See? I don't think all connectivity is bad.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Borker arrested

Courtesy of Kottke, the news that Vitaly Borker, infamous subject of a New York Times piece, was arrested. Good.

His own words convict him of being a crummy person. From that Times piece:
When he first heard about Get Satisfaction ["an advocacy Web site where consumers vent en masse"], it was by e-mail from one of the site’s employees, who was trying to mediate on behalf of unhappy customers.

“They wrote to me, ‘We’d like to talk to you; we should take a proactive approach.’ ” Mr. Borker sneers and rolls his eyes. “I sent him a photograph of this,” he says, raising his middle finger.

Thiessen and Wikileaks

Marc Thiessen's 7 December 2010 Washington Post column is entitled, non-ironically, "You're either with us, or you're with WikiLeaks." (Thanks to Daring Fireball for the pointer.) Just in time for the holidays, it's the first Santa Troll sighting!
Like the war on terror, we have been attacked in this new cyber war in ways we did not anticipate.
Betrayal by a trusted party is as old as mankind. But Thiessen, like the President whose boneheaded pronouncement he ripped off, has no sense of history. He also has no knowledge of networked computing, but given his monumental core wrongness, that's almost beside the point.
Just as terrorism allows small groups of individuals to wreak destruction on a scale that was once the province of nation-states, information technology allows small actors such as Julian Assange to wreak previously unimagined destruction on U.S. national security through cyberspace.
So I guess the person who provided the information to Assange bears no responsibility?

Treat hysterical, idiotic pieces like Thiessen's with the contempt they deserve.

Souter vs. originalism

Former Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter addressed Harvard University's commencement ceremonies on 27 May 2010. His remarks critiqued the philosophies of Constitutional interpretation known as strict constructionism and originalism. Strict constructionism is the practice of interpreting the "plain text" of the Constitution and its amendments, while originalism is the practice of interpreting the Constitution and its amendments according to how they were understood at the time they went into effect. An originalist would look at the First Amendment in the light of how an eighteenth-century gentleman farmer would have interpreted it, while analyzing the Twenty-First Amendment in light of how an adult of the early twentieth century would have understood it.

Strict constructionism, concentrating as it does on the plain text of the Constitution and its amendments, has an easily-understood appeal. In particular, if I may be so bold as to impute personality traits to political views, I can see its appeal to conservatives. Strict constructionism offers a straightforward approach to Constitutional interpretation that, ideally, eliminates the need or the ability for judges to adopt a moral stance. All moral decisions are the province of the people and are only to be expressed through legislation and Constitutional amendment. Strict constructionism thus promises slow social change, and only at the behest of a majority of the population.

There is a whiff of the mathematical about srict constructionism's promise: adopt this philosophy and decisions become a matter of plugging the facts into judicial equations, its advocates insinuate. Or perhaps more accurately, they imply that strict constructionism eliminates the messiness of acknowledging contemporary mores, the perilousness of coming to a conclusion about how society thinks or feels right now.

Justice Souter claims that the Constitution does not permit such evasiveness. He illustrates his point with the dispute surrounding the publication of the "Pentagon Papers." Most of us know why the Court allowed the documents to be published: the First Amendment's right to free expression and publication was deemed to override the government's need to keep the documents secret. Yet that need also arose from a Constitutional prerogative: "The Constitution also granted authority to the government to provide for the security of the nation, and authority to the president to manage foreign policy and command the military." If the circumstances had been different, the Court might have ruled differently.
The court’s majority decided only that the government had not met a high burden of showing facts that could justify a prior restraint, and particular members of the court spoke of examples that might have turned the case around, to go the other way. Threatened publication of something like the D-Day invasion plans could have been enjoined; Justice Brennan mentioned a publication that would risk a nuclear holocaust in peacetime.

Even the First Amendment, then, expressing the value of speech and publication in the terms of a right as paramount as any fundamental right can be, does not quite get to the point of an absolute guarantee. It fails because the Constitution has to be read as a whole, and when it is, other values crop up in potential conflict with an unfettered right to publish, the value of security for the nation and the value of the president’s authority in matters foreign and military. The explicit terms of the Constitution, in other words, can create a conflict of approved values, and the explicit terms of the Constitution do not resolve that conflict when it arises.
Conservatives have used the expression "judicial activism" as a pejorative shorthand for decisions that they claim violate the principle of strict construction by too-expansive interpretation of the Constitution. Souter briskly disposes of the notion of activism:
A choice may have to be made, not because language is vague but because the Constitution embodies the desire of the American people, like most people, to have things both ways....

Let me ask a rhetorical question. Should the choice and its explanation be called illegitimate law making? Can it be an act beyond the judicial power when a choice must be made and the Constitution has not made it in advance in so many words? You know my answer. So much for the notion that all of constitutional law lies there in the Constitution waiting for a judge to read it fairly.
I wrote briefly about originalism a couple of months ago. Justice Antonin Scalia is good at making his views look unassailable, and I found myself thinking that originalism might make sense as a judicial philosophy, even if it was still weird as a practice (not many professions today look backwards to see how they were carried out two hundred years ago). It helped that the only critique of originalism I had been able to find, from former Justice John Paul Stevens, managed to miss the point of originalism altogether.

Souter baldly takes issue with the heart of originalism, the idea that the views people held in the past about the Constitution ought to govern our interpretation of it today. As his exemplar he looks at Plessy v. Ferguson, which enshrined "separate but equal," and Brown v. Board of Education, which essentially dismantled it. What caused this reversal?
[T]he members of the Court in Plessy remembered the day when human slavery was the law in much of the land. To that generation, the formal equality of an identical railroad car meant progress. But the generation in power in 1954 looked at enforced separation without the revolting background of slavery to make it look unexceptional by contrast. As a consequence, the judges of 1954 found a meaning in segregating the races by law that the majority of their predecessors in 1896 did not see. That meaning is not captured by descriptions of physically identical schools or physically identical railroad cars. The meaning of facts arises elsewhere, and its judicial perception turns on the experience of the judges, and on their ability to think from a point of view different from their own.
This is a direct repudiation of originalism's essence, and the best argument I've seen so far in favor of taking contemporary values and cultural mores into account.

That said, I can imagine Scalia's counterargument: "How can it possibly be appropriate for nine men and women to impose their moral compasses on the entire country? Show me where in the Constitution or its amendments that the Court is granted the authority to judge what is morally acceptable. Tell me why that would be a good thing. You can't." (I imagine Scalia would be combative on this point.)

And I'm not so sure Scalia would be wrong.

Even if you like the outcome, as most of us do in the case of Brown, never forget that the Court operates on precedent, not only in the sense of deciding new cases on the basis of old ones, but also in the sense of operating according to the behavioral norms established by previous Courts. If a prior Court -- for instance, the Warren Court -- had made moral justice an accepted component of its jurisprudence, the current Court would have ample excuse to do so as well. And I don't know that I want the current Court to make value judgments about abortion, or gay marriage, or any number of other issues on which its collective moral compass almost certainly points south whenever mine points north. (Unfortunately, the horse is already out of the barn on this point.)

I still find originalism to be a troubling philosophy, one that permits bad ideas and old prejudices to endure longer than they should. However, Justice Souter was only a little more effective than Justice Stevens in arguing against it. I really hope that somebody will show me a good reason, or even better, a number of good reasons not to consider it the least bad guide to interpreting the Constitution.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Tim Goodman at THR

Finally, the snark is back in full force.

My favorite TV critic and one of my favorite columnists, Tim Goodman, recently jumped ship from the fading, rather sad San Francisco Chronicle to The Hollywood Reporter. His columns for THR to date have been less biting than I like, but at last he introduced himself to his new readership in his finest acerbic style.
It’s a little late to say hello – like 30 days late. But if I apologize for being tardy then you’ll think it’s going to be easy to get a “sorry” out of me when I piano-wire your show, network, production company, development staff, etc. And I don’t want to lead you astray on that notion.
It's good to know the cranky pants are back on, Tim.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Texas vs. the E.P.A.

Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times, a quick overview of Texas' resistance to new E.P.A. regulations governing greenhouse gases.

Texas politicians are using the usual Republican talking points to justify their resistance, saying the Obama E.P.A. "is putting a target on Texas." Well, Texas is big enough so a bullseye would be superfluous, but never mind.

The howler, unsurprisingly, is courtesy the unapologetically anti-intellectual Governor Rick Perry: "People are tired of the government cooking up new ways to micromanage their lives. They're tired of the government killing jobs with their do-gooder policies that have nothing to do with science or economics."

To use a term with which a proud Texan ought to be familiar: horseshit, Governor. Just because your state is still inextricably hung up on fossil fuels doesn't mean you should get to drag the rest of us down with you. We're looking past fossil fuels because real science -- the kind you deride for the benefit of your cronies and contributors -- long since has concluded fossil fuels are (1) finite, (2) making our air (and water and land, come to think of it) dirtier, and (3) almost certainly altering our environment in a way that puts our survival as a species in question.

You want to spew your toxins without regard to others? Put a fucking dome over your state. Otherwise, accept that you live in a democracy in which the rest of us have decided we have to do something about the dirty economy we've created.

What a 4-year-old should know

Via Kottke, some calming words for parents of young children. The author was motivated to write them by the hypercompetitive and overstressed comments she saw from other parents in response to one mother's query about what her 4 1/2 year old should know.

Were I a parent I might not follow all of the advice, but the core principles for parents seem pretty wise: accept that your kids will learn at their own pace, and make more time to be with them. If you actually play with them, they'll pick up a lot.

The Wikileaks disclosures, revisited

The other day I mentioned my uneasiness with Wikileaks' disclosure of U.S. diplomatic cables.
I don't see much good coming from the Wikileaks disclosures. I certainly don't see the good outweighing the harm, at least to the U.S.
Those statements need revisiting.

First, "the Wikileaks disclosures" makes it sound like Wikileaks and its founder, Julian Assange, themselves were primarily responsible for obtaining the information. They weren't, of course: the information apparently was obtained by a comparative nobody in the U.S. government. However, as a correspondent for The Economist points out, a disturbing number of people, including Sen. Joe Lieberman, have decided that hounding Wikileaks is the proper approach to dealing with the disclosures it facilitates. (Lieberman got Amazon to stop hosting Wikileaks following publication of the cables.) It should be obvious by now that such a strategy is futile: "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."
With or without WikiLeaks, the personel [sic], technical know-how, and ideological will exists to enable anonymous leaking and to make this information available to the public. Jailing Thomas Edison in 1890 would not have darkened the night.
Lieberman's actions, by the way, should surprise no one: he has an authoritarian streak a mile wide and loves the national security state.

The other matter I've reexamined is what "good" will or won't arise from the publication of these cables. I maintain that foreign officials will be less inclined to share information on a confidential or unofficial basis because they will not wish to be embarrassed by future leaks (which, frankly, I regard as inevitable). The ability of U.S. foreign service personnel to gather information thus will be reduced, and I can only see that as a blow to U.S. foreign policy as a whole.

On the other hand, the aforelinked Salon piece by Glenn Greenwald makes an excellent point:
Note that Lieberman here is desperate to prevent American citizens -- not The Terrorists -- from reading the WikiLeaks documents which shed light on what the U.S. Government is doing. His concern is domestic consumption.
(Emphasis is in the original text.)

If the rest of the world can see the documents, why stop U.S. citizens? Greenwald found nine facts he claimed had not been reported by The Washington Post, clearly implying that more nuggets unknown to the U.S. public were to be found among the leaked documents.

That brings us back to the "good" that leaking these documents might accomplish. From a foreign policy standpoint, I see none, but from a domestic standpoint, who can tell? Will U.S. citizens learn things they should know about their government?

(Thanks to Daring Fireball for the links that inspired this reconsideration.)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

John McCain, it gets worse

Still catching up on my Daily Shows, but I had to mention the brilliant public service announcement spoof aimed at Sen. John McCain, whose intransigence on "don't ask, don't tell" has reduced him to a no longer amusing caricature of himself. Here's the clip, but you probably know by now that I have this weird compulsion to do a transcript.
Jon Stewart: You know, as I see John McCain doing anything to keep "don't ask, don't tell" from being repealed, it's hard not to remember [chokes up with emotion] it gets worse.

[PSA starts]
John Oliver: Hello, Senator McCain. We know you're going through a tough time with this "don't ask, don't tell" thing.

Jason Jones: But trust us ...

Sean Hayes: It gets worse.

Wyatt Cenac: Seriously, it's all downhill from here.

JJ: The head of the military doesn't even agree with you.

SH: Your own wife doesn't agree with you.

JJ: Your own wife! Holy s***!

JO: She's very attractive, but that is irrelevant to this discussion.

WC: But it gets worse ...

SH: ... because sooner or later, gay people are going to wind up serving ...

WC: ... and then twenty years later, they'll make the documentary about it.

JO: And you know how every documentary about some big social change has a bad guy ...

JJ: ... the guy who fought it tooth and nail, long after it was obvious to everyone else what needed to be done?

WC: You know, the George Wallace character. That's gonna be you ...

SH: ... saying stuff like ...

WC: ... "Black people don't belong in a white man's military," or ...

SH: ... "I have no problem with Catholics ..."

JO: "... I just don't want one in the White House taking orders on a special Pope-phone to Rome," or ...

JJ: ... "A lady astronaut? But what about the gazongas? Won't they get in the way?"

WC: That'll be you, and the narrator will say something like, ...

JO: ... "Senator John McCain fought the move every step of the way, using increasingly obvious stalling tactics."

WC: Although they'll probably pick somebody with a better voice than John's.

JO: Yeah, you know what, Wyatt? You can go f*** yourself.

WC: I'm just saying.

SH: Anyway, it'll be part of your legacy.

WC: It gets worse.

JO: It does get worse.

JJ: It gets worser.

SH: You have no idea how much worse it gets.
It's not just the funnymen who are noticing. Yahoo!'s blog The Lookout says supporters of "don't ask, don't tell" are running out of reasons to oppose repeal.

McCain isn't giving ground:
"The military is at its highest point in recruitment, in retention, in professionalism, in capability," McCain said on CNN's "State of the Union." "So to somehow allege that this policy has been damaging the military is simply false."
Recruitment is up because it always goes up during an economic downturn such as we've been enduring. Retention is up because the military cannot afford to let people leave (remember those infamous stop-loss orders during George W. Bush's term?). Professionalism and capability -- is John McCain saying gays are unprofessional and incapable, and that they would reduce those qualities in the military? That's just this side of homophobic. Do you really want to narrow your support to the most regressive and bigoted voters in Arizona, Senator?
"I want to know the effect on battle effectiveness and morale, not on how best to implement the change in policy."
As I've said before, how units perform in the field is a function of how well they trust each other to do their jobs, not how well they like each other or what they think of one another's private lives.

Senator, what would you think of a policy that excluded Mormons from serving because anecdotal evidence suggested they disrupted unit morale? Would you be supporting a ban on openly-declared Mormons serving?

John McCain, as The Daily Show illustrated in a terrific then-and-now video montage preceding the aforementioned spoof PSA, is fighting with his own previously-expressed views. He said he would support repealing "don't ask, don't tell" when the military leadership was ready to end the ban. When the Secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff expressed their willingness, he backpedaled and wanted a study done. Now that the study is done -- it's due on President Obama's desk tomorrow -- McCain is saying it's a flawed study. What next, Senator? Do you want each and every service member individually to appear before you to testify as to whether he or she supports the ban?

Here's where supporters of "don't ask, don't tell" are likely to take some solace:
Among Marines and other specialty combat troops, resistance to openly gay service is higher than the overall average of 30 percent. Between 40 and 60 percent of combat troops say they think repealing the policy will be bad for troop morale. (Opposition is lower among troops who say they have served with a gay comrade before.) Military chaplains are also very strongly opposed.
Glossing the final report -- it's over a hundred pages long, so I haven't been able to read it in depth -- the objections raised by those disposed to maintain the ban appear to be based either in the usual tired misconception that openly gay troops will engage in ridiculously stereotypical misbehavior (flamboyant dress, propositioning of straight troops, etc.) or in religious strictures against homosexuality. In short, the supporters of "don't ask, don't tell" are living in a world in which it's all right to consider gays second-class citizens.

Nothing that John McCain or any other supporter of the ban has said addresses what I said in October about it:
As a nation, we weighed discomfort against honor -- and we deemed discomfort more important.

That decision was indefensible.
Nothing that John McCain or any other supporter of the ban has said addresses what I asked earlier this month:
[H]ow long will we continue to shortchange our armed forces and dishonor our fellow citizens by catering to those who have an irrational fear, a fear that is without foundation, whose root cause they cannot even explain because that root cause does not exist?
Senator, you already look like a hypocrite. No, actually, you already are a hypocrite in my eyes, and you're teetering on the brink of out-and-out bigotry.

Would it satisfy you if the military segregated gays into separate units, as the military segregated African Americans in an earlier age? After all, that was the approved solution when we last institutionalized prejudice under color of military regulations.

An ugly vision, isn't it, Senator? Yet that's where your unprincipled opposition to repealing "don't ask, don't tell" leaves you.

And as The Daily Show said, it gets worse.

The Wikileaks disclosures

Opposed as I was and am to the George W. Bush administration's refusal to deal openly on its energy policy or its reason(s) for invading Iraq (the latter is still one of the most most incomprehensible decisions ever, to me), one might expect me to applaud Wikileaks' release of U.S. diplomatic cables.

As a matter of fact, it leaves me queasy. Not being a foreign-policy expert, I couldn't put my uneasiness into words. Fortunately, Heather Hurlburt did a nice job on this score for The New Republic.

She sees three bad effects of the disclosures:
  1. Reduced candor abroad
  2. Reduced openness at home
  3. What Hurlburt calls "undermining progressive policies and frameworks"
The first refers to the chilling effect the prospect of unintended publication will have not only on the U.S.'s own diplomatic corps in their internal communications, but also on foreign representatives' willingness to give "frank and honest opinions [and] assessments" of other nations.

By "reduced openness at home," Hurlburt means a reduction in the speed and extent of declassification of older documents. Such a slowdown hurts historians, for the most part. As for the final effect, to use Hurlburt's own words, "quiet talk is much more effective than loud threats" if the goal is to work with others to solve mutual problems. Hurlburt's no fan of the unilateralist approach that characterized Bush 43's administration: as she puts it, "in the long run, America’s national interests will be best served if we see and act on them as inextricably linked with the interests of others." She calls these interests "progressive," and worries that if quiet diplomacy is not possible, we will be left to the mercies of absolutists like Bush 43 and their "illusions of a black and white world."

I have abstract but limited sympathy for the historians' problem. As for "undermining progressive policies and frameworks," I agree but concede that I might be blinkered by my still-acute antipathy toward Bush 43 and his administration.

But I absolutely agree with Hurlburt that the U.S. will stop benefiting from foreign observers' candid opinions of their neighbors, and this loss will hurt the U.S. for a long time. That's the real damage the Wikileaks disclosure has done, and that's the reason it makes me queasy.

You might accuse me of hypocrisy for still insisting that Bush 43 should be forced to disclose the deliberations leading up to his administration's backwards-looking energy policy and nowhere-looking Iraq invasion. I could argue in turn that those disclosures would not harm U.S. interests in the way the Wikileaks disclosures have. My argument on that score might be wrong. But I don't see much good coming from the Wikileaks disclosures. I certainly don't see the good outweighing the harm, at least to the U.S.