Saturday, August 28, 2010

Beck's rally

According to the New York Times' coverage of the Glenn Beck-organized rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial:

“Something that is beyond man is happening,” Mr. Beck said in opening the event as the crowd thronged near the memorial grounds. “America today begins to turn back to God.”

Let's clear up something here, Mr. Beck: I'm an American, and you don't speak for me.

Don't trouble to deny that you would like nothing better than for non-Christians to be a despised minority in this country. If you genuinely believed in the truly positive, uplifting aspects of Christianity, you would not prate on about how "others" hate this nation. You spend so much time harping on hate, you are totally blind to the need for constructive bridge-building between the groups you seek to set against one another. You don't seek mutual understanding. You don't seek understanding at all, in fact. You desire nothing except self-aggrandizement and the stoking of fear -- fear of "the other," whatever or whomever that might be according to your needs of the moment.

This nation achieved greatness in spite of opportunistic con men like you. The values you espouse are not those of "the Founding Fathers." They had an expansive vision of what this nation could be, fueled by the best in human nature and human creativity. What is your vision? As far as I can tell, you want to return to a vision of the country as it never was: a nation of white Protestant families living tidily suburban lives, just like the image presented by '50s sitcoms. Gays, blacks, Muslims, atheists, liberals -- they have no place in your vision. "The other" is simply not supposed to be part of your grandiose fantasy.

You play to simple people's desire for simple, simplistic answers to the question, "What's wrong with the world and how can we fix it?" You try to pass yourself off as merely a voice for the downtrodden, for the overlooked, for the self-proclaimed, self-styled "victims" of the modern age.


Your followers are confused and scared by the world. However, they're not victims.

The world is complex. It's not black-and-white. It's the product of billions of people with competing visions. In some of those visions, America is the enemy. But if you start off with the premise that "they" are all out to get "us," you can kiss the possibility of finding friends goodbye. And if you spit in the eyes of your neighbors -- the people who live in other states, other towns, other houses, including the ones literally next door -- if you preemptively declare that the vision of America you seek to create has no room for these people, you are helping to destroy this nation. That's you, Mr. Beck. You, and the millions who have, in their fear and their anger and their confusion, embraced your vicious, divisive vision.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bob Ingles and the Tea Party

Interesting article in Mother Jones magazine about Rep. Bob Ingles (R-S.C.), who was defeated in the Republican primary on 22 June by a rival who successfully challenged Ingles' conservative credentials. Ingles has a number of insightful comments about the Republican Party, Tea Party activists, and how party politics can hurt the country. His firsthand accounts of encounters with tea party activists are disturbing, to say the least: the idea that I share citizenship with people that ignorant and that fired-up to spread their ignorance bothers the hell out of me.

Action, reaction

An amusing tidbit, at least if you don't depend on the Lincoln and Holland tunnels under the Hudson River.

The enlarging of the lower part of Manhattan Island via landfill narrowed the Hudson River channel. Since there has been no concomitant reduction in the amount of water draining through the river, the result has been an increase in the force and speed of the current. This, in turn, has caused greater scouring of the sediment at the bottom of the river. If left unchecked, this scouring could eventually expose the tunnels directly to the water, which would leave them more vulnerable to collapse and flooding.

There are amelioration efforts under way, but I thought this was a wonderful example of unintended consequences. One kind of development threatens another....

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Palin and the First Amendment

I have never understood Sarah Palin's appeal. She dresses well, which is what you'd expect from a former beauty pageant contestant. Other than that, I can't name anything about her that positively impresses me. In particular, her education and intellect are substandard. Yet she insists that she is qualified to weigh in on substantive political, economic, and social controversies, in spite of her educational and intellectual deficiencies.

Here's an embarrassingly obvious example of why Palin cannot and should not be taken seriously: an analysis of her comments about Dr. Laura Schlesinger's decision to end her radio show. According to the article:

Sarah Palin jumped in and tweeted, “Dr.Laura: don't retreat ... reload! (Steps aside bc her 1st Amend.rights ceased 2exist thx 2activists trying 2silence"isn't American,not fair")"

That was soon followed by a second tweet:

“Dr.Laura=even more powerful & effective w/out the shackles,so watch out Constitutional obstructionists. And b thankful 4 her voice, America!)"

As the analysis, written by Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center, bluntly notes:

Though Palin speaks frequently of the need to protect the Constitution and elect politicians who understand it, in this case she is misreading the [First] amendment and how it works. ...

“Congress shall make no law” — the first five words of the First Amendment — say it all: No government body can limit our rights to speak out. In this case, there’s no government action, just public outrage and pressure.

This is hardly the first time just in the past decade that this limit on the First Amendment has had to be explained. If Palin reads as widely as she says she does, then she has got to be dumb as a rock because she missed this point the last dozen times it came up.

The more cynical reading of Palin's complaints on Schlesinger's behalf is that Palin is perfectly aware that the First Amendment does not apply to Schlesinger's situation, but is counting on her audience not to know that. If that's the case, I'll restate my objection to Palin thus: her deliberate inflaming of the passions of less educated people in the service of what she knows are bad causes shows that her ethics are substandard, and her dishonesty disqualifies her from weighing in on substantive controversies.

Palin's quoted tweets, by the way, read just like her speeches. They're brief, provocative remarks fired into the air to rouse her supporters, but that turn out to be nonsensical. They read like bumper stickers an artificial intelligence program would have churned out, if the AI were optimized for stringing boilerplate phrases together without regard for cogency.

Hmm. An AI ... I wonder ...

Is Sarah Palin a rogue Eliza program?

Nah. Eliza makes more sense.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Cars aren't human, but ...

I know it's a bad habit to anthropomorphize inanimate objects, but I have always done so with my cars. It's my version of placating the gods, I suppose. If I'm in the car I have to get someplace on time (I seldom drive recreationally), so like my ancestors of millennia ago I want to smooth out any potential obstacles. Said ancestors probably sacrificed animals; I pat my car lovingly on the dash and murmur words of encouragement.

(Strictly speaking, treating the car like a pet is not "anthropomorphizing" it, but I don't know enough Greek or English to be able to figure out what the word is for attributing bestial characteristics to inanimate objects. I haven't been curious enough to see if English possesses a Greek-derived root analogous to "anthropo-," only denoting "animal" instead of "human." But I digress.)

Now my brain is more than usually agitated because I'm in the unusual position of having two cars, the one I've been driving forever and a new one intended to replace it. Suddenly "anthropomorphism" is the correct term for my feelings: the old car is now an elderly relative -- oh, let's not beat around the bush: it has become Mom -- and the other car is my newborn baby. Since there's only room in the garage for one of them, everyone with a normal brain assumes that leaving the old car outside is a no-brainer (ahem). But if you think of the old car as Mom, that means you're shoving your mother out the door to brave the elements.

You can argue that your mother is far better able to take care of herself than your baby is, but that's where the analogy starts to fall apart. The new car, after all, has not faced the corrosive impact of years of weather. Its paint is unscratched, its hoses still flexible, its metals not yet oxidized: in short, its armor is whole and strong. As such, the new car is less like a baby and more like a sturdy young man. In that light, it behooves Sonny to brave the elements rather than Mom: she should enjoy the time she has left protected from Nature's wrath.

At this point the analogy collapses entirely, for who would not only consign Mom to the wind and rain, but also send her away for good as a trade-in or a donation? Mom's making some funny noises and the actuarial tables say she's lucky to have lasted this long, so it's time to kiss her goodbye while she can still leave the house under her own power -- you're not going to win the "Child of the Year" trophy that way.

In short, it's a dumb analogy.

And yet ... I'm still anthropomorphizing the cars.

If it makes you feel any better as dew collects on your every exposed surface, Mom, the guilt is eating me alive.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A nonpartisan Senate

After reading George Packer's New Yorker article about the Senate's dysfunctional behavior, one thing seemed clear: the Senate is the hostage of partisan politics.

All of Washington -- indeed, the entire United States -- is hostage to partisan politics, of course. However, the Senate, like the Supreme Court, is a uniquely powerful fulcrum by means of which the minority can frustrate the majority. I quite understand that the majority isn't always right: the majority of voting citizens once tolerated slavery, for instance. Yet when the minority seeks nothing more than deadlock, as is abundantly clear is the Republicans' goal in the Senate, we all lose.

It's long past time we got over our collective awe at the Founding Fathers' wisdom to examine the governmental machinery they established and to consider whether it needs to be modified for our society today.

Human nature is the same, more or less, as it was in the Founders' day. However, this is no longer a struggling coastal nation of a few million, largely isolated from European interference and irrelevant to the rest of the world except as a supplier of raw goods. Indeed, it is not possible to consider the United States as a separable problem of governance any more: the U.S. is, for better or worse, inextricably linked to the rest of the world. Politics, technology, and the sheer number of human beings now alive make that world a different planet from what the Founders knew. It moves more quickly and is much harder to comprehend.

If the Senate is supposed "to check the impulses of the House and the popular will," and further, " to collect knowledge and experience, and to guard against a levelling spirit that might overtake the majority," as Packer's article says, then perhaps it's time we considered whether the demands of partisan politics -- party politics -- are consonant with that lofty purpose.

When push comes to shove, party loyalty trumps problem-solving. As a tactic to trip up the momentum of a President you hate, joining ranks seems acceptable, even commendable. As a way of addressing the problems we all share, party loyalty may well be fatally flawed. Health care will not improve, nor will its costs start to shrink, because one party behaved intransigently. Climate change will not respect the refusal by one major party to believe in it. And the members of the Senate are so few, each Senator's mistakes count far more heavily than those of their more numerous House counterparts.

Perhaps it's time to elect a Senate whose members are concerned only with understanding, as best they can, the nation's true interests. They should not have to raise money to run expensive campaigns (public financing, anyone?). Instead, they should have to debate their electoral opponents, to demonstrate the depth and breadth of their knowledge of affairs of state. This would be excellent practice for the actual business of the Senate, which would be focused on airing all sides of the issues facing the nation, not just the two sides delineated by the two major parties today.

Wouldn't it be fantastic if Senate debate were of such quality that it could convince Senators to change their minds? Wouldn't such debate be a far more useful exercise than the hollow formalism that it is today? Wouldn't the whole nation benefit?

And Senatorial candidates should not be beholden to any political party (hence the no-expensive-campaigns requirement). Candidates obviously hold positions on various issues, and it would be necessary to get them to reveal those positions before Election Day; the spectacle of question-dodging that has become a requirement for Supreme Court confirmation would have to be regarded as de facto disqualification for a Senate candidate. Party affiliation currently serves as a kind of shorthand to express candidates' beliefs today, but carries the price of straitjacketing Senators while in office because Senate races require huge amounts of money only the major parties can provide.

Any number of objections can be raised against this notion of abolishing party affiliation in the Senate, but is any of those objections worth perpetuating the sclerotic mess that is the Senate today?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Hanson Blues Brothers tribute

Huh. Knowing diddly about Hanson beyond the name and the ubiquity of their early hit "Mmm-Bop," I never figured they'd make a video for one of their songs, "Thinkin' 'Bout Somethin'," that would tip its and their hat to Ray Charles' cameo in The Blues Brothers. It's not quite a cut-for-cut homage, but it's as close a visual tribute as they could probably get within time and budget constraints to Charles' rendition of "Shake a Tail Feather." A couple of shots from Hanson's video even feature the well-known elevated rail crossing background from the film (via green-screen, I assume).

How's the music? I'm the wrong one to ask, since I really believe in my own advice. Allmusic's Stephen Thomas Erlewine has an opinion, though. I can say that the songs themselves are not especially alike, though there are deliberate hints of the earlier performance in the electric piano line of Hanson's.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Thought on certificate authorities

An article warning of "a weak link in secure Web sites" notes that the Electronic Frontier Foundation has expressed concerns about the trustworthiness of some of the certificate authorities, or CAs, on the Internet.

This does not represent a new threat. Trustworthiness has always been a requirement of the SSL (secure sockets layer) security protocol, which is what lies behind so-called secure Web sites. What's new is that the New York Times is bringing it to everyone's attention.

Now the question is whether people are going to have to accommodate another area of complexity in their lives.

First, let's lay a little groundwork. SSL (actually TLS, but let's skip lightly over that) is actually not at the root of the problem. Rather, it relies explicitly and heavily on earlier work from the Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T), specifically, on a standard that the ITU-T defined called X.509. X.509 is the standard that introduced the world to CAs.

X.509 envisions a world of trusted authorities, godlike institutions that certify identity over a network. If a person presents this certification to a computer, the computer consults the CA and verifies that the presenter is who he claims to be.

That explanation is grossly oversimplified, but it gets to the heart of the aforementioned brouhaha over CAs. You might be wondering why anyone would trust the certification issued by the CA. It's a perfectly reasonable question, and the answer has two parts.

Let's start with the second of those parts. There must be a way to tie together the CA's certification to the entity (a person or an organization, like a company) claiming to hold that identity. That's where cryptography comes in: the certification is only regarded as valid if the presenter successfully meets a cryptographic challenge, part of which is inextricably tied to the certification itself. That's what happens, under the hood of your computer, whenever you visit a secure Web site. The complexity of the cryptography, or rather, the complexity of getting it right, is where most of the security community's time, energy and attention has been focused for a couple of decades.

Again, this is a gross and incomplete simplification, but that doesn't matter because the current problem is with the other part of the answer to "why should we trust CA certifications?" Quite simply, we trust the certifications because we trust the CAs. That has always been an explicit and bedrock assumption underlying X.509.

And that brings us back to the expressed concerns about the trustworthiness of CAs. What do we do when we can't trust one of them?

Fifteen years ago I attended a conference in which one of the presenters proclaimed, "Let a thousand CAs bloom." His point was that in our daily lives, we encounter many different levels of required trust, and thus many different ways of attesting to identity have evolved. Your local coffee shop may be willing to give you a free cup if you're short on cash one day because the staff recognizes your face. Your bank is going to require a government-issued photo ID if you want to do anything more than get change. The source of trust is different for each situation.

Online, however, there is primarily one source of trust: the CA. (Technically minded folks, leave aside PGP and the critical role of DNS for the sake of this discussion.) If a CA attests to the identity of Macy's online, that has to be good enough for us, because we have no other way of determining identity.

However, an untrustworthy CA can certify that some other entity is Macy's. The only way to discern whether or not you're dealing with the real Macy's is to do cryptographically secure checks of the certification chain back to the CA. Your browser can (and usually does) perform those checks, but you still need to know with what CA the real Macy's registered. How many of us know that? And intermediate CAs complicate the situation further, since you have to know which of them should be part of the certification chain, too.

The only reason rogue CAs haven't flourished is that only a few CAs at the top of the certification chain matter. Verisign, for instance, will not risk its reputation by certifying anything other than the "real" Macy's. It also will decertify any intermediate CA (that is, any CA whose own identity is verified by Verisign) that, by certifying bogus identities, abuses the trust placed in it.

However, other CAs can and do operate at the top, and it's not clear which of them can be trusted. Some of them might have an incentive to issue bogus certifications, on behalf of criminal organizations, for instance. Others might just be sloppy.

You can, if you wish, look at the certification chain by which your browser verified a secure Web site. The information is presented in a highly technical way, however, and likely won't mean much to you. This view also doesn't answer the fundamental questions: are the CAs attesting to the site's validity all trustworthy? Are they the ones that the real business actually requested to certify that business's identity?

Unfortunately, there's no automatic and straightforward way to answer those questions. At the moment, the best we can do is to ask the real vendor to announce which CA(s) it uses to certify its identity. That's a highly unsatisfactory answer, of course, but it is, sadly, the best we can do.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Steven Slater vs. the passenger

The reaction to Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater's profane tirade to a planeload of passengers and subsequent bail-out via an emergency-hatch slide has been pretty much what I would have expected. Most people are understanding, ruefully citing the lousy conditions that everyone on planes must endure nowadays. Some--and I count myself among their number--wonder why the passenger whose willful disregard of the flight crew's instructions ignited this fiasco hasn't suffered any adverse consequences for her abusive and unsafe behavior.

A few, however, made comments similar to this one, although this was the most strident wording I found in a cursory scan. (Typos and poor grammar are as in the original.)

We know the airline industry games, and we don't like them. Flight attendants just like mortgage servicing operators, like Cops in Compton know who and what they represent. If you don't like your job, go do something else. We as Americans have the right to express any emotion, any sentient, in any time or place (beside obscenity) even at 30,000 feet.

I wonder if this was written by the passenger in question. It certainly reeks of the same self-centered sense of entitlement and lack of civility she demonstrated.

AV vs. text

In case the absence of "multimedia" in the form of pictures, embedded video, and embedded audio in this blog wasn't a clear enough sign, I'm biased toward plain old text.

I can cite all kinds of reasons, most of uncertain validity to normal people. However, the bottom line is that for the most part, the material I would find most compelling to mention, news footage, is just as readily communicable in plain text. I can gloss text far more readily than I can scan audio or video, too, which means I don't have to spend a lot of time to hit the highlights of a piece. This turns out to be incredibly important if, like me, you tend to lose hours in dictionaries and encyclopedias because you're endlessly fascinated by nearby or related items. It requires a good deal of willpower, and the aforementioned skimming ability, to prevent myself from losing even more hours on the Web. (I will not lightly sojourn to TV Tropes again, having been unable to tear myself away for the better part of twelve hours during my first visit.)

So I tailor this blog to suit myself as a visitor, which is a little weird, but there it is. Oh, and did I mention it's a hell of a lot easier to manage a blog whose contents can be represented as text files rather than multimedia presentations?

Krugman on "going dark"

Paul Krugman's column entitled "America Goes Dark" perfectly sums up what I think is wrong with this country. Read the whole thing, but if you're looking for a quick overview, his own words do the job well:

Everything we know about economic growth says that a well-educated population and high-quality infrastructure are crucial. Emerging nations are making huge efforts to upgrade their roads, their ports and their schools. Yet in America we’re going backward.

How did we get to this point? It’s the logical consequence of three decades of antigovernment rhetoric, rhetoric that has convinced many voters that a dollar collected in taxes is always a dollar wasted, that the public sector can’t do anything right.

Libertarians like Ron Paul and his son Rand spew this bogus rhetoric, but I can respect them at least for (more or less) walking the walk. Mainstream Republican politicians, on the other hand, have fed ill-informed voters' desire to pay less than they should for government services they don't realize they're getting (Medicare is a government program, dummies), while at the same time lacking the courage to make meaningful cuts to those services. Those politicians know how much effective government really costs. They know they've contributed as much or more to the national debt in the last decade as the much-reviled Democrats, only their priority has been defense- and national security-related programs, some of dubious utility (keeping my shampoo off the plane is not, I aver, greatly helpful to aviation safety). Even with their much-ballyhooed devotion to our collective safety, Republicans have made some terrible decisions: for instance, the security screening at our major ports is still all but nonexistent due to the G. W. Bush administration's preoccupation with passenger air travel, a more visible, hence more politically important, element of the transportation security puzzle. (I'll admit, I don't know whether the Obama administration has put forth any greater effort to screen incoming cargo shipments.)

Oh, and there was the totally unnecessary invasion of Iraq, too. That Republican-led boondoggle has bled hundreds of billions of dollars from our national coffers and ballooned the debt to obese levels. Democrats weren't guiltless in the rush to war, but they weren't in power, either.

As usual in this benighted country, we're eager to embrace the simplistic because it keeps us from having to think. "Government is bad, it's wasteful, it's incompetent" -- once you make that your credo, you don't have to wonder whether it's just possible government does anything good, much less investigate how well it actually performs.

Wake up, dummies, before we do more damage to ourselves than we can repair.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Old 97's live and for free

It was flat-out wonderful that the state of Texas, seeking to boost tourism, decided to have the Old 97's play free shows in conjunction with a traveling exhibit. In San Francisco's Justin Herman Plaza, the boys played for over an hour, including an encore. The main set included a rendition of R.E.M.'s "Driver 8," one of four to be featured on an upcoming EP of covers; they also performed a couple of songs from their new album, due in October. For my part, I was delighted beyond words that a couple of Murry's songs made it onto the set list: the theme-appropriate "W. TX Teardrops" and the absolutely lovely "Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue." It must be said that both Rhett Miller's and Murry Hammond's singing sounded rusty, but Miller in particular was energetic enough to compensate for any vocal shortcomings. And, um, this was a free show!

Classic toons on demand

Should have mentioned this before, but if you have Comcast cable TV, take a look in On Demand / Kids / Kids WB / Looney Tunes. There you'll find several Golden Age Warner Bros. cartoon shorts. The highlights currently include Along Came Daffy and Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears, both ending 10 Aug 2010; other classics include Duck! Rabbit, Duck!, Little Red Riding Rabbit (one of the best Bugs Bunny cartoons ever, courtesy of the underappreciated Friz Freleng, and featuring an uncredited Billy Bletcher and Bea Benadaret sharing vocal chores with Mel Blanc), and an entirely unexpected but welcome Merrie Melodie from 1938, Katnip Kollege.

If you have time for only one, check out the latter: like most '30s cartoons it is rarely, if ever, shown on television because of its relatively antique look and feel compared to the better-known shorts from the '40s and '50s, yet it boasts a terrific soundtrack. Stalling was still hewing closer to sweet rather than hot jazz and the recording loses much of the higher frequency sound that would give later cartoons, especially those of the '40s, their distinctively brassy tone. As was common in his '30s work, there was not much in the way of abstract orchestral accompaniment: rather, the music consists almost entirely of brief quotations of well-known themes, including a verse or two, plus the chorus, of Let That be a Lesson to You, better known to later audiences from 1951's Hare We Go (remember Bugs singing, "Oh, Columbus was the discoverer of America"?). Lots of singing by male tenors, solo and choral, are another characteristically '30s-ish touch that disappeared when the Merrie Melodies were no longer required to plug Warners songs.

Katnip Kollege is a delightful trip back to a time before Warners had perfected its house style and it was still acceptable to make a cartoon that served as our great-grandparents' version of a music video.