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Jon Stewart: You know, as I see John McCain doing anything to keep "don't ask, don't tell" from being repealed, it's hard not to remember [chokes up with emotion] it gets worse.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.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Of email hoaxes

One of my relatives recently received email warning that cell phone numbers would be released to telemarketers in a matter of days. As I suspected from the moment I heard about this, it's not true.

Unlike most untrue warnings, this one wasn't harmful except that it clogged up people's in-boxes (and continues to do so because credulous people keep forwarding it).

I can't remember if I used to pass this kind of nonsense along to my email contacts, but after I had been online for several years I certainly used to evaluate this kind of message for relatives and friends. I like to think my diplomatically worded, if perhaps terse, replies to the senders eventually taught them to be less susceptible to hoaxes. All I know is that it had been a long time since I had been asked to cast an eyeball over one before this.

Fortunately, it no longer requires hard-won and sometimes embarrassing experience to distinguish fake from fact. snopes.com is my favorite verification site, though I admit that for the cell-phone email story I first performed a search to see what the Web as a whole had to say. (snopes.com was the second match in the list.)

Even more important to me is a guide to recognizing bogosity, since the best way to reduce the impact of hoaxes is to make people more likely to recognize them as bogus before they hit "Forward Mail." The Urban Legends pages at about.com have some good tips for spotting emailed hoaxes.

Another "happy" drilling story

Courtesy of the AP, here's the story of a family whose Pennsylvania property was leased for natural-gas drilling by an energy company for $50 an acre. That turned out to be a ridiculously low amount compared to what other property owners in the area have received.

The matter would never have made the news except that the house wasn't solely owned by the 94-year-old woman who signed the original agreement. The co-owners who were not contacted by the company raised a squawk, and that's how a news story was born.

The low price for the lease was not the only reason the recalcitrant family members were angry. According to the grandson leading the resistance, his father had asked him not to lease the land for gas drilling due to environmental concerns of the sort mentioned by the documentary Gasland. And by "environmental concerns," of course I mean those associated with "fracking." (Search this blog for that term to see what else I've posted on the subject.)

Unfortunately, one family's resistance means little when it comes to a shared resource like natural gas.
The grandchildren could choose to fight Chesapeake in court to keep the drill at bay, spending thousands of dollars on lawyers in a battle they weren't guaranteed to win. Even if they prevailed, it was likely to be an empty victory. Nearly all the neighbors had already signed leases, and the region's gas deposits were sure to be harvested eventually. With or without the Stevens siblings.
The bottom line is that the energy company is going to be able to drill on the property, albeit not at the low price it originally offered.

Another fracking tragedy.

Ruffalo on terror watch list

It's crap like this that makes us mistrust government: actor Mark Ruffalo was added to a "terror alert watchlist" courtesy of Pennsylvania's Office of Homeland Security. Why? The best guess is that the office is unhappy that he helped to promote the documentary Gasland.

I mentioned Ruffalo (misspelling his name in the process) in passing when discussing the E.P.A.'s subpoenaing of Halliburton for details of its fracking operations. Ruffalo wrote that a group associated with Karl Rove had started running ads against the candidate for Congress Ruffalo supported, a man who introduced legislation to close the so-called "Halliburton Loophole" that exempted hydraulic fracturing from disclosure requirements mandated by the Safe Drinking Water Act. According to Ruffalo, Rove's group "has received significant funding from the oil and gas industry."

Gasland is a documentary about the controversial practice of "hydraulic fracturing," or "fracking," which is used to extract natural gas in many parts of the world. Fracking is thought to result in contamination of aquifers, though its advocates, including Halliburton (which developed the technique over fifty years ago), deny that that's the case. Gasland focuses on the firsthand experiences of several U.S. households who allowed natural gas companies to perform fracking on their properties; these households have all experienced severe contamination of their groundwater and indifference from state regulators. The U.S. is home to one of the largest suspected natural gas reserves in the world, making its extraction a highly profitable pursuit.

As I wrote in September, Gasland is a compelling film, and becomes the more so when I see behavior like that of the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security. Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection does not come off with the most credible image in the film, to put it mildly, and it's hard not to see the action by the state's Office of Homeland Security (admittedly, "reported" but not officially confirmed as far as I know) as a kind of indirect retribution for Ruffalo's support for the film.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Transit fantasy

In an otherwise encouraging story about light-rail expansion in Los Angeles, Robert B. Cervero, director of the University of California Transportation Center in Berkeley, is quoted from his email:
The science of public transit is not too complicated. It comes down to how time-competitive transit is with the private car. If it takes two to three times longer to get from Point A to Point B by transit, the vast majority of folks will drive. If it’s faster going by bus or train, then most will forsake their car and ride transit.
I'm pretty sure Cervero knows better. I certainly do, having been a dedicated transit rider for decades.

Choosing transit over the car is a multifactor decision. Speed is one factor, certainly, but so is cost, convenience (a trip to the bulk-discount store isn't going to happen on a bus), and what might be termed quality of experience (people for whom transit is genuinely a choice aren't going to tolerate the smell of dried urine, overcrowded vehicles, erratic driving, too-frequent stops, etc.).

So if all you're doing is heading to and from work, and it doesn't cost more than the amount you think you spend on gas (people never account for maintenance, insurance, and depreciation when calculating the cost of driving), and you don't need to carry heavy or bulky accoutrements, transit might appeal to you, especially if all-day parking is scarce.

That's a lot of caveats, isn't it? Trust me, even the most dedicated riders weigh these hidden costs.

Positing that ridership depends only on a single aspect of the ride invites unrealistic expectations of how much the system can reduce congestion. Riding transit is a habit it takes time to acquire, and it requires a culture that supports transit as an option even among people who don't regularly use it. Blithe, airy pronouncements like Cervero's just reduce the credibility of transit advocates.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

North Korea

This quotation, from an article about South Korea's military posture in the wake of North Korea's recent attack, sums up the two Koreas' position nicely:
“North Korea has nothing to lose, while we have everything to lose,” said Kang Won-taek, a professor of politics at Seoul National University. “[South Korean president] Lee Myung-bak has no choice but to soften his tone to keep this country peaceful. It is not an appealing choice, but it is the only realistic choice.”
South Korea, with one of the world's stronger economies, does have a hell of a lot more to lose. So does China, which faces the ugly possibility of thousands of impoverished, hungry North Koreans fleeing across its border in the event of a crisis.

This reminds me of the gag in Blazing Saddles in which Bart fends off the angry townsfolk by holding a gun to his own head and snarling, "Hold it! Next man makes a move, the n***er gets it!"

North Korea's leadership, by unbelievable skill or equally unbelievable luck, has acquired unparalleled leverage over the rest of the world. It has created a population that, though underfed and increasingly aware of how badly its living standard lags behind its neighbors', is nevertheless just docile enough to remain controllable by the military. That population is the leadership's best strategic weapon, and the leadership skillfully wields the threat of unleashing that weapon to keep China, South Korea, Japan, and the United States all dancing to its tune.

The Browser has a North Korea topic area that predates the current crisis. I found the tourist's POV piece interesting and a history of North Korea's dabbling in a looser monetary policy fascinating.

Still no new fracking info from Halliburton

Halliburton launched its hydraulic fracturing site on 15 November 2010. At that time, as I noted, it had provided information on just three of its fracking formulations. It promised it would add more "over time."

More than a week later, the site still lists the same three formulations.

I'll keep checking from time to time, though I'm still convinced Halliburton has no intention of coming clean.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What's that "online threat," again?

InformationWeek's article "Schwartz on Security: China's Internet Hijacking Demands Response" sounds like a call to arms. It's not. Schwartz points out that there's no proof the so-called "hijacking" incident, in which a change to Internet traffic routing resulted in a temporary (and erroneous) redirection of traffic through Chinese servers, was an intentional act by China. It could just as easily have been a blunder of the kind that has been committed many times before by systems and network administrators all over the world.

Or it could have been a deliberate diversion of traffic. We may never know.

That's one big problem with throwing around the term "warfare" in connection with the Internet: human error can look just like hostile activity. Like I said before, it would be a better use of our time and energy to fix what we know is broken (or rather, fragile) first -- in this case, the very routing and name resolution infrastructures that underlie the Internet.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

TSA between rock and hard place

As much as I dislike the intrusive security measures foisted on us by the Transportation Security Administration, I have to say that I'm feeling sorry for those folks. They're between a rock and a hard place, neither of which is of their own making.

On one side are the people who want their flights to be as safe as possible. If some loon could be packing plastic explosives in his butt crack, these people would want every passenger to undergo a body-cavity inspection before boarding. (That's pretty much what we've got.)

On the other side are the people who have decided that the intrusiveness of searches has crossed a line. They're the people who take to heart Franklin's aphorism about those willing to trade liberty for safety deserving neither.

It is not possible to please both camps, yet that's the position in which the TSA finds itself.

(This conundrum is reminiscent of the financial one facing our government: we desire more from it than we are willing to fund through taxes. At some point, we will have to pass between that rock and hard place, too.)

Who knows how many people will opt out of full-body scans and pat downs tomorrow, the 24th of November, supposedly the day of resistance? If enough do so to delay departure of flights by a significant amount of time, will this tactic have backfired by antagonizing a large number of people who would otherwise have remained neutral?

Though inclined to decry heavyhanded security, I don't know that I'd be willing to take my chances if I had to board a plane. Yes, I'm more likely to be killed in an auto accident, but at least I'd most likely be at the wheel. I can't control what other drivers do, but being at the wheel gives me a fighting chance to decide my fate.

Nothing makes us crave extra security like surrendering control, and commercial air travel is a giant transfer of one's fate not only to a flight crew (whom we trust for the most part), but to the vagaries of one's fellow passengers. All it would take would be that one aforementioned loon, and that flight could end badly.

Here's a different perspective, though, and it just occurred to me so I might not have thought through all its ramifications. Terrorists seek to change behavior through, well, terror. Shouldn't we be denying "the terrorists" their victory, by refusing to give in to our fears? Reasonable safety precautions are well and good, but if those precautions threaten to take away our Constitutional liberties, shouldn't we, as patriotic citizens, be willing to sacrifice that extra measure of safety so that the fabric of our nation, of our way of life, is preserved?

Some people were distressed by what they saw as a too-limited participation by the public in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Well, maybe this is how civilians can do their part: they can accept a little more risk. Just food for thought.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Gov. Rick Perry on The Daily Show

I'm way behind on my Daily Show viewing, so I just caught this one.

Part 1 and Part 2.

One good thing is, if he believes his own drivel, he shouldn't have any ambitions to national office in DC. Please, let us have dodged that bullet.

The government we deserve?

I almost left the question mark off this entry's title. But then my deeply malnourished optimistic streak popped up, looked plaintively at me (don't ask how that was possible), and whispered, "It might get better."

I just finished "When ignorance becomes a movement: The rise of Snookiism", a blog entry by David Rothkopf on the Foreign Policy Web site. Rothkopf excoriates the Republicans who have ridden to Congressional power on a wave of not mere ignorance, but full-blown misinformation:
Knowing nothing would be an improvement for this group which defiantly embraces the wrong, the indefensible, the illogical and the absurd with their only apparent criteria for taking a position being that it feels good for their adrenaline-stoked base. Facts, science, knowledge, and reality are all seen as the tools of elites, weapons against common folks who have gotten along just fine believing in foolish ideas for all these years.
Heaven knows, this isn't news to me. It probably isn't news to you, either. And it's not going to get better anytime soon.
In some respects this might be seen as democracy at work. The problem is we are taking an affliction of democracy -- ignorance -- and turning it into a political movement. This may be disturbing to all those who have a passing interest in the facts, but it creates a special burden for those who must oppose the movement, because those on the other side are actually immune to rational argument, by definition allergic to it.
This nation of freedom-lovers has created its logical extreme, a bunch of people who are free to believe what they wish, unconstrained by, well, reality. And if they should ever stumble across this little blog, they'll react to it the way they react to everything with which they disagree: they'll accuse me of elitist obscurantism. Actually, no, that would be too straightforward an attack. Rather, they'll snicker that I'm yet another deluded liberal, and that will be an end to any discussion as far as they're concerned.

In short, there is no way for the rest of us to reach them. Yet they get to vote, the same as the rest of us.

Sorely tempted though I am to propose requiring some kind of test to determine voter fitness, that's just my frustration talking. (It does that a lot on this blog.)

No, there's only one way for this country to solve this problem. Those of us who are still living in the real world, who understand how dangerous it is to let our fantasies govern our actions, need to stop sitting on our hands come Election Day. No excuses.

We blew it this time around. Our motto should be, "Never again."

We outnumber them. We need to demonstrate that in the voting booth.

A right to privacy?

In an examination of so-called "smart meters," Wendy Kaminer brought up the question of privacy:
Our traditional definition of privacy is that what happens under one's clothes, inside sealed envelopes placed in the mail, and behind the drawn shades of one's home is one's own private business. The idea of a home as a castle protected by a sort of legal moat is why government needs search warrants and due cause to cross any of those barriers. However, technology has broken down those physical barriers so that scanners can see under one's clothes; Google--never mind the government--can read my naked emails; and wires shuttling information penetrate the walls of the house, rendering them porous. ... Ultimately, we need a better legal and philosophical concept of what privacy means when barriers are porous and the invader is not the government.
My political consciousness of privacy, the one I developed as an adult, is all about what the government is and is not allowed to know about me. Is there an implicit right to privacy in the Bill of Rights? Where must the balance be struck between my right to privacy, if it exists, and the greater good of society? If a person's privacy exists only within specific domains, what are they? And so on.

At the same time, I've concluded, reluctantly, that with respect to anyone else, I have only the rights they consent to give me. No one holds a gun to my head when I sign up for a bank account or wireless phone service or an airline ticket. In principle I can choose not to do business with these people. What they do with the information I give them is up to them.

That, frankly, stinks.

A plausible argument can be made that no right to privacy is set forth in the Constitution or any of its amendments. I argue that it damned well should be, and it should apply not merely to government but to "persons," which would include not only flesh-and-blood human beings but corporate entities as well.

I've been a lot bolder in the last decade or so asking customer-service representatives if the information I'm forced to provide to do business with their companies is shared. I've been encouraged that more and more of them have replied that they do not and will not share that information. I'm discouraged, though, that some of them are legally free to ignore my wishes.

I'm not asking for what small-government advocates would call "onerous government regulation." I'm asking for the right to exclude myself from giant private databases that correlate my address, phone number(s), age, spending habits, and political persuasions, among other things. Part of government's job, after all, is to provide for the well-being of its citizens. Does the duplicitous "charity" Smile Train's right to acquire names for its solicitation database trump my right to be free of its ridiculously wasteful and exceedingly irritating entreaties? (I say "duplicitous" because Smile Train ignores requests to be removed from its mailing lists. I've tried. Don't give it a penny.)

I'm sure I'm not the first to have this idea, and I'm also sure these aren't the deepest or most considered thoughts on the subject. I'll be looking around the Web for more information, and following up if I find anything worth mentioning.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

"The Online Threat," Seymour Hersh

Last week I mentioned Seymour Hersh's New Yorker article entitled "The Online Threat." I finally got around to finishing it.

My initial impression is that the article is all over the map, largely because the topic is also all over the map. What some in the military, and some who stand to benefit financially, call "cyber war" encompasses the vulnerability to remote computer-based attack of domestic online infrastructure and specific resources dependent on that infrastructure. Like everything else, the vulnerability is magnified by the interconnectedness that makes the modern world such an interesting place in which to live. Isolationism simply is not possible in a world where the Internet allows a fifteen-year-old Ukrainian to knock at the electronic door of a computer in Montana.

The military, according to Hersh, is worried about the capabilities of China and Russia -- specifically, their governments -- to conduct "cyber warfare." What exactly that means is not clear. Some of the experts Hersh interviewed, not all of whom wanted to be identified, don't think it's in China's interests to conduct destructive actions against U.S. military or even civilian online assets. They further believe China knows that:
James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who worked for the Departments of State and Commerce in the Clinton Administration, has written extensively on the huge economic costs due to cyber espionage from China and other countries, like Russia, whose hackers are closely linked to organized crime. Lewis, too, made a distinction between this and cyber war: “Current Chinese officials have told me that we’re not going to attack Wall Street, because we basically own it”—a reference to China’s holdings of nearly a trillion dollars in American securities—“and a cyber-war attack would do as much economic harm to us as to you.”
These experts say that people like Richard Clarke and J. Michael McConnell, formerly Bush 43's director of national intelligence, are stirring up fears of "cyber warfare" because they have financial incentives to do so, much in the way antivirus software makers have an incentive to keep us fearful of malware. The real risk, many claim, is not overt damage to our networks or end systems, but covert surveillance -- in other words, espionage. And the espionage would not be, and is not, directed exclusively against the military or the government, but would and does include corporate trade secrets.

Hersh is clearly on the side of those who think Clarke, McConnell and their ilk are distorting the terms of the debate for their own interests, but not even their critics deny that the potential exists for serious damage, especially to the electrical grid, if someone wants to hurt us. The question then turns to how to mitigate or to prevent such an attack. There's no consensus, or rather, there's great consensus within each of two camps that cannot find a middle ground: those who desire much greater intrusion and surveillance capabilities in today's Internet, and those who want to introduce much greater end-to-end security in online communications. The latter want to see strong encryption used over most if not all online sessions, but truly strong encryption schemes would thwart the ability of the intrusion/surveillance camp to find attackers. The intrusion/surveillance camp would permit encryption schemes, but only those that would allow the military (and presumably law enforcement) to decrypt communications without alerting the communicating parties, in the same way wiretaps operate on phone calls today.

Further complicating any attempt to mitigate whatever "online threats" are out there is the political tug-of-war between the Department of Homeland Security, which "has nominal responsibility for the safety of America’s civilian and private infrastructure," and the National Security Agency, which " is formally part of the Department of Defense." Hersh writes, "[T]he military leadership believes that the D.H.S. does not have the resources to protect the electrical grids and other networks."
This dispute became public when, in March, 2009, Rodney Beckstrom, the director of the D.H.S.’s National Cybersecurity Center, abruptly resigned. In a letter to Secretary Janet Napolitano, Beckstrom warned that the N.S.A. was effectively controlling her department’s cyber operations: “While acknowledging the critical importance of N.S.A. to our intelligence efforts . . . the threats to our democratic processes are significant if all top level government network security and monitoring are handled by any one organization.” Beckstrom added that he had argued for civilian control of cyber security, “which interfaces with, but is not controlled by, the N.S.A.”
Underlying this power struggle between the military and civilian leadership is the fact that the playing field is unlike any the United States has ever known.
William J. Lynn III, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, published an essay this fall in Foreign Affairs in which he wrote of applying the N.S.A.’s “defense capabilities beyond the ‘.gov’ domain,” and asserted, “As a doctrinal matter, the Pentagon has formally recognized cyberspace as a new domain of warfare.” This definition raises questions about where the battlefield begins and where it ends. If the military is operating in “cyberspace,” does that include civilian computers in American homes?
World War II marked the last time the nation was concerned about an imminent military threat to the home front. (While the Soviet Union posed an ever-present threat during the Cold War, its missiles and troops could not be countered by any means that involved restricting civilian activities on U.S. soil.) As a nation, we are unused to the idea that we could be on the front lines of a war, the "wars" on drugs, poverty, etc., notwithstanding. Yet our computers and our networks, being linked at a fundamental level with those around the world via the Internet, are very much on the front lines, and have been since the World Wide Web became available to the masses. (The World Wide Web and the Internet are not synonmyous, but as a practical matter most home computers got "on the Internet" in order to use the Web.)
Lynn also alluded to a previously classified incident, in 2008, in which some N.S.A. unit commanders, facing penetration of their bases’ secure networks, concluded that the break-in was caused by a disabling thumb drive; Lynn said that it had been corrupted by “a foreign intelligence agency.” (According to press reports, the program was just as likely to be the product of hackers as that of a government.) Lynn termed it a “wakeup call” and a “turning point in U.S. cyber defense strategy.” He compared the present moment to the day in 1939 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt got a letter from Albert Einstein about the possibility of atomic warfare.
You get enormous credit for prescience if you make a comparison like Lynn's and you're right, but such comparisons are mostly wrong. We need to be level-headed and respond to Bad Stuff in a way that neither bankrupts us nor sends us into national hysteria.

"A senior official in the Department of Homeland Security" made the same point to Hersh in terms that should make us all cautious:
This official, like many I spoke to, portrayed the talk about cyber war as a bureaucratic effort “to raise the alarm” and garner support for an increased Defense Department role in the protection of private infrastructure. He said, “You hear about cyber war all over town. This”—he mentioned statements by Clarke and others—“is being done to mobilize a political effort. We always turn to war analogies to mobilize the people.”
"We always turn to war analogies to mobilize the people."

Hersh goes back and forth, alternating true believers with skeptics. The impression I got was that we don't know very much about whether there is a genuine threat, or from where it might strike, or against what. That the capability exists to do us damage is unquestionable, but whether the identified suspects combine both that capability and the motivation is not nearly as clear.

Hersh's piece quotes a lot of insiders talking a good game, but if you want to boil down what it all means into a cant-free exploration, I recommend Bruce Schneier's 7 July 2010 essay for CNN entitled "Threat of 'Cyberwar' has been hugely hyped." (I didn't say it lacked a definite point of view, just that it was free of cant.)

In my opinion, trying to defend against network-based attacks by increasing domestic surveillance capabilities is a losing strategy. The thinking behind it assumes that attackers either are going to use the technologies that are known to be susceptible to eavesdropping -- i.e., that the attackers are stupid -- or that the attackers will use alternate technologies that aren't vulnerable -- i.e., that the attackers are smarter. The communications of the latter will stick out like sore thumbs in the vast sea of packets, making them susceptible to traffic analysis (determining who's talking to whom, how often, for how long, etc.). Traffic analysis is much less informative than actual decryption of content, but it's better than nothing.

So why not mandate weakened, surveillance-friendly encryption protocols?

Here's why: the vulnerabilities built into these protocols that allow the Nominally Good Guys to peek at the traffic are going to be prize targets for the Bad Guys, and defending crown jewels is a lot of work. Single points of failure, as these would be, are never a good idea.

I was going to consider the implications for privacy and the kind of nation in which we want to live, but (a) those aren't "hard security" issues so much as public policy issues, and (b) Schneier, as usual, does a better job of discussing them. He, too, comes down heavily against so-called security measures that facilitate surveillance, though his conjuring of the specter of a police state may not resonate with you if you are willing to trade privacy for security.

Even if the United States put surveillance-friendly technologies in place, what on earth would induce the rest of the world to follow suit? And if the rest of the world is doing something else, or more likely a lot of something elses, how useful is the ability to conduct domestic surveillance? The targets of interest aren't domestic, remember?

I'm not convinced Hersh conveyed, or even realized, what the bigger picture is. We know what we want to protect: "lights going out, bad." Yet we don't know exactly what the myriad vulnerabilities are, or where they lie. For instance, do you think only a "cyberattack" could cause a widespread power outage? You should take a look at the final report on the 2003 Northeast power outage. The blackout affected eight states plus the Canadian province of Ontario; power wasn't restored in some areas for four days, and Ontario experienced rolling blackouts for more than a week. The disruption wasn't due to attack by a terrorist group or hostile nation. It was a localized power outage that cascaded out of control due to faulty systems, procedures, and training.

Oh, and it's not just the electrical grid at risk. As is clear from the Clinton-era President's Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection, "systems whose incapacity or destruction would have a debilitating impact on the defense or economic security of the nation" include "telecommunications, electrical power systems, gas and oil, banking and finance, transportation, water supply systems, government services and emergency services." (The PCCIP's final report made few if any specific recommendations for hardening our infrastructure: its main thrust is to outline a set of new government agencies and public-private cooperation initiatives that would do the hard work of making actual recommendations and taking specific actions.)

Before we start throwing time and money at relatively exotic "solutions" to notional problems like a "cyberattack," shouldn't we ensure that the critical systems that might be compromised by such an attack are robust enough to stand up to ordinary crises? And shouldn't we be looking very, very hard at whether we're doing all we can to prevent such attacks using the infrastructure -- the computers and routers -- that we have?

The idea is what information system architects (and military strategists, I think) call defense in depth. You keep your enemies at bay by implementing multiple layers and types of defensive preparations. The trick here is to recognize that simple, old-fashioned hardening of our infrastructure, the kind of maintenance and upgrading and training that have been neglected for decades, is an integral part of a national-security strategy to mitigate even such exotic threats as "cyber warfare" (whatever that turns out to be).

I'm not saying we should ignore the possibility that our networks could be subverted by an attacker. I'm saying that we should be working harder to mitigate the problems we already know we have that would make any such attack much worse. At the same time, we can and should be defining the "cyber warfare" problem better, because if Hersh's article does nothing else, it makes clear that those who think it's their job to guard against it don't know what the hell it is they're guarding against.

Recovering from injury

I broke my foot two and a half months ago. The break was more serious than I originally thought; thus, the recovery also has taken much longer than I originally thought. I've been sleeping with the injured leg outside the covers, and that, in turn, had necessitated a cumbersome arrangement of extra blankets to cover the three-quarters of my body that couldn't fit under the covers.

Yesterday I finally was cleared to sleep without the removable cast. You cannot imagine, unless you've had a cast on, the relief I felt. For the first time in two and a half months, I was able to sleep with both legs under the covers, free to turn to either side. I was so comfortable, I contemplated spending all of today in bed.

Trivial stuff, but I had to get it off my chest....

Friday, November 19, 2010

Terriers theme

Reading the news has made me dour and gloomy lately, so I thought I'd focus on something lighter for a moment.

I've already written about Terriers, still a great show after the eight episodes I've seen. I just had to mention the addictively catchy theme song, though. According to Stephen Douglas, it's called "Gunfight Epiphany" and was written by Robert Duncan, the show's composer. Douglas, bless him, provides the full-length version, which at 3:07 confirms my belief that it would stand on its own very nicely. It's also available from iTunes.

What does it sound like? Well, that's a tough one inasmuch as I'm not a musician. The best I can do is to say it's peppy, with a vocal that once or twice resembles Mark Knopfler in his prime. Stan Ridgway could have written the lyrics in his younger days.

Oh hell, just listen to it. Then watch the show, by hook or crook. It's witty in an American way, and while I love British wit (Blackadder, say, or P.G. Wodehouse), American wit is a precious commodity because, to be blunt, there's so little of it, especially on TV.

Ditch the TSA?

In light of all the bad press the Transportation Security Administration is getting, it's no surprise that a member of Congress is calling for airports to go with private contractors instead of the TSA. Rep. John Mica (R-FL) said, "I think we could use half the personnel and streamline the system."

The AP report notes:
Mica, who is the ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (and, once the new Republican majority takes control in January, its expected chair), counts among his campaign contributors some of the companies who might take the TSA's place.
That's no surprise, either.

The real question is, what makes Mica or anyone else think that private contractors are going to improve matters? The job is the same, and that type of job appeals to people with a desire to throw their weight around. Not everyone does it, of course, but the same small percentage that messes up the TSA's reputation will mess up private contractors' reputations too -- or do you believe that private companies are somehow divinely exempt from the realities of human nature?

The only thing private contractors might -- emphasis on "might" -- bring would be lower costs. On the other hand, do we want airline passenger security to be governed by the same mindset as institutional toilet tissue? It's a ruthless dedication to cost-cutting that led BP to the Deepwater Horizon fiasco (I'm still not convinced by the
findings to the contrary
), and before that, led to the deaths of U.S. military personnel in Iraq due to faulty electrical wiring in their showers. Cost-cutting is not necessarily the nirvana that the free market's most fervent advocates believe.

You know what I want? I want the screeners at airports to be working from a well-defined playbook that is understood at all levels. I want the guy operating the metal detector to be as clear on procedure as the head of the TSA in Washington, DC -- and vice versa. I want these people to understand what their mission is, the risks to which they might need to respond, and to understand how to adapt themselves to changing situations. I want them to realize that their job changes every day, they have to stay sharp, they need to be ready for on-the-job continuing education, and they are not just dumbass mall cops.

The rest of us need to demand that these people not be treated, or trained, like toll booth attendants, too. Now, to be fair, I haven't heard more than a few bad-apple stories, and even in these stories, most of the multiple TSA staffers the passengers encountered are described as "professional." That's about all I think it's reasonable to expect. On the other hand, it's reasonable not to expect any less.

We shouldn't be under any illusions, though. It's hard to weed out jackasses. They make their way into every field, no matter who the employer is. Handing passenger screening to private industry just means these guys will apply at a different office: it doesn't make it any more likely they'll be prevented from getting a job they shouldn't have.

I don't care if the agents work for the government or not. I just want the system to work. And right now, I don't think either the feds or private industry have a lock on how to do that.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

No wonder we mistrust government

I'm not one of those who reflexively hate the government. If it weren't for government supporting infrastructure like roads and utilities, I wouldn't be able to live my reasonably comfortable modern life.

Yet government does have a way of attracting venal people, doesn't it?

Remember back in the run-up to the 2004 elections, when electronic voting was a hot topic? It was extremely controversial because many of us had the good sense not to trust the venal people who had sold state and local election officials on their proprietary voting systems, systems that were proven over and over to be vulnerable to remote manipulation because their operating systems and processes had never been subjected to rigorous scrutiny. These companies had every incentive to rush their work because being adopted by a municipality, county, or stste virtually guaranteed them a lock on that market for a minimum of several years (nobody changes systems adopted after a lengthy period of consideration absent a crisis). Moreover, these companies bet that any concerns about how their stuff actually worked would be trumped by a rising tide of popular sentiment in favor of high-tech voting solutions to reduce the expense and slowness of elections.

Back in September, The Register described how the CIA used untested software to guide some of its drone aircraft. The CIA allegedly pressured one of its civilian contractors, Netazza, to ensure that Netazza's new drone would be running a special software package provided by another company, IISI. Although another of Netazza's drone models was running the software package, Geospatial, the new drone was built from different hardware. (Apple fans, you may be amused that the older drone used a Motorola PowerPC chip while the newer one used an Intel x86 chip.) IISI told Netazza it would take two months to port the software. That was too long for Netazza and the CIA. Allegedly a CIA employee contacted IISI directly to explain the urgency of the work, and when that didn't produce results, Netazza undertook the work itself without telling IISI. The result, again allegedly, was an illegally reverse-engineered port of the IISI software that contained significant flaws affecting the drone's navigation, throwing it off by what one Netazza employee described as "from 1 to 13 metres." That matters when the job is to assassinate someone, as the drones apparently were supposed to do. (Netazza filed suit against IISI in 2009; IISI counterclaimed. I haven't been able to find a resolution to the whole mess after a very quick Web search.)

And finally, we have the current furor over the Transportation Security Administration's full-body scanners, currently being rolled out at airports across the country. I've read so many articles about this lately, I hardly know where to begin. A correspondent for The Atlantic wrote about this in October; more recently, and perhaps more notoriously, John Tyner described his experience at San Diego International Airport when he refused not only to go through the full-body scanner, but also refused to permit a full pat-down search, the official alternative to the scanner. Tyner told the agent who was preparing to pat him down, "if you touch my junk, I'll have you arrested." He was not permitted to board the aircraft (understandably, and even Tyner admits this was entirely reasonable) and was escorted (note that term) from the screening area by what he believes was a local police officer. Shortly thereafter, as he was preparing to leave the airport entirely, he was approached by yet another official. Tyner writes:
He informed me that I could not leave the airport. He said that once I start the screening in the secure area, I could not leave until it was completed. Having left the area, he stated, I would be subject to a civil suit and a $10,000 fine. I asked him if he was also going to fine the 6 TSA agents and the local police officer who escorted me from the secure area. After all, I did exactly what I was told.
The encounter went on for a bit before Tyner decided he had had enough.
I asked if [sic] tried to leave if he would have the officer arrest me. He again said that no one was forcing me to stay. I looked him in the eye, and said, "then I'm leaving". He replied, "then we'll bring a civil suit against you", to which I said, "you bring that suit" and walked out of the airport.
Apparently the TSA is considering doing just that.

The TSA has been asking for a backlash for a long time. The San Diego Union Tribune article about the investigation of the Tyner incident blandly states:
Since the rollout of the imaging scanners there has been controversy over the quality of the images, which show limited details of a person’s entire body, and the possible saving of the images – something TSA has denied is possible.
The TSA's denial is flat-out contradicted by the facts: the U.S. Marshals Service stored 35,000 body-scan images between February 2010 and July 2010. Don't believe me? Better talk to the six U.S. senators who wrote a letter to the director of the Marshals Service on 19 August 2010, asking about the widely reported story.

And then there was the charming TSA agent who pretended to find cocaine in travelers' luggage. He said it was meant as a joke. Apparently he was bored with his official duties, which at the time consisted of "evaluating new screening equipment." He was fired, but the damage to the TSA's reputation was already done. Another TSA agent was arrested in May for stealing "from a wheelchair-bound woman passing through a security checkpoint at Newark Liberty International Airport."

These jokers took advantage of their positions of authority, more than living up to the crudest stereotypes of law enforcement officials who sought their jobs to indulge in power trips. Venal people.

UPDATE: Netezza and IISI settled their suit.

Term paper writer for hire

Another minor gem courtesy of Kottke: a first-person account of a writer for hire in the academic world. He writes papers on any topic that doesn't require actual laboratory work or math. His clients? Students who are lazy or too deficient in their command of written English.
You've never heard of me, but there's a good chance that you've read some of my work. I'm a hired gun, a doctor of everything, an academic mercenary. My customers are your students. I promise you that. Somebody in your classroom uses a service that you can't detect, that you can't defend against, that you may not even know exists.
The work is immoral. The account may be fictitious. Read it anyway: it's entertaining.

If there was a takeaway from this, it's that there's plenty of blame to go around for the pseudonymous ghostwriter's purported career. However, my gut tells me that, whatever the systemic failings are, they can't compare to the baseness of human nature. Greed and arrogance, combined with an outsized sense of entitlement, have gummed up many of our works (just look at our economy); it's no surprise that our education system and our kids show the same rot.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Little risk in lifting "don't ask, don't tell"

This entry's title is too short to convey what's currently known, so here's a more accurate statement from the Washington Post article on the subject:
A Pentagon study group has concluded that the military can lift the ban on gays serving openly in uniform with only minimal and isolated incidents of risk to the current war efforts, according to two people familiar with a draft of the report, which is due to President Obama on Dec. 1.
If the report isn't due to hit the president's desk for another two weeks, how do we know this?
One source, who has read the report in full, summarized its findings in a series of conversations this week. The source declined to state his position on whether to lift the ban, insisting it did not matter. He said he felt compelled to share the information out of concern that groups opposed to ending the ban would mischaracterize the findings.
Who knows if this source is as well-meaning as s/he sounds? We'll just have to wait until the report is actually available.

This piece wouldn't have prompted me to comment except for an opposing view offered by a prominent military officer. In the Post article, Gen. James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said:
There is nothing more intimate than young men and young women - and when you talk of infantry, we're talking about our young men - lying out, sleeping alongside of one another and sharing death, fear and loss of brothers. I don't know what the effect of that will be on cohesion. I mean, that's what we're looking at. It's unit cohesion. It's combat effectiveness.
(By "the effect of that," I imagine he meant the effect of permitting openly declared homosexuals to serve. Just thought I should make my assumptions clear.)

I've heard this argument before. In fact, it remains the most common justification for the don't-ask, don't-tell policy. So what about unit cohesion? What is unit cohesion, for that matter?

A quick Web search for "unit cohesion" turned up a chapter from a 1993 Rand Corporation report, Sexual Orientation and U.S. Military Personnel Policy. The chapter, entitled "What is known about unit cohesion and military performance," is a meta-survey of prior studies of military and paramilitary units with an eye to answering the question: "What effect will the presence of acknowledged homosexuals have on the cohesion and performance of a given military unit?"

First, what does "unit cohesion" mean? The chapter cites many meanings for "cohesion," but perhaps the one offered by the Dictionary of United States Army Terms (1986), quoted by the chapter's authors, is the most appropriate for this context:
Unit cohesion [is the] result of controlled, interactive forces that lead to solidarity within military units, directing the soldiers toward common goals with an express commitment to one another and to the unit as a whole.
In other words, "unit cohesion" is pretty much what you probably thought it was.

There are a couple of ways for a group to bond. One is as a social entity: everyone enjoys one another's company. The other is as a working, or task-oriented, entity: everyone is focused on getting a job done. While social cohesion is nice, it turns out not to be critical for groups assembled to accomplish a job, as military units are. So-called "task cohesion" is what these groups must achieve, and to do so, it's most important for each member of the group to show he can carry his own weight. Once that happens, other characteristics that might otherwise govern how the others relate to him -- skin color, sexual orientation, etc. -- generally lose importance. (As the authors point out, gays have an advantage over racial minorities in this respect because homosexuality is an invisible attribute: it can be hidden until the soldier has had a chance to demonstrate his commitment and ability.)

The authors point out that task cohesion doesn't necessarily result in social cohesion. Even when soldiers jointly endure combat, the most intense and cohering experience they'll ever have, there's no guarantee that they'll stay in contact once they've left the unit. Nor does the military need them to do so. Friendship is secondary to getting the job done.

So what did the authors conclude?
The analysis in this chapter suggests that concerns about the potential effect of permitting homosexuals to serve in the military are not groundless, but the problems do not appear insurmountable, and there is ample reason to believe that heterosexual and homosexual military personnel can work together effectively.
No great surprise there for most of us.

The truth is, even if the military repealed don't-ask, don't-tell tomorrow, no ifs, ands, or buts, it's exceedingly improbable that there would be a flood of gay soldiers coming out. As the authors note, even outside the military, gays often remain closeted unless they feel the environment is supportive. The military is not likely to feel all that supportive for the time being. (Whether the atmosphere changes significantly over time will depend heavily on how well the officer corps focuses on what the soldiers have in common, rather than what divides them.)

General Amos and his ilk might not be comfortable with the thought of openly gay soldiers, but how 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?

Government by the unwilling

I haven't agreed with any of the little I've heard from P.J. O'Rourke -- until now:
We will win an election when all the seats in the House and Senate and the chair behind the desk in the Oval Office and the whole bench of the Supreme Court are filled with people who wish they weren’t there.
How else can we expect our government to make the hard decisions that inevitably will anger some, possibly many, voters?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Militarization of the Internet

Via Bruce Schneier's indispensable Crypto-Gram (sign up for this emailed monthly security-minded newsletter here), I found a fascinating bit of musing by Susan Crawford, a professor of Internet and communications law. She wonders whether the appearance of front-page "Internet surveillance" stories in the New York Times is part of a campaign to build public support for adding measures to the public Internet that would allow for more intrusive monitoring of communications by law enforcement and the military. These measures would also form part of what cyber-warfare advocates claim are the capabilities needed to wage such warfare.

Along the same lines (at least, I think so; I haven't finished it yet) is a New Yorker piece by Seymour Hersh entitled, "The Online Threat." Hersh is a journalist with a reputation for digging out inconvenient facts from government sources, so I've no doubt there are disturbing but important (and likely inconvenient) facts to be gleaned here.

Crawford mentions that law enforcement and the military are looking for ways to introduce "back doors" into software that would allow duly authorized officials to slip into systems when necessary. (Of course, they or a similarly unaccountable person or persons decide when it is necessary.) The trouble, as a few commenters to Crawford's piece point out, is that the minute you introduce such a back door, it becomes available for an enemy to use, too. A system that provides greater privacy thus might provide greater overall security, too. (Schneier, by the way, is superb at finding and explaining the unanticipated or overlooked shortcomings of security systems and processes, which is why everyone should read everything the man writes.)

Fracking Halliburton site

Further to my earlier entry, Halliburton has indeed launched its own Web site about fracking.

Halliburton's press release touting the site heavily emphasizes its relatively new and supposedly cleaner fracking techniques. When it does get around to mentioning additives, i.e., everything used in the process other than sand and water, it stresses that these additives " typically comprise less than one-half of one-percent of the total water-and-sand-based solution." Left unsaid is exactly how toxic these additives are. There might be compounds that would be quite harmful, possibly even lethal, to human beings or their environment at 0.5 percent of such a mixture. And if these compounds leach into the water table, they could end up being at a higher concentration in the water that reaches your tap.

Right now, Halliburton's fracking pages (1) require Flash, which will make iOS users sad, and (2) aren't as comprehensive as you might expect. For instance, on the supposedly important fluids disclosure page, which one would think was the whole point of this exercise, Halliburton currently only lists formulations from Pennsylvania and the Northeast.
We tailor our fracturing fluids to different geologies, so the composition will vary by location. Over time, we'll be populating these pages with information from every state in which our services are in use. For now, we present information on several different fluid systems from Pennsylvania, a state where fracturing technology has already generated thousands of jobs for residents and billions in annual revenue for the state and local landowners.
When you need to mention the jobs and revenue your activities bring in, but cannot bring yourself to mention the harm to the environment and to human health that seems to be inescapably associated with your activities, you are not telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

And "over time"? Halliburton obviously knows the ingredients for all of its fracking recipes. It just as obviously has decided that the argument, "Our fracking blend is a trade secret that gives us a competitive edge," is not playing well in the public relations arena, so it has no reason to hide anything any more. The only reason it cannot publish all its fracking recipes today is, its public relations people are pulling all-nighters trying to come up with positive spins for each of those ingredients. Yes, each and every ingredient has a "common use" listing, highlighting its use in preparing items the typical consumer would recognize, like soap, cereal, or glue. Only this listing requires any extra effort from Halliburton, and it is undoubtedly only this effort to find innocuous common uses for its additives that is holding up full disclosure of all its fracking recipes.

Halliburton, your last chance to come clean (ahem) was this site. By so obviously making it a shallow public relations exercise rather than a good-faith effort to comply with the E.P.A.'s disclosure request, you have made it abundantly clear that you are not interested in the health and welfare of those who, directly and indirectly, are affected by your fracking activities. You're engaged in a dirty business that you're trying to whitewash and I hope your efforts fail dismally.

Stoopid

Kottke's blog sent me off to the Urban Dictionary definition of "whip-it", which I'm no longer young enough ever to have picked up for myself. I'm also no longer young enough to be amused that every stab at a definition was written by someone who clearly had indulged in a lot of whip-it.

To paraphrase Alan Jay Lerner, "This is what the American population calls an elementary education." The Wire was a little more succinct: "Ass-ignorant motherf***ers."

Sunday, November 14, 2010

E.P.A. subpoenas Halliburton for fracking info

[Battlestar Galactica fans, the double entendres in this entry are mostly intentional....]

Maybe it does matter whom we elect as President. The last administration inserted the provision known as "the Halliburton Loophole" into the 2005 Energy Policy Act; the current administration is trying to assess the damage.

The so-called Halliburton Loophole allows natural gas companies to keep secret the chemicals they use to extract natural gas through the process known as "fracking." I didn't touch on the precise nature of the dangers of this practice when I talked about Gasland, the HBO documentary that told a harrowing story of homeowners who allowed fracking on their property and now must cope with the contamination of their water supplies. They don't know what's in their water nowadays, but they know it isn't good for them: they've suffered higher rates of cancer and other illnesses, and in a couple of cases they demonstrated on camera that the water coming out of their faucets is flammable. Actor Mark Rufalo wrote a decent overview of the problem; it's a more concise way to get the same information, though Gasland is well worth watching if you can.

The E.P.A., in response to a Congressional mandate in 2009 (I guess it matters whom we elect to Congress, too), started an investigation into the hazards posed by fracking by asking natural gas companies for information. It seems Halliburton dragged its feet, prompting the E.P.A. to drop a subpoena on the company. Halliburton, of course, protests that it was cooperating to the best of its ability.

The New York Times article on the subpoena mentions that the Halliburton Loophole was justified by a 2004 federal study that concluded the process did not pose a significant health risk. You can read or download the report from the E.P.A. Web site; it's in PDF format. (I mention this for completeness' sake: I haven't read it, nor is it likely I will, as it almost certainly will not be intelligible to me.) This study has been criticized by those outside the fracking industry for being poorly designed.

Interestingly, HeatingOil.com reported on 27 October 2010 that Halliburton would disclose its fracking chemicals on "a new company website on November 15." The news about the E.P.A. subpoena broke on 9 November 2010. Either the E.P.A. wasn't aware of Halliburton's plan to disclose, or the agency doesn't consider that plan a sufficient response to its original request for information. The E.P.A.'s cover letter for the subpoena only says, "EPA believes that Halliburton's response is inadequate and inconsistent with the cooperation shown to date by the other eight companies." (The E.P.A. asked nine fracking companies, including Halliburton, for voluntary information submissions on 9 September 2010.)

Having trawled the Web for a bit on this topic, I've seen one industry representative decry the E.P.A.'s new study as unnecessary due to its 2004 study. (Naturally, I didn't take note of the page so I can't refer you to it. Bad Stranger!) Moreover, this same representative claimed that fracking is completely safe as long as wells are properly sealed, a contention that is in keeping with Halliburton's own public proclamation. If aquifers are being contaminated with fracking chemicals, the representative said, it is the result of shoddy well construction, not of any intrinsic danger of fracking. Further to this point, here's a passage from Halliburton's aforementioned hydraulic fracturing document:
During the drilling of a well to produce hydrocarbons, (Figure 1) all the formations through which the wellbore passes are protected by steel casing surrounded by cement. Extensive research and development have gone into developing cement blends and procedures that will form a tight, permanent seal both to the casing and to the formation. This casing and cement stabilize and protect the wellbore and, just as importantly, prevent fluids from moving between formation layers.
Cement. Hmm. Something familiar about that.
The New York Times is reporting that the presidential commission investigating the [Deepwater Horizon] incident has determined that Halliburton knew the cement mixture it provided was not up to the job.
Bad cement to BP. Somehow, it doesn't seem like such a leap to imagine bad cement -- bad Halliburton cement, mind you -- being supplied for other uses, too.

UPDATE: Here is my reaction to Halliburton's new hydraulic fracturing (fracking) Web site.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Stop watching

I used to watch news on TV. I grew up in an age where the three broadcast networks dedicated half an hour each night to the top stories supposedly affecting the nation. I say "supposedly" not to suggest that they were wrong, but merely to emphasize the subjectivity of what they did, however authoritative they sounded.

The 24-hour TV news outlets seemed like they'd be a natural destination for me. I grew up listening to a 24-hour news radio station, and while I didn't have it on all the time, I listened to it a lot because it made me feel like an adult interested in Serious Things. My life wasn't all that exciting, either, so even hearing traffic updates quickened my blood a trifle.

I still listen to that same radio station today. On the other hand, 24-hour TV news plays no significant part in my life. It's not merely that I can get news at my convenience from a plethora of sources on the Web. The bigger reason is that the quality of the product that CNN, Fox and MSNBC peddle is low.

The 24-hour TV news outlets are greedy. My local newsradio station is content to hold listeners for a half-hour. Long experience has taught it, and us listeners, that expecting more isn't realistic. There's only so much news that is relevant enough to report.

The 24-hour TV news outlets want your eyeballs for hours on end, not just for a quick news cycle. They push their reporters to deliver fresh content every hour, and they insist on breathless copy that their talking heads deliver with as much solemn excitement as possible. They seize on minor stories and try to elevate them to greater importance than they deserve. They add programming that isn't news at all, programming that purports to explain or to contextualize the news, but which actually further distorts and exaggerates its most sensational aspects.

And the audience falls for these tricks.

If the only harm were that people were force-fed more ads, I wouldn't mind. However, these channels are doing real harm by setting entirely the wrong agenda for us. We don't have a proper sense of what's important any more. Moreover, our bullshit detectors are overwhelmed because the 24-hour news channels and their affiliated outlets (blogs, talk radio shows, etc.) form self-reinforcing echo chambers that amplify even the stupidest and most dangerously wrong stories and leitmotifs to the point where they can't be ignored by even the most responsible news organizations. Thus even those of us who try to avoid the distortions of these channels are subjected to them, because these channels influence the national agenda all out of proportion to their audience size.

The 24-hour news TV channel was a transitional concept whose time has passed. It existed to serve those who wanted to get a news summary at odd times of the day or night. Now, the Web can more effectively fill that niche.

TV is still capable of breaking news quite effectively, and for some stories -- 11 September 2001 comes to mind -- it provides an incomparable experience. Focusing entirely on news, though, runs up against the higher costs of TV (versus radio or print or, especially, the Web) and the need to recoup those costs from a national rather than regional audience. Inevitably, any such attempt will result in something similar to the embarrassingly bad channels we have today.

So I propose that we stop watching the 24-hour TV news channels. Stop feeding beasts that are making us, as a nation, sick. Stop buying into the breathless agenda of fear and anger they're promulgating. Stop letting them dictate the terms of our conversations. Let's put this failed experiment behind us.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Money, speech, people, and corporations

When I started writing this entry, I was going to demonstrate the idiocy that, under the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision of earlier this year, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation hypothetically could donate anonymously any amount of money it liked to nonprofit groups engaged in "issue advocacy" while Keith Olbermann would first have to advise his superiors at NBC News before donating any amount openly to a political candidate, or risk sanctions by NBC (as in fact happened). The corporation is freer than the individual person, I would have noted snarkily, and I would have advocated strongly for ending the conditions that allowed for this sad irony.

But as so often happens, on reflection I found the reality to be a lot more complex.

First, some background in case you've been asleep for the past year.

Keith Olbermann was temporarily suspended from MSNBC for undisclosed campaign contributions in violation of NBC News policy. The policy doesn't bar all contributions per se, but requires prior approval by management. (Olbermann's suspension lasted two working days.)

A while back I ran across a piece in The Atlantic that highlighted the wrongness of blaming the Citizens United case "for allowing secretive, shady, special-interest money to flow unabated into the U.S. political system, corrupting elections at an unprecedented pace."
Much of the "shadowy" spending Democrats have cited comes from groups that file under section 5014(c)4 of the U.S. tax code. Commonly known as 501(c)4's in the political world, they're tax-exempt nonprofits that engage in issue advocacy and don't typically disclose their donors. Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-funded conservative organization that's a favorite for Democrats to demonize, has a 501(c)4 arm, for instance. The Karl-Rove-co-founded American Crossroads also includes a 501(c)4 operation.

Citizens United didn't actually change anything about what these groups can do. They could spend unlimited amounts during election season without disclosing their donors before this past January.
All that changed, therefore, is the right of corporations and labor unions to donate to those 501(c)4s. We'll never know if they do, of course.

A lot of people are concerned about the corrosive effect of money in politics. The logic is, the richer you are, the better the government treats you. Compared to most people, most corporations have a lot of money. Ergo, the government's actions are likely to favor corporations over individual people.

A factor contributing to people's anger is that the U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized corporate entities (corporations, unions, etc.) as people for the purposes of determining those entities' rights under the Constitution. This principle, by the way, was not articulated within any decision issued by the Court: rather, it was in a notation added by the court reporter to the syllabus of the decision in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company, adjudicated in 1886. (The Wikipedia page about the case contains a fuller story, although, as with any Wikipedia article, one cannot be certain that the account is true or complete.) The Court in Santa Clara never even reached the question of whether the corporations in question deserved to fall under the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause, which applies only to "person"s, so no explanation exists for the Court's thinking.

Back to Citizens United:
The rule that political speech cannot be limited based on a speaker’s wealth is a necessary consequence of the premise that the First Amendment generally prohibits the suppression of political speech based on the speaker’s identity.
Whether we like it or not, the government is not allowed to make rules that discriminate against billionaires, just as it's not allowed to make rules that discriminate against ethnic or religious or other groups.

How, then, are non-billionaires supposed to counter a billionaire's spending in support of his own interests, which probably don't accord with everyone else's? The non-billionaires have to pool their money by banding together, and the collective entity has to be able to spend as freely as the billionaire.

Can you distinguish between "good" entities formed to protect The Little People and "bad" entities merely out to enlarge their share of the pie? Not in any way that would survive Constitutional scrutiny. You wouldn't even be able to arrive at popular agreement on "good" and "bad" entities: I guarantee that what you call an Evil Special Interest is your neighbor's Heroic Struggling Association Of People Trying To Protect Themselves From Your Evil Special Interest.

Ergo, either Congress or the Court almost certainly would have had to give associations of people the same right of free expression that actual human beings have even if Santa Clara had never been adjudicated. Citizens United was inevitable, because of the expansiveness of the First Amendment.

I don't like that some kinds of nonprofit groups that engage in "issue advocacy" are allowed to keep their donors secret. It seems to me that secrecy and money make for a corrupt political process. Yet I must admit that I wouldn't want my name to appear in a donor list no matter how proud I was of my support. It's the privacy-lover in me. I haven't thought about this issue in any greater depth, so I'll leave it at that.

So what about the thought that started this ramble?

Well, Citizens United is a First Amendment issue, pure and simple, because it centered on Federal law governing campaign donations. Olbermann's suspension, though it involved political donations, has nothing to do with the First Amendment because it was a corporation, not the government, punishing him.

It's still ironic that corporations are freer than most people, because corporations don't have to abide by employment contracts that restrict their actions (in some cases, even after they leave the employer). Alas, I can't see a simple way of ending the conditions that allow for this irony.

"If I Should Fall from Grace with God"

This title track to a classic Pogues album is now the soundtrack to a car ad, whose brand I will not further enrich by identifying it.

I'm curious how the ad agency sold the client on a song about a dying man. The arrangement and tempo are cheerfully raucous, but you can't get around lyrics like "If I'm buried 'neath the sod / But the angels won't receive me." If I had to describe it in ten words or less, I'd call it the anthem for a pre-funeral Irish wake.

And the visuals? A mother ferrying kids around to soccer practice.

I wouldn't have chosen to mix dead men and soccer in a sales pitch, but maybe I'm too myopic to see the genius.

Monday, November 8, 2010

U.S. is not greatest country ever

That's the title of Michael Kinsley's Politico essay that argues against taking "American exceptionalism" too much to heart.

I'm going to resist quoting from it because you should read it for yourself. Suffice to say that I have long believed in its core message: telling ourselves comforting lies keeps us from addressing our problems.

Sadly, nobody who should hear the message will, because they're not interested in what Kinsley has to say.

Bartlit wants subpoena power

Further to my suspicions about the preliminary conclusions reached by the panel investigating the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it seems we might know even less than we thought. Said panel, you see, doesn't have subpoena power and has not been able to question people under oath.

Lead investigator Fred Bartlit is asking for such power:
“I have no reason to believe anybody’s intentionally said anything to me they don’t believe,” he said. “But people are advocates. Good ones. High power ones.”
That's a delicate way of saying that people can emit self-serving nonsense with ease. In turn, that's a delicate way of saying that people can lie.

No question, really accomplished "advocates" can lie under oath, too. However, the threat of penalty under perjury whittles down the problem to the hardest-core liars.

Bartlit feels he needs subpoena power to sort out the contradictions between different witness's statements to his team.
“We get a lot of arguments,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to resolve those unless I can sit people down in a room in a very professional, gentlemanly way, and cross-examine them and find out what’s believable and what’s not believable.”

Money did not trump safety

To date we have not seen a single instance where a human being made a conscious decision to favor dollars over safety.
That's Fred Bartlit, lead investigator for the presidential panel investigating the Deepwater Horizon oil gusher, in his remarks to the commission earlier today as reported by the New York Times.

The AP article on Bartlit's presentation has an interesting caveat, one which Bartlit might not have intended:
"Anytime you are talking about a million-and-a-half dollars a day money enters in," he said. "All I am saying is human beings did not sit there and sell safety down the river for dollars on the rig that night."
"That night" is a curiously limited time frame. The groundwork for the explosion almost certainly was laid in the weeks prior. Was this merely a slip of the tongue, or is this a hint that any blame will rest with others who weren't on the rig that night?

The investigators only reported their preliminary findings: they still have work to do. However, I'm not exactly reassured that "Bartlit said he agreed with 'about 90 percent'" of the conclusions reached by BP's own investigation. I have little confidence that BP has allowed all pertinent and necessary information to be gathered by anyone, so if Bartlit and his investigators have relied on BP for such information, the panel's final report will be neither complete nor accurate. Not only will such a flawed report prevent the responsible parties from being called to account, it won't help to prevent another Deepwater Horizon.

Thoughts for a friend

Is this an online diary? Sort of, I guess, though not really. I hadn't planned on getting personal, but life happens.

Yesterday I talked with a friend I haven't seen in a decade or more. We've been close since college, more years ago than either of us probably cares to count. Why had we lost touch? The usual reasons: work, family, life in general. It doesn't help that a couple of thousand miles separate us.

She called me out of the blue a month back; thankfully, I hadn't moved. The machine picked up the call, but it was days before I was able to retrieve the message due to circumstances beyond my control. It took three weeks and numerous SMSes, but we finally carved out time for a phone call.

After all that, a mere call was bound to leave me wanting. It was terrific to hear her voice, but the longer the call went on, the longer I wanted it to go. It carried more and more of the burden of ten years' absence, until by the end it was almost cruel that we had started it. Every thread we began held the promise of hours, but every one we had to cut short because you can't mine one to exhaustion when a hundred more lurk yet unexplored.

We caught each other up on our jobs, our family lives, the usual minutiae. We veered into politics for a bit, freshened up our contact information, quizzed each other on favorite TV shows. The bulk of the talk, though, centered on what had kept her so busy that she hadn't been able to make time for this call sooner. It turned out she has been undergoing treatment for the latest of a series of ailments she has suffered over the past couple of decades. The treatments themselves are time-consuming, of course, and she hasn't been able to offload her responsibilities as either a working professional (let's hear it for the lean workplace, where extra capacity is a sin) or mother. The treatments weaken her, so she tires more easily and is unable to do as much as she normally can. She also has had to cope with a health scare involving one of her children.

I found all this unspeakably sad. After a rough childhood, if anyone's genuinely good heart and generous spirit has earned her peace in adulthood, it is hers. I chattered and laughed right along with her on the phone, but at times I wanted to scream in rage at a Fate with a cruel streak, Leave my friend the fuck alone, you monster.

By the time we were done, I felt like catching the next plane out to care for her.

It hurts like hell being so far away from someone carrying such a heavy load. It hurts even more that the someone is one of the best people I know.

I'm thinking of you, kiddo. Let's talk again, soon.