Author Archives: Quincy

An Open Letter to Democrats on the Day After

Dear Democrats640px-barack_obama_takes_one_last_look_in_the_mirror_before_going_out_to_take_oath_jan-_20_2009,

I get that you’re in shock right now. You’re wondering how and why this terrible calamity has befallen the country. And I need to tell you something you’re not going to like: Look in the mirror.

As a libertarian, I have had the luxury of watching this horrid presidential campaign play out from a distance. While both major parties were fighting dirty, while both Hillary and Trump are awful, untrustworthy people, I saw one really disturbing trend: Trump and the Republicans went after Hillary, Hillary and the Democrats went after Trump’s supporters. This cost Hillary the election.

Economics played a large role in this election. Over the last eight years, Democrats and the media have touted certain numbers as key indicators that the economy was recovering. The stock markets, the number of jobs created, and the official unemployment rate told us things were better, they said.

It turns out that the real story of the American economy was under the surface. A deeper look shows the effects of the recovery were concentrated in certain demographics and regions. Highly-educated people in urban areas have done pretty well since 2008. Those less educated and those in the middle of the country have not. They are, if anything, worse off than they were eight years ago.

Now imagine you are someone who has a high school education in a state like Ohio or Nebraska. Listen to the way you’re perceived by Democrats. You’re bitter clingers, you’re rubes, you’re deplorables. Your work is mocked. Farmers are ignorant rednecks who couldn’t do anything better. Coal miners are so evil it’s better for the country if they’re put out of work entirely. Not even the land you live on gets any respect. It’s flyover country, mere scenery to be observed on the flight from SFO to JFK. How exactly do you feel about that?

Imagine now that a candidate comes along who feels your pain, who promises to make America great again, to bring back the jobs and prosperity to desolate communities. Yes, he might be an awful human being, a sociopath, someone who has time and again failed to deliver as a business man. You’re not dumb, you know this. You see Trump for exactly what he is–a charlatan.

Then you look back at Hillary and the future she and the Democrats promise. You see nothing but more poverty, more despair, and more marginalization at the hands of the urban elite. You realize that even if Trump is a charlatan, he is the lesser of two evils for you.

Now, if you’re a Democrat and you’ve made it this far, look in the mirror. Look. Did you nod knowingly when Hillary described Trump’s supporters as deplorables? Have you cracked jokes about rednecks? Did you cheer when Hillary talked about putting coal miners out of work? Do you talk about everything between the coasts as flyover country?

On the other side of the coin, did you try to understand where Trump supporters were coming from? Did you try to understand what might be motivating them other than presumed evil and stupidity?

Look in the mirror again. Were you part of the majority of Democrats that created a tidal wave of hate that pushed rural Americans right into Trump’s camp? Be honest here, because it’s time to learn.

Every time you are tempted to look down on someone because of the color of their skin (white), their gender (male), their sexual orientation (straight), their education (less than yours), where they’re from (the country), or the work they do (manual labor), stop. Stop and picture Donald Trump in the Oval Office. That is the consequence of your elitism over the last eight years.

The time for change is now. Stop talking and start listening. When people you look down on are concerned for their future and livelihood, take it seriously. Make the effort to look behind the convenient narrative to see if there really is something there. Question the numbers that look conveniently positive.

Or don’t. Stick to the narrative, keep piling on Trump supporters as stupid evil morons who make you so angry you want to punch them in the face.

Whether Trumpism is a short-lived fad or the new normal is entirely in your hands, my Democrat friends. Don’t make the same mistake twice.

Sincerely,

A Disappointed Libertarian

Weakening Encryption: The China Problem

By now, you’ve heard that the FBI has asked Apple to help break into the iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino terrorists. USA Today describes the specific request:

Right now, iPhone users have the option to set a security feature that only allows a certain number of tries to guess the correct passcode to unlock the phone before all the data on the iPhone is deleted. It’s a security measure Apple put in place to keep important data out of the wrong hands.

Federal prosecutors looking for more information behind the San Bernardino shootings don’t know the phone’s passcode. If they guess incorrectly too many times, the data they hope to find will be deleted.

That’s why the FBI wants Apple to disable the security feature. Once the security is crippled, agents would be able to guess as many combinations as possible.

Suppose Apple can do this. Suppose that the courts, up to and including the Supreme Court find that they must.

At that point, every device maker who wants to sell a device in the US would have to build this weakening capability into their products.

Putting aside the obvious fact that this capability will be reverse engineered by the wrong people, the impact of this decision on the rest of the world (and Americans abroad) has not received the attention it should.

Nothing stops other countries from presenting similar demands under their own laws. In the case of liberal democracies, the harm to the innocent would be limited. Repressive regimes, though, would quickly utilize this new capability.

Imagine a case in which China got hold of the iPhone of a US citizen at the border about whom it was suspicious. It could present the phone to Apple to decrypt under Chinese law.

Why pick China for this example? While a company might be able to tell of Iran, Venezuela, or even Russia, China is an integral part of the global technology supply chain. They are uniquely positioned to exert leverage in the technology sector where other repressive regimes are not.

The only thing preventing China from using its leverage today is the mathematical impossibility of cracking the encryption. Take that out of the picture, and things get interesting for device makers.

Why pick a US citizen? This one is more interesting. The US government (and states and localities) have multiple ways to digitally spy on their citizens. They can capture traffic on American internet connections. They can subpoena information from cell phone carries and ISPs under the third party doctrine.

Foreign governments don’t have access to any of these. While the US does share intelligence with friendly government, repressive regimes such as China are left out in the cold. Capturing the device of an American is one of the few possible ways for a repressive regime to get at the info.

By demanding that Apple weaken security around its encryption, the FBI will be handing China an entirely new ability to compromise the security of American citizens while only marginally increasing its own reach. Considering that China has been expanding its hunt for dissidents to other countries, the last thing that the US government should consider doing is making Americans with smartphones more attractive targets.

James Comey vs. your privacy

Today’s smartphones contain more data about your life than any other device in human history. It could be argued that they even contain more usable information about your whereabouts and activities than your own brain. Naturally, post-Edward Snowden, protecting that information is a priority for a lot of people.

James Comey wants access to all of that information and he’s willing to let bad guys get at it too:

“Encryption threatens to lead all of us to a very dark place.”

“Encryption isn’t just a technical feature; it’s a marketing pitch … it’s the equivalent of a closet that can’t be opened. A safe that can’t be cracked. And my question is, at what cost?” Comey said. “Both companies [Apple and Google] are run by good people, responding to what they perceive is a market demand. But the place they are leading us is one we shouldn’t go to without careful thought and debate.”

[…]

“With Going Dark, those of us in law enforcement and public safety have a major fear of missing out—missing out on predators who exploit the most vulnerable among us … kids call this FOMO,” he said.

Comey kept referring to the “debate” and “national conversation” that needs to be had regarding widespread encryption. That conversation, in Comey’s mind, should stop and start with the idea that there must be a “front door” means for the FBI, NSA, and other law enforcement agencies to blast through encryption. In other words, companies should be “developing [law enforcement] intercept solutions during the design phase,” a proposition that, beyond making encryption useless, is potentially not even technically feasible.

“Congress might have to force this on companies,” he said. “Maybe they’ll take the hint and do it themselves.”

Read the whole thing.

The view from the bubble

They say we’re entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts. Except, of course, if we’re Paul Krugman:

When it comes to Barack Obama, I’ve always been out of sync. Back in 2008, when many liberals were wildly enthusiastic about his candidacy and his press was strongly favorable, I was skeptical. I worried that he was naive, that his talk about transcending the political divide was a dangerous illusion given the unyielding extremism of the modern American right. Furthermore, it seemed clear to me that, far from being the transformational figure his supporters imagined, he was rather conventional-minded: Even before taking office, he showed signs of paying far too much attention to what some of us would later take to calling Very Serious People, people who regarded cutting budget deficits and a willingness to slash Social Security as the very essence of political virtue.

And I wasn’t wrong. Obama was indeed naive: He faced scorched-earth Republican opposition from Day One, and it took him years to start dealing with that opposition realistically. Furthermore, he came perilously close to doing terrible things to the U.S. safety net in pursuit of a budget Grand Bargain; we were saved from significant cuts to Social Security and a rise in the Medicare age only by Republican greed, the GOP’s unwillingness to make even token concessions.

But now the shoe is on the other foot: Obama faces trash talk left, right and center – literally – and doesn’t deserve it. Despite bitter opposition, despite having come close to self-inflicted disaster, Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history. His health reform is imperfect but still a huge step forward – and it’s working better than anyone expected. Financial reform fell far short of what should have happened, but it’s much more effective than you’d think. Economic management has been half-crippled by Republican obstruction, but has nonetheless been much better than in other advanced countries. And environmental policy is starting to look like it could be a major legacy.

As usual, his screed is filled with cherry picked statistics, unsupported claims, and plenty of vitriol for those who don’t agree with him. He uses these weapons, such as they are, to paint a picture of Barack Obama as a consequential and successful president. While I certainly won’t argue with consequential (there have certainly been consequences for electing Obama), the bar Krugman sets for success is convenient for his case but meaningless to Americans outside the elite bubble.

How does Krugman address this?

Yes, Obama has a low approval rating compared with earlier presidents. But there are a number of reasons to believe that presidential approval doesn’t mean the same thing that it used to: There is much more party-sorting (in which Republicans never, ever have a good word for a Democratic president, and vice versa), the public is negative on politicians in general, and so on. Obviously the midterm election hasn’t happened yet, but in a year when Republicans have a huge structural advantage – Democrats are defending a disproportionate number of Senate seats in deep-red states – most analyses suggest that control of the Senate is in doubt, with Democrats doing considerably better than they were supposed to. This isn’t what you’d expect to see if a failing president were dragging his party down.

More important, however, polls – or even elections – are not the measure of a president. High office shouldn’t be about putting points on the electoral scoreboard, it should be about changing the country for the better. Has Obama done that? Do his achievements look likely to endure? The answer to both questions is yes.

Krugman’s point about changing the country for the better is an interesting one. It inevitably leads to the question of better for whom. We the people, pesky knaves who base our opinions on the reality we face every day, have been rejecting the claim that Obama has been successful in poll after poll for years.

That rejection is not hard to understand. Jobs are still hard to come by. Our hours have been cut. Our benefits have been slashed. Our savings haven’t earned interest in half a decade. We see more and more people on the streets, not just in big cities but in suburban towns. We know we might be one job loss away from joining them. We see a generation graduating from college into a hopeless economic situation. We know our children might be next. Worst of all, we’ve had to listen to the media trumpet recovery and economic good news while our situations are still terrible.

Instead of acknowledging the reality faced by the people, Krugman moves to silence and marginalize us. Our opinions are due to partisanship and being down on politicians in general. With a wave of a hand, he rewrites our stories to fit his narrative. This leaves room to for Krugman to explain Obama’s successes using only his preferences and priorities for reference. Inside the bubble, he matters and we don’t.

The problem with mobile Amber Alerts

As you might have heard, many Californians were awakened by their phones last week for a late-night Amber Alert:

Russ went to bed early, setting “do not disturb” mode on his iPhone so no one could wake him up. His phone did wake him up, though, screeching and lighting up with an Amber Alert message about abducted children in a different part of the state. He asked Consumerist: how can he make these unwanted text messages stop?

What Russ got wasn’t a text message. It was part of the Wireless Emergency Alert System, or WEA. That’s a Federal Communications Commission program that zaps alerts about man-made or natural disasters, urgent messages from the President, and Amber Alerts directly to your phone.

Russ’ case was typical. That’s the problem. Amber alerts do not represent life-and-limb emergencies for 99.999% of those who receive them. Yet, thanks to the requirement of all WEA messages to be accompanied by the distinctive Emergency Broadcast System tone, they are treated as such.

Predictably, the noise and disruption caused by this late-night alert sent a lot of folks (myself included) scurrying to turn it off. California officials warn against this:

[T]he tones that come along with [Amber Alerts] are disruptive and annoying.

They’re supposed to be – to wake you up and make you pay attention and law enforcement officers statewide are urging cell users to stay in this potentially life-saving loop.

“That individual who may have deactivated may have provided that info on an individual that we’re looking for. Put yourself in those cases as well and put it into perspective,” Quintero said.

Speaker of the Assembly John Perez is so concerned about possible mass alert deactivations that he’s calling for a legislative hearing on the matter.

He also plans to arrange funding for a campaign of public service announcements emphasizing the importance of the alert system.

The public service announcements will do absolutely nothing to solve the problem. They might get a few people to turn the alerts back on, but those same folks will end up turning them off again with the next Amber Alert. Personally, I’m not going to budge. As a musician and a software professional, I need to have absolute trust in the Vibrate Only and Do Not Disturb settings on my smartphone. The Amber Alert I received caused my phone to emit a noise on maximum volume despite my setting it to Vibrate Only.

After this happened, I carefully examined the Emergency Alert settings on my device and found that there is no way to leave these on without the sound. That lack of choice is unfortunate. I would have been perfectly happy receiving Amber Alerts that displayed like other push notifications. I know at least a dozen other people who feel the same way. Judging by the news, there are probably hundreds of thousands more in the state. Each and every one of us will never get another Amber Alert on our phone because our only choices were to tolerate the noisy disruptions or opt out entirely. Guess we’ll just have to get our Amber Alerts from those signs on the highways.

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