Category Archives: Technology

We don’t go black… We try to turn on lights

We’re not going black today, over SOPA or PIPA.

In case you by some miracle hadn’t noticed it yet, tens of thousands of web sites around the country and around the world, are “going black” or putting up banners explaining that they are not available or there is no content today etc… In protest against the “Stop Online Privacy Act” and the “ProtectIP act”, which are currently (or were recently), being promulgated in congress.

We don’t have a problem with anyone who does. It’s important that people understand what SOPA and PIPA are (or were), and most folks are sadly unaware of the kind of stupid and harmful things that our government does.

Google and Wikipedia are two of the most important and most used sites on the net; and by participating in this protest, they will very certainly make a lot more people aware of this issue.

But “going black” isn’t what we do here.

We talk about political and social issues here; in particular about liberty and freedom. We try to inform people about the important issues, events, and principles of liberty and freedom; and then talk about them in as free and open a way as we can.

I personally think that going black would be entirely against what we are about here; and while it might help to draw more attention to the problem, it wouldn’t help us inform you, or help us begin the conversation about the issue.

… and of course, you can’t go to wikipedia day to find out about it…

So, I personally, would like to do something that is in the spirit of protesting the idiotic and harmful nature of these pieces of industry lobbying masquerading as legislation…

…And share a few things:

That’s the best explanation of why the freedom to share (within fair use of course, copyrights ARE important) is important; and why legislation like PIPA and SOPA are not only stupid and harmful, but entirely antithetical to the American system of ordered liberty.

And then there’s this piece by my friend (and bestselling author, buy his excellent books please) Larry Correia:

“for all of the people out there on the internet having a massive freak out about the government potentially damaging something they love… WELCOME TO THE PARTY.

You think this is something new or unusual? Nope. This is just about a topic that you happen to be familiar with. If you fall into that camp, I want you to take a deep breath, step back, and examine all of the other issues in the past that you didn’t know jack squat about, but your knee jerk reaction was to say “there’s a problem, the governement has to do something!” Well guess what? The crap the federal government usually comes up with to fix these problems is similar to SOPA. In other words, the legislation addresses a perceived problem by instituting a bunch of stupid overregulation and taking away someone’s freedom.

You think people need access to affordable medical care and shouldn’t be denied coverage? Well, you got used and we got the bloated ridiculous mess that is Obamacare. You saw a news report about how big business defrauded people and said congress should do something? Well, everyone in the business world got screwed because of Enron by completely useless new arbitrary crap laws, and a few years later we got into an even bigger financial crisis which the arbitrary crap laws we spent billions conforming to did nothing to prevent. No, because that financial crisis was caused by people saying that there was this huge problem that needed to be fixed, so more people who couldn’t afford to pay mortgages could still buy houses, and the government simply had to do something to fix this problem!

Any crisis… Any problem… You ask the feds to fix it, you get this kind of answer. Almost never do the laws fix the actual problem. Instead the government gets bigger and gains a few more powers and it doesn’t fix the issue. When the problem gets bigger, then the government gets bigger and gains a few more powers that actually make the problem worse. Oh look! Despite all of these laws the problem has gotten even bigger? Whatever should we do? Why, I know! Let’s pass an even bigger law that takes away more individual freedom and gives the government more control!
Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Any topic, any situation, any problem.

They address it, you lose freedom and they gain more control. Some of you are only offended today because this particular law hurts something you enjoy. The rest of the time? Screw it. You can’t be bothered to pay attention. Or worse, people like me who are up in arms over an issue are just cranks or anti-government crackpots.”

I was going to write something roughly similar to this, but Larry beat me to it… and I’d rather share what he wrote, because it’s good, and because I can.

At least for now…

I am a cynically romantic optimistic pessimist. I am neither liberal, nor conservative. I am a (somewhat disgruntled) muscular minarchist… something like a constructive anarchist.

Basically what that means, is that I believe, all things being equal, responsible adults should be able to do whatever the hell they want to do, so long as nobody’s getting hurt, who isn’t paying extra

A New Approach To “Government Research”

Over at Cato, Jim Harper responds to proponents of gov’t research that point to the products of that research as justification — they never really consider that such products would still occur via private-sector investment. He takes a bit of a swipe at IP policy in the middle, and in his discussion of the history of AT&T I got an idea:

To take the Internet as proof that the government is a necessary producer of research and innovation, you have to reject the scientific method. Unfortunately, there are rarely controls in public policy. We can’t find out what would have happened if government policy had taken a different course, so we don’t know anything more about who should fund research from the fact that government-funded research has produced good things in the past.

But what would have happened if U.S. public policy had taken a different course? I’ve thought about the impossible-to-answer question of where we would have been without DARPA and other government influences on telecom. What most people don’t consider, I believe, is the restraining influence the government-granted AT&T monopoly had on telecommunications for most of the 20th century. AT&T developed a “Teletypewriter Exchange” system in 1931, for example, but had no need to develop it, there being little or no competitive pressure to do so. (Its patent on attaching devices to phone wires undoubtedly helped as well, preventing anyone using AT&T’s wires for modem service.)

Had there been competition, I suspect that someone would have come up with the idea of packet-switched networks—that’s what the Internet is—before Leonard Kleinrock did in 1962. Kleinrock was a student at MIT—he wasn’t at DARPA, which didn’t get into packet-switching until about 1966. (Then again, MIT was almost certainly awash in government money—specifically military money—so there you go. Maybe we owe all the good things we’ve got to war, but I doubt it.)

So back when AT&T was a monopoly, they developed technology that preceded the internet for delivering data over phone lines, as well as owning (and enforcing) a patent on attaching devices to phone wires, which undoubtedly allowed them to prevent anyone else from capitalizing on data-over-phone-line ideas.

Some would say that this is evidence that government should have been financing this sort of invention so that it would be in the public domain (as TCP/IP eventually was). But there’s another angle to look at here:

Why doesn’t the government buy patents that are valuable but underutilized, and release them to the public domain?

Think of it this way: if the US Patent Office had purchased AT&T’s patents back in the 1930’s and released them into the public domain, they could have been capitalized by a broad swath of companies and perhaps kickstarted development of the internet far before DARPA ever got a hand in it (of course mainstream personal commercial user acceptance probably would have relied on availability a low-cost PC’s just as we saw beginning in the late 90’s). AT&T’s monopoly over phone service gave them no profit incentive to utilize their own invention, but getting it into the public domain could have created a competitive market where none existed before.

I see a couple of potential advantages to this idea over that of government research:

  1. Less of a politicized “government picking winners and losers” model for government research. Instead of independent researchers seeking government grant money for things that have not been invented (and for which commercial development is outside their reach as pure scientists), they might need to seek private funding from investors who expect to reap benefits from selling those patents to the USG.
  2. Give an extra incentive for US companies to continue R&D investment in more “speculative” technologies. For technologies which may be valuable but for which the commercial viability is a more long-term play, or for technologies which might be valuable but prove not to be relevant to the business model of the company in question, they can still earn some return on that sunk R&D investment.
  3. Development of an individual technology-creation boom. Many individuals with good ideas who *could* patent their idea but have no desire or capability to create a company to monetize their idea forego the patent process because there is no return on their time. All of these ideas are lost to the world, at least for a time.
  4. Perhaps most importantly, this is the government paying for results rather than promises. As I suggested in this December 2006 post, I believe that incentivizing the private sector to invent might be a more efficient model in general than in purchasing research on the front end.

Now, there are undoubtedly issues with this proposal.

First and foremost, the fear would be that companies would merely use this as a vehicle to offload shitty patents onto the government — just another form of corporate welfare. And I do suspect they’d try. My answer to that is twofold. One, of all the departments of government, I think the Patent & Trademark Office is widely regarded as one of the less politicized. If procedures are put into place to present them with these patents “blindly”, i.e. so that they cannot know the identity of the inventor, I would suspect that we can at least get their fair assessment of an inventions value in an objective manner. Second, is that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. For a company that is not capitalizing on a patent, they understandably think it’s worthless — that doesn’t mean that it’s so. There might be some legitimate diamonds in the rough here.

Second, the fear would be that this would merely be government picking winners and losers on a different stage. I.e. if businesses can’t reap value from their patents, and if government boards can’t reliably pick which research programs are of most benefit, how can they do so with patents? This is a pretty typical government problem. Again, I think putting this in the hands of the PTO might help, but efficiency and waste is always a concern.

Third, the fear is that companies simply won’t sell. Patents — even useless ones — are important legal tools. When Novell sold off a patent portfolio in late 2010, the value worked out to be roughly $510K per patent. When Google announced an intended deal to acquire Motorola Mobility last year, the value of the purchase conveniently was set at $12.5B — equal to Motorola’s 24,500 patents multiplied by $510K. When Nortel went bankrupt and auctioned off their patent portfolio last summer, the total value of their 6,000 patents averaged $750K apiece. There may be some positive value in owning some of those patents, but there’s incredible potential negative value in NOT owning enough patents to countersue your competitors if they decided to engage in an IP war. For big companies, a robust patent portfolio is the international diplomacy equivalent of a nation having nuclear capability — those without it won’t mess with you, and you make sure you play nicely with others who have it to avoid MAD. The key to this is not that there might be unused patents of inestimable value to the public that the companies aren’t even using, but rather that they may not be willing to sell *any* part of their IP portfolio. Unilateral disarmament has never been a popular strategy.

All that said, one of the questions we might be left with is simple: is it a better situation than we have now? Would the advantages gained be enough to justify a wholesale switch from our current strategy of paying for research, or perhaps even of diverting a portion of that budget to a program like this instead? I think it would — opening up the option to reward inventors (whether corporate or individual) for creating IP and then opening it up to the public domain seems like a great strategy for a continual boost to near-term growth. Pure scientific research has its place as a public good. Yet I think a case can be made that less “pure” inventions, being opened to the public domain, have a potential place at the table too, if not instead of, pure science.

My Take [So Far] On Google+

Having “grown up” online — a bit more than most of my contemporaries, as I had the techno-geek life of BBS’ing and AOHell in the early days of the internet — I’ve always had as much of an “online” presence as off. Today, this means that many of my personal hobbies, whether it be making/drinking beer, watching Purdue sports, arguing about politics, and making offensive jokes are activities coordinated and tailored to specific online forums as well. Homebrewing, Boilermaker football, and arcane anarcho-libertarian musings quickly bore the snot out of my friends and family in the offline world, and I’ve gotten in trouble with my wife more than once for those jokes.

In fact, it was the jokes that both largely made me effectively leave Facebook, and to be excited about the “Circles” feature in G+. Facebook has an inherently flat structure that ensures that if someone is your “Friend”, they can see essentially everything you post. This has two downsides:

1. It causes you to avoid friending certain people that you may not WANT to see every little thing about you.
2. It makes it bothersome to write about something that a small subset of your friends might be interested in, but others won’t care about.

I know that my beer friends don’t care about my political rants. My political friends don’t care about the status of my latest homebrew creations. I might occasionally want to highlight something I’ve written politically to my friends/family, but they certainly don’t want to be inundated with it. And my mother-in-law DOESN’T need to hear most of my jokes. And I’ve actively avoided friending many people in the political realm, many Purdue folks I know *only* through online sites, because I had no way to filter out the topics they wouldn’t be interested in. And I’ve especially never wanted to include coworkers or business contacts on Facebook, of course, because some of the discussions I get into would be completely inappropriate for a professional working relationship.

Circles changes that, and allows one to make a much LARGER social network that is more properly segmented based on common interests. And since people can reside within multiple circles at once, I don’t have to decide whether someone goes in “Friends” or “Beer”; they can be in both if we have that interest in common.

For that reason, I think G+ is a far better platform — for me — than Facebook.

However, Circles and “following” also allows a bit of Twitter-like asymmetric information dissemination that becomes very interesting. In essence, it’s like having your G+ account be both your Facebook social network and a more interactive Twitter account. With Twitter, the people who want to see my public status updates and the people who I choose to see don’t have to be the same. Ezra Klein has been talking about this quite a bit as G+ largely replacing Twitter for him, as he can reach the same sort of people, have more substantive discussions that can be more easily followed, but doesn’t have to necessarily subject his incoming stream to the rants of libertarian crackpots like myself.

Unfortunately, this becomes worlds less useful to me. The reason is simple — I have to tag posts as “Public” for those who are “following” me to see them. Most people who choose to “follow” me that I might not want to add to circles and have them appear in my timeline are in the political realm. I don’t particularly want to make my political posts “Public”, as that means anyone in my “Friends”, “Family”, “Beer”, or “Coworker” circles can automatically see them — creating the very annoyance factor that Circles are meant to avoid. This may be acceptable for Ezra Klein, who is a public figure due to his prominence as a political journalist, but not something that my non-political friends want to be subjected to from me.

For me, then, I’m left with a dilemma. Twitter is designed to be a broadcast medium, and it’s generally understood that you take the good with the bad if you choose to follow someone. Those who want to hear about my beer or politics know to ignore me during Purdue football games, just as I ignore many of them during specific things they tweet about that I don’t particularly care about. The etiquette of the medium is different than it is on Facebook, and people who will be annoyed by seeing more than three Facebook status updates a day from one person find that to be a slow day on Twitter.

I believe that the etiquette of G+ will more closely echo that of Facebook, which is why the different circles allow you at least filter certain people out of certain subjects. Thus, I can’t see myself sending many things out as “Public”. As a result, the very benefit of an asymmetric network is lost. What I’d really like is the ability to filter certain circles out of my ‘standard’ timeline — that way I can put all my asymmetric follows into a circle, and only go and have that circle show up in my timeline on demand. Otherwise, I simply won’t add those people to any circles, and since I essentially avoid “Public” posts most of the time, they won’t be able to see almost anything I write.

Google+ has the built-in structure to fundamentally change the way that we structure social networks. People I’d never have friended on Facebook previously (i.e. work colleagues, acquaintances, people I *only* know online, etc) now have a place and I can segment my message based on the audience likely to see it. That seems like it might be a game-changer, but needs a bit of tweaking before it’ll be 100% there so that people can figure out the new etiquette of the medium.

Quote Of The Day — MS-DOS Causes Improper Foreclosures

HuffPo is writing on a new Fed report that of 500 foreclosures they investigated, they couldn’t find a single one where the borrower was not significantly delinquent on payments. Thus, the Fed declared that no improper foreclosures occurred.

This doesn’t matter to those who think bankers are raping angels in their spare time, and who want to see the bankers riddled with papercuts and dropped in a vat of lemon juice. They want to stop foreclosures by any means necessary, and anything that casts doubt on the “paper trail” [as quite a lot of doubt already legitimately exists] looks good to them.

But this is a bit too far:

Citing Wednesday’s briefing, Rangan said the Fed review found numerous flaws in banks’ procedures and internal mortgage operations, and that the Fed’s bank examiners directed the firms to fix those problems.

One firm was found to be using Microsoft DOS, an outdated computer operating system, to handle home mortgages, Rangan said.

Oh no, DOS! Because Windows has just a strong track record of reliability, right?

As I’ve said before, I’m an engineer. I’ve spent a good portion of my career working with customers in the “embedded/industrial” market space. I’m talking about computer equipment that goes on oil rigs, locomotives, industrial control [assembly line] PC’s, etc. For most of these companies, things have to be nearing “outdated” to be well-understood enough to be trusted for the types of tasks they need to complete. And yes, some of those folks are still using DOS, though most have moved on to other RTOS products. Only where a major user interface is needed do we see people using an OS such as Windows, and even then they use a specific embedded version of Windows XP that allows more control over what is and is not included in the final package.

My dad always used to say, when talking about the fast pace of technology progression, that “a computer will never do *less* than it did when you bought it.” I.e. if you need something new that newer technology offers [including performance enhancement, of course], it might be time to upgrade. But it’s pointless to do so simply for its own sake, because something newer exists. Hearing that a bank is still using DOS doesn’t bother me at all, because they have a known, tested, proven system. It does exactly the same thing today that it did when it was purchased and installed. And as long as it meets the bank’s needs, there wouldn’t be any reason to upgrade.

The saving grace of federalism

Were it not for our federalist system, the debate over Real ID would have been over long ago. Fortunately, it’s still going:

The political problem for the GOP committee chairmen is that the 2005 Real ID Act has proven to be anything but popular: legislatures of two dozen states have voted to reject its requirements, and in the Michigan and Pennsylvania legislatures one chamber has done so.

That didn’t stop the House Republicans from saying in a letter this week to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that “any further extension of Real ID threatens the security of the United States.” Unless Homeland Security grants an extension, the law’s requirements take effect on May 11.

Hopefully this comes to a head, and hopefully the Republicans pushing this get an education in federalism. It’s going to come in mighty handy in resisting Obamacare.

Quote of the Day: 4th Amendment Be Damned Edition

“Nobody likes the 4th amendment being violated when going through the security line, but the truth of the matter is we are going to have to do it.”-Former. Asst. TSA administrator Mo McGowan

So when the friendly TSA agents pull you out of the line for a groping or full body nudie scan as you try to make your way through the airport to fly to grandma’s house this Thanksgiving holiday don’t bother pulling out your pocket Constitution to inform them they are violating your 4th Amendment rights. They know they are and they don’t give a shit.

Hat Tip: Say Anything via Boortz

Aren’t You Glad To Be A Gamma?

I had a really interesting philosophical discussion with Brad Warbiany, our curator at The Liberty Papers, over a Facebook status I wrote. I had just re-listened to the CBS Radio Workshop rendition of Brave New World and had commented that it seemed like a far more livable situation than 1984.

Warbiany added that California, if Prop. 19 passes and allows the modern equivalent of soma to be freely ingested, the state really will look like Brave New World. With the state already self-organized into a caste system (Listen to someone from Northern California talk about Southern California or someone from Berkeley talk about Sacramento some time), abortion and every sort of contraceptive widely available and the domination of a vapid mass culture (seen at San Diego Comic Con or Wonder Con in San Francisco) taking precedence over civic involvement for Californians, the Golden State really resembles Huxley’s “negative utopia.”

Warbiany also handed me this great cartoon:
Orwell v. Huxley

On Twitter, alot of progressive and libertarian leaning activists tend to advocate alot for issues of freedom and emancipation in countries like Iran or China. In a way, situations in so obviously repressive countries like those are much easier for the activist. They fit into the Orwell dynamic and the villains and heroes are very clear. In his opposition to the death penalty, our own Stephen Littau does take on the American equivalent to state repression. Along with questionable foreign policy and drug policy, however, those are really the only avenues for passionate American political activism.

Beyond such clear issues of state force, however, one runs into a brick wall when faced with the mass culture, dullness and vapidity of consumer society. It seems that in this society, the majority of more normal people (myself and most people reading this strongly excepted) do not become Jeffersonians but instead “turn on, tune in and cop out,” as Gil Scott Heron once said. How does one become an activist in a society in which people freely subjugate, segregate and limit themselves?

I have a funny story that relates to this, that I didn’t even remember until I read what Brad said. While living in Alameda, California, I lost my phone. A teenage girl, around college age most likely, found it and called my mom, who e-mailed me about it. When I got the phone back, I was really grateful but had no money on hand. The only possession I had literally was a copy of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I offered it to her.

She literally responded, “No thanks. I don’t read.”

I know. Alameda is not a low income area where reading should be rare, either. There are several bookstores in the area, along with hip restaurants, record stores and everything else you expect in cosmopolitan society. It even has an incredible vintage movie theatre that I rank as the best in Northern California, next to Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre. This girl was obviously more involved in other factors of modern life, all of which I can safely assume are of less consequence intellectually than the work of Huxley.

It’s especially ironic given that there is a passage in Brave New World in which infants are given books while bombarded with screeching, loud noises, in order to dissuade them from being too intellectual when they reach adulthood. With video games, television, the internet and iPhones, that seems unnecessary as modern people have been incentivized out of intellectualism.

That girl did go to extra trouble to give me my phone back, with no advantage to her, however. That means she had a decency and sense of altruism that her lack of reading hadn’t impeded. Having grown up around the hyper-educated and being on that road myself, I can also attest that we’re not the nicest group of people. Perhaps then we really are on the road to progress.

Cato Presents: Cops on Camera

As cameras have become more available to individuals and government alike, viral videos of cops behaving badly have become quite pervasive on the internet. This short video by The Cato Institute provides a few recent examples of this relatively new phenomenon and explains why recording the actions of police and government officials for all the world to see is good for liberty. Its government that should be watched and its government that should fear the people, not the other way around.

Pennsylvania Department of Revenue Ad: “Find Us Before We Find You”

The Pennsylvania Department of Revenue is currently running an ad – a friendly reminder to encourage PA residents who owe back taxes to pay up because the PDR knows where you live.

Creepy huh?

But don’t be alarmed PA residents who owe back taxes, go to the website (PAtaxPayup.com) and you will find that the PDR is actually doing you a favor: tax “amnesty” for those who pay by June 18, 2010. (The site even features a countdown clock that lets you know how much time you have left. How thoughtful!)

Here are the terms of the amnesty:

Pennsylvania authorized (under Act 48, signed into law on Oct. 9, 2009) a Tax Amnesty period from April 26 to June 18, 2010.

During this limited, 54-day timeframe, the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue will waive 100 percent of penalties and half of the interest for anyone who pays his/her delinquent state taxes.

Individuals, businesses and other entities with Pennsylvania tax delinquencies as of June 30, 2009, are generally eligible to participate in the Tax Amnesty Program.

What a bargain! If you “voluntarily” pay your taxes by June 18th, not only do you get to avoid the whole armed government agents forcibly removing you from your home and taking you to jail thing but they will also take a little less of your money.

In some ways, this is one of the most honest PSAs ever produced by a government agency but still fails to directly address the question of what happens if PA residents allow the PDR to “find them” first. What the ad implies but does not directly say is “If we do find you first, we will make your life very miserable because, we, the government have the legal ability to use deadly force to get our way and you do not.”

Let’s put aside the whole debate about whether or not taxation is legitimate or if it is theft and consider the bigger message. Perhaps George Washington, the father of our country himself said it best:

“Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”

Government = Force. Keep this in mind next time you want to ask the government to “do something” on your behalf.

Hat Tip: Reason Hit and Run (also take a look at the June 2004 Reason cover that is eerily similar to the above ad)

Supreme Court To Decide If California Can Ban Sale Of “Violent” Video Games To Minors

Last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a California law that made it illegal to sell “violent” video games to minors. Today, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the State of California’s appeal in that case:

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court will decide whether free speech rights are more important than helping parents keep violent material away from children.

The justices agreed Monday to consider reinstating California’s ban on the sale or rental of violent video games to minors, a law the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco threw out last year on grounds that it violated minors’ constitutional rights.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who signed the law in 2005, said he was pleased the high court would review the appeals court decision. He said, ”We have a responsibility to our kids and our communities to protect against the effects of games that depict ultra-violent actions, just as we already do with movies.”

However, the judge who wrote the decision overturning the law said at the time that there was no research showing a connection between violent video games and psychological harm to young people.

The Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case comes only a week after the high court voted overwhelmingly to strike down a federal law banning videos showing animal cruelty. The California case poses similar free speech concerns, although the state law is aimed at protecting children, raising an additional issue

Yes, yes, it’s a familiar argument:

Of course, there already is someone thinking of the children, their parents:

Video games already are labeled with a rating system that lets parents decide what games their children can purchase and play.

Isn’t this a job for the parents, not the state ?

Given the lopsided outcome in the animal cruelty case, it seems that the law would have an uphill battle before the Justices, although its proponents don’t seem to think so:

Leland Yee, the California state senator who wrote the video game ban, said the Supreme Court obviously doesn’t think the animal cruelty video ban and the violent video game ban are comparable. If the justices thought that, he said, they would not be reviewing the 9th Circuit’s decision to throw out the video game ban.

”Clearly, the justices want to look specifically at our narrowly tailored law that simply limits sales of ultra-violent games to kids without prohibiting speech,” said Yee, a San Francisco Democrat.

Maybe, maybe not. Since it only takes four justices to agree to hear a case, that one fact is no indication of how the Court might rule on a case.

Personally, I am hoping they vote to sustain the 9th Circuit’s ruling.

An Army Of Davids, With Video Cameras

Fox’s Neil Cavuto spoke last week with Adam Sharp, the blogger who posted a video of a Democratic Congressman saying he doesn’t worry about the Constitution:

Sharp is, of course, referring to a book by Instapundit’s Glenn Reynolds titled An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths which I reviewed way back in March 2006.

If you haven’t read it, you should.

Update: Brad Warbiany also reviewed An Army of Davids right here at The Liberty Papers, you can read Brad’s review here.

Federal Appeals Court Strikes Major Blow Against Net Neutrality, Major Blow For Economic Freedom

The U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. today hand a major defeat to the Net Neutrality crowd:

WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal appeals court has ruled that the Federal Communications Commission lacks the authority to require broadband providers to give equal treatment to all Internet traffic flowing over their networks.

Tuesday’s ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is a big victory for the Comcast Corporation, the nation’s largest cable company. It had challenged the F.C.C.’s authority to impose so called “net neutrality” obligations.

The ruling marks a serious setback for the F.C.C., which is trying to officially set net neutrality regulations. The agency chairman Julius Genachowski argues that such rules are needed to prevent phone and cable companies from using their control over Internet access to favor some online content and services over others.

The decision also has implications for the massive national broadband plan released by the F.C.C. last month. The agency needs clear authority to regulate broadband in order to push ahead with some its key recommendations, including a proposal to expand broadband by tapping the federal fund that subsidizes telephone service in poor and rural communities.

The court case centered on Comcast’s challenge of a 2008 F.C.C. order banning the company from blocking its broadband subscribers from using an online file-sharing technology known as BitTorrent.

Melissa Clouthier over at Liberty Pundits sums up quite nicely what this really means:

Basically this means that a company can do business the way it wants to. What different internet providers have been worried about is having the “information spigot” turned off for them. That is, a user or provider who uses huge amounts of bandwidth could be denied, and that could kill business.

So companies like Google and other big providers wanted the courts to say that the FCC could control this and guarantee that everyone has as much bandwidth as they want.

But the court ruled that a company like Comcast has every right to decide what data it carries.

That is exactly how it should be.

In the case that was before the Court, Comcast had made the business decision that Bit Torrent users were utilizing an undue amount of a limited asset, bandwidth, and in order to protect it’s network and allow the majority of it’s users to be able to do things like check their email without having to worry about the network going down because some 21 year old is using Bit Torrent to download a bootleg copy of Avatar.

It’s Comcast’s network, they should have the right to decide how it’s used and to take action to protect it’s property and it’s other customers.

The Court got this one right.

Here’s the 36 page unanimous opinion:

Comcast v. Federal Communications Commission

Is The iPad Too Easy To Use?

First of all… No, I don’t own one. While I’m a techie, I try very hard to limit my gadget addiction. I try to make sure that when I’m buying a gadget, I’m buying something I’ll actually use, instead of something I’ll use for a few weeks and then let gather dust. For me, I think the iPad is a pretty cool gadget. But at the moment, I have a BlackBerry, I have a laptop, and I quite often have books.

When the iPad was first announced, I pooh-poohed it. I said it was too big to replace a phone, too limited to replace a laptop, too expensive to replace a Kindle (which I think is a bit too expensive to replace a book, at least for me), and that it won’t fulfill any of those functions better than dedicated devices. Essentially, my beef with the iPad is that it’s not functional enough to replace everything else, which means it is something you have to carry in addition to everything else.

But I’m walking back from that point for a moment. I think the iPad has potential to be much more. My mental picture of the iPad was how it might fulfill the functions of several existing individual devices. What I didn’t see is the possibility that it might open up a lot of new uses for which existing devices just aren’t well-suited. My wife uses her iPhone for more than I’d have originally thought, and yet she’s still an iPhone newbie. The iPad has the potential, with its larger size, to open up whole new game.

But it’s not without its detractors. Cory Doctorow, for one, thinks it’s a little too sterile, safe, and — above all — proprietary. He doesn’t much like a device that doesn’t let you get in and mess with its guts:

Then there’s the device itself: clearly there’s a lot of thoughtfulness and smarts that went into the design. But there’s also a palpable contempt for the owner. I believe — really believe — in the stirring words of the Maker Manifesto: if you can’t open it, you don’t own it. Screws not glue. The original Apple ][+ came with schematics for the circuit boards, and birthed a generation of hardware and software hackers who upended the world for the better. If you wanted your kid to grow up to be a confident, entrepreneurial, and firmly in the camp that believes that you should forever be rearranging the world to make it better, you bought her an Apple ][+.

But with the iPad, it seems like Apple’s model customer is that same stupid stereotype of a technophobic, timid, scatterbrained mother as appears in a billion renditions of “that’s too complicated for my mom” (listen to the pundits extol the virtues of the iPad and time how long it takes for them to explain that here, finally, is something that isn’t too complicated for their poor old mothers).

The way you improve your iPad isn’t to figure out how it works and making it better. The way you improve the iPad is to buy iApps. Buying an iPad for your kids isn’t a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it’s a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals.

I gotta say, this angle resonates with me. I’ve been using computers since I was 5 years old (the old Commodore 64). By the age of 7 we were on PC’s, and by the time I turned 13 I’d become the sysadmin for the household, writing batch file menu systems so my family could navigate to their programs without actually dealing with a command line more complex than hitting a number and the enter key. I then progressed through various operating systems (Win 3.1, OS/2 2.1, Win 95, OS/2 Warp, etc) — conveniently changing the OS as soon as my father learned how to use the one on the PC. This was in the heyday of the BBS world, and for a couple years I had an extra phone line into the house to cover incoming calls to my BBS (and my daily scheduled call into Fidonet to send/receive message board material). A few years ago I built my one homebrew MythTV DVR out of an old PC, and today I have a fully networked house between Windows and Linux machines, including a NAS and a dedicated HD media player to connect between the two.

As an old-school (for my young age) geek, the angle resonates — but it’s wrong.

As a geek, I used to think that other people wanted to know about the nuts and bolts. I used to think that other people actually were willing to put in effort to set up technology that would — once configured — make their lives easier. But they don’t. The average user wants one, and only one, thing: they want technology to work, easily.

I’ve often said that no technology can truly achieve mass acceptance until it doesn’t need a sysadmin to operate. As an example, I mentioned a dedicated HD media player that I own. It’s a very simple product, with an easy remote, network port, and really simple interface to go out looking for and connecting to network shares. I was pretty easily able to use my linux box to rip all my son’s movies (a 2 1/2 year old is not kind to DVDs), transfer them to the NAS, and give my wife an easy way to pull them up on demand. Simple as 1-2-432-pi-38484-3. One of my coworkers has the same device. He’s also an engineer, but a few decades senior to me and several sales positions removed from nuts & bolts engineering. He’s found a way to rip all of his families’ movies to a desktop machine, but has not been able to get everything on the network talking to each other to actually watch them without transferring them to a USB HDD. These are devices that are designed to be easy-to-use (I was amazed at how plug-and-play it was), but the prerequisite knowledge to use them effectively is beyond the grasp of most average home users. Fundamentally, it’s a geek toy, not a device that my mom would be able to set up, much less operate without written instructions.

The iPad and the iPhone, on the other hand, are easy to use. Much like the original iPods, they’re simply intuitive. The app store is easy to navigate. The OS, while locked up for most end users, is pretty well stable and won’t break. The downside, as Cory well points out, is that Apple becomes the gatekeeper. I’m a geek, and like Cory, I fundamentally don’t like that. But neither he nor I are average users, and to project our prejudices onto those average users misses the point.

The iPhone and the iPad are not intended to be geek toys and gadgets; they’re intended to be tools. As tools, they are built to be useful for as many jobs as they can meet but at the same time to be accessible to a very wide range of the public.

Is it the tool I’d choose? No, I’d prefer a more open Android-based platform than a closed Apple-based platform. Just like I prefer the control and configurability of Linux to Windows, and like I prefer the configurability and add-ons of Firefox to the vanilla of IE. But I’m not the average user.

The iPhone and iPad open up mobile computing platforms and a wide range of applications to a user base that otherwise probably would go without. There is downside to that approach, but the upside outweighs it by far.

Hat Tip: Economist Free Exchange Blog

Obama’s April Fools Joke

Yesterday, President Obama announced a new plan that supposedly announced new drilling off the nation’s East Coast, Alaskan Coast, and Gulf of Mexico. State run media proclaimed it as Obama moving to the center and striking a balance between environmentalists and the “drill, baby, drill” crowd. However, once you look at Obama’s actual proposal the truth is much different.

Rick Moran writes a piece for Pajamas Media today that illustrates the bait and switch Obama pulls on the American people.

Sounding for all the world like someone who just experienced a “road to Damascus” moment on energy, Barack Obama embraced offshore drilling for oil and ordered wide swaths of previously pristine ocean open to the depredations of greedy and rapacious oil companies.

Or if you’re not one of Obama’s wacky green supporters, Obama gave the go-ahead for tapping the biggest expansion of energy reserves in history.

Or did he?

In fact, what Obama giveth with one hand, he taketh away with another. Some leases already in motion have been canceled while potentially huge deposits of oil and natural gas are still off-limits, including the entire Pacific coastline of the United States from the Mexican border to Canada. In addition, in order to expand drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, the president must get the authorization of Congress. This would have been a snap when gas was $4 a gallon, but is much less a certainty today.

Other leases that had been approved in Alaska have also been canceled for further environmental study. Of course, the president didn’t even bother to mention the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — sacred calving grounds of the porcupine caribou — which would yield as many barrels of oil as all the areas the president opened for drilling combined. And the slow motion approval process guarantees that I will be retired and getting to and from our little grocery store here in Streator, Illinois, riding a donkey before a drop of that East Coast oil makes it to market.

What is the point of this welcome but ultimately less-than-half measure to expand our domestic oil production? Note the word “drill” used in just about every headline in the media about this story. The president is sending a signal to the American people that he has heard their cries of “drill, baby drill” and has deigned to respond favorably. Citizens will think better of him for it, despite the fact that it will not increase domestic oil production until the president is long out of office and considered an elder statesmen. Perhaps he will have been elected president of the world by then, but if we’re still in Afghanistan I wouldn’t bet on it.

Yeah, so much for “drill, baby, drill”. Plus, Obama made this announcement in front of a F/A-18 Hornet fighter that is slated to run on a mix of 50% jet fuel and 50% biofuels on Earth Day. This “drilling” announcement was designed to position Obama towards the center while at the same time bribing squishy Republicans who are open towards voting for cap and tax along with “moderate” and “conservative” Democrats who are reluctant to vote for it. As expected, state run media lapped it up and dutifully reported it as Obama wanted them to and to complete the disinformation campaign, they even found far left politicians and activists who were outraged.

Ultimately, this proposal is simply just an early April Fool’s joke by Barack Obama on the American people. It takes away existing oil leases and ultimately does not expand drilling in the US while at the same time giving Obama political cover to push cap and tax and the rest of his “green energy” subsidies. Unlike most April Fool’s jokes, this one is not funny. Instead, it will ultimately cost the average American family at least $1500 more a year in energy costs.

I’m one of the original co-founders of The Liberty Papers all the way back in 2005. Since then, I wound up doing this blogging thing professionally. Now I’m running the site now. You can find my other work at IJ Review.com and Rare. You can also find me over at the R Street Institute.

Risk and Compliance

For the first time today, TASER international has acknowledged that the use of their electro-compliance device has a higher risk to the health of the restrainee than they have advertised

Taser: Don’t shoot stun gun at chest

First time company has suggested there is any risk from its stun guns

AP – updated 8:23 a.m. PT, Wed., Oct . 21, 2009

PHOENIX – Taser International is advising police agencies across the nation not to shoot its stun guns at a suspect’s chest.

The Arizona-based company says such action poses a risk — albeit extremely low — of an “adverse cardiac event.”

The advisory was issued in an Oct. 12 training bulletin. It marks the first time that Taser has suggested there is any risk of a cardiac arrest related to the use of its 50,000-volt stun guns, The Arizona Republic reported.
Story continues below ?advertisement | your ad here

Taser officials said Tuesday the bulletin does not state that Tasers can cause cardiac arrest. They said the advisory means only that law-enforcement agencies can avoid controversy if their officers aim at areas other than the chest.

Critics called it a stunning reversal for the company.

We have all of course seen or heard of such incidents as the intransigent elderly woman who was TASED a few months ago in Texas (and many other similar incidents involving the elderly or emotionally disturbed); and most famously of course, of Rodney King, who continued resisting arrest after multiple TASER hits (which is why the officers began beating him. What started as an attempt to physically restrain a violent and intoxicated offender, turned into an emotional free for all).

Less frequently, we hear of someone experiencing cardiac or respiratory arrest, seizures, or nervous system damage from the use of the TASER.

Civil liberties activists have claimed that TASERs have directly caused the death of at least 350 people this decade; and that unjustified use of the TASER device is rampant, with thousands of effective cases of police brutality every year.

I take those claims with a hefty grain of salt.

Unfortunately, it IS clear that there have been a not insignificant number of deaths, either directly or indirectly caused by TASER usage; and that the risks of TASER usage are in fact much higher than law enforcement agencies and individual officers have been trained, or led to believe.

Because of these risks, those same civil liberties activists have called for the TASER device to be banned.

For years, TASER international has utterly denied the possibility of any elevated risk of death or serious injury involved in the use of the TASER.

Today, for the first time, the company acknowledged those risks; but in response suggested something I believe is ridiculous, counterproductive, and may even be harmful. In order to avoid liability, they are advising law enforcement agencies to train their officers to avoid shooting restrainees in the chest…

This is patently ridiculous.

First, the TASER is most effective when shot into the chest. The TASER device works by disrupting neuromuscular co-ordination, and hits outside of center mass are far less effective at causing systemic disruption. Other areas simply do not have the concentrations of nerve and muscle junctions that allow for effective immobilization.

When targeting peripheral areas of the body, effective immobilization may be limited to the localized area of the hit, or to one side of the body. Even hits to the abdomen or pelvis are far less effective in immobilization, (especially on larger restrainees) though they are exceptionally painful.

It is entirely possible (though very difficult) to fight through a TASER hit to a peripheral area, whereas it is nearly impossible to do so with a chest hit (unless you are physically huge, or very high).

It is also standard tactical doctrine for all projectile weapons training to aim for center mass; and it’s damn near impossible to hit a limb in a stressful situation. You don’t want to train officers to shoot for other targets under stress, it will just cause more problems.

Even after the department training officers and lawyers dutifully pass on the message from TASER; officers will, RIGHTLY, ignore this warning.

If you’re going to restrict TASER usage to targeting peripheral areas of the body, you might as well ban their use entirely.

I believe banning TASERs would be a huge mistake, as would changing the targeting area for the device; but clearly something needs to change.

The problem with TASERs isn’t their risks; it’s their doctrine for use.

I’ve been a law enforcement trainer myself, and I’ve been through various less-lethal force training courses, including TASERs. I’ve been TASED several times, and have had several other electro-compliance devices demonstrated on me (to great effect).

Officers are trained to view TASERs as, and to use them as, a less harmful compliance option than direct physical contact; with less risk to both the officer, and the restrainee. The TASER is viewed as a less risky, and less harmful option in the continuum of force.

While the less risk to the officer part is true, the risk of great harm to the restrainee is very high. Much higher than that of chemical compliance techniques, and as high as PROPERLY EXECUTED physical restraint and compliance techniques

Improperly executed physical restraint and compliance techniques, unfortunately present nearly as high a risk of fatality as a shooting; and with much greater risk to the officer. Without extensive training, continuing practice, and exceptional strength and physical fitness; it is very difficult for officers to maintain proper physical restraint and compliance techniques. Even with proper technique, the risk to the officer remains much higher than non-contact restraint and compliance techniques.

It is these issues, which in fact prompted much of the development of less-lethal force technologies; including chemical restraints, and electro-compliance devices like the TASER.

So where does this leave us? Where does this leave law enforcement officers; who are simply looking for a way to effectively restrain subjects, with less risk to the officer, and the subject.

This improper perception of risk has created an environment; especially in smaller law enforcement organizations, with lower training budgets and more permissive attitudes towards the continuum of force; where TASER use is not considered serious.

In general, many officers would prefer to use the TASER than other means of enforcing physical compliance; because it presents the least risk to them, and the most compliant restrainee.

Combined this false perception of low risk, with a more permissive attitude, and the undoubted advantages to the officer; and it is understandable why in many jurisdictions it seems that taser usage is out of control, and suspects are being TASEd almost casually.

The use of the TASER should be understood to be (and officers should be trained to this effect) 1/2 step below the use of a firearm in the continuum of force. Officers should be trained in a more realistic assessment of the risks and dangers of the TASER (and other electro-compliance devices).

Additionally, TASER use in the line of duty, should be reviewed with the same diligence as the discharge of a firearm.

I don’t want to take the TASER away from officers, as it is a useful and excellent tool that in general DOES increase the safety of both the officer, and the restrainee.

What I want, is for officers, and agencies, to understand, and take the risks and impact of TASER usage more seriously.

I am a cynically romantic optimistic pessimist. I am neither liberal, nor conservative. I am a (somewhat disgruntled) muscular minarchist… something like a constructive anarchist.

Basically what that means, is that I believe, all things being equal, responsible adults should be able to do whatever the hell they want to do, so long as nobody’s getting hurt, who isn’t paying extra

Popular Mechanics Separates CSI Fact from CSI Fiction

CSI, Forensic Files, The First 48 and other television programs of this genre are among my favorites. Investigators study a crime scene and learn all sorts of valuable information from blood spatter, shoe prints, tire marks, hair fibers, ballistics, and trace evidence. We are to believe that “the evidence doesn’t lie” and that these noble CSI crusaders seek only the truth and determine this truth by their many years of expertise in all areas of science.

That is what we are to believe but is this reliance on forensic science in solving crimes misplaced? The cover story in the August 2009 article of Popular Mechanics makes the argument that the “science” in forensic science isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.

On television and in the movies, forensic examiners unravel difficult cases with a combination of scientific acumen, cutting-edge technology and dogged persistence. The gee-whiz wonder of it all has spawned its own media-age legal phenomenon known as the “CSI effect.” Jurors routinely afford confident scientific experts an almost mythic infallibility because they evoke the bold characters from crime dramas. The real world of forensic science, however, is far different. America’s forensic labs are overburdened, understaffed and under intense pressure from prosecutors to produce results. According to a 2005 study by the Department of Justice, the average lab has a backlog of 401 requests for services. Plus, several state and city forensic departments have been racked by scandals involving mishandled evidence and outright fraud.

But criminal forensics has a deeper problem of basic validity. Bite marks, blood-splatter patterns, ballistics, and hair, fiber and handwriting analysis sound compelling in the courtroom, but much of the “science” behind forensic science rests on surprisingly shaky foundations. Many well-established forms of evidence are the product of highly subjective analysis by people with minimal credentials—according to the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, no advanced degree is required for a career in forensics. And even the most experienced and respected professionals can come to inaccurate conclusions, because the body of research behind the majority of the forensic sciences is incomplete, and the established methodologies are often inexact. “There is no scientific foundation for it,” says Arizona State University law professor Michael Saks. “As you begin to unpack it you find it’s a lot of loosey-goosey stuff.”

This kind of pokes holes into the notion that the evidence doesn’t lie.

Here’s the money quote of the whole article:

[The National Academy of Science report concerning the state of forensic science used in the criminal justice system] specifically noted that apart from DNA, there is not a single forensic discipline that has been proven “with a high degree of certainty” to be able to match a piece of evidence to a suspect.

That’s right; according to the NAS report, ballistics, trace evidence, and even finger print analysis are far from perfect.

A 2006 study by the University of Southampton in England asked six veteran fingerprint examiners to study prints taken from actual criminal cases. The experts were not told that they had previously examined the same prints. The researchers’ goal was to determine if contextual information—for example, some prints included a notation that the suspect had already confessed—would affect the results. But the experiment revealed a far more serious problem: The analyses of fingerprint examiners were often inconsistent regardless of context. Only two of the six experts reached the same conclusions on second examination as they had on the first.

Ballistics has similar flaws. A subsection of tool-mark analysis, ballistics matching is predicated on the theory that when a bullet is fired, unique marks are left on the slug by the barrel of the gun. Consequently, two bullets fired from the same gun should bear the identical marks. Yet there are no accepted standards for what constitutes a match between bullets. Juries are left to trust expert witnesses. “‘I know it when I see it’ is often an acceptable response,” says Adina Schwartz, a law professor and ballistics expert with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

The good news, according to the article, is that there are certain forensic techniques which are considered good science:

Techniques that grew out of organic chemistry and microbiology have a strong scientific foundation. For example, chromatography, a method for separating complex mixtures, enables examiners to identify chemical substances in bodily fluids—evidence vital to many drug cases. The evolution of DNA analysis, in particular, has set a new scientific standard for forensic evidence. But it also demonstrates that good science takes time.

So should these other methods which do not have a strong scientific foundation all be junked? Not even the critics of these methods in this article are willing to go that far. The article goes on to explain that these methods should be explained in their proper context to jurors (i.e. strengths and weaknesses, variables which can affect the results, and whether the evidence is exclusionary or qualified supporting evidence, etc.). All of this should be disclosed up front rather than relying on a defense attorney who likely does not have a background in forensic science to identify each problem with the presentation of the evidence.

Of course with the damning NAS report, others like it, and more exposure to the weaknesses of forensic science used in the courtroom by mainstream publications like Popular Mechanics, criminal defense lawyers everywhere now have this in their arsenal to create reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors until expert witnesses are required to give full disclosure regarding the techniques.

And Republicans still can’t figure out why they keep losing battles in the War of the Tubes

Shortly after I graduated high school in 1980 (yep, I’m an old man, just ask my kids), I responded to two computer programming job ads.  One company wanted a detailed resume of my education and work experience.  The other company was trying to get people to come in and take a test. The test was tough, but the thought process behind it was both simple and germane: We had to write a complex program in RPG to handle a hypothetical business need for this local company.  The programs submitted were the primary basis for the company’s hiring decision. The last time I checked (I ended up taking a job with a third company, EDS), the former business went under while the latter business is still around today.

Not too long ago, the Republican National Committee sent out a widely criticized Request-for-Proposal to move their Internets into the 21st century.

“Friends, either the RNC has no freakin’ clue what the hell it is doing or else all the rumors about certain consultants having an inside track at RNC contracts is true,” wrote Red State’s Erick Erickson. “Why? Because there is no way any competent person would put together an RFP like this. It’s crap. It is not legitimate. It is unprofessional. It is illusory.”

Let’s contrast the RNC to Howard Dean’s Internet guru.  Here’s Joe Trippi’s latest tweet:

I’m looking to hire the next social media whiz kid. Sound like you? Apply here: http://tr.im/nyLU Pls RT

When one follows Trippi’s link, he or she will read the following:

We’re looking for the next Associate to join our team. We posted the job description below on a number of job boards and sent it around to everyone we could think of. But, as we started the interview process, we realized the normal method of just reviewing resumes wasn’t going to work for us.

We need to know the person we hire. We want to see your skills in action and know you have the drive to succeed here…in short, we need to know you “get it”. And resumes and interviews aren’t enough.

So, we’re not going to judge you on your years of experience or your GPA. We are going to judge you on how well you can help us build online movements. We’re looking for the next social media whiz…someone who understands social media, online advocacy, and grassroots organizing and is passionate about using that knowledge to help non-profits and campaigns. That’s it.

If that sounds like you, we encourage you to apply by completing our online assessment. The link is below, but don’t click on it until you’re ready because, once you start, you only have 2 hours to complete it. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to log in again or start over. (You may finish before the 2 hours are up, but don’t take more time than that. The survey tool includes a timer, so we’ll be able to tell if you miss the deadline.)

The survey was fairly simple, but germane.  They asked for basic contact information, to describe three influential blogs, then got to the nitty-gritty.  Among other things, they described a hypothetical setting and asked the applicant to create an e-mail for a list of 100,000 people, as well as a blog entry, to promote their hypothetical agenda.

As one local example of how pathetic Republicans are on the Internet, ‘Lil Ol’ Me has almost twice as many Twitter followers as the Alabama Republican governor and each of the GOP gubernatorial candidates combined.

Not that I like the left’s agenda any more than I like the right’s agenda, but it’s obvious that one side “gets it” while the other doesn’t. One might think that the Republican Party would wake up and smell the Tubes.  Instead, they’ve still got their heads buried in the sand.  Or somewhere, at least.

Security Theatre Of The Absurd

Hey Cougars? Want to flash those pearly whites and shiny disposition when that mid-20’s waiter flatters you by asking for your ID at the bar? Well, good luck in Virginia… Smiling is forbidden:

Few places in Virginia are as draining to the soul and as numbing to the buttocks as the branch offices of the Department of Motor Vehicles. And yet, until recently, smiling was still permitted there.

No more. As part of the DMV’s effort to develop super-secure driver’s licenses and foolproof identification cards, the agency has issued a smile ban, directing customers to adopt a “neutral expression” in their portraits, thereby extinguishing whatever happiness comes with finally hearing one’s number called.

The driver’s license photo, it seems, is destined to look like a mug shot.

DMV officials say the smile ban is for a good cause. The agency would like to develop a facial recognition system that could compare customers’ photographs over time to prevent fraud and identity theft. “The technology works best when the images are similar,” said DMV spokeswoman Pam Goheen. “To prepare for the possibility of future security enhancements, we’re asking customers to maintain a neutral expression.”

At a Manassas DMV branch yesterday, that translated to a simple directive: “Don’t smile.”

Now, this is unlikely to be an issue for me. Given how much I hate stupid bureaucracy, inefficiency, waiting in lines, and the government in general, I’m most certainly not smiling in my license photo. And given that I’m tall (and thus the picture is slightly shot from below), let’s just say that if the picture were used for the nightly news, it wouldn’t fit for their feel-good story.

Every time you see government security, it must be weighed against government control. For example, it has been shown and explained numerous times that the government no-fly list is useless at fighting terrorism, as a committed terrorist will quickly and easily have the means to get a useable fake credit card and ID — or fake boarding pass and real ID — to get through a checkpoint — as the checkpoint workers do not verify names against the list. Thus, the no-fly list becomes another huge government database that has the power to make your life miserable if you accidentally get on it but doesn’t actually enhance security in any meaningful way.

But you know what all this security does? It makes normal citizens, whose interaction with the government is already rare and painful, even more difficult. But instead of taking the proper lesson from this — that government is largely useless and their security is entirely for show — they come away with a different lesson. They believe that perhaps banning smiling in a photo is just what is necessary to keep us safe, and that they should do what the bureaucrats ask without question. They are learning the lesson that obeisance is the key to security, even though reason and evidence suggest otherwise. They learn that it is not necessarily personal vigilance that is required to be safe, but rather letting the government keep ever-closer tabs on us. And that’s the wrong mindset for a country that used to have the values of America.

Then, of course, the story takes its truly absurdist turn:

When asked how DMV employees are able to determine when customers might be smiling too much, Goheen explained that the process is automated. Naturally, the new software is programmed to reject attempts at exuberance or human warmth. “It will send an error message if it detects a non-neutral expression,” she said.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from science fiction, it’s that the only way that we can defeat the evil android invasion when AI is first invented is to be able to detect the androids amongst us based upon their inability to behave like a human. It appears the machines are already trying to detect whether or not we can behave like them.

Hat Tip: Balko @ Reason

I Demand A Paper Trail!

Because if I can’t trust the machines, I’m going to have to count the C2H5OH molecules myself!

Minnesota may be forced to drop thousands of driving-while-impaired cases and change the way it prosecutes others in the wake of a state Supreme Court ruling Thursday, prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed.

The state’s highest court ruled that defendants in drunken-driving cases have the right to make prosecutors turn over the computer “source code” that runs the Intoxilyzer breath-testing device to determine whether the device’s results are reliable.

But there’s a problem: Prosecutors can’t turn over the code because they don’t have it.

The Kentucky company that makes the Intoxilyzer says the code is a trade secret and has refused to release it, thus complicating DWI prosecutions.

Now, as an electrical engineer who works for a company that deals with government (or usually contractors whose end customer is the government), I run into issues like this quite a bit. In some cases (such as any life-support medical device or flight-critical avionics) the source code is actually required for certification, because the regulators step through code line-by-line to make sure things are truly deterministic.

Is this an issue in a breathalyzer? I’d say almost certainly not.

But I also see how damaging it is for people who get a single drunk-driving (which in many cases — due to the 0.08 limit now in most states — the drivers aren’t materially “impaired”) offense on their record. The financial implications can often be $2,500 to $10,000, not counting the higher insurance. It can often affect jobs. One of my old neighbors worked for a regional restaurant chain, and once relayed a joke when the subject came up: “What do you call a district manager who gets a DUI? A store manager.” Simply put, their insurance wouldn’t allow them to employ someone with a DUI on their record in any capacity where they might be required to drive (or use a company car, which was the case there) as a major portion of their work.

So is this a technicality? Yes. Is it likely that if the defense gets a hold of the source code, they’ll be able to prove that the device is unreliable? Probably not. But will it keep the state of Minnesota from dramatically adversely affecting the lives of quite a few drivers who are driving responsibly, carefully, and just a shade over the legal limit? I hope so.

Disharmony @ #tcot, freedom @ #tlot

tlot-logoDespite all of the hullabaloo over #tcot (Top Conservatives on Twitter), there seems to a be a bit of a scrap brewing between TCOT co-founders Rob Neppell and Michael Patrick Leahy.  To date, the argument sounds more like a quarrel between gay lovers than one between some of the God-fearing, pro-torture fag-bashing Republicans who frequently tweet with the #tcot hashtag.  Here’s the first description of the spat I’ve found online:

This morning teabagger-in-chief and “Top Conservatives on Twitter” (TCOT) co-founder Rob Neppell posted this message on TopConservativesOnTwitter.org (which has since been removed) outlining his decision to shut down the site and encouraging fellow TCOT co-founder and notorious douchenozzle Michael Patrick Leahy to, essentially, eat a bag of dicks.

According to the note, Leahy also “was recently asked to leave the leadership team of Tea Party Patriots” “due to his inability to work in a group decision-making environment.” Oh, snap.

Revolution is never easy.

While their front page says it’s under construction, the message is still online and one can peek at it though the back door here. I haven’t seen any sort of response from Leahy, yet.

Over at 7mesh.com, thespaghetticat asks::

I wonder how this will affect #tcot frequent tweeter Karl “Turd Blossom” Rove (@Karl_rove)?

In the meantime, there is also Top Libertarians on Twitter (#tlot), where folks feel that even conservative homosexuals deserve equal treatment under the law.  If you are a libertarian on Twitter, be sure to sign up here.

While we are on the topic of social networking, feel free to follow The Liberty Papers on Facebook here and on Twitter here. Here’s where you can follow or friend some of the individuals at The Liberty Papers:

Chris Byrne

Twitter

Eric Cowperthwaite

Facebook Twitter

Stephen Gordon

Facebook Twitter

Doug Mataconis

Facebook Twitter

Jason Pye

Facebook Twitter

Brad Warbiany

Facebook

Feel free to leave your social networking links in the comment section if you’d like to expand your social networking with other like-minded people.

UPDATE: The old TCOT format and data seem to have survived and are available here.

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