Category Archives: Technology

Government Funding of Science: Inherently Susceptible to Junk and Superstition.

I recently discovered the thoroughly enjoyable podcast put out by Skepticality magazine, and was browsing through some past ‘casts, when I stumbled across an interview (in Podcast #59) with Lori Lipman-Brown, a lobbyist in the employ of the Secular Coalition of America. The interview was pretty wide ranging, but at one point it focused on a battle in the U.S. House of Representatives concerning stem cell research. She recounted how House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had attempted to use an interpretation of Christian theology to buttress her position. She criticized Nancy Pelosi as follows:

“We were flabbergasted when we heard her start saying that ‘stem cells are a gift from God’ and that ‘stemcell research is biblically based’ in her arguments. I mean she was going to vote the right way, but this was her argument to get other people to vote the right way. And the reason this is really horrific is-our argument is whether or not you allow stem cell research to progress shouldn’t be based on your theology, because if it is just a competition between whose theology is right. I mean President Bush, when he vetoes these bills, he bases it on God and the Bible also and his interpretation. … Making this a competition of whose theology wins is not appropriate. What you need to do is to say ‘Look this is science, this is not – we can’t have the government imposing anyone’s theology – you know, this is research, this is not about what someone’s religious belief is.” – I transcribed this myself – any deviation from what was actually said is a mistake rather than malice – tarran

In effect, she was opposed to a minority being able to block some bit of government funding for research based on moral objections rooted in superstitious beliefs.

Roman Scientific Research Into Agricultural ForecastingThis seems a reasonable position at first blush, but is, in fact, a highly immoral and, frankly impossible proposition. Let us turn to our old friends the Nazis for a demonstration, since they make for great reductio ad absurdum argumentation. » Read more

I am an anarcho-capitalist living just west of Boston Massachussetts. I am married, have two children, and am trying to start my own computer consulting company.

Getting Free Speech Wrong

Proving the old adage that politics makes strange bedfellows, and that misunderstanding the Constitution is something that both the right and the left are guilty of, the President of NARAL and the President of the Christian Coalition have a joint column in today’s Washington Post about the refusal by Verizon Wireless to allow broadcast text messages on “controversial” topics:

Last month, Verizon Wireless refused to approve NARAL Pro-Choice America’s application for a text-messaging “short code,” a program that enables people to voluntarily sign up to receive updates by texting a five-digit code. When NARAL Pro-Choice America protested, the nation’s second-largest wireless carrier initially claimed the right to block any content “that, in its discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory.”

After news of Verizon’s censorship hit the front page of the New York Times, and sparked a public outcry, the company quickly backpedaled. Verizon issued an apology and blamed the blocking on a “dusty internal policy,” while still reserving the right to block text messages in the future at its discretion.

When it comes to censoring free speech, sorry just isn’t good enough. Whatever your political views — conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, pro-choice or pro-life — it shouldn’t be up to Verizon to determine whether you receive the information you requested. Why should any company decide what you choose to say or do over your phone, your computer or your BlackBerry? Technologies are converging in our communications system, but the principles of free expression and the rights of all Americans to speak without intervention should remain paramount.

The authors are guilty of making a mistake that many Americans make; they take the provisions of the First Amendment and attempt to apply them in contexts in which they are simply inapplicable.

Here, for those who seem to either forget or refuse to remember is what the First Amendment actually says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The emphasis is mine, of course, but it’s meant to emphasize the simple fact that the First Amendment is only directed to government action. When we talk about Freedom of Speech, we’re talking about your right to speak without fear of state reprisal or prior restraint. We are not talking about your right to use someone’s private property to promote your agenda.

And that is exactly what the authors are talking about in this case. Verizon decided that it didn’t want to become a conduit for their political agenda. In a free society, they should have the right to do this if they want to. And if you don’t like it, then go find another cell phone provider.

But that isn’t what the authors want to hear. They want Congress to force Verizon and other telecom providers to provide them with a space on their network to promote their agenda.

We’re asking Congress to convene hearings on whether existing law is sufficient to guarantee the free flow of information and to protect against corporate censorship. The public deserves an open and fair conversation about this important issue.

No, the public needs to realize that we’ll never come close to having a free society if we don’t respect property rights, including Verizon’s.

Verizon Admits It Turned Over Customer Data Without A Warrant

Today’s Washington Post reports that one of the nation’s largest telecommunications companies routinely complies with requests for customer data from government agencies without requiring a warrant:

Verizon Communications, the nation’s second-largest telecom company, told congressional investigators that it has provided customers’ telephone records to federal authorities in emergency cases without court orders hundreds of times since 2005.

The company said it does not determine the requests’ legality or necessity because to do so would slow efforts to save lives in criminal investigations.

In an Oct. 12 letter replying to Democratic lawmakers, Verizon offered a rare glimpse into the way telecommunications companies cooperate with government requests for information on U.S. citizens.

Verizon also disclosed that the FBI, using administrative subpoenas, sought information identifying not just a person making a call, but all the people that customer called, as well as the people those people called. Verizon does not keep data on this “two-generation community of interest” for customers, but the request highlights the broad reach of the government’s quest for data.

(…)

From January 2005 to September 2007, Verizon provided data to federal authorities on an emergency basis 720 times, it said in the letter. The records included Internet protocol addresses as well as phone data. In that period, Verizon turned over information a total of 94,000 times to federal authorities armed with a subpoena or court order, the letter said. The information was used for a range of criminal investigations, including kidnapping and child-predator cases and counter-terrorism investigations.

Verizon and AT&T said it was not their role to second-guess the legitimacy of emergency government requests.

What is most surprising about the revelations isn’t so much that Verizon decided that it didn’t need to require the government to obtain a court order for the information, as it is the extent of the information that the FBI and other government agencies were looking for:

Yesterday’s 13-page Verizon letter indicated that the requests went further than previously known. Verizon said it had received FBI administrative subpoenas, called national security letters, requesting data that would “identify a calling circle” for subscribers’ telephone numbers, including people contacted by the people contacted by the subscriber. Verizon said it does not keep such information.

“The privacy concerns are exponential each generation you go away from the suspect’s number,” said Kurt Opsahl, senior staff attorney with the EFF. “This shows that further investigation by Congress and the inspector general is critical.”

Earlier this year, the Justice Department’s inspector general found that the FBI may have improperly obtained phone, bank and other records of thousands of people inside the United States since 2003 by using national security letters and exigent letters, or emergency demands for records.

Now, Verizon and other telecom companies are seeking formal immunity from any civil liability for complying with these government request, and, on some level, they do have a point:

AT&T and Verizon both argued that the onus should not be on the companies to determine whether the government has lawfully requested customer records. To do so in emergency cases would “slow lawful efforts to protect the public,” wrote Randal S. Milch, senior vice president of legal and external affairs for Verizon Business, a subsidiary of Verizon Communications.

“Public officials, not private businessmen, must ultimately be responsible for whether the legal judgments underlying authorized surveillance activities turn out to be right or wrong — legally or politically,” wrote Wayne Watts, AT&T’s senior executive vice president and general counsel. “Telecommunications carriers have a part to play in guarding against official abuses, but it is necessarily a modest one.”

While it is distressing that Verizon and AT&T were so willing to bend over backwards with what may well have been unauthorized requests for information, it’s not their job to enforce the provisions of the Fourth Amendment. That responsibility lies with law enforcement and, ultimately, with the Federal Courts who authorize the warrants to begin with.

Free Speech in the Free Market

Tim Rutten, writing for the LA Times made several interesting observations regarding talk radio, MoveOn.org, and the way congress has responded to commentary coming from each.

[T]he House and Senate censured the liberal activist group MoveOn.org for taking out a newspaper advertisement that characterized Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, as “General Betray Us.” Now congressional Democrats are seeking a similar expression of disapproval for radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who they allege insulted servicemen and women opposed to the Iraq war by calling them “phony soldiers.” (Limbaugh has a baroque explanation of what he actually meant by those words, but you probably have to be a regular listener to his show to follow it.)

There’s a temptation to dismiss all this as hollow foolishness — like most of the things Congress does with ease. Beyond all this preposterous posturing, though, there are a couple of things worth considering because both really do involve free speech and your right to hear it.

Now, the MoveOn.org ad was patently offensive, a particularly unconscionable slur on any honorable American in uniform, let alone a guy who commanded the 101st Airborne. It was, however, rejected out of hand as an expression of loony narrow-mindedness by most Americans who oppose the war. Nobody, in other words, needed a congressional coalition — not even a bipartisan one — to instruct them on how to think. Similarly, it’s possible that the Democratic leadership is sufficiently clueless not to have noticed until now that Limbaugh regularly goes on the air and says cruel and offensive things about people of all sorts. Most Americans with a pulse, however, are abundantly clear on the fact that Rush talks a pretty mean game.

To this point, I agree with Mr. Rutten. It should be beneath congress to spend time passing useless resolutions condemning private citizens or groups for expressing opinions that some congressmen disagree with. Outrageous and crazy things are printed, spoken, and blogged on a daily basis. Should congress pass resolutions for each and every one of these statements? Of course not. They work for us and they have a job to do.

But unfortunately for those of us who value our First Amendment rights, there are certain politicians who wish to do more than pass resolutions condemning speech they disagree with by bringing back the so-called “fairness doctrine.”

ASK most Americans what the Fairness Doctrine is and they’ll correctly tell you it’s a regulation that requires broadcasters to air both sides of an issue. Tell them that it hasn’t been enforced since 1987, when the Federal Communications Commission essentially deregulated broadcasting and abolished the doctrine, and they’ll look at you like you’re nuts. That is, however, the situation, and much that is of current consequence flows from it — including the existence of contemporary talk radio of which Limbaugh is the avatar.

In America today, talk radio is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party’s conservative wing. GOP partisans will argue that’s because deregulation subjected radio to the discipline of the marketplace, and, when that market expressed itself through ratings, it stated an overwhelming preference for conservative talk-show hosts. That’s a good, Reagan Era argument, but Democrats and their allies see different forces at work. They point to the fact that deregulation freed big corporations to acquire hundreds of radio stations at about the same time that satellite transmission made syndicated radio programming decisively cheaper than locally produced shows. It was an easy call for the corporate station managers, who quickly filled their airtime with cheap, syndicated programming. Most of the first wave of syndicated programming was talk by conservative commentators, who’d long been shut out — or felt they were shut out — of mainstream media.

Talk radio is “owned” by the G.O.P.? Ridiculous! Yes, it’s true that the vast majority of talk show hosts are conservative but so what? The reason why conservative talk has been successful is because there is a market for conservative views. The prevailing theory seems to be that conservative talk is successful because it is one of the few places where the alternative views (alternative to the left wing MSM) are expressed. This could explain why conservative talk has succeeded where progressive talk has failed. The fact that a few large media corporations own most of the radio stations is irrelevant (clearly, Rutten also believes that antitrust laws are legitimate). If there was a stronger market for progressive views, these large media corporations would not hesitate to drop the conservatives in favor of progressives. The radio industry’s master is the bottom line, not the G.O.P. or anyone else for that matter.

If the FCC were to reimpose the Fairness Doctrine, talk radio would no longer be a part of the GOP base. That’s why Democratic senators like California’s Dianne Feinstein and Illinois’ Richard J. Durbin have been talking about prodding the agency into doing that since last spring. It’s also why, late Monday, 200 Republican representatives notified the House Rules Committee that they intended to seek a “petition of discharge” for the “Broadcaster Freedom Act.” That bill, written by Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a former radio talk-show host, would prohibit the FCC from ever reimposing the Fairness Doctrine. Under the House rules, if Pence can get 218 signatories to the petition, the Democratic leadership must let it come to the floor for a vote.

That’s what’s really at stake in all the posturing over MoveOn .org and Rush Limbaugh. In the minds of both parties, it’s not so much a fight over speech as it is over the right kind of speech. The sad irony is that the only voice that isn’t being heard in all this talk over talk is that of the public, which, after all, owns the airwaves over which this struggle is being waged.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that Rutten is right: talk radio is “owned” by the G.O.P. base. Again, I have to say: so what? Rutten major common error in this piece is this notion that the public “owns the airwaves” (except for the illegitimate use of taxpayer money to fund both NPR and PBS). The entire argument for government imposed regulations on broadcasting rests on this notion that the airwaves are owned by everyone. If the airwaves are owned by everyone, then that also means that the airwaves are owned by no one. If the airwaves are owned by no one, then the government assumes that the government rightly fills that vacuum to own the airwaves.

But the public does not own the airwaves; the people who pay the money to transmit their programming do. The way I see ownership of the airwaves should be similar to ownership of any other kind of property: a radio station owner determines the frequency s/he wants to use and s/he registers the frequency with the county so no other station can use his or her frequency.

In the real world, it’s a little more complicated than that but the fact remains that radio station owners pay for their programming from advertisers and donations (donations are more common for religious programming) NOT public funds. If the G.O.P. base truly has spent the money to keep these shows on the air, I say more power to them. What would stop the DNC from doing the same?

If we buy into this myth of the public airwaves, we do so at our own peril. If the FCC can demand that talk shows give equal time for all issues (assuming that is even possible), what is to stop congress from setting up similar unelected bodies to impose similar regulations on newspapers, magazines, and blogs? Newspapers are delivered on public roads, magazines are delivered through the U.S. mail, and the internet is transmitted over utility lines which are often also regulated by the government!

I agree with Mr. Rutten that the voice of the public is not well represented on the radio but what are we willing to sacrifice in the name of fairness? Despite my frustration with the MSM and talk radio, we live in a time where we have so many other options to express our views and listen to unconventional views of others. We now have the internet which gives us access to videos, podcasts, and blogs. The government should be the last place for us to deem the ultimate arbiter of fairness.

Jimmy Justice: Policing the Police

As a general rule, I believe that most police officers are brave, respectable, and truly do their best to honor their mission statement: to serve and protect. As with any organization, there are some bad apples, however. And what happens when a police officer abuses his or her badge to break the law or harass a citizen? If it goes to court and it’s the citizen’s word against the police officer’s, unfortunately, many judges and juries will give the police officer the benefit of the doubt.

As Doug has pointed out in several of his posts, cities are considering adding surveillance cameras on city streets to keep an eye on the citizens. One man who calls himself Jimmy Justice is turning the tables and is doing some surveillance of his own on police officers and government officials who abuse the power given to them by the public.

As you might expect, some of these government officials don’t appreciate their bad behavior filmed and later broadcast on the internet for the whole world to see. Jimmy Justice’s work has put public pressure on the respective government agencies to investigate these incidents further and take disciplinary action.

In a time where government is taking more and more control over our lives, its refreshing to see that everyday citizens have the will and the technology to serve as a check on government abuse of power. This first clip is a news story on Jimmy Justice and his mission to police the police.

This second video is Jimmy Justice confronting a police officer who parked in front of a fire hydrant (if an average citizen were to do the same thing he or she would be ticketed and fined). Notice the contempt this woman and her friend have for the citizens; it’s both disturbing and revealing.

WARNING: THIS VIDEO CONTAINS PROFANITY. IF YOU ARE OFFENDED BY PROFANITY DON’T WATCH.

Why Bush Cancelled Warrantless Wiretapping Program

Some of you may remember this story, from mid-January (covered by Doug here). The tone of the story is that Bush backed down to pressure from Democrats and the American public, and realized that his program might be over the line.

The Bush administration said yesterday that it has agreed to disband a controversial warrantless surveillance program run by the National Security Agency, replacing it with a new effort that will be overseen by the secret court that governs clandestine spying in the United States.

The change — revealed by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales in a letter to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee — marks an abrupt reversal by the administration, which for more than a year has aggressively defended the legality of the NSA surveillance program and disputed court authority to oversee it.

Administration officials suggested that the move was aimed in part at quelling persistent objections to the NSA spying by Democrats who now control Congress and that it is intended to slow or even derail challenges making their way through the federal courts. The Justice Department immediately filed a notice with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit yesterday informing the panel of the new program and promising to file papers “addressing the implications of this development” on pending litigation.

I didn’t quite buy it then… Bush is a “decider” and once he’s made a decision, it rarely changes. So for him to give up a power that he believes he has seemed a bit strange.

And today we find out why, as he backed down not out of respect for the rule of law or the Constitution, but because a judge forced his hand:

A federal intelligence court judge earlier this year secretly declared a key element of the Bush administration’s wiretapping efforts illegal, according to a lawmaker and government sources, providing a previously unstated rationale for fevered efforts by congressional lawmakers this week to expand the president’s spying powers.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) disclosed elements of the court’s decision in remarks Tuesday to Fox News as he was promoting the administration-backed wiretapping legislation. Boehner has denied revealing classified information, but two government officials privy to the details confirmed that his remarks concerned classified information.

The judge, whose name could not be learned, concluded early this year that the government had overstepped its authority in attempting to broadly surveil communications between two locations overseas that are passed through routing stations in the United States, according to two other government sources familiar with the decision.

The decision was both a political and practical blow to the administration, which had long held that all of the National Security Agency’s enhanced surveillance efforts since 2001 were legal. The administration for years had declined to subject those efforts to the jurisdiction of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and after it finally did so in January the court ruled that the administration’s legal judgment was at least partly wrong.

Now, because of the secretive nature, a lot of the timeline is missing here. It is unclear whether the judge’s final ruling came before or after the Administration changed their tune, but portions of the letter Gonzales released on Jan 17 did refer to orders by a judge handed down on Jan 10.

Either way, it’s clear that this was not the administration backing down from wrongdoing, this was the administration being forced into compliance.

Which, frankly, is the only way to get this administration to do anything it doesn’t want to do.

IRS Signs Over Fort Knox To Nigerian Scammers

Okay, well maybe it’s not THAT bad… But it’s close:

IRS employees ignored security rules and turned over sensitive computer information to a caller posing as a technical support person, according to a government study.

Sixty-one of the 102 people who got the test calls, including managers and a contractor, complied with a request that the employee provide his or her user name and temporarily change his or her password to one the caller suggested, according to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, an office that does oversight of Internal Revenue Service.

The caller asked for assistance to correct a computer problem.

The report said that by failing to question the identity of the caller the employees were putting the IRS at risk of providing unauthorized people access to taxpayer data that could be used for identity theft and other fraudulent schemes.

“This is especially disturbing because the IRS has taken many steps to raise employee awareness of the importance of protecting their computers and passwords,” said Inspector General J. Russell George.

Sadly, according to the Inspector General, this appears to have occurred after people were trained.

Granted, that some people failed this test is not a surprise, but over 60%?!

And some people want to trust these morons with our medical records too?

autoDogmatic Reports On SC Ron Paul Rally

Aaron, one of the bloggers over at autoDogmatic and the founder of the Mortgage Lender Implode-O-Meter, recently attended a Ron Paul rally in South Carolina, particularly looking for freaks and fringe groups.

He found none:

You see, I went in expecting an audience which was somehow “not normal”, indescribably; maybe quirky or geeky; paranoid; socially-awkward; heavily biased towards “fringe” types. You know, internet people.

Well, if these were “internet people,” we apparently need to rethink our notion of what the internet consists of. Because this audience was America.

That is perhaps the most succinct way I can put it. It was as if 2,000 of my nicest neighbors were brought together in one place.

No trace of “fringe groups”; this was as far from a “circus” as you could get.

Now, I always knew that Ron Paul was supported by “regular people” (though I’m not sure I consider myself one). But after reading mainstream Ron Paul “expose`” articles like this one, I expected to see a few more conspicious “9/11 Truthers”; ranters-on about the Bilderbergers, “gold-bugs,” whatever. Pick your clique. I don’t mean to diminish these groups — in fact I sympathize with all their views somewhat — but they are simply considered “fringe” in the popular conception. You aren’t supposed to associate with them.

And there was no sign of them at the rally.

Ok, I saw one young man with a “Kissinger – war crimes” t-shirt (which I’m actually sympathetic to), and maybe one guy with a 9/11 Truth t-shirt. That was it.

I think I may have seen fewer such “fringe” themes displayed at the Ron Paul rally than I might have seen walking down the street on a typical day.

What’s the signifiance of all this? Well, to me, the above is incredibly encouraging. It means the support for Ron Paul, and more importantly the ideas of his campaign, is broad-based. “Average Americans” — middle-class, hard-working, honest folk — buy into Ron Paul’s freedom message big-time. They just need the chance to hear it.

And that means the sky is the limit for the “Ron Paul Revolution.” It means anywhere you find an honest American, you’ve found a potential Paul supporter. The only limit is how fast the message can travel, and once again, the internet appears to be breaking records on that front.

This is a positive sign. One of the typical criticisms of Ron Paul is that only freaks and weirdos support him. Some of the commenters at this site have certainly shown that some of those people support him, but don’t prove that only those people support him.

The simple fact is that there are a lot of people in this country who are sick and tired of pulling a lever to choose between big, intrusive government, and bigger, more intrusive government. There are a lot of people out there who may not agree on everything, but agree that they’re ready for a new message. They’re not getting that from any of the mainstream candidates on either side.

I’ve said that I don’t think America is truly ready for freedom, at least as Ron Paul and many libertarians understand it. But America is changing. I really see the internet as a liberating force in America, and the internet is inherently libertarian. The internet’s weight behind Ron Paul has been the difference between him being a third-tier nobody candidate and a second-tier candidate rapidly gaining name recognition.

But Aaron’s experience reminds me of something. “Internet support” no longer means a bunch of freaks and weirdos, sitting in their pajamas in their parents’ basement, hoping to someday make a friend. That might have been true of the internet of 1997, but the internet of 2007 is a cross-section of America. Ron Paul’s message is reaching those people.

I can’t say whether Paul will win the nomination, or win the presidency. Like co-blogger Doug, I support Paul but I think the chances are low. I don’t know that America is ready for him. But when I see the effect he’s having at this early stage, I think that maybe, just maybe, America still has a chance. I support Ron Paul because I want to advance freedom, and that’s something that I want to do whether he makes it to the Oval Office or not.

Senate Democrats Vote Against Free Speech

On Friday, the Democratic controlled Senate voted down a bill that would have barred the Federal Communications Commission from reinstating the so-called Fairness Doctrine without Congressional approval:

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats on Friday blocked an amendment by Sen. Norm Coleman that would have prevented the return of the Fairness Doctrine, a federal rule which required broadcasters to air opposing views on issues.

Although no legislation has been offered to bring back the regulation, which was scrapped in 1987, Coleman and other Republicans have been mounting a pre-emptive attack in recent weeks, arguing that a return to the old rule would give the government too much power in regulating content. The House recently passed an amendment banning the rule’s return.

When Coleman, R-Minn., tried to bring up his amendment Friday to a defense authorization bill, Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee, objected. According to Levin’s office, he objected because the amendment belonged in the Commerce Committee’s jurisdiction, and because it would have taken up time while the Senate was trying to debate Iraq.

The subtext of the debate over the Fairness Doctrine is talk radio’s perceived dominance by conservative voices.

In a telephone interview, Coleman said his motivation was to preserve the First Amendment. But he added: “I do have a strong objection to folks wanting to cut off talk radio because it’s conservative. Let the people be able to make the choice.”

Contrast this seemingly common sense approach to the issue to the neo-Marxist ideas of Illinois Senator Dick Durbin:

“The airwaves belong to the American people,” Durbin said. “Those who profit from them do by permission of the people through their government.” He said that broadcasters should provide both points of view on an issue.

This, I think is the rock on which this entire argument is based. Since radio and television were first invented, we’ve lived with the absurd idea that the airwaves “belong” to the public. What that argument forgets, however, is that it wasn’t “the public” or the state that made the huge investment in research, development, and infrastructure that was necessary to first make the idea of mass broadcast of wireless radio and television a practical idea. And it’s not “the public” or the state who continue to put up the money it takes to run a radio or television station.

Since that’s the case, what right do either this amorphous group called “the public” or the state have to tell broadcasters what they can and cannot put on the air ?

Yea, I can’t figure it out either.

Total Security = Total Paralysis

The Register (slogan “Biting the Hand that Feeds I.T.) is one of my favorite news sources on IT related matters. Skeptical, sarcastic, they do not suffer fools lightly. Today reading their rss feed, I came across this article: DHS: beware stink-bomb touting terrorists

Unusual paranoia over chemical attack in the US takes many forms. It can be seen in a recent piece of trouble from the Department of Homeland Security, a long list of “chemicals of interest” it wishes to require all university settings to inventory.

“Academic institutions across the country claim they will have to spend countless hours and scarce resources on documenting very small amounts of chemicals in many different labs that are scattered across sometimes sprawling campuses,” reported a recent Chemical & Engineering News, the publication of the American Chemical Society.

“For 104 chemicals on the list, the threshold is ‘any amount.'”

An update to address university workload concerns is said to be scheduled for “early to mid-June.”

Another compound in the “any amount” catch all is hydrogen sulfide, the toxic gas that smells like rotten eggs.

Functionally, generating “any amounts” of hydrogen sulfide has always been part of an education in chemistry. Believe it or not, there was a time when generation of it was included as a spark to an interest in chemistry in children’s store bought chemistry sets.

However, in the past fifteen years we’ve had the pleasure of publication of a number of poisons for ninnies books, among them Maxwell Hutchkinson’s “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” published by Loompanics in 1988. Much of Hutchkinson was subsequently plagiarized into jihadist documents on chemical terror, among these being Abdel-Aziz’s Mujahideen Poisons Handbook, which if found during terror investigations functionally works toward ensuring a stay in the dungeon for owners.

The Mujahideen Poisons Handbook contains an old hydrogen sulfide producing experiment. “It is very dangerous,” its author states, not particularly accurately. “It can kill a person in thirty seconds.”
Instead of meditating on the naiveté of the uneducated man who has never had a chemistry set, since 9/11 we have instead been plagued by terror assessors who are not chemists, mucking with regulation through the offices of DHS’s science directorate.

To make the weirdness of this clear, hydrogen sulfide – like almost everything in the Mujahideen Poisons Handbook, goes back to the materials in The Poisoner’s Handbook.

“The manufacture of hydrogen sulfide is [simple],” writes Hutchkinson. “It is created by water coming into contact with phosphorus pentasulfide.”

This is actually true, unlike many things in terrorist poison handbooks. On the DHS list, phosphorus pentasulfide is only of interest if a university has a ton of it. Hydrogen sulfide, any amount. Phosphorus pentasulfide, one ton. Looking for logic becomes like trying to pick up spilled mercury.

It is easy to simply mock the DHS as being staffed by incompetent fools. However, I think this essay demonstrates the flaw inherent in socialized security systems. While these chemicals can be used to kill human beings, they are also used for numerous beneficial purposes. They appear in numerous manufacturing processes. To prevent their misuse, the government must interfere with all uses. Given the myriad ways that a human being can kill large numbers of his fellows, the attempts to lock-down all possible methods requires locking down or closely supervising a significant portion of human activity. The more tightly the government tries to control what people are doing, the more paralyzed the society becomes.

In the end, people must take personal responsibility for their own security. Socialized security, like any socialized system, is bound to be inflexible and provide poor service.

Enjoy!

I am an anarcho-capitalist living just west of Boston Massachussetts. I am married, have two children, and am trying to start my own computer consulting company.

When corporations fight proxy wars using governments

It is always depressing to see a political battle erupt where you know, no matter who wins, the average citizen will be screwed. One such slow motion train wreck is taking place in Massachusetts as we speak. I became aware of it when one of the groups put an ad on TV that was so offensively anti-consumer that I knew some bait and switch had to be taking place. What I found was quite an interesting battle.

In Massachusetts, most roads are owned and operated by local governments. Among the many decisions these owners have to make are ones concerned with services run under or over these roads. One set of services are television cables. Generally, and perhaps universally, these towns select a single cable provider and give them a monopoly on television service, allow them to run lines along the roads, and grant them exclusive access to the market composed of the town’s residents.

The towns also made similar arrangements with telephone providers.

These monopolies are starting to break down due to technical advances. A thin fiber-optic line can carry the same amount of data that a thick cable would be used for 20 years ago. The technologies have converged to the point that the cable infrastructure can provide telephone service, and the telephone infrastructure can provide television service.

The two types of companies went from indifference to each other to competing with each other. Since they are used to having governments kneecap competition, they each tried to use local governments against their competitors. In the case of my home town, Comcast very effectively lobbied town authorities to prohibit Verizon from offering television, even though the infrastructure was in place. Apparently Verizon got tired of this, and decided that they would have an advantage if these legislative battles were fought in the statehouse rather than in town council meetings. And so, they drafted this law:

AN ACT PROMOTING CONSUMER CHOICE AND COMPETITION FOR CABLE SERVICE.

The law basically shifts control of the monopolies (which they call franchises) to the state-house. Once the state approves of a monopoly, the towns must make their roads available for whatever cabling is required.

They then set up what looks to me like an astroturf group called Consumers For Tech Choice, which appears to be sponsored by Verizon.

The New England Cable & Telecommunications Association, which appears to me to be dominated by Comcast, didn’t like this, and they set up a competing organization: Keep IT Local MA which tries to look non corporationy by only listing members of local governments as members. They were the ones who produced the execrable ad.

I spent an hour or so noodling around the two astroturf sites, and noticed some really amusing parallels:
1) Neither site provides a link to the legislation.
2) Neither site is actually providing a forum for the citizenry to actually communicate with each other.

In other words both groups have utter contempt for us citizens. They want to treat us like mushrooms. They also seem to have studied the same textbook.

While I am sympathetic to Verizon because of the disgusting way in which local towns governments have screwed the citizenry by trying to keep them out, in the end, I think the NECTA has the stronger case. If one accepts that towns must “own” the roads then the towns should control who or what travels on them. But given the way that town councils mismanage the road system and abuse their monopolies, I don’t for a minute think they are fighting this battle on principle. They are fighting Verizon merely because they wish to keep their little empires, either because of the graft they collect or the psychic pleasure they derive from pushing their neighbors around. It’s just a shame that there is no actual grass-roots group fighting to end government control of telecommunications in the first place.

I am an anarcho-capitalist living just west of Boston Massachussetts. I am married, have two children, and am trying to start my own computer consulting company.

Venezuela Launches Surveillance Blimps

The British have cameras, the Venezuelans have $465K dirigibles to do their surveillance:

Venezuela launched a Zeppelin on Thursday to patrol Caracas, seeking to fight crime in one of Latin America’s most dangerous cities but also raising fears that President Hugo Chavez could be turning into Big Brother.

Around the hot-dog stalls of the run-down suburb where the airship took its first flight, most people felt the unmanned eye-in-the-sky could help counter routine hold-ups, shootings and carjackings.

In the refined cafes of east Caracas, there was more cynicism, condemning the blimps as a waste of money that would not work in bad weather or at night, when Caracas is at its most risky, resembling a shuttered-up ghost town.

You know, it doesn’t take socialists to conduct surveillance on citizens, governments around the world have done so. But it’s only an oil-rich socialist who’s going to drop $465K a pop on surveillance blimps.

Hat Tip: Reason

US Reaches H1-B Visa Limit On First Day

Each year, we’ve reached the cap of H1-B visa applications earlier and earlier. This year, we have met (and nearly doubled) the cap on the very first day the application process is open.

US reaches visa cap, skilled workers out of luck

Technology companies may face a shortage of skilled workers later this year after U.S. immigration services reached its annual quota for visa applications in one day.

“Clearly there is a need for science and engineering talent in this country that is not being met by home-grown talent,” said William Morin, director of government affairs for Applied Materials Inc., the world’s biggest supplier of equipment for making microchips.

“These are people who are going to develop the next big thing, and you’re driving people offshore. It boggles the mind that we would come to this point,” Morin said.

The Citizenship and Immigration Services received a record of more than 150,000 applications for the H-1B visa on Monday, nearly double the number of visas it can grant for the fiscal year beginning October 1, 2007.

Individuals cannot apply for the visa. The employer must apply or submit a petition on the worker’s behalf. The visa is good for up to six years.

I’m a big proponent of immigration, but I can at least understand some of the arguments about importing other countries’ poor people. I disagree with it, but I understand it. Either way, those arguments clearly don’t apply here.

These individuals aren’t going to show up first, and start looking for work later. They’ve got jobs lined up. And we’re not talking about sub-minimum wage, off-the-books cash work. We’re talking about college graduates who will be working in jobs well above the median household income in this country. Many are young, single, and high-income, which makes them an absolutely huge source of tax revenues for the government. As the article points out, we’re talking about the people who are going to come here and make our economy stronger, which will make all of our lives better.

And yet we keep them out. What’s going to happen? Well, it’s pretty simple. Faced with these restrictions, faced with the high corporate tax burden, high regulatory burden, and the already-high cost of employing skilled workers in a country with such a high standard of living, these companies are going to outsource. While I’m also not against outsourcing as a natural phenomenon, I think our government shouldn’t be using public policy to encourage it.

It doesn’t take an economist or an engineer to tell you that importing smart people is good policy. But then, when has our government ever followed good policy?

New Mexico — Taxing Their Way To Space Tourism!

N.M. Voters Divided Over Spaceport Tax

A referendum in New Mexico yesterday on whether to raise a local sales tax to help pay for construction of the world’s first commercial spaceport remained undecided today, and won’t be passed or defeated until about 550 provisional ballots are counted later in the week.

Dona Ana County election bureau supervisor Lynn J. Ellins said those in favor of the tax increase were leading by 204 votes. He said 17,000 votes were cast and the final tally of outstanding ballots will begin tomorrow. The county has 67,000 active, registered voters.

The unusual Spaceport America referendum– believed to be the first of its kind in the nation — would raise about $49 million toward the $200 million cost of building the facility. Richard Branson’s space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, has agreed to sign a long-term lease for the spaceport if the referendum passes.

Step right up, boys and girls! For a mere quarter of a percent of the cost of everything you buy, you can send eccentric rich people into space!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of space tourism. I intend to make it off this rock before I die. Heck, I’d even donate some money to a cause like this, as it makes it that much more possible that it will occur within my lifetime.

But I won’t ever— EVER— advocate taking your money by force to do it. I’m not a big fan of class warfare, but honestly, should people in Las Cruces on Social Security REALLY be footing the bill over this?

FBI Extending Jurisdiction to Virtual Worlds

FBI checks gambling in Second Life virtual world

FBI investigators have visited Second Life’s Internet casinos at the invitation of the virtual world’s creator Linden Lab, but the U.S. government has not decided on the legality of virtual gambling.

“We have invited the FBI several times to take a look around in Second Life and raise any concerns they would like, and we know of at least one instance that federal agents did look around in a virtual casino,” said Ginsu Yoon, until recently Linden Lab’s general counsel and currently vice president for business affairs.

Second Life is a popular online virtual world with millions of registered users and its own economy and currency, known as the Linden dollar, which can be exchanged for U.S. dollars.

Yoon said the company was seeking guidance on virtual gaming activity in Second Life but had not yet received clear rules from U.S. authorities.

Does our government understand that they can’t win? They shut down the “respectable” online money transfer sites, and yet people can still readily gamble in online casinos at the non-respectable sites. In fact, they’re harmed by the higher fees of transferring money in “illegal” ways, and the constant fear that their money will be stolen and they’ll have no recourse to ask the authorities to get it back for them. Then, when they find a way to do such a thing below the noses of the nanny-state bureaucrats, in a completely virtual world where the FBI should hold no jurisdiction, the FBI still comes snooping.

I would offer a bit of caution to the folks from Linden Labs, though… You think you’re playing it smart, by being helpful to the FBI. But you’re making a deal with the devil. They’d shut your site down in minute if they wanted to, and bring your asses up on charges. You might want to ask them about John Lefevbre and Stephen Lawrence.

Russian Censorship And American Liberty

Over at Reason, Cathy Young relates a story about the increasing online censorship in Russia. Putin is tightening the screws, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that Russia is slipping back into authoritarianism.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s steady rollback of hard-won press freedoms has entered a new stage. Not content with suppressing television, radio, and newspapers, the long arm of the state is reaching for political websites.

In March, Putin signed a decree merging two existing federal agencies—one for media oversight and the protection of culture, the other for telecommunications monitoring—into a single body, the Federal Service for the Oversight of Mass Communications and Protection of Cultural Heritage. It is perhaps no accident that the Russian word for “oversight” used in the agency’s name, nadzor, has a somewhat sinister ring for a Russian speaker: It commonly refers to the supervision of a prisoner. The new agency, which will start its work in about three months, will oversee and license broadcasters, the print media, and websites.

A lengthy investigative report published in 2006 on the Russian Democratic Union website alleges that in the Putin years, political forums on the Russian Internet have been the target of deliberate, organized intimidation by pro-government forces. The article, by former St. Petersburg television and BBC Russian Service correspondent Anna Polyanskaya (now Paris-based) and two colleagues, cites disturbing evidence that these digital goon squads are not simply loud, obnoxious, and well-coordinated but quite possibly connected to the government. Their members often seem to have mysterious access to personal data about anti-Putin posters; on some occasions, they have posted disinformation intended to discredit the opposition a few days before these exact same canards are officially circulated by the government.

As she goes on to point out, while technology is adaptable, totalitarian regimes can also be adaptable. It’s been credibly accused that government plants in online forums are there watching and driving the conversation. While an ineffective totalitarian regime might simply try to ban these online forums, a crafty regime understands that it’s much more able to watch their opponents by leaving the forums open, and to perhaps even actively counter and discredit them using arms-length goons squads.

But reading this, I was struck by another thought. Russia is a land that doesn’t have nearly the cultural inertia of freedom that those of the British/American tradition enjoy. America, and the British before us, have a history of fighting government overreach that goes all the way back to the Magna Carta and before. Culturally, we view freedom and our relationship with the state in a fundamentally different way than many other cultures, including that of Russia.

Russia had a short stint of freedom, between the end of Communism and the rise of Putin. In the span of those 10 years or so, it is clear that the freedoms that we take for granted were foreign to Russian citizens. Sure, they had their freedom fighters, but I don’t think the average person on the street had the sense that there were some things that the government just could not do. When they fell back into the authoritarianism of Putin, we in the West were heartbroken, because it seemed as if they had tried freedom and failed. But thinking further about it, perhaps it’s that they simply need more time and more fighting for freedom before they can achieve the sort of cultural inertia of freedom that will keep them from allowing the government to rest boot soles on their necks.

America faces the opposite problem. America has a history, or to again use the term, a cultural inertia towards freedom. But that freedom is under fire, and the constant drumbeat of collectivism in our media, our government schools, our Supreme Court, and our general society is reducing that inertia. But they haven’t reversed it. We are still a populace which values freedom. We still get angry when we see Kelo. We still look at the police as criminals when they gun down Kathryn Johnston. We still get angry about warrantless wiretaps. Each one of these issues gets under our skin. Taken collectively, they’re each just another beat of the drum.

But the cultural inertia still gives us a chance. The British, before us, had to fight the First Baron’s War in 1215 and the Glorious Revolution in 1688 when government overstepped its bounds. Our Founding Fathers had to fight back when the British overstepped their bounds on our soil in 1776. We have an 800-year legacy of fighting for our freedoms. And I still have hope that Americans won’t lie down forever and let this government walk all over us. Trouble is brewing, and we’re starting to beat a different drum — to the tune of freedom. I don’t think the day has come for violent revolution, and I hope that day never comes in modern society. But the American people are becoming more and more ready to simply stand up and proclaim “NO MORE!”

And that’s all it takes. Russian society wasn’t ready for freedom, and although they knew that Communism was hell, they gladly asked government to step in and deal with the dynamic chaos of freedom. American society has been given a lullaby into submission for decades, but the time has come that people are beginning to WAKE UP! With our eyes open and our resolve strong, we can remind our government that they are our servants, not our masters.

I’m Suing The X Prize Foundation

Because they stole my idea:

The competition requires significant energy and emissions goals (most importantly, fuel economy) with at least 100 mpg or its equivalent. The guidelines are replacing the outdated MPG with this new standard, MPGe, which takes into account energy equivalents, no matter what the energy source.

Production capability is another important requirement: Vehicles will be judged on specific market production criteria detailed in key areas such as safety, cost, features and business plan. So this X Prize will only open to practicable cars capable of reaching the marketplace—no concept cars or science projects.

You may remember that I posted almost the exact same idea here in December 2006, but that was a cross-post of an August 2005 piece I wrote at The Unrepentant Individual.

Mine was structured slightly differently, but nonetheless it was an identical idea. And I didn’t even get mentioned in this news article. Jerks. Any lawyers want to represent me?

Judge To Feds: You Can’t Treat Us All Like Children

Today, a Federal Judge in Philadelphia struck down a 1998 law that made it illegal for online content providers to allow children access to “harmful” material:

PHILADELPHIA — A federal judge on Thursday dealt another blow to government efforts to control Internet pornography, striking down a 1998 U.S. law that makes it a crime for commercial Web site operators to let children access “harmful” material.

In the ruling, the judge said parents can protect their children through software filters and other less restrictive means that do not limit the rights of others to free speech.

“Perhaps we do the minors of this country harm if First Amendment protections, which they will with age inherit fully, are chipped away in the name of their protection,” wrote Senior U.S. District Judge Lowell Reed Jr., who presided over a four-week trial last fall.

The law would have criminalized Web sites that allow children to access material deemed “harmful to minors” by “contemporary community standards.” The sites would have been expected to require a credit card number or other proof of age. Penalties included a $50,000 fine and up to six months in prison.

The judge accepted the arguments of the opponents of the law that software filters and parental supervision are sufficient means to protect children from seeing inappropriate content online, and have the added benefit of not infringing on the right of adults to view such material if they wish.

The response of one of the government’s attorneys to this argument is particularly galling:

“It is not reasonable for the government to expect all parents to shoulder the burden to cut off every possible source of adult content for their children, rather than the government’s addressing the problem at its source,” a government attorney, Peter D. Keisler, argued in a post-trial brief.

In other words, the government knows better than parents what is appropriate for children.

This is only the latest in a long line of defeats for the Federal Government on this issue. In 1997, the Supreme Court struck down a 1996 law that would have banned online pornography. And, in the years since, the Supreme Court twice granted injunctions forbidding enforcement of the law because it found that the opponents of the law were likely to prevail. And prevail they have.

One would like to think that this will be the end of it, but the government is likely to appeal this ruling. Which is fine, because it will be good to have a good anti-censorship case coming out of the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court.

Full text of the opinion is here.

Satellite Radio, Monopolies, And Legislative Stupidity

Doug’s been doing a good job of keeping up with the news on the proposed XM/Sirius merger. As he’s pointed out, having one monopoly satellite radio is better than having two that go out of business. But something has been left out of the equation.

What’s wrong with a monopoly in satellite radio? After all, look back a mere 6 years, when there was no such thing as satellite radio. At the time, people functioned. The world wasn’t falling apart because there were no blues stations in BFE. People lived without satellite radio, and yet people didn’t even know they were missing it.

So what happens if XM and Sirius merge, and they change their rates to $30/month because they’ve become a monopoly? It’s simple. Only people who think that satellite radio is worth $30/month will subscribe. For example, I am an XM subscriber. Yet I live in Atlanta, one of the major radio markets in the United States. At $13/month, the current price, I find XM to be worthwhile. After all, XM gives me access to Big Ten football games that aren’t televised down here, and considering how much I hate local radio, I’ll gladly pay for commercial-free tunes and the wider programming allowed. In addition, when I’m making a long drive, it’s nice to have the knowledge that I’ll always get crystal-clear reception, without having to search for new stations every 50 miles.

But at $30/month, I most certainly would cancel my subscription. After all, I have an iPod and a car setup, so I can load it up with songs and podcasts for long drives. On the weekends when Purdue football isn’t televised, I have free internet streams I can access if necessary. And here in Atlanta, I can go back to the old habit of listening to local radio. All in all, it’s my choice to change my behavior due to a rise in price. Yet if XM and Sirius both go out of business because of government regulation, I no longer have that choice.

The problem, then, gets tougher for some people, who do value the services more highly. For example, truckers and other long-distance drivers absolutely love satellite radio, because they have access to clear reception and consistent stations all over the country. People in non-major markets, like my sister in rural Missouri and my brother in Corpus Christi, have access to a much wider range of programming than they could ever have on local radio. For truckers and people outside the major markets, a $30/month bill just might be worth it. But again, if XM and Sirius both go out of business due to government regulation, they no longer have that choice.

Now, often the argument for breaking up monopolies carries weight when it refers to necessities. After all, if you are talking about something like oil, or you’re talking about food, or you’re talking about public education, there is always a worry that people will have consumers over the barrel because they legitimately need these items. In these cases, monopoly power leads to a lack of innovation and rise in costs. But in the entertainment market, this is not an easy thing to prove, as satellite radio is not a necessity to anyone.

Thus, for a satellite radio provider, they cannot be a true monopoly. First, they’re offering a product that didn’t even exist 6 years ago, and currently has such a tiny number of subscribers that it’s not in any way a necessity. Second, they’re competing not only against other satellite radio companies, but against terrestrial radio, internet radio, CD’s, and portable music players. If they don’t offer a product worth paying for, people won’t pay for it.

Monopolies can be a problem, particularly when (as is the case with satellite radio, or phone companies, or cable companies) they are granted monopoly power by government. However, I don’t think those rules apply in this case. Satellite radio is a luxury item which competes with entirely free alternatives. It’s a nice item, to be sure, but it’s something that we lived just fine without until 6 years ago. I simply don’t see the harm in allowing this merger, and as a paying customer of XM, I have a vested interest in the future cost and quality of this service.
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The FCC Wants To Regulate Television Again

A new report from the Federal Communications Commission says that Congress should grant it the authority to regulate violence on television:

WASHINGTON — Television networks are free to sprinkle their programs with shootings, slashings, torture and other gore because the government has no regulatory authority over violent programming. But a draft report being circulated at the Federal Communications Commission says Congress can change that, without violating the First Amendment.

The long-overdue report suggests Congress could craft a law that would let the agency regulate violent programming much like it regulates sexual content and profanity _ by barring it from being aired during hours when children may be watching, for example.

“In general, what the commission’s report says is that there is strong evidence that shows violent media can have an impact on children’s behavior and there are some things that can be done about it,” FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said Thursday.

Such as turning off the television or changing the channel.

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