January 2010

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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Climate scientists

I don't know why I still think of scientists as being Olympian figures removed from the political fray. The disclosure of email and other confidential files from the climate change research group, discussing ways of massaging data and harming adversaries, is embarrassing. It shouldn't undermine, or even distract attention away from, the consensus about the science. There is no human endeavor so dangerous and dishonest as the fight against efforts to cope with the most dangerous of emergencies.

Binghamton attack

In World War II, our government rounded up and interned the entire Japanese population of the West Coast, on the theory that their loyalty could not be trusted. In the decades since, we have apologized and paid reparations for what is definitively understood to be a racist mistake.

The treatment of the Fort Hood shooter and, a few days ago, of a Saudi Arabian graduate student who seemed to be having a nervous breakdown in the days before murdering his thesis advisor at Binghamton, seem to suggest we are leaning extremely far in the other direction, to avoid any implication of bias. In both cases, men who visibly were struggling with severe emotional problems were neither aided nor surveilled in any effective way.

I am worried that we are witnessing a deep cultural divide, a battle of beliefs which is contributing to the destabilization of already marginal personalities. Although I doubt that the incidence of violence by Moslems residing in the United States has achieved statistical significance, I cringe with shame every time I read about these cases. The meme out there which encourages Moslems to kill “infidels” represents the worst in human nature, and our response to it, at home in our diverse and tolerant society, seems weak. But its hard to strike the right balance when a more aggressive response so easily shades over into bigotry and persecution.

Congressional travel

An article in the Times for December 7 describes the loopholes created and exploited to assure that lobbyists can still take Congresscritters on junkets. Its just one more confirmation that our political system is deeply corrupt, with bribery as the cornerstone of the system, the most effective way of getting anything done.

Honest services law

An unusual coalition of right and left wing groups is filing briefs in the Supreme Court challenging a law requiring “honest services” in business and government. Though honesty is certainly a Good Thing in general, the extreme vagueness of the language has allowed over-reaching prosecutors to have a field day, indicting people in some cases where no money was stolen or objective damage done by the untruth. Since ambitious, amoral prosecutors dream of a world in which the laws are so broad any of us could be indicted at any time, legal rulings narrowing prosecutorial discretion are badly needed.

Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods had always projected a persona which was calmer, more intelligent, more Apollonian than most athletes. His recent meltdown—infidelity, fighting, a car accident in front of his house—is very disappointing, Athletes, actors and politicians often seem oblivious to the fact they are role models, or that large segments of the population are proud of them—the local guy or girl, the escapee from poverty, the member of our Jewish or African American demographic, who made good. There's not even any schadenfreude in his dissolution, just exhaustion and the knowledge that very few people seem to be able to handle fame and power.

Dealing with climate change

Coverage of the extremely earnest and complex meetings in Copenhagen only reminds me of a basic paradox in human affairs, one which is rarely discussed. Problems can only be effectively dealt with by governments of a geographical reach coextensive with the problem. The United sSates passed a very effective Clean Air Act in the 1970's. I can testify personally to its efficacy: the New york of my childhood was prone to a phenomenon called “temperature inversions” in which clouds of foul smelling smog pressed down upon the city. This doesn't happen any more—the temperature cap may still occur but the smog is no longer present to be captured.

Try a thought experiment with me and ask if the Clean Air act would have been possible as a Clean Air Treaty, negotiated among fifty states and ratified by fifty state legislatures. The answer is clearly no. A government solving a problem which extends to the whole United States can only do so because it has authority over the whole geographical area. Treaties negotiated among independent states subject to no authority fall prey to the Prisoner's Dilemma—it is always in someone's interest to betray everyone else, and there are no immediate consequences. In fact, on a wide variety of treaties, including those on human rights and land mines, the United States has been that defector.

It seems impossible to me that we will ever make any significant inroads on global problems without a world government in place. I would even say our survival depends on it. This is really not an ideological statement; I am well aware of the dangers to individual liberty of a powerful worldwide government. However, if we all die, or, more likely, are thrust into a new dark age by unmitigated world crises, the loss of liberty will, from a distance, seem more like a problem we would have been happy to confront and try to solve.

Health legislation

As the Democrats search desperately for 60 votes to close debate in the Senate, the Republicans appear within striking distance of success in derailing health insurance reform yet again, as they did in the 90's and during the Nixon era. What will they have accomplished? To preserve the badly broken status quo, to make millions of Americans go uninsured or under-insured, to assure the financial ruin of people with a serious health problem, to make us all wait another twenty years for another try. Good work.

No second acts

I was just thinking about the Scott Fitzgerald adage that “There are no second acts in American lives”. It was certainly true of his own life; like Dick Diver in “Tender is the Night”, he outlived his own glamor and ended modestly, as an alcoholic screenwriter. Like most adages with a large dollop of truth, it is not universal. Christian Bale, memorable child actor from “Empire of the Sun”, is now a thirty something action hero in the “Batman” movies and others; but Haley Joel Osment and Edward Furlong, both even better child actors, did not have second acts. Actresses in particular seem to fade away when they end their thirties—Michelle Pfeiffer, Meg Ryan—but Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon shine on. The increasingly irrelevant Philip Roth continues to publish novels in the vein of his “angry young man” works, while others, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, write less and metamorphose into elder statesmen and cultural ambassadors. While our short attention spans and unreasonable expectations doubtless contribute to the shortlivedness of careers (“in the future, everyone will be famous, but only for fifteen minutes”), it is probably the rigidity or flexibility of the individual that is the ultimate determining factor. In a complex, liminal world, shapeshifters make out better.

New York parking boondoggle

A couple of years ago, the New York legislature decided to give the “brownies”--the parking violations officers—an unprecedented power, to issue tickets for “blocking the box” at New York City intersections. Although this has no points attached, it does involve a steep $115 fine.

Brownies, unlike cops, are unsuited by temperament or training to issue what is essentially a moving violation. You can find numerous accounts online of brownies congregating at intersections laughing with one another, paying no attention to traffic conditions, then issuing “block the box” tickets. Of course, you have only committed a violation if you entered the intersection and there was not enough space on the other side for your car. If something unforeseeable intervened—pedestrians crossing against the light, or a truck which shot out and blocked you—there should be no violation. Brownies who don't watch what's going on can't possibly testify—not honestly, anyway—that you entered the intersection in disregard of an existing blockage on the other side.

In some cases, the brownies themselves cause the blockage, by stopping cars ahead of you, then issue you a ticket anyway.

I contested a “block the box” ticket based on jaywalking pedestrians and received a determination I hadn't presented “persuasive evidence”. What was astonishing about this hearing by mail is that there was no indication that the brownie had been asked to present any evidence. At a real in person hearing, a failure of the officer to show up would result in an automatic dismissal of a ticket. On the other hand, if the judge sought evidence from the brownie, and I never received a copy of it, this was also a due process violation. This result raises the question of how you can ever successfully contest a block the box ticket, without security camera video or possibly a helicopter.

In summary, the legislature adopted what is essentially a form of arbitrary transit tax to raise revenue for NewYork City, disguised as a new form of ticket. Its highly unfair, but survives on the assumption that most of us will pay rather than fight. New York City's desperation for revenue is apparent in other ways as well. Years ago, if you were standing in a no standing zone, you might get a warning to move your vehicle. Today, a brownie sneaks up on you and scans your registration with a hand-held device. Double parking outside your house for an instant to unload suitcases is, and should be, legally acceptable. If you are alone, there is no other way to do it. The law does not expect you to park half a mile away and walk home with your stuff. Once, I was away from my car less than a minute and returned to find a brownie in a three wheel vehicle writing a ticket. He cravenly drove away as I walked down the steps. Though he obligingly left the ticket form under my windshield wiper, maybe in the hope I would pay it, I discovered upon investigation that it wasn't a completed ticket and in fact never hit the Parking Violations Bureau database.

Everyone knows the ticket quotas for the brownies and cops are constantly being raised. The impossibility of driving and parking in the city is one of the reasons I was glad to get out. While at a meta-level there are valid policy decisions to be made about whether, and under what conditions, private vehicles are to be permitted in congested urban areas, New York parking law is not driven by this kind of policy making. It is a naked excuse for raising revenue from the city's already beleaguered citizens, most of whom themselves are already suffering in this economy. A $115 ticket costs about as much as a week of groceries.

Nebraska compromise

I am glad the health care bill passed, but very disturbed by the compromise which brought Senator Nelson on board, under which the people of Nebraska get a free pass on Medicare increases, paid for by everyone else. It wouldn't surprise me if the Supreme Court finds a constitutional basis for throwing this out later. I am sorry that what I fervently hope will be a good law was built on an infirm foundation.

End of life care

A real and very disturbing issue has become impossible to discuss rationally because wrapped in conservative hype. Rhetoric about “death panels” prevents us from any calm discussion about realistic and rational end of life care. It seems fairly clear that a main reason that health care is broken in this country is the proliferation of unnecessary and inappropriate tests and procedures which drive up everyone's premiums. I for one will likely never have another colonoscopy, as I have reached an age at which cancer would be unlikely to act fast enough to shorten my life too substantially. The same is true of prostate cancer for men of a certain age. Even annual mammograms for younger women have been called into question; the analysis tends to miss some serious cancers and spot some meaningless artifacts which lead to medical expense and even unnecessary biopsies and other surgery. The most disturbing stories in this area are that of women who have preventive double mastectomies based on uncertain information.

The truth is that everything in our world is rationed, by the free market or by the government. There is an honest discussion to be had about aggressive treatment versus palliative care at various milestones at the end of human life. But it is impossible to have this conversation when it is characterized as some kind of Orwellian evil. Its just one more way the Republicans seek to protect the damaged and non-viable status quo.

Primary residence and voting

The Republicans are trying to protect locally resident majorities in small towns in New York by disqualifying voters who are essentially weekend people. There is an old rule they must reverse that you are permitted to register to vote anywhere you own a house. Though I detest and distrust today's Republican party and believe them capable of many bad actions, they are correct about this one. You should vote in the place which is your primary residence for all other purposes.

John McCain

A few years ago, McCain appeared to be one of the last honest and independent men in either party. Now, after two bitter presidential defeats, he carries on as a complete demagogue, no longer capable of bipartisanship but taking positions apparently purely to harm the people he believes harmed him. It is a sad spectacle and coda to the career of a man who has perhaps stayed in public life too long.

Malware and Microsoft

One of my main computers is an old PC which has slowed down dramatically in recent months. I defragmented the disk but that didn't help much.

I searched the web for free solutions which would help diagnose malware, software which hijacks your computer without your knowledge, to send spam, launch denial of service attacks and the like. I found a lot of product shilling, and some sites which for all I knew would install malware while pretending to diagnose it. Microsoft's website offered a free scan of my PC, but when I clicked the link it took me to a non-Microsoft URL. The resulting scan, which took an hour, bombed out the first time and froze my computer. On the second go round, it told me it found something like thirty issues and three or four unfixable problems.

But the scan never told what these were. There were some signs it thought it had; it suggested I click some nonexistent links on the page for an expanded explanation. After two hours of scanning, I was completely in the dark as to what had been found, and what if anything had been fixed.

The experience is illustrative of the continuing complexity and vagueness of computer technology, which is hardly new territory more than twenty years after the introduction of the PC. We tolerate defects, crashes and uncertainty we would never accept from washing machines or microwave ovens. The fact that Microsoft's operating systems seem to have no built-in defenses against viruses or malware is itself unconscionable.

The Detroit bomber

There's a lot of finger pointing going on over the fact that a radical Nigerian man could board a U.S.-bound plane in Africa with explosives in his underwear. Again, as with the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11, and the shoe bomber incident, it was up to the passengers to fight the terrorist.

The one issue arising out of this I would like to spotlight is our country's lamentable record in developing software, databases in particular. The terrorist was known to U.S. Intelligence, but his visa had never been revoked and he was not on the “do not fly” list. All of which highlights the lack of a large, shared security database. There are few limits to database technology, and large companies have been quite successful in developing types of solutions which routinely evade the government. Databases can be huge, flexible, secure, and shared; you can put in a particular datum in one place and have it go everywhere it is needed. Yet federal law enforcement is rife with instances of terrorist suspects known to one agency and never communicated to others, particularly people known to the CIA or FBI to be bad apples yet who can continue to obtain US visas, get pilot licenses, etc.

Two major problems interfere in the U.S. effort to develop databases. One is the territoriality of agencies which don't want to share information. The other is that the slow, politicized, rather stupid procurement process almost guarantees that the government will fail every time it tries to buy a technology solution. There have been numerous examples of large software projects which were terminated after hundreds of millions had been spent, including systems for air traffic control and the FBI. We even had the revelation some years ago that individual FBI offices don't all share one database.

The government has so far handicapped, even gutted its own security efforts by its inability to adopt large database solutions which were invented in this country and are routinely used by banks and airlines.