Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Surveillance Nation

Wired's article by David Downs on new police cruiser software that automatically runs license plates is mildly interesting.

But what I found far more enlightening were some statistics in the article on the growth of police surveillance in France and England.
In France, 1,000 mobile and stationary plate-reading cameras have doubled speeding ticket revenue and halved speeding-related deaths in just two years. In the UK, 200 cameras policing London's Downtown Congestion Charge Zone generated 13,000 arrests in one year. British law enforcement loves the technology so much that the government has plans for a $43 million campaign to install enough cameras to monitor every motorist on the country's highways, major roads, and bigger intersections, digitally reading some 35 million plates per day. This could catch not just every stolen car but nearly every moving violation as it occurs.|Wired|
But the Europeans don't have the same legacy of individualism and political resistance to tyranny that we have in this country. Surely that couldn't happen in the US of A...
The idea of cameras monitoring every highway, boulevard, and alley might strike some Americans as Orwellian. But even the American Civil Liberties Union acknowledges that the public has no right to license plate privacy on public streets. After all, cops can enter plate numbers by hand, so why not by camera? "There's absolutely no bar on collecting plates in public," says Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's technology and liberty program. "There haven't been any legal challenges, because it's not illegal." |Wired|

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Data Mining by any other name

National Journal's Shane Harris reports that the Total Information Awareness Program lives on despite Congress' attempt to kill it.

Maybe I'm being overly sensitive here, but this seems like another example of the Bush administration attacking the separation of powers that is fundamental to the Constitution and flouting the laws.
A controversial counter-terrorism program, which lawmakers halted more than two years ago amid outcries from privacy advocates, was stopped in name only and has quietly continued within the intelligence agency now fending off charges that it has violated the privacy of U.S. citizens.... according to documents obtained by National Journal and to intelligence sources familiar with the move. The names of key projects were changed, apparently to conceal their identities, but their funding remained intact, often under the same contracts.

It is no secret that some parts of TIA lived on behind the veil of the classified intelligence budget. However, the projects that moved, their new code names, and the agencies that took them over haven't previously been disclosed. Sources aware of the transfers declined to speak on the record for this story because, they said, the identities of the specific programs are classified....

But earlier this month, at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, one of TIA's strongest critics questioned whether intelligence officials knew that some of its programs had been moved to other agencies. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte and FBI Director Robert Mueller whether it was "correct that when [TIA] was closed, that several ... projects were moved to various intelligence agencies.... I and others on this panel led the effort to close [TIA]; we want to know if Mr. Poindexter's programs are going on somewhere else."

Negroponte and Mueller said they didn't know. But Negroponte's deputy, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who until recently was director of the NSA, said, "I'd like to answer in closed session." Asked for comment, Wyden's spokeswoman referred to his hearing statements.

The NSA is now at the center of a political firestorm over President Bush's program to eavesdrop on the phone calls and e-mails of people in the United States who the agency believes are connected to terrorists abroad. While the documents on the TIA programs don't show that their tools are used in the domestic eavesdropping, and knowledgeable sources wouldn't discuss the matter, the TIA programs were designed specifically to develop the kind of "early-warning system" that the president said the NSA is running....

[The Advanced Research and Development Activity or] ARDA [which inherited the progeny of TIA] now is undergoing some changes of its own. The outfit is being taken out of the NSA, placed under the control of Negroponte's office, and given a new name. It will be called the "Disruptive Technology Office," a reference to a term of art describing any new invention that suddenly, and often dramatically, replaces established procedures. Officials with the intelligence director's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story. |National Journal|

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Ports, Politics and Transparency

Bruce Schneier provides some needed perspective on the political firestorm erupting over port security.
There are those who don't trust the Bush administration and believe its motivations are political. There are those who don't trust the UAE because of its terrorist ties -- two of the 9/11 terrorists and some of the funding for the attack came out of that country -- and those who don't trust it because of racial prejudices. There are those who don't trust security at our nation's ports generally and see this as just another example of the problem.

The solution is openness. The Bush administration needs to better explain how port security works, and the decision process by which the sale of P&O was approved. If this deal doesn't compromise security, voters -- at least the particular lawmakers we trust -- need to understand that.

Regardless of the outcome of the Dubai deal, we need more transparency in how our government approaches counter-terrorism in general. Secrecy simply isn't serving our nation well in this case. It's not making us safer, and it's properly reducing faith in our government.|Wired|

The Christian Science Monitor indicates that the original news stories are misleading and the new management will not have significant power over the entire port.
[The subsidiary company, Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. (P&O)] will not be "managing" the ports, as many news organizations have reported. Instead, the company is one of many that leases terminals at the port.

"I've never quite seen a story so distorted so quickly," says Esther de Ipolyi, a public-relations executive who works with the port of Houston. "It's like I go to an apartment building that has 50 apartments, and I rent an apartment. This does not mean I took over the management of the whole building."

Security is a top priority at the ports, but there's concern the Bush administration has not provided enough funds to properly pay for it. Earlier this month, the president of the American Association of Port Authorities complained that the $708 million allotted for maritime security over the past four years amounted to only one-fifth of what the port authorities had identified as needed to properly secure the ports. |CSM|
If this is the case, why hasn't the Administration been able to effectively communicate that message?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Saladin's Ghost

Back in January when Bin Laden offered America a truce, I posted a light-hearted note on the Bellman called Truce or Consequences.

The whole truce proposal was so surreal. Bin Laden offers the great Satan a truce? It seemed like a sure sign of weakness, like the US had him on the ropes.

Today I read an interview by Steve Perry in the City Pages magazine with Michael Scheuer, the former chief analyst of the CIA's Bin Laden unit.

Mr. Scheuer discusses the Muslim tradition of offering your enemy a truce before you attack. This was unsettling news to me.
CP: After the latest bin Laden tape aired, the official spin was to call it a political bluff, or even a call for truce out of weakness on his part. But you've written and spoken about seeing a different aim behind these bin Laden warnings, one that has more to do with meeting the expectations of a Muslim audience than a Western one.

Scheuer: I think that's very much the case. He's very conscious of the tradition from which he comes and how that history works. It's the tradition of the prophet that you warn your enemy and you offer a truce before the fighting starts. Saladin followed the same tradition against the Crusaders in medieval times, and bin Laden has been very careful to follow that in his time. He's offered us warnings numerous times, but this is the first time he's offered a truce in addition. In the early summer of 2004, he offered the Europeans an almost identical truce or cease-fire. They refused him much like we did, and he attacked them in July of '05 in London....

In the summer of 2003, he got a religious judgment from a very reputable Saudi cleric that he could use weapons of mass destruction, specifically nuclear weapons, to kill up to 10 million Americans.

After 9/11, he had several very important loose ends to tie up, in religious terms, before he could attack us again. He's done all of those things. |City Pages|

I read several newspapers every day and I don't recall seeing this discussion anywhere. Was I just distracted?

Unfortunately, the article gets even gloomier...
CP: You spoke on 60 Minutes over a year ago about bin Laden's seeking and obtaining the fatwa to use nuclear weapons against the U.S. Do you think it's his wish to use nuclear weapons in his next attack?

Scheuer: Sure. If he has them, he'll use them. It's not like he's looking for a deterrent. In old Cold War terms, he's looking for a first-strike weapon. One of the problems we have in the West, and particularly in America, is we view him as kind of a person who wouldn't have anything else to do if he wasn't killing and fighting. Clearly he would. America is not their first target. Their first targets are the Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, that are tyrannies, and Israel. We're being attacked because bin Laden has argued that the other targets, the more important targets, are easy pickings if they can drive us out of the Middle East. One of the ways they look to do that is to create a situation in the United States that is so destructive, in terms of the economic impact and casualties, that it would take the U.S. military to administer the after-effects of the attack. Clearly their preference is for a nuclear-type weapon.|City Pages|
Very interesting. What I find curious is that the administration didn't jump on this line of reasoning. They've been trying to scare the bejesus out of the American people to justify the domestic wiretapping in contravention of FISA.

Why not emphasize the deadly seriousness of Bin Laden's offer of truce? Maybe because it would emphasize the administration's inability to track Bin Laden down.

Or maybe because it would force the administration (and the country) to seriously consider a response to his truce other than laughing it off?

I'm not laughing anymore. But I'll be damned if I know what to do, other than to stop and smell the roses more often.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Gun Porn

It's unfortunate that the national firearms policy is so incredibly polarized. It is another one of those divisive issues on which there is more invective than reason, such as tax reform or the death penalty.

But putting all of the politics aside, shooting guns is damned fun. Few things in life are as cathartic as blowing stuff up. But going to the range is an all-day affair and it's expensive and cleaning the guns afterwards is a pain...

Which is why when I just need to blow off some steam, I'm far more likely to crank up the playstation and fire off a few virtual salvos.

Which is why I'm so excited about the new game coming out called Black. Next Generation has an interview with the producer, Jeremy Chubb.

[Question:]It's well-documented that the Black team likes to refer to the game as "gun-porn." Are you guys really big firearm fans? Do you subscribe to Guns and Ammo?

[Answer:] We love guns. In England, we aren’t allowed any, so we fly to Vegas as often as possible to shoot.

Modern small arms are stunning. There’s the same precision design and engineering as you’d find in a Porsche, but their ultimate purpose is to kill. Like it or not, this adds an edge to what you feel.

The first time we fired a machine gun it scared the shit out of us. The experience was terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. The sound is massive and leaves your ears ringing for hours. The kick is like being repeatedly punched in the shoulder, and fire shoots out the end of the thing. It’s an immensely powerful experience. We were amazed how diluted this was in every video game we’d ever played, and there are so many that have guns.

And yeah, of course we subscribe to Guns and Ammo. |Next Gen|

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Geek Test

Believe it or not, I'm on the low end of the scale.

i am a total geek

Seen over at Exploding Aardvark.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Ugly as sin

Do ugly people commit more crimes?

It's certainly true that beauty is an important quality. Of course, the definition of beauty evolves over time and shows variability between cultures.

My friend Zwichenzug once commented that the older you get, the more important it is to be smart. Life gets more complex as we mature and take on more responsibilities and have more opportunities.

But is the corrolary to Zwichenzug's comment that the younger you are, the more important it is to be pretty?

A new study indicates that attractiveness is an indicator of future criminality and suggests that beauty is certainly an advantage prior to entering the work force.

Here's the abstract:

Using data from three waves of Add Health we find that being very attractive reduces a young adult's (ages 18-26) propensity for criminal activity and being unattractive increases it for a number of crimes, ranging from burglary to selling drugs. A variety of tests demonstrate that this result is not because beauty is acting as a proxy for socio-economic status. Being very attractive is also positively associated adult vocabulary test scores, which suggests the possibility that beauty may have an impact on human capital formation. We demonstrate that, especially for females, holding constant current beauty, high school beauty (pre-labor market beauty) has a separate impact on crime, and that high school beauty is correlated with variables that gauge various aspects of high school experience, such as GPA, suspension or having being expelled from school, and problems with teachers. These results suggest two handicaps faced by unattractive individuals. First, a labor market penalty provides a direct incentive for unattractive individuals toward criminal activity. Second, the level of beauty in high school has an effect on criminal propensity 7-8 years later, which seems to be due to the impact of the level of beauty in high school on human capital formation, although this second avenue seems to be effective for females only. |Link|

Seen on the Law Librarian Blog.

The New Spartans

Jose Antonio Vargas' article in the Washington Post explores the impact of first person shooters on today's dogfaces.

Lt. Col. Scott Sutton, director of the technology division at Quantico Marine Base... says soldiers in this generation "probably feel less inhibited, down in their primal level, pointing their weapons at somebody." That, in effect, "provides a better foundation for us to work with," he adds.

No one knows for sure whether Sutton is right. Since at least World War II, studies purporting to explore how readily troops pulled the trigger -- S.L.A. Marshall's "Men Against Fire," for example -- have aroused controversy and been scored as anecdotal. Indeed, collecting data in the swirl of battle is no less formidable a challenge today than in the past. As a result, comparisons to previous generations of soldiers are problematic. Nonetheless, soldiers today are far more knowledgeable about weaponry than their predecessors, Bartlett feels sure, and have "a basic skills set as to how to use them."

Retired Marine Col. Gary W. Anderson, former chief of staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, agrees. And he takes it a step further: Today's soldiers, having grown up with first-person shooter games long before they joined the military, are the new Spartans, he says.|Link|

The Spartans seem totally removed from our decadent American culture in so many ways. The Spartans would leave newborns outside to see if they could survive the cold. The men went barefoot in the Winter. It was a brutal, conservative, ultra-militant culture.

Among the Spartans the warriors belonged to a high caste and were supported by serfs.

In contemporary American society there is a huge disparity between wealth and poverty. The middle class has been shrinking and the ranks or the poor are growing faster than the ranks of the rich.

Many Americans lead lives of quiet desparation in sketchy neighborhoods with crappy schools infested with gangs and drugs. They don't have a social safety net or sufficient medical care.

These are largely the people for whom the military seems like a good idea. Shooting people for three square meals a day plus free medical care doesn't seem so bad when the option is working at McDonalds or joining the criminal underworld.

That is the beauty of our society.

Giving Felons the Vote in Maryland

The Maryland legislature is poised to repeal the state law disenfranchising convicted felons. "'Once they have paid their debt to society, clearly they should be able to vote,' [Maryland] Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George's Democrat, said yesterday." |Link|

It seems an odd issue for legislators to take up, since I imagine most felons wouldn't bother to vote even if their rights were restored. But some of us enjoy tilting at windmills...

The Republican governor of Maryland, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., has threatened to veto the bill.

The bill's lead sponsor -- Delegate Salima Siler Marriott, Baltimore Democrat -- said yesterday that Mr. Ehrlich's position reinforces the racist underpinnings of the state law that denies the vote to felons, of whom about 85,000 are black.

Mrs. Marriott, who is black, said Mr. Ehrlich's sentiment "reflects the thinking" of Carter Glass, a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1901 who said felon disenfranchisement aims to "eliminate the darkie as a political factor."

"We all were raised in a racist society," said Mrs. Marriott, stressing that she was not calling Mr. Ehrlich a racist. "Let us be clear about what were the intentions of these laws." |Link|

While that is a fascinating piece of legislative history, to my mind it only shows that one of the rationales of the bill was racist. Politics makes strange bedfellows and I can think of lots of reasons for disenfranchising felons that does not stem from their race..

Felons are people who have tried to subvert our society. We restrict their access to firearms and the ballot box as well as most government entitlements.

And I think the Republicans are correct that this issue will not play well with voters. Is this another case of Democrats shooting themselves in the foot to make some oddly principled stand?

I recently saw Kurt Schmoke speak. He used to be mayor of Baltimore but is now Dean of Howard University's Law School.

He thought one issue that really contributed to socially inequality in Maryland (among many places) was the system of using property taxes to fund schools. He made several attempts to ameliorate the system that were all turned back. His proposal to use gambling revenues to fund schools was derisively labeled slots for tots.

That strikes me as a much more worthy issue for Maryland Democrats than giving felons the vote.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Robbin' Hood: Nottingham's Gun Problem

The BBC is reporting that the city of Nottingham is fighting a perception of being the murder capital of the UK due to gun violence.

I'm very interested in gun regulation and thus I read with interest all of the articles in the BBC and Guardian on gun crime in the UK.

The issues in the US are different because of the curious development of the second amendment and the plethora of firearms readily available to US citizens.

The UK has banned private ownership of firearms, but they still struggle with crimes committed with knives as well as pellet rifles and homemade zip guns.

If you want to read more, the Guardian has a special report on gun violence in the UK as well as one on gun violence in the US.

Gun violence has been on the increase in the UK in recent years, fueled partly by drug cartels and partly by lots of cheap weapons on the black market after the end of the civil war in the Balkans.

The city of Nottingham in particular has developed a reputation for gun crime that they are working hard to change.
Last year the city council appointed a "reputation manager" to help fight a perception that Nottingham had become blighted by gun-toting criminal gangs.

Gun crime is an issue in Nottingham in the wake of a series of high profile shootings, including the murder in October 2004 of [a Catholic schoolgirl killed in a drive-by shooting]....

Powerful crime families were said to dominate areas of Nottingham, with turf wars between rival drug gangs one of the main reasons for the rising crime levels.

At one stage Nottinghamshire Chief Constable Steve Green, admitted his force was "struggling to cope" with the increase in violent crime and suggested it might have to "farm out" murder investigations to other forces - although he later retracted his remarks. |BBC|

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Weekend NutJobbery

J.son over at the Bellman recently used the term nutjobbery, and I thought it was a pretty funny term.

So when I stumbled across The non-moving Earth & anti-evolution web page, the first term that popped into my head was nutjobbery.

I'd like to believe that this is a farce...but I couldn't find anything to make me think so.

Instead, I think someone hasn't been taking their meds...

Thanks for Pharyngula for the link.
According to the comments over there, the site is serious.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

US propaganda and death squads flourish

Art by stuartp.
The Law Librarian Blog is covering the release of the Pentagon's Information Operations Roadmap which makes clear that propaganda intended for audiences abroad is increasingly being consumed by domestic news agencies in our networked world.

This makes the distinction between domestic news and foreign propaganda difficult at best and perhaps totally meaningless. I think we are forced to consider that our government lies to citizens as routinely as it lies to foreign powers.

Sami Ramadani links this policy of deception up with refusal by the media to investigate the official claims of the US and UK governments and asserts that the government has even admitted to running death squads in Iraq, but the media fails to investigate this possibility.
George Bush and Tony Blair are still dipping into the trough of deception and disinformation that launched the war: hailing non-existent progress, declaring sanctimonious satisfaction with sectarian elections and holding out the mirage of early withdrawal. In reality, the occupation and divide-and-rule tactics have spawned death squads, torture, kidnappings, chemical attacks, polluted water, depleted uranium, bombardment of civilians, probably more than 100,000 people dead and a relentless deterioration in Iraqis' daily lives...

Many Iraqis have persistently accused US-led forces of "controlling" an assortment of death squads or private militias and "turning a blind eye" to many terrorist attacks. Almost every week, handcuffed and blindfolded men are found lying next to one another, each killed by a single bullet to the head. Who is methodically torturing and killing these people? Who has so far assassinated more than 200 academics and scientists? Iraqis not linked to the Green Zone regime are convinced that US forces and US-backed mercenaries are involved.

Support for some Iraqi claims, however, comes from unexpected sources: two US generals have admitted the presence of targeted killing squads, and last February the Wall Street Journal let slip the presence of six US-trained secret militias. In the same month, Lt General William Boykin, the deputy undersecretary of defence for intelligence, told the New York Times: "I think we're doing what the Phoenix programme was designed to do, without all the secrecy." US death squads assassinated about 40,000 people in Vietnam before Congress halted "Operation Phoenix".|Guardian|

I'm not saying Ramadani is correct. But it's at least provocative and should be investigated. It's hard to know what to believe when your own government is caught repeatedly in lying to the public, the United Nations, and the media.

And there is significant evidence that the Fourth Estate has been muzzled by its corporate masters and co-opted through being embedded with the military.

Note: Cross-posted at The Bellman.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The edge is closer than we think

This week I learned that one of my friends from Los Angeles committed suicide. He was 24. It sures makes all of my problems and concerns seem insignificant.

Another friend sent me this poem by Pablo Neruda that helped her deal with the loss of a loved one.

If I die, survive me with such sheer force
that you waken the furies of the pallid and the cold,
from south to south lift your indelible eyes,
from sun to sun dream through your singing mouth.
I don't want your laughter or your steps to waiver,
I don't want my heritage of joy to die.
Don't call up my person. I am absent.
Live in my absence as if in a house.
Absence is a house so vast
that inside you will pass through its walls
and hang pictures on the air.
Absence is a house so transparent
that I, lifeless, will see you, living,
and if you suffer, my love, I will die again.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Make your own footnote in a dialogue box

River uploaded by Safety Neal.

If you have Javascript enabled click here to see the footnote.

Saw this over at Strip Mining for Whimsy. If you want to be able to do it too, try this code after replacing the square brackets with angle brackets:

[a class="footnote" onmouseover="window.status=' '; return true" href="javascript:alert('Show on Click in New Window');" title="Mouseover Text, can be same of different than text to show on click"]Text that Appears[/a]


Thursday, February 02, 2006

Another black eye for Kansas: the Attorney General

The Kansas Attorney General is a nutcase and should be impeached. But my home state seems to be chock full of nuts these days.

Slate's Dahlia Lithwick has an article discussing the lawsuit against Attorney General Kline by health care providers in the Federal District Court in Wichita seeking to prohibit the enforcement of Kline's ridiculous reporting requirement he announced in an Attorney General Opinion that all kissing, petting, and sex by teens under 16 must be reported to law enforcement.

Lithwick explains that this AG Opinion was really a subterfuge.

[Kansas Attorney General] Kline takes the not-illogical position that since all consensual teen sex is criminal, all teen abortion records provide vital evidence of that crime. Why, then, doesn't he subpoena all hospital records for evidence of all teen births? Is it possible that he is less interested in pursuing the real crime of teen sex than the non-crime of abortion? In two and a half years Kline's sweeping assertion that all health-care providers must report all teen intimate activity has morphed into demands for reports of consensual teenage sex that result in abortions. Which leads to the conclusion that the Kansas reporting law isn't intended to increase reports of child abuse, but to increase reports of teen sex—specifically from abortion providers. Which means that this law—along with Kline's attempts to subpoena state abortion records and force Kansas doctors performing abortions on girls under 14 to preserve fetal tissue—is part of the attorney general's single-minded use of his vast authority in the sole interest of hassling Kansas' abortion providers.

Kline has vociferously argued that every abortion is murder, even though the law of the land holds otherwise. That is why he trusts his own judgment about what constitutes criminal activity over the judgment of the health professionals who actually see and treat it. One nevertheless wonders whether he should really be using all of his resources with no law enforcement purpose in sight beyond fishing through the files of state abortion clinics.|Slate|(emphasis added)

Politics always trumps science in Bush administration

Mad Scientist uploaded by PezKing.
Pharyngula is a blog by a biology professor at UM Morris, who explains why the injection of human genes into animals (creating a chimera) is actually necessary for scientific research.

It's pure political calculus. [Bush] throws away the mad scientist and pig-man vote, and wins the religious ignoramus vote…and we know which one has the majority here.

But guess what? Creating chimeras is legitimate and useful scientific research; it's really happening. Of course, it isn't with the intent of creating monstrous half-animal/half-human slaves or something evil like that...

Down syndrome is a very common genetic disorder caused by the presence of an extra chromosome 21. ...[Scientists] would love to have an animal model of Down syndrome, so that, for example, we could figure out exactly what gene overdose is causing the immune system problems or the heart defects, and develop better treatments for them.

So what scientists have been doing is inserting human genes into mice, to produce similar genetic overdoses in their development....

[President Bush is] trusting that everyone will think he is banning monstrous crimes against nature, but what he's really doing is targeting the weak and the ill, blocking useful avenues of research that are specifically designed to help us understand human afflictions. His message isn't "We aren't going to let the mad scientists make monsters!", it's "We aren't going to let the doctors help those 'retards.'"

Once again, the ignorance and the bigotry of the religious right wins out over reason and humanitarianism. I think I know who the real pig-men are.|Pharyngula| (Emphasis added)

Let us hope that this is just another publicity stunt like Bush's (incredibly short-lived) plan to send a manned mission to Mars.

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