Friday, February 29, 2008

Stormwatch

Caught up in the Anti-Terrorism Dragnet

Last year I blogged about the Chiquita Fruit Company case where the corporation pled guilty to materially supporting terrorists and I asked several hypotethical questions about how far the government could go in criminalizing behavior that had some indirect link to terrorism.

Mother Jones' Eric Umansky explores this topic in his article, Department of Pre-Crime:

Material-support laws are not like other laws. Central to what the Department of Justice has described as an approach of "strategic overinclusiveness,"....

There's a reason material support has become such a popular charge, a reason it's central to many of the government's most questionable cases: The laws are a prosecutor's dream.

They don't require evidence of a plot or even of a desire to help terrorists. They give the government a shot at convictions traditional criminal laws could never provide. "The administration adopted the preventive paradigm, i.e. 'We've got to stop people before they've done something wrong,'" says David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor who's the author of several books about the effect of anti-terror laws on the justice system. "There's tremendous pressure to expand grounds of criminal activity, to prosecute people who might represent a threat. The material-support provisions have been the principal vehicle for pushing that envelope."....

The idea for the material-support laws first came in the early 1980s, when, after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut and a string of high-profile kidnappings of Americans abroad, the Reagan administration decided that U.S. law wasn't up to the task of prosecuting people who supported terrorists. Presidents have long had the power to impose embargoes against countries. Shouldn't they be able to do the same against terrorist groups?....

It took the 1993 World Trade Center bombing for Congress to put the material-support concept into the federal criminal code...

The law targeted any support of terrorist activity. But sending money to the ira for an orphanage, for example, wouldn't be illegal. And to law enforcement, that meant the law didn't go far enough. "Every once in a while we'd see a note on a check saying 'Mujahideen,'" jokes Jeff Breinholt, who heads the Department of Justice's terrorist financing unit. "But usually they didn't do that." So in early 1995 the Clinton administration introduced a bill banning the donation of any money, no matter its purpose, to groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations. The idea makes some sense: Should you be allowed to give to the Tamil Tigers' social-services arm? Even if you could be sure the money was going only to build a school, it frees up money for the Sri Lankan guerrilla group to spend elsewhere.

Two months later, when Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Congress not only embraced Clinton's proposal, it greatly expanded it. Apart from an exemption for "medicine and religious materials," the new law, part of the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, criminalized all knowing support to terrorist-designated organizations—whatever the purpose of that support might be.

From the beginning, civil libertarians criticized the statute's potential for overreach. And federal courts have since ruled that some types of banned support are too vaguely defined—rulings that have largely stemmed from a suit in which a human rights organization sued to teach humanitarian law to a Kurdish group designated as a terrorist organization. (The Supreme Court has yet to weigh in.) In an even more farcical case, brought in 2006, a small-time satellite TV operator in Brooklyn allegedly offered to sell a government informant a satellite dish with access to al-Manar, better known as Hezbollah TV. In turn, the government charged the man, Javed Iqbal, with multiple counts of material support and announced he could face up to 110 years in prison. (The trial is set for June.)|Department of Pre-Crime - Mother Jones|
I've long thought that the United States is a police state, but a rather clean, efficient police state that favors white bread attorneys like yours truly.

But now we're getting into some serious thought crime legislation, and it all seems so reasonable in retrospect.

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions...

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Biohazard

More Pandemic Resources

Here are some more pandemic links from the Government Documents Fairy.

Pandemic Flu.Gov: focuses on government planning and response as well as tracking contagion.

Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy, at the University of Minnesota, provides the latest research and vaccine information.

The Centers for Disease Control have basic information about the virus and its transmission, with links to other resources.

White House: National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza: Implementation Plan.

National Archives' documents and photos relating to the influenza epidemic of 1918 in this online exhibit.

A Scream in the Night

Why I used to be a warmonger...

It is good that war is so horrible, or we might grow to like it.

Robert E. Lee, CSA



I've struggled with militarism for a long time. I find the martial virtues appealing, but I am at the same time shocked, horrified and simultaneously intrigued with the sophistication of our weaponry and military science. Nuclear weapons are sublime in their power and chemical and biological weaponry are so horrible that they make conventional war seem pleasant by comparison.

Wordnet defines militarism as "a political orientation of a people or a government to maintain a strong military force and to be prepared to use it aggressively to defend or promote national interests".

As an Army brat, I've always thought of militarism more as a personal philosophy than a national one. To me, militarism is the idea that it is virtuous to fight, kill, and even die, for your country.

But fighting for your country typically involves killing people and blowing their shit up. It's undeniable that the experience of combat and killing people does significant damage (short term or long term) to most people's psyches.

Colonel David Grossman in his book On Killing argues that the military works very hard to overcome a combat soldier's natural resistance to committing homicide.

Psychopaths, on the other hand, enjoy inflicting pain on others and do not need much encouragement to kill people for pleasure and profit. This recent Ars Technica article discusses a Finnish study published in the journal Emotion where researchers used electrodes to measure a person's biomechanical response to killing virtual people in video games.

The researchers used the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire to evaluate which members of the research subjects exhibited psychopathic tendencies.

Now, militarists think that killing people in war is a noble thing, indeed, it is an essential test of manhood in their view. But the only people who don't suffer mental damage from killing people appear to be ones with what sociologists would describe as strong psychopathic tendencies.

So militarism is arguably a celebration of psychopathy.

I think the view that killing is virtuous is so central as to go unspoken in the book (and the movie) Jarhead, where soldiers feel robbed if they don't get to personally kill another human being before the end of the war. Get some while you can, Marines!

The United States military is easily the best financed Army in the world and our military's ability to kick ass and take names is impressive. It's easy to forget that when the military is overtaxed because of the no-win situation created by the morons running the White House.

Over at Intel Dump they've been discussing Obama and the 39 man rifle platoon and the fact that many of our troops are carrying AKs and Glocks rather than Army issue weaponry due to ammo shortages and the difficulties of maintaining logistics in a combat theater.

Personally, I'd take an AK any day over an M-16 or M-4. Now, an AR-15 is a fine weapon for police work, home defense, or varmint control, but I wouldn't want to go to war with one. But that's a whole other discussion.

I think the real question is how does America wean itself off of imperialism, state-sponsored terrorism, and the propensity to act as the world's police officer in the post-Bush era.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Land of Opportunity

Arguably America's greatest asset is its workforce. We have a highly educated and flexible workforce, some of the greatest universities in the world, an excellent military and a huge army of mandarins laboring in our service.

As we go into November and electing our head mandarin, the world is a volatile place. The spectres of global warming and fossil fuel depletion herald dramatic changes in life on Earth for all of us.

Now, I'm sceptical by nature and I wonder if America can rise to the challenge.

But I love this country and I would like to think we have some unique characteristics due to our heritage as a democracy and our cultural diversity.

Despite my scepticism, I am still inspired by Barack Obama. He's an incredible orator, handsome, charismatic, and smart. I'm impressed by his honesty as well.

If Obama can inspire the American people, I have to believe we can pull together and overcome the challenges that confront us and the rest of the world.

Majesty

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

EU scrutinizes RFID's threat to privacy

The European Commission has published a preliminary draft with recommended guidelines for Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tagging. The draft addresses privacy and security issues that arise from RFID adoption...

The draft suggests that usage of tags which store personal information should be voluntary and applied on an opt-in basis at the point of sale. It also says that consumers should be able to request deactivation or removal of RFID tags at no cost.

The European Commission's interest in commercial RFID reflects a certain degree of prescience. Emerging RFID technologies offer a tremendous amount of value but pose some unique and unprecedented privacy risks. We have seen evidence that RFID chips are vulnerable to viruses and are also potentially a nasty vector for identity theft. |EU seeks privacy safeguards with RFID tags - Ars Technica|

Dragonfly


pITA, originally uploaded by Marcelo_Prais.

Drug Resistant TB on the Rise

Bird flu gets all the attention, but drug resistant TB scares me. The report doesn't include TB cases from Africa because the public health infrastructure isn't robust enough to reliably report treatment statistics, so if the World Health Organization's suggestion that those with HIV are even more suspectible to drug resistant TB, then this may just be the tip of the iceberg.

Multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) has been recorded at the highest rates ever, according to a new report published today. The report presents findings from the largest survey to date on the scale of drug resistance in tuberculosis.

The report, "Anti-tuberculosis drug resistance in the world" |PDF|, is based on data collected between 2002 and 2006 on 90 000 TB patients in 81 countries. It found that extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB), a virtually untreatable form of the respiratory disease, has been recorded in 45 countries.

The report also found a link between HIV infection and MDR-TB. Surveys in Latvia and Ukraine found nearly twice the level of MDR-TB among TB patients living with HIV compared with patients without HIV.

Based on the analysis of the survey data, WHO estimates there are nearly half a million new cases of MDR-TB a year, which is about 5% of nine million new TB cases of all types. The highest rate was recorded in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, where nearly a quarter of all new TB cases (22.3%) were reported as multidrug-resistant. |WHO|

Monday, February 25, 2008

End of a long day's work

Safety Neal the IT Omnivore

The PEW Trusts have quiz that categorizes people based on their use of information technology. It's not surprising that I'm an IT omnivore, who comprise an estimated 8% of the population.

I wonder how many other IT omnivore survivalists there are?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Progeny

The Hegemon Blues

Phillip Carter recently summarized the divide in the American foreign policy community.

[O]ne of the quintessential problems at the heart of American foreign policy today. If we want to be the world's hegemon, as well as the world's parent, policeman and patron at the same time, then it shouldn't matter what the locals want. But if we want to be something more benevolent than that — a leader in the world, rather than a monarch — then we must secure local "buy in" for U.S. policies. |American in Africa - Intel Dump|
The neocons with the Project for a New American Century haven't been shy about the fact that they want to ruthlessly crush all resistance to American political and military domination.

Unfortunately, their standard bearers, Dubya and Cheney, have have been entirely inadequate in the crusade for world domination. That or the mission is undesirable and well nigh impossible, depending upon your political outlook.

Maybe I'm just a geek, but the whole idea of using armies and navies to control the world strikes me as positively medieval. We live in the 21st century where countries are tied together by trade and information sharing, look at China and Taiwan, for instance.

If we do want a territory invaded, we should outsource that (to a nation state, not a mercenary army). I argued before the Iraq invasion that if we were smart we would have paid the Turks to do it. I'm sure that would have been a lot cheaper than the $2 Trillion it is probably going to cost us for Dubya's little invasion plan.

And the irony is that the Turks invaded Iraq anyway!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Fluwear collection

Safety Propositions: Pandemic Preparation Toolkit

Ramsey County, Minnesota has put out a Pandemic Preparation Toolkit here. For a pandemic, you'd essentially want to shelter in place and stay away from people as long as possible. A two week supply of food and water would be a place to start. A six month supply of food would be ideal.

I like Survival Tabs, they have a ten year shelf life, don't take up much space and actually taste pretty good for survival food. But a big tub of peanut butter and a bottle of water is a good place to start.

Full Auto Shotgun Goodness

Taser Shotgun & SHOT show videos

SHOT show is the gun geek's version of Christmas. GunsAmerica video has a variety of videos available. Several of the videos are interesting, but I was especially grabbed by the one showing the new Taser shotgun |Gizmodo page|. It's manufactured by Mossberg and can only load less than lethal rounds, it won't accept a shotgun shell.

The Taser shotgun also has bright yellow furniture, so cops will know instantly if they're the one with the less than lethal version.

I'm sure police departments differ in policy, but I've read that some departments won't authorize Taser use unless another officer is standing by with a firearm in coverage so that if the situation rises to a lethal force level (subject charges with a knife, for instance) then the coverage officer would use letahl force.

I have a Mossberg 500, 12 gauge pump shotgun that I use to shoot skeet and I like it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Video Game Violence

Love the Sin, Hate the Simulation

In the wake of the flurry of recent gun massacres in this country, an Illinois politician has suggested that we not rush to ban guns, but rather look at violent video games and movies.

A DeKalb-area state lawmaker is urging colleagues not to rush "knee-jerk" gun control legislation in response to the horrific shootings at NIU, saying the incident is symptomatic of far greater societal problems.

"That (gun control) doesn't seem to impact the kind of gun violence that goes on," said state Rep. Robert Pritchard, a Hinkley Republican whose district includes the Northern Illinois University campus.

"I think we need to broaden the discussion to include what other factors are weighing on these kind of deranged individuals," Pritchard said. "I think video games is a part of the problem, television, movies. Just a whole culture of violence." |Politician Urges Restraint on Gun Control - Daily Herald|

What?!?!?!

Now, I'm a total gun geek and a virtual encyclopedia of gun lore, but let's not kid ourselves, guns kill people and they do it very well.

Sure, you need someone to pull the trigger, but guns make killing damned easy. There are plenty of other lethal weapons from baseball bats to pocket knives to IED's, but few things make killing as easy as a gun.

But video games have never killed anyone.

I will grant you that violent video games in a country bubbling over with machismo and swaddled in weaponry is an explosive combination.

God bless America.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Workholics Anonymous

I'm guessing the numbers found in the UK would compare favorably with the US work force.

The average British manager works the equivalent of 40 days a year in unpaid overtime, research into the nation's long-hours culture revealed yesterday.

A survey of more than 1,500 managers found 89% regularly worked more than their contracted hours. In spite of prolonged soul-searching in boardrooms about helping executives achieve a better work-life balance, this proportion remains almost the same as eight years ago. |Guardian|

Elysium

Civilizing the Killer Robot

Norbert Wiener Award-winner Bruce Schneier recently blogged about Ronald Arkin's article on developing ethical systems to guide killer robots in the application of deadly force. Mr. Arkin suggests that robots may actually make war more civilized, not less.

He suggests that robots may make better decisions in combat than humans and that they could essentially report humans who they violate the laws of war to a higher authority, his surveillance of war argument intrigues me.

[T]he trend is clear: warfare will continue and autonomous robots will ultimately be deployed in its conduct.

Given this, questions then arise regarding how these [robotic] systems can conform as well or better than our soldiers with respect to adherence to the existing Laws of War...

This is no simple task however. In the fog of war it is hard enough for a human to be able to effectively discriminate whether or not a target is legitimate. Fortunately for a variety of reasons, it may be anticipated, despite the current state of the art, that in the future autonomous robots may be able to perform better than humans [in ethical war fighting] under these conditions, for the following reasons:

1. The ability to act conservatively: i.e., they do not need to protect themselves in cases of low certainty of target identification. UxVs do not need to have self-preservation as a foremost drive, if at all. They can be used in a self-sacrificing manner if needed and appropriate without reservation by a commanding officer.

2. The eventual development and use of a broad range of robotic sensors better equipped for battlefield observations than humans’ currently possess.

3. They can be designed without emotions that cloud their judgment or result in anger and frustration with ongoing battlefield events. In addition, “Fear and hysteria are always latent in combat, often real, and they press us toward fearful measures and criminal behavior”. Autonomous agents need not suffer similarly.

4. Avoidance of the human psychological problem of “scenario fulfillment” is possible, a factor believed partly contributing to the downing of an Iranian Airliner by the USS Vincennes in 1988. This phenomena leads to distortion or neglect of contradictory information in stressful situations, where humans use new incoming information in ways that only fit their pre-existing belief patterns, a form of premature cognitive closure. Robots need not be vulnerable to such patterns of behavior.

5. [Robots] can integrate more information from more sources far faster before responding with lethal force than a human possibly could in real-time. This can arise from multiple remote sensors and intelligence (including human) sources, as part of the Army’s network-centric warfare concept and the concurrent development of the Global Information Grid.

6. When working in a team of combined human soldiers and autonomous systems, they have the potential capability of independently and objectively monitoring ethical behavior in the battlefield by all parties and reporting infractions that might be observed.

This presence [of robots] alone might possibly lead to a reduction in human ethical infractions. It is not my belief that an unmanned system will be able to be perfectly ethical in the battlefield, but I am convinced that they can perform more ethically than human soldiers are capable of. Unfortunately the trends in human behavior in the battlefield regarding adhering to legal and ethical requirements are questionable at best. |Governing Lethal Behavior: Embedding Ethics in a Hybrid Deliberative/Reactive Robot Architecture|(emphasis added, citations omitted)
The comments on Schneier's blog suggest how difficult it may be to program autonomous machines, especially with lethal powers and suggests how hard it might be to draw a meaningful distinction between man and machine autonomy. Once the system becomes so remote from the user in terms of phenomonology, it is hard to disambiguate the user from the machine.

Through the use of augmented reality, the machine would overlay the screen with information, such as friend or foe. I can imagine a soldier killing people at a distance merely because the machine tells him that they are the enemy. Modern combined arms warfare as currently practiced, as I understand it, generally requires a Forward Observer to actually call in an airstrike in the vast majority of circumstances. But to truly remove the human observer from the airspace and send in machines with a bare minimum of human control seems vaguely troubling.

Cruise missles strike me as a case where there is no person available to verify the target, but they are employed far more rarely than artillery and air strikes (in part because of their great expense).

But I think our weapons systems are verging on a significant leap in their power and autonomy, for instance, this Danger Room post about the Israeli air defense system, Israel Eyes Thinking Machines to Fight 'Doomsday' Missile Strikes reinforces to me the seriousness of this topic.

I am both fascinated and terrified by the latest autonomous robot creations. They outstrip stupid machines like land mines the way the sun outstrips the stars.

Richard Morgan's novel Broken Angels is a fabulous exploration of combat between man and machines in the far future and some damn good military sci-fi. Iain Banks' novel Excession looks even farther into the future when humans are cared for by the machines they created, but which have far exceeded the limits of our primitive organic brains.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

On the fratricidal regulation of government

You don't expect governments to obey the law because of some higher moral development. You expect them to obey the law because they know that if they don't, those who aren't shot will be hanged.

- Michael Shirley

Expect the Unexpected: Zombie Squad

Zombie Squad is an elite zombie suppression task force ready to defend your neighborhood from the shambling hordes of the walking dead. We provide trained, motivated, skilled zombie extermination professionals and zombie survival consultants. Our people and our training are the best in the industry.

When the zombie removal business is slow we focus our efforts towards educating ourselves and our community about the importance of disaster preparation. To satisfy this goal we host disaster relief charity fundraisers, disaster preparation seminars and volunteer our time towards emergency response agencies.

Our goal is to educate the public about the importance of personal preparedness and self reliance, to increase its readiness to respond to disasters such as Earthquakes, Floods, Terrorism or Zombie Outbreaks. We want to make sure you are prepared for any crisis situation that might come along in your daily life which may include having your face eaten by the formerly deceased. |Zombie Squad Forums|
Ah, lunatics after my own heart...

See their Wikipedia entry for more.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Within Reach


cigars behind the shed, originally uploaded by saraandaaron.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Bonds of eFriendship?

Am I a bad person if I don't respond to every request for a Facebook Superwall? Do I owe any duty to all the women who only go by their first name from MySpace that keep emailing me? Should I feel bad that I haven't visited Library 2.0 in months... even though I really and truly like it?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Shades of Grey


barack_obama_bwhope, originally uploaded by levmyshkin1.

On Electing Policy Wonks

As I look back at the last several presidential campaigns, I'm struck by how many of the candidates were really policy wonks and not really leaders.

I love Al Gore, but he's not charismatic. We need smart, detail-oriented people with vision like Al Gore, but not as President. I firmly believe that Al Gore would have been 10,000 times better as President than Bush, but he'd be perfect for the head of the EPA.

Hillary Clinton is another person who is bright and hard-working, but not that charismatic or inspirational. I'm not the only one who thinks so.

[Richard Cohen's] dream ticket: Obama for president; Clinton for chief of staff...

Just about everything Clinton says about herself -- her experience, her indomitability, her presumed ability to work long hours -- says to me that she would make a swell chief of staff. Beyond that, she either lacks the qualities that would make a great -- not merely competent -- president or hides them from us, as she has occasionally done with her own pain.

My conclusions about Clinton... come from her own campaign. Whether she meant to or not, she has presented herself as a model of caution, of experience hard-earned and not enjoyed, and an inability to admit fault or lousy judgment. |Hail to the Chief of Staff - WaPo|
I like Hillary and I think she's a great public servant, but I think Barack Obama is far more eloquent, charismatic, and inspirational, which are the skills a President needs most in my humble opinion.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

An Imperial Toast

The history of underage drinking

Queen Elizabeth considered two gallons of ale only a proper daily allowance for the eight children who sang in the Chapel Royal in the St. James's Palace.

- William Craddock Bolland, A Manual of Year Book Studies (1925)

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Interviewing this Month

I've been too busy to blog much, I'm the only full time reference librarian where I work at the moment and I'm getting most of the faculty research requests.

I have been shuttling between appointments and committee meetings like a man possessed the past week and in between I built a website for a professor's project promoting a legal education renaissance.

So the rest of this month we're adding interviews to the mix...

Hopefully I'll have time to blog again in the near future.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Safety Propositions: Buy a Taser instead of a Gun

The Cincinnati Inquirer's Lori Kurtzman reports that sales of personal tasers are increasing quickly. This makes perfect sense to me. The Taser corporation claims its products are more effective at stopping crazed attackers than 9mm handgun and I believe them.

The civilian taser is the C2. What I love about the C2 is that it looks like a Star Trek TNG phaser.

I think one is safer with a Taser than a pistol. If you shoot yourself with your Taser, it's not such a big deal. I also think a person is more likely to use less than lethal force. It's also morally and legally superior to use less than lethal force for self-defense or defense of others.

The liability for using a taser is far lower than using a firearm. Tasers are also cheaper than guns. Stun Masters has a good deal on them right now.

Here's a video of an editor at Popular Mechanics being shocked.

Pistols and revolvers are hard to shoot accurately under pressure. Guns are notoriously bad at killing people crazed on PCP or meth. They die eventually, but not without putting up a hell of a fight.

The 1986 Miami Shoot-out where one former Ranger named Michael Platt killed 2 FBI agents and greviously wounded 5 other agents despite being shot near the heart in the opening seconds of the fight. (See the Gun Zone for a more detailed account of the shoot-out.)

If Platt had been hit with a Taser instead, those FBI agents might be alive today.

Anyway, here's a video of three teen boys who agreed to be tasered. Dumbasses.