Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

This isn't a time where people easily find things to be thankful for, and a lot of people have less to be thankful for than they did less than two years prior.

That said, I am thankful for those of you who choose to read this humble website.

And I'm still thankful that such an odd, interesting medium as the Internet ended up flourishing in the fashion that it has.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Climate Email Hack and Your Future

My first thought, of course, was "the world is doomed". And it may be, because politically motivated (shurely not well-paid??) hackers have selectively released emails that will help those also-politically-motivated (ibid) politicians and lobbyists who are denying climate change to convince people that they don't need to do anything.

(Which is pretty easy. People don't want to do anything. That's one of the reasons so many bastards are conservatives, because they want easy power and there's no easier route to power than playing to the fears of the poor and the greed of the rich.)

This is only going to make meaningful change that much harder, if not impossible, and a lot of people may die because of it.

My second thought, though, was "this changes the rules". Previously, hackers were seen as jokers, teenagers, or maybe anarchists. But let's be honest: this didn't come from that group. This was politically motivated. This was a deliberate attack. This proves that the politicization of science goes far beyond who publishes where, and for what. This is a clarion call to every scientist that those crazies out there can reach into their own lives—into their own private correspondence—and selectively misinterpret everything that they say. Maybe not today, but in the future.

But it's not just scientists. What happened to these climate guys can happen to everybody. That conversation you had about politics with a friend of yours, where you expressed annoyance with the government? It may get out there. That misuse of a phrase that you made in an email to a different friend? It may get out there. That argument you had on an instant messenger? It can get out there.

The law can't help you. Rest assured, if it's politically relevant, nobody's going to give a damn if it's legal or not. They just don't. Even if the hackers are tried and found guilt, even if they were thrown in jail and the key thrown away, even if they were executed, that wouldn't change the impact on the world of this sordid event one whit. That's even assuming the hackers are in your jurisdiction. They won't be. STRONGER LAWS WILL NOT HELP.

No, people need to start taking security more seriously. They need to start taking encryption more seriously. They need to start taking pseudonymity and anonymity more seriously. they need to take all of this more seriously. The only alternative is watching what you say, even in private. You HAVE no privacy.

It's not just about potential employers seeing you get drunk on Facebook any more. It's about your hacked and misinterpreted correspondence emails ruining lives. Nothing less than that.

Edit: Of course, the logical response is "what about the naysayers? What if they get hacked?"

But that's the thing, isn't it? For all the blather about a supposed global warming "faith", it's the opponents that are the zealots. They're far more likely to go to such extreme lengths to defend their faith than the scientists and thinkers that have demonstrated the reality of climate change.

They probably deserve the same treatment, though I cannot counsel it, as it is of course illegal and (in a broader sense) immoral. I don't expect that they'll get it, and I expect that many are so incredibly deluded as to be utterly consistent in their zealotry and obsession. Emails might reveal that obsession, but it wouldn't make much difference. The modern media—which lauds a consistent villain and punishes even the most slightly doubtful hero—just isn't wired that way.

As is so often the case, the villains inevitably come out ahead.

Galbraith on "Old Mistake" (Edit: And sociopathic jounalism)

James K. Galbraith talks about "Old Mistakes Die Hard".

I'm tempted to say that the United States is plainly unable to cope with the economic crisis in a serious way...

Technically it would have been fairly easy, 10 months ago, to get this bus back on the road. There could have been open-ended fiscal assistance to stop the budget hemorrhage of the states and cities. There could have been a jobs program and effective foreclosure relief. There could have been a payroll tax holiday. There could have been a strategy for sustained massive effort on infrastructure, energy and climate. There could have been prompt corrective action to resolve, instead of coddle, the worst of the banks.

I mostly don't blame President Obama; he and his team went as far as they felt they could. I blame the head-in-the-sand politicians in Congress, the over-optimistic forecasters, the half-educated press, and the power of the financial lobby. I blame the avatars of fiscal virtue, the public debt scare-mongerers, the astrologers for whom thirteen significant digits (a trillion) for the stimulus package was just too much. I blame the Senate, which hands the balance of power to small states at the expense of disaster areas like California, Florida and New York. I do blame the Bush-Obama financial policy team, who either believed that "credit would flow again" if you stuffed the banks with money, or knew that it wouldn't.

The Bretton Woods point deserves another word. According to the system established in 1944, the U.S. current account deficit -- and by extension our public budget deficit -- was limited by an obligation to exchange foreign-held dollars for gold. Richard Nixon abolished that arrangement. Since the early 1980s, the world has held the Treasury bonds that the U.S. chose to issue. The system is fragile. But so long as it lasts, it doesn't discipline our budget (and if it broke, we could replace it). Low interest rates prove this: despite all the dire predictions, there is no difficulty in placing Treasury debt. Hence, we are free to pursue high employment, if we choose to do it.

Can anything be done now? Well yes, technically: the same steps that could have been taken in January 2009 could be taken in January 2010. But they won't be, because for the moment we are seeing the inventory bounce, a productivity surge, real GDP growth, and other "good signs." So we'll be told to wait, to be patient, and to make sure we don't buy what we can't afford. And double-digit joblessness will linger on, breeding frustration and anger -- perhaps all the way through to the mid-term elections. After which, what will be possible is anyone's guess.

There's been a lot of sturm und drang about the deficit, and about debt, but the fact remains that joblessness is a greater threat to the American way of life and to the Democrats' chances in 2010 and 2012 than any amount of debt is. To be blunt, the people who are railing against deficits in the press have jobs. They have income. And (crucially) they have assets that deflation would increase the value of. Deflation and joblessness isn't their problem, and if it becomes their problem, they'll have lost their bully pulpit and nobody will be listening to them anyway. They'll be replaced by the guys who, again, have jobs.

Of course, the only way that makes sense is if the press and the politicians are so incredibly short-sighted that they can't even think about their personal futures, let alone the future of their nation. Fortunately for the Republicans...

In any case, as both Digby and Paul Krugman pointed out, doing something about the deficit is absolutely useless. That class of voter that values deficits over employment will think there's a deficit no matter what you do. If you tell them otherwise, they won't believe you, either because they're Republican drones who are just using deficits as a handy stick to bludgeon you with, or paranoiac nutbars who think that everybody from the Fed Reserve to the White House to the lowly statisticians are all lying to them, and that we can only trust in Almighty Gold (The Holies Of Holies! The One True Metal!) in the first place. Neither of which are worth trying to win.

So, honestly, Obama et al might as well do the right thing, since there's no way they can appease those who are counselling them to do the wrong thing. I know it may be a bit scary and unfamiliar—doing the right thing, that is—but it's certainly worth a shot.

Edit: Huh. I had read that ridiculous piece on American public debt in the NYT, and noticed that the name of the writer sounded familiar.

Then I realized. He's the guy who wrote the long confessional about how he had spent way too much money on his house and gone far beyond his means.

Figures. Let's leave aside that he's the worst person in the world to be judging whether or not America's public debt is unsustainable, since he's staked himself out as someone who both couldn't handle debt, and who now has a deep emotional aversion to it. I realize he's on the debt/deficit beat at the NYT. It's just that he shouldn't be.

No, instead, let us ponder empathy for a moment. What kind of near-sociopath do you have to be to go through all that crap and then—implicitly or explicitly—tell everybody who lost their job and have it worse that they can go screw? Andrews should know better: one of the reasons his family went into such disastrous debt is that his wife lost her job.

And yet, with unemployment beating 10% with no end in sight, he barely spares a word on why government spending might be necessary to prop up America's broken economy! Does someone being unemployed not matter unless they're sleeping in someone else's bed? Are they just statistics to Andrews? Do they even exist?

I swear, the only thing that's worse than "fuck you, got mine" is "fuck you, don't got mine". To be unable to envision that the pain you suffer might be shared by others, and to act on that understanding. To be so swallowed up in your own miseries that you can't see how they affect your perception of the world or your effect on the people around you. To be so deliberately ignorant about how shared action can help everybody—because you're too busy with your own obsessions—that you end up tearing down everything that might have made your situation better. Andrews shouldn't even be on this beat, but to write a story like THIS is unforgivable. I'm honestly amazed that it exist.

That's one of the worst things that may come from this Great Recession when it ends. IF it ends. "FUDGM" may become the law of the land, and will only further ensure that the people who put you there through their own ignorance and sociopathy laugh all the way to the bank.

THEIR bank.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Iran's Last Supreme Leader?

Color me skeptical, of course, but what Newsweek reported makes sense. Even if the clerics did not want to invalidate their own authority by removing Khameinei, he—and his subordinate Ahmadinejad—has clearly hurt Iran's interests and reputation, enough so that Montazeri's anti-Supreme Leader rhetoric is finally getting traction.

Things may change, of course, if the memory of what happened this year fades. But I suspect it won't.

Friday, November 13, 2009

"Well, Maybe Congress Will Fix ACTA"

Not so much! Apparently it's going to be an "Executive Agreement" in the United States, rather than an actual "treaty" per se, so Congress won't even get a gander at it.

[A] major concern with ACTA’s very nature is that it is being designed as an “executive agreement,” rather than as a “treaty.” Executive agreements do not require Congressional approval before they may take effect. As a result, there is little to keep the signatories accountable to the public, especially in an election year that will see the departure of the current executive.
Lovely. Not that Congress has a good track record on this sort of thing, but the public scrutiny that comes with Congressional oversight might not be the worst idea in the world. Hopefully some of the other democracies involved will have a bit more openness, though I'm doubtful.

In any case, Cory Doctorow put up a very nice presentation on exactly why you should be running around and shouting about this thing. Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Great Load of Horses**t

Elizabeth Kolbert's takedown of Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's execrable Superfreakonomics is one of the most elegant and devastating critiques I've read since Matt Taibbi carved up Tom Friedman with that immortal line "Forget the Cinnabon. Name me a herd animal that hunts. Name me one."

In the review, she repeats the old story about how New York was, at the turn of the century, threatened by literal mountains of horseshit:

The problem just kept piling up until, in the eighteen-nineties, it seemed virtually insurmountable. One commentator predicted that by 1930 horse manure would reach the level of Manhattan’s third-story windows. New York’s troubles were not New York’s alone; in 1894, the Times of London forecast that by the middle of the following century every street in the city would be buried under nine feet of manure. It was understood that flies were a transmission vector for disease, and a public-health crisis seemed imminent. When the world’s first international urban-planning conference was held, in 1898, it was dominated by discussion of the manure situation. Unable to agree upon any solutions—or to imagine cities without horses—the delegates broke up the meeting, which had been scheduled to last a week and a half, after just three days.

Then, almost overnight, the crisis passed. This was not brought about by regulation or by government policy. Instead, it was technological innovation that made the difference. With electrification and the development of the internal-combustion engine, there were new ways to move people and goods around. By 1912, autos in New York outnumbered horses, and in 1917 the city’s last horse-drawn streetcar made its final run. All the anxieties about a metropolis inundated by ordure had been misplaced.
SuperFreakonomics (yecch, what a title) brings it up as an analogy to the importance of technological innovation. Kolbert repeats it as an analogy of the book itself, considering that it appears to be, well, a mountain of horseshit.

Leave aside their touching faith in Matrix-style atmospheric reengineering. I enjoy science fiction, but even I don't have much faith in [i]that[/i] rot. No, what is really galling is the spectacle of economists who haven't done the math:

Given their emphasis on cold, hard numbers, it’s noteworthy that Levitt and Dubner ignore what are, by now, whole libraries’ worth of data on global warming. Indeed, just about everything they have to say on the topic is, factually speaking, wrong. Among the many matters they misrepresent are: the significance of carbon emissions as a climate-forcing agent, the mechanics of climate modelling, the temperature record of the past decade, and the climate history of the past several hundred thousand years. Raymond T. Pierrehumbert is a climatologist who, like Levitt, teaches at the University of Chicago. In a particularly scathing critique, he composed an open letter to Levitt, which he posted on the blog RealClimate.

“The problem wasn’t necessarily that you talked to the wrong experts or talked to too few of them,” he observes. “The problem was that you failed to do the most elementary thinking.” Pierrehumbert carefully dissects one of the arguments that Levitt and Dubner seem to subscribe to—that solar cells, because they are dark, actually contribute to global warming—and shows it to be fallacious. “Really simple arithmetic, which you could not be bothered to do, would have been enough to tell you,” he writes, that this claim “is complete and utter nonsense."

Kolbert's position? They're just trying to be clever and contrarian. They don't really care about climate change per se, they're just trying to be cute and sell books. Paul Krugman (who also linked to this piece) noted that this was a big problem with a certain breed of economists:

Clever snark like this can get you a long way in career terms — but the trick is knowing when to stop. It’s one thing to do this on relatively inconsequential media or cultural issues. But if you’re going to get into issues that are both important and the subject of serious study, like the fate of the planet, you’d better be very careful not to stray over the line between being counterintuitive and being just plain, unforgivably wrong.

It looks as if Superfreakonomics has gone way over that line.
And why does this sort of thing tend to be aimed at liberals? Well:

I have a theory here, although it may not be the whole story: it’s about careerism. Annoying conservatives is dangerous: they take names, hold grudges, and all too often find ways to take people who annoy them down. As a result, the Kewl Kids, as Digby calls them, tread very carefully when people on the right are concerned — and they snub anyone who breaks the unwritten rule and mocks those who must not be offended.

Annoying liberals, on the other hand, feels transgressive but has historically been safe. The rules may be changing (as Dubner and Levitt are in the process of finding out), but it’s been that way for a long time.

The “tell”, I’d suggest, is that once you get beyond those for whom the decision about whom to laugh at is a career move, people don’t, in fact, seem to find mocking liberals funnier than mocking conservatives. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are barreling along, while right-wing attempts to produce counterpart shows have bombed.

Anyway, say this for Dubner and Levitt — they’ve provoked an interesting discussion, although probably not the one they hoped for.
Kolbert compares them to Al Gore, who is roundly castigated by The Usual Suspects but appears to be honestly, truly interested in helping the world. From her discussion of his new book, Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis:

Like Levitt and Dubner, Gore argues that if people simply put their minds to it they could figure out a way to deal with global warming. “We have at our fingertips all of the tools we need to solve three or four climate crises—and we only need to solve one,” he writes. But the similarities end there.

Where Levitt and Dubner avoid climate scientists, Gore appears to have talked to just about every one of them. (The acknowledgments for “Our Choice” run to four single-spaced pages of tiny type.) If you’re curious about the relative contribution each of the major greenhouse gases makes to climate change, Gore has it. (CO2 is the largest contributor, followed by methane.) If you want to know how a photovoltaic cell works, or a solar thermal tower, or where the ten largest wind farms in the United States are, you can find that in the book as well. Gore runs through the difficulties of feeding power from intermittent sources, like the sun and the wind, into the electrical grid, and describes how these difficulties might be overcome. He discusses carbon capture and sequestration, nuclear energy, agricultural policy, and conservation.

Just about the only strategy for coping with climate change that Gore isn’t interested in is geoengineering. Indeed, the very idea strikes him as delusional. “We are already involved in a massive, unplanned planetary experiment,” he writes. “We should not begin yet another planetary experiment in the hope that it will somehow magically cancel out the effects of the one we already have.”
From what I've read in other sources, this is how most real climate scientists thing of geoengineering. Even if it were feasible, the global climate system is such a fiendishly complex beast that we stand to do more harm than good. We may well kill ourselves trying to do it.

But Levitt and Dubner don't care. Like too many writers and journalists, they clearly don't give a tinker's damn about what they're arguing. Their job isn't to be right. Their job is to, apparently, keep shovelling that horseshit. Kudos to Kolbert for calling it what it is.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The US Government Wants to Kill YouTube and Cut Off Your Internet

Have you heard about ACTA? The so-called "Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement"? If you haven't, and you like this whole "Internet" thing, you damned well better start paying attention.

ACTA is a secret anti-"piracy" treaty that has been negotiated over the past few years, most recently in Korea. That's "secret" as in "you aren't supposed to know what's in it until it's too late". In fact, when pressed on the contents, the Obama administration has said that they can't talk about it because of "national security".

Fortunately, it's been leaked. And here's a nice brief summary from Cory Doctorow of why they were so desperate for you not to find out what's in it:
* That ISPs have to proactively police copyright on user-contributed material. This means that it will be impossible to run a service like Flickr or YouTube or Blogger, since hiring enough lawyers to ensure that the mountain of material uploaded every second isn't infringing will exceed any hope of profitability.

* That ISPs have to cut off the Internet access of accused copyright infringers or face liability. This means that your entire family could be denied to the internet -- and hence to civic participation, health information, education, communications, and their means of earning a living -- if one member is accused of copyright infringement, without access to a trial or counsel.

* That the whole world must adopt US-style "notice-and-takedown" rules that require ISPs to remove any material that is accused -- again, without evidence or trial -- of infringing copyright. This has proved a disaster in the US and other countries, where it provides an easy means of censoring material, just by accusing it of infringing copyright.

* Mandatory prohibitions on breaking DRM, even if doing so for a lawful purpose (e.g., to make a work available to disabled people; for archival preservation; because you own the copyrighted work that is locked up with DRM)
So your kid watches a few YouTube videos, and all of a sudden you have lost access to the Internet for a year. You don't even get the benefit of the presumption of innocence: they are ordered to cut off ACCUSED INFRINGERS, not convicted infringers.

(How this could be constitutional is beyond me.)

And, hey, here's hoping you aren't blind! Use the wrong reader and all of a sudden you're in the pokey, sucker!

Wired had a good name for all this: "Policy laundering". The White House knows that it can't push this through, so it's going to do it indirectly:

Obama hasn’t asked Congress to implement a three-strike policy, which could anger consumers and watchdog groups. But if the administration gets three strikes written into ACTA, and the United States signs and ratifies the treaty, Congress would be obliged to change the DMCA to comply with it, while the administration throws its hands in the air and says, “It wasn’t our idea! It’s that damn treaty!”

That practice is common enough to have a name: policy laundering.

Language in the leaked text throws open the door to ISP filtering for unauthorized content, though there’s no way for filters to know whether the material constitutes fair use. That plan is similar to a proposal by the Motion Picture Association of America, which wants ISPs to filter for unauthorized motion pictures.

The three-strikes language would be gold to companies like MediaSentry, which browse peer-to-peer networks for infringing content, and identify a user’s IP address and ISP. MediaSentry’s work was crucial in the RIAA’s 6-year-long litigation campaign that amounted to about 30,000 copyright lawsuits against individual file sharers using Kazaa, Limewire and other services.

Until today, the most alarming thing in the proposed ACTA treaty has been the secrecy surrounding it. But now the threat level is higher. It seems the executive branch would rather negotiate with other nations, instead of its own elected officials, about the future of a free and open internet.
Well put. This is a problem with the whole process of treaty-making in general: countries will too often use it as a way of dealing with domestic goals that they know the public won't support. It's a Democratic trick that's a lot like their constant reaches for "bipartisanship": They don't want to wear the policy, they want opponents to just get mad at "Washington", or "The System": or, in this case, the international community.

And, usually, it's the sort of policy that doesn't benefit anybody but their buddies, donors, fundraisers, and future employers/fellow board-members. It's the stuff they know is going to harm ordinary consumers and ordinary workers, like free trade agreements with countries whose "union protection" boils down to "do what we say and maybe we won't liquidate your shop steward". Or, in this case, exploitative and one-sided trademark, copyright and patent treaties.

Fortunately the attempts to keep it secret have not worked. The text is available. You can find it at Michael Geist's site, both as an embedded text and as a linked PDF. (Download the PDF of the text here.)

This is disgusting mischief, and will only harm the public and the cause of online innovation and creativity.The fall of YouTube and other media hosting sites would be an absolute disaster. Families will be cut off from the backbone of modern communications because their kid may or may not have visited the wrong website. ISPs will fear, quite rightly, that the next step is being held responsible for transmitted content. And none of this will dissuade the real pirates in the least, who are already quite adept at evading the privacy-destroying organizations that will be profiting from the adoption of this travesty.

They wanted it to be quiet. They wanted it to be secret. It's not secret anymore, and we clearly shouldn't be quiet about it.

Make a stink, folks.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Health Care BIll Passes House

Great. But that's the House, and even there they needed to pass an odious anti-abortion bill as a sop to the idea of conservative dominance. Digby:

I knew that after all the sturm and drang over the past few months over the public option, the number one liberal priority in the health care debate, there would be a price for its success. The ruling elite could never allow an unambiguous liberal victory. It would endanger their narrative that says fealty to business, religion, military and other authoritarian structures is democratically inspired. They have to maintain the fiction that the people prefer to be subjects. If politicians aren't convinced that there will be a price for being liberals, they might get the idea that they can actually govern liberally...

...Any legislation such as health care reform must therefore be tempered by a liberal sacrifice, something real, a principle that will make them hate themselves and loathe each other for having done it. It cannot be a clean victory, lest they come to believe they can do more. In the end, the "moral" must always be that you cannot go too far left.

The Stupak amendment was designed to do just that, a power move easily predicted by anyone who has watched the way policy victories are managed over the last couple of decades. The one consistent characteristic is that they are never unambiguously positive for the left. The arguments are always self-servingly pragmatic --- "blue dogs have to vote their district" --- but the real purpose is to drive home the absolute certainty that liberals are never really in charge. That is why there is never any desire among the ruling elite to sell the idea that liberalism itself -- its philosophy, its values, its ideology --- is something positive with which a majority of people, including Blue Dogs, can identify. If the public ever came to believe that, who knows what might happen?
There are a lot of issues with how this has worked out, and a lot of issues with what other tradeoffs will happen going forward. The astonishingly terrible Senate Finance Committee bill still looms large, and the public option still looks like a fragile, wan victim of compromise. The House will almost certainly have to stand firm in favor of what it just passed, and it's doubtful that Dems will "stand firm" for much of anything.

(Certainly the Obama Administration hasn't made a habit of it.)

This is a step forward. But a step forward can easily launch you into a pitfall. Don't relax.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Abdullah Pulls Out, Karzai "Wins"

Ah, yes. This will certainly calm the fears of official corruptions.