Thank you, Neal Conan

So today was Neal Conan’s last show on Talk of the Nation. I’ve been a listener for years, and I suspect I won’t know how much I’ll miss it until after it’s gone (and after I’ve worn through a bunch of podcast archives I still have lying around). TOTN is rarely destination radio, but it’s consistently good, which is damned impressive when you consider it’s on for eight hours a week.

That said, I’ll be forever grateful to Conan for one broadcast: he was on several very long NPR shows immediately following 9/11, when I was compulsively burning midnight oil sucking down all of the news I could, and reading the entire goddamned Internet. I specifically remember Conan shutting down several people he interviewed when they extrapolated from what-was-known to pure speculation, and making damned sure that his show wasn’t contributing to any rumormongering.

But beyond that, his voice and demeanor were what I think of as the best BBC tradition during a crisis: authoritative, soothing, and concerned. He helped me get through it.

So thanks, Neal. I’m sorry to see you leave my daily diet of news. You’re welcome back anytime.

In case you’re feeling stuck today…

I keep on looking up these numbers. I’m going to blog them so I never have to find them again. All figures are highly approximate, so no one give me any shit unless I’ve made major calculation errors. (Paul Guinnessey, I’m looking at you.)

Your approximate speed because you’re standing on Earth’s surface: 1,000 miles per hour

Your approximate speed because you’re orbiting the sun: 67,000 miles per hour

Your approximate speed because you’re also orbiting the Milky Way: 535,000 miles per hour

But then it wouldn’t be crunchy

One of my earliest memories is roadtripping with my parents to Miami Beach when I was three or four, and watching an episode of Monty Python with them late one night in a motel outside Fayetteville. Considering their last business in Atlantic City, I’d like to think it was this one.

PA: “The mentally ill? Fuck ’em.”

Apparently, if I go without tweeting for a few months and my last Foursquare check-in was in Philadelphia, I’d appreciate if someone could pick up the phone and ring Pennsylvania:

An investigation by the Department of Justice found that a Pennsylvania state prison had been unconstitutionally holding inmates with serious mental illness in solitary confinement for months or years at a time. The practice, which has been deemed torture, cruel and unusual, and worse than being held hostage in Iran, involves holding prisoners in isolation for 23 hours a day in a small, often windowless cell with a steel door.

I’d be curious to know what the criteria are for tossing somebody into a locked room and throwing away the room. Somehow, it’s interesting if you actually need to have a transient psychotic break before you’re put in isolation for decades, or if a simple history of mental illness is enough for them to pro-actively put you in isolation for decades.

Probably doesn’t make a whole lot of difference: I’ve personally never had a transient psychotic break, but if I were going to guess my most likely place to have my first, it’s after I’ve been cut off from meds and treatment and thrown into a prison.

One thing does stand out: the DOJ is criticized for “warehousing” prisoners. That’s not a fair accusation. A warehouse is a place where you spend a lot of money because you want a high chance of keeping your stuff in good shape.

Suggested edit: “landfilling” prisoners.

Under the PATRIOT Act, “no comment” and denials don’t mean shit

There’s an open question going around concerning the companies involved in PRISM data monitoring: that is, did they willingly go along with it, or did the government somehow get their data without their knowledge?

Here’s an example of how it’s running today:

Hours after the news broke, and every company bar PalTalk and AOL denied any knowledge of the program and allegations of their involvement, the Post has changed its stance. The phrase ”participate knowingly” has been removed from the article, a new passage suggests the firms were unaware of PRISM.

Attention, every journalist and analyst trying to read the tea leaves: the PATRIOT Act enables gag orders for cooperating public and private entities, and enforces them with criminal penalties. Which means that all of the above companies may have been asked or forced to provide information, and then required by criminal law to neither reveal it, nor to say one word about it in public today.

If you’ve got sources on deep background, that’s what you should be asking them.

Why science reporting is screwy

The BBC headline:

Invisibility ‘time cloak’ developed

The lede:

An “invisibility” time cloak which is able to hide events in a continuous stream of light has been developed by scientists. The cloak works by manipulating the speed of light in optical fibres and means any interaction which takes place during this “hole in time” is not detected.

The buried:

Though called a time cloak, it’s actually “not a manipulation of time, it’s a manipulation of light” explained Greg Gbur, who specialises in optical physics at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The researcher, who was not involved in the study, said it showed a huge advance in the work on the time cloak.


This is the problem with science reporting: yes, Virginia, it’s a very big deal if we’re able to “manipulate” the speed of light. I assume this has something to do with relativity or quantum behavior or dilithium crystals; in any case, it’s a crucial part of the story, and I’m pretty much left to infer it.

Likewise, I can also infer that monkeying with the speed of light might be synonymous with altering the flow of time (and a bunch of other things), since c shows up in some many equations and is generally constant.

That’s all pretty interesting. An explanation of the above might help get people fired up about science and cutting-edge research. Or we could just call this fucker a Time Cloak, hint at nifty technology in 20 years, and call it a day.

Update: Nature to the rescue with a much better description of what’s going on.

23 weeks, 6 days

Fascinating and moving story by Radiolab about the choices presented to a couple whose baby was born premature.

Juniper was born one day short of the rather arbitrary 24-week line at which fetuses are considered viable outside the womb. I was born six days short of the 28-week line, which is where it was drawn a few years after when Roe v. Wade made it a matter of law. Some Googling informs me that the doctor to whom my parents always attributed the saving of my life, Dr. Mary Louise Soentgen, died in 1999.

So I’ll send out a posthumous thank you to Dr. Soentgen, and anyone else working at Jefferson in 1969 and 1970. I’m still here, too.

Twentysomething Jeff on JATO rockets

Watching the 10th anniversary episode of Mythbusters, and in honor of that landmark I’m reposting what I had to say about the JATO rocket urban myth in The Twentysomething Guide to Creative Self-Employment, eight years pre-Mythbusters:

A story was going around the Internet a while ago about some total schmuck in Arizona who had no idea what he was getting himself into. Apparently, this Einstein decided that he wanted to drive really fast. So he somehow laid his hands on a solid-fuel Jet-Assist Takeoff (JATO) booster rocket, which he then soldered onto the underside of his Chevy. Then he found himself a really long, straight road, and set the rocket off.

Now, this guy was smart enough to smuggle military hardware. He was smart enough to attach the rocket to his car so that it didn’t blow apart the car when it went off. And he knew to do this out in Arizona, which is basically just long expanses of sand broken up by the occasional retirement community—the inhabitants of which must have been very amused to see a Chevy blow by at three hundred miles per hour.

This guy was clueless, however, on two key factors. One, the JATO rocket has no off switch. Two, Chevys aren’t supposed to go much over sixty, and their brakes and steering wheels tend to fail at ICBM cruising velocities. Which is why the guy was scraped off the side of a small hill with a putty knife.
The moral of the story? Hell, it doesn’t really need one. But if I had to say, it’s a case of classic half-assed burnout.”

I’m realizing that after a few modifications to this site, I haven’t checked to see if any of the PDF links to The Twentysomething Guide still work. So if you want to read the whole book, here it is again (8.5 megabyte PDF).

The Internet is a surveillance state

Bruce Schneier declares that the privacy war is over, and the panopticon won.

Increasingly, what we do on the Internet is being combined with other data about us. Unmasking Broadwell’s identity involved correlating her Internet activity with her hotel stays. Everything we do now involves computers, and computers produce data as a natural by-product.

This isn’t something the free market can fix. We consumers have no choice in the matter. All the major companies that provide us with Internet services are interested in tracking us.

Personally, I think that there are two ways we need to address this. The first is to understand the massive distinctions between the panopticons created by government, for-profit businesses, and individuals. These have different effects and different benefits, but we tend to sweep them all under the same rug.

Second, it seems utterly bizarre to me that I own the copyright of this post for 70 years after my death (although that’s completely unenforceable, as I’m not a millionaire), but I have no ownership over data about me. We need to formalize the unspoken right to data that is implicit in signing a TOS with Google and Facebook, because so many entities simply take this information and provide nothing in return.

So about that kid who killed his sister…

Somehow I had gotten it into my head that the rifle a five-year-old used to accidentally shoot his two-year-old sister must’ve been a BB gun or something. I mean, not that you should leave a kid alone with a BB gun, but it had to be a gun out of a 1950s comic book, right?

This Mother Jones article made me realize that I had made that assumption. So I continued onward to the Crickett rifle website. If you haven’t checked it out yourself, you really must. This goes double for any of my international readers, because it’s probably been hours since you had another proof that the United States is clinically insane.

Now, I’m the first to say that I don’t know shit about firearms. (When I say “comic book BB gun”, it’s with a vague understanding that BB guns are generally only suitable for killing squirrels and the family pet, and that it takes really bad luck to kill a human with one.) But it seems that a .22 rifle is actually a real gun. It’s the one the Boy Scouts use because it hurts less to use (lower recoil), but here’s the Wikipedia picture of suitable ammo for My First Rifle:

Mother Jones also informs me that there’s a booming business in bulletproof clothing and backpacks for children. Because, you know, gun rights.

A NL hand post-mortem

Wherein Our Hero attempts to add a no-limit game to his cash game poker repertoire

Sat down at a 1-1 NL table at Bally’s ($50-$150 buy-in, $2 to call the $1 blind preflop) with $100 I won at Jacks or Better, and was felted on the first hand I played, around two orbits in. Here’s how it went down.

A loose-aggressive player opened for $10 in middle position. $10 is his standard open, which is mathematically insane at a 1-1 table, but as he typically got a few calls this isn’t a bad plan in this case. A loose caller to my right calls. I’m in the cutoff seat and peek to see AKo in the hole.

I’ve got just under $100; the raiser has $330 and has me stacked. He’s also talked loudly about locking in the $300 and playing with the rest.

My decision process: can I fold? Hell no.

Should I raise? Hell yes. I raise to $30. He calls, everyone else folds.

Flop comes AQT two-suited and he checks to me. I’ve got him on anything from a middle pair to a crappy Ace, and the main thing I’m worried about is that he’s hit his kicker for two pair.

I go to bet, and I’m reminded why I hate no limit. There’s $70 in the pot. My normal bet of $35 leaves me pot-committed; I can’t fold to a check-raise because a) he’s aggressive; b) it’s a heavy drawing board, and c) he might think his A-x is good. So I bet the pot and go all-in.

He flips over K-J and takes it with the straight.


Should I have raised to something other than $30? My mistake here is that I didn’t think about it—I forgot my observation about his calling cap. Raise to $40 and there’s a chance that he folds preflop, especially with KJo. On the other hand, as it went down I got my money in good, and he called as a 3-1 dog.

Should I have called preflop? The mistake here is that I didn’t consider it. In retrospect, this was my last chance to control the size of the pot; after my raise, I’m going all-in on a favorable flop, and that hadn’t quite occurred to me.

Again on the other hand, calling here would given me top-pair, top-kicker on a draw-heavy board against two undefined opponents. As it stands, I’m kicking myself for giving myself no chance to get away from a cooler; with a call, I’d be kicking myself for not defining the flop better.

So I’m thinking I played this right, except for one real problem: I’m forced to go all-in on the flop, but I’m only getting called if I’m beat. I don’t see a way around this with a short stack, but instinctively I feel like this isn’t the way to play a cash game.

Considering new data

I went on record yesterday as being unopposed to the Boston lockdown, but Bruce Schneier linked me to an excellent argument against:

Third, keeping citizens off the street meant that 99% of the eyes and brains that might solve a crime were being wasted. Eric S Raymond famously said that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. It was thousands of citizen photographs that helped break this case, and it was a citizen who found the second bomber. Yes, that’s right – it wasn’t until the stupid lock-down was ended that a citizen found the second murderer.

In other news, Clark also points out that if it was dangerous enough to tell everyone to stay home, why are donut shop staff immune from harm? (Notably, I heard yesterday that Dunkin’ Donuts was providing free food to police. I hadn’t heard the police asked them to stay open, and it didn’t occur to me that this was happening despite the lockdown.)

OTOH, my theory was the lockdown was to prevent crowds forming that would be a tempting bombing target. That would allow for small numbers of people at Dunkin’. But it would also be nice if anyone other than me had stated this theory, such as the Boston PD.

The Bill of Nice Suggestions

So this tweet I wrote is the first one that went viral in a long time:

@jeffporten: “@AlyssaRosenberg: NBC says Tsarnaev was Mirandized by the FBI. Good.” // FBI’s way of saying, “Fuck you, Lindsay Graham.”

…at least until it was announced that Tsarnaev was not, in fact, Mirandized.

Land of the (somewhat) brave, home of the (sometimes) free.

Riffing some thoughts on Boston, Friday

1) So far today, I’ve seen two names and one license plate retracted. Think twice, then a third time, before tweeting any identifying information about suspects if you’re not warning friends in Boston.

2) Yes, decent people can commit horrendous criminal acts. SPECULATION: a sociopath can easily code-switch between acting decently and acting horrendously.

3) SPECULATION: if mental illness is part of this, many diseases that cause violent ideation start in late teens, early 20s.

4) SPECULATION: according to retweets of friends of the at-large suspect, the big brother (deceased) may have held sway over the younger. Cf. Jim Jones, Charlie Manson, and Scientology for indications of just how far this kind of thing can go.

5) I’m completely opposed to and appalled by many actions that we take that smack of police state activities, and our general acquiescence to same. That said: a suspect is on the loose in Boston and may be carrying explosives. He is also expecting imminent capture and may well choose to commit suicide rather than being taken alive. It is entirely prudent to prevent crowds gathering, and to take measures to make sure he can’t easily leave the city.

That said, it is also true that the more easily we shut down major cities, the more vectors for economic attack we provide future would-be criminals and copycats looking for their fifteen minutes. It is crucial that we discuss this is a calm and considered way as a society, and almost certain that we won’t in the near future.

Words Matter: How to Think About Boston

Most discussions about yesterday’s tragedy are subtly designed to make you more fearful. You should not be, and you should do your best to calm the people around you. What follows is an attempt to make this more simple.

Words matter. How you think and communicate about the horrible events in Boston yesterday will have a huge impact on your personal emotional well-being, and on those around you.

I spent a lot of time yesterday tweeting to high-profile people in my Twitter stream asking them not to use certain words in their tweets in the immediate aftermath of the explosions. It’s not that they were incorrect; it’s that there are nuances and common (usually incorrect) interpretations of these words that can inflame panicked reactions.

For example, take the word “terrorism.” There is an ongoing debate as to whether a “terrorist” act requires a political or ideological motivation. Under normal circumstances, this is an issue of semantics; what happened yesterday is scary as hell, and the word we choose to use simply doesn’t matter. But yesterday, it very much did.

Compare the words used and the immediate reactions to our two most recent high-profile tragedies. The word “terrorist” was instantly applied to Boston. But in Sandy Hook, the word was “shooting.” Boston caused the nation to fear additional attacks around the country. Sandy Hook was a tragedy that, for most of us, was emotionally impacting but did not make us concerned that we were in immediate danger ourselves. The words we use have a lot to do with these separate reactions.

I’m not saying that it was inappropriate for cities like New York and Washington to step up their security last night; in fact, that was entirely prudent. My concern is with mass panics, which can cause deaths and injuries in areas where there is no overt threat. If the entire tourist population of New York or Washington suddenly decides to get the hell out of town—assuming here that the locals will be less panicky, although that’s not always the case—that’s an environment where bad things can happen on crowded subway platforms. In cities where a large subsut of the population is carrying a concealed weapon, hypervigilance can also lead to tragedies. It’s vitally important to keep people calm.

Someday, we may very well face a situation when people are in immediate physical danger. We will want these people to have the same reaction people had in Boston, London, and New York City during their tragedies, an immediate sense of “how can I help” instead of “get the hell out of my way, I’m looking out for myself.” For everywhere but Boston yesterday, our immediate reactions will create the psychological precedent that will dictate how we will react if we are in harm’s way in the future.

Terrorism and Hypercompetence

Likewise, there is a tendency to view terrorists as far more dangerous and competent than they actually are. We are generally, and unconsciously, trained to think of criminals as idiots; this is because many criminals are idiots. Mentally unbalanced criminals can get away with appalling crimes because it’s simply not difficult to shoot civilians with military-grade weapons; even then, we routinely catch criminals planning shootings because they make so many mistakes in the days leading up to the act. (I nearly wrote “attack,” which is yet another word that should be avoided.)

Immediately after word of the explosions hit the news and Twitter yesterday, pundits on the cable news networks were saying that “this was planned to maximize media coverage.” This buys into the worst aspect of the “war on terror” and the public perception of terrorism: turning anyone who plans terrorist acts into a member of a single, monolithic organization that has resources, planning capability, and a greater ability to harm us. This organization does not exist; even two groups who both call themselves al-Qaeda may not be able to use each other’s knowledge and resources.

In fact, any violent act in a major city where people are congregating will automatically maximize media coverage. Choose any day in Times Square or Disney World; any heavy travel period at a train station, airport, or bus depot; any parade or public event. News cameras are never more than a few miles away, and we all have videocameras in our pockets. Go where the people are, and you get media saturation as part of the deal.

Again, I’m not minimizing how scary it is to set off a bomb in the center of an American city. I am, however, suggesting that you don’t need to be a criminal mastermind to become a big story.

What Do We Know

My assessment of who did this follows. I have no idea why; in fact, I consider “why” to be completely irrelevant. These people are criminals, not terrorists. On Sunday, they had the right to have their views aired in public discourse and debate. Today, their political and ideological views are irrelevant and not worthy of consideration; their actions have removed them from membership of a civilization where they are worthy of being treated as intellectual equals. (However, they are still human, and as such, should be given the protections of our criminal system; this is not because they deserve such treatment, but because we are the kind of people who deserve to think of ourselves as decent.)

Note: what follows is, by necessity, bloodless and may sound very callous. That’s not my intent, but it’s important to use unemotional thinking when evaluating the capabilities of criminal violence.

According to news reports yesterday, the bombs went off at times when fewer people were nearby; an explosion at alternate times of the day would have increased casualties. This implies to me that the criminals were restrained either in when they could place the bombs, or in the technology they could use to time the explosions. Both indicate criminals who do not have access to either large groups of people to organize the event, and do not have access to better materials. A $10 watch is an excellent timer, with the right expertise; I doubt they had it.

The bombs that exploded were packed with nails and ball bearings; this is particularly frightening because it’s the first time such a device has been used on US soil. It does not mean that the criminals are related to Afghanistan or Iraq, where such devices are common. We are not living in the post-9/11 world; such devices have been around for centuries. But we are living in the post-Internet world, where information on how to build bombs like this is easy to find. (This is not a bad thing. This trains far more medical personnel to respond to violent actions than it trains potential criminals to build them.)

Two bombs exploded, and two unexploded bombs were found. Many people choose to think this is scarier because it implies more evil intent; personally, I think “evil intent” is maximized with the first bomb, and anything else they attempted to do can’t make it worse. What this does mean, however, is that the planners probably couldn’t exceed a 50% success rate in building the devices. It’s a damned shame that their success rate wasn’t 0%—it’s not like you can test your abilities by blowing up a bomb in advance to see if you got it right—but again, 50% means less than “competent.”

This is a scary time. Which means that we should all be aware that being scared leads to poor decisions. Unless new information changes my assessment, none of us, including Bostonians, are in any more danger today than we were on Sunday. Be alert and be careful, but above all, be wise.