On Google nudity

Ralf raises some interesting points about the nature of privacy while we all live under the satellites, but I’m actually not sure if I agree with his conclusions. I’ll propose a few hypotheticals to explore the premise, and I’ll preface by saying that I’m not talking about legality or morality — both of which have things to say about public nudity — but about our personal sense of privacy.

Ralf links to a woman who was caught sunbathing by the Google Earth Orbiting Gnomes, and points out that although the picture is fuzzy enough to avoid being salacious, you can still determine the woman’s address — and hence a name and identity. So while we don’t quite know what it’s like to see her naked (or rather, we know what it’s like for an extremely nearsighted person to see her naked), we know the fact that she likes airing herself out in flagrante, which in and of itself invades her privacy.

I can agree with this, simply because she’s doing this on her roof, and not her backyard. Unfortunately, her sense of privacy is limited to two dimensions; she was considering whether she’d be visible from the ground, and forgot to think about Low Earth Orbit. I think it’s safe to say that if she lived next door to a high-rise apartment with balconies, the roof would have had the same connotations as her backyard for her sunbathing plans.

So where, then, should we have an expectation of privacy? Inside our houses? Unfortunately, most of us are forced to live amongst technologies that allow strangers to gather information about our private domiciles; generally, these are called “windows”. The other day, I accidentally knocked down the blinds off my window and haven’t yet bothered to stand on a chair to put them back up; therefore, since then, I’ve been turning off my lights before walking around naked at night, thanks to a rudimentary understanding of light refraction.

Presumably, I have the right to walk around naked in my own home, the line being drawn at a certain gray area of what might be considered exhibitionism since I don’t have the blinds up. Doing the can-can naked in front of the window, even in the privacy of my own home, might cross a few lines since the window itself creates a non-private zone.

Which leads me to a story I heard at Penn this year, about two undergraduates who decided to have intimate relations standing up against a large window, with the lights on, at night. Said students were clearly visible to other students living in the high rise next door, many of whom owned digital cameras, and some of these pictures made their way onto the Internet. Lawsuits and much academic debate commenced, which to me largely obscured the obvious point, namely: if you’re gonna get yourself laid in full view of a thousand horny undergraduates, you’re a damn fool if you don’t expect them to watch. The sole difference between a high rise dorm room (with those lighting characteristics) and the middle of College Green is that you’re allowed to have sex there, whereas getting busy in the center of campus would probably inspire one of that thousand to throw a bucket of water on you.

This is one of the areas where I actually do see an inevitable end of certain forms of privacy, as personal video cameras become ubiquitous enough that they’ll be impossible to avoid. I’m predicting an outgrowth of pre-sexual revolution chastity for today’s prepubescents, since they’ll be coming of sexual age at a time when the taboo against starring in an amateur porn video will still be in force, but the risk that any sexual partner might decide to make and publish one will be extremely high. (This is also a risk for us grown-ups, but once sexual habits are established, they’re very difficult to change.) Ultimately, though, it seems inevitable that the taboo will fall away as it becomes so common; when the teenagers of 2040 commonly find out that their mother was a hit on YouTube in 2010, their reaction is likely to be, “What’s the big deal?”

Likewise, I can certainly see why that sunbather would feel that her privacy was invaded, and it’s a shame that she’ll have to curtail her hobbies accordingly. But we should expect to see a resumption of rooftop nudity, as soon as we collectively realize that there’s no particular reason to consider that private.

Amtrak mobit… er, moblogging

Writing from Amtrak on the way to Philly. We left after the usual 15-minute departure delay, during which time the board listed us as on-time, and I overheard one woman complained that she’d have to wait another hour because they told her this train had left. I went to the cafe and asked if I could sit there, since the last time I tried this I proceeded to debate with the Amtrak employees for 20 minutes over whether I was allowed to. (The answer, in hierarchical order of people I spoke to, was no, yes, no, yes, no.) This time, like every other time, the answer was, “Sure. Why’d you ask?”

As I took my seat at the table, I noticed two drops of water on the cushion and a premonition told me to take the other side. Around 10 minutes later during acceleration, a long stream of water poured out of the ceiling onto the spot where I’d have been sitting. I noticed that the opposite corner of the same ceiling panel was directly over me, deduced what might happen when we were braking, and moved to another table.

Mentioned this to the conductor. “Oh, yeah,” he says. “Happens every time it rains, all over the train. No way of knowing where it’s going to come down.”

Does the A in Amtrak stand for Aeroflot?

“On the implausibility of the explosives plot”

Perry Metzger wrote a fascinating post on Interesting-People about the difficulty of using liquid explosives — and pointing out that you’d also have to forbid many other substances to get that job done.

So, lets say you have your oxidizer mixture and now you are going to mix it with acetone. In a proper lab environment, that’s not going to be *too* awful — your risk of dying horribly is significant but you could probably keep the whole thing reasonably under control — you can use dry ice to cool a bath to -78C, say, and do the reaction really slowly by adding the last reactant dropwise with an addition funnel. If you’re mixing the stuff up in someone’s bathtub, like the guys who bombed the London subways a year ago did, you can take some reasonable precautions to make sure that your reaction doesn’t go wildly out of control, like using a lot of normal ice and being very, very, very careful and slow.

On an airplane? On an airplane, the whole thing is ridiculous. You have nothing to cool the mixture with. You have nothing to control your mixing with. You can’t take a day doing the work, either. You are probably locked in the tiny, shaking bathroom with very limited ventilation, and that isn’t going to bode well for you living long enough to get your explosives manufactured.

We’re stopping people from bringing on board wet things. What about dry things? Is baby powder safe? Well, perhaps it is if you check carefully that it is, in fact, baby powder. What if, though, it is mostly a container of potassium cyanide and a molar equivalent of a dry carboxylic acid? Just add water in the first class bathroom, and LOTS of hydrogen cyanide gas will evolve. If you’re particularly crazy, you could do things like impregnating material in your luggage with the needed components. Clearly, we can’t let anyone carry on containers of talc, and we have to keep them away from all aqueous liquids.

VCF is DOA for $170M

Report today in the Washington Post about another system in the Great Transfer Payment to Government Contractors War on Terror that completely failed to work–in this case, a new database for the FBI.

I’m on record as having zero sympathy for people who can’t build or can’t buy a database. On SAIC’s side, rule one of ethical consulting is, “It’s your job to tell your clients when their heads are firmly lodged in their nether reasons.” Or so I hear. None of my clients have ever exhibited such qualities. The fact that one of them said today that he reads my blog had no impact on this paragraph.

Once you’ve told your clients they’re wrong, it’s their prerogative to insist on staying wrong, at which point it’s perfectly fine to bill them out the wazoo, for work you know you’ll get paid double for when you redo it later. You just remind them as you go along, document the hell out of everything, and then be ready with Plan B when the time comes.

This is one of the big value-adds you bring to the table–their employees can’t tell their bosses they’re idiots, but you can. When managed well, your clients will even thank you for it, as you have now saved them a great deal of time, money, and heartache. If your customer is always right, then clearly you’ve got nothing to add to the conversation–so why the hell are you there in the first place? You’re not a consultant, you’re a parasite.

It seems to me that profiteering from national defense by knowingly building a broken system is dangerously close to treason–and wouldn’t it be interesting to see if we got more quality out of government spending if we defined it as such? Of course, that might send many rich white Republican donors to jail, so it would never happen. But I digress.

But incompetence, like the tango, takes two. I simply cannot fathom how the FBI, which at its heart is dedicated to information processing, can be managed by people so utterly devoid of understanding of database systems. Surely one of these people has a bright daughter-in-law with a rudimentary grasp of this sort of thing? A bright high-school student nephew? A dog who growls when he smells an idiot? Apparently not.

I think the Post buried the lede here, as is their wont when it comes to criticizing failure. Sure, you can blame the FBI as a whole for having the managerial experience of a gerbil, but check out the timeline for the guy at the top:

It was late 2003, and a contractor, Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), had spent months writing 730,000 lines of computer code for the Virtual Case File (VCF). It appeared to work beautifully. Until [Zalmai] Azmi, now the FBI’s technology chief, asked about the error rate. Software problem reports, or SPRs, numbered in the hundreds, Azmi recalled in an interview. The problems were multiplying as engineers continued to run tests. Scores of basic functions had yet to be analyzed. Within a few days, Azmi said, he warned FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III that the $170 million system was in serious trouble.

In March [2004], testifying before a House subcommittee, Mueller said that the FBI had experienced “a delay with the contractor” but that the problem had been “righted.” He said he expected that “the last piece of Virtual Case File would be in by this summer.”

In my book, when a top official charged with protecting the nation blatantly lies to Congress to cover his own ass, he deserves harsh and swift justice. A Presidential Medal of Freedom should do it.

The Next War: T-minus six months

So I was giving some thought the other day as to just how long it would be before we invaded another country. After all, the mainstream is now more in agreement with us that Iraq is a total fiasco; Bush’s approval ratings are floating consistently at 1 in 3; the war on terror is still a hot item, but seems less likely to promote overseas adventuring as it did the last two times.

Adding all of those factors up, I’m thinking February is probably when we’re going to start putting new enemies in the crosshairs. Maybe March.

Jeff, what the hell’s in your coffee? How can you think that? Americans are too tired of war to support another one.

Nah. You’re being too kind to Americans. Americans are tired of losing. Give them a spiffy new enemy to attack — and to conveniently push the bad news about Iraq off the front pages, as Iraq did to Afghanistan — and they’ll line right back up again with the flag-waving and “they can’t do that to us” rhetoric.

Who exactly do you have in mind here?

Iran, of course. We can’t go to North Korea — it’s too far and not central to our political spectrum, no matter what kind of weapons systems they might have. Besides, Pyongyang can completely pave over Seoul; I think that might be an effective secondary deterrent to trying anything.

Sure, but the Iranians can do the same to Israel.

At the cost of intensifying any conflict into something similar to World War III. Something like that would bring both the Europeans and the Coalition of Jew-Hating Nations on board in a big way. And once that happens, all hell breaks loose. Israel has nukes and would definitely use them if it felt it were a matter of national survival. We have nukes and we’ve said we’d use them if we felt like it.

You don’t think Bush wants to start World War III, do you?

No — but I wouldn’t put him past wanting to win World War III. Look at the thinking that went into the Iraq invasion; the goal there was to remake the Middle East in the neoconservative image. Now that the tactic has been proved wrong in their first choice of target, I think there’s interest in finding a new way to implement their overall and not-yet-discredited strategy (in their minds), by putting more nations in play.

What are you smoking? How can you think that Bush would still be thinking of attacking Iran, with everything that’s happened?

You need to read more Seymour Hersh. Frighteningly often, the sources he quotes are talking about operational plans for Iran, not just theoretical war-gaming.

You think the American people would stand for that?

The American people, so far, have stood for torture of the innocent, not caring much about civilian body counts, and any number of other atrocities in the name of protecting ourselves. Sure. I think the next war would go down smoothly with just a little bit of that Karl Rove lubrication.

What about Congress?

What about Congress? This is the main reason I’m thinking next February; last time we did this, it was in a similar time frame after midterm elections. Let’s review the three possibilities for early 2007:

1) Status quo of Republican control is maintained. GOP declares universal mandate of heaven while Democrats act like a eunuch who was somehow castrated thrice. Bush can do what he wants.

2) Split control of Congress. Democrats are still learning how to find their ass with both hands (and are already publicly squabbling over 2008); Bush can do what he wants while the Republican attack machine from the rest of Congress and the Fox media keep them on the defensive.

3) Democrats control Congress. Bush does what he wants, continues on his “to hell with Congress” path, goes to war on executive order, and dares Congress to attempt to stop his war legislatively. Any questions who’ll win that fight in the land of the free and the home of the fear-stricken?

But option 3 is fantasyland anyway. At best, it’ll be split, and what I’m expecting is that the Democrats will be rocked back on the defensive around September (possibly by anti-Iranian bellicosity), and Congress stays largely the same it is now.

We have far too much of our military tied up already; we’re stretched too thin to attack someone else.

You forget, we have nukes.

You have clearly gone insane.

Really? Let me remind you — how many other times in the past six years have we said, “Bush would never do that, that’s going too far, it’s unimaginable, the people wouldn’t stand for it”? Shall I make a list? Now ask yourself — do people really think that using nuclear weapons is an act of unmitigated evil, or just opening up the holiest can of American whoop-ass we’ve got?

Sure, a year or two later, when the world’s media are saturated with pictures of the Tehran Glass Fields, I’d expect to see universal repudiation of what he’d done. But that doesn’t stop him in the first place. It doesn’t prevent the army of apologists to allow it to occur — much as our originally being right about the end results in Iraq didn’t stop that from happening. And frankly, I’ve been let down too often by counting on Americans repudiating their government to think that much of anything will provoke them.

Man, that’s awfully cynical.

Okay, I’ll ask you three questions:

1) Why did George Bush invade Iraq, and how does he think he’s going to improve upon that situation in the two years he has left?

2) Do you believe the Bush administration is adverse to warfare to accomplish its goals? What political or mental process would internally dissuade the Bush administration from going to war if they made that decision?

3) If they did go forward with those plans, what political forces outside the administration would stop them?

So, yeah. I’m thinking March.

Vote Republican, or the terrorists have already won

I feel the need to write an addendum to my warm and friendly advice to the Democrats of a few days ago.

This one goes out to Nancy and Rahm. Have you heard of the New York Times? Perhaps you read it from time to time? Did you happen to see today’s edition, a story above the fold on page one, where Dick Cheney called the Democrats the party of al-Qaeda for having the temerity to nominate Lamont over Lieberman?

Does this get through to you, or does it bounce off the thick padding of poll results that you wrap around your skulls? He’s calling you traitors. He’s saying you’re providing aid and comfort to the enemy. He says you’re in league with London bombers and the 9/11 hijackers.

Are you waiting for them to actually run campaign ads with swastikas Photoshopped onto your sleeves? What rhetorical device will it take for you to understand that the gloves have long been off? For one side, at least.

Howard, at least, seems to sort of get it:

It’s right-wing propaganda. They are beginning to look ridiculous: A majority of Americans now believe that going to Iraq was the wrong thing to do. I think this shows how far out of touch the Republicans are.

But I’ll briefly channel the Dean of that alternate universe I mentioned, the one where the Democrats aren’t scared of their own shadow, and relay what he was quoted as saying in their New York Times today:

They are the party of fear and hatred. They have murdered and tortured the innocent and failed miserably at protecting us. Once again they regress to attacking as criminals anyone who would question the monarchy of King George II. It’s un-American and wrong, and the Democrats will continue to speak out against such heinous abuses of our political system.

“Beginning” to look ridiculous. Queensbury is alive and well.

Liquid explosives are overreactive

I suppose my reaction to this morning’s news conference on the arrests in London wasn’t entirely appropriate: repeated, explosive laughter. But how else does one respond to, “The lines will be long, expect massive delays, leave all your beverages and toothpaste behind. Oh, and enjoy your flight.” That last bit’s a quote.

It was also fascinating to listen to the rhetorical dancing as administration officials strove to say, without looking too foolish, “Unlike the guys we’ve been catching, the guys the Brits caught were actually dangerous. They were going to do something.”

So points to the British Empire for catching some genuine bad guys. Although it would be nice if their rhetoric weren’t quite up to overwrought American standards. A British official called the plot an act of “unimaginable mass murder”. Unless he has details I don’t (quite possible), we’re talking about a few planes blown out of the sky. That, unfortunately, is all too imaginable. If it were six planes, it might come close to the average civilian death toll in Iraq every two weeks.

The rest of my laughter was reserved for the all-too-predictable security theater that we’ll have to live through for a while. No liquids on planes, excepting baby food and medicine. Because as we all know, Gerber’s is blessed by Jesus and therefore can’t be used to hide anything nasty. Let’s all just acknowledge that someone in PR at DHS said, “I’ll be damned if some soccer mom is going to get on CNN, and claim that George Bush tried to starve her little Jimmy.”

And as for medicine… well, the whole point of this exercise is to keep liquid explosives off of planes, such as nitroglycerin. I can’t wait for someone to notice that nitroglycerin is medicine.

I will presume that you, like myself and nearly everyone else in the country except the stewards of DHS, once took ninth grade chemistry. If so, and you didn’t cut class that day, you know how to build a time-delayed chemical explosive. Take two precursors that explode when mixed, separate them with a neutral barrier for which at least one chemical is corrosive, and then wait until it’s eaten through. Should you wish to be sneaky, you can then package that in a suitably innocuous container, such as a hollowed out New Testament, large print King James edition. But that last step shouldn’t be necessary, since liquids are still allowed in checked baggage.

Point being that this is one of those weapons which, like nuclear weapons, we’re just vulnerable to and that’s all there is to it. The best defense is what they did in London: catching the bastards before they could do anything. The rigmarole that we’re currently going through at our airports will only catch that subset of miscreants who are smart enough to put the plan in motion, but stupid enough to not thwart a preflight screening.

More importantly, the rigmarole is designed to inconvenience American passengers just enough to reassure them that the government is doing something. You’d want to take the Heathrow approach — banning all carry-ons entirely — to really ensure that no one was bringing an explosive onboard. On the bright side, though, I guess it is nice to know that the alert system has a purpose when it’s not a presidential election year.

So let’s say you’re a hypothetical terrorist with a liquid explosive, somewhere on the US Eastern seaboard, and all of your compadres just got popped in London. Presumably you’re now in a “use it or lose it” situation, unless you’d rather be in a “run like hell” situation. Your options?

You could still board your plane. If I remember correctly, there are a number of methods by which you can take certain liquids and turn them into nefarious “solid” objects. Granted, though, that if you do that with nitroglycerin you make dynamite, which presumably even the TSA knows how to look for.

You could board your plane and check your explosive liquids as baggage. Of course, this would require that ninth grade chemistry knowledge, and it appears that the plans of the London crew were to mix up their chemicals aboard the plane. So those immediate plans would be thwarted — but again, it’s not hard to build that time delay chemical fuse. Biggest downside here for the enterprising terrorist is that the position of your explosive in relation to the fuel tanks and the fuselage is now, er, up in the air.

Or you could have listened to the same broadcast that I did this morning, which essentially said, “We’re going to go on double-secret probation red alert for all of our airports and planes. Trains? Business as usual.” And indeed, I’m writing this from Union Station in DC, which, aside from the usual rent-a-cops giving me the hairy eyeball, and the usual experience that every frickin’ train I want to board is delayed, is not under any kind of a lockdown. About the only difference I can see is that the trains are running more crowded since, surprisingly, lots of people don’t want to fly today. In the back of my mind, I can see Zacarias Moussouai and Michael Chertoff yelling at each other, “Wabbit season! Duck season! Wabbit season! Duck season! Amtrak season! Amtrak season!?”

If today were truly about protection, I’d hope there wouldn’t be this sort of half-assed approach.

Bottom line, I’m gratified by the nabbing of the bad guys (and I presume that there are dozens of Americans who can quietly take part of the credit here), but sick and tired of the motions we go through. Every grandmother on a puddle-jumper from Keokuk to Podunk today is being forced to throw out her Ensure in the name of terrorism. We go through the kabuki motions to keep ourselves safe — when in reality, these explosives are just too easy to make and too hard to detect to ever be safe from them. You’d think we’d have learned that in 1995.

Protection comes from, hopefully, further reducing the number of people who are willing to do this, from the already-tiny number it’s at now, and just maybe adopting a fatalist attitude. If today’s terrorists had not been caught, five or six planes would have been attacked, with the death of thousands. That’s important to prevent. But even on that day, 20,000 planes would have arrived safely, and millions would have been unaffected. Every one of those millions, today, are being affected, and are being told that they, personally, are in danger from terrorism. And isn’t that exactly what the purpose of terrorism is?

ID theft online seminar

I’ve been attending the EDUCAUSE seminars off and on for a few months, ever since Clifford Lynch tipped me off about them. Most of them are academic in nature, but I thought this one might be of interest to a general audience. Registration is free, space is limited.

Fight Back Against Identity Theft, 8/16, 1pm EDT

There’s no surefire way to protect yourself from identity theft, but there are steps you can take to minimize the risk of becoming a victim. That is the message of a nationwide education program recently launched by the Federal Trade Commission: “AvoID Theft: Deter, Detect, Defend.”

Deter: Take steps to reduce your risk of ID theft

Detect: Monitor your personal information

Defend: Act quickly when you suspect identity theft

Nat Wood will discuss these steps and how you can make presentations to your community about identity theft using the FTC’s ID Theft Consumer Education Kit. The kit includes a how-to guide for talking about identity theft, an easily reproduced pamphlet, a PowerPoint presentation, and a 10-minute video with tips from the FTC. To see the kit, go to http://www.ftc.gov/idtheft.

The Annotated How People Find Me

My favorite search terms for June and July, with Google ranks and my commentary:

  1. bush’s body double (1/19,800,000)

    Not that I’m auditioning or anything.

  2. slots stupid people (1/5,020,000)

    Found another one last weekend — a machine that saved up spins that had to win, and all you have to do is hit the big green button. Someone walked away with four spins sitting on their machine. Free money.

  3. zippo wick wont catch (1/515)

    Try more lighter fluid, or if you’re not getting a spark, you need another flint.

  4. osamabinladen@hotmail.com (1/16)
  5. how to protect ourselves from drought (2/766,000)

    Raindancing? Or call Leap of Faith.

  6. john williams is god (3/22,900,000)
  7. conserve gravity (4/894,000)

    Really, if you’re interested, just go to the source.

  8. sitting near the bathroom on the plane (6/1,310,000)

    Sorry, can’t help you. Don’t think I want to.

  9. is powerplay for powerball a good bet? (6/740)
    powerball should i powerplay? (39/218,000)

    Yes. You bet two dollars, you win between two and five dollars. If you can’t understand this, you should never place another bet so long as you live. Unless you play poker. Play poker all you like.

  10. bull tarleton kappa alpha society (6/256)

    Oddly enough, the first five reference neither Bull nor Kappa Alpha.

  11. signs of the coming apocalypse (14/1,410,000)

    Ooooh, if I make it into the top four, do I get to be a horseman?

  12. call center hell verizon wireless (15/473,000)

    Only half a million hits? Surprising.

  13. $2 bet on craps atlantic city nj? (17/56,000)

    Sorry, not since the Atlantis closed.

  14. sleep is for the weak (27/17,200,000)
  15. i need to hack mac administrative password (28/1,270,000)

    Boot off your DVD, choose “reset password”.

  16. which greyhound stations use metal detectors (31/89,400)

    Hey, I’m all for privacy… but why do you want to know?

  17. hoverboards that actually work (38/12,600)

    Hey, if anyone wants to send me one as a demo….

  18. Hermann Goering (not in top 100, thank God)
  19. joan collins (not in top 100)
  20. men are so stupid (not in top 100)

And drumroll please for my “jeff is an idiot” rank: 5/6,530,000.

Harsh NJ anti-smoking laws

Sign spotted on the men’s room at the Tropicana casino in Atlantic City, where NJ state law has outlawed smoking anywhere but on the casino floor:

“No Smoking Permitted: Violators will be subject to fine and/or termination.”

I presume the latter clause is referring to employees. If not, sheesh, smoking really is hazardous to your health.