Not the Norks

In response to threats apparently coming from hackers in North Korea, Sony pictures has withdrawn their movie The Interview from a Christmas release. Several major theater chains had already backed out, and Sony seems to have given in, possibly after being weakened by the earlier release of hacked proprietary data.

I’ve already made it pretty clear in a different context that I’m not impressed with anonymous online threats. However, if Sony has decided to take a hit to their revenue over this movie, my suggestion is that they give the North Koreans a taste of the Streisand effect and release the movie for free online to everyone, thus making it one of the most widely-seen movies of the year. That will teach the North Korean thugs a lesson.


I’m not buying it. I don’t think the Sony hack is a North Korean cyberwar effort, and I don’t think the threats are either. I’m inclined to agree with Marc Rogers that it’s a disgruntled Sony insider.

3. It’s clear from the hard-coded paths and passwords in the malware that whoever wrote it had extensive knowledge of Sony’s internal architecture and access to key passwords. While it’s plausible that an attacker could have built up this knowledge over time and then used it to make the malware, Occam’s razor suggests the simpler explanation of an insider. It also fits with the pure revenge tact that this started out as. […]

6. Whoever is doing this is VERY net and social media savvy. That, and the sophistication of the operation, do not match with the profile of DPRK up until now. […]

7. Finally, blaming North Korea is the easy way out for a number of folks, including the security vendors and Sony management who are under the microscope for this. […]

8. It probably also suits a number of political agendas to have something that justifies sabre-rattling at North Korea, which is why I’m not that surprised to see politicians starting to point their fingers at the DPRK also.

Somewhere, I saw that a North Korean defector was claiming the country has a cyberwar team with 1800 people. Maybe. But the North Korean government has a habit of telling lies that make them look good. This could just be someone trying to look important.

Then again, from what we know about the hack, Sony didn’t exactly have a robust security culture, so I don’t suppose it took a huge team to run the attack.

Anyway, for whatever it’s worth, my prediction is that the attacks and threats will turn out to be from somewhere a lot closer to home.

(By the way, apropos of nothing, but because I looked it up, with $66 billion in annual revenue, Sony corporation contributes about 1.5 times as much to world GDP as all of North Korea.)

Some Tortured Thoughts

Well, the CIA torture report is out. And for the record, it’s pretty depressing that I now live in the kind of country that has a torture report.

I’d heard about some of this stuff before, but some of the details are shocking. The rectal feeding, for example, is not a normal medical procedure, and using that route to get nutrition into the body is inefficient. It seems to have been done solely to humiliate and dominate the victims. So “rectal feeding” is something of a euphemism, something of an excuse. There’s a more accurate word to describe the act of penetrating a person’s anus without their consent: Rape.

It’s dismaying that one of the most hotly contested topics during he whole torture era has been, “Does torture work?” I mean, it’s torture for God’s sake! When Zero Dark Thirty came out, depicting American CIA officers using torture, our reaction should have been outrage at the CIA. Instead, critics argued that filmmakers had been swayed by the CIA into depicting the torture as having been useful in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. It’s a bit like arguing whether American slavery contributed to GDP growth. It kind of misses the point.

But I understand. If torture works, if it really saves lives, then those of us who are morally opposed to using it are arguably saying those lives should be sacrificed to satisfy our moral intuitions. It’s a lot to ask.

Fortunately, there’s not much conflict, because torture mostly doesn’t work. I say “mostly,” because I think that torture can produce useful information when interrogators are trying to extract a specific piece of actionable information that they can check on, such as “Where is your weapons cache in this town?” or “Where are you supposed to meet with the others?”

That sort of specificity is what leads every torture proponent to confront opponents with that staple scenario from TV movie plots, the ticking time bomb: “What if a terrorist had planted a nuclear bomb in New York City? Are you saying you still wouldn’t torture him?” My response to that is that yes, I would be willing to make an exception for nuclear terrorism. In the unlikely event that anything like this ever happens, sure, go ahead and torture him to find out how to disarm it. But first, according to summaries of the report, we’ve tortured 39 people in the war on terror. Now show me 39 bombs or shut the fuck up.

The thing is, that torture scenario isn’t very common, and as soon as the prisoner’s confederates discover he’s been captured, they’ll begin changing the rally points and moving the weapons dump. So there’s only a short period of time where torturing information from someone could do any good. Even then, there’s little historical evidence that torture will produce more information or produce it faster than conventional interrogation techniques.

Historically, torture has really only proven useful for getting people to confess and to name other conspirators. And as the long history of torture demonstrates, torture victims will do both of those things without regard for the truth. Torture someone until they confess to a crime, and they will confess to any crime. Torture people until they name co-conspirators, and they will name anyone a co-conspirator.

Torture apologists say that a lot of useful intelligence has been obtained that way, but they can’t tell us about it because of the need for secrecy. Yet whenever the details come out about some situation where torture supposedly produced useful intelligence, it always seems to turn out that torture didn’t really help. I can’t see why anyone should ever take these people at their word — not without rock solid evidence. Show us the proof or shut the fuck up.

Ideally, what I’d like to see come out of the torture is indictments. Start with the people who actually did the torturing. Normally, unlike conventional thinking on the issue, I feel that “just following orders” is actually a pretty good defense. In all but the most egregious scenarios, it’s unfair to expect every low-level grunt to perform the legal analysis necessary to determine if their orders are legal. It’s their commander’s job to make that determination, and the troops have a right to expect that it will be done correctly.

However, the CIA is a civilian agency, so it’s agents don’t have orders, not the way the military does. CIA operatives just have stuff their boss told them to do. If my boss told me to torture someone, I would tell him to get stuffed, and I don’t see any reason CIA employees couldn’t do the same if they wanted to. So I say indict them, get them to flip on the people who gave the orders, and then follow up the organizational tree as far as it goes.

Given that even the Democrats — especially the Obama administration — have been unwilling to investigate and prosecute the Bush-era torturers, I don’t hold out a lot of hope that anyone will go to jail. (Except for whistle blowers, of course.) I suspect the best we can hope to get out of this is the truth: Name those responsible for torture, and tell us what they did.

We might as well start with James Elmer Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen, the pair of psychologists that somehow managed to make a fortune by running the interrogation program. We need to make an example of these guys. It’s bad enough that we have a military-industrial complex and a prison-industrial complex. If we don’t stop the torture-industrial complex, we’re probably doomed.

My Photography Day Bag

Original photography has been a part of this blog for almost ten years. If you’ve met me in real life, then probably at some point you’ve seem me carrying around my camera bag. I thought some of my readers — especially other amateur photographers interested in the kind of photos I take — might find it interesting to see what I’ve been carrying around all that time.

My camera day kit, all packed into a Tamrac Velocity 8 bag, with filter case and optional extra lens case.
Camera Day Kit

The bag itself is a Tamrac Velocity 8 sling bag. I like it because I can throw it over my shoulder for easy carrying, but when I need to get something out of it, I can swing it around to the front and it hangs with the top up for easy access. I tried a few other solutions, but this was the one that has worked best for me, and I’ve been happy with it for years. It’s out of production now, but Tamrac appears to have replaced it with an updated model.

The bag has side mounting straps for accessories, and you can see a small filter bag mounted on the right. I also sometimes bring a spare lens bag, shown separately on the left here.

Inside the main bag, the one indispensable part of my day kit sits right on top:

My Nikon D200 at the top of my Tamrac Velocity 8 bag.
D200 At the Top

That’s a Nikon D200 DSLR. It has a DX-size imaging sensor, which is about the size of a small postage stamp. It’s about 1/3 smaller than the FX-sized sensor, which is the size of a traditional frame of 35-mm film, but it’s several times larger than the sensor in the compact point-and-shoot camera I upgraded from, and much larger than the sensor in my iPhone. The sensor is 10 megapixels, which isn’t much by today’s standards — compact cameras have 12 to 20 MP, and the new iPhones are 8MP — but it was pretty good at the time, and the larger pixels allow each photosite to collect more light, which makes the sensor more sensitive than a compact camera and better able to take photos in low light. Also, for the kinds of shooting I do, 10 MP is more than enough.

The D200 was what’s sometimes called a “prosumer” camera — filling the gap between the entry-level DSLR cameras and the high-end professional gear. Generally speaking, the more professional cameras don’t produce better pictures, but they allow photographers to get good pictures in a broader range of conditions. Among other things, they operate more quickly allowing photographers to time photos better, and since everything that moves under electric power involves magnets, faster cameras have bigger magnets, mostly in motors, meaning professional cameras are heavier. They’re also more durable, with weather sealing and hard metal cases, adding to the weight. The D200 was not Nikon’s largest camera, but it’s pretty hefty.

My Nikon D200 camera with AF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED DX lens.
Nikon D200 Back View

You might think all those buttons would be intimidating, but they’re just another way to speed up photography. Most of them don’t do anything you can’t do with all but the cheapest cameras, but when I want to change a setting, I just push a button and turn a dial instead of hunting through several layers of menus. Not that the D200 doesn’t have a lot of menus for customization. If a photographer knows he’s going to be shooting one kind of photo for a while, he can set the camera up to make it easier and faster.

My Nikon D200 camera with AF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED DX lens, Op/Tech Pro neck strap and Tamrac wrist strap.
Nikon D200 Front View

Although DSLR cameras allow you to swap lenses, I took almost all of my photos with the lens you see here, Nikon’s AF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED VR lens. It’s not a high-quality pro lens, but it sure has a versatile focal length — it’s a “street zoom,” intended for unplanned photography where you might take wide shots and telephoto shots one after another, and it would be inconvenient to change lenses. It does occasionally creep the focal length in and out from the weight of the elements when I tilt it far off the horizontal. Nevertheless, I’ve really put it to work, and if you want a great all-in-one lens for DX format, I highly recommend it. I’ve heard that the modern version is just as good, and it fixes the lens creep problem.

This photo also shows my Op/Tech Pro neck strap and a separate Tamrac hand strap. I’m paranoid about fumbling the camera. It’s tough, but a 4- or 5-foot drop onto concrete would probably break it.

Nikon EN-EL3e batteries and Calument replacement.
Camera Batteries

All those big motors and fancy electronics use a lot of power, so I keep several recently charged Nikon EN-EL3 batteries in the bag. I see one of these is actually a knock-off battery from the late great ill-fated Calumet Photographic. They were located in Chicago, and I live a few miles from their Cherry Avenue store.

Lexar 2 GB Compact Flash Cards
Memory Cards

I also carry a pack of memory cards, in addition to the one that’s always in the camera. At the time, professional photographers overwhelmingly used the Compact Flash format cards, which are rather large. I didn’t think to put something in there for scale, but to give you an idea, the folded-up case is just a little smaller than an iPhone 4.

These cards are made by Lexar, which at the time was considered one of the few brands reliable enough for professional photographers. Note that each card was a whopping 2 Gigabytes. Shooting high quality JPEGs, I could put about 425 images on each one, and I have on occasion filled all of them (burning through several batteries in the process). Cards that small are dirt cheap these days, but you don’t want to know how much I paid back then.

Nikon SB-800 speedlight with diffuser.
Nikon SB-800 Flash

Next to the camera and lens, the most important item in my kit is the external flash, a Nikon SB-800 speedlight. I almost never use the camera’s built-in flash. It’s comparatively weak, and since it’s located so close to the lens it tends to flatten images and when shooting people it exacerbates red eye. Having the flash head a little higher seems to help. The head also tilts and swivels, allowing me to bounce light off parts of the room to light the subject broadly from an angle that makes the 3D shape stand out more in a 2D image.

Like all of Nikon’s modern flash units, the SB-800 participates in the Creative Lighting System, which means that the units can be controlled remotely by other flash units, including the built-in flash on Nikon cameras. When configured correctly, they participate in Through-The-Lens metering and can be programmed to provide different levels of exposure in the image. I have a few more of these speedlights that I can bring along in a separate bag if I need to.

The flash is pictured here with its built-in bounce card extended. The bounce card is handy when I’m photographing a person and I’m bouncing the light off the ceiling. It catches some of the light right at the flash head and throws it directly at the subject, giving their eyes a bit of a sparkle.

Also in the picture is the diffusion dome, which can be used to scatter light around the room, so the subject picks up natural looking light from all directions.

Firing Nikon SB-800 speedlight with base and extra batteries.
Flash With Base and Batteries

The flash uses a lot of power, so I always carry emergency batteries that will allow me to keep shooting if I use up the batteries inside. Although these are Alkaline batteries, I normally operate the flash on rechargeable batteries to keep costs down. I use Alkaline batteries as spares, however, because the rechargeable battery chemistry of the day did not allow for batteries that could keep their charge for months of sitting in a camera bag.

The bulge on the left is an attachment to hold a fifth battery, which makes the speedlight capacitor charge faster between flashes, at the expense of bulk and weight. I can’t help noticing, however, that the number of batteries I’ve been carry around lately is not a multiple of 5.

I also carry a stand for the flash in case I want to set it up somewhere and trigger it remotely from the camera. I almost never do that with this unit, although I do sometime use additional standing flash units to add more light.

Firing Nikon SB-800 speedlight with base and mini softbox.
Flash With Mini Softbox

I also carry a folding miniature LumiQuest soft box to soften the harsh shadows caused by direct flash. It greatly reduces the distance at which the flash is effective, so I only use it in special cases.

Cable for Off-Camera Flash

I carry around this cable so I can take the flash off the hot shoe on the camera. I mostly use it with the flash bracket (coming next), but I can also use it to hand-hold the flash further away from the camera.

Really Right Stuff flash bracket, orbiting tilt mount and nodal slide rail.
Flash Bracket Assembly

Here are the parts of the flash bracket assembly, consisting of the round flash bracket itself, the orbiting tilt mount used to hold the flash, and the nodal slide rail used to mount the bracket to the camera. Disassembled like this, the bracket ring fits in the side pocket of the bag, and the other two parts fit into one of the internal compartments.

Upside down Nikon D200 to show attached Really Right Stuff L-plate.
L-Plate On D200

That photo shows the L-bracket I keep permanently attached to the bottom of my camera. I can use it to quickly mount the camera in my tripod, but most of the time it serves as a place to attach the flash bracket, as seen in the next shot.

Nikon D200 with Really Right Stuff flash bracket assembly in landscape orientation.
Bracket In Landscape Position

Here’s the complete flash bracket attached to the camera and ready for shooting. At the very least, it raises the flash up a bit more, which reduces red eye and throws the subject’s shadow further down behind them, where it’s less visible. But it also allows me to rotate the camera to portrait orientation while still keeping the flash above the camera:

Nikon D200 with Really Right Stuff flash bracket assembly in portrait orientation.
Bracket In Portrait Position

This bracket is especially helpful when I want to bounce the flash off the ceiling, because it allows me to quickly rotate the camera between landscape and portrait orientation while keeping the flash head aimed in the right direction.

Sigma 10-20 mm D f/4-5.6 DC HSM fisheye lens with hood.
Fisheye Lens

As I said, I rarely switch lenses, but I do sometimes clip on my extra lens bag to carry this trick lens that allows me to take super-wide-angle pictures. Because of that, I wasn’t too concerned with the quality of the image — it’s necessarily distorted by the nature of fisheye lenses — so I saved myself a bunch of money and bought this Sigma 10-20 mm D f/4-5.6 instead of a more expensive Nikon lens. It’s worked out just fine.

Nikon AF 35mm f/2 D and AF 50mm f/1.4 D lenses.
Cheap Fast Primes

If I’m bringing the extra lens bag (the weight hanging off the side throws off the balance of the bag more than you’d think, or I’d carry it all the time) I usually also throw in one of my two cheap fast prime lenses. These only have a single focal length — they don’t zoom — but they have a larger aperture so the can work in much less light without a flash. Usually I take the 35mm f/2 D, which has a very natural look with a DX sensor, but the 50mm f/1.4 D is also nice.

I bought these lenses new, but they’re based on a design that is almost 25 years old, so they might not produce quite the high-quality images a modern lens does. They are both, however, awesome for the price. The pro-glass Nikon 35mm f/1.4 G prime is $1600, which is more than twice what I paid to get both of these lenses.

Hoya 77mm polarizing, graduated, and neutral density filters.
Filters and Case

Inside the external filter pack I have three filters. I don’t carry color adjustment or special effects filters, because in most cases I could do the same thing in Photoshop or Lightroom. I carry filters for things that can’t be done in post.

On the left is a polarizing filter. Light reflecting off of shiny surfaces is polarized, so by rotating this filter to match the polarization of the reflected light, I can reduce glare. That’s nice when shooting water or shiny metal objects, but even things you wouldn’t think of as shiny, such as leaves and flowers, often have a subtle amount of glare. Since glare generally doesn’t pick up the color of the surface it reflects from, it tends to wash out colors in images. A polarizing filter puts it back, at the cost of absorbing some of the light, requiring more exposure. Polarization is not recorded by a camera sensor, so I’d have no way to remove it in post. It has to be done at the time the image is captured.

The standing filter is a neutral graduated filter, shading into darkness on the top end. I got it when I was shooting landscapes so I could keep the sky from washing out. It’s turned out to be a little weak, and if I do more of that kind of shooting, I’ll probably want to get one that darkens the upper half more. I could darken the sky in Photoshop, but if the sky is completely washed out, there’s no color information for Photoshop to recover, so I have to use a filter to keep the sky color.

The bottom filter is a neutral density filter, which simply reduces the amount of light getting in the lens for any given aperture. I got it because…well, to be honest, I don’t remember. I must have had an application. There must have been something I wanted to shoot in bright daylight with the aperture wide open for dramatic effect, and I wanted the exposure to be long enough to get some motion blur. Since this is all about camera operation, Photoshop can’t help, so I’d need this filter.

My main 18-200 lens has a 72mm filter ring, but I have an adapter so I can use 77mm filters, which is a standard size. You can see the adapter attached to the polarizing filter.

Mini Tripod with $1 bill for scale.
Mini Tripod

I also keep this mini-tripod in the case. It’s come in hand a few times when I wanted to take a steady shot (or a selfie) and didn’t have my main tripod.

Nikon ML-3 Remote Transmitter
Useless IR Camera Remote

This was an infrared remote that I got for use with the tripod, so I could easily include myself in group pictures or avoid touching the camera to trigger the shutter. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to work from more than a few feet from the camera, even indoors. It’s basically useless, and I shouldn’t have been carrying it around so long.

Folding Calibration Panel
Reflective Side of Panel

This is a dual-use item from PhotoVision that I use for shooting in natural light. On one side, it’s an exposure and white balance calibration target I can put into a scene when I want an accurate read of the light temperature. (Although I have my doubts that that’s really 18% grey in the center like it’s supposed to be.) On the other side, it’s a reflective panel that I can use to fill in shadows on sunlit scenes. I haven’t used it much lately.

Sensor Cleaner

This is for cleaning the DSLR sensor in the field. Just squeeze to get a gentle stream of air. It seemed like a good idea, but I never use it. For one thing, since my main lens is so versatile, I hardly ever swap lenses, so there’s little chance for dust to get in. Also, I rarely review images on a computer in the field, and the monitor on the back of the camera is too small for dust specs to show up unless I zoom in to look for them, so I don’t ever notice dust on the sensor until I get it back home. And at that point I can use a proper cleaning kit on the sensor.

USB Cable

The Compact Flash memory card format is so old that nothing else supports it. I use an adapter at home, but if I want to get images off the camera in the field, I have to use a USB cable connecting the camera to a PC.

That’s about it. About 90% of all the photos I’ve taken with this camera required nothing more than the gear in this bag.

If any of you have suggestions, or want to tell me about photographic gear you find useful enough to keep with you all the time, I’d love to hear about it.

Believing Victims

In the Washington Post, Zerlina Maxwell insists that, despite the way the UVA fraternity gang rape story seems to be falling apart, when it comes to accusations of rape:

In important ways, this is wrong. We should believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser says. Ultimately, the costs of wrongly disbelieving a survivor far outweigh the costs of calling someone a rapist.

Scott Greenfield (amoung others, one supposes) has already responded to some of Maxwell’s argument, and he had more about the UVA rape story in an earlier post. (Note that Maxwell’s article was edited to soften it a bit after some of the early responses.) I’d just like to add a few comments.

The accused would have a rough period. He might be suspended from his job; friends might defriend him on Facebook. In the case of Bill Cosby, we might have to stop watching his shows, consuming his books or buying tickets to his traveling stand-up routine. But false accusations are exceedingly rare, and errors can be undone by an investigation that clears the accused, especially if it is done quickly.

The earlier version of Maxwell’s article post seemed to imply that we should abandon the legal presumption of innocence. This more recent version leans more toward a discussion of the moral and procedural issues of campus rape investigations. Nevertheless, as people have been pointing out, we have a presumption of innocence for a reason.

Maxwell seems to be understating the consequences of a rape accusation, at least when the accused isn’t a celebrity or the archetypical rich frat boy of college rape stories. And although some colleges are bastions of progressiveness, I suspect most of them will share the foibles of the society they serve, meaning that a disproportionate number of accusations will be aimed at blacks, Hispanics, and low income students.

And Maxwell’s assumption that if the accusation is ruled false everyone will cheerfully accept the decision of the investigating body seems naive when the news is filled with stories of protests against grand jury decisions not to indict two cops accused of murdering unarmed black men. Grand juries have an even lower standard of proof than college investigations, yet regardless of how you feel about the case, it’s obvious Darren Wilson’s life will not be returning to normal.

In fact (despite various popular myths), the FBI reports that only 2-8 percent of rape allegations turn out to be false, a number that is smaller than the number (10 percent) who lie about car theft.

Yeah, but that’s now. That’s under the system that Zerlina Maxwell wants to change. (And I’m not saying that some change isn’t necessary.)

It comes down to contingent probability. Imagine you’re a woman walking home down a somewhat deserted street when a man you’ve never seen before pulls up next to you and offers to give you a ride. Do you get in? Only a small fraction of men would rape a woman just because she got in their car, so statistically you should be safe, right?

Of course not, because the small percentage of men who are violent rapists are always on the lookout for a chance to get a woman into a position where they can rape her, so they are much more likely than most men to offer to give a woman a ride. Consequently, the group all men has a small percentage of rapists, but because rapists are much more likely to try to get a woman into their car, the group all men who stop to offer a woman a ride has a much higher percentage of rapists. (Or their more common variant, creepers.)

Similarly, only a small percentage of women are likely to make false accusations of rape, and as long as investigators take rape investigation seriously, they won’t be able to make very many of them. But if institutions adopt an always-believe-the-victim methodology, it gives the kind of women who make false accusations a much greater incentive to do so: They will be able to cause a world of hurt for anyone they don’t like. So if we stop protecting the process against false accusations, we can expect to get a lot more of them.

Everything works this way. Most of us have never robbed a bank, but banks still have security to protect against the small percentage who try. Most of us have never tried to enter a stranger’s home at night, but we all lock our doors to protect against the few who do. And most of us would never make a false rape accusation, but it’s still wise to guard against the few who would. Bad actors make things hard for everyone.

Even if Jackie fabricated her account, U-Va. should have taken her word for it during the period while they endeavored to prove or disprove the accusation.

That seems incoherent. If  U-Va is trying to prove or disprove her accusation, how can they take her word for it? Could she mean that U-Va staff should have pretended to take her word for it while investigating behind the scenes?

That actually makes sense, in a way, if you think in terms of different roles people assume in responding to a rape accusation. If a friend tells you she’s been raped, your should help her and support her, which pretty much requires you to believe her. Same thing if you’re a crisis counselor or psychologist: You’re there to help, and accusing the victim of lying or attempting to cross-examine her and check her story is not going to help. If she does turn out to be lying, all that’s happened is that you’ve wasted your time with someone looking for attention.

On the other hand, if your role in responding to the rape accusation is to punish the alleged rapist, the consequences of believing a lie are more severe: You could end up harming an innocent person. Wouldn’t it be best to approach the situation carefully and investigate with an open mind? After all, the falsely accused are victims too. They deserve some belief as well.

Thinking About Lethal Force – Part 2

This is my second post in a series that explores how we can think about news stories about people using lethal force in an act of claimed self defense. Part 1 discussed the basics of what might or might not be self defense, and this part expands the discussion to cover witness reliability.

I want to emphasize again that my discussion is neither legal advice nor self defense instruction, because I’m not qualified to give either, so if you read any of this as a how-to guide, you’re making a serious mistake.


So far in my discussion of the ethics of lethal force, I’ve discussed the basic ethics of self defense and the importance of considering what the participants thought was going on. But unless we are involved in the incident ourselves, we have no direct knowledge of either of those things. We have to rely on what the participants and other witnesses tell us, and that can get tricky.

Human perception is unreliable. We may think we experience the world in continuous high-definition full-motion real-time 3D Technicolor with stereo sound, but decades of research into the physiological and neurological function of our senses tells us that the raw sensory inputs are filled with noise and gaps, and our brains pick bits here and there that seem important, and fill the gaps with plausible guesses (based on our genetics and past experience), presenting the result to our conscious minds so we can react. If we’re under a lot of stress, this process gets streamlined to make it even faster, sacrificing accuracy in favor of quick responses to the most likely threats. We can miss important observations, misidentify objects, confabulate details, and even get confused about the order of events.

This problem appeared in Part 1 as the problem of mistaken beliefs: If Alice is expecting Bob to draw a weapon, and Bob reaches into his pants pocket to withdraw a mobile phone, Alice’s brain may catch the first glimpse of something dark and shiny and her brain may take an urgent shortcut to “Gun!”

If she then shoots Bob, is it fair to say she was careless for shooting before identifying the weapon? Or was it an excusable mistake because she was up against the limits of her sensory system? Does it matter that she could have done more to train her brain to make better decisions? Does it matter if someone trained her incorrectly? Does it matter if she incorrectly believes that people of Bob’s race are more likely to pull a gun?

Whatever we believe about the legitimacy of Alice’s perceptions, the same issues arise again when considering her account of events because what she remembers depends on what she thinks she saw — garbage in, garbage out — so we have to take into consideration the errors in her perception.

Making things worse, not only are people fooled by their perception of reality, but their memory of their perceptions changes over time. Our brains process our memories the same way we process reality, making mistakes and filling in the gaps along the way. We also integrate information from other sources into our memories, believing things we heard from other people, even if they aren’t true: If Dave saw Bob pull out a mobile phone but Alice says she shot him because she saw him draw a gun, Dave may come to believe Alice’s version and remember seeing a gun too.

We try to create a consistent picture of the world, but sometimes that means we replace real memories with invented ones, instead of the other way around. Sometimes the more we think about an event we remember, the more we contaminate our memory with errors and lies.

Interlude: Standing Your Ground, Lying in Wait, and Looking For Trouble

George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin brought a lot of attention to the issue of standing your ground. This enters our analysis in the form of asking whether it’s a moral failure to use lethal force to end a life-threatening situation when the threat could have been averted by some other means. If Alice is sitting in her car, and Bob approaches on foot, wielding a knife and screaming “I’m going to kill you!”, can Alice simply drive away? And if she could, does that mean that shooting him instead is unnecessary and therefore wrong?

What if Alice is walking instead of driving, is she still obligated to try to run? What if she’s trapped in a dead-end alley and can’t run away? What if the alley has a gangway between buildings that she could escape through, but Alice doesn’t see it? How hard should she be required to look for an alternative before shooting?

The details can be confusing. What if Bob is wearing running shoes and Alice is wearing high heels? Is she still obligated to try to escape? If Bob does chase her, how close should she let him get before she stops running and starts shooting? Fifty feet? Ten feet? When he grabs her? Whenever she reasonably believes escape is impossible? Whatever distance her shooting instructor taught her?

What if Alice is in her own home? Is she required to flee her home if she can? If she’s trapped in a room, and the assailant is blocking the exit, is she obligated to try to get out the window? What if she’s on the second floor? What if she’s on the fourth floor? What if she can flee safely, but her child is still in the home somewhere? It’s hard to know where to draw the lines.

Another issue I thought was raised by the Zimmerman case (although it was rarely mentioned) is the problem of someone who’s looking for trouble.

Suppose Alice stops in a rough bar to have a drink, and when she pays, she flashes a large wad of cash in her purse. As she leaves the bar, Bob follows her out into the dark street, pulls a knife, and demands “Your money or your life!” Alice draws her gun and shoots him dead.

That sounds like a pretty clear case of shooting in self defense, but suppose we find out that Alice has been flashing cash in rough bars three times a week for the last six months? Suppose Alice was intentionally trying to draw someone like Bob into attacking her, thus creating a situation in which she would be justified in shooting and killing him?

On the one hand, Bob brought the problem on himself by committing a violent assault. On the other hand, Alice pretty clearly had a premeditated plan to kill someone, which is usually called murder. So while Bob is certainly not innocent, Alice is arguably not innocent either.

Another example might be if Bob breaks into Alice’s place of business after hours, intending to rob the safe, but it turns out Alice is still there, and she confronts Bob and kills him in self defense. If Alice was lying in wait in the store in hope of confronting and killing a burglar, she might not be as innocent as if she had been working late to balance the books.

Standing your ground, lying in wait, looking for trouble — these are murky issue where reasonable people will disagree. I think it ultimately comes down to a conflict of values between Alice’s right to protect herself and society’s preference for reducing violence. We want Alice to be able to shoot to defend her life, but we also want to discourage Alice from entering into situations, deliberately or not, where she is likely to have to do so.


Up until now, I’ve been discussing the natural difficulties that arise when trying to analyze the morality of a lethal force incident. But now it’s time to address an unnatural difficulty: In addition to the honest perceptual problems that can contaminate witness accounts, we also have to allow for the possibility that witnesses are deliberately lying to hide the truth. In our attempt to understand what happened, we may have opponents who want to fool us.

Until now, we were able to confine our analysis to the particulars of the incident — who was where, what they did, and why they did it — but when we have to consider the possibility that some of the witnesses are lying, it means we have to check their story and evaluate their credibility, and so our analysis becomes explosively complex, consuming everything in the world.

For every single witness, whether they were involved or not, we have to consider the possibility that their story is a lie. We need to check it for internal inconsistencies, and we need to check it against our mental model of how the world works.

If Alice says Bob broke in to her house by smashing the second story window into her bedroom, does that seem like something that really could have happened? Is climbing up to smash a second-story window a common way for attackers to enter a house? Is it a sensible way to enter this house? Or would some other point of entry have been simpler? Does it make sense that Bob could have climbed up there? If he’d need a ladder to make the climb, did police find a ladder somewhere nearby? Is there any way to rule out the possibility that Alice placed the ladder there after shooting Bob? Does the spray of smashed glass comport with Alice’s story of what happened?

We should also consider the motivations of the witnesses. People directly involved have the strongest motivation to lie because they could face punishment for crimes. Alice might shoot Bob in cold blood out of pure malice, and then try to keep herself out of jail (and civil court) by saying she had to defend herself against Bob’s attack. Alternatively, Bob might attack Alice and get shot by her in a legitimate act of self defense, only to try to stay out of jail by claiming from his hospital bed that she shot him without provocation.

We also have to consider how each witness’s story is supported or contradicted by the accounts of the other witnesses. If Alice says Bob broke in, but her neighbor Emily claims to have seen Alice let Bob in the front door, how do we decide whether to believe Alice or Emily? We could analyze each of their stories in detail and try to pick it apart. How did Emily happen to be looking at Alice’s house? Could she see it from where she says she was? How does she know it was Bob? How does she know it was Alice who let him in?

If Carl steps forward as a witness and claims Alice shot in self defense, it’s possible that he is lying for reasons of his own. Perhaps he backs Alice’s story out of a sense of loyalty, even though he saw nothing at all, or perhaps he saw her murder Bob, but he backs her story because he fears her retribution. Perhaps he just hated Bob and doesn’t want to see Alice punished for something he wanted to do himself.

Alternatively, maybe Dave steps forward and says he saw Alice murder Bob. It’s possible that Dave hates Alice and wants to make her life miserable. Or maybe he didn’t actually see anything, but he doesn’t believe Bob would have attacked Alice, so he feels justified in lying to ensure that Alice is punished for the unprovoked murder of Bob. Or maybe Bob was Dave’s best friend, and even though he knows Bob attacked Alice first, he’s still angry enough at Alice to want her to suffer. Or perhaps Bob and Dave both attacked Alice, and now that Alice has won the fight, Dave wishes to blame her for murder to deflect attention away from his own crimes and get vengeance for the death of his friend.

It’s not just the specifics of the incident that matter. It’s also quite reasonable to examine witness stories for peripheral details that turn out not to be true. If Fred says he saw the whole thing while driving home from work, but the location of the incident is not on his route home, then maybe he’s lying about seeing the incident as well. Or maybe the incident is on his route home, but we have reason to believe he was somewhere other than his job that day, so he wouldn’t have been on that route. If he’s lying about the little things, maybe it’s because he’s lying about the big things.

Looking even further afield in our attempt to evaluate the credibility of witness stories, it pays to investigate whether the alleged behavior of the participants in this incident is consistent with their past behavior. Has Bob ever attacked someone before? If Gloria reports being attacked by Bob, it tends to support Alice’s story. On the other hand, if Bob has no history of violence, we might ask whether it’s more likely that Bob did something uncharacteristically violent, or that Alice is making it up.

That in turn might lead us to look into Alice’s past, to see if she has a history of shooting people. We might also then investigate whether Alice has a history of telling lies. If Alice has previously made false accusations that Harold attacked her, it casts doubt on her story that Bob attacked her.

Of course, when we hear either of these stories about the past — Bob’s previous attack on Gloria, Alice’s previous lies about Harold — it opens up two more incidents to analyze. Did Bob really attack Gloria, or is Gloria lying? Did Alice really falsely accuse Harold of attacking her, or is Harold lying? If there are additional witnesses to those incidents, the investigation proceeds to analyze their credibility as well.

The pattern repeats as all kinds of things get pulled in. What kind of person is Bob? Was Bob coming home from church at the time of the incident? Or was he coming home from heavy drinking at a rough bar? Did he get in a fight at the bar? Did he start the fight? Is Bob prejudiced against people like Alice? Is Alice prejudiced against people like Bob? What are the prejudices of every single witness? Do Bob and Alice know each other? Were they coworkers? Did either of them hate the other? Was one of them stalking the other? Were they lovers? Former lovers? Who dumped who, and why?

All of the answers to all of these questions require evidence, and that evidence comes in the form of accounts from other witnesses, all of whom must also be evaluated for plausibility and truthfulness, because people may lie to help their friends and hurt their enemies, or for personal reasons. We have to keep asking, how do we know? And who says? And are they telling the truth?

So now it begins to matter that Alice’s story is backed by Ivan, but maybe Ivan is lying because Jeff thinks Ivan has a thing for Alice because he saw Ivan give her flowers, but Kate says she got flowers from Ivan too, so maybe Ivan just likes giving women flowers, and now Larry is telling us that Jeff is lying about Ivan’s attachment to Alice because he hates her, and, and, and…

We’ve gone from the simple case of Alice shooting Bob to the vagaries of whether Jeff is lying about why Ivan is giving flowers to women. It all seems like a distraction, but there’s also a point about the credibility of a key witness to a shooting, so we can’t ignore it, but we shouldn’t make too much of it either, and so maybe we should get a little more information…

Multiply that by ten, or a hundred, and you can see why discussions of these incidents go so far afield. This is why it may be important that Treyvon Martin had Skittles, or that Michael Brown stole some cigars. This is why it may be important that Brown was going to college, or that officer Wilson had worked for a troubled police department before transferring to Ferguson. These facts aren’t part of the shooting incident, but they may matter because they’re part of how we judge the truthfulness of witnesses.

That’s it for now. In the third and (I think) final chapter, I’ll talk about how we hear about all this, and how we respond to it.

Mother Jones’s Weak Math

Steve Marmel posts this infographic he apparently got from Mother Jones magazine that purports to show institutionalized racism in Ferguson, Missouri:

[Image reads: Institutional racism by the numbers. In 2013 in Ferguson: 483 black people were arrested, 36 white people were arrested, 92% of searches and 86% of car stops involved blacks.]

I wonder if either Marmel or MJ realize that these numbers don’t prove a thing about racism. They don’t even hint at racism. Not by themselves. Without knowing the racial makeup of Ferguson, we can’t tell if police stops, searches, and arrests of black people are disproportionately high or disproportionately low. If Ferguson is 93% black, then police are arresting white and black people equally as a proportion of the population.

Now as it turns out, according to 2010 census data, Ferguson is about 70% black and 30% white. (I’m leaving out the 3.3% of the population that identify as some other race, including mixed races.) This means that in 2013 Ferguson police arrested 0.6% of white residents and 3.4% of black residents, which means the relative risk of arrest for black people was about 5.8 times that for white people. The relative risk was about 5 times higher for being searched and about 2.6 times higher for having their car stopped.

Now that doesn’t prove that Ferguson police are racists — you’d have to rule out confounding factors such as age, you’d have to find out what fraction of the arrested are from out-of-town, and you’d have to figure out whether the arrests were justified by differential crime rates — but it does strongly suggest that something is going on that merits further investigation.

And it really wouldn’t have been hard to add that information to the infographic.

The Special Case of Darren Wilson

In response to my earlier post about the grand jury in the Michael Brown case, Jack Marshall posted a lengthy comment. Events have somewhat overtaken that post, but I wanted to address a few points Jack makes. (He wrote his comment before the grand jury decision came out.)

I don’t find the fact that a prosecutor could get an indictment probative of whether he should get one, not at all. The special prosecutor in Florida, for example, indicted Zimmerman with nothing that would support a conviction. That’s not serving justice.

Funny you should mention Zimmerman, because prosecutor Angela Corey only charged Zimmerman with a crime after caving in to public pressure to do so. Initially, prosecutors chose not to charge Zimmerman at all. If Bob McCulloch thought Darren Wilson’s shooting of Mike Brown was justified, there was no need to present anything to the grand jury.

If there were conflicting witnesses, it would be lousy practice to merely put on Johnson, about as biased a witness as one could find.

After Darren Wilson. But point taken.

The fact that there were six shots fired isn’t indicative of anything. Police are trained to fire until a subject is down.

I agree with Jack’s point about police tactics. Some time ago, police departments noticed there had been a number of incidents in which an officer fired a shot at an attacker which either missed completely or didn’t stop him quickly enough to prevent him from injuring or killing the officer. So modern police training tends to emphasize shooting until the attacker goes down.

This means that the number of shots fired is not necessarily indicative of maliciousness, anger, or race hatred. It’s just training. However, the number of shots is indicative of intent. One shot could be an accident. Six shots are on purpose.

Or to look at it another way, instead of a white cop shooting an unarmed black teen, imagine that it was just two white dudes from Missouri, Vern and Earl, who ran into each other on the streets one day. Somehow Vern ended up drawing his gun and shooting Earl to death, and it turns out Earl was unarmed, and some of the witnesses describe Vern shooting him in cold blood. In that case, don’t you think the prosecutor would make sure the grand jury heard that Vern shot Earl six times?

Why would a prosecutor want to indict a police officer if the evidence showed that he was in legitimate fear of his life and fired in self defense?

If that’s what the prosecutor thought the evidence showed, why would he present evidence to the grand jury at all?

Why would you assume that if the prosecutor is presenting the evidence fairly, he doesn’t want an indictment?

Because that’s not what prosecutors do when they want an indictment. The grand jury process isn’t “fair” in the same sense that a trial is, and it’s not intended to be. There’s no presumption of innocence, no way for the defense to contest the admission of evidence, no way to impeach a witness. It’s not even an adversarial process.

I will presume, until I see evidence to the contrary, that if the officer isn’t indicted, then there was not sufficient evidence to bring a legitimate indictment. Sure, prosecutors often get grand juries to indict on insufficient evidence. Are you really advocating that? Why? Because the protesters and civil rights groups want it to be a racist cop shooting an unarmed kid, rather than a scared cop shooting a charging thug with more than a 100 pounds on him who already tried to get his gun?

Jack is right that the process Darren Wilson went through is not inherently unjust. And going back to my hypothetical shooting in which Vern killed Earl, I think it’s entirely possible that citizen Vern would receive the same three months of investigation, and the same weighing of evidence, that Officer Wilson did.

The difference is that Vern would be indicted by the grand jury the first day (or just charged directly), and the rest of the process would take place while Vern sat in jail, unless he was able to make whatever really high bail the judge gave him. Also, some of the investigation would probably be done by the defense rather than the prosecutor, and if the prosecutor wasn’t convinced, Vern would have to go to trial or take a plea to a lesser crime.

To illustrate why Darren Wilson’s wonderful treatment by the prosecutor makes people angry, let’s change the hypothetical a bit: Let’s suppose it turns out that Vern is actually a second cousin to former President Bill Clinton. Then suppose the media begins finding witnesses who say that Earl had his hands up when Vern shot him. Now imagine that without interviewing some of those witnesses, and before the forensics are in, the chief of police makes statements of support for the Clinton relative and says he won’t be charged.

However, Earl’s family and friends drum up public criticism, so the county prosecutor — who has family members that work for the Clintons — announces that he will present the case to the grand jury. Unlike most presentations to a grand jury, in which a few witnesses are presented over a couple of days, this case drags on three months and includes 60 witnesses. Unlike most presentations to a grand jury, Vern testifies and tells his side of the story. Unlike most presentations to a grand jury, the prosecutor does not explicitly ask the grand jury for a particular criminal charge. And in the end, unlike most presentations to a grand jury, there’s no true bill, and Clinton’s cousin walks away a free man.

And so my question to Jack: Given your low opinion of Bill Clinton’s ethics, if you found out that a relative of his had been no-billed by a grand jury proceeding unlike any other, run by a prosecutor with close ties to the Clinton family, wouldn’t you be damned suspicious? Wouldn’t that set off your ethics alarms?

Now if you replace Vern with Darren Wilson, Earl with Mike Brown, and “Clinton family” with “police,” that suspicious scenario is pretty close to how the Ferguson grand jury decision feels to a lot of us: A killer with ties to a politically influential group benefited greatly from a one-of-a-kind grand jury proceeding.

Ultimately, the decision may in fact be the right one, but that kind of privilege and special treatment is astoundingly unfair.

(Caveat: I wrote my original post and parts of this one before the grand jury decision was released to the public. I haven’t read the full document release, nor do I plan to — I’ll wait for analysis from some of the web’s smart legal minds. It’s certainly possible that some of the issues I previously viewed as suspicious will turn out to have reasonable explanations once I catch up, but I maintain that I was right to be suspicious at the time.)

The Drunk Under the Street Lamp Meets Saddam Hussein

Ferguson is breaking my heart. I’m not talking about the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown. I pretty much expected that.

What’s breaking my heart is the magnitude of the destruction going on during the protests. I paid pretty close attention to the earlier batch of protests, right after Brown was shot, and there was sporadic property damage, some of it severe, but for the most part, the protesters were peaceful. It was neighborhood people out late, milling around, making noise, and occasionally blocking traffic. As a middle-aged white guy, I didn’t see much that would make me feel unsafe to be there.

None of that stopped the racist fuckwads who continued to paint the largely peaceful protesters as looters and and wild animals. And tonight, unfortunately, some of the protesters are doing everything they can to give the racists an “I told you so.”

This time around, the looters are out in force, and a lot of stuff seems to be burning. Just a brief Twitter scan finds mention of a Metro PCS phone store, a Beauty Town beauty supply store, and the outreach office of Alderman Antonio French. Also a New York Grill, a Little Ceasar’s, a Walgreens, a car dealership, an Enterprise car rental, several auto parts stores, a public storage facility, and a church van.

All burning away.

I am reminded of an old joke:

Late at night, a drunk was on his knees beneath a street-light, evidently looking for something. A passer-by, being a good Samaritan, offered to help. “What is it you have lost?” he asked.

”My watch,” replied the drunk. “It fell off when I tripped over the pavement.”

The passer-by joined in the search but after a quarter of an hour, there was still no sign of the watch.

“Where exactly did you trip?” asked the passer-by.

“About half a block up the street,” replied the drunk.

“Then why are you looking for your watch here if you lost it half a block up the street?”

The drunk said: “Because the light’s a lot better here. ”

What we’re seeing in Ferguson is the because-the-light’s-better-here version of sticking-it-to-the-man. The jerks setting fires are angry at the cops and the political institutions they protect, but they know that attacking the establishment is hard. Assaulting the cops and burning down the police station would be one hell of a statement, but the cops are armed and prepared for a fight. Attacking them would require skill and audacity and a willingness to risk getting arrested.

On the other hand, burning down private businesses is much easier. The vandals can tell themselves they’re fighting capitalist oppression or hitting the establishment in pocketbook or whatever, but the truth is that small shops and fast food joints are much softer targets. The light’s a lot better there.

The political leadership of Ferguson, on the other hand, remind me of a (possibly untrue) story I once heard about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from the first Gulf War. His forces had invaded Kuwait, and a few months later a coalition lead by the United States counterattacked into eastern Iraq. They moved with breathtaking speed and routed the Iraqi army. Saddam watched the defeat unfold from one of his bunkers, as the coalition forces advanced to a point where they had a clear path to capture Baghdad and Saddam himself.

Before that could happen, however, with Kuwait being freed from Iraqi control, the U.S. declared a unilateral cease-fire. Saddam’s reaction was supposedly a jubilant “We’ve won!” Although twenty thousand Iraqi soldiers had died in the battle, Saddam considered it a victory because he was still standing, and that’s what mattered most.

The police presence available to keep the peace in Ferguson consisted of hundreds of officers, perhaps as many as a thousand according to some sources. The Governor of Missouri declared a state of emergency and dispatched National Guard troops. And yet looters controlled the streets, and a dozen businesses burned out of control for hours. But all the cops are safe and the police station is intact, so I’m guessing they feel they’ve won. Because to the powers-that-be in Ferguson, their safety is what mattered most.

Ah, fuckit. I’m running out of steam here. Maybe it all won’t seem so bad when I wake up in the morning.

Update: Reading back over this, I should point out that even if every fire was started by a different person, which seems unlikely, that’s only a dozen or so arsonists among all those protesters.

I should also add that I’m not saying cops should have taken insane risks with their lives to stop the looting and support a fire suppression effort. On the other hand, police have been comparing themselves to soldiers and saying police work is a battlefield for years, and in response we’ve been equipping them with shields and body armor and armored vehicles. Well, last night the battle came to Ferguson. Did they use all that fine equipment the way we wanted them to?

Finally, as to the grand jury’s decision, a cop shooting an unarmed black man sounds damned suspicious, but these sorts of incidents are always very fact sensitive, and based on the bits and pieces I’ve heard, I can imagine ways in which the shooting of Mike Brown might have been justified. And that’s true for most of these cop-shoots-unarmed-person shootings: Any one of them might be justified. But they can’t all be justified. There are some cops getting away with some shit.

Awaiting the Grand Jury…

We keep hearing about police plans to respond to protests in Ferguson, Missouri if the grand jury investigating Officer Darren Wilson’s shooting of Michael Brown decides not to return an indictment.

On the other hand, if the grand jury decides to indict Wilson, there would be a warrant for his arrest, and that would mean there’s officially an accused murderer on the loose. And we know he’s got access to weapons, training, and an undisputed willingness to kill, right? So how come we haven’t heard anything about the plans to send SWAT teams to capture him?

Obviously, no one expects Darren Wilson to be indicted. The other clue is that it’s taking so long for the grand jury to announce a decision. If anyone in the prosecutor’s office really thought Wilson was a murderer, do you think they would have allowed him to remain on the streets for three months?

As Jeff Gamso points out, this is a slam-dunk indictment if the prosecutor wants it to be. If you or I had shot Michael Brown, the grand jury proceedings would have gone something like this:

  • Present witness Dorian Johnson, who was present at the shooting, and have him repeat his statements to the media describing how Darren Wilson shot an unarmed Michael Brown in cold blood.
  • Present the medical finding that Brown was shot six times and that he died from the shots.

I’m no lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that’s enough for a murder indictment. There’s no need for cross examination or hearing from the other side. Grand juries proceedings are not a trial, they are the threshold over which an accusation must pass to get to a trial, and it’s a very low threshold. The grand jury just has to think it deserves a trial.

Of course, for them to do that, the prosecutor would have to want them to.

Fast Internet is Not a Free Market

Last week in an opinion piece for Time, Nick Gillespie smacked around Obama’s plan to sneak net neutrality in the back door by having the FCC reclassify internet service providers, essentially regulating them as public utilities. In addition to questioning the tactic, he also slams net neutrality for the usual reasons, which essentially boil down to this:

If you think cable companies and internet service providers (ISPs) absolutely suck at customer service (and they pretty much do), they’re simply faint echoes of the old Bell system, which set the standard for awfulness. … Public utilities and government-granted monopolies — the only sort that actually stick around for very long — are rarely famous for their customer service and innovative practices. … As bad as Comcast or Verizon might be, things can always get worse — and likely will if federal regulators gain more control.

Gillespie goes on to argue that if internet service providers want to provide different levels of service to different sources of content, that may turn out to be a good idea, and in any case, experimentation and customization are usually good things for consumers.

The most likely outcome is that regulators will freeze in place today’s business models, thereby slowing innovation and change. […] That’s never a good idea, especially in an area where new ways of bundling and delivering content are constantly being tried.

I think he’s right about all of that, but unfortunately his argument begins to go off the rails when he discusses the current market structure of internet service providers:

It’s a historical accident that cable companies, who back in the day benefited from monopoly contracts with local governments, have morphed into ISPs.

No, it’s not an accident. The cable companies may have cut monopoly deals with local governments, but their monopoly was never just about providing television programming; it was about controlling the right-of-way to run wires over that last mile from the local point-of-presence to individual businesses and households.

It is true that nobody back then knew we would have something quite like our modern internet, but the technology for using those cables to transmit digital data was already being manufactured. In the 1980’s, I helped install a Zenith Data Systems network that used 6MHz channels flowing over ordinary television broadband cables to transmit data between computers. The concept was to be the middle ground between the small high-speed Local Area Networks (LAN) that were sprouting up in business buildings and the sprawling Wide Area Networks (WAN) that linked businesses across the country using relatively low-speed leased telephone lines. Called the Metropolitan Area Network (MAN), it would allow businesses and residents within a city-sized area to communicate with each other at near-LAN speeds for reasonable costs.

The MANs never really developed that way — instead we have optical fiber in a multi-hub layout that feeds high-speed data to local points of presence — but the cable companies knew all along that data would someday be flowing across their wires, and when that time came, they leveraged their last-mile monopolies to take over the internet service business. That’s one of the things you can do with a monopoly.

According to the FCC’s own findings, the speed and variety of American Internet connections are growing substantially every year. Despite claims that monopolistic ISPs don’t have to listen to customers, 80% of households have at least two providers that can deliver the internet at 10Mbps or faster, which is FCC’s top rating.

For reasons that I can only assume have something to do with regulatory capture, the FCC paints far too rosy a picture of the state of ISP competition. To start with, their top speed rating of 10Mbps isn’t very fast these days. My household has to support the data and video and audio streaming load from three computers, two laptops, two smartphones, an iPad, and a DVR while still permitting pop-free VOIP service for business calls, so I have service at five times that speed, and it’s not the highest speed available.

Another problem with the FCC’s numbers is that classifying services by speed alone does not take into account other factors such as quality of service or even price, and that makes for misleading comparisons. For example, if I look up my home address on the National Broadband Map, it says that in addition to my cable provider, Comcast, there are five companies that can offer me 10Mbps or faster service.

One of them is Everywhere Wireless, which can’t hook me up with service because they specialize in selling WiFi services as a utility for entire multi-unit dwellings such as condominiums and apartment complexes.

The only other provider of high-speed wired service is Platinum Equity, which provides Megapath business-quality internet services at business-sized prices. For my purposes, I would need at least their 10Mbps symmetric service, which costs a whopping $449 per month. It’s not that they’re overpriced, they’re just providing a different kind of service, with a service level agreement specifying minimum performance and availability standards, and truly responsive customer service. I used their slower lower-cost services up until about 5 years ago, and they were excellent.

The remaining three companies — Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile — all provide WiFi tethering services over the cellular data network. They have various pricing bundles, but they all essentially charge for the total amount of data transferred. The cheapest plan I could find was about $6/GB, which can get expensive really fast. For example, buying the latest Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare Digital Pro Edition would cost me $100, but downloading it over a cellular data network would set me back an additional $293. I also have 1200GB of data backed up in the cloud over my Comcast connection. If I had been using a cellular network, the initial upload would have cost $7200, and if only 5% of it changed every month, that would add $360/month to my internet bill.

In other words, no one comes close to Comcast at providing the service I want at a price I can afford. It would be nice if that was due to Comcast’s superior technology and cost management, but the ugly truth is that Comcast’s dominance is the result of a decades-long local political battle to keep competition out of the market. As long as that’s the case, I think that some kind of regulation is probably necessary.

But it’s not my first choice. I’d much prefer the FCC to back off and let the free market decide. So if it were up to me, my policy would be that internet service providers only have to comply with net neutrality in locations where they don’t face competition. If they have competition, they could do whatever they want. It would have to be true competition, though, with similar price/performance ratios, and it would have to be on a house-by-house basis: If that customer has a choice of internet providers, then that customer is exempt from net neutrality.

My guess is that we’d pretty much still have net neutrality, because in a competitive market, who would want anything less from their ISP? Unless it came with a steep price discount…

Thinking About Lethal Force – Part 1

We’ve heard a lot of argument about whether or not George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin was murder or self defense, and more recent controversial shootings such as that of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri have raised many of the same issues. Some of the disagreements represent a genuine clash of values, but there’s a lot of noise caused by differences in how we receive information about lethal force incidents, how we weigh different aspects of that information, and how we fill in the gaps.

It seemed like a good subject for one of my lengthy thinking-out-loud posts, and indeed I was able to pile up a great many words, some of which may even be worth reading.

When I started writing, however, I realized that in order to write about how we discuss lethal force, I was going to have to write about when it’s okay to use lethal force. That runs into the hazard that anything I write about when it’s okay to use lethal force is going to sound an awful lot like legal advice.

So before I get into this, I want you to understand one thing: This is so not legal advice. I’m not a lawyer, and if you ask me when it’s okay for you to shoot someone, I’ll tell you it is never, ever okay for you to shoot someone, because if you’re looking to me for advice on when to shoot someone, you have no business contemplating shooting people.

That said, I’m going to try to explain some basic ideas about lethal force. These ideas are roughly based on the sort of thing you might be taught in a course on self-defense with a firearm, which in turn is based on self defense law. But my discussion is neither legal advice not self-defense instruction (I’m not qualified for either). Rather , this is more like a primer on how to think about stories in the news that involve lethal force.

I’m going to begin with a discussion of the basics of self-defense and then move out from there into increasingly confusing realms of understanding. I fervently hope that nothing I write makes you stupider for having read it, but as always, there are no guarantees.

Self Defense

I guess I should start by asking, when is it okay to kill someone? In a sense, the correct answer is never. Aside from a few special (and very controversial) situations — war, capital punishment, assisted suicide — it is never okay for Alice to intentionally kill Bob.

However, if Bob is attempting to kill Alice — or any other innocent person — it is okay for Alice to try to stop him. She has the right to self defense, and although self defense is generally supposed to be proportional, the fact that he is trying to kill her means that she can be pretty extreme in her attempt to stop him, up to and including doing things that might kill him.

But her goal can never be just to kill him. Shooting and possibly killing Bob can only be justified when it’s necessary to save a life. The way this is commonly put is that Alice can’t shoot to kill, but she can shoot to stop a killing. Sometimes shooting to kill is the only way to stop an attacker, but that’s the only way it can be justified.

(There may or may not be other actions Alice can ethically shoot to stop, such as severe injury, rape, or kidnapping. We can make our own moral judgements about what’s worth killing for, but Alice would also be judged under the laws where she lives. On the other hand, a pacifist may feel it is never okay for Alice to kill Bob, even if Bob is trying to kill her.)

One important point alluded to above is that in order to defend yourself you have to be innocent. If Bob breaks into Alice’s house at night, Alice may be justified in using lethal force to stop him. But even though her shots endanger Bob’s life, he does not then have the right to shoot at her in self-defense. He’s not innocent, he’s a home invader.

If Bob quickly flees the house to get away from Alice, then he’s no longer a threat, so Alice no longer has the right of self-defense and cannot shoot him as he runs away. If Alice decides to follow Bob out of the house and shoot at his back as he flees the scene, then she is the aggressor, and Bob then he arguably acquires the right to defend himself against her, including the use of lethal force. If he shoots back and wounds her and she drops the gun, then Bob loses the right to self-defense and has to stop shooting. If instead he continues shooting, perhaps to finish her off, then Alice is once again the innocent victim, and she arguably has the right shoot Bob to defend her life.

In a complex confrontation between Alice and Bob, the right of self-defense could switch back and forth multiple times. The reasons that happens — Bob fleeing, Alice dropping the gun, and so on — are exactly the kind of details that often gets left out of early news reports, either because the details aren’t known to the reporters, or because the reporters or their editors don’t recognize the significance of the details.

Interlude: Tragedy

Note that it’s possible to believe both that (a) Alice shot Bob in a righteous act of self defense, and that (b) Bob’s death is a tragedy.

For one thing, Bob did not live in this world alone. There are probably people who will miss him and mourn his loss. Bob was somebody’s son, and he may have been somebody’s brother, husband, father, or friend. Even if Bob turns out to have been a violent asshole intent on raping and murdering Alice, it’s not going to change the way that people feel about the Bob they knew. Even if Bob was killed by police while shooting children at a school, Bob’s parents are still going to cry that he’s gone. No matter how much Bob objectively deserved his fate, nobody who knew him is going to instantly incorporate that fact in their emotional response. The heart doesn’t change direction that fast.

But even if no one misses Bob, many people would argue that his death is still a tragedy. Killing Bob may have been necessary to prevent the loss of innocent life, but that doesn’t mean that Bob’s death isn’t a loss as well. Bob’s death destroys both the bad and the good in him, and we can regret the loss of the good parts, even if Bob brought it on himself. No one is as bad as the worst thing they’ve ever done.

That’s not to say that Alice was wrong to kill Bob in self defense. Alice may have killed him to save her life, and we can approve of her doing so, but it’s no criticism of Alice’s actions to say that it would have been even better if Alice had figured out a way to save her life without killing Bob.

There are of course limits to that sentiment — everyone likes to see the bad guys get what’s coming to them — and there’s a lot of subjectivity in our feelings toward criminals. It’s easier to feel the loss of a teenage gangster killed in a gunfight with police if you grew up with people just like him, or if you could have been him in another life. On the other hand, there’s no reason to expect any sympathy from the family of his victims…although that has been known to happen.

Perception and Intent

Self defense is just the first layer of the ethical puzzle, describing the conditions under which Alice is allowed to shoot Bob. There’s a difference, however, between the abstract morality of certain outcomes and the ethics of human action, because people are limited by their perceptions and understanding.

If Alice or Bob honestly misunderstands the facts of a situation in such a way that they would not be doing anything wrong if their understanding was correct, we generally do not consider them to have committed a moral error. We judge people’s ethics by their decisions based on their subjective knowledge at the time of the event, not on our own knowledge in hindsight.

This usually enters the lethal force analysis with regard to the question of whether or not someone’s life was actually endangered. When we say Alice can shoot Bob to stop him from killing her, what we really mean is that Alice can shoot Bob if she reasonably believes it is necessary to stop him from killing her. The usual way to express this is that Alice must be in fear for her life.

Perhaps Bob plays a mean joke on Alice by pointing a fake gun at her and screaming “Die! Die! Die!” just to see her frightened reaction. Since Alice isn’t in on the joke, she might reasonably come to the conclusion that Bob intends to kill her, and so she might believe it is necessary to use lethal force to stop Bob’s “attack” and end up shooting him dead.

Had Bob actually been attempting to kill Alice, we might say this was a righteous shooting in self defense. It would have been the right thing to do, and if in the future Carl attacked Alice the same way, we would want her to shoot him as well. However, since Bob wasn’t actually trying to kill Alice, her shooting him was not the right thing to do, and if Carl performs a similar fake attack on Alice, we ideally want her not to shoot him.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that Alice is a bad person who deserves punishment. We can understand why Alice shot Bob, and although with full knowledge of the situation we realize it was the wrong thing to do, we can also realize that with Alice’s limited knowledge, it probably seemed like the right thing to do. On the other hand, if Alice ignores information — limits her own knowledge, either recklessly or intentionally to avoid the duty to take it into account — we may hold that against her.

Note also that it’s not enough for Alice to be afraid. There has to be some connection to reality. Alice’s fear need not be accurate, but it must be reasonable. If, for example, Alice has an irrational fear of young black males and Bob is a young black male, that’s not a license for Alice to shoot Bob.

In general, the subjective nature of Alice’s perception makes the ethics harder to analyze. If Bob breaks into Alice’s home carrying a gun and charges at her while screaming “Die! Die! Die!”, we’d probably all agree that’s a justified shooting. If Bob was actually playing a prank and didn’t even have bullets in the gun, I think we’d all agree that Alice is not the one at fault.

But what if Bob is just a burglar who intends Alice no harm? What if he breaks into Alice’s house in the night, but he brings no gun and makes no threats, and Alice still shoots him? Shooting Bob is not necessary to save Alice’s life, but does it look that way to Alice? Is she required to see a weapon or evidence of intent to harm before she can shoot him? Or do we say that when Bob breaks into Alice’s house in the middle of the night that she can reasonably presume that he intends to harm her and has the means to do so?

The analysis based on reasonable belief also brings into play factors that might influence Alice’s reasoning. Alice might have had previous encounters with Bob that lead her to believe that he’s dangerous, or she might have previously been attacked by strangers in the same location where she encounters Bob, or police might have been warning area residents of a rapist who breaks into homes in the middle of the night, or Alice might have had self-defense training in which she was told that most intruders who break into occupied homes intend serious harm to the occupants.

It’s even possible for situations to occur in which both sides reasonably believes that they’re in a self-defense situation. Imagine that Alice comes home to find the front door ajar. Furthermore, she can hear someone moving around inside. Concerned, she draws her gun and enters. However, what Alice doesn’t realize is that because she lives in a real estate development where all the houses look the same, she has mistakenly entered Bob’s house. Upon seeing hearing Alice enter the house, Bob becomes concerned and draws his own gun to go investigate. When Alice and Bob encounter each other, each reasonably believes they’ve encountered an armed intruder, and both open fire.

Although Alice is clearly the one who made the mistake, and even though the consequences were profound and tragic, it’s not clear that Alice’s error is the moral equivalent of murder. She certainly wasn’t intending to kill an innocent person. With a little more inventiveness, perhaps involving a malicious third party, we could probably come up with scenarios where it’s not at all obvious that either Bob or Alice is to blame.

This is one of the most contentious areas in the ethics of self defense. On the one hand, we don’t want Alice shooting at anyone who makes her uneasy; on the other hand, we don’t want her to wait until she sees the muzzle flash. There’s a lot of distance between those extremes, and sincere and diligent people can nevertheless have very different ideas of what should reasonably cause someone to fear for their life, or of what mistakes are understandable and excusable.

Making things more complicated, we need to be careful not to confuse our analysis of perceptions and our analysis of reality. It’s not inconsistent to believe that (a) Alice was justified in shooting Bob because she was in fear for her life, and (b) Bob was not actually endangering Alice’s life.

To make that more concrete: Thinking that George Zimmerman and Officer Darren Wilson don’t belong in jail is not the same as thinking that Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown deserved to die, or that it’s open season on young black males. It’s true that there are people who think that Martin and/or Brown were thugs who deserved to die, or that young black males are a threat to public safety, but it would be a mistake to assume that everyone who defends Zimmerman and Wilson is in either of those camps.

By all means, if your opponents are actually violent racists, you should call them out on that. But there’s a difference between wanting to see young black kids killed for no reason and believing Zimmerman and Wilson did the right thing. And there’s a difference between believing Zimmerman and Wilson did the right thing and believing that Zimmerman and Wilson did the wrong thing for understandable reasons. Intellectual honesty demands that we recognize the distinctions and take them seriously, and that when evaluating other people’s opinions, we recognize that they may be making different distinctions than we would.

That’s enough for now. In future posts I’ll explore how we learn about lethal force incidents, and why that adds to the confusion.

The Threats Are Real, But the Danger…Not So Much

I play video games pretty regularly, but except for the occasional threat of government censorship, I’m not much interested in the politics of gaming, and I’m certainly not interested in the politics of gaming reviews or of identity-group-based game criticism. Which is why wrote about a game instead of writing about GamerGate.

(Although…is anybody concerned about the under-representation of left-handed people in first person shooters? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a left-handed viewpoint character. Talk about erasing an outgroup from the discourse…)

Fortunately, Ken White wrote a damned good post about #GamerGate that said almost everything I thought about saying, said it better, and said a lot more that’s interesting as well. Ken’s final point is to denounce the threats of violence, and that reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to write about.

From what I’ve read, several women targeted by misogynistic members of the GamerGate crowd have received threats of rape and murder. At least three of them — game designer Zoe Quinn, game designer Brianna Wu, and feminist game critic Anita Sarkeesian — have decided to leave their homes for their own safety. Games journalists Jenn Frank and Mattie Brice have received so many threats that they decided to stop reporting about games. For God’s sake, they’ve even gone after Felicia Day.

This is a sad and pathetic situation on so many levels. Even if everything Zoe Quinn was accused of was true, and she slept with game journalists to get good reviews for her Depression Quest game, I still don’t understand why people are so damned angry and hateful about it. And Anita Sarkeesian’s criticisms of gaming are the same things feminist critics of popular culture have been talking about for decades. Why is it so upsetting this time? Why threaten rape and murder? What is wrong with these people?

Whatever is wrong, it’s been that way for a while, as Sady Doyle points out. I can remember when tech blogger Kathy Sierra was being hounded over little more than being female and successful. It was ugly. And ever since, I’ve suspected that a lot of women on the internet get these kinds of threats, but most of them don’t talk about it much.

All of which brings me to the main point of this post: As a general rule, women in the public eye are not in serious danger from anonymous strangers who make these kinds of threats.

To get an idea of why I believe this, I’d like you to indulge me in a thought experiment: I’d like you to plan a murder. Imagine that you want to kill someone you don’t know very well. Perhaps some minor public figure, such as one of these women, or one of the people harassing them, or a journalist who said something that pissed you off, or an executive at a company that gave you poor service. How would you personally go about doing it? Ask yourself what your very first step would be. What would you do right now to start your murder plot in motion?

You might start by gathering information about your target. Where do they live? Do they have roommates? Where do they work? Do they have a car? Think about what information you need, and ask yourself how you would get it. Some of it is public information, but at some of it could only be found by surveilling your target. You’d have to learn about them without getting caught, and without leaving evidence behind such as witnesses, internet logs, or security videos that would help police identify you.

You might have to learn your target’s daily routine, and then try to figure out when and where would be best for the attack. Do you break into their home? If so, do you have the equipment you’d need? Do you have the training to use it? Do you know if they have an alarm system, a dog, or a gun in the nightstand? If you attack at their place of work, do you know how to get past building security? How to find their office? If you attack them while traveling to and from work, do you know their route? Do you have to intercept their car? Do you have to follow them on public transportation?

How are you going to do the deed? Do you have a weapon? Do you know where to get one? Do you know how to use it? How will you dispose of it afterwards? Are you going to wear a mask to hide your face, or will that attract too much attention? Are you going to dump the body somewhere, or will that mean too much time driving around with a body? Speaking of cars, do you use your own, which is easily traced to you, or do you take the risk of stealing one and then driving around in a stolen car? Do you even know how to steal a car?

Okay, that’s enough. We’re done planning the murder. I just wanted to go through that exercise to make a couple of points, the most important of which is that no part of the murder plan included a Twitter-based terror campaign to scare the target before we attacked. If you’re planning to actually murder someone, what would be the point of scaring them on Twitter? Won’t the murder be scary enough?

The threats are a waste of time, and worse, they risk tipping off the target, attracting the attention of the authorities, and encouraging greater attention to security. The killer who stalks his victim and issues increasingly frightening threats before his final attack is mostly a creation of fiction. In the real world, people who are going to commit rape and murder usually just go ahead and do it. They don’t bother making threats. The corollary is that people making threats probably aren’t actually planning to commit rape and murder.

(There’s a similar problem with vague bomb threats: “There’s a bomb in your building set to go off at noon!” Real bombers want to cause death and destruction, so why would they warn anyone? There are only a couple of plausible scenarios for a warning about a real bomb. One is that someone close to the bomber — possibly a confederate — has developed feelings of remorse. The other is that someone has discovered the bomb plot and opposes it. But in either of those cases, why not explain exactly where the bomb squad can find the bomb and tell them how to disarm it? And maybe say exactly who placed it and where to catch them? There’s almost no credible scenario for sending a vague anonymous warning about a real bomb.)

There are several reasons why people might make threats without following through on them. For one thing, they may simply not be evil enough. It’s one thing to say you want to kill someone, but it’s another thing to mean it. Almost everyone has at one time or another muttered some vague wish to kill someone who pissed them off — their boss, their spouse, someone they’re doing business with — and some of them have even said it out loud to the target of their anger, but almost nobody ever means it enough to actually do it. There’s a huge difference between angry words and real violence.

For some people, the threats are an end unto themselves. They’re a form of entertainment or a means of self-validation. Some folks get their kicks from mountain climbing or surfing, others play video games or enter poker tournaments. These people get off from threatening other people online. They’re not out to physically hurt anyone, they just like upsetting people. They’re trolls, doing what trolls do. Naturally, there are entire web communities built around this concept.

But even if they are angry or crazy enough to really want to rape or kill the women they’re threatening, that doesn’t mean they’re actually capable of doing it. Many of the people who make these threats are too ineffectual to carry them out. They have trouble enough achieving basic life goals, like living on their own, having a girlfriend, or holding down a job. Carrying out a violent attack against a public figure is way beyond anything they are capable of. It’s just another big plan they’re always talking about without doing anything.

As I tried to illustrate with my “let’s-plan-a-murder” thought experiment, attacking a public figure is kind of hard. It likely requires traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to the target’s location, surveillance, gathering supplies, creating the plan of attack, and committing the crime. None of that is easy, and the people making anonymous threats are unlikely to be willing to expend the time and money to actually do it. They also might not have the physical confidence to overpower a healthy young woman, they might not have access to weapons or know how to use them, and they probably lack the interpersonal skills to trick a target into letting them into their home or meeting them somewhere.

Violent attacks are also not without risk to the attacker, who could be injured during the attack or captured by police afterwards and imprisoned. Even people who who are willing to hurt people and capable of doing it might be reluctant to confront such consequences.

I remember after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the media got some mileage by interviewing young Muslim men in the Middle East who claimed to be planning attacks on the United States. Some of them even carried around photographs of their targets, such as the Sears Tower. Yet those attacks never happened. There’s a big difference between being a terrorist and wanting to be a terrorist.

Posturing is easy. Action is a lot harder. I mean, think about it: Making anonymous threats on the internet is probably the least effective thing you can do that your target would still know you were doing.

I’ve made the claim before that anonymous online threats are unlikely to result in actual attacks, and some people took it the wrong way, so to head off some confusion, here’s what I’m explicitly not saying:

  • I’m not denying the existence of violence against women.
  • I’m not accusing these women of faking the threats. It’s possible that some of them are — people have done it before to garner support — but I’m not talking about fake threats. I’m saying that even real threats against public figures rarely result in real violence.
  • I’m also not talking about any specific woman receiving threats. I don’t know what messages each of them has received, I don’t know their security situation, and I’m not a threat assessment professional. And even if I were, it’s unrealistic to claim there’s no danger at all. I’m just urging a realistic assessment of the threats.
  • I’m not dismissing the danger. This is not a naive position that assumes nothing bad ever happens in the world. I believe my statements about the danger are based on modern thinking about threat assessment.
  • I’m not trying to minimize or whitewash the behavior of the people making the threats. Even if they don’t rape or murder anyone, they’re still using threats of violence to try to intimidate and control their victims. They’re still causing harm, they’re still assholes, and they’re still criminals.
  • I’m not saying threats against women never lead to violence, just that anonymous threats against public figures rarely lead to violence. One of the key predictors of violence is intimacy: The better the victim knows the person issuing the threat, the more likely there will be violence. The most dangerous threats come from someone close to the victim — a spouse, a boyfriend, a coworker, a business partner — someone they know and who knows them.
  • I’m not blaming the women for panicking. They know more about their specific situation than I do, they may have consulted experts, and ultimately, it’s their decision to make. If they’d rather quit their jobs or move out of their homes, I’m not saying they’re wrong to do so. They don’t owe it to anyone to stand fast in the face of threats.

And to be clear, I’m not saying that anonymous threats against public figures never lead to violence, but it takes some special conditions, so it’s much less likely than we might guess at first thought.

Some recent examples of violence against women might seem prove there’s a high level of danger, but on closer examination, I think they prove my point.

In 2011, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was badly wounded during a brutal mass shooting attack by Jared Lee Loughner. As near as I can tell from reports, he only ever made vaguely threatening statements against public officials, none of them addressed specifically to Giffords, and all made in his own name.

Earlier this year, Elliott Rodger went on a killing spree in Isla Vista, California, killing six people and wounding several others. According to a video he made before the incident, he was motivated by his hatred of women who had rejected him. He’s exactly the sort of person that we might imagine is behind the GamerGate-related threats. But Rodger’s behavior doesn’t fit that model. Three of the people he killed were his male roommates — people he was close to — and the rest of the people he shot at were apparently random strangers. There’s no evidence he ever sent them threats or any other communication. He did create the video and a 100,000-word “manifesto” which he sent to several people, but he sent those out under his own name, and not to any of the victims.

As I started writing this, word began to spread of the a murder of a woman in which the killer had posted pictures of the body on 4chan — a website with a lot of GamerGate-related activity. But as it turns out, the killer was her live-in boyfriend, not some stranger from the internet. As is often the case, it’s intimacy that makes for the most serious danger.

Once you start thinking in terms of the difference between threat behavior and attack behavior, you can sometimes see signs of it in the threats themselves. Consider this pair of tweets threatening Brianna Wu:

“Your mutilated corpse will be on the front page of Jezebel tomorrow and there isn’t jack shit you can do about it.”

“If you have any kids, they’re going to die too.”

So this person hasn’t even learned enough about his target to know if she’s got children, but he’s totally going to kill her tomorrow. Right…

There was another one I saw (although I can’t find it now) where the person making the threat was bragging about all the frightening ways he could attack his target, and he said something like “I have friends who can get me any weapon I want — assault rifles, shotguns, pistols, hunting knives, machetes –” In other words, he’s a badass who could hurt her with all kinds of weapons…but he doesn’t actually own any weapons and would have to get them from these people he supposedly knows. Right…

Some of these threatening messages are especially upsetting because they include details that are vivid, obscene, and horrifying — specific objects used on specific body parts in specific acts of violation and bloodshed — sometimes framed in terms of how friends or family members will discover the body. Our natural reaction is to recoil, and it’s easy to think that anyone with such detailed obsessions must be deranged and dangerous.

I think that’s half right. They may be deranged, but I don’t think they’re very dangerous. As I’ve said, dangerous people tend not to make anonymous threats. With that in mind, I think the gruesome details are a telltale sign of someone who knows they’re never going to carry out an attack. The threatening messages have to be as frightening as possible, because they need to do all the work. There’s nothing else coming.

Obviously, I can’t know any of this with absolute certainty, and I don’t claim to. I certainly can’t say anything with certainty about any particular woman who has received threats, nor can I be sure of much about any particular person making threats.

I want to tread carefully here because I don’t want to encourage a false sense of security. There are ways this could turn out to be very dangerous. There are ways that people who make threats could be pushed into violent acts, and even if the people making threats never attack anyone, their threats may create an atmosphere which encourages a more violent person to attack. Or parts of GamerGate could develop into a terrorism campaign in which acts of violence are used to make the threats more credible. I haven’t seen any signs of this I can point to, but if it’s an organized group, imagine something like the Ku Klux Klan. If it’s just one guy, think Unabomber.

That said, for all the reasons I’ve explained, I think it’s unlikely that these anonymous threats against women in the gaming community will result in actual violence. It’s important to keep in mind that we’re all still talking about the GamerGate threats, not the GamerGate attacks. So far, none of the women receiving threats has been physically assaulted.

That’s not to say that the threats themselves aren’t disturbing. It’s painful to read accounts by women who’ve received frightening threats and decided to move out of their own homes because they fear for their safety and the safety of their families. It angers me how much trouble the people making threats have caused with so little effort.

I mostly wrote this post because I’m fascinated by the subject of threat assessment in general, by the division between those who commit violent acts and those who threaten violent acts, and by some of the the counter-intuitive deductions we can make about people who make anonymous threats against public figures.

However, I also wrote this post in the hope that, in some small way, it will undermine the effectiveness of the fear campaign against these women and their allies. At the risk of mansplaining, if some women receiving GamerGate threats stumbles across this post, I’m not saying you have no reason to be afraid, but you almost certainly shouldn’t be as afraid as they want you to be.

Obama and Running Away

Allen Clifton at Forward Progressives has a post complaining about Democratic candidates trying to run away from President Obama. He then goes on to list some of Obama’s accomplishments:

The same president who has presided over:

The creation of over 10 million jobs in less than 6 years.

Obama inherited an economic recession. Recessions end. Of course it got better. It would have gotten better under President McCain too. The U.S. economy has some pretty sound fundamentals. It recovers from slowdowns.

The finding, and killing, of Osama bin Ladin.

A fair, although minor, accomplishment.

A huge drop in the number of uninsured Americans.

Fair enough, I guess, although I’m not sure that reducing the number of uninsured Americans by requiring Americans to buy health insurance or face a penalty is something to brag about. The roll-out of the exchanges did not go so well, and it will take a while for the full effects of the Affordable Care Act to become apparent. It won’t help to have health insurance if doctors and hospitals start going out of business.

Record stock levels.

Again, the stock market recovered from the recession, as it always does. Sarah Palin could have been sitting in the oval office for the last six years and the stock market would have still rebounded.

The saving of the American auto industry.

More like the saving of the inefficient Detroit-based part of the American auto industry at a cost of billions to taxpayers. It’s not that hard to save a failing business with a massive infusion of someone else’s cash. And it’s not clear that it’s necessary: If Detroit automakers had gone under, Americans would have still needed cars, and some other part of the auto industry would have expanded to supply them.

An unemployment rate that’s now below 6%.

Yet again, this was the inevitable, but unusually slow, recovery from the recession. Obama’s Portuguese Water Dog Bo could have been sitting in the oval office and unemployment would have improved.

The ending of discrimination against homosexuals in our military.

Seriously, this was a good thing. Well done, President Obama. Nobody should be running from this. Which brings us to the final item:

Same-sex marriage being on the verge of national legalization in the very near future.

What a strange thing to include on the list. The expansion of legalized same-sex marriage in the United States happened despite the opposition of President Obama. Obama was opposed to same-sex marriage for most of his political career, deciding to support it only recently.

Now let’s look at a few things Clifton left out of his list of accomplishments of the Obama presidency:

  • Despite campaign promises of greater transparency, the Obama administration has reduced cooperation with the press and stepped up prosecutions of leakers.
  • Used the NSA to spy on the press…and everyone else.
  • Refused to investigate torture under the Bush administration.
  • Despite campaign promises, has not closed Gitmo.
  • Despite campaign promises to rein in executive power, the Obama administration has actually expanded it.
  • Ordered the execution by drone strike of American citizens without due process.
  • Allowed the DEA to step up its war on effective treatment for chronic pain sufferers.
  • Continued federal raids on state-approved marijuana dispensaries.
  • Led us back into war in the middle east.

And that’s just off the top of my head.

Frankly, I don’t know how many of those items are enough to keep Democrats away — I don’t hear too many of them complaining about these issues — but President Obama has pretty much run away from just about everything that I liked about Candidate Obama.

The Unappreciated Virtues of Low Prices

Former Joe Biden chief economist Jared Bernstein has a piece up at PostEverything extolling the virtues of the $20/hour wage rate paid to McDonald’s employees — and other fast food workers — in Denmark.

The base pay for a fast-food worker in Denmark is $20, and the pay package includes considerable non-wage benefits, including five weeks’ paid vacation, paid maternity and paternity leave and a pension plan. What’s the U.S. fast-food pay package? Um…not so much. The average hourly wage is $8.90, with few benefits, and the base wage is closer to $8.

Now, this huge difference poses a huge problem for those who want to argue that such compensation levels are set solely by the market fundamentals of supply, demand and productivity.

I don’t know too many people who argue that that compensation levels are set solely by the market, but lots of free market advocates argue that compensation levels should be set solely by the market.

Surely those factors play a role, but the difference in pay is too large to be explained by market factors alone. Denmark and the United States are different countries serving different markets, but a burger is a burger — and we’re not in different universes.

Clearly, Bernstein doesn’t know very much about burgers if he thinks they’re all like Big Macs, but I’ll grant that McDonald’s burgers are probably mostly the same everywhere. But that doesn’t mean that McDonald’s restaurants are operated the same everywhere. I’m guessing that a McDonald’s with those labor costs operates a bit differently than the ones I’m used to.

An economy is a complex system, and trying to push it around often produces unintended consequences. Bernstein implies that the higher pay for McDonald’s workers comes at the cost of making restaurants less profitable. If that’s the case, then we would expect that the higher wages would force McDonald’s to cherry-pick its best locations for restaurants, and drop all the less profitable locations, or never build anything there in the first place.

And indeed that seems to be the case. In proportion to its population, Denmark has about 1/3 as many McDonald’s as the U.S. Now I’m not saying that Denmark could triple the number of jobs in its fast food sector by allowing lower wages — there are undoubtedly other factors explaining the relative lack of McDonald’s — but the high wages probably aren’t helping, and if they’re widespread in other sectors of the economy, they may be contributing to the high cost of living in Denmark.

Denmark does have a much more balanced distribution of income according to World Bank estimates, but their overall income is lower, with the average person in Denmark earning a GDP per capita that is about 80% of what U.S. residents make. Denmark also currently has an extra point of unemployment.

Naturally, the higher labor rates raise the prices on a McDonald’s menu:

Of course, burgers cost more in Denmark. A Big Mac is $5.60 there, compared to $4.80 here. But that price difference is dwarfed by the wage difference. Not that she’d necessarily want to, but a Danish worker can buy almost twice as many Big Mac’s on her wage than her American counterpart.

A worker at McDonald’s could buy almost twice as many Big Macs on her wage, but every other person in Denmark who is not a McDonald’s worker can only buy about 85% as many burgers as their American counterparts because of the higher price. The burger price increase may not be as steep as the wage increase, but it affects many times more people.

Here in the United States, we’re all about lower prices. What we often fail to do is connect lower prices to lower wages. In part, that’s the result of a national economic model that puts the consumer at the center of the action.

That’s a little mixed up. Prices and wages are connected, but not just in the way Bernstein suggests. Let me see if I can explain what I mean.

To keep it simple, let’s suppose you work for one hour a day for $10 per hour, and you spend all $10 every day on food at McDonald’s. Day in, day out, that’s your routine: Work for an hour, buy food to stay alive.

Then one day, you negotiate with your boss for a 10% raise. Now you make your daily trip to McDonald’s with $11 in your pocket. You still spend $10 on a burger, fries, and a drink, but you have $1 left over to spend on something else — maybe a mini-desert at McDonald’s, or something to read, or maybe you save up and buy an article of clothing. Whatever you buy with that extra dollar is the tangible manifestation of your increased income.

But suppose that when you get to McDonald’s, you’re shocked to discover that prices have gone up 10%, so your regular meal now costs $11. You can still afford to eat, but don’t have money left over for anything else. Once again, you’re working an hour a day and spending all your income on the same food. Your quality of life has not changed. Your income has gone up in nominal terms, but in reality nothing has changed because you are not able to consume any more than before.

Finally, let’s back up and suppose your negotiation with your boss failed, and you still earn $10 an hour. Feeling a little dejected, you stroll into McDonald’s only to receive a pleasant surprise: McDonald’s has cut its prices by 10%. Your meal now only costs $9, meaning you have $1 left over to spend on something else, just as you would have if you had received a 10% raise. By lowering its prices, McDonald’s has effectively given you a small raise.

The true measurement of your income is not the money that you’re paid, but the goods and services you can consume. You are better off if your employer pays you more money per hour of work, but you are also better off if the production of things you buy becomes more efficient, so you can buy more stuff for the same amount of money. The money itself is only the medium of exchange that you use to convert your hard work producing goods and services into an improved quality of life by consuming goods and services. In fact, we can take the money out of the equation entirely and conclude that your quality of life is directly related to the amount of goods you are able to consume for every hour of work you do.

If we expand our view to encompass the whole economy, it’s pretty clear that we can only consume as much as we produce — because those consumer goods and services don’t materialize out of nowhere. (I’m ignoring fluctuations due to imports, exports, and warehousing for the sake of simplicity.) So the more we can produce in an hour, the more we have available to consume. Or to put it another way, the less labor it takes to make something, the more of that thing we can produce with our existing labor force, and the more we have to consume.

Labor productivity has increased dramatically in the developed world, and it has made us rich. Historically, keeping humanity fed used to require the labor of anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the population, including women and children. But over the past few hundred years we’ve figured out much more efficient forms of agriculture, and the percentage of agriculture workers in developed countries like the United States has fallen to less than 2 percent.

All those people who used to labor at farming are now working to produce everything else we have — sturdy housing, reliable transportation, electric power, advanced medicine, colorful clothing, instant communications, stimulating entertainment — all the advantages of our modern civilization. We have so much more than our ancestors because it’s all so much cheaper to produce.

In denouncing the pursuit of low prices, Berstein is attacking the source of our prosperity.

Back to the Borderlands

I guess I’ve been too busy to blog. My day job has hit a busy period, and it’s been using up most of my mental energy. And when I do have time to goof off, I’ve been filling it by playing Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel.

The original Borderlands was kind of a half-assed project build around a neat system of randomly generated weapons and power-ups. It was fun to play, but a little rough around the edges and not well focused. For example, every character gets a special action skill, but in a game dominated by guns, two of the characters had abilities — Brick’s hand-to-hand Berserker rage and Lilith’s secretive Siren phase walk — that discouraged them from shooting anything. And the ending of the main campaign plot was infamously disappointing.

Still, Borderlands was a surprise success, and when Borderlands 2 came out, it was Borderlands done right. It introduced four new characters who were pretty much one-for-one replacements for the characters from the first game, but with better and more varied skills. The Berserker became a Gunzerker and the new Siren’s ability made shooting more effective rather than discouraging it. The plot was unified around fighting a tyrant named Handsome Jack, and the ending paid off.

In terms of hours played, Borderlands 2 is one of my all-time favorite games, but only in co-op play with someone else. Personally, I find the single-player mode less interesting. That’s because I don’t really like open-world games very much. Figuring out where to go and what to do next, and what the right order is for the side missions, and what items I’ll want to get before the next mission…that just isn’t fun for me. I spend my whole work day solving complicated problems, so when I want to escape in a video game, I want something simple and linear. Kill the bad guys, get the loot, move on to the next battle.

My sometimes co-blogger Ken likes all that complexity, so when I play Borderlands 2 with him, I let him lead the way, and I just follow along and shoot anything that bothers us. He gets the complex mission-oriented, open world style game he wants, and I get a linear first-person shooter I don’t have to think too hard about.

We’re about halfway through Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel and I’m enjoying it. As every reviewer has tiresomely pointed out, it’s not quite the amazing game that Borderlands 2 was, but that’s praising it with faint damnation. In some ways, it’s not much more than a really big content expansion pack for Borderlands 2, but that’s not exactly a bad thing. The Borderlands 2 DLC’s were a lot of fun.

The main difference is that B1 and B2 both took place on the planet Pandora, but Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel takes place on Pandora’s moon, Elpis, which has lower gravity and no air. So you can execute giant floating leaps all over the place, and then suddenly plunge downward to stomp on your enemies. You do have to watch your oxygen supply whenever you’re outside or you’ll run out, but you don’t die right away, and there’s oxygen everywhere, so it’s not too annoying.

There are also different types of weapons, different equipment you can carry to buff your skills, different vehicles, and lots of different bad guys. But basically, it’s just Borderlands in Space. The game designers are well aware of this, even relabeling the ubiquitous “Guns” vending machines “Guns In Space.”

And I’m okay with that.

This plot takes place between Borderlands and Borderlands 2, and we’re working for Handsome Jack, who’s acting like he’s a good guy. But I’ve played Borderlands 2, so I know how he turns out. This is all going to end in tears. And bullets.

(And fire, electrical arcs, and explosions. Also some acid.)

Now excuse me, but I’ve got to exterminate some alien bad guys. We’ve got a moon to save.

The First Rule of Everyone

Much has been written about the so-called First Rule of Law Enforcement, “go home alive.” But this line by ExCop-LawStudent gets it exactly right:

I believe in the First Rule of Law Enforcement, but I also believe that our citizens have that same right to go home at the end of their day.

That is in agreement with the classical liberal concept of human rights: Your rights are limited only by the fact that everyone else is entitled to exactly the same rights. If someone infringes your rights (or someone else’s), then they are exceeding their rights, and you can act to stop them. But if you act against someone who is not infringing on someone else’s rights, then you are the one violating rights.

Everyone has the right to live through the day.

What If We Eliminated Plea Bargaining?

Scott Greenfield is complaining about people who propose simplistic solutions to the ills that infest the criminal justice system. This time it’s the Economist, and their solution is the ever-popular one of eliminating the problems of plea bargaining by eliminating plea bargaining. Scott’s not happy with that for the usual reason criminal defense lawyers aren’t happy with eliminating plea bargains:

Consider what life would look like without plea bargaining.  Every defendant would then have to be tried to be convicted, as there would be no incentive to cop out.  Every guilty defendant would then be subject to full freight sentencing, the price that no one in power really expects anyone to pay, which is what allows them to set the MSRP for crime in the stratosphere, tell the groundling during stump speeches about how they’ve saved them from rapists and give headline writers silly numbers for clickbait.

I have no disagreement with this. Criminal defendants would get hammered without the plea bargaining escape hatch. You would not want to be prosecuted for a crime after plea bargaining was eliminated. Nevertheless, Scott misses a point that may be worth discussing (or maybe not, but that never stops me) when he writes this:

The government would need 100 times the existing number of courtrooms, judges, clerks, court officers, prosecutors and jury pools. And public defenders would get stretched a wee bit thinner.  Even so, kids would sit in jail for years awaiting trial, turning that one year potential sentencing into three, until it was their turn in the well.

The government is not going it get what it wants. Increasing the case volume of the justice system 100-fold — or 20-fold if you use the 95% plea figure — is never going to happen. The government can’t afford the cost of holding trials for everyone they charge, and it sure as hell can’t afford the cost of operating prisons for all those people. (Instead of having 1% of our adult population in prison, we’d probably have to hire 1% of our population as guards for our vast prison empire.) If we somehow outlawed plea bargaining tomorrow, there’s no way the government at any level could afford to try and imprison everyone that gets arrested.

Advocates of eliminating plea bargains are counting on this. Without a larger budget, prosecutors would have to make some hard choices about who to prosecute and who to let walk. They’d have to focus their efforts on the people they most want to put in prison and let everyone else go. It seems likely to me that the net effect would be a reduction in aggregate prison time.

On the other hand, it would be devastating for Scott’s clients. The ones found guilty would be pounded into the ground by draconian sentences, much higher than the legislature intended, and these long sentences would be concentrated on a small group of people, which is arguably unfair. (Speculation about this group’s age, race, and gender characteristics are left as an exercise for the reader.)

The other big problem with eliminating plea bargaining is that lots of crimes would go unpunished. While it seems unlikely that every single one of the 95% who currently take plea bargains are guilty, it is probably even less likely that every single one of them is innocent. Many of them would go on to commit more crimes against the public. Eventually, they would be prosecuted and imprisoned, but in the meantime they could wreak havoc on the innocent. It seems likely that the result would be a lot more crime.

Finally, as a libertarian, I’d like to think that if the justice system could only prosecute a small fraction of the crimes it does today, it would abandon enforcement against consensual crimes and focus on crimes that present a real danger to the public. Somehow I doubt that would be the case.

The plea bargaining system could use some reform, but eliminating plea bargains altogether is an extreme measure that would imprison a lot of people for a very long time while allowing crime to run rampant. That doesn’t sound like it would be good for anybody.

Greg Laden Illustrates the Case For a Carbon Tax

Science blogger Greg Laden is having trouble figuring out whether or not to install a solar electric power system in his home.

I want to put a solar panel on my roof so that I am releasing less greenhouse gas into the environment. But then I hear that manufacturing solar panels causes the release of greenhouse gasses, so I have to subtract that from the good I think I’m doing. But then I realize that the people who are making the solar panels have to change their method so they release less greenhouse gas into the environment.

We hear this argument all the time (for example, here). You think you are doing something “green” but it really isn’t green because yadayadayada.

Laden has decided he isn’t real impressed by that argument. For one thing, he just doesn’t trust some of the sources for those numbers. I wouldn’t either. With billions of dollars in play and ideological positions to defend, it’s hard to find unbiased information on climate and energy issues.

Laden lists three more reasons for disdaining that argument, but they are all variations of the same thing:

So what? Nobody tells me I have to make a rational decision about buying the 72 inch wide TV to replace my 64 inch wide TV, but suddenly I’m a bad person if I don’t do a detailed Carbon-based cost benefit analysis when I want to do something EVEN COOLER than having a bigger TV, like putting a freakin’ cool solar panel on my roof?

This is an excellent reason for buying solar power. I think it’s cool too, and I’ll definitely look into it when we move out of our condo into a house where we can do stuff like that. In fact, according to a recent Lazard report, solar photovoltaic electricity generation is starting to become competitive with some of the more expensive conventional electricity generation methods. I expect the next ten years will see a lot of solar powered homes and a lot more solar generation from electrical utilities.

Laden thinks this will also apply to electric cars:

Driving an electric car in a region where more coal is used to make electricity, would have to be MUCH less efficient than not driving the electric car (in terms of carbon release) to make me think twice about it. I’ll drive my electric car and at the same time we’ll watch the electricity companies make more and more of their electricity from wind and solar, and they will have a bigger market to sell that in because we are locally replacing gas with electricity.

Laden has clearly thought about this a lot, at least in terms of the carbon footprint produced by his next car. But he has apparently given very little thought to many other aspects of his new electric car.

For example, how much valuable steel is it going to consume? We use steel in a lot of different ways in this country — for everything from wall fasteners to medical devices — so how do we know that providing Laden with a car to drive is the best use of that steel? It would be unfortunate if some poor diseased person died because the medical device that would have saved their life was never built because the steel was used to make Laden’s car.

Or what about the people who spent collectively hundreds of hours on the assembly line building the car? Perhaps they could have been doing something more important, like teaching children how to read or working to reduce the spread of infections in hospitals. Or maybe they would rather have had that extra time to take a class at a local college or stay at home with their children.

And should we even have that assembly line? Maybe that factory could be put to better use making dishwashers or big screen TVs. Maybe the land the factory is on would be better used as a Walmart or as apartment buildings for people who work nearby.

For that matter, once the car is built, who’s to say that Greg Laden is the best person it could go to? Maybe there’s a father of three who needs it to get to work, or a single mom who needs to drive to night classes so she can get her nursing degree. How do we know that Laden is the right person for the car?

My guess is that Greg Laden has spent very little time thinking about any of these issues, and rightly so. The answer to any one of these questions would be difficult to find. But fortunately the answer to all of these questions turns out to be quite simple:

Of course, I will need the electric car to get cheaper before I can get one…

There you go. Every question I raised involves something that is traded on the (more or less) free market. The steel foundries sell their output to the highest bidders, and the buyers — car makers, wall fastener manufactures, medical device suppliers — each bid on as much steel as they can profitably use. The laborers can choose to work for a car maker, a school, or a hospital, each of whom will bid on their labor according to how valuable it would be for them.

The same calculations apply to the factory owner and the land developer. They will make their resources available to the buyer offering the highest price, and the buyer that can offer the highest price is the buyer that can do the most with those resources. And when the electric car arrives in the dealer’s showroom, they will try to sell it at the highest price they can, to the person willing to pay the most for it.

In this way, the pricing system of the free market is used to coordinate the decisions of thousands of people all over the world to allocate their resources and time to produce the goods and services that will be valuable to the final consumers. And what it all comes down to is that when the car is sitting in the showroom, the sticker price represents everything Greg Laden needs to know about all the decisions used to produce it all over the world. And he took a look at the sticker and thought, “Eh, not today.” Decision made.

However, there’s at least one important resource that is not included in the price of the car: Its impact on global warming. The factories and steel foundries consume energy and dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, raising the planet’s temperature in a way that will harm other people. Laden’s car would contribute a very small amount of global warming and does an almost infinitesimally small amount of harm to Laden himself, but when you multiply out that harm by the billions of people living on the planet, the amount is probably significantly more than zero, which is the amount global warming currently adds to the sticker price.

That’s a problem, because the cost of the car’s contribution to global warming is every bit as real as the cost of the car’s steel or the cost of the labor that goes into assembling the car. But since nobody involved in making the car has to pay that cost, the final sticker price of the car understates the true cost of manufacturing the car. So people like Greg Laden may be tempted into buying the electric car because the sticker price is less than the true cost. Of course the same thing applies to any other car Laden might buy, and more importantly, it applies to the energy that Laden’s car consumes when he drives it, whether he’s charging an electric car or burning gasoline in a sports car.

The basic problem is that the Earth’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases is not traded in the market. It is available free to anyone who wants to use it: All they have to do is release the gases into the air. The price of releasing gases is effectively zero. But the cost of the damage they do to the climate is significant. The fact that people can do damage without paying for it is the source of all of our climate problems.

One especially attractive solution to this problem is to use taxation to put a price on releasing greenhouse gases. This is usually called a carbon tax, after a principle element in greenhouse gases. The idea is to set the tax rate for releasing a ton of carbon as close as we can get to an economic estimate of the damage done to the climate by releasing the carbon. This tax will be applied to all sources of energy — coal, oil, gas, nuclear, solar, wind — according to the amount of carbon released (lots for coal, zilch for solar). Thus the price at the electric meter or the gas pump will include the cost of climate damage.

That cost will cascade through all the productive processes in the economy. Laden will no longer have to worry about the carbon released to build his solar cells or his electric car, because that price will have been incorporated into the cost of the manufacturing process. Climate-damaging energy consumption will raise the costs of the product. And when Laden walks into the electric car dealership, the cost of the car will have gone up enough to include climate damage. But the cost of operating a gasoline-powered car will also have gone up due to the carbon tax, so Laden may find that gasoline cars are no longer as cost effective, which might make an electric car worth the price after all.

Or maybe not. But the point is that with carbon taxes (or a number of similar ideas) we can be climate conscious without researching the total carbon footprint of everything we buy. All we have to do is compare prices.

A Monstrous New Constitution

Someone at @Popehat (no idea which one) pointed out that Andrew Burstein at Salon is calling for a new constitutional convention. I’m generally against the idea, because although I can think of a few things I’d like to change, I’d be worried that we’d lose way too many freedoms if we rewrote the Constitution in this fearful day and age. Burstein’s article is an excellent example of what I’m worried about.

To start with, I’ve got to wonder if the author has ever read the Constitution or thought about what the Constitution is for, because he really takes the discussion down into the weeds. A few examples:

“Bring the best teachers to the worst schools, and pay a hefty premium to those teachers. Make a commitment to fixing these schools first. Let them shine on the outside, as a site for community pride. Give them great equipment and smaller classes. Make the learning environment of the poor superior. Take pride in actual democratic commitment. […] While we’re at it, unless they can be seriously monitored, and we mean seriously, let’s move away from the concept of for-profit charter schools, for-profit universities and for-profit prisons. They have already proven themselves unusually subject to private greed and corruption.”

“Start teaching foreign languages in first or second grade.”

“SAT and GRE scores do not measure imagination. Also, reinforce what teachers do by adding counselors and school psychologists to our school systems.”

“Protect Social Security by increasing the Social Security tax rate of those who earn over a certain amount (say, $300,000) in a given year. Close tax loopholes that continue to protect industries that otherwise feel no compulsion to collaborate with others for social betterment: they should not be bullied, just equitably taxed.”

“Instead of rewarding oil and coal interests with government subsidies, accord them the same treatment government has given to Big Tobacco for a whole generation, which has dramatically reduced the percentage of Americans who smoke. Just as no one objects to highway signs that read “Buckle Up,” would it hurt to see warning labels at the gas pump?”

I realize that Andrew Burstein is a college professor, so education must undoubtedly loom large as an issue, but what the hell is he doing talking about SAT and GRE scores in the Constitution? The whole article is really just an exercise in “If I ruled the world…”

That’s not to say Burstein wouldn’t make some Constitution-level changes if he ruled the world. Among those I was able to identify are

  1. gutting free speech
  2. slavery

Let’s take that second one first. He doesn’t want to bring back race-based chattel slavery (so…good for him), but he does want to force young people to work against their will:

Our 18-year-olds are hyperactive online but, for the most part, socially immature. They learn how to party in college, while generally failing to complete reading assignments. The new Constitution would institute a two-year national service commitment, allowing students to obtain college admission at the end of high school–deferred acceptance. They would have the security of a spot waiting for them in college, but would in the meantime take a deliberate part in expansive national service programs.

I don’t know what I hate more, the fact that he wants compulsory national service, or the fact his only justification is that college students are immature and party too much. Because that’s not a reason to steal two years of their lives to work on projects like this:

A math whiz from Vermont can teach high school kids in Zuni, New Mexico. A senior who loves environmental history might work for the Park Service or on an experimental farm. For some, it will be the armed forces. Develop pride, develop useful skills. Energize young citizens–remember, they can vote at 18. Get businesses involved, partnering with government. Teach real-life communication skills, with a dose of empathy. Don’t coddle, but compensate the young men and women for their service. Even those who don’t intend to go to college will profit from such an introduction to a varied, more interesting life.

I have no objection to getting people to teach math or work on an experimental farm, although I’m pretty sure we could get them to do so freely if we just paid them enough. And what exactly will be the process for matching people to their national service jobs? I wonder if Burstein is picturing some wise and kindly government expert poring over Johnny’s class records and carefully picking out a job that will be just right for him. Because that’s the kind of subtle personalized service we all expect from government bureaucrats, right?

I also can’t help wondering about those poor inner-city kids — minorities, most likely — who are stuck in crappy schools and who therefore never get a chance to be math wizards or environmental history geeks. I suppose there’s always the armed forces — which will no doubt be super pleasant to serve in once nobody has a choice — but what about those who don’t qualify? I notice Burstein mentions getting businesses involved. What’s he got in mind? Coal mining? Garment work? Commercial fishing? Or perhaps some nice farming conglomerate could snap up the cheap labor for harvest season. Is picking cotton still labor intensive?

(I suppose that if I had to teach a bunch of snotty college students, I’d fantasize about sending them all off to a couple of years of conscript labor too. On the other hand, I’ll bet Burstein’s teachers felt the same way about him, but a quick glance at his biography doesn’t indicate any military service or the Peace Corps or anything like that. Just fifteen years on Wall Street followed by a job in academia. Perhaps he feels that his university teaching is service enough, unlike the rest of us with our less-exalted jobs.)

As for gutting free speech, that’s because Burstein is really pissed off about the Citizens United ruling:

This is the thing. We all know the solution to our sorest problem. Let’s spell out what everyone’s saying, but voters, en masse, have failed to press for hard enough. It’s all the friggin’ campaign contributions. No more fundraising. Period.


Use tax dollars exclusively to fund national political campaigns. As students of history, the framers of our Constitution understood the classical meaning of the terms “republic” and “democracy.” Individually and collectively, they would have had a single word for Citizens United: CORRUPTION. Institutionalized corruption. Despite its contrived explanation, the 2010 Supreme Court decision is not about free speech; all it endorses is the thug’s motto: “Money talks.”

(Impressive use of ALL CAPS, dude. You almost had me convinced! Next time, try adding exclamation marks!!!)

Does he even know what Citizens United was about? A group of people operating a non-profit corporation made a documentary that was critical of a candidate for public office and the Federal Election Commission got a court to order them not to show it on television or even to advertise it, basically on the grounds that the expense of showing it was equivalent to to donating money to the candidate’s opponents. The Supreme Court ruled that prohibiting them from showing it violated their free speech rights, implicitly concluding that people don’t lose that right just because they happen to be organized as a corporation.

I honestly have no clue why Burstein says “money talks” is the “thug’s motto.” Thugs don’t talk to you, they hurt you. Yet Burstein apparently thinks that it’s evil for corporations to spend money to talk to people. Because that’s all that he and everyone else are upset about: Corporations talking to people.

(I guess he could be arguing that by spending money on behalf of a politician’s election campaign, corporations are essentially bribing politicians, but I have no clue what bribery has to do with thuggery either.)

Remove money from politics and ideas flourish. One hundred percent public funding, and a designated campaign season extending months, not years. It can be done, people. They don’t know it now, but even the politician class will be glad for it. Do you think they live for the Iowa caucuses? Oblige them to spend more time studying and legislating and less time posturing.

You bet your ass the politician class will be happy for it. Challengers and critics won’t be pointing out their faults and criticizing their policies if the incumbent politicians withhold funding. And not only does Burstein want to prevent people from talking about politics immediately before an election (as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act did before Citizens United invalidated it), he also wants to prohibit people from talking about politics at any other time as well.

And unlike the corporate “thugs” he’s so concerned about, the thugs silencing free speech in the name of campaign finance laws won’t just talk to people: They’ll send men with guns to lock them in cages and take all their stuff.

Lest you think I’m making too much of his opposition to Citizens United, he also wants to suppress other kinds of free speech as well:

Make those crass [oil company] ads go away–take the one where the caring female executive of BP Alaska boasts of how the insufficiently regulated corporation responsible for the Deepwater Horizon disaster loves people and creates jobs and works for America. You shouldn’t be able to put a compassionate face on corporate greed. Let’s get priorities straight: Instead of permitting them to twist facts, make polluters pay for TV ads that aggressively promote a clean-energy economy.


And is there some way to free the airwaves from the pestilential noise generated by those ideologues who shout ignorantly about getting government off their backs?

Yeah, won’t those guys feel stupid for having whined about something as minor as Obamacare when the new government starts taking their children away on their 18th birthday. That will teach them.

I gotta say, there’s more than just a tinge of fascism in all this.

What promise lies in the business of getting ahead at all costs? Or in the unmitigated voyeurism prompted by a mass culture daily saturated with news of mass shootings and manufactured celebrities’ mostly bare bodies? The bizarre and banal loom before our eyes and almost appear to outweigh what matters. […] We should think large.

You know who else thought large? Hitler.

Yeah, I went there. Sorry. The “You know who else…?” meme is just a joke, but this “national greatness” bullshit is not just a right-wing obsession anymore, and it pisses me off. I have grown to despise would-be leaders who belittle the concerns and culture of ordinary people while trying to enlist us in whatever bullshit they believe is more important than our petty selfish desire to enjoy our lives.

Clearly, Burstein is not a genocidal monster. But he does want to enslave millions, and he wants to silence and imprison those who speak out without approval. That makes him some kind of monster.

To contend with those who have been conditioned to fear “big government,” here’s the winning response: Let us profit from good government ideas once they are put into practice. Government performed a masterstroke at the end of World War II with the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944–you know it as the GI Bill–enabling millions of veterans to go to college and better themselves. It’s proof that government can make a positive difference in citizens’ lives.

Perhaps. But while you’re talking about the 1940s, let’s not overlook the 60 million people who never had a chance to better themselves because they died in World War II. That too is a difference made by government.

The Wrong Terminator

So there’s another Terminator film in the works, scheduled for next summer. I want it to be awesome, but I’m not expecting much. From what I gather, the impetus to make the film was that the company that made the last one went belly up and somebody ended up with the rights and figured they’d better do something with them, and Arnold’s available again, so what the hell, let’s try to squeeze out another film…

Besides, they’ve got the wrong person playing the Terminator. It’s true that Arnold Schwarzenegger created the role, but he doesn’t own it. In my mind, the role belongs to the one person who’s played a Terminator for much more screen time than Arnold ever did:

Summer Glau played Cameron the Terminator for 33 episodes of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which took place after the events of the second movie and which did more intelligent things with the world of John Connor and Skynet than than either of the last two movies. Or probably the next one.