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.

Two Cheers for the Secret Service [Updated]

Am I the only one who thought the U.S. Secret Service did a pretty good job of handling the guy who jumped the fence and ran for the front door?

I’m especially appalled at the suggestion that snipers should have shot him after he jumped the fence. It’s reported that the only weapon on him was a small folding knife, so if the White House door had been locked, he would have just been a guy with a tiny knife running around outside a building. I think the secret service did a great job of stopping him without hurting him.

Look, keeping the President safe is easy. Just lock him in a bunker for four years, or maybe move him in secret between several different bunkers. Never let him make an appearance, never tell anyone where he is. If safety is the only thing that’s important, that would do the trick.

But that’s not the kind of government we have. Our leaders can’t treat U.S. citizens as an enemy to be contained and subjugated, and so our leaders go out in public and the White House looks like a comfortable southern mansion with a nice fence around it.

I mean, look at that fence. When you build a fence like that, you expect people to climb over it. They could have gone with something more secure — like a prison yard wall — but they didn’t, because that wouldn’t look much like a democracy, and so from time to time, people will jump the fence. That kind of vulnerability is part of the tradeoff we make to have an elected President instead of a President-for-life.

As it happens, Gonzalez turns out to be an Iraq war veteran with 15 years in the military. He apparently had some mental problems which might or might not be service-related. Neighbors report that he was paranoid about people breaking into his house. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out Gonzalez jumped the fence because he wanted to warn the President about some imagined peril.

But whatever his thinking, it would have been a sad thing to shoot him dead on the President’s front lawn.

Update: It turns out that Gonzalez made it much further into the White House than had been previously reported, according to Washington Post journalist Carol D. Leonnig:

An alarm box near the front entrance of the White House designed to alert guards to an intruder had been muted at what officers believed was a request of the usher’s office, said a Secret Service official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The female officer posted inside the front door appeared to be delayed in learning that the intruder, Omar Gonzalez, was about to burst through. Officers are trained that, upon learning of an intruder on the grounds, often through the alarm boxes posted around the property, they must immediately lock the front door.

After barrelling past the guard immediately inside the door, Gonzalez, who was carrying a knife, dashed past the stairway leading a half-flight up to the first family’s living quarters. He then ran into the 80-foot-long East Room, an ornate space often used for receptions or presidential addresses.

Gonzalez was tackled by a counter-assault agent at the far southern end of the East Room. The intruder reached the doorway to the Green Room, a parlor overlooking the South Lawn with artwork and antique furniture, according to three people familiar with the incident.

So, maybe only one cheer for the Secret Service. But I’m still glad they didn’t shoot him.

An Awkward Moment in the Apple Encryption Debate

So a couple of days ago I was explaining why Orin Kerr was wrong about Apple’s new policy of rendering themselves unable to encrypt customers’ iPhones, and in passing I linked with some disdain to a piece by former FBI Assistant Director Ronald T. Hosko, who was claiming, of course, that the new policy would help the bad guys.

Yesterday, however, Hosko did something that none of the anti-privacy alarmists at the NSA have ever been able to do: He gave an actual example of someone who would have been harmed by Apple’s policy. He did this in a post for the Washington Post‘s blog PostEverything titled something like “I helped save a kidnapped man from getting killed. With apple’s new encryption rules, we never would have found him.”

It was a dramatic way to make his point. It’s one thing for people like me to go on about abstract concepts like privacy rights, but I don’t have the burden of helping save the life of actual kidnap victims. In the face of Hosko’s story, the privacy argument becomes a lot harder to make. I suppose if I wrote a full response to Hosko’s piece, I would have to reiterate the dangers of a brittle security system, I would talk about the horrors of living in an all-seeing totalitarian police state, and I would point out that law enforcement officers are not free of trustworthiness issues.

The trustworthiness problem is especially relevant. You may notice I didn’t give you a link to Hoska’s article. That’s because in the time since it was originally posted, the title has been changed to “Apple and Google’s new encryption rules would make law enforcement’s job much harder,” and this note has been added at the bottom:

Editor’s note: This story incorrectly stated that Apple and Google’s new encryption rules would have hindered law enforcement’s ability to rescue the kidnap victim in Wake Forest, N.C. This is not the case. The piece has been corrected.

As near as I can tell from the rewrite, Hosko was a little confused, and it turns out the FBI got all the information they needed from the carrier, not the phone itself.

So, maybe I’ll write that longer response some day. But for now, I think I’ll just take this as an illustration of why I’m not really ready to trust these people when they say they need access to my personal data.

The People’s Climate Change

I’ve been trying to explain to my science-oriented friends who complain about climate change denial that a lot of people who have doubts about global warming are not so much anti-science as they are suspicious of scientific claims coming from people with an ideological agenda.

Imagine for a moment that your least favorite right-wing pundits — Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, John Derbyshire, Michelle Malkin, whoever — all started talking about new neurological research that found racially-linked differences in brain structures which implied that people of African descent have weaker impulse control than people of European descent. And suppose they used this research to justify polices protecting white people from out-of-control black people, such as removal of black people from the military and police forces, separate schools for black and white children, and allowing businesses to refuse to serve black customers because “science has proven that black people can’t control themselves.”

Wouldn’t that sort of racist agenda make you really, really skeptical about the validity of the neuroscience they were touting? Science should, of course, be judged by scientific standards — good data, rigorous methods, peer review, repeatability — and if you have the background to understand the science, you might insist on seeing the detailed studies for yourself.

But if you, like most people, don’t have the knowledge or skills or time to evaluate the science directly, you have to rely on what more knowledgeable people are saying about it, and with a controversial subject like global warming, you have to figure out who to trust, and in trying to figure out who to trust, you’re going to end up looking at what else people stand for. And if they have an agenda you find repellant, wouldn’t you be damned suspicious of their science?

Ever since global warming started attracting attention at the end of the 1980’s, left-leaning folks have been seizing on it as a justification for their preexisting agenda. Here’s a very recent sample of what I’m talking about from this weekend’s People’s Climate March in New York:

The people interviewed here are not discussing climate change much at all. Instead we hear them saying that “corporations have to be reined in” and that they want to create a “new socialist society,” and that they want “revolution, nothing less.”

Many of the featured protesters are anti-capitalist, anti-corporation, and anti-free market. Some of them are literally communists. Some of them oppose not just capitalism, but all the benefits of modern civilization:

“We live in a grotesque era where we have everything we want, all the time, right now.”

“I think having less is actually very freeing.”

“Turn everything off.”

When you see people like this as the face of the climate change movement, you could be forgiven for wondering if maybe anthropogenic global warming is not so much an “inconvenient truth” as a suspiciously convenient theory for the radical left.

(Personally, I’ve been following some libertarian pundits and free market economists on the climate issue, because I share their values and because I know they’ll be skeptical of dire warnings of disaster that come prepackaged with claimed solutions that would further empower the government, and the argument there has long since moved on from the question of whether global warming is happening to what we should do about it.)

Orin Kerr’s Dangerous Thinking

Apple has announced that with the new iOS 8 release they are no longer able to comply with law enforcement warrants to decrypt the contents of iPhones and iPads.

On devices running iOS 8, your personal data such as photos, messages (including attachments), email, contacts, call history, iTunes content, notes, and reminders is placed under the protection of your passcode. Unlike our competitors, Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data. So it’s not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8.

As soon as I heard about this, I figured it would provoke outrage from the usual quarters, invoking the standard list of villains. Terrorists! Drug dealers! Child pornographers! Oh My! Here’s the first example I found:

Ronald T. Hosko, the former head of the FBI’s criminal investigative division, called the move by Apple “problematic,” saying it will contribute to the steady decrease of law enforcement’s ability to collect key evidence — to solve crimes and prevent them. The agency long has publicly worried about the “going dark” problem, in which the rising use of encryption across a range of services has undermined government’s ability to conduct surveillance, even when it is legally authorized.

“Our ability to act on data that does exist . . . is critical to our success,” Hosko said. He suggested that it would take a major event, such as a terrorist attack, to cause the pendulum to swing back toward giving authorities access to a broad range of digital information.

So Hosko went with “terrorists.” I will leave finding examples mentioning drug dealers and child pornographers as an exercise for the reader.

I’m not too concerned about about the general outrage (yet), but I do want to address the concerns raised by Orin Kerr, because they are more thoughtful than the usual law-and-order hysterics, and because they are wrong and dangerous to civil liberties.

If I understand how it works, the only time the new design matters is when the government has a search warrant, signed by a judge, based on a finding of probable cause. Under the old operating system, Apple could execute a lawful warrant and give law enforcement the data on the phone. Under the new operating system, that warrant is a nullity. It’s just a nice piece of paper with a judge’s signature. Because Apple demands a warrant to decrypt a phone when it is capable of doing so, the only time Apple’s inability to do that makes a difference is when the government has a valid warrant. The policy switch doesn’t stop hackers, trespassers, or rogue agents. It only stops lawful investigations with lawful warrants.

That’s just not true. I think Orin is probably an honorable guy, but he’s repeating a lie that a lot of people would like you to believe. The truth is that anything that Apple does to protect our data from the government also protects our data from malicious people inside Apple itself. After all, in order for Apple to be able to decrypt our iPhone data for the government, Apple has to be able to decrypt our iPhone data.

In order to do that, Apple has to have people somewhere within its organization who have access to software and cryptography keys that can crack iPhone encryption, which makes it possible that someday an employee could walk out of Apple headquarters carrying a MacBook full of software that can break the security on half a billion iPhones.

In addition, Apple having the ability to crack its phones’ security creates a brittle break of iPhone security. It’s like putting an elaborate $1000 electronic lock on every door in an office building and keeping the keycard programmer in the building superintendent’s office. Anyone with the burglary skills to break in to the super’s office can ransack the rest of the building with ease. And anyone who gets a hold of Apple’s iPhone cracker can read every iPhone in the world.

That sort of high-value target is very tempting for hackers. And when I say hackers, remember that it’s not just rebellious college kids working out of their dorm. Commercial hacking is a serious criminal enterprise, run by the same kinds of people that run drug smuggling rings and extortion rackets. Making matters worse are the various national intelligence agencies in places like Russia, China, and Iran that might find it worthwhile to spend tens of millions of dollars on a technical and human intelligence program to compromise iPhone security, and the security of everything we can reach from our iPhones. And since plenty of foreigners use iPhones, I wouldn’t be surprised if the NSA has already stolen the keys from Apple.

Apple’s design change [is] one it is legally authorized to make, to be clear. Apple can’t intentionally obstruct justice in a specific case, but it is generally up to Apple to design its operating system as it pleases. So it’s lawful on Apple’s part. But here’s the question to consider: How is the public interest served by a policy that only thwarts lawful search warrants?

I think I’ve explained quite well how that public interest is served, because Apple’s changes don’t just thwart lawful search warrants, they also thwart malicious hacking and bad actors inside Apple. Once you remove this false assumption, Orin Kerr’s post falls apart.

Orin’s argument worries me for another reason, however, because he frames the issue in a way that is dangerous for the future of privacy. For example, at one point, this is how he responds to the argument that there are technical alternatives available to law enforcement even with Apple’s changes:

These possibilities may somewhat limit the impact of Apple’s new policy. But I don’t see how they answer the key question of what’s the public interest in thwarting valid warrants. After all, these options also exist under the old operating system when Apple can comply with a warrant to unlock the phone. And while the alternatives may work in some cases, they won’t work in other cases. And that brings us back to how it’s in the public interest to thwart search warrants in those cases when the alternatives won’t work. I’d be very interested in the answer to that question from defenders of Apple’s policy. And I’d especially like to hear an answer from Apple’s General Counsel, Bruce Sewell.

You know what? I don’t give a damn what Apple apple thinks. Or their general counsel. The data stored on my phone isn’t encrypted because Apple wants it encrypted. It’s encrypted because I want it encrypted. I chose this phone, and I chose to use an operating system that encrypts my data. The reason Apple can’t decrypt my data is because I installed an operating system that doesn’t allow them to.

I’m writing this post on a couple of my computers that run versions of Microsoft Windows. Unsurprisingly, Apple can’t decrypt the data on these computers either. That this operating system software is from Microsoft rather than Apple is beside the point. The fact is that Apple can’t decrypt the data on these computers is because I’ve chosen to use software that doesn’t allow them to. The same would be true if I was posting from my iPhone. That Apple wrote the software doesn’t change my decision to encrypt.

This touches on another thing that Orin seems to miss, which is that Apple’s new policy is not particularly unusual. In situations that demand high-security, it’s kind of the industry standard.

I’ve been using the encryption features in Microsoft Windows for years, and Microsoft makes it very clear that if I lose the pass code for my data, not even Microsoft can recover it. I created the encryption key, which is only stored on my computer, and I created the password that protects the key, which is only stored in my brain. Anyone that needs data on my computer has to go through me. (Actually, the practical implementation of this system has a few cracks, so it’s not quite that secure, but I don’t think that affects my argument. Neither does the possibility that the NSA has secretly compromised the algorithm.)

Microsoft is not the only player in Windows encryption. Symantec offers various encryption products, and there are off-brand tools like DiskCryptor and TrueCrypt (if it ever really comes back to life). You could also switch to Linux, which has several distributions that include whole-disk encryption. You can also find software to encrypt individual documents and databases.

If you use another company to store your data in the cloud, you can use encryption to ensure that they can’t read what they’re storing. Your computer would just encrypt files before uploading then, and then decrypt them when retrieving them.  For example,  EMC’s Mozy backup gives you the option of letting the service do the decryption or doing it yourself with a private key, as do Jungle Disk and Code42 Software’s Crashplan encrypted backup. Dropbox doesn’t offer client-side encryption, so they can read the data you send them, but there are third-party tools such as SafeMonk that run on your computer and encrypt the data before Dropbox ever sees it.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that it’s not Apple’s data, and it’s not Apple that makes the decision to encrypt the data. It’s our data, and we decide whether to encrypt it or not. Apple is just one of several companies that supply the tools we use to do that.

Orin Kerr’s viewpoint seems to elevate Apple’s participation in the process, to treat Apple as somehow responsible for preserving law enforcement access to data that is not even in its possession. That’s not a model I’m comfortable with as the basis for legislation. I don’t want to normalize the idea that the providers of our information tools are obligated to subvert those tools because it makes the government’s job easier.

Orin suggests that might be a possibility:

The most obvious option would be follow the example of CALEA and E911 regulations by requiring cellular phone manufacturers to have a technical means to bypass passcodes on cellular phones. In effect, Congress could reverse Apple’s policy change by mandating that phones be designed to have this functionality. That would restore the traditional warrant requirement.

CALEA is bad enough in requiring carriers to have the technological ability in place to allow law enforcement agencies to tap telephone and internet traffic traversing the carriers’ networks. What Orin is suggesting (although not advocating) goes far beyond that, by requiring computer systems manufacturers to intentionally subvert their customers’ information security, even if unlike the CALEA scenario, the customer’s information never leaves the customer’s hands. It seems like a slippery slope that could eventually lead to a requirement for every electronic device in our lives to be able to spy on us at the government’s request.

As for restoring the “traditional warrant requirement,” my understanding is that a warrant allows the government to intrude on someone’s privacy to gather evidence. But can a traditional warrant be used to compel a third party to intrude on someone’s privacy? If the government gets a warrant to plant a bug to hear what my wife and I talk about at home, they might ask a locksmith to help them break into my house, but could they use that warrant to force the locksmith to help them? If they want to test my blood for drugs, can they use a warrant to force the nearest doctor to draw my blood and the nearest lab to test it? If they want to surveil a suspect, can a judge order me to grab my camera and take pictures of him?

(For that matter, I don’t quite understand how the government can force Apple to decrypt a phone. I’m guessing that it’s because Apple has some special cryptographic key that makes it easier, and it’s less destructive to privacy for Apple to decrypt a phone than for Apple to turn that key over to the government, but I could be totally wrong.)

Frankly, I’m not convinced that the “traditional warrant requirement” is applicable to encrypted data. Search warrants have always been about the government’s authority to search, but given enough manpower, equipment, and time, the government’s physical ability to conduct the search has never been an issue. The agents of law enforcement have always been able to knock down every door, rip open every wall, and break every box.

Until now.

Modern strong encryption is effectively unbreakable with current technology. Securely encrypted data can only be read by someone who has the decryption key. And if every copy of the decryption key is destroyed, nobody will ever be able to read that data again. (Not using current technology. Not before the stars burn out.) It’s like some sort of science fiction scenario where the data is sealed off in another dimension.

So what should happen to the government’s authority to break every box when someone invents an unbreakable box? It’s not clear to me that the solution is, or should be, requiring the makers of unbreakable boxes to build in secret levers to open them.

(Hat tip: Scott Greenfield)

Scattershot: Dating, Cops Behaving Badly, NSA, and Some Lucky People

Random shots around the web:

 

(Hat tip: Prison Culture)

Step Back From the Line of Fire, Batman

Like, I think, most people, I first heard Junip’s mesmerizing song “Line of Fire” in the promo for the final episode of Breaking Bad:

Sometime afterward, I decided to check YouTube to see if there was an official video for the song. I found it here, but along the way I also found something far more entertaining in this fan mash-up from someone who realized that the song is a good fit for Batman’s story:

If Only the Paperwork

Over at Addicting Info, Jameson Parker complains that, as he puts it in the headline, “NRA Argues People Should Be Allowed To Lie On Gun Registration Forms, Defeating The Whole Purpose.”

This arose out of a criminal case decided by the Supreme Court a few months ago, where Bruce Abramski bought a gun on behalf of his uncle, but filled in the paperwork with his own identifying information instead of his uncle’s. This is, of course, against the rules. Abramaski, with a little help from the NRA, managed to take this all the way to the Supreme Court:

Arbramski’s argument was basically that since his uncle would have passed the background check, and is legally allowed to own a gun, the question of whether the firearm was for him or for his uncle is irrelevant. However, if he had indicated that he was purchasing the gun for someone else, the sale would not have been completed, though, until that person completed the background check paperwork.

That was not a winning argument, which pleases Jameson Parker, because Jameson Parker hates gun owners.

Bruce Abramski bought a gun, which he was legally eligible to own. He then sold it to his uncle, who was also legally allowed to own a gun. What makes this a crime is that the paperwork was filled out wrong: It had Abramski’s name on it instead of his uncle’s. Had the uncle come in and filled out the paperwork in his own name and purchased the gun directly, it would have been entirely legal, even though the end result — the uncle owning a gun, which he is legally allowed to do — would have been exactly the same.

Actually, it’s worse than that. One of the keys facts in the case against Abramski is that when he bought the gun he checked a box indicating that he was the actual buyer. Now if he had gone into that gun shop intending to buy a gun for himself, then he would have truly been the actual buyer, and everything would have been completely legal. And then if he happened to run into his uncle, who admired the gun, then Abramski could have sold his uncle the gun as a private sale, which also would have been legal.

The problem for Abramski is that at the time he was filling out the paperwork at the dealer and checking the box that said he was the buyer, he was actually planning to sell the gun to his uncle, and having that thought in his head is the thing that turns out to be a federal crime.

On the other hand, if the thought he had in his head was that he would sell the gun to someone, but he didn’t have a particular someone in mind — maybe he just figured he could sell it to someone in his gun-loving family  — that would have been legal too. It would also have been legal if he was thinking of transferring the gun to his uncle as a gift instead of a sale.

It’s easy to understand why Abramski fought his criminal charges – he had gotten in trouble and wanted to get out of trouble. It’s harder to justify the NRA’s role in this. …the gun group is turning towards unthinking fanaticism at an alarming rate. No longer does it represent sensible gun legislation which supports gun rights, instead it has a knee-jerk reaction to oppose any limits to guns at all.

Making it illegal to think about selling a gun when you’re buying it is not sensible gun legislation. This is, in fact, an excellent example of why gun owners and the NRA oppose legislation that often appears sensible on the surface (especially as reported in the not-terribly-gun-friendly media). The craziness doesn’t become apparent until you look at the details and think about how they could be abused by people acting in bad faith. And when it comes to gun ownership, a lot of people in authority have proven themselves willing to act in bad faith.

There are many rules – big and small – that people find annoyingly hard to follow, but inconvenience isn’t an excuse to disobey them. In this case, the rule isn’t even a minor one, it’s a massive public safety issue.

No, it’s not. It’s purely a paperwork thing. I assume that the goal of these paperwork rules is to prevent someone who’s not allowed to own a gun from getting someone else to buy one for them. That sounds like it’s probably a pretty good thing to outlaw. But Abramski didn’t do that. He didn’t sell the gun to someone who’s not allowed to have one. He just broke the rules for filling out the paperwork.

Knowing who is buying guns is really important. The background check isn’t an arbitrary invasion of privacy as some conservatives claim, it is one of the biggest tools we have to preventing guns from getting into the wrong hands. It also allows police officers the ability to trace guns after they’ve been used in crimes.

According to the Daily Kos, which is not exactly a right wing mouthpiece, when Abramski transferred the gun to his uncle, they went to a gun dealer and filled out paperwork for the transfer, so they didn’t even break the paper trail for the gun.

I’m not arguing that Abramski didn’t break the law. (The legal issues are far too convoluted for me to untangle.) And I’m not arguing that he did nothing wrong in filling out the paperwork in his own name. (Although in this case it’s hard to see the harm.) What I am arguing is that he did nothing terribly wrong. I certainly don’t think he did anything so wrong that it deserves the potential pair of 5-year sentences that Abramski could have received. Nobody else appears to have thought so either, since Abramski’s actual sentence was 5 years of probation.

Parker characterizes this as the NRA saying it was OK to lie when buying a gun, which is probably technically accurate, but it misses the point that the lie seems to have been of little practical significance. As far as I can tell (and I am not a lawyer, so don’t use this as a guide), Abramski wouldn’t have been convicted if he had

  • made his uncle buy the gun directly,
  • bought the gun for the purpose of giving it to his uncle as a gift,
  • bought the gun for himself but then changed his mind and sold it to his uncle later, or
  • bought the gun intending to resell it to someone else for a profit.

Note that all four scenarios have one thing in common with each other and with what actually happened: The uncle ended up with the gun. In other words, the only difference between legal and illegal is the paperwork, and how important is the paperwork, really? This is basically just a gun-specific variant on the false statements law, which makes it a serious crime to tell a lie, even if the lie itself has no serious consequences.

It serves little public purpose to punish people severely for trivial and harmless lies. It also serves little public purpose to punish people severely for filling out paperwork incorrectly when there’s no real-world harm. It becomes just another way for law enforcement and prosecutors to get an easy notch on their belts, or to harass people they don’t like.

Gun laws are not the only legal area that’s full of landmines where filling out some paperwork incorrectly or breaking some obscure minor rule can land you in a world of hurt, which is why it would be a good thing if Jameson Parker and other anti-gun pundits didn’t cheer on this kind of nonsense because it’s happening to people they don’t like. Because what goes around, comes around.

Bargaining Power 101

Scott Greenfield posted a story a while back about a conversation he had with a biglaw lawyer who was trying to refer a client on a criminal matter. The biglaw guy apparently wanted Scott to commit to negotiating a deal for the client without going to trial. He didn’t even think it was necessary for Scott to do legal research or investigate the case. His explanation for why he thought this was a good idea is disheartening:

My pal then launched into an explanation, that his partner, the “white collar specialist” formerly known as the prosecutor, had already been contacted and explained to the high profile client that nobody wins, that only a fool tries, and that the wise defendant comes in with hat in hand, throws himself upon the mercy of the similarly wise prosecutor, who then exercises mercy and offers a lenient deal that allows the defendant to move on with his life.  That, he explained to the high profile client, is how good lawyers do it.

Oh dear God. I watch a lot of cop shows, and whenever the cops finally get the bad guy in the interrogation room, they always say something like “If you don’t talk to us, we won’t be able to help you out.” Cops make fun of suspects who fall for that, but the “white collar specialist” seems to actually think that the prosecutor will help out his client out of some sense of civility and niceness. I suppose that’s possible, in theory, but I suspect the prosecutor is more interested in getting the best possible deal from the government’s point of view, because that’s kind of his job.

The strangest thing, however, is that the biglaw lawyer seems unfamiliar with the fundamental rule of bargaining: In any negotiation, the person who has the most bargaining power is the person who is most able to walk away. The less you have to lose if the deal falls through, the less the other side can pressure you to make a deal, which means you have more control over the terms of the deal.

Therefore, the best way to get a good deal at the plea bargain is to be as prepared as possible to win at trial. If the trial will be difficult, you can expect a harsh plea offer, but if you have nothing to fear from a trial, you have nothing to fear from a plea. So even if Scott’s would-be client just wants a quick deal, he’ll get a better deal if Scott can convince the prosecutor that the defense has a good chance of beating at least some of the charges at trial. I know Scott is a Superlawyer, but I think even he’d need to poke at the case a bit first.

Granted, plea bargaining in the real world is more complicated than this simple rule, and there are probably cases where the smart move is to make a quick deal. But I find it hard to believe there’s any case in which a quick deal is so important that the defense lawyer should commit to it during the referral.

Sloppy Renewal Plans for Obamacare?

I used to work on healthcare insurance enrollment systems. This is a bad sign for the next Obamacare open enrollment period:

People will be renewing at the same time that others are enrolling for the first time, starting a week and a half before Thanksgiving, on Nov. 15. To ensure that they have a new plan by the beginning of the year, those who renew will have to sign up by Dec. 15. Exactly how the renewal process will work has not yet been determined.

“We’re still waiting on the details of the process,” said Paula Steiner, chief strategy officer for Health Care Service Corporation, which offers Blue Cross plans in five states. “We haven’t gone through any testing yet of any changes to the system for 2015.”

Not having plan details is normal — the insurance carriers might not provide that data until the last minute — but not having specifications for the process this close to opening for enrollment is going to be a real problem.

The Extractive Economy of St. Louis County

Radley Balko finally published the story he was working on in St. Louis County. It’s an amazing piece of work, detailing numerous examples of the abusive relationship between the suburban communities and their residents.

When the officer showed up, Bolden filled with dread.

“He was really nice and polite at first,” Bolden says. “But once he ran my name, he got real mean with me. He told me I was going to jail. I had my 3-year-old and my one-and-a-half-year-old with me. I asked him about my kids. He said I had better find someone to come and get them, because he was taking me in.” The Florissant officer arrested and cuffed Bolden in front of her children. Her kids remained with another officer until Bolden’s mother and sister could come pick them up.

The officer found that Bolden had four arrest warrants in three separate jurisdictions: the towns of Florissant and Hazelwood in St. Louis County and the town of Foristell in St. Charles County. All of the warrants were for failure to appear in court for traffic violations. Bolden hadn’t appeared in court because she didn’t have the money. A couple of those fines were for speeding, one was for failure to wear her seatbelt and most of the rest were for what defense attorneys in the St. Louis area have come to call “poverty violations” — driving with a suspended license, expired plates, expired registration and a failure to provide proof of insurance.

It may sound like this woman is just a scofflaw — four warrants, for Pete’s sake — but as Radley reveals, the small towns that make up suburban St. Louis County are operated in a way that deliberately creates that kind of situation. Police are constantly on the lookout for new reasons to issue citations, and the system is rigged to encourage mistakes, leading to more citations and more warrants. Some towns have more outstanding warrants than they have citizens. All in the interest of earning money from fines.

Some of the towns in St. Louis County can derive 40 percent or more of their annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts. A majority of these fines are for traffic offenses, but they can also include fines for fare-hopping on MetroLink (St. Louis’s light rail system), loud music and other noise ordinance violations, zoning violations for uncut grass or unkempt property, violations of occupancy permit restrictions, trespassing, wearing “saggy pants,” business license violations and vague infractions such as “disturbing the peace” or “affray” that give police officers a great deal of discretion to look for other violations.

Radley tells a number of stories of how this system treats the residents. None of the stories are too horrible — people spend a few weeks in jail at the worst — but when multiplied by tens of thousands of warrants resulting from probably a couple of hundred thousand traffic tickets and minor violations, it’s an ugly story. It’s not quite the encomienda used to essentially enslave the indigenous people of South America, but Radley still paints a picture of an extractive economy in which productive people, mostly black, are preyed upon by an elite ruling caste consisting of city managers, police, lawyers, and judges.

When the protests first started in Ferguson after the shooting death of Michael Brown, a lot of people (including me) wondered why this particular death was the one that triggered a response. Why did the residents of Ferguson choose this moment to protest the police? Why were they angry enough to take to the streets this time? Why all the speeches and national attention?

I still don’t have an answer to those questions, but in light of Radley Balko’s story about what’s going on in St. Louis county, I think a better question is why would the people of Ferguson ever stop protesting? Given what’s been going on, they have every right to be very angry.

Look, I don’t want to be accused of moral relativism here. Of course the looting and arson were crimes. But those crimes were nothing compared to scale of outright thievery masquerading as government that the people of St. Louis County have been putting up with for years. There may have been a few dozen criminals among the protesters, but there are hundreds of criminals wearing badges and sitting in government offices.

A Note to All My Nude Readers

So, if I’m following the story right, it appears that someone managed to hack into a bunch of cell phones or iCloud accounts or something belonging to celebrities and find a bunch of nude photos, which they then apparently dumped on the internet.

I haven’t looked at any of these photos because (1) I already know how to find all the nude photos on the Internet that I’ll ever want to see, (2) even if I had the hots specifically for one of those actresses, the nude photos were supposed to be private, so I’d feel weird looking at them, and (3) even though I’m blogging about the photos now, I have no news-related reason to take a look at them.

The responses to the nude photo dump have been pretty typical. In particular, some people have pointed out that the surest way to avoid having nude pictures of yourself on the internet is to not take nude pictures of yourself. That drew the usual accusations of blaming the victim instead of and blaming the hacker who stole the pictures. This is pretty much the same set of responses we’ve seen with revenge porn. It’s a weird dynamic that I have trouble following, and I’m not quite sure what to say about it.

What I will say, however, to all my friends, family, acquaintances, blog readers, and Twitter followers, is that if any of you have some nude photos of yourself, and if those photos somehow get posted on the Internet, I won’t respect you any less.

For one thing, my libertarian leanings do not just apply to public policy; I’m also somewhat libertarian in my approach to culture and society. I’m really not going to get all judgmental about whatever you and another consenting adult (or two or three) choose to do in private or for willing viewers.

Also, and this may actually be the more important factor, I’ve been on the Internet a long, long time, and by now I’ve seen rather a lot of pictures of naked people — models, actors and actresses, porn stars — doing all kinds of different things. I mean, I was downloading GIFs of naked ladies in the early 1990s, before the World Wide Web was invented, and way before most of you ever heard of the Internet.

I say this not to highlight the shallowness of my life, but to explain why naked people on the Internet…just don’t seem like a big deal. Also, I’ve recently become interested in the sex worker rights movement, and I follow a bunch of sex work activists — strippers, prostitutes, dominatrixes, porn stars — many of whom post nude or semi-nude pictures all the time.

The point is, if I started seeing pictures of most of you naked…I probably wouldn’t even notice.

Undercover Colors Under Fire

Have you heard about the idea for nail polish called Undercover Colors that can be used to detect so-called “date rape drugs” in drinks? It seems to be just a concept for now, but the idea is that a woman having drinks with a date could discretely dip a fingernail into her drink, and the polish would change color if the drink had been spiked with any of several drugs.

My wife noticed this in the news a day or two ago, and my initial thought was that a woman who suspected her date was trying to dose her could use drug-detecting nail polish to check her drink. On further consideration, however, I’m not sure that makes any sense. I mean, if she’s so suspicious of her date that she wants to test her drink, is there really any point to doing the test? Shouldn’t she just get the heck out of there? What’s the thinking for sticking out the date? “He strikes me as the kind of man that would knock me out and rape me, but if the drug test clears him, I’ll stick around and maybe we’ll make out”?

I suppose it makes some sense at a social event or a busy club, where a total stranger could dose your drink without you ever knowing it, although even then it’s only going to stop the small percentage of rapes that involve drugs as a means of controlling the victim. Also, unless the indicator chemical goes on as a clear coat over other colors, it probably won’t give women the color choices they want.

Anyway, I wouldn’t have given it any more thought, except that I stumbled across a link on Twitter to an article about Undercover Colors by Melissa McEwan at the feminist site Shakesville. Some of her concerns are similar to mine, but a few of her complaints are frankly baffling.

Yeah. I have a couple of problems with that. Tara Culp-Ressler does a good job of compiling some of the obvious objections being made by anti-rape activists.

Like: Once again, potential victims are being tasked with rape prevention.

As opposed to who? Most rapes occur in private settings with only the victim and the rapist present, and the rapist is not going to be interested in rape prevention.

Like: Once again, we’re preemptively blaming victims. (How long before a woman who is sexually assaulted after being drugged is asked why she wasn’t wearing nail polish that could have prevented it?)

No, we’re not blaming the victims. It’s possible that at some point in the future someone will blame a victim, and that someone should be called out for being an asshole, but we’re not doing that now. Are you angry at companies that make car alarms because if you don’t have one and your car is stolen, some people will say you should have had an alarm? When someone offers you a choice, why would you get mad at them because someone else, who you consider to be a jerk, might criticize you for your choice?

Like: Once again, we’re focusing on women detecting roofies, rather than the men who put roofies in drinks in the first place.

Well, these people have a plan for detecting roofies, so that’s what they’re focusing on. If you think they should focus on getting men to stop putting roofies in drinks, what’s the plan for doing that? How has it been working so far? I’m willing to believe that initiatives to discourage sexual assault have some effect, but none of them are a panacea that obsoletes all other approaches.

Like: Being able to detect roofies in your drink only protects you; the person who put them there can move on to someone who isn’t wearing nail polish.

I’m not sure I’m understanding that correctly, but it sounds like McEwan is saying that because drug-detecting nail polish would not prevent all rapes, it’s a bad idea to use it to prevent any rapes. This sounds like some kind of radical egalitarian nonsense. Should we not have installed airbags in cars until we could afford to install them in all cars? Should we not produce new drugs to cure diseases unless we can make them cheaply enough for everyone?

There are so many reasons that this is problematic, and they all boil down to this: Individual solutions to systemic problems don’t work. It’s true whether we’re talking about unemployment, childcare options, or rape prevention.

Individual solutions work just fine for individuals who are able to take advantage of them. Not everybody can benefit from them, but not everybody can benefit from systemic approaches either. No rape prevention program aimed at changing men’s attitudes toward sexual violence is going to be 100% effective. Some men are just psychopaths.

And let us all take a moment to appreciate that we’re being told to buy something to prevent rape. Of course. Because the market solves everything. The market has never met a problem that screaming “bootstraps!” and admonishing crass consumerism can’t fix.

Oh dear God. You know, I understand the people who rant at capitalism, because capitalists are so often terrible people (Donald Trump, please call your office), but ranting at the free market is just bizarre. I mean, here are some people using their own time and money to try to solve at least part of a serious problem, and you don’t have to have anything to do with it if you don’t to, and somehow that’s a problem.

Besides, despite what I said earlier, there are probably going to be some women who find it useful to check if a drink is drugged. I would think, for example, that a woman who has been the victim of a “date rape drug” before might appreciate the peace of mind of being able to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. It could take some of the fear out of social situations.

Another group that would probably benefit is professional escorts, who routinely take the risk of spending time alone with strange men, and often turn down drinks out of fear of being roofied. With a discrete way to test the drink, they could be more accepting of hospitality and create a friendlier mood.

And while I was writing this, Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote about the same subject at Reason:

At the crux of most of these complaints is the axiom that we should teach men not to rape instead of teaching women not to be raped. And that’s an important message! Too much cultural focus for too long has been on how a women’s own conduct contributed or may contribute to her assault, in a way that winds up absolving assailants of culpability.

But teaching men not to rape and helping women avoid rape aren’t mutually exclusive options. It’s been said so many times already so as to be a cliche, but no one accuses security cameras of encouraging “theft culture”. And neither do most people blame theft victims for getting robbed just because they didn’t have security cameras.

And if they do blame theft victims for getting robbed because they don’t have security cameras, they’re idiots, and it would be ridiculous to argue against the sale of security cameras because idiots would blame victims for not having them. You shouldn’t give idiots that much power over the choices available to sane people.

WordPress Jetpack Comments — WTF?

WordPress’s Jetpack plugin is a nice collection of features for bloggers. I host my blog on a server I pay for instead of on the big WordPress.com cluster because I appreciate the extra flexibility, but by using Jetpack, I can also get some of the more powerful cluster-based features, like improved search and uptime monitoring. I have also apparently been making use of a feature called Jetpack Comments, which provides a more elegant comment interface and allows users to authenticate through WordPress, Facebook, and Twitter.

Not that I get a lot of comments. Windypundit doesn’t have the readership it used to have, and I never really had an active commenter community. Lately, in fact, it seems I hardly get any comments at all, which has been kind of disappointing. I assumed people just weren’t finding my posts interesting enough to engage with.

Over the last couple of weeks, however, I’ve been writing about the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and traffic to my site has roughly doubled because of it. And still there were no comments, even though this was a highly controversial subject. That was suspicious. Could there be something wrong with comments on my blog? Would that explain why I haven’t received any comments in a while?

Yes, yes it would.

It turns out Jetpack comments work by replacing the entire comment entry section with something called an iframe, which is an HTML element for embedding a web page inside another web page, and so the comment form displayed at the bottom of my posts wasn’t generated by code running on my server, it was fetched from WordPress.com. And when the user types in a comment and submits it, the form is sent back to WordPress.com. I assume it’s then authenticated appropriately and submitted back to my server and displayed.

At least that was the theory. But when I launched an incognito browser window and used it to submit a test comment, for some reason the iframe filled with a cropped-down duplicate copy of the Windypundit web page, complete with animated banner, but all trapped in a box where the comments used to be. I don’t know where the comment went, but it never made it to my blog’s database.

So…maybe the lack of comments wasn’t due to my being boring after all. I wonder how long it’s been that way…

I assumed that problem was either that my theme design was missing some crucial element that makes Jetpack comments work, or that some other plugin was interfering with Jetpack, so I switched to the WordPress-provided Twenty Fourteen theme and I disabled every plugin except Jetpack. Essentially, I was running WordPress fresh out of the box. And still the problem didn’t go away. I don’t know, maybe it’s some weird Cloudflare thing.

I finally gave up. I put everything back the way it was and then disabled Jetpack comments, which seems to have fixed the problem.

I still wanted the social media connection, so I installed the Social Login plugin, which provides alternate authentication through lots of different social networks using the rather amazing protocol translation services provided by oneall. I almost immediately started getting spam comments, so I also dropped in the Growmap Anti Spambot Plugin, which supposedly checks for humanity by requiring you to check a box. I’m not sure why that can’t be automated, but I’ll give it a try.

I need to test this, so if you’ve read this far, please help me out by leaving a comment. Just say hi. Let me know that my blog software is no longer turning readers away.

Ferguson Fatigue

It seems fatigue has set in with the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. I’ve been following the protests and the police response every night on Twitter since the shooting, and it’s been riveting. I keep telling myself to ignore it for a while, and for most of the last two weeks, I keep getting drawn in anyway.

There seemed to be a sort of hardening effect going on among the protesters. I first really noticed it the second night after the highway patrol took over from St. Louis County. Everything was relatively peaceful for a while, but then it started to rain, which I think chased off many of the ordinary residents of Ferguson, leaving behind a crowd with a larger-than-normal fraction of drunks, criminals, and agitators. Without the moderating influence of normal people, the looters went a little wild, which prompted the Governor to declare a state of emergency. Captain Johnson of the highway patrol had said that police wouldn’t use tear gas on peaceful protesters, but police ended up gassing the crowd anyway, which they claimed was necessary because of people with guns and Molotov cocktails. That drove off even more people.

Meanwhile, experienced protesters from all over the country had started to travel to Ferguson, and I started to notice more signs of preparedness among the crowds — eye protection, ear plugs, stashes of supplies, legal aid phone numbers written on their arms — and I began anticipate that things would get more confrontational, but also that the message of the protesters would get derailed as the outsiders brought their own agendas to the scene. I’m pretty sure I saw some protest signs about Gaza and bankers.

Instead, it all just kind of fell apart, starting on Tuesday. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was a change in police tactics. When police saw someone throwing dangerous objects or brandishing a weapon, instead of gassing the crowd, they would just swarm in, grab the people causing trouble, and quickly retreat. They’ve also stopped trying to enforce a curfew or hold a an arbitrary line on the streets. They had figured out a way to go back to the basic police mission of protecting the mass of the citizens from the relatively small number of miscreants. The more peaceful protesters had always been angry at the troublemakers, so I think this relieved the tension a bit.

Maybe it was the media circus. By some estimates, Tuesday night’s crowd held more members of the media than Ferguson residents. It was getting a bit silly. On the other hand, perhaps Ferguson residents finally felt their concerns were being heard by someone.

Or maybe the protests just ran down as part of their natural course. People worked through their anger and returned back to their normal lives.

Now I guess the question is what happens next? Will Michael Brown’s death be brushed under the rug once people stop looking? Or has all this attention created enough pressure on the local and state government to ensure that a thorough investigation takes place and justice is served? Or will police and prosecutors railroad Darren Wilson in order to gain political approval? And what will happen to the really awful police and government of Ferguson? Will Antonio French succeed in his voter drive to run them out? Or will whatever kept them in power ’til now keep working?

And what about the larger issues? Following along through the internet, it certainly felt like something of national importance was happening in Ferguson. But that might just be an illusion; I was intensely interested, so I noticed how much everyone else was interested. Still, it brought attention back to the issue of policing in minority communities, and it attracted a lot of scrutiny to Ferguson and the St. Louis County area in particular. It also attracted some much-needed attention to the issue of police militarization.

Maybe this has all been a step down the road toward some change. I have my doubts, but I certainly hope so.

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