February 2008

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200802-Security-Checkin.jpgCheck out the Security Check-in toy set from Playmobil. Here’s the description:

Every single smuggler is caught at the security check-in. With a modern X-ray machine every item not allowed on board is detected. At the same time, the passengers have to pass the passenger check-in under the watchful eyes of the security staff. Only then can they start in their hard-earned vacation.

The ad copy doesn’t say if the passenger’s shoes are removable.

(Hat tip: Scott Bludorn.)

We’ve had the new Toyota RAV4 for about 10 days, and I have a few observations:

  • There’s a little digital display in the middle of the dashboard with some numbers on it, but when I first saw it I couldn’t figure out where the odometer was. After a moment, I realized that the odometer must be that little “4” all by itself on one row. I guess I’m not used to seeing less than six digits…
  • The RAV4 is a complicated piece of machinery. It’s got a 5-speed automatic transmission with a switch to lock the differential. There’s anti-lock brakes, traction control, and stability control. It’s got daytime running lights, parking lights, regular headlights, high beams, and fog lights. It’s got front and rear window wipers, both with intermittent mode. The heating and air conditioning system has about 15 buttons. (I haven’t bought a new car in 10 years, so I don’t know how much of this stuff is standard on cars these days, how much is because it’s an SUV, and how much is because of the trim line we chose.)
  • jbl_logo.gifTo me, the JBL logo on all the sound system components looks more like UBL, and UBL means Usama bin Laden—the old official spelling of Osama bin Laden. It strikes an odd note every time I see it: I’ll probably always think of it as the Usama bin Laden audio system.
  • I wasn’t interested in getting heated seats, because I never really had a problem with my butt feeling cold while the rest of the car was warm. However, they came with the trimline we chose so we have them anyway, and I’ve learned something important: When I start the car cold, the heated seats will be the first thing to get warm.
  • The RAV4 is very easy to drive. From the first test drive at the dealer, it felt just like my Camry, but with a jacked-up suspension. Even that feeling has gone away by now. It has very quickly become just our car.
  • At night it’s easy to forget to turn on the headlights because the running lights come on as soon as I start the car and look just like the headlights. It’s only when I get to a dark area that I notice how much dimmer they are.
  • The tail lights are all LEDs, which should last forever. I don’t know if all cars have this option these days, but they should.
  • The rear window and the side windows behind the first row of seats are all tinted dark enough to keep people from looking in. I didn’t even notice that until the second or third day we had the car.

In roughly 10 days, we’ve put 804 miles on the car. 

I’ve been reading about the Wikileaks issue on some legal blawgs, and corresponding with Scott Greenfield about it, and I think there’s a bit of confusion over a technical issue. I don’t think anyone within Judge White’s jurisdiction is disobeying his order. I’m going to have to delve into some history here, but I think I can explain it without getting too technical. The key is that the network service of hosting web content is different from the network service of associating that content with a domain name.

The networking protocol for the Internet is called IP, which stands for internet protocol. Every computer on the Internet is assigned an IP address within the network where it can be reached. When a human is going to see or type an IP address, it’s usually broken into four numbers ranging from 0 to 255, which are written down separated by dots. E.g. “88.30.13.160”.

That’s an ugly thing to be typing, so since the earliest days of the the old ARPAnet, there has been a mechanism to allow us humans to use names for computers instead of numbers. Initially, every computer simply had a list of the names and addresses of every other computer. Each computer’s administrators would occasionally download a new list from a central location.

By the mid-1980’s, that system was no longer workable because the number of computers had grown into the thousands and it was hard to keep track of the changes across all the organizations on the network. To solve this problem, the architects of the internet invented the Domain Name System (DNS), in which the lists of names and addresses are stored on computers called name servers that the other computers query when they need to lookup a name.

For any given domain name—yahoo.com, windypundit.com, wikileaks.org—there’s a nameserver somewhere that’s responsible for providing the associated IP addresses. It’s called the authoritative name server, and whoever controls this server controls the meaning of all the domain names for which it has authority.

How does the network of name servers find the authoritative name server? They send a query about the domain name to a group of top-level name servers, called registries, which respond by refering the query to the name server that has authority for that domain. When you buy a domain name from a registrar, you’re buying the right to tell one of the top-level registries which nameserver has the authority for that domain.

(I have simplified the domain resolution process quite a bit. There are a lot more options, and there is a lot of localized caching to improve performance.)

When it comes to accessing a web site, there are five roles we need to be concerned about:

  • The web server that actually serves the pages.
  • The authoritative nameserver, which points to the web server.
  • The registry, which points to the authoritative name server.
  • The registrar, which is the business entity that sold the domain name.
  • The registrant, which is the actual person or other entity that owns the domain name.

When you buy a domain name, you’re the registrant, and the registries are operated by the top internet authorities, but the other three roles are up for grabs. Many companies will sell you a package deal for registering a domain, operating the name server, and hosting your content, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

For example, the windypundit.com web server is operated by a company called DowntownHost, and the registrar is Tierranet. Currently, the name server is also operated by Tierranet, but I could switch it to DowntownHost or a third party if I wanted to.

Wikileaks used a similar arrangement. Their server is at IP address 88.30.13.160 and is run by a web hosting company called PRQ in Sweden.  Their registrar is a company called Dynadot, located in California.

According to the court documents John Katz has posted, Judge White ordered the registrar, Dynadot, to remove all information about the wikileaks.org domain from the registry. As far as I can tell, they’ve done so. That’s why we get an error if we try to browse to wikileaks.org. (That’s also why I can’t tell you anything about the nameserver or the registrant—Dynadot has deleted that information.)

None of that, however, affects the actual web server that hosts Wikileaks. If you happen to know that its address is 88.30.13.160, you just have to type this into your browser:

http://88.30.13.160

The Internet will just route traffic between your computer and the Wikileaks server, without ever having to do a query on the wikileaks.org domain. It’s just between your browser and the Swedish server.

Maybe all these technical details are too low-level for the courts to take notice, but as far as I can tell, no one is disobeying the judge’s order. He ordered the name deleted, and it’s gone.

Yesterday, I mentioned that Federal Judge Jeffrey S. White issued an order shutting down the Wikileaks site. He did this by ordering the domain registrar to disable the wikileaks.org domain. This only disables the name lookup feature, not the underlying website, which is still available via its IP address:

http://88.80.13.160

In a comment to my last post, Scott Greenfield asks,

[D]o you think it’s critical that the Judge White’s order was ineffective because of a technology error? If they figure out how to do it effectively next time, then what?

I’ve been giving this a little thought. I’m not an expert at Internet security, but I think I may have been unfair to Judge White. The IP address above traces to a server in Stockholm, Sweden, so he may very well have done all that it was in his power to do by ordering the American registrar to disable the name.

I suppose the aggrieved party could ask him to order the big American internet backbones to stop carrying traffic from that address. I think it would be analogous to ordering a phone company not to put through certain calls, or ordering the post office not to deliver certain mail. It would probably be a serious performance and administrative burden, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s not legally possible.

Besides, the Wikileaks site could get a new IP address in a few minutes. Within a day or two, all the usual web sites would be linked to it again.

In addition, Wikileaks has many other domain names, some of which are obvious—wikileaks.cx, wikileaks.cn, wikileaks.in, wikileaks.org.uk, wikileaks.org.nz—and some of which aren’t, e.g. sunshinepress.org. There are also independent mirror sites that serve all the same content to the web from locations in several different countries.

The folks who built Wikileaks make some pretty grandiose claims about it being “uncensorable.” Technically speaking, there’s no such thing, but as a practical matter, they can probably put up a pretty good fight. Wikileaks was originally designed to support dissident activities by people in repressive countries, and it makes use of some advanced security technologies.

It’s not as farfetched as it sounds. Consider that the Chinese government has been trying to censor Wikileaks without success. Here in the United States, our government has only been able to stop online poker sites by attacking the flow of money, not the web sites themselves.

Maybe some intelligence agencies have the resources to stop Wikileaks—especially if they’re willing to commit illegal and/or violent acts—but I don’t think a lawsuit or an overzealous judge is much of a threat.

Random shots around the web:

After my trusty old Camry gave up the ghost, my wife and I decided to buy an SUV. It was a big deal for me, so I’m going to be blogging about it a bit, in case anyone is interested.

Buying an SUV is insanely complicated because the category covers a lot of vehicles designed for a lot of different purposes, and we had to make some choices. We settled on a few basic criteria.

  • Car-like. SUVs come in two basic types: truck-like and car-like. Truck-like SUVs are strong and heavy and tough, and they’re suitable for some fairly serious off-roading. Car-like SUV’s are basically cars with beefed-up suspensions and drivetrains. This will be our first SUV, so we don’t want anything too radical, and since we’re not planning on any serious off-roading, and we’d appreciate a smooth ride, we decided on a car-like SUV.
  • Small. There are only two of us, and we don’t have hobbies that require a lot of hauling, so we don’t need a huge vehicle.
  • 4-wheel drive. We want a car that will get us through the snow. Besides, if it doesn’t have 4-wheel drive, is it really an SUV?
  • 6-cylinder engine. I just don’t feel comfortable with a 4-banger in a heavy vehicle, and even the smallest SUV is pretty heavy. On the other hand, we’re not planning to do any towing, so an 8-cylinder engine seems like gas-guzzling overkill. A supercharged 4-cylinder engine would also have been okay.
  • Dad-compliant. My 88-year-old arthritic father has to be able to get in and out of the passenger seat, so it can’t be the kind of SUV you have to climb into.

That narrowed it down a lot. After a whole bunch of research and a couple of trips to nearby dealers, we decided to get a Toyota RAV4.

To be honest, we’d been leaning toward the RAV4 even before we did the research. It fit our criteria, and it was a Toyota. Our Camry had impressed the heck out of us for eleven years, and we felt comfortable with the strength of Toyota engineering.

Then it was time to choose the options we wanted:

  • V6 engine and 4WD. This is going to be our workhorse car for quite a while.
  • Moonroof.
  • Towing package. Not the towing gear, just the upgraded radiator and alternator to make it a more rugged vehicle.
  • Leather seats. We got them on the Camry as a luxury, but they proved to be far more durable than cloth seats.
  • JBL 6-CD Premium Audio. We didn’t really want it, but we let the salesman talk us into it. I’m sure we’ll feel real bad about that as we bomb down the road blasting our tunes.
  • Heated seats. Never had them, wanted to try them.

There were also a few things we didn’t want:

  • No third row of seating. We rarely even need the back seat, and the RAV4’s third row is only suitable for children or dwarves.
  • No satellite radio. We’ve had it, and we didn’t think it was worth it.
  • No navigation. We’ve got a portable GPS system.
  • No remote start, no upgraded alarm, no first-aid kit, no cargo tray, no hood protector, no headphones. All are available aftermarket.
  • No white paint. Too much like a rental car. Any other color would be okay.

The dealer didn’t have one like that in stock, so for the first time ever, we ordered a car.

We picked it up on Saturday. I’ll probably be RAV4-blogging for a while.

A few months ago, I was a juror on a criminal case where a guy was accused of attacking a cop. The cop was the only witness to the attack, and the defendant said he didn’t do it. We the jury thought the defendant’s story had too many problems, so we disregarded it and then convicted him based on the cop’s more-credible testimony.

I bring this up again because Scott at Simple Justice points us to a situation that’s making me wonder if we rushed to convict, just because we had the credible statement of the victim. Maybe we should have insisted on video.

Here’s what we know from the media reports: A woman accused a Shreveport cop of beating her while she was under arrest for alleged drunk driving. He says he didn’t do it.

The twist is that there’s video: We see the cop and the woman are in a room of some kind. She’s being annoying, so the cop cuffs her hands behind her back and pushes her against the wall and then down to the floor. A little later, she’s screaming and resisting as he tries to hold her in a chair, so he stands her up and swings her around and out of the frame where we hear a thump.  Then we see her sitting in the chair again as the cop steps in front of the camera to turn it off.

When the camera’s turned back on, the woman is lying on the floor in a pool of her own blood. She had two black eyes, cuts to the face, and two broken teeth.

The cop has been fired, but he hasn’t been charged with any crime because, police say, the video doesn’t show what happened.

So, to review, we the jury actually convicted a guy of aggravated battery based on even less evidence than this, but no one in Shreveport even thinks it’s worth bringing charges?

I’ll tell you what. If anybody from the Caddo Parish District Attorney’s Office in Louisiana wants some advice, just get in touch with me, and I can give you the name of a Cook County ASA who knows how to win those tricky cases that don’t have complete video evidence of the crime.

According to an AP wire story, China isn’t happy with Steven Spielberg:

Hollywood director Steven Spielberg’s decision to quit the Beijing Olympics over the Darfur crisis is drawing condemnation by China’s state-controlled media and a groundswell of criticism from the Chinese public.

In newspaper commentaries and lively Internet forums, they have expressed outrage, scorn and bewilderment that China’s Olympics have come under international criticism from Spielberg and others.

Welcome to the club. Yeah, they don’t like me either.

I don’t know why the Chinese internet firewall blocks Windypundit. Maybe it’s because I’ve used the T-word. And by “T-word” I mean the Tiananmen Square massacre where the thugs who run China murdered at least 1000 innocent protesters. That T-word.

I tend to think that a policy of engagement has a chance of improving conditions in China—mostly because our policy of isolation has been such a dismal failure in Cuba—so I have nothing in general against people who trade with China.

On the other hand, I see it as a carrot-and-stick approach, so I think it’s great that some people tell the Chinese government to go to hell.

Ever since we bought our last car in 1998, my wife and I have been thinking that our next car should be an SUV of some kind.

Our 1997 Camry feels roomy inside, but that’s because of good ergonomics. If you try to fit in something not shaped like a human, like a bunch of Banker’s Boxes or a set of shelves from the Container Store, you quickly realize that the back seat has an awkward shape. The trunk isn’t much better. It’s got room for a lot of small things, like grocery bags, but when you try to put in anything big, you realize that there are a lot of protrusions into the trunk space.

The Camry also has some problems in the snow. It’s got traction-controlled front-wheel drive, so it’s not a pig like the Thunderbird, but it’s slung so low that it gets stuck on unplowed streets and parking lots because snow gets packed up underneath it, which takes weight off the wheels, killing the traction.

On the other hand, the Camry had been refusing to wear out. There had been some problems with the water pump and the timing chain around 120,000 miles, and it was burning oil for a while too, but my mechanic fixed that, and the car seemed fine, even after almost 11 years and 190,000 miles.

In fact, it was running so well that right before Christmas I decided to invest a little money to fix it up. I decided to spring for a new wiper motor because intermittant mode had gone away a few years ago and I wanted it back. I also bought four new tires and a new battery. The car had been so reliable that I was hoping to try for a cool quarter-million miles.

A week later, I was driving it one night when the oil light came on and stayed on. I had it towed back to my mechanic, and he called me the next day with the bad news: It had a spun bearing, which is a fatal engine problem. He said he could install a rebuilt engine for a few thousand dollars, but given that every other critical system was just as old, he thought it would be a bad idea.

We hadn’t been planning to buy a new car, so our first thought was to just buy another Toyota Camry. But after thinking about it, we decided it was time to get that SUV we’d been wanting.

I’ve got work to do and this is long enough, so I’ll write more about it later.

 

Today’s online Chicago Tribune has a blurb that reads:

Aliens or romance?

John Kass wants to know what you think is the Best Valentine’s Day Date Movie.

John, if you choose your woman wisely, aliens are romance.

Update: My wife just called me from the road. She wants to know the name of the spaceship from Alien. She knows the one in Aliens is the Sulaco, but she’s blanked on the first movie. I remind her it’s Nostromo. She thanks me and hangs up.

[This is a little late by now, but I thought I’d put it out there anyway.]

A few days ago, the Wall Street Journal had an editorial about the wiretapping bill in the Senate. Let’s sample a few choice phrases:

The Senate takes up wiretapping of foreign terrorists this week, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Remember that “the stakes couldn’t be higher” when we get to the more specific parts of the editorial.

Not long ago Democrats seemed ready to move a bipartisan bill passed by the Senate Intelligence Committee last autumn. But under pressure from the anti-antiterror left, they are now bending and will try to weaken the bill on the Senate floor.

Ah, the “anti-antiterror” left, because wanting to cripple our antiterrorism capabilities is the only reason to oppose the wiretapping bill.

By far the worst threat is an amendment from Senator Chris Dodd (D., Conn.) to deny legal immunity to telephone companies that cooperated with the government on these wiretaps after 9/11. The companies face multiple lawsuits, so a denial of even retrospective immunity would certainly lead to less such cooperation in the future.

So, according to the WSJ editorial board, the stakes that “couldn’t be higher” are a few civil lawsuits against some communications companies? Really?

As for the lawsuits’ causing these companies to cooperate less in the future, I don’t see how the two are related. After all, they’re being sued because what they did was legally wrong. They had a contractual obligation to protect their customers’ data, and I’m pretty sure they were also required to protect the data under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

If they had waited for a legal request from the FISA court like they were supposed to, they wouldn’t need immunity now. And if the new wiretap bill becomes law, they’ll be free and clear to cooperate. The idea that communications companies will be reluctant to comply with a legal wiretap request is absurd—most of them barely hesitated to comply with an illegal request.

The editorial goes on with a few paragraphs of liberal-bashing political gobbledygook, and then there’s this:

[Bush has] also acceded to…Oregon Senator Ron Wyden’s amendment requiring the FISA court to approve all overseas surveillance of U.S. citizens. This would go beyond current law, which allows eavesdropping of Americans abroad if the Attorney General makes a finding of “probable cause” of some criminal act. The Wyden provision would transfer that “probable cause” judgment to unelected judges — which means that Americans abroad who are suspected of aiding terrorists would get more wiretap judicial review than do Americans suspected of drug offenses.

Well, I’ll give them that last part. It is absurd that Americans suspected of drug offenses get less due process than Americans suspected of aiding terrorists. Obviously, Americans suspected of drug offenses need better protection. Perhaps we need a bill clarifying that the government has to respect the rights of it’s citizens everywhere in the world.

What the hell is this nonsense about “unelected judges”? Aren’t all federal judges unelected? More to the point, isn’t the Attorney General unelected? Aren’t the FBI agents who will be placing and monitoring the taps unelected?

The issue here is accountability. An Attorney General must answer to Congressional oversight, and ultimately to the voters through the President. By contrast, we still don’t know which FISA judges were responsible for imposing the infamous “wall” of separation between intelligence and law enforcement that so harmed our ability to fight al Qaeda in the 1990s.

Look, we have an independent judiciary, and this is how the system works. If government agents want to tap people’s phones, invade people’s homes, or otherwise invade their privacy, they need an independent judge to approve it. Maybe if this system were a little more transparent we wouldn’t have these problems.

Mr. Bush would do better by future Presidents if he opposed the Wyden amendment, and any further concessions would amount to an abdication as Commander in Chief. He has the political high ground on this issue. If Congress does more harm, he should declare that to protect the country he’ll use his Constitutional war powers to wiretap al Qaeda anyway and toss the issue squarely in the middle of the Presidential campaign.

Reading this, you’d think we were talking about tapping phone calls between al Qaeda cells in the Anbar Province, but the new FISA bill would allow the Bush administration to listen in on conversations by U.S. citizens without a warrant. If they gave up on that seemingly unconstitutional provision, they wouldn’t need the cooperation of the telecom companies, because the telecoms won’t get sued for complying with a legal court order for a wiretap.

Finally, I can’t help being suspicious about the intensity of the Bush administration’s efforts to derail the lawsuits against the telecom companies. The supposed justification—ensuring future cooperation—makes no sense, since future cooperation can easily be obtained by future court orders. It’s pretty clear the Bush administration has been playing fast and loose with the wiretapping laws, and they’re worried the lawsuits will reveal what they’ve been up to.

Scott Greenfield was ranting against relying too much on “common sense”:

One of the offshoots of the push that resulted in the elevation of George W. Bush to the presidency was the empowerment of “regular” people.  This meant that views and opinions, under the category of “common sense,” were raised to a level equal to, or above, that of thoughtful analysis.

One of the things I hope to bring to the conversation is the rejection of those who, through their prolific attacks, their vapid points and their offensive vehemence, push “common sense” at the expense of actual thought.  I understand that thinking hurts, but no pain, no gain.

Some of the folks Scott is talking about don’t just ignore thoughtful analysis, they attack it. When their opponents offer data and theories and analysis, they accuse them of attempting to confuse people, of attempting to obscure the obvious truth revealed by common sense. We see a lot of that in the blogosphere, a fair amount of it from mainstream media pundits, and all too much of it from our political class.

Years ago, I read an article by economist Paul Krugman in which he gave people like this a very appropriate name. He calls them accidental theorists.

Regardless of what you call it, any general claim about how the world works is a theory. You can call it common sense or plain truth or straight talk, but if you make any claim more general than an observable fact, you’re essentially proposing a theory. This theory can be examined and tested and compared to other theories about the same subject.

Some of these “common sense” theories have been tested and found wanting. Others don’t even have to be tested because they are internally inconsistent. Many are rhetorical tricks that have no substance.

That’s not to say that common sense theories are always wrong. It’s just that they have to be checked, like anything other theory.

If the writers’ strike ends now, here’s what’s going to happen to some of my favorite shows:

  • Bones – Four pre-strike eps left. Don’t know if they’ll make more this season.
  • House – 4 new eps this season, air by April.
  • Battlestar Galactica – returns with pre-strike eps, production on remainder of final season starts immediately.
  • Medium – Still 6 pre-strike left and will shoot more this season.
  • Numbers – 5 to 9 new eps this season, air by April.
  • CSI – 4 to 9 new eps produced this season, air by April
  • Burn Notice – Season 2 starts production in April, new eps by July.
  • Closer – Fourth season starts this summer.
  • Moonlight – Returns again in the fall.
  • Bionic Woman – Cancelled
  • 24 – Bumped to 2009.
  • Terminator – 5 pre-strike eps left, the future is not set.

To see a larger and regularly updated list, go visit TVGuide.