Monthly Archives: March 2011

Big Media Companies Want Even More Money

Amazon has just launched a new service called Cloud Drive. It’s a virtual online diskdrive where you can store your files. These files are then available to you anywhere on the web. If you upload music files, you can play them back on any PC, Mac, or Android device. The first 5 Gigabytes are free, and you can buy plans up to 1000 Gigabytes for $1/GB/year.

What could be wrong with that?

Well, I don’t pay a lot of attention to the music business, so this is probably pretty common, but according to a CNET story by Greg Sandoval, the record companies and movie studios are demanding a piece of the action, on the theory that people might use the service to store records and movies. However, they’re willing to overlook this little problem if Amazon cuts them in on the action.

What the company didn’t do was license the rights to do this from the major Hollywood film studios and top record companies. Certainly, many from the film and music camps believe that without obtaining the proper permission, Amazon’s new service violates their legal rights, multiple sources from the entertainment sector told CNET.

That’s just nuts. Cloud Drive doesn’t allow you to share files with other Amazon users, so the only people who could download pirated content are the people who uploaded it in the first place. Also, Cloud Drive doesn’t include software to decode music or videos protected by digital rights management (DRM), so even if people upload their iTunes music or other protected files, they still can’t play them on unauthorized devices. Everybody else is uploading content they obtained legally, and I don’t see why the content owners should get paid again just because people are using Amazon to store content that they’ve already paid for.

It sounds like Amazon sees it that way too:

“We don’t need a license to store music,” Craig Pape, director of music at Amazon, was quoted in the Times as saying. “The functionality is the same as an external hard drive.”

Naturally, the minions of Big Content do not agree: 

This was not warmly received by some of the top four labels. They have made it clear, since cloud services began to generate attention last year, that their current licenses do not allow for cloud distribution or storage. As far as they’re concerned, anyone offering these features needs permission. The Wall Street Journal on Monday evening quoted a Sony Music Entertainment representative saying, “We are disappointed that the locker service that Amazon is proposing is unlicensed by Sony Music.”

I’d like to say I’m disappointed that the folks who run Sony Music Entertainment are a bunch of douchebags, but they could only disappoint me if I’d been expecting something better. This is the same bullshit the record companies tried to pull twenty years ago when Digital Audio Tape (DAT) was released. First they tried to stop the technology, and then they tried to arrange to get paid a small fee for every blank DAT tape sold, on the theory that people would be using them to make illegal copies of music.

Let me put it this way: I have a rental storage locker where I keep a lot of old stuff, including a couple of boxes of vinyl records. Do these record companies now think that Public Storage owes them licensing fees for storing my records?

Scattershot 2011-03-30

Random shots around the web:

Scattershot 2011-03-22

Random shots around the web:


Good Guys Don’t Suborn False Confessions

There’s a lovely case over at Simple Justice today. According to the news story, it went something like this:

A guy was murdered, and a man named Douglas Warney came forward to police saying he knew something about the victim. Police interrogated him, and he apparently confessed, providing eleven details about the murder that only the killer could have known. He was found guilty at trial and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Nine years later, DNA testing exonerated Warney and implicated another guy who was already in jail for another murder. This other guy confessed and said Warney was not involved. So Warney was released after serving nine years for a crime that he did not commit.

So why did Warney confess? The likely explanation is modern police interrogation methods–particularly the Reid technique–in which the police try to convince their suspect that the evidence against him is overwhelming. If the police don’t actually have an overwhelming case, they simply lie about it, making up forensic evidence, witnesses, and accusations by the suspect’s friends accomplices. If the technique works, the subject becomes convinced that he is doomed, that he has no chance of avoiding a long jail sentence.

Then the police throw him a lifeline: They suggest different reasons why the crime might not be as bad as it appears–perhaps it was self-defense, perhaps somebody put him up to it–and they make it clear that this is going to be the suspect’s last chance to explain what really happened. If he had a good reason for doing what he did, now’s the time to tell it.

What the suspect doesn’t realize is that any explanation he offers for his crime is sure to include a confession to the crime. And once the police have his statement, they’ll just pocket the confession and ignore the rest of the explanation. E.g. “I killed him in self-defense” is an admission to a killing. The prosecutor can indict on that and leave the self-defense angle for the other side to worry about. Besides, since the suspect was unprepared and unfamiliar with the law, his explanation is probably legally useless.

The problem with this technique is that the suspect faces the exact same choice regardless of whether he did the crime or not. If he’s innocent, and the police are lying to him about how good their case is, at the very least, he’s going to think he’s been framed. No matter how wrong it feels to confess to a crime he didn’t commit, once he thinks he’s doomed to be convicted, he’s likely to leap at any way out–any way to mitigate the damage–and inadvertently confess to a crime he had nothing to do with.

This is even more likely when the suspect has memory problems and can’t be entirely sure he didn’t do the crime. After all, the police say they have his prints on the gun, they have two eyewitnesses, and his best friend says he did it. Maybe he did do it. These memory problems could be caused by abuse of drugs or alcohol or–as was the case with Douglas Warney–he could have an IQ of 68 and be suffering from dementia. Really.

I have to admit, it seems plausible that police detectives of good will could, in their zeal to catch a murderer, accidentally pressure an innocent mentally incapacited man like Warney into making a false confession. But…what about those eleven details which only the murderer could know? If Warney wasn’t the murderer and had nothing to do with it, who told him about those secret details?

It has to be the cops.

I could even see how it might have happened unintentionally:

Q: How many times did you stab him?

A: Ten times.

Q: Are you sure it wasn’t a few more than that?

A: Fifteen times?

Q: Good. Moving on…

Detectives get tired. Detectives make mistakes. I could see the detectives doing something like that entirely by accident. Once. But eleven times? That’s just cheating.

This makes me furious. I’ve been on a jury. And if I had heard testimony that a guy confessed to a murder and knew eleven separate details about the crime that only the murderer could have known, I would have considered that very strong evidence of guilt. I probably would have voted to convict. And thus the detectives’ underhanded lies would have made an accomplice to an atrocity.

You know, I can understand why cops lie about Fourth Amendment issues: They’re catching bad guys. Sure, maybe they didn’t really see the gun sticking out from under the passenger seat, or maybe they didn’t really smell drugs wrapped in garbage bags in the trunk, but when they did their search, there was the gun, and there were the drugs. The defendent really did have them, and the cops aren’t about to let him get away on a few legal technicalities. I don’t condone these lies, but I can understand how a cop could justify it to himself.

What boggles my mind, however, is the cops who lie in a way that could frame an innocent man. Don’t they worry about what will happen to him? Don’t they worry that they’re letting the real killer get away with it?

Do they really believe they’re still the good guys?

in Legal

Decision In the Face Of Deception

A couple of years ago, shortly before the 2008 elections, some people were making fun of undecided voters for being stupid: How could anyone not tell the difference between Barack Obama or John McCain after 20 months of campaigning? How could anyone not know which one they thought would make a better president?

At the time, I wrote a defense of undecided voters premised on the idea that the occupant of the White House makes little practical difference in the lives of most people. And even to the extent the right president would make a difference, I argued, an individual voter has almost no effect on the election result, so their time would be better spent improving their lives more directly. I also argued that neither the news media nor the campaigns make it easy to figure out where the candidates stand on the issues that many people care about.

In retrospect, I probably should have emphasized that last point more. In particular, I should have pointed out that politicians routinely say things during the campaign that they promptly forget about once they are in power. Consider presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2007:

The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.

…History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.

And now that same guy has just ordered our military to carry out airstrikes into Libya without obtaining Congressional approval.

Defenders of Obama’s actions could probably argue that this is in response to a U.N. resolution and that Congress has control over all the treaties and laws that control the United States’ relationship with the U.N., so therefore Congress has technically given it’s approval. That argument may even be correct. But is that really what anyone thought he meant when he said it? I don’t think so.

Here’s another Obama quote from that same interview:

5. Does the Constitution permit a president to detain US citizens without charges as unlawful enemy combatants?

No. I reject the Bush Administration’s claim that the President has plenary authority under the Constitution to detain U.S. citizens without charges as unlawful enemy combatants.

Obama has backed so far away from that position that last year he ordered the assassination of an American citizen without a trial. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t one of the reasons we’re attacking Libya because Gaddafi was killing his own people?

Suppose that back when Obama was elected, I had written a blog post in which I predicted that,

If you were an Obama supporter back then and read those predictions, wouldn’t you have accused me of being an anti-Obama nutcase? I know I would have thought those predictions were nutty.

It’s not just Obama, of course. George Bush, from the party of smaller government, presided over an enormous increase in the size of government.

Politicians are masters of deception. They’re experts at saying something that carries a strong implication without actually committing themselves to a course of action or limiting their future actions. And in the event they do commit themselves in a statement, they’re experts at re-explaining what they really meant, or explaining why the current situation is special and their earlier statements don’t apply. Or sometimes they just lie to us.

No wonder so many people were undecided between Obama and McCain. Once they factored in the lies and deception, they couldn’t tell what either of them would do in office.

Fukushima: Waiting For the Magic Bullet

Here’s something I’m wondering about. Maybe some of you can help me out, or point out where I’m going wrong…

The situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant is just continuing to deteriorate, with damage at all three fueled reactors, containment cracks at two of them, and overheating spent fuel pools at one of the shutdown reactors, with more spent fuel problems likely.

The heat in the reactors comes from decaying fission products. The initial rate of decay is very fast, giving off a lot of heat. That fast decay uses up a lot of fission products, which means the rate of decay, and therefore heat output, drops pretty quickly. But as the decay rate drops, so does the rate at which the fission products are used up, meaning that reduction in decay heat slows down.

According to the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering’s estimates of decay heat, after the reactors were shut down, the decay rate dropped by half in the first minute, then by half again in the next half hour, then by half again about 16 hours later, and so on. Today, the reactors are probably each putting out between 6 and 12 million watts of power (depending on which reactor), but that amount isn’t going to go down much more in the near future. By the end of the month, they’ll still be putting out between 5 and 9 million watts. It will take a year for the heat output to drop to half of what it is now.

In other words, the battle at the power plants isn’t going to come to an end by itself. However, there is one thing that can stop the overheating, stop the leaks, and return the spent fuel pools to normal. It’s a magic bullet, or like Superman coming to the rescue, except it’s totally real.

The magic bullet that will solve nearly all the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi plant is kind of ironic: The power plant needs power. Since the earthquake hit, the plant has been off the Japanese power grid, and since the tsunami an hour later, all of the backup diesel generators at the plant have been inoperable. Thus, none of the cooling systems at the power plant have been working.

As soon as the plant site gets power, the reactor wouldn’t have to be cooled using fire engines for pumping. Operators could just start the Emergency Core Cooling System (or whatever the call it in Japan), which would drain hot water from the pressure vessel, cool it in a heat exchanger, and pump the cool water back over the reactor cores. Everything will cool off. The water will stop evaporating to steam, the vapor pressure will go down, and radioactive material will no longer be released because the pressure vessel and containment won’t be venting the pressurized steam.

They wouldn’t need elaborate and dangerous plans to re-fill the spent fuel pools using helicopters. They’d just turn on the pumps.

People have got to be working on this. They’ve got to be trying to reconnect the plant to the national power grid. They’ve got to be trying to repair the diesel generators at the plant site. They’ve got to be trying to bring in new generators.

Yet I haven’t been able to find news coverage of the effort to resupply the plant with power. Does anybody out there have more information about this? Or am I misunderstanding the situation?

Update: While I was writing this, CBC Canada answered it:

A new power line could soon restore electricity to cooling systems at Japan’s tsunami-damaged nuclear plant, its operator said early Thursday, a development that would reduce the threat of a meltdown.

Construction of the line is nearly complete, said Tokyo Electric Power Co. spokesman Naoki Tsunoda, and officials hoped to try it “as soon as possible.” The potential for a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi complex remains, however.

(Hat tip: repstock1, confirmed by MIT NSE)

Update: On the other hand, MIT MNE folks say it may not be as easy as running a power line:

The problem with the spent fuel pools is not a want of generators, but a want of electrical connection. Flooding of electrical switch gear has left the generators unable to be put into service.

So I guess they’re going to have to repair and replace some of the switch gear as well.

Update: Just to be clear, given that the reactors have been through earthquakes and a tsunami and explosions and fires and contamination and salt water, the problems aren’t going to go away instantly–calling it a magic bullet was a bit of hyperbole–but things will get a hell of a lot easier once they can get the pumps running. Everything going on right now is a holding action until that happens.

Fukushima Uncerntainty

A lot of people have been saying a lot of things about the nuclear emergency in Japan, much of it conflicting, and therefore much of it wrong. I see no reason why I shouldn’t get involved. As with almost everything else I talk about here, I claim no expertise beyond an amateur interest in the subject. Make of that what you will.

To start with, Dr Josef Oehmen, a research scientist at MIT, originally posted a pretty good description of the situation in Fukushima at the Morgsatlarge blog, explaining “Why I am not worried about Japan’s nuclear reactors.” That document has since been taken over and expanded by some folks at the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, and it’s now available at the MIT NSE Nuclear Information Hub here, although the new authors disavow the original title.

Scott Greenfield has of course expressed a bit of skepticism:

[B]eliefs in the promise of science and safety have been certain before, and ultimately proven wrong. Afterward, everybody says how obvious is was that the work was shoddy, the systems inadequate, the science lacking. It’s always afterward that everybody knows better.

I’ve seen that a few times myself. I think the most common cause is that expert opinions are being filtered. Sometimes it’s intentional manipulation by interested parties, but sometimes it’s just the news media going with the story that’s easiest to tell.

Is anybody else old enough to remember the comet Kohoutek? It was detected in the spring of 1973, and some experts thought it would be an incredible sight in the night sky when it arrived at the end of the year–a big beautiful “Christmas Comet.” Other experts were predicting a much less spectacular show. Guess which ones got the most airtime?

When Kohoutek proved to be little more than another speck in the night sky, the news story changed. Early on, scientists had had different theories about whether Kohoutek was a new comet, which would give off a lot off a large gaseous tail when it arrived, or an old comet, which had already given off most of its gases in previous passes around the sun. Once Kohoutek arrived, scientists knew it was an old comet which couldn’t possibly have produced a big showy tail. The comet’s arrival provided actual data, which killed the alternative theories.

On the other hand, sometimes the experts are just ignorant: Nobody knew the thing could happen that way, but now that it’s happened, we understand it, and it seems obvious. Wind loading on tall buildings is a good example: Hundreds of years ago, a lot of tall church towers crumbled to the ground before people figured out that wind was rocking the tower back and forth, grinding away the mortar between the bricks. Nowadays, planning for wind loading is a routine part of structural engineering.

In the commentsJeff Gamso adds his own cynical twist:

When the experts tell me everything is under control and there’s no need to worry, my worry increases exponentially.

I know exactly what he means. Those pronouncements are never as reassuring as the speaker thinks they are. I cringe whenever I hear that authorities are trying to “reassure the public” or “calm fears.” I don’t want to be reassured, and I don’t want to be calmed. I want to be informed and, if necessary, helped. I don’t want to be manipulated into trusting some “authority” who’s obviously trying to spin a disaster.

In my admittedly limited experience, however, it’s not the actual experts who give false reassurances. Doctors will tell you when you’re really sick. Accountants will tell you when you’re really broke. Engineers will tell you when the bridge is going to fail. The people who will try to soften the news are the public information officers, the industry spokesmen, the public relations flacks, the executives, and the politicians.

Worst of all, however, are the people with political axes to grind. Thankfully, most Americans–myself included–are completely ignorant of Japanese politics, so the media was unable find clear sides to turn this into a horse-race issue. All we’ve had until now is the basic nuclear power debate, in which the anti-nuclear folks shout and point at the dangerous happenings in Japan, and the pro-nuclear folks “tut, tut” that everybody is worried about a little steam and some radiation only slightly above the background.

Lately, however, I’ve noticed that pundits have hit upon the idea of tying the Japanese nuclear emergency to the future of U.S. nuclear energy policy, thus pulling the debate into a familiar and wasteful left v.s. right argument.

All of this makes it kind of hard for those of us watching from a distance to figure out what’s going on, which is why a relatively technical source like the aformentioned MIT NSE Nuclear Information Hub is useful for people who want to figure this stuff out. The MIT folks seem fairly sure that this isn’t going to turn into a big accident, but despite what they’ve written, there are four things that worry me.

My first worry is in regard to this statement from the MIT engineers:

The entire primary loop of the nuclear reactor–the pressure vessel, pipes, and pumps that contain the coolant (water)–are housed in the containment structure. This structure is the fourth barrier to radioactive material release. The containment structure is a hermetically (air tight) sealed, very thick structure made of steel and concrete. This structure is designed, built and tested for one single purpose: To contain, indefinitely, a complete core meltdown.

It’s the “tested” part that concerns me. I’m sure the engineers did all the simulations to test the design, and I’m sure they conducted a variety of heat and pressure tests on the components of the containment, but I’m also quite sure that no one has ever subjected a containment structure to a full-scale test with a full load of reactor fuel. That would be insanely dangerous, anywhere on on Earth. So nobody knows for sure that the containment will function as planned.

That leads to my second concern:

The earthquake that hit Japan was several times more powerful than the worst earthquake the nuclear power plant was built for (the Richter scale works logarithmically; for example the difference between an 8.2 and the 8.9 that happened is 5 times, not 0.7).

Some people have taken the reactor’s survival of such a severe quake as an engineering triumph, and in a way they’re right. However, I’m pretty sure the containment structures haven’t been carefully inspected since the quake, so all we know is that the containments were still standing and still pressure-tight. But just because the containment buildings didn’t collapse and spill out their contents during the quake doesn’t mean they haven’t suffered serious damage. The real question we need to answer is whether the containments are still up to spec. Can they still to the job they were designed for? Can they still contain a nuclear meltdown?

(Some people believe that the containment of reactor 2 has sprung a leak–it lost pressure after an internal explosion, and the external radiation levels shot up.)

My third concern:

All of this, however shocking it seems to us, is part of the day-to-day training you go through as an operator.

I don’t think that’s true anymore. I think this situation is not one covered by the training manuals, as evidenced by the fact that the plant workers are making mistakes, like letting the seawater pump for reactor 2 run out of fuel, causing the core to be exposed.

Finally, there’s the question of the spent fuel pools.

When reactors are shut down, the decay heat slowly tapers off, and after a month or so, the fuel rods can be removed and placed in storage at the reactor site. They are still giving off heat, so they have to be submerged in a pool of cooling water for several years until they can be transfered to long-term storage.

These pools have to be cooled and evaporated water has to be replaced. I don’t think the fuel inside can produce enough energy to melt down, but if the water is allowed to evaporate, the fuel rods will be uncovered and heat up enough catch fire, which will damage the rods and spread radioactive materials.

The spent fuel pools at the Fukushima Daiichi plant are located inside the reactor buildings, on top of the outer containment structure. That’s the top third or so of the reactor building where the hydrogen explosions took place at reactors 1 and 3. As far as I know, none of the spent fuel pools at reactors 1, 2, and 3 have caused trouble.

The fire at reactor 4 (which had been shutdown for inspection at the time of the quake) took place near the spent fuel pools, but plant officials are now saying that the fuel was not involved. They’re talking about the need to replenish the water for the pools sometime over the next couple of days.

In any case, it looks like Fukushima Daiichi is now a member of the exclusive club that includes such names as Windscale, Brown’s Ferry, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl.

If you want to know more, I’ve found pretty good coverage of the incident by scanning CNN, Reuters, and the New York Times. If you’d like some more technical information, there are interesting stories at World Nuclear News, and the aformentioned MIT NSE site has some good explanations.


On SWAT and the Inevitable Accidental Shooting

Here’s an excerpt from a statement by the Middlesex County, Massachusetts, District Attorney’s office about the SWAT shooting of 68-Year-Old Eurie Stamps while he was lying on the floor:

As Officer Duncan moved to the right of Mr. Stamps, just past Mr. Stamps’ shoulders, he had to step to his left.  As he stepped to his left, he lost his balance, and began to fall over backwards. Officer Duncan realized that his right foot was off the floor and that the tactical equipment that he was wearing was making his movements very awkward.  While falling, Officer Duncan removed his left hand from his rifle, which was pointing down towards the ground, and put his left arm out to try and catch himself.  As he did so, he heard a shot and then his body made impact with the wall.  At that point, Officer Duncan, who was lying on the ground with his back against the wall, realized that he was practically on top of Mr. Stamps and that Mr. Stamps was bleeding.  Officer Duncan immediately started yelling “man down, man down.”  Numerous SWAT members began calling for medics and alerting team members that there was a person down that needed medical attention.   Officer Duncan told another officer on scene within moments of the incident that he had stumbled and lost his balance while moving to get in a better position, and as he was falling, his gun fired.

Whenever I post something critical of a SWAT team, I always hear from someone who tells me that I don’t know anything about SWAT because I haven’t been there. They’re right that I don’t know much about SWAT, but I do know a thing or two about how guns work, and I’ve received training on safe gun handling.

In order to shoot Eurie Stamps, Officer Duncan had to break two rules of gun safety: (1) He had to have the gun pointed in an unsafe direction, and (2) he had to have had his finger on the trigger. I can understand how the gun got pointed in the wrong direction–Duncan stumbled and lost control of his rifle. That part is a plain and simple accident.

Further, it’s a natural human reaction to grab onto things when you fall, so I can understand how his fingers might have clamped onto the gun as he stumbled. But reflexive hand squeezes are a well-known problem in gun handling–people can also give an involuntary squeeze when startled by a loud noise or when they sneeze–which is the reason for the rule that you keep your finger off the trigger.

Now read those last three words of the excerpt again: “His gun fired.” That’s undoubtedly true has far as it goes, but contrary to the implication of the passive sentence structure, guns don’t just fire themselves. Officer Duncan pulled the trigger.

(There are a couple of other possibilities. Perhaps as the officer fell, his rifle got twisted around in his hand, although I can’t picture how this could happen in a way that puts his finger on the trigger at the same time his rifle is pointed at someone lying on the floor. Another possibility is the the trigger got caught on something in the environment. However, the DA’s statement mentions neither of these things.)

None of this makes Officer Duncan a murderer. It doesn’t even make him a bad person. It may not even mean he’s reckless with a firearm: Even people with excellent gun handling skills make mistakes. They forgetfully put their finger on the trigger, but they don’t pull it, so no harm done. Or maybe they have an accidental discharge, but the weapon wasn’t pointed at anyone, so no harm done. And every once in a while, someone with excellent safety skills just has their worst day ever, and they shoot an innocent person entirely by accident.

It’s not just possible for it to happen, it’s bound to happen. Accidental shootings are an inevitable consequence of having large numbers of people handling firearms. But not all gun handling situations are created equally. A confusing, high-stress, guns-ready situation like a SWAT raid is much more likely to result in an accidental shooting than the ordinary patrol activities of police officers.

So the question we should be asking ourselves is not just whether Officer Duncan was reckless in handling a gun, but also whether Officer Duncan and the other members of the SWAT team should have been there at all. Are the benefits of all these SWAT raids worth the inevitable deaths that will occur?

I don’t think so. I think it’s time to re-think how police departments handle drug-related warrants, and that should include serious consideration of eliminating drug raids altogether.