April 2012

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One of my regular blog reads is Ravings of a Feral Genius where Jennifer Abel rants about libertarian topics. Jennifer’s a writer by trade, not just by virtue of having a blog, which means she gets paid and published in real publications, the most prominent of which is probably her column in the Guardian.

This last Wednesday, however, Jennifer made this stunning announcement:

If you go to the newsstand and buy the May 2012 issue of Playboy, YOU WILL SEE ME INSIDE! …. no, wait, that came out wrong. Let me try again: if you buy the May 2012 Playboy, you’ll find my latest anti-TSA column inside. It’s on page 42 (which, as any Douglas Adams fan knows, is the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything).

Whatever else Playboy is about, they’ve often attracted quality writers, so that’s a pretty cool publication credit for Jennifer. Naturally, I wanted to read it.

That turned out to be harder than I thought. Playboy‘s website doesn’t let you read much of its content without paying, and the May issue isn’t even online yet. This meant I would have to go out and buy a printed copy of a magazine. Yeah, I know. Back before the web was big, I used to buy a bunch of magazines, but they were mostly about either computer software or politics, and these days you can find plenty about either of those subjects online. I had no idea where to buy a printed copy of Playboy.

I drove out at lunch time to a nearby magazine shop, but they turned out to have closed a while ago. The next day I tried some nearby convenience stores, but they all apparently stopped selling magazines without my even noticing. Last night I stopped in at Barnes & Nobel, but I could only find a single copy of Playboy, and it wasn’t the right issue. I guess all that print-is-dead hype was pretty real.

Finally, I found out that City Newsstand in Evanston had the May issue, so I drove out there today and sent my wife in to get a copy. Score!

JenniferPlayboyCredit.jpg

The article is in the Playboy Forum section (which is nothing like the Penthouse Forum section). If you’re a regular reader of Jennifer’s blog, it will be a familiar subject, although as an amateur writer, it’s fascinating to see how she’s adopted her style to the publication. I don’t quite understand what’s different, but it feels like there’s about 20% less scorn and derision which, given her feelings about the TSA, is pretty amazing. It almost feels a bit (dare I say it?) playful.

Anyway, check it out. (Normally, that would be a link but, you know, dead-tree media.)

Could we be seeing the start of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation?

A new space startup company, Planetary Resources, claims they “will overlay two critical sectors — space exploration and natural resources“. That sounds like space mining! And it’s not just a bunch of nuts I’ve never heard of backing this idea. The investors include Ross Perot Jr., Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page and Google chairman Eric Schmidt, James Cameron and Microsoft billionaire Charles Simonyi.
One of the classic memes in science fiction is the exploitation of resources beyond Earth, and in particular asteroid mining. We know there are valuable minerals to be mined just sitting around on rocks with orbits not too distant from Earth.
There is platinum, cobalt, gold, cobalt, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, osmium, palladium, platinum, rhenium, rhodium, ruthenium, tungsten, and more, just waiting to be picked up and flung back towards Earth.
And let’s not forget hydrogen and oxygen which is cheap on Earth, but expensive to put up into space. It would be much easier to fling those elements down into Earth orbit than to haul them up from the surface because of the deep gravity well we sit at the bottom of. Those two elements are very valuable as propulsion and already having them up in orbit would reduce the cost of rocket travel beyond Earth orbit enormously.
And I do mean “fling”. Asteroids don’t have a huge mass like a planet the size of Earth does, so it’s easy to get some of that mass away from them. In other words, the gravity well they sit at the bottom of isn’t very deep. In fact, it’s barely more than a rim. We would have more trouble keeping things on the surface of an asteroid than getting them off.
Since we are just talking about minerals or elements, and nothing that is living, a gentle change in velocity, called delta-v, will start any container slowly on its way down towards Earth, which sits at the bottom of a much larger gravity well. With a very precise push, you can expect the containers to either park themselves in Earth orbit, or even into a trajectory that would drop them down onto Earth for recovery, all with that initial push.
This is some very exciting news for space buffs and old kids like me who read all about such operations in science fiction novels. As a kid I just assumed that, by now, I would be working and living in space, yet commercialization of space has been nothing more than a pipe dream until recently.
But dream no more. Space-X corporation is scheduled to launch the first commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station on April 30th on a rocket they are designing to be man-certified. Spaceport America is a facility in New Mexico that is specifically designed for commercial space operations including facilities for the tourists Virgin Galactic will be flying into space (although not into orbit yet). Bigelow Aerospace is working on the old NASA inflatable space habitat concept, and expects to use the services of Space-X not only to launch the stations, but to supply crew and supplies. They plan on renting them out to nations or companies that can’t afford to build and launch their own stations.
Asteroid mining, however, is one of the great dreams of space commercialization. The potential for profit is huge, and so are the risks, but it represents a major milestone in man reaching for the stars. The reach this time is not just for exploration and knowledge, but for profit.
In Robert Heinlein’s classic story The Man Who Sold the Moon, the main character recognized that space travel would never become common until people could make money from the venture. He hid some diamonds on a flight to the moon so he could convince people it would be worth going back. In the case of asteroids, we already know the valuable materials to be harvested. It’s just a matter of having the technology to go out there so they can be tossed back to Earth.
If any space miners go along to repair the equipment, I just hope they remember to never, under any circumstances, look into a slimy alien egg as it it opening up. Even with a helmet on, that just never goes well in the end.

One of the things Kip Hawley left out of his explanation of why the TSA sucks is the TSA’s infestation of other forms of transportation, such as the one described in this press release from the Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority:

In an unprecedented approach that involved four law enforcement agencies – including federal agents – METRO launched a national BusSafe pilot program last Friday that saturated its system and resulted in quality arrests, making transit safer for passengers.

The METRO Police Department, Houston Police Department, Harris County Precinct 7 Deputy Constables and 15 agents – part of so-called viper teams – from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) joined forces in a synchronized, counter-terrorism exercise that focused on bus stops and shelters and transit centers.

Law officials performed random bag checks, conducted sweeps with our K-9 drug and bomb-detecting dogs, and assigned both uniformed and plainclothes officers at transit centers and rail platforms to detect and prevent criminal activity.

The call it a “counter-terrorism exercise,” but in the very next paragraph they mention drug-sniffing dogs, which of course have nothing to do with catching terrorists. And given the incredibly self-serving nature of this press release, they would have mentioned it if any of the “quality arrests” had been for something even remotely resembling terrorist activity.

In reality, what they did was setup an internal checkpoint — a place were citizens just going about their business are forced to show their papers and submit to questioning and investigation by the authorities — which is the hallmark of tyrannical governments everywhere, and a sign of creeping totalitarianism here.

Naturally, our elected representatives don’t see the problem:

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas District 18), a senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee, called this a new era for the TSA, and a new era for surface transportation security.

“We’re looking to make sure that the lady I saw walking with a cane…knows that METRO cares as much about her as we do about building the light rail,” said Jackson Lee at the news conference.

What the hell is that? Mention a woman with a cane and somehow that makes it alright to harass citizens for no reason? Is she that stupid? Or does she think we’re that stupid?

(Hat tip: Mark Bennett.)

Update: And now the Houston METRO folks have realized that “random” searches may not hold up in court, so they’re trying to change their story. Mark Bennett is all over it.

According to Kip Hawley the TSA’s airport security system is broken:

Airport security in America is broken. I should know. For 3½ years–from my confirmation in July 2005 to President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009–I served as the head of the Transportation Security Administration.

You know what Kip? Fuck you. You’re part of the problem. The very first words out of your mouth should be “I’m sorry.” Anything less is just not good enough.

You know the TSA. We’re the ones who make you take off your shoes before padding through a metal detector in your socks (hopefully without holes in them). We’re the ones who make you throw out your water bottles. We’re the ones who end up on the evening news when someone’s grandma gets patted down or a child’s toy gets confiscated as a security risk. If you’re a frequent traveler, you probably hate us.

I’ve flown once since 9/11. I still hate you. I hated you even before I flew. You know why I hated you, even though I hadn’t flown? Probably not. It’s because I have something called empathy for other people. I realize that’s a foreign concept for you, but you really should try it out.

Any effort to rebuild TSA and get airport security right in the U.S. has to start with two basic principles:

First, the TSA’s mission is to prevent a catastrophic attack on the transportation system, not to ensure that every single passenger can avoid harm while traveling. Much of the friction in the system today results from rules that are direct responses to how we were attacked on 9/11. But it’s simply no longer the case that killing a few people on board a plane could lead to a hijacking. Never again will a terrorist be able to breach the cockpit simply with a box cutter or a knife. The cockpit doors have been reinforced, and passengers, flight crews and air marshals would intervene.

We’ve been telling you this for YEARS, you dumb son of a bitch! Years!

Sigh. According to Hawley, it’s not all his fault, and I have to admit his explanation rings true:

I wanted to reduce the amount of time that officers spent searching for low-risk objects, but politics intervened at every turn. Lighters were untouchable, having been banned by an act of Congress. And despite the radically reduced risk that knives and box cutters presented in the post-9/11 world, allowing them back on board was considered too emotionally charged for the American public.

We did succeed in getting some items (small scissors, ice skates) off the list of prohibited items. And we had explosives experts retrain the entire work force in terrorist tradecraft and bomb-making. Most important, Charlie Allen, the chief of intelligence for the Department of Homeland Security, tied the TSA into the wider world of U.S. intelligence, arranging for our leadership to participate in the daily counterterrorism video conference chaired from the White House. With a constant stream of live threat reporting to start each day, I was done with playing defense.

Still, he’s kind of clueless:

Taking your shoes off for security is probably your least favorite part of flying these days. Mine, too.

Actually, most offensive part is when the TSA pricks look at us naked and touch us in places that strangers shouldn’t touch us. I realize that system came online after Hawley left the TSA, but it was going through procurement while he was in charge.

Eventually, he gets to a list of changes he proposes, most of which are pretty good:

What would a better system look like? If politicians gave the TSA some political cover, the agency could institute the following changes before the start of the summer travel season:

1. No more banned items: Aside from obvious weapons capable of fast, multiple killings–such as guns, toxins and explosive devices–it is time to end the TSA’s use of well-trained security officers as kindergarten teachers to millions of passengers a day…

2. Allow all liquids…

3. Give TSA officers more flexibility and rewards for initiative, and hold them accountable…

The TSA’s basic problem with accountability is that it is responsible for enforcing its own standards. That’s not very effective, especially since TSA employees have civil service protections that make them hard to fire. They aren’t law enforcement officers, so they don’t need to be government employees. The best way to hold airport security employees accountable is to lay off 90% of TSA employees and go back to the private security system we had before. Turn the remaining TSA officers into inspectors that hold the private system accountable.

4. Eliminate baggage fees: Much of the pain at TSA checkpoints these days can be attributed to passengers overstuffing their carry-on luggage to avoid baggage fees…

You could also try to make baggage handling safer and more efficient. Stop losing bags. Stop letting baggage handlers and TSA officers steal stuff. All that security, and someone can still walk off with anything you check. That’s why people carry stuff on.

To be effective, airport security needs to embrace flexibility and risk management–principles that it is difficult for both the bureaucracy and the public to accept. The public wants the airport experience to be predictable, hassle-free and airtight and for it to keep us 100% safe. But 100% safety is unattainable. Embracing a bit of risk could reduce the hassle of today’s airport experience while making us safer at the same time.

Again, some of us have been telling you that for years.

–Mr. Hawley is the author of “Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security,” to be published April 24 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Like we didn’t see that coming…

Security expert Bruce Schneier, who has been explaining the TSA’s errors for years, has posted his reaction, which is basically that Hawley has finally caught up to the rest of us. Also, Hawley was saying something completely different as recently as one month ago.

Wow, it looks like somebody hacked into John Derbyshire’s email and sent one of his publishing outlets something that would make him look a racist asshole. I mean, would even a jerk like Derbyshire really write shit like this?

(10a) Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally.

(10b) Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods.

(10c) If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date (neglect of that one got me the closest I have ever gotten to death by gunshot).

(10d) Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks.

(10e) If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.

(10f) Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians.

(10g) Before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white.

(10h) Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway.

(10i) If accosted by a strange black in the street, smile and say something polite but keep moving.

Holy Crap!

I keep thinking I must not be getting the joke, that this is some kind of rude satire, and I’m just missing the clues that give it away, like someone who never heard of Chris Rock tuning into the middle of him doing his “Controversy LaRue” character.

In my heart, though, I know Derbyshire’s just a tool.

Update: Derbyshire, who is best known as a writer for National Review, isn’t:

Derb is effectively using our name to get more oxygen for views with which we’d never associate ourselves otherwise. So there has to be a parting of the ways. Derb has long danced around the line on these issues, but this column is so outlandish it constitutes a kind of letter of resignation. It’s a free country, and Derb can write whatever he wants, wherever he wants. Just not in the pages of NR or NRO, or as someone associated with NR any longer.

Cue complaining about NR’s caving in to political correctness in 5…4…3…

[WARNING: This post is part of an April Fools Day prank. The Arizona bill is real, but the bill by Senator Lieberman is completely fictional. Eric Turkewitz was the ring leader for this event, and he has the wrap-up. The short version is that no one bit who should have known better.]

This weekend we’re seeing a one-two-punch against freedom of speech — at least as it exists on the internet — one from Arizona, the other from the U.S. Senate.

You may have heard of the first punch, in the form of a stupid law that I can only guess is an overreaction to the “bullying” panic. The Media Coalition offers this description of Arizona House Bill 2549:

Arizona House Bill 2549 would update the state’s telephone harassment law to apply to the Internet and other electronic communications. It would make it a crime to communicate via electronic means speech that is intended to “annoy,” “offend,” “harass” or “terrify,” as well as certain sexual speech.  However, because the bill is not limited to one-to-one communications, H.B. 2549 would apply to the Internet as a whole, thus criminalizing all manner of writing, cartoons, and other protected material the state finds offensive or annoying.

The Media Coalition explains what’s wrong with this in their letter to Arizona Governor Janice Brewer:

Government may criminalize speech that rises to the level of harassment and many states have laws that do so, but this legislation takes a law meant to address irritating phone calls and applies it to communication on web sites, blogs, listserves and other Internet communication. H.B. 2549 is not limited to a one to one conversation between two specific people. The communication does not need to be repetitive or even unwanted. There is no requirement that the recipient or subject of the speech actually feel offended, annoyed or scared. Nor does the legislation make clear that the communication must be intended to offend or annoy the reader, the subject or even any specific person.

In other words, this law would enact broad censorship of the press, and precisely because its result is so blatantly unconsitutional, I’m not too worried about it, even if it spreads outside of Arizona.

The second punch comes at the federal level, from reliable internet panic-monger Senator Joe Lieberman.

I know a lot of blogs attract crazy people, but I don’t get too many of them here. I was reminded of this recently when I got a comment on this post about Julian Assange blaming me for the decline of journalism since Walter Cronkite died (or something). Perhaps the most dangerous sounding was “Albatross,” who stopped by to defend writing about his fantasy of killing one of my former co-bloggers, and even he wasn’t as crazy as that short summary makes him sound. I’d like to think the relative lack of crazy is because all of you regular readers are so goddamned intelligent and level headed, but I suspect it has more to do with the fact that there just aren’t very many of you.

But even if the craziness in the comments got much, much worse, I don’t have to spend too much time worrying about it, largely due to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which makes it clear that web sites that accept content from third parties are not considered publishers of that content, and are therefore not legally responsible for it. Essentially, comments I receive are not editorial content of this blog; they’re more like sheets of paper pinned to the billboard at a neighborhood community center.

All that could change if Senator Lieberman gets his way with a stupid new bill he’s just proposed. The bill changes Section 230 to essentially strip away the protection against third-party content, making every blogger responsible for what commenters post. This will kill or cripple the lively comment areas of many blogs.

Even worse, remember that in many cases the blogs themselves are third-party content on someone else’s site, such as blogs hosted by Live Journal, Blogger, or WordPress. (The Huffington Post media empire itself would never have gotten off the ground if this law had been passed a few years ago.) There’s no way those companies could afford to police the millions of blogs for which they would now be liable, and I suspect most of them would go out of business. Even my own humble blog might go under, since the company I pay to host it might somehow become liable for its content.

The Arizona law seems blatantly unconstitutional, but I’m not sure to what extent something as technical as the status of third-party content is constrained by the Bill of Rights, especially since 1st Amendment lawyer Brian Cuban seems concerned:

One may look at this and think, “good riddance to sites like the Dirty” but free speech for one is free speech for all, even commentary we find offense.  If this amendment passes, we are all stripped naked in our ability to engage in the honest and blunt discourse that anonymous commenting protects. It  puts an unbearable burden on not only the sites we might not like but the sites that encourage legitimate discourse. All consumer rating sites would disappear practically overnight.

Hat-tip to Florida criminal defense Lawyer Brian Tannebaum, who takes a Voltaire-esque stand:

I’m not a fan of the sewage that is most anonymous comments. In my little part of the blogging world they come from lawyers, lawyers parading as cowards – afraid to express their thoughts unless protected by anonynimity. But I certainly don’t support federal legislation controlling the sewage.

Strangely, Mark Bennet thinks it might be a good idea:

Obviously, making it possible for web hosts to be held responsible for the conduct can’t help but raise the tone. Letting people who have been libeled online seek justice from those who allow the comments rather than chasing anonymous ghosts will essentially bring much-needed grown-up (but — and this is the key — nongovernmental) supervision to the Internet, raising barriers to entry and therefore the quality and utility of the discussion.

I think the Other Mark is forgetting that he doesn’t own the servers his blog is hosting on, and if this stupid bill passes, he might get an ugly surprise when his hosting company decides they don’t have the time to research the facts behind some of the potentially libelous things he writes.

First Amendment Badass (and restauranteur) Marc Randazza confirms my interpretation and, naturally, stands strong, so I’ll let him have the last word, in his inimitable style:

Although Lieberman is touting this amendment as an anti-terrorist effort, this action will have a chilling effect on all forms of Internet speech. Service providers from Comcast to Consumerist may now be treated as publishers to content posted to their websites. This opens up the possibility that review sites and others that rely on third parties for content will be held responsible for those very same deranged, sub-literate contributions. Lieberman’s proposed amendment will have a chilling effect on free speech, as any site that does not want to drown in legal bills likely won’t accept anonymous comments.  If you’re a sissy with paper-thin skin or an obsession with “bullying,” rejoice, I suppose.

Needless to say, inhibiting anonymous speech is an attack on this right in gross.  It will be a grave day if this amendment succeeds.  Although anonymous speech on the Internet is not always the most intelligent, it still has its place in public discourse — for me to poop on.  Civil liberties should not be victims in the attempt to curb terrorism, yet we have already succumbed to the Scylla and Charybdis of the TSA and NSA in entrusting our rights to the benevolent government.  At this point, what’s one more right ceded to the security theater’s alphabet soup?

Eternal vigilance, folks. Enternal vigilance.