Later On

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Archive for June 23rd, 2013

Snowden’s asylum request to Ecuador

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Snowden has requested asylum in Ecuador. Juan Cole posts in Informed Comment:

Rafael Correa of Ecuador, who won a third term this year, has significantly improved the lives of his people, reducing poverty rates and building out infrastructure. Correa, an economist trained at the University of Illinois, has a nuanced view of the US, but he has had significant frictions with the behemoth of the North, which has often thrown its weight around on behalf of US corporate interests in the South American country. Correa complains of continual US push-back against policies that benefit the people, saying that Washington has been ‘Historically Antagonistic’ to progressive change in Latin America. Since most Americans can’t find Ecuador on the map and have no idea of the history of the US corporations with that country, we could review a few little blemishes on our record that might make Correa willing to offer asylum to US whistleblowers:

According to the Christian Science Monitor, an Ecuadoran court found Texas oil giant Texaco (now part of Chevron) guilty dumping “18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater and 17 million gallons of crude oil” in the Amazon basin in the northeast of the country. It was found guilty of “polluting an estimated 1,700 square miles of rain forest – an area the size of Rhode Island.” Further legal proceedings are ongoing in the case, even in the US.

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 June 2013 at 3:07 pm

A realistic look at Ayn Rand’s worldview

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Chris Kluwe in Salon, excerpted from Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies.

So I forced myself to read “Atlas Shrugged.” Apparently I harbor masochistic tendencies; it was a long, hard slog, and by the end I felt as if Ayn Rand had violently beaten me about the head and shoulders with words. I feel I would be doing all of you a disservice (especially those who think Rand is really super-duper awesome) if i didn’t share some thoughts on this weighty tome.

Who is John Galt?

John Galt (as written in said novel) is a deeply flawed, sociopathic ideal of the perfect human. John Galt does not recognize the societal structure surrounding him that allows him to exist. John Galt, to be frank, is a turd.

However, John Galt is also very close to greatness. The only thing he is missing, the only thing Ayn Rand forgot to take into account when writing “Atlas Shrugged,” is empathy.

John Galt talks about intelligence and education without discussing who will pay for the schools, who will teach the teachers. John Galt has no thought for his children, or their children, or what kind of world they will have to occupy when the mines run out and the streams dry up. John Galt expects an army to protect him but has no concern about how it’s funded or staffed. John Galt spends his time in a valley where no disasters occur, no accidents happen, and no real life takes place.

John Galt lives in a giant fantasy that’s no different from an idealistic communist paradise or an anarchist’s playground or a capitalist utopia. His world is flat and two-dimensional. His world is not real, and that is the huge, glaring flaw with objectivism.

John Galt does not live in reality.

In reality, hurricanes hit coastlines, earthquakes knock down buildings, people crash cars or trip over rocks or get sick and miss work. In reality, humans make good choices and bad choices based on forces even they sometimes don’t understand. To live with other human beings, to live in society, requires that we understand that shit happens and sometimes people need a safety net. Empathy teaches us that contributing to this safety net is beneficial for all, because we never know when it will be our turn.

If an earthquake destroys half the merchandise in my store or levels my house, that’s something I can’t control; it doesn’t matter how prepared I was or how hard I worked. Trying to recover from something like that can cripple a person, both financially and mentally, unless he has some help from those who understand that we’re all in this together, we need each other to function as a society, and the next earthquake might hit one of our houses.

If a volcano erupts and takes out vital transportation and infrastructure, should we just throw our hands up in the air and say, “not my responsibility”? No, because it is our responsibility.

It’s our responsibility as members of a societal group to take care of the underlying foundations of peace and security — to ensure that the roads and rails are protected because they provide a collective good.

To be fair to John Galt, though, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 June 2013 at 2:43 pm

Greenwald 1 – Gregory 0 (possibly -1)

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From Connor Simpson at the Atlantic Wire:

Glenn Greenwald and David Gregory got into a bit of a row on NBC’s Meet the Press after Gregory asked whether Greenwald should maybe be prosecuted for “aiding and abetting” National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. Surprisingly, Greenwald did not appreciate being called a criminal by a fellow journalist! “I think it’s pretty extraordinary that anybody who would call themselves a journalist would publicly muse about whether or not other journalists should be charged with felonies,” he said. Greenwald said “the assumption” he did anything to help Snowden, besides act as the vessel for his classified leaks, “completely without evidence.” Greenwald cited the Justice Department investigations of the Associated Press and Fox News as evidence the administration is trying to “criminalize investigative journalism” and accusing reporters of “being co-conspirator in felonies for working with sources.” But Greenwald wasn’t done there: “If you want to embrace that theory it means that every investigative journalist in the United States who works with their sources, who receives classified information, is a criminal.” Gregory responded to Greenwald’s dressing down by questioning whether or not he counts as a journalist. “The question of who’s a journalist may be up to a debate with regard to what you’re doing,” he said, before adding that he was just “asking a question that has been raised by lawmakers,” and “not embracing anything.” Fun times!

Video at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 June 2013 at 2:20 pm

Corporations love arbitration

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More and more companies are forcing employees and customers (e.g., credit card customers) to agree in advance that any dispute will be resolved by arbitration rather than through courts. Businesses love this because they pay for the arbitrators, who know full well that if they find in favor of the employee or customer they’ll never be hired again. So arbitration decides in favor of the business around 99% of the time. (Take a look at these earlier posts in this blog.)

The NY Times has a good editorial on a recent Supreme Court decision:

This week, the Supreme Court continued its aggressive effort to favor corporations by forcing customers to raise grievances through individual arbitration rather than a class action or some other joint legal challenge.

In American Express Company v. Italian Colors Restaurant, the court ruled 5 to 3 that a group of merchants could not bring a class action against the company even on antitrust grounds because each had signed a contract that required complaints to be taken to individual arbitration.

The decision makes it very hard, if not impossible, to stop bad corporate practices because the potential award for an individual would be too small to justify a suit.

American Express requires merchants that want to accept its corporate and premium charge cards to also accept American Express credit cards, at a fee that is 30 percent higher than other credit cards’ fees. Italian Colors Restaurant and others claimed that by requiring them to accept the third card the company is subjecting them to a “tying arrangement,” in violation of federal law.

The merchants sought typical damages of $5,000, but it would cost an individual merchant hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to prove an antitrust claim. The arbitration provision in their contracts prohibited them from sharing the cost or from consolidating their claims into one case, so each was left with no way to press a claim.

For the past three decades, the Supreme Court has ruled that individual arbitration is an acceptable way to resolve a dispute only when it gives the challenger a realistic chance of enforcing the claim. But as Justice Elena Kagan explained in her dissenting opinion, there is also a longstanding principle that “when an arbitration agreement prevents the effective vindication of federal rights, a party may go to court.”

The Supreme Court was wrong to bar the class action, asserting that federal law does not guarantee plaintiffs “an affordable procedural path to the vindication of every claim.” By doing so, Justice Kagan said, the majority turns arbitration from a method of resolving disputes into “a foolproof way of killing off valid claims.” The decision is one more example of the court’s favoring powerful corporations over small businesses and individuals.


Written by LeisureGuy

23 June 2013 at 9:53 am

Posted in Business, Law

Put on your Philip K. Dick hat

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I watched Echelon Conspiracy, as seems appropriate given the daily news, and it occurred to me that some scenes in science-fiction movies are no longer fictional at all. Consider a scene in which a BGA (big government agency) wants to find a person—a villain say, for surely these capabilities will always be used only for good purposes.

So we’re looking for someone bad. The Protagonist has just burst into BGA’s workroom filled with techies at keyboards, with an enormous flatscreen monitor on the wall. He shouts, “We’ve got to find so-and-so now!” (So-and-so is some mgb—minor government bureaucrat off the reservation.

A techie at a keyboard quickly types, and suddenly a window pops open on the big monitor, showing a real-time video of the subject in motion: what’s shown on the screen is what he’s doing at that instant. The Protagonist then will inevitably bark at the techie, “Back that up,” whereupon the techie moves his fingers on the touchpad, and another window on the big monitor shows what looks like a movie in reverse, with cuts from camera to camera to maintain the subject as focus. (The first window continues to show the subject, jumping from camera to camera as needed, as he moves along.)  Date/time/location information is displayed with the visual image.

The techie continues to scroll back in time until the subject is seen him talking to someone, whereupon the Protagonist will say, “Follow that guy!” and the scroll-back continues with a new person as the focus.

In the meantime, the system is querying all on-line databases and building in another window a tabbed display of data on the person: DMV data, police records, tax records (property taxes, local, state, and federal income taxes), Facebook data, appearances in print, and so on. New tabs pop up as new information is found. Possibly tab colors change to indicated flagged information: perhaps information that matches a pattern or seems anomalous.

Could that be real? Many security cameras, public and private, use the internet to carry data. And if the data went through the internet, then NSA has a copy. They’ve already admitted that: they scoop up everything into giant databases.

That database would contain all the images along with a lot of other information. What would be needed to pull out the data required for the display above?

First, enormous computing power—but NSA does massive (and growing) computing power (have you seen the bills? no? well, you never will, but you’ve seen the size of that Utah facility, which for all we know is but the tip of the iceberg—NSA doesn’t talk much).

Second, and even more important than computing power, they would need software and in particular powerful search algorithms that can do pattern-matching, face-recognition, voice-recognition, and so on. And we know NSA has made massive investments in how to efficiently mine that mountain of data, collaborating with Google, Yahoo, and the like. That has been admitted.

Third, you’d need a fast internet. It does seem that steps are being taken to increase US internet bandwidth—to some degree to accommodate the growing number of smartphones and support their use.

Everything in the scenario above then becomes feasiable. Finding his current location? Trivial: use his smartphone, for example, or his credit-card purchases, or airline checkin, or whatever.

Watching him real-time through surveillance cameras? That’s where the algorithms come in—face-recognition, for example

For example, consider: to go from getting his location from his (known) phone number to identifying the on-looking cameras would be fairly quick and easy, with internet speed a limit (so perhaps that’s why money is now being spent to increase internet bandwidth).

Once the appropriate cameras are identified, facial-recognition software examines (quickly) the feed. The software could start with, say, the subject’s (on-line) driver’s license photo (DMV officials can query their database remotely: and once it touches the internet, NSA has it—and keeps it as long as they like). I would think that initial photo could be improved or augmented by using other images of the person that appear on-line (Facebook, personnel files, and so on).

Then, with the face-recognition software well-primed, all data streams from cameras around the subject’s location are checked. As soon as the subject is located in one camera, that camera’s feed automatically goes to the big monitor for the Protagonist to exclaim, “That’s him!” just before saying, “Back it up!”

Backing up would involve some gaps—when no camera feeds (public or private) are available, but the search can broaden, now that the face is “known” to the algorithm. And, of course, more cameras come on-line everyday.

Facial-recognition software with the capabilities I have described is futuristic, but I would bet you that some people are hard at work at this very moment to improve them. NSA programmers sitting at a computer, or talking in a conference room, or chatting around the water cooler… well, not the last. I cannot imagine there’s much casual banter in NSA offices, though I’ve never worked there—it may be like any other office. But I would think that knowing the capabilities NSA has and the likelihood that they are watching closely, would modify the conversation. I would guess that one’s life would change somewhat if you know how closely you can be observed.

Being able to view individual citizens in real time must be incredibly tempting to an authoritarian mindset—and God knows money is simply shoveled into NSA’s coffers to move their systems closer to the system described, if we’re not already there in many localities.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 June 2013 at 9:22 am

New signs of language surface in mystery Voynich text

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Above, a sample page of the Voynich Manuscript, showing some of the text.

An interesting development is reported by Lisa Grossman in New Scientist:

A mysterious and beautiful 15th-century text that some researchers have recently deemed to be gibberish may not be a hoax after all. A new study suggests the text shares quantifiable features with genuine language, and so may contain a coded message.

That verdict emerges from a statistical technique that puts a figure on the information content of elements in a text or code, even if their meaning is unknown. The technique could also be used to determine whether there is meaning in genomes, possible messages from aliens or even the signals between neurons in the brain.

The Voynich manuscript has baffled and captivated researchers since book dealer Wilfred Voynich found it in an Italian monastery in 1912. It contains illustrations of naked nymphs, unidentifiable plants, astrological diagrams and pages and pages of text in an unidentified alphabet.

Although the patterns of word lengths and symbol combinations in the text are similar to those in real languages, several recent studies have suggested that the book was a clever 15th-century hoax designed to dupe Renaissance book collectors, and that the words have no meaning. One study showed that techniques known to 16th-century cryptographers would have allowed someone to create these patterns using a nonsense set of characters. Another study concluded that the statistical properties of the script are consistent with gibberish.

Word entropy

Now Marcelo Montemurro of the University of Manchester in the UK and colleagues have analysed the text using a technique that pulls out the most meaningful terms. “We decided that’s ideal to use in this mysterious manuscript,” Montemurro says. “People have been discussing and quarrelling for decades about whether it’s a hoax. This would be a new approach.”

Their results support the idea that Voynich text really does contain a secret message.

Rather than looking for patterns in the words themselves, Montemurro’s method looks for more global patterns in the frequency and clustering of words that might indicate meaning. “The results that we get looking at these things cast a new light on the content of the volume,”Montemurro says.

The method uses a formula to find the entropy of each term – a measure of how evenly distributed it is. For a given term, the researchers determined its entropy in both the original text and in a scrambled version. The difference between the two entropies, multiplied by the frequency of the word, gives a measure of how much information it carries.

The method recognises that words that are particularly important will appear more frequently, as well as making a distinction between low-information words like and, which you would expect to be sprinkled evenly throughout, and high-information ones like language, which might only appear in sections dealing with that topic.

Relatedness score

Back in 2009, the entropy approach homed in on meaningful words in famous texts across several languages. In On the Origin of Species, for example, the top 10 most informative words identified by the formula included . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 June 2013 at 7:39 am

Posted in Books, Science

Outsourcing our government: Booz Allen, the World’s Most Profitable Spy Organization

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Drake Bennett and Michael Riley write in Bloomberg Businessweek:

In 1940, a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy began to think about what a war with Germany would look like. The admirals worried in particular about the Kriegsmarine’s fleet of U-boats, which were preying on Allied shipping and proving impossible to find, much less sink. Stymied, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox turned to Booz, Fry, Allen & Hamilton, a consulting firm in Chicago whose best-known clients wereGoodyear Tire & Rubber (GT) and Montgomery Ward. The firm had effectively invented management consulting, deploying whiz kids from top schools as analysts and acumen-for-hire to corporate clients. Working with the Navy’s own planners, Booz consultants developed a special sensor system that could track the U-boats’ brief-burst radio communications and helped design an attack strategy around it. With its aid, the Allies by war’s end had sunk or crippled most of the German submarine fleet.

That project was the start of a long collaboration. As the Cold War set in, intensified, thawed, and was supplanted by global terrorism in the minds of national security strategists, the firm, now called Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH), focused more and more on government work. In 2008 it split off its less lucrative commercial consulting arm—under the name Booz & Co.—and became a pure government contractor, publicly traded and majority-owned by private equity firm Carlyle Group (CG). In the fiscal year ended in March 2013, Booz Allen Hamilton reported $5.76 billion in revenue, 99 percent of which came from government contracts, and $219 million in net income. Almost a quarter of its revenue—$1.3 billion—was from major U.S. intelligence agencies. Along with competitors such as Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), CACI, and BAE Systems (BAESY), the McLean (Va.)-based firm is a prime beneficiary of an explosion in government spending on intelligence contractors over the past decade. About 70 percent of the 2013 U.S. intelligence budget is contracted out, according to a Bloomberg Industries analysis; the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) says almost a fifth of intelligence personnel work in the private sector.

It’s safe to say that most Americans, if they’d heard of Booz Allen at all, had no idea how huge a role it plays in the U.S. intelligence infrastructure. They do now. On June 9, a 29-year-old Booz Allen computer technician, Edward Snowden, revealed himself to be the source of news stories showing the extent of phone and Internet eavesdropping by the National Security Agency. Snowden leaked classified documents he loaded onto a thumb drive while working for Booz Allen at an NSA listening post in Hawaii, and he’s promised to leak many more. After fleeing to Hong Kong, he’s been in hiding. (He didn’t respond to a request for comment relayed by an intermediary.)

The attention has been bad for Booz Allen’s stock, which fell more than 4 percent the morning after Snowden went public and still hasn’t recovered. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Select Committee on Intelligence, has called for a reexamination of the role of private contractors in intelligence work and announced she’ll seek to restrict their access to classified information. Booz Allen declined to comment on Snowden beyond its initial public statement announcing his termination.

The firm has long kept a low profile—with the federal government as practically its sole client, there’s no need for publicity. It does little, if any, lobbying. Its ability to win contracts is ensured by the roster of intelligence community heavyweights who work there. The director of national intelligence, James Clapper—President Obama’s top intelligence adviser—is a former Booz Allen executive. The firm’s vice chairman, Mike McConnell, was President George W. Bush’s director of national intelligence and, before that, director of the NSA. Of Booz Allen’s 25,000 employees, 76 percent have classified clearances, and almost half have top-secret clearances. In a 2003 speech, Joan Dempsey, a former CIA deputy director, referred to Booz Allen as the “shadow IC” (for intelligence community) because of the profusion of “former secretaries of this and directors of that,” according to a 2008 book,Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing. Today Dempsey works for Booz Allen.

It’s possible that fallout from the Snowden revelations will lead to significant changes in intelligence contracting. The Senate intelligence committee has been pressuring spy agencies for years to reduce their reliance on contractors. And in the age of the sequester, even once untouchable line items such as defense and intelligence spending are vulnerable to cuts.

Yet conversations with current and former employees of Booz Allen and U.S. intelligence officials suggest . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 June 2013 at 7:13 am

Does the US now fit the definition of “police state”?

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Juan Cole writes at Informed Comment:

The police state, a term first coined in the mid-19th century in German (Polizeistadt), is characterized by a standing political police, by intense domestic surveillance and by restrictions on the movements of citizens. Police states are on a spectrum, and unfortunately in the past decade the Unite States has moved toward police-stateness in small but key ways. Here are the signs:

1. The United States National Security Administration recently requisitioned all Verizon phone records in the US for a period of 3 months. Your telephone records (who you called and for how long) say a great deal about you. This is a form of mass surveillance.

2. The US has assigned 250 NSA agents to sift through a massive further British database of US telecommunications and email, derived from attaching packet analyzers to transatlantic fiber optic cables.

3. The Federal government claims the right to examine the contents of the laptops of US citizens whenever the enter the United States, in contravention of the Fourth Amendment. Some 60 million Americans travel abroadannually.

4. The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Those in prison have grown from 220 per 100,000 population to over 700 per 100,000 population since 1980. The US holds over two million inmates, and has 6 million people at any one time under carceral supervision– more than were in Stalin’s Gulag. State spending on prisons has risen at 6 times the rate of spending on higher education.

5. Some 6 million persons convicted of felonies have been disenfranchised and cannot vote. Most are not in prison. Because of the ‘war on drugs,’ many of these persons are not actually guilty of serious crimes. The practice hits the poor and minorities. Some 7 percent of African-Americans is ineligible to vote, but less than 2 percent of whites is.

6. Police can take . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 June 2013 at 6:44 am

Posted in Daily life, Government

When the hot new entrant in social media was the coffeehouse

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Interesting column by Tom Standage in the NY Times on an earlier social media innovation:

SOCIAL networks stand accused of being enemies of productivity. According to one popular (if questionable) infographic circulating online, the use of Facebook, Twitter and other such sites at work costs the American economy $650 billion each year. Our attention spans are atrophying, our test scores declining, all because of these “weapons of mass distraction.”

Yet such worries have arisen before. In England in the late 1600s, very similar concerns were expressed about another new media-sharing environment, the allure of which seemed to be undermining young people’s ability to concentrate on their studies or their work: the coffeehouse. It was the social-networking site of its day.

Like coffee itself, coffeehouses were an import from the Arab world. England’s first coffeehouse opened in Oxford in the early 1650s, and hundreds of similar establishments sprang up in London and other cities in the following years. People went to coffeehouses not just to drink coffee, but to read and discuss the latest pamphlets and news-sheets and to catch up on rumor and gossip.

Coffeehouses were also used as post offices. Patrons would visit their favorite coffeehouses several times a day to check for new mail, catch up on the news and talk to other coffee drinkers, both friends and strangers. Some coffeehouses specialized in discussion of particular topics, like science, politics, literature or shipping. As customers moved from one to the other, information circulated with them.

The diary of Samuel Pepys, a government official, is punctuated by variations of the phrase “thence to the coffeehouse.” His entries give a sense of the wide-ranging conversations he found there. The ones for November 1663 alone include references to “a long and most passionate discourse between two doctors,” discussions of Roman history, how to store beer, a new type of nautical weapon and an approaching legal trial.

One reason these conversations were so lively was that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 June 2013 at 6:27 am

Posted in Daily life

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