Obama to the American people: You’re beautiful when you’re angry!

Back in 2008 I remember being amused by the accusations of arrogance levelled at then-candidate Barack Obama. It seemed to me a mere expression of anti-intellectualism. Of course you don’t become a top politician, even within reach of the presidency, without being pathologically arrogant, but no one really wants a shrinking violet as president.

But the Republican He’s a smart, educated guy, and the Republicans think (I supposed) they can gain an advantage by playing to the common fear that any such person must hold the average citizen in contempt.

I must now admit to having experienced a failure of empathy. Only now, when I (and those like me) am the object of the great BO’s contempt, do I appreciate how peculiarly infuriating this man’s ego is. This idiosyncratic blend of openness and narrow-mindedness, his willingness to discuss anything with anyone, undertaken with the absolute self-assurance that his intellect already encompasses any argument we might make.

Basically, Obama tells the American people, “You’re beautiful when you’re angry”.

In his recent remarks on l’affaire Snowden, Barry said

And if you look at the reports — even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden has put forward — all the stories that have been written, what you’re not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and listening in on people’s phone calls or inappropriately reading people’s emails. What you’re hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused. Now, part of the reason they’re not abused is because these checks are in place, and those abuses would be against the law and would be against the orders of the FISC.

Having said that, though, if you are outside of the intelligence community, if you are the ordinary person and you start seeing a bunch of headlines saying, U.S.-Big Brother looking down on you, collecting telephone records, et cetera, well, understandably, people would be concerned. I would be, too, if I wasn’t inside the government…

But people may have better ideas and people may want to jigger slightly sort of the balance between the information that we can get versus the incremental encroachments on privacy that if haven’t already taken place might take place in a future administration, or as technologies develop further….

And so those are the kinds of things that I’m looking forward to having a conversation about.

Speaking as one of those “ordinary persons”, I am disgusted by the president offering to start a “conversation” about what I and many others who have thought deeply about these matters consider to be already huge violations of our civil liberties, an injury to the rule of law, and laying the groundwork for the complete evacuation of democracy, with the caveat right up front that the only possible result could be “to jigger slightly sort of the balance”. Because Obama the Omniscient couldn’t possibly have gotten the whole policy wrong. He’s an (adjunct) constitutional scholar, ferchrissake!

He ridicules our concerns, because we’re not well informed like the people in the “intelligence community”, but he has been withholding the information, and taking extreme measures against anyone who tries to inform us.

But he loves having these heated conversations with us. We ordinary folks are so beautiful when we’re angry!

What happens if you forget the key?

Courts in the US and the UK have recently been ruling that criminal suspects may be forced to reveal cryptographic keys that encode files that may include incriminating evidence. US courts have been divided on whether this infringes upon the otherwise absolute right to avoid self-incrimination. I’ve never taken that argument very seriously — it’s certainly not in the spirit of the right to refuse to assist in prosecuting oneself to allow people to hide documentary evidence of a crime, just because the revelation would be “speech”.  But while people may be compelled to testify in court, and in some democracies may be required to assist police by correctly identifying themselves, it’s not usual for people to be compelled by law to reveal particular information, particularly when they may not know it. While perjury charges may be brought against those who testify falsely, the inevitable unreliability of memory makes perjury convictions difficult, and I thought impossible when the subject simply pleads ignorance rather than testifying to a falsehood.

In fact, the strongest argument for a right not to reveal a password is that it’s not the hidden data that are protected by the right against self-incrimination, but rather the admission that you know the password, hence are at least in some way in control of and responsible for them, that cannot be compelled. According to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (that was apparently a banner year for civil liberties in the UK), “failing to disclose an encryption key” is an offence in itself. In 2009 a man was jailed for 13 months for refusing on principle to provide encryption keys to the authorities, despite the fact that he was not suspected of any crime other than not cooperating with the police.

I have encrypted volumes on my laptop hard drive — with old exam papers — whose passwords I’ve forgotten. I probably should delete them, but I haven’t gotten around to it, and maybe I’ll remember one of these days. Even if I did delete them, they’d still be there on my hard drive unless I took exceptional measures. So if customs officials ever took an interest in my laptop while I was entering the UK, I could end up in prison for up to two years. The only thing I could do to protect myself is either to destroy the hard drive, or have it erased, which is itself suspicious.

Unlike most other criminal offences, the offence of withholding a cryptographic key is impossible to prove, but also impossible to disprove. It is even impossible for anyone but the accused even to know whether or not there has been any offence. And if there has been no criminal offence — if the accused does not, in fact, know the key — there is no way to prove that. It is the democratic state’s version of the plight of the man being tortured for information that he does not have, so that he has nothing to offer to end the suffering.

Along these lines, I was wondering about the current state of the right to silence in British law, and there came a revelation in the form of the British authorities (oddly, the news reports are all vague about which authorities it was; presumably the UK Border Agency, but maybe agents from a secret GCHQ data-mining task force) detaining the partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. According to the Guardian,

Those stopped under schedule 7 have no automatic right to legal advice and it is a criminal offence to refuse to co-operate with questioning,

This is pretty frightening, particularly when these laws are being so blatantly abused to settle political grudges.

The mistimed death clock: How much time do I have left?

Someone has set up a macabre “death clock“, a web site where individuals can enter a few personal statistics — birthdate, sex, smoking status, and general level of optimism, and it will calculate a “personal date of death”, together with an ominous clock ticking down the seconds remaining in your life. (For Americans, ethnic group is a hugely significant predictor, but I’m not surprised that they leave this out. Ditto for family income.) It’s supposed to be a sharp dose of reality, I suppose, except that it’s nonsense.

Not because no one knows the day or the hour, though that is true, but because the author has built into the calculator a common but elementary misconception about life expectancy, namely, that we lose a year of expected remaining life for every year that we live. Thus, when I enter my data the clock tells me that I am expected to die on August 6 2042. If I move my birthdate back* by 10 years — making myself 10 years older — my date of death moves back by the same amount, to August 6 2032. If I tell it I was born in 1936 it tells me that my time has already run out, which is obviously absurd.

In fact, every year that you live, you lose 1 year, but gain a proportion a remainder equivalent to the probability that you might have died. Thus, a 46-year-old US man has expected remaining lifespan 33.21 years. He has probability 0.00365 of dying in the next year; if he makes it through that year and reaches his 47th birthday, his expected remaining lifespan is (33.21-1)+.00365 x 32.21 = 32.33 years.** So he’s only lost 0.88 years off his remaining lifespan. In this way, it’s actually possible to have more expected remaining lifespan at an older age than at a younger, if the mortality rate is high enough. Thus, if we go back to 1933 mortality rates, the expected lifespan at birth was 59.2 years. But a 1-year-old, having made it through the 6.5% infant mortality, now has 62.3 years remaining on average.

This is another way of expressing the well-known but still often not-sufficiently-appreciated impact of infant mortality on life expectancy. The life-expectancy at birth for US males is 76.4 years. But that obviously doesn’t mean that everyone keels over 5 months into their 77th year. 60% of the newborn males are expected to live past this age, and a 77-year-old man has 10 remaining years on average.

Of course, these are all what demographers call “period” life expectancies, based on the mortality rates experienced in the current year, and pretending that these mortality rates will continue into the future. Based on the experience of the past two centuries we expect the mortality rates to continue to fall, in which case the true average lifespans for people currently alive — the “cohort life expectancies” will exceed these period calculations — but there is no way to know. If an asteroid hits the earth tomorrow and wipes out all life on earth, this period calculation will be rendered nugatory (but there will be no one left to point that out. Hah!) The true average lifespan of the infants born this year will not be known until well into the 22nd century. Or, if Aubrey de Grey is right, not until the 32nd century.

* Or is it moving my birthdate forward by 10 years when I make it 10 years earlier? Reasonable people disagree on this point! And there’s interesting research on the habits of mind that lead one to choose the metaphor of the stationary self with time streaming past me, or the self moving like a river through a background of time.

** Actually, it’s (33.21-1)/(1-.00365)

Dawkins’ faulty taxonomy

Science enthusiast Richard Dawkins is always good for a laugh, even if the laughter sometimes curdles at his anti-Catholic and anti-Muslim bigotry, and his inclination to minimise the the significance of child rape when it serves the interests of the former. He has recently published on Twitter the comment

All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.

There are all kinds of comments one could make about this, and many have, but what I find most striking is the utter failure of logic in the area that is closest to his area of purported expertise, which is not religion or sociology, but taxonomy. To a statistician, this comparison seems risible. Not only are Muslim and Member of Trinity College not comparable categories (I hope Professor Dawkins won’t get the vapours when I mention that they are not even mutually exclusive), but even if they were, Dawkins seems to be suggesting that the difference in NPF (Nobel Prize Frequency) between the devotees of Muhammed and of the Cambridge Trinity are due to negative selection by Islam, whereas another observer might suspect that there is some form of positive selection by Trinity College.

To put it baldly, you don’t need a Nobel Prize to get a post at Trinity College, but it doesn’t hurt. For example the most recent Trinity College Nobel Prize went to Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who had a nearly 30-year scientific career before joining Trinity College.

A more valid comparison would ask, why does Trinity College, Cambridge boast so many more nobel laureates (32) than the comparably sized Trinity College, Oxford. (2, by my count from this list).  Is it the vitiating effect of Oxford’s high-church Anglicanism? Or is it that Dawkins cherry-picked one of the wealthiest, most exclusive academic institutions, one most concentrated on exactly the sorts of subjects that attract Nobel prizes? Why have Scandinavian authors received so many Nobel Prizes in Literature? Religion? Climate? Reindeer?

I leave the resolution of these questions to the skeptical reader. Those who are interested in a more amusing version of Dawkinsian taxonomy can have a look at Borges’s essay “John Wilkins’ Analytical Language“. Borges describes an imaginary ancient Chinese encyclopedia, Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge that divides up all animals into the following categories:

Continue reading “Dawkins’ faulty taxonomy”

Papers, please!

I feel a need to sharpen the point I made here, about how the Tory need to pander in all directions at once has led them into an incoherent position we might call “the antifascism of fools“. On the one hand, we now have government agents patrolling the London underground, stopping “suspicious” people to demand they show their papers. On the other hand, the government will not actually provide people with the papers they need to show, because that would be tyranny. (They can get passports, but that costs about £80. On the other hand, deporting the poor might alleviate the shortage of affordable housing in London. I hear the Falklands are nice this time of year.)

It’s as though a government were to set up concentration camps and secret police, but run down the rail service because making the trains run on time is what fascists do. (Although, come to think of it, that’s not a bad description of recent developments in the US…)

Quantum babble

Here’s  a recent article from New Scientist about the discovery — creation, actually — of a new kind of particle called the “Majorana fermion” that physicists have supposedly been searching for for 75 years (who knew?!)

I more or less trust New Scientist, so it’s presumably legitimate, but it’s amazingly close to a parody of quantum gobbledegook. I know more than the average person about quantum physics, but I really can’t tell if someone’s pulling my leg here. I could just as well imagine this having been scribed by Stanislaw Lem, and it wouldn’t be entirely out of place as a wonky Spock-Kirk colloquy in Star Trek, explaining how hyperwarp communications or something functions.

What is a Majorana fermion?

It is named for the physicist Ettore Majorana, who found that a particle could be its own antiparticle.

If a particle has properties with values unequal to zero, then its antiparticle has the opposite values. What that means is that all the properties of a Majorana fermion, the charge, energy, what have you, it’s all zero. It is a particle, but it doesn’t have properties that we can measure. That makes it very mysterious. It also makes it difficult to find.

How did you find the Majorana?
We made one. The Majorana comes out of the superposition of an electron and a “hole” – the absence of an electron in a metal. By applying a magnetic field to semiconducting nanowires laid across a superconductor, you can move electrons along these wires, creating two points in space that each mimic half an electron. The electrons go back and forth, so the hole jumps from left to right. If it spends an equal amount of time on each side, then, quantum mechanically, it’s in a superposition of being on the left and right. If it’s stable, then we call it a particle.

I’ve had graduate level courses in relativistic quantum mechanics, but I can’t tell if this is a joke.

Suspicious is as suspicious does

This is an official government vehicle.

On the list of all-time great tautologies (though not quite as pithy as “It ain’t over til it’s over”) comes the comment of UK immigration minister Mark Harper, defending the government’s new policy of stopping foreign-looking people to check their immigration papers:

“‘They are not allowed to do it based on someone’s physical appearance. If, someone, when seeing an immigration officer, behaved in a very suspicious way, that might give us reasonable suspicion to question them,” Harper said. “It’s about how they behave, not what they look like. It’s not about their appearance or their race or their ethnicity.”

That sounds pretty clear: If they behave in a “very suspicious way” there must be a reasonable suspicion. Otherwise their way wouldn’t be very suspicious, would it?

One of the first things the new government did when it came into power was to cancel the previous government’s plan to introduce ID cards, because of fears that, well, people could be stopped on the street and asked to show them. The cards were dismissed as “expensive, intrusive“. I’m glad I’m a real foreigner. I have a card to show when I see an immigration officer and can’t resist behaving in a very suspicious way. British citizens who behave suspiciously (after seeing an immigration officer) have no recourse, and may find themselves waiting months to see an immigration judge.

Well, the US has had some success deporting unruly citizens to Mexico. Maybe that’s what Obama adviser Jim Messina has crossed the ocean to advise the Tories about.

New frontiers in child-rearing: How to (not) talk to your kids about fracking

The Guardian reports on a legal settlement, where a Pennsylvania family whose water supply was contaminated by gas drilling, received a payout for their now useless farm, and a gag order banning anyone in the family — expressly including the children, aged 7 and 10, from “ever discussing fracking or the Marcellus Shale”.

During the proceedings, the attorney representing Range Resources, Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream and MarkWest Energy, reaffirmed the gag order on the children. “I guess our position is it does apply to the whole family. We would certainly enforce it,” he told the court.

The parents in this case did warn of the limited reach of the court:

We can tell them, they can not say this, they can not say that, but if on the playground…..

I know I have enough trouble getting my own children to stop talking about oil and gas exploration on the playground. It’s hard to imagine any court being willing to enforce an order penalising people for discussing certain topics because of an agreement their parents entered into, but the mere threat (and legal expenses) might intimidate them from ever challenging it.

Imagine the potential: Fundamentalist parents could enter into gag orders with their church, forbidding the children from ever speaking about Darwin or evolution. Many parents would happily sign a gag order blocking their four-year-olds from discussing poopy pants or boogers.

And why stop at one generation? Just imagine if, instead of fighting for the loyalty of consumers, generation after generation, a company like Coca Cola could simply pay current consumers to commit themselves and all their descendants to never mention the name of Pepsi, or any other cola drink. And while we’re selling off the rights of our descendants, we might as well replace the whole problematic student loan market with selling off our firstborn children into slavery. (Perhaps they can be chained to desks in the university admissions office, forced to read through 80 thousand personal essays.)

The whole idea of gag orders disgusts me. Paying someone not to talk about a subject… Why does that remind me of something absurd?…

How do you tell the difference between eavesdropping and ineptitude?

So, apparently, the Nassau County (New York) Police have a “joint terrorism task force”, and they can monitor residents’ web searches in more or less real time. And they paid a visit to a family that had searched for pressure cookers and backpacks online, as well as having revealed interest in news about the Boston bombing. I’m not an expert, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to go telling everyone that law enforcement is monitoring the contents of web activity. Aside from the fact that the monitoring itself is probably illegal, revealing operational capabilities tends to get people stranded in the holding area of foreign airports, where Americans get stabbed in the back. And it doesn’t matter what your motivations were for revealing the information. (Pressure cookers? Really? The whole reason for using pressure cookers to make bombs is that there are millions of them around, a very large fraction of which will likely never be used to kill or maim civilians. And backpacks.)

The next Edward Snowden should avoid contacting a journalist directly. Instead, he can just tip off local law enforcement to an important national security journalist’s involvement in some nefarious plot, and then feed them with the appropriate keywords that he’s trying to communicate. He’ll probably get a medal.

The story, as reported by the aspiring terrorist herself, has some delightful details that sound like they came from Monty Python:

Meanwhile, they were peppering my husband with questions. Where is he from? Where are his parents from? They asked about me, where was I, where do I work, where do my parents live. Do you have any bombs, they asked. Do you own a pressure cooker? My husband said no, but we have a rice cooker. Can you make a bomb with that? My husband said no, my wife uses it to make quinoa. What the hell is quinoa, they asked.

Again, I’m no expert on interrogation, but I’m just going to hazard a guess that “Can you make a bomb with that?” is not the sort of question that frequently leads to actionable intelligence.

Can Russia stab us in the back?

Who knew that things had gotten so intimate between the erstwhile Cold War adversaries? Senator Charles Schumer (of New York) says

Russia has stabbed us in the back, and each day that Mr. Snowden is allowed to roam free is another twist of the knife.

As Mr Schumer surely knows, the “stab in the back” is a favourite antisemitic trope, or more generally a reference to treacherous fellow citizens who are “behind us” because we think we can trust them, while our eyes are focused on the enemy across the border. They are the internal enemy, taking advantage of our attention focused on the external enemy.

1919 Austrian postcard.
In Schumer’s telling, Russia is the one on the right.

Now, Russia is a powerful nation, and I hope that the US has a reasonably cooperative diplomatic relationship to it, but I would never have thought it was a US ally.

So, what I want to know is, who screwed up and let the Russians have our backs?

Of course, we wouldn’t have this problem if Snowden (like Bradley Manning) was gay. Maybe we should stop giving security clearances to heterosexuals. It’s too easy for them to get asylum…