The right to bear codes

Back when I was a graduate student, in the late 1980s and early 90s, there was a lot of discussion, among those interested in cryptography and computing (which I was, only peripherally) of the status of cryptographic algorithms as “weapons”, subject to export controls. The idea seemed bizarre to those of us who thought of algorithms as things you prove theorems about, and computer code as something you write. It seemed as absurd as declaring a book to be a weapon. Sure, you might metaphorically call Das Kapital  a weapon, or the Declaration of Independence, but it’s not really a weapon, and a country was much more likely to think about banning imports than banning exports. The author of PGP was then being threatened with prosecution, and had the code published as a book to mate the analogy more explicit.

So, I used to defend free access to cryptography because I thought it was ridiculous to consider codes to be weapons. I now think that was naïve. But if codes are weapons, does that provide a justification for a right of free access (in the US)? Maybe it’s not freedom of speech or the press — 1st amendment — but if cryptography is a weapon, is the use and manufacture of cryptographic algorithms and software protected in the US by the 2nd amendment? Certainly the main arguments made for a right to firearms — sport, self-defence, and bulwark against tyranny — are all applicable to cryptography as well. Are there current US laws or government practices that restrict the people’s free access to cryptography that would be called into question if cryptography were “arms” in the sense of the 2nd amendment?

This is connected to the question I have wondered about occasionally: Why didn’t strong cryptography happen? That is, back then I (and many others) assumed that essentially unbreakable cryptography would become easy and default, causing trouble for snoops and law enforcement. But in fact, most of our data and communications are pretty insecure still. Is this because of legal constraints, or general disinterest, or something else? The software is available, but it’s sufficiently inconvenient that most people don’t use it. And while it wouldn’t actually be difficult to encode all my email (say) with PGP, I’d feel awkward asking people to do it, since no one else is doing it.

It seems as though the philosophy of the Clipper chip has prevailed: Some people really need some sort of cryptography for legitimate purposes. If you make a barely adequate tool for the purpose conveniently available, you’ll prevent people from making the small extra effort to obtain really strong cryptography.

Continue reading “The right to bear codes”

Benjamin Franklin’s advice on vaccination

I’ve never seen Franklin brought into the discussion of parents’ refusal to vaccinate their children. This passage from his autobiography made a deep impression on me:

In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the small-pox, taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.

More comments on Andrew Wakefield and the MMR-autism hoax here.

I once was at a parents’ meeting in Oxford where a homeopath had been invited to speak. I was genuinely nonplussed that she was raving against vaccines. Aren’t vaccines the one great success of the homeopathic world-view? Giving a tiny dose of the disease-causing agent to cure (or prevent) the disease. Her answer was incomprehensible to me, but seemed to suggest that the very fact that there was a measurable physiologic effect showed that they weren’t any good (from a homeopathic perspective). And the fact that pharmaceutical firms made the vaccines was all you needed to know about their chthonic nature.

I fled the meeting in revulsion when the homeopath started prating about homeopathic cures for tetanus.

Third most popular

Being a fan of the Dvorak keyboard layout, I was intrigued to learn that there is another QWERTY competitor, called Colemak. On the official Colemak web site one learns that

Colemak is now the 3rd most popular keyboard layout for touch typing in English, after QWERTY and Dvorak.

That formulation could be effective in other contexts. For example,

Standing up is now the 3rd most popular posture for sleeping, after lying down and sitting.

Or a political version:

Congress is now the 3rd most respected branch of the US government, after the executive and the judiciary.

World’s Greatest Healthcare, ctd.

Addendum to my earlier post on US health care. Impressions from a friend’s trip, thankfully not an emergency in the end, to the emergency room of Children’s Hospital in Oakland:

  1. It’s not just the general practitioners in the US who are not very competent. So, a child being examined to exclude appendicitis is given a popsicle — presumably for hydration and glucose — by the intern. A bit later, he wants to give her IV fluids. Why can’t she just drink water? In case it is appendicitis, she shouldn’t take anything orally. Oh yes, I probably shouldn’t have given her that popsicle… I’m sure the microneurosurgeons in the US are first-rate, though. Continue reading “World’s Greatest Healthcare, ctd.”

What’s the Matter with Economics?

One of the most politically important economics results of recent years has been the paper by Reinhart and Rogoff on the link between high sovereign debt and low GDP growth. This work is something I’d been following for a while, as R&R’s book was one that I’d admired greatly. Their work claimed to show a strong negative correlation between sovereign debt/GDP ratio and ensuing GDP growth, and was reported as saying that 90% debt/GDP ratio marks a cliff that an economy falls off, killing future growth. This was seized upon by proponents of austerity as proof that budget cuts can’t wait.

As reported here and here by Paul Krugman, and here and here by Matt Yglesias, it now turns out that the result isn’t just theoretically misguided, it’s bogus. Economists who struggled to reproduce the results finally isolated a whole raft of errors and dubious hidden assumptions that completely undermine the conclusion. Only the most blatantly ridiculous fault was an error in their Excel spreadsheet formula that caused them to exclude important sections of the data from their computation. You’d think that this couldn’t get any worse, but instead of apologising abjectly, R&R have tried to argue that none of this was really essential to their real point, whatever that was.

My main thoughts:

  1. Do economists really do their analysis with Excel? I find this kind of shocking, like if I found out that some surgeons like to make their incisions with flint knives, or if airline pilots were calculating their flightpaths with slide rules. Once you accept that premise, it’s not surprising that they made a blunder like this. I’m not a snob about technology. Spreadsheets are great for doing payrolls, and for getting a look at tables of numbers, and doing some quick calculations. But they’re so opaque, they’re not appropriate to academic work, and they’re so inflexible that it’s inconceivable to me that someone who analyses data on a more or less regular basis would choose to use them. Continue reading “What’s the Matter with Economics?”

Maximum utility

Back when I first arrived in Oxford I remarked on the peculiar repurposing of utility bills as the indispensable proof of address. That is, the banks were enjoined by law from opening an account without proof of address (except Lloyds, which didn’t care for some reason, and so won our custom and our loyalty — until they lost the latter by refusing to consider us for a mortgage on account of my irresponsible decision to be a foreigner), and they seemed to consider proof of address to be equivalent to providing a utility bill. This seems strange for many reasons. First, utility companies are private entities that have designed their bills for, well, billing purposes, not as secure identity cards. The security measures on my water bill are pretty negligible. They have made no effort to check whether the person residing at this address is the same person who is paying the bill, or that either of them has the name on their records. Second, not every legitimate resident has utility bills. In particular, people who have just moved house don’t have utility bills for quite some time.

This requirement is usually attributed to a money-laundering statute. Is there a money-laundering scam that depends on faking a residential address? By criminals who are incapable of faking the address on a water bill? But who would be able to fake a lease, letter from an employer, or any other means of proving identity?
Continue reading “Maximum utility”

Missing Canada

I was recently in Montreal for a conference, and briefly in Kingston and Toronto. Registering at the conference (actually, filling out a receipt when buying a Canadian Mathematical Society t-shirt) a secretary wanted basic address information. She looked at my conference name-badge, and asked, “Oxford… Is that in Ontario?” (To be fair, it was the France-Canada Mathematical Congress, so it was not unreasonable for her to assume that anyone apparently not French was probably Canadian, and the best guess for an English-sounding place-name is Ontario. In fact, there is an Oxford, Ontario, though it is actually a county — or, more precisely, a regional municipality — and does not, to my knowledge, have a university.) What followed, though, was typically Canadian. “No, UK.” “Oh, you came all the way from the UK? Welcome to Canada!” The greeting seemed touchingly enthusiastic and heartfelt. It was like someone saying, “So glad you could drop by. Sorry, the place is a mess, but make yourself at home.” It’s a sense I’ve often had in Canada, of an unpretentious pride in their humble home; it’s really not much, but we hope you’ll enjoy it. I really enjoyed the three Canada Day celebrations (July 1, naturally — British imperial order ensured that any important events would happen January 1 or July 1, and you’d be crazy trying to make anything happen in Canada in January) that I attended — in Vancouver, Kingston, and Ottawa. The tone was remarkably inclusive and I felt none of the crazy world-dominating fervor of US patriotism, or the weirdly forced exceptionalism of British national pride, expressing itself in such atavistic ideas as the recent government report on citizenship, which proposed encouraging school children to swear a formal loyalty oath to the Queen. (What is this monarchy thing about, anyway? I’ve never seen people more touchy than the British about someone putting on airs, or acting like he’s better than someone else; and yet, they’re content to let their country be formally ruled by someone whose qualification for the post is that her great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather was Elector of Hanover (or something like that). Of course, the Canadians also have Queen Elizabeth on their money and stamps, but they keep her at arm’s length through the Governor General.) It is perfectly possible to be proud of being Canadian, without hating other people for being something else. The US finds its existence threatened by the mere existence of people in the world who neither are nor aspire to be American, and in this struggle the UK sees its proper role to be the valet de bourreau.

Last fall I received a letter from our Toronto lawyer, informing me that our permanent residency application in Canada had been approved. It was not only the accompanying bill for $4000 that left me feeling slightly sad, but also the sense of a missed opportunity. Of course (!) I miss the Kingston winter, the bracing -20°C mornings, tramping through the snow, and skating with Chaya in the park, or the Market Square. (I noticed here a day care mentioning in its brochure that the children would go outside every day, unless the temperature were below 0°C. You’d never leave the building for months with that policy in Kingston!) I loved Chaya’s Waldorf school in Kingston, and am struggling to come to terms with the state church here. But there was something more fundamentally attractive about Canada and the idea of Canadianness. I have always cherished my status as an outsider to any group I may be suspected of belonging to, but I think I could have enjoyed getting to be a Canadian. What’s more, it seemed even vaguely possible, whereas regardless of good intentions, oaths sweared and formal conferral of citizenship it seems absurd to imagine becoming British. I don’t think there is any country more welcoming of foreigners than Canada. (Well-off and well-educated foreigners, to be sure, but then that is my experience.) Just compare the immigration authority home pages: Immigration and Citizenship Canada is full of smiling faces and links to promotional information like “Coming to Canada as an immigrant is an exciting opportunity” and “Canadians are proud to hold one of the most prized citizenships in the world. Every year about 150,000 people become new citizens of Canada.”  The grim UK Border Agency page, on the other hand, leads with the declaration “The UK Border Agency is responsible for securing the United Kingdom borders and controlling migration in the United Kingdom.” On this particular day (15 July) it prominently features the news flash that “Foreign nationals wishing to become British citizens will have to earn the right to stay, the Government announced today. The tough new approach will require all migrants to speak English and obey the law if they want to gain citizenship and stay permanently in Britain.” The presumption being, of course, that migrants are unlikely either to learn English or to obey the law. (This is followed by somewhat defensive sounding citations of public opinion polls which supposedly show the populace supporting this “tough” approach — or some tough approach, anyway.) The underlying legal regimes may be quite similar, but there’s no mistaking the difference in attitude, between the Canadian “Please consider joining us. I hope we can use your skills” and the British “We may desperately need your skills, so please come, but fuck you anyway.” (For specifics, see my comments on Polish nurses and maternity ward overcrowding here.)

canada-map UK map