Net Snooping

This article made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. What freedoms will we ultimately be willing to trade for our safety?

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The Gulag Archipelago

This isn’t normal territory for this blog, but I thought this video was wonderful at conveying how I feel about the subject of torture and America. Waterboarding, rendition, imprisonment without trial, and the like simply aren’t consistent with what I always believed to be fundamental American values. I agree wholeheartedly with the gentlemen in the video who claim that our values didn’t change on 9/11 and that if we are silent we are complicit.

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The Power of Brand: OSI?


I attended a talk the other day at OSCON that has stuck with me; it was a discussion of naming and branding around open source called “who gets to decide what open source means?” As a corallary to this discussion, the OSI was selling (giving away with donation) tee shirts complete with a nice logo and naturally, there was a lot of discussion of their crackdown on abusers of the open source nomenclature.

On one hand I agree with the basic premise here, that if you call your stuff open source and then never actually open the source bad karma is in your future. But on the other hand, there is something a bit quesiness-inducing about all of this.

First off, there is at least a subtle irony in seeing a group of copyright libertarians using trademark and copyright to protect their brand. Not that there isn’t value in it, but it seems a bit like a gangster rapper, after a career of singing “$%## the police”, starting to make angry calls to the local precinct demanding increased neighborhood patrols once he has a nice house.

The other thing that is weighing on me is this idea. If the OSI is successful in developing this brand, it will be really valuable. Valuable things attract attempts to influence (think Congress). Couple this with a vote-based subjective decision process for OSI vetting against the criteria; and you have a system that seems idealistic and good now; but will most likely be subverted later. These self-appointed holders of the brand will have to be very careful to incorporate mechanisms and incentives for protecting the brand that are better and more powerful than the very strong incentives to subvert it.

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Finally saw an OLPC, they exist (but still not for sale)


I’m here at OSCON and finally got to see a real working OLPC laptop. The OSU Open Source Center (I think that’s what it was called) has been developing a media player for it and was showing off their efforts (cool stuff). First impressions,… it’s really tiny, fun looking with it’s little ears, and is really light.

However… you still can’t buy one. I just can’t understand this (maybe it’s changing?). It’s leveraging open source software but you have to be a member of a traditional developer network to get one (you can get the emulator, but if you can’t get the device why would you want to?). I just don’t understand how those in charge can really expect to develop a vibrant community when the device isn’t available to the people most likely to tinker with it and create stuff.

I haven’t been closely following all the discussions of the economics of this softa $100+ machine, but it seems to me like retail sales of any magnitude would 1) enhance the bulletproofing of the device 2) increase production runs to reduce costs 3) enhance the viability of the open source communities around the device and, perhaps most importantly 4) prevent the unsavory but inevitable news story of Nigerian kids selling their laptops to re-sellers who then see them turn up on ebay. If there is no where to get one, this will happen.

This isn’t a solution. It’s a cheap machine,… so what; that’s not the point.

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What to read?


I woke up this morning to this article on CEO libraries. It was interesting that none of the people profiled are reading business books, they are reading history, philosophy, literature, and even poetry.

It got me thinking about my post from a while back on reading business books. I’m still reading far more literature and non-fiction than “business reads” but I’m afraid, since that post, I have fallen into the trap of reading more industry stuff.

Business books like The Ten Faces of Innovation, which I really enjoyed, are worth reading. But in the big scheme of things, I continue to feel like I get more out the other end of my bookshelf where recent reads (or re-reads) like Life and Fate, My Life, and The Complete Works of O’Henry rest.

By the way, I have only a very small part of my library listed so far (and I started at the wrong end of the bookshelf), but Shelfari is a fun way to catalogue your library and then incorporate it into social networks to make connections based on common reading interests.

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The Key Speech – building culture


A recent article in the New Yorker profiled Cecil Balmond, a widely-renowned structural engineer who has worked with many of the world’s best architects to bring their designs to fruition. He is with the engineering firm Arup, headquartered in London, which is known for the quality of its designs and people.

Every new member of Arup is required to read The Key Speech given by the founder, Ove Arup, in 1970. In it he lays out the basis of the firm in terms of goals and culture. It is an interesting read and very thought provoking for anyone who has ever attempted to build an organization that will stay true to its principles.

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The Navy, Sonar, and Whales

The U.S. Navy submarine force publishes a daily clipping service called “Undersea Enterprise News Daily.” Lately it has been clipping a lot of articles about the legal battles against low frequency sonar off of the California coast.

What is surprising to me is that they are frequently including articles such as this one (linked in the March 29 issue) from a web site called “Strategy Page.” The Strategy Page isn’t a newspaper. It is more of a military enthusiasts site with plenty of pro military (“dissenters don’t deserve their freedom”) rhetoric. On the one occasion I saw someone dare to post a comment in favor of caution on behalf of the whales or their environment the commentor was immediately shouted down. This web site does not represent broad public opinion and I doubt that it is widely read; I’m baffled as to why the Navy would give it equal weight with the major news outlets that are covering this topic given that the purpose of a clipping service is to circulate news that is representative of, or is widely influencing, public opinion.

There is such a better way to approach this. It seems to me that the Navy should supplement its (defensively oriented) public affairs office in this case and figure out how to work this issue a lot better. Even WalMart brings in Edelman and starts up a war room when it starts getting it its butt handed to it in the press; and now its green initiatives are starting pay dividends in public opinion (paid bloggers, secret tapes of reporters, and other mis-steps notwithstanding).

Or, maybe take a page from the McNeil Tylanol scare and actively and openly engage the public in a postive and trust enhancing manner. Conduct highly visible demonstrations of the safeguards being taken to preserve the natural habitat at the same time that we are actively training to protect our carriers. Create working groups of concerned scientists and citizens to create and implement better approaches to protecting wildlife while maintaining the highest standards of training and readiness. Recognize that training must fit into the framework of values of the citizenry of the country you are commissoned to protect. Invite the most vocal critics to come on board ship to see the safeguards being taken first hand, and to meet the sailors being trained in order to put faces behind the issues. Conduct your own press campaign to ensure that the Navy’s side of the story, and the reasons that the training is so necessary, are getting out and impacting public opinion. In short, do the right thing and then proactively engage the critics to eliminate defensiveness and create a greater sense of trust between the public and the Navy on this and other issues.

Linking to narrow-cast viewpoints of the situation in order to give the internal Navy audience a sense of relief from the constant harangue of external viewpoints only works to reinforce an internal “they don’t get it and don’t deserve what we do for them” perspective and defensive posture. Elevating these same viewpoints to “indicator of public opinion” and widely distributing them within the Navy only increases the suspicion on the part of the public that the Navy has an insular perspective and can’t be trusted to do the right thing on an issue important to the public it serves.

I fully support the Navy’s need for long range submarine detection for the safety of our carrier battle groups around the world. Given the strategic realities today, these capabilities are critical. I would love to see my old service unwind its defensive PA posture enough to actively engage with its critics (who are citizens after all) and arrive at a solution that protects the natural habititat while also protecting our carriers.

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The Cost of War

The President submitted his budget to the Congress last week and the numbers were staggering. With supplementals, the proposed defense budget at $620 billion is the highest it has been since the Korean War.

I was in the Navy when Reagan was spending the military out of it’s post-Vietnam malaise (and the CCP back to it’s pre-Soviet roots) so I thought I knew what high military spending looked like. A 600 ship Navy, star wars weapon systems, complete new facilities for bases one step from the brac list and etc.
We are spending that much or more now. The difference is that in the 80’s we were spending in a sense just to spend it; we simply needed to out-spend the Soviets and drive them into a hole as we forced them to try to keep up. In some ways the “what” mattered less than the “how much.”

Now we are spending it to meet very real and pressing needs. Today we are spending it to replace equipment being worn out in the desert sand, to pay for the troops who run that equipment, while at the same time we continue to equip our forces for tomorrow’s potential threats.

This budget was sent to Congress the same week that I was gathering my tax stuff together and it got me thinking. Numbers this large become little more than an abstraction to an individual (and I suspect that our political leaders are happy to keep it that way) but in a democratic republic it seems to me that citizens should understand things like this in more concrete terms. How much is this war costing me this year? How much is it going to cost me in total?

I’m an engineer… so I reached for a mechanical pencil and a napkin.

There are approximately 300 million men, women, and children in the U.S. What if each one of them got an invoice for their share?

Here’s yours:


Where did that number come from?

This year’s supplemental request is $141B spread across those aforementioned 300 million men, women, and children. You’re share will be $470. If your kids don’t have jobs pay theirs too.

Wait though… the $170B is only the supplemental. Current operations are also being paid for out of the normal defense budget. The amount is a little bit murky; but when you consider equipment wear and tear, operational and training costs, the cost of in-country re-building etc, it is probably another $100B or so (the budget acknowledges at least $30B for equipment re-set). If we call it roughly $240B when all up then your share becomes $800; again, you’ll need to write a check that covers your entire family.

By the way, your share of the entire defense budget (not just associated with this war) will be $2,076 (per person).

Since this is the first time we’ve sent out these invoices, we’re going to need to re-coup fees for the previous years as well. All told, estimates of the war’s cost to date run about $1.35 trillion, or about $4,500 per person; we’ll add that to the $800 you already owe for a total so far of $5,300 per person.

The ‘07 budget will get us through the end of ‘07 and maybe we will have wound down our presence by then. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that we won’t be completely out yet (though it would be wonderful if I’m wrong). If we are half way out, our ‘08 budget will add another $400 to your total, plus we need to account for two years of $15B per year to replace worn out equipment. No worries, that’s only another $50.

All up it is looking like $5,750 per person plus or minus 25% (after all, we are doing this on the back of an envelope).

Of course, this isn’t how our tax code works. We never adopted a straight tax and you don’t get an invoice labeled “War on Terrorism Fee” (at least not until we outsource the rest of the military to Blackwater and Canopy).

So to figure out what you’ll really pay we have to account for where you are in the tax bracket hierarchy. If you are poor, this may be one time in your life you’ll consider yourself lucky as you will pay for less of the war than what is indicated above. If you are in a higher bracket generally you will pay more for the war.

Back to our assumption that the war should cost about $240B in ‘07. With a total budget request of $2.8T the war will cost about 8.5% of the total budget this year. Just multiply your estimated ‘07 taxes paid (the net, not the gross) by that percentage to figure out what share of your taxes will be going to the war. To estimate your 2007 taxes just take your latest return and scale it up by any expected pay increases. I’m not going to say what this number is for me when I figure it out, but it is significant.
For example, if you will make $100,000 in 2007 and are in the standard 28% tax bracket, your total bill for the war in 2007 will be approximately $2,380 (not accounting for deductions).

Don’t forget, that’s just one year. Do the same thing for each of the last four years and then guess how many more years you’ll need to do it for just like we did above to estimate the total cost of the war to you and your family. For our $100,000 family that might end up around $11,210 or more.

Wait… that’s not quite right. That math assumed that we are paying for this war as we go. But since our current rate of deficit spending is 15% after the adminstration’s tax cuts ($2.8T in budget against optimistically estimated revenues of $2.4T) we aren’t paying for it as we go. We are paying for no more than 85% of it as we go, and the Chinese are paying for the rest by buying Treasury bonds. So, if you are the hypothetical $100,000 income family, you are actually going to pay $11,210 and you’ll be in debt by an additional $1,681.

When you get the invoice you’ll have to use your own political persuasion to inform how you think that $1,681 or more will be paid back to the Chinese. Either pay it yourself when a new administration comes in and starts paying down our debts or just turn around and give the invoice to your kids. They can write IOU on it. Maybe China will let them wash dishes when they grow up to pay it off.

If you want to completely eliminate any remaining vestiges of abstraction in this math, just ask yourself how many hours, deals, days, or whatevers you are going to have to work to earn that much after tax income. I’m sure the number feels significant but I’m equally sure it pales in comparison to the fees being paid by our soldiers, Marines, airman, and sailors who are participating in a much more personal way.

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The Bill of Rights is BS?

I had breakfast recently with a friend of mine and was surprised to find out that she was considering moving to Canada for political reasons. I get really frustrated at times but it had never occurred to me to leave, so I was more than a little bit surprised. Is she an anomaly or the very leading edge of a trend toward political emigration? Are we at the cusp of a values-mismatch-induced wave of departures?

The world’s political emigrants used to arrive here. But would Nabokov find solace in modern day America? Would Frank Capa leave Hungary for the U.S.? What parallels would George Orwell, veteran of the POUM militias, see between 1936 Spain and the modern day US?

America in the 40’s was an Air Conditioned Nightmare but it valued individualism (of the rugged variety), claimed and sometimes followed through on lofty values, and for at least a period in time was the porch light that attracted the fluttering intellectual diaspora of Fascist Europe and Communist-cum-Fascist Stalinist Russia. They landed on our shores as the least nightmarish locale of last resort.

Scholars say that Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading explores the loss of dignity that stems from forced conformity. Fair enough, but to me it is also about the sheer powerlessness of the individual when facing a capricious and angry State. I think of that book every time I see the imagery of a bound, dark-goggled, and only-recently-and-begrudgingly charged Jose Padilla escorted to his dental appointment by riot-gear-clad storm troopers. I close my eyes and find myself in Cincinattus’ cell, trapped by the absurdity of it all, while the mechanical spider descends on the unsuspecting moth. There but for the grace of God, or moment in history, go I.

I have a real problem with holding American citizens for years without charge in deplorable conditions under the simple and ludicrous dodge of labeling them “enemy combatants.” We are Americans dammit; we believe in trial by a jury of peers. It is fundamental to who we are. Let the banana republics and one-party pretend states have puppet trials. We intend justice and when we don’t achieve it it should be from flawed execution, not national policy.

I can’t talk to my solidly middle class friends about this issue though. To do so is to run the risk of a friendship-ending argument starting right after I hear: “They wouldn’t have arrested him if he wasn’t guilty,… he’s a friggin terrorist;” and I think…

“They wouldn’t have arrested him if he wasn’t guilty,… he’s a traitor of the revolution.” …. Citizen of Soviet Russia, 1936

“They wouldn’t have arrested him if he wasn’t guilty,… he’s a fifth columnist and got what was coming to him.” … Citizen of Madrid, Spain, 1936

“They wouldn’t have arrested him if he wasn’t guilty,… he’s an enemy of the people and a reactionary paper tiger.” … Citizen of Beijing, China, 1988

“They wouldn’t have arrested him if he wasn’t guilty,… he’s a counter-revolutionary.” … Citizen of Tehran, Iran anytime in the last 25 years

“Did they arrest him? Who? I never knew him.” … Citizen of Pyongyang, North Korea

“They wouldn’t have arrested him if he wasn’t guilty,… he’s a friggin terrorist.” American Citizen, 2006

“They wouldn’t have arrested him if he wasn’t guilty,… he’s an effin liberal, he used to write for the Times for Christ’s sake.”… American Citizen, 2012

Too many Americans today think the Bill of Rights is bullshit and only defends dirtbags and terrorists from what should be rightly coming to them. We, the graduates of school districts that dropped civics classes as a cost saving measure, forget that it really defends each and every one of us and our maybe someday unpopular views on religion, politics, and whatever else; or maybe just a vote for the wrong candidate.

When it becomes accepted that people disappear, they won’t just disappear because they are terrorists. They will disappear for all kinds of reasons that seem impossible to us today.

Maybe I was a naive midwesterner but I grew up proud to be an American. The Quiet American may have already been to Southeast Asia but Americans didn’t carry “papers or get permission to travel. Our grandfathers had fought the Fascists and our Fathers the Communists. Americans had conducted the Berlin Airlift, the Marshall Plan, the reconstruction of Japan, … We were a free country while other poor bastards were running from the killing fields, taking up residence without right of correspondence in Lubyenka, or standing down tanks in Tienemen.

Maybe we always had our Abu Graibs, but I didn’t know about them and they hadn’t sullied our self-image and reputation throughout the world. In places like the Hanoi Hilton THEY tortured US and our heroes survived it with strength and honor. We had (we thought) the moral high ground and we (I) grew up disgusted with societies that would systematically torture.

Now we water board. We TORTURE people and we are good at it. Our popular culture icons would have us believe that laws are an obstacle to justice, rather than the means to it. We seem to think that “liberals” aren’t Americans. If talk show hosts are any indication some of us look forward to the day when they will be carried off and the rest of just sit here and listen without comment; no one speaks up; the so called silent majority stays silent.

In Spain the middle class fell into the arms of the Generallisimo out of a combined fear of communism and a grasping bourgeoisie. Today’s bogyman is Islamafascism and our growing middle class divide is creating our own big-screen-TV-coveting bourgeois class with similar grasping tendencies.

Do you remember the scene in Gladiator where they sit in the coliseum and watch the carnage? The Senator proclaims that to passify the masses a bloody spectacle is required… and we sit there in the theater and watch them watch. We, the masses turn away from our Halo II and Sin City l just long enough to dumbly take it in, while the blood lust rises in our own veins. Do you realize that the Senator is talking about us, with our popcorn in the theater? We, who don’t even notice, or care, when an American citizen is held in isolation for four years without being charged.

In the 1860’s the North and South came to an impasse over slavery and the economic and racial fears that were it’s first cousins; an impasse that couldn’t be resolved without Fort Sumpter and all the misery that followed. In the 1950’s J. Edgar Hoover scared the hell out of many Americans with his own brand of post-European-fascism fascism while he chased the red bogeyman into hiding; until his brand of excess culminated in Watergate and the (temporary) reassertion of the legislative and judicial branches.

So today the “liberal”/”right wing” divide is deeper than ever and influences how we as individuals view the fundamental American idea of innocent until proven guilty. We have faced these kinds of divides in our public consciousness before. Sometimes the perturbation initiated by fear damps out as reason and the middle gain ground, and sometimes there is a Fort Sumpter. It’s up to us, citizens of a democratic republic, to turn away from our polarizing cable feed long enough to say how this one will go. Pay attention, do the right thing, it matters.

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