Sunday, March 27, 2005

Swiping Away Security

Extra extra, hear all about it! The following is an article that The Diamondback, ostensibly a voice for the student body at Maryland, has refused to publish. Initially, they expressed great interest in publishing my story, and at least one high level editor remarked that it was going to be one of the "hottest" stories of the semester. However, due to the entrenched bureaucracy at the paper, the editors decided instead of letting an independent journalist contribute, it would be better to hand the story off to someone in-house.

The Diamondback has been stonewalling this story since February 7th. When a reporter finally came to meet with me, he did not even know that I was trying to get the story published for the rest of the student body to see. I successfully negotiated a byline with the reporter and his editor (actually, a double byline agreement where we would co-author a new version for the paper), but apparently the editor in chief of the paper did not want to give the impression "that just any student can come in and contribute." Heaven forbid!

I would have published this long ago on my own had I known the way the Diamondback would treat a concerned student trying to get his story published. Nevertheless, I am publishing it before they can claim breaking the story. We've had quite a bit of talk here about how blogging is different, and how it can affect change. Well, one of the greatest things about it is it is a truly independent publishing medium, and it is not hindered by the walls put up by established institutions. In this case, the only major student paper on campus is refusing to release critical information to the student body in order to further its own staff's resumes.

The Diamondback should be ashamed of itself.

While this piece is certainly specific to the University of Maryland, perhaps this will make other students research similar systems at their schools. Also, I defiantly press the "Publish Post" button to demonstrate that, at least on my campus, real, substantive journalism does take place outside of the Diamondback.



Swiping Away Security
By Christopher Conroy


Imagine this: as you head back to your dorm later today, you swipe your ID into one of those ubiquitous card readers that adorn practically every entryway on campus. The little light magically turns green, the door clicks, and you move on with your day, but in the time between your swipe and the green light, you just sent your Social Security number across an insecure network to a central database which the university uses to track student movement, purchases, and behaviors. Even worse, the university does not have any policy to determine who can access this Orwellian database nor does it have any kind of security policy or privacy policy in order to protect this sensitive student information. Sadly, this isn’t make-believe; this happens every single time you swipe your card.

As part of a class assignment for HONR239R (Privacy vs. In Your Face Big Government taught by Professor Jim Purtilo), I worked with Karen Scuderi to submit a series of Maryland Public Information Act requests to the university regarding records pertaining to the swipe card system. The responses we received were extremely surprising, and the student body should take careful note of the information we learned.

The first request submitted by Karen Scuderi inquired about the records kept when cards are swiped, any privacy policy relating to such records, and any records of third party purchase or knowledge of the records. David Robb, University Registrar, answered the request with a brief explanation of the inner workings of the card swipe system. According to Robb, “The ID card system neither collects nor stores any data about [card swipe] transactions.” However, we had very good reasons to believe the card system does actually store data about each swipe because another member of the class was subject to a university investigation into a theft because he had swiped into a building on the night of a theft.

I submitted the second request shortly after the first, but with a more detailed focus. I told the university why I had good reason to believe they keep such records, and I made eight specific requests for information regarding the system. Denise Andrews, University Counsel, responded to my inquiry. There exists no policy or set of guidelines that outline who is permitted to access the database with the swipe card data, and the university lacks any records of any methods used to protect the data. There is also no policy for how long the records are allowed to be kept, and therefore this data is most likely stored indefinitely by the university. According to the University Registrar, no data is stored when we swipe our cards. However, I also asked for and received a copy of my swipe access data for a two-month period last semester. Indeed, a central database keeps track of every single card swipe. When a card is swiped for building access, the exact time, date, location, and access granted or denied is recorded. Entering the Campus Recreation Facility causes a separate entry to be made in a database with the date and time. The card swipe is not only an access card but also a purchase card, and the university also tracks and stores time, location, and purchase information for every transaction at the dining facilities.

The vast amount of information that is stored for every imaginable type of use of the swipe card creates a lot of privacy concerns for our student body. Since the university has neither documented methods for protecting the data nor any list of authorized personnel who have access to the database, we have no way of knowing exactly who is looking at our personal swipe card data. An unscrupulous employee who can access this database could severely abuse this privilege, and there is absolutely no guarantee that this information has not leaked into the hands of a third party. Insurance companies would be particularly interested in the spending habits of students at the dining halls and their CRC attendance records. A determined stalker would dream of having the building access records of their target because after running the data through some simplistic statistical modeling, established patterns of movement embedded in the person’s daily routine would become clearly obvious. Or, a jealous person scared at the prospect of infidelity could keep tabs on their significant other and watch for inconsistencies of where he or she claims to be. Potential thieves could also use the building access data to easily determine when the majority of a hallway in a large residence hall is absent and thus the optimal time to execute a large scale theft. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the abusive possibilities of this data, but it’s extremely illustrative because every single one of these possibilities is not just some unlikely hypothetical. Rather, these are all very real examples that have strong motivations and would be easy to execute.

David Robb, the University Registrar, claims that no information is stored, but I have pages upon pages of my own swipe access data. Robb not only made false claims about the existence of the database, but also he neglected to fully enumerate all of the identifying information found on a student ID card. An acquaintance of mine was able to hook a standard card reader into a computer in order to read the data held on the magnetic strip. The magnetic data is stored in a standardized format, and he was able to write a small program to output this data. Every ID card actually contains the student’s Social Security number in a format that can be easily decoded by any magnetic card reader. This sequence of bits residing in the magnetic strip of our cards is perhaps the scariest part of the swipe card system. The Social Security number is sent—unencrypted— to the central database as a means of unique identification. Therefore, anyone with some basic engineering skills could rather easily set up an intercept on campus card readers. By linking stored Social Security numbers with visual identification or other cues, someone could easily amass a large set of students’ Social Security numbers. A quick Facebook search for many students reveals such information as their birthday and address. Thus, a moderately skilled and determined person could successfully defraud countless students, steal their identities, make purchases in their names, ruin their credit ratings, and even change their class registrations.

There is no excuse for having such a sensitive piece of data as our Social Security numbers residing on our ID cards. Identity theft is a growing problem, and its effects can be severely detrimental and lasting. The key piece of information needed to steal someone’s identity is his or her Social Security number, and the university’s swipe card system is practically begging identity thieves to defraud our campus. The university could just as easily use our university ID as a unique identifier on the magnetic strip in order to protect students. Even if someone doesn’t have the expertise to set up an intercept on the card reader, students frequently misplace or lose ID cards, and whoever finds a lost ID card has access to that student’s Social Security number.

This database is also certainly not being used in the interest of serving students. I misplaced my ID card early last semester, and I had to deactivate it before I had time to conduct a thorough search for it because I was worried someone would spend the money linked to my card. However, it would only take slight modifications to the system to allow a card to be flagged as lost and inform a cashier to retain the card for return to the proper owner if anyone attempts to use it fraudulently. Unfortunately, no such system is in place even though it would not require storing swipe transaction data. The university charges $20 to replace these small plastic cards, and I also inquired about the cost of doing this in my request. Apparently, the university has no records indicating what it costs to produce each additional card. The university needs to justify charging the exorbitant rate of $20 because without documentation of the cost of production, this simply appears to be price-gouging those unfortunate students who happen to lose their cards. Since we have no choice about using our ID Cards, the university has a moral responsibility to provide them to students at cost. I also asked about the initial investment made on the card production system, and the university also has no records indicating what they paid for it.

Ostensibly, the ID card system is an important security mechanism. However, the fact that the ID card presents such a vast array of privacy concerns with the Social Security number embedded in the magnetic strip and a central database tracking and storing detailed information about every swipe, the system is potentially serving to undermine student security concerns. The potential benefits of storing swipe data seem to outweigh the many negative possibilities of abuse of the system. Moreover, the access levels granted to cards in the system are known to contain some errors. For example, an alumnus who requested to not be named informed me that his card still grants him 24 hour access to a building on campus that houses thousands of dollars worth of expensive equipment.

The swipe card system has many severe flaws that raise a great deal of privacy concerns for the student body, and the university was not very forthcoming with this pertinent information. As any student who has been awakened in the morning by a telemarketer on a dorm phone knows, the university does not do enough to protect student privacy. However, the end result of abuse of this information doesn’t just mean that your slumber might be disturbed: Your identity could be stolen, you could be targeted by thieves or stalkers, and some third party like an insurance company might obtain your swipe data and use it against you in any number of ways. Certainly, our campus needs to be aware of these issues, and the administration needs to consider reform before one of these scary possibilities becomes a harsh reality.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Armed Conflict

Although the Schiavo case has already led to a figurative war between the two ever-separating cultures in America, there's a growing chance of a non-figurative war, which is getting almost no news coverage. The possibly of armed conflict in Taiwan has been mostly overlooked, probably because there haven't been any significant events. Well, the million-strong Taiwanese protest of new Chinese legislation could be counted as an event, although I doubt it will be significant. (Here's a non-subscriber article.)

The protest came in response to March 14th legislation passed by China, allowing the use of "non-peaceful means" in response to any Taiwanese movements to declare independence. I suppose putting the threat of force in legal writing is a blow to the Taiwanese supporters of independence, but it shouldn't be a shock. China has repeatedly publicly kept the option of force open; in a policy speech in 1995 President Jiang Zemin reminded the world that military force would be used if necessary. With the American pledge to "do whatever it takes" announced by Bush in 2001, we could have a problem.

The solution offered by Ted Carpenter in a 1998 CATO institute report, and embraced by a December 2004 Atlantic Monthly article, is to take back the pledge but sell Taiwan whatever arms it needs to defend itself. Trevor Corson of the Atlantic Monthly explains:
Bereft of American protection, however, Taiwan would be forced to face the consequences of upsetting the status quo. The immediate result would be a dramatic reduction in China's political fears, thus removing the incentive for a pre-emptive strike and buying both sides some time to move toward a peaceful solution. For Taiwan and its supporters in Washington, the idea may sound like a betrayal. But the best way to help Taiwan mature into a full-fledged democracy might simply be to ask its people to take responsibility for their actions.
In fact, the CATO report shows that Taiwan can already do a fair job of defending itself. While the United States security pledge could put us in direct opposition of China, we remain in the delicate position of trying to please our economic ally. Our promised support only causes problems -- We get put in an awkward political situation, Taiwan can't be truly independent, and China is forced to build up more military in case we do go head-to-head over the island.

Of course, just because something is the best policy doesn't mean that it'll happen. With the current value of protecting and creating democracy, it would be political suicide to "abandon" this fledgling democracy. On the other hand... perhaps only Bush could go to Taiwan? Things are slowly reaching a boiling point, but I doubt anything short of launched missiles will put Taiwan on front pages any time soon.

Friday, March 25, 2005

From Our Washington Bureau

Nick and I attended Tuesday's Brookings discussion on "The Impact of the New Media" moderated by E.J. Dionne Jr. of WaPo and Brookings with panelists Jodie Allen of the Pew Research Center, Ana Marie Cox of Wonkette, Jack Shafer of Slate, and Andrew Sullivan of The New Republic, Time, and of course his own blog.

In keeping with the spirit of the topic of discussion, the event was "live-blogged" by Juan Cole, Daniel Drezner, Ed Morrissey, Laura Rozen, and Ruy Teixeira. These bloggers summarized the event in real time and also provided running commentary. Each of the hyperlinks above goes to the liveblog entry for the event, not their front page.

We're going to avoid doing a full summary of everything that was said because it would be boring, and also for those who are really interested Brookings has a link to a video that you can stream of the event.

As a computer science major, Jay Rosen's characterization of blogs as "distributed journalism" resonated with me a great deal. Schafer cited this description of blogs towards the beginning of the discussion, and a lot of the advantages of distributed computing find parallels with blogging. It's not an especially novel way of thinking about blogs, but in some respects is a very good comparison.

Shafer's best point during the whole discussion in my opinion, was when he said that there is "nothing exceptional about the blogs." What he of course means, is that it is not actually as new a medium as some would make it out to be: it's plain old fashioned commentary except without the gatekeepers of the journalism world keeping individuals out of the playground. Every now and again you hear people talking about how blogs threaten to polarize the country or destroy the traditional media, and these judgments are quite off-base.

Andrew Sullivan talked at great length about the concept of bloggers as journalists. He first talked about how the English term "hack" is used to refer to all journalists (I'm not sure if he was being truly serious or somewhat joking, but nevertheless it's an interesting point.) He said that journalists in England have "much less of a sense of self-importance" than their American counterparts.

Somewhat surprisingly, Andrew proceeded to attack what he referred to as "The Great Myth:" that you need to be trained to become a journalist. He even suggested that there is absolutely no need for journalism schools because any intelligent person can write about a topic, and the skills you need can be learned through experience. Thus, is blogging going to be the 21st century internship for journalism jobs? Andrew thinks so, and perhaps we will see the next generation of Op-Ed columnists and commentators come out of the blogosphere.

However, I want to return to Andrew's point about not needing schools for journalism. It seems like a pretty extreme view to take, but in a lot of respects I think he's right. News aggregation, commentary, and analysis can be done just as well (if not better) by motivated individuals than those from the institutional journalism camp. Aside from the original reporting of facts, bloggers who have no journalism training show just as much skill as their traditional counterparts. Do we really need someone who's studied journalism to tell us about a recent think-tank report on Social Security? Or couldn't we just turn to someone who has a lot of expertise on the subject and ask for their commentary? Andrew rightly refers to all bloggers as journalists because even without the formal training or gatekeeping, they accomplish the exact same function (of course we're not talking about original reporting of facts here, which will always be the strong-suit of traditional media outlets.)

Of course, there's certainly a big distinction between reporting/investigating versus commentary and analysis. The latter certainly can't exist without the ultimately more important former. However, opinions do come a whole lot cheaper than facts, and in today's world this is creating a lot of problems for journalists doing real reporting. Foreign bureaus for almost all major news organizations have dropped dramatically in recent years, and the topic of a sustainable business model for funding traditional media was raised at several points throughout the discussion.

Apparently, the major news sites only cover their marginal costs of existence with the revenue generated from ads. So, the newspaper doesn't actually make any extra money by putting material on the web, but the site pays for itself. Although, having presence on the web certainly increases influence, cross-references via hyperlinks, and readership-- which is why they all scrambled to get on in the first place. One of the panelists mentioned future technolgies changing this landscape further and seemed to be making vague allusions to e-paper or similar technologies. Perhaps media outlets can convince people to subscribe for a version accessible through an e-paper like system.

Finally, I'll conlude with how the panel ended-- with a question posed by me. Unfortunately, I had to scramble at the last second to reformulate a new question because as I was holding the mic patiently waiting my turn to speak, Andrew Sullivan said essentially the answer to what I was about to ask. I couldn't just say "Hey, could you say what you *just* said?" Nevertheless, I pointed out that an earlier description of blogs falling in a spectrum between talk-radio and newspapers as totally off-base. After all, talk-radio is an entirely passive medium whereas blogs' strong suit is their ability to be interactive. You open the links (in new tabs all you Firefox users) as you read a post so that you can investigate the sources, you can comment, etc. So, this characterization of blogs as just a bastardized newspaper that acts like talk radio is really quite wrong. Aren't blogs more educational? Aren't they more involved, and thus--potentially--far more productive than any talk radio or cable show could hope to be?

Andrew Sullivan agreed wholeheartedly:

Absolutely agree with Chris that the blogs are an educational tool. Actively seeking out information on the blogs you learn more. What blogging is doing in places like Iran and Iraq in terms of getting rid of the fear, are actually beginning to build an underground political movement for change through blogging. The Iranian government has jailed and tortured bloggers. Far from being weird, it's going to be a huge tool for political change in the world.


Of course, a blogger who touts himself as providing "shrill, uninformed commentary" offers up just such that, but in keeping with the ethic of the blogosphere we'll go ahead and link to his wonderful blog where you can also apparently get this writer's thoughts on poop. So, we leave it to you, our readers, to decide which is more trustworthy. Andrew Sullivan, who is a senior editor at the New Republic and a columnist for Time Magazine, or "Tom" who wasn't even at the panel. Tom probably didn't bother to listen to Andrew's very substantive response which was prompted by the question.(Also Ed Morrisey agreed while liveblogging:
10:49 - One audience member talks about blogs as being a more active experience, as compared to talk radio and especially talking-head television. Can blogs educate? Sure -- as long as you check our references and links. Don't take my word as gospel, just like you shouldn't take Dan Rather or even Jack Shafer at his (although I know which of the two I'd prefer).


Nick and I also shared a fairly lively discussion after the panel at a nearby Baja Fresh with a fellow named Dan who also attended. Since this post is a bit on the long side, I'll leave out a detailed description of the topics discussed, but perhaps Nick will sum up later.

A Friendly PSA

This is not your normal post of sorts, but it's a worthwhile update nonetheless. I awoke yesterday morning to a hard drive failure on my computer. While I do have two hard drives, they were set up in a RAID 0 striped array which allows for much higher performance. However, since the data is striped across both disks, if one goes, the whole array goes down with it. I've since spent countless hours on the phone to useless techs in India and have gotten nowhere. At this point, chances of recovering 6 years worth of documents I had on that computer are slim to none unless I feel like shelling out a huge fee to a specialized recovery service.

Hard drives, while engineered to outlast the average life of a modern computer, do sometimes fail. I had read this countless times before, and some people even cautioned me when I purchased the Raid array by saying it increased my chances. I didn't really take the warnings seriously because I had never experienced a hard drive failure nor had I met anyone who had. Sure, some people get viruses or spyware on their computers, but I'm a CS major-- I know how to lock down my box. I didn't need to worry. Of course, I was wrong.

I'm posting this with a dual purpose:

1) I may be out of commission posting wise for an extended period of time until I get this whole situation sorted out (although I'll do my best to keep up by using friends'/family's/library machines. I'll have somewhat easy access to my family's computers while still on break through Saturday, but once back on campus I may not be online or posting for a while.

2) For anyone who's reading this, remember that hard drives can fail even if you do absolutely nothing wrong to it. They have mechanical parts and sometimes just go poof. So, to avoid dealing with the endless amounts of frustration I have had over the past 48 hours, make multiple backups of your data regularly. Archive old documents onto CDR or DVD and store them in a secure place. If you have multiple computers on a home network, mirror your files across multiple systems. Hard drive space is really pretty cheap nowadays, so there's not much excuse for not having the space for the redundancy. And, last time I checked, a spindle of DVD-Rs can come preetty cheap too.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

R.I.P. Dr. Seuss

As a child, I grew up reading One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, Green Eggs and Ham, and other Dr. Seuss books. Not only did his zany creativity and the colorful illustrations make reading his books quietly a pleasure, it was always as much fun to say the words aloud as it was to read them. I still remember reading about Sneetches, Ooblecks, the Lorax, or the Yuzz-a-ma-Tuzz. Dr. Seuss' ability to create fun words was nothing short of brilliant.

I would also call the current conservative habit of creating words brilliant, but in a much more devious way. First with partial birth abortions, a non-medical term made recently to apply to any number of procedures. And now, with the nation-wide Terri Schiavo conflict, it pops up again. I first found this in Balloon Juice, but here's a quote from a CNSnews.com article:
"Those three doctors declared Terri to be in a persistent vegetative state (PVS), but Cheshire said, based on his examination of Terri and review of her records, she is more likely in a minimally conscious state (MCS). The term is a new diagnostic description that has come into acceptance since Terri was last examined."
I can understand that occasionally new cases call for new conditions, but this seems more like desperate times and desperate measures. While I can understand the arguments against the so-called partial birth abortions, this new step in trying to "save" Terri is outrageous. According to CBS polls 74% of Americans believe that Congress got involved to further their political agenda, compared to the 13% who feel the Congressmen actually cared about Mrs. Schiavo. It's nice to see that the rest of America isn't buying it either.

Were There Jews?

In a new article in Time magazine, we get a glimpse into Tom DeLay's head. Hoping to tap into the public outcry (among the religious portion of America, at least) at the removal of Terry Schiavo's feeding tube, he asked people to help support him amid the current ethical accusations directed at him.

"It is more than just Terri Schiavo. This is a critical issue for people in this position, and it is also a critical issue to fight that fight for life, whether it be euthanasia or abortion. I tell you, ladies and gentlemen, one thing God has brought to us is Terri Schiavo to elevate the visibility of what's going on in America. That Americans would be so barbaric as to pull a feeding tube out of a person that is lucid and starve them to death for two weeks. I mean, in America that's going to happen if we don't win this fight.

"And so it's bigger than any one of us, and we have to do everything that is in our power to save Terri Schiavo and anybody else that may be in this kind of position, and let me just finish with this:

"This is exactly the kind of issue that's going on in America, that attacks against the conservative moment, against me and against many others. The point is, the other side has figured out how to win and to defeat the conservative movement, and that is to go after people personally, charge them with frivolous charges, link up with all these do-gooder organizations funded by George Soros, and then get the national media on their side. That whole syndicate that they have going on right now is for one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to destroy the conservative movement. It is to destroy conservative leaders, and not just in elected office, but leading. I mean, Ed Feulner, of the Heritage Foundation today was under attack in the National Journal. This is a huge nationwide concerted effort to destroy everything we believe in. And you need to look at this, and what's going on and participate in fighting back. "

So, Mr. DeLay... were the Jews involved in this conspiracy? I'm mostly speechless. With accusation after accusation piling up against him, he's practically holding up a cross as if warding off undead. The question is... will anything come of the charges? Or will Mr. DeLay get them dismissed as partisan attacks?

Well, there's no denying that Tom DeLay has huge support among his own party. He's accomplished quite a lot in his time as House Majority Leader, establishing party lines as never before. With their help, he recently changed the rules of the ethics committee, the same ethics committee which has admonished him three times. With little chance of the ethics committee operating effectively, what could possibly bring him down? Thomas E. Mann, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, says that :
"signs are emerging that both the number and nature of charges being raised against him could put him in serious political peril... While he is far from a nationally recognized figure, Republicans worry that all it takes is more national news coverage to change that, and there seems to be a new episode every week or two. We've seen throughout congressional history that a series of seemingly small ethical missteps can snowball."
National news coverage, do you say? Well, the Washington Post is providing that, with this article from which I got my quote, or this article which covers the charges in depth, or this NYTimes article. Hmm... expect to see more coverage when the Schiavo frenzy dies down and the media goes back to raking the muck.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Fence Sitting

A regular dilemma for unilateral separation supporters like myself is the possibility that Israel's construction of the fence is generating more terrorism than it needs to. The necessity of a barrier similar in scope to Israel's current one has, I think, been empirically demonstrated by the collapse of the second intifada since its high point prior to construction of the fence; and also by the complete failure of militants to cross into Israel proper from the Gaza strip (walled in since before 2000). The problem with the fence is one of implementation - in particular, the way in which Sharon's government has drawn it so as to annex nontrivial amounts of West Bank land. Critics of Israel tend to argue that by violating international law and acting in unabashed self-interest Israel is going to generate enough hatred to perpetuate Palestinian militancy. Supporters of Israel tend to argue that it is not building the fence on Palestinian soil which would encourage future terrorism, by demonstrating that recourse to violence (i.e. the second intifada) is a consequence-free way of extracting concessions from Israel. And - I'll say it - I have no idea how to judge which of these factors will lead to a greater amount of anti-Israeli terrorism in the future. Regardless, I think the statistical evidence - and the election of the liberal, largely anti-militancy Mahmoud Abbas - make it clear that a fence, even one which annexes Palestinian land, is preferable to nothing.

Edit: it seems that the TNR story I linked to above is subscriber only. It's reprinted in full here.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Schiavo Storm

Given the media coverage and the extreme actions currently being undertaken by the legislature, one would think that the death of Terry Schiavo seriously threatens our Republic to such an extent as to create a precedent that destroys the principle of separation of powers:
QUESTION: What does that concept do the regular give and take between the court systems, the idea of comity and cooperation between judges?

ANSWER: It destroys it. But that's the whole point of this Congressional action. Not liking a particular result in a case that has been litigated fully and completely by a court with competent jurisdiction, Congress now has said that the game must be re-done with new rules that heavily favor one side over the other. The implications of this move are astonishing. Just think about it. Anytime Congress doesn't like the result in a particular case, it could swoop in and call a "do-over," which is essentially what this legislation represents. And this from a Congress that has for a decade or so tried to keep all sorts of citizens-- including disabled employees-- out of federal court. If this law is declared valid, no decision in any state court in the country will be immune from Congressional second-guessing. It would throw out of whack the entire concept of separation of powers. The constitutional law expert Tribe calls it "trial by legislation" and he is right. (emphasis mine)

Why on earth would conservatives work so hard against the grain of federalist principles? Well, according to a memo distributed to Republican senators, this intervention is meant to serve a political purpose by playing to the Christian Right:
In a memo distributed only to Republican senators, the Schiavo case was characterized as "a great political issue" that could pay dividends with Christian conservatives, whose support is essential in midterm elections such as those coming up in 2006.

Interestingly enough, George Bush signed the Texas Futile Care Law back when he was Governor of Texas that essentially allows hospitals to discontinue life support against a family's wishes if the family doesn't have the ability to pay all of the medical bills.

Matt Yglesias points out a particularly salient fact about this whole affair:

It seems worth noting at this point that the overwhelming majority of the Republican caucus voted last week to cut Medicaid benefits. Like the cowards that they are, no specific cuts were on the table, rather they wanted to force Governors to undertake unspecified cuts. We do know, however, what Medicaid spends the bulk of its money on -- long-term care for ailing elderly and disabled people -- so we know what would have been cut.

In fact, also in this very week, Republicans have been manuevering to pass a Bankruptcy bill that will be a terrible detriment to the unfortunate Americans who fall into debt. According to a recent Harvard study, about half of all people who file for Chapter 7 do so in the wake of spending on major and often unexpected medical expenses. By denying these people the ability to file for bankruptcy, Congress is ignoring the very painful fact that far too many people do not have the proper insurance to deal with catastrophic medical problems, and now they are taking away an avenue through which these unlucky people could avoid being thrown into poverty by no real fault of their own. The confluence of all of these factors mean that the GOP is making it much harder for people to pay for their medical expenses (which, in Texas means no life support thanks to George W.), and consigning those who have to take out loans beyond their means to keep loved ones alive to poverty. The intellectual and moral contradictions here baffle me: I can't believe all of these items fall on the agenda for the supposed majority. But then again, we all know what the current GOP stands for.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Burning the Bridge

In the same vein as my last post, I'm overcome with sad smugness. Not only has Hillary made a push to find middle ground on the abortion issue, but she discovered that there IS no middle ground to be found.

The measure offered by Sen. Hillary Clinton and Minority Leader Harry Reid entitled Prevention First would try to do just that: prevent unwanted pregnancies by funding family planning institutions, teen pregnancy programs, and education about emergency contraception. If I weren't already so cynical, I would have been surprised to hear that it was rejected last night, 53-47. The only reason given by the Reuters.com article was provided by Republican Judd Gregg, saying that it would block funding for abstinence-only sexual education programs. I couldn't believe that was the only rationale to block the measure, so I checked out the FOXNews coverage of the issue.
Referring to Reid and Clinton, Tony Perkins of the conservative Family Research Council said, "Their idea of reducing unintended pregnancies is more sex education and distribution of contraceptives. ... That's not the solution, that's part of the problem... If they want to start promoting abstinence, fine -- but they won't," Perkins added.
So apparently that really was the reason to block it. However, I'm still amazed at the insistence on abstinence-only sex ed in schools, given that these programs have been found to be not only ineffective, but misleading.
[A congressional] report concluded that two of the curricula were accurate but the 11 others, used by 69 organizations in 25 states, contain unproved claims, subjective conclusions or outright falsehoods regarding reproductive health, gender traits and when life begins. In some cases, Waxman said in an interview, the factual issues were limited to occasional misinterpretations of publicly available data; in others, the materials pervasively presented subjective opinions as scientific fact.
And for these programs we block a rare attempt to bridge the ever-widening gap between our parties? Yet another prime example of today's politics placing ideology and religion over evidence and science.

Shifting Parties

Well, a little while back, I expressed the sentiment that compromise was necessary, and that it would have to be found on economic issues. My reasoning was that since the country was so divided on social issues (abortion, gay marriages, place of religion in government) but both sides seemed to have common ground on the economic debate. Thus it was with a certain sense of satisfaction when Matt Yglesias pointed out that the common ground comes with vanishing republican economic ideals. What separates the parties is not so much the big government/small government argument, since the constituents of both parties are in favor of continuing government spending. Well, I wish there had been a study linked to show it... I'll get on that in a minute. I attribute some of the problem to blissful voter ignorance; when people are asked if they want a tax cut, they say yes. If they're asked if they want an increased education budget, they say yes. Matt implies that the evidence lies in the way "the forces of conservatism are doing a very good job of pretending that the level of public expenditure and the level of public revenue are just unrelated topics," and if asked to choose:
It's pretty obvious that given a straight-up choices between paid-for tax cuts and the continuation of public expenditures, that support for the continuation of expenditures is very strong.
Two foundations of democratic economic policy as I see them are funding for federal programs, and trying to balance the budget (I hardly think the modern republican party has maintained its reputation of fiscal responsibility, especially after Reagan). Interestingly enough, with more GOP senators advocating combatting the deficit and yesterday's vote to protect states' Medicaid (for the time being, at least) it's pretty clear that our country is more and more of one mind.

Unfortunately while I feel smug, with the republican party no longer representing the economic conservatives, their only stance will be social conservativism. So we could balance the deficit, save social security, and cancel the top-heavy tax cuts, but we'll be doing it in the name of God.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

A Mass Of Incandescent Gas

Usually Nick would be the one touting science news, but since he's busy with exams and papers, I figured I might as well.

A recent University of Illinois experiement (reported in the New York Times) has made a startling (to me, at least) discovery on the topic of fusion. The scientists took a jar of sulfuric acid and passed sound waves of over 18,000 cycles/second through it. The vibrations cause bubbles to form and then implode, over and over again. The startling part is that the surface of the bubbles reach temperatures of 25,000 degrees farenheit -- more than twice as hot as the surface of the sun -- and scientists say the center of the bubble could be even hotter. Other recent experiments on the same topic found that the reaction fused hydrogen atoms into helium, the same fusion that occurs in our sun.

Sonoluminescence -- the phenomenon of imploding soundwave-induced bubbles, so named due to the flash of light emitted when the bubble collapses -- was first discovered in 1934, but not thought to be much use. More recent experiments have found ways to increase the intensity of the reaction, such as using liquids with lower vapor pressure, and adding small amounts of noble gasses. Still, the amount of power to be gained by sonoluminescence is minimal, due the the tiny size of the bubble. But while the scientists are uncertain about the applications of their discovery, they speculate that it could be developed into a practical energy source in the future.

And all I have running through my head is Doctor Octavius proclaiming truimphantly: "The power of the Sun, in the palm of my hand."

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Did Ya Get the Memo?

Last I heard, every piece of scientific evidence points to the evolutionary process. From carbon dating to archeology digs to biology studies in the Galapagos, our findings all make a literal interpretation of the bible difficult. But even with the Scopes Trial 80 years behind us, there's a new push to teach creationism in schools. I'm all choked up, but I can't tell if I want to laugh or cry.
"Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a Christian who draws on Discovery Institute material, drafted language accompanying the law that said students should be exposed to 'the full range of scientific views that exist.'

'Anyone who expresses anything other than the dominant worldview is shunned and booted from the academy,' Santorum said in an interview. 'My reading of the science is there's a legitimate debate. My feeling is let the debate be had.'"
Unable to either laugh or cry, I'll settle for rolling my eyes. This man is a senator? Yes, and apparently he's the same senator who likened homosexuality to beastiality, but I digress. Reading this article brought to mind Ken Ham, whose literal translation of Genisis we learned about in Cultural Anthropology. He has some *fascinating* ideas. Strangely, and unfortunately, I could not find his direct teachings online, only several critiques, but here's a choice quote:

"However, scientists do not dig up anything labeled with those ages. They only uncover dead dinosaurs (i.e., their bones), and their bones to not have labels attached telling how old they are. The idea of millions of years of evolution is just the evolutionists' story about the past. No scientist was there to see the dinosaurs live through this supposed dinosaur age. In fact, there is no proof whatsoever that the world and its fossil layers are millions of years old."

I don't feel I need to spend time countering his arguments... But to blatantly ignore scientific evidence, and call evolution as much a theory as creationism seems characteristic of what I find wrong with America today. I believe that we need to focus on evidence, facts, and -- heck I'll say it -- reality. With the labeling of old media as 'liberal', we have people choosing which facts to believe. Coupled with the inherent mistrust of science in our anti-intellectual craze, the country is a happily lead flock of sheep -- easily convinced by a bit of White House spin and propaganda of anything. Perhaps Machiavelli was right that appearance is more important that truth. I cannot think of a scarier prospect.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Million Man March

At least according to some early reports, it appears that today's anti-Syrian protests in Beirut easily surpassed in size Hezbollah's recent pro-Syrian protest (which consisted itself of perhaps 500,000 protestors), and may have included up to 1.3 million Lebanese. One fact that I think a lot of people have overlooked amid the increasingly regular, hundreds-of-thousands strong demonstrations of the past month is that this wave of political activism is ocurring in a country that contains less than four million people. On the face of it, I'm inclined to think this is a good thing (being that dyed-in-the-wool supporter of civic involvement that I am). But insofar as this could signify a return to the popular factionalism that precipitated Lebanon's brutal, 15-year civil war, I don't think unrestrained optimism is yet the order of the day.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Out of the Box

While perusing Matt Yglesias's blog, I couldn't help but notice that one of his titles looked startling familiar... I can't imagine that Matt reads the Renaissance Men, so we can only assume he's aware of Bismarck's famous quote. However, even without the title grabbing my attention, the content of his entry sparked my interest.
"The real world, obviously, involves political constraints on what's realistically doable... That said, I think it's a problem when commentators leap too quickly to take these constraints as given when talking about policy ideas, because writing in that way winds up re-enforcing the constraints, whether or not the constraints are good ideas."
While Matt brings up the concepts of taxation and health care, I thought I'd go a different direction, to something I've felt strongly about for a while. In case anybody hadn't noticed, I tend to focus on the seemingly eternal struggle between the Democratic and Republican parties, and how one party can manage to win the plurality of the vote. Step out of the box with me, and realize that our very voting system is critically flawed.

With our current system, plurality voting, each citizen gets one vote, each candidate gets a percentage of the votes, and the one who captures the most votes wins. Seems simple enough. But it has repeatedly produced candidates supported by less than half the populace, doing exactly what it was designed not to do. In the 2002 elections in France, unabashedly racist Le Pen received 17% of the vote, second only to Chirac, with 20%. Fortunately, France allows for a runoff between the top candidates, and Chirac was overwhemlingly chosen. The United States has no such provisions to its plurality vote.

The runoff solution which helps France is not the answer to American partisanship, since our two-party system would hardly be affected. Instead, I advocate the implementation of Approval Voting. In such a program, citizens can vote for as many candidates as they like, whichever ones they 'approve of'. Instead of having a percent of the vote totaling 100%, each candidate would individually have a percent of the voters who approve of them, from 0-100. This system would fix the flaws left in our two-party plurality system.

For one thing it would get rid of what I call the Nader effect. There would be no more talk of 'throwing away a vote' by supporting a candidate who accurately reflects your views but is unlikely to win. In the same vein, voters would no longer feel as if they are taking away from the preferred mainstream candidate by voting for a third party in close elections. In allowing voters to support multiple candidates, third parties would have a greater chance of receiving votes, and enabling more voices to be heard. Even if the third party candidates are not elected, they could affect the others' campaigns merely by being a viable alternative.

The idea behind two-party plurality vote is that the candidates will be forced to move center in order to capture the most votes, thus preventing any extreme candidates. However, this view is overly simplistic, attempting to put the scale of American politics on a single axis of right vs. left. There are social, economic, and international interests to consider, which have only aligned themselves into right/left due to the necessity forced upon American politics by the two-party system.

There are multiple examples of how plurality voting does not accurately reflect the will of the people. When a party is divided, there is little chance of that party winning the election, such as in the 1912 elections. The two Republican candidates Roosevelt and Taft split the majority of the vote allowing Wilson to win, though most voters would have preferred either of the Republicans. If 1912 is too far back, how about 2000, when we can assume Nader supporters would rather Gore over Bush, and took the electoral votes from him in Florida. There is no denying that things have gone wrong, and there is no indication that 2000 was the last time.

Approval voting has been instituted in a few places, most notably the Secretary General of the UN, and even in the United States, where it was used for internal elections for parties in Pennsylvania. I can find no constitutional law forbidding the use of approval voting, I do not believe our current two parties would support any changes that would open the field. But with fresh examples such as the 2000 election in people's minds, perhaps there will be sufficient dissatisfaction in the future that something will be done. I urge you all to look into it, either at the Approval Voting Homepage, or a colorful, easy-to-read explaination, if I was unclear.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Only Hillary Could Go To China

If you have enough political consciousness to read this, you're aware that we're in a deeply divided country. Heck, you're aware of the divide if you have any consciousness at all. However, there's also a divide in the Democratic National Party, the outcome of which will affect the course of our nation's politics.

I speak, of course, of the Frequently Asked Question: "How can democrats win next time?" On one hand, we have Tom Harkin, democratic senator from Iowa, who recently got fed up at fellow democrats for supporting the new republican-backed Bankruptcy bill.

"This is not where we as Democrats ought to be, for crying out loud... We are making a terrible mistake by thinking that we can have it both ways. We have to remember where our base is."
There is something to be said for sticking to principles and supporting a base. A significant portion of America still identifies with the Democratic ideas, and with a small increase in support, could win. After all, 49% of America did vote for Kerry. Core democrats feel strongly about their issues, and don't want to compromise them for the sake of winning some conservative votes. But with a two party system, candidates must move center to capture a majority. There are many people who feel the democratic party is out of touch with much of America, and needs to change in response to them (To which I once again point you to Tom Tomorrow's comic). The debate -- split off and stand by the democratic ideals or shift with the times and move center -- is crutial to ending the partisan atmosphere we currently endure. For the sake of the nation, I almost wish the democrats would move further right. If the country continues to split itself, things can only get worse.

There are a few prominent democrats trying to have their cake and eat it too: keeping their base while moving center. With some republicans endorsing Hillary Clinton, all signs point to her running for the White House soon. She has the reputation of being far left, allowing her to move further right on a number of issues while retaining her strong liberal base. Of course, she'll have opposition based on her sex, her personality, and who her husband was, but her strategy just might work.

Another democrat like her is Howard Dean in his new position as DNC chairman. He, too, has the reputation of being liberal-- dangerously so, according to the republicans. But his reputation masks his centrist views, such as his views on gun control (would you believe that he was endorsed repeatedly by the NRA?) With Dean at the helm and Hillary potentially running for president, it seems to me that the DNC is ready to make the right-ward shift. The question is how this shift will manifsest itself.

Having a country this divided is not healthy. When it gets to the point that even the News is attacked for being too partisan, things have gone far enough. While the democratic party needs to find grounds on which to compromise, I don't believe compromise is possible on many cultural issues such as gay rights. However, there is more room for bi-partisanship on economic issues, especially with more republicans speaking out against the rising deficit. In short, I applaud the democrats reaching across the aisle to support the new bankruptcy bill. I hope their effort will not go unnoticed, by either the republican party or the american people.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Blowback

Well, the Russian government finally has something to celebrate with regards to its occupation of Chechnya:
Russian special forces killed the leader of Chechnya's separatists, Aslan Maskhadov, on Tuesday in a raid that gave the Kremlin a rare victory in a bloody war that has killed tens of thousands and spawned a wave of terrorist attacks across Russia in recent years.
The real question here, though, is whether this targeted killing (or assassination, if that's the lens you prefer) will lead to a deescalation of the Chechnya conflict. I don't think it's much of a stretch to answer that with an emphatic "no." The WaPo's article on this has a good reminder of the reasons why the Chechnyans don't particularly like being part of the Russian Federation.
As many as 200,000 people have been killed in Chechen violence, many of them civilians and thousands of them children, according to human rights groups.
Those numbers make the Chechnya conflict easily one of the bloodiest of the new millenium (behind, perhaps, those occurring in Congo and Sudan), and help explain why, over the course of the past few years, the leadership of the Chechnyan rebels has shifted from the secular nationalists exemplified by Aslan Maskhadov to a literally inhuman jihadi movement led by veteran ethnic cleanser Shamil Baseyev. Indeed, the killing of Maskhadov leaves Basayev as far and away the best known figure in the anti-Russian insurgency, and the presumptive heir to Maskhadov's status as the leader of the Chechen guerillas. Making a bad situation worse is that Basayev can probably count on more support than ever before from a Chechen populace radicalized by the killing of their last democratically elected president. A lot might come out of Maskhadov's death, but very little of it is likely to be good.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

BlogoSpheres of Influence

Some say 2003 was the "year of the blog," but I would counter that blogs have gained a great deal of important notoriety as of late. Renaissance Men started in late 2004, for example. Case in point.

But seriously, from Dan Rather to Eason Jordan or Jeff Gannon, blogs have rapidly tackled issues that some wonder whether or not the Old Media would have ever caught. Of course, in all of the aforementioned examples, it was blogs attacking journalists in the Old Media camp, and a lot of commentators have pointed to a war between bloggers and traditional journalists. I disagree with such analyses wholeheartedly. (For an interesting hypothetical take that assumes blogs are much more powerful than Old Media, see this 8 minute flash movie. Disclaimer: It's pretty far-fetched, and I personally disagree with a lot of what is said.)

It just so happens that last week, I was interviewed by a journalism student at Northwestern University because of my contributions here at Renaissance Men. I was asked several questions about why I read blogs and why I myself contribute to a blog. During the interview, I concentrated on the distinct nature of blogs: they are interconnected, independently published, and often very timely. Blogs afford a great new medium whereby commentators can link to their primary and secondary sources so their readers have access to the exact same source material. Commenting systems, in the ideal, function as a way to keep bloggers honest because anyone can contribute feedback and offer instantaneous criticism. Of course, one has to be careful when reading blogs: you obviously can't trust everything some wacko posts on the Internet. (Note: link not to actual wacko post but a debunking).

David Adesnik, of Oxblog (an inspiration for Renaissancemen) coincidentially had a similar interview around the same time as me. One quote that caught my eye was the following:

Is amateurism in the blogosphere dangerous to public discussion?
Absolutely not. If anything, it has been a breath of fresh air. Bloggers have brought a new spirit of critical thinking back to a journalistic profession that has begun to resemble a monastic order.

Although the word 'amateurism' bears a connotation of ignorance, bloggers tend to be highly-educated professionals in other fields of endeavor. Moreover, journalism isn't like medicine. Although only trained professionals should dispense medication, any informed individual can dispense valid opinions. (Emphasis mine)


It is here that David gets to one of the greatest aspects of blogs; blogs represent democracy and engaged citizenry in their great potential. William Powers, who spoke at the Atlantic "Real State of the Union" referred to blogs as a vital part of a cacaphonous new media landscape that is part of the 21st century yet reminiscient of America's 19th century media. Blogs allow independent, motivated, and smart people an avenue through which they can publish their ideas at essentially zero cost. Assuredly, we have to always keep in mind that blogs will always have their own unique problems of credibility (although this is somewhat mitigated by source linking), but the Old Media should definitely embrace this new form of journalism and commentary as something positive. I know blogs can be extremely beneficial from personal experience because I know I have learned such a great deal from regularly reading the amazing Social Security analyses of Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias, I can explain why the new AIDS virus scare is really all about crystal-meth abuse thanks to Andrew Sullivan, and I generally feel like I have a lot more context and information for the whole multitude of topics I read in the paper everyday as a result of blogs.

As Howard Kurtz quotes in his Media Notes column,
Charlie Madigan, who writes a blog for the Chicago Tribune, had this message for his Old Media colleagues: "Shut up with your whining and appreciate the fact that, after generations of stagnation, something new has arrived. . . . Conventional journalism seems aghast that a whole collection of independent voices from all sides of the political spectrum are popping up now to pick and smear and slander and point accusing fingers, wreck careers, cast aspersions and introduce something besides a century-old sense of entitled hierarchy to the formula for news presentation."


Conventional journalists don't need to be scared of bloggers taking over their jobs: bloggers don't have the necessary resources or infrastructure for most real reporting. Blogging will almost indefinitely be confined to commentary and analysis, but of a much more wonkier and perhaps ultimately more informative type than the editorial pages of newspapers.

However, print media is facing declining subscribership numbers. The Washington Post (or as the 'Sphere has come to call it, WaPo), surprisingly only has a circulation of about 666,000. Some say declining newspaper subscribership is due to blogs stealing readers away from newspapers, but such a conclusion seems really shaky to me. Blogs drive a great deal of web access of newspapers due to their linking, and I can't really see how that would discourage subscribership (in fact, I would expect the opposite.) True, people can read the paper online, but it's nowhere near as convenient as having it in print form.

I think blogs appeal to the inner wonk inside all of us, and that inner wonk would certainly want to have a newspaper subscription (or a TNR and Atlantic one for that!), but a news format such as 24 hour cable TV caters to the infantile tendencies within us: people love to watch partisan hacks debate on Fox News because it's a sound-byte laden screaming match with all the sophistication of a football game. And, why would you want something as mind-numbing as that, when you could actually learn a thing or two from blogs? (i.e. How to use Political Theory to pick up chicks!)

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Mandate of Who?

Up until the 2004 election, the only context in which I'd heard the word 'mandate' used was Might and Magic 6: Mandate of Heaven. Immediately after he won the election, Bush claimed that by reelecting him, the people had reaffirmed his policies, most notably on Iraq. I think Roger Simon sums up my view the best, making some good points and pointing to a National Annenberg Election Survey pointing to what Sid Meier called War Weariness.
Also, while I certainly don't dispute that Bush won the last election, people voted for him for all sorts of reasons. Some people didn't want to switch presidents during wartime. Others liked and trusted him more than his opponent. Others agreed with his positions on gay marriage and abortion. Others felt his values were the same as their values. And some endorsed his invasion and occupation of Iraq. There were a lot of reasons that people voted for George Bush. But to pick just one of them and say the public ratified his Iraq policy by re-electing him seems to be stretching the facts.
Ok, I told you that story to tell you this one: Democrats have been criticized for obstructing progress on policies the republican party wants. The tight party discipline has ensured republican bills success without democrat support, rendering compromise unnecessary. I was expecting the GOP to run wild with changes for the next two years. Suddenly, hope came from an unexpected source. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced that "President Bush's bid to restructure Social Security may have to wait until next year."
...with polls showing widespread skepticism of Bush's proposal and some Republicans opposed to the approach, GOP leaders signaled yesterday that they may have no choice but to put off action.
I view the news with relief. Not because I'm fanatically against reforming social security, but this is the first evidence that Bush will not simply run the show. For the last few months I'd gotten the impression that in his second term, President Bush would do what he thought best, evidence/public opinion/international opinion be damned. And public opinion is making it pretty clear that privitized social security accounts are not what they want. Today's statement was a nice wake-up call that he is only the head of the executive branch. We need to remember that his role is primarily to enforce the laws set in place by the legislators. That's not to say that he doesn't have enormous influence on the course of things in America. With House Majority Leader Tom DeLay keeping strict party lines and republican house and senate, there's no question of if. But he's still just in charge of one branch, his whims are not law. He is not an emperor.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Globally Tested

The Supreme Court ruled today in a 5-4 decision that the execution of killers under 18 is unconstitutional, citing the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. This ends the practice in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, Texas and Virginia.Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, cited the “overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty.”

The Supreme Court's decision today marks an important step forward for the United States. By ending the practice of executing juveniles, the U.S. has drawn an important distinction between itself and regimes such as Iran, Pakistan, China, and Saudi Arabia. This distinction is all the more important given the ongoing torture scandals that continue to sully the name of the U.S. in the international community, and which have given the critics of the United States the opportunity to liken the U.S. to the countries and practices it so regularly denounces.

However, the usage of international opinion by the majority to support its argument is troubling. Writing in The New Republic only days before the November 2004 election, Jeffery Rosen stated that, in the event of a Kerry win, liberal justices would be “more likely to turn to international law to define the meaning of U.S. constitutional guarantees, such as due process, cruel and unusual punishment, and equal protection. If taken too far, the new internationalism could ignite an entirely new culture war for the twenty-first century.” Although Bush was reelected, Rosen's concerns are still valid today. Reigniting, or further exacerbating, the current culture war can only spell disaster for a Democratic Party that is already on the defensive in the American cultural arena.