Friday, August 26, 2005

Something To Celebrate

It seems that both Weekly Standard writer Hugh Hewitt and the influential conservative blog Powerline have taken notice of the fact that Ellsworth Air Force base in South Dakota has been spared from the current round of Pentagon base-closings. As Paul Mirengoff of Powerline puts it,

John Thune's crusade to save South Dakota's Ellsworth Air Force base has succeeded . The base closing commission has voted to reject the Defense Department's recommendation that the base be closed. Thune unseated then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle partly on the strength of his claim that he would be better positioned to help save the base. The Democrats gloated when it looked like Ellsworth would be closed, but now Thune gets the last laugh.

I think it's worth asking: what exactly are conservatives finding to celebrate in this? That the Republican House and Senate leadership has become corrupt and venal enough to make the distribution of pork to your home state contingent on having a high-profile Republican representing you in DC? It's certainly not as if this budding Pericles ("As our troops fight to defend the principles of the American flag around the world, Congress has a responsibility to defend the flag at home.") saved Ellsworth on the strength of his oratory alone. Not that Mirengoff has any problem with this - his statement that Thune "would be better positioned to help save the base" more or less acknowledges the reality of how Bill Frist's Senate makes the important decisions. Honest conservatives ought to be apologizing for, rather than trumpeting, this news.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Touched by His Noodly Appendage

I'd like to follow up Jesse's post with a few interesting links regarding Intelligent Design.

First off, you have to check out the hubbub over at boingboing regarding pastafarianism.


Pastafarianism Posted by Picasa

The point of this satire is not to debunk any kind of theism, but rather to posit that theism belongs in a realm outside of public education and rigorous, logical thought. I think that's a reasonable proposition that all rational people (religious or not) should be able to agree on. Creationists can indoctrinate their children and congreations with their silly ideas that go against everything modern science has shown us, but at least they will do it on their own time, without public money, and in environments that aren't supposed to be upholding principles of academic, scientific, and logical rigor.

Secondly, for a quick but thorough examination of the flaws of Intelligent Design, Scientific American did a great piece (Warning: PDF) debunking all of the junk, non-peer reviewed, fake-me-out science that the Intelligent Design propenents refer to to back up their bogus claims. I highly recommend reading it.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Intelligent what?

With the current Intelligent Design push in our country (mostly in the south/midwest) various politicians have come out in favor of teaching a baseless theory to our youth. The most recent one is Bill Frist, of whom we were so proud for supporting Stem Cell research. Personally, if I didn't find the whole idea laughable, I'd be more offended at the way the Christian right is attacking science. There was a positively excellent piece in The New Republic (if long) detailing why Intelligent Design was just another face for the push for creationism, and a critique of its supposedly "new" ideas.
[retired professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley and one of the most prominent spokespersons for ID] Johnson was even more explicit in 1999 in remarks to a conference on "Reclaiming America for Christ." Rob Boston reported Johnson's remarks in Church & State magazine:

Johnson calls his movement "The Wedge." The objective, he said, is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism v. evolution to the existence of God v. the nonexistence of God. From there people are introduced to "the truth" of the Bible and then "the question of sin" and finally "introduced to Jesus."
While that was excellent, I more appreciated the article for pointing out Intelligent Design's flaws, and why there was controversy at all.
To teach that a scientific theory is equivalent to a "guess" or a "hunch" is deeply misleading, and to assert that "evolution is a theory, not a fact" is simply false. And why should evolution, alone among scientific theories, be singled out with the caveat "This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered"? Why haven't school boards put similar warnings in physics textbooks, noting that gravity and electrons are only theories, not facts, and should be critically considered? After all, nobody has ever seen gravity or an electron. The reason that evolution stands alone is clear: other scientific theories do not offend religious sensibilities.


And now, your moment of Zen, from TheOnion:
Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New 'Intelligent Falling' Theory"

If it weren't for cynicism and sarcasm, I would be very depressed indeed.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Religion in Politics

Since Renaissance Men seems to be back up and running, I might as well jump on the bandwagon and start posting again.

Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum recently posted quotes from two different Bush Administration Officials, one from 2002 and one from 2005. The first I recognized from an excellent Ron Suskind article in the NYTimes Magazine discussing Bush's reliance on faith to guide his decisions.
...open dialogue, based on facts, is not seen as something of inherent value. It may, in fact, create doubt, which undercuts faith. It could result in a loss of confidence in the decision-maker and, just as important, by the decision-maker. Nothing could be more vital, whether staying on message with the voters or the terrorists or a California congressman in a meeting about one of the world's most nagging problems. As Bush himself has said any number of times on the campaign trail, ''By remaining resolute and firm and strong, this world will be peaceful.''
I've always felt strongly that religion -- and faith in particular -- has no place in politics. From the ridiculous Intelligent Design push going on to Terry Schaivo, religion is trying to nose back into the political scene after being pushed out by the likes of Locke and Rousseau. Although it's been long accepted that the right to govern no longer comes from a divine force, people continue quoting biblical passages trying to affect laws. David Corn's most recent post shows a press release sent out by Columbia Christians for Life. He shows them far more respect than I would. Personally, I find it hard to take any press release seriously when it has syntax like this:
Have we so dumbed-down what it means to be "pro-life" (thank you," National Right to Life, for repeatedly compromising on principle !), that pro-lifers would be so foolish as to give support to a nominee who has said he will "fully and faithfully" apply a baby-murdering court-ruling, despite what the Bible and the U.S. Constitution say? Are we insane?....

Roberts' promise to fully and faithfully apply a 30-year old judicial precedent instead of the eternal, immutable and universal Word of God, is tragic. Furthermore, if judges and all other officials take an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States (as it is written!), then why would an opinion of a court, any court, take precedence over the written text of the original document That would be like saying the opinions of men about what the Bible says take priority over what the Bible itself says in the written text.

...Furthermore, we must always assert Biblical Supremacy over the laws of men. No law of man can rightfully command what God forbids, or forbid what God commands (e.g., Exodus 1:15-22; Daniel 6:7-13; Acts 4:19,20). "We ought to obey God rather than men." Acts 5:29
David Corn gets it right calling them theocrats. What exactly makes our fundamentalists so different from the fundamentalists ruling in Iran? Besides the turbans.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Doctor Is In

Courtesy of Dan Drezner, it seems that Dr. James Dobson has deigned to make his "definitive explanation...regarding the origins of homosexuality" available to all, presumably as some sort of public health measure. Seriously though, this is really funny.

Mark is in desperate need of professional help, but he is unlikely to get it. His parents apparently don't know about his travail, and the pastor he trusts tells him it will pass. It probably won't! Mark appears to have a condition we might call "prehomosexuality," and unless he and his entire family are guided by someone who knows how to assist, the probabilities are very great that he will go on to experience a homosexual lifestyle.

But fear not! Advanced preventive care for this condition does exist:

Meanwhile, the boy's father has to do his part. He needs to mirror and affirm his son's maleness. He can play rough-and-tumble games with his son, in ways that are decidedly different from the games he would play with a little girl. He can help his son learn to throw and catch a ball. He can teach him to pound a square wooden peg into a square hole in a pegboard. He can even take his son with him into the shower, where the boy cannot help but notice that Dad has a penis, just like his, only bigger.

Vigilance, however, is essential. Only the most discerning parents will be able to detect well-hidden warning signs of the homosexual lifestyle:

Perhaps you are concerned about your child and his or her "sexual development." Maybe your son or daughter is saying things like, "I must be gay," or "I'm bisexual." You've found same-sex porn in his room or evidence that he has accessed it on the Internet. You've found intimate journal entries about another girl in her diary. The most important message I can offer to you is that there is no such thing as a "gay child" or a "gay teen." [But] left untreated, studies show these boys have a 75 percent chance of becoming homosexual or bisexual.

In retrospect, I may not have played too many rough-and-tumble games during my formative years, but at least I had a father who knew the importance of collective shower time and "pound the peg."

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Just When All Hope Was Lost

Robert P. George, Princeton professor and member of the President's Council on Bioethics has resolved the thorniest political issue of the past thirty years. It turns out that the only three logically consistent positions on abortion are 1. a willfully ignorant inability to acknowledge the moral differences between humans and jellyfish; 2. the dogmatic pro-life position shared by most of his cowriters at NRO; or 3. a somewhat more nuanced view than either (1) or (2), which holds "that some, but not all, human beings have dignity; those who have it possess it by virtue of some quality or set of qualities that they happen to possess that other human beings do not possess (or do not yet possess, or no longer possess)." Unfortunately, the well-intended proponent of the third position will inexorably "find himself driven by the force of logical argumentation into the positions infamously defended by Peter Singer" (which I take to mean infanticide, bestiality, etc).

But wait one minute. I can't speak for the political views of Mr. George, but I'm pretty sure that the National Review long ago capitulated to the mighty logical argumentation of the third-wayers. At least, that's what seems implicit in NR's support for the death penalty (human beings can lose their right to life due to their own actions), the Iraq war and more generally just war theory (human beings in other countries can lose their right to life for a compelling state interest) and even their opposition to the higher taxation levels necessary to support universal health care (human beings' right to life can be subordinated to others' property rights). In fact, I'm pretty sure anyone whose political views have developed since their AP US government class long ago accepted that human beings can lose their dignity for a variety of reasons, and I'm also pretty sure that beliefs with this level of sophistication are a prerequisite for participation in any political system more intrusive than anarcho-syndicalism. But not, apparently, for membership in the presidential bioethics commission.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Guns Don't Kill People. The Internet Does.

Yesterday, the WaPo revealed to the world that terrorists use the internet to communicate. So, a large, geographically dispersed group of people use the internet to communicate. I'm not quite sure if this should qualify as front page news. I mean, is "Terrorists using pens and paper to record their evil plans" news? Hardly. Unfortunately, a great deal of people are confused by modern technology, and so it's a great way to make people afraid.

Perhaps the government is banking on such fear in order to pass an extension to the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) that would require broadbrand providers and VoIP providers to build secret backdoors into their networks so the feds can tap them easily.

The problem with such a proprosal is that it will in all liklihood endanger the personal security of Americans more than it will do to help them. Firstly, the legislation can't be applied internationally and thus will only affect domestically based networks; thus, it will do little to nothing in terms of securing the internet from such "evil communications.". Secondly, if manufacturers of routers and VoIP equipment are all required to install a standard backdoor, then what happens when a group of script-kiddie hackers, identity thieves, organized crime, or even terrorists figure out how to access the backdoor? Microsoft doesn't intentionally put back doors into its products (at least we hope it's just sheer incompetence), but somehow hundreds of them have been exposed and exploited. However, this won't be a vendor specific flaw, and it will affect not simply individual computers but the network equipment that makes accessing the internet possible. The people the law is supposedly intended to catch will move to more obscure and harder to tap means of communication, while the government will have the ability to tap non-dangerous Americans with little to no effort.

Such a measure will do almost literally nothing to make us safer, but it will assuredly endanger our domestic infrastructure.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Shouting Secrets from the Rooftops

This NYT article talks about how news organizations are just now starting to think about the fact that they aren't keeping sources secret whenever they are at the computer. I'm appalled at the total lack of concern the journalism community has for the technology they are essentially abusing. They are completely ignoring the vast array of tools at their disposal that would help them enourmously in protecting their sources they make supposed pledges of confidentiality to. The way many journalists use the computer (i.e. Matthew Cooper) they might as well just sit on top of their building with a big sign that can be read from miles around that reveals their anonymous sources.

The fact that they are journalists is no excuse for misusing technology. The major news organizations have the resources to hire plenty of qualified cryptography experts to secure their operations and educate their employees. It is ignorant and lazy to say that a journalist shouldn't need to know how to use a computer when that very computer has the potential to put a core value of the profession in danger.

The Valerie Plame case is a big deal for a number of reasons, and one of them is of course the all too significant debate over the protection of anonymous sources. I'm going to withhold judgment in the abstract arena over whether or not a journalist should have total blanket privelege to protect a source, but what I want to discuss is the reality of how journalists protect sources.

Matthew Cooper and Judith Miller are not the only two journalists who need to worry about anonymous sources. Take, for example, Walter Pincus of WaPo and his current legal battle or the decision by Doug Clifton of the Cleveland Plain Dealer to witthold stories. The majority of the journalism community argues that the profession will languish without adequate protection for their anonymous sources, but what are journalists doing to protect their sources? Sure, Judith Miller is staying quiet for now, but Time Magazine released Matthew Cooper's emails containing information about his source (Karl Rove) without his permission.

Stop. Think about that for just a second.

Matthew Cooper was sending plain text emails around attached to his name that contained information about the source he was trying to protect. Anyone on the Time computer network such as a lowly intern could have intercepted the email enroute (I'll be generous and even assume they aren't routing it outside for internal emails.) But, in general terms, Cooper had already put his source in danger before Time let it out to the world. He let the sensitive information he was trying to protect over a very possibly comprimised channel with no way of future repudiation. How many other reporters, blissfully ignorant of the technology they are using, are also comprimising the supposed secrecy pledged to their sources in a similar fashion?

My guess would be a great deal. Most people don't understand that anything you do unencrypted can be intercepted by a third party, and moreover very, very few people ever bother with something like Perfect Forward Secrecy. However, there are a few people who do care: Cryptographers.

Cryptographers Nikita Borisov and Ian Goldberg have developed a protocol called "Off The Record Messaging" which is succinctly described by the following characteristics:

Encryption
No one else can read your instant messages.
Authentication
You are assured the correspondent is who you think it is.
Deniability
The messages you send do not have digital signatures that are checkable by a third party. Anyone can forge messages after a conversation to make them look like they came from you. However, during a conversation, your correspondent is assured the messages he sees are authentic and unmodified.
Perfect forward secrecy
If you lose control of your private keys, no previous conversation is compromised.
Of course, there are countless options out there for securing communications, but this one is especially interesting because of the ability to deny that the conversation took place afterwards even though it can be trusted while it's going on. Furthermore, the authors have conveniently provided a forgery tool to go along with their plugins so that anyone can very easily (and thus extremely plausibly) forge any past conversation -- making any stored or logged conversation untrustworthy.

Such a system, to my knowledge, has never really been put to the test in a court of law, but, nevertheless, it's still a very important (and not to mention FREE and EASY) step a reporter could take to secure his communications with AND about his confidential sources.

Personally, I feel that the issue of utilizing encryption to protect a source isn't open to much debate if one views it from the lens of protecting the agreement between source and reporter. If a reporter makes a pledge of anonymity to the source (disregard any misgivings you may have about this), then the reporter has a moral duty to use as many tools as possible to restrict the trail back to the source if the reporter's materials are comprimised. Basic techniques like code names may be useful, but when it comes down to the essential exchange of information that constitutes the entire value of anonymous sources, reporters should at least use a system like OTRM, or else they are breaking their agreement from the get-go.

P.S. For the more technically minded readers, I would also personally say that reporters should keep all notes critical to anonymous sources either in their head or hidden in both a cryptographically and steganographically strong filesystem. There are so many choices (here are a few) that it seems unconscionable to not use at least one. Given that the major news organizations are considering giving reporters portable hard drives to deflect responsibility for securing this information onto individual reporters, not using such a system leaves every single one of a reporter's sources one broken window away from the public eye.

Screw Grandma

Charles Krauthammer recently wrote an op-ed ["Give Grandma a Pass; Politically Correct Screening Won't Catch Jihadists"] in the post supporting racial profiling for the purpose of weeding out terrorists. Krauthammer makes the case that too much time is wasted on patting down 83 year old grandmothers, and that we should just focus on who we all know to be the real potential terrorists.
Assuaging feelings is a good thing, but hunting for terrorists this way is simply nuts. The fact is that jihadist terrorism has been carried out from Bali to Casablanca to Madrid to London to New York to Washington by young Muslim men of North African, Middle Eastern and South Asian origin.

This is not a stereotype. It is a simple statistical fact. Yes, you have your shoe-bomber, a mixed-race Muslim convert, who would not fit the profile. But the overwhelming odds are that the guy bent on blowing up your train traces his origins to the Islamic belt stretching from Mauritania to Indonesia.

Colbert I. King wrote a response ["You Can't Fight Terrorism With Racism"] a few days later in the Post. His argument basically centered around the inherent inequality in singling out certain groups over others for scrutiny, something that has been endlessly repeated in the profiling debate. It's one thing when you're talking about traffic stops, it's quite another when you're talking about dead people. However, King points out another problem with attempting to profile terrorists.
But let's get really current. What about those non-Arab, non-South Asians without black or brown skins who are bombing apartment buildings, train stations and theaters in Russia. They've taken down passenger jets, hijacked schools and used female suicide bombers to a fare-thee-well, killing hundreds and wounding thousands. They are Muslims from Chechnya, and would pass the Krauthammer/Sperry eyeball test for terrorists with ease. After all, these folks hail from the Caucasus; you can't get any more Caucasian than that.

What the racial profilers are proposing is insulting, offensive and -- by thought, word and deed, whether intentional or not -- racist. You want estrangement? Start down that road of using ethnicity, national origin and religion as a basis for police action and there's going to be a push-back unlike any seen in this country in many years.
What King did not do is take Krauthammer's suggestions to their logical conclusions. Imagine this scenario. The airport has two security lines. People would be directed into one line if they immediately passed the eyeball test, i.e. whites, the elderly, women, children, and hispanics (the British Police have demonstrated how simple eyeballing that last one is). The others would have to file through the examination line, where they were vigorously examined by security personnel. One could say that the separate lines wouldn't be necessary, but why not? Letting everyone group together and then trying to pick through the crowd would be unnecessarily cumbersome, defeating one of the purposes of racial profiling, which is to "give grandma a pass." Hopefully, such an image sufficiently brings back the specter of "white" and "colored" divisions under Jim Crow laws to give even the most hardline individuals pause in considering such a system.

The best solution, as one man pointed out in a letter to the editor, would be to do as the Israelis have, and make security training focused solely on spotting terrorist behavior. Trying to focus on anything else is simply a distraction. Random searches are still useful for their deterrent effect, and for keeping the searching skills of security personnel sharp. And I'd say that it is in our democratic interest to share the burdens of increased security, least we take out our anxiety on those who we outnumber.

Links used in this post:
Krauthammer's Op-Ed
Colbert I. King's Response
The Wikipedia Entry on Jean Charles de Menezes
David Harris's Letter to the Editor