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The Fun We Had

I’ve been thrust into social distancing, working from home, etc. I consider myself lucky because my wife was recently relieved of caring for her aunt, and so has moved back in with me. So I’m not completely alone. Still I miss the little conversations I had with coworkers during the day. Oh yeah, so far I still have a job. So, I’m really lucky.

My mind soon turned to some science fiction I had read as a child. It always does. One was a mystery about a murder in a future society where Spacers, on colonized planets like Solaria, dislike seeing each other face-to-face, instead preferring viewing each other on holographic screens. Hardcore SciFi fans probably remember The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov. I had to do a little digging. I remembered the name R Daneel Olivaw, which led me to all the rest. The R meant that Olivaw was a humanoid robot, but the detective was a human, named Elijah (Lije) Baley. They had previously worked together in The Caves of Steel, which my mother and I both read. These two novels are now considered part of Asimov’s Robot series, beginning with the short stories in I, Robot, and hew to his Three Laws of Robotics.

So these spacers – living far apart on low population planets – hated and avoided being in each other’s presence, making grudging exceptions for procreation, and even more grudging exceptions for being interviewed by Lije Baley. Conversely, they had little modesty while being viewed holographically, which seems unsurprising in the age of selfies and dick pics, but made for spicy reading material in 1956. Spacers were also not averse to being around robots – in a later book, one woman considered herself married to a robot. I guess we aren’t at that stage, though I have seen reports of guys who are very attached to their adult sex dolls, like Julietta and Saori. Man, how did I get there?

The other story I thought of also turned out to be by Asimov, his 1951 short story, The Fun They Had. You can read it from an instructional PDF, with a series of questions afterwards. Essentially a young girl of the future is surprised to learn that students used to gather in schools led by human teachers, instead of learning at home from machines.

The Fun They Had strikes home more than ever, as I am currently designing buildings for colleges and universities, most of which have sent their students home, and are rapidly implementing distance-learning for the time being. One of our core beliefs in campus planning, architecture and other services, is that students learn a great deal from residential life as well as from the academic curriculum that we usually see as the goal of education. I suppose I did, though I didn’t know it at the time. So while I suppose there may something to be learned from distance-learning as well, especially if that becomes the norm in business, I can’t quite imagine colleges churning out students that view each other, but rarely ever see each other.

On Friday afternoon, many of my coworkers logged in for social gathering via the Go-To-Meeting app. It was fun. Some had pets in their laps. Several of us were drinking beer and wine. We said goodbye to two employees leaving for other opportunities, one of whom was drinking tequila. We ended up wearing funny hats, which had nothing to do with drinking, of course. But again, I do still miss the small interactions when I am simply walking around and asking someone how it is going. I suspect that will be true for college students as well, when all contact is intentional rather than incidental.

No Absolute Privacy

FBI Director James Comey spoke today at the Clements Center for National Security at UT Austin. PBS News Hour live-streamed it over Youtube, and I caught it 30 minutes in, then watched again from the beginning.

Comey began by stating that the FBI’s primary counter-terrorism concern is Islamic terrorism. Initially, he said, Islamic terrorists had some success attracting people to the caliphate, but those numbers have been dropping, and it seems to be failing. Social Media efforts peaked in Spring 2015.

But, recruiters like Anwar al-Awlaki have tried and are still inspiring people, “who are seeking meaning,” to use violence. How do you spot them? Will people close to them report to the authorities?

Comey says intelligence predicts that after the caliphate is crushed there will be a terrorist diaspora into Western Europe, Southeast Asia, and Africa, and that they will be bent on continuing global jihad.

In response, the FBI has knitted together agents and analysts. They now assign tasks in a less geographic way, based more on talent. They have “Fly teams” prepared to go anywhere. They’ve established “Cyber task offices” and recruit for Integrity, Physicality, Intelligence, Technical Expertise. They want to shrink the world for the good people and embed analysts around the world.

If this sounds like a millennial TV show, well, Comey is looking to recruit from this student body, and he has to offer something that competes with private sector salaries.

The FBI intends to impose costs on foreign hackers.They urge cyber and media companies to establish relationships with the local FBI office so they can be rescued the way that Sony was rescued from the North Korea hack. He describes a relationship where the FBI would know a companies cyber-footprint the way that a fire marshal would know a building’s exit plan.

Comey assured the audience that he loved encryption, and that he even had a private Instagram account for family only. But now he feels there is a creeping darkness caused by effective encryption as the default. He worried that there are too many messages that the government simply can’t read. The deal, he says, was that there was “no such thing as absolute privacy.” In the past, he said, you had privacy, but your house, accounts, spouse and even your thoughts could always be investigated – with official authorization. He believes that manufacturers should be held responsible for the information on their devices being available for judicial review.

The moderator asked, given that there were hardly any cases right after 9/11, what are the causes and indicators of home-grown domestic radicalization? Comey responded that, “the internet has transformed the way we live.” He said there was no hotspot, but that all around the nation troubled people, who may be drug users, child pornographers, disaffected teens, people with troubled relationships were seeking meaning or a different world without ever leaving their computers. He used that, “seeking meaning,” phrase a lot. He also felt that usually somebody saw something and didn’t speak up.

My first thought was of the local terrorism cases that seemed to clearly be instigated by an FBI plant. My second thought was that like Neil Gorsuch, Comey is a very personable fellow with a scary agenda. He closed with an inspiring talk about the request to wiretap ML King requested by Hoover and approved by Robert F Kennedy. He says he doesn’t want the FBI to make that mistake again, but I didn’t feel reassured by the tenor of the sales pitch.

Entrapping the Bigot

I was groggy from a head cold this weekend, but some TV news show reported that 49% of people supported banning Donald Sterling from the NBA while 40% did not. And some 90% of African-Americans supported the ban. TV news gave no stats for how many were concerned whether the evidence against Sterling was the result of an illegal recording by V Stiviano – who reminds me of a Bratz doll. Some were quick to cite and accept Stiviano’s lawyers’ assertion that Sterling knew he was being recorded – which given the content seems as remotely possible as their assertion that Stiviano and Sterling were not sexually involved.

Everyone is for privacy — but when intrusion supports their cause, a lot of folk are willing to quickly move on. NPR mentioned the privacy issue, and referenced an OpEd for Time by basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has also played a comic copilot and fearsome martial artist in movies, and is known as a jazz connoisseur. Abdul-Jabbar appeared on ABC’s This Week last weekend, but the transcript won’t load:

And now the poor guy’s girlfriend (undoubtedly ex-girlfriend now) is on tape cajoling him into revealing his racism. Man, what a winding road she led him down to get all of that out. She was like a sexy nanny playing “pin the fried chicken on the Sambo.” She blindfolded him and spun him around until he was just blathering all sorts of incoherent racist sound bites that had the news media peeing themselves with glee. …

Shouldn’t we be equally angered by the fact that his private, intimate conversation was taped and then leaked to the media? Didn’t we just call to task the NSA for intruding into American citizen’s privacy in such an un-American way? …

I hope whoever made this illegal tape is sent to prison.

In a later OpEd for Time, Abdul-Jabbar notes that more white people believe in ghosts than in racism, and talks about situational racism:

Racism today isn’t like the racism pre-Martin Luther King, Jr. Today we are faced with “situational racism.” This is similar to situational ethics, a philosophical and theological movement that argues that rather than having fixed, one-size-fits-all ethical rules of behavior, the context of each situation must be considered before determining the correct moral choice. Situational racism applies this flexible principle by declaring we must act according to a realistic analysis of race as it is in our society right now, not as we wish it were. …

The truth is, everyone has racism in his or her heart. We feel more comfortable around people of similar appearance, backgrounds, and experiences. But, as intelligent, educated and civilized humans, we fight our knee-jerk reactions because we recognize that those reactions are often wrong and ultimately harmful.

We definitely see a situational reaction to news. We are against stealing, unless Cliven Bundy frames it as an anti-government stance. We value our own privacy, but hang on every detail about Kate Middleton. We would howl if the media was taping our own conversations, or those of our heroes. A few years ago, Democracy Now! interviewed Tim Weiner, author of Enemies: A History of the FBI,  about the FBI’s surveillance of Dr Martin Luther King:

With the approval, in writing, of the attorney general of the United States, Robert F. Kennedy, Hoover began bugging, wiretapping and surveying Dr. King, putting bugs in his hotel rooms, his private home, the Southern Christian Leadership Council offices, and very quickly came up with sex tapes of Dr. King having intercourse with women who were not his wife. He spread this dirt around as furiously as he could in the weeks leading up to Dr. King’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. No newspaper would touch it. It was too filthy.

Today, almost nothing is too filthy.

On Camera in Baltimore

We often throw around the term Draconian to describe unusually harsh or unforgiving laws and penalties. Draco was among the first to codify the laws of Athens on wooden tablets – a good thing – but he also assigned slavery and death as a recourse for many minor matters – not a good thing for minor offenders. The similarly-named Vlad Dracul, or Vlad III, who briefly ruled part of what we now call Romania, was posthumously given the nickname of Țepeș (“Impaler”) after his preferred method of punishment – rumoured to have been imposed for the slightest offense.

Here in Baltimore we’ve been having a broughaha over speed cameras. Many were put in a few years ago, then found to be giving some tickets to cars that weren’t even moving. On Feb 20th, The Atlantic’s Cities blog summed up:

Baltimore’s particular speed camera problem first came to light in 2012, when the Baltimore Sun revealed that at least seven of the city’s 83 radar cameras, all of them owned and operated by Xerox State and Local Solutions, were prone to issuing fines to drivers who were not exceeding the speed limit. Xerox itself claimed it found only five cameras that didn’t work, and shut them down. The city, meanwhile, downplayed the problem even further, claiming the error rate for Xerox speed cameras was “one-quarter of one percent.” In short: Nothing to see here!

Xerox’s contract with Baltimore ended in 2012, but the deal is making headlines again thanks to a recent audit showing the company’s cameras performed worse than even the Sun realized. The big takeaway? That error rate of “one-quarter of one percent”—promoted by city officials!—was actually upwards of 10 percent; 26 percent of issued citations were “questionable.”

I do like that people have slowed down on the hill between my apartment and the light rail, but the cameras have essentially created a series of morning drag races at the next traffic light as Lexus and Benz drivers – tired of doing only 25 mph – accelerate to be the first in line to get onto I-83. Should there be even more cameras?

Also on Feb 20th, Streetsblog came out in support of speed and red light cameras with, There Is No Doubt That Automated Traffic Enforcement Saves Lives:

The de Blasio administration is seeking permission from Albany to install speed and red light cameras as the city sees fit, while [Jennifer Lynch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation] argues that “New York has not shown that adding cameras to city streets and mandating private vehicle monitoring will prevent pedestrian deaths.” … If NYC implemented speed cameras citywide and achieved a 30 percent reduction in traffic deaths and serious injuries — the low end of the typical range of improvement in these studies — nearly 100 lives would be saved and nearly 1,000 life-altering injuries would be prevented each year.

There is no doubt that using speed cameras and red light cameras to impose fines will slow down traffic, but there is also no doubt that confiscating cars and throwing the offenders in prison would do the same. There is also no doubt that impaling offenders on poles along the roadway would deliver an even stronger message.

The question is not only whether cameras work, it is also whether the fines are imposed fairly and justly.

Whether accidentally, or accidentally on-purpose, speed cameras seem to err on the side of issuing too many tickets. Red light cameras have been shown to be unjust on-purpose. Operators and local jurisdictions have shortened yellow light timing to maximize profits. Local governments make challenging tickets as time-consuming as possible. That is not justice, it is entrapment and revenue enhancement.

No one wants people running red lights or speeding recklessly, so if speed cameras accurately measured velocity, would it make sense to have them everywhere? As a bicycle commuter I wouldn’t mind too much if cars slowed down. But by necessity I’m also a car driver, and one quibble is that speed limits are conservative. By car or bike, I drive faster when traffic is light, when the weather is good, etc, and slower at night, or in the rain. The speed camera just measures against one dumb number.

Another quibble is that once they teach people that all the streets are being watched, only a few fools will drive too fast and governments can kiss that speed camera income goodbye. So as a practical matter, localities will only put speed cameras in some places, and not in others.

Even More Cyber Abuse of Women

Amanda Hess certainly struck a nerve. Following up her article, Why Women Are Not Welcome on the Internet, the Pacific Standard has added four sections of testimonials: This Is What the Harassment and Abuse of Women on the Internet Looks Like:

Two years ago I began posting a serialized novel to a fan fiction website. An individual somehow determined my userID and password, logged onto the site as me, and added a bogus chapter to my novel.

The bogus chapter was less than a page long. But is said something completely revolting. Supposedly, the female characters in my story found it sexually pleasing to have each others’ feces rubbed in their faces and over their tongues.

I deleted the objectionable material and complained about it to the webmaster. I changed my password. The objectionable writing was re-posted, with additions. The offender was communicating in his own name. And then again, in mine.

At the invitation of two users on a different fan fiction site, I moved my project over to it. A few days later, the objectionable posts re-appeared on the new site, embellished with more details about a giant orgy that takes place in a bomb shelter.

… and Amy Wallace has chimed in with, Life as a Female Journalist: Hot or Not?:

In online comments and over email, I was called a prostitute and the C-word. J. B. Handley, a critic of childhood vaccination and the founder of the autism group Generation Rescue, affiliated with the actress Jenny McCarthy, sent me an essay titled, “Paul Offit Rapes (intellectually) Amy Wallace and Wired Magazine.” In it, he implied that my subject had slipped me a date-rape drug. Later, an anti-vaccine website Photoshopped my head onto the body of a woman in a strapless dress who sat next to Dr. Offit at a festive dinner table. The main course? A human baby.

Wallace notes that while much of the problem is with anonymous trolls, a lot happens in plain sight, with no consequences.

Why Bother Driving?

I’m hoping to go to the DC Auto Show again, mostly to test drive a Prius c. My car is getting long in the tooth, and I’ll probably need to get something eventually. You can test certain cars at the auto show without getting the full court sales pitch afterwards. According to, Detroit motor show: how the US youth fell out of love with car culture, even though sales are better here than in Europe, manufacturers are worried about the future:

New car purchases by those aged 18-34 dropped by 30% in the US between 2007 and 2012, …

Meanwhile the number of miles driven by Americans each year has also started to drop –they now drive fewer miles per capita than at the end of Bill Clinton’s first term … And the age group showing the biggest decline? Those aged 16 to 34, who drove 23% fewer miles on average in 2009 than in 2001.

There are two main, and not necessarily mutually exclusive theories, for why America’s millennials are eschewing cars, …. “One theory is that millennials have lost interest in cars in general. They live more of their lives online and just don’t have the same innate interest in car ownership,” he said. “Secondly, the economy has held them back and they’ll return once it picks up enough.”

I would have added that driving has become a giant pain in the ass. There’s always someone right in front of you dawdling along, another one right behind you wanting you to go faster, and the government helps out with speed traps, aggressive parking enforcement, speed cameras and red light cameras with shortened yellow lights. In an era when no job is all that safe, car payments can continue for 60 months, used cars are very hard to find and insurance rates aren’t as low as Flo promises.

And on the heels of the NSA revelations, The Next Data Privacy Battle May Be Waged Inside Your Car:

Cars are becoming smarter than ever, with global positioning systems, Internet connections, data recorders and high-definition cameras. Drivers can barely make a left turn, put on their seatbelts or push 80 miles an hour without their actions somehow, somewhere being tracked or recorded.

Automakers say they are only responding to consumer demand, and besides, they and regulators say, the new technologies help them better understand consumers and make the cars safer. But privacy advocates increasingly see something more unsettling for drivers: that someone is always watching.

In the minimum wage debates, we were reminded that Henry Ford raised wages to an unheard of level so that his employees could afford to buy the cars they built. With more and more employees making less and less, how can manufacturers expect to keep selling anything but luxury models? And if they’re going to spy on the ones that can afford cars, even the well-to-do will find some other way to get around.

More Cyber Abuse of Women

Inspired by, Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet – the Pacific Standard article I linked to a few days ago – lawyer, columnist and blogger Jill Filipovic posted, Let’s Be Real: Online Harassment Isn’t ‘Virtual’ For Women on TPM:

In January 2006, I was a student at NYU School of Law, home for holiday break. I had just gotten my wisdom teeth out. I remember that, because I was on a lot of painkillers, and I kept thinking that maybe my cloudy brain just wasn’t comprehending what I was reading on an anonymous message board created for law students, called AutoAdmit. There were hundreds of threads about me, with comments including:

“Official Jill Filipovic RAPE thread” “I want to brutally rape that Jill slut” “I’m 98% sure that she should be raped” “that nose ring is fucking money, rape her immediately” “what a useless guttertrash whore, I hope that someone uses my pink, fleshy-textured cylindrical body to violate her” “she deserves a brutal raping” “Legal liability from posting pic of Jill fucking?” “she’s a normal-sized girl that I’d bang violently, maybe you’d have to kill her afterwards.”

C’mon guys. I like women a lot myself, but I like them. This stuff isn’t clever or fun. It sounds like it was written by guys who are secretly afraid of women.

Cyber Abuse of Women

In, Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet, Pacific Standard gives a taste of what our online women friends have to endure from anonymous tormentors:

According to a 2005 report by the Pew Research Center, which has been tracking the online lives of Americans for more than a decade, women and men have been logging on in equal numbers since 2000, but the vilest communications are still disproportionately lobbed at women. We are more likely to report being stalked and harassed on the Internet—of the 3,787 people who reported harassing incidents from 2000 to 2012 to the volunteer organization Working to Halt Online Abuse, 72.5 percent were female. Sometimes, the abuse can get physical: A Pew survey reported that five percent of women who used the Internet said “something happened online” that led them into “physical danger.” And it starts young: Teenage girls are significantly more likely to be cyberbullied than boys. Just appearing as a woman online, it seems, can be enough to inspire abuse. In 2006, researchers from the University of Maryland set up a bunch of fake online accounts and then dispatched them into chat rooms. Accounts with feminine usernames incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine names received 3.7.


I feel bombarded with Edward Snowden this week. A Snowden-based character manifested in an episode of Elementary I watched Tuesday evening, then he was cited in an episode of The Good Wife I watched last night, and now in the top-rated article at the Washington Post, NSA infiltrates links to Yahoo, Google data centers worldwide, Snowden documents say :

The National Security Agency has secretly broken into the main communications links that connect Yahoo and Google data centers around the world, according to documents obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and interviews with knowledgeable officials.

By tapping those links, the agency has positioned itself to collect at will from hundreds of millions of user accounts, many of them belonging to Americans. The NSA does not keep everything it collects, but it keeps a lot.

I generally like Elementary, but I just streamed We Are Everyone, the third episode of the second season, which aired a few weeks ago. Like Snowden, a fellow named Ezra Kleinfelter leaks NSA data to a reporter, and then must evade capture. He is abetted by Everyone – essentially Anonymous – an online group that hacks and harasses Holmes and Watson. Like Julian Assange, Kleinfelter expects casual sex with his supporters. Unlike either of them, he kills a woman who is harboring him and has presumably rejected his advances, then threatens to expose a dozen at risk covert US agents. Thus in the Elementary universe, the whistleblower is scum, the hacker collective is misguided and NSA agents are not-so-bad. And that, little children, is your morality lesson of the day.

In The Good Wife’s second episode, The Bit Bucket, we see two slacker-hackers in a vast NSA office who are monitoring all of Alicia Florrick’s personal communications because two years ago Lockhart & Gardner represented an Afghani translator suspected of terrorism. Snowden’s leaks are mentioned both during courtroom arguments as L & G sue the NSA on behalf of ChumHum, a fictional competitor to Facebook, Google and Yahoo – all of whom have lost some credibility for sharing info with the NSA – and by NSA managers as they bemoan the increased legal scrutiny since Snowden went public. Rather than trying to sell one point-of-view, The Good Wife writers keep you reeling with the contradictory implications of almost everything that happens.

Miranda Rights

David Miranda, schedule 7 and the danger that all reporters now face

Miranda was held for nine hours under schedule 7 of the UK’s terror laws, which give enormous discretion to stop, search and question people who have no connection with “terror”, as ordinarily understood. Suspects have no right to legal representation and may have their property confiscated for up to seven days. Under this measure – uniquely crafted for ports and airport transit areas – there are none of the checks and balances that apply once someone is in Britain proper. There is no need to arrest or charge anyone and there is no protection for journalists or their material. A transit lounge in Heathrow is a dangerous place to be.

It is just too bizarre that Miranda shares a name with what was a basic legal right of those being arrested. By only stopping and frisking, or stopping searching and questioning, the powers-that-detain have essentially thumbed their nose at the laws that we thought protected us.