Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Paying any price to listen

In yesterday’s New York Times article U.S. Pushes to Ease Technical Obstacles to Wiretapping, Charlie Savage relates current efforts by the Obama administration (Justice and Commerce departments and the FBI) to enhance their ability to tap your communications. Apparently, the misbegotten Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act isn’t doing the job that the Clinton administration hoped for. It seems law enforcement is surprised that panning for nuggets in the torrents of communications pulsing through the nations arteries isn’t trivial.

It’s a battle they can’t win. Although criminal undertakings are facilitated by secure communications, the same can be said of many personal and commercial communication. If they press too hard, and the same goes for India and the Arab nations that have been leaning on Research In Motion over the secure Blackberry messaging system, they’re going to see the whole process end up out of reach. How might this come to pass? Simple: open source software solutions. The heart of secure communication is encryption, and governments have never been all that good at it. In recent years, the most secure encryption methodologies have all come from the OSS community and, in reaction to the Clinton-era attempts to block secure encryption in the US, this is almost all done outside the US. One of the few OSS projects that American programmers can’t work on is OpenBSD, developed primarily in Canada, because the lead developers fear that anything developed in the US might be compromised by government action. Security for most online transactions come from the OpenSSL Project, none of the core participants are from the US.

What would an OSS approach look like? It would look just like a standard e-mail client, only it would offer end-to-end encryption. In order to tap it, the FBI would have to have a warrant to monitor the sender or the receiver, a process about as obvious as thrusting a microphone in the faces of two people talking quietly in a dark corner of a bar. In other words, they couldn’t do it until their investigation was over. Further, the program could be made such that without the owners active cooperation, there was no readable information on the computer. Would using such a program identify a person as a terrorist? Not at in a world where business and technology secrets are sought after by those who don’t have the talent or patience to develop their own technology.

When this nation was founded, the police could get a warrant to search your premises or to arrest your person, in either case you knew of the warrant when it was invoked and it was issued by a judge as a matter of public record. The FBI feels put upon to be spending $20 million a year to “help” communication vendors comply with CALEA. They shouldn’t, they’re getting information that they have no business hearing or seeing.

If I Were King, communication would not be a matter for law enforcement, only criminal acts in the physical world would be.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Microsoft gets something right

Last month The New York Times reported that Russian officials, with the active and eager cooperation of attorneys representing Microsoft, raided several non-profit groups under the pretext of cracking down on pirated software. Now it’s certainly true, and well known, that piracy is prevalent in Russia, and even moreso in China, but the fact that the raids were all directed towards groups opposed in some way to government policies made it pretty clear that the primary motivation was not, in truth, making sure Microsoft got paid for every copy of Office. Microsoft may be a greedy blood-sucking monster, but they aren’t so far gone as to feel the need to milk non-profit environmental agencies and small newspapers operating under oppressive governments.

Microsoft has always had generous programs to provide free or inexpensive licenses to NGOs and education. Now the company has broken new ground. According to the official Microsoft blog, because some NGOs don’t know about the available programs, as of the 23rd of last month and extending through 2011, all Microsoft software used by most NGOs in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam is immediately and retroactively licensed. That is, even if an organization pirated all their software, that software is now legal, for at least the next year, and MS is encouraging those NGOs to apply for permanent licenses on the same terms. Further, Microsoft is taking the initiative to notify officials in the affected countries.

If I Were King, I would enjoy no exemption from eating crow from time to time. Although I have never actually said that Microsoft was always evil, it would be understandable if some reached the conclusion that I felt that way. Well, I’m happy to say that they got this one right, in spades, with style. I’d tip my crown to Redmond if I had one.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Holder vs California Marijuana Legalization

Eric H. Holder, Jr, the US Attorney General, yesterday announced that the Department of Justice would aggressively prosecute federal marijuana laws in California if state voters approve legalization on 2 November. Somehow I think the nation’s top lawyer has better things to do.

Of course, I also think he has things to do that make sense, and throwing endless resources into prohibition decidedly does not. It is obvious to the intelligent observer that the vast majority of ill effects from drug use in the US today stems not from the drugs, but from attempts to eliminate them. This is true of every drug banned, with the possible exception of methamphetamine, and the only reason that meth is a factor is that it’s easy and cheap to make in the face of government actions that eliminate safer alternatives. (There is simply no way that users are going to buy meth, or PCP for that matter, if they have a full range of choices.) But this post is not about general drug policy, just marijuana.

Marijuana is not without problems. It makes you lazy. It makes you stupid. But it doesn’t make you violent, it doesn’t make you spend the rent and grocery money, and if it’s legal it doesn’t have any risk of drive-by shootings to establish distribution territories. I don’t smoke pot because I don’t want to, the microbrews in the Pacific North Wet are too appealing. But that is a personal decision, I certainly don’t need help from Washington City to make the choice.

If I Were King, Mr Holder would be instructed to do real research into a sensible drug policy. And if he insisted on attempting to enforce ancient prohibitions against marijuana in jurisdictions where the voters or the legislators decided it wasn’t a crime, he would be instructed to do some research into applying for unemployment.

Ask, Tell, Whatever

Earlier this week, Judge Virginia A. Phillips of the Federal District Court of the Central District of California did the only rational and constitutional thing she could: She ordered the Department of Defense out of the personal lives of soldiers and staff. Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell was a stupid and unconstitutional plan when it was created, the seventeen years during which it has governed the military has proven that it was stupid and counterproductive.

The Department of Justice intends to appeal. Reports vary, some say they are obligated to defend every Congressional act, others say it is strongly supported by tradition. What they should do is follow the Governator’s lead. After the courts overturned Proposition 8 in California, the proponents of that foolishness appealed, the papers listed the governor personally as a nominal defendant, supposedly expected to argue in favor of the law as passed by the voters. (Voters whipped up with huge amounts of out of state money.) California sat on its hands. In fact, the plaintiffs obviously had the support of the governor and the city officials that were officially defendants. It was probably a good thing, it would have been embarrassing to be associated with the logical and legal failures of the appeal. (I spent several hours reading testimony and the decision in that case, I wouldn’t use the defence legal team to fight a traffic citation for 5 mph over!)

If I Were King, government funds would not be used to further an unjustified discrimination. And we would have quietly applauded the judge’s choice to make her decision take effect instantly, and around the globe.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Weird Politics – New York

On Sunday, wing nut Republican candidate for governor of New York Carl Paladino, side by side with sort-of Hassidic rabbi Yechezkel Roth, made a speech to Orthodox Jewish leaders. Among other things, he said, “I just think my children and your children would be much better off and much more successful getting married and raising a family, and I don’t want them to be brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option — it isn’t.” Cameras were rolling, it’s on YouTube.

Note that the rabbi in question is not exactly a big deal, his synagogue has roughly two dozen members. That’s even fewer than the fundamentalist Florida fruitcake that made waves with plans to burn a Qur’an last month.

Well, Carl, homosexuality is not an option, it’s a fact. It’s valid in the same way as gravity is, and absent interference from outsiders with no legitimate role in the question, it’s successful.

It’s also a straw man here, nobody has any intention of brainwashing anyone regarding homosexuality. You’re straight? Fine. Nobody is asking you to have sex with a person of the same sex. Nobody even wants you to watch.

And your children aren’t going to choose to be homosexual because there are homosexuals in the classroom or homosexual couples living on your street. (Your legitimate children probably already have established their sexual orientation.) Nobody chooses to be a homosexual. It’s exactly the same as for heterosexuals, you and I didn’t choose that either. (Maybe I shouldn’t speak for you. I know I didn’t choose to be straight, and I’ve never heard of anyone who chose to be straight or gay. At some point we all become aware of our sexuality but we don’t choose it.) You don’t get to take credit for choosing to be straight.

There are options — choices to make — regarding sexuality. Promiscuity is a bad choice. Abusing positions of power for sexual conquests is a bad choice. Fidelity to marital vows is a good choice. You could, for example, take credit for being monogamous and faithful. That’s hypothetical, of course. You could have, if you had been monogamous and faithful. Having sex with an employee is an abuse of your position of personal power. I hope you are providing well for your former employee and the daughter you conceived.

If I Were King, my commitment to freedom of speech would allow Paladino to say the same silly things. Subjects like that could lead to great savings, a court jester would not be needed.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Coming Out Day

Today is Coming Out Day, an occasion for showing support for civil rights of the LGBT community. I’m straight, and I support human rights for humans and civil rights for those who are civil (and for some who aren’t, actually), without consideration of race, creed, age, sex, religion, national origin, or sexual orientation. (Is “confused” a sexual orientation? Seems that fits a lot of folks.)

But Van, you’re a Christian, isn’t homosexuality against your religion? Short answer: No. The longer answer? Christ loves every one in every situation, and if you happen to be a lesbian that detail is hardly enough to make a god of love back off, or even hesitate. God is love. “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love,” as we sang back in the ‘sixties.

But Van, doesn’t the Bible clearly say that homosexuality is wrong? Short answer: No. The longer answer? For good and valid historical reasons, the Torah is reproduced in the Bible. Specifically, the book of Leviticus is included. Leviticus has two parts, the Jewish Holiness Code and the Jewish High Priestly Code. I’m not a Jew, and I’ll never be eligible to serve as high priest (because I’m not Jewish and because my name is not Cohen or one of the acceptable variations thereon, both absolute barriers), even if the temple were rebuilt in my lifetime. I’m a Christian, and Christians are not called to follow Jewish law.

But Van, it’s in the Bible. Doesn’t that make it true? Sure it’s true, it’s part of the history of the Children of Israel. They were actually given all these laws over three thousand years ago. And there are even those who follow those rules today, observant Orthodox Jews. They keep two complete sets of pots, pans, plates, and silverware. I appreciate the dedication to tradition that this entails, but I do not follow them, for a number of reasons. I appreciate the fact that Jesus specifically swept the old laws away (story is found in Matthew, “It is not what goes into a man’s mouth that defiles him, but what comes out.”) But even if he hadn’t, there are plenty of good reasons to live by the law of my time instead of the laws of Canaan circa 1425 BC: Lobster. McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Clams. Ham. Every sandwich I make. Bratwurst.

Scholars have proposed reasons for different parts of the Holiness Code, but we can’t really know what they were. But we can be confident that all the rules regarding sacrifices, the separation of dairy and meat, the absolute prohibition on meat from animals with cloven hoofs (i.e., the glorious pig), the prohibition on any seafood that doesn’t have scales, all these things may have had a reason at a certain point in Israel’s past but are not normative for life in the United States today.

And the God I worship would not smile to learn that I was taking a minor point of ancient law, out of context, and using it to be hurtful to my fellow creatures. Sex is a good and wonderful thing. Marriage is a good and wonderful thing. It is unacceptable for a Christian, gay or straight, to forbid these things to anyone old enough to consent intelligently.

Being a Christian is not a logical decision. We specifically believe that you cannot come to faith in Jesus Christ of your own will, that such a faith comes from a call issued by the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the choice to enter ordained ministry, with all the requisite preparation, is subject to call as well, first a call from God and then a call from a congregation. If homosexuality were wrong, there is no way that an omniscient God (who would know who was straight and who was not) would continue to call homosexuals to faith and to ministry, yet he does. Logic says that if a call is necessary for faith, and there are homosexuals in the pews, then God loves them and wants them to be part of his church. There is no escaping that argument.

If I Were King I would still be Christian, I would still be straight, and you would absolutely be treated the same whether you shared my religion or my sexual orientation or not.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Secret corporate political cash

Back in January the Supremes handed down a decision in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, ruling that corporate funding of political advertising was protected by the First Amendment. Many commentators were horrified at what that would mean for the democratic process, and now that the elections are in full swing we are seeing the results. (See Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post for just one of many.) At the time, although I didn’t blog about it, I felt that it was the only legal decision possible. On the other hand, I felt, and feel, that the money behind political advocacy needs to be limited somehow, and must be identified. I presumed, vainly as it turns out, that campaign finance rules requiring publication of these contributions, would be in effect by the time the floodgates opened.

At the time, the biggest objection to the Citizens United ruling seemed to center on expanding the rights to free speech to corporate persons. Many were outraged that all “persons” would have the rights of natural persons, and others were offended that foreigners could contribute to campaigns as well. Neither of these bothered me at all. As long as the public disclosure rules were enforced.

At the same time, I also floated another idea, and as the scope of political speech unleashed by the decision expands, I continue to think it merits some thought. I have always been uneasy about the idea that there could be any limits on political speech. On the other hand, the idea of foreigners with no legitimate involvement in a campaign, other than the profits they might extract, contributing mountains of cash seems problematic. The most obvious example of this came last year when Mormons in Utah contributed a large part of the funding for the nasty Proposition 8 campaign in California, the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. (To me, there is absolutely no logical difference between Germans or Russians influencing national decisions and Utah churches or California movie stars influencing state or local decisions outside their own communities.)

So here’s my more complete opinion: If I Were King, anyone would be able to contribute any amount to any political campaign as long as two simple requirements were met: 1) All political contributions over $25.00 would be subject to public disclosure. 2) Political contributions in an amount over $25 could be made only by persons registered to vote in the jurisdiction affected. Partnerships, associations, corporations, churches, and labor unions would be left out. Hollywood stars would be unable to send large checks to influence campaigns in Colorado, unless they established their primary residence there, although they could buy a T-shirt or attend a $20 fund-raising potluck.

Yes, I would regret the loss of revenue for the media, but I don’t think overwhelming the voters with paid messages is the best way to save the newspapers.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Birthers, Redux

Today’s Quotes of the Day were on the theme of “Birth” because this is the anniversary of the birth of Chester A. Arthur. During the 1880 presidential campaign, in which he ran as vice president with James Garfield, it was charged that he was not born at Fairfield, Vermont but rather in Canada. Some said he had been born in Ireland. In his case, there were no written records of his birth at all.

It turned out he was a pretty fair president after Garfield died, so he only served part of one term. He recognized the problems of the “spoils system” then in place, a system that he had benefited from and in which his backers thrived, and created what we now know as the Civil Service System. His administration was probably not absolutely devoid of corruption, but it was dramatically better than any in the decades before him.  Even Mark Twain, who had little use for any officeholder, approved: “It would be hard indeed to better President Arthur’s administration.”.

In the course of my introduction to the quotes I characterized the birthers of our day as “halfwits”. As I mentioned back in April, I encountered my first birther in a public place, having previously not really believed that such persons existed. To my surprise, there actually were a few who were subscribers and they took offense. They basically said that I was the halfwit if I believed that Obama actually had a “birth certificate” that showed him to be a US citizen.

Oh, puhleeze! No, there is no document that says “birth certificate”. I don’t have one either, mine says “Certification of Birth”. Obama’s says “Certificate of Live Birth”, presumably because the state of Hawaii has enough sensitivity not to issue birth certificates to parents who have gone through the ordeal of a stillbirth. What we refer to as a birth certificate is any document issued by a government or agency thereof that attests to the birth of a child. It lists the name, the place, the date, and the names of the parents. There is no verification that I’m aware of, although if the child is born in a hospital it’s a pretty safe bet that the place, date, and mother’s name will all be accurate. Somebody fills in a form, the form is sent to the appropriate registry, the information is entered in some sort of register or database, and certificates are issued as required by law.

In the case of my daughter, a nurse asked me to go to the hospital office and fill out a form, on which I wrote in my name as father and probably signed it. That was it. No DNA test to prove that I actually was the father. For that matter, there was no test to ensure that the mother wasn’t a surrogate renting out her womb for the occasion. And though I think the resulting “birth certificate” actually used those words, it was small plastic rectangle with embossed lettering – a credit card with no charge privileges.

The birthers are halfwits if they think the current president is ineligible for office based on the fact that his birth certificate doesn’t have the exact wording they prefer. More likely they are looking for anything to beat on the president with, know there is no basis for it, and just don’t mind looking stupid while they beat on a dead horse. I’m not wild about there being a president, as long as there is I can’t be king. But I’m intelligent enough to see that there isn’t any issue here.

If I Were King it would be all the same: There would still be halfwits, cretins, morons, and imbeciles willing to cherish the absurd and consider it as truth.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Neutrality for harassment

Yesterday the Star Tribune ran “Schools struggle with gay policies,” an article of some concern that shows that, for all our recent progress, we still have a long way to go in dealing with sexuality. Given four suicides in the past year by GLBT students in or connected with the Anoka-Hennepin School District, it isn’t a minor issue.

The district has adopted a policy of neutrality, sexual orientation simply isn’t part of the curriculum. That’s fine, but that doesn’t mean — it cannot mean — adopting a policy of neutrality toward harassment and bullying.

In the story, Minnesota Family Council President Tom Prichard is quoted as saying, “I don’t think parents want their kids indoctrinated in homosexuality,” and that teachers shouldn’t be saying that homosexuality is acceptable. Codswollop. Or to quote a great litigator of the past, “irrelevant and immaterial”. Schools don’t teach that gravity is acceptable, but they still teach that it exists, and that it has to be respected.

According to an article in The Minnesota Independent, there is a secretive group calling themselves Parents Action League that is campaigning to make sure the problem is made worse. They claim to support the district’s neutrality while campaigning to bring the “The Day of Truth” program to district schools, a program that teaches that homosexuality is a sin, that Christian students should be outspoken in condemnation of it, and that gays can be “cured” through prayer. In other words, a program that claims to be Christian but is completely uninformed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The school doesn’t need to teach anything about homosexuality at all, I’m sure the curriculum has sufficient goals to keep everyone busy. This isn’t about teaching. This is about maintaining an environment in which it is possible to teach math and language and other subjects, it’s about maintaining an environment in which everyone can learn.

If I Were King, I’d still be straight, but education is simply too important to let bigots interfere with the process. I’d still be Christian, but possibly even less tolerant of those who call themselves Christian yet support vicious programs with proof-texting from parts of the Old Testament that they don’t follow in their own lives.