17 August 2006

Thought Surveillance Agency

That's what the TSA wishes their abbreviation stood for apparently. Both fortunately and unfortunately, their goals are (at least currently) pseudoscientific pipe dreams. Via Scaramouche, we find that the TSA wants to start polygraphing everyone before letting them through security. To shamelessly reappropriate Wolfgang Pauli's infamous remark, it's so bad it's not even wrong. I don't even know where to begin with why such a system is a bad idea. So let's just start at the top of this disorganized mess of a WSJ article:
With one hand inserted into a sensor that monitors physical responses, the travelers used the other hand to answer questions on a touch screen about their plans. A machine measured biometric responses -- blood pressure, pulse and sweat levels -- that then were analyzed by software. The idea was to ferret out U.S. officials who were carrying out carefully constructed but make-believe terrorist missions.
Oh, yeah, that's going to work great for testing and calibrating a system designed to catch actual terrorists. 'Cause everyone knows a TSA employee running a security test will have the same kind of psychological response to the prospect of being caught as will a terrorist. I'm sorry, but "stupid" doesn't even begin to describe that assumption. (In all seriousness, sometimes what seems silly at first can be true, so I'm willing to be empirically convinced that this is a valid inference. But just assuming it is downright retarded.) Continuing:
The trial of the Israeli-developed system represents an effort by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration to determine whether technology can spot passengers who have "hostile intent."
So basically, they want to know if you have "hate in [your] heart" when you get on a plane to, say, visit family that you hate or go on a business trip to meet with that sombitch David Nelson. Now on to the buzzwords:
In effect, the screening system attempts to mechanize Israel's vaunted airport-security process by using algorithms, artificial-intelligence software and polygraph principles.
Here's a handy-dandy translation guide. "Algorithms" = "computer program". "Artificial-intelligence software" = "marketing bullshit that means no such thing (yet)". And "polygraph principles" = "pseudoscience, intimidation, and wishful thinking". We're not even halfway done yet:
The test alone signals a push for new ways to combat terrorists using technology. Authorities are convinced that beyond hunting for weapons and dangerous liquids brought on board airliners, the battle for security lies in identifying dangerous passengers.
Wow, what brilliant insight by the authorities. Who would have ever thought that stopping terrorists might involve trying to, you know, identify terrorists? As to the bit of techno-worship, technology is a tool like any other. Or rather, a "tool" is just "technology" that's been around a long time.
The method isn't intended to catch specific lies, says Shabtai Shoval, chief executive of Suspect Detection Systems, the start-up business behind the technology dubbed Cogito. "What we are looking for are patterns of behavior that indicate something all terrorists have: the fear of being caught," he says.
Using polygraphs for something other than catching specific lies is when they're at they're absolute worst, at least according to reputable sources like the National Academies of Sciences (the full executive summary is available free here). The short version is, the less precise the questions the less clear it is to what exactly you are measuring a response. I'll come back to this in a bit. Just keep in mind Mr. Shoval's statement that they are looking for "fear of being caught," i.e., nervousness.
Security specialists say such technology can enhance, but not replace, existing detection machines and procedures.
Finally, some sanity! But it doesn't last long:
Some independent experts who are familiar with Mr. Shoval's product say that while his technology isn't yet mature, it has potential. "You can't replicate the Israeli system exactly, but if you can incorporate its philosophy, this technology can be one element of a better solution," says Doron Bergerbest-Eilon, chief executive of Asero Worldwide consulting firm and a former senior official in Israel's security service.
Let's skip over whether "the Israeli system" is desirable, since any mention of Israel is bound to piss someone off. Instead, let's focus on the fact that for an "independent expert" they talk to the CEO of a company that is in part a security technology marketing firm. From ASERO Worldwide's mission statement:
Helping market emerging companies producing innovative technologies whose potential has not yet been realized in the homeland security market and providing a consultancy service to the venture capital market oriented specifically to the homeland security sector.
Yeah, real impartial. ASERO also refers to APCO Worldwide, the propaganda firm that brought us TASSC (and probably Steve Milloy, based on his astroturf organization's co-location with TASSC before they collapsed), as a "partner." Just sayin'. Back to the article:
To date, the TSA has more confidence in people than machines to detect suspicious behavior. A small program now is using screening officers to watch travelers for suspicious behavior. "It may be the only thing I know of that favors the human solution instead of technology," says TSA chief Kip Hawley.
Kip must have a really depressing sex life.
Here is the Cogito concept: A passenger enters the booth, swipes his passport and responds in his choice of language to 15 to 20 questions generated by factors such as the location, and personal attributes like nationality, gender and age. The process takes as much as five minutes, after which the passenger is either cleared or interviewed further by a security officer.

At the heart of the system is proprietary software that draws on Israel's extensive field experience with suicide bombers and security-related interrogations. The system aims to test the responses to words, in many languages, that trigger psycho-physiological responses among people with terrorist intent.
Don't you just love how "proprietary" is so often said like it's a good thing? "Proprietary" means you don't know shit about what it really does, like with Diebold and ES&S voting machines. As to what it's looking for, just how the hell do you determine what words evoke those responses in terrorists but not in other people?
The technology isn't geared toward detecting general nervousness: Mr. Shoval says terrorists often are trained to be cool and to conceal stress.
Remember how I told you to keep in mind that this is supposed to detect "fear of getting caught"? I suppose you could parse that as being distinct from general nervousness, but I'll just let you ponder how Mr. Shoval's explanation isn't supposed to apply to his earlier statement.
Unlike a standard lie detector, the technology analyzes a person's answers not only in relation to his other responses but also those of a broader peer group determined by a range of security considerations. "We can recognize patterns for people with hostile agendas based on research with Palestinians, Israelis, Americans and other nationalities in Israel," Mr. Shoval says. "We haven't tried it with Chinese or Iraqis yet." In theory, the Cogito machine could be customized for specific cultures, and questions could be tailored to intelligence about a specific threat.
Call me cynical, but I just know the customization would be shamelessly misused, especially behind the cloak of "proprietary software."
The biggest challenge in commercializing Cogito is reducing false results that either implicate innocent travelers or let bad guys slip through.
Right, because what's important isn't whether it works but whether it's commercially successful.
Mr. Shoval's company has conducted about 10 trials in Israel, including tests in which control groups were given terrorist missions and tried to beat the system. In the latest Israeli trial, the system caught 85% of the role-acting terrorists, meaning that 15% got through, and incorrectly identified 8% of innocent travelers as potential threats, according to corporate marketing materials.
And this has what to do with its reliability in catching actual terrorists or distinguishing them from the general population?
The company's goal is to prove it can catch at least 90% of potential saboteurs -- a 10% false-negative rate -- while inconveniencing just 4% of innocent travelers.
Okay, math time. What percentage of people "caught" by the system would actually be terrorists, even generously granting these numbers? Well, let's make the very generous (to Mr. Shoval) assumption that 1 in 100,000 people boarding planes in the US are terrorists (that's a ridiculously high 600+ a month based on these BTS statistics). Crunching the numbers, that's roughly 540 terrorists flagged each month, compared to 2,400,000 innocent people. So about 1 in 4500 people flagged by the system (or 0.02%) would actually be terrorists -- if it works as well as the company would like. Fewer terrorists makes these numbers even worse. Oh, yes, and 60 terrorists would still get through.
Even though his expertise is in human observation, U.S. behavior-recognition expert Dr. Ekman says projects like Cogito deserve a shot. He expects technology to advance even further, to devices like lasers that measure people's vital signs from a distance. Within a year, he predicts, such technology will be able to tell whether someone's "blood pressure or heart rate is significantly higher than the last 10 people" who entered an airport.
That's it, we are now officially living in a Philip K. Dick novel.

30 July 2006

What takes precedence over blogging?

How about this:

Your Token Reader has been indisposed for the past few weeks, busy depriving himself of sleep observing RS Ophiuchi. Admittedly, it's nothing special to look at, but in my defense I think I have good reasons to obsess over it instead of blogging, eating, or sleeping. Specifically: There, now doesn't that sound more appealing than reading about Hezbollah doing the same old shit, Israel going on a glennocidal 'roid rage, and Congress ganging up on young girls in abusive families?

05 July 2006

Why I Love The Bay Area

Because you can get microbrews at the 7-11.

That is all.

04 July 2006

Independence Day Patriotic 10

Wingnuts might disagree with my characterization, but real patriotism isn't blind nationalism, it's working to better the country, uphold its (theoretical) ideals, and fight against the people fucking it up. Admittedly, the list is somewhat limited in variety, since I'm only including music on my iPod:
  1. Dead Kennedys - "Stars and Stripes of Corruption"
  2. A Perfect Circle - "Freedom of Choice"
  3. Anti-Flag - "911 for Peace"
  4. Creedence Clearwater Revival - "Fortunate Son"
  5. Pennywise - "Land of the Free?"
  6. Radiohead - "2 + 2 = 5"
  7. Bad Religion - "You Are (The Government)"
  8. System of a Down - "Boom!"
  9. Pink Floyd - "The Fletcher Memorial Home"
  10. Nine Inch Nails - "The Hand That Feeds"
Bonus spoken word -- "Die for Oil, Sucker":

And an updated version (sadly cut off at the beginning):

Posting for Peace

Too often, I believe, peace is defined in terms of the absence of something. The absence of war, the absence of violence, the absence of hostility. But this is deeply unsatisfying. War and violence are obviously things to avoid, but why is peace something worth working toward? Just what does peace mean?

Peace means the freedom to live your life.

Peace means harmony with your fellow human beings.

Peace means young men and women learning or building families instead of fighting and dying.

Peace means understanding each other's differences.

Peace means more resources to solve the world's problems.

Peace means empathy, compassion, and humanity.

And above all, peace means hope for the future.


Screw the fireworks shows tonight, this is some real Fourth of July pyromania:

03 July 2006

Case In Point On Official Prayer

As though right on cue, here's a concrete example of exactly what is so harmful about official prayer (h/t Pharyngula and Seeing The Forest):
A large Delaware school district promoted Christianity so aggressively that a Jewish family felt it necessary to move to Wilmington, two hours away, because they feared retaliation for filing a lawsuit. The religion (if any) of a second family in the lawsuit is not known, because they're suing as Jane and John Doe; they also fear retaliation. Both families are asking relief from "state-sponsored religion."

The behavior of the Indian River School District board suggests the families' fears are hardly groundless.

The district spreads over a considerable portion of southern Delaware. The families' complaint, filed in federal court in February 2005, alleges that the district had created an "environment of religious exclusion" and unconstitutional state-sponsored religion.
I'm sure Matt will tell us that this is harmless and anyone who fights against it is (or at least looks like) some kind of extremist, since, after all, if you can get so riled up about something so minor, you must be on the fringe. Of course, it should be obvious what an outrage this actually is. And if that didn't get your attention, maybe the death threats and eliminationist rhetoric will:
On the evening in August 2004 when the board was to announce its new policy, hundreds of people turned out for the meetng. The Dobrich family and Jane Doe felt intimidated and asked a state trooper to escort them.

The complaint recounts that the raucous crowd applauded the board's opening prayer and then, when sixth-grader Alexander Dobrich stood up to read a statement, yelled at him: "take your yarmulke off!" His statement, read by Samantha, confided "I feel bad when kids in my class call me Jew boy."

A state representative spoke in support of prayer and warned board members that "the people" would replace them if they faltered on the issue. Other representatives spoke against separating "god and state."

A former board member suggested that Mona Dobrich might "disappear" like Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the atheist whose Supreme Court case resulted in ending organized school prayer. O'Hair disappeared in 1995 and her dismembered body was found six years later.

The crowd booed an ACLU speaker and told her to "go back up north."

In the days after the meeting the community poured venom on the Dobriches. Callers to the local radio station said the family they should convert or leave the area. Someone called them and said the Ku Klux Klan was nearby. [emphasis added]
As Ed Brayton observes, "If even 10% of the allegations in this case are correct, it's one of the most outrageous cases I've ever seen." This is exactly why religion needs to be kept entirely out of government; not only is it oppressive in its own right, but it approves - even encourages - lynch-mob intimidation in the wider community.

See also Bartholomew's Notes On Religion for some background.

This is a Christian blog now?

Well, no, not really, but I was very amused by this Technorati trackback:

A pity it looks like they've since removed the link. I guess they figured the dick joke was a little un-Christian. (True fact: I found the location of that passage by thumbing through my dog-eared and underlined paper Bible. Some heathen I am.)

02 July 2006

I don't know weather to laugh or cry

Actually, I'm pretty sure "curl up in a corner and bang my head against the wall while drinking heavily" is the most appropriate response to this (h/t Sadly, No!):
So, to recap - America is currently at war and its enemies are domestic liberals and The New York Times. This war was started by Al Gore and Jimmy Carter when they opposed the invasion of Iraq. The New York Times is allied with Al Qaeda and their latest plot against America is to provide their terrorist friends with a roadmap to the vacation homes of Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld so that they can be assassinated. That is what is being reported today by three of the largest "conservative" blogs on the Internet, along with Horowitz, the leader of the conservative effort to wipe out anti-conservative bias on college campuses.
Teh funny, no? More like teh scary:
Another upstanding, patriotic blogger -- after linking to the blog which posted the address of the Times photographer -- has now posted this:
So, in the school of what's good for the goose is good for the gander, we are providing this link so YOU may help the blogosphere in locating the homes (perhaps with photos?) of the editors and reporters of the New York Times.

Let's start with the following New York Times reporters and editors: Arthur "Pinch" Sulzberger Jr. , Bill Keller, Eric Lichtblau, and James Risen. Do you have an idea where they live?

Go hunt them down and do America a favor. Get their photo, street address, where their kids go to school, anything you can dig up, and send it to the link above. This is your chance to be famous - grab for the golden ring.
He's urging people to find the names and addresses of New York Times editors and reporters in order to "hunt them down and do America a favor." And he said that right after he posted the link to the address of the Times photographer. And this is just the beginning of this syndrome, not the end.
Open incitement to terrorism like this scares the bejesus out of me, because as history has shown, they will act on it. And make no mistake, Malkin, Assrocket, and Horowitz know exactly what they're doing (Horowitz in particular -- he's always been a pro-terrorist authoritarian, with political affiliations depending on who is most friendly to this) in agitating the less weasly fascists (if the jackboot fits...) toward open instigation of violence. True, I can't help but be amused at how the trolls in Greenwald's comments (especially the aptly-named "dipshit") go far beyond his jokes and show that they are truly beyond satire (good for a few hearty laughs is dipshit's 'observation' that "With all Clinton's blabbering about how bad the USA is anytime he goes overseas, do you think Al-Qaeda has him in their sights? [links obviously added]"). But that does nothing to make this any less frightening.

UPDATE (23:11): Okay, one more thing. I really can't let this bullshit from Clay-Eating White Trash (credit to Retardeau Montablan for the moniker) go unremarked:
Disclosing national secrets is a criminal offense. The AG and the US Attorneys should not only consider charges, but file charges against the individuals who participated in the publication of stories - the government employees that told the reporters, the reporters, the editors, and even Pinch himself. [emphasis added]
Like hell it is. The US, thank "Bob", doesn't have an Official Secrets Act (yet):
There is no such law called the Unauthorized Release of Classified Information Act.

And it's a good thing, too. The NBC story "made it sound as if we already had an Official Secrets Act in this country," leaker par excellence Daniel Ellsberg told Secrecy News.

A congressional measure to legislate a generalized statutory prohibition against unauthorized disclosures of any classified information was vetoed by President Clinton on November 4, 2000 in response to widespread opposition from media outlets, civil liberties organizations and others.

But the misapprehension persists.
I wonder why that might be. Dana Priest gets it, and it's glorious watching her verbally bitch-slap Bill Bennet over this on Press The Meat. William Safire (!) comparing the Bush Administration and their allies like Bennet (especially Peter King) to King George II is just the icing on the cake.

30 June 2006

Matthew Yglesias: Wanker of the Day

Well, he did ask for it:
At the risk of being made the wanker of the day, I thought Nathan Newman made several good points about Barak Obama. To make a more general point, while I appreciate blogospheric concern about re-enforcing conservative talking points, at the same time it's obviously the case that liberals aren't going to be able to improve either our electoral performance or our policy performance if people aren't going to be allowed to criticize what they see as broad tendencies in progressive politics. To make a more specific point, on the particular issue of allowing prayer or other religious gestures in official facilities and at official events, I tend to agree with what Obama is saying here -- that liberals should ease up on this. [emphasis added]
You know, for a philosopher by training, that is some really sloppy fucking thinking. It doesn't take a genius to recognize that there's a world of difference between "in official facilities" and "at official events," especially with the later clarification that, yes, he really does mean officially led and directed prayer.

OK, so Matt churned out some bone-stupid wankery in between his usually sharp wonkery; what else is new? Gotta keep up those contrarian and moderate credentials after all. I could just leave this at some snark, but for the benefit of those of you who grew up completely isolated from society (or were born yesterday), I'll point out just why his assertion that there is "no harm" in this is so hopelessly, stupidly, mind-numbingly wrong.

Let's start with the most clear-cut case of direct harm: schools. School is an official event children are required to attend*, so there is no opt-out cop-out here. Now, to avoid being accused of a straw man (who am I kidding, nobody reads this), let's say instead of an unconstitutional-since-the-50s forced mass prayer in class, it's at the pep rally (which, let me assure you from experience, is often just as mandatory as class). So you shamble on down there, sit down, and the principal leads the whole school in a non-denominational Judeo-Christian Christian Protestant prayer (credit where credit is due: Matt did at least recognize "non-denominational" prayer for what it is). Say you're an atheist, or that you're Muslim or Jewish or Wiccan. What is the clear, unambiguous message the government is now officially sending you? That you don't belong, that you're not a full member of society, that there's something wrong with your beliefs. Wait, you know what? Someone said the meaning of this far better than I ever could:
No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.
And this takes us directly to how it is injurious when officially sanctioned in any capacity: it sends the clear message, exactly the message desired by those promoting this, to all Americans that part of being American is being Christian (specifically, Protestant). Therefore, if you aren't Christian, you aren't really a "true" American. It's officially sanctioned bigotry and marginalization of religious minorities, nothing less.

I really can't see why this is so hard for some people to grep. Same goes for the distinction between officially led/sanctioned prayer and use of official facilities (assuming the facilities are available on a neutral basis -- and I don't just mean religiously neutral). I think a lot of people just deliberately ignore the bleeding obvious, or don't give a shit. One tangential observation about a common defense of officially mandated prayer and other obvious violations of the Establishment Clause, specifically the argument that it's simply a recognition of our country having an overwhelming Protestant majority and so it simply reflects the people: there is some definite fascist thinking lurking in there. I am talking not about Nazi thinking, but Umberto Eco's Ur-Fascism:
5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity.

Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.
That spells out the motivation. Here's the thinking behind it being alright because it reflects the People:
13. Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say.

In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view -- one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. [emphasis added]
The theme, of course, is that the People are monolithic, that the Will of the People and that of one of the people must be the same, or at least cannot (must not) differ in important ways. The exact same argument for official prayer or "one nation, under god"/"In God We Trust" applies (almost) equally well to this Pledge of Allegiance:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one white, homophobic nation, under god, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
The only thing that doesn't perfectly analogize is the racial component, since you really can't be coerced to change your race like you can be coerced to (publicly) change what you believe or who you love (though you can't be coerced to truly change either). And you've got to admit, this version really shows how farcical the ending is.

As for Obama, from what I read of his speech, he didn't say anything quite as stupid as Yglesias, and did stick to use of official facilities. However, if he is strictly speaking about that, he's using a right-wing fundamentalist talking point to demagogue against a liberal straw-man. A small part of an otherwise generally good speech, but still. And a lot of what he said also had a strong Manichean (in the original sense of the term) feel to it. So, to paraphrase George Carlin, "Fuck Barak Obama! Fuck him with a big rubber dick. Then break it off and beat him with the rest of it."

*Please, no one spout bullshit about private schools or homeschooling -- most parents don't have near the resources for either.

23 May 2006

Glad I didn't promise anything...

What can I say? Real life got in the way of blogging. I should be able to get back into things for most of the summer, though, once I settle back down in the Bay Area. In the meantime, here are some pictures from my deliberately extended drive back from Walla2.

How thoughtful of CalTrans to let us know

Squaw "Creek" Falls, near Sisters, OR

The view from the top, sitting right next to the falls

The Metolius River, and why I love having an SLR

No, you aren't overlooking the stream those falls are from -- they come straight out of the hillside

For those who know me, and therefore would never believe it, here's proof that I started my hike at 7AM

Update (5/28): Flikr images were broken. Now they're fixed... I hope.

29 March 2006

Here I come back from the dead

I have been a bad, bad blogger going on an unannounced two-month hiatus. What can I say, I was temporarily driven into unholy madness by my occult studies here at Miskatonic U. Posting will be irregular and infrequent, and I'm not promising anything in case I get distracted again (very likely), but I'm at least kinda sorta back. Besides, I owe y'all for not blogging over spring break, so even though I said no promises, I just might have to blog about Juan Cole's lecture here next week.