Friday, June 21, 2013

Your own personal Watergate

Mr. Pierce points out that the President is being disingenuous. Obama does not do disingenuous well, and the whole "I used to disagree but then I saw what's really going on thing" is so ... naive I just don't know what to think about the man.

There are some very basic points that need to be watched here that most naive and/or well-intentioned defenders of the NSA ignore that are nicely highlighted in both Obama's quote and the Guardian pull:

1.  "Listening" or "reading" is usually analysis done by human being; "storage and metadata" are analyses done by machines, do not require human beings.

2.  Keyword summarization of content is metadata, and not content.  Knowing that there's an 87.4% chance the word "XYZ" occurs fifteen times in a communication doesn't tell you what someone is saying, in the same way that more traditional metadata like "calls between subject and his mom one Sunday afternoon a month that last for twenty minutes" tells you nothing about the content of those calls.  

So I put it to you, readers: does anyone know if (a) FISA disallows the distinction in (1), and (b) does FISA view keyword summarization as content or metadata?

Because if FISA disallows the distinction in (1) then there'd be no need for (2).  But I know, from personal experience, that a lot of time, money and talent has been put into technologies that can do (2) by the national security complex, and so I have to suppose (1).  It could be, and bear with me now, that NSA and CIA have wasted a ton of money on technologies they can't use!!  It wouldn't be the first time a large secretive government entity did something stupid.  Its hard to know whether that would be a good thing or not.

3.  Its very important to the NSA to know who's a US person and who isn't.  (A US person is a citizen or lawful resident, e.g. people on visas.)  This is an issue because the size of the firehose is so big - we know from previous whistleblowers that one of those hoses is the AT&T backbone down on Folsom in SF - and so you need to know who to exclude.  This is probably why the NSA needs Verizon's data, and also the PRISM data, because it uses that stuff to identify which signals belong to US persons and which don't.  The NSA already gathers communications from "US-based machines", and it can easily connect the dots across those communications, but packets don't have country codes attached to them, and so they need the data from e.g. Verizon and PRISM to attach a country code to those graphs.

(Note that contrary to some views, while there may be a strong legal distinction between the rules on tapping telephonic communications and the rules on email and web traffic, there is no operational difference in the handling.  Everything is transferred in packets, which come with a little tag that tells the various target devices whether they can read them or not.  I'm sitting at work listening to music on Spotify, listening to a conference call, typing a blog post, and all of it happens on my company's internal network and the same wires carry everything; there are not three kinds of data here, only one, with three different readers.  You can say there's a distinction legally, but from the standpoint of the data management people, that just tells me which folder I dump the packets into.)

There are some obvious conclusions you can draw from all of this about what the NSA does, especially if you consider that (a) phone calls take up considerably less space, data-wise, than web traffic and (b) even small companies (<$5 billion in market cap) now routinely compress, store and analyze 30+ Petabytes worth of data.  

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Post-Hoc Ergo Teleprompter Hoc

Exciting news for environmentalists trying to tie ecological catastrophe to the average person's baser instincts: In the same environments that suddenly experience an absence of trees, people get higher rates of heart disease and other nasty bad health outcomes.

Also did you hear that people who drink coffee appear to have lower rates of Alzheimers?  I ran across that this morning, even though its an older study, and that's good news for me, because I drink a lot of coffee.

Did you know that just wearing camouflage clothing, particularly if its a uniform, leads to a much higher-than-average likelihood of dying a violent death, particularly from traumatic lead poisoning?  Its true.

Someone in the comments on the NYTimes story about the "health benefits" of caffeine above speculated that because adenosine, which is contained in coffee, is similar chemically to some stuff in the DNA and all, that maybe there's like some kind of connection.  The genius researcher at the USFS notes something similar about trees:
“Imagine if you were trying to look at the effect of trees growing on someone's health and I got 100 people,” he said. “I put them in 100 identical houses, and I planted trees in front of 50 of those houses and then waited. It would take 40 or 50 years before you found anything because trees grow really slowly.”
Maybe there's something in the dyes they use in the camouflage uniforms that cause young people to engage in risky behaviors.  Maybe there's some kind of adrenalin trigger in that dye that messes up their brains and causes them to ingest lead in unsafe amounts.

What I like about all three of these observations is that not a one could be explained more simply and effectively by environmental factors.  It can't be that the trees and the people are weakened by the same thing and then killed by secondary factors, or that people drink coffee because they've got stuff to do and need to stay stimulated, and those people don't usually get Alzheimers.  Or that people wearing camouflage clothing get shot because the camouflage isn't as effective as it needs to be.

Monday, June 10, 2013

They can have my phone when they pry it from my cold dead hands

Actually, just kidding about the "cold dead hands" part, because I rarely use my phone.  The NSA knows by now (I'm a Verizon customer) that my phone only calls out.  I'm sure Verizon could tell them a lot more about me than the NSA could ever discover on its own, though. 

Herewith a couple of links to help get our minds around this revelation from Edward Snowden, that the NSA has been tracking call metadata and likely a ton of other stuff.

Pinto Logic

I've had a couple of head injuries over the course of my lifetime.  Who hasn't?  As the author of this piece in Bicycling magazine puts it, in the old days you'd take a couple of days off because of dizziness, pop some aspirin and drink some ginger ale for the nausea.  There's a lot of research going into preventing concussions these days, though, and I highly recommend the piece if you or someone you love uses helmets. 

About a third of the way through though comes this stunning passage demonstrating just how safe we are from the whims of unelected, unaccountable government bureaucrats who've never worked in the private sector:

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Looking over your shoulder

Mr. Pierce's post about the Verizon-NSA collaboration makes some interesting points, but I'd like to bring up a couple more.  I'd have left this as a comment but someone mentioned something a while ago about how my comments often look more like blog posts, so here we are.

First, I think the Verizon-NSA collaboration is nowhere as interesting as the AT&T-NSA collaboration, which had far more musicality and really changed the genre.  I just think AT&T is cuter, too, and there's much more of a summertime feel to the joint, whereas the Verizon-NSA thing is pretty contrived, like Bruno Mars working with JLo.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Show of hands

OK, who here thinks the private sector is a ruthless arbiter of efficiency and that the civil service gets away with levels of ineptitude and incivility that would make Jack Welch and his acolytes cry?  Show your hands. 

No, Mr. Cruz, your hands

Thanks.  I want you to keep your hands up.

Now, of those people who think the private sector is all about efficiency, that there's feedback loops built into modern financial capitalism that ensure firms never go too far astray from the right way of doing things, that business is self-correcting whereas government is not: how many of you have ever worked in business?  Election campaigns don't count as businesses.  No, sorry, lobbying shops don't count as businesses either.  If you've never accepted government money, you can keep your hands up.

You want me to be more precise?

OK: How many of you have worked in a company that wasn't dependent in some way on public-sector largesse to make the business model work, whether it was in the university system (even "private" universities, as we know, are dependent on the government), or government lobbying - oops I mean think tanks, or some kind of election consulting?  Or I guess even legal work counts, because if you're suing the government you're still dependent on it.

Why am I asking?  Because I'm curious, based on the day I just had, how many of you anti-government people have any actual business experience, have ever actually worked inside a company for money trying to make something happen.

No, your dad's company doesn't count.

Please keep your hands up.

Alright that's what I thought. 

Monday, June 03, 2013


I don't plan on reading Mitch Joel's book, even though some smart people I know have recommended it.  You may never have heard of him, but he's considered something of a visionary.  I don't plan on reading the Jared Cohen/Eric Schmidt book either, about how important it is for the future of the species that everyone get online, as much as possible, and use a certain search engine, because peace.