Friday, January 04, 2002

In the bad old days of the Soviet Union, the state maintained tight control over the dissemination of information, to try to make sure the source of any information could be traced. Aren't you glad the United States doesn't have schemes like that?

Well, except for color Xerox machines, which stealthily encode their serial numbers onto copies (using proprietary stego tricks which allow the number to be recovered from even a small portion of the copy). In 1999, they were handling requests to recover serial numbers from copies at a rate of about "a couple a week". When some government agencies are asking, they require a court order. When other government agencies are asking, they don't.

And except for CD burners, which likewise stamp serial numbers (technically RID codes, for "Recorder ID") onto every CD blank they record on.

John Gilmore is ticked off that the United States is using trade sanctions to try to force this sort of thing on the Ukraine. I'm a litle more ticked off to be stuck with it here in the States...

A little more on guns. Anrew Olmsted doubts that the American armed forces, as presently constituted, would ever take part in my worst-case scenarios. Well, sure. The American military, as presently constituted, is not about to do a Hama job on any American city.

But I wasn't dealing with the claim that an armed citizenry could resist the American armed forces, as presently constituted. The claim was that an armed citizenry could repel "tyranny" which, if it means anything at all, means an army whose attitudes towards civilians are more like the Syrian army's than the current American model's. And if in America, then with American weapons, technology, and techniques.

As to whether it could ever happen here --- sure it could. Rome went from a functioning republic to the Praetorian Guards auctioning the throne. It took a few hundred years, but it happened. The real question is, how thin is the ice. Right now, I personally think it's pretty safe --- but it might be thinner than it looks. What bugs me is recent history like Operation Northwoods, which I mentioned earlier, in which the Joint Chiefs of Staff were seriously tossing around the idea of staging terrorist incidents themselves in America, and blaming them on Cuba, as a pretext for starting a war. Tactics like that, coupled with factionalism and demagoguery, could create genuinely ugly domestic situation, given enough time. It would still take a while to get to a real dystopia --- certainly years, probably decades, but not, I think, a lifetime.

Meanwhile, over at Libertarian Samizdata, Walter responds to my observations that

... the state is involved in sales of private cars in the United States; individual states maintain registries of who owns what vehicle. That's what the funny metal plates with the numbers on them are all about. ...

Even if you've already purchased a vehicle, the state will deny you the use of that vehicle --- your own lawfully acquired property --- for trifles like a few drunk driving arrests. And, as Walter seemed to acknowledge, most of them won't let you drive unless you buy insurance, interfering with another private choice.

by saying that those regulations don't really interfere with the purchase of cars:

The state places many regulations on the use of your property after you buy it. It does not stop you from acquiring it nor does it specify from whom you can buy it or to whom you can sell it. In most states the local government is more concerned with collecting sales tax on the transaction than on who was involved in the deal.

Well, surprise, surprise. If Walter actually read what he quoted, then he doesn't feel that having the state maintain a registry of who owns what property is undue interference with private transactions or ownership.

But establishment of a permanent registry of gun ownership, particularly one which (like the auto registry) the police can readily access, is one of the gun control proposals that sends the NRA crowd into apoplectic fits. Mention it to some of them, and you won't be able to finish the sentence before they're yelling back, "Prelude to confiscation!". Couple that with Walter's explicit expressions of support for regulations on the conditions of gun use, and you would almost think that he's in favor of moderate gun control.

Also, in reply to my observation that

If Britain were just trying to maintain control and damn the consequences, they (Irish Republicians) would all have been rounded up and shot, along with any other Catholic who showed a hint of sympathy for the cause. There's a ready stock of Protestant militants to serve as informers and triggermen

he replies that

Yup. You have some definite sectarian violence there. But what if the weapons are scattered across ethnic, racial, religious and economic lines and you can't get one group to turn on the other?

Ginger Stampley has done a sanity check on the IRA analogy, which I recommend. But indeed, if there are no ethnic or political rivalries around strong enough to inspire violence, then it's harder to play divide and rule. Thanks for reminding me that that just never happens here in the United States. I almost forgot I was living in such a paradise.

Thursday, January 03, 2002

So, Andrew Hofer has noticed that his phone company, Verizon, doesn't seem to give a damn about its customers, since it knows they don't have a choice about most of its services. The problems he's having are hardly unique; other customers of the same service (Verizon home DSL) are trying to sue.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the local phone monopolist has announced that they will be "sharing" customer records, including calling records, with their subsidiaries and commercial partners. Customers can opt out of some of this (though it's not clear how much), if they can get to the web server, or toll-free number, which provides the service.

This is, of course, several years into a telecom deregulation regime which was supposed to save consumers from this sort of thing by offering them choices among local telephone services, and making them compete to provide the best value.

So, we basically let the lobbyists for the telecom companies write the legislation which governs their industry, so long as they promised competition which would benefit the consumer. Instead, we find the bill precipitates wave after wave of consolidation, leaving consumers subject to the whims of unregulated monopolies which indulge in predatory practices that old Ma Bell would never have dreamed of.

Which would have been no surprise to the crusty old sage who wrote few hundred years ago that

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

But I guess he was rather suspicious of businessmen generally...

It's been a while since I blogged some flat-out lunacy. Here's something:

I don't believe that I'm the only person in the world who derived sexual gratification from watching two of America's tallest buildings destroyed, but I do believe that I'm one of the few people with the courage to admit this in public. As an artist, I have an obligation to capture my feelings as accurately as possible. What I'm feeling may make me a monster, but I don't believe I'm alone in being a monster.

Well, that's just what makes you special.

Via Plastic.

So, I point out that the arsenals of the folks at Waco and Ruby Ridge didn't do a hell of a lot to protect their civil rights, and Perry replies that:

It is rather like saying if people didn't have valuable stuff worth stealing, they would not have to worry about being robbed.

Well, let's say you've got some valuable stuff. (Civil rights are valuable, no?) And let's say that you protect that valuable stuff with a few motion detectors wired up to some blasting caps and a little C4. And let's say that someone breaks in, and the blast blows up your stuff, your wife gets caught in the blast as well.

It's no defense of the burglars to point out that your strategy for protecting your stuff was kinda dumb.

Which is what I think of people who try to protect their civil rights with guns. Any actual use of the guns against government authority turns into a firefight which, even Perry acknowledges, you basically can't win:

Certainly the US security apparatus is more than capable of picking off groups like the Branch Davidians or Randy Weaver if it is thus inclined, no argument there.

He goes on:

Of course I would argue that looking at those incidents is rather incomplete unless you look at all the consequences, namely Oklahoma. One does not have to agree with or admire Tim McVeigh to see that the action he took in response to those events does seem to have raised awareness amongst the jackboot tendency in all governments that there can be costs to the application of tyranny beyond immediate calculation. If a few more Waco's were to happen, I have no doubt more Oklahoma's would have followed.

That is, if the government apparatus runs amok on heavily armed misfits in Idaho and Texas, other heavily armed misfits will even up the equation by blowing up a few hundred people who had nothing to do with it in Oklahoma. That will raise the consciousness of those in power who are otherwise susceptible to some sort of "jackboot tendancy", and make them more sensitive to the particular concerns of heavily armed misfits everywhere. So while not expressing support for McVeigh in any way, Perry feels it is important to recognize that he wasn't just a fruitcake who seized on the outrage du jour as an excuse to blow things up, but rather an important part of the salutary and healthful process by which a free society regulates itself and governments are kept from getting out of hand.

And Ted Kaczynski was just part of the process by which society shields itself from rushing heedlessly into the adoption of dangerous new technologies. Man, we couldn't get along without him.

A few other notes.

About Northern Ireland: Perry describes the Republicans there as "a minority within a minority". If Britain were just trying to maintain control and damn the consequences, they would all have been rounded up and shot, along with any other Catholic who showed a hint of sympathy for the cause. There's a ready stock of Protestant militants to serve as informers and triggermen, and I'm sure they could have gotten some tips from Hafez al-Assad on which parts of Belfast to turn into Hama North for maximum effect. That's what tyrants do. That's their thing. Assad stayed in power till he died of old age, having put down more than one well-armed insurgency in the meantime. His tactics work. When they're adopted by the British, they'll be relevant to the argument.

Finally, Perry thinks that in a civilian resistance to a full general tyranny, some of the military's own ammo would wind up in the hands of the insurgents. That depends on the Army, of course, and on what they've been told about the resistance. Still, in a countrywide lockdown, (as opposed to an attack on an isolated and doomed pocket of resistance, which is what I had in mind), that could happen --- in which case, the Army boys who are supplying the bullets could certainly toss a few guns over the fence as well. Take care of the bullets, and the guns will take care of themselves. So, why all the fuss about what Chuck Schumer might do in the meantime?

Wednesday, January 02, 2002

Libertarian Samizdata is getting a lot of praise. Yet, every time I read it, I keep tripping over stuff. Take the recent spate of gun control articles. (Yes, please. But it's a topic they've addressed at length, so at least it gives a good view of their thinking).

The argument that they're consistently making is that, the civilian population needs unfettered access to guns in order to have them as, I guess, the ultima ratio plebes or something --- as a final check against the imposition of government "tyranny". Quoth Perry de Havilland:

I support private ownership of arms because I do not actually think the state can ever be a reliable guarantor of my intrinsic rights.

But in the world I'm living in, they don't even seem to be much good with rogue cops.

Take, for example, Waco and Ruby Ridge. Both of them show American law enforcement at its absolute bloody worst, actually killing civilians; I would have liked to see some of the officers involved in these fiascoes go up on manslaughter charges at least. The victims in these cases had significant arsenals which proved, in the end, to do them no good at all. The reverse, if anything, at Waco at least; the Feds were at least nominally there to arrest the folks they wound up killing on weapons charges --- if not for the guns, the Feds would never have showed up in the first place.

Or, let's look at local law enforcement --- say the Rampart scandal at the LAPD. The community they were operating in was heavily armed --- more heavily, in fact, than a lot of the residents would have liked. But even if there had been people standing on the streetcorners in Santa suits, giving out firearms to all and sundry to make sure that everyone had a gun, it wouldn't have improved the behavior of the police. What eventually brought at least this crowd of badged goons in check, and freed about a hundred people who had been convicted on bogus evidence, was publicity and prosecution, not necessarily in that order.

Of course, I'm not arguing here that the answer to homicidal loons in the ATF is unilateral civilian disarmament. There are plenty of good reasons for responsible civilians to have access to firearms --- self-defense, hunting for food, just plain sport. What I'm arguing against is the Samizdata crowd's faith in gun ownership as a way for people to defend their other civil rights. When used for that purpose, the damn things just don't seem to work.

What makes the Samizdata claims here even harder to swallow is that they're talking about loosely organized civilian irregulars repelling not just squads of rogue cops, but the combined United States military forces --- the most fearsome military machine that has ever existed on the planet --- on its own home ground. That may have made sense 200 years ago, when it's how we kicked out the British. (Oh wait, it's not. Never mind). But that was then; this is now.

So here's the deal. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have gone nuts, thrown some Operation Northwoods style party, and declared martial law. (Tyranny ain't just a tweak to the capital gains tax). Samizdata stands for the proposition that civilian irregulars with souped-up hunting rifles, and maybe Jacques Littlefield's collection of museum quality armored vehicles, could hold them off for long enough to make a real difference.

Forget the guns. Where are these guys getting the bullets? Sustained combat operations of any kind chew up ammo at a ferocious pace, and current American combat doctrine seems to begin with the interdiction of supply lines, disruption of communication channels, and destruction of stores. Camouflage can delay this a bit, but the activity around these sites is more than likely to give them away eventually. Any industrial-scale production is likely to glow like a beacon on IR. And it's difficult to deny the United States Air Force air superiority over East Texas.

Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden paid serious money for answers to questions like these. It doesn't seem to have done them much good. Iraq's formerly well-respected army was a laughingstock after the Gulf War; American forces blew past his Republican Guard like they weren't even there.

So, when it comes to armed civilian irregulars holding off the US Army, I'm skeptical enough that I'd like to see a little evidence. Here's what they've got. In response to Brian Linse's demurral that:

Somehow I don't think that 30 round magazines and SP-89's illegally converted to full-auto would be much use against laser guided bunker busters and smart bombs.

Perry replies

I suspect the US Rangers who died in Somalia might have disagreed. You seem to think that some future tyranny in the US would find dealing with armed resistance by sections of US society rather like fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. I think Somalia and Vietnam and Northern Ireland and Algeria would be better analogies.

The best of these examples is Vietnam --- a war fought thirty years ago, before widespread use of the weapons Brian mentioned, against an enemy with superpower sponsorship. American problems there weren't all military in any case; those problems were compounded by sloppy political thinking, and thoughtlessly chosen goals. Since Vietnam, American military strategy, weapons, and tactics have all changed immensely, and the lessons learned from the failure there largely underlie the more recent success in Afghanistan.

As for the current examples, Perry seems to place great stock in the Somali fiasco. But even though they were facing a Ranger force with no support from aerial bombardment or armor (which the Rangers had requested and been denied), the Somalis managed 18 Ranger deaths at the cost of 500 of their own --- hardly a sustainable ratio. If the Rangers had full equipment and different rules of engagement, ones which didn't embody the peculiar American fetish of avoiding civilian deaths (something tyrants don't much care about), the Somalis would have been wiped out. The only conclusion you can really draw from the result in Somalia is that the United States didn't think it was worth committing serious resources to a fight in which it had nothing tangible at stake --- which itself may have been a mistake, but it says nothing about what happens when the American military actually wants to fight.

And from there, the comparisons get even sillier. Take Algeria, where Islamic fundamentalists are trying to mount a rebellion against a secular government (perhaps tacitly backed by the awesome might of its ally and patron, the French). It's difficult for an outsider to assess this situation precisely, due in part to persistent rumors that the government has the bad habit of massacring civilians itself and blaming the militants. Regardless, the rebels haven't come close to displacing the government, and by most accounts, they've been beaten to a bloody pulp trying.

Which leaves Northern Ireland. I'm not sure which collection of homicidal maniacs Perry has cast as the freedom fighters here, or what he thinks they've achieved, but I don't think the upshot there was fully protective of anybody's civil rights.

It doesn't get any better when they're discussing the oppressive realities of gun control. I was struck by this riff from Walter Uhlmann:

Should the state be involved when you sell the neighbor your old car? Should you have to call up the DMV and obtain his driving record, then verify he has valid auto insurance and get him to take a breathalyzer before you trade keys for cash?

But the state is involved in sales of private cars in the United States; individual states maintain registries of who owns what vehicle. That's what the funny metal plates with the numbers on them are all about. They also generally demand annual inspections, and will deny the use of a car even to that car's lawful owner if they don't like the smell of burning oil coming out of the tailpipe.

As to the breathalyzers, that's not tied to purchases, but the sad facts there are even worse. Even if you've already purchased a vehicle, the state will deny you the use of that vehicle --- your own lawfully acquired property --- for trifles like a few drunk driving arrests. And, as Walter seemed to acknowledge, most of them won't let you drive unless you buy insurance, interfering with another private choice. Imagine.

And even that doesn't plumb the full depth of the horror that is life in modern America. Because a lot of us here think this is all a good idea. That it reasonably balances the rights and interests of everyone involved, including the victims of the next smashup by some habitual drunk. That it doesn't unduly inconvenience anyone who hasn't done a lot to deserve it. And given all that, some of us don't see the problem with dealing with guns the same way.

(By the way, I agree with the Samizdata folks that that's not fundamentally a legal question. Regarding guns at any rate, I'll leave the law to the courts, which, for the moment at least, have smiled upon gun control regimes a great deal more restrictive than the one I've outlined here. If that confuses anyone, transplant the question to Britain, where Constitutional questions, in the American sense, don't arise. If they allowed free ownership of registered guns, and allowed carry permits contingent on safety training and a clean criminal record, that would be a substantial loosening of current British law --- but for some folks on the net, it wouldn't go nearly far enough. Why not? Why would that scheme be a bad idea for them?)

I hope it's obvious to anyone who read this far that I don't have a limitless faith in any part of the American legal system --- not the Congress, not the courts, not the lawyers, and certainly not law enforcement. These are hardly foolproof tools for guarding anyone's civil rights. Neither is civil disobedience, public protest, or lobbying. Over the past hundred years, they've all had conspicuous failures. But they've had numerous successes as well, in America, in getting laws overturned and grievances redressed. Jim Crow is gone. Lynching is a thing of the past. Women and blacks can vote. Free speech protections are much stronger than at the turn of the last century. All of that came through civil disobedience, protest, lawsuits, and petitions to Congress. How much has been achieved in America, over the same stretch of time, by armed resistance?

Of course, the tools only work if you use them. Sometimes, not even then. If you're an American cheesed off at the state of our truly deplorable civil forfeiture laws, a letter to Congress or a check to the ACLU won't get rid of them --- but they're more likely to do something towards that end than burying a gun on public grassland.

Tuesday, January 01, 2002

Scenes from a New Year's Eve:

Boston Common

It's early in the evening, the "Family Fireworks" show. In the middle of a crowd in a public park, technicians are launching rockets tipped with explosives. Not just the standard flares --- some of them gyrate wildly, and must be going over the heads of the spectators. Thick smoke is blowing around the kinetic art and the ice sculptures; the whole place smells like gunpowder. On my way somewhere else, I pause for a minute to look at the show. I'm thinking, could there be a more perfect setup for a terrorist? The crowd loves it.

The Orpheum Theater

The Boston Symphony Orchestra debuted here in 1881. Now, it's a magnificent, waning relic --- marble columns and railings in the lobbies, an immense fading mural above the stage, lovely cast iron banisters obscured in places by gratuitous sheetrock, and intricate plasterwork all over which seems, in places, to have fallen off the walls. But every time I come here, it looks a little better. Either someone is restoring the place in slow motion, or I'm just getting used to it.

The band is Hybrasil, playing Irish-flavored rock, with Dana Colley from Morphine sitting in on sax. Christian McNeil is singing. Maybe it's an elegy to his last band, Schtum.

We could be replaced
All this place replaced
Someone flips a switch
Someone drops a stitch
All this could be replaced

St. Paul's Cathedral

There's a recital of traditional Chinese music here, on lute, flute, strings, percussion, and a kind of hand-held miniature pipe organ the likes of which I've never seen before. The men are in suits, looking slightly awkward; the women, in something more like traditional Chinese dresses, look a lot more comfortable. They cover a lot of ground, from folk tunes to what's described as the "popcorn music" that's played before a Chinese opera performance. (The popcorn itself translates into Chinese as dried plums). They're magnificent. They get a standing ovation.

The performance is in the chapel, where Christmas decorations are still up --- there's a small creche in the corner, and pine garlands hanging from the ceiling. When coming and going from the stage, the singer, who is announcing the music, steps around the creche and the pulpit.

Welcome to America.

Monday, December 31, 2001

A guy named Carl Schwartz found some psychological records, unshredded, in a trash can, and had a reporter write a story about it. Steven den Beste thinks that there had to be a more discreet way to properly handle the story. Me, I'm not so sure.

There's the same problem in computer security --- a lot of software is released with holes in it. The vendors would always like those holes to be handled "discreetly", with private notice to the vendor, and no specific public notice of the bug until a fix is available, if then. The problem with doing that, though, is that there are vendors who, absent pressure from customers who are affected by the bug but don't know about it, wouldn't do much about it. An industry clearinghouse which was set up to administer this sort of policy wound up sitting on reports of serious problems for literally years.

The response was the "full disclosure" movement --- people set up mailing lists to host detailed technical descriptions of bugs, and even code to exploit the bugs, without giving notice to the vendor, with the general idea of shaming the vendors into fixing it promptly. And of course, the crackers get to play with the bug in the meantime, if they didn't already know about it --- which gets people upset, and not just the vendors. And lately, the pendulum has started to swing slightly the other way --- towards giving vendors notice and a decent interval to prepare a fix, and away from distribution of canned exploits. Still, I think most security professionals would agree with Bruce Schneier's take on the issue, that on balance, it's done more good than ill, because without it, a lot of real problems, well known in the cracker underground, would simply never get fixed.

Maybe it's my blinkered view, but I see this as the same thing in meatspace. Hospitals and HMOs do sometimes mishandle confidential information. I remember hearing a practicing doctor complain that, in her experience in some of the local hospitals, anyone wearing a white coat could start typing and access just about anything without being questioned. It seems she was overly cautious --- you don't even need the white coat. Overburdened administrators don't always take these issues seriously. But public exposure seems to concentrate their attention wonderfully, as it did here a few years ago; when the Boston Globe wrote a few stories about sloppy handling of psychiatric records at a local HMO, they dealt with it in a hurry. (The same article discusses this case briefly towards the end).

In Mr. Schwartz's case, the newspaper story, while it clearly described the risks to patient privacy, did nothing itself to compromise the privacy of any patient --- beyond saying that the records involved were psychiatric, it doesn't even say what they were being treated for, let alone name names. And if patient privacy is an issue, then surely the patients themselves have a right to know their privacy is at risk of being compromised.

What the story did do is name the fourth-year student who removed psychiatric records without authorization, and then left them in full view in a gas station trash can. And if he gets publicly hung out to dry pour encourager les autres, that strikes me personally as an entirely desirable result.

Sunday, December 30, 2001

Remember that bombed convoy, which Afghan civilians claimed was carrying clan leaders to Karzai's inauguration, even though the US armed forces insisted they had intelligence saying that there was al-Qaeda leadership in the convoy? Well, maybe they were both right. The intelligence may have come from enemies of the clan that was attacked, who had figured out that "al-Qaeda" was the magic word that would let them tell the U.S. Air Force where to bomb...
Ad peeve du jour:

Shots of Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George intercut with a fat guy in an Eddie George tee shirt. George pensively strides out of the locker room. Doughboy huffs and puffs his way out of his bedroom. George tapes up an injured finger. Doughboy, concentrating intently, tapes up his teevee remote. George dashes forward protecting the ball, evading vicious attacks from onrushing linebackers. Doughboy dashes out of the kitchen carrying his nachos, and manages to avoid spilling them all as he squeezes past his mom. George scores, and the crowd pats Doughboy on the back.

The tagline: "NFL --- this is why we watch". Which is how you can tell it's not a PSA from the Get-A-Life foundation, meant to contrast people who put their asses on the line for something with people who dream about it while their asses are parked on the couch.