Thursday, April 19, 2007

First in a Series


Well, now it is official: all a disaffected youth needs to do to get his face all over the television 24/7 is to mail a crappy home-made video to NBC and go shoot some people. Anheuser-Busch pays umpteen squidzillion bucks for three or four minutes during the SuperBowl and they don't get nearly the traction that the Virginia Tech shooter got for $3.99 worth of video tape and a hundred dollars worth of 9mm ammo.

I suppose it is too much to ask for the media to show any restraint in giving mass murderers the attention they crave but perhaps the could publish a rate sheet stating exactly how many people you have to kill to get saturation news coverage. It would be a pity if all the copycat killers thought they needed thirty-two victims each if they could get the job done with, say, twelve.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Private Life as a Rude Itch

I plan to attend a forum this weekend at The University of North Carolina. The Security and Liberty Forum is hosted by the ACLU and the UNC Computer Science Department. It is sponsored by various departments on the university and the speaker list includes politicians, second-tier management of government agencies (homeland security, etc.) and various "experts."

If you click the link above to visit the page announcing the forum you will find a a portrait of Ben Franklin at the top with one of his most famous quotes.
franklin"Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." [Pennsylvania Assembly: Reply to the Governor, November 11, 1755.—The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Leonard W. Labaree, vol. 6, p. 242 (1963).]

What struck me about the description of the forum is that, if you discount the title of the forum, the Franklin quote and the word "Liberty" in the name of organizations participating (ALCU etc.), the agenda scarcely features any discussion of "Liberty" as such. The topics of discussion all concern themselves with "Privacy" instead.

This set me to wondering if the linkage between privacy and liberty is really so strong that the learned panelists don't see the need to show the linkage, or is the Liberty/Privacy thing a bit of stage magic where we are not supposed to notice that the swap has been made? If you look up the word "liberty" its primary definitions all boil down to a state of being able to do pretty much what you want, within the limits of your abilities, without arbitrary restraint imposed by other people. It is not immediately clear how being watched while doing whatever it is you have decided to do will, in and of itself, impair your ability to do it.

This is not to say that, as a practical matter, there are no tensions between liberty and the coming surveillance state. In his excellent article for Reason Magazine, The Pinpoint Search, Julian Sanchez looks at these tensions. Here is a telling passage in which he talks about how our excessively regulated society makes petty criminals of us all:
In a nation whose reams of regulations make almost everyone guilty of some violation at some point, Americans have grown accustomed to getting away with minor transgressions: the occasional joint or downloaded movie or high-speed dash to the airport. For at least some crimes, though, the expectation that our peccadilloes will slip through the cracks may soon be outdated. The new style of noninvasive but deeply revealing detection—call them “pinpoint searches”—will require rapid adjustments in both legal rules and social mores.
Sanchez opens with a story of a man who was stopped for a traffic violation and subsequently arrested when a drug-sniffing dog became interested in the almost 300 lbs of marijuana in his trunk. He subsequently claimed, unsuccessfully, that letting the dog sniff his car was an illegal search without reasonable cause. I must confess to being a bit put off that Sanchez had started out that way since his choice of example sets one tone for the mostly-libertarian readership of Reason, but quite another tone for the general public. But reading on a bit I found the article far more balanced and better reasoned than I had feared based on how it started. In particular, he gave fair play to the idea that the problem can be addressed by changing the regulatory environment rather than by criminalizing information gathering.

In point of fact we do all have a rational interest in having the government collect information about bad people who mean to do us harm. And, since bad people do not identify themselves as such ahead of time, the only way to get that information is to gather information about everybody and use the information so gathered to sort them out. Admittedly, there will be times when limited information will draw suspicion to innocent people but the solution to that problem is usually more information. A case in point would be a family friend named Bob who got into the sport of shooting trap and skeet. To save money he reloaded his own shotgun shells and in the process he bought hundreds of pounds of black powder over the course of a year. The FBI was curious about this and they visited Bob and some of his neighbors to ask about it. Bob is a nice guy and I am sure that he and the FBI agents had a nice visit. I am also sure that Bob's name went onto a list somewhere and that if any of the local landmarks had been blown up using black powder Bob could have looked forward to another visit.

I guess this makes me an odd sort of a libertarian. I just can't muster to requisite paranoia about the authorities who, for the most part, just seem like ordinary schlubs trying to do a job. I don't like to drive by a cop with a radar gun but I do understand that this is the price I pay for the satisfaction I get when I see that the cop has pulled over that BMW that sat two inches from my rear bumper flashing his lights and blowing his horn while I was trying to pass a truck. I think the law should try to stay out of the way of ordinary people doing ordinary things -- the 55 mile per hour speed limit was an abomination that did more to undermine the respect for the rule of law in this country than anything else I can easily think of -- but it is silly to have the laws but to deny the government the information needed to enforce them.

It should be remembered that most people aren't particularly libertarian. The capital-L Libertarians like to think most people agree; they have a questionnaire that shows that most people will agree with libertarian principles as long as they are stated abstractly, but if you start showing people a list of laws that are repugnant to libertarians they will also tend to support the laws. Still, for some reason the notion that privacy and liberty are somehow strongly linked seems to have considerable appeal. My theory is that people know they are supposed to like freedom and they know they don't like to be watched in their private lives so they find it convenient to think of the one as a rationale for the other. It's a bit like having an itch in a body part your mom told you you mustn't touch in public. As long as you think someone is watching you you are not at liberty to scratch it.

Friday, April 06, 2007

April Fools


I have to admit that my attempt at an April Fools joke fell a bit flat. My idea was that with so much of the chattering class, and so many "beautiful" people, buying into the notion that "questioning the science behind global warming is like denying the Holocaust" it would be very unlikely that anyone would commit to filming Crichton's controversial book, especially while Crichton is around to make sure his message is not inverted in filming. So unlikely, in fact, that people would click the link I provided (which would take them the the IMDB page for "The April Fools.")

I met a Holocaust denier once. Funny how much that sounds like saying that I met serial killer Ted Bundy*. The Holocaust denier was a historian whose research had led him to believe that the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust was properly about one million instead of the officially recognized six million. I really, really don't want to get into a discussion of his math here but my point is that his argument with the orthodoxy was a matter of degree not a matter of kind. But, because of the in-for-a-penny - in-for-a-pound, zero-tolerance popular view of the Holocaust he was generally lumped in with the idiots who claim that the Holocaust just a Zionist fantasy that never happened. Still, his version of Holocaust denial was the "Lite" version -- saying that Hitler was only responsible for the murder of one million innocents, instead of six, is not the same as letting Hitler off the hook altogether.

Similarly, Crichton's Gobal Warming Denial is also the Lite version. He doesn't deny, for instance, that it is happening, or that it is to some extent the result of human activity, or even that some of it might be caused by the man-made rise in CO2 levels. But he does suggest that much of the current alarm about it is based more on politics than on science and that, because of the politicalization if the issue, ad hominem attacks have replaced scientific debate, making it more difficult to evaluate the problem and place it sensibly in our priorities for managing the environment. Crichton's book targets not so much the science of Global Warming as Global Warming as a religion. And, since the movers-and-shakers in Hollywood are mostly "true believers" it strikes me as unlikely that the book will become a film any time soon, given its incurably heretical nature.

* It is likely that I met Ted Bundy at some point but I don't remember him. A good friend lived in the same boarding house in Tallahassee at the same time as Bundy did. It is likely that I saw Bundy in the hall of "The Oaks" while I was visiting my friend. I do remember Margaret Bowman slightly. She was one of Bundy's victims who, coincidentally, went to my parent's church in St. Petersburg.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Tit for Tat

According to the British newspaper, the Independent, the Iranian kidnapping of the British sailors was the result of a "botched" US raid in which five Iranian "officials" were captured in the Kurdish town of Irbil in Iraq.

The Independent claims that the US "botched" the raid because the US was hoping to capture two more senior Iranian officials who where traveling in Iraq on official business. The Independent then goes into some detail about the itineraries of the Iranians that the US raid did not capture, who met with the President of Iraq and with the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, and who, because of those meetings, could be thought of as having quasi-diplomatic status.

Thus the US raid which captured five Iranian intelligence operatives operating in Iraq becomes, as the Independent tells it, a botched attempt to snatch Iranian diplomats -- another Bush outrage to which the poor, misunderstood Iranians are only responding.

Hmmmmm. Could be, I suppose. Maybe we were trying to be wicked but messed up, doing something prudent and sensible instead. But even then we shouldn't let Iran off the hook. I mean, how do we know that they weren't operating on bad intelligence, too...


Sunday, April 01, 2007

Crichton's State of Fear in Production


Update: This posting was an April Fools Joke that seems to have been a bit more subtle than I intended. My notion was that people would be intrigued and would follow the link at the bottom for more information. As far as I can tell, nobody has followed the link to the IMDB entry for the film "April Fools". To be clear, as far as I know there is no interest in making Crichton's excellent novel into a movie. Here is my follow-up posting about my failed attempt at humor.

Feature Film Forward Magazine is reporting that shooting has started on Michael Crichton's latest film thriller, State of Fear.
Sam Neil is playing the lead in the film version of Crichton's controversial novel which questions the science behind predictions of a Global Warming catastrophy. Neil is no stranger to the works of Michael Crichton, having appeared in Jurassic Park I and III. The new role of scientist John Kenner in State of Fear is markedly similar to Dr Alan Grant, who Neil played in the Jurassic Park features. Neil will be supported by William H Macy as Peter Evans and by Crichton himself, who is stepping out of his usual writer/producer role to actually appear as a character in one of his films. Crichton will be playing the role of philanthropist George Morton.
I must confess myself to be surprized that this film is actually getting made. Despite Crichton's unequalled track record of one hit movie after another I had thought that Crichton's heretical position on global warming would prevent him from finding backing for the project. But I guess Hollywood is more open to real controversy than I had thought. Go figure. And, oh yes... Read the whole thing.