Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Going Gaga for Google

The word of the day: commandeer.

Some sentences using the word of the day: The dictator commandeers the airwaves. The pirate commandeers the gold shipment. During the national emergency, the authorities commandeered private buses to aid in evacuation. Admiral James T. Kirk commandeers a self-cloaking Klingon Warship and flies it to the Seventies. The Bush administration’s Department of Justice commandeers Google.

The word of the day tells you everything you need to know about what’s wrong with Department of Justice’s subpoena of Google records pertaining to pornographic searches. It isn’t about privacy; it’s about piracy. Where’s the emergency that justifies the commandeering of a company’s one service? Where’s the legislation that permits it? Since when did the United States become a dictatorship whose administration can commandeer any business at will?

Where does government commandeering come from? Exactly where I have told you it comes from, in this very column, before. It comes from fear and cowardice. I said as much in a column for October 17, 2002, at which time I said I thought I was onto a grand unifying principle of the workings of the universe, possibly involving vinyl. I didn’t say so at the time, but I had in mind vinyl automobile seating, rather than recording media. But I will not rule out recording media as a factor in the grand unifying principle.

Let me recall the principle. The principle is that reacting from fear, rather than reason, just gets you more stuff to be afraid of. So, generally, whenever the public is afraid of some so-called threat, even a threat that is non-emergent, that’s been around since the beginning of time, and didn’t just land on our doorsteps today, the public can be induced to look the other way when the government orders everybody but its own employees to do something about it, resulting in illegality.

I illustrated the problem with a practice I learned about in my cab-driving days. When the police in Seattle want to break up a domestic violence situation, they often commandeer cabs and order the drivers to kidnap one of the parties. They don’t call it kidnapping, they call it telling the driver to take them where they (the police) say to take them, but you know it’s kidnapping when the party in question says, “I don’t want to go where the police say I should go, I want to go to the Seven-Eleven, and if you don’t take me there I’m jumping out of this cab while it’s moving and getting a lawyer and suing you from here to Jankistan.”

So far as I know this practice is still going on. No legislature ever authorized it. No cab driver has ever been deputized to do the police’s business and take people places against their will. The police never offer to even pay for the commandeering of the cab drivers’ services, the kidnap-ees are supposed to pay to be kidnapped! The practice isn’t enforced with court orders; it’s enforced with physical intimidation. Or, as in my case, with actual police violence, following a “failure of communication.”

Which is what we have in this instance, with Google. The government demands they turn over their records of searches. Now, farmers farm dirt. Bus companies bus people and luggage. Mercenaries deal in hurt and death, anything but mercy. Search engines store and move information. And here it comes to pass that the Department of Justice demands that they turn such information over, at their own cost and at their own liability, without one stitch of legislation authorizing the commandeering of any company for such purposes. Communism!

Presented with demands from a government that has all the biggest guns and the world’s biggest army in history, it wouldn’t be surprising if Google caved and preferred to risk litigation from the ACLU rather than from the United States. Why not? Yahoo, Microsoft, and AOL all wimped out.

But Google didn’t. Way to go, Google!

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Ahmadinejad's Two Seconds of Clarity

Here we are on the verge of another foreign policy “oops, our bad, but that’s all right” moment. The Iraq War: “Oops, no WMDs, our bad. But that’s all right, Saddam had to go anyway, right?” The CIA's attack on a village in Pakistan: “Oops, our bad. Al-Zawahri wasn’t there. But that’s all right; the people killed included several non-Pakistanis so they must have been terrorists, right? Besides we already established in Iraq we could attack and kill anyone in any country anywhere, including thousands of innocents, whenever we thought we might eliminate one enemy, so, what the hell?”

Really, what the hell? All sorts of folks are condemning Harry Belafonte for calling Bush the world’s greatest terrorist. But all Belafonte was doing was giving credit where credit is due. Bush surely authorized the CIA attack. If any attack of that nature were conducted by a foreign power in this country, it would be called a terrorist attack, at the least. But Bush has convinced the majority of Americans that he is not a terrorist. It’s precisely that which makes him so great!

The newest “oops” moment in the making concerns Iran. Thanks to a CNN translator’s error, most Americans today probably believe that last Saturday Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that his nation has the right to build nuclear weapons, when actually what he said was that no civilized nation needs nuclear weapons.

Let’s put that in perspective. First of all, it means it must be really hard to find good translators of Farsi. That one wasn’t even close. On the other hand, since CNN was banned from Iran because of this screwup, what Farsi-English translators there are, good or not, will become more available. Snap one up now, prices will never be lower!

But what I think really needs to be appreciated is that the biggest nutcase in the Middle East, and in fact the biggest nutcase with major political influence anywhere east of Darfur and west of North Korea, said something saner than George Bush has ever said or is likely to ever say, and he won’t be believed.

And why won’t Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad be believed, you ask? Well, even though he has always been totally straight-up with his stupid “death to America” rhetoric and his extreme nutcase ideas that Israel should be moved to Auschwitz and/or downtown Berlin under permanent Polish or German management, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won’t be believed because he is a president of a country, and George Bush knows that presidents of countries can’t be believed. Why heck, that just goes without saying! Presidents are all liars!

Meanwhile, just as in 2003 the UN wanted nothing to do with an invasion of Iraq without proof of WMDs, so now, the UN will never authorize sanctions without proof of a nuclear weapons program, so...

So we are all set up for: “Oops we bombed nuclear energy-making facilities, instead of bombing bomb-making plants. Our bad. But it’s all right, because we’ve decided for them they don’t need nuclear energy anyway, and besides, they’re Islamic extremists who attack people in other countries without justification. Besides, nobody else would do it but us, so we had to act for the good of Iranians and all Mankind. Sorry ‘bout the mess and the thousands of innocent lives lost, but we did what was right.”

Questions for Further Discussion:

1. Senator McCain says the only thing worse than attacking Iran would be an Iran armed with nuclear weapons. Which would be worse: a) the United States having nuclear weapons, or b) the United States being attacked?

2. Iran is hosting a “Holocaust Conference” to study the evidence that the Holocaust never happened. Are they asking for an Israeli missile strike, or what? If the answer is “what,” try being more specific, for a minute or so. Then, give up, have a cold one, or take a couple of aspirin, or whatever you’re used to doing to re-enter reality.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

It’s the minorities, Isn’t It?

Here’s your Intermittent Science and Technology News You Can Use Catch-Up Roundup.

Our first item is news that the “Radar Scope” you ordered when you were a pubescent middle school boy will soon be available at the low low price of $1000 per unit. To be initially distributed in the spring only to our troops in Iraq, it will detect signs of unwanted enemy breathing on the other side of thick concrete walls. The hand-held devices should be ready for peeking into girls’ locker rooms as early as 2008. In the meantime expect it to be on your local police department’s Home Security 2006 Christmas Wish List. That’s News You Can Use!

Our remaining items belong to the “Social Science Marches On” category. A study of the Canadian Medical Association has concluded that giving homeless alcoholics up to 16 glasses of wine a day on an hourly basis can improve their health and behavior. In related news, alcoholics everywhere are saying, “we told you so,” and “what part of ‘self-medication’ hadn’t you understood?” Here’s a general rule to live by: when desperate people living desperate lives say they need something, they may know more about it than the comfortably ignorant.

Of course the free wine helps in part by relieving the need to waste valuable energy scrounging for wine in other ways. It also helps create a bond between the wine providers and the wine receivers, which makes the wine receivers more accepting of other services.

Not all social bonds are good, however. A sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has determined that the cell phone has brought too much social connection to modern life and is now increasingly a factor in domestic strife. Family life is being interrupted by work life; work life is being interrupted by family life. So the social bonding that helps an alcoholic accept help to get off the streets can also break up families, when there’s too much of it, and put moms and dads on the streets. We are complicated animals, aren’t we?

How complicated are we? Scientists are looking into it! Socio-evolutionary-anthropological scientists have been theorizing about the very evolution of the mechanism of social bonding that we all take for granted. How have we humans successfully evolved the means to bond outside of families, to create the friendships and comraderies that tie us one-to-another and keep us from killing each other all the time, instead of only just some of the time?

The answer is truly complicated. Nature, these researchers say, has endowed some of us with “imagination” that we use to modify our own behavior for the purpose of creating bonds. Examples of this can especially be seen at Star Trek Conventions, and among Goths, Raging Grannies, Filkers, and Canasta players. The imaginative people bond by sharing the products of their imaginations and through their enhanced facilities of suggestibility and geeking.

But the genius of social evolution is that every one of its successes creates more opportunity. As imagination evolved to bring some people together, those who lacked that advantage evolved mechanisms to compensate. Hence, the unimaginative have learned to bond together in what researchers refer to as “clumps” defined by shared boredom and the shared paraphernalia of stupidity, such as alcohol, reality TV, and designer jeans.

Further Questions and Activities.

1. List ten ways a device to see through walls could improve lives. Next, list ten ways the invention of walls has already improved lives. Combine your lists. See them negate each other.

2. Get a kitchen timer. Set it for one hour. Before it goes off make up six conclusions for future scientific sociological studies to have.

3. Here’s an experiment to try with the whole class. Use your imagination to try to bond with the student on your right. When the student on your left tries to bond with you, report him. When it’s over, who’s in detention? It’s the minorities, isn’t it?

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Today’s Lesson: Cell Spy-ology

According to our Justice Department, our government can spy on us, but we can’t spy on it.

Yesterday George W. said, “If somebody from Al Qaeda is calling you, we'd like to know why.” I expect tomorrow he’ll add, “If we don’t know someone from Al Qaeda is calling you, it’s because we didn’t spy on you enough.” Then he’ll come up with, “You may not have had a call from Al Qaeda yet, but there’s always a first time, and we’re gonna need to be there, listening in. America’s freedom is at stake.”

With excuses like that, and a little torture here and a little indefinite imprisonment without charges there, pretty soon you’ve got a real totalitarian state. Happy New Year!

Evidently, those of us who care about preserving this country’s actual freedom, and not just talking about it while destroying it, need to find creative new ways to counter the administration’s rhetoric. I say, if you can’t beat them, join them.

Let’s let them know that we understand the need for spying. We need all the information we can get about our enemies, with whom we are at war. But we also need to fight this war with good old American initiative. Just like we beat the bad fascists in WWII, so that we could be ruled by good fascists now, we need to hit the terrorists with the full might of the U.S.A. We citizens need to lock arms together and fight this war united.

That’s why all the information that the administration gets from wiretapping us needs to be made available to all Americans, so that we all will know where to go to kick Al Qaeda butt. The more of us that are in on Al Qaeda butt-kicking, the more butt-kickings are going to happen. This is America, and that’s what we do.

Bush has said, "We're at war, and as commander in chief, I've got to use the resources at my disposal, within the law, to protect the American people.” But, hey, in WWII, did we only send that old guy Roosevelt to Normandy? No! We sent everybody we had!

I’m not talking about sending people to France. That was then. This is a war of information. Bush himself has said that, too. He said, "There's an enemy out there. They read newspapers, they listen to what you write, they listen to what you put on the air, and they react."

They read newspapers! They react! We’ve got to read newspapers and react, too! You’ve got to fight fire with fire. They know where we are, and they can send suicide bombers after us. We’ve got to know where they are. So we can suicide bomb right back at them. It just stands to reason.

They’ve got no freedom. We need to have no freedom. They’ve got to hide in cells and fight independently from each other, never sure what the other cells are going to do. We have to split up into cells too. But that’s going to require information.

It’s not just something that some few patriots among us should be doing. It’s something we all have to do because it’s our duty. We all have to know who’s talking to Al Qaeda and when and why.

Let me illustrate with a potential scenario. Suppose Al Qaeda calls a pizza shop in our nation’s capital and says, “heh, heh, Pizza Hovel? Yeah, this is Al Qaeda, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C. Yeah that’s right, we’re THE Al Qaeda, Death to America, yadda, yadda, heh, heh, so we need 70 large pizzas, all with olives, mushrooms, green peppers, and anchovies. No pepperoni, no sausage. Ask for George, he’s paying.”

Our government needs to get a transcript of a call like that on the internet at once, so our loyal American cells in the D.C. area can take immediate appropriate action. And lay waste to that Al Qaeda party.