Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Category: current events (page 5 of 18)

Debate moment

There were plenty of moments that got me yelling at the TV during the second debate, but this one took the cake:

MICHAELSON: Mr. President, if there were a vacancy in the Supreme Court and you had the opportunity to fill that position today, who would you choose and why?

BUSH: I’m not telling.

(LAUGHTER)

I really don’t have — haven’t picked anybody yet. Plus, I want them all voting for me.

On reflection, it’s clear Bush means that he wants any prospective justices to vote for him in the election. But at the moment, it just reminded me of the only 9 votes that counted in the 2000 election.

Debate reaction

I wasn’t thrilled with Kerry’s performance, but he did a better job than Bush. Bush was frequently agitated and occasionally at a loss for words. Kerry, who is usually at a loss for brevity, was cool and reasonably concise. Since the value of these debates is as much in the visceral reactions that people have as in the policy points scored, Bush lost ground.

In terms of policy points, commands of facts, etc, one’s analysis almost gets reduced to a question of “who do you want to believe?”. This is, of course, ridiculous–as if there is no objective reality–but partisans will believe who they want to believe, and undecideds will make up their mind based on gut reactions. Both sides exaggerated or mis-stated numbers. The post-mortems have not taken the president to task for the bigger problems in his points–his continued insistence on the Iraq/Al Quaeda links, though Kerry did. Kerry missed an obvious scoring opportunity when discussing the run-up to war: Bush repeatedly insisted we needed to go into Iraq to remove the WMDs. Kerry never asked “what WMDs?? (in The Daily Show’s wrapup, Jon Stewart did ask). Bush has to run on his record–talking about what he will do invites the question “why aren’t you doing it now?”. Kerry has the luxury of talking about what he will do without really being held to account. The tack that he took, of engaging more closely with allies, doesn’t seem likely to gain traction with most people.

The post-debate wrapup (we watched the debate on NBC) struck me as absurd: the network invited each side to give its own spin. This is not acting as a news organization: this is acting as a clearinghouse for press releases.

No soup for you!

Last night I saw an ad placed by the Center for Consumer Freedom, an astroturfing, misleading bunch of asshats. The premise behind the ad is that someone, somewhere, is trying to take away your right to stuff your face with Heart-Attack Specials, McCrispeties, and Munchee-os. The ad actually features the Soup Nazi (from Seinfeld) doing his schtick. The website actually uses phrases like “food fascists.” Both the ad and the website are trying to whip up hysteria surrounding problems that do not exist.

While there have been a couple cases of people suing McDonald’s for their obesity, these have been thrown out of court. This organization is clearly a sort of pre-emptive strike against any further actions to hold major food manufacturers accountable for the content of their products. It’s hard to imagine that bad food will be regulated the way tobacco and alcohol are, the terrifying future that fast-food fearmongers foretell. Restaurant food (like tobacco and alcohol) does not even carry labeling disclosing its contents, and the fast-food lobby is a hell of a lot better organized and funded than the, uh, lobby for people who don’t like fast food.

Apparently these industry tools have set up a sort of link farm, with websites to bash the Center for Science in the Public Interest, another to tell the inside story behind such radical groups as the Sierra Club.

On their “about us” page, they say they are “supported by restaurants, food companies and more than 1,000 concerned individuals.” What concerns me (among other things) is that food companies may include industrial ranching operations, which receive government subsidies. Meaning that, in some way, my tax dollars are funding these clowns.

Date authentication

In the slow-motion controversy over the gaps in the record of GW’s Texas Air National Guard Duty, the latest wrinkle has been the emergence of some damning documents that some people are concerned might be forgeries. While I’d be delighted to see Bush publicly embarrassed for shirking his military duty, I have to admit that the documents do look suspicious, and if they are forgeries, whoever is responsible is really fucking stupid.

But enough about all that. This got me thinking: today in the electronic world, there are ways to prove that you are the author of a document. But is there a way to prove that you authored the document on a certain date?

Currently, I don’t think there is a verifiable way to do this. But I can imagine a system that would make it possible.

First, we need to review the general ideas behind public-key cryptography (often abbreviated PKI, for “public-key infrastructure”). Traditional cryptography encoded a text using a single key, and both sender and recipient had to have copies of this key. Moving the keys securely was obviously a very serious problem.

PKI solves this. Everybody has two keys: a public key and a private key. The operations of these keys are complementary: a document encrypted with one’s public key can only be decrypted with the private key. So anybody can look up your public key, and secure the document so that only you can read it. Conversely, a document encrypted with one’s private key can only be decrypted with one’s public key. This allows you to “sign” a document electronically: your public key can be considered well-known, and can only be paired to your private key, so if a document can be decrypted by your public key, that’s evidence that it was encrypted with your private key, and either you wrote it or you left your private key lying around for someone to abuse.

Another important concept is the “secure hash.” A secure hash is a relatively short string of gibberish that is generated based on a source text. Each hash is supposed to be unique for each source text. It is trivial to generate the hash from the source text, but effectively impossible to work out what the source text might be based on the hash. Hashes can be used as fingerprints for documents. (Recently, a “collision” was discovered in a hashing algorithm, meaning two source texts resulted in the same hash, but it would still be effectively impossible to work out the source text or texts from any given hash.)

Now, PKI is fine for authenticating authorship, but doesn’t authenticate date of authorship. Not without some help.

PKI relies on key-servers that allow you to look up the public key of other crypto users. Imagine if we set up trusted date-servers to authenticate that a document was actually written when we claim it was written. It might work something like this: An author wishing to attach a verifiable date of authorship to a document sends a hash of that document to a trusted date-server. The date-server appends the current time and date to the hash, encrypts it under its own private key, and sends it back as a “dateprint. The author can then append the dateprint to the original document. If anyone ever doubts that the document was authored on the claimed date, they can decrypt the dateprint using the date-server’s public key; this will give them the claimed date and the document hash. The skeptic then takes a hash of the current document and compares it to the hash contained in the dateprint: if they match, then the current document is identical to the one submitted for dateprinting.

Richard Morrison for District 22

Tom Delay is perhaps the most corrosive figure in American politics today, and regardless of where you live, his presence in Congress affects you. Richard Morrison is running against him. He needs all the help he can get. I just pitched in $20.

Margins of error

If you haven’t checked out Electoral Vote, do so. It has daily updates on all the polls, and shows how the electoral vote is shaping up in map form, along with histories, spreadsheets, a real info-junkie’s dream.

A lot of the states are shown as statistical ties or near ties, meaning that one candidate’s advantage is less than the margin of error. But today, Kevin Drum shows us how this is misleading. When an advantage is less than the margin of error, it doesn’t mean “oh, we really can’t tell,” it means that we’re simply less confident about the data. That margin of error does not becloud all differences smaller than it. Go read Kevin’s post: it’s informative.

Who hates what?

It has almost gotten to be a joke: a progressive criticizes G.W or one of his policies, and a conservative fires back “Why do you hate America.” (It’s gotten to the point where it may be more likely to be another progressive asking the accusatory question, except in jest.)

This is a neat trick for changing the terms of the debate–rather than answering the criticism, you put the critic on the defensive by questioning his patriotism–but it is also evidence of a kind of dangerous L’état, c’est moi, or more accurately, L’état, c’est lui kind of thinking, which I thought went out of fashion with Louis XIV. Who knew the Republicans were such Francophiles?

He’s dead

More 80s nostalgia. Now everyone’s talking about Reagan. The revival of the Flashdance look was bad enough.

Through much of the Reagan administration, I wore an “Impeach Reagan” button. And I meant it. So I’m a little disconcerted by the almost universal hagiography upon his death, and slightly cheered by the occasional writer who will call a spade a spade.

But one shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, so I’ll say this: in his two terms in office, Reagan was less destructive than G.W. has been during his one.

Another wrinkle in the abortion debate

The original Roe v Wade decision was founded on the justices discerning a right to privacy lurking in the Constitution. This has been criticized on occasion, by Justice Ginsberg among others, as a weak foundation for an important right, but there it is.

The most recent attack on abortion rights at the federal level is the “Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.” This law itself is under attack at the moment. As part of its defense, the Justice Department originally sought to subpoena abortion records (though it has now withdrawn this “in the interest of a prompt completion of the trial”); these records would be used to make the case that late-term abortions are never medically necessary, hence a ban could be upheld. If the law stands, doctors who perform late-term abortions will be prosecuted, and will be required to prove medical necessity. As the NY Times put it

But once this question is resolved, the next round of subpoenas will have a different purpose. It won’t be to determine whether partial-birth abortion is ever necessary. It will be to determine whether each partial-birth abortion was necessary.

If the ban is upheld, any doctor found to have performed the procedure will be subject to a two-year prison term unless he or she can prove that the procedure was “necessary to save the life of a mother whose life is endangered by a physical disorder, physical illness, or physical injury.” To settle that question, the court will need details about the patient.

What’s interesting is the reversal in legal thinking: Once upon a time, the right to an abortion was based on the right to privacy; now, the Justice Department’s position is something more like “if you want that abortion, you forfeit your right to privacy.

Uninsurable

The NY Times Sunday magazine had an article on wealthy, healthy Americans who are
uninsurable. In their cases, it was apparently because of A) an excess of honesty on their part when attempting to get individual insurance, reporting picayune details like a brief bout of tooth-grinding, and B) an astounding zeal for disqualification on the part of insurers.

This is surprising. I first got health insurance when I was 27 or so, and the carrier was recommended to me by a professional acquaintance who is an insurance broker. This company jacked up my rates 10%, 20%, even 30% a year, with my paring back my coverage until a year or so ago, when I just couldn’t take it. I found a new carrier that covered me with no exclusions (much to my surprise) despite the accidents I’ve had in the past that could turn into complications in the future. So it’s all the more surprising that these people had so much trouble.

Lots of interesting facts in this story. I was somewhat surprised to learn that only 15 million Americans buy their own coverage (I’m one); that’s less than half as many who are completely uninsured. Meaning that nearly all Americans who are insured get their coverage through a group plan. Perhaps it’s not surprising after all: my own insurance is what I morbidly refer to as the “don’t get sick” plan, in other words, catastrophic coverage.

Some people say health care is a right. My own opinion is somewhat less bleeding-heart. I feel that everyone who has the means to get coverage is responsible for their own coverage, but that a civilized society will do right by those who can’t manage to get coverage on their own. In a very imperfect way, this is the way things work in the USA right now. But when people earning six figures can’t find coverage, perhaps something more fundamental is out of whack.

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