RAWR

[Cross-posted at https://medium.com/@bob.glickstein/rawr-22a7f54eeda3.]

Once upon a time, the National Rifle Association was a benign organization where hunters and sportsmen shared information about equipment and technique. It promoted best practices and responsible gun ownership and lobbied in favor of sensible gun regulation and preserving wilderness. Philosophically it was a sort of extension of the Boy Scouts.

That changed at the Cincinnati Revolt of 1977, where radical gun-rights maximalists took control. Over time they turned it into an organization for, more than anything else, fear. Fear of the government, so better arm yourself against its tyranny. Fear of crime, so better arm yourself against criminals. Fear of brown people, if you’re white. Fear of white people, if you’re brown. And if you’re a politician, fear of the NRA itself — if not of its political and fundraising might, then of what its own most-unhinged members, who were taught to fear the loss of their gun rights, might resort to.

The NRA changed, in short, from being about shooting targets and food to shooting people.

That means that we’ve been two generations with no moderate organization to protect sensible gun rights and promote virtues like marksmanship, self-sufficiency, and conservation without also spreading some fetishistic open-carry Wild-West apocalyptic cosplay fantasy.

I sense that’s the kind of organization to which most gun owners would prefer to belong, given the choice. So let’s give them the choice. I propose creating RAWR, Responsible Americans for a Well-Regulated militia. Primarily its purpose would be to fulfill the role of the old NRA: promote sport and hunting, safety and training, rights and regulations. It would exclude proliferation and militarism, which have no place in civilian life. Secondarily it would exist to siphon support from the NRA, whose mostly moderate members will finally have an alternative they can join without the slightest ambivalence.

I would never join the NRA. But I’d join RAWR in a heartbeat. How about you?

What’s your position on GPS?

[Cross-posted at https://medium.com/@bob.glickstein/whats-your-position-on-gps-bc98a5dff6db.]

How does GPS work?

If you’re like most people, you think it works something like this: there are satellites in orbit around the Earth. Your phone or other GPS device sends a signal to the nearest one of the satellites. Some math happens and the satellite responds with your location.

This is wrong. It’s wrong for reasons that should be obvious. Despite that, everyone believes some version of this, as near as I can tell.

This came up during the current high school mock trial season, in which my son is a mock prosecutor. In a mock trial season, all the schools in California study the same fictional case, and then the prosecution of one school meets the defense from another school in a “scrimmage” conducted like a jury trial. This year’s fictional case is a murder, and the trial begins with a defense motion to suppress some evidence: namely, GPS location data from the defendant’s car (which shows the defendant apparently stalking the victim in the days before the murder). The question argued by the kids, and that the judge must decide, is this: if a person’s car is continually transmitting its location to a third-party service provider (think Google) and the police search that third party’s records, does this infringe upon the person’s Fourth Amendment rights protecting against unreasonable searches?

I’ve sat in on several practices and scrimmages. The discussion of this motion centers on something called the Third Party Doctrine, which says that if you voluntarily give your information to a third party, you cannot reasonably expect that information to remain private, and the government can obtain that information without violating your Fourth Amendment rights. So what’s “voluntary” and what’s “giving” and what’s a “third party”? Drilling into these questions is where the universal misunderstanding of GPS often comes up. If your GPS device is already giving its location to a satellite (the debate goes), how is that different from giving it to a company that provides driving directions?

I’ve heard this now from the students arguing the case, and from their teacher, and from the volunteer attorneys coaching the team, and even from the Superior Court judge who presided over their first tournament meet yesterday. It’s disturbing not only because of the technological illiteracy it reveals, but also because it shows how accepting we’ve become of the idea that our private data is simply out of our control.

In fact a GPS device never sends anything to the satellites in orbit. The satellites are broadcast-only, like a radio station, which has no idea when you tune into it, or a clock tower, which doesn’t respond with the current time only when you ask for it. They are artificial stars that are always “visible” to the devices that know how to see them.

Each satellite continually broadcasts its own position in space, plus the current time according to its super-accurate atomic clock. Your GPS device receives this signal from several different satellites at once. Because of the speed-of-light delay, the signals from different satellites take different amounts of time to reach you. So though the satellite-A signal might say “it’s six o’clock and 33.227 seconds,” the satellite-B signal reaching you at the same instant might say “it’s six o’clock and 33.221 seconds,” which tells your GPS device that you’re closer to satellite B than to satellite A and by how much.1 With a couple more satellites’ signals it’s possible for your device to triangulate its position on Earth with high accuracy.

Why do people mistakenly believe that GPS satellites answer location queries from devices on Earth? In large part because of the way our smartphones work. They depend heavily on outsourcing work to computing resources in “the cloud,” continually sending requests and receiving responses, and we’ve grown accustomed to things working this way.

Why should it be obvious that, in the case of GPS, this is wrong? For one thing, our personal electronics have worked this way for not very long. We’ve forgotten that, before smartphones, standalone GPS receivers were sold as exactly that: receivers. Back then (just a decade or so ago) I don’t think anyone believed GPS devices ever sent signals anywhere, or in any other way leaked information about our whereabouts. With a court order, the police could seize your GPS receiver and inspect its memory of where it had been, but that information lived nowhere else, and it was largely outside anyone’s imagination that it even could.

Another reason this should be obvious: your smartphone is small. It has a small little battery and a small little antenna inside. They’re strong enough to send signals to the nearest wifi station, which is usually located within a few dozen feet, or the nearest cell tower, which is within a few dozen miles, but not to GPS satellites, which are over twelve thousand miles away.

A final reason this should be obvious: there are very many GPS devices making very many location queries every minute of the day. Responding to that many requests in a centralized location would take massive computing resources, the kind that Google and Amazon and Facebook have built multiple gigantic data centers to handle. We can’t put gigantic data centers in space. The stuff we can put in space has to run on solar power and be light and simple as possible. It has to require no maintenance.

Now, to be fair, when you use a service like Google Maps to get driving directions, you do send your location to Google, which is then able to compute the best route for wherever it is you’re going. So the misconception isn’t total. But the location you send to Google came in the first place from old-fashioned GPS triangulation that, in itself, never needs to send anything anywhere. (Note that you can use Google Maps in “offline mode,” where maps are downloaded to your device before you start your trip, and while you’re en route, Google’s servers never get involved. Your device has everything it needs to show you your location and the route you should take. Not so long ago this was how all GPS devices worked!)

What does it say that so many of us believe the wrong thing about how GPS works, and are happy to use it anyway? It suggests to me one of two things: either we’re inattentive to encroachments on our privacy, the basis of our liberty; or we are attentive, we just put a low price on that privacy, trading it away for the convenience our smartphones offer. I’m not sure which is worse. I am sure that earlier generations would not have been nearly so willing to use technology that they understood so poorly.

  1. In this example, you’re 0.006 light-seconds closer to satellite B, which is about 1,118 miles. []

Oppose Gorsuch

[My letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.]

Dear Senator Feinstein,

As a longtime constituent of yours, I urge you to block and oppose the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court with all means in your power.

In just two short months, the Trump administration has become more scandal-plagued than any other in this country’s history. Multiple Trump appointees or nominees are under clouds of suspicion or investigation. Trump himself has been openly flouting at least one constitutional law since the moment he swore his oath of office, and his executive orders are repeatedly found to be unconstitutional themselves. In short he exhibits contempt for the Constitution, not to mention the people and institutions of this great nation.

Gorsuch’s qualifications are irrelevant to this point: this President must not be permitted to place a justice on the Supreme Court. This would be true even if the GOP had not cynically and arbitrarily raised the bar last year for when presidents may nominate justices. Whether a lame duck president should be permitted to or not, surely an impeachable one, of demonstrably poor judgment in people, and plainly inimical to most of what America is about, mustn’t.

Conspirators into stumblebums

On the twentieth anniversary of the Watergate break-in, reporter Daniel Schorr gave the following account on NPR. I find it more than a little relevant today and have added some emphasis below.

One consequence [of Watergate] was to tear down the majesty of the presidency. No nation could see a president who lied, spied, wire-tapped, spoke obscenities and plotted to thwart the justice he was sworn to uphold and retain its faith in the institution. Ensuing “Gates” – White House scandals – came as shocks, but no longer as surprises. If America today has turned against its government, equating incumbency with guilt and inexperience with innocence, you can trace that back to Watergate.

A pity, because one lesson of Watergate is that the lumbering machinery of government worked. More than the press, it was the much-maligned bureaucracy and Congress and the courts that broke the cover-up: the FBI that refused to lie down and play dead; the assistant attorney general, who refused to be the president’s patsy; the Senate committee that laid the groundwork for impeachment; the federal judge who pursued the higher-ups of convicted Watergate burglars.

Since then, government and judiciary have been increasingly politicized. One wonders if today it could prevent a coup from the top. For that, it is not generally realized, was what was in the making. More sinister than what President Nixon did was what he planned to do after winning landslide re-election despite Watergate. The files and tapes disclosed his plans to centralize power in a “super Cabinet” with White House agents like political commissars riding herd on the departments.

The White House would have its own intelligence and surveillance operation. The full power of government would be turned on Nixon’s enemies. “They are asking for it, and they’re going to get it,” Nixon told John Dean. “We have not used the power in the first four years, but things are going to change now.” The nation was saved from that by the government it disdained, and the press it despises, and by whatever providence it is that makes conspirators into stumblebums.

Nixon was smarter than Trump, and had long experience in national politics, and still was thwarted in his ambition. By that measure we need only a little of that providence Daniel Schorr mentioned to work on our behalf. Let us pray that it’s still in operation.

(Daniel Schorr’s report © National Public Radio. I am grateful to NPR’s Audience and Community Relations department for unearthing this transcript for me.)

Engage

You wouldn’t know it from the level of our public discourse, but there is more that unites Americans than divides us – much more.

As Ralph Nader writes in Unstoppable, his book about forging left-right alliances on topics of common interest,

[M]ost people want safe food and drugs. They want to breathe clean air and drink clean water. They want their work to be rewarded with adequate returns for the necessities of life […] They want clean elections and competitive candidates, who provide perceived differences and choices in their platforms. They want their taxes to be reasonable and used well for the common good in an efficient manner. They want some voice in decisions that affect them. They want peace, justice, and public safety.

But Democrats don’t win office by telling you their Republican opponent is a lot like them, and Republicans don’t win office by telling you how much in common they have with Democrats. They need to find the fissures of disagreement, drive a wedge there, and hammer, hammer, hammer. Those Bible-thumping hicks in the flyover states will catch up to modern society sooner or later. The elite libtards on the coasts hate God, guns, and America. That sort of thing.

We used to know how to get along together, but it’s been trained out of us. Any political statement by one side is treated as an outrage by the other, producing ridicule, aggression, dismissiveness, and further entrenchment on both sides. We all need some deprogramming.

During yesterday’s inauguration of Donald Trump, a conservative friend of mine posted this on Facebook:

Still ecstatic it’s not Hillary.

I wrote,

Sincerely curious to know what your reasons are, as long as they’re more substantive than just “her e-mails” and “Benghazi” and “Vince Foster.”

During the campaign someone wrote that, whatever you think of Hillary, no one can plausibly believe she’d pose a threat to the Constitution; and no one can plausibly doubt that Trump does. To the extent that’s true (and it sure feels true to me), and since preserving the Constitution takes precedence over all, shouldn’t simple patriotism have demanded a Hillary vote?

My friend has not yet responded. But someone else, who I’ll call M, posted in that thread,

Liberals are the most intolerant bunch of people I have ever seen. A woman who accepts millions of dollars from foreign countries for her personal gain (foundation), while she is Secretary of State, doesn’t seem to bother you much. But if Trump says something you do not like, it’s the end of the world and the country is never going to be the same. If we survived 8 yrs of Obama, we can get through anything. He loathes America. The most divisive President ever. A vote for Hillary would have been a vote for Obama.

Now, there is plenty that’s wrong with that statement, and plenty of ways to challenge it. But that’s my programming talking: challenge the opposition, don’t let them get away with it, call them out on every little thing. What does that accomplish? Will I win a convert that way? Not a chance. I have learned from experience that a righteous takedown of this person’s misguided beliefs will make me feel puffed-up and smart and superior and maybe earn me some attaboy points among my peers… but do nothing whatever to meaningfully reach this person, to spread the idea of tolerance and respect, to heal the country. I would only have been helping the hammerers to drive their wedge deeper.

So I quashed my initial impulse to cite anecdotes and statistics and experts to prove my points and disprove theirs. Instead I responded,

Here’s the thing: no one’s ever as bad as their opponents make them out to be. Most of the things people disliked about Hillary were drip, drip, dripped into our heads for a quarter century by her opponents – and it worked! It even worked on me, a Democrat. I didn’t like her much for all those vague reasons – her shadowy connections, something something private e-mail server, etc. – until I started digging into all those criticisms for myself and found there was very little there.

On the other hand, most of what Trump opponents dislike comes from his own mouth – unconcealed hatred and disrespect for very many of our fellow citizens, proud ignorance of the Constitution, contradictory statements on almost every topic, unwillingness to engage with critics other than by suppression, and, worst of all, not one scrap of humility or kindness to be found anywhere in his persona.

I’m not disagreeing with anything in M’s post. Yes, there was a certain stink about Hillary; I smelled it too. Maybe it was just propaganda. As for Trump, I called him out on all those things that Americans want in their leaders – forthrightness, courtesy, maturity, humanity – and that all but his blindest supporters must admit he lacks.

This morning I was enormously gratified to find that M had given my comment a Facebook “like.”

This tiny interaction is my template for how we’ll win back the decent, diverse America we once had and have forgotten we want. We only need to approach conversations like this with no thought of putting the other person in their place, but in the sincere belief that we have more to learn than to teach.

We’ve been trained to treat half of the country as our ideological enemy. It’s time we learned the true enemies are the ones who’ve been turning us against each other.


Bonus: Storm, of the musical comedy duo Paul and Storm, had a similar story yesterday about engaging respectfully with a political opponent and achieving civility: Fist-bump with Uncle Sam.

The Sigma Tax

Pronounced income disparity is the root of many of our country’s problems. Economists have been talking about it for years, and last week President Obama made an attempt to bring the issue front-and-center in a speech at Knox College.

Another thing that economists have long said is, “When you tax something, you get less of it.” So here’s an idea: let’s tax income disparity!

How would this work? Easy. For companies of a given size, we decide what the ideal distribution is of wages and other compensation. We might decide, for instance, that the 90th percentile should be earning no more than 50x what the 10th percentile earns. Whatever numbers we choose, the result is a curve; presumably a less-pronounced one than this:

Once we decide on the shape of our curve, companies are free to obey it or not, distributing their compensation however they see fit. But if their curves deviate too far from the ideal, they pay a proportional income-disparity tax. Maybe they can even be eligible for an income-disparity credit if the curves deviate in the other direction.

Properly tuned, and phased in slowly, this “Sigma Tax” (for the Greek letter that designates standard deviation in statistics) should result in gentle but inexorable pressure that reduces the wage gap, improving things for the bottom 99% without breaking the 1%, while paring some of their shameful excess.

PayPal arbitration opt-out

Bob Glickstein
[address]
[phone number]
[e-mail address]
13 Oct 2012

PayPal, Inc.
Attn: Litigation Department
2211 North First Street
San Jose, CA 95131

To whom it may concern,

I am a PayPal user at the e-mail address above. I do not agree to the Agreement to Arbitrate as delineated in your Amendment to the PayPal User Agreement and Privacy Policy dated Nov 1st, 2012. By this letter I hereby reject it per the opt-out procedure described in section 14.3 (e). Kindly exclude me from the Agreement to Arbitrate.

I further request that you consider dropping the arbitration clause altogether, for all your customers, as a matter of principle. Hand-wringing about frivolous lawsuits notwithstanding, citizen access to the public court system is one of the things that makes America great. I invite you to read my fuller thoughts on the matter at www.geebobg.com/2008/09/20/the-sue-s-of-a/

Timely written acknowledgment of this request sent to the above address would be greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,

[signature]

Bob Glickstein

Who are the real monsters?

A British film about Americans in Mexico. That seemed odd. But it didn’t stop me from watching 2010’s Monsters on Netflix recently, and enjoying it.

It’s six years after a NASA probe to Jupiter’s moons crash lands on its return to Earth, “infecting” an area of Northern Mexico near the U.S. border with samples of alien life, which thrive there and multiply, growing huge and destructive. The U.S. has erected an enormous wall along its Mexican border and its military makes regular incursions across it to suppress the creatures and limit their spread. Our two main characters have to make it back to the U.S. while traveling dangerously near, and eventually through, the infected zone. Their journey has a vérité feel and is full of suspense, with a few moments of terror and some interesting character development. By the end I found it compelling enough to go online and see what opinions others had written about it.

I was disappointed by what I found. Without exception the reviews and opinions that I read evaluated Monsters as a conventional monster movie — that is, as a mere shocker — and by that metric many critics found it lacking in terms of horror and body count and creature biology and so on, though everyone commended the guerrilla filmmaking techniques and how far the tiny budget was stretched for the sake of producing credible special effects. The principal filmmaker, Gareth Edwards, is now being talked about as a hot new talent for directing sci-fi epics.

All of which was missing the point. Not one writer commented on the glaringly obvious subtext, the very reason the film was made and the answer to why a British filmmaker chose Mexico as his setting and Americans as his characters: it’s a story about the failure of America to adapt to a changing world.

[Spoilers follow.]

Continue reading “Who are the real monsters?”

Make money the old-fashioned way

Dear film industry, music industry, and all other trade associations that lobby Congress for laws to protect their revenue streams:

You are not entitled to your profits. You are required to earn them anew, every single day.

If new competitive pressures come along and you’re unable to adapt, we the people are under no obligation to help you keep earning profits by tilting the playing field. In fact, quite the opposite.