Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Picture Worth Destroying 11,000 Words

July 20, 2013, 9:35 a.m. [Now with support from one Bostonian, and rebuttal from another, at the end of this blog essay/column.]

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Photo: Celebrity or Monster?

[Note: The following was prepared as a column requested by the Iowa City Press-Citizen. It was also published in the online edition of the Des Moines Register, July 19, 2013, under the headline, "Iowa View: Magazine cover not whole story," the version reproduced, below. Including the Press-Citizen and Register, it has appeared in at least 18 papers, such as USA Today, Wilmington News-Journal, Indianapolis Star, Louisville Courier-Journal, Shreveport Times, Lansing State-Journal, Jackson Clarion-Ledger, and the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

Media that provide text and photo/video journalism regarding major crimes and terrorism must weigh (a) the extent to which their coverage may make "celebrities" of evildoers, or worse still, encourage copycat behavior, along with the charge the media is just pandering to the audience in an attempt to increase viewership/readership and advertising revenue, against (b) what they know to be their constitutionally recognized responsibility to provide understanding and information to the citizens of a self-governing democratic society regarding the reality of their lives. The editors of Rolling Stone chose "b" with regard to the Boston bombing. Distributors of journalism have a comparable choice between their responsibility to an informed public and their shareholders, when the distributors fear publications potential customers might find disagreeable (because of stories or photos) might keep them from their stores, thereby reducing overall revenue. This column, below, addresses these corporate choices.

The Press-Citizen version contains the editor's full disclosure: "Nicholas Johnson was on the cover of the April 1, 1971, Rolling Stone, with photos by Annie Leibovitz; and was subsequently offered a position by editor and publisher Jann Wenner (which he was unable to accept at that time). The former FCC commissioner currently teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law.

Is Boston Bomber's Photo Worth 11,000 Words?
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen
July 20, 2013, p. A10

One hundred years ago next month, the Piqua (Ohio) Leader-Dispatch carried an ad for the Piqua Auto Supply House containing the phrase, “One Look Is Worth A Thousand Words.” It’s considered a source for the oft-heard expression, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

What Rolling Stone magazine has discovered with its Aug. 1 issue is: The picture that can substitute for 1,000 words can also destroy, in this case, over 11,000 words of really first-rate journalism about Dzhokhar (“Jahar”) Tsarnaev and the April 15 Boston bombing.

The author, Janet Reitman, is an accomplished, award-winning investigative feature writer with 20 years distinguished experience, including Rolling Stone magazine. Her most recent book is The New York Times bestseller “Inside Scientology” (2011).

Few have criticized her Rolling Stone story. It would be hard to do so. She’s uncovered and provided as much detail and understanding as anyone could about Tsarnaev and what caused him to do what he did.

But Walgreens and CVS have taken the magazines out of their stores. Why? They don’t like Tsarnaev’s picture on the cover. It is, not incidentally, the very picture that appeared on the front page of The New York Times Sunday edition on May 5.

Of course, stores have the legal right to choose what magazines they sell. But it’s hard to understand, let alone approve of, these corporations’ censorship actions. They are reminiscent of Nazi book-burning, or Taliban reactions to pictures of Muhammad, and reveal a profound ignorance of the informative role of journalism in a democracy.

Time magazine put Adolf Hitler on its cover, as Person of the Year, in 1938; Joseph Stalin was similarly honored twice (1939, 1942). Each was responsible for orders of magnitude more deaths than Tsarnaev ever planned.

Rolling Stone was scarcely honoring the bomber, let alone declaring him the Person of the Year. The front page of the online version of the Aug. 1 Rolling Stone headlines the top story, “Jahar: The Making of a Monster.” The inside subhead reads, in part, “no one saw the pain he was hiding or the monster he would become.” Neither reads like the wording of a publicist working for Tsarnaev.

Rolling Stone’s editors explain, “The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens.”

The Boston Globe editorializes, “Readers shouldn’t assume that a cover story about a suspected evildoer represents an attempt to glamorize him. This issue of Rolling Stone should be judged not by its cover, but on the information that it brings to the public record.”

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said Tsarnaev’s picture “rewards a terrorist with celebrity treatment.” The police commissioner, Edward Davis, declared himself “disgusted by it.”

Danielle Marcus, CVS’s public relations manager, offered the explanation: “As a company with deep roots in New England and a strong presence in Boston, we believe this is the right decision out of respect for the victims of the attack and their loved ones.” Walgreens’ Tweet read simply, “Walgreens will not be selling this issue of Rolling Stone magazine.”

Americans need that picture and story — because Tsarnaev is what bombers look like. Neither Middle East wars abroad nor NSA spying at home can save us. What perhaps could help is trying to understand American citizens like Jahar in Boston and McVeigh in Oklahoma City.

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Comments About Comments About Rolling Stone's Tsarnaev Cover Story

There were probably thousands of comments about the Rolling Stone Tsarnaev cover story -- letters to the editor, readers' comments in online publications, blogs, texts and tweets, radio and TV commentary. It became a much bigger controversy than anyone could have predicted. I'm not going to try to reproduce even an immeasurably small fraction of that commentary. But I do want to reproduce two, plus one of my own.

Blogging requires neither expertize nor the quantity and quality of dissertation-level research. Usually, but not always, I have at least a speck of both to support my intuition. But it's always reassuring to find out after a blog essay has been posted that someone more knowledgeable than I, or closer to the scene, has come up with similar thoughts or analysis.

And so it was with this column. I sent what was to be my Saturday column off to the Press-Citizen, as requested, at 8:17 p.m. CT, Thursday, July 17. The following week, July 22, thanks to the reference by "Stu in Iowa," whose comment on this blog essay is below, I read a column written by a Rolling Stone writer, Matt Taibbi, that made some of the same points I had: the New York Times had used the same picture, that Time put Stalin on its cover as "Man of the Year," "that's what bombers look like," and why we need to understand them.

Here are some excerpts from Matt Taibbi, "Explaining the Rolling Stone Cover, by a Boston Native," Rolling Stone, July 19, 2013 (posted 2:50 p.m. ET). More significant than our shared positions, Taibbi has come up with some creative insights about the causes of the backlash produced by the cover photo (insights I am quick to confess had not occurred to me).
I think the controversy is very misplaced. Having had a few days to listen to all of the yelling, the basis of all of this criticism seems to come down to two points:

• Putting Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone automatically glamorizes him, because the cover of Rolling Stone is all by itself a piece of cultural iconography that confers fame and status.

• The photo used in the cover makes Tsarnaev out to be too handsome. He's not depicted with a big red X through his face a la Time magazine's treatment of bin Laden, or with his eyes whited out as in Newsweek's depiction of same, or with a big banner headline like "NOW KILL HIS DREAM" like the one employed by The Economist in its bin Laden cover. He is called a "Monster" in the headline, but the word is too subtle and the font used is too small, making this an unacceptably ambiguous depiction of a terrorist.

I think, on the whole, the people leveling these criticisms must not read the magazine, . . .. On the other hand, pretty much everyone has heard of Rolling Stone, which is where the problem lay, in this gap between the popular image of the magazine and the reality of its reporting.

If indeed we were just a celebrity/gossip mag that covered nothing but rock stars and pop-culture icons, and we decided to boost sales and dabble in hard news by way of putting a Jim Morrison-esque depiction of a mass murderer on our cover, that really would suck and we would deserve all of this criticism.

But Rolling Stone has actually been in the hard news/investigative reporting business since its inception, . . ..

[W]hen investigative journalism has been so dramatically de-emphasized at the major newspapers . . . we're more than ever a hard news outlet in a business where long-form reporting is becoming more scarce. . . .

It's extremely common for news outlets to put terrorists and other such villains on the covers of their publications, and this is rarely controversial . . ..

[T]he Rolling Stone editors [did not pose him]for that Jim Morrison shot, . . .. They used an existing photo, one already used by other organizations. The New York Times, in fact, used exactly the same photo on the cover of their May 5 issue.

But there was no backlash against the Times, because everyone knows the Times is a news organization. Not everyone knows that about Rolling Stone. So that's your entire controversy right there – it's OK for the Times, not OK for Rolling Stone, . . ..

Terrorists are a fact of our modern lives and we need to understand them, because understanding is the key to stopping them.

Which brings us to point No. 2, the idea that the cover photo showed Tsarnaev to be too nice-looking, too much like a sweet little boy.

I can understand why this might upset some people. But the jarringly non-threatening image of Tsarnaev is exactly the point of the whole story . . . that there are no warning signs for terrorism, that even nice, polite, sweet-looking young kids can end up packing pressure-cookers full of shrapnel and tossing them into crowds of strangers. . . .

[T]he cover picture is . . . supposed to frighten. It's Tsarnaev's very normalcy and niceness that is the most monstrous and terrifying thing about him . . . you can't see him coming. He's not walking down the street with a scary beard and a red X through his face. He looks just like any other kid.

At the same time, I'm embarrassed to say, I've learned more than I had formerly internalized about the power of still and moving images. It has been said (actually by my father) that "humans are the only animals able to talk themselves into difficulties that would otherwise not exist." In recent years we have been discovering more and more ways in which more and more species are equal or superior (in some ways) to our own. But for the most part, our ability to create and manipulate symbols (and thereby manipulate fellow humans) remains one of our areas of superior expertise.

There's little agreement regarding our first use of language, though most agree however one defines "language" it would have been thousands of years ago. Of course, the use of images has at least as long a history. But between the time of printing (Tenth Century Korea; Fifteenth Century Europe) and photography (Nineteenth Century) -- indeed, I would say until the widespread adoption of television (1960s) -- aside from casual conversation, text was our primary use of language and means of communication, whether the Bible, novels, or the daily news.

In any event, that was my experience. Pictures were something that, sometimes, accompanied text. But you read books, you didn't flip through collections of photographs. Newspapers had photos, but you read the paper, you didn't just look at it. I don't know, maybe that was just me. We didn't get a TV until after I'd graduated from high school and gone away to college -- where I couldn't afford one. Maybe I was raised weird.

Anyhow, it seems to me that we are today much more visually oriented. From small film cameras we have evolved to digital cameras, and now our multi-function smart phones include digital camera capability that exceeds the earlier single-function digital cameras. Facebook is not, primarily, a photo gallery, and yet it receives some 300 million digital photos a day. Flickr, Picasa, Pinterest, and others add to that number. Roughly 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.

There is some evidence that both still and moving pictures can better play upon the viewer's emotions than can text, and that they can even override the message of associated text -- as appears to be the case with the Rolling Stone cover story. There is a classic story which I am recalling from memory when CBS' Lesley Stahl did a somewhat critical piece about President Reagan, with her voice over video of Reagan. Polls afterward showed viewers came away with a more favorable opinion of Reagan -- the somewhat flattering video having essentially silenced her voice-over text. Another example would be the big pharma TV commercials with happy people in beautiful scenes, with a voice-over describing a long list of side effects from the medicine ranging from ingrown toenails to instant death. Nonetheless, the top selling drugs are the ones most heavily advertised on TV.

To be fair about all this, I wanted to reproduce an opinion column from the Press-Citizen by another Boston resident who was highly offended by the Rolling Stone cover, to put into this mix of opinions how those emotional reactions were felt by at least this one person -- reacting in part to my column.

Here, then, is Kathy O'Donnell, "Cover Photo Was a 'Punch to the Gut' to Bostonians," Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 27, 2013, p. A13.

In regards to Nicholas Johnson’s recent column on the controversy over the Rolling Stone cover of the Boston Marathon bomber, please allow me to offer the perspective of a Bostonian.

There is no denying that the reaction to the Rolling Stone cover from every Bostonian I know, from all ends of the political spectrum, all ages, living in Boston and disbursed around the country and world, was a visceral, punch-to-the-gut pain.

Johnson made the point that the cover distracted from story, but then like many (outside of Boston) went on to defend the story while glossing over the magazine’s choice of that specific cover picture.

Let’s be clear — Bostonians did not react to the story; they reacted to the cover.

The magazine’s hastily constructed rationale for that picture was that it supported the premise of the story that this boy was not a monster, but an ordinary American teenager.

Um, actually, anyone in Boston following this story already understood that. Every interview with every person who knew him since he was identified has said the same thing — he was a good kid, no one can believe it, his brother was trouble, his mom and brother had become more radicalized, his family was messed up.

We understand that the bloody note he scrawled in the boat where he was found talked about the “collateral damage” inflicted on innocent Muslims by the U.S. and that his family was troubled about the U.S. actions in the Middle East.

Yup, got that.

But the cover did not portray this boy as a regular teenager; it presented him as a pop-culture celebrity icon in exactly the same way as all of their other covers. They could have used the cell phone picture of Tsarnaev walking away from the scene of the second bombing in his backward baseball cap and sneakers with the wake of destruction behind him.

They could have used any number of pictures of him that could be found in a quick Google search where he looks like an average teenager. But they chose the full, soft-focus, dreamy-eyed cover photo.


Either it was a thoughtful, courageous decision made in the name of journalistic integrity or a cynical, calculated move to generate attention and buzz. I vote for the latter.

I wonder what the reaction would have been in New York had the Rolling Stone put a similar, soft-focus, sweet picture of Mohammed Atta on its cover three months after 9/11? Rolling Stone is not the New York Times, and the medium matters.

While journalists have an obligation to report news-worthy stories, they also have a responsibility to minimize harm and show compassion and sensitivity to victims of tragedy.

I’m not suggesting that Bostonians are fragile creatures whose delicate sensibilities have to be protected from hard truths. Hardly. However, I am suggesting that the selection of this cover was cruelly insensitive to the Boston victims.

The finger wagging from some parties to Boston’s “overreaction” only adds insult to injury. They condescendingly explain to us provincial and parochial Bostonians how this picture tells an important and meaningful truth that we just have to hear.

We respectfully disagree. We didn’t need a finger in the eye to tell us something we already knew. Write a story, hell, put him on the cover, just don’t make him look like all the other celebrity covers.

Boston is an overgrown town, and we all are connected to people killed or injured in these attacks. This is still very raw and very real to us, and we don’t believe that putting this particular picture on the cover this soon was the right thing to do.

It’s really that simple.
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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Getting Humans Out of the Loop

July 13, 2013, 4:30 p.m.

What Can 'War Games' Teach About Disasters?

In the opening scene from the 1983 movie "War Games," two soldiers in a missile silo watching over ICBMs targeting Russia, receive what they believe to be orders for an actual launch. Before the end of their countdown, one finds himself unable to turn the key that he believes will cause the death of millions. Here is that opening:

In fact, it was only a test. A White House official, upon learning that 22% of the missile commanders failed to launch, visits NORAD. Dr. John McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) and other systems engineers at NORAD have concluded that command of the missile silos should be handled by computer. As Dr. McKittrick puts it to the White House official, over the objections of the commanding general, "I think we ought to take the men out of the loop." Ultimately, a supercomputer named WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), replaced the missile commanders, and spent its time continuously running simulations of U.S. military encounters with the Russians ("war games").

I won't reveal more about the film's story, in case you haven't yet watched it and I've inspired you to do so.

Last evening, for reasons unknown, I chose to watch it again for what was probably the tenth time during the last 30 years. Maybe it was our recent disasters that inspired me to watch it. Maybe it was the film that caused me to think about those disasters.

As it happens, both disasters occurred on the same day, one week ago, July 6th. And both raise the dilemma confronted by the characters in "War Games": from the standpoint of safety and reliability of human-machine systems is it better to have the humans in -- or "out of the loop"?

One of the disasters involved the Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 crash at the San Francisco airport on July 6, 2013, in which three died and 50 were seriously injured. Matthew L. Wald and Norimitsu Onishi, "In Asiana Crash Investigation, Early Focus Is on the Crew's Actions," New York Times, July 9, 2013, p. A12. A human had taken over the controls, as neither the airport's glide-slope indicator nor the plane's autopilot was activated. [Photo credit: John Green, San Jose Mercury News/Associated Press.]

The other was "A runaway train [that] exploded Saturday [July 6th], killing at least one person [by today, July 13th, the death toll is more like 50] and forcing more than 1,000 people to evacuate from a town in the province of Quebec, the police said. The 73-car train, which included tank cars carrying petroleum, destroyed much of downtown Lac-Mégantic, a town of about 6,000, in a blaze that continued through the day." Ian Austen, "Train Blast Kills at Least One and Forces Evacuations in Canada," New York Times, July 6, 2013. [Photo credit: Paul Chiasson, The Canadian Press/Associated Press.]

In the case of the plane crash,
The crash landing of a South Korean airliner in San Francisco has revived concerns that airline pilots get so little opportunity these days to fly without the aid of sophisticated automation that their stick-and-rudder skills are eroding. . . . [Lee Gang-guk was] flying without the aid of a key part of the airport's instrument landing system, which provides pilots with a glide slope to follow so that the plane isn't too high or low. ["Part of the instrument landing system on Runway 28 Left here had been shut down because of construction. The 777 is built to lock on to the instrument landing system, accepting its signals for lateral and horizontal navigation to land in the correct spot on the tarmac. American pilots use that capability often . . .." Matthew L. Wald and Norimitsu Onishi, "In Asiana Crash Investigation, Early Focus Is on the Crew's Actions," New York Times, July 9, 2013, p. A12. ]. . . And he was manually flying the plane with the autopilot shut off, which other pilots said is not unusual in the last stage of a landing, although some airlines prefer that their pilots use automated landing systems. . . . . Overall, automation has . . . been a boon to aviation safety, providing a consistent precision that humans can't duplicate. But pilots and safety officials have expressed concern in recent years that pilots' "automation addiction" has eroded their flying skills to the point that they sometimes don't know how to recover from stalls and other problems. Dozens of accidents in which planes stalled in flight or got into unusual positions from which pilots were unable to recover have occurred in recent years.
Joan Lowy, "Role of Aircraft Automation Eyed in Air Crash," Associated Press, July 9, 2013.

The analysis of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy is a little more nuanced, but raises similar issues:
Revered by NASA rocket engineers and surgeons alike, [renowned U.K.-based safety theorist James] Reason’s most famous legacy is the “Swiss cheese model,” which imagines safety checks to be like slices of cheese.

When a safety system is airtight and closely followed, the slices are cheddar: Rigid and impermeable to error.

Overtime, however, as employees grow complacent and safety standards slip, the slices begin to develop Swiss-cheese-like holes through which mistakes are allowed to pass.

If the holes are allowed to multiply, it is only a matter of time before a simple mistake can pass clean through all the layers of cheese and trigger a disaster.

“There is a growing appreciation that large scale disasters … are the result of separate small events that become linked and amplified in ways that are incomprehensible and unpredictable,” wrote the U.S. organizational theorist Karl E. Weick in a 1990 analysis of the 1977 Tenerife air disaster, in which two fully-loaded 747s collided at a Canary Islands airport.

The disaster is now a textbook case of organizational vulnerability: If any one of a myriad of tiny blunders (a stressed crew, foggy weather, a crowded tarmac, botched radio communications and a first officer unwilling to criticize his captain) had been avoided, Tenerife’s 583 victims would still be alive.

Similarly, although the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg — a seeming natural disaster — its maiden voyage was doomed by decades of lax British safety standards. The liner was charging at top speed through a patch of ocean known to be unusually icy, a design flaw rendered its watertight compartments useless if the ship settled too low in the water, and not only was the Titanic famously not carrying nearly enough lifeboats, but the crew lacked any official policy on how to deploy them.

Already, the latticework of errors that caused the Lac-Mégantic disaster have begun to emerge.

For starters, the event that appears to have kicked off the disaster was a locomotive fire that broke out only minutes after engineer Tom Harding had parked the train. And, even if not a single hand brake had been applied, the train should have been held in place by air brakes. Further, the train was parked on a main line instead of a siding equipped with safety features to combat runaway trains. Also, the train was hauling enough crude oil to fill three Olympic swimming pools, yet carried it in a class of railcars highlighted by regulators as being uniquely vulnerable to leaks and explosions.

Most chillingly, this has all seemingly happened before.

In 1996, a string of 20 grain cars rolled free in an Edson, Alta., train yard, accelerating to 50 km/h before smashing head-on into the locomotive of a CN freight train. In the resulting explosion and fire, three crew members were killed.

As possibly at Lac-Mégantic, the ultimate cause of the crash was the faulty application of hand brakes: Train crews had received “little supervision” in how to properly set the brakes and the brakes they did set were almost useless due to missing parts.
Tristin Hopper, "'Complex' Latticework of Errors That Caused Lac-Mégantic Train Disaster Has Just Begun to Emerge," National Post July 13, 2013

So what's the answer? The answer is that there is no answer, as succinctly put in the aphorism, "To err is human, to really foul things up requires a computer." When informed that the software to run President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars") program ran to over 100 million lines of code, a computer science professor is said to have responded, "I've never seen a computer program of over three lines of code that worked the first time it was run."

On the other hand, planes -- commercial airlines as well as drones -- can fly themselves. There are reasons to have pilots and flight attendants on flights; but it's not because the plane is incapable of getting you there by itself. We already have cars that can drive themselves. Trains have automatic braking systems. Tractors navigating by GPS can more precisely apply fertilizer, and plant seeds in straighter rows, than sharp-eyed farmers. From the standpoint of safety, we might be better off spending more on computer programmers and less on equipment operators.

"Despite rising fears of technology displacing huge swaths of the workforce, there remain huge classes of jobs that robots (and low-wage foreign workers) still can’t replace in the United States, and won’t replace any time soon. To land the best of those jobs, workers need sophisticated vocabularies, advanced problem-solving abilities and other high-value skills that the U.S. economy does a good job of bestowing on young people from wealthy families — but can’t seem to deliver to poor and middle-class kids. . . . In the past 20 years, almost all the net job gains were in the two areas computers struggle with the most: working with new info (for example, figuring out a customer’s Internet service issues) and solving unstructured problems (such as repairing cars when computer diagnostics can’t pinpoint what’s wrong)." Jim Tankersley, "Have the Robots Come for the Middle Class?" Washington Post, July 12, 2013.

There are many among our skilled labor force who are experienced and conscientious. We wouldn't have the country we live in without their skills and efforts. They are often under-appreciated, under-paid, and working in unsafe conditions.

But relying on humans comes with risks. Employers may cut the workforce below the number necessary to keep equipment properly maintained, replaced when necessary, and watched over when operating. New, young employees may not be adequately trained and experienced. Long hours may increase the likelihood of accidents. (The train wreck and explosion in Lac-Mégantic occurred after 1:00 a.m.; the Asiana crash at the end of a ten-hour night flight across the Pacific Ocean.) An employee may fail to show up, or be impaired by alcohol or other drugs, talking on a cell phone or texting.

"As planemakers build ever-safer jets, it’s often the split-second decisions by humans at the controls that can make the biggest difference between a smooth landing and a flight that ends in disaster. The last moments of Asiana Airlines . . . Flight 214 . . . underscore the stakes in the cockpit even in aircraft as sophisticated as [a Boeing 777], according to safety consultants, retired pilots and aviation scholars following the U.S. investigation. . . . 'Whether it’s a disaster or a close call comes down to the pilot,” said Les Westbrooks, a former commercial and military pilot who now teaches airline operations at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “Airplanes have incredible automation. But when the human has to exercise judgment, you can’t design around that.'” Mary Jane Credeur, Mary Schlangenstein and Julie Johnsson, "Asiana Crash Shows Lessons of Pilots Trumping Technology," Bloomberg, July 9, 2013.

Of course, there's more to humans in the workplace than their superiority to computers -- when that's the case. If we fully automate everything the computer programmers can automate, which is a lot, we end up with an even more severe unemployment problem than we have now. And we create stores and service centers that seemingly have no employees -- after entering a big box store you're on your own with nothing but a hunting license, and when you go to check out the only reason you get assistance with the self-checkout is that without it frustrated customers would simply give up and leave without paying. There would be nothing but automated answering, voice recognition phones.

But now that computers can beat the world chess champions, and win at "Jeopardy," we better get used to fellow workers who look a whole lot like robots, and be willing to hand the controls over to them once it becomes obvious that they really can do a better job than we can when landing a plane or driving in bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic.

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Saturday, July 06, 2013

Ants Teach Us About Internet and Economy

July 6, 2013, 12:48 p.m.

What’s especially remarkable: the close parallels between ant colonies’ networks and human-engineered ones. One example is “Anternet”, where we, a group of researchers at Stanford, found that the algorithm desert ants use to regulate foraging is like the Traffic Congestion Protocol (TCP) used to regulate data traffic on the internet.
-- Deborah Gordon, "What Do Ants Know That We Don’t?" Wired, July 6, 2013

Among the many benefits from studying anthropology, along with a factual foundation for celebrating diversity, is the humility from knowing our culture does not have all the answers.

Among the many benefits from studying biology is the heightened sense of humility from discovering how much our entire species has to learn from other species of animal and plant life.

Take ants for example.

As the opening quote suggests, it turns out that after 130 million years of experience and evolution in managing large organizations with no central control, ants have worked out many of the complex algorithms we need in running the Internet. Read the article linked above; it's a fascinating story.

But the one lesson that caught my eye was what ants have to teach us about economic recovery.

We're headed toward a world population of 9.1 billion persons -- a 34% increase in 37 years -- 70% of whom will be in urban areas (up from 49% today). To feed this increase we'll need roughly a 50% increase in cereal production and a 100% increase in meat production. That's only one of the many increased costs of increased population.

Ants have faced a somewhat similar challenge.

"Like human-engineered systems, ant systems must be robust to scale up as the colony grows . . .. [T]he ideal solutions utilize the contributions of each additional ant in such a way that the benefit of an extra worker outweighs the cost of producing and feeding one." Deborah Gordon, "What Do Ants Know That We Don’t?" Wired, July 6, 2013.

Isn't that our challenge? "Utiliz[ing] the contribution of each additional [person] in such a way that the benefit of [each] outweighs the cost of producing and feeding [them]"?

I've often said the greatest economic asset that humankind possesses is not our raw materials or industrial facilities. It is (at this point in time) 7 billion person-days per day. Any day an individual is standing on a street corner, locked in prison or in poverty, too hungry to summon the strength, too poorly educated to understand the job, is a day's work lost forever. Not just for that person, but for all of us.

What's lost is called opportunity cost: the vacant lot or river that might have been cleaned up; the home that might have been built, or insulated -- with the workers' added self-esteem that comes with honest labor and accomplishment, that slight bump up in a community's "happiness index."

But abandoned souls aren't free. In addition to opportunity cost, there's our out-of-pocket cost: the crime they may see as their only path to survival; the emergency room medical care; prisons as a public housing program; programs for the poor and unemployed, such as unemployment compensation and SNAP (food stamps). It costs only slightly, if any, more to pay them for working -- at anything.

Striving for full employment is also the shortest path out of the economic doldrums. As I wrote in 2008:
You can't improve business (profits, returns to shareholders, executive compensation) without improving retail sales; you can't improve retail sales without putting money in the hands, and confidence in the heads, of potential consumers; and unemployed consumers don't have money unless they are provided either unemployment compensation or wages from a public sector job (in an economy with a shrinking private sector). . . . [G]iven the same amount of money, using it to create "jobs" makes more sense than providing it for "unemployment compensation. But either makes more sense than trying to turn an economy around with "trickle down" -- whether tax cuts for the rich, or bailouts for the rich.
"Jobs, Not Unemployment, Key to Recovery; Why America Needs a Jobs Program: Because When Your Automobile (Industry) is in the River It Makes More Sense to Go For the Shore Than to Continue Bailing it Out," November 8, 2008.

It was I message I would repeat from time to time, including October of 2011: "short term, the way to bring ourselves out of the economic doldrums, to give a boost to our economy, to increase consumer spending, is to create more consumers, with greater confidence in their future prospects for employment. That means a full-employment economy; jobs for all; provided by the private sector when it's rational for business to do so, and provided by the federal government when it is not. . . . In January of 2009, had we taken all the money we lavished on the banks, auto and insurance industries, and other large corporations, and used it for wages for all, our economy would have turned around by the fall of 2009 at the latest, and be humming along right now." Economic Recovery? It's Simple and Obvious; Recovery Requires Consumers, and Consumers Require Jobs," October 13, 2011.

To these reasons, the ants have now given us another. If our species is to make it past 2050, we too must "utilize the contributions of each additional [person] in such a way that the benefit of an extra worker outweighs the cost of producing and feeding [and otherwise caring for] them."

There's a lot we can learn from other cultures and other creatures. And whether it's running the Internet or reviving our economy, we could do worse that to start by learning from the ants.

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Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Surveillance: Differences of Degree and of Kind

July 3, 2013, 11:30 p.m.

This series includes: "Lavabit Confronts 'Complicit or Close?' Levison Closes," August 9, 2013; "A Simple Matter to Drag People Along," August 6, 2013; "The Future of Surveillance and How to Stop It," August 4, 2013; "Surveillance: Differences of Degree and of Kind," July 3, 2013; "Shooting the Messenger; Should Government Be Able to Keep Its Abuses Secret?," June 11, 2013; "From Zazi to Stasi; Trusting a Government That Doesn't Trust You," June 9, 2013; "Law's Losing Race With Technology," June 7, 2013.

We've Become What Nation's Founders Feared

On this year's July 4th eve, it seems appropriate to note that what our government is doing to the American people today with its NSA surveillance, is the modern day equivalent of what drove our founding fathers to the revolution we commemorate.

It is what motivated their inclusion of the Fourth Amendment's protections in our Constitution's Bill of Rights, and a Declaration of Independence from the oppressive "general search warrants" of the British.

What were these British "general warrants"? It's a long story, but here's the gist.

The British customs and tax officials wanted to collect from the American merchants what British law said they owed. Smuggling was a way to avoid payment. So they wanted to be able to search businesses and homes for smuggled goods.

British law provides the philosophical and legal origins of the requirements of our Fourth Amendment, dating from at least Semayne's case (1604) and Entick v. Carrington (1765). So far, so good.

The problem was that, from the perspective of the King, American merchants might be British subjects for purposes of paying taxes, but they did not enjoy the rights of British subjects when it came to British officers' searches of their homes and businesses. [Cartoon credit: Jeff Parker, recipient of numerous awards for syndicated cartoons during his 21 years with Florida Today. July 3, 2013.]

In 1660 the English Parliament authorized the use of "writs of assistance" by customs officials in America -- "assistance" in the sense of a sheriff, say, assisting the customs officials. The net effect was to eliminate the need for a search warrant, thus making the writ of assistance a "general search warrant," or "general warrant."

Which brings us to an appropriate time to examine the details of our Fourth Amendment (similar in most respects to the 18th Century requirements for British search warrants).

The Fourth Amendment provides: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Note that the 1765 Entick case, referenced above, found the warrant over broad, in that it authorized the taking of all of Entick's papers, not just those involving criminality. Our language is "particularly describing the . . . things to be seized." It also found the warrant lacked probable cause for any search. Our language is "no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause."

Clearly, what early British law, and our Fourth Amendment, contemplate is, as Sir Edward Coke stated in Semayne, that "The house of every one is to him as his castle and fortress, as well for his defence against injury and violence as for his repose." That is to say, we all have a legal. moral (and in the U.S. today, constitutional) right to a zone of privacy surrounding our "persons, houses, papers, and effects." It cannot be casually violated. Indeed, it can be breached by the government only when the search is "reasonable," supported by "probable cause" to believe that we -- not people in general, but we in particular -- have engaged in wrongdoing, and that what is being searched for can be "particularly described" in advance.

The general warrants, by contrast, authorized the customs officials to search whomever they wished, wherever they wished, whenever they wished, for whatever they wished, with or without any reasonable basis for suspicion of wrongdoing. No specific search warrant. No identified person or place. No "oath or affirmation" of the "probable cause." No judicial oversight.

This past month I wrote a three part blog essay series about privacy and government surveillance. "Law's Losing Race With Technology; Redefining Privacy," June 7; "From Zazi to Stasi; Trusting a Governent That Doesn't Trust You," June 9; "Shooting the Messenger; Should Government Be Able to Keep Its Abuses Secret?" June 11.

In the second ("From Zazi to Stasi") I noted the similarities between what the Stasi was doing and what our NSA is doing. It was only a couple weeks later that I came upon a former Stasi officer's take on how the American government is spying on its citizens.

Wolfgang Schmidt, a one-time lieutenant colonel in the former East German secret police and security/spy agency has said of our NSA, "'You know, for us, this would have been a dream come true.' . . . [H]is department was limited to tapping 40 phones at a time, he recalled. . . . He finds breathtaking the idea that the U.S. government receives daily reports on the cellphone usage of millions of Americans and can monitor the Internet traffic of millions more. 'So much information, on so many people,' he said." Matthew Schofield, "Memories of Stasi color Germans’ view of U.S. surveillance programs," McClatchy Washington Bureau, June 26, 2013.

He makes an important point: a difference to be "a difference" has to make a difference. A difference of degree may be a difference that makes no difference. A difference of kind does make a difference.

On your way out the door to a picnic, you ask someone, "What's the temperature?" In this case the difference between 73 degrees and 75 degrees is -- in addition to being literally a difference of degree -- a difference that makes no difference.

When the Stasi's wiretapping ability went from one wiretap to 40, that was a difference. It made a difference. But not that much difference. You clandestinely listen in on one person's conversations, you listen in on 40. But when the NSA goes from a constitutional presumption of one search warrant at a time, for one person at a time, with probable cause, approved by a reviewing judge, to a general search warrant that entitles them to spy on every American simultaneously, just because they have the technology that makes it possible, that is a difference that makes an enormous difference.

We are assured by our government that everything it is doing is "legal." That's not so clear. A part of the problem is that the lawyers' opinion interpreting the Patriot Act that President Obama and his surveillance folks are relying on, they contend is so secret that they can't tell us what it says. Some of those who voted for the Act believe that what is happening is not authorized by the Act.

But assume it is "legal," in the sense that what is being done is in accord with an act of Congress. The question is whether that act, and what is being done in pursuance of that act, is constitutional. And even if it is constitutional, is it right, is it moral, is it how we want to live? As Dr. Martin Luther King has reminded us, "We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was 'legal' . . .. It was 'illegal' to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers." Dr. Martin Luther King, "Letter from Birmingham Jail," April 16, 1963. Presumably what the Stasi was doing was also "legal."

There was more bad news on the surveillance front today than I like to confront in a 24-hour period before July 4th.

First I read that there is a "Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, in which Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States — about 160 billion pieces last year. It is not known how long the government saves the images." Ron Nixon, "U.S. Postal Service Logging All Mail for Law Enforcement," New York Times, July 4, 2013.

Then I find out that "As Congress considers a new immigration law that would expand the fleet of unmanned drones along the border, the agency in charge of border protection is increasingly offering the drones it already owns to a variety of domestic law-enforcement agencies . . . . Three years ago, the drones were used by other agencies 30 times; in 2012, that jumped to 250 times. . . . [T]he border agency said data collected by the drones could be shared with other government agencies, raising concerns about the privacy of Americans within the nation’s borders. . . . [It] raised the possibility of eventually equipping its drones with 'nonlethal weapons' to 'immobilize' people and vehicles trying to cross the border illegally. . . . A bill proposed in the House of Representatives would prohibit firearms on drones in domestic airspace, but not necessarily other weapons like tear gas or pellets. The agency has used Predator drones, the same vehicles used overseas by the United States military since 2005. . . . [They] can fly for 20 hours nonstop. They are based in Arizona, Florida, North Dakota and Texas." Somini Sengupta, "U.S. Border Agency Lets Other Units Use Its Drones," New York Times, July 4, 2013.

Finally, I learn that those wonderful folks who brought us our laptops and smart phones, software and apps -- our friends -- have been hip deep in the spy business from the beginning. We only got a hint of this recently. Now we find out, "Former U.S. officials and intelligence sources say the collaboration between the tech industry and spy agencies is both broader and deeper than most people realize, dating back to the formative years of Silicon Valley itself. As U.S. intelligence agencies accelerate efforts to acquire new technology and fund research on cybersecurity, they have invested in start-up companies, encouraged firms to put more military and intelligence veterans on company boards, and nurtured a broad network of personal relationships with top technology executives. And they are using those connections to carry out specific espionage missions, current and former officials say . . .." Joseph Menn, "Strong Ties Bind Spy Agencies and Silicon Valley," Reuters/New York Times, July 3, 2013.

I've read the Fourth Amendment over and over. Nowhere in it can I find that its protections only extend to the content of: a letter inside a postal envelope, a phone conversation, or an email message. Nowhere in it can I find authorization for surveillance of the entire American population simultaneously, without suspicion or probable cause, to discover to and from whom everyone is writing, talking and emailing. [See below for commentary on "what is a 'search'?"]

What our government is doing, and doing more and more with the passage of time, is the modern day equivalent of the 18th Century British "general search warrants." It is what our Fourth Amendment was deliberately, and specifically, designed to prohibit. The founders insisted that these rights "shall not be violated."

They are being violated. And tomorrow, July 4th, is a good day to reflect upon that fact, and our history.

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What is a "search"?

An issue I have deliberately kept out of the blog essay, above, involves the definition of a "search." The discussion of that issue is not necessary to the general point made in the essay. But it may be necessary to anticipate critics' comments.

It arises as follows. A prohibition on "unreasonable searches" requires not one, but two, findings: (1) that the search was unreasonable, but also (2) that there was, in fact, a "search."

For example, assume a city has an ordinance prohibiting homeowners from keeping old, non-functioning vehicles in their yards. A city official walks, or drives, by a home with three cars in the yard; one's on blocks, another has the hood up, revealing no engine, and the third is severely rusted out. She cites the homeowner with a violation of the ordinance. Can the homeowner claim a Fourth Amendment violation? Was this an "unreasonable search"?

Most would say, "No." Why? Because the Supreme Court's Katz opinion, and its progeny, suggest the standard should be, in this case, (1) did the homeowner have an "expectation of privacy," and if so (2) was that expectation something most people would consider to have been reasonable? Most people would not expect that which they have left in plain sight from the street would be legally protected from being seen by passersby. And if they did have such an expectation, most people would not consider that expectation to have been reasonable.

So far, OK. But we're left with a couple of problems. (1) In a world of ubiquitous surveillance video cameras, mail covers, collection of all phone call meta-data, and comparable intrusions on privacy does a "reasonable expectation of privacy" provide us any protection? (2) The courts have said that when you give information to a third party, such as a bank, phone company, or Internet service provider, you thereby lose any expectation of privacy.

This is the legal argument of the businesses that are collecting information about our lives, and the government agencies that then retrieve the information from them (information that the government might not have been able to acquire constitutionally without their involvement).

It is my opinion that both problems (ubiquitous surveillance and third-party transactions) require rethinking in this high tech age. If you hold information you consider to be private, and you turn it over to a newspaper reporter (who makes no promise of protecting your privacy), you can't really complain when it ends up in the local paper. On the other hand, we do protect the privacy of information you hand over to your doctor, lawyer, or priest. And I think there needs to be a third category these days. The information you necessarily have to provide a credit card company, for example, may not be entitled to the protection accorded information you give your doctor. But neither, in my opinion, should it be accorded no more protection than what you hand over to a newspaper reporter, neighbor, or colleague. I believe there is, in fact, a reasonableness in demanding a level of trust in our relationships, business or otherwise, that are necessities in our economy -- such as banking and phones. We need these services. We are not gratuitously handing them private information; it is a necessity that we do so in order for them to provide the service. It is given to them for a specific and limited purpose. And that is what I argue in "Law's Losing Race With Technology; Redefining Privacy," June 7.

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