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April 30, 2006

United 93

Brian and I saw United 93 last night. I should start by noting that it seems odd to file this under the "Movies" category, even though it is about the movie United 93. United 93 is really more of a reconstruction, or dramatization without added drama, than it is like a typical movie, or even a documentary.

The movie contains neither political commentary, nor much in the way of film gimmicks to heighten the drama and emotion, nor even context. It is basically a reconstruction of the events on United 93 on September 11, from the points of view of the terrorists, the passengers, the air traffic controllers, and the military command post charged with air defense of the North American continent. Everything is shown without extrinsic context — this film is in no way a propaganda picture — or comment. There are a few things that were done that were purely conjectural, and which could be described as "film gimmicks to heighten the drama and emotion", but they are both subtle and effective, rather than being a slap in the face.

The terrorists are shown as 2 brutal and remorseless killers, one brutal and very nervous killer, and one (the pilot, Ziad Jarrah) is shown as being hesitant and somewhat more attached to life than the other terrorists, though also committed to the raid as they were. This humanization of the terrorists is certainly conjectural, but it is a good conjecture: we have no need of demons or monsters; we are quite capable of filling those roles ourselves. Another excellent touch was used during the time the passengers were planning how to regain control of the aircraft. As the passengers and crew who would make the counterattack are gathering anything they can use as weapons — forks, hot water, fire extinguishers — the terrorists in the cockpit are praying in Arabic and some of the passengers who would not be taking part are reciting the Lord's Prayer. It was incredibly effective. The one conjectural bit that the film does that I was not happy with was the role of the Scandinavian passenger, who not only argued against the counterattack, but also tried to warn the hijackers and was wrestled down by the other passengers. I felt that this was not only stereotypical and unlikely, but also unnecessary; the extra drama was certainly not needed, and it's pointless to sully the reputation of a person, even anonymously, who may very well have behaved with utter heroism; there is simply no way to know.

The movie is excellent, and I recommend that everyone see it (something I frankly do not often do, even with movies I like). Stephanie and our friend Jen have both told me that "it's too soon" for such a movie, and I've heard those comments on NPR and other places as well. I disagree. Actually, I would agree with the sentiment if the movie was an Oliver Stone take, or a Michael Moore take, but as it was done, the movie serves to do something very critical: help us to remember what we felt that day.

The steady drip characteristic of news in this long, unusual war is numbing. There's a bombing in Baghdad, a kidnapping in southern Afghanistan, a gunman in the Philippines — every day another minor atrocity, and some days another major atrocity, reported with an attitude best described in the Don Henley song Dirty Laundry: "She can tell you 'bout the plane crash with a gleam in her eye. It's interesting when people die." And that kind of coverage makes us forget, makes us numb, makes us unfeeling and complacent. But this is not over yet, and it's not going to be over soon. This is a war that will utterly destroy either our culture or the part of Arab culture that spawns totalitarianism and expansionism and terrorism; it may well be a war that will alter both cultures beyond recognition. But there will be no let up and no quarter until one or the other side is utterly changed or destroyed. And because of the Arab way of war, there will be no fronts, nor any quarter given; the attacks will come at the time and place of the jihadis' choosing, unless we continue to disrupt them by fighting the jihadis in their homeland instead of ours. And it is the forgetfulness, the numbness, the complacency that makes us likely to turn away from fighting the enemy in their homeland. And then there will be another atrocity, here, with many many dead civilians who just went to work, or took a flight.

So no, it's not too soon. This kind of movie needs to be done now, and every few years, to keep us awake. If the media would actually replay the events of the day on its anniversary, this movie would not be necessary. If the media reported events in context instead of in isolation, this movie would not be necessary. But this movie is necessary.

Because what this movie does is to bring the events of that day freshly back to mind. To give you an idea of what I mean, there is a moment in the film where some of the characters are watching CNN and the first report of the explosion at the Pentagon are coming in. This was the point in time where I walked out of the shower, and saw my wife staring in horror at the TV. I turned to look on this scene. When it was shown again in the movie, my stomach sank into the pit of my stomach; it was the exact same feeling I had on September 11. When the movie ended, the audience stood and walked out. There was no talking, joking, commentary, as you would hear at the end of most movies. People were just remembering.

Go see it. Really.

UPDATE: I wrote this after having been away from the Internet for a couple of days. I then went to Instapundit, and found a lot more people saying the same kinds of things, and more besides.

UPDATE: Oh, and something I meant to mention but neglected. Many of the people in the various ATC centers and the NORAD command center were playing themselves. I believe that this is part of the immediacy of the movie: the director allows the characters to simply be seen in the acts of what they are doing on that seemingly-normal, then suddenly ghastly, day, and the intensity of people reenacting their own personal history and actions, as much as the lack of emphasis on anything that would later become almost mythical ("Let's roll!", for example, was just one in the middle of a couple of passengers — even their names aren't generally noted — talking and bucking up their courage to fight), prevents any jingoism or myth-making from coming out in the movie.

Posted by jeff at 4:36 PM | TrackBack

April 27, 2006

I Would Comment if I Could Figure Out What he Meant

Robert Fisk — a man so vile and depraved and shameless that his name has become a pejorative verb meaning "to ridicule a person's statement or article point by point" — has given an interview to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I would love to take it apart, but I can't figure out where to start. For example, did the US create Abu Musab al Zarqawi as a mythical demon to justify our actions in the war, or not. Every single statement that follows is from this one short interview, and every single one is Fisk in his own words (with occasional context added in [brackets]):

"But I think [Zarqawi's recent tape] is part of the bestialisation, if you like, of those people we want to hate, in the sense that I think individuals like Zarqawi or bin Laden don't actually matter."

"In other words, does he actually have any real status as a militant, as a resistant, as a rebel, whatever you like to use the word, terrorist, other than just being a person who is to be hated and to be bestialised in front of the television screens. The issue really is, I think, is this a person who is seriously an enemy of the "West" or is this just another person who is popping up on our screens to say this is the latest mad lunatic, the latest fanatic, the latest terrorist whom we have to be concerned about? That is the real issue, you see. Over and over again we've had this system where whereby we've had Ayatollah Khomeini and Gaddafi in Libya. We've had these extraordinary figures in the Middle East, like Nasser, for example, in Egypt in 1956 and people whom we are encouraged to loathe, encouraged to hate and who, ultimately, are just figureheads, who in the end are people who we just are encouraged to loathe, encouraged to hate. People who, at the end of the day, are not per se people who we need to worry about, people who, indeed -- "

"I mean, we don't know that that was Zarqawi [beheading Nick Berg]. If indeed it was, then he is obviously the monstrous figure we make him out to be. At that time you'll remember the Americans said they believed the voice was that of Zarqawi, but we didn't have any evidence of the voice on the tape. You know, the issue is, are we in fact creating these creatures for ourselves to hate or are they creating themselves? In other words, are we being promoted by these people? Are these people being put before us as caricatures, if you like, to hate or are they people who are there to be hated by us in order to make the, you know, them and us, evil/good caricatures, which George W. Bush has laid out before us?"

[Answering a question from Tony Jones as to whether, in fact, Zarqawi and bin Laden and such "creating themselves" as beasts.] "No, that's absolutely correct and they want to create themselves and we help them create themselves. We help them do that. We help them do that. Every time we hold a press conference of the occupation powers, for example, in Iraq and say, "Mr Al-Zarqawi is to blame" , we help to do this. This is what we are doing and this is a big problem because we are helping to create the creatures of "evil". "

"Here 's what I conclude. I think these people are bad guys. OK, they are. There's no doubt about it. They are bad guys."

So, did we create Zarqawi as an evil bogeyman, or is he an evil bogeyman showing his true colors? Listing to Robert Fisk, you'd have to conclude the answer is "yes". Fisk's only consistent (not coherent) position is that America is evil, and Bush is particularly evil, and that anything in the world that opposes America, and especially Bush, must therefore not be, in the end, evil. Even people who slaughter children by the hundred, are not evil in Fisk's world, if only they also burn an American flag. Or would, if it came up.

hat tip: InstaPundit

Posted by jeff at 7:33 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 24, 2006

Clearing Up Some Misconceptions - Part I

A few days ago Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was evacuated due to a computer glitch in TSA software.

Slashdot had an interesting comment thread on the story. I say interesting because I am surprised (and pleased) that there is so much ignorance in the general public regarding TSA security procedures. This is very good for security. However, there are problems with such rampant ignorance; it opens TSA up for far too much ridicule and scorn and causes misconceptions of what we, as TSA agents, actually do - misconceptions that always seem to be very negative and condescending.

So I am going to address some of the issues raised in the Slashdot comments. However, since much of the actual information is sensitive and is available only on a "need to know" basis, I will be very general in how I address this. Hopefully, though, this will help clear some misconceptions up.

There were four pages of comments on Slashdot, so this will take multiple posts to cover it all.

This incident raises the possibility of tampering with the software to either: 1. purposely display an image of a dangerous item where none exists, inciting a scare like the one witnessed Wednesday, disrupting thousands of lives and paralyzing a major terminal, or: 2. display an image of an innocuous item instead of the actual image of the luggage containing a dangerous item, allowing terrorists to smuggle said items onto aircraft.

Actually, number one is exactly what is being done. However, this does not incite a scare, excepting in this instance, when the program failed to identify that it was a false image. I think number two would be next to impossible.

That's insane. Images to test their alertness sure, but images of bombs? That's just plain crazy. All you're doing is desensitising them...

It's not crazy at all. We are looking for bombs. If we never see a bomb on the x-ray, we probably won't recognize one if one ever actually appears. This is valuable training. In a way it does desensitize us, I suppose, but that's a good thing. It helps prepare us for being in the moment when it may be real, much like military and police training.

...if screeners know this kind of thing is going to happen every so often and they see something suspicious, they may become a bit jaded after a while and assume it's a test, even if the indication doesn't appear.

Jaded is not really the proper word, but upon seeing a suspicious image, particularly of a bomb or gun, I'm sure almost all of us assume it's a test. That's far more likely than the alternative. However, if the indication doesn't appear, I guarantee none of us would assume it's a test. The software simply doesn't fail, which is why this evacuation happened when it actually did fail for the first time that I'm aware of. Certainly there was no assumption of a test in this instance, and the TSA at the checkpoint apparently did everything exactly like they should.

How frequent are these "tests" given?

Without being too specific, it's random and can be adjusted. In my experience I have ranged between about 3-15 a day, depending on which checkpoint I work at.

What are the chances that they coincide with an actual suspicious device, which the screener would then assume was part of the "test" which happened to occur simultaneously.

The chances are fairly remote, in that we don't see a lot of real prohibited items, other than lighters. The odds of a real threat and a test image occuring in the same bag is slim. However, the latter half of this comment doesn't occur. The software sees to it that we don't confuse a test image with any actual items in the bag. We are reminded (like we would ever forget) with every test image to check the bag again for any real threats.

Shouldn't said software be tested to something just shy of infinity ?

I don't know how tested it was, but any software is subject to bugs. This is the first time I've ever heard of the software doing this.

Isn't there an alternate verification process that doesn't involve computers?

Yes, and it was carried out in this case. You might check the suspect baggage. You call law enforcement to the checkpoint. They determine whether to call a bomb disposal unit.

It makes it very easy to hold "suspicious" looking people with no evidence whatsoever. "Well, the machine showed a picture that looked a bomb."

Need to borrow some tinfoil?

I wonder if this software uses the same "random" number generator that ensures only suspicious-looking people get "randomly" screened. That way suspicious-looking people are chosen to "randomly" have imaginary bombs in their luggage.

Do you really think only suspicious-looking people get "randomly" screened? We're almost always accused of the exact oppsite, you know, screening grandma and baby but not Mohammed. I don't know how computer software with no visual capability could determine someone was suspicious enough to put an imaginary bomb in their bag, nor what it would accomplish. We don't treat people with imaginary bombs in their bags any different than those with nothing in their bags at all. More tinfoil?

This incident raises the possibility of tampering with the software to either

3. Display "This is a test" right after Mr. Terrorists luggage containing dangerous items has passed through the X-Ray machine.

Not how the software works. All fake images are removed from the bag before it comes out of the x-ray. If your "dangerous items" didn't disappear, it's not a test.

If there are severe consequences for the operator if they miss one of the test images, then I doubt they'll be desensitized. On the other hand, if there's no consequence for being a slacker, you'll see a group of operators hudding around the display laughing at the "fake" bomb image while a terrorist walks right on through.

Missing one image does not involve severe consequences. This is training after all. I'm new to the checkpoint side of operations, actually, so I'm not fully versed in this yet. I know that on some x-rays, the tests can be reviewed, but I'm not sure if that's universal for all of the different machines. However, we have similar computer based tests away from the checkpoint as well. This, I know, can be monitored. I have been told that poor enough results can lead to remedial training. And we are recertified every year. If you fail to pass recertification on the x-ray, you will likely be fired. No one would laugh at a "fake" bomb. We see too many of them for them to be funny. However, that dog I saw in the x-ray - that was kinda funny.

Yes, you would think in "system to positively identify bombs" the flowchart box labeled "automatically and without further inquiry disregard positive image of bomb" would raise a few eyebrows.

Again, not how the software works. In a test situation the positive image of a bomb would disappear; then you would disregard the image. If the image doesn't disappear, you have a situation.

More importantly: After enough false alarms, the screeners will more likely not react should a real bomb appear. "Oh well, surely just another software fault, just like the three we've had earlier this week. We better don't scare our passengers again ..."

This would be a legitimate worry if this were a common problem. However, like I've said, this is the first I've ever heard of this software glitch occuring.

...never underestimate the apathetic state of the government-hired drone. I know they say they say they're picking the best people for these jobs, but in my many recent trips I've discovered a "lack of urgency" in some screeners and an "I'm in charge" attitude in a few too many for my liking.

Pejorative aside, I have found that most TSA officers are not apathetic, quite the contrary. Yes, like in any group of people, some are apathetic or lack urgency, but it is not the norm. Also, many screeners are ex-military, ex-law enforcement, or current reserve/national guard, which could account for the "I'm in charge" attitude. And to be frank (since being Brian isn't always enough), when it comes to airport/airline security, we are in charge.

I assume they "cut in" these test on the conveyor belt, meaning you see n+1 suitcases instead of n real ones. So if you see two suspicious devices and one "this is a test" message, you'll know that message doesn't cover both of them.

Not how the software works.

The TSA screeners' raises are based on how many hits/misses they get.

That is only just now becoming the case, and it is only one small factor of what goes into a raise.

Why put in images of bombs and such? Someone eyeballing that that isn't a screener would blow a gasket if they saw it.

TSA tries very hard to make it difficult for the public to see the x-ray monitors. While in many cases it's not possible to prevent a line of sight, we make sure you keep moving so that you can't just stare at the monitor for any extended time. Also, without being trained in what to look for and with how far from the monitor you would be, the odds of you picking out anything in an image is slim. At best, you may be able to recognize a simple gun image, but I doubt you would recognize anything else.

How about pictures of assorted dildos/vibrators? No, I'm serious. That'll catch your eye, male or female. Or a very carefully and perfectly laid out bra of panty?

Most people don't put these items in their carry-on, but in the event they did, do you really want us to be looking for adult novelty items rather than things that can kill you? As for bras and panties, x-rays go right through clothing; we would never see them.

This is training, you WANT people to see these things. You WANT them to have experience reacting to stuff they think is real. How do you expect them to identify bombs in suticases if they've never seen examples, especially in real world situations. Watching films in a classroom is nice and all, but not real enough.

This is one of the most intelligent comments in this thread. Sadly, it has very little competition.

The TSA funds fundamental research in sustaining human performance in search tests to ensure that these baggage screeners are performing well.

One thing that has been found is that the human brain cannot keep searching efficiently for something that never appears, you just tend to zone out. We're not robots after all, and searching day in and day out for a 1 in a million event that may not occur for months or years is not a task we're equipped to do.

By giving the visual system periodic targets, it stays frosty. So some kind of periodic fake bomb is necessary.

Now you can do this in two ways: with real fake bombs, or images of bombs. One of these options is going to cost about 100 times as much to implement as the other and at the end of the day, if properly implemented, both will serve the same purpose. It all comes down to how much security can we get for our dollar, and paying actors to play dress up terrorists and slip fake-bombs through the baggage system is hugely inefficient compared to a software solution.

I don't know the accuracy of the cost comparisons, but TSA does both! Excellent comment.

You're saying that in order to train someone to react to an extreme situation you have to constantly bombard them with false examples of that situation?

It's one thing to learn to identify a bomb on an X-ray machine. It's quite another to have them randomly flash the image through when you're actually doing the work then a "just kidding" message.

Hell that's like always training with live ammo.

First, it's not a constant bombardment. Second, while bombs have common components, they can be assembled in a variety of ways, and the components can vary greatly in appearance. I know what components make up a bomb, yet I still miss some of the test images. Why? Because those components don't always look the same. Bombs are limited in appearance only by the imagination. Not to mention, some bomb components are common items that we see in the majority of normal bags.

A test is much different than a joke or prank.

Actually, it's more like sometimes training with live ammo, which the military does. It would be worse to never train with live ammo. When the real bullets start flying, you want to be as prepared as possible.

While the baggage screeners might not know when random tests are run, their supervisors damn well should. If baggage inspection is a real time operation it'd be tragic if a "test" image with a fake bomb appeared over baggage with a real bomb. While the screeners are in the dark as to when the tests are run, the security system itself should clearly know when the tests are run.

The supervisors don't know either. These tests are random computer generated tests. They happen all day long and are not small in number. There is no need or any practical way for the supervisor to know. As I stated before, the fake bomb on a real bomb scenario is accounted for and is not a problem.

Hey, here's an idea. Cut some metal words out of old scrap metal and make the phrase "This is a test" and put it inside your luggage. I wonder what kinds of things you could get through the screening system

This idea comes up many times in the comments using metal or lead. First of all, lead (and the metal, if it was dense enough) would be impenetrable to x-rays. Being that we could not see what was under the words, we would check the bag. Second, evan if you used thin metal, and I could see through it, the words would make me look at the bag especially closely. Even if I didn't see anything, I would still probably alert my supervisor, whom I'm sure would have many questions to ask regarding why you did that. DHS might have questions too. Third, the software doesn't work like that, so we would know it's not the kind of test we are discussing.

How do we really know a bomb did not get on a plane?

Let's see, no plane exploded? Mind you, this comment was posted two days after the event in question.

Guess we will have to wait a few days to see if one goes down.

How many flights have you been on that lasted a few days?

they've got devices coming out for cars and trucks that test driver awareness far more subtly than just popping up a test picture at random... the software actually monitors the drivers eye movements and other parameters... so there shouldn't be anything stopping them from doing something similar for this x-ray scanner application...

The software you speak of is to make sure drivers keep their eyes on the road. Just because I'm looking at the screen doesn't mean I'm seeing or paying attention to it. The tests in question require you to pay attention to what's on the screen.

Then again, perhaps it would be better to dump the human out of the loop altogether and rely on AI to determine if an item of luggage warrants further attention... but these days it's still cheaper to use people to do it and pay them peanuts at the same time...

Interestingly, I've been moved over from the baggage side of things to the passenger side because this is exactly what happened. My airport has implemented an in-line baggage system that greatly reduces the need for baggage screeners. The baggage side has software that does help to determine if an item of luggage needs further attention. Of course, the human element is still needed to inspect that luggage. I believe they are in the process of designing checkpoint x-rays that are more similar to the ones used for checked bags that would help determine if luggage requires more attention, thus supplementing the human element. It probably is cheaper to use people for this, but like I said, they spent the money on the baggage side costing me my much prefered job there. And, I wish I made more money, but I hardly get paid peanuts.

"What brainiac thought this one up?"

Jeremy Wolfe, possibly the world's foremost expert on human performance in visual search tasks did.

You can read about his research on his publications page here.

http://search.bwh.harvard.edu/recent_publications.htm [harvard.edu]

Definately a link worth checking out. I have read a couple of articles Wolfe has written and find them very interesting. At some point, they'll merit a more in-depth blog post.

To be continued...

Posted by Brian at 11:39 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Political Purges and Civil Service

A CIA employee at fairly high levels (a career civil servant, though, not a political appointee) has been accused of leaking classified information to the press — serious classified information about things like government programs to track, capture, hold and get information from terrorists — information that could be used by the enemy to avoid being tracked, captured or held, and lessen the amount of information that the US gets from interrogating captured enemy fighters. In other words, she may have seriously undermined the security of the United States during war time. And it may have been for political reasons: she was a fairly hefty (for a non-rich individual) contributer to John Kerry's campaign and other Democratic causes.

Now the administration is apparently trying to figure out if there was more than one partisan leaker, a development over which Jon Henke is justifibly worried: we don't need political purges of civil servants (in the White House travel office or the CIA or anywhere else).

On the other hand, there is the possibility of a coordinated effort by Democrats in the CIA and State Department to embarrass the President by leaking information (often out of context or missing vital bits of exculpatory information that honest government officials who know it cannot provide because it would compromise security, which is how the whole Valerie Plame/Joe Wilson thing apparently came about). Or just, perhaps, spying directly for the enemy, which is worse. I'm hardly the first to note the apparent war on George Bush's policies by mid-level CIA and State Department staffers; it's been an ongoing discussion for years.

If that is the case, then there needs to be a purge, and it will inherently be political because the people being purged undertook their illegal and immoral actions for political reasons. So while I agree with Jon in general, this may be an exception — it is certainly too soon to tell.

Furthermore, I think that this is evidence that career civil service simply might not be valid in such an atmosphere of hyperpartisanship. The civil service system replaced patronage because it was seen as more professional and less corrupt (and much less disruptive) than changing over the civil servants every time the White House changed hands. In retrospect, that decision might have to be undone.

Posted by jeff at 7:20 PM | TrackBack

April 23, 2006

Network Neutrality

There have been a couple of posts by Dale Franks at QandO recently, here and here, dealing with network neutrality (the proposition, or design principle really, that the INTERconnections between NETworks that make up the Internet should not care about the content of the data passing across them — a packet is a packet is a packet). The alternative is "intelligent networks", which look at the source, destination, type or contents of packages and decide to charge differently, or throttle differently, based on those characteristics.

For example, let's say that you have a cable modem, as I do. Your cable company might decide that Google is "using up too much bandwidth" because so many people use it. The cable company would then go to Google and say that traffic to and from Google would be throttled (artificially limited as to the amount that could be sent across the cable company's network) unless Google paid a fee to make up for its "excessive usage" of the cable company's bandwidth. Google would then have the option of striking deals with the cable and telephone monopolies that provide most of the "last mile" broadband to internet users; setting up alternate ways of getting to its users; or being throttled, with the consequent loss of reputation (they will appear to perform badly), traffic and revenue.

Presumably, there would not be such a problem with Google's (or Microsoft's, or Yahoo's, or any other large site's) own provider. For one thing, Google pays for vast amounts of bandwidth directly carried by long-haul carriers over dedicated lines. For another thing, if any of Google's (presumably multiple) providers threatened such a thing, Google could just cancel their contract with the provider and use its other alternatives, some or all of which would be glad to take the additional cash in vast amounts.

What really would be happening is that the local providers would be ignoring the fact that its customers are in fact paying for their bandwidth, and would be attempting to get other, deeper pockets to pay for the provider's bandwidth a second time. From a bottom line perspective, it makes a lot of sense in the very, very short run for local providers to use bandwidth shaping and similar technologies to wring more money out of the network, just as it pays for them to set up added services (like email or web content provision or hosting) that are so bad none of their customers will actually use them, so that their costs of setting up are small but they get extra revenue from charging for the unused services. But in the case of bandwidth shaping, this really is only a very, very short term benefit.

Let's say that my local cable company were to put such limitations in place. I would notice, and would immediately cancel my contract in favor of another local vendor that did not have such limitations. If I could not find such a vendor, I'd lease a T1 line (a dedicated, high-speed line). Even for people who cannot lease a T1, there are usually multiple providers in urban areas, where most broadband consumers live. And there's no percentage in inconveniencing your rural users, because let's face it, there aren't enough of them for bandwidth shaping to be a threat to deep pockets companies. The collective loss of business, possibly combined with efforts to end local monopolies for cable and phone service, would quickly put an end to the business utility of bandwidth shaping. In any but the short term, unless there is a forced monopoly, there is no percentage in inconveniencing your customers. And while there may be a cable monopoly, and a phone monopoly, and both may collude in inconveniencing their customers, there are still other ways of getting high-speed connections which would suddenly become much more attractive. In other words, there is no monopoly on the provision of high-speed IP connectivity even if particular methods of providing high-speed IP connectivity are monopolies.

So while I support Dale's general idea of deregulating telecom services as much as possible, I don't really see network neutrality violations as being much of a big deal: the Internet routes around damage. While it may require building more connections than currently exist (a good thing in any case) in order to do so, the advantage from bandwidth shaping would be so short term as to create no real problems for internet users.

UPDATE: See also here and here. I thought about whether to put my response to Scott Chaffin in the comments or here, and decided to leave it in the comments. But if you agree with Scott that the problem is "free riders", you might read my response in the comments for a concrete example of why this is not so.

Posted by jeff at 5:36 PM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

April 20, 2006

Welcome Home!

I work at DFW airport and every day I see soldiers flying out, most heading to Iraq. Today, for the first time, I was able to see a full flight coming home. And what a great welcome they received!

There was a walkway where the soldiers walked down after leaving the baggage claim area. The walkway was lined with people along its entire length, with more people hanging out around the exit where most of the troops were leaving to board buses (back to Ft. Hood, I assume).

Every time a soldier came out and proceeded down the walkway a huge cheer went up. Our guys were treated like rock stars! They would shake people's hands along the entire way, while everyone applauded and hooted. They really seemed a little embarassed by all the attention.

It was a really nice welcome home, and I'm glad I got a chance to see it. I couldn't help but smile and feel good. All in all, it was a great way to start the day.

Posted by Brian at 11:10 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

A Terrible Loss

RIP Scott Crossfield, one of the greatest pilots ever.

Posted by jeff at 9:15 PM | TrackBack

April 19, 2006

A Modest Abortion Proposal

I should say up front that I am morally opposed to the procedure of abortion, to the Federal regulation of abortion, and to most taxes (what? - wait). However, I think I have an idea on how to make abortions much rarer, while not dramatically increasing the problems that come from difficulty in getting abortions (such as infanticide being more common). The more I think about this, the more I think it could actually work, so I'll lay it out, and then you guys can tell me what I've missed.

Tax abortions. Prior to, say, 12 weeks, the tax would be zero. It would rapidly escalate after that time until, at term, the tax was huge — say the same as the average cost of an adoption (which I seem to recall is upwards of $30000). The tax would be waved if the mother's life was in danger (self defense is always a valid cause of action) and reduced if the mother's health was seriously and unusually at risk. The proceeds of the tax would go to subsidizing adoptions of American babies by American families, less only the amount needed for overhead (which could be small, but probably wouldn't be, because bureaucracies insist on vast regulation when simple means would suffice) to collect and distribute the tax.

OK, so what did I miss, and why would this be unattractive to anyone less rabid than NARAL?

Posted by jeff at 9:37 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

April 18, 2006

General Questions

While I think the six retired generals who came out publicly calling for SecDef Rumsfeld to retire were wrong on many counts, it is still good to keep in mind that these men have decades each of military experience, and not all of them are Title X guys (that is, political generals); these guys deserve to be listened to before being simply dismissed, and we all know the news tends to miss most of the important parts of any story in their quest for the right soundbite. So I have a few questions for them, and if there's any way I can get time to do this, I'll try to track down contact information for the generals and get answers to these particular questions:

1. One common criticism of SecDef Rumsfeld has been that he committed insufficient troops to the Iraq campaign. How many troops would you have suggested were required for this campaign? For how long would they be required and when would they be phased in and out? What missions would extra troops have been tasked with, and where deployed? How would these additional troops have been supplied, given the lack of both Turkey and Saudi Arabia as supply routes/sources and the political impossibility of using a route through Israel/Jordan? How would the additional supplies and supply routes have been protected both during the invasion and during the occupation?

2. Let us say that your advice from the first question had been taken, and the campaign had been fought with these forces, logistics plans and so forth. What additional risks would have been introduced, and what risks mitigated, by campaigning in this manner vice the manner in which the campaign was actually conducted?

3. Would the use of a larger footprint lessened the duration or severity of the terrorism, or given the terrorists more targets, or some mix of the two? Would the Sunni insurrection have been larger, smaller or the same? Would the Shi'a and/or Kurds have joined the insurrection? Would it have been possible, with this larger footprint, to build up Iraqi security forces who would have a will and interest in securing their country? How much time would this have taken in contrast to the way that it has turned out in reality? Was removing Saddam Hussein from power sufficient to end the war, or were other goals required to be achieved before the situation in Iraq could be declared

4. How does this plan align with the political goals outlined by the President? Would it have been possible to have stood up an Iraqi government in sovereign control of the country? How much time would that have taken, and how much buy-in from Iraqis - particularly Sunni Iraqis - would be expected? Would any such government, wholly owing its existence and form and security to American forces, ever be seen as anything other than a puppet government? Would it ever be anything other than a puppet government?

5. If you believe that engaging in the Iraq campaign was a mistake in the first place, and that the President's goals were not sufficient, were too audacious, or were simply not worth the cost to achieve, what goals do you believe would have been correct to pursue? Is it the place of the military or the civilian leadership to determine the goals to be pursued in undertaking a war? If it is the place of the civilian leadership to determine goals, and the military does not support those goals, should it be the military or the civilian leadership whose decision is final?

6. Should the Secretary of Defense be held accountable for the errors of his superiors? That is, should the Secretary of Defense be responsible for, say, the disastrous CPA results, even though those were largely at the hands of the State Department after the President's decision to implement the CPA in this manner? If the President should bear the blame for that, rather than the Secretary of Defense, then in what way did the Secretary of Defense mismanage the occupation (another common complaint)? What could have been done differently, knowing what we knew at the time and without benefit of hindsight? Where and how had such measures been tried in the past, and with what results?

7. Assuming that the larger levels of force had been used, a fairly large callup of the reserves and National Guard - much larger than was actually done - would have been needed. This would have been politically difficult, which is part of the Secretary of Defense's job to defend. What arguments could have been made to make such a large callup politically palatable?

8. Given such a large callup, national reserves would have been next to non-existent. If another crisis had come to a head in, say, mid-2004, with the vast bulk of the American military committed in Iraq, with what forces could we have influenced the crisis? Would any inability to influence the crisis, let alone meaningfully intervene, be politically defensible? Would it be morally defensible?

9. You spoke out after your normal retirement, rather than resigning during the run-up to the war, or in its immediate aftermath. While it would be extraordinary for a serving officer to speak publicly against the civilian leadership, did you consider any other measures while on active duty, such as resigning your commission or taking early retirement? In what other ways did you attempt to influence the Secretary of Defense and the CINCCENT to do things your way? Is there anything that, in hindsight, you wish you had done to bring attention to these deficiencies at an earlier time?

10. To what degree have you considered that you might be wrong?

As I said, these men deserve to be listened to. They might, after all, be right. But how can we know until they've been asked, and answered, tough questions? So far, all we've heard is unbecoming carping. I for one would like to know more.

Posted by jeff at 10:12 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

April 17, 2006

Exceptional English

Well, even though it's supposedly respectable, I'm not holding up very well against my peers. Oh well...

You scored 100% Beginner, 92% Intermediate, 80% Advanced, and 73% Expert!
You have an extremely good understanding of beginner, intermediate, and advanced level commonly confused English words, getting at least 75% of each of these three levels' questions correct. This is an exceptional score. Remember, these are commonly confused English words, which means most people don't use them properly. You got an extremely respectable score.

Thank you so much for taking my test. I hope you enjoyed it!

For the complete Answer Key, visit my blog: http://shortredhead78.blogspot.com/.

My test tracked 4 variables How you compared to other people your age and gender:
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You scored higher than 55% on Beginner
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You scored higher than 12% on Intermediate
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You scored higher than 4% on Advanced
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You scored higher than 22% on Expert
Link: The Commonly Confused Words Test written by shortredhead78 on Ok Cupid, home of the 32-Type Dating Test

Posted by Nemo at 8:56 PM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

April 15, 2006

Force Field Developed

Some stories just seem so amazing you can't help but wonder if they are just belated April Fool's jokes or propaganda.

Israel and the US have apparently developed an anti-RPG system called Trophy. I'm guessing it's a ECM system of some kind, based on this video.

If true, the best word to sum it up would be "Cool!'

(Jeff, I'd really love to know how Connor reacts)

Posted by Nemo at 3:01 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 14, 2006

Generally Wrong

Several retired American generals have recently criticized SecDef Rumsfeld's conduct in office, and called for his resignation. (Best takes here and here.) The generals are, for the most part, wrong; and because of the way in which they are wrong, they'll never see that they are.

But first to backtrack. One of my largest disagreements ever with my father — one that actually led to both of us raising our voice with some heat — was over an event that happened close to two decades before I was born: Truman's sacking of MacArthur. My father argues that MacArthur was correct in his determination that the war could only be won by advancing all the way to the border with China, and if necessary into China itself. While I agree, with an important caveat, that is only part of the story. MacArthur was correct that the war could only be won militarily as he suggested, but Truman was correct about two somewhat more important matters: first, that the point of the war for the US was not to utterly destroy the enemy, but to preserve South Korean freedom; and second, and most importantly, that the control of military policy is not in the hands of the generals, but the civilian leadership of the nation.

Both issues are coming into play today, too. The generals who are making these criticisms of Rumsfeld (really, of Bush, if you note what they are most often criticizing) have failed to note that the military issues are not the only ones on the table, and the civilians have picked a different grand strategy than the generals assume is operating. As a result, our actions (and force levels, and choices of enemy and target) are different than the generals believe would be best. This does not make the generals correct even though they may be right in a narrow military sense: they have simply failed to consider the broader context of the American use of force and other elements of national power in the long war.

We could easily break countries and leave them to rot, and that is precisely what those who argue for 4 times the troop levels we actually used in Iraq are actually arguing for. It would be possible to level cities, devastate populations and economies and infrastructures, and kill the enemy en masse with few casualties of our own. We could use overwhelming military might to force the enemy's head into the sand so hard he'd never pull it up again. But that would hardly contribute to democratizing the Middle East, which is the grand strategy that our leaders elected for that purpose have chosen, and in fact would be detrimental to that strategy. Further, such criticisms reflect a very isolated thought process: what force then would be available should, say, North Korea come south?

We have undoubtedly traded away margins of victory (the Shahikot Valley and Tora Bora both come to mind, as does the early occupation of Anbar Province in Iraq) in the short term in order to gain a strategic advantage in the long term. It's a type of sacrifice war gamers are very familiar with, and one would expect those whose entire career is tied up in war gaming and war fighting would recognize that. But these generals, for whatever reason, have failed to notice that policy is not their bag, and their opinion of what that policy should be (which is the root of their disagreements on such points as force levels and choices of pace and target and enemy) is no more relevant than mine: their job is to carry out orders, not make policy.

Even within the context of the President's mandate to control national strategy, it is obvious that the President, the SecDef, and the military have all made mistakes. What is remarkable, looking at events through a historical lens, is how few mistakes they have made, how minor they have been, and how easily they have been adapted to. Indeed, the only mistake that I cannot understand, the largest mistake and yet the easiest to avoid, has been the administration's mismanagement of public opinion. While the administration says that they realize they are fighting an ideological struggle, they apparently don't realize that this is a struggle not merely with the enemy, but also with elements within our own society, who would gladly see Americans die in large numbers (and our allies die in massive, massive numbers) if it would give Republicans a black eye. This oversight threatens to end the President's strategy with the President's second term, and that makes it a core error that the President and his administration must fix, or risk utter long-term failure (though it would not happen on their watch).

And by the way, those Bush critics who otherwise wouldn't give a general officer the time of day, but are now jumping to crow out the generals' statements for their (the critics') own political gain, aren't fooling anyone. It is transparently obvious that the generals will be discarded by the critics as soon as they are no longer politically useful.

Posted by jeff at 7:46 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

April 13, 2006

Carelessness with Data

Like many IT folks, I carry a flash memory stick around. I recently switched mine to a secure flash drive after losing my original for a couple of days. Stories like this make me even more glad I have done so. Granted, I don't have any military data on mine, but still......

Afghans selling stolen military data

One flash memory drive, the Times reported Thursday, holds the names, photos and phone numbers of people described as Afghan spies working for the military. The data indicates payments of $50 bounties for each Taliban or al-Qaida fighter caught based on the source’s intelligence.
Posted by Nemo at 10:32 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

April 11, 2006


Sometimes, children come up with such fine arguments - or at least surprise you with a really good one - that you have little choice but to surrender. Our daughter is nearly 12. She just asked us if she could start riding in the front seat of the cars yet. I showed her the airbag warning labels that say that if deployed, "Children 12 and under may be injured or killed".

(Now, at age 12, she's almost as tall as her mom, and weighs over 100, while the airbags are typically spec'd for 60-75 lbs, but I wasn't going to tell her that.)

So, my daughter - who claims not to have inherited any math skills from me - says that: "Hey, doesn't that mean that when I'm 12 years and 1 day old that I'll be old enough? I'll be older than 12 at that point, and the sign says 12 and under."

Posted by Nemo at 8:58 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Protest Anthem

So, commenter queuno suggested that the Hispanic immigrant movement needs a protest anthem.

I offer this Judas Priest classic:

There I was completely wasting, out of work and down
All inside it’s so frustrating as I drift from town to town
Feel as though nobody cares if I live or die
So I might as well begin to put some action in my life

Breaking the law, breaking the law
Breaking the law, breaking the law
Breaking the law, breaking the law
Breaking the law, breaking the law

So much for the golden future, I can’t even start
I’ve had every promise broken, there’s anger in my heart
You don’t know what it’s like, you don’t have a clue
If you did you’d find yourselves doing the same thing too

Breaking the law, breaking the law
Breaking the law, breaking the law
Breaking the law, breaking the law
Breaking the law, breaking the law

You don’t know what it’s like

Breaking the law, breaking the law
Breaking the law, breaking the law
Breaking the law, breaking the law
Breaking the law, breaking the law

Breaking the law

Posted by Brian at 12:43 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

April 10, 2006

Pet Peeve of the Day

Ads on websites where the pictures keep changing - very distracting!

Posted by Brian at 3:09 PM | TrackBack

Still Not Gettin' It

No, the supporters of illegal immigration still don't quite get it.

Waiving Mexican flags, raising them above the American flag, and flying Old Glory upside down was not a great way to gain support or show how much you love America.

Neither is a campaign to boycott U.S. products on the biggest holiday in the Communist world. Posted by Brian at 2:11 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

April 9, 2006

Car Buying Fun

While the Medcalfs were breaking down yesterday, I was on an entirely different car buying adventure. We have been on the lookout for another car for a few weeks now. Both our vehicles are around 100,000 miles. I plan on running them to about twice that, but since they are both so close in mileage and miles per year, they would both be there (and probably worn out) at about the same time. I really don't want to be saddled with two car payments at once, so we were wanting to either buy new to replace a car, or buy an additional used to take the load off my car. When we added our 12-year-old into the mix, we decided with the latter option. I'm sure at 16 she'll have an entirely different opinion of what kind of car she will want to drive, so taking that decision out of her hands seems like a good idea.

We have been looking at the "Certified Pre-owned" cars. They are often rentals or single-owner vehicles that are dealership-serviced. I like the warranty on them, plus the cost is comparable to the "used" price that has no service options. You can search for them relatively easily (autotrader, carsdirect, plus the manufacturer sites). We decided on the Taurus/Sable as the best deal overall. Parts are plentiful plus the cars are safe and well-made. Since Ford has discontinued them, there are plenty of them around at reasonable prices.

The hard part is finding the right deal. Most of the CPOs are 2005 models, and they were just a little out of our desired price range. I found three deals that looked good over the last three weeks. One was 75 miles away but was gone when I called to ask. The second I found had just had an offer placed when I arrived to look at it. The salesman was very nice here. He asked what I wanted (model, price, etc.) and said was going to be on the lookout for me. He didn't try to sell me something I didn't want, which I really appreciate.

The last car I found was also gone when I got to the dealership. Here, the salesman wasn't so smart. He showed me a couple of other deals, which I told him were out of my range. He gave the "let's see what we can do speech". I humored him, knowing it wasn't likely. Once he gave me his best offer, I told him it wasn't doable, and tried to thank him for his efforts, and asked him if he could keep a sharp eye for a deal for me. At this point, he pulled out all the stops: what's your preferred payment? price? What can they do to get my business today? When I tried to explain that it wasn't possible, he got the sales manager. After a few more minutes of this I just got infuriated and walked out. I really hate high-pressure tactics. I stormed out of a dealership a few years ago because their second "better offer" actually would have cost us more since they reduced the value of our trade-in on the second offer letter. All these tactics accomplish is to get me to not ever do business with a dealership.

So, I came home a bit frustrated and angry. I checked the web sites again, and there it was: a certified 2003 Taurus with about 24k miles on it - and it was in the right price range. I was hoping for about 20k miles, but I'll trade 4000 miles for a few thousand in debt. The only problem: it was 150 miles away. Still, it was the best deal out there. A quick check of Kelley Blue Book showed their price was already about halfway between "sticker" and direct sale, so it looked very promising. I called the dealership, and it was still on the lot. When I told the salesman I wanted to come have a look, but was 2-3 hours away, he immediately pulled it from the lot - just on my word.

We drove to the dealership, did the test drive and found it to be in very good shape overall. So, we made the deal and drove it home - just to find out that Jeff and Steph were stuck on the side of the road 20 hours away, and that they were now in the market for a new minivan. I had to chuckle at the timing, though I don't think they appreciate it at the moment.

Posted by Nemo at 6:10 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

April 8, 2006

The Move from Hell

As Kevin and I were driving UHaul's largest available truck to Michigan last weekend, my family was busily catching several viruses with interesting effects. ("Hey, Eric, come look at this" is not something you want to hear your pediatrician say to another pediatrician, I can assure you.) While the family has mostly still been sick — all but me and one child, who has recovered — we began driving from Dallas to Detroit Friday. Mid-day Saturday, our van transformed itself into industrial art in the middle of nowhere on I-55 between St. Louis and Springfield, IL. How "middle of nowhere"? In the 3 hours I was by the side of the road, not one police cruiser of any kind came by. And you cannot rent a car or get a shuttle to the airport until Monday.

But I am stunned senseless by the kindness of strangers here in Stuanton, IL, from the man who took my family to a nearby Diary Queen, then waited with me for the tow truck; to the man who came into his service station on a day off and then brought me cat food and litter so I wouldn't have to walk back to the trailer for them; to the lady who offered to loan me her van to run errands. (See Steph's post for details.) I am stunned, and humbled, and deeply grateful for the actions of Paul and Jim and Lynn, who turned an expensive, stressful and difficult situation into something much easier, much nicer and much more bearable. Thanks, guys.

Posted by jeff at 10:00 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Do They Make iPods Big Enough for This?

Someone has decided to record a reading of the US tax code in MP3 format. As someone else commented, this must be what people listen to on their iPods in Hell. Presuming they make iPods big enough.

Posted by jeff at 9:58 PM | TrackBack

Don't Call Me a Republican

I haven't really considered myself a Republican for several years now, instead preferring the label "libertarian conservative". However, it has not really bothered me to be called a Republican, especially considering I vote largely for members of that party. But that has changed. From now on I don't want to be called a Republican. While I will still likely vote for many Republicans, I won't vote for just any Republican because they are not as bad as the Democrat. For example, if 2008 were a two party vote only, and the candidates were say McCain and pretty much any Democrat other than Lieberman, I would not vote for either candidate, not out of apathy but out of disgust.

This is a change that has been brewing for a while. The illegal immigration debate has certainly increased my unhappiness with several Republicans (although I have been happy with one of my Senators - John Cornyn). But, surprisingly, it was actually this story which caused me to write this post. I don't even live in Arkansas or smoke (In fact, I find smoking a disgusting habit). Maybe it was just the straw that broke the camel's back.

Mike Huckabee is supposed to be a "conservative". I'm sorry but conservatives should be champions of freedom. I'm glad he's living healthy and all. I understand that he would like others to do the same. But trying to force that on people is not "conservative" in the current lexicon. It's just more "government knows best; defy us and you will pay!" I expect that from Democrats and "moderate" Republicans, but not "conservatives".

The governor should feel free to use the bully pulpit to encourage people to live healthy and not smoke, but when that crosses over into legislation abridging individual freedom, you're no longer a "conservative" but an advocate for the nanny state. Don't expect to see me follow you there. Posted by Brian at 1:02 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

April 6, 2006

A Brilliant Idea

Undocumented Congressmen, via Glenn Reynolds.

Posted by jeff at 11:50 AM | TrackBack

NPR and Immigration

I'm getting very frustrated at NPR on the whole immigration issue. First, they never, ever refer to "illegal" or even "undocumented" immigrants, except derisively or in a quote. Rather, they are all simply "immigrants" — hardly fair to those who've worked to come here legally! Worse, since they don't distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants, they tend to associate the traits of each (quite distinct) group with the other, so that legal immigrants are presented as coming for jobs Americans don't want (in IT, they tend to come for jobs Americans haven't been prepared for by our school system) and illegal immigrants are presented as being the basis of the country's population. Neither is quite true.

I finally came up with an analogy that points out the ridiculousness of NPR's position. Imagine if they took this position:

Small businesses are good for the economy.
Stop prosecuting Mafia members.

Who would then take NPR seriously? I certainly cannot take them seriously on immigration.

Posted by jeff at 11:42 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

April 5, 2006

Back Up, Sort of

The blog came back up yesterday, but the domain records didn't get updated until last night. If you're seeing this, it means the domain records have correctly propagated, and all is well.

Posted by jeff at 10:19 AM | TrackBack