The Next Unexpected Failure of Government

In looking at Frank Pasquale’s very interesting blog post “Secrecy & the Spill,” a phrase jumped out at me:

I have tried to give the Obama Administration the benefit of the doubt during the Gulf/BP oil disaster. There was a “grand ole party” at Interior for at least eight years. Many Republicans in Congress would have tried to block nominees for Interior who were committed to environmentalism. But the more I read about the controversy, the harder it gets to excuse current players for their actions.

Now, if you had told me six months ago that the Minerals Management Service was critically messed up, I might have searched a bit and said “sure, ok.” There are a lot of government agencies which are poorly run. Prioritizing between them is hard. Had you told me that their failure would cost a billion dollars, I’d have been more skeptical than usual.

Government is too big to clean out; at each level, you get appointees who are less likely to be interested in pursuing the President’s interest, and more likely to be interested in featherbedding. That’s not to say that all agencies are mis-run. There are still people out there who consider themselves civil servants who aim to run their agencies (or areas) well. I don’t have enough data to know what fraction of agencies are well run, but I expect that you could graph it and it would look a lot like a bell curve. Some good, some bad, most middling.

The agencies that are well run don’t get attention. The problems they face are ‘managed’ and don’t descend into crisis very much. Unfortunately it’s hard to tell, a-priori, if an agency is well run or lucky.

For any Administration to dig deeply into each of the government agencies could easily become an all-consuming issue. And it’s unclear if it would do any good. Agency executives are expected to be able to present a pleasant picture with a few things that need fixing.

This is a structural and systematic issue which emerges from how big government is and how much it tries to do. The only way to clean things up will be to reduce the size of government, so that prior oversight becomes a reasonable expectation.

Otherwise, we can look forward to the chaotic universe helping us discover where the problems emerge.

On Politics

In “Jon Stewart on Obama’s executive power record” Glenn Greenwald writes:

When ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero last week addressed the progressive conference America’s Future Now, he began by saying: “I’m going to start provocatively . . . I’m disgusted with this president.” Last night, after Obama’s Oval Office speech, Jon Stewart began his show with an 8-minute monologue on Obama’s executive power and civil liberties record which, in essence, provided just some of the reasons why Romero’s strong condemnation is so justified.

meanwhile, in the UK, David Cameron apologized for Bloody Sunday, calling it “unjustified and unjustifiable.” Abi Sutherland has good analysis at Making Light:

We do not honour all those who have served with such distinction in keeping the peace and upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland by hiding from the truth.

The Liquids ban is a worse idea than you thought

According to new research at Duke University, identifying an easy-to-spot prohibited item such as a water bottle may hinder the discovery of other, harder-to-spot items in the same scan.

Missing items in a complex visual search is not a new idea: in the medical field, it has been known since the 1960s that radiologists tend to miss a second abnormality on an X-ray if they’ve found one already. The concept — dubbed “satisfaction of search” — is that radiologists would find the first target, think they were finished, and move on to the next patient’s X-ray.

Does the principle apply to non-medical areas? That’s what Stephen Mitroff, an assistant professor of psychology & neuroscience at Duke, and his colleagues set out to examine shortly after 2006, when the U.S. Transportation Security Administration banned liquids and gels from all flights, drastically changing airport luggage screens.

“The liquids rule has introduced a whole lot of easy-to-spot targets,” Mitroff said.

Duke University press release, Mitroff’s home page, full paper.

Some Chaotic Thoughts on Healthcare

Passage of this bill is too big for my little brain, and therefore I’ll share some small comments. I’m going to leave out the many anecdotes which orient me around stupid red tape conflicts in the US, how much better my health care was in Canada (and how some Canadian friends flew to the US for optional procedures), etc.

I am glad that some of the worst elements of the American health care system are getting reined in. I can think of few worse ways to accomplish that goal, and many better ones. People thinking as I do are why the system perpetuated in the form that it did.

I am pessimistic that the system proposed will achieve its broader goals. The Massachusetts model is cumbersome and ineffective. Optimistic ideas about how prices would fall in a regulated market did not come to pass. The likely next step is a government run health system with supplemental insurance available. I expect this will come to pass in 10-20 years. Medicare seems reasonably well run for an American government program.

The Republican failure to push a coherent and principled alternative will haunt them. Going into the next election cycles, 32 million people will have some idea that the Democrats gave them bread and circuses health care. David Frum describes it as a Waterloo. I’m hopeful but not optimistic that the Tea Bagger Party will follow in the tradition of the Know Nothings and just fade away. I used to be hopeful that the Libertarians would split from the Republicans, but they’ve failed to. I would not be surprised to see the Republican minority shrink in 2010 and 2012, and I think some (but not all) of the shrillness I hear is people who fear that outcome is now inevitable.

I do expect that removing the health care impediment to entrepreneurship will be very positive for smaller companies. I wish we’d apply that same thinking to health care, enable people to make choices for themselves, and let the government own the residual risks, as it does today. But no one offered a credible way to un-couple employment and insurance that would let people keep their doctors, short of nationalization.

Anyway, there’s my negative 8 cents on the bill.

Please keep comments civil.

Seattle: Pete Holmes for City Attorney

pete_homes_for_city_attorney.jpgI don’t usually say a lot about local issues, but as readers know, I’m concerned about how arbitrary ID checking is seeping into our society.

It turns out my friend Eric Rachner is also concerned about this, and was excited when a Washington “Judge said showing ID to cops not required.” So when Eric was challenged by the police, in accordance with the law, he refused. He was charged with obstruction of justice by city attorney Tom Carr. Well, it turns out Eric didn’t roll over, and after much stress, charges were dropped. The city shouldn’t be putting people through such things after state judges have ruled. It’s a waste of city resources, and it subjects nice folks like Eric or you or me to the leviathan power of the state. Such power must be responsibly exercised, and Tom Carr has shown he can’t do that.

On that basis alone, Tom Carr should be voted out of office.

It’s just a sweetner that Pete Holmes, his challenger, seems to have his head screwed on straight, with priorities that include government accountability and transparency, smart sentencing, and not a new $250MM jail that we don’t need and can’t afford.

As if you needed any more, our sole remaining newspaper has endorsed Holmes.

So please, vote Pete Holmes for city attorney.

[Update: Thank you! Tom Carr has conceded the race. I don’t think I can claim lots of credit, but I’m glad he’s on the outs.]

Some thoughts on the Olympics, Chicago and Obama

So the 2016 Olympics will be in Rio de Janeiro. Some people think this was a loss for Obama, but Obama was in a no-win situation. His ability to devote time to trying to influence the Olympics is strongly curtailed by other, more appropriate priorities. If he hadn’t gone to Copenhagen, he would have been blamed for not caring. If he went, he’s blamed anyway. In reality, he does have some control over what happened. He could have fixed the “harrowing experience” we show the world under the ironic words “Welcome to the United States:”

In the official question-and-answer session following the Chicago presentation, Syed Shahid Ali, an I.O.C. member from Pakistan, asked the toughest question. He wondered how smooth it would be for foreigners to enter the United States for the Games because doing so can sometimes, he said, be “a rather harrowing experience.” (New York Times, “Rio Wins“)

Ironically, the President has experienced harrowing nonsense at borders, see “US Senators Detained In Russia.” He should put someone on fixing the Customs and Immigration service before it costs us even more.

However, it’s really unclear if the “loss” is a loss. “No Games Chicago” was a citizens group advocating against destroying Chicago’s parks and budget for the Olympics, and according to CNN, 45% of the city’s residents didn’t want the games. And as the AP documents in “Olympics Aren’t Necessarily an Economic Bonanza,” the outlandish “economic benefit” numbers that Olympic advocates usually throw around are based on a “multiplier effect” of around 3. Me, I know what an Olympics event costs–Montreal taxpayers paid off the ’76 Olympics in 2006.

So congratulations, Rio. I hope you don’t bulldoze the less waelthy neighborhoods, and I hope you’re all paid off by 2030 or so.

Happy Banned Books Week!

banned-books.jpgQuoting Michael Zimmer:

[Yesterday was] the start of Banned Books Week 2009, the 28th annual celebration of the freedom to choose what we read, as well as the freedom to select from a full array of possibilities.

Hundreds of books are challenged in schools and libraries in the United States each year. Here’s a great map of challenges from 2007-2009, although I’m sure it under-represents the nature of the problem, as most challenges are never reported. (Note the West Bend library controversy is marked on the map.)

According to the American Library Association, there were 513 challenges reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2008.

I’m somewhat surprised by how many bluenoses dots there are in the northeast. Does anyone know of a good tutorial that would help me to re-map the data against population?

Happy Emancipation Proclamation Day!

That on the first day of January in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any state, or designated part of a state, the people whereof thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States [including the military and naval authority thereof] will, during the continuance in office of the present incumbents, recognize [and maintain the freedom of] such persons, as being free, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

Unsurprisingly, Wikipedia has a good article on the Emancipation Proclamation.

[Quick update: Bryan Carter has a great photo he mentioned in the comments.]

What should the new czar do? (Tanji’s Security Survey)

Over at Haft of the Spear, Michael Tanji asks:

You are the nation’s new cyber czar/shogun/guru. You know you can’t _force _anyone to do jack, therefore you spend your time/energy trying to accomplish what three things via influence, persuasion, shame and force of will?

I think it’s a fascinating question, and posted my answer over at the New School blog.

Pirate Party Victory in Sweden

“Together, we have today changed the landscape of European politics. No matter how this night ends, we have changed it,” Falkvinge said. “This feels wonderful. The citizens have understood it’s time to make a difference. The older politicians have taken apart young peoples’ lifestyle, bit by bit. We do not accept that the authorities’ mass-surveillance,” he added.

Funny thing about what happens when the majority of the population participates in an illegal activity: eventually it’s not illegal anymore.

So writes John Quarterman in “Pirate Party Legitimized by Winning EU Parliament Seat.”

As an author who’d love to make enough money to live off my writing, I’m somewhat saddened by the idea that people’s creative work is easily copied. I wonder a lot about the business models of the future, and what winner-takes-all and the rise of prosumer enthusiasts means to the middle of the production curve. That is, people who aren’t Steven King or J.K Rowling or ever going to get a book on the Times bestseller list. Will there be thousands of people able to earn a living writing book-length articles without a patron?

But I’m heartened to see the abuse of power result in a backlash. I can’t help looking forward to the first copyright hearings in the new EU parliament.

Three on the Value of Privacy

First, the Economist, “Everybody Does It:”

WHY is a beer better than a woman? Because a beer won’t complain if you buy a second beer. Oops. There go your correspondent’s chances of working for Barack Obama, America’s president-elect.

(Ironically, the Economist’s articles are all anonymous.)

Second, Fraser Speirs, “On the Flickr support in iPhoto ‘09:”

As you may guess, I was a little perturbed at this since I pay my mortgage by selling, er, a Flickr upload plugin for iPhoto.

Fraser looks at his (excellent) product, FlickrExport, and finds that the value is now in privacy and control of what leaves your computer and how.

And finally, a follow-on to an aside in ‘Lessons for security from “Social Networks’,:”

In recent months, American Express has gone far beyond simply checking your credit score and making sure you pay on time. The company has been looking at home prices in your area, the type of mortgage lender you’re using and whether small-business card customers work in an industry under siege. It has also been looking at how you spend your money, searching for patterns or similarities to other customers who have trouble paying their bills.

In some instances, if it didn’t like what it was seeing, the company has cut customer credit lines. It laid out this logic in letters that infuriated many of the cardholders who received them. “Other customers who have used their card at establishments where you recently shopped,” one of those letters said, “have a poor repayment history with American Express.”

It sure sounded as if American Express had developed a blacklist of merchants patronized by troubled cardholders. But late this week, American Express told me that wasn’t the case. The company said it had also decided to stop using what it has called “spending patterns” as a criteria in its credit line reductions. (“A (Very) Watchful Eye on Credit Card Spending,” The New York Times.

Apparently, that was just too creepy, even for American Express, who I’ve commented on in “American Express and Privacy.”

Politics and Money: Transparency and Privacy

prop 8 donor map and privacy.jpg(Or, the presentation of self in everyday donations)

So I’ve had a series of fairly political posts about election finance, and in one of them, I said “I’d prefer that the rules avoidance be minimized, and I think transparency is the most promising approach there.”

Well, in the interests of transparency, I need to comment a little in the wake of a lawsuit in California over transparency and Proposition 8. Two stories: “Marriage Ban Donors Feel Exposed by List:”

“Some gay activists have organized Web sites to actively encourage people to go after supporters of Proposition 8,” said Frank Schubert, the campaign manager for Protect Marriage, the leading group behind the proposition. “And giving these people a map to your home or office leaves supporters of Proposition 8 feeling especially vulnerable. Really, it is chilling.”

and today, “Prop. 8 campaign can’t hide donors’ names.”

Setting aside all the irony of proponents of an initiative suing to overturn law passed under another initiative, the law was the law when they made their donations. What did they think was going to happen?

But it’s not all that simple. There’s a strong argument for allowing proponents of unpopular causes to organize themselves in a way which is free of reprisals. For allowing them privacy. There’s important privacy law in NACCP vs Alabama, about the right to associate privately for political change.

On the one hand, I think that privacy is an important right, and should not be subjected to harsh tests. (Had Alamaba prevailed, death by lynching was a likely outcome for at least some of the people on the list. I don’t want to see private association subject to a grievous harm sort of test.)

On the other hand, those who want to take away the rights of others should perhaps be asked to air their public policy beliefs in public. If they can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.

On the gripping hand, this raises a hard tradeoff. What should we do? (Whatever we should do, we should keep it civil as we discuss it.)

[Update: Part of the reason I reference NAACP vs. Alabama was to allude to the fact that sometimes the unpopular speech is speech against government. The NAACP fought to keep their membership private because they knew that the Alabama government was lousy with Klan members. Had the list been turned over, members would have been murdered. That in this case, we might see anti-harrassment laws enforced is not an argument against the general need for privacy for those with unpopular views.]

The New Administration and Security

Quoting first from Obama’s inaugural address:

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. Those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account — to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day — because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

and then from the new Director of National Intelligence:

In an unusual comment from a man who will head the most secret agencies of government, [Dennis Blair] said, “There is a need for transparency and accountability in a mission where most work necessarily remains hidden from public view.” He said that if confirmed, he would “communicate frequently and candidly with the oversight committees, and as much as possible with the American people.” (“Blair Pledges New Approach to Counterterrorism,” NYTimes)

I was struck by Obama’s focus on transparency in his address, and I was struck by how easily we can substitute in ‘information security,’ “those of us who manage information security dollars will be held to account — to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day — because only then can we restore the vital trust…”

From the perspective of executives, information security spending is often wasteful. If you can see security problems, the money wasn’t spent well. We have a tendency to move with fads, and we certainly cover up our problems. For these reasons, we’re too often not trusted advisors to our businesses, but rather, we’re seen as obstacles.

The advice of Obama and Blair is something that we can all heed. Everyone knows there are security problems. It’s time, or even past time, to stop with the secrecy around most problems. We can communicate more freely. That’s change you should believe in.

Three short comments on the Inauguration

The reality that a black man is about to become President of the United States is both momentous and moving. It’s hard to say anything further on the subject that hasn’t been said and re-said, but I am simply proud that the pendulum has swung to someone like Obama.

I’m excited to have an educated, articulate, urban President. When I say urban I mean he lives in a city, not on a ranch, a farm, or in a vacation town. I don’t know what fraction of Americans are urban, but I do feel that we are under-represented by our Presidents.

It’s a sad reality that threats against him are higher than against other Presidents because of his race. Some black friends of mine are stunned that he made it through the campaign, and don’t expect him to make it through his first term. Despite crap like this, I don’t think anyone in the protection business wants to be the one who fails this President. Professional pride. At the same time, I’m with Mark Thompson, who, in Time, wrote “Is a Police State Necessary?” I believe that the answer is no. We don’t need to restrict strollers or thermoses from the broad inauguration zone. If we wish to keep those things from the innermost zones, that might make sense. We can’t allow our institutions and traditions to continue to be driven by fear. It’s a matter of hope.

“Get FISA Right” Pointer

[Update: This got to #5 on’s list, and they’re now working to draw attention to the issue on]

Jon Pincus has asked me for help in drawing attention to his “Get FISA Right” campaign to get votes on When I’ve tried to look at this, it’s crashed my browser. YMMV–I use a number of security plugins which may be at fault The crash happens when the browser reports getting data from (I think), so if you can watch YouTube video, you’re likely ok. I think that getting the rule of law restored in the intelligence community is incredibly important. At the same time, we face a large number of crises right now, and which to address first is a hard problem. I don’t want to endorse this over other things which I can’t see, but Jon asked for help drawing attention to it. So go take a look.

Note is not the same as, the new President’s transition team’s site, operated and surveilled by Google.

In closely related news, the NYTimes reports that “Intelligence Court Rules Wiretapping Program Legal:”

A federal intelligence court, in a rare public opinion, is expected to issue a major ruling validating the power of the president and Congress to wiretap international phone calls and intercept e-mail messages without a court order, even when Americans’ private communications may be involved, according to a person with knowledge of the opinion.

The court ruling grew out of a previously undisclosed challenge from a telecommunications provider, which questioned the constitutional authority of the executive branch in ordering it to capture and turn over international communications without court authority, according to the person with knowledge of the opinion.

It’s clear that we can not operate a system of secret courts issuing secret rulings, and then critique the same behavior by despotic regimes. We need to sharply curtail the system of secret laws and secret lawsuits in secret courts which issue secret opinions, and have a real debate about the limits of power.

Back in 1996, the National Research Council had a set of retired generals, admirals and heads of intelligence agencies study the cryptography question. In their “Cryptography’s Role in Securing the Information Society,” they clearly state that we can have this debate in public. The shape of the facts are all known. The details which must be kept secret are not needed for the full debate that a democratic society must engage in. Their wisdom is applicable here.