Skip navigation

Category Archives: Politics and Law

Well, it is looking like the newly pork filled financial bail out bill will pass.   In two procedural votes, more than the 218 votes necessary have voted for the bill so far.   It looks like all of the talk about high principles turned out to be nothing but so much hot air.   All that was needed was some pork barrel spending.   Admittedly they haven’t passed the bill yet…but it doesn’t look good.   I guess at this point, at that is left is to wait and see.


With the impending bailout of the financial sector, it’s hard not to consider the implication of the U.S’ current economic policy.   I want to mention, specifically, the policy of bailing out large, failing, businesses.   The phrase bandied about so often is that a business is simply “too big to fail”.   That can mean a lot of things, not all of them meaningful.   Following close on the heels of the events of September 11th, 2001, the major U.S. airlines found themselves in a dire financial situation.  In reponse, the government poneyed up fifteen billion dollars of tax payer money to prevent their collapse.   This wasn’t the first time the government has had to bail out a large industry in the U.S.

If you consider the government’s bailouts of other luminaries such as Lockheed Martin, Chrysler, and even the City of New York, a pattern starts to emerge.   One of corporate welfare paid by the tax payers to failing businesses   In each case, the business, or businesses, were failing and, in each case, the government deemed the companies to be too “big”, to be too important, to fail.   That is a problem, and all we need is to consider how a capitalist free market is supposed to work to understand why.

The fate of a business is closely tied to how it is run.   If I run my business into the ground through some combination of bad business practices and/or poor financial foresight, then I have only myself to blame.   Nor is it right to blame natural disasters, necessarily, for the failures of large businesses.  A small business might not be able to pull in enough capital to reopen.   But a large business which fails due to a natural disaster failed because they did not plan for the future properly.  Natural disasters, whether natural or man-made, are a regular occurance.   Even if you disagree with my contention, I would still argue that there are very few good reasons to help out a failing company–most of which are a combination of philosophical and pragmatic concerns.

A company fails due to poor business decisions.   This is not necessarily a good thing.  However to bail out the company would usually be a far worse action.   Each time you bail out a company, you set a precedence for doing so again.   The more businesses feel that they are immune from failure, the more willing they are to pursue reckless or near sighted strategies.   This collective unwillingness to allow certain businesses to fail must be partly blamed for our current situation.

Beyond such pragmatic concerns, there is something rather disconcerting about the idea that we should spend tax money to prop up failing businesses.   Business so often demand as little regulation as they can possibly get away with, and for good reason.   It is easier to succeed if you don’t have someone telling you what you can and can’t do.   Yet, few businesses would reject a bailout opportunity from that very same government.  It’s selfish.  But that’s not bad.  Acting in one’s self interest is that idea which most of our markets are built upon.   Instead, just as strong markets are built upon strong competition, innovation relies upon the free competition between companies.  What we get when large companies are backed up by federal dollars is the exact opposite of competition or innovation.   If an uncompetitive business can depend upon it being propped up, it has an unfair advantage over it’s competitors.   Yet not only are these payouts fundamentally unfair, they are also responsible for prolonging inefficient and uncompetitive businesses at the expense of their competition.

Thomas Friedman in an interview with Scientific American suggested that no free markets actually exist anymore, and I for one would tend to agree.  He stated the position as an argument for regulation.   I would, perhaps, use it in a slightly different manner.   Conservatives in the U.S. are fond of preaching the religion of free market economics.   The truth is however more complicated.   A truely free market is dangerous.  Few consumer safety and fraud protections are built in.   The Gilded Age of the United States provides a handy reference for such a market.   A completely controlled market isn’t the answer either, as the woes of the former Soviet Union, following the collapse of the berlin wall illustrated.   So what is left?   That answer is far from easy to give.   However, if we are to have a market that can be called anywhere near free, we must allow for business to succeed or fail based upon their actions.   If we are unwilling to stomach the rough seas of the free market, then we must not persist in continuing with these half measures and combine tougher regulation with these government bailouts.

Which brings me to the thought which prompted this whole thing.   Considering all of the corporations which were “too big” to fail, what businesses out there might also qualify for such dubious protections.  I came up one very good example.   Microsoft.   Microsoft is a corporate behemoth.   Their operating system encompasses over 90% of the PC market.   It is also a major player in smart phones.   Beyond that, they have their hands in sectors as diverse as video games, digital music players, and web advertising.   Not that Microsoft would seem to be anywhere near bankruptcy, but it is certainly interesting to consider the question: “What would we do if Microsoft was gone?”

Greats news from the EFF today!   They’ve succeeded in lifting the gag order on the group of MIT security researchers and their MBTA/Charlie Card vulnerability research.   The students were originally scheduled to debut their report during the security conference DEFCON.   However, the MBTA sued the students, claiming that their report, which would have excluded details needed to pull off the attack, violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act(a law passed primarily to prevent fraud using computers).   As part of the lawsuit, the students had a gag order placed on them.   While this is certainly great news for the MIT students, and security researchers in general, the lawsuit still stands.

The case was interesting in the choice of the CFAA as a tool to prevent academic researchers from exposing gaping security holes in public infrastructure.   The MBTA claimed that the students were going to be aiding others in defrauding the MBTA.  The only problem with the claim is that the students gave the MBTA advance noticed and told them that they would withold details in order to prevent people from easily exploiting the problems.   In the end it’s difficult to wonder how much better this whole experience would have gone if the MBTA had embraced their responsibility, taken the vulnerability serious, and worked with the students, rather than abusing the CFAA in order to protect their butts.   With that in mind, I’m going to end with a short quotation from the EFF press release(link below).

“The students have already voluntarily provided a 30-page security analysis to the MBTA and have offered to meet with the MBTA and walk the transit agency through the security vulnerability and the students’ suggestions for improvement.

“The only thing keeping the students and the MBTA from working together cooperatively to resolve the fare payment card security issues is the lawsuit itself,” said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl. “The MBTA would be far better off focusing on improving the MBTA’s fare payment security instead of pursuing needless litigation.””

EFF: “Judge Lifts Unconstitutional Gag Order Against MIT Students

Recently there has been a lot of noise about law enforcement and/or security guards harassing photographers in the US and England over taking pictures of just about anything.   Bruce Schneier, of computer security fame, made a great list in his newest cryptogram newsletter.  It can be found here, and is completely free, so check it out.   With that in mind, here comes the ever helpful “How to Shoot (Photographs) Like A Terrorist”. The whole row over photographing public buildings, especially around here at the Union Station are disappointing from a stand point of security and personal rights.

There is nothing wrong or illegal about taking pictures of public buildings.   But more importantly, there is nothing about preventing people from taking pictures which makes us safer.   As Mr. Schneier succinctly pointed out, no terrorists ever used photography as a way to prepare for an attack.   Even if they were to decide to somehow use photography in their plans, it would be nearly impossible to stop all photographers, and in the end they could always simple visit the area themselves rather than take those pictures.  Trying to stop terrorism by stopping photography is like trying to stop wars by banning maps.   In my mind, there’s only one good answer to all of this.  Stop.  Or, on our part, take more pictures and stand up against what has seemed to be primarily based around intimidation.

I know it’s not my usual fare, but I’ve been reading through these stories and thought it a good topic to mention.

A little bit of news round up is in order.  Two major news items caught my attention during my perusal of the various news items.   First up, Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference started this monday and featured CEO Steve Jobs’ keynote speech.   As per usual with Apple conferences, the internet was abuz with rumors and hype surrounding the potential new porducts that might be unveiled.   Despite my complete lack of a mac, and perhaps due to my current interest in a macbook pro, I sat in on the Gizmodo and Engadget live coverage of the keynote speech.   What ensued can only be described as a string of completely uninteresting revelations.  There’s going to be a new version of OS X eventually?  Well duh…   And it’s going to be called Snow Leoperd?   Ok.   Look! Iphone games, medical apps, et cetera.  Perhaps the strangest app of all though was an ebay app(are you too impatient to just log in to the web based ebay?).   The mobileme(.mac 2.0) seemed vaguely interesting, though it would seem to make more sense to see what free cloud based apps show up to compete with it.   I’ve personally voiced my own apathy towards cloud based solutions, but I must admit I can see benefits to the use of some of the apps shown off in mobile me…though I can’t help but ask if Google couldn’t do the same thing minus the cost.   Finally, there was the big announcement of the day, a 3G or HSDPA, based iphone.   I’m sure this, along with the announced price cut for the iphone, excited quite a few.  But I must ask…so what?   The iphone is still locked to AT&T, which requires any non AT&T customer to pay several hundred to just get out of their old contract.  Going along with that complaint, I wonder why would you buy an iphone if you could get, for example, a new Blackberry Bold, HTC Touch Pro, or any number of other smartphones without having to replace your current provider, especially if that provider offer you good reception?   In the end, the keynote speech for WWDC fell flat.  I think Paul Thurrot put it best when he described the speech as “Microsoftesque”.

Going from the boring to the inane, we have the “Green our Vaccine” rally.   One of the organizers, the strangely labeled TACA or Talk About Curing Autism, (Haven’t we been doing that?) features a recap of the rally which took place June 4th in Washington D.C.   The anti-vaccine, or anti-toxin, movement is certainly nothing new, but it has certainly been aided by the influx of celebrity support. The rally itself featured such notables as Jim Carey, Robert Kennedy Jr., and Jenny McCarthy.   The movement has traditionally consisted of attacks against vaccines for ingredients, such as thiomersal which is a preservative which contained mercury, which they claimed to have caused autism in their child.   All of this sounds very scary especially when you mention chemicals like mercury being in vaccines.  The cold blast of reality is that there is no evidence that these chemicals cause autism.

In general, the movement tends to describe itself as being against any “toxins” being in vaccines.  I would ask, facetiously, who is FOR placing toxins in vaccines?   But that point being put aside, I imagine these people are well meaning but mistaken in their beliefs.  What’s more troubling is how the movement seems to be more interested in eliminating vaccines in general, rather than concerned with certain non-essential ingredients.

David Gorski of the Science-based Medicine Blog has a great write up about the event, the “controversy” and the truth about vaccine safety.   What’s interesting about this rally is how it shows the evolution away from the failing argument that mercury causes autism towards the more general anti-toxins argument.   I don’t think this is all that surprising.  The use of the anti-toxins argument is used throughout the pseudo-sciences.   The argument often that we’re ingesting too many toxins and we need to get rid of them in order to allow our bodies to heal naturally.   As if that wasn’t bad enough though, they’re combining the anti-toxin message with a “green” or all-natural message in some cases.  Consider a quote from a mother of two autistic children featured in an article via the science-based medicine blog found here.   “But Mason, who has two autistic children, warns that autism is on the rise, and that something has to change. ‘ideally the legislators would enact legislation that would force companies to use natural ingredients‘, she argues. ‘Not what they’re using now.'”   What is this ideal world which she is positing?   While I obviously feel for her and understand that she’s sincere in her beliefs and desires, I can’t help but point out that ingredients being natural doesn’t make them better.  After all consider that mercury and lead are natural but are in fact toxic to humans.

In the end it’s hard to not feel for the troubles which a lot of these mothers have faced, including the heart rending feeling that they might have been directly responsible for their child’s autism.   However we shouldn’t ignore that there are people trying to eliminate childhood vaccines, which are responsible for saving many lives from diseases, with a campaign which is thoroughly lacking in any real scientific evidence.  The best scientific argument they had was that mercury caused autism and that has been investigated and shown to lack any evidence.   After that, all that is left is faux green, faux consumer choice, and faux science.

Banner from \

Image borrowed from Science-based Medicine Blog

On a lighter note I’d like to submit Jim Carey’s analogy.  When I read this, it simply floored me.  I have a degree in literature and, really, this is probably one of the best analogies ever.   “If on the way to a burning building a fire engine ran people over, we wouldn’t stop using fire engines. We would just ask them to slow down a bit. Well it’s time to tell the CDC and the AAP that it’s time to slow the fire engine down. People are getting hurt on the way to the fire.”   Truer words have n’er been spoke.   Oh.  And I’m being sarcastic.

It seems that everyone’s favorite anti-video game pundit/lawyer Jack Thompson has had the judge responsible for his trial release her report.  Within the report, Judge Dava Tunis reccommended 27 guilty charges out of 31 possible ones.   This is according to Ars Technica which heavily quotes which has apparently been tracking the trial.   In the absence of details, it is hard to say much about this.  However, Jack Thompson has been notorious for some wacky behavior and extensive use of hyperboles.  Apparently he hasn’t changed.   Ars Technica reports that Mr. Thompson has included gay porn and a surreal coloring book, among other things in his 400 additional “…pleadings, letters and missives(including pictorials)…” which Thomopson has sent to the Judge.   As I find more details, I’ll editorialize a little more.  But based upon what I’ve read so far, it seems as if Jack Thompson has been anything but professional during the trial.    Putting every other flaw Mr. Thompson has, it’s telling that in such an important trial, he has, according to reports, acted like anything other than a lawyer or even an adult.   Of course without Mr. Thompson, who will we have to compare the executive of Take Two to the NAZIs?  Heavy on the sarcasm of course.

Ars Technica has a great story about an “orphaned works” law which recently cleared the Senate’s Judiciary committee.   They don’t give details on the law, but it’s presence is a promising sign.   Orphaned works is a term refferring to copyrighted works where people are unable to discover the owner of the copyright.  Ars gives the example of wedding photos, though there are examples of orphaned works which span across multiple mediums.   A link to the story can be found here or from the news desk of