Thursday, March 28, 2013

Dredding the Future

I want to commend for your reading Ace’s review of Dredd (a.k.a., Judge Dredd, 2012), wherein he calls out every action movie trope and cliché of the last 30 years, and praises Dredd for mostly eschewing them.

Except . . . I can’t help thinking that at least some of those tropes are necessary to make a movie interesting, and their nigh complete absence left me cold.  The bad guys in the movie weren’t flamboyantly evil given the setting, and their chief even had a backstory that probably made feminists sympathetic to her.  The good guys weren’t especially virtuous, and with the slight exception of Olivia Thirlby (the snarky best friend in Juno), they have neither backstory nor character arc.  The bystanders are just that, inspiring neither pity nor contempt.  So . . . why am I supposed to cheer for one side or the other?

I agree that all this is “realistic”.  In fact, most people are a mixture of good and bad, and I choose sides among them mostly on the basis of personal (or familial or national) investment in the outcome of their contest.  But without that investment, then Dredd vs. Ma-Ma might as well be the Hutus vs. Tutsis*; I’m sorry their having their problems, but what are they to me?

Parenthetically (and because this is a policy blog), I wonder to what extent our society is devolving to the Dredd model of law enforcement:  a thin line of heavily armed and armored cops prone to excessive violence.  Certainly our police, with their automatic weapons, body armor and penchant for shooting household pets and old ladies, more closely resemble the Judges than the policemen of yore.  But are their numbers as a percent of the population climbing or falling?  Consider the ‘68-‘75 cop show Adam-12:  a pair of patrolmen who rode around together.  I haven’t seen patrolmen work in pairs since . . . actually, I can’t remember ever noticing it.

* Hotel Rwanda was a compelling movie precisely because it was a one-sided account of the conflict.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Murder in the Fourth

The EFF writes:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents were investigating Ricky Wahchumwah for the federal crime of selling bald eagle and gold eagle feathers. An undercover agent who went to Wahchumwah's home pretending to be interested in buying feathers was secretly recording all the details of Wahchumwah's home with a small video camera hidden in his clothes. The agent did not obtain a search warrant before recording. After the trial court found no Fourth Amendment violation and refused to suppress the video, Wahchumwah was convicted and eventually appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. We filed an amicus brief in support of Wahchumwah, but a three judge panel of the Ninth Circuit rejected our arguments, finding no Fourth Amendment problems. In our new amicus brief asking the entire Ninth Circuit to rehear the case, we argue the panel made two mistakes.

First, it failed to analyze the home video surveillance under the Fourth Amendment's trespass theory. Last year, the Supreme Court in United States v. Jones made clear that when the government trespasses onto private property for the purpose of obtaining information, it "searches" under the Fourth Amendment. Under common law, a defendant was not liable for trespass if the landowner authorized their entry. But that consent is ineffective if the person is mistaken about the "nature and quality" of the defendant's entry. And here Wahchumwah was clearly mistaken as to the agent's true purpose: to video record everything in his house without Wahchumwah's knowledge. Second, the court incorrectly found Wahchumwah had no reasonable expectation of privacy because he knowingly exposed the interior of his home to the agent when he let him in his house.

Both of these errors really turn on the panel's dangerous misunderstanding of people's privacy expectations. In Hoffa v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled the Fourth Amendment doesn't protect a “a wrongdoer’s misplaced belief that a person to whom he voluntarily confides his wrongdoing will not reveal it.” But at the same time, the Court has always limited searches to ensure they are reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justify the search in the first place. When an undercover officer enters a home with the permission of the homeowner, he is obviously able to observe things with his eyes, take mental note of them and relay those opinions to other officers when he returns to the police headquarters. This is permissible because people expect visitors to observe portions of their home when they let them in. That's why people typically clean their house and put away embarrassing things before having guests over for dinner.

But people don't expect their guests to look at the letters on their desk, peer into rooms as they walk the hallways and generally rummage at will through the house. But that's precisely what the video camera here has the potential to do. A quick glance into a bedroom may not reveal much to the naked eye, but a video camera can capture it instantly and allow officers to rewind and zoom in from the comforts of their office without the homeowner wondering why their guest is lingering in the hallway. At that point, the surveillance far exceeds the circumstances that justified the search in the first place -- the homeowner's consent -- and renders the search unreasonable and unconstitutional unless the government has a search warrant.

I approach the issue of surveillance and technology with two principles -- or, if you prefer, predjudices. I haven't blogged about this before, and my ideas are untested, so I hope to be persuaded if they are unworkable. And I offer the principles as generalities only: I can think of exceptions, which I will get to in due course.

Principle 1: Technology, in and of itself, confers neither legal power nor legal disability on law enforcement. By this I mean that, for instance, if a police officer is lawfully standing on a street corner observing something, then replacing that police officer with a video camera does not by itself constitute an invasion of privacy. Likewise, if a police officer is not lawfully standing and observing, or if his personal presence 24 hours per day could reasonably be construed as harrassment, then replacing him with the camera would not make the surveillance okay for Fourth Amendment purposes.

This is particularly relevant to drone technology. If the police are allowed to conduct surveillance from helicopters, as I assume they are, then replacing the helicopter with a drone does not impose a disability. On the other hand, since the police are not allowed to trespass on private property to peer in someone's window, they would not be allowed to send a micro-drone to do it for them.

In the case above, the implication would be that a policeman would be allowed to carry a camera on his person without a warrant. But in this case the search would be invalidated because the officer lied about the "nature and quality" of his entry. (This limitation seems reasonable, but surprises me nonetheless: as we all know, the police are authorized to tell whatever lies they wish, especially during an interrogation. But I'm having trouble squaring this with the use of undercover policemen whose job it is to pretend to be someone else.)

A potentially problematic issue I can see would be the use of thermal imaging. My recollection is that SCOTUS has ruled that thermal imaging violates the reasonable expectation of privacy (note to self: look up citation), and with this I agree. But I'm not sure I can reconcile it with my generalization about technology alone. After all, if a policeman was standing on the sidewalk and saw a marijuana greenhouse through your window, that wouldn't violate your rights. Why would it be wrong to stand on the sidewalk and see the greenhouse through your wall with an imager? I'm going to have to think about this one.

Another problematic issue has to do with recording telephone conversations, although I come down on the other side of this one. Under existing law, both policeman and citizen alike are allowed to testify in court as to what was said during a telephone conversation, but it would be illegal for them to support their testimony with a recording unless all parties had been notified of the recording in advance. This still doesn't make any sense to me. Why should I not be allowed to record my own telephone conversations?

Principle 2: For surveillance purposes, a police officer without a warrant posesses no legal power or disability over that of any private citizen. I set out to write this sentence without the qualifying clause at the start, but quickly realized that we confer all sorts of special power on the police to arrest people "caught in the act", and to enforce public order generally. As we all know, this power is widely abused, especially with regard to surveillance: the police routinely slap "disorderly condct" charges on anyone attempting to film them. This principle would place policemen and citizens on equal footing. If it is not okay for a private citizen to, for whatever reason, take a picture of something or someone because such would be considered intimidation or a violation of privacy, then a policeman should be required to take that same picture. If it is not okay for a private citizen to fly a drone, then the police should not receive special dispensation; the FAA regulations should apply equally to everyone. But the converse is also true: if our expectation is that particular surveillance technologies are available to the police without a warrant, then private citizens should be permitted them as well.

These are the principles I bring to an analysis of Fourth Amendment law. I welcome any feedback you might have.

Thursday, March 21, 2013


Inspired by Sheila's account of her alcoholic friend, I thought I'd write about my first eviction. Not about me being evicted. About me evicting someone.

The tenant lived in the first house we ever bought, back when I made less money than I make now, and a short commute time (8 minutes, but that might have been my PR) was a priority. It's been a rental for the last decade. For those of you keeping score at home, here are the ZIP stats:


So, working-class White. The schools aren't great, but they're mediocre across the county-wide district.

My relationship with my last two tenants ended badly (not sure if this indicates neighborhood decline -- if so, it hasn't shown up in the stats yet). The one before was a public school teacher, which you'd think is pretty stable, but she had some domestic turmoil, was continually late with her rent, and lost her entire security deposit to unpaid rent and cleanup. This last came in with a weak credit score, so we required two-months' deposit. She will lose most of it, but at least the house was empty by the time the sheriff showed up.

Times are tough. Believe me, I get it. And I want to show compassion to people struggling to make their bills. So . . . what's the story? What's the plan? Talk to me, and I'll work with you.

The problem is that the vignette we all carry in our heads of the hard-pressed man going, cap-in-hand, to his creditors pleading for mercy is, as I have discovered, about as true as the story that guy downtown told us about how he lost his wallet / had a flat and needs exactly $8.60 to get home to his family. Which is to say, a fabrication.

In reality, here's what happens. The tenant comes in late. With a partial payment. Promises to bring the rest in by the end of the week. The week comes and goes. We phone -- no answer. We leave polite messages at work, on the cell. Eventually the money comes in, but it's late in the month by this point, and the cycle repeats: late payments, partial payments, unfulfilled promises. Never do we get an explanation, a remediation plan, a request to reduce the rent. And never, ever can we get someone on the phone.

Finally, with the rent over a month in arrears, we reach the ultimatum stage. Another partial payment, another unkept promise, another not-answering-her-phone. So we file the eviction and post the notice, the costs of which are billed to the security deposit. Doesn't she know this is more expensive than just serving notice? Doesn't she know that an eviction hurts her credit rating, making it more difficult to find another place, more expensive?

Maybe she does know, at some level. But see, credit scores are more than just about money, even though that's what they measure. The irresponsibility they indicate about financial matters runs all the way down. The same lack of future-time orientation that causes someone to "miss" a rent or mortgage payment also inhibits their ability address the shortfall in a way that respects the expectations of their landlords and bankers. And ultimately, they do nothing but let sh!t happen all the way to that "Writ of Possession" tacked to their front doors.

It's too bad. But I've got my own mortgage payment to make.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Networking on Ambien

Are all makers of network devices pathological liars?

Here is why I ask: I recently purchased a Linksys E4200v2 450 Mbps (450 megabit per second) dual-band router and an Airlink AWLL6075 300 Mpbs usb 2.0 wireless adapter for my laptop. The expectation was to increase the read/write speed to my Iomega Home Network Drive, which advertised Ethernet speeds (10/100/1000 Mbps). (Why three speeds? Why not just say 1 Gbps max speed?)

Let's keep the math simple: 300 Mbps should give me data transmission of 30MB/s (megabytes per second), allowing for some overhead.

I was getting about 10% of that speed.

The really aggravating thing is that I was unable to get that speed regardless of the configuration:

The best results were obtained plugging the network drive directly into the Ethernet port of the laptop, which I was frankly surprised worked at all. That gave me 10MB/sec upload and 20MB/sec download as viewed from the file transfer status popup window. On the Networking tab of the Windows Task Manager, it shows ~10% of the "1Gbps" connection being used.

It turns out that these numbers are on the same order of magnitude as reviewer tests of the drive, so after noting that they don't come close to "1Gbps", I will accept them as the drive's upper limit. And in fact I get similar speeds when connecting to the drive through the router rather than directly.

But that was as good as it gets.

As soon as I switch to wireless, file transfer performance takes another hit, and it doesn't matter whether it involves the drive or even the router. These file transfers top out at 5MB/s and usually not even that. I executed transfers between four different PCs through the router. I set up an ad-hoc wireless network between computers that didn't involve the router. Nothing made a difference. I generally achieved transfer rates of 1 - 3.5 MB/s, numbers that were consistent with what I observed in Task Manager.

The folks on the other end of my tech support calls and chats took me through the obvious (change the channel; check the QoS and UnPn), the unlikely things (update the firmware) and the downright perverse (disable the firewall and anti-virus). Nothing made a difference.

The biggest disappointment was Airlink. My new "300 Mbps download / 150 Mbps" upload USB 2.0 adapter only established a link at half those rates according to both task manager and the adapter's own network monitor . . . and then proceeded to use only (IIRC) 40% or so of that bandwidth. (Note that all these computers were in the same room for testing, so link quality was not a problem.)

And to add insult to injury, the tech support people with both Airlink and Linksys said I should be happy with these speeds! Well, no, I'm not. Nobody's product is performing as advertised. Not Airlink, not Linksys, not Dell and HP.

Well, that's not quite right. When I was connecting to the Ethernet network in Afghanistan (!!! . . . but in fact, HQ provided decent network capability for itself) with my old D620, I was getting transfer speeds closer of around (IIRC, again) 45GB/s. So I'm pretty sure at least one Ethernet port has the ability to perform. But nothing else does.

On a positive note, I was able to transfer files on and off my WD Passport at 25MB/s plugged into a USB 2.0 port and faster using a USB 3.0 port. So my problem isn't the hard drive on the computer.

Any ideas?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Inside the Mind of a Gun Grabber

My mom sent me a link to this Walter Williams piece on gun control.  It quotes Nelson T. Shields III,  the late chairman of Handgun Control, Inc.:

"We're going to have to take this one step at a time, and the first step is necessarily -- given the political realities -- going to be very modest. ... Right now, though, we'd be satisfied not with half a loaf but with a slice. Our ultimate goal -- total control of handguns in the United States -- is going to take time. ... The final problem is to make the possession of all handguns and all handgun ammunition -- except for the military, police, licensed security guards, licensed sporting clubs and licensed gun collectors -- totally illegal" (The New Yorker, July 1976).

I hadn’t heard of Nelson T. Shields III, nor of his association with HCI.  But a big of googling turned up an interesting fact about Nelson T. Shields IV:  he was one of the victims in the Zebra Murders.

The "Zebra" murders were a string of racially motivated murders, committed by four African-American men who were later convicted, that took place in San Francisco, California, from October 1973 to April 1974.

During 1973 and 1974, fourteen execution style murders and eight assaults occurred in San Francisco, whose police named the case "Zebra" after the special police radio band they assigned for the investigation. Twenty-two crimes in a six-month spree involved mostly white victims of the three black suspects.

. . . .

On the evening of April 16, 23-year-old Nelson "Nick" T. Shields IV, heir to a wealthy Du Pont executive, accompanied a friend to a house on Vernon Street in the Ingleside district to pick up a rug. Shields had opened the back of the station wagon and was making room in the cargo area for the rug when he was shot repeatedly.

What mental gymnastics did NTSIII, grieving the loss of NTSIV, go through to conclude that taking guns away from law-abiding whites was the correct response to a killing spree by racist blacks?

Monday, March 11, 2013

DLNA Review

Back when I reviewed the Droid X2, I mentioned my discovery of DLNA, a media network streaming protocol available on that device and, it turns out, most other wireless devices as well. But DLNA turns out not to be as universally flexible as I had hoped.

To successfully stream content to a device, the DLNA player on that device must be able to support both the codec (i.e., data compression method) and the "container" (i.e., multimedia packaging). But the fun doesn't stop there. Even a single codec such as H.264 has at least a dozen individual settings that must be in right combinations to play on any particular platform.

I have only the most rudimentary understanding of these settings, and would not attempt to explain them here. But I will review my experience in trying to convert my DVD collection into media streamable to my hodge-podge of wireless devices with the aid of Handbrake.

Handbrake is a free program that converts DVDs (and other media formats) into one of two containers, MP4 and MKV, using one of two codecs, ffmpeg and H.264. H.264 is the more advanced of the two (as far as I know) and the one I've been working with. To ease the way for novice users like myself, Handbrake also has a collection of presets for specific devices, supposedly to support their specific capabilities. But these presets are mainly designed for media stored on the devices' internal memory. They are not necessarily designed for DLNA. DLNA devices often list a certain "level" (e.g., "4.1") that describes (I think) that rate at which media can be streamed to it; however, this does not create a one-to-one mapping with codec settings, and in any case seems unlikely to be the culprit in the limits I will describe.

My goal was to create stream-able media for three devices: an iPad2, a Droid X2, and a Sony 3D Blu-ray player. To do this, I used Handbrake to create five H.264 presets -- Normal, High Profile, iPad, iPod Touch, and Android High -- for each of the two containers. In this example, the file server was a Iomega Home Media Drive.

  • Sony Blu-ray: All of the mkv files play correctly. None of the mp4 files played. I should note here that the errors came in two flavors: sometimes the file wasn't even visible as being present on the drive. Sometimes the media was visible, but refused to play. I should note here that Sony distinguishes itself by having the ability to play raw TS_Video files (but only sequentially, not as they would play from the disk itself or as VLC or MPC would play them) over DLNA. But MP4 files? Not that I could find.

  • Droid X2: Ironically, considering that this device introduced me to DLNA, the Droid X2 the weakest of the bunch. Using my test movie and the Droid's default player, mkv files weren't even visible, and of the five mp4 files I created, only two played successfully: iPad and Normal. Now, starting with the iPad presets, I was able to reduce the resolution to a size appropriate to the iPod Touch (and the X2 as well, although the Droid's resolution is technically much higher). This worked, and saved a few hundred MB off the file size from the original iPad preset, but not as much savings as the iPod Touch presets gave me.

  • iPad: This turned out to be the most flexible. Unlike the X2 and the Sony, the iPad doesn't come with a DLNA player built in. I test five DLNA apps, and had positive results with two: 8Player Lite and MediaPlay. Of these two, 8Player Lite is the most stable, but the Lite version limits the playable files to the first five in any given directory. MediaPlay had no such limits, but had trouble finding the server on a number of occasions and doesn't play AVI files. Both players had the same range: they played all the MKV files and they played the MP4 files with the iPad and Normal presets.

Unless my readers school me in media formats, it appears that I will fail to find a Handbrake format that plays on both the X2 and the Sony. Now, I should mention at this point that the most portable container format appears to be AVI. I have quite a collection of AVI movies, brought back from ISAF, but I have no free way of making them myself. (The only truly free AVI maker I could find was Avidemux, but it doesn't read DVD files, and the AVI files I tried to make with it were ALSO unreadable on a couple of the devices.

I should also mention that my Panasonic p55st50 also has built-in wireless, and also has a DLNA player with a broader list of supported formats. But my Denon receiver strips off the sound from the Blu-ray player and sends it to the speakers; if I wanted sound streamed directly to the television to play on the surround-sound, I would need to run a separate sound cable from the television back to the receiver.

The bottom line is that unless one of my readers can give me some guidance here, I will probably despair of creating DLNA Droid-playable movies.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Where is the Casino Money?

From The Washington Post:

The federal sequester requires the Education Department to cut $1.9 billion in aid to the nation’s 15,000 school districts, money used to help educate poor and disabled children from kindergarten through 12th grade. Most districts have already received their federal dollars for the current school year; any impact from sequestration would affect the next school year.

Public education is largely funded by state and local governments; the federal government pays about 10 percent of the costs. Federal dollars are largely concentrated on poor children and those with disabilities, and the amounts are determined according to the number of children in each category in every state.

But two exceptions are schools on Indian reservations and military bases, which receive a larger share of their funds from Washington as compensation for the fact that they cannot raise funds from local property taxes. For example, the federal government pays 60 percent, or $14.7 million, of Window Rock School District’s $24.3 million annual budget.

Don't get me wrong: I understand why Indians, accustomed as they are to getting someone else to pay for their children't schools, don't want to now pay for it themselves. I just don't understand why they can't. Are reservation tribal governments, despite their titular status as separate "nations", prohibited by law from levying property taxes? Are they prohibited from spending their casino wealth on their own schools?

But I need some clarification on the military base schools. As I understand it, the stateside schools and their budgets are controlled by the local public school districts, and have been for some time. The DoD pays the district a per-head subsidy, but non-military children also attend the base schools. (Also as I understand it, these schools tend to be not especially good, reflecting the demographics of the area surrounding the base. But I haven't found the evidence for this that I expected.) The DoD only directly operates schools on bases overseas.

So I assume that these subsidies are now being cut. The local school districts (who had demanded control of the schools in the first place) must now make up the difference (or not). But the base schools are unlikely to go away; their students would still be the district's liability.

Do I have any of this wrong?

Friday, March 08, 2013

The Blue Purge

From Τhe American Interest:

Public employee unions elsewhere in [California] are currently losing similar battles [against public employee pension reform] against a state employee pension reform bill signed into law last August. And the unions have a surprisingly tough foe in Governor Jerry Brown, who is now going to the mat against the unions on this issue.

It’s a striking sign of the times: in a Democratic trifecta state where Dems control the governorship and both houses of the state legislature, the governor is facing down the same unions that conjured up millions of dollars and thousands of supporters to back him. The irony is rich; during Governor Brown’s first two term administration between 1975 and 1983 he helped create the modern California system of powerful government employee unions.

The budget realities are what they are, and no state can reasonably expect to consent to bankruptcy to lavish benefits on its public employees that it can't afford anymore. Alternatively, it can consent to bankruptcy, and the unions take a haircut anyway.

The politics have come full circle: Democrats bought off the unions (indeed, they created the public employee unions as its wholly-owned subsidiary), who watched passively as the Democrats replaced California's white middle class with a teeming hoard of third-world, Dem-voting peasants. Now that they are irrelevant, the unions are being purged, a relic of a time when the state actually generated the revenue from which the unions could be paid.

It's a sad end to the state that gave us Ronald Reagan.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

No Money in Markets

CNBC reports:

Stocks End Lower, but Still Up for February; Dow Within 100 Points of 2007 Record Peak

Okay, but you'd think CNBC could find the space to mention that in the 13 years from right before the crash of 1987 to right before the crash of 2000, the Dow climbed 10000 points, and in the 13 years since has climbed only 2000.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Dr. Welsh, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Sequestration

From the Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III's Letter to Airmen lamenting the coming budget cuts:

CMSAF Cody and I just returned from a seven-base tour of the CENTCOM AOR, where we got to meet a lot of you and watch you thrive in some tough environments. We met Airmen like SrA Alexia Briant, a war reserve med tech, who helps save lives every day by making sure your first aid kits have everything they need. We met SrA Muhamed Mehmedovic, a transportation journeyman inspired to serve by airdrops of aid his family received in Bosnia when he was just six years old. And we met Airmen like Lt Col Kat Lilly, commander of the 802nd Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron, who’s helped train a new generation of Afghan pilots and maintainers, including their first fixed-wing male and female pilots in over thirty years.

If this is what the Air Force has come to? And all that stands between me and bringing the entire rancid, internationalist, social-work-on-steroids operation to a screeching halt is a four day workweek?

Bring it, baby.