Barely Legally

confessions of a moot court bailiff

Confronting the Past ↪

America’s having a conversation about whether a Confederate flag ought to fly over government buildings. I liked the perspective of Markus Feldenkirchen, a commentator from the German news outlet Der Spiegel:

How is it that for many politicians and American citizens, this flag has only now become a little embarrassing? Why are people only now asking whether it is really a good idea to name streets and public spaces after the greatest generals in the fight for slavery? They may have been brave soldiers, but if they were fighting for a despicable cause, they should not have monuments built in their honor. Unless, of course, we believe that what they stand for is not really so reprehensible.

This is basically how I’ve felt watching this conversation. The Confederacy was treasonous, and it doesn’t seem like they faced an awful lot of consequences for their actions. Now, a century and a half later, not nearly enough people see this as a traitor’s symbol.

Super PACs, Man

Remember that time Stephen Colbert ran a years-long piece of performance art about the ridiculous election laws in America? He called it the Colbert Super PAC, it was eye-opening. Colbert’s show won a Peabody for excellence in journalism for that. On Comedy Central!

But one presidential candidate is out to prove the election laws are an even bigger joke than that:

Back in April, the executive director of the super PAC backing Carly Fiorina dared the Federal Election Commission to sanction the organization for calling itself “Carly for America,” which violated rules prohibiting using a candidate’s name in the name of a legally unaffiliated PAC.

“It could be Carly for Puppies, it could be Carly for Freedom,” Mr. DeMaura said then. “There’s no legal prohibition against the type of name that we use. I think the reason that many don’t do it is for practical political reasons not based in legal fact.”

The fact that the guy running a super PAC – ostensibly barred from coordinating with the candidate – didn’t know he couldn’t use the candidate’s name? Kinda funny. The comeuppance is a little funnier:

It took the FEC less than three weeks to send a formal letter of reprimand to Carly for America.

So after some deliberation, on Monday the Fiorina super PAC changed its name. It’s no longer Carly for America. It’s now Conservative, Authentic, Responsive Leadership for You and for America – though it will be known by the acronym CARLY for America.

The legal term for this is a “giant middle finger” to FEC.

The Online Privacy Lie Is Unraveling ↪

Lots of people apparently think the government is looking out for their interests online. These are some impressive numbers:

49% of American adults who use the Internet believe (incorrectly) that by law a supermarket must obtain a person’s permission before selling information about that person’s food purchases to other companies.

69% do not know that a pharmacy does not legally need a person’s permission to sell information about the over-the-counter drugs that person buys.

65% do not know that the statement “When a website has a privacy policy, it means the site will not share my information with other websites and companies without my permission” is false.

55% do not know it is legal for an online store to charge different people different prices at the same time of day.

62% do not know that price-comparison sites like Expedia or Orbitz are not legally required to include the lowest travel prices.”

American Infrastructure, the Inferiority Of

Barry Ritholz on the Amtrak derailment from last month, titled More Proof Of America’s Inadequate Infrastructure:

The details are still being sorted out on the deadly Amtrak crash that killed at least six people earlier this week and injured 100s more. But what we do know is that the stretch of track where the train derailed did not have the latest automated speed control system.

Oh, sure. It didn’t have the latest Bluetooth hands-free throttle or some crazy space age nonsense. Nobody is going to pay $900 a ticket for a deflector dish and inverse tachyon beam trains or whatever.

The NTSB has been pushing for this safety system to be put in place since 1970. That is not a typo, the need for this system has been known for literally 45 years. Following a commuter train(s) head-on collision near Darien, Connecticut, the NTSB began urging the development and implementation of positive train control systems.

<Spit take noise goes here> 1970?!

The bad news is that the train industry, through the Association of American Railroads, has been lobbying against this. The Unions are no better, fighting implementation for fear it will cost jobs.

My favorite kind of sci-fi dystopia might be the one where the machines are trying to kill us. Someone invents a robot that ends up flipping out and tries to kill all the humans. Then people of all races, colors, and creeds unite against our common metal foe. We triumph.

In this case, we invented a machine to save lives 45 years ago, and both labor and capital have united in a horrifying attempt to keep those machines from saving us from the machines that humans use to accidentally kill hundreds of people.

Congress, that bastion of partisan gridlock, got together in 2008 to say that by December 2015, almost all passenger rail tracks will have these safeguards in place. As a country, we’re almost at a place where easily-preventable accidents will be… well, prevented.

It is unlikely that the industry will meet the deadline set 7 years ago.

Oh, come on.

Solomon’s Algorithm ↪

Google took a guy’s YouTube channel away from him. He’s still got all his videos and nearly a million subscribers, but the URL for his channel now points to a multinational cosmetics retailer. Why’s that?

Google said its algorithm decided which address Lush Cosmetics was given, based on data from YouTube, Google+, its search engine and other sources.

Lush cosmetics told the BBC it had not requested the change. Mr. Lush told the BBC: “I’ve been doing YouTube for a long time, but they’ve stripped this from me. I have that address on thousands of bracelets that I’ve sold, and it’s embedded in my videos. I can’t remake those now,” he said.

Google said Mr. Lush was a “valued creator” and that it had offered to pay for new marketing materials for his channel.

“Sorry, kid. We can’t do anything. It’s the algorithm we invented and developed. It’s not like we can just change it, or ignore it, or do anything but obey its ceaseless instructions.”

I’m not sure what’s more risible: Google’s dickery, or the implication that Google+ served as some sort of business intelligence metric.

Another Swiftian Proposal ↪

I didn’t necessarily agree with the points she made in her Wall Street Journal Op-Ed last summer, but Taylor Swift’s open letter to Apple this week is pretty solid:

I’m sure you are aware that Apple Music will be offering a free 3 month trial to anyone who signs up for the service. I’m not sure you know that Apple Music will not be paying writers, producers, or artists for those three months. I find it to be shocking, disappointing, and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company.

This is not about me. Thankfully I am on my fifth album and can support myself, my band, crew, and entire management team by playing live shows. This is about the new artist or band that has just released their first single and will not be paid for its success.

Now, look. I’m old enough to remember when the RIAA went around suing kids and taking their college savings in retaliation for downloading songs on Napster and Kazaa. They’re a cartel which has lobbied for maximalist copyright laws and which exploits the artists in their employ by paying pennies on the dollar. I have as little sympathy as possible for the RIAA.

But the US music industry’s annual revenues are about $15 billion, and Apple is the largest company in the world; they have $193.5 billion in cash and securities just lying around. Swift is right: Apple can afford to pay, and the artists deserve to get paid.

Office of Privacy Mishaps

Last week, at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, the director of the Office of Personnel Management said that their network breach was so complete, that encryption wouldn’t have helped. This wasn’t just peeking into one corner of the network; the attackers had free run of every bit of information, apparently.

Also, some of the systems are so old that they don’t support meaningful encryption schemes, or two factor authentication, or really any security: much of the code is written in COBOL, a computer language first developed in the 1950s.

Between this and the Healthcare.gov failure to launch, it’s becoming apparent that the federal government lacks the IT capability to do its job in the digital age. But remember that Healthcare.gov wasn’t done in-house, it was done by contractors. And when agencies attempt to outsource their work, it doesn’t exactly go well:

Until recently, Federal agents carried out background investigations for OPM. Then Congress cut the budget for investigations, and they were outsourced to USIS, which consisted, as one person familiar with OPM’s investigation process told Ars, essentially was a company made up of “some OPM people who quit the agency and started up USIS on a shoestring.”

When USIS was breached and most of its data (if not all of it) was stolen, the company lost its government contracts, and was replaced by KeyPoint—”a bunch of people on an even thinner shoestring. Now if you get investigated it’s by a person with a personal Gmail account, because the company that does the investigation literally has no IT infrastructure. And this Gmail account is not one of those where a company contracts with Google for business services. It is a personal Gmail account.”

Well, at least a personal Gmail account offers better support for two factor authentication than COBOL mainframes do.

But, uh, yeah. Government IT is broken, and government IT procurement is broken. Government (like any modern institution) needs nerds. The UK has a good template for solving this problem. Our own implementation is a couple years behind, but we’re throwing a lot more bodies into it. Colossal screwups like this can only emphasize the need for IT reform. I’m actually optimistic about the future of government IT – just not the extremely near-future.

Google Gets Design

Cliff Kuang at Fast Co Design, on How Google Finally Got Design:

Google has come so far, despite years of self-defeating battles over what constitutes good design. “When we brought up design at Google, people used to scoff,” says John Wiley, a designer who, in nine years at Google, has seen the company transform. “It made it hard for us to hire great design talent because it didn’t seem like we had the full measure of respect for design.” Here’s how an organization that once crowed about testing 42 shades of blue and called that design created a user-savvy organization that even Apple could learn from.

Fascinating story about a bunch of engineers and the designers who know how to make their products as usable as they are useful. Kuang argues – rather persuasively – that Google in fact is making the best-designed mobile software today, and Apple could learn a lot from Google.

The whole thing is great, but the penultimate paragraph almost undercuts the premise of the article. Kuang mentions that there are still some obstacles for Google:

For one, the company still has a broad, structural challenge in getting its best designs in front of its users. In fact, less than 10% of all Android devices actually have Lollipop, the first operating system to use Material Design—even though it was first released last fall. The countless devices and operating system flavors that exist out in the wild prevent Google from being able to push out updates to all its mobile uses, en masse. Perhaps in time, Google will solve this problem, by forcing greater adherence to standards in its ecosystems.

On an unrelated note: three days after Kuang’s article was published, Google announced an even newer version of Android that 10% of their customers will be using in another year. If design happens in the woods, and there’s no one around to appreciate it, it’s probably still good, right?