Category Archives: politics

The Middle

Yesterday I voted for John Kasich and Bernie Sanders. In a way it felt like heresy to participate in both the Republican and Democratic caucuses on the same day, in spite of there being no rule against it. And it felt crazy because the two candidates are so insanely different. But I felt it was the best I could do to use my teeny-tiny little bit of influence to nudge our country in the best direction(s) available.

I don’t identify particularly with either party. I see good ideas and bad ideas on both sides, noble people and selfish people on both sides. I’ve never voted a “party line” ticket. Having a little (D) or (R) by your name doesn’t make you good or bad, competent or incompetent, honest or dishonest. Both parties have their virtues; both parties have their misguided idealisms; both parties have their Faustian bargains.

The fact that this country is so strongly divided between the two parties makes the middle an uncomfortable place. And it’s weird because, contrary to popular opinion, the people at the Republican caucuses and the people at the Democratic caucuses aren’t all that different. The two parties do present different visions for America, but their members are all Americans. So why is there so much vitriol? Why do the two sides seem to be running farther and farther to the extremes rather than finding some kind of common ground?

I guess I’ve been part of the problem with my intense anti-Trumpery. But I hope you see it’s because I am convinced that he represents a true danger to our country, to constitutional government itself. I despise his ideas. But I don’t think voting for Trump makes you a bad person. My difficulty in understanding why people would vote for him must be an indication only of my own ignorance of other people’s lives and priorities.

Whether you like him or not (and I actually don’t know that much about him), the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, gave a speech today that I loved. I feel like the vision of politics he described makes room for a “middle”. He emphasizes the exchange of ideas over the clash of identities. It’s idealistic. Maybe it’s unrealistic. But I also think it’s the only sane way forward for our deeply divided nation. Here’s the video plus my favorite passage:

Ideas, passionately promoted and put to the test—that’s what politics can be. That’s what our country can be. It can be a confident America, where we have a basic faith in politics and leaders. It can be a place where we’ve earned that faith. All of us as leaders can hold ourselves to the highest standards of integrity and decency. Instead of playing to your anxieties, we can appeal to your aspirations. Instead of playing the identity politics of “our base” and “their base,” we unite people around ideas and principles. And instead of being timid, we go bold.

We don’t resort to scaring you, we dare to inspire you. We don’t just oppose someone or something. We propose a clear and compelling alternative. And when we do that, we don’t just win the argument. We don’t just win your support. We win your enthusiasm. We win hearts and minds. We win a mandate to do what needs to be done to protect the American Idea.

In a confident America, we also have a basic faith in one another. We question each other’s ideas—vigorously—but we don’t question each other’s motives. If someone has a bad idea, we don’t think they’re a bad person. We just think they have a bad idea. People with different ideas are not traitors. They are not our enemies. They are our neighbors, our coworkers, our fellow citizens. Sometimes they’re our friends. Sometimes they’re even our own flesh and blood, right? We all know someone we love who disagrees with us politically, or votes differently.

But in a confident America, we aren’t afraid to disagree with each other. We don’t lock ourselves in an echo chamber, where we take comfort in the dogmas and opinions we already hold. We don’t shut down on people—and we don’t shut people down. If someone has a bad idea, we tell them why our idea is better. We don’t insult them into agreeing with us. We try to persuade them. We test their assumptions. And while we’re at it, we test our own assumptions too.

I’m certainly not going to stand here and tell you I have always met this standard. There was a time when I would talk about a difference between “makers” and “takers” in our country, referring to people who accepted government benefits. But as I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized I was wrong. “Takers” wasn’t how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, just trying to take care of her family. Most people don’t want to be dependent. And to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong. I shouldn’t castigate a large group of Americans to make a point.

So I stopped thinking about it that way—and talking about it that way. But I didn’t come out and say all this to be politically correct. I was just wrong. And of course, there are still going to be times when I say things I wish I hadn’t. There are still going to be times when I follow the wrong impulse.

Governing ourselves was never meant to be easy. This has always been a tough business. And when passions flair, ugliness is sometimes inevitable. But we shouldn’t accept ugliness as the norm. We should demand better from ourselves and from one another. We should think about the great leaders that have bestowed upon us the opportunity to live the American Idea. We should honor their legacy. We should build that more confident America….

That’s the thing about politics. We think of it in terms of this vote or that election. But it can be so much more than that. Politics can be a battle of ideas, not insults. It can be about solutions. It can be about making a difference. It can be about always striving to do better. That’s what it can be and what it should be. This is the system our Founders envisioned. It’s messy. It’s complicated. It’s infuriating at times. And it’s a beautiful thing too.

A Fig Leaf

There is a major separation of powers issue with the current surveillance arrangement:

The standard for permitting a query of the database of internal US phone calls is a “reasonable, articulable suspicion” of terrorist activity, Inglis says.

Only 20 analysts within the NSA are empowered to approve targeting US-based phone conversations, he says. One of those 20 analysts, or their two supervisors – 22 people total – must sign off on any domestic targeting, he says. [link]

The intelligence and law enforcement officials as subject to “checks and balances“. But they clarified, in the most detail provided publicly thus far, that most of those checks are internal.

James Cole, the deputy attorney general, said that the NSA needs “reasonable, articulable suspicion” of involvement in terrorism before searching the millions of Americans’ phone records that it collects. But, Cole said: “We do not have to get separate court approval for each query.”

Instead, the NSA sends an “aggregate number” of times it has searched the database every 30 days to the secret Fisa court that oversees surveillance, while also sending a separate report each time NSA analysts inappropriately search the database. Alexander’s deputy, Chris Ingliss, said NSA analysts searched the database 300 times in 2012 in total.

Representative Adam Schiff, Democrat of California, said that “it may be valuable to have court review prospectively”. [link]

So 22 people in an executive branch agency decide for themselves whether a search of millions of records of communications involving American citizens should go forward, and then tell a judge once a month how many times they searched the database. Fourth Amendment refresher:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Key phraseology: “particularly describing“, “to be searched”, “to be seized”

The warrant is to issue before the search takes place, and there must be a specific description to the issuing authority of the search to be performed. From all appearances, neither of these conditions are satisfied by the NSA’s internal controls on its surveillance tools.

NSA employees are acting as their own judges, issuing their own warrants, and then asking for the FISA court’s rubber-stamp approval after the fact. NSA’s arrangement seeks judicial oversight for searches up to one month after they’re already carried out. All evidence gathered through these methods would be inadmissable before any normal, non-secret court. There’s zero value in getting a warrant after the search or seizure has been executed: by then, it’s too late, liberties have already been violated, and any objection by a judge after the fact would be a dead letter.

This is a fig leaf, pure and simple, and while it may make the president and others in government feel good that they are going to great lengths to supposedly protect our civil liberties, it seems to me clearly unconstitutional. And we’re still left with the apparent fact that our government has massive troves of data on American citizens that can be mined in the first place. Again I assert that the value of such data is so great that it will inevitably be abused. Furthermore, knowledge that we are being watched constantly will have a chilling effect on free society and culture. And we depart further from the republican ideal the less public our republic becomes.

Decentralizing the Web… Again

…cloud computing represents centralization of information and computing resources, which can be easily controlled by corporations and governments. [Jaeger, et al. Link]

In the wake of Prismgate or the Snowden Affair or whatever we’re going to call this kerfuffle, I’ve been struck by how the current centralized nature of the World Wide Web has facilitated the surveillance. While the Web’s technical architecture is distributed—no single server is essential for the continued functioning of the overall system—in practice the economic realities of web-scale computing have encouraged a centralization of user data in a relatively small number of providers. These are the Googles and Facebooks of the world. These kingpins of the Internet also happen, by and large, to be American corporations. What a windfall this provided the NSA!

This intense concentration of personal information is simply too valuable—for companies, governments, and individuals alike. It’s being abused, and will continue to be abused as long as it exists. But the Web and, more generally, the Internet are all about distributed systems. World Wide Web. Internetwork. It’s about lots of little nodes connected by the network. Would it be possible to reclaim the distributed heritage of the Web?

Companies like Google actually use huge datacenters powered internally by distributed computation to power your web requests. What if that computation was moved from its central location out to the nodes of the wider network? There are at least two obstacles to this happening: the first is technical, the second is economic.

Technical Requirements

How can you run a world-class web application like those provided by Google, with no central servers? Many others have thought about this and worked toward a solution. Here’s the sort of system I would like to see:

  • Globally Distributed. That’s the point—no single node contains all or even a substantial minority of the data. Nor does any single nation.
  • Redundant. The loss of individual nodes is extremely unlikely to lead to data loss due to redundant backups.
  • General. It can run an email app, a social networking app, a web search app, a calendar app, and so on.
  • Private. Users decide what data to share with whom and under what circumstances.
  • Anonymous. Participation on an anonymous basis is possible.
  • Secure. Replicas of data are encrypted so the compromise of a distant node does not reveal personal information to those not authorized to view it.

Many of these conditions are already met in cloud computing environments, but in controlled, centralized conditions. We should move distributed computing technologies out of the datacenter and onto the broader Internet.

Economic Implications

Now, the economics.

The current centralized model is supported almost entirely through the advertising revenues of the central provider. You don’t pay for a Gmail account—at least, not with money. You pay by being subjected to advertising. And, if you respond to that advertising, you pay by buying things from advertisers. If you think about it, in this model, you aren’t even the customer—you are the product. Google sells access to you to advertisers. But all of this advertising revenue pays for the infrastructure so you don’t have to—the hardware, the manpower, the electricity, etc. This arrangement is easy for the average guy or gal, but has some definite downsides. The immortal words of Jeff Hammerbacher come to mind:

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” [link]

How could the average web user be induced to pay for their own server in a distributed web application? It should be noted that web users already pay for their web access—$50+ dollars per month to the ISP. What if that fee included a server that was their home base on the web? A cheap, fault-tolerant photo storage service? A highly secure social networking endpoint? A super-fast email app, without the creepy targeted ads? I admit it’s a tough sell. I don’t know the whole answer. If it requires more than minimal additional work by users, the prospect is doomed. But if it provides a better, easier, safer experience—the premium web experience—then perhaps people will pay a little more? Dalton Caldwell’s experiment is very relevant here.

But what if that’s the wrong question, and we should be asking, How could the average web user continue to receive free web applications without the support of advertising revenue? How could this possibly be done? By establishing a global-scale computation marketplace. So you buy a computer—tablet, phone, laptop, desktop, it doesn’t matter—and connect it to a distributed social network application. It contains your social network data and serves it to any requesting information about you (only giving out the information you want it to, of course.) You want your data to be available while you’re offline, though, so you offer payment (via Bitcoin or something similar) to any who will host your data, up to a limit of 5 copies, with payment depending on the historical uptime of each node. But others on the network also want backups, and you take payments in exchange for hosting their data. Want to search the social network? Provide micropayments to nodes to induce them to participate; receive micropayments for helping other nodes make their own searches.

Those who require more resources will spend money to facilitate searches, backups, etc. Those who require less resources may earn money by renting out their mostly-idle server. Perhaps the average user, by renting their computer out to users of various distributed applications earns as much as they spend. Thus the application is free and is not funded by advertisers but by power-users, whose interests are more aligned with the interests of the general userbase.