Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Lock, Lock. Who’s There?

I am, I guess you could say, a small-government moderate. I don’t have a philosophical issue with the existence of government, or any special gripes about the legitimacy of state power, but rather I tend to think that everyone is better off when people play to their strong suits. And there are some things that governments are placed to do very well, and some that they are always going to be terrible at. And the more we remove from government the responsibility for things that it doesn’t do well, the better off we are overall. Because we can give those jobs to people who will do them well.

When I have a gripe with government, it’s when they do something poorly, yet won’t allow anyone else to do it, regardless of the fact that they could do it better. An illustration of this is the Transportation Security Administration and travel locks. If you’re going to fly, and you want to lock your luggage, you have to use TSA-approved locks for the job, because the TSA wants to be able to get into a suspicious bad without having to cut the lock off. As if someone who is going to try to smuggle a bomb or other dangerous item onto a plane via checked luggage is going to merrily use an approved lock. These locks are approved by the TSA, because the TSA has skeleton keys that will allow them to open the locks, and thus the bags, and then lock them back.

The problem now is that people other than the TSA can have access to these keys. In fact, you can print them out for yourself with a 3D printer and the right plastic. Not, it seems that you need to; the locks are said to not be very secure. And therein lies the issue. TSA spokesperson Mike England says, in response to the news that keys for its locks can be printed by the public:

“The reported ability to create keys for TSA-approved suitcase locks from a digital image does not create a threat to aviation security.”

“These consumer products are ‘peace of mind’ devices, not part of TSA’s aviation security regime.”

“Carried and checked bags are subject to the TSA’s electronic screening and manual inspection. In addition, the reported availability of keys to unauthorized persons causes no loss of physical security to bags while they are under TSA control. In fact, the vast majority of bags are not locked when checked in prior to flight.”
But here’s the point. If I’m using a TSA-approved lock, I’m clearly not worried about the security of a bag when the TSA has it - otherwise, I’d have taken steps to keep them out of it, too. The point behind a TSA-approved lock is to keep people out when the TSA doesn’t have control of the bag. It’s unclear how one can have “peace of mind,” when the only luggage locks available on the market that can be taken on aircraft are so publicly compromised. Now, to be sure, I understand that luggage locks are not the end all and be all. I think of them in much the same way I do the lock on my apartment door. Not really much of a deterrent to a determined thief, who could likely simply bash the door in, but enough to prompt a casual burglar to move on to the next unit, in the hope of finding an unlocked door. And given that, as Mr. England points out, that most suitcases aren’t locked anyway, that small amount of deterrence might help. Granted, it’s still easier to open an unlocked bag than to use the TSA’s keys, but the bar is simply that much lower.

A number of people online had expressed some dismay over Mr. England’s attitude towards the security of traveler’s belongings, which has charitably been described as “not our problem,” but in a sense, that’s kind of the point. The TSA doesn’t concern itself with the security regimes of travelers. And in that regard, it doesn’t have to care that it compromises those in the course of what it does concern itself with - namely telling everyone how terrorists would be blowing up planes left, right and center if they weren’t there to rifle through random people’s luggage.

The TSA’s chance of every stopping an airplane bombing through physically searching luggage are slim. Given what I understand of their processes, the device would have to show up on whatever scanners they use, but not be so obvious that it would be clear what it was without a physical search. And again, if I were going to put a bomb into a piece of checked luggage, I wouldn’t care about the locks on it. But I guess this is the way security theater works. One would hope however, that they’d aim for better than a one-star performance.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

But I Do Know...

About a year and a half ago, I came across a post on Seth Godin's blog, entitled "For those unwilling to think deeply..." It rubbed me the wrong way, because it felt like someone who should know better taking pot shots at people who knew less than he did, and blaming them for their circumstances. And the American tendency to snipe at one another has always bothered me, even though I fully understand that the tribalism at the heart of it is never going to go away.

Being deeply knowledgeable about how electricity, democracy or irrational decision making works, when your paycheck depends on you knowing other things - but none of those things, is a luxury good. Because even though we don't have a market in "emotional labor," in that you can't simply go out and pay someone else to perform it for you, it's not without its costs. And I think that this is another way in which Mr. Godin's post irritates me, and illustrates one of the things that bothers me about the way we relate to one another: the not having access to a given luxury is itself a character flaw - being "unwilling to think deeply..." rather than a marker of a certain kind of poverty. And so we see no need to share that luxury with others.

Now, here I will admit to thinking that Americans are often more willing to plead poverty than perhaps we should be. But in some ways, I think that it is true that we can be impoverished in ways that don't often occur to us. The world is a very big place, and there is a lot to learn about it. But in order to do that, you have to have time that you aren't devoting to other things. The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf noted this several years ago when he related to readers that he understands things that non-news junkies are unaware of. Not because he is smarter than they are, or more willing to think deeply about things. But because it's what he does for a living, and so he's doing deep dives into these questions when other people are working at whatever it is that puts a roof over their heads.

There are a lot of things that I don't understand about the world, because, in the end, I don't need to understand them. When I run into missionaries, and tell them that I don't believe in deities, the follow-up question tends to be "Well, where do you think that everything came from?" Rather than fall back on the Big Bang, I simply shrug and admit to not knowing, and note that I don't really have a reason to know. I wasn't there to see it for myself, and I have other things to do than spend the time to really understand what the science says about the topic. I can manage my day-to-day life without being able to definitively answer the question, and I'm okay with that. And there are a lot of topics that fall into that same category. And as much as I love to listen to Dan Ariely talk about the topic, I don't have anything more than a superficial understanding of the irrationality of most mundane decision making. I am, to quote Mr. Godin, unwilling to devote the time and energy. This is not because I am content to be a cog in a machine that I don't understand. (Although in the end, I am content with that - because I don't have the mental horsepower to be a cutting-edge astrophysicist, and as a result, I am a cog in an unrelentingly vast machine that I can barely make heads or tails of, let alone actually understand. I can barely manage to come up with a why to describe gravity that doesn't rely on the action of gravity itself to illustrate it. Put the word "quantum" in front of anything, and my eyes glaze over.) But to be anything more than a cog in the machines I do understand, I have to be continuously learning about them. Knowing Agile software development practices and rituals, as shaky as I am with that knowledge, serves me in much better stead than a deep understanding of the workings of electricity, because I spent 13 months working in a place that used Agile for some of their development work. And none as an electrical engineer.And I don't believe that I am the only person in that situation.

This is the entire reason for the human development of division of labor - that different people do different things. And in the process, they become really, really good at them, and pretty much suck at everything else. So I don't understand human irrationality, instead, I let Dan Ariely understand it, and try my best to keep up when he's explaining it.

Because I don't have the luxury of being able to do the work needed to have that knowledge firsthand. And portraying that as a character flaw won't change that fact.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

It All Falls Down

One of the things that I really enjoy about summer photography is that the light is often good enough to completely freeze the action. The illusion of stillness has always fascinated me.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Not Even Past

I'm going to indulge in my habit of liberal quoting again for a moment, because I'd like to give the entirety of the criticisms leveled about old comics. I'm not reprinting the whole of the descriptions of them, but pulling out the sentences that concern us here.

1905: Little Nemo in Slumberland
Shame about that Jungle Imp character, though, who serves as a cold reminder that blithely racist stereotyping has been a part of the visual language of the comics medium since its inception.

1929: Tintin
And racially iffy.

(Hot tip: Skip Tintin in the Congo. Trust us.)

1934: Terry and the Pirates
Milton Caniff's two-fisted action adventure strip about a boy named Terry, his frequently stripped-to-the-waist mentor Pat, and — regretfully enough — a Chinese man name Connie who speaks, well, pretty much like you'd imagine a Chinese character would speak in an American-made comic strip from the 30s and 40s. More's the pity.
The Old School: Classic Strips That Continue To Shape Comics
In the ongoing debate over absolute versus relative values, the stereotype is often that the Right are absolutists, believing that their understanding of right are wrong are objective facts of live not subject to a person's lived experience, and that the Left are relativists, believing that different people can come to differing but equally valid understanding of ethics and morality. But the Left does have its own version of moral absolutism, and that is that advanced Western societies should always have espoused values that line up with modern understandings of race, class and gender issues.

Note that the knocks on Little Nemo in Slumberland, Tintin and Terry and the Pirates are not for being out of step with the times in which they were written. It's that they're not in line with the values of 80 to 100+ years after they were written. And implicit in that is a wager that, come 2100 to 2130, people will see the world of 2017 as being thoroughly modern and in line with their contemporary values. But it's just as, if not more likely, that people (especially the 15 to 35 set) in that time will find barbarism and backwardness in something that we don't think of as particularly wrong. We could hope that the early 22nd century sees the end of judgmentalism, but that seems like a long shot, at best.

Instead, I suspect that they will judge us, and our works, by their contemporary values, and regard them as somewhat shameful, iffy, regretful and worthless, even as they see them as valuable for their staying power and historical context. Of course, in that I'm making a wager myself, and on flimsy evidence at best - namely that over the next 80 or so years of human existence, societies won't decide that judging the past by the standards of the present is simply an exercise in self-righteousness. After all, the fact that "it's always been done that way" doesn't mean that it always will. Still I'd like to see us to a better job of understanding that values evolve, not because human history is a steady progression from Bad to Better, but because of people doing what works for them in the contexts in which they find themselves, and those contexts change over time. The best way to ensure that the future breaks with the habit of looking down its nose at the past, is to break with it ourselves.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Wallet Vote

So there was a posting on LinkedIn that was mainly a complaint about another posting, that was itself a complain about women being lazy, and sitting on their butts "complete with graphics of various shaped women's rear ends - no I'm not kidding and I do mean today, in 2017." The post ended with: "It's time to ask LinkedIn and other social media sites aimed at professionals to stay professional and limit bullying and misogyny."

But the problem isn't that LinkedIn allows people to post things that others may, with complete justification, consider to be bullying, misogynistic or simply unprofessional (the constant "like" farming comes immediately to mind). The problem is that you can post inappropriate or unprofessional items to LinkedIn without this being considered a career-limiting-move. Remember, the whole point of LinkedIn is to network; to be able to get your name in front of people. A LinkedIn profile is effectively a form of résumé. If you can, in an open internet forum that supposedly has your real name attached to it, engage in "bullying and misogyny," without consequence, then the issue isn't with LinkedIn.

When some guy snarkily makes a post about women's backsides, and is called on the carpet the next week, because his post has caused the company's sales to slide 2.5%, you'll quickly see that sort of behavior go the way of the dodo. Sure, there are concerns, and they are valid, about companies policing their employee's social media presence. And some companies will discipline or fire people for saying things that are socially acceptable, or even laudable, but that make management or owners uncomfortable. But I'm not sure that such a scenario is much worse than LinkedIn taking over that policing function to prevent semi-activist users from being exposed to something that most of the user base doesn't care anything about.

But in the end, this is what activism is all about - getting people to forgo something that they find worthwhile to do something about things they find reprehensible. It's about getting people to vote with their feet, and with their wallets, to create the world that people say they want to live in, rather than looking to corporate entities to be the enforcement mechanism of our personal sense of enlightenment.

The best way to encourage good behavior we desire is to reward it. One of my fathers lessons to me as a child was that "You should always reward those who have done you a service." And while it grates sometimes to treat what we may understand as basic human decency as a service done for us, that, in the end, is exactly what it is. And we can reward it, at least in part, by punishing those two behave in ways that we find reprehensible. It's tempting to outsource that task to corporations to which we have already ceded a degree of power over our lives. But it seems like a bad idea in the end, because power, by its very nature, can be put to a multitude of purposes.