Kevin Drum

The Washington Post Wants Google to Invent a "Secure Golden Key"

| Sat Oct. 4, 2014 10:26 AM EDT

A couple of weeks ago Google announced that Android phones would soon have their contents encrypted by default. The encryption key would be set by the user and Google wouldn't keep a copy. This means that if police get a warrant to search a cell phone, they can't get the encryption key from Google. The owner of the phone will have to cough it up.

This is how search warrants work in every other walk of life, but law enforcement agencies were nonetheless frustrated over Google's new policy. The Washington Post sympathizes with their frustration, and yesterday they mounted a fairly standard defense of the law enforcement position. But then they ended with this:

How to resolve this? A police “back door” for all smartphones is undesirable — a back door can and will be exploited by bad guys, too. However, with all their wizardry, perhaps Apple and Google could invent a kind of secure golden key they would retain and use only when a court has approved a search warrant. Ultimately, Congress could act and force the issue, but we’d rather see it resolved in law enforcement collaboration with the manufacturers and in a way that protects all three of the forces at work: technology, privacy and rule of law.

A "secure golden key"? Seriously? Did they bother talking to anyone more technically savvy than their publisher's nine-year-old grandkid about this?

If you're going to opine about this stuff, you owe it to your readers to do at least a minimal amount of reporting and research about what's possible and what's not. Otherwise you sound like an idiot.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 3 October 2014

| Fri Oct. 3, 2014 2:50 PM EDT

We have names! They have not, ahem, been met with universal acclaim, but we're sticking with them. Our little gray-and-white girl is:

  • Hopper aka Gracie aka The Admiral

And our little black-and-white boy is:

  • Hilbert aka Davie aka The Professor aka The 24th Problem

For those of you too lazy to google things, Hopper is named after Admiral Grace Hopper, "the mother of COBOL." Hilbert is named after David Hilbert, a famous German mathematician who has some personal resonance for me and also happens to have a name that begins with H, which makes him a nicely alliterative companion for Hopper. Among other things, Hilbert is famous for a speech in 1900 in which he laid out 23 fundamental mathematical problems, some of which remain unsolved to this day.

It turns out, by the way, that the fastest way to get Hilbert's attention is to pay attention to Hopper. All we have to do is scratch Hopper's chin and Hilbert, somehow, becomes aware of it and comes bounding into the room demanding that we scratch his chin. It's really quite remarkable. He not only has a jealous streak, he apparently has ESP too.

Yet More Crackpotism From the Tea Party Darling in Iowa

| Fri Oct. 3, 2014 1:20 PM EDT

TPM's Daniel Strauss provides us with the latest intel on tea party darling Joni Ernst, currently favored to win a Senate seat in Iowa. Here are her answers to a survey from the Campaign for Liberty in 2012, when she was running for the state legislature:

Strauss naturally focuses on Question 5, in which Ernst happily agrees that Iowa should allow state troopers and local sheriffs to toss federal officials in the slammer if they try to implement Obamacare in their state. This is complete lunacy, but of course no one will take any notice. For some reason, conservative Republicans are allowed to get away with this kind of stuff. There's a sort of tacit understanding in the press that they don't really mean it when they say things like this. It's just a harmless way of showing their tribal affiliation.

However, I'm also intrigued by Question 1. I assume this was prompted by police use of drones, which was starting to make the news back in 2012, but does it also include things like red light cameras and automated radar installations on highways? Does Ernst really oppose this stuff? She might! And maybe it's a big deal in Iowa. I'm just curious.

UPDATE: And as long as we're on the subject of Iowa, Senate seats, and the press, maybe you should check out Eric Boehlert's fully justified bafflement over the national media's infatuation with a crude Republican smear campaign based on transparent lies about Democratic candidate Bruce Braley and his neighbor's chickens. Click here for more.

Is a Major Abortion Showdown Finally In Our Near Future?

| Fri Oct. 3, 2014 12:12 PM EDT

It's been obvious for a while that sometime soon the Supreme Court is going to take on another major abortion case. So far, what's kept it from happening is probably the fact that both sides are unsure how it would go. Nobody wants to take the chance of a significant decision going against them and becoming settled law for decades.

But Ian Millhiser suggests today that this might be about to change. Conservatives have been unusually aggressive over the past four years in testing the limits of the law at the state level, and yesterday the Fifth Circuit Court upheld a recently-passed Texas statute that had the effect of shutting down all but eight abortion clinics in the entire state. Ominously, Millhiser says, the majority opinion went to considerable pains to acknowledge that its reading of the law was different from that of other circuit courts:

That’s what’s known as a “circuit split.”....Judge Elrod’s lengthy citation — which includes one case that was decided three years before the Supreme Court built the backbone of current abortion jurisprudence in Planned Parenthood v. Casey — is an unusually ostentatious and gratuitous effort to highlight the fact her own decision is “in conflict with the decision of another United States court of appeals on the same important matter.” If anything, Elrod is exaggerating the extent to which other judges disagree with her.

That’s a very strange tactic for a judge to take unless they are eager to have their opinion reviewed by the justices, and quite confident that their decision will be affirmed if it is reviewed by a higher authority. By calling attention to disagreement among circuit court judges regarding the proper way to resolve abortion cases, Elrod sent a blood-red howler to the Supreme Court telling them to “TAKE THIS CASE!”

Elrod, it should be noted, is not wrong to be confident her decision will be affirmed if it is heard by the justices. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the closest thing the Supreme Court has to a swing vote on abortion, hasn’t cast a pro-choice vote since 1992. As a justice, Kennedy’s considered 21 different abortion restrictions and upheld 20 of them.

Conservatives, including those on the Fifth Circuit, are increasingly confident that Anthony Kennedy's position on abortion has evolved enough that he's finally on board with a substantial rewrite of current abortion law. And since the other four conservative justices have been on board for a long time, that's all it takes. Kennedy might not quite be willing to flatly overturn Roe v. Wade, but it's a pretty good guess that he's willing to go pretty far down that road.

We are rapidly approaching a point in half the states in America where abortions will be effectively available only to rich women. They'll just jet off to clinics in California or New York if they have to. Non-rich women, who can't afford that, will be forced into motherhood whether they like it or not. At which point conservatives, as usual, will suddenly lose all interest in them except as props for their rants about lazy welfare cheats.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in September

| Fri Oct. 3, 2014 10:47 AM EDT

The American economy added 248,000 new jobs in September, but about 90,000 of those jobs were needed just to keep up with population growth, so net job growth clocked in at 158,000. That's not bad. The headline unemployment rate ticked down to 5.9 percent, due to a combination of more employment and more people dropping out of the labor force. However, the labor force participation rate stayed about the same as last month, so this jobs report isn't primarily about people giving up on looking for work. It's basically good news.

Overall, this is a much better report than last month's, and to add to the good news, the BLS revised upward the July and August reports by a combined total of 69,000 jobs. The economy still isn't booming, but the past six months are starting to look pretty solid. More people are working and hiring rates are up. Hopefully this will produce some wage gains too in the near future.

Support for Ground War Against ISIS Keeps Growing

| Thu Oct. 2, 2014 5:48 PM EDT

"So much for war weariness," crows Ed Morrissey today, and unfortunately it's hard to argue with him. Here's the latest:

This is a Fox poll, so maybe we have to take it with a grain of salt. Question 22, after all, is about whether Barack Obama has been too tough or too soft on radical Muslim extremists, and that probably primes the ol' military aggression pump a wee bit. Still, these are the highest favorability ratings I've seen yet for ground action against ISIS, and they seem to rise with every new poll.

So will these numbers just keep going up, until the whole country is good and lathered up for Iraq War 3.0? Or, after a few months, will Americans get tired of the whole thing and lose interest? The evidence of history can point either way. In the meantime, however, I reserve the right to remain very, very nervous about Obama's ability to hold out against the tide of war.

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No, There Is No "Troubling Persistence" of Eugenicist Thought in America

| Thu Oct. 2, 2014 5:15 PM EDT

Andrew Sullivan points me to a piece by Michael Brendan Dougherty bemoaning the "troubling persistence" of eugenic thought in America. But Dougherty's evidence for this is tissue-paper thin, especially in his credulous treatment of the high abortion rate among women with Down syndrome babies:

In an article that explores this sympathetically, Alison Piepmeier writes:

Repeatedly women told me that they ended the pregnancy not because they wanted a "perfect child" (as one woman said, "I don't know what 'perfect child' even means") but because they recognized that the world is a difficult place for people with intellectual disabilities.

If the numbers on abortion and Down syndrome are even remotely accurate, the birth of a Down baby is something already against the norm. As medical costs are more and more socialized, it is hard to see how the stigma attached to "choosing" to carry a Down syndrome child to term will not increase. Why choose to burden the health system this way? Instead of neighbors straightforwardly admiring parents for the burden they bear with a disabled child, society is made up of taxpayers who will roll their eyes at the irresponsible breeder, who is costing them a mint in "unnecessary" medical treatment and learning specialists at school. Why condemn a child to a "life like that," they will wonder.

Oh please. These women were lying. The reason they had abortions is because raising a Down syndrome child is a tremendous amount of work and, for many people, not very rewarding. But that sounds shallow and selfish, so they resorted instead to an excuse that sounds a little more caring. Far from being afraid of eye-rolling neighbors who disapprove of carrying the baby to term because it might lead to higher tax rates, they're explicitly trying to avoid the ostracism of neighbors who would think poorly of them for aborting a child just because it's a lot of work to raise.

This has nothing to do with eugenic thought one way or the other. The more prosaic truth is simpler: Most of us aren't saints, and given a choice, we'd rather have a child without Down syndrome. You can approve or disapprove of this as you will, but that's all that's going on here.

Would You Pay $20 For a Non-Reclining Seat in Front of You?

| Thu Oct. 2, 2014 3:00 PM EDT

Slate has a great example today of the endowment effect, aka status quo bias:

In an online survey, we asked people to imagine that they were about to take a six-hour flight from New York to Los Angeles. We told them that the airline had created a new policy that would allow people to pay those seated in front of them to not recline their seats. We asked one group of subjects to tell us the least amount of money that they would be willing to accept to not recline during the flight. And we asked another group of subjects to tell us the most amount of money that they would pay to prevent the person in front of them from not reclining.

....Recliners wanted on average $41 to refrain from reclining, while reclinees were willing to pay only $18 on average....When we flipped the default—that is, when we made the rule that people did not have an automatic right to recline, but would have to negotiate to get it—then people’s values suddenly reversed. Now, recliners were only willing to pay about $12 to recline while reclinees were unwilling to sell their knee room for less than $39.

When the status quo is a reclining seat, people demand a lot of money before they'll give it up. But when the status quo is a lot of knee room, people demand a lot of money before they'll give that up.

So what would happen if this experiment were done in real life on a large scale—and without any messy face-to-face negotiation? Suppose an online booking service offered non-reclining seats for a $20 discount and the seats behind them for a $20 extra charge? Would the market clear? No? Then try $15. Or $25. I'll bet it wouldn't take too long to find the market-clearing price, and I'll bet it would be somewhere around $25 on most flights. (Though possibly much more on red-eyes.)

The authors of the Slate piece note that in the online experiment, the status quo would have changed only about a quarter of the time. But that's to be expected. I'd be likely to pay for the legroom because I'm fairly tall and I sometimes want to use a laptop on my tray table. But for anyone of average height or less, it's probably not that big a deal. Likewise, some people care about reclining and others don't. I mostly don't, for example. Put it all together, and I'd guess that if you offered this deal on a long-term basis, less than 20 percent of all seats would be affected.

Now, would any airline find it worthwhile to do this? Probably not. There's no money in it for them, and enforcement would be a huge pain in the ass. But it would certainly be an interesting real-world experiment if anyone were willing to give it a go.

Hooray! This Young Billionaire Actually Invented Something Useful

| Thu Oct. 2, 2014 12:43 PM EDT

Elizabeth Holmes is the third-youngest billionaire on the Forbes 400 list (behind Facebook tycoons Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz). And hooray for her! Her business model doesn't depend on getting drunk teenagers to eventually regret that they ever heard of the internet. It depends instead on a genuinely useful invention: a new type of blood test that requires only a tiny pinprick and a single drop of blood. Slate's Kevin Loria tells us about it:

Traditional blood testing is shockingly difficult and expensive for a tool that's used so frequently. It also hasn't changed since the 1960s. It's done in hospitals and doctors' offices. Vials of blood have to be sent out and tested, which can take weeks using traditional methods and is prone to human error. And, of course, sticking a needle in someone's arm scares some people enough that they avoid getting blood drawn, even when it could reveal lifesaving information.

Holmes recognized that process was ripe for disruption....The new tests can be done without going to the doctor, which saves both money and time. Most results are available in about four hours....Blood samples have traditionally been used for one test, but if a follow-up was needed, another sample had to be drawn and sent out—making it less likely that someone would get care. The Theranos approach means the same drop can be used for dozens of different tests.

It's cheap, too. One common criticism of the healthcare system is that the pricing structure is a confusing labyrinth that makes it impossible to know how much anything costs. Theranos lists its prices online, and they're impressive.

It so happens that I've been getting more than the usual amount of blood drawn lately, and it also so happens that I'm one of those people who really hates this. My angst is for completely irrational reasons. I know it doesn't hurt; it doesn't take long; and it poses no danger. As it happens, my own particular phobia is so bizarre and unaccountable that I'm reluctant to even fess up to it. But it's this: The scarless incision wigs me out. For the rest of the day after a blood test, I'm convinced that any second it's going to pop open like an oil gusher. I used to keep that little cotton ball taped on for a full 24 hours, until the next day's shower finally forced me to take it off. I have recently, through sheer force of will, started taking it off after only a few hours.

This makes no sense. But then, phobias rarely do. And mine isn't even that bad. When I need to get blood drawn, I do it. Still, I often put it off, and I refuse to get it done more than once every two weeks or so. I also refuse to ever have it done in my right arm.

By now, you're either laughing at me or else wondering if I've lost my marbles. But I agree with Holmes: traditional blood testing is barbaric and medieval and it's long past time to bring it into the 21st century. So hooray for Elizabeth Holmes. My only question now is this: When is she going to sign a contract with Kaiser so that I'll be able to benefit from her marvelous invention?

Here's a Great New Cause For the Tea Party

| Thu Oct. 2, 2014 11:03 AM EDT

Harold Meyerson writes today about something called the Investor-State Dispute Settlement provision, a feature of most trade agreements since the Reagan administration. Basically, it means that if, say, a Mexican company objects to a regulation in Texas, it can sue Texas. But not in a US court. Instead the case is heard in a special extra-governmental tribunal:

The mockery that the ISDS procedure can make of a nation’s laws can be illustrated by a series of cases. In Germany in 2009, the Swedish energy company Vattenfall, seeking to build a coal-fired power plant near Hamburg, used ISDS to sue the government for conditioning its approval of the plant on Vattenfall taking measures to protect the Elbe River from its waste products. To avoid paying penalties to the company under ISDS (the company had asked for $1.9 billion in damages), the state eventually lifted its conditions.

Three years later, Vattenfall sued Germany for its post-Fukushima decision to phase out nuclear power plants; the case is advancing through the ISDS process. German companies that owned nuclear power plants had no such recourse.

After Australia passed a law requiring tobacco products to be sold in packaging featuring prominent health warnings, a Philip Morris subsidiary sued the government in Australian court and lost. It also sued the government through the ISDS, where the case is still pending. The health ministry in next-door New Zealand cited the prospect of a Philip Morris victory in ISDS as the reason it was holding up such warnings on cigarette packages in its own country.

Meyerson wants to know why Democratic presidents continue to support ISDS, but I'm more interested in why the tea party crowd hasn't yelled itself hoarse over this. After all, this is a tailor-made example of giving up US sovereignty to an unaccountable international organization, something that normally prompts them to start waving around pocket copies of the Constitution and going on Hannity to complain that President Obama is trying to sabotage America. Agenda 21, anyone?

So why not this time? I guess it's because ISDS is normally used by big corporations to challenge environmental laws. So which do you hate more? The EPA or an unaccountable international organization? Decisions, decisions....