Strong opinions, weakly held

Month: April 2009 (page 2 of 5)

Loving what you have

Anil Dash and Mike Monteiro have launched a web site evangelizing the idea of appreciating what you have. The idea is simple and may be particularly compelling during a recession, but should probably be in the backs of our minds all the time.

I’ll share a little story along those lines. I drive an old car. It gets bad gas mileage and has uncomfortable seats. I would love to drive a new car. But the truth is I don’t drive an awful lot and the car runs really well. A couple of years ago I mentioned to my mechanic that I was considering getting rid of it, and he told me that if I did, to let him know, because he would be interested in buying it. At that point, I looked at the car with fresh eyes. If your mechanic wants to buy your car, it’s not time to sell it.

Just recently I’ve gotten a problem with the driver’s seat fixed, replaced the tires with nicer ones than I probably would have ordinarily, and resolved myself to sticking with it for another couple of years. I bought this car because I loved it, and as it turns out, I still love it.

This mentality is why car manufacturers around the world are in so much trouble, and why the government is pursuing fiscal stimulus, but for an individual, I think it’s the most rational approach.

Horrifying torture news of the day

What information did interrogators hope to get from prisoners at Guantanamo? Substantiation of the link between al-Qaeda and Iraq. McClatchy DC has the details:

A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration.

“There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used,” the former senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.

“The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there.”

Salon has more coverage of the Senate Armed Services report that the McClatchy article cites, reporting that planning for the use of torture began in 2001.

A PDF of the full report, which was declassified yesterday, is available for download.

Update: Dan Froomkin has a summary of what we learned from the report. Essentially, our government tortured prisoners for the purpose of creating propaganda to justify launching a war of aggression. Chew on that.

Checking Mark Penn’s numbers

Scott Rosenberg takes a look at Mark Penn’s crazy numbers in his article on professional blogging.

Needless to say, his assertion that 2 million Americans are being paid for writing online don’t hold up.

Impeach Jay Bybee

Think Progress has started a campaign to urge Congress to impeach Jay Bybee. Bybee is the author of the torture memo that I wrote about last week, and has since become a judge on the Ninth District Court of Appeals.

As far as I’m concerned, Attorney General Eric Holder should appoint a special prosecutor to investigate our use of torture, but there’s not much you or I can do about that. On the other hand, impeachment is a political proceeding, and we can all encourage our representatives to start impeachment proceedings. Impeaching Bybee would also start the ball rolling on a wider discussion of how torture was applied by the US government.

MySQL founder on Oracle’s buying Sun

Michael Widenius, the founder of MySQL, has posted his thoughts on the acquisition of Sun by Oracle. I agree with this sentiment:

The biggest threat to MySQL future is not Oracle per se, but that the MySQL talent at Sun will spread like the wind and go to a lot of different companies which will set the MySQL development and support back years.

I would not like to see this happen and I am doing everything I can do to keep this talent pool together (after all, most of them are long time personal friends of mine). I am prepared to hire or find a good home (either at Monty Program Ab or close to it) for all core MySQL personnel.

I think that the best thing that could come out of the merger is the combination of the InnoDB and MySQL teams.

Defining fascism

Hendrik Hertzberg publishes a <a href=http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/hendrikhertzberg/2009/03/more-fashions-i.html”>concise definition of fascism, written by E. B. White in the August 7, 1943 issue of the New Yorker. There was much abuse of the term “fascist” when George W. Bush was President, and we’re seeing lots of abuse of the term “fascist” in reference to Barack Obama.

Here’s White’s definition:

If we recall matters, a Fascist is a member of the Fascist party or a believer in Fascist ideals. These are: a nation founded on bloodlines, political expansion by surprise and war, murder or detention of unbelievers, transcendence of state over individual, obedience to one leader, contempt for parliamentary forms, plus some miscellaneous gymnastics for the young and a general feeling of elation.

Tim O’Reilly on Aneesh Chopra

Since President Obama said he’d name a “federal CTO,” I’ve been watching with interest to see who he’d pick. A lot of people expected that he’d pick a big name industry figure, but he went another direction and chose Aneesh Chopra, the Secretary of Technology for the state of Virginia. Chopra’s name is not one I’d heard before, but Tim O’Reilly makes a compelling argument for why he’s a good choice.

Chopra’s experience is specifically in driving technological advancement in government. I agree with O’Reilly that picking someone who’s never worked in government would limit what can be achieved, because learning how things work in a government setting takes time. Chopra is not going to need to get up to speed.

What I’d like to see is Chopra writing a blog himself, or at least Tweeting. If the federal government is doing interesting things on the IT front (and I expect it will be), part of the value he can provide is teaching states and municipalities what they could be doing as well. I hope he takes the outreach part of the job seriously.

East Germany then and now

Karlheinz Jardner visited East Germany in 1990 immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and recounts the trip 20 years later. The photos from his original trip are not to be missed.

A libertarian take on piracy (on the high seas)

Jim Henley as a really smart take on whether we should use naval power to take on piracy.

The more ambitious proposals to use the US or other navies to try to eliminate piracy off Somalia are proposals to offload the security costs of sailing along the Somali coast to the taxpayers of whoever provides the navy, and allow shippers to hold onto that last sliver of benefit the pirates currently take.

The whole thing is really good. The piracy as taxation argument, which Henley gets from Benjamin Friedman, is interesting, and reminds me of an argument Tim O’Reilly made about digital piracy back in 2002.

Reading the Jay Bybee memo from August 1, 2002

I am a notorious skimmer, but I decided to read the torture memos in full. I started with the Bybee memo, issued on August 1, 2002. In it, Office of Legal Cousel attorney Jay Bybee responds to a CIA request to torture Abu Zubaydah. The CIA’s argument is that the threat level to the US at the time of the request is higher than it was before 9/11, and that Abu Zubaydah is unlikely to disclose any additional information absent torture.

The request is for permission to use ten techniques, which are listed as follows:

(1) attention grasp, (2) walling, (3) facial hold, (4) facial slap (insult slap), (5) cramped confinement, (6) wall standing, (7) stress positions, (8) sleep deprivation, (9) insects placed in a confinement box, and (10) the waterboard.

The techniques are described in explicit detail, with careful guidelines for how they are meant to be applied. We needn’t guess whether the interrogators stayed within these bounds. The recently released Red Cross report on torture holds the answers.

At that point, there are several pages of arguments that the interrogation techniques that were to be applied have not driven more than a few people subjected to them as part of SERE training crazy. This evidence is later used to argue that the interrogators are operating in good faith in trying to avoid violating anti-torture legal statutes.

Next there’s a psychological profile of Abu Zubaydah. In short, he is described as exactly the kind of person who needs to be tortured.

Bybee then goes on to explain his legal rationale for arguing that applying the techniques listed does not constitute torture. He lists five criteria that an act must meet to violate a particular statute against torture. The first three criteria are inarguably met. That leaves the last two — that the interrogator intended to inflict severe pain or suffering and that they did, in fact, inflict severe pain or suffering.

Bybee decides to consider physical pain and mental pain separately and argues that examples of torture that inflict “severe pain” are, and I quote, “severe beatings with weapons such as clubs” and “the burning of prisoners.” Since in his opinion none of the acts meet those standards of pain, he argues they are not torture. After going over each proposed technique one by one in terms of the amount of pain caused, he argues that pain and suffering are the same thing, and thus chooses to ignore the fact that most of the techniques on the list are designed to inflict suffering. (One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers demolishes this argument.)

Next he turns to mental pain. The statute lists four criteria for acts that can cause prolonged mental harm. He focuses on whether or not any of the techniques alone or in combination can, from a reasonable torture victim’s point of view, be thought to constitute a threat of severe physical pain or suffering, or death.

Again, Bybee goes over each of the techniques and explains why they do not constitute a threat of severe pain or death. He’s careful to let them know that they can’t threaten him while they’re committing the acts, or that will violate the statute. Eventually he gets to waterboarding, which presents a problem because it is intended to produce the sensation of imminent death by drowning, and is therefore a predicate act that meets the criteria for torture. However, Bybee gives this technique a pass because it can be argued that waterboarding does not inflict “prolonged mental harm”.

Bybee then acknowledges that if you used several of the techniques in rapid succession and perhaps verbally threatened Abu Zubaydah at the same time, it would constitute a threat of severe physical harm or death. However, even that, in Bybee’s estimation, is not a violation of the statue because it wouldn’t cause prolonged mental harm (just as is the case for waterboarding alone).

At that point, he turns to the question of intent. His argument here is that as long as the interrogators don’t believe that they are going to cause severe harm or suffering, they’re in the clear. So even given the legal risks that accompany making someone believe they’re going to drown, the interrogators will not violate the statute because they don’t intend to cause severe pain or suffering. In this case, wishing really will make it so.

The memo is amazing to read, because it is, essentially, a long argument that the techniques in question do not create the very effects for which they are designed. The entire purpose of each of the techniques is to inflict pain or suffering, with the specific goal of forcing the subject to disclose information. In discussing whether stress positions cause severe pain, Bybee writes, “Any pain associated with muscle fatigue is not of the intensity sufficient to amount to ‘severe physical pain or suffering’ under the statute, nor, despite its discomfort, can it be said to be difficult to endure.” If it’s not difficult to endure, how could it possibly be an effective interrogation technique?

Likewise, in discussing placing an insect in an unlit, confining box with Abu Zubaydah, Bybee writes, “An individual placed in a box, even an individual with a fear of insects, would not reasonably feel threatened with severe physical pain or suffering if a caterpillar was placed in the box.” Of course, as is made clear elsewhere, Abu Zubaydah was to be told that the insect is a stinging insect. I find it difficult to imagine that anyone placed in a dark, coffin sized box with a stinging insect would not expect severe physical pain.

I really think that people should read these memos and ask themselves if this is the kind of power we want to see the government granting to itself. These memos take on these issues in the most detached and legalistic terms. The results were a regime that was much more savage, unconstrained, and persistent than they are imagined to be by the lawyers who cooked up the legal justifications for them.

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