Saturday, May 13, 2006

lies, damn lies and polls

You are excused if you have been confused by the polls showing X number of Americans willing to give away their rights to the faceless bureaucracy of the NSA (and their RNC masters) while another poll shows precisely opposite results. There are very good reasons why you should be confused. Let's look at why:

In the former case, a Washington Post/ABC News poll rushed out immediately in the aftermath of the public exposure of the Bush domestic spying program reported that 63% of Americans were okay with the violation of their Fourth Amemndment liberties while only 35% percent opposed being reduced to so many paramecium-under-glass for the White House microscope. The article reporting this 'finding was titled 'Poll: Most Americans Support NSA's Efforts.'

But then how do we square this with a Newsweek poll that reports that 53% see the spying as 'going too far' while only 41% support the Presidential snooping on the domestic affairs of his so-called fellow citizens?

Well, a poll is only as good as the question put to the individual whose input is sought. It turns out that the question that the Washington Post/ABC News asked was:
"What do you think is more important right now -- (for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy); or (for the federal government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats)?
That sort of language can understandably slant a person's veiw of the question, since it poses it in terms of 'are you with the terrorists or are you with us?' The Newsweek poll, while it presumably did mention domestic spying as a potentially 'necessary tool to combat terrorism' was likely posed in not nearly so loaded a fashion. Hence the disparity between the polls. [Dan Froomkin suggests some poll questions that do not set up a false conflict between retaining Constitutional liberties and counterterrorism:
* Do you feel you know enough about how this program works to reach a definitive conclusion?

* Do you think the public should know more about this program and others like it?

* Should the government be able to launch programs like this in secret?

* Do you think President Bush should have asked for approval from the courts or Congress before taking this action?

* Do you trust the Bush administration not to abuse a program like this, when there is no independent oversight?]
Note that in neither case were the polls phrased in terms of violations of Constitutional liberties - which in fact is what we are talking about.

Which is why all this talk about polls is really a red herring. You don't just drop Constitution provisions on the basis of an overnight poll. They are intended to be something a bit more permanent that that. That is why we have a Constitution to begin with (at least that is my understanding, although it has come to my attention that the Busheviks find that kind of reasoning to be 'quaint'). Billmon makes the point eloquently:
The whole point of having civil liberties is that they are not supposed to be subject to a majority veto. Hobbes may not have believed in natural rights, but our founders did. And their opponents, the anti-Federalists, were even more zealous about restraining the powers of the federal superstate, which is why they forced the Federalists to write the Bill of Rights directly into the Constitution.

It defeats the purpose of having a 4th Amendment if its validity is entirely dependent on breaking 50% in the latest poll.
Now, of course, public opinion matters but we are a nation of laws, are we not? And the law and Constitution are unequivocal on the point of domestic spying: probable cause must be provided to a judge for any such surveillance to be legal.

What Bush has done is clearly illegal and a violation of his oath of office to uphold the Constitution, whether 'popular' or not. It would be just as illegal - no matter how popular - if he had all people of Dutch descent ("There's only two things I hate in this world. People who are intolerant of other people's cultures and the Dutch.") taken out and shot without due process of law.

Arbusto Dalenda Est

Update 5/14/05: Editor and Publisher tries to explain the difference in terms of the quick evolution of the issue. Wht WP/ABC poll was done before many people had even heard of the issue.
So what happened? Most likely views changed that much in one day after more negative media reports (including many from conservative commentators such as MSNBC's Joe Scarborough) surfaced. The Washington Post survey took place before many Americans had heard about, or thought about, the implications. The Newsweek Poll also reached twice as many Americans.

The Washington Post/ABC survey was conducted Thursday, just after the NSA news broke via USA Today, and reached just 502 citizens. Newsweek polled 1007 Americans on both Thursday and Friday. It found that even 27% of Republicans voiced disapproval of the phone records program.
While true, I think this is a contributing factor not the entire explanation. In short, the wording of the WP/ABC poll is loaded.

Note, for example, how the secrecy aspect, which is so very important, is completely ignored in the poll question. It would be one thing for the question to be posed openly (even if slantedly) as in the poll, but for the spying be simply be done by fiat without our knowledge - and with the express intention of never informing us - puts the program in an entirely different sort of light. It is not just that 'personal liberties' are 'intruded on' with our consent: it is the fact that the very basis for constitutional liberties has - secretly and without our consent - been declared obsolete.

Researchers have found that individuals given identical situations to analyze in a polling question will give different answers depending on how the question is presented. As a hypothetical example, if you ask people whether they would undertake a rescue mission to save 25 people from a sinking boat at the risk of losing a helicopter crew of 10 they are much more likely to do so if you tell them the odds of success are 30% than if you tell them the odds of failure are 70%. Researchers have found that although mathematically the situations presented are identical, framing the question differently can produce polar opposite results.

UPDATE 5/15/06: we hear this today from USA Today:
A majority of Americans disapprove of a massive Pentagon database containing the records of billions of phone calls made by ordinary citizens, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll. About two-thirds are concerned that the program may signal other, not-yet-disclosed efforts to gather information on the general public....

By 51%-43%, those polled disapprove of the program, disclosed Thursday in USA TODAY....

Most of those who approve of the program say it violates some civil liberties but is acceptable because "investigating terrorism is the more important goal."...

About two-thirds say they're concerned that the federal government might be gathering other information about the public, such as bank records and data on Internet use, or listening in on domestic phone conversations without obtaining a warrant.

Two-thirds are concerned that the database will identify innocent Americans as possible terrorism suspects....

The findings differ from an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken Thursday night of 502 adults. In that survey, 63% called the program an acceptable way to investigate terrorism. The findings may differ because questions in the two polls were worded differently. [emphasis added]

Are we all 'sex offenders' now?

New forms of surveillance and control are usually first introduced to control the weak, defenseless and despised of a society before being employed more generally. The poor, the young, the sick, the aged, the immigrants and the criminals stock the laboratory for social control. But none are as loathed and subject to control as those that are classified as 'sex offenders.'

Given the breathtaking audacity of the current regime, have we already passed beyond the 'experimental stage' to the implementation of total information awareness of every citizen? Has each of us already had our privacy stripped away and in essence been reduced to the status of a 'sex offender?'

Washington Post:
...Eric Haskett was merely taking a nap in a car when he roused suspicion in a rural Frederick County neighborhood. A neighbor traced Haskett's license plate to an address once used by a registered sex offender....

...After allaying the concerns of several law enforcement officials over the past few weeks, Haskett also asked them what he could do to clear his name.

"They said the best bet is to leave the area," Haskett said.

Haskett has no criminal record and has not been accused of wrongdoing, according to public court records and law enforcement officials. The confusion arose after he rented a room in a house on Liberty Road where convicted sex offender Donald M. Sanders had also rented a room; the sex offender registry listed only the house address, not room numbers.

Sanders moved out about the time Haskett moved in, and the two men had no other connection, according to interviews with them, their landlord and law enforcement officials.

Special Agent Michelle Crnkovich, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Baltimore office, said agents interviewed Haskett and determined that the incident was a mix-up. Cpl. Jennifer Bailey of the Frederick County Sheriff's Office said her agency also looked into the matter. And so did Sgt. Palmer Grotte of the Maryland State Police, who said he received an e-mail that started the incident. It is not clear how neighbors obtained information about Haskett from his car's license plates -- information that is protected by privacy laws. [emphasis added]
Privacy laws? Are they kidding? That is so pre-9/11!

Barry Leahy, who rented the rooms to Sanders and Haskett, said the incident points out the potential abuses of sex offender registries.

"I see that convicted sexual offenders should be available on a police list. I can't see that people should have access to that list and hold that against him," Leahy, 54, said. "There's too much of this throwing stuff around on the Internet."... [emphasis added]
Oh well, just an innocent individual whose life has been destroyed. No big deal. After all, the amateur snoop who stirred up the lynch mob had the best of intentions:
...Stefani Shuster, who acknowledged in a telephone interview that she wrote the e-mail that put the events in motion, said she had the best intentions.

"I have a family to protect,"...
And as we all know, anything you do to 'protect' your family is A-OK, right? Snooping, violating privacy laws, destroying other people's lives - all fair game, you just have to say the magic words: 'I thought I was protecting my family' - and everything is permitted. Kinda like 'National Security' for the Deputy Fife in all of us.

So what does this tragic tale tell us? It demonstrates how easily our reputation can be ripped from us - by just a few hayseeds on the Internet - when we have no privacy. So imagine, if you can, what is being harvested by our government in the name of 'national security?'

Of course some would say that we all just need to get used to the 'new normal,' as Mrs. Alan Greenspan phrased it during her lecture the other night on NBC. Of course the TV was only flashing pictures of people taking off their shoes at the airport, not of the government logging all our private phone calls, mapping out our 'social networks,' and on that basis deciding who is a 'Kool kid' and who gets an IRS audit. And don't forget, using spy satellites on Americans is also now part of the 'new normal' as well. Sunbathing in your backyard? Big brother is watching!

D.C.-style smear jobs are terrible, but what if that could be done retail? Just imagine the smears that could be manufactured if some petty bureaucrat - or some politico appointee - had access to every detail of your life (with BTK representing the further extreme). Of course, as long as you keep your 'attitude up' (i.e., don't piss off the Kommisar) everything should be hunky dory. But stray just a little... remember, Haskett's 'crime' was napping in his car. Who knows what might lead your neighbor to report you as an 'offender' under the new world order of the GWOT?

So remember 'the new normal' when reading subversive websites like this - 'they' know what (and when) you are reading because by now you have little more privacy under this regime than a sex offender.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

German 'Robin Hoods' give poor a taste of the high life News:
A GANG of anarchist Robin Hood-style thieves, who dress as superheroes and steal expensive food from exclusive restaurants and delicatessens to give to the poor, are being hunted by police in the German city of Hamburg.

The gang members seemingly take delight in injecting humour into their raids, which rely on sheer numbers and the confusion caused by their presence. After they plundered Kobe beef fillets, champagne and smoked salmon from a gourmet store on the exclusive Elbastrasse, they presented the cashier with a bouquet of flowers before making their getaway....

Hillary loses her shine

Guardian Unlimited:
...To put it bluntly Hillary is the Establishment candidate par excellence. This explains that while the polls show Hillary cruising to the nomination, they also show that most Americans don't think she can then win the White House. This isn't because ordinary Democrats are actively trying to commit electoral suicide (though the effect may be the same) it is just that there are many things that help you win the party nomination and only one of them is persuading voters of your attractiveness. The others involve playing politics and creating webs of patronage. And Hillary and her team are past masters of those games.

Of course, Hillary will still face a fight. Many grassroots activists (some of whom call themselves the 'netroots' due to their use of the internet during Howard Dean's 2004 campaign) will back a non-Hillary candidate. A strong name from the left of the party will be Russ Feingold, an anti-war Senator already generating a buzz. Another from the right of the party will be Mark Warner, a former Virginia governor who many believe offers the best chance to win back independent and southern voters to the Democrats' side.

But what is interesting here is that the fight in the Democrat party will not therefore really be about ideology. It will instead be about power and whether it comes from the top down or bottom up. It is a fight of the netroots versus the Establishment, of the anti-Hillary candidate (whether left or right) versus the Hillary political machine....

In the end it all depends on who you listen to: the political classes with their own tied up professional interests in the Hillary juggernaut, or people like Abby and Cathy, long-time Democrats feeling utterly left behind by a party leadership determined to select a candidate that America clearly does not want. Personally, I would listen to the folks on the ground every time.

NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls
The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren't suspected of any crime....

"It's the largest database ever assembled in the world," said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about the NSA's activities, declined to be identified by name or affiliation. The agency's goal is "to create a database of every call ever made" within the nation's borders, this person added.

For the customers of these companies, it means that the government has detailed records of calls they made — across town or across the country — to family members, co-workers, business contacts and others....

Monday, May 08, 2006

NBA playoffs

It is time for the NBA to seed the playoffs according to team records - period. No more regard to conferences or division winners. Let's see the best teams play each other.

Straight seeding will not only make the playoffs more interesting (due to interconference match-ups just like in the NCAAs or interleague play in baseball) and also make the resulting basketball that much more watchable (since it will include the 16 best teams properly seeded) but it will go a long way towards eliminating much of the current playoff and conference imbalances.

Plus you have a much, much better chance of having the Finals feature the two best teams. Doesn't that make the change worth it right there? No more NJ versus LA 'finals' circa 2001-02 may help ensure the Finals are the marquee matchup and crowning event they are supposed to be. After all, what made that Boston-LA rivalry so great in the 80s? Was it the fact that the best two teams or the fact that they were a continent apart? Of those two factors, which is more important? Which do we want to maximize year-in and year-out?

It should be obvious that the key factor was that they were the two best teams - their geographic location was an interesting quick, but nothing more. So the league is making a mistake by ensuring that the 'geographic factor' is the constant in the Finals matchup and the 'two-best-teams factor' is hit-and-miss. The playoffs should be designed so that it is the other way around: struture the playoffs so the two best teams always have the best chance of meeting in the Finals and leave the geographic factor to be hit-and-miss. It will make for better drama, better TV, and better basketball.

For those that think this will violate league tradition: eliminating the jump ball after a made shot went against NBA history... introducing the shot clock went against NBA history... allowing dunks went against NBA history... the three-point shot, the elimination of illegal defense, et cetera et cetera.

NBA history has been about presenting the best basketball possible. Sometimes mistakes were made but the goal has always been presenting the sport in a way that has the most potential for being the most entertaining and exciting brand of basketball there is. Seeding the playoffs so that the best 16 teams play and the best teams have the opportunity to play in the Finals is well within NBA tradition.

Perhaps the best thing about this proposed reform, however, is that you can do implement interconference seeding right now. No need to change anything but the seeding. There is no need to change the way the regular season is scheduled (2 games agains teams in opposing conference, 3-4 games against teams in same conference.

As for potential imbalance in strength of schedules, at worst, maybe one team from the weaker conference may beef up its record so that it may edge out a slightly better team from the stronger conference. But contrast that with the way the system is now: already we witness teams with worse records from the weaker conference making the playoffs at the expense of teams with better records from the stronger conference. So, in actuality, interconference seeding will actually ameliorate some of the existing conference seeding imbalance problem. Also, as the weaker conference will end up getting more lottery picks (currently split 7-7 despite team records), the interconference imbalance should even out that much more quickly.

Let the NBA be the best that it can be, Commish Stern! Seed the playoff match-up according to record and record alone. After a few years people will wonder why it was ever done any other way.