June 2008

2008 06 30
“Pentagon consultant”

Posted by in: Odds and ends

One other note on the Seymour Hersh article I mentioned yesterday. Like so many of Hersh’s articles, some of the juiciest inside gossip was sourced to a Pentagon consultant. I started wondering who that was a long time ago, since I assume it’s the same person who keeps popping up in article after article.

At the end of the day you just have to decide whether to trust Hersh that this source knows what he’s talking about. But it’s impossible not to wonder: Who is this person? How much access does any Pentagon consultant really have? How much of what he says is just unsubstantiated gossip he’s passing along? And if he really is reliable, why does he keep talking? What’s his angle? And if he really is leaking solid intelligence, why hasn’t the Pentagon (or anybody else) figured out who he is after several years of leaking?

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2008 06 29
Hersh, Debat, and covert operations in Baluchistan

Posted by in: Odds and ends

A while back, ABC reporter Alexis Debat reported that the U.S. and Pakistan were supporting minority dissident groups in Iran, including a Baluchi separatist group called Jundullah. Pakistan’s government went ballistic. Pakistan’s denials notwithstanding, lots of people found Debat’s reporting on this credible.

I was one of those people, since even before the Debat story, and in the complete absence of evidence, I was predisposed to think that the Bush administration would be doing this. That’s just they way they roll, know what I’m saying?

And then Debat turned out to be a serial fabricator. The story about the U.S.-Jundullah connection took a bit hit, and, as far as I could tell, ended up discredited, along with everything else Debat had written.

Now I see that similar allegations (minus the Pakistan angle – indeed, quite the contrary) have popped up in Seymour Hersh’s latest (via). Interesting stuff. I wonder what’s going on here. Perhaps Hersh’s allegations will have the effect of reviving the story that Debat’s fraud buried.

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2008 06 28
House hunt

So Spencer and I are probably going to buy a house in the next year or so. Maybe much sooner than that. This means a lot of looking at grim news about the market and the interest rates and the stock market and other things we have heretofore ignored, in addition to speculating about the future of the small semi-rural town where we’re living. (This means a lot of opportunity for noodling around on the internet doing “research”.) We’re trying to get an older house in an ok neighborhood within walking distance of the college, and this means there are not a lot of places to choose from. Will keep y’all posted as events unfold.

At any rate – It’s Lovely, I’ll Take It is a source of relief during the search. Ridiculous photos from real estate listings on the west coast. Similar pics are posted of places in our area – a farmhouse built in 1800 that’s been converted a la “Monster House” with fake jungle sections, full wall airbrush-style murals of dolphins, etc. A house with dried flowers in bunches all over the walls, floor to ceiling, with about a half dozen trophy deer heads interspersed.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2008 06 28
Recently read

Posted by in: Books

Joel Spolsky. Joel on Software And on Diverse and Occasionally Related Matters that Will Prove of Interest to Software Developers, Designers, and Managers, and to Those Who, Whether by Good Fortune or Ill Luck, Work with Them in Some Capacity

Another good book by Spolsky. I found it especially interesting because it’s now a bit out of date – it was published in 2004 – so the reader occasionally gets to see someone really smart use good arguments to defend predictions that didn’t really turn out to be true.

Marjane Satrapi. Persepolis I and Persepolis II

The first graphic novels I’ve ever read. The first is a memoir of the author’s childhood in Iran, which is divided by the revolution. The second takes her into young adulthood. I enjoyed them.

Truman Capote. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and three other stories

I liked Breakfast at Tiffany’s better than the other three stories. But still, wow. My first Capote book, but probably not my last.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone

A scathing indictment of the occupation of Iraq by the former Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief. The outlines of this story are well known, of course. But the details are often lost in the big picture. Chandrasekaran’s book is very helpful in this respect. I’ve seen it frequently claimed, for example, that the CPA often passed over highly qualified people in favour of young Republicans with no experience. But up this point I hadn’t seen these allegations carefully unpacked over several hundred pages.

Howls of outrage (2)

2008 06 27
Don’t be so sure they’re interested in picnics…

Posted by in: Odds and ends

You’ll see from the link candy in the upper left of this page (if you hadn’t already seen), that the defense team in an obscenity case is using data from google to mount an innovative defense:

In the trial of a pornographic Web site operator, the defense plans to show that residents of Pensacola are more likely to use Google to search for terms like “orgy” than for “apple pie” or “watermelon.”

I think things are probably still worse from the standpoint of good traditional American values and morals. For it is my guess that the two seemingly wholesome searches referenced are in fact performed by prurient, misremembering readers of Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent.

Howls of outrage (4)

2008 06 26
Obama on missile defense (Still Confused Edition)

Back in January, I was wondering what the candidates thought about missile defense. Set aside that old guy for a minute. I’m more interested in Obama. A little googling tells me that a video surfaced after I wrote my post in which Obama seemed to suggest he would end it. Two problems with this. First, it doesn’t seem to have been a video put out officially by the campaign. Second, I notice that the key line is “I will cut investments in unproven missile defense systems.” That could mean either, a) “I will cut investments in missile defense systems, which are unproven and so don’t deserve investment”; or b) “I will cut investments in those missile defense systems which have been unproven, leaving untouched all those which are proven.”

As of this writing, searching Obama’s site brings up only his commitment to working with Israel on the Arrow program.

It’s not surprising at all that Obama wouldn’t want to make a commitment on this issue. Coming out against missile defense would only piss off a well-funded and deeply entrenched interest group, and would do practically nothing to peel away McCain supporters or sway independents. Coming out in support of missile defense would piss off a number of his supporters, who would be inclined to see it as a cowardly and expensive concession to the sort of conventional wisdom Obama is supposed to be transcending blah, blah, blah.

What ought to be a bit more surprising is that journalists covering the race haven’t been more curious about the issue. After all, it’s a sizable chunk of federal money. And it’s also an interesting test for Obama, since putting the question about missile defense to him forces him to choose between presenting himself as a bold reformer or just more of the same. Aren’t journalists supposed to relish that sort of question?

Howls of outrage (3)

2008 06 25
Netflix Profiles

Update, June 30, 2008: Decision reversed. They’re keeping profiles.

Netflix recently discontinued the profile feature on its website. This feature allowed people to keep multiple queues of DVDs open. Returning a DVD from one queue had the effect of advancing the queue from which the DVD was shipped. I tried this feature a while back, didn’t like it, and so stopped using it. But I can see how people might find it very useful, especially households sharing a single account.

I’m really puzzled about Netflix’s decision. It was announced in an email that went like this:

Dear Chris, We wanted to let you know we will be eliminating Profiles, the feature that allowed you to set up separate DVD Queues under one account, effective September 1, 2008. Each additional Profile Queue will be unavailable after September 1, 2008. Before then, we recommend you consolidate any of your Profile Queues to your main account Queue or print them out. While it may be disappointing to see Profiles go away, this change will help us continue to improve the Netflix website for all our customers. If you have any questions, please go to http://www.netflix.com/Help?p_faqid=3962 or call us anytime at 1 (888) 638-3549. We apologize for any inconvenience. – The Netflix Team

And that’s it. Especially noteworthy is that movie ratings and friend connections associated with the profiles will be lost, and can’t be migrated to the main profile. I don’t rate many movies on Netflix, but as a general rule, when people put time and energy into ratings like this, it seems especially bad practice for a company owning to the accumulated information to decide to just dump it.

Why would Netflix flip the bird to so many customers with so little explanation? I’ll bet there’s a really interesting story here. Surely the technical obstacles involved in keeping profiles aren’t insurmountable. And surely migrating the data from soon to be deleted profiles wouldn’t be too hard. Anyway, David Pogue tried to find out what’s up with all this, but he hasn’t had any success yet.

Howls of outrage (8)

2008 06 17
Email down

Posted by in: Odds and ends

I’m not ignoring you. My main email address (through my school) has been down since noon on Sunday. According to the increasingly frantic bulletins about this on the school’s website, quite a few email addresses have been knocked out.

If you desperately need to get in touch with me, use my gmail address (user name = donkeyhotty). When the email goes back up we’re supposed to get everything that was sent in the meantime. But if I don’t answer you at all, try again.

UPDATE: Email back up.

Howls of outrage (4)

2008 06 15
You know you read too many blog posts when…

Posted by in: Odds and ends

…you feel a twinge of indignation when Ezra Klein links to a 2007 Dani Rodrik post as if it were written today, thereby failing to inform the reader that he first saw the link to Rodrik in a recent Krugman post.

This infraction shall henceforth be known as a vialation of blog etiquette.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2008 06 14
Ready to rumble at M.I.T.

Posted by in: Odds and ends

Math nerds get tough.

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2008 06 11
A tree falls in Brooklyn

Posted by in: Odds and ends

The wind was strong last night.

Tree down

Tree down on car

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2008 06 09
Yoon Sun Choi and the E-String Band, at Barbes Monday, June 9th

Posted by in: Odds and ends


Howls of outrage (8)

2008 06 07
Verizon Wireless bill archive security glitch

Second Update

In the end, Verizon sent me a letter notifying me that there was a security glitch with the bill archive section of the site. It noted that although the chance of my personal information getting into someone else’s hands was small, their system indicated that I used bill archive during the period in which the system was compromising information.

I would say that it was exactly the letter I would have written, had I been in charge at Verizon. So, a happy ending to that episode.

End Second Update

Update (Monday, June 9th):

OK, just got off the phone with someone from Verizon. I think the blog post got their attention pretty quickly. (He told me they found the post first, and then matched it to the ticket I had opened about the issue later.) I sensed a bit of frustration on his part that I concluded so quickly that they weren’t serious about the problem. At any rate, he reassured me that the technicians were working as quickly as possible to fix the problem, and that the entire bill archive would be taken down at 5pm today until they were sure it was fixed. He also reassured me that Verizon cares very much about privacy. I said I was happy to update the post with that information.

I asked if they planned to issue any public notice about this, and he said that this was up to the public relations people, and he wasn’t sure if they had decided anything.

So, there you go.

End Update

On Thursday morning, I was trying to access some old cell phone bills online at www.verizonwireless.com. As I clicked through the months, most of the time the correct bill came up (as a pdf). But twice for some reason verizonwireless.com served up someone else’s bill. The first time I just absentmindedly clicked away and tried again. But the second time it occurred to me that there was something really squirrelly about the fact that I was able to access some other random dude’s bill. I could see all the calls that this guy made in September, 2007, his account number, and the fact that his bill was past due that month. That’s hardly the biggest security breach in history, but it’s also a legitimate concern for people who care about their privacy, and rely on companies to take reasonable steps to secure personal information.

I spent 30 minutes on the phone with Verizon trying to get someone to understand that there was clearly some technical glitch on their end, and that it raised a privacy issue (and a potential legal issue for them). The first person I talked to tried to duplicate the effect, failed after trying once (for each month), and then tried to get rid of me. I pointed out that usually when I requested my bill, it did serve up the proper pdf. The problem clearly wasn’t resulting from a permanently misaddressed pdf file. Rather, something was getting tangled up when the pdf requests were generated or processed by the server. I insisted she transfer me to someone else, who then transfered me to someone else, who then promised me that someone would call me back with an explanation. No one has called yet.

I also made them promise to call this guy and tell him that someone else had been able to view information that should have been kept private, but about 5 minutes after I got off the phone with them I realized that that was unlikely. So I called the guy up and left a message. He called back a few hours later. No one from Verizon had called him. 10 seconds of googling suggests that he’s a bean farmer in the Midwest. I didn’t ask, but he certainly sounded like a bean farmer. He didn’t seem too pissed off, but he did say he’d give them a call “cause that’s just not right.” He asked where I was calling from and I told him Brooklyn, NY. “Brooklyn! All the way from Brooklyn!” he said, clearly relishing the exoticness of my location. “I’m in XXXX.” I said: “I know! I’m looking at your bill.” And then he thanked me and we got off the phone.

Anyway, if someone from Verizon calls or drops a comment here, I’m happy to update the post with any new information. If I were in charge of this stuff at Verizon, I think it would be reasonable to a) figure out as quickly as possible what’s wrong with the way the server processes requests for archived bills; and b) issue a brief security notice admitting that a few customers had personal information compromised, but that the problem had since been fixed. Until Verizon does both of these things, I think I’m going to continue feeling sort of underwhelmed by their attitude to security and privacy.

Howls of outrage (15)

2008 06 06
1.4 billion dollars

Posted by in: Odds and ends


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2008 06 06
Network Graph for a Jazz Community

Posted by in: Odds and ends

Lately I’ve been busy and stressed out for reasons that I can’t go into here, but last night I finally decided to take a break and play around a bit.

Here’s the background. The online store at Yeah Yeah Records now lists 18 CDs, and I think Yoon and her friend Jacob are planning to add more soon. Most of these aren’t put out by Yeah Yeah Records itself. The label is just trying to give friends a place to list their CDs, with plenty of different buying options for each CD listed in one place. The idea is that people might come to the site interested in one musician, discover connections between that musician and other musicians, and then sample, discuss, and buy other music. Although Yeah Yeah Records is equipped to distribute the CDs themselves, the main goal now is simply to be a useful community resource with the aim of maximizing attention rather than money.

Anyway, check out the artist page. Skimming it, you’ll notice that jazz musicians are, for lack of a better term, quite promiscuous in who they play with, at least within the limits of a community of like-minded jazz musicians. Obviously rock groups sometimes have a fluid composition over time too, but my sense is that often rock bands get together and think of themselves as a band (and try to make it as a band), whereas jazz musicians routinely play in all kinds of rapidly changing combinations.

This gives us a bunch of raw data to play with. On the advice of a seriously clever dude named Chuck, I chose to use Graphviz, an open source visualization tool. After a bit of fiddling, and some inputting of data, I was able to generate this:

It’s worth clicking to enlarge.

Anyway, cool, huh? Of course it’s only based on 18 CDs, but already it really does begin to suggest some relationships at a glance that accurately reflect the shape of the community as I know it. As they add more albums, it’ll be interesting to keep updating the data file and watching how it changes the network graph.

Howls of outrage (3)