January 29, 2015 archive

Most Transparent Administration Evah!

A Year After Reform Push, NSA Still Collects Bulk Domestic Data, Still Lacks Way to Assess Value

By Dan Froomkin, The Intercept


The presidential advisory board on privacy that recommended a slew of domestic surveillance reforms in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations reported today that many of its suggestions have been agreed to “in principle” by the Obama administration, but in practice, very little has changed.

“The Administration accepted our recommendation in principle. However, it has not ended the bulk telephone records program on its own, opting instead to seek legislation to create an alternative to the existing program,” the report notes.

And while Congress has variously debated, proposed, neutered, and failed to agree on any action, the report’s authors point the finger of blame squarely at President Obama. “It should be noted that the Administration can end the bulk telephone records program at any time, without congressional involvement,” the report says.

The board noted that Obama has accepted some, but not all, of the privacy safeguards it recommended – somewhat reducing the ease and depth with which National Security Agency agents can dig through the domestic data, but not, for instance, agreeing to delete the data after three years, instead of five.

A year ago, the board also recommended that Congress enact legislation enabling the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which currently approves both specific and blanket warrant applications without allowing anyone to argue otherwise, to hear independent views. It recommended more appellate reviews of that court’s rulings.

There’s been no progress on either front.

A year ago, the board recommended that “the scope of surveillance authorities affecting Americans should be public,” and that the intelligence community should “develop principles and criteria for the public articulation of the legal authorities under which it conducts surveillance affecting Americans.”

Something is apparently brewing in that area, but it’s not entirely clear what. “Intelligence Community representatives have advised us that they are committed to implementing this recommendation,” with principles “that they will soon be releasing,” the report says.

But one recommendation in particular – that the intelligence community develop some sort of methodology to assess whether any of this stuff is actually doing any good – has been notably “not implemented.”

“Determining the efficacy and value of particular counterterrorism programs is critical,” the board says. “Without such determinations, policymakers and courts cannot effectively weigh the interests of the government in conducting a program against the intrusions on privacy and civil liberties that it may cause.”

Yup.  It’s transparent alright.


The Breakfast Cub (The Milgram Experiment)

breakfast beers photo breakfastbeers.jpgI hope everyone has at least a cursory familiarity with the Milgram Experiment.  This is a study of how willing people are to obey authority figures and believe me, it doesn’t take much.

I’ve been associated with survey research for many years and my magnum opus as a programmer is an integrated suite of cross-tabulation software designed to replace a $10,000 tab house (per study) with a bunch of $1500 Kaypro 10s and a some trained monkeys data entry profressionals.  There’s more to it than you think including a neat hash evaluation screener the make sure you don’t accidentally load the same set of data from the workstation into the consolidated database twice.

I got my start doing mall intercepts for Oxy-10 where my evaluation question (also called a screener) was- “Do you you have pimples, oily skin, blackheads, or zits?”

C’mon you pizza faced moron, I can see them.

Until recently I’d still pick up some change from doing interviews because I’m not above that sort of work, but I’m not getting calls so much anymore (though they still do what I’m about to describe) probably in part due to my moral qualms about it (which I did not disguise from my employer) and also since it’s cold and wet work that keeps you out really late at night.

You see, I did DUI Checkpoint testing for NHTSA and the IIHS.

Now the study was designed to determine 2 things, awareness of anti-Drunk Driving Ad Campaigns (“Have you seen or heard any advertising about increased DUI enforcement in the last 6 months?”  “Would that be on TV, the Radio, a Newspaper or Magazine or some other source?”), and how effective Police Officers were at detecting Drunk Drivers at Checkpoints (not very actually).

The methodology was that we’d set up just past the checkpoint and have someone in a white lab coat ($12 in any industrial clothing catalog) and safety vest wave over random cars and our team of interviewers (also in lab coats and safety vests) would go up to them and explain to the drivers that we were not associated with the police and were conducting a survey and asked them if they’d participate.

After a series of about 10 questions which were simply designed to get them used to saying yes we’d deliver the kicker-

One final question.  I have a Breathalizer here to measure your blood alcohol.  The results are totally anonymous and confidential and not shared with the Police.  Would you mind giving me a sample?

I’d get 80% compliance right out of the box.  If I applied a little cajoling (telling them that they were already past the checkpoint and there would be absolutely no consequences whatever the result which I wouldn’t know anyway) I’d get 98%.

Now the truth is we could easily have synced up those results using a license plate reader and given that they were ordered and time stamped.  I had a problem with that.

So I don’t do it anymore.

But what Milgram found in his experiments is true.  Almost everyone will do virtually anything an authority figure tells them to do, even if it’s administering fatal shocks because some guy in a $12 lab coat tells you to.

And when dealing with Police there are only 3 things you should say-

  • Am I free to go?
  • I am not answering any questions without my lawyer present.
  • I do not consent to any search.

You’ll probably get tased or shot anyway but at least you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you did the right thing.

Rethinking One of Psychology’s Most Infamous Experiments

Cari Romm, The Atlantic

Jan 28 2015, 12:23 PM EST

Under the watch of the experimenter, the volunteer-dubbed “the teacher”-would read out strings of words to his partner, “the learner,” who was hooked up to an electric-shock machine in the other room. Each time the learner made a mistake in repeating the words, the teacher was to deliver a shock of increasing intensity, starting at 15 volts (labeled “slight shock” on the machine) and going all the way up to 450 volts (“Danger: severe shock”). Some people, horrified at what they were being asked to do, stopped the experiment early, defying their supervisor’s urging to go on; others continued up to 450 volts, even as the learner pled for mercy, yelled a warning about his heart condition-and then fell alarmingly silent. In the most well-known variation of the experiment, a full 65 percent of people went all the way.

Until they emerged from the lab, the participants didn’t know that the shocks weren’t real, that the cries of pain were pre-recorded, and that the learner- railroad auditor Jim McDonough– was in on the whole thing, sitting alive and unharmed in the next room. They were also unaware that they had just been used to prove the claim that would soon make Milgram famous: that ordinary people, under the direction of an authority figure, would obey just about any order they were given, even to torture.

(M)any psychologists argue that even with methodological holes and moral lapses, the basic finding of Milgram’s work, the rate of obedience, still holds up. Because of the ethical challenge of reproducing the study, the idea survived for decades on a mix of good faith and partial replications-one study had participants administer their shocks in a virtual-reality system, for example-until 2007, when ABC collaborated with Santa Clara University psychologist Jerry Burger to replicate Milgram’s experiment for an episode of the TV show Basic Instincts titled “The Science of Evil,” pegged to Abu Ghraib.

Burger’s way around an ethical breach: In the most well-known experiment, he found, 80 percent of the participants who reached a 150-volt shock continued all the way to the end. “So what I said we could do is take people up to the 150-volt point, see how they reacted, and end the study right there,” he said. The rest of the setup was nearly identical to Milgram’s lab of the early 1960s (with one notable exception: “Milgram had a gray lab coat and I couldn’t find a gray, so I got a light blue.”)

At the end of the experiment, Burger was left with an obedience rate around the same as the one Milgram had recorded-proving, he said, not only that Milgram’s numbers had been accurate, but that his work was as relevant as ever. “[The results] didn’t surprise me,” he said, “but for years I had heard from my students and from other people, ‘Well, that was back in the 60s, and somehow how we’re more aware of the problems of blind obedience, and people have changed.'”

Matthew Hollander, a sociology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin, is among the most recent to question Milgram’s notion of obedience. After analyzing the conversation patterns from audio recordings of 117 study participants, Hollander found that Milgram’s original classification of his subjects-either obedient or disobedient-failed to capture the true dynamics of the situation. Rather, he argued, people in both categories tried several different forms of protest-those who successfully ended the experiment early were simply better at resisting than the ones that continued shocking.

“Research subjects may say things like ‘I can’t do this anymore’ or ‘I’m not going to do this anymore,'” he said, even those who went all the way to 450 volts. “I understand those practices to be a way of trying to stop the experiment in a relatively aggressive, direct, and explicit way.”

It’s a far cry from Milgram’s idea that the capacity for evil lies dormant in everyone, ready to be awakened with the right set of circumstances. The ability to disobey toxic orders, Hollander said, is a skill that can be taught like any other- all a person needs to learn is what to say and how to say it.

Ah, you see, that’s the point.  However much they verbally protested, they didn’t stop shocking.  Some of them were quite distressed both by the experience and by discovering what they were capable of doing to another person with the proper motivation.  That’s why the experiment is widely considered unethical and unduplicable today.

The number of people who walked out is surprisingly low and the question for you dear reader is are you one of them?

The law that entropy always increases holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations – then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation – well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (1927)

Science and Technology News and Blogs

Science Oriented Video

Obligatories, News and Blogs below.

On This Day In History January 29

This is your morning Open Thread. Pour your favorite beverage and review the past and comment on the future.

Find the past “On This Day in History” here.

January 29 is the 29th day of the year in the Gregorian calendar. There are 336 days remaining until the end of the year (337 in leap years).

On this day in 1845, Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem “The Raven,” beginning “Once upon a midnight dreary,” is published on this day in the New York Evening Mirror.

“The Raven” is a narrative poem by American writer Edgar Allan Poe, first published in January 1845. It is often noted for its musicality, stylized language, and supernatural atmosphere. It tells of a talking raven’s mysterious visit to a distraught lover, tracing the man’s slow descent into madness. The lover, often identified as being a student, is lamenting the loss of his love, Lenore. Sitting on a bust of Pallas, the raven seems to further instigate his distress with its constant repetition of the word “Nevermore”. The poem makes use of a number of folk and classical references.

Poe claimed to have written the poem very logically and methodically, intending to create a poem that would appeal to both critical and popular tastes, as he explained in his 1846 follow-up essay “The Philosophy of Composition”. The poem was inspired in part by a talking raven in the novel Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty by Charles Dickens. Poe borrows the complex rhythm and meter of Elizabeth Barrett‘s poem “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship”, and makes use of internal rhyme as well as alliteration throughout.

Late Night Karaoke

The Daily/Nightly Show (New Koch)

So the brothers don’t like Rand and are prepared to dump a Billion in 2016.

I wish I could say this is news or a surprise.  Things that don’t go better with?  Democracy.

Tonight’s question?

Where are the ‘liberal’ Billionaires?

Keeping it 100 and being f#@ked up with your answers are not mutually exclusive.

Oh and I don’t trust the government or Tuskegee either and I’m never giving up comedy.  Sorry kids.  On the other hand I think I’ll keep my day job.


Friends don’t let friends broadcast drunk

This week’s guests-

The Daily Show

Sigh.  Tonight’s interview with Oscar Isaac is the sort of thing that used to be right in Stephen’s wheelhouse.  He’s an X-Wing pilot, Poe Dameron, in The Force Awakens AND En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse but he’ll probably only talk about A Most Violent Year which opened New Year’s Eve.

Below the fold is Jill Leovy’s web exclusive extended interview as well as the real news.