Jun 12, 2013

Questions to Begin With: I too welcome a debate on this subject

Here's my attempt to frame a debate on surveillance and security in 2013.  Some questions:
  1. What forms of electronic data should be protected by the 4th amendment?
  2. What does 4th amendment protection entail?
  3. What information is Congress entitled to regarding surveillance and privacy?
  4. What information is the public entitled to?
Delving deeper into each question:

  1. What forms of electronic data should be protected by the 4th amendment? What data should the government be allowed to gather without a specific warrant?
    • Emails? (Including emails stored on company servers). Contents vs. To/From/Subject.
    • Web history? Search history, browsing history, information (incl. passwords) typed into web forms)
    • Contents of voice calls? (Landline / cell phone / skype)
    • Call history and timing?
    • Contents of IM chats? Chat time logs
    • Location data from a cell phone? Location at time of call activity, web activity, all location data.
    • Session keys? (these encrypt secure web activity)
    • Raw data passing through internet infrastructure?
  2. What does 4th amendment (or privacy) protection entail?
    • Can data be stored on a government server without being accessed? For how long? Does an individual have any right to access that data to exonerate herself in a murder case, for example?
    • Can the data be searched anonymously / by machine for patterns? If so, what legal standard applies to access data that matches a given pattern? What standard applies to these patterns themselves?
    • What mechanisms should be in place to prevent unwarranted access to data?
    • Do individuals have any right to know what data of theirs is stored or accessed?
  3. What information is Congress entitled to regarding surveillance and privacy?
    • If congressmen do not understand the technical details of data storage and web protocols, can they give adequate oversight?
    • Should court rulings on the above questions be secret from congress and the public? Do congress and the public have a right to know what data is protected by the 4th amendment?
    • Does congress have a right to know the extent of data being stored and collected?
    • How can congress verify whether they are getting full and truthful briefings from NSA officials?
  4. What information is the public entitled to?
    • How can a private citizen bring a 4th amendment challenge to court if they don't know what kind of data is being gathered?
    • Does a foreign citizen using a US-based communication service have any right to privacy?
    • What information should Google or Facebook be allowed to reveal publicly about the data they make available to the NSA or FBI?

Oct 20, 2011

Jun 7, 2011

From an excellent essay on authors by Megan McArdle:
Talent is not wisdom.  It's not even connected to wisdom.  Art at its best gives us new ways of looking at the world, and this is itself beyond price.  But that doesn't mean that art is Good With a Capital G, much less that artists are.  They are all unreliable narrators.

Yet the glamor of narrative and wordplay are incredibly powerful tools can blind us to their drawbacks. There's evidence that novels and movies activate the parts of our brain dedicated to social learning, and so we internalize the "lessons' of authors as if they'd actually happened (have you ever watched an otherwise intelligent person systematically destroy their relationships because their template was some archetype from a book or a movie?)  Narrative knocks down the defense mechanisms that usually operate when we're reading: the little voice saying "this is just some guy's opinion."

May 23, 2011


Do you have a Kindle? If so, you know that there are two drawbacks, one major and one minor.

Major drawback: when you're on the subway reading your kindle, you can't show off your good taste in books to the cute boy/girl across from you. They just see a kindle. Boring.

Minor drawback: if you go to a book reading, you can't get a signed copy of an e-book.

Solution:   Removable stickers of book covers to go on the back of your kindle. Called Bookpeels. All of your problems solved, for 99 cents.

'Like' Bookpeels on Facebook below to see the cover designs and suggest books or covers.  Thanks!

May 18, 2011

good opening paragraphs

News from England:
Author and publisher Carmen Callil has withdrawn from the judging panel of the Man Booker International prize over its decision to honour Philip Roth with the £60,000 award. Dismissing the Pulitzer prize-winning author, Callil said that "he goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe".

May 12, 2011


Elif Batuman, of Possessed fame, on creative writing programs in a LRB essay:
I should state up front that I am not a fan of programme fiction. Basically, I feel about it as towards new fiction from a developing nation with no literary tradition: I recognise that it has anthropological interest, and is compelling to those whose experience it describes, but I probably wouldn’t read it for fun. Moreover, if I wanted to read literature from the developing world, I would go ahead and read literature from the developing world. At least that way I’d learn something about some less privileged culture – about a less privileged culture that some people were actually born into, as opposed to one that they opted into by enrolling in an MFA programme.
zing!  she also is writing a blog now.  

Apr 22, 2011

two articles

My new favorite daily website is The Browser.  They hand pick 10 or 15 articles and blog posts a day from all over the internet and do interviews with experts recommending 5 books to read on a topic. 

Two articles from today:

Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed, on life after her bestseller.

Ian McEwan on 5 books that influenced his writing

Apr 17, 2011

James Salter

a good essay by Alexander Chee on James Salter and writing about sex.  (don't read it if you're squeamish about such things!)

Apr 16, 2011

Don't Look Back

Peter Tosh is no doubt wondering why Mick is wearing a table cloth as a tie.

Apr 12, 2011

the Korean War

Interesting short interview with Bruce Cumings, author of The Korean War, about the Korean War and the process of doing history in general. 

Apr 1, 2011

Arcadia tonight

I'm watching the revival of Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia tonight on Broadway.  I read it years ago and remember loving it.  I did a little background reading this morning and discovered something I hadn't realized before - Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer, was Lord Byron's daughter.  I can't remember if this is hinted at in the play at all but I will pay attention. 

Mar 28, 2011

8-bit Dark Side of the Moon

I never liked Pink Floyd or Dark Side of the Moon since it sounds so pretentious, but this is pretty good: an 8-bit (i.e. Nintendo sounds) remake of the album.  Big improvement in my opinion.

Mar 24, 2011

here's a great line in a math paper

"In order to control points where only two lines are incident, we use the flecnode polynomial of the Rev. George Salmon to conclude that most of the lines lie on a ruled surface."

Way to go, Reverend!

It's from this breakthrough paper by Guth and Katz on the Erdos distances problem. Guth is giving a talk about it in 10 minutes here.

Update:  The talk was excellent.  Larry Guth was clear and entertaining, and presented the main ideas of the proof.  (The problem, by the way, is easy to state: if you place N points in the plane,  what is the fewest number of pairwise distances possible?  Call this D(N) - the upper bound is N log^{-1/2} N, they prove a lower bound of N log ^{-1} N).

He also gave another nice Rev. George Salmon detail.  They were working on the proof and needed a statement in algebraic geometry about the maximum number of lines that could reside in a surface without it being a 'ruled' surface.  They tried proving it and asking all the algebraic geometers they knew about it, but no one knew such a theorem.  Finally Nets Katz found the theorem they were looking for  - in a book from 1850! The author was the Rev. George Salmon

Mar 23, 2011


Saw an unsurprisingly silly movie tonight, "Limitless" with Bradley Cooper.  It's about a struggling writer who starts taking a new pill that increases his brain function and concentration.  With the pill his mind can do anything - it's nearly limitless..

In four days he finishes his sci-fi novel that he's been stuck on for months.  But what would you do if you suddenly became the smartest person on earth?  Keep writing novels?  Of course not.  He becomes a day trader and his life predictably goes downhill. 
The ladder of success laid out by the movie is as follows:
Novelist (lowest) -> Day Trader -> Investment Banker's Assistant -> Politician
 evidently ranked in order of increasing brain-power required.  One of the few memorable scenes from the second half of the movie involved a girl's ice skate in Central Park.

It's a bit of a shame that the movie went down this cheesy path, because there's some interesting stuff you could do about drugs that improve your thinking ability.  They really do exist - there's something called 'Provigil' that I've heard of academics using to boost their concentration (I have not yet tried it myself). Here are a few ideas for the sequel:  

1) A musician (novelist, mathematician, ...) starts using this drug and becomes wildly successful, but then depression sets in because he credits the drug instead of his own hard work or abilities. 

2) An entire society starts using the drug which improves certain aspects of thinking - memory, quantitative ability, concentration and focus.  But there's something subtly missing - maybe people stop dreaming or their dreams are only literal. 

3) A historical drama about the rise of coffee drinking and coffee shops in 1600's Europe.  There was debate within the church whether it should be banned or not, but it seems to have helped thinking tremendously (people sat around drinking coffee all day instead of beer - their minds suddenly worked a lot better and they invented things like calculus). 

**The movie did give me a good idea for an action scene in a movie that would also subtly promote public safety.  The hero would be biking home from work, while unbeknownst to him, a bad guy is waiting in his apartment to surprise him and steal something valuable.  This is a common situation in action movies.  He stops by a farmer's market to buy an organic apple.  He gets home, picks up his mail, and starts walking up the stairs whistling a happy song, while the camera cuts to the bad guy hiding behind the apartment door with a lead pipe in his hand.  The tension builds as the hero walks up the stairs (no elevator for him, he enjoys exercise).  The door opens and the bad guys swings down the pipe - but he's stunned when he doesn't faze the hero - he is still wearing his bike helmet.  The hero then defeats the bad guy in a Greco-Roman-style wrestling match in the hallway.  If need be, I can play the role of the hero, I have a bike helmet already.

Mar 22, 2011

new Hayes Carll album is out

called Kmag Yoyo (and Other American Stories).  I don't know what that means, but he sings great country music.  One of the songs, a duet with Cary Ann Hearst, is free here.

Mar 19, 2011

interesting advice on cooking a steak

from Pascal Emmanuel Gobry.  He suggests heating a pan as hot as possible, no butter or oil, no salt or pepper on the meat, then cooking the steak on each side until it becomes unstuck.  Then keep the meat between two plates off the pan to let the heat get to the middle.  It has the advantage of being easy - but can this be the right way to cook a steak? 

best books about the Berlin Wall

a nice list here.  They include The Innocent by Ian McEwan which is one of my favorites.

Mar 9, 2011

if you're feeling bad about Watson and Jeopardy

you can take your revenge here and play against a computer in rock, paper, scissors.  The computer supposedly used artificial intelligence and the data from other players to predict your throw.  I played 50 times and was 24-16-10 (wins - losses - draws), so computers still have a ways to go.

Feb 11, 2011

can't believe it - I like a Bright Eyes song

you can download it for free here: (I don't think it has anything to do with the other Shell Game)

Jan 19, 2011

good deal today

LivingSocial is a website that sends out daily deals usually personalized for your location.  But today's deal is basically $10 for free - a $20 amazon gift card for $10.  20 hours left to buy it

Jan 16, 2011

crazy news of the day

Baby Doc returns to Haiti to cheers.  He was brutal dictator who should be in prison. Also the inspiration for Graham Greene's The Comedians

Jan 14, 2011