Sunday, July 13, 2014

Rape: another bungled process, another wounded woman

The New York Times has today a front page story that is an appalling account of misconduct in the investigation of rape charges on the campus of Hobart and William Smith college (Reporting Rape).

It has all the features that have become so depressingly familiar: a university process that seems random when it isn't incompetent and the usual story of football players, alcohol, and a drunken female student who almost wishes she hadn't reported her assault.  And, oh yes, despite physical evidence of violent sex, possible DNA evidence and defendants lying: an acquittal on all counts in record time. 

Stories like this, and the inevitable generalizations they provoke about how women are never taken seriously and always blamed for being victims of crime will, also inevitably produce counter generalizations about PC run amuck and students, mostly male, being victimized and expelled for having the wrong thoughts or the wrong words, or the like.

But, rather than having dueling examples, it would be more helpful if we stepped back and noticed what all these stories actually have in common: a shabby process that runs on assumptions and stereotypes and not data or due process.

University "discipline committees" seem to be a world totally out of control and a law unto themselves.  In the story at hand the three sitting in judgment on this woman didn't even look at the report from her rape kit, didn't let her present her story in a coherent way and seemed totally untrained.  More fundamentally she couldn't have even an non-lawyer advocate speak for her, didn't get to cross-examine witnesses and had no real ability to defend herself.

More generally, time and again we hear that people on these committees have little or no training, wander off into irrelevancies, and, still, after all these years, have trouble distinguishing the desire to get loose on alcohol and have fun from the (non-existent) desire to be gang-raped.  And, equally it seems, they can't distinguish an insult tossed off in the spur of the moment from a plan to gang-rape.

The colleges in question still don't seem to get it.  In the wake of the Times article the college president put out a masterful collection of weasel words that continues on the passive aggressive velvet nonsense quoted in the article.  They care, they take all allegations seriously, they want to dialogue, they are committed to listening carefully, yada, yada, yada—all the corporate PR pabulum we've come to expect.  But they aren't angry their female students are getting assaulted, the male leaders aren't gathering the male members of the community and telling them to grow up or get out, and they certainly giving the message to pampered athletes that they don't get a pass—they aren't leading at all.

Even if they were, two overarching faults doom these processes even if the people involved were smart and sensitive.  First is the assumption that patterns and generalities can decide a specific case.  It doesn't matter what percentage of the time women make up allegations or change their mind after intimacy begins, what we have to know is what happened in this case.  It doesn't matter the rate of boys wanting sex and pushing it on reluctant girls, we need to know what happened in this case. 

All our painfully won principles of due-process are devoted to wresting us away from generalities to specifics.  The reason evidence has to be proved physical evidence sought and witnesses cross-examined, and people have trained advocates to assist them in presenting a case, and why hearsay has to be discounted and on and on is precisely because generalizations are misleading.  This case, any case, is not "women vs. men" it's specific to a time, a place, and the particular people.

The second problem is conflict of interest.  The people on college panels are employees of the college whose careers and friendships are at the college.  Even if they don't know the football team, they know how angry some will be to hear it criticized.  They, in the same manner of old-line Catholic bishops, want to "avoid a scandal" that will "needlessly damage the reputation of a good school." 

And what on earth are college employees doing investigating allegations of a felony?  Yes, there are offenses that the college can discipline for that do not rise to the level of crimes, but once it appears that there is the possibility that a crime has been committed the police need to be called.  Yes, they have their problems too (read about a sloppy process in this case) but the police are not part of the institution of the college and failing to inform them of a crime, and acting to hush up a crime seems, to me at least, to run the risk of being an accessory after the fact.  And aren't there mandatory reporting requirements that might be triggered here?

The inability of colleges to grasp the basics of how you actually find out the truth and the basics of citizen rights in a democracy is saddening.  But even sadder are those who are firmly convinced that they don't need to grasp any of those things because they already know what must have taken place.  I don't care if this is conservatives bemoaning that "women are always claiming to be the victim" or liberals who convinced they have the morally correct opinion of everything and so can dispense with data.

In general I shun raising these points in mixed company as I have found very few people indeed who can think other than in stereotypes.  Either "women have all the power" or "all women live in fear all the time of all men."  Any questioning of the liberal line or the conservative one leads to people backing away like you are infected.  We insist on pitting victims against each other and so if 10 men were mistreated that's of no account and they deserve it because 25 women were mistreated worse.  And they probably were—but probably not by the specific men who got shafted by some other process gone amuck.

The real lessons are the one societies have been forgetting and painfully relearning since the dawn of civilization:  power corrupts, conflict of interest is fatal and, oh yes, due process and suspending judgment until you've proven what happened really are good ideas.

Someday we won't try to solve injustice against women by recounting stories of injustice to men, or calling in the spin doctors, instead we'll try to stop all of it.  That would take leadership by women and men.  It would take men--as opposed to boys in fancy suits.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Protecting your identity online

There has been an upsurge of interest in privacy and safety of late due to the NSA scandals and to the Target store data theft and now the Ebay incident.  I've happened to read a couple of technical articles on on-line security and thought you might be interested in what some experts are saying about what works and what doesn't.

If you really, seriously, need to communicate securely online then there are some very advanced things you need to do that might actually foil the NSA to say nothing of your spouse.  However, for most of us, three simple rules can substantially lower the risk of problems.

1.  Don't reuse passwords.  This is the single most important thing you should do.  The way many security problems arise is that somebody steals a file of user ids and passwords.  Since we typically use our email address as a user id and use the same password on many sites, once a thief has a file they just try the userid / password combination on a variety of sites and exploit whatever success they have.  It's hard to memorize a vast list of passwords, but at a minimum you should do the following:

Recommendation: Have distinct passwords for your primary email accounts, online banking and credit cards and never use any of those passwords any place else.

Following that rule insulates you from most of the bad consequences of most of the security breaches.

2.  Use long but not complex passwords.  A fad has developed for password with special characters (like "%") and complex rules about having numbers and upper and lower case letters.  This is usually counter-productive.  "$" and "A" are equally obscure to a computer.  And the more complex our password has to be the more likely we are to reuse them or to put them on sticky notes by our monitor or in a little book, thus creating a far more serious security issue.   You might get away with this at home, unless you live inside the Lifetime Channel, in which case they will be stolen by someone no one will believe would do it.

On the other hand, longer passwords are harder to crack by brute force methods.  So "Koiningsburg979" is a better password than either "Dog99" or "$z*f8)k"

There is one exception to this and it involves passwords formed from common whole words.  If your password is "FriedGreenTomatos" or "LucklessPedestrian" it can be subject to a "dictionary attack" where the hacker systematically runs through the dictionary trying every combination of common words.  This is why some companies limit how many times you can flub your password before having to pay penance by dealing with their voice mail system (one might suggest this limit could be much higher than 3, however).

Unless you have access to truly high value accounts (the controls for a nuclear power plant, or the American Idol voting) you are very unlikely to be the victim of this sort of attack.

Recommendation: Use longer passwords formed from some combination of easy to remember words and numbers.  Consider words that are names or places or not very common.

3.  Change your security questions.  Those well-loved security questions about your first pet, first love or mother's maiden name have become insecure.  With all the stuff we dump onto Facebook and other social media, it isn't going to be that hard to find out those facts about many of us.  So choose more obscure security questions if given a choice "State you first got arrested in" or something like that.  Or start gaming the answers - for example, add "123" to the end of every answer so that your hometown is now "Edina123" and not "Edina."

While these three rules are not going to prevent a concentrated attack against you as a specific target they will dramatically reduce your risk of being caught up in some massive theft of data we regularly hear about.

And if you really do want to be completely secure online?  Get a computer (with cash) that has never, never been on the Internet at all, disable all the connectivity it has, reformat the hard drive, overwrite the unused file space multiple times, print out your correspondence on a printer you bought with cash on paper you've only handled with gloves on and mail letters from random locations that have no surveillance cameras.  That should work.

But to be completely serious: Do Not Reuse Your Passwords (to key accounts) – just please do that and you are likely to be safe for years.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Thoughts from the road: Ritzville and the Top Hat

In the middle of eastern Washington's wheat country is the town of Ritzville, all 1800 people of it.  Ritzville has one of my favorite motels, the Top Hat.  It's old school: located on the main highway in town, you park in front of your room.  It's gently shabby.  The vegetation is running wild, the  rooms are small, everything is in need of a coat of paint.  But it is clean, quiet and just $45 a night.  For that you get a mini-fridge, a microwave and a slightly malfunctioning TV.  I've spent three times that amount on a motel and enjoyed myself much less.

Ritzville is typical of rural towns.  It was a major shipping point for wheat in decades gone by, but time passed it by.  The interstate did what interstates do, passed the city just to the south and destroyed main street business and produced a litter of fast food places and modern hotels at the exit ramp.  The downtown of brick and stone buildings, built a hundred years ago with so much hope in an unlimited prosperous future, now often are empty.  There are no tourist attractions of note anywhere close.  This morning I walked down the street that is the old highway and didn't encounter a car for over five minutes.

The town is trying.  The historic buildings downtown have plaques  explaining their history.   The old depot has been restored as a museum and there is a well-kept little park with some public art.  A series of local festivals are still being done.  A surprising number of homes are well-maintained.  But many homes are run  down and the sense of slow decay and death being the inevitable future is hard to avoid.

The last time I stayed at the Top Hat the owner was trying to sell it.  He was ready to retire and his wife was ill.  They spent a lot of time chatting with me.  My curiosity about the hotel business he hoped was a the inquiry of a potential buyer and he offered to drop the price by $20,000 to increase my interest in it.  When I returned this year I was afraid the hotel would be shut, like the one two blocks down which is slowly being reclaimed by nature.

There are new owners now, full of energy for cleaning, painting and fixing.  But it is going to be an uphill battle.  If the hotel ran at 80% occupancy for the entire year they'd have a total revenue of no more than $150,000.  On that they'd have to pay heat, light, laundry, maintenance, insurance, taxes, cable and everything else and hope to have enough left over to pay themselves a living wage.  No one will ever stumble over this hotel, they'd find the ones at the interstate.  Few are brave enough now to try the local establishments.  Construction crews are a major source of business.

It's a relaxing place to stay.  I sit on the park bench outside my room on the covered walkway and watch the world, the clouds and the trains go by.   When that gets boring, I can walk the silent streets.

The peace and serenity of these small towns are palpable.   There is time and space to slow down, to unclutter your mind, to focus on what is important.  Emptiness can be a gift, and it's a gift we need and can use.  Fewer things to do mean you can practice attentiveness to the things you do encounter.

I used to think that the internet and UPS would save rural America.  If you can be equally connected to news, culture and entertainment regardless of where you are and anything can be sent to you overnight, why can't a business "insource" to rural America rather than outsources to the 3rd world?  Why wouldn't a group that needed to focus or a writer or artist wanting space and time to work be able to find the inexpensive life in a small (or more likely medium-sized) town work?  Put a call center or shipping point or assembly plant out here.  But it doesn't seem to be happening.

As much as I feel drawn to the peace and simpler life I know I could never live here.  The relentless conservativism would be wearing.  The county voted 66% for Mitt Romney and the same percentage for John McCain.   The perennial split is between geography and culture.  In Willa Cather's My Antonia, perhaps the premiere American novel of the prairie, the description of the land sky and weather is lyrical and deeply spiritual.  The little town is depicted as narrow, suspicious and disdainful of outsiders.  

Unfortunately, that is often the dilemma.   

Friday, May 16, 2014

Thoughts from the road: The Bakken Breakout

A bar in Montana is advertising that it has the "only shuffleboard in town" and has just installed a new Pac-Man machine.   A North Dakota college lists its curriculum offerings, a list that ends with "... welding and music."  Local talk radio is interviewing a person who goes around the state offering seminars on how to survive Obamacare.   

Ah yes, among Obamacare's faults, according to this fellow, is that it takes the health costs of high-medical needs people and transfers it onto the backs of the healthy.  One wonders if he even grasps the concept of insurance.  You know, where if your neighbor burns down his house, you have to pay for part of it because you have the same insurance company.  Sounds like socialism.  Sounds like an insurance plan.

But it is the far west corner of North Dakota that deserves a focus.  The explosion of oil field development is everywhere.  In Dickenson, the ground zero of fracking I picked up a copy of the "Bakken Breakout Weekly", a tabloid-sized paper devoted to chronicling developments.

Reading it, and driving through the region puts one in mind of a Colorado boom town in the late 1800s.  It's all here: rapid influx of unattached men (and some women) being put up in temporary field camps.  An explosion in rent and home prices (a two bedroom apartment is going for $2,000 a month in some places).   Cities scrambling to keep up roads crumbling under massive truck traffic, building schools, hiring police (and subsidizing their living expenses).  One school district is going to a 4 day week to save costs because they can't afford the operating expenses of a fifth day.

I didn't read about any gunfights over cheating at cards in a local saloon run by some modern day Miss Kitty, but I wouldn't be surprised if it had happened.

There are some differences: a company advertises its skill at helping oil companies comply with regulations regarding archaeological issues, historic preservation and consultations with Native tribes.  I doubt that happened a hundred years ago. 

And there is the environment.  Rapid development never looks very pretty.  Oil drilling equipment is strewn about everywhere.  Natural gas is being burned off in flares (something I hadn't seen in years) because there are no pipelines to capture it. 

I hope some sociologists and historians are out here doing research.  It would help us understand that Colorado boom town.

The weekly paper is shot through with issues of the relations of business to government.  The city is ticked that the state isn't giving them enough revenues back from what the state collects.  The Bureau of Land Management is being castigated for standing in the way of progress (cut the government!) – and for not inspecting oil wells fast enough because they lack the money to do so.   A school district, which had lost money due to sequestration cuts has made up for it by increased federal subsidies to districts that have to support students who live on federal tax-exempt land.  A third of its' budget comes from federal payments.  This school district is building houses for its teachers.  Residents of a local trailer court are protesting rent hikes and want – seriously – the government to impose rent control.  How socialist of them.

This paper, and the radio show just how impoverished our language is for discussing the economy's relation to government.  No matter what is happening, the government is wrong.  The talk show host is on a rant about how the BLM won't let you ride your four-wheeler on "your land", by which he means federal land, which he demands be "returned to the states" (that's another government, isn't it?), states that hadn't been formed at the time the feds gained control of the land.

Government is always wrong, even if it is one government complaining about another government.  And even when the demand is that the government do something – like stop letting people with less than a year of experience be in charge of inspecting a pipeline, or inspect those oil wells, or build some roads – the solution is never mentioned, because the solution is to fund those activities.  Then, after a short silence, someone goes on to demand that government get smaller. 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The terror of 1970

Many terror incidents occurred in 1970, many more than we put up with now.  Could we handle it?  Look at this list:

It was only the second day of the year when it began.  An explosion at an electrical substation in Oakland, California damaged some transformers but did not succeed in disrupting the electrical grid.  No one was ever arrested.

The very same day members of an anti-war group threw a bomb at the ROTC offices in Madison Wisconsin.  During that week there were other bombs thrown at the primate lab and a number of military installations.

Less than two weeks later someone firebombed a department store in Seattle in retaliation for the owner killing someone attempting to rob the store.

Later that month several other bombs were thrown at police, and in a shooting incident two cops were injured.

During February, several bombs were detonated by a Puerto Rican independence organization.  That same month brought the first terrorist attack with significant fatalities when seven were killed by a fire intentionally set in a Jewish senior citizens home in Munich, Germany.  The exact identity of the group responsible has still not been definitively established.

The first U.S. fatality was also recorded in February when a pipe bomb set at a San Francisco police station killed a police sergeant.  Later that month  a Palestinian terrorist group put bombs in a Swissair flight headed to Tel Aviv, killing 40.  A second bomb on a second flight also went off, but the pilots were able to make an emergency landing.

In March, two supporters of a national black leader were killed by a car bomb, and a director of a state civil rights commission was shot and killed in an attack police believed was politically motivated.  Earlier that month a four-story townhouse in New York City was leveled and three killed when a bomb being assembled went off prematurely.

In May, anti-war protests turned deadly when several unarmed students were shot and killed by law enforcement, setting off a series of riots and protests.  Puerto Rican nationalists also detonated bombs this month, injuring ten in New York city.

In August attention returned to Madison, when a building is blown up, killing one, on the U of Wisconsin campus.  The building was later proven to have been involved in secrete defense work.

That same month a black radical took a judge hostage in Marin county California, attempting to negotiate the release of three other radicals who were on trial for murdering prison guards they claimed had unjustly shot prisoners.  Four kidnappers and five hostages exited the building and in a subsequent shoot-out with police three kidnappers and the judge were killed.  The next month a different left-wing group bombed the courthouse and in an apparent attempted jail break the remaining kidnapper was killed in a conflict in which three prison guards were killed.

In October a bomb exploded outside a church in San Francisco, injuring those attending a funeral for a police officer killed in a bank holdup.

In December, members of a Jewish terrorist group bombed the offices of the Russian airline in New York City.

The year that was

The year just described was 1970.  The source for this chronology was National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START).   Their database includes dozens of additional, mostly non-fatal, politically motivated bombings and shootings from that year.

In other words, there was a pace of terror attacks going on in the United States that was much higher than we are currently experiencing. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

This is why...

I would never make it as a politician.  Never.  Somewhere along the line something like this would slip out and there would be a Official Massive Scandal.

Hontest TV

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Sunday Curmudgeon

Headline of the week – from Esquire Mag:  “Blow jobs have fallen on hard times.”

On the way home, was behind a car at a stoplight with two decals on the back.  One, a very traditional, ornamented cross.   The other, a drawing of two pandas getting busy with each other.

Controversy in Britain this week.  The government has proposed adding a 20% VAT tax to take-away food such as the popular “pasty” that is well liked by the blue-collar crowd.  This, while also proposing to cut taxes on the wealthy produced a negative reaction from those not yet convinced that we exist to serve our betters.  To show their populist credentials, PM Cameron professed his love of the simple pleasures of getting a pasty from his favorite shop – but it turned out the shop had been closed for five years. (Reports the Financial Times)

Also from the Financial Times, one for you who savor definitional arguments.  “Marks and Spencer once fought a decade-long battle over whether teacakes were cakes or biscuits (different rates [of tax] applied).”

And this one might require a little background in Greek politics, except that the sentiment is universal.  Just know that the Vaso referred to here was one of the leading political figures (and one of the most prominent women) in Greece until recently.  From “Press Watch” of the Athens News: “a Vaso Papandreou quote informs us that “criminal mistakes were made by the George Papandreou regime”. I always find it really amusing, how politicians find their truth stick and start using it to hit any available protruding heads, when there is no risk involved for them. So well done Vaso, you true hero of the people you. Maybe try and name those crimes when you’re in the thick of them next time.”