Tag Archives: Boing Boing

Mr. Sulzberger, Tear Down This Wall

Jeremy W. Peters at NYT:

The New York Times rolled out a plan on Thursday to begin charging the most frequent users of its Web site $15 for a four-week subscription in a bet that readers will pay for news they have grown accustomed to getting free.

Beginning March 28, visitors to NYTimes.com will be able to read 20 articles a month without paying, a limit that company executives said was intended to draw in subscription revenue from the most loyal readers while not driving away the casual visitors who make up a vast majority of the site’s traffic.

Once readers click on their 21st article, they will have the option of buying one of three digital news packages — $15 every four weeks for access to the Web site and a mobile phone app, $20 for Web access and an iPad app or $35 for an all-access plan.

All subscribers who receive the paper through home delivery will have free and unlimited access across all Times digital platforms except, for now, e-readers like the AmazonKindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook. Subscribers to The International Herald Tribune, which is The Times’s global edition, will also have free digital access.

“A few years ago it was almost an article of faith that people would not pay for the content they accessed via the Web,” Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chairman of The New York Times Company, said in his annual State of The Times remarks, which were delivered to employees Thursday morning.

Felix Salmon:

Rather than take full advantage of their ability to change the numbers over time, the NYT seems to have decided they’re going to launch at the kind of levels they want to see over the long term. Which is a bit weird. Instead, the NYT has sent out an email to its “loyal readers” that they’ll get “a special offer to save on our new digital subscriptions” come March 28. This seems upside-down to me: it’s the loyal readers who are most likely to pay premium rates for digital subscriptions, while everybody else is going to need a special offer to chivvy them along.

This paywall is anything but simple, with dozens of different variables for consumers to try to understand. Start with the price: the website is free, so long as you read fewer than 20 items per month, and so are the apps, so long as you confine yourself to the “Top News” section. You can also read articles for free by going in through a side door. Following links from Twitter or Facebook or Reuters.com should never be a problem, unless and until you try to navigate away from the item that was linked to.

Beyond that, $15 per four-week period gives you access to the website and also its smartphone app, while $20 gives you access to the website also its iPad app. But if you want to read the NYT on both your smartphone and your iPad, you’ll need to buy both digital subscriptions separately, and pay an eye-popping $35 every four weeks. That’s $455 a year.

The message being sent here is weird: that access to the website is worth nothing. Mathematically, if A+B=$15, A+C=$20, and A+B+C=$35, then A=$0.

Andrew Sullivan:

We remain parasitic on the NYT and other news sites; and I should add I regard the NYT website as the best news site in the world; without it, we would be lost. But like most parasites, we also perform a service for our hosts. We direct readers to content we think matters. So we add to the NYT’s traffic and readership.

But what makes this exception even more interesting is that, if I read it correctly, it almost privileges links from blogs and social media against more direct access. Which makes it a gift to the blogosphere. Anyway, that’s my first take: and it’s one of great relief. We all want to keep the NYT in business (well, almost all of us). But we also don’t want to see it disappear behind some Great NewsCorp-Style Paywall. It looks to me as if they have gotten the balance just about right.

MG Siegler at Tech Crunch:

There are a lot of interesting angles to the news this morning about The New York Times’ new paywall. Top news will remain free, a set number of articles for all users will remain free, there will be different pricing tiers for different devices, NYT is fine with giving Apple a 30 percent cut, etc, etc. But to me, the most interesting aspect is only mentioned briefly about halfway down the NYT announcement article: all those who come to the New York Times via Facebook or Twitter will be allowed to read for free. There will be no limit to this.

Up until now, we’ve seen paywall enthusiasts like The Wall Street Journal offer such loopholes. But they’ve done so via Google. It’s a trick that most web-savvy news consumers know. Is a WSJ article behind a paywall? Just Google the title of it. Click on the resulting link and boom, free access to the entire thing. No questions asked. This new NYT model is taking that idea and flipping it.

The Google loophole will still be in play — but only for five articles a day. It’s not clear how they’re going to monitor this (cookies? logins?), but let’s assume for now that somehow they’ll be able to in an effective way. For most readers, the five article limit will likely be more than enough. But that’s not the important thing. What’s interesting is that the NYT appears to be saying two things. First, this action says that spreading virally on social networks like Twitter and Facebook is more important to them than the resulting traffic from Google. And second, this is a strategic bet that they likely believe will result in the most vocal people on the web being less pissed off.

Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing:

Here are some predictions about the #nytpaywall:

1. No one will be able to figure out how it works. Quick: How many links did you follow to the NYT last month? I’ll bet you a testicle* that you can’t remember. And even if you could remember, could you tell me what proportion of them originated as a social media or search-engine link?

2. Further to that, people frequently visit the NYT without meaning to, just by following a shortened link. Oftentimes, these links go to stories you’ve already read (after all, you’ve already found someone else’s description of the story interesting enough to warrant a click, so odds are high that a second or even a third ambiguous description of the same piece might attract your click), but which may or may not be “billed” to your 20-freebies limit for the month

3. And this means that lots of people are going to greet the NYT paywall with eye-rolling and frustration: You stupid piece of technology, what do you mean I’ve seen 20 stories this month? This is exactly the wrong frame of mind to be in when confronted with a signup page (the correct frame of mind to be in on that page is, Huh, wow, I got tons of value from the Times this month. Of course I’m going to sign up!)

4. Which means that lots of people will take countermeasures to beat the #nytpaywall. The easiest of these, of course, will be to turn off cookies so that the Times’s site has no way to know how many pages you’ve seen this month

5. Of course, the NYT might respond by planting secret permacookies, using Flash cookies, browser detection, third-party beacons, or secret ex-Soviet vat-grown remote-sensing psychics. At the very minimum, the FTC will probably be unamused to learn that the Grey Lady is actively exploiting browser vulnerabilities (or, as the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse statute puts it, “exceeding authorized access” on a remote system — which carries a 20 year prison sentence, incidentally)

6. Even if some miracle of regulatory capture and courtroom ninjarey puts them beyond legal repercussions for this, the major browser vendors will eventually patch these vulnerabilities

7. And even if that doesn’t work, someone clever will release one or more of: a browser redirection service that pipes links to nytimes.com through auto-generated tweets, creating valid Twitter referrers to Times stories that aren’t blocked by the paywall; or write a browser extension that sets “referer=twitter.com/$VALID_TWEET_GUID”, or some other clever measure that has probably already been posted to the comments below

8. The Times isn’t stupid. They’ll build all kinds of countermeasures to detect and thwart cookie-blocking, referer spoofing, and suchlike. These countermeasures will either be designed to err on the side of caution (in which case they will be easy to circumvent) or to err on the side of strictness — in which case they will dump an increasing number of innocent civilians into the “You’re a freeloader, pay up now” page, which is no way to convert a reader to a customer

Yes, I was going to hate this paywall no matter what the NYT did. News is a commodity: as a prolific linker, I have lots of choice about where I link to my news and the site that make my readers shout at me about a nondeterministic paywall that unpredictably swats them away isn’t going to get those links. Leave out the hard news and you’ve got opinion, and there’s no shortage of free opinion online. Some of it is pretty good (and some of what the Times publishes as opinion is pretty bad).

Peter Kafka at All Things Digital:

The Times will put up its paywall in 11 days, on March 28th. It promises to comply with Apple’s subscription terms by making “1-click purchase available in the App Store by June 30 to ensure that readers can continue to access Times apps on Apple devices.”

And as previously announced, this isn’t a formal payall. Or, at least, it’s a porous one.

Anyone can use the Times’ Web site to read up to 20 articles a month for free. And if you’ve surpassed your monthly limit, you’ll still be able to read Times articles if you’ve been sent there from referring sites like Facebook, Twitter or anywhere else on the Web. The Times says it will place a five-article-per-day limit on Google referrals, however; it’s currently the only search engine with that limit, Murphy says.

To spell that out: If you want to game the Times’ paywall, just use Microsoft’s Bing. For now, at least.

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Filed under Mainstream, New Media

And Even In This, We Find The Simpsons Reference

David E. Sanger and Matthew L. Wald at NYT:

As the scale of Japan’s nuclear crisis begins to come to light, experts in Japan and the United States say the country is now facing a cascade of accumulating problems that suggest that radioactive releases of steam from the crippled plants could go on for weeks or even months.

he emergency flooding of stricken reactors with seawater and the resulting steam releases are a desperate step intended to avoid a much bigger problem: a full meltdown of the nuclear cores in reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. On Monday, an explosion blew the roof off the second reactor, not damaging the core, officials said, but presumably leaking more radiation.

Later Monday, the government said cooling systems at a third reactor had failed. The Kyodo news agency reported that the damaged fuel rods at the third reactor had been temporarily exposed, increasing the risk of overheating. Sea water was being channeled into the reactor to cover the rods, Kyodo reported.

So far, Japanese officials have said the melting of the nuclear cores in the two plants is assumed to be “partial,” and the amount of radioactivity measured outside the plants, though twice the level Japan considers safe, has been relatively modest.

But Pentagon officials reported Sunday that helicopters flying 60 miles from the plant picked up small amounts of radioactive particulates — still being analyzed, but presumed to include cesium-137 and iodine-121 — suggesting widening environmental contamination.


MUCH ADO ABOUT NOT MUCH: 7th Fleet repositions ships after contamination detected. “For per­spec­tive, the max­i­mum poten­tial radi­a­tion dose received by any ship’s force per­son­nel aboard the ship when it passed through the area was less than the radi­a­tion expo­sure received from about one month of expo­sure to nat­ural back­ground radi­a­tion from sources such as rocks, soil, and the sun.”

Ed Morrissey:

Still, if that’s the dose received 100 miles away after wind dispersal and dissipation, it’s small wonder that the Japanese are evacuating the area near the plant.  No nation has the history of radiation poisoning that Japan does, and one has to believe that this danger will loom the largest among the people even after the tsunami damage that killed thousands of people.  The government will face a great deal of scrutiny for years to come for its actions in these few days, and they appear to understand that.

David Kopel:

That’s the title of a post on the Morgsatlarge, reprinting a letter from Dr. Josef Oehman of MIT. According to his web page, his main research interest is “risk management in the value chain, with a special focus on lean product development.” Although he’s a business professor and not a nuclear scientist, his father worked in the German nuclear power industry, and the post provides a detailed and persuasive (at least to me) explanation of how the endangered Japanese nuclear power plants work, and why their multiple backup systems  ensure that there will be neither an explosion nor a catastophic release of radiation. The American cable TV channels, by the way, seem to be taking a much more sober approach than they did yesterday, when Wolf Blitzer was irresponsibly raising fear of “another Chernobyl.”

John Sullivan at ProPublica:

As engineers in Japan struggle to bring quake-damaged reactors under control [1], attention is turning to U.S. nuclear plants and their ability to withstand natural disasters.

Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has spent years pushing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission toward stricter enforcement of its safety rules, has called for a reassessment. Several U.S. reactors lie on or near fault lines, and Markey wants to beef up standards for new and existing plants.

“This disaster serves to highlight both the fragility of nuclear power plants and the potential consequences associated with a radiological release caused by earthquake related damage,” Markey wrote NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko in a March 11 letter [2].

Specifically, Markey raised questions about a reactor design the NRC is reviewing for new plants that has been criticized for seismic vulnerability. The NRC has yet to make a call on the AP1000 reactor [3], which is manufactured by Westinghouse. But according to Markey, a senior NRC engineer has said the reactor’s concrete shield building could shatter “like a glass cup” under heavy stress.

The New York Times reported last week [4] that the NRC has reviewed the concerns raised by the engineer, John Ma, and concluded that the design is sufficient without the upgrades Ma recommended. Westinghouse maintains that the reactor is safe [5].

Boiling water reactors [6], like the ones hit by the Japanese earthquake, are built like nested matroyshka [7] dolls.

The inner doll, which looks like a gigantic cocktail shaker and holds the radioactive uranium, is the heavy steel reactor vessel. It sits inside a concrete and steel dome called the containment. The reactor vessel is the primary defense against disaster — as long as the radiation stays inside everything is fine.

The worry is that a disaster could either damage the vessel itself or, more likely, damage equipment that used to control the uranium. If operators cannot circulate water through the vessel to cool the uranium it could overheat and burn into radioactive slag — a meltdown.

Steve Mirsky at Scientific American

Maggie Koerth-Baker at Boing Boing:

This morning, I got an email from a BoingBoing reader, who is one of the many people worried about the damaged nuclear reactors at Fukushima, Japan. In one sentence, he managed to get right to heart of a big problem lurking behind the headlines today: “The extent of my knowledge on nuclear power plants is pretty much limited to what I’ve seen on The Simpsons“.

For the vast majority of people, nuclear power is a black box technology. Radioactive stuff goes in. Electricity (and nuclear waste) comes out. Somewhere in there, we’re aware that explosions and meltdowns can happen. Ninety-nine percent of the time, that set of information is enough to get by on. But, then, an emergency like this happens and, suddenly, keeping up-to-date on the news feels like you’ve walked in on the middle of a movie. Nobody pauses to catch you up on all the stuff you missed.

As I write this, it’s still not clear how bad, or how big, the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant will be. I don’t know enough to speculate on that. I’m not sure anyone does. But I can give you a clearer picture of what’s inside the black box. That way, whatever happens at Fukushima, you’ll understand why it’s happening, and what it means.

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Filed under Energy, Foreign Affairs

In The Future, All Our Politicians Will Have Battle Hymns

The Daily Caller:

An elderly couple performs the “Sarah Palin Battle Hymn” sung to the tune of “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic.”

Set to the tune of the Civil War-era “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” this Sarah Palin Battle Hymn is credited to Tom Dempsey and Gary McVay. The lyrics compliment Palin on everything from her common sense to her lack of a Harvard Law degree.

Complete with a slide guitar solo and spoken-word monologue, the song asserts that “with God and the tea party,” Palin is going to take back Washington. It appears the video was recorded in a church, but the exact location is uncertain.

I was going to respond to Ross Douthat’s insistence that Sarah Palin doesn’t matter (he wishes!) but then felt this fantastic nugget of hathos would rebut him more directly

Doug Mataconis:

Honestly, I’m not even sure what to say about this.

Xeni Jardin at Boing Boing:

Hold me. Hold me tight, internet.

Jim Newell at Gawker:

Want to hear old people sing Sarah Palin‘s praises to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”? Well, enjoy this clip of “Sarah Palin Battle Hymn” anyway! It will be our national anthem when Palin becomes president.

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

Say what you will about pro-Obama kitsch, but it had high production values. This is what happens when the entire cultural elite is affiliated with one party. There has to be somebody out there who can write a better song about Sarah Palin.


Did you love those creepy old people just cold doin’ Kountry Karaoke in the metal-building church with super-fine new lyrics all about how Sarah Palin has the hottest ass in the Grandma Department? Yah bay-bay us 2, also Wonkbot got its sex on & dropped this summer jam about how she want to get with Sarah, oh lawd, and her daughter, think her name is Bristol.


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Filed under New Media, Political Figures

The Blog Post That Went ‘Round The Sphere


And his [Julian Assange’s] underlying insight is simple and, I think, compelling: while an organization structured by direct and open lines of communication will be much more vulnerable to outside penetration, the more opaque it becomes to itself (as a defense against the outside gaze), the less able it will be to “think” as a system, to communicate with itself. The more conspiratorial it becomes, in a certain sense, the less effective it will be as a conspiracy. The more closed the network is to outside intrusion, the less able it is to engage with that which is outside itself (true hacker theorizing).His thinking is not quite as abstract as all that, of course; as he quite explicitly notes, he is also understanding the functioning of the US state by analogy with successful terrorist organizations. If you’ve seen The Battle of Algiers, for example, think of how the French counter-terrorist people work to produce an organizational flow chart of the Algerian resistance movement: since they had overwhelming military superiority, their inability to crush the FLN resided in their inability to find it, an inability which the FLN strategically works to impede by decentralizing itself. Cutting off one leg of the octopus, the FLN realized, wouldn’t degrade the system as a whole if the legs all operated independently. The links between the units were the vulnerable spots for the system as a whole, so those were most closely and carefully guarded and most hotly pursued by the French. And while the French won the battle of Algiers, they lost the war, because they adopted the tactics Assange briefly mentions only to put aside:

How can we reduce the ability of a conspiracy to act?…We can split the conspiracy, reduce or eliminating important communication between a few high weight links or many low weight links. Traditional attacks on conspiratorial power groupings, such as assassination, have cut high weight links by killing, kidnapping, blackmailing or otherwise marginalizing or isolating some of the conspirators they were connected to.

This is the US’s counterterrorism strategy — find the men in charge and get ’em — but it’s not what Assange wants to do: such a program would isolate a specific version of the conspiracy and attempt to destroy the form of it that already exists, which he argues will have two important limitations. For one thing, by the time such a conspiracy has a form which can be targeted, its ability to function will be quite advanced. As he notes:

“A man in chains knows he should have acted sooner for his ability to influence the actions of the state is near its end. To deal with powerful conspiratorial actions we must think ahead and attack the process that leads to them since the actions themselves can not be dealt with.”

By the time a cancer has metastasized, in other words, antioxidents are no longer effective, and even violent chemotherapy is difficult. It’s better, then, to think about how conspiracies come into existence so as to prevent them from forming in the first place (whereas if you isolate the carcinogen early enough, you don’t need to remove the tumor after the fact). Instead, he wants to address the aggregative process itself, by impeding the principle of its reproduction: rather than trying to expose and cut particular links between particular conspirators (which does little to prevent new links from forming and may not disturb the actual functioning of the system as a whole), he wants to attack the “total conspiratorial power” of the entire system by figuring out how to reduce its total ability to share and exchange information among itself, in effect, to slow down its processing power. As he puts it:

Conspiracies are cognitive devices. They are able to outthink the same group of individuals acting alone Conspiracies take information about the world in which they operate (the conspiratorial environment), pass through the conspirators and then act on the result. We can see conspiracies as a type of device that has inputs (information about the environment), a computational network (the conspirators and their links to each other) and outputs (actions intending to change or maintain the environment).

Because he thinks of the conspiracy as a computational network, he notes in an aside that one way to weaken its cognitive ability would be to degrade the quality of its information:

Since a conspiracy is a type of cognitive device that acts on information acquired from its environment, distorting or restricting these inputs means acts based on them are likely to be misplaced. Programmers call this effect garbage in, garbage out. Usually the effect runs the other way; it is conspiracy that is the agent of deception and information restriction. In the US, the programmer’s aphorism is sometimes called “the Fox News effect”.

I’m not sure this is what he means, but it’s worth reflecting that the conspiracy’s ability to deceive others through propaganda can also be the conspiracy’s tendency to deceive itself by its own propaganda. So many people genuinely drink the Kool-Aid, after all. Would our super-spies in Afghanistan ever have been so taken in by the imposter Taliban guy if they didn’t, basically, believe their own line of propaganda, if they didn’t convince themselves — even provisionally — that we actually are winning the war against Talibothra? The same is true of WMD; while no one in possession of the facts could rationally conclude that Saddam Hussein then (or Iran now) are actually, positively in pursuit of WMD’s, this doesn’t mean that the people talking about ticking time bombs don’t actually believe that they are. It just means they are operating with bad information about the environment. Sometimes this works in their favor, but sometimes it does not: if Obama thinks Afghanistan is winnable, it may sink his presidency, for example, while the belief of his advisors that the economy would recover if the government rescued only the banks almost certainly lost the midterm elections for the Democrats (and was the death-knell for so many of the Blue Dogs who were driving that particular policy choice). Whether this actually hurts the conspiracy is unclear; those Blue Dogs might have lost their seats, but most of them will retire from public service to cushy jobs supported by the sectors they supported while they were in public service. And lots of successful politicians do nothing but fail.

This is however, not where Assange’s reasoning leads him. He decides, instead, that the most effective way to attack this kind of organization would be to make “leaks” a fundamental part of the conspiracy’s  information environment. Which is why the point is not that particular leaks are specifically effective. Wikileaks does not leak something like the “Collateral Murder” video as a way of putting an end to that particular military tactic; that would be to target a specific leg of the hydra even as it grows two more. Instead, the idea is that increasing the porousness of the conspiracy’s information system will impede its functioning, that the conspiracy will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function. You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire:

The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption. Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.

The leak, in other words, is only the catalyst for the desired counter-overreaction; Wikileaks wants to provoke the conspiracy into turning off its own brain in response to the threat. As it tries to plug its own holes and find the leakers, he reasons, its component elements will de-synchronize from and turn against each other, de-link from the central processing network, and come undone. Even if all the elements of the conspiracy still exist, in this sense, depriving themselves of a vigorous flow of information to connect them all together as a conspiracy prevents them from acting as a conspiracy. As he puts it:

If total conspiratorial power is zero, then clearly there is no information flow between the conspirators and hence no conspiracy. A substantial increase or decrease in total conspiratorial power almost always means what we expect it to mean; an increase or decrease in the ability of the conspiracy to think, act and adapt…An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot think is powerless to preserve itself against the opponents it induces.

In this sense, most of the media commentary on the latest round of leaks has totally missed the point. After all, why are diplomatic cables being leaked? These leaks are not specifically about the war(s) at all, and most seem to simply be a broad swath of the everyday normal secrets that a security state keeps from all but its most trusted hundreds of thousands of people who have the right clearance. Which is the point: Assange is completely right that our government has conspiratorial functions. What else would you call the fact that a small percentage of our governing class governs and acts in our name according to information which is freely shared amongst them but which cannot be shared amongst their constituency? And we all probably knew that this was more or less the case; anyone who was surprised that our embassies are doing dirty, secretive, and disingenuous political work as a matter of course is naïve. But Assange is not trying to produce a journalistic scandal which will then provoke red-faced government reforms or something, precisely because no one is all that scandalized by such things any more. Instead, he is trying to strangle the links that make the conspiracy possible, to expose the necessary porousness of the American state’s conspiratorial network in hopes that the security state will then try to shrink its computational network in response, thereby making itself dumber and slower and smaller.

Early responses seem to indicate that Wikileaks is well on its way to accomplishing some of its goals. As Simon Jenkins put it (in a great piece in its own right) “The leaks have blown a hole in the framework by which states guard their secrets.” And if the diplomats quoted by Le Monde are right that, “we will never again be able to practice diplomacy like before,” this is exactly what Wikileaks was trying to do. It’s sort of pathetic hearing diplomats and government shills lament that the normal work of “diplomacy” will now be impossible, like complaining that that the guy boxing you out is making it hard to get rebounds. Poor dears. If Assange is right to point out that his organization has accomplished more state scrutiny than the entire rest of the journalistic apparatus combined, he’s right but he’s also deflecting the issue: if Wikileaks does some of the things that journalists do, it also does some very different things. Assange, as his introductory remarks indicate quite clearly, is in the business of “radically shift[ing] regime behavior.”

Jesse Walker at Reason

Xeni Jardin at Boing Boing on the piece:

A close reading of a 2006 Julian Assange essay, useful for understanding the motivations behind Wikileaks.

Jonathan Holmes at ABC The Drum:

Though it may have been posted widely in recent months – I’ve been away – I came across it in a blog called Zunguzungu, written by a denizen of Oakland California called Aaron Bady. A couple of weeks ago he put up a post called ‘Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy’. His blog links to two documents by Julian Assange, titled ‘State and Terrorist Conspiracies’ and ‘Conspiracy as Governance’, written in November and December 2006 respectively. According to the UK Mail on Sunday‘s Jason Lewis, who quoted from the documents last August, they were written while Assange was at the University of Melbourne. I’ve not been able to verify their authenticity, other than by visiting the iq.org site myself and independently finding the second document here.

Anyway, if you’re interested in Julian Assange, I urge you to read both the Brady essay, and the Assange document. But if you haven’t time, let me summarise them as best I can.

Authoritarian states, argues Assange – and by that term he very clearly means democracies like the USA – are conspiracies, in the sense that they consist of a comparatively small number of people who ‘conspire’ to produce outcomes – economic, military, diplomatic – by sharing information, insights and plans which are not available to the people they are ruling and whose fortunes those outcomes will affect.

This is a bad thing.

Conspiracies need conspirators – some more important than others. But they also need the means to communicate secretly with each other, else there can be no conspiracy.

The computer age makes vast conspiracies possible – but it also makes them vulnerable. To quote from Assange’s introduction:

The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline…

Or, as he puts it graphically elsewhere in ‘Conspiracy and Governance’:

When we look at an authoritarian conspiracy as a whole, we see a system of interacting organs, a beast with arteries and veins whose blood may be thickened and slowed until it falls, stupefied; unable to sufficiently comprehend and control the forces in its environment.

What becomes clear from Assange’s essay – which strikes me as both profound and somewhat deranged – is that he knows exactly what he is doing, and why. He knows that a great many of the cables that WikiLeaks is now producing – and which are being so enthusiastically peddled by the mainstream media – are not in themselves evidence of what most of us would term wrongdoing. But to the extent that they are profoundly embarrassing, they will force the United States to change its communications system. The SIPRnet, which, inexplicably, allows a junior soldier in Iraq (and apparently some 3 million others) to access an ambassador’s appraisal of a prime minister, or the State Department’s concerns about Chinese weapons sales to Iran, will have to be changed; readership of documents restricted; security procedures tightened; secrets kept more secret. There will be a higher ‘cognitive secrecy tax’.

David Dayen at Firedoglake:

This zunguzungu post on Assange’s motives is extremely important. He isn’t interested in preserving any current system; he quite radically wants to fundamentally change the capacity of governments he considers authoritarian to conspire in secret. He wants to bring everything out into the light and degrade their systems, as it were.

“To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not. Firstly we must understand what aspect of government or neocorporatist behavior we wish to change or remove. Secondly we must develop a way of thinking about this behavior that is strong enough carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity. Finally must use these insights to inspire within us and others a course of ennobling, and effective action.”

Government is doing exactly what can be expected of it in reaction to this – forced to operate in secrecy, cut off from its fellow conspirators, it seeks to control the flow of information. That’s what’s at work in the attempt to arrest Assange and shut down his website. Governments need to be able to communicate with themselves, and Assange is breaking that down, or at least exposing it to scrutiny. So they want to crush the bug. The only entity that gets to have total information awareness is the state.

Robert Baird at 3 Quarks Daily:

Aaron Bady won the internet last week with his explication of a pair of essays Julian Assange wrote in 2006. Paddling against a vomit-tide of epithets and empty speculations that threatened to bury Assange under a flood of banalities, Bady proposed and executed a fairly shocking procedure: he sat down and read ten pages of what Assange had actually written about the motivations and strategy behind Wikileaks.

The central insight of Bady’s analysis was the recognition that Assange’s strategy stands at significant remove from a philosophy it might easily be confused for: the blend of technological triumphalism and anarcho-libertarian utopianism that takes “information wants to be free” as its gospel and Silicon Valley as its spiritual homeland. Noting the “certain vicious amorality about the Mark Zuckerberg-ian philosophy that all transparency is always and everywhere a good thing,” Bady argued that Assange’s philosophy is crucially different:

The question for an ethical human being — and Assange always emphasizes his ethics — has to be the question of what exposing secrets will actually accomplish, what good it will do, what better state of affairs it will bring about. And whether you buy his argument or not, Assange has a clearly articulated vision for how Wikileaks’ activities will “carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity,” a strategy for how exposing secrets will ultimately impede the production of future secrets.

As Assange told Time: “It is not our goal to achieve a more transparent society; it’s our goal to achieve a more just society.”

In his essays Assange makes no bones about wanting to “radically shift regime behavior,” and this claim to radicalism marks one difference between Wikileaks and, say, the New York Times. As Bady notes, however, by far the more important distinction lies in the way Assange wants to use transparency to cause change. The traditional argument for transparency is that more information will allow a populace to better influence its government. In this scheme, freedom of the press, sunshine laws, and journalistic competition are all useful for prizing loose information that government actors don’t want us to see, but none of them are ends in themselves. The information they reveal is ever only propaedeutic: it needs advocacy, elections, armed uprisings, or some other activity to make real political change.

Certainly some of what Assange wants to do with Wikileaks can be explained by this model, but as Bady recognized, the 2006 essays propose a more unusual–and more interesting–reason for leaking. “Assange is not trying to produce a journalistic scandal which will then provoke red-faced government reforms,” Bady explained, “precisely because no one is all that scandalized by such things any more.” In this sense, the “nothing new to see here” posturing that followed the release of the cables in some quarters was not only something Assange had expected: it was a reaction whose anticipation led him to formulate a strategy that differed even from progressive/radical muckrakers like The Nation and Counterpunch.


Push this redescription a step further, and you can see that what Wikileaks is trying to do to international diplomacy is not so different from what the mortgage crisis did to the economy. The cable-dump is the diplomatic equivalent of Goldman Sachs’s famous ABACUS CDO, the one it designed to go bust.

If this sounds like sabotage, well, that’s sort of the point. But it’s important to remember that unlike ABACUS, Assange’s attempted sabotage of the diplomatic economy of secrets was planned with the explicit aim of ushering in a new and better system. His 2006 essays paint him as the opposite of a nihilist, someone with a radical’s distrust of reform. Like those Marxists who hoped they saw in the financial crisis the first stirrings of a new and more just economic age, Assange looks to the diplomatic rubble he’s created for the promise of a new paradigm of government behavior.

That Wikileaks will have real-world effects is indisputable; they’ve already begun to show themselves. The real question, now, is whether those effects will look anything like what Assange hoped for them in 2006.

The financial analogy gives us reason to be skeptical. By rights the mortgage meltdown should have wiped out half of Wall Street. And yet two years after the worst of it, the banks that caused the crisis are enjoying record profits while the rest of the economy foots the bill: 10% unemployment, frozen federal pay, broke state governments, etc., etc., ad nauseam. The lesson of the crisis was unequivocal: power doesn’t have to play by rights. The State Department of the United States, we can be sure, is quite aware of this.

There’s a deeper sense, however, in which Assange’s 2006 third-order strategy for Wikileaks has to count as naive. His belief that secrecy is the fundamental source of power is a version of the classic category mistake of the internet age: to imagine that the “world” of information simply is the world, that there is no remainder, nothing left to of the latter to overflow or exceed or resist the former. (The Language poets made a similar mistake in suggesting that a stylistic innovation in poetry was predictably convertible into real-world effects.)

In a recent interview at the Guardian, Assange seems aware of this problem, all but admitting that his earlier emphasis on secrecy doesn’t fit the reigning power structures of the West:

The west has fiscalised its basic power relationships through a web of contracts, loans, shareholdings, bank holdings and so on. In such an environment it is easy for speech to be ‘free’ because a change in political will rarely leads to any change in these basic instruments. Western speech, as something that rarely has any effect on power, is, like badgers and birds, free.

This diagnosis strikes me as much closer to the mark than Assange’s earlier identification of government as fundamentally conspiratorial. But his earlier account at least had the virtue of justifying the leak of 250,000 secret diplomatic cables. Now the release seems freshly unexplained. After all, how, exactly, are publicized diplomatic cables supposed to affect the “web of contracts, loans, shareholdings, bank holdings and so on”? I don’t know, and I’m beginning to wonder if Julian Assange does either.

Charli Carpenter at Lawyers, Guns and Money:

Here are my reactions. First of all both Bady and Baird, who seem in agreement about Assange’s “clearly articulated vision” and offer a very helpful analytical typology to situate his ethics in relation to others like Mark Z, both discount the inconsistencies with which he has articulated that vision. If Assange truly fit the “third-order” mold when he wrote those essays, his thinking today seems to draw on all three discourses to fit his audience and the moment. He has said third-order types of things, but he has also said on the Wikileaks site  “transparency creates a better society for all people” and that “all information should be free” (ala Zuckerberg); he has argued at times that his goal is reform, not revolution; and as Baird acknowledges in a footnote, Assange’s Time interview reflected the second-order position.

If he has a consistent position, I’m not sure even Assange knows what it is. And considering that he is using the nuclear threat of releasing his entire archive (presumably irrespective of any harm minimization tactics the organization would otherwise claim to employ) as a bargaining chip to deal with his legal troubles, I have a hard time agreeing with Bady’s claim that Assange always emphasizes ethics.

But let’s suspend disbelief for a moment about whether Assange’s 2006 essays provide a useful road-map to his current position or political behavior, and simply examine his writings. What surprises me most is that Bady, and to some extent Baird, seem to accept many of Assange’s central claims. Here are several I find very troubling – even moreso if they indeed tell us something about his current agenda.

1) Assange Discounts the Importance of Secrecy For Good Governors, and Overstates the Impact of Leaks on Bad Governors.

In a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.

I have already spoken to the value of discretion in good governance here, a set of points which I think weighs against Assange’s assertion that if you care about discretion, you must have something to hide.

But even if this weren’t true – even if eliminating the ability for the state to think discreetly were definitely a public good – there is another problem with Assange’s worldview: he believes that leaks will serve this goal.

“We can deceive or blind a conspiracy by distorting or restricting the information available to it… if an authoritarian conspiracy that can not think efficiently, can not act to preserve itself against the opponents it induces…”

“The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption.”

I am actually unconvinced, for what digital leaks do is encourage the state to avoid leaving a digital paper-trail, not to stop communicating entirely. Links can mean many things besides leakable documents. And what we know from studying genuinely authoritarian states is that they can think quite easily and behave quite murderously without a paper trail of any sort. This is in fact what makes it so difficult to prosecute the crime of genocide.

Therefore, I would imagine, in fact, that massive leaks actually do the reverse: make it impossible for those organs of government most willing to document their activities, within certain boundaries of discretion, to function. The true conspiracies to commit atrocious acts will simply go offline. Transparency of the type that would meet Assange’s goals would require a massive reverse panopticon inflicted upon civil servants that could capture their non-written activities and speech acts as well. This doesn’t strike me as a libertarian ideology – any more than the notion that those who value privacy must be hiding something and deserve what they get.

2) Assange’s Uses the Terms “Authoritarian” and “Conspiracy” in a Sweeping and Circular Way. Relatedly, Assange seems not to understand or even acknowledge the difference between authoritarian governments and democratic governments: for him, authoritarian is less a descriptive term and more a pejorative – one in terms identical to those of any powerful agent:

Authoritarian regimes give rise to forces which oppose them by pushing against the individual and collective will to freedom, truth and self-realization. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance. Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian powers. This is enough to define their behavior as conspiratorial.

Note the circular reasoning. I guess my husband and are conspiring as “successful authoritarian powers” when we meet privately to discuss our differences on parenting strategies, because we know that airing those differences in the open will encourage resistance.

If you suppose that I am using the parenting analogy to blithely make a point, consider the examples of “conspiracies” that Assange himself uses in his papers: the Democratic and the Republican parties.

Now, Assange does define “conspiracy” as making “secret plans to commit a harmful act; working together to bring about a particular result, typically to someone’s detriment.” (In the second of his two essays, nearly identical to the original, he expands on the paragraph cited above with a modifier “working to the detriment of a population,” which suggests he realizes that it is only bad secrecy that is conspiratorial.)

But he does not define what to what kind of harm or detriment he refers, assuming (I gather) that to his readers it will be obvious. The consequence of this however is that just about anything and everything – families, firms, NGOs he doesn’t like, or entire political parties for example – could be labeled a conspiracy. He is also unable to distinguish the conspiratorial elements of large political groupings like parties or states from those elements attempting to bring about a positive result.

In short there is nothing in his essay that discusses the scope conditions for targeting a particular actor: presumably the fact that they are operating secretly and to someone’s dissatisfaction is enough to prove they are both authoritarian and conspiratorial.

Alexis Madrigal:

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Godwin’s Law: Now With Seals

The wikipedia page with the FBI seal (if it is still there)

John Schwartz at NYT:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has taken on everyone from Al Capone to John Dillinger to the Unabomber. Its latest adversary: Wikipedia.

The bureau wrote a letter in July to the Wikimedia Foundation, the parent organization of Wikipedia, demanding that it take down an image of the F.B.I. seal accompanying an article on the bureau, and threatened litigation: “Failure to comply may result in further legal action. We appreciate your timely attention to this matter.”

The problem, those at Wikipedia say, is that the law cited in the F.B.I.’s letter is largely about keeping people from flashing fake badges or profiting from the use of the seal, and not about posting images on noncommercial Web sites. Many sites, including the online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, display the seal.

Other organizations might simply back down. But Wikipedia sent back a politely feisty response, stating that the bureau’s lawyers had misquoted the law. “While we appreciate your desire to revise the statute to reflect your expansive vision of it, the fact is that we must work with the actual language of the statute, not the aspirational version” that the F.B.I. had provided.

Michael Godwin, the general counsel of the Wikimedia Foundation, wrote, “we are prepared to argue our view in court.” He signed off, “with all appropriate respect.”

Samuel Axon at Mashable:

The New York Times posted PDF documents of the FBI’s takedown request [PDF] and Wikipedia General Counsel Mike Godwin’s bold and catty reply [PDF].The FBI said the Wikimedia Foundation is breaking the law by showing the bureau’s seal in the FBI entry on its website, and that the seal is primarily intended as a means of identification for FBI representatives. Godwin countered by accusing the FBI’s Deputy General Counsel David C. Larson of selectively omitting words from the supposedly applicable law.

Specifically, he said that the letter of the law applies only to things similar to badges, and the spirit of the law is simply to prevent people from posing as government authorities — something Wikipedia (Wikipedia) is clearly not doing. He also implied that the FBI is trying to revise the law because of its hawkish concern that people will rip the image from the site and use it for nefarious purposes.

He assured Larson that the Wikimedia Foundation is prepared to go to court to defend its use of the seal if that’s what it takes.

Godwin’s letter is humorous for its directness, but it’s also funny for being passive-aggressive. For example, he says:

“Entertainingly, in support for your argument, you included a version of 701 in which you removed the very phrases that subject the statute to ejusdem generis analysis. While we appreciate your desire to revise the statute to reflect your expansive vision of it, the fact is that we must work with the actual language of the statute, not the aspirational version of Section 701 that you forwarded to us.”

Godwin is already famous as the creator of Godwin’s Law, which states, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1,” so this is definitely in-character for him.

Steven Taylor:

In looking at the law, I can see a reading going to either side.  However, it does seem to be more oriented towards either stopping counterfeit badges and/or people making money by making duplicates.  It does not appear to be oriented toward stopping an informational outlet from publishing such information.

At a minimum, I have to agree with the following:

Cindy Cohn, the legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, called the dust-up both “silly” and “troubling”; Wikipedia has a First Amendment right to display the seal, she said.

“Really,” she added, “I have to believe the F.B.I. has better things to do than this.”


Nicholas Deleon at Crunch Gear:

Wikipedia’s counsel recognizes that there are restrictions in place regarding the display of the seal, but that “the enactment of [these laws] was intended to protect the public against the use of a recognisable assertion of authority with intent to deceive.”

And if you think Wikipedia is trying to deceive to deceive the public with the presence of a seal in an encyclopedic article, I don’t know what to tell you.

The one thing that I may see some wiggle room: the high resolution of the seal. You can get the seal in sizes of up to 2000px, so maybe Wikipedia can tell the Feds, “Look, we’re keep the seal, but we’ll kick the resolution down to, say, 500px. Deal?”

Hopefully cooler heads prevail here.

Rob Beschizza at Boing Boing:

The part that’s hard to understand is why the FBI would seek to abuse the law in such petulant fashion, knowing that it will be subject to public ridicule for its actions.

Juli Weiner at Vanity Fair

Jim Newell at Gawker:

The FBI is definitely going to raid their offices, like, tonight.

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Lemonade At Around The Sphere! 10 Cents! Today Only!

Terry Savage at The Chicago Sun Times:

This column is a true story — every word of it. And I think it very appropriate to consider around the Fourth of July, Independence Day spirit.

Last week, I was in a car with my brother and his fiancee, driving through their upscale neighborhood on a hot summer day. At the corner, we all noticed three little girls sitting at a homemade lemonade stand.

We follow the same rules in our family, and one of them is: Always stop to buy lemonade from kids who are entrepreneurial enough to open up a little business.

My brother immediately pulled over to the side of the road and asked about the choices.

The three young girls — under the watchful eye of a nanny, sitting on the grass with them — explained that they had regular lemonade, raspberry lemonade, and small chocolate candy bars.

Then my brother asked how much each item cost.

“Oh, no,” they replied in unison, “they’re all free!”

I sat in the back seat in shock. Free? My brother questioned them again: “But you have to charge something? What should I pay for a lemonade? I’m really thirsty!”

His fiancee smiled and commented, “Isn’t that cute. They have the spirit of giving.”

That really set me off, as my regular readers can imagine.

“No!” I exclaimed from the back seat. “That’s not the spirit of giving. You can only really give when you give something you own. They’re giving away their parents’ things — the lemonade, cups, candy. It’s not theirs to give.”

I pushed the button to roll down the window and stuck my head out to set them straight.

“You must charge something for the lemonade,” I explained. “That’s the whole point of a lemonade stand. You figure out your costs — how much the lemonade costs, and the cups — and then you charge a little more than what it costs you, so you can make money. Then you can buy more stuff, and make more lemonade, and sell it and make more money.”

I was confident I had explained it clearly. Until my brother, breaking the tension, ordered a raspberry lemonade. As they handed it to him, he again asked: “So how much is it?”

And the girls once again replied: “It’s free!” And the nanny looked on contentedly.

No wonder America is getting it all wrong when it comes to government, and taxes, and policy. We all act as if the “lemonade” or benefits we’re “giving away” is free.

And so the voters demand more — more subsidies for mortgages, more bailouts, more loan modification and longer periods of unemployment benefits.

They’re all very nice. But these things aren’t free.

The government only gets the money to pay these benefits by raising taxes, meaning taxpayers pay for the “free lemonade.” Or by printing money — which is essentially a tax on savings, since printing more money devalues the wealth we hold in dollars.

If we can’t teach our kids the basics of running a lemonade stand, how can we ever teach Congress the basics of economics?

Jason Linkins at Huffington Post:

You know, I say, “All hail the cranks of America, who are willing to put almost anything they encounter in the world on trial and find it guilty of destroying society!” But if I could offer a word of advice: maybe stop short of actually yelling at children, to make them feel bad about themselves. But that’s exactly what Chicago Sun-Times columnist Terry Savage has done, and she apparently wants a medal for it.

See, Terry was driving around her “upscale neighborhood” over the holiday weekend, when she encountered some of the upscale neighborhood children at a lemonade stand. And apparently, she has some sort of personal “rule” that compels her to always stop and get some lemonade, because of her unquenchable thirst for citrus or something. But, as it turned out, the three little girls at the stand were just straight up giving away the lemonade for free. And thus began the tirade!

Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing:

Get that, kids? The correct thing to do with the stuff you appropriate from others is sell it, not give it away! Sounds about right — companies take over our public aquifers and sell us the water they pump out of them; telcos get our rights of way for their infrastructure, then insist that they be able to tier their pricing without regard to the public interest. Corporatism in a nutshell, really.

Dan Mitchell at Big Money:

I’m truly not interested in how she leaped from little girls having fun in their front yard to the government extending unemployment benefits or bailing out banks. The answer would involve “bootstraps” or something, I presume. Something horrendously simplistic. No matter what her explanation might be, it would still be based on her belief that it’s bad to give away something you got for nothing, but it’s perfectly fine—in fact highly laudable—to sell it. And that this somehow teaches you that (she really used this phrase), “there is no free lunch.”

The irony here is that Savage could have written a good, perfectly sane column about why it’s better for kids to sell lemonade than to give it away. As she notes amid all the nutty John Galt stuff, it would teach them a lot about business—managing costs, pricing, etc.

But maybe they can learn that next summer. This summer, they learned about the satisfaction of giving someone a cold drink on a hot day. They learned about kindness and, yes, the spirit of giving. They learned, perhaps, that though we are economic creatures, we are not only economic creatures—that there is more to life than money, and that believing otherwise makes us shallow and soulless. And less fun.

And maybe they learned to be careful of strangers in the street exhibiting odd behavior.

And onto other subjects involving lemonade. Sam Stein at The Huffington Post:

Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle has moderated a host of policy positions in her transition from a primary candidate to general election contender battling Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. One thing she has not backed away from has been her insistence that abortion should be outlawed universally, even in cases of rape and incest.

In a radio interview Angle did in late June, the Tea Party favorite re-affirmed her pro-life sensibilities (rigid, as they are, even within Republican circles), when she insisted that a young girl raped by her father should know that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Much good can come from a horrific situation like that, Angle added. Lemons can be made into lemonade.

Stock: Let me bring up one other topic that I rarely talk about here, because it’s one of those topics that’s a lose-lose, but we’ve got to talk about it because it was brought up in your TV interview and that has to do with the issue of abortion, and whether or not abortion should be available in the case of rape or incest. The question to you at the time by the interviewer was that do you want the government to go and tell a 13 year-old child who has been raped by her father that she has to have that baby. And of course you responded ‘I didn’t say that I always say that I value life.’ Where do you stand on the issue of abortion, a consensual abortion, from a person who is raped or is pregnant as a result of incest?Angle: Well right now our law permits that. My own personal feelings and that is always what I express, my personal feeling is that we need to err on the side of life. There is a plan and a purpose, a value to every life no matter what it’s location, age, gender or disability. So whenever we talk about government and government’s role, government’s role is to protect life and that’s what our Founding Father said, that we have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Stock: What do you say then to a young girl, I am going to place it as he said it, when a young girl is raped by her father, let’s say, and she is pregnant. How do you explain this to her in terms of wanting her to go through the process of having the baby?

Angle: I think that two wrongs don’t make a right. And I have been in the situation of counseling young girls, not 13 but 15, who have had very at risk, difficult pregnancies. And my counsel was to look for some alternatives, which they did. And they found that they had made what was really a lemon situation into lemonade. Well one girl in particular moved in with the adoptive parents of her child, and they both were adopted. Both of them grew up, one graduated from high school, the other had parents that loved her and she also graduated from high school. And I’ll tell you the little girl who was born from that very poor situation came to me when she was 13 and said ‘I know what you did thank you for saving my life.’ So it is meaningful to me to err on the side of life.

Jim Newell at Gawker:


It is actually more ideologically consistent for strictly pro-life people to not leave out exceptions for rape or situations where the mother’s life is at risk. If you see abortion as the murder of a human life, then you should not feel compelled to make politically appealing make cop-outs! But you should also not try to spin these things into positives, either, because they’re really hellishly bad.

Dan Amira at New York Magazine:

Nevada’s Republican, tea-party–backed candidate for Senate, Sharron Angle, is so against abortion, she doesn’t think it should be a legal option even for 13-year-old girls raped by their fathers. Because, after all, that’s just a great opportunity for them to turn “a lemon situation into lemonade.” Harry Reid, you are one lucky bastard.


No word on what happened to the incest victim, but that’s really not something anyone should waste much time worrying about.

And anyway it just shows that God provides many good alternatives to abortion for for young girls who are raped by their fathers — perhaps we could just bend the rules a little bit and the little girl could marry her daddy so they could make a new family all their own. Talk about lemonade!

I wonder if Third Way has found a way to accommodate these views inside the Democratic Party. There must be some common ground, here, right?

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Filed under Abortion, Mainstream, Political Figures

So Not Only Are There Definitely Aliens, But They Are Stealing Our TVs

Chris McKay:

Recent results from the Cassini mission suggest that hydrogen and acetylene are depleted at the surface of Titan. Both results are still preliminary and the hydrogen loss in particular is the result of a computer calculation, and not a direct measurement. However the findings are interesting for astrobiology. Heather Smith and I, in a paper published 5 years ago (McKay and Smith, 2005) suggested that methane-based (rather than water-based) life – ie, organisms called methanogens — on Titan could consume hydrogen, acetylene, and ethane. The key conclusion of that paper (last line of the abstract) was “The results of the recent Huygens probe could indicate the presence of such life by anomalous depletions of acetylene and ethane as well as hydrogen at the surface.”

Now there seems to be evidence for all three of these on Titan. Clark et al. (2010, in press in JGR) are reporting depletions of acetylene at the surface. And it has been long appreciated that there is not as much ethane as expected on the surface of Titan. And now Strobel (2010, in press in Icarus) predicts a strong flux of hydrogen into the surface.

This is a still a long way from “evidence of life”. However, it is extremely interesting.

Andrew Moseman at Discover:

If there were life on the Saturnian moon of Titan, the thinking goes, it would have to inhabit pools of methane or ethane at a cool -300 degrees Fahrenheit, and without the aid of water. While scientists don’t know just what that life would look like, they can predict what effects such tiny microbes would have on Titan’s atmosphere. That’s why researchers from the Cassini mission are excited now: They’ve found signatures that match those expectations. It’s far from proof of life on Titan, but it leaves the door wide open to the possibility.In 2005, NASA’s Chris McKay put forth a possible scenario for life there: Critters could breathe the hydrogen gas that’s abundant on Titan, and consume a hydrocarbon called acetylene for energy. The first of two studies out recently, published in the journal Icarus, found that something—maybe life, but maybe something else—is using up the hydrogen that descends from Titan’s atmosphere to its surface:

“It’s as if you have a hose and you’re squirting hydrogen onto the ground, but it’s disappearing,” says Darrell Strobel, a Cassini interdisciplinary scientist based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., who authored a paper published in the journal Icarus [Popular Science].

Erring on the side of caution, the scientists suggest that life is but one explanation for this chemical oddity. Perhaps some unknown mineral on Titan acts as a catalyst to speed up the reaction of hydrogen and carbon to form methane, and that’s what accounts for the vanishing hydrogen. (Normally, the two wouldn’t combine fast enough under the cold conditions on Titan to account for the anomaly.) That would be pretty cool, though not as much of a jolt as Titanic life.

Nancy Atkinson at Universe Today:

Two papers released last week detailing oddities found on Titan have blown the top off the ‘jumping to conclusions’ meter, and following media reports of NASA finding alien life on Saturn‘s hazy moon, scientists are now trying to put a little reality back into the news. “Everyone: Calm down!” said Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porco on Twitter over the weekend. “It is by NO means certain that microbes are eating hydrogen on Titan. Non-bio explanations are still possible.” Porco also put out a statement on Monday saying such reports were “the unfortunate result of a knee-jerk rush to sensationalize an exciting but rather complex, nuanced and emotionally-charged issue.”

Astrobiologist Chris McKay told Universe Today that life on Titan is “certainly the most exciting, but it’s not the simplest explanation for all the data we’re seeing.”

McKay suggests everyone needs to take the Occam’s Razor approach, where the simplest theory that fits the facts of a problem is the one that should be selected.

The two papers suggest that hydrogen and acetylene are being depleted at the surface of Titan. The first paper by Darrell Strobel shows hydrogen molecules flowing down through Titan’s atmosphere and disappearing at the surface. This is a disparity between the hydrogen densities that flow down to the surface at a rate of about 10,000 trillion trillion hydrogen molecules per second, but none showing up at the surface.

“It’s as if you have a hose and you’re squirting hydrogen onto the ground, but it’s disappearing,” Strobel said. “I didn’t expect this result, because molecular hydrogen is extremely chemically inert in the atmosphere, very light and buoyant. It should ‘float’ to the top of the atmosphere and escape.”

The other paper (link not yet available) led by Roger Clark, a Cassini team scientist, maps hydrocarbons on Titan’s surface and finds a surprising lack of acetylene. Models of Titan’s upper atmosphere suggest a high level of acetylene in Titan’s lakes, as high as 1 percent by volume. But this study, using the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) aboard Cassini, found very little acetylene on Titan’s surface.

Of course, one explanation for both discoveries is that something on Titan is consuming the hydrogen and acetylene.

Even though both findings are important, McKay feels the crux of any possible life on Titan hinges on verifying Strobel’s discovery about the lack of hydrogen.

“To me, the whole thing hovers on this determination of whether there is this flux of hydrogen is real,” McKay said via phone. “The acetylene has been missing and the ethane has been missing, but that certainly doesn’t generate a lot of excitement, because how much is supposed to be there depends on how much is being made. There are a lot of uncertainties.”

Phil Plait at Discover:

Titan is a monster, the second biggest moon in the solar system at 5150 km (3200 miles) in diameter. If it weren’t orbiting Saturn, it would probably be considered a planet in its own right: it’s bigger than Mercury and Pluto. It has a thick atmosphere, made up of nitrogen, methane, and other molecules. It’s very cold, but it’s known that lakes, probably of liquid methane, exist on the surface.

Five years ago, McKay and other scientists pointed out that if methane-based life existed on Titan, it might be detectable through a surface depletion of ethane, hydrogen, and acetylene. New observations show that this is the case; there are lower amounts of these substances than the chemistry of Titan would indicate.

As McKay points out, “This is a still a long way from ‘evidence of life’. However, it is extremely interesting.”

Those are the basics. Go read McKay’s article for details. The point he makes is that the results are preliminary, may yet turn out to be wrong, if they’re right may have non-biological explanations, and we should not conclude biology is involved until we get a lot more evidence.

As far as the media goes, headlines get eyeballs and sell advertisements, of course. But in cases where the news is like this, news outlets should be particularly careful how they phrase things. They know how the public will react to certain phrases, and the phrase “evidence of life” is substantially less accurate and more likely to incite chatter than “evidence for possible life” — and the Telegraph’s technically accurate but seriously misleading “evidence ‘that alien life exists on Saturn’s moon’” is just asking for trouble.

The point is, when it comes to media outlets and big news like this, the phrase going through your head should be a variant of an old one, updated for this modern age:

“Don’t trust, and verify”.

John Matson at Scientific American

Maggie Koerth-Baker at Boing Boing:

This is the kind of research that easily sets hearts aflutter and space nerds to making high-pitched happy squealing sounds, so let’s knock out one basic thing right off the bat: Nobody has discovered alien life. We have not found E.T. This is only a test of the emergency high-pitched happy squealing system.

That said, it probably wouldn’t be remiss to clap your hands delightedly, like a little girl. As I said, nobody has found alien life, but they did find the sort of evidence that might suggest alien life is down there on the surface of Titan, waiting to be found. It’s a little like walking up to a house and finding the front door open, and, inside, a T.V. stand that’s missing a T.V. It’s reasonable to assume the house might have been burglarized, but there are also other plausible explanations and you don’t have enough evidence to know one way or the other.

Rod Dreher

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