Apple, The Feds, and The Good Fight.

On Monday 21st of March, Apple gave a keynote presentation on some of their news products. We heard about the advancements and breakthroughs already bearing fruit in the HealthKit API’s (leading to a fascinating discovery that there are likely to be several strands of type-2 diabetes for example), plus announcements on a new iPhone, iPad Pro, and much more besides.

But many wondered if the CEO Tim Cook would address the elephant in the room. The companies’ on-going battle with the FBI over the phone previously owned by the San Bernardino terrorist.

Rather than shy away from the debate, Tim Cook dealt with it head-on and admirably. Since this talk, it appears the Federal government has backed down, but it doesn’t stop this from being an important issue. To his credit, Cook didn’t wallow in the message, but made his points and moved on. You can find out more in the keynote below:

For a more detailed look at his musings, check out the unedited transcript of his talk with Nancy Gibbs and Lev Grossman for Time Magazine, here.

In the interview, Cook makes many salient points. The excerpt below summarises the situation nicely:

But at the end of the day, we’re going to fight the good fight not only for our customers but for the country. We’re in this bizarre position where we’re defending the civil liberties of the country against the government. Who would have ever thought this would happen?

Cook might be bemused at the fact it’s up to a company like Apple to fight this “good fight”, but it’s quite typical for private business and individuals to be the ones that curb the excessive over-reach of government. In fact, that’s usually the default situation.

I understand perfectly the concern over our safety. But it is never good enough to give up essential liberties in order to give us some possible, abstract and temporary security. Now, it appears the FBI are backing down, and don’t think they need Apple to do anything to help. That’s great. But this is a fight that will need to continue.

It’s interesting – and anecdotal, with exceptions on both sides – that generally those who are technology literate (including Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al), support Apple’s stance, and those who are arguing in favour of the Federal government are typically not as technology literate.

I don’t know if this helps clarify things in a simpler away, but let me use an analogy to explain the situation that doesn’t bring technology into the debate at all: Imagine that there was a very slim chance that a now deceased terrorist might – and only might – have left some information about future plans behind a locked door. The FBI go to the lock-maker and demand that they build a universal key that not only unlocks that one door, but could unlock every door in the country. And then the key will be duplicated thousands of times and given to thousands of federal employees.

As yourself, in that scenario, are we really any safer if the lock-maker complies? Or will his compliance make us all less safe?

Answer that question honestly, and whichever conclusion you reach, I think you’ll figure out what side of the debate you’re on.

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Glenn Greenwald: The 21st Century Bob Woodward?

It’s been an interesting few years for Glenn Greenwald.

He’s a lawyer, but has a take on journalism that’s interesting, subversive and deeply important.

As the face of the Edward Snowden Saga (with a documentary centred around him too), it could be argued that Greenwald is a modern version of journalist Bob Woodward – made famous for his coverage of the Watergate scandal with Carl Bernstein that lives on through the movie All The President’s Men.

In the above video, he talks to Reason TV, and talks more about his new online magazine “The Intercept”.

Ferguson And The Warrior Cop

Rise of the Warrior Cop CoverThe awful scenes this month in Ferguson are a chilling reminder of warnings in Radley Balko’s “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.” (also available on amazon.co.uk)

Yeah, I know I’m a stuck record, but once again, libertarians called this long before anyone else. The inherent dangers of the post-9/11 security-state measures under Bush and Obama (no real distinctions between them), have been laid out more clearly by libertarians than any other group. And classical liberal Balko places it at our feet in the most straightforward way you can imagine.

The Federal orders, made in the last 7-8 years that allowed surplus military arms to be handed out to police officers throughout the US was brought about by the shock of 9/11. But sadly there were no specific rules to how those arms could be used. And how many al-Qaeda sleeper cells do we think are hiding out in Missouri, anyway?

So these powers – that made the scenes in Ferguson look like a level on Call of Duty – led to the problems we’ve see this month. Let’s think about it in plain step-by-step points:

  • A teen – who was unarmed – gets shot by Ferguson police.
  • A peaceful protest rally – designed to ensure no coverup takes place – is held by the people of Ferguson.
  • The Mayor of Ferguson bans the rally, seemingly in violation with the first amendment.
  • The public continue to protest anyway, still mostly peacefully.
  • The (heavily militarised) police start to “crackdown” on the protesters, and even the journalists covering the protest.
  • After this show of force, factions of the protest turns into ugly riots, probably instigated in the most part by criminals with intent anyway on looting, etc., and see the protests degradation as an excuse.
  • News helicopters are banned from flying over the trouble-spots (again, possibly a violation of the first amendment).
  • Journalists get arrested for filming, other journalists are subjected to tear gas by the police. Again, this is the police, not the military (though the distinction isn’t that big by now).
  • A fairly sleepy town on just over 20,000 turns into a militarised zone. By the police.

Put it like that, and something seems very wrong doesn’t it?

Emma Donogue’s Room – A Gimmick That Works

Room CoverRoom by Emma Donoghue (Picador, £8.99)

The problem for books with a gimmick is that the novelty can wear off after a few pages.

But Emma Donoghue’s “Room” – shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010 – manages to overcome this impediment, leaving you engrossed until the end.

The ‘gimmick’ is that it’s written from the perspective of Jack, as he turns five. Two paragraphs in, and it’s clear that not all is right with Jack’s world. He lives in a single room with his mother, and appears never to have been outside or seen anything beyond those four walls. But why? What happened?

The poor syntax of Jack’s speech takes a page or so to get used to, but adds to the believability of the story. There’s a conspicuous absence of definite articles in our narrators vocabulary at first (for example: the room is just “room” to him, and the lamp is just “lamp”), which slowly and subtly improves as we sense him growing up and learning more about the world outside of ‘room’.

Donoghue has a knack for getting inside the mind of a child: not in a trite or clichéd way, but with a style that’s believable and gripping. And the author is smart enough to give us the exposition we need to follow the story, without dispensing that important data in an unrealistic or clunky way: “When I was a little kid, I thought like a little kid,” Jack says. “But now that I’m five I know everything.”

Yes, it’s a gimmick, writing from that perspective. And it should grow tiresome, but somehow never does. Without “breaking character” or taking any serious liberties with the form, Donoghue manages to keep her reader – like the two main characters – confined into a story that remains eerily believable.

The Secret to World Peace

Summed up better by libertarian magicians Penn & Teller than almost anyone else:

Yup. That.

Syria, Chemicals and War

Several days ago, I posted this on Twitter:

I know, it’s a flippant, loose, possibly ignorant response to what was (then) our possible response to the chemical weapons deployment in Syria. That’s what you get for only having 140 characters to play with on Twitter.

But I stand by it. And I’m pleased that our Prime Minister took the issue of war/a clinical strike to the legislature, and that they voted against it. The media were hyperventilating over how this result weakened David Cameron, but I think it’s one of the strongest, most mature things he’s done since walking into No. 10.

And now that Obama has followed suit – citing the vote in Westminster specifically – I think Cameron will come out all the stronger.

I’m still deeply concerned that the war drum beats on in D.C. though. And it seems like the majority of the legislative branch will vote for war. There’s even worrying talk that Britain’s parliament may vote again once we get word that Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack.

The civil war in Syria is horrific. I mourn the loss of innocent people there, I really do. if someone wants to set up some refugee camps and needs monetary support, then tell me where to sign up. If you want to advocate clearing the trade embargoes and restrictions in Syria and anywhere else in the world, then I’ll stand by that – the only real way to guarantee security and peace in the long term. (I’ll show you a Penn & Teller clip tomorrow that perfectly explains why this works).

But we’re talking about picking winners and losers in a intricate and difficult war with too many complexities even for the Syrians themselves to understand. It’s not a war with “good” side (i.e. “the rebels”) and a “bad” side (i.e. Assad).

Yes, Assad is a monster. Maybe he or his supporters deployed those chemicals that John Kerry claims killed 1,400+ people. But the only other significant time chemical weapons were used in Syria, a UN inspection found it was rebel forces who had deployed them.

And “the rebels” are not one group. It’d be great if they were like the plucky American minutemen, fighting for freedom and independence, simply pursuing a classical liberal democratic republic. But they’re not. There isn’t two sides to this war – there’s at least seven at the last count. At least two groups of rebel forces are directly linked to Al-Qaeda. So we’re going to fight Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and back them up in Syria?

I’d love to see Assad removed from power – but replaced with what? The two million or-so Christians living in Syria are protected by the Assad regime. What happens to then once he’s gone and replaced with – possibly – something even worse?

Maybe it won’t be that bad. Maybe whoever from the rebel forces rises to the top will be much better than what they replace. But in a situation so complex, and with Iran, China, Russia and more involved and looking on with interest, surely the most dangerous thing for British and American political leaders to have now is certainty?

Dan Brown’s Overpopulation Is Overblown

I’ve just finished reading Dan Brown’s latest book Inferno, which I’ve heard is next in line to be a feature film, with director Ron Howard and actor Tom Hanks both on-board.

A lot of people are very snobbish about Brown’s books. My feelings are that this snobbery comes out of the fact that they’re quite popular, and it’s fashionable to look down your nose at what the “masses” enjoy reading on holiday, etc.

I enjoyed the book – another fun straightforward 24-hour thriller that he’s now so well known for.

Another criticism centres around the inaccuracies of his work. But so what if it’s inaccurate? It’s a book, a story – a work of fiction. Let him make up whatever allows his story to be even more exciting I say.

The latest inaccuracies in Inferno centre around the warnings that the human population is rising out of control and so we’ll have to do (cue scary music) “something” to decrease the “surplus population” (as Ebenezer Scrooge put it in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol).

The idea that there are too many humans has been around for some time. Whether it’s the 18th Century scary warnings of Thomas Malthus or Paul Ehrlich’s 1960’s scaremongering in The Population Bomb, there’s never been a shortage of people screaming that the end is neigh.

The fact is though, the overpopulation story is a myth. We’re always on the verge of a population crisis where we can’t feed everyone, and it’s all going to hell. And then it never happens.

Some smart talented people have knocked together some short, simple and highly watchable videos on this subject. They quickly and succinctly give the overpopulation myth a well-deserved reality check:

Many think that we simply don’t make enough food to feed everyone. Wrong again:

And it’s not that there’s too many of us. In some parts of the world, there’s not enough being born:

So it’s good news – if only we could solve some of the problems in the second video (war, poverty, etc.) things would be better still.