In Fear Of Facial Recognition

One of the features that was added to the technology mix during the period between the purchase of my old phone and the purchase of my new iPhone is facial recognition software.  During the set-up process at the Verizon store, I held the iPhone as if I were looking at messages, moved my head from side to side and up and down until the phone had acquired about a 270-degree look at my head and indicated that it had seen enough, and the facial recognition feature was activated.

facialrecognition_1-672x372Now, whenever I pick up the phone, the software kicks in automatically and substitutes for the entry of passcodes.  It’s pretty amazing technology, really, and it’s a lot faster and less clumsy than the passcode-entry process.  I really like the convenience element.

But . . . as a result of this Apple has got my face memorized and digitized and stored somewhere.  And, the modern tech sector world of information-selling and data-trading being what it is, who knows who else now has the capability to instantaneously identify my less-than-noble features.  My cell phone service provider?  Every Apple subsidiary and affiliate and technology partner?  The FBI, the CIA, or the Department of Homeland Security, or some Russian or Chinese hackers?

Recently San Francisco passed a ban on the use of facial recognition software by police and other agencies, and other cities are considering similar legislation.  The proponents of such measures tout them as a victory for privacy and a safeguard against governmental overreach that could conceivably allow governmental agencies to track citizens as they go about their daily lives.  Opponents note that facial recognition software can help the authorities solve crimes — as the article notes, the technology was used to identify a mass shooting suspect last year — and that it can help to secure our borders and airports.

I’ve long since concluded that while privacy is nice, in the modern world you have to make countless choices that can affect your privacy in different ways.  Do you pay with a credit card that tracks your purchases, or cash?  Do you use a cell phone that keeps track of your location?  Do you participate in social media and share some of your life through Facebook, Twitter, and the countless other outlets?  Have you traveled outside of the U.S. recently and returned to the country using one of those passport and facial scanning re-entry terminals?  It’s hard to argue, too, that a face that you show to the world each day, that appears on your driver’s license, and that is captured regularly by the various surveillance cameras positioned throughout American society, is something that is extraordinarily private.

All things considered, I’m not too troubled by the use of facial recognition software.  It’s the protection of other highly personal information — such as health information and financial information — that is of much more concern to me.

Needless Work

The Schiller Park rec center parking lot used to have a wide open,  fan-shaped entrance.  It had a welcoming, graceful feel to it, well befitting the rambling, shady feel of the old park itself and the elegant brick houses that surround it.

But a few weeks ago a work crew showed up and ripped it out.  In its place they poured this concrete monstrosity, which blocks the entrance and sticks out like a sore thumb.  They put up a traffic sign and painted direction arrows, too, just in case drivers might not get the idea from the lanes created by the concrete blockade.

Why was this done?  I’m guessing there was an accident or two at the entrance, as a car swung too wide in entering or exiting, and somebody decided that “public safety” required that this ugly, stark roadblock was therefore necessary to protect our hapless populace from the acts of a few inept motorists.  Who knows how much it cost in dollars — but the aesthetic cost is tremendous

I can’t help but think it’s a bit of a metaphor for America writ large these days, with some faceless government functionary deciding that everyday people need to be sternly directed into precise channels of behavior.  The result is predictably hideous.

Cold Rage

IMG_0461Today Columbus is having one of those brutal days, when the temperature is in the single digits and a hard, cold wind strikes you like a fist.  So when I walked home from work this afternoon, I was surprised to see a vigorous protest on the Broad Street sidewalk in front of the Ohio Statehouse, with still other protestors marching on the sidewalks circling Statehouse square.  The group of bundled-up protestors — men, mostly, from what I could see — were waving Don’t Tread on Me, Confederate, “III,” and American flags, handing out leaflets, and chanting at the behest of a guy holding a bullhorn.

What were they protesting?  Just about everything.  One handout had the Declaration of Independence on one side and the Bill of Rights on the other, and another encourages people to contribute to the “Ohio to Michigan:  Flint Water Drop,” which is described as “a multi-state effort to collect and deliver much-needed water to the residents of Flint, Michigan.”  One sign said “We Demand Justice” for the man shot by the authorities in connection with the Oregon public land protests.  The “III” flag is called the Nyberg three percent flag (purportedly because only three percent of the colonists fought the British during the American Revolutionary War) and apparently is a favorite of people who hold anti-government, anti-gun control views.   And when a city bus rolled up, the guy with the bullhorn started bellowing:  “Hands up!  Don’t shoot!” — which is a chant used by the protestors against the police in Ferguson, Missouri.

IMG_0464There was a lot going on at this protest, a heady mix of what might be viewed as some liberal and some conservative issues that had energized this group, but the overall message was clear:  these guys were furious.  Angry enough to come out to the center of downtown Columbus on an appallingly cold day to vent their spleens in a public forum.  Incensed about the government that they think has let them down and failed the people.  Outraged that the people of Flint, Michigan can’t get safe drinking water and willing to organize their own, people-driven effort to help the people of Flint even when the local, state, and federal government seem to be unable to do so.  To these folks, Flint is not a conservative issue or a liberal issue, it’s an issue of basic governmental functioning and competence.  If a government can’t be trusted to do the basics like provide drinking water that doesn’t poison its own citizens, then what good is it, and what are all those taxes we pay being used for?

Many pundits wonder what is driving people to support “anti-establishment” candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  I think a lot of it is anger, like the rage that motivated the cold protestors in front of the Ohio Statehouse today.  It’s not political parties that have spurred them on, it’s their own perception of a country in a downward spiral.  They’re not going to put up with the direction in which they think their country is heading, and if the government isn’t going to recognize the problems and change of its own accord, then they’re just going to have to change the government.

The last two lines of the “Ohio to Michigan:  Flint Water Drop” leaflet read:  “We the People are uniting to assist and support communities in need.  No matter your race, religion, group or political affiliation, we all must come together.”  It’s really not hard to see how angry people at all points on the political spectrum might unite behind that kind of message.

Unfinished Business

Permit me, if you will, to rant about an example of the kind of thing that drives me up a wall about government.

Some weeks ago, work was begun on the brickwork at the intersection of Lynn Alley and Third Street.  The bricks were torn up and moved, the dreaded skinny, miniature orange barrels were set up, a sign was posted, yellow tape was strung, and what formerly seemed to be a perfectly good, serviceable sidewalk was wrecked.

IMG_7161_2Why?

No one knows.  But we would have been willing to accept it, gladly, if only the repair work had been promptly completed.

But, of course, it wasn’t.  It has been weeks now, and the same pile of bricks remains unmoved, and the same crappy orange barrels and unsightly yellow tape and collapsed sign block the right-of-way.  Some bricks have been laid, imperfectly, on part of the sidewalk, and all of the luckless pedestrians have to inch their way through the one point of passage that remains.

Seriously?  In all of Columbus, Ohio, is there no one who can finish the damned job?  It’s not even a major job, just a matter of placing a few bricks and removing the yellow tape and appalling orange barrels.  Are there no bricklayers in Columbus who can competently recreate the perfectly adequate brickwork that was there before?  Is there no city employee, elected official, or urban planner who feels even a whiff of pity for the poor downtown workers who must squeeze by this stupid, apparently permanent roadblock and eyesore just because some worker or supervisor doesn’t care enough to finish what they started?

As I said, this is the kind of thing that drives me up a wall.  And it’s so totally unnecessary!

Sled Away, Kids!

Sometimes government regulations make you shake your head in wonder.  So it is with the ban on sledding on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.

People can freely walk on the grounds of the Capitol, so security can’t be the reason for banning sledding.  Instead, Capitol Police justified the ban by citing statistics that there are more than 20,000 sledding injuries in America each year — a rationale which would justify banning sledding everywhere.  Do the Capitol Police really think we’ll buy the notion that they did some analysis of sledding injuries before deciding to impose a silly ban on an age-old winter activity?  I suspect that the real reason for the sledding ban is that some crusty old members of Congress didn’t like the sound and commotion of kids having fun on one of the rare days when the District of Columbia gets enough snow to make sledding feasible and told the Police to do whatever they needed to stop it.

I’m glad that parents and kids went sledding in defiance of the idiotic ban, which should never have been imposed in the first place and is just another example of unnecessary government overreach.  The Capitol is our building; our elected representatives just work there.  So long as security isn’t impaired, we should be permitted to use the grounds for leisure activities like sledding or playing frisbee.  And parents — not the Capitol Police —  should making the decisions about the safety of their kids’ activities.

So sled away, kids!  And learn that sometimes you need to stand up — or sled down — for your rights.

The CDC And The Mass Breakdown Of Governmental Competence

For years the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was one federal agency that seemed to be a model of governmental efficiency and capability.  Like NASA in the glory days of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the CDC was a little agency with an important mission and dedicated employees who helped to guide the national responses to epidemics and infectious diseases.

That’s why the recent stories about some appalling security lapses at the CDC are so troubling.  In one instance, poor handling of anthrax — a disease that the CDC’s own website cautions can cause serious illness and death — potentially exposed a number of employees to the bacteria.  In another incident, CDC employees improperly shipped a deadly strain of bird flu to a Department of Agriculture poultry research lab.  The breakdowns are especially disturbing because the CDC also is supposed to ensure that other laboratories follow federal safety standards.  The CDC is investigating these breaches and developing new procedures to address the “potential for hubris” in an agency that may have grown too comfortable with working with dangerous spores, bacteria, and infectious agents.

Given the CDC’s public health mission, any security breakdown that could expose people to a deadly infectious disease could be catastrophic.  But the CDC’s problems seem to be symptomatic of a larger, equally concerning issue:  a broad-scale series of failures in federal agencies.  In the past year, we have witnessed a colossal failure in an attempt by the Department of Health and Human Services to build a functioning health insurance exchange website, mass failures by the Veterans Administration to provide adequate care for veterans, a stunning security breach that allowed Edward Snowden to spirit away enormous amounts of highly classified data, and a southern border so porous that thousands of unaccompanied minors have been able to cross into our country.  And those are just a few of the stories.

For years, there has been a divide in this country between those who want the government to assume a more significant role in regulating our affairs and those who resist that approach because they believe a larger government role means less freedom and fewer individual liberties.  The recent dismal performance of our federal agencies suggests that a new factor should enter into the equation:  is the federal government even competent to do what we are asking it to do?  In view of the many recent breakdowns in governmental performance, that is a very fair question. 

How Fat Are Our Kids?

This week a federal study reported that the obesity rate for American kids between 2 and 5 years of age fell 43% in a decade. The study, undertaken by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to be published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, indicates that obesity during that age group has declined from 14 percent in 2004 to 8 percent in 2012.

Not surprisingly, there’s disagreement about what might have caused the decline. Some argue that federal programs, including the availability of food stamps and the women, infants, and children assistance program and federal nutrition guidelines, other national efforts such as First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative, and pressure on food companies to stop targeting ads to young children are responsible for the decline. Others question whether there really was an “obesity epidemic” in the first place and are skeptical that federal programs had anything to do with the decline reflected in the CDC study.

I don’t have a dog in that fight. My question is more fundamental — why are people celebrating the finding that “only” 8 percent of little kids are obese? That seems like a pretty damning figure to me. How does a two-or three-year-old become obese, except by the inattention of their parents? Most two- and three-year-olds I know aren’t out shopping for themselves. Don’t their parents know how to say no?

The Manhattan Project, The Apollo Space Program, and Healthcare.gov

Today the Obama Administration announced that 106,185 people have “selected” health insurance since the Affordable Care Act took effect on October 1, about 20 percent of the Administration’s stated goal for October.  The much-maligned Healthcare.gov website performed even worse than expected — fewer than 27,000 people used it to sign up for coverage.

In an odd way, the Affordable Care Act seems to be knocking down some of the political barriers between Americans.  Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, tea partiers and progressives alike are scratching their heads about where things went wrong.  I don’t diminish the technological challenges of developing a website for the Affordable Care Act — I couldn’t do it — but commercial entities manage to develop websites that are nimble, easy to use, and capable of handling far more volume than has been handled by Healthcare.gov.  Why couldn’t the government do so?

Some people are suggesting that maybe the Affordable Care Act is showing that government simply is not well suited to managing massive and sprawling projects.  That notion, I think, is completely belied by history.

During the 1940s, the United States somehow managed to successfully fight a two-front overseas war, raise and equip the largest army in the nation’s history, and turn a depressed economy into an awesome engine that produced staggering amounts of planes, tanks, jeeps, battleships, and other implements of war.  It topped off the World War II years by single-handedly, and in great secrecy, unlocking the destructive force of atomic power and figuring out how to use that power in weapons capable of leveling entire cities.

Two decades later, in response to a challenge from a new President, the United States built a space program from the ground up, conquered countless engineering problems involved in protecting humans unscathed from the unforgiving environment of space, and devised the rocket systems, docking systems, computers, space capsules, and space suits necessary to send men to the Moon, allow them to romp on the lunar surface, and return them safely to planet Earth.

The Manhattan Project and the Apollo space program were far more complicated and challenging than building a functioning website that would allow people to shop for health insurance coverage and sign up when they have found a plan they like.  Are people who wonder whether our government is capable of handling large-scale tasks really saying that intrinsic limitations in the capabilities of our government mean we couldn’t successfully complete the Manhattan Project or the Apollo program these days?

I just don’t buy it.  The history of America shows that government can perform admirably on big jobs, and I don’t think Americans or their capabilities have changed for the worse since the 1940s or the 1960s.  The problem isn’t the government or its structure, the problem is who was running the show and managing the effort.  Could the President’s falling approval ratings be a reflection of the fact that more and more people are coming to that conclusion?

Public Sector Vs. Private Sector

You’ve got a new product that you want to roll out to the American public.  It’s hugely important, and hugely controversial.

You’re trying to appeal to young people.  You want them to sign up for your product.  You know that their participation is crucial if you want your product to be a success.

You also know that most of the people in your target demographic are tech-savvy folks.  If they are going to sign up, they are going to do so through a website.  After all, it’s how they buy music, and concert tickets, and other things that they want.  If your new venture is going to be successful, it’s essential that you have a website that is user-friendly.

So, who do you select to manage and supervise your roll out and website development?  A computer geek who has developed successful, accessible websites for google, Amazon, and other lucrative internet businesses?  A tech wizard who is intimately familiar with cutting-edge technology and user interface concepts?

Or, the ex-governor of Kansas?

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!

Downcast D.C.

IMG_1544I had a quick trip to D.C. this morning, returning this afternoon, and it was a downer.  In addition to the torrential rains and bleak skies, and the bumper-to-bumper, constant-honking, angry-gesturing traffic that made what should be a 15-minute taxi ride into an hour-long ordeal, the news on the radio was all about shutdown, shutdown, shutdown.  I saw tangible evidence of our inert government  when the cab drove past the Lincoln Memorial and I saw the “closed” sign and the barriers blocking off the area around the noblest structure on the National Mall.

Everybody on the streets, from the surly drivers to the sodden pedestrians, seemed deep in gloom, and I found myself sinking deeper into the mire with each fresh blast from a car horn.  It’s hard not to be depressed about the state of our nation when petty politics causes the closure of even public areas that are supposed to remind us of our nation’s glory.

First-Day “Glitches”

Today was the first day Americans could try to access health care exchanges under the Affordable Care Act — known to some as “Obamacare.”

It’s fair to say that the process didn’t go smoothly.  The Chicago Tribune reported, for example, that consumers seeking information encountered “long delays, error messages and a largely non-working federal insurance exchange and call center Tuesday morning.”  It’s not entirely clear how widespread the problems were, and are, but the prevailing theme of the news stories was about difficulties, failures, and frustrations.  As the video above shows, one MSNBC anchor tried to obtain information about options on-line, to try to help viewers understand how the process worked, and was hit with error messages, inability to resolve the issues through an on-line chat session, and finally being put on hold for more than 30 minutes before hanging up because her patience was exhausted.  

The President says there will be problems and “glitches” because we are trying to do something that hasn’t been done before.  I’m not sure that is quite right — there are commercial websites that handle significant volumes of traffic without problems — but his reaction, I think, misses a fundamental point that would not be lost on a businessman.  One of the selling points for the Affordable Care Act was that people could quickly and easily get information about competing health insurance options with a few clicks of a mouse.  Given that pitch, a business would never roll out a website without being absolutely certain that it worked well, because businesses know that consumers can quickly become frustrated — and a frustrated consumer is one that is not likely to come back.  It says something about the government mindset that they would go live with websites that clearly aren’t ready.

The people implementing the Affordable Care Act missed a real opportunity today.  The negative publicity about the websites and their problems are the kind of thing that could become fixed in the minds of the American public, with people coming to accept as conventional wisdom the notion that the websites, and exchanges, are an enormous hassle fraught with delay and failure.  When you’re trying to convince people who aren’t insured to become insured, and you’re trying to overcome the drumbeat of Republican criticism of “Obamacare,” a disastrous first-day roll-out just makes your job immeasurably harder.

Reflection, And Remembrance

Forty-three years ago, four students at Kent State University in Ohio were killed when the Ohio National Guard opened fire into a group protesting the Vietnam War.  Another nine students were wounded.

Forty-three years later, it remains a mystery to me how anyone, Guardsman or officer or politician, could ever have thought that American soldiers should fire live ammunition into a crowd of protesting students.  It is one of the enduring questions about the shooting that, I think, will never be satisfactorily answered.  Kent State University, however, offers information that seeks to present the competing viewpoints on that issue and to answer other questions about the shootings and their aftermath.

Forty-three years is a long time.  The Vietnam War and Cambodian invasion that prompted the protests that led to the shootings ended long ago.  The lessons to be learned from the shootings, however, remain fresh and vital today.  Kent State was an example of what can happen when government goes too far and forgets its ultimate role as protector of the people and guardian of individual liberties.   American citizens therefore should be mindful, and skeptical, of the accumulation of governmental power.   Blind trust in governmental institutions is not wise.  I’m sure the students protesting on the Kent State campus 43 years ago never dreamed that the Ohio National Guard unit would fire — but it did.

That’s one reason why it’s an incident worth remembering.

Big Gulps, Overreaching Government Regulations, Court Orders, And The New American Way

In New York City, a judge has blocked an effort by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to ban the sale of more than 16-ounce soft drinks in food service establishments.  The judge ruled that the ban was “arbitrary and capricious.”  Mayor Bloomberg vowed to appeal the court ruling.  This, in a nutshell, is how America works — or, more appropriately, doesn’t work — these days.

It goes like this:  The government imposes a silly, overly intrusive edict and claims it needs to do so to “promote health and safety” or hold down government spending.  The stated purpose of the New York City Big Gulp ban was to prevent obesity, a condition that affects many Gothamites, and thus reduce city health costs.  Never mind that obese people become obese for many reasons; Mayor Bloomberg decided to target big soda drinks.  Then an industry group challenges the regulation in court, taxpayer-funded government lawyers and the industry-funded lawyers fight about the issue, and eventually a judge makes a ruling.  Restraining orders get issued and appealed and the wheels of government grind to a halt while sideshow lawsuits addressing overreaching regulations command the public eye.

Does anyone think the framers of the Constitution would recognize our current government?  Who among them would believe that government would some day outlaw certain foods on the ground that citizens can’t be trusted to consume them in moderation?  Who among them would believe that one day judges would scrutinize and pass judgment on seemingly every government action?

We’ve strayed far from the initial concept of our Republic, where Americans were willing to fight and die for individual liberty and the right to representative government.  We’re not heading in the right direction.

Incompetence, Squared

Think of every can-you-top-this story of bureaucratic incompetence that you have ever heard — and I read a story today that almost certainly beats it.

It happened in Cleveland, and it happened to a little boy getting ready to start kindergarten.  A letter from the Cleveland public school system told him to show up at an address four miles from his home on a particular date for the first day of school.  When he appeared at the designated time and location, he learned that it was the wrong day — in fact, school didn’t start until a week later.  What’s more, the school that formerly was found at the location wasn’t there any more — it had been demolished two years ago, leaving the little boy looking forlornly at a construction site.  And to top it all off, a telephone number provided in the letter for boy’s parents to call in case of a problem didn’t work.  The little boy was one of a number of students who received the same, inexcusable treatment.

The man who is CEO (CEO?) of the Cleveland public schools called the little boy’s family to apologize.  That’s to his credit, but he now should be spending his time trying to figure out how such a ludicrous combination of errors could possibly have occurred.  How could a notice letter have included the wrong date, the wrong address, a non-existent school, and a non-functional telephone number?  Doesn’t anyone in the Cleveland school system proofread important correspondence?  What does that tell you about their careful attention to their jobs?

Government types often wonder why so many people are so skeptical of government bureaucracies, their competence, and their responsiveness.  This story is one powerful reason.

About That Concept Of “Running The Government Like A Business” . . . .

We often hear politicians, of both parties, talk about trying to run the government “like a business.”  Of course, the government isn’t a business, and it inevitably doesn’t run like a business — even when it is performing a business-like function.

The latest example of this reality is the news that Amtrak is selling food and beverages to its passengers at a loss.  In the last decade, Amtrak’s food and beverage cars have lost $833 million.  $833 million!  How did that happen?  Because Amtrak is selling food and beverage items for less than it costs to supply them.  According to the linked article, every cheeseburger costs Amtrak $16.15, yet Amtrak charges its customers only $9.50.  Every can of soda costs Amtrak $3.40, and Amtrak charges its passengers only $2.  The fact that each can of soda costs Amtrak $3.40 tells you something about Amtrak’s uncompetitive cost structure, given that any American can buy an individual can of soda — to say nothing of the per-can cost of a twelve-pack — for much less than that.

Of course, no business could remain in operation if it racked up $833 million in losses over ten years and regularly sold goods for much less than it costs to provide them.  The fact that Amtrak has done so for a decade just confirms that bureaucrats don’t think or behave like businessmen and aren’t subject to the same competitive pressures that cause companies like Wal-Mart to constantly search for ways to bring goods to market for the lowest possible price.

People of different views may disagree about whether we should subsidize Amtrak fares in order to support mass transit.  Does anyone, however, really think it is appropriate that taxpayers also subsidize the cheeseburgers and sodas that the Amtrak passengers consume on their already subsidized journeys?