Mourning for the crew members of the Aqua Amazon

The Aqua Amazon, the night we boarded.

My family and I recently returned from a three week trip to Peru, where a highlight of the trip had been an Amazon cruise on a ship called the Aqua Amazon. It was an amazing experience, filled with wildlife and scenery the likes of which I hadn’t seen before.

This past Saturday, there was an explosion while the ship was refueling. It sank and, according to news reports, eight crew members were lost and more were seriously injured.

I got to know some of these people a little and I’m shocked and sorrowed to hear of this tragic accident. This was a friendly, caring, talented group. I’m overcome with grief for them. My thoughts are with the injured and the families of the victims.

I’m excited to have voted for Hillary Clinton

Vote for Hillary Clinton

Today is the California Primary. Usually, a presidential nominating contest is long over by the time California votes. And, in most ways, it is already over this year, too. But both candidates are campaigning as if California matters, so I voted that way.

I’m very excited to have voted for Hillary Clinton. She’s running as an unashamed pragmatic liberal, which is how I identify myself. She’s very savvy about how to make government work. From all perspectives I can see, she’d be an effective leader and would take the country in good directions on climate change, healthcare, the economy, foreign policy, and social justice.

On the other hand, I find Bernie Sanders very appealing, too. My beliefs on economic policy and foreign intervention are probably closer to his than to Clinton’s. And, if we were looking at a Senate with 65 Democratic votes and a 55% majority Democratic Congress, I could see voting for Sanders. But his agenda seems impossible to advance with a closely held legislature, let alone the Republican majorities we have today, and I don’t see him being effective in those circumstances. To use a term that’s usually pejorative, I want to elect someone from “The Establishment” now.

Is Hillary perfect from my perspective? Of course not. I think she’s too hawkish on foreign policy, as epitomized by her vote for the Iraq war, which was my most significant policy reason for not supporting her in 2008. And I have grave reservations about electing the spouse of a former president – America should not have dynastic habits. But, Hillary Clinton is smart, well qualified, and hard working enough to justify her election.

And, finally, it is important to remember that electing a woman to the American Presidency would be historic. When America didn’t allow women the vote for more than a hundred years and more than fifty Presidential elections have gone by with no women nominated by either major party, even her nomination is an important accomplishment to recognize.

The question I asked Justice Scalia

When I was an undergrad, I took a Constitutional Interpretation class taught by Walter Murphy. For a guest lecture, Professor Murphy brought in Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, who had only joined the Supreme Court a couple of years earlier, to talk about originalism, his legal theory. Being taught by a Supreme Court Justice was, of course, a special occasion. Even more so by virtue of it being Scalia, who was already famous (or infamous) and controversial. And, to top it off, Justice Scalia would take questions from the class after his lecture.

To a liberal like me, the opportunity to ask Scalia a question was too good to pass up. And I knew exactly what I wanted to ask about. I spent a little time doing research so I could formulate the question well. In the end, I asked something like “The Constitution never mentions corporations or talks about giving the rights of persons to non-persons. Yet, the court ruled in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Co. (1886) that corporations have the rights of persons. Doesn’t this go against the original meaning of the text?”

The Justice’s response was terse. I can’t claim to remember the exact wording, but it’s stuck with me as “That’s settled law. Move on.”

While I thought the “settled law” response was a little arbitrary, in a nation that values stare decisis and precedents, it makes sense. The question, of course, is how you decide that something is “settled law” and, therefore, should not be tampered with; or, in contrast, that a precedent so violates the original meaning of the Constitution that it must be overturned.

And there, lies, for me, Scalia’s hypocrisy. Where was the reverence for settled law in Heller or Citizens United? And why the respect for precedent in Obergefell v. Hodges?

In the end, I’m sure that Antonin Scalia – who criticized the opinion in Atkins v. Virgina for “rest[ing] so obviously upon nothing but the personal views of its members” – believed that he kept his political and legal beliefs separate. But the conclusions he reached about whether precedents were “settled law” or not appeared to coincide quite closely with his political views.

“Great is the truth, and it prevails”

The title of this post is the motto of Horace Mann, the high school I attended. The cover article of this week’s New York Times Magazine is a collection of stories of sexual abuse by teachers of students at the school, largely from around the time I was there. I knew all the teachers mentioned by name in the story and could recognize at least a few of the students involved.

My first reaction to the story, in an email to a friend, was “Amazing how clueless I was.” But that’s not quite right – I wasn’t as unaware as I wish I could claim in retrospect. For example, I had been on the trip where the incident which lead to Stan Kops’s firing occurred and had heard pretty concrete rumors about his firing. I definitely knew the stories and jokes about Joe “Clutch & Touch” Klein the driving teacher, which surfaced in another story. I think I’d also heard rumors about Mark Wright, but he was fired when I was in seventh grade (when he had been my art teacher), so I’m not sure I’d have understood the details, had I heard any.

The surprise in the article, for me and many others, are the apparently well-confirmed stories of Johannes Somary. I was never in Glee Club – anyone who’s heard me sing will know that – but many of my friends were. And many absolutely worshipped Somary. I was friends with one of his sons and fondly remember playing poker at their house. In this case, though, I was totally clueless. No rumors at all. Stories of the great man’s talent, his ego, his wealth, his eccentricities, even of the girls with crushes on him, but not a whiff of anything like predation. His story makes this scandal feel far more intimately bound up with the school than the others.

The Times article is upsetting and valuable, but is also quite odd. Hints are dropped about Inslee Clark, blaming him by innuendo for an environment of sexual abuse, but without the author actually saying so. The quantity of semi-anonymous sources seems exceptional outside of national security stories. While one paragraph mentions other schools, there’s very little in the way of comparisons or context. I’ve never seen a Times article explicitly name its editor before, but this one does; in this case, it’s another Horace Mann graduate (and, I should add, someone I both respect and have a lot of indirect connections to). But there are a lot of Horace Mann alumni who now work for the Times and that leaves the feeling that this story got special handling. To what effect? Is it gentler than it otherwise would have been? More prominent? As an outsider, I can’t tell.

On the other hand, the school’s reaction to this article is, to say the least, off-putting. It is the worst kind of bland, institutional damage control, hiding behind policies that make the Catholic Church look forthcoming. The school admits in weasely terms that it’s fired faculty for these kinds of accusations, but seems to make it clear that it hushed everything up. Yes, thank you for pointing out there’s a national hotline for abuse, but actually saying you’ll give information about crimes to prosecutors would be a better acknowledgement of the school’s responsibility.

Horace Mann, when I knew it, provided a great education. I’ve benefited tremendously from it; I’ve long said that my experience there had much more impact on me than college did. But it did so in an environment that seemed consciously envious of the traditions – the trivial, the honorable, and the sadistic – of English public schools. When I attended, students were mostly called by their first names, but it wasn’t many years before that they were all “Mr.” to the faculty. Academic standards were high. Teachers that verbally abused students were common. It is very sad that Inslee Clark, who probably did more than anyone else to bring the school into the modern world, is being tarred for hushing up or contributing to an abuse problem. How much was his fault? What did he know and what did he do? I wonder if anyone alive can say.

(I mostly knew Clark from taking a Kennedy Years elective he taught. He’d been inspired by John and Bobby Kennedy; the class reflected his continuing belief in the optimism of the New Frontier. But I also knew the stories of his drinking. Looking back, I could see that he drew energy from teaching and from baseball, but the rest of the time he seemed fatigued, distractible, and mired in depression.)

Conflated with all this – especially given the article’s focus on abuse of boys by male teachers – is the homophobia of the time. By the time we were in the upper school, we all knew that Inky Clark and Stan Kops were gay, but we snickered about it; back then, no students were out of the closet and open empathy for a gay teacher was difficult for high school students. (Not impossible – our much-beloved and untarnished-by-any-scandal theater teacher was very out of the closet.) Did homophobia make it harder for the school to acknowledge the problem? Are the abuse cases of young girls still hushed up, even more difficult to talk about? Or are they just not as newsworthy?

There are many tragedies here. The article discusses at least two suicides and the deaths of a few men who were broken, shadows of their original promise. The abuse, even when the victims recovered, was traumatic. And the school, when it acted to remove predators, apparently did nothing to prevent similar abuse happening somewhere else.

What I’m left with is a feeling that we all find it easy to turn away, willing to find some excuse not to see something so difficult. Does the truth prevail? Sometimes. And sometimes only when it’s too late.

IPOs (or why the absence of a pop is not a fizzle)

The big business story of the day is Facebook’s IPO, which is being described in the press as “modest,” a “whimper,” “fall[ing] short,” “sputter[ing],” “underwhelming,” and “a ho-hummer,” to pick a few choice terms. As even most of these articles acknowledge after their doom-and-gloom leads, these descriptions are wrong. The company (and some early shareholders) sold $16+ billion worth of shares to the public and the company is now valued at more than $100 billion. By contrast, the very-successful-in-retrospect Google IPO in 2004 sold about $1.67 billion to the public and valued the company around $27 billion.

The press finds its disappointment in the absence of a “first day pop.” A pop is the difference between the price a company is selling at and the price buyers were will to pay on that same day, so it’s often, rightly, described as “money left on the table.” A pop makes for a more exciting story, but doesn’t directly benefit the company or its shareholders.

Who does benefit? Traditionally, the good clients of the underwriters, who have just been given free money. And, indirectly, the underwriting investment banks, who have earned the goodwill of – one might argue “bribed” – those clients. The historical justification for this underpricing is that IPOs are risky and, to convince customers to invest in them, the price has to be a bit discounted. In particular, the IPOs are supposedly more volatile (riskier) because the price is a guess by the company and its bankers, who survey potential buyers, rather the result of trading in a liquid market.

But this latter condition didn’t really apply in Facebook’s case, thanks to the trading of Facebook shares in secondary markets. While those secondary markets probably overpriced the shares due to limited supply, they established a plausible range. (Late buyers in the secondary markets, who ended up paying a 10-15% premium over the first-day price, do not come off as great stock pickers.) Similarly, the Google IPO dutch auction was intended to set a fair initial price for the market.

Google’s IPO was described in similar disappointing terms to Facebook’s. One would think the press would have learned a lesson by now. (And some have.) But, instead, the absence of a pop becomes a “fizzle” in most of the press.

Is Facebook a successful business? It appears so. Did the company (and early investors and employees) successfully trade previously illiquid shares for cash at a price the market thinks is fair? I think so. Is it worth its current market cap? Time will tell. Will the stock go up or down? Yes.

Update (May 22): On the other hand, if the underwriters had inside information that revenues would be lower than estimates and shared that with some customers but not the general public, that seems wrong. Ethically wrong and legally wrong. Under those circumstances, the IPO would not reflect an honest, fair market valuation; instead, it would be little better than a pump and dump penny stock scam on a grand scale. I expect we’ll hear more in the next few days and I’m withholding judgement until more information is available.

(Disclaimer: This is my personal blog. Comments here reflect my own opinions, not those of my employer. Facebook and my employer compete in some areas; in addition, many of my friends work for Facebook. You can assume I’m very biased here, just in multiple, contradictory ways.)

Kindle Sample Optimization

One of the great things about ebooks is how easy it is to read a sample of a book. It’s become a matter of course to download a sample of any book that sounds interesting, without thinking about it, just to have it to hand when I’m looking for reading material. When the sample bit is interesting enough that I want to keep reading, I buy the book.

Of course, authors are now aware of this behavior. When books were mostly sold in physical bookstores, there certainly was incentive to make the first pages (or page 99) interesting to a browser. Now, however, there’s a very clear part of the book – the freely downloadable sample – in which the author can go into full-on sell mode. That can be a completely different thing from appealing to someone who’ll flip through a book and end up at a random spot.

What made me notice this was (the sample of) Barb Stuckey’s Taste What You’re Missing. The main vibe of the first part of the book was “Buy me! Buy me!”:

  • Taste What You’re Missing will help you better understand what you’re tasting by breaking food down to its component parts, such as the five Basic Tastes, and explaining how flavor differs from taste.” (page 9)
  • Taste What You’re Missing will help you enhance your perception of flavors.” (page 10)
  • Taste What You’re Missing will give you insider knowledge of how food marketers, restauranteurs–even farmers–leverage your insinctual reactions so you can make more informed food choices.” (page 12)
  • “To help with this, Taste What You’re Missing includes easy interactive exercises to illustrate the sensory concepts in the book.” (page 12, again)

This constant selling reminded me of many overly SEO’ed pages I’ve come across in my work, typically pushing one form of snake oil or another. While the book seemed interesting, it didn’t seem interesting enough to be worth putting up with the hard sell.

Dreaming of male answer syndrome

I woke to a dream where I was talking with someone who was either a former colleague who I couldn’t quite place or Ken Cosgrove. We were listening to music, definitely ’60s vintage jazz. He said he thought it was Chick Corea on drums. I insisted it was Jean Arp.

Ok, so neither my colleague’s pianist nor my dadaist sculptor/painter was playing the drums, but my answer was totally out of left field, where his made at least a little bit of sense.

Even in my dreams, I’m not just wrong, I’m reflexively, stubbornly, and dramatically wrong.

Ambivalence

I strongly opposed the Iraq war. I was in favor of the US invasion of Afghanistan. I favored intervention in Kosovo and the first gulf war. I opposed the US interventions in Latin America in the 1980s. I held all these positions firmly and had few doubts.

But I don’t know what to think about the UN/NATO campaign in Libya. I’ve never felt this way about a US military campaign during my lifetime. On the one hand, Qaddafi is clearly an awful dictator who shows no hesitation in attacking his own people. Unseating him would be a great outcome. Support for intervention – even if not for the specifics of current military actions – from populations across the middle east is remarkable. It does feel as though taking action puts the US on the right side of history.

But at the same time, it doesn’t feel like this is the US’s or NATO’s fight. Western governments attacking a middle eastern regime has rarely worked out well. There is no obvious endgame here. Partition and an extended civil war is clearly a possibility. And even if the rebels win, it’s far from clear that they’re much better for the Libyan people or the world than Qaddafi.

In the absence of clear reasons for intervening, my bias is against military action, at least until the facts become clearer. But in this case, where delay would have presumably meant total destruction for the rebels, it’s harder to convince myself that that’s right – this is a decision which, once made, can not be unmade.

So, for the first time in my adult life, I’m left ambivalent about whether a major US military involvement is a good or bad idea.

My letter to the US Patent Office

(I wrote this letter this morning, after seeing from Matt Cutts and Daniel Tunkelang that the Patent Office was soliciting guidance on patents following the Bilski decision. I wrote it quickly and it’s less polished than I would have liked, but thought it was worth posting anyway. For more information, see what the FSF has to say.)

To the United States Patent Office,

I am a US citizen and software engineer. I am a named inventor on at least three patents (numbers 7,346,839, 7,409,383, and 7,783,639) and am named as an inventor for numerous pending patent applications. I am employed by Google, Inc.; this letter represents my personal opinion and not necessarily that of my employer.

Software patents are a significant threat to innovation in the software industry and, by extension, all of America’s technology-related businesses. While I understand the theoretical case that software patents can foster innovation – by encouraging investment and advancing the state of the art through disclosure – I have not seen this to be the case in any way in the software industry.

On the issue of investment, there is no case I can think of in the software industry where a patent has lead to investment in a company that succeeded due to the patent’s franchise preventing competitors from developing an equivalent product. Instead, the pattern for patent litigation and threatened litigation – as you are well aware – is for successful companies to be approached by non-practicing entities for damages or fees, with little or no money ever reaching the original inventors or their investors. Copyright and trade secrets do not have the same problems as patents and have proven very successful for protection in the software industry.

On the issue of disclosure, it should be noted that many, but not all, software “inventions” described in patents are inherently disclosed by making a product available to users. In many other cases, rather than disclosure, realizing that a problem has been solved encourages others to attempt solutions. Some of those solutions may be independent rediscoveries of the same underlying algorithm; others may be different algorithms, but in either case. The lifetime of patents make disclosures from software patents nearly useless – and fundamentally detrimental – as contributions to the state of the art; by the time the application period and twenty years have passed, many generations of software technology have passed.

Because software patents inherently give an exclusive franchise for algorithms that may be independently discovered, it is impossible for a software engineer to opt-out of the patent system. This coercive nature of software patents has forced many practitioners, myself included, to apply for patents against our wishes, because we want to ensure that we are allowed to exploit our inventions. And it is this potential for independent discovery of algorithms that exist independent of their applications that underlies a moral argument against patents.

In addition, the practical implementation of software patents has been terrible and damaging to the industry: the criteria for novelty are far too loosely applied, allowing many obvious applications to covered by patents; multi-year application processes lead to widespread adoption of techniques – including as part of industry standards – before a patent covering them is issued; and the language of patents and claims are so far removed from the working language of computer scientists that it is often difficult for an inventor to read his or her own patent and understand whether it covers the intended invention.

Speaking as someone who has worked in the software industry for more than two decades and as a former entrepreneur, a world where software companies competed on building the best products and independent discovery of algorithms is recognized as a legitimate, non-infringing activity would be vastly preferable to the current state of affairs, where work that appears obvious can lead to years of litigation about infringement. I urge you to reject all software patents, on both moral and practical grounds.

Thank you,
Paul Haahr

Intelligence failure?

Spencer Ackerman argues that attempted suicide bombing of Flight 253 on Christmas Day didn’t necessarily represent an intelligence failure. I think the key part of his post is:

The intelligence community is drinking from a fire hose of data, a lot of it much more specific than what was acquired on Abdulmutallab. If policymakers decide that these thin reeds will be the standard for stopping someone from entering the United States, then they need to change the process to enshrine that in the no-fly system. But it will make it much harder for people who aren’t threatening to enter, a move that will ripple out to effect diplomacy, security relationships (good luck entering the U.S. for a military-to-military contact program if, say, you’re a member of the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, since you had contacts with known extremists), international business and trade, and so on.

As someone whose day job involves analyzing lots of data, I think I agree with most of this. Synthesizing all the related pieces of information – a warning from his father that Abdulmutallab might be dangerous and in Yemen, rumors that a Nigerian might be part of an Al Quaeda plan, generalized threats from Yemen – seems quite hard. If heading off terror attacks requires drawing the conclusion that a specific individual is likely to attempt an attack out of hundreds of thousands (or millions?) pieces of small information like that, it’s probably hopeless; what you’ll get is a lot of noise and very little signal. The complexity involved seems huge and predictive ability seems low.

On the other hand, I believe simple things can work. In the case of Abdulmutallab, a simple thing would have been to take action based on the warning from his father, ignoring all the other factors. And the action that was apparently taken was to put his name in a list of half a million people, but that wasn’t the smaller no-fly list (~4K people) nor the “selectee” list (~14K people).

Matt Yglesias writes that, because actual terrorists and terrorist incidents are so rare, there will be lots of false positives for any methods for identifying potential terrorists. That seems right. That the level of evidence against Abdulmutallab put him in the top half million of suspected terrorists, but not the top eighteen thousand, confirms for me both that the false positive rate is very high (it’s unlikely that there are half a million active terrorists our there) and that we can’t predict very well (Abdulmutallab clearly should have been in a higher scrutiny category).

One particularly worrisome class of false positive is, of course, false reporting. I’m sure for every legitimate case of a warning that so-and-so is a terrorist, there are hundreds or thousands of cases of self-interested accusations. (False reporting could be considered the spam problem in intelligence.)

Rather than inherently ruling out doing anything, though, I think that the large false positive rate means that the consequences of a false positive should be fairly minimal – an interrogation, a more intensive physical search, perhaps an investigator making a phone call or two to understand the reason for travel – instead of denying boarding or shipping a suspect off to Bagram. No question that extra screening at the airport would be inconvenient, unpleasant, and intimidating. And no question that it could be expensive to implement more screening.

I think the relevant policy question is “for our false positive rate, what is the appropriate action to take?” Right now, it appears that there’s very little middle ground between no-fly and “just another passenger,” which appears to keep the no-fly list small. (Yet, it’s famous for having lots of false positives.) Given poor predictive ability of any of these lists, I don’t think that makes sense. Instead, a much more widespread system of heightened scrutiny would seem more likely to prevent terrorist attacks, but still not affect more than a small fraction of travelers.