Letting “them” win.

US AlertThe “media” (rather than actual news) is all over the US State Departments general, extended travel warning. The warning is pretty useless, anyone paying attention should have assumed most of this already.

Despite the worldwide spying, intelligence, phone hacking, the NSA has carried out, this is the best they can come up with?

At the same time governments are using this as a reason to demand more intrusive technology, and less privacy for us. Remember, the French bombers did not use encryption… yet the cries to break or insert back doors into encryption grow daily.

I’m travelling anyway…  If two planes get blown up,  or 100 Americans killed,  that would be terrible, but you are still more likely to die of heart disease or a traffic accident,  or shot by a white guy with a legal gun in the cinema or at a school. The fact that 100,000 people every year are wounded  or killed in America by guns every year, puts the Paris tragedy into context.

The worst thing about these vague, generalized threats is they are being used as a justification for more war, even boots on the ground. There is no easy answer, but lets remember that the middle east is a western created mess going back over 100-years.

The US never really fixed Korea, or Vietnam, or for that matter Afghanistan. The memorial wall for the Vietnam soldiers alone killed in action contains some 58,000 names. Does anyone really think that letting in Syrian Refugees in would cost 58,000 lives? If you have kids, are you willing to let your kids be part of the draft?

It’s impossible to imagine we can fix the Middle East by bombing alone. [See this, and this].

Remember, if you have NOT been protesting the bombing done in our names, you have no right to protest the refugees.

Don’t be intimidated over travel, ask yourself,  what would chuck Norris do…  Otherwise you are letting them win…

Them being the war mongering American politicians,  and ISIS.

You can’t handle the truth – 2

Daniel Lin @DLin71 nicely captured the current xenophobia here in the USA over the Syrian crisis, in one tweet.

Of course, with over 8,000 bombing raids and more than 28,000 bombs dropped on Syria, you could argue that the whole Syrian population all have the potential to strike back at some point.

If you have not been protesting the bombing, you have no right to protest the refugees. < Mark Cathcart

The most effective way for a foreigner to get into the USA, is actually through the Visa Waiver Program. I spent sometime last week talking to a reporter [on background] about the program. I certainly traveled on an earlier version of the VWP some 20-times.

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows citizens of participating countries* to travel to the United States without a visa for stays of 90 days or less, when they meet all requirements explained below. Travelers must be eligible to use the VWP and have a valid Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) approval prior to travel.

VWP Countries

There are of course background checks on VWP applicants, I have no idea how in-depth or detailed they are. However, once approved, you by a return airline ticket and you are in. As someone of has come to the US on many different forms of visas, I know that the information required for the VWP is way less than any other. Also, the VWP application process, much, much quicker.

And that’s what the politicians don’t want you to know. It is easy to grandstand about refugees, make grand xenophobic political gestures. In reality there much easier and quicker routes into America, and the VWP is it. Approximately 19-million people PER YEAR visit the USA each year under the VWP.

Restricting the VWP will have an significant impact in two ways.

  1. It will have a direct financial impact, slowing down, and possibly halting a major group of visitors to the US.
  2. The countries that are impacted by the changes are likely to have some pushback. Either restricting US Citizens ability to visit reciprocal countries, or possibly refusing to grant US authorities access to the additional information needed to verify the applicant.

So, remember, everything has a price, and the fallout from this isn’t really security, it’s the result of a series of xenophobic, and potentially racist policy changes. Instead, we could just let the refugees in and follow the normal process. Scott Hicks wrote the following description of the refugee application.

Most of my friends know I practice Immigration law. As such, I have worked with the refugee community for over two decades. This post is long, but if you want actual information about the process, keep reading.

I can not tell you how frustrating it is to see the misinformation and outright lies that are being perpetuated about the refugee process and the Syrian refugees. So, here is a bit of information from the real world of someone who actually works and deals with this issue.

The refugee screening process is multi-layered and is very difficult to get through. Most people languish in temporary camps for months to years while their story is evaluated and checked.
First, you do not get to choose what country you might be resettled into. If you already have family (legal) in a country, that makes it more likely that you will go there to be with family, but other than that it is random. So, you can not simply walk into a refugee camp, show a document, and say, I want to go to America. Instead, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees) works with the local authorities to try to take care of basic needs. Once the person/family is registered to receive basic necessities, they can be processed for resettlement. Many people are not interested in resettlement as they hope to return to their country and are hoping that the turmoil they fled will be resolved soon. In fact, most refugees in refugee events never resettle to a third country. Those that do want to resettle have to go through an extensive process.
Resettlement in the U.S. is a long process and takes many steps. The Refugee Admissions Program is jointly administered by the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) in the Department of State, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and offices within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) within DHS conducts refugee interviews and determines individual eligibility for refugee status in the United States.

We evaluate refugees on a tiered system with three levels of priority.

First Priority are people who have suffered compelling persecution or for whom no other durable solution exists. These individuals are referred to the United States by UNHCR, or they are identified by the U.S. embassy or a non-governmental organization (NGO).
Second priority are groups of “special concern” to the United States. The Department of State determines these groups, with input from USCIS, UNHCR, and designated NGOs. At present, we prioritize certain persons from the former Soviet Union, Cuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Iran, Burma, and Bhutan.

Third priority are relatives of refugees (parents, spouses, and unmarried children under 21) who are already settled in the United States may be admitted as refugees. The U.S.-based relative must file an Affidavit of Relationship (AOR) and must be processed by DHS.

Before being allowed to come to the United States, each refugee must undergo an extensive interviewing, screening, and security clearance process conducted by Regional Refugee Coordinators and overseas Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs). Individuals generally must not already be firmly resettled (a legal term of art that would be a separate article). Just because one falls into the three priorities above does not guarantee admission to the United States.
The Immigration laws require that the individuals prove that they have a “well-founded fear,” (another legal term which would be a book.) This fear must be proved regardless of the person’s country, circumstance, or classification in a priority category. There are multiple interviews and people are challenged on discrepancies. I had a client who was not telling the truth on her age and the agency challenged her on it. Refugees are not simply admitted because they have a well founded fear. They still must show that they are not subject to exclusion under Section 212(a) of the INA. These grounds include serious health matters, moral or criminal matters, as well as security issues. In addition, they can be excluded for such things as polygamy, misrepresentation of facts on visa applications, smuggling, or previous deportations. Under some circumstances, the person may be eligible to have the ground waived.

At this point, a refugee can be conditionally accepted for resettlement. Then, the RSC sends a request for assurance of placement to the United States, and the Refugee Processing Center (RPC) works with private voluntary agencies (VOLAG) to determine where the refugee will live. If the refugee does have family in the U.S., efforts will be made to resettle close to that family.
Every person accepted as a refugee for planned admission to the United States is conditional upon passing a medical examination and passing all security checks. Frankly, there is more screening of refugees than ever happens to get on an airplane. Of course, yes, no system can be 100% foolproof. But if that is your standard, then you better shut down the entire airline industry, close the borders, and stop all international commerce and shipping. Every one of those has been the source of entry of people and are much easier ways to gain access to the U.S. Only upon passing all of these checks (which involve basically every agency of the government involved in terrorist identification) can the person actually be approved to travel.

Before departing, refugees sign a promissory note to repay the United States for their travel costs. This travel loan is an interest-free loan that refugees begin to pay back six months after arriving in the country.

Once the VOLAG is notified of the travel plans, it must arrange for the reception of refugees at the airport and transportation to their housing at their final destination.
This process from start to finish averages 18 to 24 months, but I have seen it take years.

The reality is that about half of the refugees are children, another quarter are elderly. Almost all of the adults are either moms or couples coming with children. Each year the President, in consultation with Congress, determines the numerical ceiling for refugee admissions. For Fiscal Year (FY) 2016, the proposed ceiling is 85,000. We have been averaging about 70,000 a year for the last number of years. (Source: Refugee Processing Center)
Over one-third of all refugee arrivals (35.1 percent, or 24,579) in FY 2015 came from the Near East/South Asia—a region that includes Iraq, Iran, Bhutan, and Afghanistan.

Another third of all refugee arrivals (32.1 percent, or 22,472) in FY 2015 came from Africa.

Over a quarter of all refugee arrivals (26.4 percent, or 18,469) in FY 2015 came from East Asia — a region that includes China, Vietnam, and Indonesia. (Source: Refugee Processing Center)
Finally, the process in Europe is different. I would be much more concerned that terrorists are infiltrating the European system because they are not nearly so extensive and thorough in their process.

Posted by Scott Hicks on Thursday, November 19, 2015

You can’t handle the truth!

There is so much wrong with the current debate about refugees,  Syria and national security,  including at least two big lies.

This illustrates one. Almost anyone in the United States,  can buy guns and especially here in Texas.

Perhaps that’s why the Governor needs to keep out Syrian Refugees,  and especially after at least one Mosque in Pflugerville was vandalized in an act of hate.  Simply,  they are afraid that otherwise peaceful refugees will have to buy their own guns,  not to attack Americans,  but to defend themselves from the xenophobic,  racists who would attack them.

That’s freedom for you.

Bowie – Changes

Today mark’s the release of a new David Bowie single, Blackstar, also the title track of his 25th Studio album to be released on Bowie’s birthday next year.

dare-death-of-rock-n-roll600-1[1]The Fred Perry Subculture website has an extract from a David Laurie book, called Dare. I have to admit, I found a couple of the claims somewhat troubling.

How Bowie & Kraftwerk Inspired The Death of Rock’N’Roll

Screams the subhead, and book cover, along with

[David Bowie and Kraftwerk] invented modern pop music

I admit, I have not read the book. While I can see some validity in the death claim, except I doubt anyone in the US would actually agree Rock and Roll is dead, even today. I just don’t agree that Kraftwerk, and/or Bowie invented modern pop music.

David Lauire says of himself “David Laurie was 14 in 1982, living in an endlessly damp, grey South Wales”. Coincidentally, 10-years before that, as a 14-year old, in April of 1972, I was watching David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars in High Wycombe.

There is no doubt about his influence then, but I do think this is taking what Bowie did, and fitting it to a chosen narrative. ie “Can you write about how Bowie invented modern pop music?”.

Rather than Bowie being and driving the change, what he really did, more than possibly anyone else, was make the changes to himself, his own music, to stay relevant. The changes would have happened without him, it was his realization and ability to move with the changes that set him aside from his peers… The Soul diva persona was a direct response to the dance music revolution that had started in earnest in 1972 in London and was growing rapidly through the mid-70’s. Glam Rock was dead…

I’d argue, somewhat more tenuously, that his electronic music, and man who fell to earth period was little more than Bowie thrashing around trying to find a way to be relevant with the emergence of punk, and equally more electronic music, along with Eno two guys with history, trying to find a future. The Berlin Trilogy a good justification for this, it wasn’t until the b-side of Lodger, with it’s more traditional Alomar guitar riffs, and more regular beat that Bowie found his rhythm again, and this continued on Scary Monsters.

So, yes no one predicted his new personas, because at the time, only the people dependent on the Bowie income stream cared. Pop culture, fashion and youth movements wait for no man…

“Just gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time”

Mall Man – A ode to Northcross Mall

I’m indebted to Dan Keshet for tweeting the following:

This short film with just a few-hundred views, was made in 2007. It’s a story come pseudo-documentary made about the declining Northcross Mall here in Austin, which was a few years later replaced by yet another suburban Walmart.

This film, captures everything about Austin that bought me here. A massive piece of Americana, a throwback to the 50’s in many ways. It’s well written, well narrated, and contains many spoken gems, including this one

we are trading quality for quantity. When you trade quantity for quality, you are trading you dignity.

In some ways, the main characters, somewhat “Fonzy” like represent an iconic character type, James Dean, Rebel without a cause. It’s 15-minutes, a great watch. Catch the disappearing Austin before it’s gone forever.

Dear Time Warner Cable

wpid-wp-1446745456076.jpgI keep getting these marketing letters from Time Warner. It appears they’ve got nothing better to do than review my account… trying to sell me on a 300Mpbs upgrade.

I sent a response today by USPS. I doubt they’ll stop sending, so at least I can post the response here and get some mileage from it :)

Thank you for your letter. If you were really reviewing my account you’d see I’m only have a 50Mpbs modem for my existing 100Mpbs service. It works fine.

Want me to upgrade? Provide a free modem for my existing service. Thanks. Mark Cathcart.


America’s Cult of Ignorance Is No Match for Asia’s Cult of Intelligence

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” This cult of ignorance is the most serious national security issue facing the U.S. today.

Source: America’s Cult of Ignorance Is No Match for Asia’s Cult of Intelligence | John W. Traphagan

Will self driving cars save Austin from itself?

There has been a lot written recently about (semi) Autonomous Vehicles (SAVs) aka Self driving cars. Especially yesterday following the Tesla announcement, see also this NPR report.

Self driving cars have long been held out as a solution. They arrive when you need them, they take you to your destination at regulated speeds, they can adjust to traffic congestion, and collisions, road work etc. Once you’ve arrived, they disappear not requiring a parking space either in a building, or on the street. Nirvana.

Proposing self driving cars as a solution to traffic congestion, where the congestion is caused by constraints is simply a nonsense. They are a first world solution, to a first world problem. “Why can’t I text/read/sleep while I’m stuck in traffic?”

There has long been discussion among the urban transportation advocates, while they promise to reduce accidents and better manage traffic density and improve capacity through stable and reduced “headway” (the distance between cars). Anyone who proposes they can solve traffic congestion without understanding the constraints and capacity issues, just doesn’t understand the challenge. This Forbes article screams “Self-Driving Cars Would Slash Traffic, End Street Parking” yet aside from the obvious nod to headway and predictability doesn’t address the problem. This Qoura discussion covers many of the points

Here is a response I wrote yesterday on the issue to the #ATXRail mailing list. It refers to an earlier post that discussed in some technical detail the problems of scheduling and capacity.

Again, I find myself being the naysayer, Roger Cauvin made some extremely salient and possibly too technical points about any transit system design, but especially as it relates to individual transit options such as autonomous cars. The problem that most simply don’t understand is the scheduling and availability of these cars at scale.

First, whats scale? How many would be needed to make a real difference? Scale certainly isn’t a hundred, it’s not a thousand, it’s probably 10,000 maybe more. Second, lets assume these are free movement vehicles, they don’t run on track or are constrained by guide rails. Third, lets assume that they are capable of transporting 2-3 max. but the assumed capacity is one passenger. Fourth, lets also assume these are not individually owned vehicles, or at least if they are, they are available ala Uber/Lyft for other people to book. Fifth, lets assume they are electric and capable of driving themselves to charging stations where they either connect or are connected to a recharge point.

Now we have the basics of your capacity based system and you can start working on its constraints. What you don’t have is any real clue about the usage patterns, how they’ll be used, who by, for what, at what time and so on. Until you can produce even a first pass for this you cannot make any assumption that autonomous vehicles can solve anything except perhaps more consistent traffic flow, and improved emissions. Anyone who claims autonomous cars can solve anything without this data is simply blowing smoke and must be pushed back on.

They are great for private vehicle journeys. I have a Mercedes that will already follow a GPS journey, has variable cruise control that will slow down and speed up the car based on the MAX speed of the vehicle a set distance in front and will bring the car to a stop based on either breaking vehicles or an obstruction in front; it pretty much does everything except steer, but it vibrates the steering column to let you know when to turn and when you’ve are moving out of a lane etc. This type of vehicle which we’ll see for all new vehicles in the next 5-7 years, if not before, will much better regulate driving.

They’ll minimize the concertina effect of drivers speeding up, jumping lanes and breaking too hard which will make congested roads flow much more smoothly. In practice they can also stop people jumping traffic lights, travelling faster than the legal speed limit and other traffic law infringements.

This begs question will drivers allow this to happen, and can insurance companies be convinced to drive the adoption of it?

So assuming all that gets done, autonomous vehicles will become totally acceptable and usable. And then we’ll have the scheduling issues that Roger alluded to. They are real.

Having self driving parks valet park themselves is cool, the question is where? At scale, say 5,000, you need at least say 2,000 spaces, and over night, probably 4,000. Lets those spaces also need to be charging points. Someone has to invest in building and powering those points. The “free” market will(really?). Then all you have to go is schedule cars between where they are, the users, the users destinations, and the parking spaces. When the primary destination is still downtown Austin, you have some massive constraints, not magical relief.

Although I don’t work in that area now, I work on computer systems scheduling for 15-years, specializing on at-scale systems. These were airline, banking and transaction systems. That had very similar constraints in so much as they all used run one one or two mainframe systems. I was the lead architect for a system we spent more than 2-years modelling an internet banking system that eventually successfully supported 900,000 concurrent users on two servers. I helped fixed the design and scheduling for a single system that supported 23,000 concurrent users, a record at the time. Before you all say but yeah cloud computing has changed all that, it really hasn’t.

The design and use pattern considerations Roger discussed are key. If you had 100 destinations you’d have removed some of the major bottlenecks, but we don’t. We have the Central Business District. It’s a major constraint and getting people in cars in and out of it no matter how automated the cars are will have the same fundamental problems and constraints. Anyone who says otherwise really doesn’t understand the problem.

It’s true, as automated cars become standard features of our cities, it will be easier and easier to write the scheduling rules to make them work within the unique constraints each city has. Austin will have more than many cities constraints because of the sprawl, because of the access road problems, and especially if we have not viable alternatives.

On the “self driving” Mercedes observation, I had never thought of trying this.

Update: 1:23 added in Qoura link.

Diction, Eloquence, ISIS and The Big Lie

Growing up in the 60’s, and the brave new era of TV, I can remember with great fondness some of the eloquent, important speeches given by US Presidents. To an Englishman, the accent, and diction were fascinating. One of my favorites was this speech by Vice President Agnew about the Vietnam riots. I can remember distinctly hearing it, add to that the Robert Kennedy impromptu speech after the death of Martin Luther King.

That’s partly why I’m so disappointed with the current crop of GOP Presidential candidates. The way they say things, their speech patterns are disappointing. More importantly, in the last 10-years it’s what they say that infuriates me. GOP candidates seem to just make sh*t up. It’s like it’s the 1950’s and there is no way to fact check anything. Carly (desperately wants to be somebody) Fiorina is reported as recently saying

“Somebody once asked me, ‘What’s the difference between business and politics?'” Fiorina said at the event, which was hosted by the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association. “And here’s the difference: Politics is a fact-free zone. People just say things.”

I don’t know when this phenomenon of just making sh*t up first started, but I just had a discussion about ISIS and how President Obama caused ISIS. I didn’t have this to hand, and it took me 30-mins to find it, but next time someone blames the President for ISIS, ask them to listen to the following about Vice President Dick Cheney, and remind them that President Obama was elected on a promise to bring the troops home and that he did.

It’s from This American Life, Episode #303 David and Goliath. This is excatly the technique discussed by Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, Vol.1 Chapter X. effectively a lie, so big, that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so much. In 1951, the US Army made a semi-documentary film called the Big Lie to heighten fear of Russia. You can watch it here[YouTube]..

What Cheney, then Vice President of the United States, and President Bush, by implication did was create a Big Lie as justification for the invasion of Iraq and to this day, despite numerous evidence to the contrary, Cheney maintains the Big Lie that ultimately gave us ISIS.

Yes, President Obamas’ withdrawal from Iraq left the country open for ISIS to thrive, it is worth noting though that the President campaigned and was elected on the basis of withdrawal, Cheney just made sh*t up and profited from it.

Update: 4:04pm added links for the US Army “The Big Lie”.