The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Canadian Privacy Commissioner reports to parliament

Bruce Schneier links to the Annual Report of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. It's possibly more relevant to Americans than Canadians, as almost everything the Commissioner points to in Canadian law, and more, exists in U.S. law. And our government uses the same rationales as theirs:

The fundamental human right of privacy in Canada is under assault as never before. Unless the Government of Canada is quickly dissuaded from its present course by Parliamentary action and public insistence, we are on a path that may well lead to the permanent loss not only of privacy rights that we take for granted but also of important elements of freedom as we now know it.
We face this risk because of the implications, both individual and cumulative, of a series of initiatives that the Government has mounted or is actively moving toward. These initiatives are set against the backdrop of September 11, and anti-terrorism is their purported rationale. But the aspects that present the greatest threat to privacy either have nothing at all to do with anti-terrorism, or they present no credible promise of effectively enhancing security.
The Government is, quite simply, using September 11 as an excuse for new collections and uses of personal information about all of us Canadians that cannot be justified by the requirements of anti-terrorism and that, indeed, have no place in a free and democratic society.

It's good stuff. And, as Schneier also highlighted, it contains this great passage:

Imagine, then, how we will feel if it becomes routine for bureaucrats, police officers and other agents of the state to paw through all the details of our lives: where and when we travel, and with whom; who are the friends and acquaintances with whom we have telephone conversations or e-mail correspondence; what we are interested in reading or researching; where we like to go and what we like to do.
A popular response is: "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear."
By that reasoning, of course, we shouldn't mind if the police were free to come into our homes at any time just to look around, if all our telephone conversations were monitored, if all our mail were read, if all the protections developed over centuries were swept away. It's only a difference of degree from the intrusions already being implemented or considered.
The truth is that we all do have something to hide, not because it's criminal or even shameful, but simply because it's private. We carefully calibrate what we reveal about ourselves to others. Most of us are only willing to have a few things known about us by a stranger, more by an acquaintance, and the most by a very close friend or a romantic partner. The right not to be known against our will - indeed, the right to be anonymous except when we choose to identify ourselves - is at the very core of human dignity, autonomy and freedom.
If we allow the state to sweep away the normal walls of privacy that protect the details of our lives, we will consign ourselves psychologically to living in a fishbowl. Even if we suffered no other specific harm as a result, that alone would profoundly change how we feel. Anyone who has lived in a totalitarian society can attest that what often felt most oppressive was precisely the lack of privacy.

Feeling a little testy despite the gorgeous weather

I have a bit of work to do today, but Chicago has the kind of weather this morning that makes people skip out for lunch at 9:30. So, by way of mentally preparing to ignore the clear skies and 22°C (72°F) breezes out my window, here's what's going on this week.

Over the past two days I've had to deal with four kinds of evaluations, three of myself and one of other people. One involved life-or-death decisions, one involved the future of my company, and the other two really pissed me off.

First the most important one: I passed my biennial flight review yesterday, with only one minor error landing with a 6-knot (7 mph, 3 m/s) crosswind component on one of my landings (I drifted left of the center line during my flare). All pilots have to have a periodic review to ensure they still know everything they knew when they got their most recent rating; for private pilots, the period is two years. In other words, every two years I have to essentially re-take my private pilot checkride and oral exam.

So, with lives at stake, I calmly and competently demonstrated that I can fly a Piper Warrior within the FAA's private pilot practical test standards. And sometime before 30 June 2008, I'll have to do it again, unless I somehow earn my instrument or seaplane rating by then. (Getting a new rating starts the clock at zero. But some ratings reduce the period; for example, if I get a commercial rating then I have to have an annual flight review.)

The kinds of questions you get during the BFR make a lot of sense, and they're immediately relevant. For example, after I demonstrated steep turns 3,500 feet (1,100 m) above a dairy farm in DeKalb County, Illinois, the flight instructor yanked the throttle back to idle and asked, "You've lost your engine; what do you do now?" Notice that I not only had to tell him my answer, I had to demonstrate it, explaining each step as I went along, including how I would brief a non-pilot passenger on the proper way to behave while I put the plane gently down into that row of corn over there.

Now compare this with the Microsoft certification exam that I failed Tuesday afternoon. This test was optional, possibly relevant to my job (though in retrospect a different test was much more relevant), and conducted in a way so far removed from actual experience as to render the whole thing irrelevant and frustrating.

I won't go into details, if for no other reason than I'm contractually obligated not to, and I won't heap criticism on the program or the specific test (for the same reason). I will, however, present you with an analogy.

Imagine you are taking a driving test, so that you can put "Certified Chicago Driver" on your CV. Never mind that you've done a great job driving in Chicago without this credential; for whatever reason, you think getting this credential is a good idea.

You get to the testing center, and rather than put you in a car, they plop you in front of a computer running—I am not kidding—Windows 3.1. Then you begin the multiple-choice test. Here is the first question:

You're driving from 1200 West Fullerton Parkway to 741 West Cornelia Avenue. What is the route you follow?
A. East on Fullerton, North on Halsted, West on Cornelia.
B. East on Fullerton, North on Clark, North on Sheffield, East on Cornelia.
C. West on Fullerton, North on Western, East on Addison, South on Halsted, East on Cornelia.
D. East on Fullerton, North on Clark, North on Broadway, West on Cornelia.

Do you know the answer? You have 60 seconds, closed book.

The correct answer is C, because the other three are illegal. Of course, no one would ever, ever, ever, choose C in real life, because it takes you three miles out of your way. But that's not the point. Certified Chicago Drivers may not know how to use a manual transmission, but they absolutely know all the one-way streets in the city.

See, in order to get this question right you need to know several things. First, Halsted is 800 West, so you need to be East of it to get to 741 W. Cornelia. Second, Cornelia is a one-way street that goes East and West from Halsted. In other words, if you're on Halsted, you can go either East or West on Cornelia, away from Halsted.

Further, if you got the question wrong, so what? So you're going up on Halsted and you turn the wrong way on Cornelia. Oops: you're on the 800 block of Cornelia, the numbers are getting bigger, so you waste maybe 15 seconds turning at the next street and trying again in the other directon.

And even more: Anyone who has ever spent time in that neighborhood knows you won't find a parking space on the 700 block of Cornelia unless you get really, really lucky. So you may want to turn West on Cornelia anyway, because it's sometimes easier to find parking over there.

Ready for Question 2? Good.

You are at the Eastern end of Hugh Hefner Way. How many traffic lights are between you and the Water Tower?
A. 4
B. 24
C. 118
D. 0

So, wanna-be-Certified Chicago Driver, what's the answer? You have 60 seconds, and if the test center catches you banging your head on the keyboard they'll throw you out.

Actually, I'm not entirely sure what the answer is. There are two major problems with the question. First, Hugh Hefner Way doesn't appear on any maps of the city that I'm aware of, because it's an honorary street name (on Walton Street between Michigan and Rush). So the Eastern end of it is, therefore, at the corner of Michigan and Walton, which is three blocks above the Water Tower. Only I'm not sure if it ends on the East or West side of Michigan, because "end of a street" isn't defined in the Chicago Municipal Code anywhere.

This dovetails with the second problem. How do you count traffic lights? Does the question want you to count intersections, actual light structures, or the lights themselves? Do you start counting with the ones nearest you? What does "between" mean, and anyway, doesn't it depend on where your car is sitting? Finally, if you want to split hairs, a car sitting at the point described should be pointing West, again because of the one-way street business Chicago has all over the place.

OK. You've spent an hour slogging through 40 questions like that, and you've got five to go. So you get to question 41, the only one of its kind on the exam, the only one with absolute relevance that every Chicago driver should know without thinking too hard about it:

What is the maximum legal speed, in miles per hour, for non-emergency vehicles on any street, road, or expressway inside the Chicago city limits?
A. 25
B. 30
C. 55
D. 65

Please tell me you answered C. This hasn't changed in my lifetime. It's important to remember, because speed limit signs are scarce on the expressways. If you don't know the answer you probably shouldn't earn any kind of Chicago driving certification.

So at Question 41, you have finally gotten something that everyone should know cold. Something that real people wouldn't need to look up. Something that's not necessarily obvious everywhere in the city, but that is nonetheless important to know. It's relevant. It's appropriate to ask in a multiple-choice format. It MAKES SENSE.

Then comes Question 42:

You are parking in zone LV-2 on the second Monday of July. Which of the following does not apply?
A. You must have a permanent LV-2 sticker or a 24-hour LV-2 pass to park overnight.
B. You may park without a zone pass any time between 6:00 am and 6:00 pm.
C. You must have a permanent LV-2 sticker, not just a 24-hour pass, on this particular day between 5:00 pm and 10:00 pm.
D. If you violate the LV-2 zone restrictions, you could get fined $60 by the city.


Before I tell you the correct answer, can you think of any reason why a normal person, who can read parking signs, would ever need to have this information memorized? I only know it because I used to live in that zone, and even then, I forgot from time to time and had to look at the big red signs posted every 50 meters (150 feet) along Cornelia.

The correct answer is C. Here's why: The LV-2 zone surrounds Wrigley Field. When there is a night Cubs game, parking is prohibited to all but permanent LV-2 sticker-holders between 5pm and 10pm. However, the second Monday of July is night before the All-Star Game, so there is no possibility of a baseball game on that night.

It's important to note that the night-game regulation is posted on the corners of every block in the zone, on big yellow signs, that have the exact dates of all the season's night games listed. If you get a night-game ticket it's because you are illiterate or because you were at the game and felt that the $60 ticket was a better value than the price-gouging lots near the park.

Aren't you happy you took the Certified Chicago Driver test? And don't you see how Certified Chicago Drivers are more skilled drivers than you?

Next, the third evaluation, which has also annoyed me. I am trying to find someone to help with a project. I plan to pay this person to write HTML code to clear specifications. I have posted a want-ad on Craigslist, and I have received about 25 responses. Sadly, fewer than half of the responses meet the two firm requirements listed in the ad.

Finally, the fourth evaluation. I am in the process of re-writing my company's business plan. That's a whole other story, one which I may post here tomorrow.

I am not yet done responding to these résumés, so I will now finish, I hope in time for an outside lunch.

Big Momma is watching you

Ma Bell, risen from near death like the hydra, now says they own your phone records and will disclose them however they see fit:

The new policy says that AT&T—not customers—owns customers' confidential info and can use it "to protect its legitimate business interests, safeguard others, or respond to legal process."
The policy also indicates that AT&T will track the viewing habits of customers of its new video service—something that cable and satellite providers are prohibited from doing.
Moreover, AT&T (formerly known as SBC) is requiring customers to agree to its updated privacy policy as a condition for service—a new move that legal experts say will reduce customers' recourse for any future data sharing with government authorities or others.

I will now begin the process of switching our home-phone service...

Net neutrality in the Senate

Yesterday I sent Illinois Senator Dick Durbin an email asking him to support S.2917, the "net neutrality" act currently working its way through the Senate. His office responded quickly, but I have no idea from reading it what his position is. Can anyone help?

Thank you for contacting me about network neutrality. I appreciate having your thoughts on this issue.
Net neutrality is a principle holding that Internet access providers should not be permitted to engage in favoritism when configuring their networks and delivering Internet content. Such favoritism could occur if a provider transmitted its own offerings at faster speeds than those of its competitors or if a provider charged digital content and application companies a fee for equally fast delivery.
This issue has gained attention recently as several telecommunications company executives have made statements raising concerns that delivery may be impaired for content providers unwilling to pay additional fees for fast transmission. Many of these executives later clarified that they have no intention of degrading or blocking other traffic, particularly if it might prompt customers to switch to other providers, but merely wish to offer video delivery to their own customer base at a premium service level unavailable to non-paying competitors. Some in the industry have favorably compared additional network performance tiers to airlines selling coach and business class tickets or package delivery companies offering ground and air service. Other observers have expressed concern about the impact of such steps on consumers.
Legislation on network neutrality has been offered, building on an earlier, non-binding set of network neutrality principles adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in late 2005. Most prominent among these bills is the Internet Non-Discrimination Act of 2005, S. 2360, introduced by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. This bill would prohibit network operators from generally impairing, or discriminating between, any network traffic, in terms of bandwidth allocation, accessibility, or pricing. It also would require access providers to permit consumers to connect devices to the provider's network, as long as such actions do not harm the provider's network, while still permitting providers to take defensive measures against network threats. Consumers would be able to bring complaints to the FCC for action and request that a federal court review FCC decisions.
Opponents of network neutrality argue that a regime prohibiting "bit discrimination" would deny network operators the opportunity to differentiate their services from other providers, thereby stifling the incentive to create innovative content for their customers. They also argue that network operators may face greater difficulties in raising the funding necessary for planned infrastructure upgrades if the improved network speeds would benefit their competitors as much as themselves.
Proponents of network neutrality -- including major Internet content providers, hardware and software companies, and consumer groups -- point to the money that operators already receive from end user and content provider access fees, the technological innovation that network neutrality may encourage, and the lack of high-speed Internet access marketplace competition that leaves much of the country with little opportunity to switch providers if their current provider were to engage in bit discrimination against the services or applications preferred by consumers.
S. 2360 has been referred to the Senate Commerce Committee. I will keep your thoughts in mind in case this legislation reaches the Senate floor.
Thank you again for your message. Please keep in touch.
Richard J. Durbin

I think he may be for it...I certainly hope so. Note that our junior senator, Barack Obama, is a co-sponsor of the bill, and he and Durbin are in the same party.

Why is Durbin being so cagey?

Dowd on bloggers

I read every word in her column today, and I still have no idea what Maureen Dowd thinks of bloggers (sub.req.):

If I had to be relegated to the Dustbin of History, I'm glad it was in Vegas.
I, Old Media, came here to attend a New Media convention of progressive political bloggers aiming for a technological revolution that would dispatch mainstream media to the tumbrels. It was the journalistic equivalent of mingling with your own pod replicant in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

Bemused, perhaps? I truy can't tell.

Rin tin tin?

My father has posted his very first eBay listing: 50 decorative tea tins, mint condition. I'm so proud of him.

By the way, if you need any tea tins—perhaps for a school project, or an art installation—you have until next Thursday to bid on them.