The best lede in the history of journalism, bar none

Seriously, beat this, from the Atlantic’s new feature on fraternities:

Oe warm spring night in 2011, a young man named Travis Hughes stood on the back deck of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house at Marshall University, in West Virginia, and was struck by what seemed to him—under the influence of powerful inebriants, not least among them the clear ether of youth itself—to be an excellent idea: he would shove a bottle rocket up his ass and blast it into the sweet night air. And perhaps it was an excellent idea. What was not an excellent idea, however, was to misjudge the relative tightness of a 20-year-old sphincter and the propulsive reliability of a 20-cent bottle rocket. What followed ignition was not the bright report of a successful blastoff, but the muffled thud of fire in the hole.

Books of 2014, #4: Use of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks (19 Feb)

Well, darn.

The first Culture book I read was the the awful Consider Phlebas a couple years ago. Honestly, it’s such crap that it nearly put me off the whole series. It wasn’t until last year that I bothered with the next volume of the series, Player of Games, largely due to the number of people I found who agreed that Phlebas was crap and that a better place to start was Games.

Ok, fine. Turns out, they were right; Games was a fun book. With Banks inconveniently promoted to the choir invisible, though, I didn’t want to run right into another Culture book, so I paced myself, and didn’t start the third book until this month. And now, having finished it, I think I’m done with Culture.

Weapons is a mess. Banks is trying an ambitious interleaved structure here, but it didn’t really work for me — largely because I never really gave a shit what happened, or had happened, to the protagonist. This is further reflected by the enormous gap between the last book and this one; by the end I was really finding this a slog.

It’s entirely possible Banks just isn’t for me.

“The government cannot be so beholden to its own inflated terrorism fears that it willingly punishes a person for nearly a decade because of a paperwork error. “

TechDirt gives the Feds both barrels over the appalling case of Rahinah Ibrahim:

Our government lies.

This is an obvious statement but it needs to be put out there in black and white. We, the people, are represented and “protected” by a government that actively lies to its constituents to cover up its mistakes. The recent case of Rahinah Ibrahim, who was accidentally placed on the government’s “no fly” list and only removed after a long legal battle, illustrates this truth about our government to a sickening degree.

Instead of owning up to the mistake, our government argued for the better part of a decade that to even acknowledge that a no-fly list existed would expose “state secrets” and that they therefore couldn’t possibly even confirm or deny any such list, so obviously discussing this person’s status, or trying to ensure that the status was correctly determined, was impossible.

For example, from James Clapper this year, quoted in the TechDirt article:

“My assertion of the state secret and statutory privileges in this case precludes defendant or any other agency from making any response, including through document production or deposition testimony, that would serve to disclose classified information regarding plaintiff or any other individual; the sources, methods, and means by which classified information is collected; and information which would confirm or deny whether information regarding plaintiff or any other individual is in NCTC’s TIDE database.” — James Clapper, director of national intelligence, April 23, 2013.

What. The. Fuck. Techdirt again:

Eric Holder’s deferral to “state secrets” in 2013 was based on the belief that a single disclosure, especially if it prompted more, would lead to terrorists gaming the no-fly list. John Tyler, then-attorney for the DOJ, claimed in 2006 that Ibrahim’s complaint was so inextricably intertwined with the utility of the “no fly” list that her case should be dismissed.

According to these statements, being mistakenly placed on the “no fly” list is just something those wrongly blacklisted will have to deal with. These citizens (and other foreigners) just need to resign themselves to the fact that they won’t be boarding planes, possibly for the rest of their lives. Once you’re on the list, you’re on it. The list is apparently so crucial to national security that even admitting it may have blacklisted someone accidentally would turn the nation’s airports into terrorist playgrounds.

A mistake was made made, but rather than looking for a solution, the government grabbed its “state secret” broom and swept it under the “neither confirm nor deny” rug.

The government cannot be so beholden to its own inflated terrorism fears that it willingly punishes a person for nearly a decade because of a paperwork error. There’s plenty of middle ground between keeping the country safe and screwing someone over because an agent couldn’t follow a form’s instructions.

Go read the whole thing.

More Federal Keystone-Ism

Remember when the FBI claimed it didn’t have to answer Ryan Shapiro’s FOIA requests because he might learn something as a consequence of their hilariously inconsistent and irrational redaction?

Yeah, they’re doing it again. This time, they heavily redacted a letter released to some privacy hawks in Congress despite the fact that one of them had already been released in full previously. But go read the whole link; it’d be hilarious if it weren’t, you know, the top law enforcement body in the country.

Darwin At Work

Snake handling pastor bitten by snake during service. He then refused medical attention, and was thereby promoted to the choir invisible.

All good Heathen, of course, know this Robert Heinlein quote, from Time Enough for Love.

Stupidity is the only universal capital crime; the sentence is death, there is no appeal, and execution is carried out automatically and without pity.

RAH was wrong about many, many things, but this is not one of those times.

Holy Crap.

Look. I don’t watch TV news. It’s been a dead letter for a long time. I sure don’t watch TV sports coverage — I’ve got little use for the nattering foolishness that usually qualifies as sports broadcasting, and find reading stories on ESPN completely fills what needs I have for information from that world.

So I skipped Dale Hansen’s commentary on Michael Sam until just now. That, gentle Heathen, was a mistake.

Dale Hansen is the sports anchor for Dallas ABC affiliate WFAA. It should without saying, then, that Hansen is an older, straight, white man (I checked; he’s 65). So what Hansen says about Michael Sam caught me a little flatfooted even though I knew, as you must by now as well, what his position was.

Go watch.

You’d think that “journalists” would have at least SOME shame about these things

NBC ran a report about how your devices would get OWNED immediately by evil Russian hackers the minute you turn them on in Sochi.

Turns out, not so much. It’s basically the exploding truck all over again. As noted in the TechDirt takedown:

  • The reporter was in Moscow, not Sochi.
  • The problem was sketchy web sites the reporter sought out, not the connection in the Moscow coffee shop, and so are equally dangerous regardless of where you are — Moscow or Minneapolis.
  • The hack required the reporter to CHOOSE TO DOWNLOAD AND INSTALL MALWARE (yes, it said it was an AV tool, but that man in the van won’t really give you candy, either).
  • The malware would only install if the reporter TURNED OFF SAFETY FEATURES that are left on by default.

Nice job. NBC are, of course, doubling down and insisting their story is genuine and correct, because they are generally craven and ignorant.

More at the well-regarded Errata Security.

My friend Chris Mohney is doing something interesting

PLAY will be a short film about childhood, playtime, and that sort of secret world we all lost when we grew up. Chris and his partner will rpoduce the footage using a dozen GoPro cameras strapped to a dozen children who are then turned loose in a New York playground. It sounds like a punchline, but it really does work — he’s got a little sample up on his Tumblr, shot from his son’s perspective. It’s immersive and cool, and the idea of having a broader pool of such footage to work from is pretty fascinating.

There is, inevitably, a Kickstarter to make the whole thing real. The goal is modest ($24K), and they’re almost 10% of the way there. Help ’em out, if you’ve got a little extra in your pocket.

Busy? I don’t care. Do this.

Today is the day we fight back against ridiculous, overreaching, plainly illegal surveillance from the NSA.

Go to the link. The EFF will help you determine who your reps in Congress are, and will even set up the phone calls and give you talking points.

Make time. Even if your reps are, as mine are, generally weasels. This kind of day of action is precisely what pols respect.

This is a democracy. Take part.

You know those “one second a day” videos?

Well, new SNL featured player Brooks Wheelan made one.

What’s neat about this is that a year ago, in early 2012, Wheelan had an engineering job in Los Angeles and did comedy on the side, as a hobby. He did not even have a Wikipedia page.

The video ends up documenting what will probably be one of the most momentous and amazing years in his life, but he had no way of knowing that would be the outcome when he started the project last January.

That’s pretty cool.

Are you watching *True Detective* on HBO?

Because, brother, if you’re not, you’re not living right. Only four episodes in, and this show is on a pace to be one of the best things ever on television.

Last night, the fourth episode of the thus-far-very-talky drama ended with a 6+ minute tracking shot — i.e., almost 7 minutes with no cuts or edits — that is, all by itself, the best action sequence I’ve seen in years.

No idea how long it’ll be up, but as of right now it’s on YouTube. Be aware this it’s basically one long spoiler, so stay away if you plan on catching up. A similarly spoilery recap is up at IndieWire, which includes HBO’s “behind the ep” feature free of HBO’s frankly awful web site. There’s another solid bit of discussion over at AV Club, naturally.

I swear to God, I thought this was the Onion

But no: Fox News is freaking out over CVS’s decision to stop selling tobacco products.

Professional halfwit Gretchen Carlson actually asked, on air, “Is it OK legally … to restrict tobacco availability in a private store like this?” Apparently, Ms Carlson thinks some body of law governs what must be sold in any given store, and implicitly supports such laws, despite the rather alarming implications.

This is really yet another example of Fox being primarily interested only in stories they can warp into a club to hit the President with. How anyone takes them seriously is completely beyond me.

Oh, Microsoft. You’re adorable.

My company routinely deals with government entities that have legitimate security concerns, so it’s not surprising that, sometimes, I receive mail that is digitally signed, or has some encryption component.

Usually, this is done poorly, which is no surprise, because mail encryption is still not seamless. However, yesterday I got a mail that Outlook won’t open at all. Instead, I get this:

Screen Shot 2014 02 07 at 10 33 32 AM

The hilarious part of this is that the mail opens fine with no hint of trouble when read from my Mac’s client, or from either of my iOS mail clients. Security, Microsoft style!

Here’s a shocker: DHS asserted “state secrets” to hide a mistake

This is why state secrets is bullshit, and why “trust me” is never a legitimate policy for law enforcement.

The government contested a former Stanford University student’s assertion that she was wrongly placed on a no-fly list for seven years in court despite knowing an FBI official put her on the list by mistake because he checked the “wrong boxes” on a form, a federal judge wrote today.

We only know this today because Ibrahim sued, which was only possible because she was able to get pro bono legal aid, because despite knowing it was bullshit the feds fought her every step of the way.

Heads. Should. Roll.

Just Ella

This short film (5-ish minutes) is pretty great. From the description:

“Just Ella” posits a future overrun by gibbering monstrosities. Ella takes refuge in a “the Ossington Safehouse, a collectively-run space dedicated to human sovereignty.” But despite doing the assigned tasks on the chore list, the Safehouse isn’t safe — the terrors outside are nothing compared to those within.

Contains perhaps the first cinematic example of autocomplete used for a dramatic reveal.

Widely linked, but I saw it over at JWZ’s place.

More on Tartt’s *The Goldfinch*

This review is really, really spot-on. In particular:

I’m no more privy to what went on behind the scenes in The Goldfinch’s journey from draft to publication than I am aware of the ins and outs of similar processes for Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot or Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. But I know that all three of these novels (and there are many other examples) read as though their editor had been afraid to touch them, and had left early, baggy drafts unchanged.

Telegraph Avenue is one of the few books I’ve simply given up on, which was really sad at the time given how much I’d loved Chabon’s other work.

Giant Shocker: Those TSA scanners? Useless, according to an insider

Politico has more:

We knew the full-body scanners didn’t work before they were even installed. Not long after the Underwear Bomber incident, all TSA officers at O’Hare were informed that training for the Rapiscan Systems full-body scanners would soon begin. The machines cost about $150,000 a pop.

Our instructor was a balding middle-aged man who shrugged his shoulders after everything he said, as though in apology. At the conclusion of our crash course, one of the officers in our class asked him to tell us, off the record, what he really thought about the machines.

“They’re shit,” he said, shrugging. He said we wouldn’t be able to distinguish plastic explosives from body fat and that guns were practically invisible if they were turned sideways in a pocket.

We quickly found out the trainer was not kidding: Officers discovered that the machines were good at detecting just about everything besides cleverly hidden explosives and guns. The only thing more absurd than how poorly the full-body scanners performed was the incredible amount of time the machines wasted for everyone.

On the upside, the monitoring parties DO get to see you naked, so there’s that.

Seriously, don’t miss this. The author is the guy behind the Taking Sense Away “inside the TSA” blog from a few months back.

Decrypting Wiggins

Some of you have met our cat, Wiggins. Wiggins is one of those cats with no unvoiced thoughts. She has lots to say, but it really hasn’t been clear what it was. Until now.

Using cutting-edge linguistic techniques, we have isolated her primary messages:

  • “I am in a room, but the people are in some other room, and I cannot find them.”
  • “I am in a room, and there are people in it, but it is the wrong room.”

Despite the breakthrough nature of this discovery, it’s not at all clear what actions we’ll take as a result.

Except, I guess, occasionally changing rooms.

Dept. of Great Men Passing

Arthur Rankin, Jr. passed away at the end of January. He was 89.

With partner Jules Bass, Mr Rankin formed one of the most influential animation studios of his era; you know their work even if you don’t know their names. It was Rankin/Bass that gave us Rudolph, for example (the special will celebrate its 50th anniversary, by the way, this coming Christmas).

There’s a MeFi post worth your time, if you’re interested.

Someday, Microsoft will pay for all the time they’ve wasted with shitty online meeting technologies

Back in the boom, we tried to use online meeting tools, which inevitably led to shit-tons of time wasted at the head end of every meeting trying to get LiveMeeting to work.

It never really did.

In the years since, other companies have entered this space, and some of them are basically flawless. Trouble is, the good ones cost money, and most of our customer IT orgs are (a) cheap and (b) too paranoid to let their people use GoToMeeting, so we get forced into trying to connect with the execrable “Lync” — i.e., rebranding LiveMeeting bullshit — across the Internet.

MSFT makes their products so that they’re effectively free, but never bother solving for corner cases — like, say, a cross-site meeting that’s not all on the same network or active directory domain. Worse, Lync has no end of weird foibles and fuckups. For example, if you end up on 2013 instead of 2010 (which will happen if you upgrade Office), it’s no longer possible to join a meeting without having corporate credentials on the hosting party’s network.

That’s fine, though, because obviously nobody ever wants to meet with people outside their company, right?

CHRIST. It’s enough to make you want to strangle someone.

This. Is. Awesome.

This man is brilliant.

A MAN bought a first-class ticket and used it to have free meals and drinks at the airport’s VIP lounge almost every day for nearly a year, Kwong Wah Yit Poh reported.

The itinerary for the ticket was found to have been changed more than 300 times within a year, and the owner of the ticket used it to enjoy the facilities at the airport’s VIP lounge in Xi’an in Shaanxi, China.

The rare case was discovered by a China Eastern Airlines staff member, who then decided to investigate.

When the ticket’s validity was almost up, the passenger cancelled it for a refund.