Russia is using typewriters to prevent leaks

The Telegraph’s Chris Irvine reports that the Russian Federal Guard Service, in charge of protecting secret communications and President Vladmir Putin, is increasing its use of typewriters in order to prevent the kinds of leaks that Edward Snowden brought to light last month:

The FSO is looking to spend 486,000 roubles – around £10,000 – on a number of electric typewriters, according to the site of state procurement agency, zakupki.gov.ru. The notice included ribbons for German-made Triumph Adlew TWEN 180 typewriters, although it was not clear if the typewriters themselves were this kind.

[…]

Unlike printers, every typewriter has its own individual pattern of type so it is possible to link every document to a machine used to type it.

[…]

Nikolai Kovalev, the former director of Russia’s Federal Security Service, told Izvestiya: “From the point of view of security, any means of electronic communication is vulnerable. You can remove any information from a computer. There are means of defence, of course, but there’s no 100 per cent guarantee they will work. So from the point of view of preserving secrets the most primitive methods are preferable: a person’s hand and a pen, or a typewriter.”

Florida’s “stand your ground” law is absurd

According to Florida law, you can pick a fight with someone and then legally kill them if it looks like they’ll win:

Use of force by aggressor.—The justification described in the preceding sections of this chapter is not available to a person who:
(1) Is attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of, a forcible felony; or
(2) Initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless:
(a) Such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant; or
(b) In good faith, the person withdraws from physical contact with the assailant and indicates clearly to the assailant that he or she desires to withdraw and terminate the use of force, but the assailant continues or resumes the use of force.

(Via Ta-Nehisi  Coates)

Disney is mostly a television company

According to The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, individual box office flops like The Lone Ranger aren’t a huge problem for Disney because a majority of its revenue comes from its broadcast and cable television divisions. Cable is here to stay for the foreseeable future – as long as that’s true, Disney properties like ESPN and the Disney Channel will continue to do just fine: 

How Disney makes money

The movie business is a rotten thing. American audiences don’t go the movies every week, so they have to be lured with egregiously expensive marketing campaigns for a handful of tentpole movies that, if they blow up, can destroy quarterly earnings for the film division and take down careers. The TV business is somewhat the opposite. The subscription fee model (wherein a sliver of your cable bill goes straight to the networks’ pockets) guarantees that cable networks get paid with or without a “hit.”

“Pacific Rim”: A loving tribute to anime

Pacific rim

Pacific Rim is the best blockbuster movie released so far in 2013. If you want to know whether or not it’s worth seeing, the answer is a resounding yes.

Pacific Rim is Guillermo del Toro’s love song to mecha anime and kaiju film. Everything about it, including the characters, set pieces, giant robots, and monsters will stir up nostalgia within anyone who’s been a fan of Evangelion, Power Rangers, or classic films like King Kong or Godzilla.

There’s the protagonist who’s a good guy by all accounts. There’s the general who has a rough exterior but a heart of gold. The shy love interest who is submissive to authority until she finally finds her voice and kicks all kinds of ass. Oh, and the asshole rival to the protagonist who completely redeems himself with an act of self-sacrifice.

The fact that the main cast fits so well into these archetypes has been polarizing among critics. Among all of the reviews that I’ve read, it’s the one thing that’s been consistently called out as a flaw in the film. Here’s Twitch’s Greg Christie:

And then the film starts introducing all of the other supporting characters, each one an iconic archetype, although stereotype might be more fitting.

[…]

There’s no room or time for the characters to breath. Everyone is practically introduced in a way where they might as well turn to the camera and say, “Hi, I’m the bossy but cute Asian love interest for the white man.”  “Hi, I might seem like a hard ass military black dude, but there’s more to me than just that.” “Hey there guys, we’re the comic relief for tonight.” “Ah, ya know I’m the prick you’re going to hate but I’m totally going to redeem myself with a huge sacrifice later.” ” Yo, I’m Ron Perlman, I don’t have to be anything else cause I’m mother fucking Ron Perlman and that’s enough.”

For most other films, I would agree with Christie’s take. In fact, that’s been one of the biggest problems I’ve had with the Star Trek reboots: the characters were simply hollow clichés based on the characters from the original series. But with Pacific Rim, I found myself feeling the same was as Scott Weinberg did in his review:

The Pacific Rim heroes are as deep as they’d be in issue #1 of a new comic book, and frankly it’s a little refreshing to have some basic heroes after dealing with so many emotional superheroes with daddy issues.

None of the characters in Pacific Rim are going through a Man of Steel-style identity crisis. Even though one of the characters does in fact have “daddy issues,” the conflicting universal themes that the film is working with – wanting what’s best for your child and wanting to take your own path in life – are reliable anime tropes that add a necessary emotional center to what could have easily been a shallow Transformers knock-off.

The cast does a fine job working with what they’ve been given. Charlie Day stands out as a character that’s basically the result of his character from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia being Doc Brown’s apprentice instead of Marty McFly.

Del Toro doesn’t disappoint with the action. Like 2008’s underrated Speed Racer, the visuals are heavily influenced by anime’s style, though (as Christie notes) Guillermo also brings in his signature color palette. The fights between the robots (or “Jaegers”) and the monsters (“kaiju”) are visceral, with each hit given just enough screen time to let you soak it in – unlike Transformers, you won’t get dizzy or have trouble keeping track of who’s doing what in a fight. The result is a visual feast that you can’t take your eyes off of. 

The film even surprised me with some of the summer blockbuster clichés that it avoided. For instance, the potential for romance between the protagonist and his love interest is set up rather early in the first act, but the film makes no attempt to overtly sexualize her and when the day is saved there’s no “now kiss” moment. Seriously, Man of Steel, hundreds of thousands of people just died. Not the time.

Reflections on the George Zimmerman verdict

Not guilty. That’s what the jury for this case decided.

Thoughts:

1. Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old, would not have died that night if George Zimmerman hadn’t followed him.

2. “Stand your ground” should not mean “chase and engage”.

3. As Glenn Fleishman notes, this verdict tells African-Americans living in or around white neighborhoods in Florida to go home before it gets dark out. 

4. I can’t say what I would have done if I had been among that jury. Besides Zimmerman, there were no eye-witnesses. That would give anyone reasonable doubt.

5. To those who state that that the verdict would be the same if the races of those involved were different: tell that to Marissa Alexander, the Florida woman who fired warning shots at her abusive husband back in 2010 and was sentenced to 20 years in jail.

 

Harvard is a hedge fund with a school attached

Jim Manzi, in a post from back in 2008:

The overall Harvard corporation gets to make money through investment returns on its endowment (or, more precisely, the General Investment Account, which currently includes about $6 billion of investable assets in operational accounts in addition to the $34 billion endowment) that doesn’t get reported as revenue. Last year, Harvard made more than $7 billion of tax-free investment income.

So if you just think about how much cash went into the shoebox and how much came out of it, a more accurate accounting for Harvard for FY 2007 would, in rough numbers, be a lot more like the following:

Receipts = $2 billion of operating revenue + $7.3 billion of investment income + $0.6 billion of gifts to the endowment = ~$10 billion.

Operating costs = ~$3 billion.

Profit = $10 billion – $3 billion = ~$7 billion.

This explains why Harvard’s net assets increased about $7 billion in 2007, from about $35 billion to about $42 billion.

Viewed purely in terms of economics, Harvard is really a $40 billion tax-free hedge fund with a very large marketing and PR arm called Harvard University that has the job of raising the investment capital and protecting the fund’s preferential tax treatment.

Of course, Harvard isn’t doing quite so well as of late. Here’s the chart of the university’s net assets from the latest Harvard University Financial Report:

Screen Shot 2013 07 13 at 4 45 40 PM

The fact that Harvard’s endowment fund isn’t doing well doesn’t mean that the comparison to hedge funds just goes away (hell, if anything it just makes it more apt).

That’s why Reuters’ Felix Salmon suggests that private universities like Harvard should lose their tax-free status:

The dollar value of universities’ tax exemptions is enormous — and it almost goes without saying that if we simply abolished those exemptions, and used the proceeds to spend on higher education, we would get vastly more bang for our buck. The overwhelming majority of the tax expenditures go to the richest universities — the ones who need the money the least. Meanwhile, great institutions like the University of California are slowly starved to death: direct fiscal expenditures, it seems, are much, much easier to cut than more-hidden tax expenditures.

George Orwell on why early socialists got things so wrong

In an essay from 1941, George Orwell explains why socialists like H.G. Wells failed to see the dark side of the Soviet movement or to predict the rise of the Nazis:

If one looks through nearly any book that he has written in the last forty years one finds the same idea constantly recurring: the supposed antithesis between the man of science who is working towards a planned World State and the reactionary who is trying to restore a disorderly past. In novels, Utopias, essays, films, pamphlets, the antithesis crops up, always more or less the same.

On the one side science, order, progress, internationalism, aeroplanes, steel, concrete, hygiene: on the other side war, nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors, poets, horses. History as he sees it is a series of victories won by the scientific man over the romantic man.

Now, he is probably right in assuming that a ‘reasonable,’ planned form of society, with scientists rather than witch-doctors in control, will prevail sooner or later, but that is a different matter from assuming that it is just round the corner.

There survives somewhere or other an interesting controversy which took place between Wells and Churchill at the time of the Russian Revolution. Wells accuses Churchill of not really believing his own propaganda about the Bolsheviks being monsters dripping with blood, etc., but of merely fearing that they were going to introduce an era of common sense and scientific control, in which flag-wavers like Churchill himself would have no place. Churchill’s estimate of the Bolsheviks, however, was nearer the mark than Wells’s.

The early Bolsheviks may have been angels or demons, according as one chooses to regard them, but at any rate they were not sensible men. They were not introducing a Wellsian Utopia but a Rule of the Saints, which like the English Rule of the Saints, was a military despotism enlivened by witchcraft trials.

The same misconception reappears in an inverted form in Wells’s attitude to the Nazis. Hitler is all the war-lords and witch-doctors in history rolled into one. Therefore, argues Wells, he is an absurdity, a ghost from the past, a creature doomed to disappear almost immediately. But unfortunately the equation of science with common sense does not really hold good.

The aeroplane, which was looked forward to as a civilising influence but in practice has hardly been used except for dropping bombs, is the symbol of that fact. Modern Germany is far more scientific than England, and far more barbarous.

Much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany. The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age. Science is fighting on the side of superstition. But obviously it is impossible for Wells to accept this. It would contradict the world-view on which his own works are based. The war-lords and the witch-doctors must fail, the common-sense World State, as seen by a nineteenth-century Liberal whose heart does not leap at the sound of bugles, must triumph. Treachery and defeatism apart, Hitler cannot be a danger. That he should finally win would be an impossible reversal of history, like a Jacobite restoration.

Why freelance journalists aren’t making any money

The days of freelance journalists making $500 per article are over, says the founder of Bleacher Report.

Bryan Goldberg, in a PandoDaily post from a few months back, explained the realities of publishing economics.

Unless a journalist’s personal brand is particularly large compared to the publisher in question, paying a premium price for an individual piece of content simply doesn’t make sense:

An individual piece of content is valuable when it helps its publisher get past that line. Because if the publisher is on the wrong side of the line, then they cannot build a sales team and earn premium CPM rates. And no publishing business can thrive on third party sales.

[…]

Unfortunately for Nate Thayer, The Atlantic already has a great brand, so he alone will not move mountains for them. For that reason, newer publications like PandoDaily, TheVerge, or Bleacher Report can get more mileage out of “big name” contributors who can do more to advance the brand.

But what about advertising dollars? Surely even a moderately well-known journalist with a good piece of content can bring in enough revenue to justify a decent paycheck, right? 

Probably not:

To bring this to life, let’s use an example… A very successful article will attract 100,000 readers. If there are two impressions per page and a $1.00 CPM, then that article will generate $200. For most blogs, those rates are a best-case scenario. It would be very difficult to make a living in such a manner.

But for a successful website that has crossed “the line” and employs a strong sales force, then those rates could be much higher. Let’s say $5 CPM’s: An article for such a site might be worth $1,000 if it attracts 100,000 readers.

Could a tyical rate of $500 per article work in such a scenario? Probably not. Because then the publisher has a “gross margin” of about 50 percent, which will likely not be enough to pay for the rest of the operation, starting with the salesperson who will take his or her commission right off the top.

There is one hope for journalists looking to make big paychecks, but they might not like it – sponsored content:

This is a great opportunity for writers to align their efforts with that of the advertisers in a very direct manner.

And while most writers must still understand that the publisher could just use some other writer instead of them to create the sponsored content, there is usually a fair middle ground. Most publishers pay more to create sponsored content, because it just seems reasonable when it contributes to a seven-figure check.

The Economist’s perfect critique of America’s hypocrisy

Ever notice how we start wars in order to “promote democracy” abroad, then use secret courts to limit those same freedoms at home?

All this somehow got me thinking of the doctrine of “democracy promotion”, which was developed under George W. Bush and maintained more or less by Barack Obama. The doctrine is generally presented as half-idealism, half-practicality. That all the people of the Earth, by dint of common humanity, are entitled to the protections of democracy is an inspiring principle. However, its foreign-policy implications are not really so clear. To those of us who are sceptical that America has the authority to intervene whenever and wherever there are thwarted democratic rights, the advocates of democracy-promotion offer a more businesslike proposition. It is said that authoritarianism, especially theocratic Islamic authoritarianism, breeds anti-American terrorism, and that swamp-draining democracy-promotion abroad is therefore a priority of American national security. If you don’t wish to asphyxiate on poison gas in a subway, or lose your legs to detonating pressure-cookers at a road-race, it is in your interest to support American interventions on behalf of democracy across the globe. So the story goes.

However, the unstated story goes, it is equally important that American democracy not get out of hand. If you don’t want your flight to La Guardia to end in a ball of fire, or your local federal building to be razed by a cataclysm of exploding fertiliser, you will need to countenance secret courts applying in secret its own secret interpretation of hastily-drawn, barely-debated emergency security measures, and to persecute with the full force of the world’s dominant violent power any who dare afford a glimpse behind the veil.

Go read the whole article. It’s the single best piece of writing that’s come out of the NSA scandal.

Check out the first Grand Theft Auto V gameplay video

This game just became a must-buy for me. The character switching – both between and during missions –  makes the game seem much more dynamic than previous offerings in the series.

It also seems like the different personalities for the characters will remove some of the cognitive dissonance that happened in GTA IV when you’d take Niko, a character trying to make a new life for himself, on a massive killing spree. Now, if you want to play “responsibly,” you can switch to Michael or Franklin and if you want to cause chaos you can switch over to Trevor and not feel like you’re not playing out-of-character.