In re Gary Kubiak and the Houston Texans

I haven’t done a sports rant in a long time. So I have a lot of ground to cover with this post

I’m starting with a simple summary of my position: It is my belief that the problems with the Houston Texans’ performance this season will not be solved by firing Gary Kubiak as head coach. While I understand the popular trend in professional sports fandom is to blame the head coach (or manager, in MLB) for everything that goes wrong, the ultimate responsibility for the final score of any game and final standings of any sports season rests with the players.

That said, I was disturbed by what I read today on a site called, surprisingly enough,

Due to unrelenting hate mail and threats, I have decided that I am taking the site down.  It was initially created as a fun place for people to gather who had the same thought process as I did.  I really never intended for this to get as big as it did, and have no desire in taking on the world.  Thank you to all of the supporters, and others that voiced their opinions.  Time will tell if we get a new coach.

Despite the fact I vehemently disagree with what the original site author wanted, I defend his right to want what is best for the city of Houston and its NFL football franchise and to unite others behind him. I am horrified that there are football fans in Houston that have chosen to resort to hate mail and threats. I’d like to think we are a higher class city than that, but I’ve been wrong before.

I’m not leaping to the defense of Gary Kubiak’s job. Should Bob McNair decide it’s time for Kubiak to go, I respect his decision as a Texans fan; he knows his franchise better than I do. And indeed, firing Kubiak may fix the more urgent problem of keeping the fans happy. Make no mistake about it: I think that is unfortunate. But, it is the reality of professional sports in 2010, soon to be 2011.

In the name of homeland security…

Apparently, if you work for the Department of Homeland Security, you’re above the law, and can do things with impunity that can easily result in ISP abuse complaints if done by an average citizen. Like this:

A recent Infowars post (warning: link contains profanity) details what some DHS employees do on company time. George Donnelly had his curiosity piqued by one of the few offensive comments posted to Infowars, and decided to see who the IP address belonged to. For those who don’t want to read the unedited copy, it goes something like this paraphrased version (misspellings in original):

Screw you, screw all you lower lifeforms, you wont change anything. ride the bus, TSA is here to stay there doing a great job keeping americia safe.

The answer shocked him as much as it shocked me, and it’ll probably shock you as well: the comment came from an IP address ( registered to the Department of Homeland Security. In plain English: it was most likely posted by a DHS employee on paid time; at minimum, it was posted from the DHS computer network. It would be one thing if it was just a flame with no profanity, but as posted, it goes way over the line.

George poses some interesting questions for the DHS worth quoting:

  • Is this an official statement?
  • If not, is it an accurate representation of the DHS position?
  • Was this person on the public dime when he or she posted this?
  • Who posted this and what is their position with DHS?

We know what the answers should be. I anxiously await whatever response George gets from the DHS. I’d also like to know who at the DHS thinks it is such a good idea to go trolling blogs that express negative opinions about the government, which are protected speech by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. To me, this is dangerously close to intimidation by the DHS, the type of thing which Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he uttered this quote:  “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”

As a US taxpayer, I believe I’m entitled to know why the DHS is spending my tax dollars like this. While I would find it slightly repulsive if DHS employees did this on their own time, I find it positively abhorrent this is happening from an IP address registered to the DHS and quite possibly done by DHS employees on the clock.

And I am giving everyone advance notice: comments of the sort referenced by George in his post to Infowars linked above are, as a rule, unwelcome on this blog, particularly if they contain profanity. Even if such comments are not published on this blog, I reserve the right to forward such comments directly to news media if I determine such comments are posted from government networks, the corporate networks of known government contractors, or if otherwise connected to the government or corporations which contract for government business. As part of one of my jobs, I talk to news media on a regular basis, and I will not be shut up easily.

Let there be no mistake about it. I love my country, and I love the First Amendment, which gives us the freedom to criticize our government when it makes mistakes. In closing,  I’d like to refer to another, possibly lesser known, quote of Thomas Jefferson’s: “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

I consider this a matter of principle. I stand like a rock.

Net neutrality: why we need it, now

Okay, for those of you who don’t know, I’m going to try to explain just what net neutrality is, and why we need it now more than ever.

First, we have the recent attempt by Comcast to block Internet-based video services such as Netflix and Hulu. (Most of the news reports about this have only mentioned Netflix, however some Twitter users I am following seem to have implied that Hulu might be getting blocked as well.) There is no good reason for this other than a control freak mentality on the part of Comcast, who might block YouTube and Vimeo next unless they are stopped.

That’s bad enough. But you know what really hacks me off? This article on Engadget which shows what some Internet providers want to do: charge specific tolls and set specific bandwidth limits and restrictions on access to selected Internet sites. Facebook will cost, say, an extra 2 cents per megabyte, and YouTube will be capped at 60 kilobytes/second with an extra 50 cent fee per month. The frightening thing? There’s nothing stopping an Internet provider from just up and blocking blogs like the one you’re reading now, or to charge an arbitrarily high fee to read them.

I pay very little to keep my blogs online; the traffic charges are at worst $1 per gigabyte (and go down as I accumulate more total traffic over the lifetime of the account). And none of that is paid by my readers. I intentionally accept no advertising on this blog; I am open to the idea of accepting it on my other currently active blog, Quinn’s Big City, but as a practical matter the readership numbers are not high enough to make it feasible right now.

This is about profit for Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, and Vodafone don’t want you to hear. I’m getting the message out now while I still can. Because there’s no telling when it’ll cost you an extra 25 cents per megabyte to read my blogs, if you can at all. Every blogger should be worried about this, especially those who blog on controversial topics and call out the corporations, particularly those in the large to gargantuan size range, for greed like this.

The last thing the Internet needs is a bunch of greedy companies throwing up tollbooths in front of Internet services “just because.”

The fox in the henhouse, cyberspace edition

Again, before I get into discussing exactly what this email is about, I need to lay down the background on who’s who and what’s what. Otherwise, it’s easy for one to gloss over all of this and assume it doesn’t affect oneself, when in reality this potentially affects or could affect a large chunk of the users of the Internet.

In the beginning, there was the original Unix, AT&T Unix. The University of California at Berkeley made their own version of Unix based on AT&T’s code and called it BSD. There exist today several different operating systems that came from the original BSD code; FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, DragonFly BSD, etc. Due to its liberal license, code from BSD was used in many places; instead of writing their own software for Internet connectivity (the TCP/IP stack, for those who know what that is), Microsoft adapted the one from BSD. Apple Mac OS X also uses software adapted from FreeBSD and NetBSD, which also traces its lineage back to the original BSD. Many GNU/Linux distributions also use software which came from BSD. Put simply, it is likely somewhere your computer has some software on it somewhere which originally came from BSD.

Of particular note in the BSD-derived operating systems is OpenBSD. The OpenBSD project was started by Theo de Raadt as a fork of NetBSD originally due to conflicts with the latter project’s leadership back in 1995. The focus of OpenBSD became security, and today many consider it the most secure operating system on the planet.

OpenBSD has software built into it to implement IPsec, which appears to have been started in the latter half of 1997. Theo de Raadt recently received an email from Gregory Perry. Gregory was working with a company called NETSEC and helped arrange funding for the OpenBSD Crypto Framework, upon which the IPsec software is based. The email, which Theo forwarded to the mailing list, contains a rather direct accusation that developers accepted money from the FBI to weaken the IPsec software in OpenBSD (specifically, to add “backdoors” to it intended for FBI use).

The full email is archived on, and also implies that this sabotage of the IPsec software in OpenBSD is the reason that the OpenBSD project lost its DARPA funding suddenly and unexpectedly. Now, back in 2003, sources such as ComputerWorld reported on Theo’s no-nonsense comments against the war on Iraq (such as the often-quoted “I try to convince myself that our grant means a half of a cruise missile doesn’t get built”) and it was suggested these were DARPA’s motivation.

First, Theo is to be commended for, as he states, “refus[ing] to become part of… a conspiracy.” It is not an easy decision for anyone, let alone someone of Theo’s stature, to decide to publish a private email. It involves a careful consideration of the consequences of violating a social norm for the greater good, and he acknowledges this:

Of course I don’t like it when my private mail is forwarded. However the “little ethic” of a private mail being forwarded is much smaller than the “big ethic” of government paying companies to pay open source developers (a member of a community-of-friends) to insert privacy-invading holes in software.

(I’ll get back to this decision Theo had to make in a bit.)

Gregory also deserves some recognition here, for blowing the whistle as soon as he was legally permitted to. This email serves as a prime example of the kind of damage a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) can do to the public good. I don’t think all NDAs are bad, and it’s way too easy to see why the FBI wouldn’t want the news of backdoors in OpenBSD’s IPsec software getting out. And, to be fair about it, I honestly think Gregory expected his email to become public; had he wanted this to truly remain a secret, he would have told no one. This almost certainly weighed into Theo’s decision as well.

This news has anywhere from annoying to disastrous consequences to users of OpenBSD’s IPsec software, and products derived from it. The latter half of this is the most troubling, as Theo wrote in his email:

Since we had the first IPSEC stack available for free, large parts of the code are now found in many other projects/products. Over 10 years, the IPSEC code has gone through many changes and fixes, so it is unclear what the true impact of these allegations are.

However inconvenient it may be for law enforcement agencies such as the FBI, back doors in security software are still weaknesses. It is easy to forget sometimes that computers are pretty stupid; they do what humans tell them to do. Exactly what humans tell them to do. A computer cannot, by itself, tell the difference between honest, largely law-abiding citizens such as me and the vast majority of you out there reading, someone acting with criminal intent, someone representing the FBI or another law enforcement agency, or someone working with a group like al Qaeda or the Taliban. As an example, anyone who knows my password on any of my computers, can type in the username (which is usually not intended to be kept secret; mine is normally “skquinn”) followed by that password (which is intended to be kept secret), and will be logged in as me. It does not matter to the computer one bit if it really is me; a police officer who wound up with one of my computers somehow, legally or not (and who as a rule, I would not want just going through the stuff on my computer; I value my Fourth Amendment rights), or an al Qaeda operative who somehow has access to my computer. (Sidenote: Biometric devices such as fingerprint scanners can be fooled as well, and in fact are in some cases more dangerous than a password typed in via the keyboard, as once compromised changing one’s fingerprints is impossible for all practical purposes.)

So it follows, the same “backdoors” the FBI put in, will work for anyone who knows about them, regardless of their good or evil intent. Such “backdoors,” as well as unintentional security holes which stem from bugs (programming errors) in the software, get found without the help of the source code (a human-readable form of the computer’s instructions) all the time. It was and is incredibly naive and stupid of the FBI and like-minded law enforcement agencies to assume that these “backdoors” would never be found.

We may not know for several more years just how much damage has been done by developers bribed by the FBI. This is but one small example of why I tend not to trust law enforcement agencies. Shame on the FBI for weakening the security of computers worldwide, including those outside of US jurisdiction. I hope restitution is made that involves fixing the intentionally broken software made fraudulently by programmers on the take from the FBI. That, and a pledge never to violate our privacy and peace of mind in such a fashion again, would be the minimum needed for me personally to start trusting the FBI again. Sadly, I don’t see that coming.

Controversy, art, and “Fire in My Belly”

Over the two years this blog has been in existence, I’ve called out quite a fair number of people and organizations that have attempted censorship of the expressions of others. I believe very strongly in freedom of speech and freedom of the press as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution (and as acknowledged in, for example, Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights). I also agree in principle with the stated mission and objectives of the Smithsonian Institution. I recognize the Smithsonian’s prestige, but I am not in the least intimidated by it.

Especially when the people in charge of the Smithsonian today do things like censoring the work of artist David Wojnarowicz, who has been deceased since 1992. More horrifying than the censorship was its motivation. Two Republican Congressmen (Eric Cantor and John Boehner) threatened to yank funding for the Smithsonian if the video “Fire in My Belly” was not censored. In the words of Rep. Cantor, the exhibit is an “outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.”

I find this assertion abominable and a slap in the face at the intent of the First Amendment. Yes, some art is controversial, and there are pieces of art that may be offensive to certain groups or individuals. That’s hardly a reason to threaten to slash the budget of the Smithsonian like a ten-foot-tall growth of weeds, and Reps. Cantor and Boehner should be ashamed of themselves for such a heavy-handed action.

The good news is that the art community has stood up for the First Amendment. In particular, the Warhol Foundation has demanded the restoration of the exhibit under threat of a cessation of funding. Also of note, Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice published an open letter to Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough which states in part:

…your decision to censor David Wojnarowicz’s art has sullied the reputation of the National Portrait Gallery and does a disservice both to the arts community and the public. For artists, it suggests that in order to be considered by your gallery, their art may have to be uncontroversial. For the public, it suggests that what they see at the gallery may not be the full story, that exhibitions may be tailored so that they do not offend anybody. Neither scenario is positive.

Censorship of the arts is the last thing that an art institution should be doing. You have set a low standard for yourselves, and for your public. The National Portrait Gallery plays an important role in the cultural life of the city and the nation. Your decision sends the worst possible message to artists, to other cultural institutions and to the American people.

As commendable as both of these moves are, the management of the Smithsonian has yet to flinch. This censorship is every bit as bad as the grants Andres Serrano lost in the wake of Piss Christ, which some of my readers might even be too young to really remember. I just happened to be reading Time that month, or I would not have known about it either. Yes, I will admit there was a time I did not follow the art scene that closely. Apparently, the entire Piss Christ controversy has been long forgotten because it’s being repeated. As said by George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Or, if you prefer a more contemporary quote, there’s Yogi Berra’s “It’s deja vu all over again.”

Art made to be non-controversial to avoid censorship is much more likely to wind up boring. A nation with boring art is doomed to become a nation of boring people. My own life is boring enough some days; it’s nice to be able to go to an art gallery and see something interesting.

I want to see America stay interesting. I can’t be the only one.