Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Digital Privacy - Part 2 - Two Factor Email Authentication

Email is NOT private.
This is mostly about stopping hackers and the like.  Two-factor authentication (sometimes abbreviated 2FA) is not going to prevent government agencies from accessing the contents of your email and you should not be under any illusions about that.  Securing the contents of your email will be the topic of another post (probably more than one) but for now just know that email is not secure in general and you should not assume that you have privacy in your emails.  If you're not willing to have that message read aloud in a court room, don't send it.

The problem we're solving:
If someone can log in to your email they can see your contacts, read your emails, delete your emails, and send emails while pretending to be you.  They can also use your email account to reset passwords for your other accounts.

In addition to having a good password, one of the ways to protect the security of your login is to have Two-Factor Authentication.  This just means that logging in requires your password (the first factor) and some other thing that identifies you as the person trying to log in (the second factor.)

It is really easy to set up these days and and it seems that most webmail providers offer it.  The most common options are:
  1. They text you a code.
  2. You install an app from your email provider on your phone that generates a code.
Keep in mind that the texting option requires cell service.  The app options I looked at will still work even when your phone is in airplane mode - no data and no cellular required.

How To
You can use this site which provides tutorials for setting up two-factor authentication for many sites.  If you don't see your provider listed, just search for it. Just googling for your mail provider and "two factor authentication" will also turn up results, like these help pages for GmailHotmail or Outlook.com. Yahoo.  You'll notice that you can use two-factor authentication for other non-email logins, too.

If you're using an email address from your ISP like Time Warner you may find that they do not offer this.  You may wish to change email providers, or at least have a second account somewhere else that is more secure.

Remember Me 
When you log in from a web browser, you will be prompted first for your password and then for the code.  Someone who only has your password cannot log in.  You will likely have an option to have it remember your computer and not ask you for the second factor of authentication again when you log in from that same machine.  Do not use this option from a public or shared computer. If that computer is running a keylogger to capture your password and you also authorize it to login without your two-factor then your account is compromised.  Note that Gmail checks this option by default and you must specifically uncheck it when you enter the code.  Each time.

Plan B
Because it will be difficult or impossible to access your email without your phone, there are some recovery options to consider:
  1. There should be an option for a recovery code or for one-time-use codes.  These should be stored somewhere safe, ideally not electronically and obviously not on or with your phone where it would get lost at the same time.
  2. You may be able to set other recovery options such as additional phone numbers, other email addresses, a USB security key, etc.  Gmail provides a lot of options.
When you're thinking about these options, try to imagine what could go wrong that might cause you to lose access.  
  • Losing your phone will cause you to lose both the app and the ability to receive a text message.
  • If you replace your phone and keep the number the texting will still work on your new phone but the app will need to be re-downloaded and re-married to your account which you cannot do without logging in.  
  • Getting your cellular plan shut off could cause you to lose access to more than one phone number if they're all on the same plan.  
If the worst happens and you don't have a recovery code, don't forget that you can still log in from any devices that you have set as trusted.  Otherwise, you may be able to recover your account but it is going to involve customer service and it's probably not going to happen quickly.

Outlook and your Xbox
If you have other programs or devices that need to log in to your email, such as Outlook or another email client, or your Xbox, your phone's email app, etc. they will not be able to use the two-factor-authentication.  You will need to generate an app-specific password for them to log in with.  This does bypass the two-factor authentication but these app-specific passwords are strong and not re-used so they are much less likely to get broken or stolen than the average person's password.

Extra credit: Connection Security and master passwords for Outlook, etc.
If you use a mail application (not just webmail) it is important that your email client is using an option called SSL or TLS to encrypt your login or it will be possible for someone to snag one of your app-specific passwords off the network and use it to log in.  SSL/TLS is pretty standard as a default now as far as I know but it doesn't hurt to double check your mail settings in your mail client, especially if it was set up a long time ago.
-Outlook: Instructions for changing your mail settings are here.  Step 4 is where the encryption settings for your incoming and outgoing connections are.
-Thunderbird: Instructions for changing your mail settings are here.  It's the connection security you want to set.  If you have SSL/TLS for your connection setting then your entire conversation with the email server is encrypted and you do not need to separately set encryption for your password.

For Thunderbird I also prefer setting a master password.  This encrypts your saved email account's app-specific password in a more secure fashion, and also stops someone who has access to your desktop from simply opening your email client and getting the password out of it.  It will require you to login every time you open the application.  All this master password does is decrypt your other password.  This is still hackable, it's just harder.  You can do something similar for Outlook but I am unclear on how the password storage for Outlook functions and the guide itself says that this is not for improving security.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Digital Privacy - Part 1 - Phone Unlocks

For Part 1 of this series we're going to look at phone unlocks.

There is room for you to make different decisions with your own stuff, but the TLDR is that I think the appropriate measures are to:

1) Make your phone require a passcode to unlock.
2) Do not use a biometric unlock.  If you have one, remove it.
3) Use either a 6-digit code or an alphanumeric code for your unlock.
4) Do not use easily guessed passcodes.
5) Set your phone to lock immediately.
6) Set your phone to delete all data after 10 (or some other number of) failed attempts to unlock it.

You can find details on setting up Android here, and on setting up iPhone here.

Protecting your phone can protect your emails, your texts, the emails and texts of people who have communicated with you, videos or pictures that the police might want to delete, or any of your other data.  It is yours, and you have a right to take measures to secure your own privacy and to refuse to consent to any searches.

U.S. Courts have found that you can be compelled to unlock your phone with a fingerprint (with a warrant), but you cannot be compelled to provide a passcode.  You have a 5th Amendment right to refuse to provide the passcode.  Your biometric unlock is not protected this way under current law. This article from Android suggests that you can still use it and just shut your phone off if you see blue lights.  But that removes your ability to, for example, film the police and then quickly lock your phone at the last moment.

Item # 3 in this article lists commonly used 4-digit passcodes.   Here they are:
1234 9999 1111 3333 0000 5555 1212 6666 7777 1122 1004 1313 2000 8888 4444 4321 2222 2001 6969 1010
You can see the pattern to them and avoid it in your 6-digit passcode, if you use that.  If you use an alphanumeric password just follow good password practices. You should also assume that an attacker will do their homework and try things like your birthday, anniversary, the birthdays of your children or spouse, your social, etc.  These are not good passcodes.

I was reluctant to enable the data deletion on my phone because I have a toddler who loves to play with it and one can easily imagine disaster.  But as you have more and more failed attempts the iPhone will force you to wait longer and longer between unlock attempts, making it very unlikely that 10 failed attempts would accumulate by accident.  A malicious person could do it to you but they would need access to your phone for hours.  Android has an app that will allow you to set the number of tries before a data wipe.

You can, in any case, restore your phone from a backup if you have one.  So just backup your phone and enable the data wipe on too many failed logins.

If someone can't easily guess your password, and they can't guess at it indefinitely without wiping the data they want, and they cannot compel you even with a warrant to unlock the phone, then it becomes difficult for them to obtain the data.

It should be noted that none of this is perfect.  The operating system of the phone may have bugs that defeat some of this security, as this older version of iOS did.  And in a case that became very public, the FBI was taking Apple to court to force them to provide a backdoor to someone's phone.  The case was dropped when the FBI claimed to have found a way to unlock it without Apple's help.  No one is sure what method they used or whether it has been or can be patched.  It may even be that it is now trivial for the FBI to unlock your iPhone, I just don't know.

That's a lesson that applies to this entire series.  Your privacy is going to be good.  It's not going to be impenetrable, and you should not assume that it is.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Police Policing Police

I did some work at Brookhaven National Labs a few years back.  It's a Department of Energy site up in New York. Their safety track record had not been looking good and the site was trying hard to correct that.

They implemented a system where people were responsible for, accountable for, and had the power to impact the safety of not just themselves but their co-workers and general environment.  Anyone, and I do mean anyone, who observed something they considered to be unsafe could walk up and address the issue and even had the power to issue a stop work order that could only be released through official channels.  Seriously, any random Joe walking by could say "I think what you're doing is unsafe and I want you to stop." and you would have to stop and get it sorted.  More importantly, there was accountability not just for a person's own actions but for what they permitted.

In one incident there were two workers in a laser lab.  One was wearing eye protection and the other was not.  The person who was not wearing eye protection was injured by a laser and both were fired - one for not wearing appropriate protection and the other for allowing that to go on in their presence.  That's when I knew they were serious, that they were "on a safety warpath" as one contractor put it.  "Do not fuck around with safety here" became the common wisdom, and it was because safety was being enforced seriously.  People were being held uncommonly accountable; non-compliance was simply not accepted in any sense.

A similar approach was taken in the Navy's nuclear program.  If someone is screwing up, virtually everyone in the room will be held accountable to some degree if they do not recognize the problem and intervene.  The question "Why did you allow this to happen?" is going to get asked at the investigation.  You simply do not walk past or ignore someone who is doing the wrong thing.  The results were not perfect but they were extremely good.

These measures are what is done when an organization or institution is serious about compliance, when they are creating a culture in which the right thing to do is the only thing to do.  The results will not be the perfect; people will still conspire to break the rules together and not report each other.  These are important steps though, and they do increase compliance dramatically.

We need this for police.  There are rules and regulations that they must follow, and none of that has any meaning if it is not enforced.  The police are the law enforcers though, which brings us to our problem: they generally look the other way where other police are concerned.

I understand that.  Truly, I do.  I have seen time and again that the people who do the real work will conspire to circumvent annoying bureaucratic restrictions on getting their jobs done.  I have seen time and again that when you trust another person with your life and safety that a bond of loyalty forms, that this bond typically trumps loyalty to institution or rules or even principles.  I can easily imagine police officers would be fearful for their lives, dealing with criminals day in and day out, having their hands tied by frustrating rules, and finding that camaraderie with other officers is their only barrier against these things.  I can imagine someone covering a fuckup because the damage is already done, that guy saved your ass last month, and you're not going to let him burn for a mistake.  I can imagine an underculture forming, complete with its verbal wisdom on how to circumvent the rules, how to cover career-ending mistakes, how to get the bad guys and watch each other's backs and keep the bureaucrats out of your way.  I can imagine cops opining that a lot of police power is an image, an illusion, and that it must be carefully maintained.  That allowing someone to be disrespectful to or disregarding of an officer makes all police look weak, and that this appearance of weakness will directly endangers the lives of their fellow officers in the future.  That you must seize control of a situation and not let go of it, squash defiance before it spreads, before the many realize their power over the few.  I can imagine things getting to where they are now.

I can see all of this but I cannot accept it.  I cannot accept it because the bureaucratic rules they conspire to break for each other are there to protect the lives and freedom of people who are not police. I cannot accept it because the purpose of law enforcement is to enforce the law and they are breaking it.  I cannot accept it because it is necessary for a free society to not accept abuses of police power.  I cannot accept it because they actually destabilize the rule of law by erroding public trust in law enforcement.  And I cannot accept it because Black Lives Matter, and are being lost.

We are beginning, perhaps, to see the first glimmers of accountability for officers who murder.  It is not enough.  There must be accountability for those who helped cover it up, for the officers who do not intervene when a co-worker is out of control and escalating a situation unnecessarily.  Police must be expected to enforce the rules on each other as well as the public and hold themselves to the higher standard.  They won't want to do it.  It will have to come down from above.  Police chiefs will have to truly hold their officers accountable.  Some chiefs will not want to, they will pay lip service but look the other way, and they must be held accountable for their failure to clean up their organization.  We must demand results and reject excuses.  The hard, accusatory questions about the police culture must be asked of those in charge: "Why is it possible for an officer in your department to not understand that a bullet to the head is not the right response to a fleeing suspect?  Why do your officers think it is ok to falsify a report?  What the hell is going on in your department, exactly?"

I don't think that what is going on at UC is actually that unusual, but we must de-normalize this corruption.  We must be outraged at law-breaking by law-enforcement even when we are not surprised.

There is only one thing that will get this done, and that is accountability.  It isn't easy; there will be uncomfortable costs.  Well-liked officers with long service will have their careers ruined and lives disrupted.  There is not another path to ending police abuses, and lives are already being ruined and ended.  Real accountability must be put in place and held firm until police forces around the nation understand that the public is not fucking around, and that they really and truly must obey the rules and ensure that the rules are being obeyed by their co-workers.  It will put the government and the people in conflict with police unions.  It may result in police strikes or similar threats to try to remind the public that we need the police and shouldn't oppose them.  There will be emotional appeals about the dangers of police work and the respect due to people who put their lives on the line.  None of this must sway us, because none of this excuses corruption and abuse.  It will require our political will to persevere, to insist that our policing is done ethically every day and in every department.

And honestly, I don't care if we have to flush an entire department and hire a pack of well-meaning newbies to replace them.  That's not a good result but it's better than tolerating the corruption.  I'm willing to escalate that far if that's what it takes for our rights to be more real than illusion.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Criticizing Police: Institutions and Individuals

"A few bad apples."  "I know there are some bad cops out there but remember that most of them are good." etc.

This stuff comes out frequently in conversations about abuses of police power.  The intent of it seems to be to deny that there is any systemic issue to address, only a few bad cops. 

Let me try to steelman this:

 "Inevitably in any organization as large as the police are nationwide, there will be individuals who misbehave.  Their bad behavior might tarnish the reputation of police generally, but this is not fair because it is not an accurate reflection of the other cops.  Other officers who are doing their job correctly should not be blamed for the ones who are doing theirs poorly, in the same sense that we don't blame all Christians for the small minority who are Christian terrorists."

This "a few bad apples" argument totally falls apart because police forces are hierarchical organizations.  There is a chain of command. Regulations.  Extensive and ongoing training.  Review.  Orders. Punitive actions.  Other groups, like "Christians", do not contain this organizing structure, so there can be no accountability to the whole for the actions of a part.  The group "Christians" do not have any real power over the group "Christian terrorists".

Police organizations do have real, extensive, and direct power over the police who work for them. An agency is responsible for how they respond to these incidents, and what we frequently see is agencies closing ranks around their officers to defend them from criticism of wrongdoing. So that, by itself, already makes this a systemic problem, and a serious one.  In the "few bad apples" hypothesis, the police chief and all of that officer's peers are horrified by the wrongdoing, and massive social and institutional pressure is brought down from within to correct the issue by shaming, denouncing, remediating, firing, and/or arresting the offending officer.  Is that what we observe?

Agencies train and indoctrinate their officers into an organizational culture; they set the standard for what is or is not acceptable.  Because of that, there is a sense in which the chain of command is responsible the very moment one of their officers does something wrong.  Obviously someone somewhere will still make a mistake, but in an organization where the standards are correctly communicated and upheld, the group will police itself at a peer level when possible and at a supervisory level when that fails.  In an incident with 5 cops on scene, when one got unnecessarily violent, the others would recoil in horror and tell them to back off or tone it down.  "You're out of line Officer Johnson, step back and we'll handle this.  We can discuss it back at the precinct." Or similar.  Is this what we observe?

In the best organizations a commander will take real responsibility for the failure, take real corrective action, and vow that the organization can and will do better in the future.  Is this what we observe?

A better analogy than the Christian terrorists would be Catholic priests and cardinals.  Is it appropriate to criticize the Church for the child rapes conducted by priests?  You're damn right it is.  In addition to having a responsibility to preventatively protect the children in their care, they have a responsibility to respond to incidents in a way that protects victims and others who might be vulnerable to future victimization.  They have a responsibility to use their institutional power over the priests to hold them accountable for their actions, at minimum.  The cardinals who knew about this and did nothing or protected the priests have no defense.  The organization as a whole has no defense.  The most I can say for the clergy in general is that it is plausible that many of them did not know this was going on.  A priest cannot be responsible for his peers raping if he does not know it is occurring. 

The same cannot be said for the police who were standing there, watching abusive violence from other cops.  The same cannot be said for the police who were helping.  The same cannot be said for the police who express public solidarity with these abusive officers.  I actually think law enforcement, as a whole, is more culpable for their wrongs than the Catholic Church, because the wrongdoing of their peers is not secret.  We are all aware, and still they close ranks. 

I think part of the issue is that they (and we) have decided that a particular group, "criminals", deserves whatever they get in their contact with law enforcement, so once they have mentally designated someone as a trouble-maker the ethical concerns evaporate.  This is why there is a rush to demonize the victims of police violence.  We have accepted the premise that it is possible to deserve police abuse, that it is justifiable if we disapprove of the victim sufficiently.  I won't go into it now.  Suffice to say democracy cannot thrive when state agents decide who does or does not have rights, which is why the ACLU defends terrible people against infringements and why it must be that way.  Anything else makes your rights up to someone else's discretion.

This does not mean that all cops are "bad".  It does mean there is a systemic issue with abuse of power in American law enforcement.  It does mean that there are law-abiding citizens with good cause to be afraid of the police.  In my view, because of the social dynamics that arise in groups who rely on each other in life-threatening situations, this problem can only be addressed from the top down.  Institutional reform with teeth is required.  Officers must be held accountable for what they do, and what they accept from other officers.  Whistleblowing must be a thing that is actually safe to do.  We're a long ways from there.

They will not give up their power and privilege easily, will not break ranks quickly, will not accept real accountability if it can in any way be avoided.  The powerful and exempt never do.  Please don't help them avoid accountability by dismissing the problem as isolated to a few bad cops, because it isn't.  That is not what we observe.  And this is not what we deserve.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Venturing across the tracks.

I've been thinking about an area of racism that I think is really common in white Americans.  It's been highlighted for me as I've spent a lot of the last month staying for work in a hotel in a working class black neighborhood.  I'm pretty much writing to my fellow white people here.

Here's a conversation from work today:

Dude:  Where are you staying?

Me: Oxon Hill.

Dude: [eyes wide] That's the ghetto.

Me:  I mean... not really, no.

Dude: Some parts of it are.

Me: It's a black area, but it's fine.  People are nice.  It's not a big deal.

[I'm hoping to indicate that his bias here is unjust without making a scene about it, but what I get are crickets followed by a topic change.]

This is an aspect of racism.  "Ghetto" tends to get a lot of racist usage to begin with, but calling any area with black people in it ghetto is like racist squared or something.  White people: seriously stop doing this.  This is a white fear of black people in any context where the white person is not operating from a position of superior power.  It was taught to me.  I think it is taught to many, because I have had conversations like this a lot of times and because I have virtually never been in a conversation full of white people where it was suggested that a black area was an ok place to go.  We have all, I think, seen these fretful conversations about black areas happen.

The problem is not avoiding seriously violent areas, that's just common sense.  The problem is the automatic association of blackness with crime and violence.   The racist version just leaps from the predominance of black people to an assumption of danger.  The non-racist version looks for indicators of violent or criminal intent that are not about race.  Simple indicators of blackness, it must be explicitly pointed out, do not count.  Nice rims, bass, sagging pants, speaking Black English - these things are all just culture, they tell you literally nothing about criminality, even though they have been strongly associated with it in popular culture (which is racist, and you are probably infected with that to some degree.)  The real signs of danger or criminality are the things that would trip your danger circuits if white people did them.  Perusing the contents of cars in a parking lot.  Loitering in a way that seems more territorial than social.  Being watched with predatory intensity.  Being followed.  Changing paths to intersect yours after noticing you.  Groups moving to surround.  And so on.  A man walking towards you with plastic bags in his hand is just a man that walks to get his groceries, or his beer and smokes, or whatever.

So if you find yourself having a fear response because you're in a black area, take a second look.  Are people just going about their lives while black?  Would the scene you're seeing seem fine if the people in it were white?  Then your fear response is not warranted, it's just a racist reflex that you've been conditioned to have.  I still have these; I can't just choose not to because it doesn't come from my conscious thoughts..  But I can recognize it for what it is, and then take a second to clear all that out of my head and move on with my day.  And I find that this racist reflex diminishes more and more as I accumulate experiences of being in black spaces that contradict the racist lies of my upbringing.

I have also had the occasion to notice that, ok, NOW I am actually driving through a sketchy area.  That's legitimate too.

I wouldn't say that it should be treated completely casually.  I am aware that I am in someone else's space, and I try to act like a respectful guest while also recognizing and accepting that some people will not welcome my presence.  Some people are friendly, some people are just professional or polite, some people are like "the fuq is white boy doing here?", and some people give me a bit of narrow-eye.  No one says anything explicitly, but I can see it in their reactions.  By being here, my whiteness is brought to the forefront of every interaction, which is a thing that I am not and most white people are not accustomed to. We do not usually have to think about how our race might color an experience, might negatively affect how we are perceived.  Most of the time here it is obvious to me that people are noticing my whiteness.  Some of them are judging that immediately, which I do not prefer but also do not resent, because frankly white people as a group have earned some side-eye and it would be bullshit for me to get indignant about it.  Some of them are sizing me up, trying to sort out what kind of white guy I'm going to be.  A few do not respond to me like I am other at all, which is really nice and a bit of a lesson for me to absorb about how it feels to be othered.  My experience of being racialized has been a bit uncomfortable at times, but minor compared to the scrutiny that black people often receive in white spaces.  Ultimately, a healthy dose of respect and a little bit of deference to the community that you are not part of goes a long ways.

There are perhaps some personal advantages that work to my favor, here.  I have a lot of experience in white lower economic class settings, and some of that is not about race and transfers over - like the ability to discern between someone with criminal intent and someone who is merely in public while poor.  (Basically some people will be struggling with racial and class biases, whereas I need only deal with the racial.)  Knowing when to mind my own business, and when a bit of interaction would be welcomed or expected.  I dress and act working class.  I'm a cis straight man, which makes all kinds of spaces safer for me.  I have long hair, which some black people have told me they take as a sign that a white guy is probably alright.  I have no idea how prevalent that assumption is, and I am less sure of how significant that really is to my experiences, but it makes some sense that any signs of an anti-establishment disposition might be received favorably by some members of a group that is constantly struggling with the establishment.  Things would probably be a bit frostier if I came here looking like Mr. Entitled Douchetool, Enjoyer of the Status Quo.

I have also noticed over the years, as I have excised more and more of my racist upbringing, that my interactions with black strangers are strongly colored by my own attitude to the situation.  If I'm having an internal "oh shit, black person" moment, people can sense that and will be offended by it and react poorly to me.  If I feel casual then our interactions will probably be casual, too.  The white person who is on edge because of blackness is being racist as hell, everyone knows it, and no one likes it.  I think a lot of white people with this fear-based racist response will go into black spaces, get poor treatment because they are acting racist as fuck, and then consider that a confirmation of their biases instead of noticing that they brought the problem with them.

I am not saying white people should saddle up and go invade black spaces.  I am saying that you should not be terrified of being the racial minority in a situation, nor resent that it requires a little social navigation.  Black people are dealing with this turned up to 11, and more, all their lives as they navigate white spaces because they must.

It's becoming more and more natural for me, and I'm glad for these experiences.

So I hope this is food for thought for someone.  If this racist fear reflex is a thing that you also experience, I recommend exerting the effort to unlearn it.  People everywhere really are just people.  They just live in a different normal from your own, that is as legitimate as your own.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Confusion: Rape and "Mild Negative Reactions"

I read a thing that Ally Fogg wrote concerning the rape of men.  It really made me think of an incident that I struggle to categorize.  It is, I think, a rape.  But I also feel very complicated about even calling it that.

I'm going to tell the story now, so if that is an uncomfortable thing for you, consider this a content warning.  There is also some victim-blaming because I can't talk about my honest feelings surrounding this without acknowledging that I feel some responsibility for it.  And other stuff, perhaps.  Confused post is confused.

The scene was that I was with my partner at the time, X (woman).  We were out with another couple, Y (man) and Z (woman) who we had met very recently and were considering a partner swap with.  Things were going well that evening, we were having fun, getting close, getting drunk.  I was pleased that we were all moving in the direction of a future sexual encounter together, but: I needed more time to get to know them, and I wanted to have some sober adult conversations about boundaries and whatnot before proceeding.  I tried a few times throughout the evening to apply the brakes without throwing cold water on the whole thing, which was not effective.  I don't remember the exact wording I used, or whether I explicitly said that tonight was too soon for me, but that is what I was trying to communicate.  It was more or less swept aside. 

Fast forward to their house.  Everyone is drunk, and X and Y have begun stripping down naked and initiating sexual contact, and it was clear that I was supposed to do the same with Z.  I remember thinking "Here we go..." and feeling a sinking sensation, like despite my efforts the roller coaster had now reached the top and was headed down with me in it.

There was no reason, really, why I could not have just said "No, I am not ok with this and I'm stopping it or at least not participating."  I think they would have pressured me further, but if I had held firm no one was going to force me to do anything.  The problem was that I felt enormous social pressure.  I felt like the fun of X and Y was going to be ruined if I didn't sleep with Z, like it was a package deal that had been invoked when X and Y started.  Z clearly expected my attention and would maybe be offended if I refused?  I felt like my masculine identity would be under threat if I walked away from the immediate sexual opportunity - that was particularly strong, like there was just no face-saving way for me to refuse this.  Y and Z had kind of a "cool kids" thing going on, and I wanted to be part of that.  I wanted them to like me, and I wanted, ultimately, for us to have a sexual thing together.  I just didn't want that yet.  (I need time to warm up to a person sexually, to build some non-sexual intimacy that can be a foundation for sex itself.  And we were too drunk to parse the decision as responsible adults, and I was aware of that.)

So I did it.  I slept with her.  And I was on top, and I controlled the pacing, and when I had difficulty getting an erection I asked her for help, which she provided, and I basically got through the performance and orgasmed.  The experience was stressful and meh for me, which really wasn't about her not being good in bed so much as me not really wanting to be there.  Afterwards, "cuddling" until morning, I felt vaguely like I wanted to throw up whenever I was awake.  I was caught a bit off-guard by that.  I wanted desperately to go to X and retreat to the comfort of her presence, but I again felt like socially this was just a thing I could not do.  So I waited for morning.  I felt better pretty much immediately after X and I got up and left, and later when we discussed this she said she'd felt pretty uncomfortable and rushed with the whole thing as well.  I do not know how X categorizes her experience from that evening, we never discussed it again, but it was something of a relief to me at the time to not be the only one who was unsettled by the evening.  (Which reads as horribly selfish of me now, but that is a true account of what I felt.  This is also complicated and ties into jealousy and security and things not connected to whether or not I'd really consented.  A worst case morning for me would have been X saying "I had an awesome time! Let's do it again tonight!"  Part of my relief was knowing that she would apply the brakes with me and that I would not have to make a case to her about it.)

For myself, I wasn't particularly traumatized.  I have not had flashbacks or nightmares, I do not get triggered.  I did not feel like it could happen again at anytime, or that I was unsafe in general.  The encounter did not detract from my social standing in any way.  I understood that I had the power to stop it all and I had chosen not to use it because I felt pressure.  I knew that now, armed with the memory of how doing something I didn't want to do had been unexpectedly icky for me, I was not going to let social awkwardness push me like that again.  Saying "NO" would be worth the social price and I would do it.  So I felt like I had control at the time, and going forward, still had control over what happened to my body - and I think that is a major factor in why this was largely, for me, just an unpleasant evening that came and went and not a cloud of past trauma that followed me around.  In a strange way I feel like I violated my own consent, if that makes any sense.  This hasn't been disruptive to my sex life in any way that I am aware of and I later went on to have fully consensual sex with Z, and considered her a close friend for a time.  I had categorized this as "sex that I was not ready for", and excused the drunken ignoring of my reluctance.

Looking back on it all, I think Z is a person who deliberately pushes past people's boundaries when she wants something, whether that is sex or a mutual drug experience or whatever.  It's her MO.  Despite that, I still feel extremely protective of her in some ways, and I'm not really angry about that evening, though I do look dimly now at her pattern.  I would say that I can't really see her behavior with emotional clarity.  I want her to stop violating people's boundaries (if she is in fact still doing it.  I have no idea. We aren't in much contact anymore.) but I would never sick the police on her and wouldn't want that outcome.  I don't really feel comfortable talking to her about it.  Really what I want to do about this is nothing.  I can sort of hear the arguments about "what if she hurts someone else and does more serious damage?"  Half of my brain just seizes up at that, and the other half starts spouting rape-apologism and disbelief.  And then I come back to where I was before the question, which is that I just want not think about this beyond mere introspection; I don't want to think about doing anything.  There might be some answers in that muck, but I don't feel good about or even capable of dredging it.  I don't feel comfortable condemning her, and I don't feel comfortable not condemning her.  My judgment feels fundamentally compromised, and I end up just going in circles if I try to nail the issue down.  It was also not just her, for example, there was this whole group dynamic happening, and I don't even know how to start parsing something like that.  One of the nice things about not telling the story is that no one can scrutinize my response to or interpretation of this event if they don't know about it.  That's probably the part that makes me most anxious about sharing this.  The second thing is that I don't want anyone involved to see this story, because I super do not want a confrontation on the matter or names named or any of that.  To that, I will just filter connected parties and hope for the best.

I discussed this with my counselor once, asking whether "rape" was even the right term for it.  His call was no, based largely on the lack of significant or lasting trauma.  But I'm not sure that's really the definition, or that he got this right.  My experience is emphatically not equivalent to the experiences of many rape victims, but ultimately I had sexual contact not because I consented to it but because I felt like it was not going to be ok if I said no and in part because I was too impaired to deal with a complicated situation.  It felt icky, and it was a situation that I really did not want to be in.  I think it would be easy to play "you really wanted it" bingo with the story.  Throw in a short skirt and I would have done almost everything a woman is not supposed to do if she wants her lack of consent to be taken seriously in our culture.  But my consent was not there, and I know this because I was.

What do I want you to take away from all of this?  Look for real consent.  Look for its absence.  Look for reluctance.  Look for anxiety.  Heed the signs.  This is like tail-gateing on the highway - if someone taps their brakes its because you're too close and you need to back the hell off.  Stop telling people that they "must have wanted" something when they're saying they didn't want it, just because their actions don't line up with what you imagine a person who doesn't want to have sex would have done.  Stop propagating the myth that "real men" are always ready for sex with a willing partner.  Have conversations about consent, and what it means to you.  Listen to your "nope" feelings.  Be kind to each other, and yourself.  Create consent culture.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Overreaching Metaphors

There is an excellent and fascinating article on metaphors and the brain.  I linked it uncritically on Facebook because I was mobile and my problems with it take some explanation, but I do have problems with it. Specifically the claims about consciousness and AI which seem to me unsupported.

First, I love the insight about how metaphors are connecting words and concepts that are already connected through our memories of experiences.  That's genius and my intuition is that it is absolutely true.

It seems to me that how well and reliably this phenomenon will show in the scans is going to depend on how evocative the phrases are for an individual, and what exactly they evoke.  The metaphorical "kick the habit" conjured a specific imagined scene for me, I was kicking an unwanted thing, and hard, right leg in full swing like punting a school-yard soccer ball for distance, toes curled up to strike with the ball of my foot.  The idiomatic conjured nothing for me, I simply translated "kicking the bucket"="dying" and moved on.  I have no idea where this saying comes from, so I cannot imagine it in a way that relates to the context.

But it isn't just my ignorance that can make the phrase fall flat.  "Bought the farm" also means to die, and I have an explanation for why: GIs who died were covered by SGLI, and by dying paid off their families' farm-related debts.  But this isn't evocative for me, it's a euphemism that references some bureaucratic after-effects of death.

And some of the difficulty in their data may simply lie in how different people perceive and experience these different phrases.  In this part:

Textural metaphors, too, appear to be simulated. That is, the brain processes "She’s had a rough time" by simulating the sensation of touching something rough.
I did not imagine a texture at all, but a car ride down a pocked and rutted dirt road, jostling me to the point of needing to use my muscles to protect my spine from the jolts.  If they had imaged my brain I might have been firing circuits for contracting my core or something, but I would not have been thinking about my fingers on sandpaper. I might have been a false negative in their study, if it did not account for this variance in how people connect these phrases to their experiences.

I also think that there may an an element unmentioned - our ability to correct malformed information.  Like Google's "Did you mean..." we can read a phrase with typos or other errors and usually correctly search for what the intended meaning was.  I have more than once found someone's clever meaning only because a literal translation failed and I was forced to go back for a second look to see what this phrase could be rounded to (metaphor!).  This ability to locate (metaphor!) meaning despite "errors" or other unexpected features seems like it might be relevant not just to solving CAPTCHCAs, but to using and comprehending metaphor.

Ok, on to the criticism.  This really bothers me:

If cognition is embodied, that raises problems for artificial intelligence. Since computers don’t have bodies, let alone sensations, what are the implications of these findings for their becoming conscious—that is, achieving strong AI? Lakoff is uncompromising: "It kills it." Of Ray Kurzweil’s singularity thesis, he says, "I don’t believe it for a second." Computers can run models of neural processes, he says, but absent bodily experience, those models will never actually be conscious.

The article has convinced me that metaphor in language is connected to the interconnectedness of our experiences and memories.  But:

1) It has not shown that use or comprehension of metaphor is necessary for consciousness.
2) It has not shown that cognition is embodied.
3) It seems to assign importance to the body itself rather than to the richly connected memories of inter-related information that was collected (via the body) and stored during events that these words map to.
4) It seems to be missing that our bodies function as very rich interfaces between the world and our brains, and that there is no reason why computers might not have analogously rich interfaces.

To #1, I will simply point out that there are human beings with very limited comprehension of metaphor.  This is one of the known limitations of autism.  I don't think we have any basis to suggest that autistic people are not conscious based on this.

#2 and #3 are related.  Having a body is certainly relevent to making the connection from the word "affection" to the memories of giving or receiving affection, to the memories of warmth, and back to the word "warmth".  But if we're abstracting to non-human minds, what matters is a symbol connects to both a literal meaning and a web of related experiences, which then correlate strongly to another category of experiences, represented by yet another symbol.  You don't need a body to do this, you need your memories to exist in an interconnected, relational web.

If you have a context of someone responding to a poor-quality comment on a blog with "Your little YouTube comment has contributed much to the conversation." then there are multiple non-literal leaps to be made.  First, this isn't literally a YouTube comment, so it must be referring to them in some way?  What patterns does that bring up?  YouTube comments are often terrible, ranty, poorly punctuated.  Ok, so that's a possibility.  "contributed much to the conversation." doesn't seem to make sense.  The comment doesn't seem to be appreciated by anyone else, or to have many redeeming qualities.  This must be sarcasm as well as metaphor.  Finally the diminutive "little" gives us an additional clue that this remark is disparaging the commenter.  We conclude with high probability that we have correctly understood the phrase as sarcasm with the use of metaphor to call out a shitty (metaphor!) comment.  You do not need a body to comprehend or experience any of that.  You need an internet connection and human language comprehension.  Memories have been invoked, for me of cringing while reading the comments on some YouTube video.  That part is human, but the computer could have some other computer-like experience stored in association with those comments, and still understand or create this metaphor, or even create metaphors that humans could not comprehend because we lack the relevant experiences.

I would argue that it is the ability to recognize patterns in experiences and to make associations between them that matters.  We do this with a body, but you could do it with a fiber connection to the internet.  You wouldn't experience kicking a soccer ball that way, but you would experience other things that could be turned to metaphor.

I'd tell you a UDP joke, but you might not get it.

For #4, essentially, I wish to argue that computers could have bodies for the relevant purposes.  It seems to me that the human experience depends on a lot of bandwidth of information coming in all the time.  This comes to us through our body, through our five senses.  All of the visual information, hearing in stereo and with meaningful information derived from varying arrival times, multiple senses of touch all over the body, complex smells and tastes.  We're collecting huge amounts of information about each moment, and it allows us to notice the patterns and associations, to turn events into richly experienced memories, and to connect them also to our feelings and values.  Our values, I think, are purely in the mind, but our feelings are in a way a feedback loop to the brain.  It both causes and detects those chemical signals.  They are an input to the brain that senses the brain itself.  You want to be not-sad.  Bob usually correlates with sadness.  Avoiding Bob probably also avoids feeling sad.  Sure, it's complex, it's sophisticated, but is it fundamentally different from what computer systems could do?  I don't think so.

Our bodies also allow us to interact with the world.  I work in automation, so simplistic computer systems that detect and respond to and control events in the world are commonplace to me. Many people probably read this and think of a PC, but I do not.  I imagine a machine with the power to detect and affect the world.  Their interface is comparatively poor, and inflexible.  A complex system might have 10s of thousands of bits of I/O, but this doesn't compare to the richness of information that is flooding our minds all the time.  Computer vision systems tend to be looking for some purpose determined features, so even though they might transmit a lot of video information, what is really being parsed and used is comparatively poor.  Outputs are similarly limited, usually throwing some switch or varying the power level of some motor, or perhaps moving a 6-axis robot arm.  Our modern systems are probably less complicated than an insect in many ways, and my intuition is that we need to reach the complexity of mammals before consciousness starts to arise.  But perhaps not.  Consciousness could be some multiplication of the power of the mind by the richness of its input.  No one knows how consciousness works, so it is hard to speculate well.

What would the boundary of a computer's body be?  If it controls a relay that turns on a pump that runs a domestic water system, where does its body end?  The relay?  The building?  The pump?  The pin on its processor that commands the relay?  One critical defining feature of our bodies is that we have a wealth of information about them.  A healthy human will have a lot of information about what is happening to a limb without needing to look at it - our bodies are constantly communicating information not just about the world, but about the body itself.  In this sense, nothing in our pump control seems like a body at all.  What if instead, basic systems were covered with sensors for detecting state and damage?

What if the power cable jacket to the pump contained legions of temperature sensors, inductive current detectors, continuity detectors for locating nicks and cuts?  Now a short would not just be inferred from the data, it could be said to be felt.  "I experienced a cut in my cable a short time ago.  I can no longer feel the current coursing through the parts of my cable past that point.  The temperature of the not-flowing parts of my cable is falling, and the temperature of the flowing parts of my cable is rising.  The current flow is higher, but erratic.  The temperature at the cut is rising particularly quickly.  This connects to other memories where my cable was damaged and shorted to a nearby steel column, and created that awful green arc, the color of which I can now see reflecting off of the walls.  I know what I will see when I turn my vision system to look upon my cable, it is cut at the middle, and I am shorting out.  I must act, and soon." Such a machine might appreciate humor about similar machines making tragic mistakes, or horror about the unimagined going wrong.  Fundamentally, its experience seems similar in the important ways to a person having their arm sliced open, or at least it could be designed so that this would be true.

In this way the cable becomes part of the computer's "body" in a meaningful way.  The pump it feeds does not, unless it too is given a richness of sensory feedback.  So I think computers could have bodies, without necessarily mimicking human bodies as androids do.  But it seems to me that the richness of input is what really matters, and with the existence of the internet, that really does not require a body.  Or, alternatively, the whole internet could be considered its body, but I have some trouble comprehending that framing.