Monday, March 28, 2016

Sadly Expedient

As is generally spelled out on their citations, traffic offenders usually have three options:

  1. Simply pay the fine, which is considered a conviction, resulting in points assessed against your license and possible insurance rate increases.  Additionally, accumulating a certain number of points on your license during a specified time period may result in license suspension.  Fines (or “Civil Penalties,” as they are gently referred to on the citations themselves) vary, but are usually at least $150.  So, this option is relatively low-hassle, but expensive in the immediate term and potentially far more expensive in the long term.

  1. Go to traffic school.  Successful completion of a Driver Improvement Course will generally avoid the assessment of points against your license, but you still have to pay the “Civil Penalty” and court costs.  This option is expensive and time consuming, as physical driver improvement courses involve sitting in a classroom for four hours, and the online versions of the courses use timing mechanisms to make sure you spend the same four hours sitting in front of your computer.

  1. Request a hearing.  This is a crapshoot, since the police officer who pulled you over may fail to show up at the hearing, in which case charges are dismissed and you get away scot-free. However, if the officer does show up, you end up in the same situation as with Option 1, except worse since you have to pay court costs.  Either way, you spent all morning at the courthouse.

As a seasoned human being who has held a driver’s license for almost 40 years, I can say, albeit not proudly, that I have some experience with each of those options.

What the citations fail to tell you, though, is that there is a fourth option: Justin Diamond, Esq.  and his Traffic Ticket Team.  (There are many other law firms that specialize in traffic tickets, but I have personal experience only with Mr. Diamond’s practice.)

Under Option 4 (let’s call it “The Diamond Option”), you call Mr. Diamond’s office, give the professional, courteous paralegal that answers the phone the citation number and your credit card information, and that’s it.  You are done.  The firm will charge you for their services, usually $59 (no typo, only $59!), and represent you in the matter of your traffic violation.  And somehow, magically, it seems, most of the time they get your case dismissed.   Again, I do not say this with pride, but ever since a millennial friend of mine recommended Mr. Diamond’s firm a few years back, I have benefited from its services on several occasions.  So far, Mr. Diamond and his team have never failed to either get the charges against me totally dismissed (no fine, no points, zero dollars, except for the $59 legal fee), or, in the worst case, have adjudication withheld, which means I pay court costs, but no fine and no points.

So, let’s say you are caught speeding.  You know you were speeding.  You have no problem admitting that you broke the law.  You have no problem with standing up and taking the punishment for your transgression.  But given the existence of “The Diamond Option,” any other course of action is clearly irrational.  And that is a sad thing, because it means that the most efficient and effective way to deal with a traffic violation is to hire someone to exploit the technicalities, flaws and shortcomings of our legal system.  

The pragmatist in me takes “The Diamond Option.”  The idealist in me wishes it weren’t viable.

Photo by wallyg ( [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The New TripTik

My son and I drove back home to Miami from Port St. Lucie yesterday, as we concluded the 2016 installment of our annual Spring Training extravaganza.  Although I know the way, I entered our home address into Google Maps anyway, just to see which one of three possible routes she would suggest.  (Obviously Google Maps has no gender, but I refer to it as a “she” because of the service’s no-nonsense yet lovable female default voice.)  To my surprise, she suggested a fourth route, one I would never have  considered, based on live traffic conditions.  I gladly took her up on her suggestion.

About halfway into our roughly 2-hour drive, Google Maps interrupted the podcast we were listening to and said: “There is a slowdown on the Florida Turnpike approximately twenty miles south of your position.  I have calculated a new route, which will save you five minutes.  Touch the ‘Accept Route’ button on your screen to accept the new route.”  I did, so instead of staying on the Turnpike for 34 more miles as was the original plan, Google Maps guided me to exit in 10 miles, and take I-75 South to SR 826.  The new route resulted in us arriving at home 10 minutes earlier than Google Maps’ original ETA..  (It seems fair to mention that the new, “Live Traffic” features that have gradually rolled into Google Maps are a result of Google’s 2013 acquisition of Israeli startup Waze Mobile.)

Of course all of this seemed perfectly natural to my 17-year old son.  So, as I am prone to do in these situations, (to his constant dismay), I attempted to describe to him all of the astonishing technologies that contributed to our blissfully event-free journey.  Of course, he wasn’t interested.

Yet I, on the other hand, was utterly fascinated by all of the different technologies involved.  A pocket-sized computer thousands of times more powerful than the computer that took Apollo 11 to the moon (the smartphone).  Technology which allows wireless, high-speed data communications (cellular data). A global network of networks, which links billions of devices worldwide (the Internet).  A space-based navigation system that provides location and time information in all weather conditions, anywhere on or near the Earth where there is an unobstructed line of sight to four or more satellites (Global Positioning System, or GPS).  The fact that Google has literally mapped out our entire planet.  The technologies pioneered by Waze that allow Google to analyze driver data and determine traffic issues and their optimal workarounds in real time.

So, to my son, we just had a normal drive home from Port St. Lucie.  From my point of view, however, we harnessed multiple independent technologies, each of which my 1979 self would consider outside the realm of even remote possibility.

But then again, my 1979 self thought the AAA TripTik was magical.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Safe Place

Much has been written and discussed regarding the iPhone 5C used by Sayed Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooters, and Apple Inc.’s refusal to comply with a federal judge’s order to allow investigators access to the data on the phone by creating a new operating system that circumvents several security features and installing it on the 5C.  Apple CEO Tim Cook details his company’s position in this eloquent open letter.

I support Apple’s stand in this case, basically for the reasons enumerated by Mr. Cook.   However, I think the fundamental issue at stake, which will probably not be resolved by this particular case, is fascinating: are we, as United States citizens, entitled to a space totally impenetrable to law enforcement?  

Everything that we own, and all of our communications, are accessible to government, provided (in theory) probable cause and a warrant.  Our homes, cars, places of business, safe deposit boxes, etc., are subject to search.  Our telephone conversations are subject to wiretaps.  Our bank accounts and financial records are fair game as well.  As long as law enforcement provides a judge with probable cause and obtains a warrant, there is nothing we can legally keep away from them.  There is only one exception to this.

The content of our mind.

Thanks to the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, we cannot be legally compelled to answer questions that may incriminate us.  Our brain is effectively out of the government’s reach.  So, for example, while law enforcement can compel me to use my  fingerprint to unlock my phone, they cannot compel me to hand over my password, since the password resides in my memory.

The question then becomes, should our digital devices be considered extensions of our mind, and therefore also out of the government’s reach?  Nothing of this sort has been the case in the past.  If you write things down on paper in case you forget them, the paper is subject to search.  Why should digital devices be different?  Philosophically, maybe they shouldn’t.  But digital devices have brought on a fundamental game-changer: encryption.

In the case of the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone (or, more accurately, the iPhone owned by San Bernardino County and issued to and used by Syed Farook), Apple has the capability of creating a compromised operating system and installing it on the phone, thus allowing law enforcement to use a “brute-force attack” to crack it’s 4-digit, numeric passcode and thus decrypt the data on the phone.  Even though newer iPhones use their “Secure Enclave,” instead of iOS, to enforce the security features that the FBI wants Apple to weaken in the San Bernardino case, in theory the Secure Enclave could be hacked in a similar way.  The precedent that would be set is one of the reasons why Apple is so adamant in its refusal to comply in the San Bernardino case.  

But that will not always be the case.  In fact, it is already not the case.  It’s no secret that Apple is working hard to develop encryption technology that even Apple itself cannot hack, but, more to the point, encryption that is virtually unbreakable is already available elsewhere to whomever wants it.  The math is out there, and there’s nothing anyone can do about that.  As many in the tech community have pointed out, you can’t outlaw math.

Many in U.S. law enforcement argue that companies that develop encryption technology should be forced to leave a “back door” for potential government access.  However, that argument is woefully misguided, because if that were the case then not only would the privacy and security of U.S. technology consumers be compromised, the bad actors out there would still be able to obtain unbreakable encryption; just not from U.S. companies.  So the “good” guys and gals would be insecure, the “bad” guys and gals would still be able to prevent government access to their nefarious data, and U.S. tech companies would lose all credibility in the world market.  And, of course, thanks to American hero Edward Snowden we know that the government has quite a tendency to overreach, trampling the Fourth Amendment in the process, so who is to say they wouldn’t abuse any back doors they are given?  

Going back to our original question, are we entitled to a space totally impenetrable to law enforcement?  Well, the availability of unbreakable encryption deems the question moot.  Whether or not we should have the ability to store information in a place the government can’t access, for the first time ever, we do.  

So, is this a good thing?

Saturday, March 5, 2016

What, Me Worry?

Today I received an email from Louis C.K., letting me know that Episode 6 of “Horace and Pete” was ready to download or stream.  Great news, since “Horace and Pete” is one of the most compelling television shows I have ever seen.   Really, go watch it.  Anyway, Louis C.K.’s email included a postscript with a bit of political advice:

Please stop it with voting for Trump.  It was funny for a little while. But the guy is Hitler. And by that I mean that we are being Germany in the ’30s. Do you think they saw the shit coming? Hitler was just some hilarious and refreshing dude with a weird comb over who would say anything at all.

Read the entire, lengthy postscript here.

Louis C.K. could not be more spot on.  An “insane bigot” is the Republican front runner by a country mile, and his ascension to power seems more inevitable every day.  We have an electorate disgruntled with their government, and deservedly so.  To support Trump is to flip the establishment the bird, to say “fuck you” to the politicians.  So it doesn’t matter how preposterous his positions are.  It doesn’t matter how many times he contradicts himself.  It doesn’t matter that we really don’t believe in the things he espouses.  It doesn’t even matter that we think he’s dangerous, because once he gets elected he won’t follow through on the absurd things he’s saying now.  Like all politicians, he’s saying things to get votes, but once in power he’ll dial it back.  Right?

Absolutely, people say, according to :

One thing you will hear people say about Donald Trump is that he might not actually be that terrible a president because he wouldn't actually follow through on the fascist things he says he is going to do, like deporting 10 million Latinos and banning Muslims from the country. Lots of regular politicians say things they don't really mean or promise things they couldn't accomplish to get attention during campaigns, so maybe Trump is the same way, right?

Well, as the same Slate article points out, that was the official “New York Times” take on the actual Adolf Hitler.  From the 1922 article where Hitler’s name first appeared on the Gray Lady’s pages:

But several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch messes (sic) of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic and inline for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes.

“The New York Times,” for crying out loud.  “Reliable, well-informed sources confirmed.” (Emphasis mine.)

Will Donald Trump be the Adolf Hitler of the 21st century?  Are we willing to take the chance?

Friday, March 4, 2016

Riding Around

These days, our minds are seldom free to wander.

I’m a huge fan of podcasts, and listen to them in my car, while getting dressed, even while brushing my teeth and shaving.  At the checkout line in the supermarket, I’m on my phone, catching up on email, or on the news.  During meals, when on my own, I’m reading a book on my Kindle.  I watch TV shows while working out.  So my mind is almost always engaged in a specific activity, and is seldom left to its own devices.

As I drove back to Miami from Key West last Sunday, I did something I haven't done in many years: I listened to music in my car.  I asked Google Play Music to play me some “Timeless Pop-Rock Hits” and that’s exactly what it did.  For three and a half hours.  And so, while I enjoyed the music of my youth, my mind wandered to all sorts of wonderful places and came up with myriad thoughts, all by itself, with no prodding from me.  My brain was in that special place between the conscious and the subconscious; that place where fresh ideas hatch, detritus is cleared out, and problems are solved.

I enjoyed that experience so much that I decided to write about it right then and there.  I opened Google Keep (a note-taking app), on my phone, and turned on dictation.  Google Play Music was still playing; I just lowered its volume a bit.  So, with the Atlantic Ocean on my right, the Gulf of Mexico on my left, and the timeless tunes of the ‘70’s in my ears, I spoke.  The noises I made were captured by a microphone hidden near my car’s driver-side visor and transmitted wirelessly, via Bluetooth, to my phone.  My phone then sent those noises to Google’s servers, where they were analyzed and converted to words.  The words were then sent back to my phone, where Google Keep dutifully typed them on my note.  Most of what you are reading right now was “written” in that miraculous manner, with blinding speed and astonishing accuracy.

So my smartphone, the tool primarily responsible for keeping my mind from wandering in the first place, enabled me to allow it to wander, and then made it possible for me to write about the experience while simultaneously listening to music and driving north on Overseas Highway.

It’s easy to blame the tools, when in reality they are never at fault.  My initial thought was that the rise of the smartphone was to blame for the dwindling time our minds get to wander.  Yet that same smartphone allowed me to create the perfect environment for my mind to wander, and then to capture my rambling thoughts.  The fact that I often choose to use my smartphone in ways that restrict my mind is not the smartphone’s fault, just like it’s not the smartphone’s fault that it is so often used in rude and obnoxious ways.

One final bit of irony.  On that gorgeous drive back from Key West, I used some of the latest technologies available in 2016 (a smartphone with an internet connection, Bluetooth, a music streaming service) to create an experience essentially identical to that which I had enjoyed  countless times in the ‘70s, using totally different technology (FM radio).  Nostalgia certainly had a hand in the joy I felt that day.

After all, I was, as the late, great Jim Mandich would say, just “riding around with the windows down.”  

(Photo: “View from the Moser Channel arc on the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys” by Marc Averette, used under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.)