The Dangers of the Information Superhighway

So, I’m sitting here eating sushi and watching Frasier (yes, Steve’s out of town) and I thought I’d tell you a story.

Gawker sucks.

End of story.

A few years ago — like when I had free time at work — I wanted to comment on one of the Gawker sites. Naturally, as with everything on the world wide web, you had to create a log in and a password. Because, you know, god forbid you be able to just do something online. [Side note: yes, that was the site I was eventually banned from commenting on. No, not because I commented frequently, but rather with incisor-like sharpness.]

I haven’t really gone back since that whole banning incident, so I didn’t even remember that I had a log in, couldn’t tell you what my password was, though I’d probably be able to guess it eventually. Then I got an email telling me my security had been compromised, a number of usernames and passwords had been hacked, along with the emails connected with them. I was advised to change my password on, and on all my other online accounts if I use the same password for other accounts.

Which, obviously, is sort of ridiculous, because of course I have the same password for some of my other accounts — who would be able to come up with different passwords for every single online account?

So, then I go to change my password, but of course I can’t, because I don’t remember it. And, of course, I use variations of the same few passwords for everything, because otherwise I can’t remember them. So, I start trying to change my passwords on other things that might be compromised if some hacker somewhere knew my email and a password and a username.

Then, I realize I have a lot of accounts.

There’s five email accounts. Online bank accounts and credit card accounts and work credit cards. Accounts for Paypal and eBay and craigslist and amazon. Accounts for every social media service, sometimes multiple accounts per service — one time I went to create a twitter account only to realize I already had one. All my healthcare services and utilities are always encouraging me to go paper-less, so I guess someone could hack in and order medication or turn off my electricity. And everytime I want to read something, I have log-ins for newspapers and magazines. I have a half-dozen accounts and passwords that change every three months and usernames and id numbers that don’t match the other id numbers for work.

So, my tracks on the information superhighway are basically skidmarks that stretch miles.

So, I got all worried, because exactly how much information can someone get from a username and password to a random news website with an email address? Could they steal my identity and why would they want to?

What I like the most

I’m about to go to bed. I had a busy day of lunch with Vivek, listen to Patch talk at Cal J-School, talk to my advisor from Cal, another snack with Christine.

But, I was thinking about my job — since lots of people have been talking about it lately.

Things I like about reporting:

  • writing
  • getting to learn lots of new things instead of always doing the same thing every week
  • knowing stuff first
  • writing
  • being able to dress “reporter nice” instead of nice-nice
  • taking a break in the middle of the day

Things I don’t like:

  • working until midnight instead
  • having to talk to people that don’t want to talk to you
  • no, really having to talk to them
  • always being “on”
  • the fact that no one I know from work has any idea what any of my actual opinions are about anything
  • having to write stuff that’s boring or sucks

Thing I like the most: it’s probably the only job I’m qualified for and able to do at this point, having forgotten any multivariable calculus I once knew.

Motorized Bike

I got my motorized bike and I made it home without dying (so there, Mom):

It’s more of a moped than a bike, but I’m not totally clear on the rules now. It is a bike that has a $130 motor stuck on it, so do I have to follow bike rules or car rules? (Which — whatever people keep saying — ARE different.) I was riding home, in the bike lane, because I was still going significantly slower than cars, but I’m not sure that’s allowed? I don’t know. And, honestly, I don’t think the law knows either.

OMG, Pink and teddy bears!

Here is a piece of information you maybe could have done with out: I hate the OBGYN.

The excess of pink and cartoon teddy bears make me nearly as uncomfortable as the whole exam part. People, these woman are having kids, that doesn’t mean they are kids.

I hate that you’re pretty much required to go. It’s so condescending. Men aren’t required to go to some doctor to check out their private business. It’s figured that generally they got that shit under control. But, no, us ladies, we need special help. Pink special help.

I hate that when you do go but you’re not popping a kid out, it’s oh-my-god-so-boring. The doctor is bored. You’re bored. No one wants to be here. Just like how no one wanted to sit through high school sex ed either.

And, I hate, that because you’re the boring-not-popping-a-kid-out patient, you have to spend even more time sitting in the pink waiting room. I hate that the magazines are all Parenting and Gardens. Naturally, ovaries mean people lose the capacity to care about anything but babies and flowers and cartoon teddy bears.

I hate that when you finally do see the doctor for the less than ten minutes, condescending, required exam, they want to bond and paint toenails and share Cosmo details. And give you a mini-high-school lecture. Shit, woman, if I wanted to be educated (or make friends) I’d take community college classes. And — as a side point — no, I do not want to switch to whatever fancy new drug you’re pushing this year.

Then, you think, well you only have to go once a year. It’s not that bad. But, I did the math (I know, it was hard, I had to surpress my feminine hormones in order to be able to add) and I figured out in my life I’ll spend 3-4 straight days doing this — this, the required yearly bullshit no one wants to be here part, not even the OMG! YOU’RE HAVING A BABY THATISSOAWESOMEYOUMUSTBESOEXCITED part.

I wonder if you could just put your head down, tough it out and get the 96 hours straight done in one go.

Not even a little bit about triathlon

I was in San Francisco on Thursday when the Mehserle verdict was handed down (an incident which oddly has its own Wikipedia page) and people started completely freaking out; totally losing their shit. And not in the least because they thought he should or shouldn’t be found guilty. Everyone fled their office buildings and rushed home, because of the impending riots.

Which just really pissed me off.

Now, Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and could get 5 to 14 years. Whether or not you think that was fair or just or unjust or bullshit doesn’t really matter unless you were on the jury — that’s how our system works.

Personally, I think he had to be found guilty of something. You can’t just shoot someone in a crowded BART station, whether on accident or not, whether you’re a police officer or not. That’s not how things work here.

My opinion of whether he should have been found guilty of more isn’t entirely informed — I didn’t follow the trial closely — and it’s fairly colored by the fact that people with power freak me out, especially when they’re given guns. Steve thinks fatal accidents at the hands of police happen because we put the police in situations where they will happen — which is maybe fair. Or maybe we need to train our police more. Or both.

What you believe is a little bit dependent on whether you’re willing to give up some freedom, some rights, some civil society in order to be more secure. If you think the police have to cast a wide net, have to stop every person they believe has a gun, have to err on the side of making everyone safer, then sometimes they’re going to be wrong. I tend to believe I’d rather pay the cost of feeling less safe, of risking some crimes, if it lessens the chance an innocent person will be shot.

I think that’s what the phrase “freedom isn’t free” actually means, not that we should spend more on defense.

But that’s not what everyone was freaking out about on Thursday. Everyone was freaking out because these were going to be “the worst race riots since Rodney King.”

Shit, people, I don’t even remember the LA riots — I was 8 — but let’s not do a disservice to the 55 people who were beaten to death for no reason by comparing it to the robbing of  Foot Locker by Berkeley anarchists.

You can watch footage yourself. My favorite was on Channel 5 when the two British hippies started yelling at the reporter for not understanding ‘these people.’

The only reason the rioting was such a big deal was because it had been threatened from the start of the trial. A spontaneous outpouring of emotion I could have understood, but the deliberate use and threat of violence as a means to subvert and manipulate the justice system just pissed me off. And the freaking out just fed into it.

Underneath all these much more dramatic storylines is something no one’s really talked about.

Assume Mehserle’s defense was completely true: he meant to pull his Taser and accidentally pulled his gun. And shot Oscar Grant in the back and point-blank range.

We treat Tasers in law enforcement as a non-lethal deterrent. But they’re not.

It’s been well-documented that people have died after being shocked by Tasers. Particularly if it’s at close range or for an extended period. Or if the victim has a previous condition that the officer could in no way know about. With my heart arrhythmia wierdness and propensity for seizures, if I was Tasered I would probably go into some kind of shock and die.

Obviously, obviously, less-lethal is still better than totally lethal. And if the Taser was only ever used as a substitute for a gun, then less people would die, that would be great, etc.

But, because we treat the Taser as a non-lethal device instead of a less-lethal device, officers are much quicker to pull them than they would guns. In addition, they get far, far less training in Tasers than they do on their more lethal weapons. In fact, inadequate training was part of Mehserle’s lawyer’s defense (evidently, so inadequate he wasn’t able to identify that he wasn’t holding a Taser).

And, with that quickness to reach for what they believe is a completely safe deterrent comes accidents.

Mehserle wouldn’t have pulled a gun on Grant in a crowded BART station and shot him in the back of the head if that was the only gun on his belt. He wouldn’t have reached for the Taser and made a fatal mistake. He would have resolved the situation using other means. Non-lethal means. Because the Taser, it would appear, is not less-lethal enough.


I’m reading Superfreakonomics (which is infuriating in that the assumptions the authors make in order to justify their arguments are leaps of faith off very shaky platforms), and I started thinking about the 99% accurate test that they put forward.

If a test is 99% accurate, most people would agree that’s really, really good. If any of the kids I tutored got 99% they certainly wouldn’t need me to tutor them.

But consider a test that is 99% accurate. In the book they imagine a test that is 99% accurate in identifying terrorists. But, what about a test that is 99% accurate in identifying dopers.

Out of 100 people that are dopers, it would correctly identify 99 of them as dopers. Out of 100 people that aren’t dopers, it would incorrectly identify 1 of them as a doper. But what if that 1% error is out of lots and lots of innocent people. Out of 100,000 non-dopers, it would incorrectly identify 1,000 as dopers.

For identifying terrorists this doesn’t really work, obviously, because most, most people are not terrorists, so you get an overwhelming number of people wrongly identified, which means for any one person identified as a terrorist there’s a pretty good chance they’re not.

Whether or not it works for doping kind of depends in part on how prevalent you think it is, but also on what we’re doing with all these false positives. Since the terrorist test is imaginary I wasn’t really interested in it. But, doping tests are not imaginary. They are real and they’re pretty high stakes and they are not 100% accurate.

It depends obviously on the particular test and newer, better ones are being developed all the time, but even if they have 99.9% accuracy those tests are incorrectly identifying some people as having used performance-enhancing drugs. And when you multiply that by the hundreds, if not the thousands, of tests that professional (and now, amateur) athletes have to take that’s a scary number of false positives.

And, that’s assuming no human error. [Kind of like how condom use’s effectiveness in the real world is actually much lower than 98%.]

And, that’s not even talking about the athletes who get positive doping tests because they fail to fill out the right forms to get their asthma medication approved or didn’t know certain medicines on a long list of scientific names would trigger the tests. (On the email I got about banned substances, it listed a bunch of things that are banned “in competition,” but not out of. It took me a while to figure it out, but then it became clear you’re not allowed to be on Sudefed, Nyquil or Tylenol during a race, which means it has to clear your system before the race. How long does it take to clear your system? I really don’t know. Maybe just don’t take it 3-4 weeks before a race. But you’re racing every other weekend, so, just don’t get sick.)

And, we’re not even mentioning the fact that the World Anti-Doping Agency’s online tracking system is supposedly impossible to understand.

WADA is under fire – and rightly so – for an ill conceived system that now forces athletes to provide three months’ notice of their location an an hour each day for seven days a week between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. for testing.

Even ignoring all of those issues (because WADA and USADA certainly are), I’m still concerned about the 1% error. Or .1% error. Because .1% out of 100,000 tests is still 100 people.

So, let’s assume, of course there are mistakes in drug testing. Of course. There’s technician error. There’s biological differences between people that would mean a test may fall outside the range of “normal.” There’s people who have filled out the forms wrong or didn’t mean to take performance-enhancing drugs with their over-the-counter medication. And, then there’s downright false positives. So, sure, of course, mistakes happen.

Except, according to USADA, they pretty much never make mistakes.

Which is why it’s totally ok that the high-stakes process operates completely outside of the confines of the pesky legal system. Who needs trials and evidence and defenders when you have “arbitration.” Why give the athletes access to legal assistance and their own test results; that seems so unnecessary.

It really shouldn’t be a surprise that few athletes appeal a sanction once it’s handed down and that on appeal the USADA seldom loses. USADA didn’t lose its first appeal until 2007 and that was only after a law professor and four law students worked pro bono on the case.

(USADA also shortened a hammer-thrower’s suspension earlier this week because she had taken a diuretic after being horribly depressed. It was a “rare loss.”)

So, if you experience human error in your test or make a mistake in the bureaucracy or are simply one of the false positives, then you are faced with an overwhelmingly biased, complicated, and opaque arbitration system, which makes it nearly impossible to prove your innocence and which almost never finds in your — the athlete’s — favor.

I would have more faith in a system that admitted it makes mistakes. Justice that claims to be all-knowing is seldom just or all-knowing.

What I wish I had said

This is what I wanted to say to the doctor when I left today:

No, I will not be coming back here or ever asking you another question. Ever. I don’t want to waste my time or money. I’m busy. Today, I was on deadline. I got up early just so I could finish work and come to see you. I hoped you might demonstrate more knowledge than a Google search, but I was wrong. If you’re going to pretend to be a sports medicine doctor, you really ought to have more knowledge of sports medicine than I do. And I don’t even know more than Steve. Don’t give me some bullshit lecture on shit I’ve known about running since I was 16 (and I didn’t know crap about sports physiology when I was 16) and act like its scientific medical advice, you crack. I had specific questions, three of them, and you couldn’t give anything better than vague, unhelpful and condescending non-answers. Then you actually told me not to interrupt you? I wouldn’t interrupt if what you were saying was worthwhile. Way to make a frustrating and difficult situation worse, you never-was hack. I want my $50 back.

That’s what I wanted to say but, since I’m not actually a terrible person and I couldn’t stop thinking of the Seinfield episode where Elaine’s doctor writes that she’s “difficult” in her chart, I just glared at him and tried not to cry.