Our Dangerous Obsession with Identity

Over the past 10 years, we’ve developed an obscene obsession with “identity,” and for all the wrong reasons.

ID CardAt every turn it seems like there are more requirements for “proof of identity,” or requests for ID. Somehow we’ve gotten it into our collective consciousness that being sure of someone’s identity removes all risk of fraud, theft, or crime – but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, stricter requirements for “proof of identity” are, largely, a complete and utter waste of everyone’s time.

Consider this example: the state where I currently live (New Jersey) has an insanely complicated “6 point system” for getting (or even renewing!) a driver’s license. (This is due, at least in part, to the stupid REAL ID Act, which I’ve written about before.) You need “6 points” worth of identification, with different forms of identification being given different point values. For example, a passport is worth 4 points, but a drivers license from any other state is only worth 1 point. And it’s not enough to just get the 6 points you need – you have to have at least one document from each of several categories! And as if that’s not enough, you need another separate document “proving” that you are a resident, which gives you no points, but you need it anyway.

This obsession with “proving identity” seems to stem from the misguided belief that knowing who someone is gives you some insight into what their intentions are. This is obviously a fallacy. So too is the idea that somehow people with sinister intentions would be unable to prove their identity (because all “bad guys” have fake names and use fake IDs, right?). Although a 5th grader would probably understand all of the holes in this logic, somehow this has become our de-facto operating principle at both the large corporation and government level.

Part of this, I think, stems from CYA syndrome, otherwise known as “cover your ass” syndrome.

You see, by forcing everyone to prove who they are, you do establish some sort of paper trail that can be useful after the fact in solving crimes that have already happened. But this is a very small benefit for a hugely cumbersome system of identity verification and re-verification.

It is somewhat of a tangent, but on a personal level I find this constant need to “prove” that I am who I say I am very insulting. This constant doubt of your sincerity and trustworthiness is, frankly, wearisome.

While it’s true that there are some holes in the systems we use for identification, our obsession with identity hasn’t really addressed these concerns in any meaningful way. People continue to get fake IDs, and those who wish to commit crimes (or perpetrate acts of terrorism) will do so, regardless of whether they were able to get a driver’s license or not. So in the end, this obsession with ID is really, truthfully, and honestly a complete waste of time.

You trust me on that, right?

Photo “ID Card” by Gareth Harper, used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

Confusion, Misunderstandings, and Net Neutrality

I’ve seen a lot of argument back and forth on the issue of “Net Neutrality,” and one thing that really jumps out at me is how much confusion and misunderstanding there is regarding what the phrase “Net Neutrality” really means. This is an attempt to clear up some of the confusion.

At the root of the problem is that the phrase “Net Neutrality” is not actually a very accurate or descriptive phrase for the underlying problem it’s supposed to describe.

This is a problem because one you label a complex issue with a simple name, people will forget what the underlying issue is and simply take the meaning from the descriptive name – and if the name is misleading, then people will misunderstand the issue.

Don’t believe me? Just look at people arguing about “Global Warming.” Every time it snows somewhere that it doesn’t usually snow (or doesn’t usually snow very much) you will get people screaming that this means that “global warming” is a farce. “How can it be warming when it’s so cold out!” Because the phrase “global warming” was used to describe a more complex technical concept (e.g., the average temperature of the Earth rising by a few degrees, and the resulting climate changes that result from this), people forgot what the actual problem was and simply latched on to the name used to describe it. The same seems to be true for “Net Neutrality.”

People tend to see the word “neutrality” and think “that’s OK,” then they hear that Net Neutrality proponents want the government to step in to guarantee “net neutrality” and suddenly alarm bells start going off in their heads. “Wait a second, government is bad! If the network was ‘neutral’ wouldn’t that mean NO government regulation, instead of more?

So right off the bat here we’ve got misunderstandings caused simply by the name we use to refer to the problem.

The misunderstandings continue even as we try to clear up the confusion caused by having a confusing name. One common misunderstanding is that somehow the idea of “Net Neutrality” would forbid ISPs and such from enforcing QoS and other similar things. This again stems from a poor choice of words, usually someone trying to describe “Net Neutrality” as “treating all Internet traffic the same.”

A better way to describe it would be “not discriminating against Internet traffic based on where the traffic originated.

That is to say, as an ISP it’s fine for you to throttle video services, or VoIP, or whatever you want (or need), so long as you’re not doing that throttling (or, in some cases, blocking) solely based on where those bits originally came from.

To understand why anyone would want to do this in the first place, and why it suddenly seems like yes, they do want to do it and might even start trying to do it very soon unless we do something (which is why people are all in an uproar over “Net Neutrality” in the first place), it helps to understand a little bit of the situation with ISPs.

The biggest ISPs – at least consumer ISPs, and at least in America – are Phone (DSL) and Cable companies. These are companies that don’t just provide Internet access – they also provide another service along with it, and that other service is how they got their start (and may even still be their biggest provider of income).

The biggest concern to these companies is that you will use the Internet service they provide to get around the need for the other services that they provide (phone & cable TV), and eventually their other services will die out and they’ll be left as nothing but Internet providers. While they might do very well as Internet providers, they don’t want to give up the “sure thing” of their existing services – and they will fight hard to keep that from happening.

In the case of the phone companies, they don’t want you using VoIP or Skype or whatever, because then you won’t need a phone line anymore. With the cable TV companies, they don’t want you watching video online (especially things like Netflix streaming or Hulu or even some types of videos on YouTube) because then you won’t need their cable TV service anymore.

To put it more simply, ISPs want to be able to block (or force extra payment for) access to competing services, and Net Neutrality says that they shouldn’t be allowed to do this.

That phone and cable companies want to be able to block (or charge extra for) access to these competing services sort of makes sense, in a way. If you owned a coffee shop, you wouldn’t want lots of people sitting around in your shop drinking the coffee they bought from the competing shop across the street, taking up your space but not making you any money, right?

But this doesn’t work on the Internet any more than it does in real life. In most places you aren’t allowed do discriminate against your customers – you can’t kick someone out because they have a coffee cup from that chain across the street. (But it is worth noting that you can kick them out if they’re causing a ruckus, which in Internet terms means you can enforce QoS and throttling to prevent abuse.) You also aren’t allowed to build a wall across the street so that people can’t walk past your store to your competitor’s store.

Looking at this from another angle, imagine if your Verizon phone couldn’t call AT&T phones unless you paid extra money for that ability, or perhaps such calls would be billed at a higher rate.

In many ways, this is a lot like the concept of “common carriers.” Phone companies are considered “common carriers,” which is why the situation I described above can’t happen (it’s prohibited specifically by law). But ISPs aren’t considered “common carriers,” and this is the crux of Net Neutrality. It’s really more about fairness than neutrality in that way.

Think about it like this: I pay for my Internet access, which gives me a certain amount of bandwidth – which I can use however I want. The sites I choose to visit also pay for bandwidth on their end (often at a MUCH higher rate than I do). So why would you want to allow ISPs to charge these sites AGAIN just because the traffic from their site (which they have no control over who is requesting it) happens to go across the ISP’s network (on its way to customer who has already paid for this bandwidth, I might add)? This is what Net Neutrality advocates are worried will happen unless we adopt rules similar to those for common carriers.

This is especially troubling considering that many places (at least in the US) have very little choice in ISPs – for a very large portion of people, it’s either DSL from the phone company or cable Internet from the cable TV provider. So the usual answer to problems like this (“just vote with your wallet!”) doesn’t apply.

Other confusion regarding “Net Neutrality” of course comes from the fact that we’re trying to involve the government with it, and that’s always asking for trouble, no matter how noble the intentions. Suffice to say, politicians do not understand the concept embodied in the phrase “Net Neutrality” very well. As a result the legislative solutions they propose tend to fall short of addressing the real problem, or sometimes they go way too far and end up being more harmful than the original problem they were meant to solve!

However, just because government tends to be incompetent doesn’t mean that that the underlying issue doesn’t exist.

The concept of Net Neutrality, no matter how confusing its name, is an important issue. Government regulation may or may not be the ideal way to address it, but a lot of very smart people seem to think that it does at least need to be addressed somehow.

Hopefully this article has helped clear up some of the confusion about what “Net Neutrality” really means, so that at least we can all be on equal footing to debate its merits and potential solutions (or why no solution might be needed).

Keith’s Winter Driving Tips

With all the snow & ice hitting us up here in the northeast US, I figured it was time to try and educate people about how to drive in the snow… because, seriously, a lot of people seem to have a real problem with it. So here goes.

Slow down

If you do just one thing while driving in the snow, it should be to slow down. Pretend that everything is happening in slow motion. In the snow, or really any time the roads are very slippery, everything you try to do takes longer to happen. This means you need to do things more slowly/gradually: accelerate slower, brake slower, and turn slower.

Check your tires

It doesn’t matter if you’ve got AWD, 4WD, traction control, anti-lock brakes, etc., unless your tires can get some grip. If you’ve got summer tires, or worn down “all-season” tires, this more than outweighs any advantage from those sorts of systems.

This is especially true if you’ve got low-profile, high-performance sport tires – if you have these sorts of tires on your (sports) car, you should really just stay home and keep off the roads. (And that goes double for people driving luxury SUVs which often come with “sporty” tires which are absolute rubbish in the snow.)

Acronyms don’t make you invincible

This is something that really needs to be drilled into people’s minds. Yes, 4-wheel drive (4WD) or all-wheel drive (AWD) is great, and yes, it gives you extra traction… for getting moving. But keep in mind that when it comes time to turn, or to stop, you still have the same number of wheels (and brakes) as everyone else on the road.

4WD/AWD will help keep you from getting stuck in the snow, but that’s about it.

Clear all the snow from your car

Yes, I know it’s annoying to have to clear all that snow off your car, and it can be tempting to just clear the windows and go… but there are a lot of good reasons to take the extra time and effort to clear the rest of the snow off your car.

If you have a tall vehicle (say, an SUV, which is probably why you don’t want to make the effort to get the snow off in the first place since it’s harder to get at) then all that snow is adding weight to your car, and adding it up high like that makes you rather top heavy – or to put it simply, you’re more likely to flip over.

And let’s also not forget that eventually that snow is going to come flying off your car – and then just think about the poor person behind you.

Turn on your lights

I’m seriously amazed at how many people I see driving in the snow without their headlights on. Many of them are driving white or silver cars, which makes it even worse.

Many states (something like 20 the last time I checked, including New York and New Jersey) have a “wipers on, lights on” rule, and for a very good reason – when visibility is reduced due to rain, fog, or snow, turning on your headlights makes it easier for other people to see (and, critically, avoid) you.


I hope that some of these tips have helped someone out there – driving in the snow really is not that complicated, you just need to keep your wits about you and make sure you have the right equipment.

If you have any winter driving tips of your own to share, feel free to share them in the comments!

Keith’s Anime Reviews: K-ON!

K-ON! (yes, the exclamation mark is part of the title) is an absolutely fantastic series. Unlike some of the other anime I’ve reviewed recently, it’s also quite upbeat and cheerful – in fact, whenever I’m watching it, I can’t help but smile. (Usually I’m smiling through the entire episode - it’s really that good.)

The premise of K-ON! is quite simple – a couple of high-schoolers join the “Light Music Club” (the Japanese name of which is where the name “K-ON” is derived from) and play music, form a band, have adventures, drink tea, and generally goof around all the way through high school.

Overall, K-ON! is a very lighthearted series, with a recurring theme of the value of friendship and being yourself. It really is just a lot of fun to watch; you can’t help but smile while watching it.

Another aspect that makes this series very enjoyable to watch is the music, which is simply fantastic (as you would expect about a series about people in a school music club that form a band). Everything from the opening theme to the closing theme (which is usually done in the format of a music video featuring the main characters), along with every song that is performed in-series is just terrifically upbeat and catchy, and you’ll undoubtedly find yourself humming one (or more) of the songs at some point.

Ultimately this is just an incredibly adorable and fun series. The characters are just so much fun to watch as they interact with one another, and there’s a nice mix of humor, sweetness, and “slice-of-life” style stories that just make it just a pure joy to watch – either from start to finish, or picking any random episode and letting yourself smile the whole way through.

You won’t find anything in K-ON! that is overly dramatic, but it is a great series that is just plain fun to watch. I highly recommend it.

Keith’s Anime Reviews: Kanon

Kanon is a very interesting anime series.

Originally released in 2002, and then re-done and re-released in 2006, this is an anime based on a game – much like Air. However, I didn’t find out about it until just this year, so once again I am sort of “behind the curve” on keeping up with the latest anime.

Like the musical style it is named after, Kanon is built on recurring themes that play out (with many variations) through the different characters. There are themes of memory loss, timeless love and affection, the struggle against the inevitable, along with many more – but you should just watch the whole series to find them all.

One of the reasons I like this series so much is the cast – or perhaps I should say the depth of the cast. Instead of a bunch of cookie-cutter characters which simply fill some stereotypical role, each character has unique characteristics  – and most importantly, everyone has a reason for those characteristics, which is eventually explained and explored along the way as we get to know the characters better.

I make no secret of the fact that I’m a big fan of in-depth characterization – and Kanon certainly delivers in that department. I like finding out about characters motivations and the events that led them to be the way they are now. Even if we’re never told everything about a character, if the author has an in-depth history behind them (even if it’s just in the author’s mind), it will show, even if they don’t come right out and explain it. And that, I think, is the hallmark of a really great story, no matter how it’s told (novel, manga, or film).

Seriously, the depth of the characters’ stories in this anime is absolutely amazing. Here’s a quick summary to show what I mean:

  • You’ve got a Ayu (an old friend of our main character) who has lost something important but can’t remember what it is;
  • Matoko, a girl who has lost her memory (but somehow remembers that she has a grudge against our main character);
  • Mai, a strangely aloof girl who… hangs around school late at night with a huge sword and fights “demons” (yes, you read that right);
  • Shiori, a girl who seems to have some sort of serious illness (but won’t talk about it) who hangs around just outside the school and seems to have some problems at home.

Over the course of the 24 episodes, each of these people’s stories are explored in-depth. And that’s just the “main” characters – there are also several supporting characters who also have their own stories, which are also explored (although they are not as dramatic and aren’t explored quite as deeply). For example, Sayuri, Mai’s friend, has her own background drama which explains why she often talks about herself in the 3rd person.

I must also admit that I’m a bit of a sucker for what you might call “sappy” (or maybe “emotional” is a better term) stories – and again, Kanon certainly fits the bill. This anime is not a silly happy story, nor is it a comedy – it has a heavy dose of bittersweet sadness and regret. (Though of course there are silly happy bits, and comedic parts – and they fit very well into the overall story, which is always nice to see!) If you are the emotional type, you may want to keep some tissues nearby when watching this series.

I also love the attention to detail in this series – if you’re watching it, be sure to pay attention. There are subtle clues and seemingly-random events that become relevant much later on. There is a fair amount of foreshadowing, but it’s subtle and easy to miss – it’s not in-your-face or anything like that.

Ultimately of course it’s the story that will really draw you into this series – and it is a very well done story. There are several “arcs” which usually focus on one (or two) characters, and each time you really feel very connected to the characters – you care about them and want to find out what’s going on, or find out what happened to them.

And that’s what I think is best about Kanon - an interesting story with memorable, well-developed characters and just the right mix of mystery, sadness, happiness, and a touch of the supernatural.

If you like your anime with good, deep stories (even if “romantic” stuff is not necessarily your cup of tea) and lots of interesting characters, then I would strongly recommend you give Kanon a try – you won’t be disappointed.