andrew catellier


No FEAR, Kind Of

Jason E. Harrington wrote about his experience as a TSA employee at Chicago’s O’Hare airport (go read the whole thing!). This quote from the essay refers to a letter that he wrote to (and was published by) the New York Times:

“The problem we have here is that you identified yourself as a TSA employee,” she said.

His letter to the Times demonstrated an attempt to take pride in his job and defend his employer. It also recommended a policy change that would allow employees a sense of agency in their work, something that to me is essential to job satisfaction and something that’s missing from a good deal of public and private jobs. He took great care to not disparage and even defend the TSA. His essay continues:

They were words I had heard somewhere before. Suddenly, the admonishment from our annual conduct training flashed through my head—self-identifying as a government employee in a public forum may be grounds for termination.

The basis for this rule is straightforward. Imagine an organization with a mission to teach math to anyone with an interest in learning. If one of the workers employed by this organization publicly endorsed the opinion that nobody uses math as an adult, that organization’s ideology would be diluted. So it is with the United States government. Most federal employes are bound by some form of this rule.

I was shocked. I had been sure the letter would fall under the aegis of public concern, but it looked as though my boss wanted to terminate me. I scrambled for something to say.

“I thought the First Amendment applied here.”

She leaned back in her chair, hands up, palms outfaced. Now she was on the defensive.

“I’m not trying to tread upon your First Amendment rights,” she said. “All I’m saying is: Couldn’t you have run those First Amendment rights past the legal department first?”

She dismissed me with the assurance that we would discuss the matter further at some point in the future.

This exchange concerns me for several reasons.

  1. Termination is a harsh punishment for engaging in civil discourse.
  2. Instead of accepting the letter as a form of feedback and acknowledging Jason as an employee with ideas that could be valuable to the TSA, his action was condemned for disregarding a rule. A wise manager would have attempted to address Jason’s concerns. Perhaps she did but that part of the conversation was omitted from the essay.
  3. As a federal employee, Jason should have received what is sometimes known as No FEAR training—typically bi-yearly training sessions on the rights of federal employees under the No-FEAR Act and the Whistleblower Protection Act/Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act; the former protecting federal employees from retaliation when reporting discrimination in the workplace and the latter protecting federal employees from retaliation when disclosing government fraud, abuse of resources or concerns for public health. TSA employees should receive information about these laws. If they don’t, that is extremely unfortunate and possibly illegal. If they do, Jason would have done well to file official complaints concerning the ineffectiveness of full-body scanning methods and concerning the veiled threat made by his supervisor. That said, it’s conceivable the complaints wouldn’t have gone far.
  4. No-FEAR and WPA/WPEA are great but as far as I know, they don’t apply to contractors doing government work. As the government becomes increasingly dependent on contract labor this limitation is gravely concerning. It is absurd that a federal employee has protected, legal channels to challenge questionable work practices while a contractor in the same position could be tried for treason. It is under this pretense that I strongly disagree that government functions should be contracted to private industry.
  5. The exchange demonstrates a crippling trait possessed by the federal government: the desire for judicial indemnity and public-facing political neutrality, no matter the cost to the public. This trait can and sometimes does neuter the consideration of (federally funded!) scientific findings in policy debates and decisions. As an advocate for research, this trait is extremely disheartening. It causes other problems too, like complicating procurement processes to the point of gross inefficiency.

Finally, I found this part of the essay quite striking:

The I.O. room at O’Hare had a bank of monitors, each with a disabled keyboard—which perfectly summed up my relationship with the TSA. I spent several hours each day looking at nude images of airline passengers with a keyboard that didn’t work, wishing I could be doing what I loved: writing. To pass the time, I phantom-typed passages on the dumb keys: Shakespeare and Nabokov and Baudelaire.

People are so much more than their jobs. American employers seem to have lost sight of this while engrossed in their efforts to squeeze efficiency out of the workforce. In some ways, the quest for economic efficiency has relieved a great deal of us from our humanity.


Quartz Writer Schools Himself

We all know modern publications use any or all tools at their disposal in order to drive traffic to their websites. I don’t know what it’s like to write for Quartz, but this gaffe is nothing short of embarrassing for Quartz writer Christopher Mims. Let me elaborate.

The linked article, entitled “Intel’s voice recognition will blow Siri out of the water—because it doesn’t use the cloud”, initially exhibited a fundamental lack of understanding of pattern recognition.1 Granted, it’s impossible for one person to have an in-depth knowledge of all the technology utilized by our gadgets.

However, in the update he posted to the article, Mims posted a link to an article he wrote that completely invalidates the title of (and largely the premise of) the piece:

Currently, the everyday magic of understanding voice commands is carried out almost entirely in the cloud, because processing human speech is difficult enough that even a sophisticated smartphone doesn’t have the processing power to do it at a high enough level of reliability.

Ideally, either an editor or Mims himself would have noticed this inconsistency before publishing. That the headline remains unchanged after the update is disappointing. Rather than posting an update and leaving the piece otherwise unchanged, Quartz should take a cue from traditional newspapers and at the very least correct misleading body text and explicitly state the difference between the initial and current article. Specifically, the wording “Intel has a solution.” immediately following the first subheadline needs to be stricken. The tone of the rest of the article should be adjusted as well.

  1. A pattern recognition system relies on either specific or immense training data to deliver accurate results. The Intel solution could depend on recording and processing speech data from each user of its technology (which would then be stored on the user’s mobile device for future reference) to achieve greater accuracy. This possibility is not mentioned in the article.

    Instead, the original (and to a large extent, the current) article states that Intel has somehow magically solved the same problem currently addressed by racks of servers with a chip that can fit in your smartphone.


On What’s Around You

Time published photos Christopher Morris took early in his career. These photos are a delightful example of a sentiment I highlighted in an earlier post.

Christopher’s photos highlight the value of the ability to remove oneself from the present in order to become a detached observer and document a moment in its unique context.

Though a portrait of “the world as it is” (or “this thing we all see”) is a common photographic project, I believe it’s a project that will always have value partly because it’s my opinion that there aren’t many people who have the skill that Christopher Morris exhibits in this work. There are so many things about our lives that seem unremarkable to us but can be utterly fascinating to those in other cultures or other geographic locations.

Most importantly though, these fascinations can be compounded by time—the inability to physically exist in a specific context facilitates nostalgia.

permalink as a Symptom

Useful for those who have “cut the cord”, is a service that will tell you if a movie or television show is available for streaming, purchase or rental. Pretty convenient.

The site is easy to use and its utility is obvious. However, this service shouldn’t need to exist in its current form.

The content producers, the people who make the television shows and movies, are notably absent from’s streaming, purchase or rental options. Simply, relatively new businesses like Apple, Netflix, Amazon, Google and many others offer modern ways to access content. Television networks and movie studios do not.

This fact wouldn’t be so hard to swallow if content producers cooperated with the businesses facilitating modern distribution. Notoriously, though, they don’t. Instead of embracing new technologies and fitting them into a modern business plan, the traditional content producers ignored new technologies and have defended their obsolete distribution practices with litigation.

The future is here. Embrace it or move out of the way.


Leica M9 Arguably Still the Smallest Interchangeable-Lens Camera With 35mm Sensor

Kind of.

My intention was to write a concession to a claim I made in an earlier post which stated that the Leica M9 is the smallest interchangeable-lens camera with a 35mm sensor. The Sony A7 and—more interesting to me—the A7R have been released and I had assumed that these bodies were smaller than the M9.

After doing a little research, I found that the M9 will fit into a smaller circumscribed box than the A7. According to Digital Photography Review:

body length (mm) height (mm) width (mm) box volume (mm3)
Leica M9 139 80 37 408,480
Leica M 240 139 80 42 467,040
Sony A7 127 94 48 573,024

Of course, the viewfinder and grip on the A7 contribute more significantly to the circumscribed box dimensions than the actual displacement of the body. However, circumscribed box dimensions are important when allocating space in a camera bag.

I’ll wait for someone else to do a proper displacement test.

Helena Price on Photography

The Great Discontent interviewed Helena Price on the specifics of her photography career. She says:

Don’t worry about creating things that you think will be popular for a certain group of people—just take time to explore and document for yourself. Eventually you’ll find patterns in your work and your viewpoint will emerge on its own.

This is a refreshing, hopeful and liberating approach to getting started with photography. Compared to the never-ending grind of shooting weddings and senior portraits or real estate or whatever else there is out there, thoughtfully and consistently taking photos of what one sees allows the photographer to develop a much greater range.

I’m really into the idea of people’s life stories being recorded and documented, and how documentation has changed over time…I want to leave photos with context; photos that tell stories. I want to be able to leave things that people are going to find later, so that they can know something about our time.

Documenting life using photographs has been an interest of mine in some form for the past several years. The ability to make these photographs (or sets of photographs) tell a compelling story1 is perhaps a more essential skill than taking a photograph that is inherently unique and interesting through some combination of content and technique. Documenting one’s life provides a framework that helps to develop both of these skills.

Finally, the documentation approach is accessible to anybody with access to any camera.2

  1. I have lots more to say about this.

  2. I have lots to say about this also.


The NSA’s Got Your Backdoor

Joseph Menn on the NSA paying RSA $10 million to intentionally cripple their own security products (by utilizing the problematic pseudo-random number generator mentioned previously):

RSA adopted the algorithm even before NIST approved it. The NSA then cited the early use of Dual Elliptic Curve inside the government to argue successfully for NIST approval, according to an official familiar with the proceedings.

RSA’s contract made Dual Elliptic Curve the default option for producing random numbers in the RSA toolkit. No alarms were raised, former employees said, because the deal was handled by business leaders rather than pure technologists.

Maddening! This underscores what may be our country’s biggest woes: rampant, corrupt and unchecked capitalism and government, a complete lack of government transparency or cross-communication and a fully inadequate education system.

It should never be possible to purchase the weakening of tools that facilitate privacy. It should be trivial for one government agency to vet the claims of another agency, and to hold other agencies accountable. Businessmen (and congressmen!) should be required to have a technical understanding of the products (or jobs) they oversee.

The more I find out about the NSA and its overreach, the more I feel like I’m in a comic book with no hero.


Guilt by Association

This one hits close to home.

I can’t imagine how the NIST staff involved in creating SP 800 (and more specifically, the SP 800-90A Dual Elliptic Curve Deterministic Random Bit Generation…bit) must feel.

First of all, given the definition of a deterministic system, the title itself gives me pause. Maybe there’s some next-level random number theory described in the standard, but I’m not sure I’d ever want a random number generator to exhibit deterministic behavior.1

Second of all, quotes like this make my stomach sink:

“NIST’s decisions used to be opaque and frustrating,” said Matthew Green, a professor at Johns Hopkins University. “Now they’re opaque and potentially malicious. Which is too bad because NIST performs such a useful service.”

NIST is a legitimate, successful research institution. The one-two punch of being required to consult with the NSA and the harsh (if deserved) public reactions do serious damage to the perceived function and utility of government-funded research institutions.

  1. Unless I was trying to recreate the famous THX Deep Note:

    Some months after the piece was released (along with “Return of the Jedi”) they lost the original recording. I recreated the piece for them, but they kept complaining that it didn’t sound the same. Since my random-number generators were keyed on the time and date, I couldn’t reproduce the score of the performance that they liked. I finally found the original version and everybody was happy.