The astronomy community has identified the spy satellite revealed by Trump

President Trump tweeted an apparently classified image of an Iranian launch pad on August 30. He has the right to do so. But he probably did not expect everything that the tweet would reveal.

Now astronomers have easily identified the exact satellite that took the image. By measuring the semi-major and semi-minor axes of the ellipse (as viewed in the image) of the circular launch platform, they were able to determine the angle of view. This matched precisely with a satellite known as USA 224, previously of unknown capability. Google Earth shows the launch pad as about 60 meters in diameter, which therefore suggests a satellite resolution capability of 10 centimeters per pixel. That resolution is very impressive and also previously unknown.


The detail in the image is surprising, even to satellite imagery experts. In an interview with NPR, Melissa Hanham of the Open Nuclear Network in Vienna said, “… I did not believe <the image> could come from a satellite.” Hanham also said that “I imagine adversaries are going to take a look at this image and reverse-engineer it to figure out how the sensor itself works and what kind of post-production techniques they’re using.”

Thanks to Trump, We’ve Got a Better Idea of the Capabilities of US Surveillance Satellites

Free speech under assault from both the left and right

The Economist pens an essay on freedom of expression that is worth reading in full:

Who is the greater threat to free speech: President Donald Trump or campus radicals? Left and right disagree furiously about this. But it is the wrong question, akin to asking which of the two muggers currently assaulting you is leaving more bruises. What matters is that big chunks of both left and right are assaulting the most fundamental of liberties—the ability to say what you think. . . .

. . .Human beings are not free unless they can express themselves. Minds remain narrow unless exposed to different viewpoints. Ideas are more likely to be refined and improved if vigorously questioned and tested. Protecting students from unwelcome ideas is like refusing to vaccinate them against measles. When they go out into the world, they will be unprepared for its glorious but sometimes challenging diversity.

As societies polarise, free speech is under threat. It needs defenders

Peter Thiel goes after Google on AI

Peter Thiel in a NYT op-ed:

A.I.’s military power is the simple reason that the recent behavior of America’s leading software company, Google — starting an A.I. lab in China while ending an A.I. contract with the Pentagon — is shocking. As President Barack Obama’s defense secretary Ash Carter pointed out last month, “If you’re working in China, you don’t know whether you’re working on a project for the military or not.”

Good for Google, Bad for America

And he’s not wrong. But it’s also not possible to prevent China from ultimately obtaining this technology.

Thiel is correct in the short-term, but also dangerously short-sighted. What’s the plan here? Further isolation and an arms race? Liberal democracies need to be focused on global frameworks (rule of law, free speech, free trade, free movement of people and information) that prevent war and human misery. This is an opportunistic easy rhetorical point, not a strategy.

Simple Facts in the Mueller Report

This simple fact should be repeated over and over until every American knows it:

At a July 27, 2016, campaign rally, Mr. Trump said, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing” — referring to Clinton emails reportedly stored on a personal server. “Within approximately five hours” of Mr. Trump’s remarks, according to the Mueller report, Russian military intelligence began a cyberattack against “Clinton’s personal office.”

4 Disturbing Details You May Have Missed in the Mueller Report

Rep. Justin Amash Holds His Ground

Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) met with his constituents for the first time since advocating impeachment, and as Conor Friedersdorf writes for The Atlantic, got the best of the debate.

After a Trump supporter declared that, although many admired his courage, they were unlikely to vote for him in the next election, Rep. Amash responded:

I represent the entire district. So it doesn’t matter to me if a person voted for me or didn’t vote for me, or donated to me or didn’t donate to me. I think I’ve been pretty clear about that. That’s not going to change my principles and who I am … I agree with you that many of the people cheering me on aren’t going to support my campaign. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me. This is what it means to be a bigger person. It doesn’t matter to me that some people won’t support me or are hypocritical. You have to do the right thing regardless.

Justin Amash and the Moral Minority

It’s not always clear whether a hill is worth dying on. But, for better or worse, Rep. Amash has decided this is such a hill.

Elizabeth Warren and the Corporate Executive Accountability Act

Elizabeth Warren has introduced the Corporate Executive Accountability Act and is pushing it in a Washington Post Op-Ed:

I’m proposing a law that expands criminal liability to any corporate executive who negligently oversees a giant company causing severe harm to U.S. families. We all agree that any executive who intentionally breaks criminal laws and leaves a trail of smoking guns should face jail time. But right now, they can escape the threat of prosecution so long as no one can prove exactly what they knew, even if they were willfully negligent.

If top executives knew they would be hauled out in handcuffs for failing to reasonably oversee the companies they run, they would have a real incentive to better monitor their operations and snuff out any wrongdoing before it got out of hand.

Elizabeth Warren: Corporate executives must face jail time for overseeing massive scams

The bill itself is pretty short. Here’s a summary:

  • Focuses on executives in big business. Applies to any executive officer of a corporation with more than $1B in annual revenue. Definition of executive officer is same as under traditional federal regulations, plus anyone who “has the responsibility and authority to take necessary measures to prevent or remedy violations.”
  • Makes execs criminally liable for a lot of things. Makes it criminal for any executive officer “to negligently permit or fail to prevent” any crime under Federal or State law, or any civil violation that “affects the health, safety, finances, or personal data” of at least 1% of the population of any state or the US.
  • Penalty. Convicted executives go to prison for up to a year, or up to three years on subsequent offenses.

This is pretty breathtaking in its sweep of criminal liability. It criminalizes negligence. And it applies that negligence standard to any civil violation that “affects” the health, safety, finances, or personal data of at least 1% of a state.

Under this standard every single executive at Equifax, Facebook, Yahoo, Target, etc. risks jail for up to a year. Just read this list. Will be interesting to see where this goes.

Blackface and Redemption

Conor Friedersdorf writes a thoughtful reaction to the controversy surrounding Virginia Governor Ralph Northam:

I am loath to judge people today for behavior of 35 years ago, especially when there is evidence that their bygone transgressions are at odds with their current outlook. I favor an ethos that prioritizes rehabilitation and redemption above punishment. I believe that . . . making every bygone instance of blackface a career-ender is every bit as untenable as Coleman Hughes persuasively shows, that apparently earnest apologies from people who can credibly show they’ve changed should be accepted, that grace toward people who previously held noxious views helps to hasten the demise of bigotry, and that “offense archaeology” is often an objectionable enterprise that leads us to waste time and energy on matters that help no one.

What Ralph Northam’s Defenders Get Right—And Wrong

Nevertheless, Friedersdorf concludes that Northam should resign because the controversy has damaged his ability to govern. I am not so sure. For one, I’m not convinced the controversy has in fact damaged his ability to govern. Polls don’t say that. Just talking heads.

Dave Chappelle has a wonderful line in one of his recent comedy specials, speaking about the #MeToo movement: “You have to have men on your side. And I’m telling you right now, you’re gonna have a lot of imperfect allies.” Imperfect allies. The phrase is wonderful because it captures the maddening, remarkable complexity of human behavior, change, and redemption.

I am more inclined to judge people on who they are now. Changing your mind in the face of contrary evidence is to be encouraged and even lauded. Governor Northam has an opportunity to redeem himself. All signs point to him genuinely feeling remorse, genuinely seeking racial justice. We have to have the ability to forgive and embrace. We’re going to need a lot of imperfect allies.

Corporate Gatekeepers

This is not sustainable:

During the midterm elections in the United States last year, Twitter added, most of the false content on its site came from within the country itself. Many of the misleading messages focused on voter suppression, with the company deleting almost 6,000 tweets that included incorrect dates for the election or that falsely claimed that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement was patrolling polling stations.

Twitter Says False Content Is Evolving, and More Comes From the U.S.

It is both dangerous and ineffective to rely on big corporations to curate messages so that only “good messages” are seen. We can’t even decide whether we want this. On the one hand, it scares us that big companies have this power. On the hand, we insist that they use it.

It will get worse. Deepfakes are coming to the political space. (This one is amazing.) And videos do not have to be fake to be taken out of context.

So what to do? Facebook/Twitter/Apple/Google are not the solution. Corporate decision making is not immune from bias, mistake, and poor policy. But it is less transparent and less aligned with our social goals.

We need to slow down and stop making snap judgments. We need a renewed emphasis on the legitimacy / authority of the source. The good news is that we might get better at this over time.

Impeach Trump Now

“Impeach Trump Now” is the title of an Atlantic article by Yoni Appelbaum being published in the March edition, which focuses on the Trump presidency at its midway point. Its central premise, as the title suggests, is that impeachment proceedings should begin now because such proceedings would have benefits even if Trump is not ultimately removed by the Senate.

Opponents of impeachment point out that, despite the greater severity of the prospective charges against Trump, there is little reason to believe the Senate is more likely to remove him than it was to remove Clinton. Indeed, the Senate’s Republican majority has shown little will to break with the president—though that may change. The process of impeachment itself is likely to shift public opinion, both by highlighting what’s already known and by bringing new evidence to light. 

Appelbaum argues that impeachment proceedings would have five distinct benefits:

  1. Trump loses control of the public conversation as attention turns to the proceedings;
  2. the undemocratic elements of Trump’s agenda will be paralyzed while he deals with the Congressional investigation: “There may be no more effective way to run out the clock on an administration than to tie it up with impeachment hearings.”
  3. impeachment proceedings can be used as a tool for discovery, discernment, and (in my own view) summary and distillation of the transgressions;
  4. it defuses the potential for actual political violence by providing a legitimate option for removing a divisive leader: “The public understood that once the impeachment process began, the real action would take place in Congress, and not in the streets.”; and
  5. it would damage Trump’s political prospects even if unsuccessful.

In fact, it’s the very efficacy of these past efforts that should give Congress pause; it’s a process that should be triggered only when a president’s betrayal of his basic duties requires it. But Trump’s conduct clearly meets that threshold. The only question is whether Congress will act.

The remainder of the article is a history lesson about prior impeachment proceedings — those of Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton — and how those proceedings impacted their respective presidencies even though none of them were ultimately removed. Appelbaum argues that Trump’s presidency will be similarly constrained, and that this constraint alone should justify the exercise.

I would add one other benefit to this list: demonstrating the health of our institutions. We have long influenced the world through our military power and moral and institutional superiority. As our numbers and power are inevitably challenged globally, it is vital that we continue to command respect for our democratic principles, transparency, and excellent decision-making. Much of Trump’s impact can be reversed, but the most serious long-term impact will be the undermining of trust and respect for our public institutions. Impeachment would demonstrate that we remain a healthy democracy with the continuing capability to root out corruption, prejudice, and incompetence.

Winston Churchill may or may not have said that, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.” Hope springs eternal.