Nixon was right

 

When the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal.

Like most Americans, I’m familiar with this infamous quote, from a Nixon interview with David Frost in 1977. I always considered it an example of the maniacal hubris of Richard Nixon.

The thing is, I’ve come to understand that, at least from an functional standpoint, it is basically true.

What happens if the president breaks the law? Well, he might use his executive powers to direct law enforcement not to pursue it. But if he didn’t, presumably, he could be brought up on charges and a court could find him guilty. If it were a federal crime, he could just pardon himself, but if not, I guess he could even go to jail.

But, can he lose the presidency over a crime?

It seems, not directly. As far as I can tell — and I hope legal types will educate me — the Constitution contains precisely two ways to get rid of a president:

  • an election
  • impeachment

Both of these are obviously political processes. There’s certainly nothing there saying that if you commit a crime of type “X”, you’re out.

Conventional wisdom expects that if the president does something even moderately unsavory, political pressure will force the House of Representatives to impeach him. I would have taken comfort in that up until a few months ago, but now … not so much.

Today’s House of Representatives is highly polarized, and the party in power (by a ratio of 240 / 193) is poised to make great strides towards realizing its long-held agenda. Would they let a little unlawful presidential activity get in the way of that? I don’t think so.

What if their own constituents don’t care about a president breaking some laws that they think are pointless or unjust? Let’s say Trump’s tax returns show up on Wikileaks, and forensic accountants come up with evidence of tax fraud. Are we sure voters will not see that as a mark of genius?

Congress will move to impeach if and when the pressure from that activity gets in the way of their agenda, and not before. That time could, in theory, never come.

I’m afraid that people holding their breath for an impeachment based on the emoluments clause may pass out waiting.

Donald Trump once said this:

Also, probably one of DT’s more truthful statements. (Though my legal team informs me that murder is not a federal crime, so he would not be able to self-pardon.)

 

ATIS in your kitchen

One ritual that every pilot observes before launching into the wild blue yonder (or dark gray muck) is tuning in the Automated Terminal Information Service, or ATIS. The ATIS is a recording, usually updated hourly, that contains a very terse version of the current weather and anything else new that pilots need to know.

ATIS is not the first weather information a pilot will hear before flying. In fact, it is more likely to be the last, after she has gotten a complete legal weather briefing (14 CFR 91.103), but before taking off.

A similar system, called AWOS (Automated Weather Observation System) is like ATIS, except that it usually only carries the weather (no other info) and always sounds like a robot.

As it turns out, I have a doohickey in my home that 1) can connect to the Internet to get the weather and 2) sounds like a robot. I thought, maybe it would be fun to write an app that simulates ATIS on an Amazon Echo.

Well, here it is.

This is a rather straightforward Alexa Skill. A user specified the airport of interest by using its four-letter ICAO identifier. Standard ICAO phonetics are supported.

For example, Chicago O’Hare’s IATA code is ORD, but its complete ICAO code is KORD. You could say:

Alexa, ask airport weather to get kilo oscar romeo delta.

And it would read you the weather in Chicago. The skill also knows the names of many airports and will try to fill in that fourth letter if you only give it three. For European users, you can get the visibility and altimeter settings in metric.

A few details of the skill:

  • written in node.js
  • Uses the Alexa Skills Kit API — Amazon handles all the voice stuff
  • Runs as a function in AWS Lambda
  • Accesses weather data from ADDS.
  • Stores user preferences in an AWS DynamoDB (a Mongo-like thingy)
  • Caches weather info from ADDS for up to 5 minutes to reduce load on ADDS
  • Whole thing runs in the AWS “Free tier” — which is important, as I’m not going to spend money to host a free app.

One of the more fun aspects of the project was getting to maximal verisimilitude. The ADDS weather source actually provides a METAR, which has a lot of the same information as does the ATIS, but it’s not entirely the same in form or content, so I had to do some translation and adjustment. For example, wind directions in METARs are true-north references, but in ATIS, they are magnetic-north referenced. In Northern California, where I live, that’s a 16.5° difference — not trivial. The program makes the adjustment based on the location of the airport and calculations from the World Magnetic Model.

So this METAR

 becomes:

 There is even code there to try to get the pauses and pacing to be realistic.

Anyway, code is not the cleanest thing I ever did. Such is the case when things start as personal hacks and turn into “sofware.” Check it out on github.

More instructions here: http://toolsofourtools.org/alexa-metars-and-tafs

 

The end of computing as a hobby?

I grew up with computers. We got our first machine, an Atari 800, when I was only 8 or 9. An 8-bitter with hardware sprites. 48 KiB of memory, and a cassette tape trive, this was only one step removed from the Atari 2600 game console. Very nearly useless, this was a machine for enthusiasts and hobbyists.

Over time, computers became less useless, as well as more “user-friendly,” but they — particularly the PC style machines — kept the doors open to hobbyists and tinkerers.

The Bad News

I think, however, that that era has come to an end, and I’m saddened. I see three basic trends that have killed it.

The first is that the network-connected world is dangerous. You can’t just fire up any old executable you find on the Internet in order to see what it does. It might do something Awful.

The second is that the closed ecosystem app stores of the world, aiming for a super smooth experience, have raised the quality bar for participation — particularly for “polish.” You simply cannot publish ugly, but highly functional software today.

The third problem is that you can’t make interesting software today without interacting with several systems in the cloud. Your app, hosted on a server, talks to a database, another app, and a half dozen other APIs: a link shortener, a video encoder, etc. And these APIs change constantly. There is no commitment to backward compatibility — something that was an iron-clad requirement of the PC era.

Trend one is a painful fact of life. Trend two could be reversed if the manufacturers had any incentive to do so. They do not. Trend three, I think is the worse, because it is wholly unnecessary. Say what you want about the “Wintel duopoly,” but they did not punish developers like modern companies do.

Together, these things pretty much lock out the casual developer. I’ve learned this the hard way as I try to push forward in my free time with a few open-source apps in a post PC world. It is one thing for a paid programmer to maintain a piece of software and deal, however grudgingly, with every email that comes from Google telling you that you need to update your code, again. But the hobbyist who wrote something cool for his friends, that worked for six months and then broke, is kind of stuck. Does he want to run a zero-revenue company that “supports” his app in perpetuity?

This makes me sad, because I wonder what we’re missing. As many of your know, I have gotten into ham radio. There’s a lot of cool ham-authored software out there. It’s ugly. It’s clunky. But some of it does amazing things, like implement modems that forward-error-correct a message and then put it into a ridiculously narrow signal that can reach around the world. Today, that software still runs on Windows, usually coded against the old Win32 or even Win16 libraries. It gets passed around in zip files and people run unsigned executables without installers. It’s the last hacky platform standing, but not for long.

The Good News

Of course, if the PC, Mac, i-device, and household gadget becomes more and more locked off, there is an exciting antidote: Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Beaglebone, and the entire maker world. People are building cool stuff. It’s cheap, it’s fun, and the barriers to entry, though intellectually a bit higher than the “PC” are pretty damn low. Furthermore, the ecosystems around these products are refreshingly chaotic and more than slightly anti-corporate.

One of the nice things about this platforms is that they are self-contained and so pose little threat to data other than what you put on them. On the other hand, they are full-fledged computer and are as exploitable as any other.

If you make something cool that runs on a Raspberry Pi, there’s still pretty little chance every kid at school will soon have it and run it, but then again, maybe there never was.