23 July 2010

A Dozen Stray Friday Afternoon Ideas

What follows are a few ideas for making our world better that I haven't gotten around to hashing out at length, but want to record before they are forgotten:

* Motorcycle EMTs: In urban areas where traffic is a problem, delaying the arrival of an ambulance, fire truck or police car to the scene where someone needs emergency medical treatment, why not deploy an EMT by motorcycle to provide care and stabilize a patient until an ambulance arrives? In rural areas, the equivalent would be to have an EMT who could drop from a helicopter or ride out on a snowmobile or jet ski to some place that is difficult for a flight for life helicopter or ambulance to pick up a patient in a timely fashion.

Of course, this idea only makes sense if the skills of the EMT, and not the heavy equipment of the larger vehicle or the actually arrival time at a full fledged ER matter.

* Satellite ERs: How feasible would it be to develop stand alone emergency rooms that provide care almost as good as one at a conventional hospital? Many hospitals seem to be relocating or closing. Consolidation isn't that big a deal for non-emergency care like planned surgeries. But, distance is the enemy in emergency care where the "hour of power" after a medical event in which high end medical care can be most effective is critical.

* Devil's Advocates in Search Warrant and Grand Jury Proceedings: The empirical evidence strongly suggest that lawyers who request things like search warrants from courts and indictments from grand juries in ex parte proceedings almost always prevail. A right to counsel for the subjects of search warrants and arrest warrants would be infeasible. Surprise is often critical to reducing risk to law enforcement, and the name and contact information of the suspects is often unavailable anyway.

But, what if the public defender's office had someone assigned to argue on behalf of suspects generally in courts where search warrants and arrest warrants are issued, providing someone with a knowledge of the law to challenge assertions of law and inferences from the facts made by prosecutors?

The substantive law of search, seizure and arrest wouldn't have to change at all. There would simply be an additional person present who could make arguments in the hearings before an impartial magistrate that are already required. Similarly, in a grand jury hearing, there would simply be one more person present who could cross-examine witnesses and make arguments after the prosecutor made the case for an indictment.

Evidence from the differences between the results of grand juries, which are ex parte, and preliminary hearings, which are not, suggest that this would materially reduce the likelihood that warrants would issue where probable cause that a crime was committed was absent.

Since defending a criminal case imposes serious costs on criminal defendants even when the criminal defendant wins, the societal interest in preventing weak cases from moving forward is real.

* Mandatory credit card PINs: In Europe, credit cards almost universally require a PIN (personal identification number) to authorize a transaction, the same kind of authorization required in the U.S. for ATM cards. In the U.S. this is not required. The empirical evidence shows that the use of PINs dramatically reduces the amount of simple credit card theft that takes place. For example, in a system where a PIN is required to use a credit card, a stolen wallet is much less likely to lead to monetary loss.

The lack of security isn't much of a concern to U.S. card holders because if there is a theft by credit card, the charges can usually be reversed with a little hassle. Credit card companies don't care all that much, because bad debt losses are vastly larger than credit card losses, there is fierce competition to win credit card customers, in part, by maximizing convenience, and the merchants who dealt with the thief can often be made to bear the loss. But, a higher incident of credit card theft losses does impose a burden on the criminal justice system. Even more importantly, it provides economic fuel for criminal activity generally. The less economic gain stealing someone's wallet provides, the less likely it is that someone will steal wallets, and the harder it is to make money with criminal activities generally, the less likely it is that people will become criminals.

A law requiring that credit cards have PINs would solve the race to the bottom problem of competition between credit card companies and materially reduce theft losses.

In the same vein, it appears that new anti-theft measures making it hard to hot wire a care have dramatically reduced the incidence of auto theft in the United States.

* Biometric authorization of transactions: Some stores require a fingerprint from someone who wants to use a check. The New York Bar exam requires it from applicants. The DIA parking lot takes photos of the license plates of cars that don't pay for parking on the spot.

Technologies like digital photos and carbon copy paper make it possible to get someone's fingerprint without making a mess. Indeed, a fingerprint could be accompanied by a routine digital camera photo of the customer similar to the ones that are always taken by ATM machines. This serves a couple of purposes: (1) it proves in an easy to confirm after the fact way that the person named actually authorized the transaction, and (2) it provides a way to identify a criminal who engaged in fraud in a transaction through existing law enforcement databases. Signatures do neither very effectively, because identifying someone from a signature is inexact and because the increasingly common practice of having signatures collected with a stylus on a glass screen produces an atypical signature anyway.

The idea of using a fingerprint as a method of authorizing a transaction could be extended to a wide variety of financially important transactions.

Why not largely replace signatures with fingerprints as a way of authorizing economically important transactions? It certainly isn't immune to forgery and abuse, but it would seem to be better by any measure than signatures for security purposes.

Signet rings and personal seals were used in much of the world for this purpose before signatures came into wide use (and personal seals remain the norm in Japan and possibly elsewhere for this purpose in important transactions). What seal is more personal than a fingerprint?

Interestingly, a variant on this idea, hopefully not one that becomes widespread, would be for the authorizing person to leave a drop of blood on the document that could be DNA tested in the event of a dispute. There are already pens whose ink has a distinctive DNA marker designed for the same purpose.

Another variant on this idea would be to make in the norm that every bank setting up bank account have a photo of its customer on file that would come up on a screen that a teller could see whenever anyone attempted to make a withdrawal from a bank teller.

It is also worth recalling that the purpose of a measure like this one is as much to discourage fraud as it is to catch it. It makes it clear to a would be criminal that escaping detection is futile unless a highly sophisticated and costly scheme to overcome the security measure is taken.

* Neighborhood mail boxes: When I was in college, there was one mail room for every student in the college. You arrived more or less daily to take mail out of your box, and often socialized with other people you knew in the process. This approach isn't restricted to college campuses. Vail, Colorado does not have house to house mail delivery. New suburbs almost invariably have mail delivered to a cluster of boxes in the neighborhood, rather than to individual houses. Presumably, it is more efficient to deliver mail this way.

Rather than cut Saturday mail service or make other major cuts to mail delivery, why not convert more communities to the cluster of boxes mail delivery system. This could produce major reductions in delivery costs in both urban areas and rural ones, with the savings in rural areas being particularly dramatic. It would also provide a modest means by which the social capital of neighborhoods would be strengthened.

Going to a mail box a short distance from my home is not that big of an inconvenience compared to other proposed mail service cuts.

This also has the incidental side effect of increasing the sanctity of one's property against governmental intrusion. If mail is delivered to a cluster box down the road that means that there isn't a government official stepping onto our door step every day.

* Require financial accountants to be bonded or insured: One of the things that made the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme problematic is that the CPAs who signed off on the financial reports it sent to the SEC were from an effectively judgment proof firm, so holding them liable for their complicity in the fraud didn't help make the victims whole. Adequate bonding and insurance requirements for firms that provide financial reports for publicly held companies might change this, by leaving fiscally robust parties to partially compensate those harmed when accounting and auditing failures don't catch frauds.

* Create a centralized national/international professional discipline database: Almost every profession has some sort of licensing process and revokes licenses for cause. But, unlike criminal records databases, professional discipline databases are not highly centralized. Unless an applicant says so by answering truthfully on an application, there is probably no way that a real estate agent licensing board in Colorado could know that the applicant has had a federal broker's license revoked for fraud, for example.

This is further amplified by the common process in some jurisdictions of only privately disciplining someone for professional misconduct as a warning.

A centralized national database would allow a professional licensing regulator in one jurisdiction to instantly learn of any professional discipline an applicant had received in any other jurisdiction for any profession, not just the one applied for.

This might make it easier to prevent people with a track history of professional misconduct from being put into new positions of trust.

* Biometric databases for re-entry to the U.S. of American citizens: Today, one proves that one is a U.S. citizen and thus allowed to re-enter the United States, by presenting a passport. But, passports can be lost or stolen. Why not put the photographic information present in a passport, and additional biometric identification, like a fingerprint, into an electronic database available to border agents? Then, a U.S. citizen could simply enter a name and allow him or herself to be compared against the database, in lieu of presenting a passport. This kind of system would also allow passports presented to be checked against the document itself, so that altered photographs or identifying information could be detected. The paper document might still have value and could still be issued and used, but wouldn't be sole way that U.S. border agents would know that someone was or was not a U.S. citizen.

* Military seaplanes: The U.S. military has at various times in its history used seaplanes for a variety of purposes but has none in its active duty arsenal today. This is too bad, because there are a variety of niches where seaplanes could have military value.

There are far more small bodies of water where a plane could land in much of the world than there are field air strips. Helicopters can land almost anywhere but are slower, have shorter ranges, are less fuel efficient and are less reliable the conventional airplanes.

Seaplanes could be particularly valuable if coupled with something like the proposed Marine Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, which is basically an amphibious armored personnel carrier. A few seaplanes could land in a lake, deploy these amphibious vehicles, and put medium weight U.S. forces in all sorts of places in the world where it would be more difficult to deploy troops that heavy by other means.

Seaplanes are also well suited to search and rescue missions in the open sea (compared to helicopters that have shorter range). They would also be a useful alternative to helicopters to resupply naval ships at sea. One could also imagine seaplanes that were supported by ships or submarines, which are much cheaper and easier to keep continuously in service, rather than air tankers.

* Military transport submarines: One of the missions the U.S. military is called upon from time to time to perform is to resupply areas that have been interdicted by opposing forces. The classic example is the Berlin airlift. The trouble with doing that by air is that transporting heavy or bulk items by air is very expensive.

Other U.S. military missions include getting people or things out of a place (e.g. evacuating expatriots from a regime that has fallen apart, or getting recovered nuclear materials out of a foreign nation), and deploying heavy U.S. military equipment or bulk supplies into areas where U.S. forces don't have perfect control of the sea.

For example, the mere threat of Iranian attack could entirely shut down the delivery of goods and people by sea in and out of the Persian Gulf, even if it was actually done only infrequently.

Anti-submarine warfare is very hard to do, even with sophisticated technologies. Submarines are much harder to attack than surface ships.

So, why not develop a U.S. capability to deploy transport submarines to transport loads much heavier or bulkier than those it is economic to transport by air in places where there is incomplete control of the sea? A transport submarine could be used, for example, to prevent Taiwan from being choked off by the threat of Chinese or North Korean attacks on merchant or transport ships.

We have a proven ability to build large submarines like the Ohio class submarines with considerable cargo capacity if designed for that purpose, and we have a need to keep the skills and technologies involved in building nuclear powered submarines in existence, but the need for nuclear attack submarines dramatically declined with the end of the Cold War and attack submarines are very expensive to build.

In contrast, a large submarine that was designed to serve simply as a transport could be far less expensive, and have a smaller crew, while at the same time filling a gap in U.S. military capabilities. It would require no technologies that aren't well proven, and would not need to be designed to function in the extreme depths where U.S. nuclear attack submarines and ballistic missile submarines operate.

While considerable time and money has been devoted to figuring out better ways to deploy small special forces units by submarine, sea vessels are better suited to deploying heavy or large units than they are to deploying small units that could also be deployed by small seacraft or aircraft. An ability to have those kinds of resources near to a potential conflict without announcing their presence as a large surface ship would, could be a useful capability.

* Subsidize satellite telecommunications:

The United States spends about $75 billion a year and employs something like 850,000 people in the public and private sectors combined (i.e. civil servants and intelligence contractors) to spy on foreign countries. A large share of that money goes into spy satellites, sophisticated wiretapping technologies, code breaking tools, Internet scanning technologies, electronic bugs, and the like. More goes into hiring CIA agents to develop informant networks.

One of the premises of the huge expenditure we make for intelligence activities (which employ more people in the U.S. than we have practicing attorneys) is that the information that is worth having to guide our policy decisions is mostly secret.

This isn't at all obvious. For all its money and personnel, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, combined, with a tiny fraction of the resources of the major government intelligence agencies. Blogs that cater to specialists in particular professions, academic specialties, or residents of a particular area often have news well before it becomes widely known for the asking.

The CIA and State Department know this, and subscribe to news outlets all over the world to add to their own data collection. But, many parts of the world have very thin supplies of journalists or bloggers, in part because the government controls the media and access to the Internet.

But, increased intelligence spending has focused almost entirely on increasing the in house information collection capacities of spy agencies, rather than looking at the big picture of how to increase the production of information generally.

There are content neutral ways that the flow of third party information like journalistic reports of things that aren't truly secret, but aren't widely known, could be increased.

For example, one of the big limitations in much of the world, particularly in closed societies, to communicating, is a lack of internet access or telephone networks that aren't monitored by their repressive governments. Satellite based telephone service and internet access are available in theory, but the subscription costs are often prohibitively high, particularly for journalists and participants in civil society in less wealthy countries.

If subscription costs for these services could be made free or available at a very low cost to people in these countries (just as GPS signals are now), an immense flow of information would develop. The social impact would greatly exceed that of the already powerful impact that access to satellite television has had in much of the Arab world.

It would cost some money to keep the satellites running, and people would still have to purchase the hardware to access the service, but this would tremendously empower groups like social movements in China, political activists in Burma, dissident forces in Iran, a journalists in many parts of the world, at a cost that we would happily pay many billions of dollars more to achieve than this cost by conventional means. Much of the information, moreover, would be available to intelligence agencies, often intentionally openly and relevant to U.S. concerns, at a cost that would be a tiny fraction of the cost of maintaining a network of informants to get that kind of information.

But, because the satellites could be monitored in the same way that the NSA already has the authority to monitor international telecommunications, these resources would not be nearly so useful to people who would like to use it to carry out plots against the United States.


Dave Barnes said...

Re; Post Office

1. Neighborhood mail boxes make sense.

2. Why not have mail delivery every other day? You could immediately fire 1/2 of the mailmen and save billions each year.

andrew said...

A recent Facebook post from Lucy Wesson notes that Australia already has motorcycle EMTs.