May 26, 2011

President Obama's Long Form Birth Certificate

I am not a "birther". I’ve never been especially impressed with President Obama, but neither have I been impressed with many of his detractors. I began to look into the issue of his birth certificate very recently because a friend sent me a link to a YouTube video that caught my attention. I have decades of experience with digitally processed images, scanners, and things of that sort. It appeared to me that the author of the YouTube video had uncovered something interesting, so I decided to examine the PDF of the long form birth certificate myself, largely out of professional curiosity. I have political opinions on this issue, but I will reserve any comment on those opinions until the end. First, I will deal, to the best of my ability, in facts.

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The image above is a portion of the document in question, and is provided only for reference. The PDF document is greater in extent and contains more information. Everything I care to say has to do with the region above, and not with the peculiarities of the stamps, the security paper, etc.

The actual PDF on the Whitehouse web site is divided into a number of layers. There is a background layer, which includes the pattern of the green security paper, the lines of the form, and an odd scattering of seemingly random parts of the text, including parts of the typed and written text. There are several higher layers that include individual stamps. Between the background layer and the stamp layers is a single layer that contains most of the printed, typed, and written material. It is this layer I will chiefly focus on.

I cannot say with any certainty how the separate image layers were generated. As others have pointed out, such layering is not a normal artifact of the scanning process, and this was claimed to have been a document scanned from a copy. As has also been pointed out, PDF optimization can create layers but the layers this document is sorted into is not consistent with that process. I tend to agree, but for the purposes of my evidence it doesn’t really matter how the layers were originally generated. The primary text layer got there somehow, and I intend to show that it contains features that are almost certain evidence of tampering in and of themselves.

The primary text layer has to have been, at some point, reduced to a binary image. Let me try to explain this in layman’s terms. All digital images consist of a grid of individual picture elements – "pixels". In a color image, each pixel has a particular color. In a grayscale image, each pixel is a shade of grey. In a binary image, each pixel is normally either white or black. Binary images have an unmistakable "jagged" look. Images of text are commonly saved in binary form, because binary data saves file space. PDF optimization can create a layer of binary material out of things like text and form lines. This may or may not be how the primary text layer was created, but in any case it is binary, composed of pixels of only two types.

When a typed character is reduced to a binary image, it becomes a pattern of black and white squares. If you type a thousand letter "B’s" on an old manual typewriter, like the one a person would have used to fill in a 1961 birth certificate, no two letters will be exactly alike. The grain of the paper and the typewriter ribbon, the pressure and the speed with which one strikes the key, and other factors produce many variations on the same basic letter. When you scan such a typed document as an image, you create even more variations because of the physical properties of the scanner. While binary images of letters are less varied than color or grayscale ones of the same resolution, they are still so varied that at the 300 dpi resolution of the long form birth certificate PDF, it would be highly improbable to find two letters exactly alike. The President’s birth certificate contains at least two letters that are absolutely identical, pixel for pixel.

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If a person has a layer of binary text he or she wants to make changes to, the easiest way to do it is to copy words or characters that already exist elsewhere in the text. One can just copy and paste letters to make new words, rather like an old kidnapper’s ransom note. As you can see in the illustration above (magnified for clarity), the "B" and the second "I" in "OBAMA, II" are identical to the same two letters in other places. It is likely they were copied to, and not from, this location for reasons I will outline later.

Modifying binary text of this kind is comparatively easy to do, because the white (or transparent) background behind the images eliminates the risk of creating artifacts in the process of moving letters around. It is also fairly easy to alter the copied letters to make them look authentic. That is, if one understands what one is doing and isn’t careless.

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To understand just how improbable it would be to find two identical letters in the President’s birth certificate, I have shown two examples of close mismatches (again magnified for clarity). The green and red letters were taken from different places in the document. The black letters in between show the pixels shared in common, while the red and green pixels around the edge of the black letters show the differences. The extent of the variation is bound to vary with the size and complexity of the letter, but both the "S" and the "B" vary by more than forty pixels. As I’ve said, these are close mismatches, and there are plenty of matches in the document, struck with the same key, that vary even more. Still, let’s err on the side of caution and say that the average variation is about 40 pixels.

If the variation were much smaller, say, only one pixel, then there would only be two possible patterns for each letter. The odds of any two letters of the same type being identical would be 50%. If they varied by only two pixels, there would be four possible patterns – a 25% chance of an identical match. The odds decrease exponentially; 2 raised to the 40th power is a staggering number: 1,099,511,627,776. In other words, 40 randomly varying pixels make the odds of any two letters of the same type being identical about one in a trillion. Of course, there may be some patterns that are more likely than others; there are multiple capital "B’s" and "I’s" in the document, but even allowing this it is hard to imagine the odds getting any better than one in a billion. This is more than close enough for practical certainty. There may be more matching letters in the document for all I know. I only spent a couple of hours looking.

Now, consider where the identical matches occur. They occur in the President’s last name. The inference here is obvious. The likely purpose of the forgery was to hide the fact that the President was born out of wedlock, and that his last name on the original document was "Dunham", his mother’s maiden name.

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As you can see above, the apparent manipulation of the President’s mother’s signature also adds weight to the theory that he was simply illegitimate. Her partial signature is the only signature material on the binary text layer. It is plausible that "Obama" was added and "…unham" was overwritten from the same source to make the alteration less conspicuous. Note, too, that if "OBAMA, II" replaced "DUNHAM" in the typed text of the President’s name, two of the needed letters, "A" and "M," were already at hand. I have searched in vain for the missing "O", second "A", the comma, and second "I". Perhaps they were modified from other letters. Someone with more time, better software, and a flair for statistical analysis may succeed where I have failed.

The matching letters, I believe, are conclusive evidence of tampering. The document does hold certain other mysteries, many of them no doubt wholly innocent . Finding letters moved from place to place makes the proposition that the birth certificate is a forgery from the ground up rather unlikely. It would have been far easier to have cleaned someone else’s form and simply typed in all the text. I believe the President was probably born when and where he said he was, and had the biological parents he has always claimed to have had.

Presuming my theory about the President’s illegitimacy is correct, there is something both ironic and sad about the whole affair. It hardly matters to me whether his parents were married or not. This is not 1961, and I doubt that it would matter to most people now. The people it would matter to probably despise Obama anyway. It is hard for me to believe that none of the experts among the president’s enemies have found the same evidence and come to the same conclusions I have. It seems at least plausible that they have made the political calculation that rousing suspicions of a "Manchurian candidate" is a profitable adventure, but exposing a person’s illegitimacy might only seem a callous, brutal exercise. Lacking either any special ill will or political calculation, I, however, can present my evidence with an entirely clean conscience. Truth cannot be negotiated.

7/4/2011 - Note:

This article has, not surprisingly, stirred up a considerable amount of anger from some, and criticism in some variety. Some of these criticisms may be worth looking into, and, having given the matter consideration, I would like to address two of them.

There has been a persistent criticism that there is no controlled study here to support my technical evidence. My initial view was that, given the nature of my argument, comparison with other documents hardly seemed necessary. The first person who raised this issue (Mr. Planck) demanded a double-blind study of Hawaiian birth certificates of the same age. Since this is obviously beyond my resources either in time, money, or authority this seemed to be just an expedient attempt to stifle the matter. Having given this further consideration, I realize there are other types of control studies that can be done. I don't have the time to do the work at the moment, but I welcome anyone else to conduct the following experiment.

One would need to type, on a manual typewriter, some large number of letter "B"s. The more the better, but the larger the number the more tedious the matching process is going to be. The sheet should be copied on a modern copier once, preferably but not necessarily onto security paper of the approximate type used for the president's birth certificate. The copy should be scanned at the same resolution one sees on the PDF. I don't recall what that resolution turned out to be, but the PDF can be used as a guide. The scan can be either a TIFF or can go directly to PDF if the scanner allows. (This may seem haphazard, but since I don't know the exact process used to scan and optimize the birth certificate, we can only be so precise.) Optimize the scanned image. Adobe Acrobat Professional is the software I would use, but you might be able to optimize in other Adobe applications as well. Extract the resultant binary text layer from the resultant PDF. (I would suggest using Adobe Illustrator for this process.) Now comes the fun part. Compare each "B" with every other "B" to see if any of them match. If you are proficient with Adobe Photoshop this is not as bad as it sounds. Make a duplicate layer and use the "Difference" setting. Matching "B"s will disappear, while non-matching ones will show the differences. Scoot the layer around in a systematic way, and you should be able to complete the comparisons in a few hours. Report the number of exact matches you find, if any. If the pixel dimensions of the characters are about the same, you do the process right, and you find a match in a something less than a thousand characters, I will consider my argument refuted and publicly say so. I reserve the right to raise any doubts I might have about your process, but even if I doubt it I will still post a link to you trial on my original article -- as long as you've had the courtesy to be civil.

Could I do this test myself? Yes, but I don't have either the manual typewriter or the time. It hardly matters who conducts the experiment.

My second proposal is to do something similar regarding my statistical analysis. If you can show that my math is wrong, I'll post a link to you evidence on my original article. If I understand your refutation and accept it as correct, I will acknowledge my error.

I check comments on my site regularly, and can be reached by commenting on this post.


May 16, 2011

Quantitative Easing or "How I learned to stop worrying and love inflationary policy"

An amusing and terrible realization dawned on me the other day. Let's take it as a given that the chief purpose of the US Federal Reserve’s recent policy of “quantitative easing” (i.e., printing money out of thin air) is to produce enough inflation to scare people into spending their money before they lose it. At least in theory, as people spend the money they had been sitting on, the additional economic activity creates growth, jobs, prosperity, etc. This is basic economic theory. Unfortunately, even ignoring the deep structural problems presented by peak oil and other resources issues, “quantitative easing” was fatally handicapped from the outset.

The Consumer Price Index, America’s official index of inflation, has been so jiggered up with substitution, hedonics, and various other accounting tricks to make the number look less scary (so politicians can get reelected) that the official inflation rate is probably at least 10% lower than the real one. In other words, while the Fed wants to scare you into some constructive spending, the whole inertia of official statistics seeks to lull you into the comfortable illusion that things are really not that bad. The only forms of inflation ordinary people notice in the short term are in food and gasoline, both of which have long since been taken out of the CPI specifically to make the rate look lower. “Quantitative easing” is hindered from sending signals to the economy because the recipients are already largely anesthetized to the message. It would take hyperinflation to break the barrier of the government's own dishonest statistics. Of course, either the congress or the president could remedy this problem at any time by giving us all the true figures on inflation, and admit that both political parties have been lying to us for decades. Really, they could…

I can’t help but be reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s famous movie, Dr. Strangelove. In that movie, the Soviets built a doomsday device that would trigger automatically if their nation was attacked. It should have been, therefore, the ultimate deterrent to nuclear war. Unfortunately, they kept it a secret.

May 3, 2011

The Epistemology of Panic

I have a friend whom I have always considered sane. He’s a decent, useful member of society. He has a reasonable, practical mind in most respects. He can solve problems. He has religious beliefs, but has never struck me as a zealot. Nevertheless, my friend now believes that we are on the cusp of the biblical “end times”. He cites, as evidence, the words of a vague collection of Christian scholars he does not know. He accepts their authority not on the basis of their past reliability, but merely on the personal resonance of their claims.

At the same time, my friend shrugs off impending calamities for which there is good evidence. He believes that God can destroy America, but scoffs at the idea that anyone or anything else can. Climate and energy emergencies are as unreal to him as his religious apocalypse is to me. He clings to words and symbols, like “freedom” and the flag. It does not seem to register that in a universe at the whim of a vengeful deity the kind of freedom he imagines would be impossible. It does not seem to matter that the flag doesn’t have a place in scripture. Indeed, the world that I see as a collision of natural forces acting in a painful but still orderly way, he sees as a collection of emotional loci without any threads to connect them. I watch, in horror and fascination, what I can only describe as the functional collapse of a human mind.

I have long had a gnawing apprehension that faith has very dangerous potentials. If one begins to believe things undemonstrated by experience, it erodes the very basis of one’s understanding. It begins by ignoring the empirical world, and ends by denying it. I see this everywhere I turn now. It is not the sole province of the religious. It is abundantly clear that most economists, politicians and business people do not believe the physical world puts any limit of expansion. They believe we can grow the population and the economy at a few percent per annum forever, provided only that we balance the numbers correctly. That human ingenuity has no bounds. That we will solve all problems as needed, again, if we just manage to keep our organizational ducks in a row. If these beliefs are any better than scriptural dogmas, I challenge anyone to show me how.

May 2, 2011

The Death of Bin Laden

Last night I waited for the president to tell us what the press already had, namely that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. Once again, being witness to history leaves me ill at ease. I certainly wouldn't question that a kind of justice was done. Delusional, homicidal maniacs are never a good thing to have around, and all the less so if they are charismatic enough to lead mass movements. Nevertheless, when I hear of the crowds outside the White House mindlessly chanting "U-S-A!" I sense that we have only won the latest round in a deepening blood feud. Our masses are as delusional to think that this victory will make radical Islam cower as their masses were to think that 9/11 would make us cower. My post of last week seems all the more prescient now.

The president, of course, took credit. One should not expect nobility from politicians. He was careful, as Bush was, to try not to cast our actions as a general assault on Islam, which in some abstract legalistic sense it actually isn’t. I have a hard time imagining, however, that we have not created a martyr in the eyes of many. People are not rational about these things.

My local TV station announced that they’d received a flood of emails triumphantly forecasting that oil prices will go down now. Perhaps these people were only predicting that commodity speculators might sell off enough of their oil futures to drop the price of few dollars a barrel. Perhaps – but I doubt it. I think what they believe is that we licked those Arab’s good, and now they’ll open the tap for fear we’ll whack them hard again. God bless the U.S.A. – we have our pride back now! It’s still inconceivable to the average American that the oil party may be rapidly winding down, scared Arabs or no scared Arabs.