Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Friday, February 22, 2008

War on Terror as Political Science Problem

Matthew Yglesias has an elegant structural explanation of what's wrong with the politics of terror as conducted in the US:

Democracy is a highly imperfect method of getting good government. One thing that makes it work better is the general sense that if good things happen to a country, incumbent politicians will benefit from that whereas if bad things happen, incumbents will suffer. That often leads to election results that aren't really "deserved" since Jimmy Carter didn't cause the 70s oil crisis and Bill Clinton didn't cause the 90s tech boom. But it does keep the incentives where they belong -- insofar as things are under the control of politicians, the politicians try to make good things happen.
But not the post-9/11 GOP. Their political meal ticket is a population terrified of terrorism, and nothing whips that terror up quite like actual terrorism in London, Madrid, wherever. The result is a political party that simply can't adopt policies designed to ratchet-down the level of danger and anxiety.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

PAA's down, but they're're not dead yet...

Not often you see us link to the Cato Institute here, but Tim Lee has been becoming one of my heroes over the past couple of years. While I don't agree with him and his pals about everything, or even most things, they know far more about technology than I ever will, and he does a good job of explaining what exactly is wrong with Bush's demands for the extension of the (Protect America Act overhaul of) FISA bill in terms even I can understand:

In 1976, a special Senate committee revealed massive abuses of power by the FBI, the National Security Agency and other government agencies. One notorious case was the FBI's attempts to undermine and discredit Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The bureau tapped King's phones and bugged his hotel rooms. The FBI used the information in attempts to discredit King with churches, universities and the press.

The problem with opposing surveillance is that people either assume that a) you have something to hide, or b) you're a conspiracy theorist, whereas what actually worries people who've thought about it is the ability it gives whoever the current vested interests are to stifle dissent without ever necessarily having to descend into an openly Stalinist police state. The problems tend to come at the margins, rather than in any one, satisfying dramatic moment. People feel more constrained in their behaviour, are less likely to associate with others who might be considered deviant etc. etc. Given that these little choices are harder to notice, the best way to stir people out of their apathy is usually to reason counter-factually - to show the things that might not have happened had more surveillance been in place. The MLK case seems like a very good example.

Also, in amongst a bunch of great points, Siva Vaidhyanathan points out that the "shaping behaviour" model of surveillance - what academics tend to call panopticism - can be a bit of a red herring.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Like reality, but different...

I actually opened a copy of The Mail on Sunday last weekend. This is not normally something I do a lot of, but I saw a copy lying round and thought "What the hell?. How bad can it be?". I knew it wasn't exactly going to be pleasant, but it's always good to read opinions you disagree with, if only to remind you as to why. After all, I do profess a pretty vehement hatred of the paper, but it's been so long since I've had a look that for the last couple of years I've been basing this mainly on whatever I could glean from reading the cover of the thing in garage forecourts. Also from seeing Melanie Phillips, probably the most punchable woman in the UK, spouting bile on Question Time.

But that's not really a systematic consideration of the evidence, is it? After all, the headlines and the rabid public appearances might just be the sound-bites that they use to interest their audience, before confronting them with more nuanced arguments between the covers. That is, after all, sort of how the press is meant to work, isn't it?

Or not. The headline was all about the Treasury's plan to issue Sharia bonds. To be fair, they did offer an explanation of the basics of Islamic finance (which consists largely of finding new ways to re-name "interest" as "rent"), albeit with the slightly hysterical (and I think misleading) undertone that this would transfer state assets to foreign investors in a way that was substantially different to any other kind of debt. Mainly, though, it was all about having an excuse to the whole Archbishop/Sharia law thing on the boil.

The editorial comment was even worse, dimly aware that there was a substantive issue, probably something to do with public finances, budget deficits and all those other boring sounding things: "As it happens, the decision makes sense on business terms. Many major investors are Muslim and it would be foolish to spurn their custom by refusing to consider their religious views." Having got all that out the way in a paragraph, they went back to conflating the Treasury's idea with the Archbishop's talk as quickly as they could, harping on about the dreadful tendency of "multicultural liberals" to "suck up to Islam."

This probably doesn't come as a surprise to anyone. The ability of the paper to shoe-horn the prejudices of a conservative Surrey matron into any issue, no matter how complex or arcane, is a pretty constant source of fun for comedians and other newspapers. Actually watching it take place in real time is still a little weird, though.

What really amazed me a two line article at the end of Peter Hitchens's column. Hitchens, like his brother Christopher, has built his reputation on making apparently reasonable arguments for crazy ideas. His whole shtick is that he's the ultimate iconoclast - taking unpopular positions due to a combination of intellectual rigour and principle. Whilst this may be more than a touch hard to take seriously, this guy is marketed as the intellectually respectable face of the Mail, so you'd think he'd try and avoid coming out with anything too obviously, glaringly, howlingly, on-the-face-of-it idiotic. Think again:

Once again the youthful killer in a campus shooting, Steve Kazmierczak, is reported to have been on an (unnamed) "medication".

This is only partly about guns. American teenagers have had guns for centuries. It is these "medications" that are new. Drugging the young is wrong and dangerous.

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Tellin' it like it is!

To Mr. Olberman: THANK YOU!!!

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