I just found myself posting this in comments on another site, and it expresses my feelings pretty damned well. This is a technical blog, but it's my blog, and in this one instance, I feel justified about a political post. And it's not like anybody reads this anyway -- so assuming you even exist, you have no reason to complain.
Thus runs the missive:
Bah. I don't like to rehash 9/11 because the second thing I thought, walking into the IU Union and seeing the smoking tower on the TV, was "Reichstag", and in this one thing, Mr. Bush has not failed me.
The first thing was -- holy shit THERE's something you don't see every day.
You know what? The actual specific damage there was nothing to the United States. Compare it to the damage Hitler did in Europe, then come back and tell me it was at all significant. The only damage it did was in America's collective head -- it was a bee sting, and the last six years have been anaphylaxis. Not sure yet whether it was fatal shock, but the patient still doesn't look good.
Now these same people, after 9/11-ing for years to justify stupidity and blood in Iraq, telling us a tinpot third-world embargoed communist was as dangerous or more dangerous to our mighty nation than the heavily industrialized Germany we faced down and beat while fighting on another front entirely -- against ninjas for cryin out loud -- those people are now telling us we're in an existential fight with Iran over the fate of Western Civilization. They've been at war with us for thirty years, and it's been an existential threat, but we just ... haven't noticed? Does anybody but me see how fricking stupid that sounds?
I spent a lot of time and energy being liberal and anti-war between 2001 and 2004-ish, killed my business thinking about politics instead of noticing the recession, ran up a shitload of unpaid back taxes and debt while killing my business, and every day I watched a pack of deadbeats getting richer and richer off America's pain, all because of America's Reichstag and the willingness of the American people to treat international politics like a horror movie. And that fucking monkey, excuse my freedom, can't even wipe the smirk off his face, even now.
I just don't care any more. America will recover from its panic attack, or it won't. It doesn't matter what I do or say. And that's what 9/11 means to me.
This week, for the second week in a row, Boing Boing features a University of Arizona initiative to "identify people online by their writing style". Homeland Security is of course all over this whiz-bang tech like ants on honey, because... well, I started a comment on the program, only to realize this would better be a blog post.
1. I'll accept that it's possible to come up with some "similarity metric" that says "A is 99% similar to A' but only 32% similar to B", in the sense that we have such-and-such a probability that a given text was written by a certain person. (So we end up with "similarity islands" of texts in the metric space, and we call each of those islands a writer.)
But that means that for any text we have only a certain (finite and non-certainty) probability that a given text is actually written by A. So let's get entirely wild and assume some government researcher with more money than brains, working alone in a highly technical and difficult field, somehow writes an algorithm as good as, say, Google's algorithm for determining the topic of a page, which is inherently an easier topic.
The result? We will be able to find terrorists online as well as Google can avoid giving us crap search results. And forgive me for saying this, but nobody in their right minds would arrest someone based on a Google result.
OK, #2. We are categorizing writers and potentially calling them enemies of the state based on WHAT THEY WRITE. Now, I know that not all the readers of this blog are Americans, but here in America, we have something called the Constitution which means that it is not a crime to write things.
Ah, hell, all snark aside, even if this works, it's still misguided for patently obvious Constitutional reasons. And it's not going to work, not the way they think, because --
3. What this all boils down to is this. Politicians and technocrats think that the world is divided into two groups of people: "our" people, who do what we say and pay us taxes so we can buy nice houses in Virginia, and "those" people, who rouse the rabble and put our salaries in jeopardy. "Those" people, this year, we call "terrorists". Earlier they were "communists", or "labor organizers", or "civil rights activists", or whatever -- the main thing to remember is that everything is stable unless troublemakers stir things up.
And we used to be able to know who those people were, because they looked funny. But on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog -- and so there is a perceived need, whether it's possible or not, for a technology to identify dogs. Or "terrorists" -- but what they really want is to be able to draw a line down the middle of the Internet between safe people and troublemakers.
And what that means is that the freewheeling exchange of ideas -- OK, and 90% crap -- which is the Internet? It's gone sufficiently mainstream that these people regard it as a threat, exactly like certain neighborhoods, or certain movements, have been in the past. It's too free for comfort, and it's too well-known to be ignored.
I don't know how it'll play out. But this story really exposes a seamy underside of our society. It's depressing.
And then there is the notion of spoofing such an algorithm, as researched by none other than Microsoft, at Obfuscating Document Stylometry to Preserve Author Anonymity. This may well be illegal research at some point in a dystopian future...
Glenn Greenwald writes today that "the idea that the Rule of Law is only for common people, but not for our political leaders and Washington elite, is pervasive among the political and pundit class, in both parties."
My immediate realization was that this attitude is exactly equivalent to the notion that financial risk applies only to individuals and to small business, but that large business (the "financial elite") is simply too large to be allowed to fail. Oh, it's certainly allowed to succeed, mind you. The banks in the mortgage market were happy enough to take home the profits from selling houses at rates far above their value. But when their risky action proved, well, risky, they aren't expected to pay the price. We do.
In a similar way, when our political elite breaks the law, they consider themselves to be too important to pay that price. As a result, we all do.