Archive for the ‘Technology’ category

WTF Is Wrong With These People?

August 28, 2014

By these people, I mean (some) male gamers:

Earlier this week, feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian posted the latest in a series of crowdfunded videos called Tropes vs. Women, devoted to aggregating and analyzing games that portray women as damsels in distress, ornamental eye candy, incidental victims, and other archetypes that tend to be written in service of and subordinate to male players and characters….

…Since the project launched on Kickstarter way back in 2012, the gaming community has been treated to an incessant, deeply paranoid campaign against Tropes vs. Women generally and Sarkeesian personally….now, she’s apparently spent the night with friends after contacting law enforcement about “some very scary threats” against her and her family. She’s published a page of extremely violent sexual threats from the person who apparently drove her to call the police; in it, the user mentions the location of her apartment and threatens to kill her parents, who the user names and claims to be able to find.

Hemessen,_Jan_Sanders_van_-_Tarquin_et_Lucretia

Sarkeesian has tweeted out that she’s safe.  The good news is that some very prominent people in and around gaming and tech have weighed in on her project.  The bad news is that such public encouragement may be making Sarkeesian even more of a target:

In this case, the vitriol might have been compounded by the support her latest video received from popular developers and media figures. Joss Whedon and William Gibson, among others, mentioned it, and Tim Schafer of Double Fine — known for Psychonauts and the Kickstarter-funded Broken Age spent several hours fielding responses after urging everyone in game development to watch it “from start to finish.”

I started to write here about how this is a test of the gamer community, and the need to shame and shun and all that, but we know.  We do.  Take it as read.

And, of course, it ain’t just gamers, though it’s pretty damn obvious at this point that tech in general has a dude-bro problem.  I’ve recently been engaged in efforts to respond to gender bias and sexual harassment on my own patch, science writing, so I know better than to suggest that this is an isolated pathology.  The hate and genuine danger may vary by degree, but it’s hardly confined to one corner of contemporary life.

IOW: if this is a test, it’s a test that we’re all are taking.  Judge for yourself whether, when or if we manage to pass it.

Jan Sanders van Hemessen, Tarquin and Lucretia, before 1579.

And the Internet Shall Make Us Free, Gender Equity Division

August 12, 2014

I have a friend in the science writing game (many actually; I’m a wealthy man that way).  This particular friend has built a career out of writing about physics, mostly, along with a bit of math,* all with a truly distinct style, voice, and stance.  The work begins from the true premise: physics and the habits of scientific thinking penetrate (or should) every aspect of experience.  Science ain’t just for the boffins — it’s of value and available to anyone willing to crack a book and wind their brain.

My friend has lots of strengths as a writer, full stop, and as a writer about science.  It’s not just the catchy and earned interplay the work achieves between popular culture and real scientific concepts.  What I love as I read books and articles from my friend is the way each piece is built experientially.  The ideas emerge as the narrative voice lives, does actual stuff (road-trip to Vegas! drop acid! check out the rides at Disneyland!).  This is a writer who wants readers to feel their new knowledge down to the bone.  And to have fun with it while they’re at it.

So my friend put out a book a couple of years ago that showcases all this fine writerly stuff on a topic that doesn’t usually make most folks’ lists of beach reading.  Titled The Calculus Diaries it tells the story of what happens when a fully grown adult — a former English major –sets out to master calculus,  both for the beauty of the math involved and to discover its power as a  guide to just about whatever one may encounter in daily life.

My friend has lots of friends, as it happens, many of whom we share.  One of those was talking to yet a third party a few nights ago, and told that person about the book.  The next day, some of the details had vanished, as they are wont to do.  And so this last person in the chain did what anyone would:  ask the magic Google machine to find that tome about the English major who decided to learn calculus.

Then this happened:

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 5.14.25 PM

Oops.

Or rather, what’s telling is that plenty of folks are pissed off at the Google-bot’s assumption here, but no one, I think, is even remotely surprised.  Ben Lillie — the man behind Story Collider, by the way — is the person who told McManus (whom I don’t know) about The Calculus Diaries, by Jennifer Ouellette, possibly also known to some of you as Jen-Luc Picard, proprietress of Cocktail Party Physics.

La_Leçon_d’astronomie_de_la_duchesse_du_Maine_-_François_de_Troy

Ben wrote up a lovely post for his Tumblr on all this, with at least two motives behind the writing, both of which I share.

One is simply to make sure that our mutual friend Jennifer gets all the credit she deserves for having written a wonderful tale and guide-for-the-math-perplexed that I believe serves as a great gateway drug to really important mathematical ideas.  Also, maybe, this’ll help sell some  books.

The other is to use this bit of search-algorithm-”optimization” to cast the obvious sidelight on the fact of embedded sexism in tech — and really society at large.  That pathology is easy to see when you get dudebros making obvious and public tools of themselves.  But (and of course you see this in the way racism persists) when you set the non-sexist/racist/bigot/asshole bar at the level of not being that guy, not using the c word or the n word, or what have you, the deep social and cultural conditions in which actual racism, sexism, discrimination makes itself felt don’t get touched.  Ben wrote a line I can’t beat on this theme:

One of the wonderful things about relying on computers to help us is that if we’re not careful they’ll tell us who we really are.

And so they do.  And what this one little story means as a practical matter is that as long as the assumption that men do math and women don’t runs so far below the surface that even the Google breathes it back at you….then that’s how you know the war on women, like plenty of other battles, ain’t close to over.  La lucha continua, as we used to say.

Discuss — and go buy some books.

*There’s been a recent detour into mind-brain stuff, but we all have our briar patches, don’t we?

Image: François de Troy, Astronomy Lesson of the Duchess du Main, 1702-1704

One More On Swartz (and MIT)

January 15, 2013

I want to respond to a couple of things mistermix wrote this morning over at Balloon Juice about what I had previously written concerning MIT’s response to Aaron Swartz’s death, but first, some preliminaries.

1:  This topic has become a lightening rod for a stunningly unproductive comment war between those who see Swartz as presumptively criminal who couldn’t take the heat his own actions had invited, and those who see him as  a martyr to the positive cause of internet and data freedom and to the defensive one of resistance to overweening corporate and government interests.

My own view is much closer to the side of those who see Swartz as a driven idealist, on the side of the angels, largely unprepared for real life.  It’s overwhelmingly clear that he believed deeply in acting morally according to a particular moral code and that he was aware that this commitment could bring him into conflict with existing legal (and more everyday) constraints. It is clear, to me at least, that his goals, what he thought the good was for which he was willing to enter into such conflict, is in fact a major social benefit:  information, if it doesn’t always want to be free* wants to be genuinely accessible — or rather, we as citizens, members of a polity that utterly depends on an informed electorate, need to have ready access to the words, numbers and wisdom required to perform our civic work.  Does that mean Swartz or anyone else should get out of jail free when they challenge someone else’s intellectual property claims?  No, and Swartz and his legal team did not seek do so, according to the Kevin Cullen/Boston Globe column to which mistermix linked.  For those without access to the Globe, here’s the datum:

Swartz and his lawyers were not looking for a free pass. They had offered to accept a deferred prosecution or probation, so that if Swartz pulled a stunt like that again, he would end up in prison.

I have no problem with that proposed resolution; seems about right to me.  Much more appropriate than this:

Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_037

That said, YMMV, on either side.

But here’s my point and my plea:  we’ve had now four threads on this matter.  I get it that some of you think otherwise, and have been fully in keeping with Balloon Juice traditions in the…how to put it…forcefulness of your expression of such views.  Now, please, just consider putting a sock in it.  The young man — I’m old enough to think of him as a very young man — is dead, and clearly suffered distress; whether or not you are convinced he was in the wrong just doesn’t f**king matter.  With absolutely no authority, and no intention of wielding a ban hammer for anything short of heinous, directly personal racism, bigotry, sexism and the like — mere insult and uninventive invective don’t cut it (that’s what pie filters are for, folks) –I’d just ask that you all try to stay on the actual argument, with some respect for the family, friends and those bereft by the loss of Aaron Swartz.  I’m asking as nicely as I can, OK?

2:   And while I’m at it, can I ask for some reflection before anyone spouts off about depression?  I’ve mentioned before that it’s been a big deal in my family, and I’m struck by the degree of careless and uninformed talk that’s run around Swartz’s loss.  No, depression should not be a get out of jail free card.  Yes, it is a serious, potentially fatal illness.  And yes, emphatically yes, I agree with one Swartz’s lawyer’s that the US Attorney’s office could and should have taken the risks posed to their defendent by the combination of a very aggressive prosecutorial approach and Swartz’s mental history:

Andy Good, Swartz’s initial lawyer, is ­alternately sad and furious.

“The thing that galls me is that I told Heymann the kid was a suicide risk,” Good told me. “His reaction was a standard reaction in that office, not unique to Steve. He said, ‘Fine, we’ll lock him up.’ I’m not saying they made Aaron kill himself. Aaron might have done this anyway. I’m saying they were aware of the risk, and they were heedless.”

It is worth remembering that prosecutors do have specific responsibilities to those under investigation or indictment, and a penumbra of duty that includes moral judgment.  I’m pretty sure the US Attorney’s office in Boston failed to meet at least some parts of that obligation.  But again, whether or not you agree, I’d ask anyone anxious to speak up on the role depression did play in Swartz’s death and any impact it should have had on the prosecution to think hard and write carefully.  This is not an area in which a snappy retort is likely to shed light, or, as important in my book, to contain what should be sympathy in the original sense of the word for a truly terrible and intensely complicated disease.

3:  A couple of links.  There’s a memorial site up for Aaron Swartz that any  so moved might find it worthwhile to visit.  And for those of you interested in actions that honor Swartz’s ambitions, MuckRock, a site dedicated to helping folks file Freedom of Information Act requests is offering free FOIA filing for the day in Aaron Swartz’s honor.

Alright, with those out of the way, onto the argument mistermix advanced in response to my piece about MIT President Rafael Reif’s announcement made in the wake of Swartz’s suicide and his family’s direct indictment of the Institute’s role in that tragedy. On that matter, mistermix writes:

When I read Tom’s piece about MIT’s President appointing a panel to study MIT’s response to Swartz, I figured that President’s haste indicated that there were some dirty hands at MIT who wanted to kick the can down the road. And what better way to do that than to follow the blue-ribbon example of Linda P.B. Katehi, still Chancellor of the UC Davis system, who used a panel to wiggle out of any accountability for her role in the pepper spraying of the Occupy protest on her campus. It doesn’t matter what the panel reports. What matters is that the panel’s report will be a long time in coming. When the report finally arrives, the outrage at those who insisted on draconian punishments for a “crime”–from which Swartz didn’t profit, which was completely non-violent, and which probably had minimal effect on the alleged victim (JSTOR)–will be attenuated by the passage at time.

To which my first reaction is, what would you have President Reif, and MIT do?  Not investigate?  Not formalize the process, identify decisions and the timing of those choices, name names?  That’s what I expect of Hal Abelson’s panel; if that’s not what I get, I will write again in this space acknowledging my error.

But until you see the document, roll with me on my assumption (as discussed in both my prior post and by several commenters in that thread) that Abelson is the real deal, in sympathy (I think) with Swartz’s take on open access, a man of formidable intelligence, as expert as you could hope for in the specific areas of computation and information most important to this case, and of previously tested and affirmed personal integrity and intellectual courage.  He may of course screw up; he may pull punches; he may be undermined by other institutional powers.  We will find out in time.  But for now, the rest of this post follows through the notion that Reif has requested a genuine inquiry and that Abelson intends to deliver one.

Given that, mistermix’s argument boils down to two related planks:  panels are devices to avoid action, and the way that this process arrives at the desired indecision is through delay.

Vouet,_Simon_-_Father_Time_Overcome_by_Love,_Hope_and_Beauty_-_1627

You know what: mistermix is right.  Just not always — and more to the point, some version of this approach is in fact how academic (and other) institutions both work and don’t work.  I can’t speak for other universities, but in the 8 years I’ve been at MIT I’ve come both to know and value its particular data-driven culture.  Assertions do not fly well in governance here — not as rhetoric, and not as robust foundations for the decisions they may be used to justify.

More, if you want to enact faculty governance as something more than form, you have to approach certain questions this way:  I don’t believethe faculty would not accept Reif’s say-so on this or many other matters — for all that he rose to his present position through the MIT faculty ranks.  Rather, on crucial questions, the recognized approach here (and perhaps everywhere else — again, I’m a latecomer to the academy and my knowledge of its practices, as opposed to those of my home institution falls somewhere between very little and none) is to create finders and interpreters (judges) of fact independent of the central administration.

So perhaps a reasonable question is whether or not this process is anything more than form; it’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility to think of a committee made up of faculty close to the administration, who could be trusted to keep troubling matters at bay.  But there’s also evidence that the process does not have to happen that way, at least not at the one venue for which I have direct knowledge.

As some of you may recall, a couple of months ago I interviewed my colleague Nancy Hopkins on my internet science broadcast.  Hopkins was the leader of the first panel created to assess whether or not MIT was discriminating against women faculty in ways that directly and crucially affected their research and their possibilities for advancement at the Institute.  Her panel and the one that followed it demonstrated exactly that, and produced both MIT – specific and national results as a consequence.

So, no, I don’t accept as a simple assertion of fact that Rafael Reif’s appointing a committee led by a prominent MIT scholar is prima facie evidence of the desire to kick this matter down the road.

Nor is the issue of time is important; justice delayed and all that.  But first — I don’t know when Abelson plans to report.  My guess is that it would be relatively soon, and speaking purely for me, I’d hope to hear from this panel before the end of the coming spring term in May.  (I know that’s not exactly a blazing pace, but that’s pretty quick by local standards.)

But whether or not that’s the case, its still not clear to me that taking an extended period to come to a conclusion is itself an obvious tell for the desire to sweep matters under the rug.  Rather, the test for me will be in the recommendations that flow from this investigation, and the administration’s response to those suggestions.  And anyway, taking time enough to nail one’s case is not in and of itself a sign of ill faith. Note that the Hopkins committee and its sequels took a couple of years to get their work done.  They did it in the way most likely to persuade an MIT constituency:  to prove the claim that women received less lab space than men under equivalent needs, they went out with tape measures and gathered the dimensions themselves.  That and a host of other efforts to accumulate unequivocal numbers took a while.  When their work was done, the picture was clear, and its implications unmistakable.  That it had taken a couple of years did not diminish it’s impact; rather the reverse.

So many words, when what I’m really trying to say is that simply pointing to the UC Davis travesty (I agree w. mistermix on that one) is not sufficient to arrive at the conclusion that MIT will similarly try to avoid taking institutional note of what happened here and what should be done about it.

*Why yes, damn, straight: I want you to run, not walk, to the electronic book store of your choice and buy my last work, for which I’ll score roughly $3.50 in royalties against a still-unearned-out advance.

**functionally a department, but as a historical rhetoric, MIT still boasts a Department of Humanities, of which several department-equivalents are sections.  A detail of interest to just about no one.

Images: Vincent van Gogh, Prisoners Exercising, 1890

Simon Vouet, Father Time Overcome By Love, Hope and Beauty, 1627

More Geekenfreude

November 9, 2012

Adding to the picture of the Obama tech-group’s cyber-campaign edge over Romney’s people, here are a few more details on the GOP’s Project ORCA  — you know, the GOTV system that failed more or less completely. From  Commentary:

The system had never been stress tested and couldn’t handle the crush of traffic all at once. Thousands of man-hours went into designing and implementing a program that was useful on one day and one day only, and on that day, it crashed. My source familiar with the campaign described it this way, “It was a giant [mess] because a political operative sold a broken product with no support or backup plan…”

Just to belabor the obvious.  Big data and robust software take a lot of time to get right…

…but the Romney side began only began to grasp the need for such a system well into the heat of the campaign [Powerline link]:

In the primary, we learned it was difficult to be working from Boston and really affect voter turnout in the states. It was disappointing to receive data later and realize if we had access to that data earlier, we could have done something differently and affected the outcome.

We have tweaked and improved Project ORCA throughout primary, so going into the general, we had several ideas and more time to incorporate those ideas into a system that would work nationally.

(Via Ars Technica, building ORCA took place over just seven months, leading up almost to the point of the general election)

By contrast, as the Michael Scherer’s piece I quoted yesterday describes, the Democratic cyber-team spent 18 months just to build the essential infrastructure of a usable meta-database and developing the software tools that would allow the Obama team to exploit that information for use in different settings throughout the active campaigning season.

And then there’s this, by Steve Lohron the NYT’s Bits Blog:

Another truly important change was in the technology itself. “Cloud computing barely existed in 2008,” Mr. Slaby said.

This time, the Obama campaign’s data center was mainly Amazon Web Services, the leading supplier of cloud services. The campaign’s engineers built about 200 different programs that ran on the Amazon service including Dashboard, the remote calling tool, the campaign Web site, donation processing and data analytics applications.

Using mainly open-source software and the Amazon service, the Obama campaign could inexpensively write and tailor its own programs instead of using off-the-shelf commercial software.

“It let us attack and engineer our own approach to problems, and build solutions for an environment that moves so rapidly you can’t plan,” Mr. Slaby said. “It made a huge difference this time.”

By contrast, the Romney development process, again, as reported by Ars Technica’s Sean Gallagher [h/t commenter dmislev]:

To build Orca, the Romney campaign turned to Microsoft and an unnamed application consulting firm..

[But there were] a series of deployment blunders and network and system failures. While the system was stress-tested using automated testing tools, users received little or no advance training on the system. Crucially, there was no dry run to test how Orca would perform over the public Internet.

Part of the issue was Orca’s architecture. While 11 backend database servers had been provisioned for the system—probably running on virtual machines—the “mobile” piece of Orca was a Web application supported by a single Web server and a single application server. Rather than a set of servers in the cloud, “I believe all the servers were in Boston at the Garden or a data center nearby…

Open source.  Build it yourself.  Don’t had over your wallet to a consultant and take (allegedly) turnkey delivery days or weeks before chequered flag goes down.

Lots of folks here have more experience with this kind of work than I ever will, but my friends in the open source camp always emphasize:  if you build the tool and know the tool, and do so in an environoment that’s easy for others to inspect, critique, and improve, you get good software.  You certainly can get fine software from conventional proprietary approaches — but not always, and you suffer most when you have a glitch:  fewer people know what’s going on, and the code itself can be much more opaque.  Commenters here can flesh that cartoon out with much more bitter experience, I’m sure — but I think we all know the eternal truth that you really, really don’t want to be testing critical new components on the night.

A last point:  One of the benefits of demanding extreme effort in our Presidential campaigns is so that they can serve as stress tests, a way to see how well each side handles pressure and complex tasks.  And here,  you can see a lot in the different approaches the two teams took to building technology intended to address essentially the same problem.  You get a sense of their respective management cultures, their analytical skills, their capacity to master their emotions and organize themselves against the specific tasks they face.

Or, as our friend John Hindrocket asked just a week ago,

Whom would you count on to organize anything, Mitt Romney or David Axelrod?

Heh.

Image:  Titian, Allegory of Time Governed By Prudence, c. 1565.

I’m Still Loving The Smell Of Schadenfreude In The Morning: Geek Edition

November 8, 2012

A tale of two campaigns:

First, Obama, as reported in a fascinating and tantalizingly brief piece by Michael Scherer over at Time.com:

For all the praise Obama’s team won in 2008 for its high-tech wizardry, its success masked a huge weakness: too many databases. Back then, volunteers making phone calls through the Obama website were working off lists that differed from the lists used by callers in the campaign office. Get-out-the-vote lists were never reconciled with fundraising lists. It was like the FBI and the CIA before 9/11: the two camps never shared data. “We analyzed very early that the problem in Democratic politics was you had databases all over the place,” said one of the officials. “None of them talked to each other.” So over the first 18 months, the campaign started over, creating a single massive system that could merge the information collected from pollsters, fundraisers, field workers and consumer databases as well as social-media and mobile contacts with the main Democratic voter files in the swing states.

The new megafile didn’t just tell the campaign how to find voters and get their attention; it also allowed the number crunchers to run tests predicting which types of people would be persuaded by certain kinds of appeals. Call lists in field offices, for instance, didn’t just list names and numbers; they also ranked names in order of their persuadability, with the campaign’s most important priorities first. About 75% of the determining factors were basics like age, sex, race, neighborhood and voting record. Consumer data about voters helped round out the picture. “We could [predict] people who were going to give online. We could model people who were going to give through mail. We could model volunteers,” said one of the senior advisers about the predictive profiles built by the data. “In the end, modeling became something way bigger for us in ’12 than in ’08 because it made our time more efficient.”….

The magic tricks that opened wallets were then repurposed to turn out votes. The analytics team used four streams of polling data to build a detailed picture of voters in key states. In the past month, said one official, the analytics team had polling data from about 29,000 people in Ohio alone — a whopping sample that composed nearly half of 1% of all voters there — allowing for deep dives into exactly where each demographic and regional group was trending at any given moment. This was a huge advantage: when polls started to slip after the first debate, they could check to see which voters were changing sides and which were not….

“We ran the election 66,000 times every night,” said a senior official, describing the computer simulations the campaign ran to figure out Obama’s odds of winning each swing state. “And every morning we got the spit-out — here are your chances of winning these states. And that is how we allocated resources.”

…The numbers also led the campaign to escort their man down roads not usually taken in the late stages of a presidential campaign. In August, Obama decided to answer questions on the social news website Reddit, which many of the President’s senior aides did not know about. “Why did we put Barack Obama on Reddit?” an official asked rhetorically. “Because a whole bunch of our turnout targets were on Reddit.”

And now the Romney approach, from reporting at Politico:

A much-touted mobile app used by Romney campaign poll watchers to track voters faced hiccups across the country Tuesday that left one prominent conservative Romney critic declaring it on Twitter “nothing short of a failure.”The system, known as the ORCA Project, was intended to give the Republican challenger’s team real-time information so campaign workers could call, text or visit people who hadn’t yet voted in attempts to corral them before polls closed.

Yet dozens of Romney poll workers across the country took to Twitter throughout the day to gripe that they were unable to log in, lost data they had inputted or found it moving slower than they needed to keep up with poll traffic.

Jeffrey Cook, a Romney poll worker from Fort Dodge, Iowa, gave up after eight hours of being unable to log in and tried to provide his data over the phone after the campaign sent out information about a telephone helpline….

“This looks like hundreds and hundreds of people,” said Akbar, whose popular Twitter handle @ali became a central repository for ORCA complaints. “Something’s going wrong. More people are experiencing problems than are saying it’s working.”

That’s damning for a feature of Romney’s digital campaign that was expected to be a blockbuster. Earlier this month, in fact, Romney deputy political director Dan Centinello was quoted by the Huffington Post as saying of ORCA, “There’s nothing that the Obama data team, there’s nothing that the Obama campaign, there’s nothing that President [Barack] Obama himself can do to even come close to what we are putting together here.”

The Obama campaign has a similar app, Mobile Pollwatcher, which had no reported problems on Tuesday

Ahhhh. This isn’t getting old, is it.

One more thing.  As ever, it’s never their fault.  Conservatism cannot fail. It can only be failed — or betrayed:

In the heat of the election, some pro-Romney tweeters blamed the press for suggestions that ORCA wasn’t working quite right.“Media stories reporting ORCA efforts shut down by hackers are false,” wrote Tommy Duggan, publisher of The Valley Patriot newspaper in Massachusetts. “We just got first-hand confirm[ation] that system worked brilliantly.”

As we might say in the framing familiar to this blog:  Continue acquiring intimate knowledge of Colonel Sander’s best friend.
Images:  Vincent van Gogh, The Blue Train (The Viaduct in Arles), 1888.
Hendrik Gerritsz. Pot, Flora’s mallewagen. (Allegory of the Tulip Mania.) 1640.

Less Than Meets The Eye — Cyber War edition

June 5, 2011

A couple of days ago John wrote about the seemingly new doctrine of armed response to acts of cyber sabotage.  I’m broadly with him on the badness of expanding without limit the range of events that we would treat as an act of war.  But I think there is much less new here than it seems — and perhaps that lack of novel insight is more of the problem than the risks inherent in treating cyber attacks as a potential casus belli.

First of all, there is a significant trail behind this latest Pentagon statement.  A major milestone came with the publication of Presidential Decision Directive 63 in 1998 — a document coming from the Clinton White House/National Security Council.  The directive calls for a series of measures aimed at minimizing our vulnerability and enhancing our ability to respond to cyber attacks — response in this case meaning fixing the damage to critical systems to minimize pain, suffering, and economic and/or military damage.  But the notion that a digital attack is a form of warfare is already present, part of US official doctrine all the way back in the last century:

Because of our military strength, future enemies, whether nations, groups or individuals, may seek to harm us in non- traditional ways including attacks within the United States. Because our economy is increasingly reliant upon interdependent and cyber-supported infrastructures, non-traditional attacks on our infrastructure and information systems may be capable of significantly harming both our military power and our economy.

And of course, this is true.  As the WSJ article to which John linked recounts, the Stuxnet virus that seems to have done significant damage to Iran’s nuclear effort struck at a sovereign nation’s economic and perhaps military capacity in a pretty direct way.

Had the authors of Stuxnet managed to set off a bomb in the centrifuge room, that would have been obviously an act of violence, one of war.  That the cyber path permitted the same damage to be done less messily does not alter its tactical significance, at least not in any obvious way.  If the Pentagon is moving to formalize the logic implied by Clinton-era perceptions of cyber threat — well, there are changes here, but I’m not sure they are as groundbreaking as the WSJ article made it seem.

That is:  the reality behind the digital metaphor of infection is one of the facts of life in a networked world.  The realms of the virtual and the physical are now deeply interconnected, and disruption of the cyber networks can (and has) produced real consequences in our material circumstances.  I don’t see it as a huge stretch to suggest that a cyber attack could cause the deaths of people, and that a response using other weapons that also kill people might be appropriate, if (and only if) you can reliably connect the original attack to the folks you want to target.

Which is the real problem with this not-so-new posture, a twisty little bit you can find by burrowing a little deeper into the WSJ piece:

Pentagon officials believe the most-sophisticated computer attacks require the resources of a government. For instance, the weapons used in a major technological assault, such as taking down a power grid, would likely have been developed with state support, Pentagon officials say.

Well, maybe.  But I read this and come back to where I think John was heading in his piece:  if a network attack by a cyber-al-Qaeda goads us into pounding the next Iraq stand-in, then we are back to what got us into our current predicament in the first place.

To which depressing thought, I’ve three reactions.

First:  it is a good thing that our government is taking cyber crime/war seriously.  Given how increasingly dependent we are on a complicated and variously vulnerable digital infrastructure,  it would be the height of folly to think that our networks are of no interest to potential adversaries.

Second: its an assumption not in any evidence I’ve seen these adversaries will be conventional states, to be deterred or defeated by conventional means.

The idea that cyber skills are uniquely the province of nations, or that digital assaults require the same kinds of concentration of resources needed to field actual armies is as unsupported as the notion that no band of committed nothing-to-losers couldn’t strike at major civilian targets in the United States.

So if in fact the focus of this new cyber command is mostly committed to state actors, I don’t feel much more secure for its existence.  Worse — if our only options in response to cyber attacks are ordinary military strikes on conventional physical targets we’ll be right back in the sad old game of shooting at the wrong people with the wrong weapons…which is no damn good at all.

Third:  It’s not in the piece, and though I’ve been following some of the writing about cyber security popping up lately, I’m hardly expert.  But I do worry about what I see as at least a potential trap in the way we might be imagining cyber threats.  A lot of conventional, garden variety digital security is based around the idea of building a fence around a vulnerable system — that’s the idea of a firewall that keeps malware and intruders out of yours and my personal computer, or the systems to which we attach in the course of our working day.

I’m hoping that’s not how the new cyber-command — or rather, its superiors in the chain of command — are thinking.  If the concept of cyber-security being developed by the national security folks is based some kind of digital Maginot Line,  an über firewall designed to keep the bad guys out, then we may well be fighting the last war.  Because, as we’ve seen with major security breaches in commercial networks, the real vulnerability happens when someone gets past a security wall, whether by clever hacking from without, or old fashioned human treachery from within.  If the folks directing our national cyber defence are Fulda Gap types, people with a strategic sense born of classic war-fighting approaches, then we’re in for trouble.

Early days, but my own web paranoia is peaking, and I have a deep urge to encrypt everything down to my cat Tikka’s 313131122′s name.

Images: Giovanni Batista Tiepolo, tentatively identified as the victory of Gaius Marius over Teutonic tribes in 101 B.C.E., c. 1725-1729

 

Once More Into Comcast’s Breach:* KO’s KO Foreshadows Cable on the Canvas?

January 22, 2011

Cross posted at Balloon Juice

Amidst the gnashing of teeth over the suspicious coincidence of Comcast’s take over of NBC and Keith Olberman’s disappearance from the air, my first reaction was, who cares?  Or rather, who really will notice?

That’s because I’ve been feeling, without much evidence, that cable blather is reaching a diminishing returns point, at least as far as political mobilization is concerned.  Certainly, their impact exceeds their actual reach. As of November, the top rated cable news-like show was Bill O’Reilly’s, with a total viewership of about 3.5 million.  In Neilson terms, that’s a rating of maybe 3.4 or so.  Not bad — but not exactly dominant either.  Next up was Fox’s Bret Baier, someone I confess I’ve literally never heard of.  His number for the month? 2.4 million — or about 2 and change in the ratings.  Olberman came in at number 12 with 1.1 million and a bit, or a barely more than one Neilson point.

It is indeed horrifying that the top 11 programs in cable news are all Fox shows — but the point is that however successful Fox has been with its business model,** these are not impressive numbers within the mass media and in an electorate the size of ours.   Fox has had influence disproportionate to its actual reach — but it helps to remember its man-behind-the-curtain quality.

By comparison, Balloon Juice scored around 25 million total page views last year.  Obviously the two media are enormously different, and there is a profoundly distinct impact when a message is delivered in spoken word and picture over and over again.  A few hundred words on the screen, however successfully they start your rhetorical engines, can’t hope to set the same emotional hooks in its audience.***

But that’s not actually my point. Rather, it is that the experience of just this one blog demonstrates that there exists a means of distribution and engagement that reaches audiences that are within an order of magnitude of those of great big gazillion dollar media machines.

I’m not usually a technological optimist — as is appropriate for someone who can’t even be bothered to maintain a functioning author’s website or Facebook page.  But I’ve just been buying video gear for a course I’ll start teaching in a couple of weeks about making documentaries, and I’m struck again how little cash up front it takes to buy the tools of fully professional production.  The machines don’t supply the talent, of course, nor a programming strategy, nor PR or any of all that.  But as with blogging and print media eight or nine years ago, the bits and pieces of infrastructure needed to create a whole new architecture of web-distributed video are coming together fast.***

Most important, the medium has finally approached normalcy.  My kid’s Wii has a browser in it, not to mention a Netflix app.  In a month or so, after I recover from my next visit to the mechanic, I’ll finally buy a web-enabled TV to replace my 16 year old CRT — and I’ll get a wirelessly networked Blu-Ray player with it.  The rap on internet video has been that only geeks want to sit at their computers and watch TV in little boxes on some small screen.  No more.  More or less transparently, you can Hulu and Netflix and browse your way to video in the same living room in which I almost never actually watch scheduled programs any more.

That’s the missing piece.  Once it’s easy to find web TV on televisions, then the fortifications protecting  traditional content originators and distributors totter.

Which is why I think the bits and pieces of rumor I’ve heard about Olberman thinking about headlining a web network — even if they are wholly fantasy — is exactly the thought that ought to terrify Big Cable the most.

All of which is a long winded way to respond to DougJ’s prediction about liberal hosts on MSNBC in five years time.  My guess is that he’s right.  But I don’t see that I care.

The caveats:  Obviously, the mere physical capacity to create and distribute programming is no substitute for actual talent, smart program choices, tolerable production values and all the rest. It is the easiest thing in the world to make crappy, undiscoverable, utterly irrelevant web-video.  There’s already a surplus of such out there.

If a Left answer to the Right’s domination of traditional cable is to have traction, it will have to both concentrate creative talent and build a conceptual infrastrucure — some model to absorb and remake the notion of channels and shows and a programming schedule.  And of course the largest cost of anything remotely like a studio program or even a curated and organized repository of audience-sourced material lies with the people who drive the cameras, cut the footage and so on.  Cheap isn’t free — but when startup costs thousands (tens of, maybe) instead of millions, you’re in with a chance.

Most important, as we’ve seen with the print world, once the barriers to entry drop, the numbers of those who can do really interesting things grows.  That’s been true in radio for a long time — just check out stuff like the Third Coast festival or a lot of what NPR has catalyzed over the last decades. (And look at the new book Reality Radio if you want to learn about how folks like Jay Allison or Ira Glass,  the Scissor Sisters, the legendary Scott Carrier or the impossibly young Jad Abumrad — and many others all found their voices telling true stories in sound.)*****

Now the underlying elements are there for video too, in an almost zero (in television terms) cost of the acquisition and post production of video and a nearly costless network on which to “broadcast” the finished product — and in the existence (finally) of an audience equipped with the tech that makes it relatively easy to engage with what could be made with such tools.

I hope the left blogosphere takes advantage.  I’m now officially thinking about what I could do to help.  And you?  More the merrier, folks.

*Breach guys, not breeches. Geez. This is a family blog.*******

**And make no mistakes: Fox is all about the cash.  If dittohead hippies became a larger and more exploitable demographic than tea-tardists, you’d see changes.  Murdoch is vile boil on the body politic, but it’s C.R.E.A.M for him too.

***Mixed metaphor alert. It’s OK, kids.  I’m a professional.  Don’t try this at home.

****Not to gear-head up the main body of the piece, you can now shoot decent HD video on cameras that run $2,000 or less.  (You can do pretty well with a camera that runs $6-800, but if you go that route you (a) have to spend a fair amount of money on add-ons that the consumer gear does not possess and (b) have to be a really clever video person.  Smarts can substitute for money, up to a point, but the price paid is in all the work-arounds you need to deal with.)  Sound gear will run you a few hundreds more for a basic kit.  Lights — you can do a lot with “practicals” — the stuff you already have lying around — and a tolerable basic 4 head light kit is another twelve or fourteen hundred at retail.

I’m thinking like a documentary person here, not a studio guy — but the same deflators apply there.  A three camera set up with grip, lighting, and sound enough to mike two or three people could be put together on a shoestring of less than $20,000, perhaps even less than $10K if you really scrounged and dumpster-dived.  That’s a lot of scratch for any individual — but in the media landscape, in a context of blogs that reach tens or hundreds of thousands per day?  It’s not much of a reach.

As for editing — it’s become almost cost free as far as the tools go.  You need a reasonably recent laptop, some hard drives (many backups folks!  Be paranoid!), and if you are just doing studio stuff, the latest iMovie will do what  you need — at a program cost of something like $80 bucks.  Even the pro editing bundles are cheap now.

In sum:  while it is certainly possible to spend an unlimited amount on anything to do with motion pictures, the point is that  you don’t have to if all you want to do is get folks in a set talking to each other or scribbling on a black board — that’s the easy stuff, and it’s unbelievable for someone like me, who started out in the ’80s, just how many barriers to entry for creative types have dropped away.  Berlin Wall c. 1989, baby.

*****Which thought makes this perhaps the right place to let y’all know that I’ll on Virtually Speaking, hosted by Jay Ackroyd — commenter here from time to time, and an FP poster at Atrios’s place, Eschaton.  My slot arrives this coming Thursday, 27 January, at 9 p.m. EST.  I believe this all happens in Second Life — which is why, I kid you not, I’m having an avatar make-over tomorrow.  Come on down!  And now, back to your regularly scheduled blog post.

******If you missed Rocky and Bullwinkle, you missed civilization.

Images:  Trophîme Bigot, Crying Man, 1625

Johann Heinrich Roos, Gypsies in an Ancient Ruin, 1675


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