Tuesday, August 30, 2011

You lie!

[Ed. I forgot to post this when it was current, but here's a post I copied from my private "at home" blog, originally on 8/25 (last weekend).]

Commercial speech is a lie. It always has been a lie, but here's some new speculation (from yours truly, and glad to oblige). While commercial speech tests the limits of legally permissible dishonesty, its value has recently been "promoted," such that its practice is now zealously guarded by the first amendment of the constitution of the United States, and by its many ardent supporters.

The "Citizens United" case, decided by the Supreme Court last year, which removed any limitations to the amount of political donations corporations could make, was decided on the basis of 2 basic legal points: the personhood of corporations, and the equating of the financial support of a candidate as "speech." Hence, under our constitution, a person (a corporation?) may not be prohibited from exercising her/his/its right to "free speech" (i.e., a financial donation to a candidate), even for the purpose of making more money, and hence affording more financial support in the future. This high court decision both elevates a commercial transaction to the level of speech, and it elevates the sanctity of the transaction to being (somehow) protected from the due scrutiny we afford other transactions. This is protected speech! And note how this newly-erected ethical structure protects the donor from the charge of paying to influence a candidate (think bribery), and it protects the candidates from the charge of influence peddling. Our donors are expressing themselves. The recipients of their largess are just allowing their constituency to exercise their right of free expression.

The Free Speech we're speaking of now is commercial speech, i.e. the stuff that's almost, but not quite (under the law at least), a lie. I suppose the point could be made all protected speech is a lie, commercial or not, and that's why it needs to be protected. I don't want to discuss that, I want to discuss some implications of this elevation of the value of commercial speech within our society at large. [Ed. Did I really just say "at large"?]

First, commercial speech is lies. Commercial (advertising) speech is a lie by definition; it's meant to be accepted and swallowed and processed without reflection. Assertions of veracity are invariably scrolled under or behind the most blatant and misleading commercials on TV, and we're often presented with a wink, wink, nudge, nudge that implies neither party expects it to stand up to examination. An advertiser who says, "My product is better," really means they believe you'll be be glad you bought it. As will they.

Second, there's more and more commercial speech around us. The media is full of it. The internet is basically all commercial speech. Newspapers, magazines, and TV are owned and controlled by large corporate entities who are legally obliged to protect and promote themselves in the interest of maintaining and growing stockholder value. NBC news won't report bad things about General Electric, because GE owns them. They're not likely to report anything bad about their major advertisers either, since that's where all their revenue comes from.

We are increasingly surrounded by commercial speech, and that speech is being elevated in ethical importance and moral authority. Political candidates no longer engage in personal persuasion, they're building their brand. So is the media, and increasingly so is government. Newt Gingrich is an empty billboard, waiting for the sign painters to come with whatever message he can shill for the highest bidder. Businesses have done this all along. Anything a corporation does to increase its value to shareholders is sacrosanct and above reproach. Having the Supreme Court tag political contributions (which are, after all, commercial transactions) as a form of speech, they enlisted a lot of unlikely citizens as protectors of those transactions. Most of us support free speech, right?

Bad writing and editing

Publishing magazines on the internet appears to have given our media permission to not copy edit the writing. Almost any article in the NY Times online has at least a proofing error. Other sites are considerably more challenged. For instance, on The New Republic site, we find:
The important context here is that anti-Islam sentiment is growing in the decade since the September 11 attacks: an ABC News taken last year in the wake of the Ground Zero mosque debate showed 49 percent of Americans had a negative view of Islam, compared with just 39 percent in October 2002.
This could be called just a proofreading error (the missing "poll"), although the sentence seems a bit oddly formed. Later in the article, however, we find our reporter writing, "We have to give a path for those who want to divorce themselves from the Islamophobia industry the opportunity to do so." OK, so it's supposedly a direct quotation, but it's horrible, like nails on a chalkboard. Broken down, with the fancy predicates and parenthetical phrases removed, it says "give a path .. to do so." It's as if the verb doesn't agree with the object. I guess it's not completely hopeless. I'm kind of a picky bastard to complain about it.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

What is this?

Identify this plant.
I found this photo (and took a screenshot) in an Amway advertisement that was posted on an Atlantic Monthly blog site (I think?). It is in fact promoting some Amway educational initiative with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Please note the plant next to the cute little girl. Ask yourself, is that a "tomatoe" plant? Perhaps some new GM (genetically modified) crop developed by Amway, or Monsanto? Is it growing in one tablespoon of soil, from some new sterile, plastic iGrow device, or maybe the tomato is growing right out of the formica? This is odd. And not educational. Or it's photo-shopped.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Standard & Poors dictating US fiscal policy

Late yesterday, after the official close of the stock markets for the weekend, Standard & Poors downgraded US debt, from triple A (AAA) to AA+, apparently a reaction to the debt-ceiling circus, and new legislation passed in Congress.
S.& P. had prepared investors for the downgrade announcement with a series of warnings earlier this year that it would act if Congress did not agree to increase the government’s borrowing limit and adopt a long-term plan for reducing its debts by at least $4 trillion over the next decade.[New York Times, 8/5/11]
 "Good enough for them," you might say, "how does an American company become so privileged as to dictate policy to the US Congress?" God knows, Congress doesn't listen to the public, but how about a corporation?

Interestingly, I'm willing to bet S&P is a multi-national. [Ed. Nope, not completely correct here-- S&P is an American company, wholly owned by McGraw-Hill, a publicly traded US company.] What we have is a powerhouse in international capital, attempting to dictate federal budget goals, with specific dollar figures, to the Congress of the US. And threatening, then actually going through with, a downgrade on US debt, an audacious act, for which there is no downside for S&P, which will make money no matter what happens as a result of their ding to our credit report. A multi-national corporation has approached our government the same way the World Bank approaches a country in South America, or the way the EU confronted Greece and Ireland, the way they will approach Spain, Portugal, and Italy. They proposed a timetable and a dollar amount.

Think of it this way. A multinational financial services company has just strode up and kicked the Statue of Liberty in the shin. And what makes it worse is their demand for a $4 trillion cut in the debt, when they and everyone in Washington, DC know the numbers are all subject to wild fluctuations, multiple interpretations, mid-year adjustments, inflation, and the business cycle, and hence have very little meaning. In short, no one knows what 12 or 10 or 4 trillion dollars even means. Anyone who says they know is lying, and everyone has an interest in how it all turns out. It is in everyone's interest to lie about it.

There's so much magical thinking in economics, practiced by every politician and more and more by voters, that to assign a specific dollar amount of debt reduction to some specific outcome is an exercise in mumbo-jumbo. They used that number ($4 trln) to imply they have some special formula that says that specific number has significance. Crap! There's no formula. There's just a political move being taken here. S&P is backing the conservative side of the congressional debate. And they'll make a lot of money for themselves and their clients, and the only risk is to the American taxpayer. The few who are still working and paying taxes. Their taxes will go to pay a bit more to the lenders who are financing the debt. Like S&P. and their clients. Get it?

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

New Debt Ceiling

Apparently there's a new debt ceiling and a bunch of federal budget cuts. According to this story in Politico,
"The hastily written 74-page bill — never reviewed by a legislative committee and rushed to the floor — cleared the House on a 269-161 vote late Monday, with 95 Democrats joining 174 Republicans in support.
"
I have not read the bill, nor will I likely read the bill, but I'm willing to bet a dollar that this new legislation will contain some surprises. This stuff is written in advance by lobbyists, think tanks, and interest groups. One advantage to hastily enacted legislation is the finer details aren't thoroughly examined, except by the highly motivated and partisan-by-definition members of the lawmakers' staffs. We must be wary, because these are the people who would rather take a helicopter trip than secure their server.

And isn't it interesting when I copied the blockquote above out of Politico, it automatically included the back link in the clipboard. It's probably tracking back link counts. Does anyone think we're anonymous and secure online anymore?

Monday, August 01, 2011

Knowing the true enemy

There's been a lot of press about Anonymous, the purported "hackers" group, and their sister organization in mayhem LulzSec, which attempts to create humorous havoc wherever across the internet they can. The Lulz in their name is a spelled out version of LOL. The Sec part refers to the term "security," a key part of the organization's name. I believe they adopted that monicker after they trounced all over a minor security company, HBGary SEC, gaining extremely sensitive access to their servers, then publishing private email and mailing lists, as well as other documents including unsigned contracts or proposals to the government for work in security consulting and for various surveillance tasks. If this were my novel, I would be sure you knew these are not the good guys! They seem more like hyper-testosteroned former secret service or private security contractors-- A-Team sort of guys, but in this case, they aren't really any good at security, just at "acting" the security part. They sold security services to the military, but their own servers were compromised by some geeky brats from the EU.

Since then Anonymous/Lulzsec have messed up Sony's online gaming for more than a month, and downloaded the entire British Census.They also attacked and disrupted the servers of PayPal and Amazon, as well as some online credit card operations of VISA, in retaliation for their cutting off funds from Julian Assange in the Wikileaks/Bradley Manning scandal. The methods of these hacking groups are pretty despicable, but their motivations are spot on. Vice president Joe Biden met with top execs (and the boards) of Amazon, PayPal (owned by eBay or vice versa), and VISA. All agreed to stop processing funds for Assange and to attach his accounts. Ummm, wait, aren't there laws that control this sort of thing?

The press for LulzSec and for Anonymous is universally very negative and almost al Qaeda-esque. Many have called them terrorists. I saw headlines pondering their lines of succession, in case their leaders are arrested. (Hint, they're not like that- there is no hierarchy, and the organization is completely fluid and ad hoc from one day to the next.) There have been arrests, by Interpol, the British Police, and the FBI, but many of their defendants are teenagers from rural areas of Europe and the US. Just this week an arrest was made, of an 18 year old from the Shetland Islands in Scotland. This child was born the same year "the Liberian-registered MV Braer tanker was on its way from Norway to Canada when it lost power in Force 11 gales" (from the BBC) and broke up and sank off the Shetlands.

These aren't terrorists, though perhaps some of the network IT guys who have to work extra hard to confront these foul teens and fight back against their cyber attacks, might label them with the dreaded "T" word. The main thing to remember is these are cynical and bad-tempered adolescents who have a gift for understanding how computers and networks and servers work, and apparently nothing better to do. Their hijinks are costly to a lot of businesses, and embarrassing to many others. (It may even be dangerous to write about them negatively, though that doesn't make me feel unsafe.)

They're mostly interested in surfacing cant & corruption, and skewering those they loathe, using whatever technical tools they have at hand. It is a deep understatement to say many businesses and government agencies aren't completely secure, even though they expend resources buying security for their IT products. There's a lot of snake oil out there, and a lot of people making a living in security. There's more security business than actual security, mostly because computer security is hard. And not Marine hard; something more like geeky hard. I should make it clear, I do not think someone's computer insecurity is an excuse to attack them. They need to secure their systems, and it's not impossible. Businesses should perhaps buy more code, and fewer helicopter flights. Got that Mr. Gary? IT security means you can hang out with the geeks, not with the Marines-- otherwise you will be pwned. [Ed. Additional note as of 10/23/2011 Anonymous has now gone after,  and according to reports successfully shut down some large child porn sites, after publishing the user account information.]

The point is, Anonymous/LulzSec aren't the new EU IT wing of the global terror network. Prosecuting LulzSec kiddies for terrorism is ridiculous, because they're waging only "property crime" terrorism. Sony lost millions, and paid millions more to fix their internal security-- something they had to do twice in the same month before they finally secured their network, but LulzSec didn't profit. If there are pirates on Anonymous, they're not working with el Shebab in Somalia. They're pencil-necked geeks, from the Scottish offshore islands, where they make sweaters. There's also an Amish teen in PA. (I must find that link and attach... [Ed. can't find link, may be apocryphal story, this isn't it]), who has some explaining to do at home.

It's more efficient to fight an enemy we understand. Mis-characterizing these hacker groups as terrorist organizations will only compel us to spend money defending against the wrong threat. I have a suggestion. If worldwide employment rose 5-10%, especially among young adults, the threat of these hacker groups would disappear, because the vexatious little bastards would have something better to do than get into trouble. Their crimes are economic crimes against businesses, especially banks. Sony lost huge money, but would have lost more if its hackers were mobsters intent on stealing funds. Many of LulzSec "projects" are "harmless" exposure of security vulnerabilities so the "victims" can fix their systems. LulzSec as a group declines to take money; they are only interested in embarrassing their victims, and exposing corruption and lies and bad security work. It's hard to feel a lot of sympathy for those who would demonize them. Maybe the compromised organizations could hire these annoying nerds to help them secure their systems. There are precedents.

[Ed. Did I actually just use the word "surface" as a verb? Edgy!]