Jun 02 2009

Twitter is Not Reality, Even in Guatemala

Guatemalans took to the streets in protest over the alleged murder of a prominent attorney by the country’s president, and an unrelated man was arrested for tweeting about it. The protests were reportedly organized on Facebook and other social networking sites, and streamed live to the world by laptop. Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing has been reporting from Guatemala directly for the past two weeks, and in an essay two days ago she calls this the “Twitter Revolution“. I love the story of new technology enabling mass social dissent and change, but I’m not at all sure it’s true. Sorely missing from Xeni’s narrative is the role of other communication networks — like good old fashioned word-of-mouth — and the demographics of internet access in a poor country.

The background: Attorney Rodrigo Rosenberg was shot while riding his bicycle on May 10th, just a few days after recording a video message which begins,

If you are watching this message, it is because I was assassinated by President Álvaro Colom.

The video implicates not only the president but the major state-owned bank, and indeed much of the current government, and there were mass protests in the capital city. Xeni has been covering the story from Guatemala since the 20th, and I can only commend her for actually being there. However, her coverage has focussed on the role of the internet in these protests.

Google is not reality and Twitter is not reality in exactly the same way that television is not reality. Part of the reason that Middle-Eastern peasants have such a warped view of America is that they too watch Desperate Housewives (via satellite or bootleg VCD), but never get the chance to actually meet some Americans. To them, all American women are blonde and slutty. There’s no reason to believe that we’re not getting a similarly warped view of other cultures when we watch their internet.

Continue Reading »

2 responses so far

Mar 25 2009

We Can’t Learn About Economics

fundamentals_economics

Despite spending the last several days reading up on Treasury Secretary Geithner’s plan to buy bad bank assests, I now feel only marginally better prepared to judge whether this is a good idea or not. Of course, no one is asking me, but I still think it’s a big problem that I can’t evaluate this plan, because the fact that we live in a democracy means that citizens need to be able to understand what their government is doing. 

Now, I am no economist and I have no idea how to run a bank — much less all the banks. However, I am smart, interested, and I’ve done my homework, including previously reading a first year economics textbook (covering both micro- and macro-economics) and several other interesting books (1,2,3) on how markets work or don’t. In short I have been the model of a concerned citizen, and I still have no idea what is going on. This is partially because the situation is very complex, but it is also because there is no way a private citizen can get access to the data that would clarify matters — large banks will barely share their balance sheets with the government, much less me.

This is a problem. It means that the government, financial, and academic communities have not paid nearly enough attention both to basic economics education, and to transparency in real-world business. It is therefore impossible for anyone else to check their assumptions and restrain their huge power. Lest this sounds like unhelpful complaining, I promise to make a concrete suggestion for improvement by the end of this post.

Continue Reading »

3 responses so far

Feb 20 2009

What Was Bush Thinking?

bushatinauguration

Bush sits just behind Obama as he swears in, clapping politely, an inscrutable look on his face. Does he worry  that pulling out of Iraq will damage American superiority? Does he feel sad for the loss of oil company-tax credits? Maybe he’s shaking his head because he knows he was doing God’s work.

What was Bush thinking during eight years of presidency?

Why did he start two wars that could not be won? Why did he cut of all funding for stem cell research, sex education, and environmental research?  To me, he always seemed out of touch with reality, blatantly ignoring signals that things were badly wrong: impending environmental catastrophe, declining educational standards at home and the highest rates of incarceration in the world, and over one million casualties in Iraq. But everyone is sane in their own head. What was the utopia he thought to create?

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Feb 11 2009

Maine Man Tries to Build Dirty Bomb, No One Cares

A leaked FBI report states that a man named James G. Cummings was trying to build a dirty bomb when he was shot and and killed by his wife last December 9th in Belfast, Maine. He had plans, parts, explosive ingredients, and small quantities of radioactive material, though nothing that could not be purchased legally within the US. Cummings was a white supremacist who was reportedly very upset about Obama’s election.

The leaked document has been posted on Wikileaks since January 16th. While the material concerning Cummins was first noticed by the rumor site Unattributable.com on January 19th, only yesterday was there any sort of story about it in the mainstream media, in this case the local Bangor Daily News.

Although this dastardly plot was probably not much more dangerous to the public than a garden-variety bomb, this man would certainly qualify as a bona fide “terrorist” under Bush-regime logic. Or at least he would if he was Arab. In point of fact, he actually is a threat to the public, or was. So why haven’t we heard about it? Are crazy white supremacists somehow less of a threat than crazy fundamentalist muslims?

The FBI report notes:

Continue Reading »

35 responses so far

Jan 26 2009

Social Network of US Counterinsurgency Policy Authors

coincrop-270109

Who is writing the major policies of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what is the Obama administration likely to do? There have been many analyses and news reports of individual policies and events, but it’s hard to wade into this flood of information, and besides, how would I know who to listen to? In an effort to get some perspective on at least one major aspect of American military strategy, I decided to plot out all the authors of (public) counterinsurgency policy over the last decade, and the relationships between them, as evidenced by co-authorship of articles and papers.

Continue Reading »

9 responses so far

Jan 24 2009

Chinese Dissidents’ Manifesto Celebrated in the West, Ignored in China

liuxiaobo

Liu Xiaobo is now imprisoned at an uknown location for his involvement in the Charter ’08 document

On December 10, 2008, a group of 300 Chinese dissidents published an open letter (english translation) to the Chinese government  calling for wide political freedoms and basic human rights in their country. Although this document has become the vegetarian dinner party topic du jour among Western activists, it’s not at all clear whether it will have any impact in China. For one thing, the Chinese government has censored it, removing it from Baidu and Google and even individual blogs. The internet being the internet, people are reading and talking about it anyway, but this only matters if the Chinese populace in general is sympathetic to the notion of government reform and greater personal rights. They may not be.

Continue Reading »

One response so far

Jan 11 2009

What Internet Censorship Looks Like, Part 2

The Turkish Government censors internet access from within the country, as I discovered yesterday when attempting to access YouTube from the Turkish town of Selçuk, as this screenshot shows (click to enlarge):

web-censorship-in-turkey

The English text on this page reads: “Access to this web site is banned by ‘TELEKOMÜNİKASYON İLETİŞİM BAŞKANLIĞI’ according to the order of: Ankara 1. Sulh Ceza Mahkemesi, 05.05.2008 of 2008/402″

Just to complete the irony, I was looking for a video of the Oscar Grant shooting when I first discovered this “blocked site” page.

Continue Reading »

2 responses so far

Jan 07 2009

From Electronic to Cryptographic Voting

Electronic voting machines were supposed to make elections cheaper, faster, and more secure, but so far they have failed. In the last decade there has been something of a rush to adopt  e-voting, followed by suspicion and controversy over the black-box, “just trust us” nature of the first generation of commercial systems, followed by a return to paper ballots in many jurisdictions. However, if we wish to improve election processes, cheap and fast is probably the wrong goal. It may be possible to use cryptographic techniques to implement end-to-end auditable elections, new in human history.

The e-voting fiasco has illustrated that paper ballots are a better system than they might at first seem. Paper preserves voter secrecy, it is auditable after the fact, and it is even reasonably transparent, if one also allows election observers. But paper ballots must be closely guarded and cannot be directly counted by members of the general public, who in the end have no choice but to trust election officials,  observers, counting equipment, and the entire chain of custody. Rather than simply duplicating paper ballots electronically, we should strive to improve upon them.

This seems to be possible. Modern cryptography suggests the possibility of a new kind of incredibly transparent and fair election, where ordinary citizens can verify the soundness of the election for themselves, without ever needing to trust blindly that a huge array of machines and people have acted correctly. This represents a fundamentally new ability: for the first time, it may be possible to hold truly “open” elections.

Continue Reading »

12 responses so far

Jan 05 2009

Afghanistan is a Complex Place

Afghan local points something out to Western soldiers

(photo from Ghosts of Alexander)

Actually, all places are complex. It’s hard to understand what this means if you’ve only spent time in your own culture, especially if it’s a reasonbly functional first-world democracy. The developing world in particular can be phenomally fluid and mystifying, and one of the feelings I associate most intensely with travel there is the sense that not all is as it seems, that I can’t quite grasp the true motivations and power relations of the people around me. In my more paranoic moments I even suspect that my interactions are, to some extent, stage-managed by the locals so as to give me a particular impression.

If a recent article by a sociologist studying Afghanistan is any indication, I was right about all of this: the local socio-political scene is very complex, and it is deliberately hidden from “outsiders” of various types. The implications are dire for any sort of foreigner who wants to try to come in and “help.”

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Dec 10 2008

Are They Right?

I’ve been reading StopTheACLU.com, because I want to get into their heads, because I want to avoid the classic mistake of intellectual isolation, and because I want to be challenged. Sure, they’re weirdos, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make sense. But there’s at least one thing in the StopTheACLU worldview that I find very hard to method-act: in their universe, global warming is a myth.

Okay, but how did I end up on this side and not that side?

Continue Reading »

One response so far

« Prev - Next »