Tech executives still lying

Marissa Meyer, CEO of Houyhnhnm? [Correction, that’s “Yahoo!”] has faced charges that her company (and other tech companies) undermined democracy and betrayed their customers’ trust by secret collusion with US espionage. She attempts to win back this trust by telling big lies. In a recent interview she claimed that

Releasing classified information is treason and you are incarcerated.

Nine words, and two (or maybe three) false statements.

First, the easy one: Treason is clearly defined in the US constitution.

Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.

She is confusing the United States government with the 18th Century British monarchy, that classed that any release of information not authorised by the state is treason.

What her company may or may not have been constrained by is called a National Security Letter (NSL), that typically comes with a gag order. (Whether this counts as “classified information” I am not sure. I’d take her word for it if she weren’t lying about everything else.) The constitutional scope of these gag orders has been challenged in court, but I don’t know what the current status is.

But is it true that if you disclose the receipt of an NSL “you are incarcerated”? In fact, the Department of Justice — not the American Society for Feelgood Antiauthoritarianism — writes in its fact sheet on the Patriot Act Reauthorization that this act

Discourages unauthorized disclosures by providing a criminal penalty for knowing and willful violation with intent to obstruct an investigation or judicial proceeding.

Until this reauthorisation, apparently there was no specific penalty legislated for disclosing NSLs. And afterward, it’s still not clear. It would clearly — and properly — be a punishable offence if Marissa Meyer found out that her college roommate was having her Houyhnhnm? account searched because she retweeted a suspicious number of posts from Sheikh Omar’s Twitter feed, and tipped her off. But to alert the public for reasons of improving democratic accountability most likely is not illegal at all, and is the sort of calculated risk that many journalistic organisations take on a daily basis. With far less money to back them up.

I don’t doubt that some investigator fed her that line about treason and incarceration. That’s what interrogators do, they help people out of their scruples. But presumably she could afford a lawyer to give her independent advice. She could even have looked up the US Constitution and the PATRIOT act, if she knows how to use a search engine.

And I don’t expect Marissa Meyer or Sergey Brin to blow the cover off government surveillance and flee to Russia. But they clearly have decided — unlike, say, the New York Times — that they are a merely commercial organisation, with no public responsibility, and that a legal struggle would hurt their profits. That is why their customers need to make sure to align their incentives, by boycotting or simply avoiding companies that don’t show sufficient civil courage on their own.

And telling lies is not a way to rebuild trust.

Outsourcing espionage

In the light of recent developments, including the vast trove of NSA documents downloaded by Booz Allen employee Edward Snowden, and the revelation from those documents that the US has been systematically violating its treaty obligations by spying on the SWIFT international financial transactions system, some comments by Janine Wedel in her book Shadow Elite take on new significance:

Through SWIFT the US Treasury Department sought and gained access to large numbers of financial and communications records. Treasury then established the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, run out of the CIA, to analyze the SWIFT data and later shared it with the CIA and FBI. It also hired Booz Allen as an “independent” auditor, which, along with SWIFT, reviewed Treasury’s logs of information searches… As Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project, put it: “It is bad enough that the administration is trying to hold out a private company as a substitute for genuine checks and balances on its surveillance activities. But of all companies to perform audits on a secret surveillance program, it would be difficult to find one less objective and more intertwined with the US government security establishment.”

To sum up that interaction: A private company, given “government” access to sensitive and private data about citizens of the United States and other countries, not only worked alongside government to analyze the data, but then also (supposedly) oversaw the process.

Is there any surprise, then, that the self-watching watcher had no safeguards in place to prevent a newly hired employee from walking off with all these super-secret data?

There have always been those who have claimed that capitalism is inimical to tyranny. Usually some ideological affinity between capitalism and democracy, or in a practical sense that tyranny is bad for business, which depends on the initiative of many well-informed independent actors (rather in the same way that European economic integration in the early 20th century made war self-defeating for the economic elites, hence impossible; or, so it was argued). But maybe there is some truth to this claim in the Leninist sense: When we come to hang the capitalists, they will bid on the contract for the rope. Given opportunity to accumulate vast secret power through spying, or to make vast profits by outsourcing the espionage, at the risk of exposing the secret government, American elites couldn’t resist the lure of the cash. Stalin would never have made that mistake.

I suspect that Stalin would have done very well on the marshmallow test, for what it’s worth.


Richard Dawkins says child molestation is no longer acceptable

But it’s still not as bad as Catholicism.

Regular readers of this blog are already aware that Richard Dawkins thinks that, among the crimes perpetrated upon children by Catholic priests, sexual molestation is less bad than teaching religion. (The quote is here.) Now he has given an interview to the Times magazine (reported by Katie McDonough here) in which he describes a schoolteacher who “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts”, and says this “mild touching up” and “mild pedophilia” is something he “can’t find it in me to condemn… by the same standards as I or anyone would today.” Being an expert on something or other, Dawkins opines that “I don’t think he did any of us any harm.”

Some of those school masters presumably also taught religion, but it’s sadly too late (by several centuries) to bring them to justice for that crime.

I find myself wondering why this man keeps coming back to publicly trivialising child abuse. Maybe the Bible can provide some insight.

The advantage of having a queen…

… is that the prime minister can take the train.

The tabloids are trying to turn this into a scandal, because the PM’s conspicuous red box of official papers seemed to be unguarded. Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t. I won’t suggest that riding in the first-class carriage is exactly a recipe for inculcating modesty, but look at this photo

David Cameron working on the train
He looks so tired…

of David Cameron working while he travels. He looks more like a public servant than Barack Obama ever could, despite the fact that he is doing fundamentally the same job. And if the cost of that is that some important papers may be left temptingly out on the table occasionally, I think it’s well worth it.

Part of the cost may be maintaining a monarch, as well. I like to mock the notion of monarchy (as here and here) as inimical to democracy. I still think the idea of assigning important roles in society by heredity both ridiculous and pernicious. But there is a strong pragmatic argument on the other side that a constitutionally neutered monarchy keeps the atavistic and campy royal circuses away from the levers of power.

I’d say, far from being a scandal, this photo is one that Downing Street and the British people generally ought to be proud of. Even if he does seem to get a whole table and block of four seats to himself.

Is “shrill” gender-coded?

The Dish recently quoted a correspondent who, on his or her way to making a point about Chinese tourists wrote

This all has a cogent economic explanation. Paul Krugman, before his current role as shrill liberal attack dog, used to explain…

I found this comment irritating, for reasons that were not immediately clear to me. I have enormous respect for Paul Krugman, both in his earlier incarnation as a populariser of economic theory — particularly trade theory, but also macroeconomics — and as a blogger and twice-weekly columnist who occasionally veers away from economic issues. I think he has a healthy appreciation for his own intellectual strengths, but that he mostly stops short of egotistic attachment to his pet theories, whether defending past statements or being overly sure of his predictions. But I can’t say that there is no basis for someone to think that his tone is overly aggressive, that his political analysis is weak, that even his economic analysis may be distorted by political wishful thinking or antagonism. Those aren’t my opinions, but they’re widely held, and don’t seem to me outrageous.

But what is the role of shrill in that sentence? It’s not a word I hear often, but maybe it’s common in some circles. What does it mean? It’s clearly a free-floating insult, which somehow suggests derangement due to becoming overly emotional, and as such merely replicates “attack dog”. And yet “shrill” seems more contemptuous. What does it mean? Imagine replacing it by strident. It has the same signification with regard to the strength of advocacy, but the contempt is gone. So, is the contempt associated with high-pitched speech? Is this something like bitch, or the dialectical equivalent of “he throws like a girl”? Or is it taking the place of the free-form homosexual slurs that used to be ubiquitous, but are now no longer permitted?

Which enemy are GCHQ and NSA fighting?

Hint: They both named their major programs aimed at undermining all internet decryption after Civil War battles. (Edgehill for the British, Bull Run for the US). So they’re not thinking of an external enemy, are they?

I suspect that the huge effort the US has put into decrypting SSL — which will eventually get out into the wild, of course, and hugely disrupt commerce worldwide, will come to be seen as the information warfare equivalent of the huge investment that the US and Soviets put into perfecting sarin and other nerve agents, and making them cheap and easy to produce.

Starving children for progress

Apparently the US Fox News network has recently advocated withholding free lunches from poor schoolchildren, as an effective means of teaching their parents the lesson that being poor is a bad life-choice, and they should have chosen to be rich instead. (It should be noted that this represents an upgrading of American right-wing attitudes toward nutritional support for the poor, who were previously compared by leading politicians to dangerous ravening beasts.)

I’m surprised they didn’t cite the wealth of studies from the UK, showing that children receiving free school meals went on to have significantly worse GCSE (age 16 qualification) marks — suggesting that free school meals impede learning of lessons by the children as well as their parents — and had higher rates of obesity (suggesting that Fox News correctly judged that lunch is superfluous for these children). English as a Second Language and Special Education teaching, as well as foster care, appear to have similarly detrimental effects, suggesting that eliminating these supports will yield major improvements to children’s health and educational success.

(For details of the statistical methodology, see here.)

Macho science: Deflowering virgin nature

I was listening to BBC radio this morning, which I rarely do, because I find it generally dull. A scientist named Mark Lythgoe was being interviewed, director of the Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging at University College London, and an enthusiastic mountain climber. The interviewer asked — inevitably — about the connection between mountain-climbing and science. The answer was almost archaically macho, in what it said both about science and about mountain climbing. It wasn’t anything about planning or co-operation, or the beauty or peace of nature, not evening about pushing yourself to your limits. No, it was about deflowering virgin territory.

There is a very special moment when you stand on a part of this earth that no one else has ever stood on, and look out on a view that no one else has seen… That’s the same as when someone calls you up from the lab with an image that no one else has seen before… The hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

I don’t know of any better argument against the narrow British approach to education — where a scientist will never read a book after age 16 — than that through exposure to the humanities a certain percentage of scientists would recognise deflowering virgin nature as an embarrassing 19th century cliché. Some might acquire enough of a familiarity with how to think about human matters — about society and gender and nature — with a sophistication to match the overweening self-confidence that their scientific expertise tends to impart.

He also presented what was supposed to be an example of the brilliant eclecticism of his institute (and himself), a collaboration with a biologist to study homing pigeons. He says that there was a theory that pigeons have magnetite in their beaks or brains that orient them with respect to the Earth’s magnetic field. So they developed a brand new imaging technology that could make refined images of the distribution of magnetite in the beaks and brains, and found — there is no magnetite. Brilliant! Except, isn’t it a huge waste of time and effort to develop refined imaging technologies, without first figuring out (by, I don’t know, grinding up the beaks and doing some chemical tests)? Maybe I’m missing something — maybe that wasn’t possible for some reason that he was too busy talking about his drive for success to explain — or maybe I just don’t sufficiently appreciate big science and IMPACT.

Schools, socialisation, Socrates and circumcision

Another unusual juxtaposition. This one was inspired by a thought-provoking rant by Alison Benedikt at Slate, titled “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person”. It’s a commendably forthright statement of an extreme position in an argument in which all sides usually beat wildly around every possible bush. (It’s not the most extreme possible position, which I take to be the position of the makers of this film. Benedikt specifically opposes even banning private schools.)

I have some sympathy for her argument, which can basically be summarised (I hope I’m doing it justice; the article is definitely worth reading in full) in two major points:

  1. Wealthy and well-educated parents have an obligation to all children, not just to their own. Keeping their children in state schools will induce them to apply their power and learning to improve those schools for everyone.
  2. As regards your own children, they’ll be all right even in a crappy school. You’ll make up for the deficits at home. And the crappy public school will teach them lessons about society and citizenship that they can’t get anywhere else.

I don’t think either of these statements are entirely wrong. But in arguing for point 2, Benedikt writes

I went K–12 to a terrible public school. My high school didn’t offer AP classes, and in four years, I only had to read one book. There wasn’t even soccer... I left home woefully unprepared for college, and without that preparation, I left college without having learned much there either. But guess what the horrible result is? I’m doing fine. I’m not saying it’s a good thing that I got a lame education. I’m saying that I survived it, and so will your child, who must endure having no AP calculus so that in 25 years there will be AP calculus for all…

Is the argument here that the economic game (or, at least, journalism) in America is so badly rigged, that a child of middle-class parents doesn’t actually need an education to get a decent job as a journalist. All she needs is a college degree, and there are plenty of institutions who will happy to hand her one, despite the fact that she arrived woefully unprepared, and left having learned almost nothing. Or is she exaggerating? Or is she an exceptional autodidact, whose experience doesn’t necessarily translate well to the vast majority of other children. Continue reading “Schools, socialisation, Socrates and circumcision”