Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A quiet Christmas in Berkeley

If you were strolling around Berkeley, California between eleven and noonish on Christmas Day 2013 it wouldn't have been a stretch to imagine yourself in the southern hemisphere. The sky was blue, the sun shone, the Campanille sounded across the city, the thermometer read in the high sixties. South of the nearly-deserted campus, magnolias were beginning to bloom.

With apologies to friends and family in the frigid Midwest and along the East Coast ...

South Hall from the foot of the Campanille

Sproul Hall through Sather Gate

Dana Street, empty but for a single car, from the plaza outside Haas Pavillion

The magnolia trees beginning to bloom, along Fulton Street

Magnolias budding and blooming under cerulean skies

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Thursday, December 5, 2013

Night sky

Riding my bike home from work last night I stopped at a light out front of the old UC printing plant in Berkeley, where a construction crew is hard at work building the university's new art museum. Through a chain-link fence, over the roofs of the businesses along Center Street, through the branches of winter-bare trees, the loveliest new moon was settling gently into the fading glow of sunset.

It's funny how you never know when the wonder at being alive in the world will strike.

I didn't have my camera with me, but the resourceful shutterbug Matthew Felix Sun was on it not much later, in the neighborhood where we live:

That's Venus shining on the left.

Needless to say, a photo isn't the same as being there. But don't despair (at least not if you're reading this soon after it was posted)!!

If you're anywhere the sky is clear this evening or tomorrow around sunset, you might want to take a look. Here's what Andrew Fazekas ("the Night Sky Guy") says, from National Geographic:
Starting on Wednesday, December 4, through Friday, December 6, look for the waxing crescent moon to glide past the brilliant, diamond-like planet Venus at dusk. The evening sky show plays out in the low southwestern sky, about 30 minutes after local sunset. The two mismatched worlds will appear closest to each other on Thursday, displaying only 6 degrees of separation, a little more than the width of your three middle fingers held at arm’s length.
Six degrees of separation, indeed. Many thanks to The Management.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Flowering plum trees on Presidents Day weekend
An Egon Schiele vision in Berkeley
Post-convention blues (the sky, I'm sayin')

Thanks to Matthew Felix Sun for the image of last night's moonset, hot off the SD card...

Friday, November 29, 2013

How we go on: for Dad

My father died a year ago today. No surprise, then, that he has been on my mind quite a lot since last November. Absence sharpens loss is at least as true as time dulls edges.

I've found my way to more than a few books about fathers and sons this year, some of them recommended by thoughtful friends (My Father's Books by Luan Starova, about which I wrote in The lives of books in late January); some of them found by chance, if you believe in such things (Paul Harding's Tinkers, about which I wrote in July: Tinkering: on bookstore serendipity ...).

But as I approached the end of my first year without a living parent, poems that treat themes of persistent effect in the world, beyond death -- all is not lost poems, if you will -- kept returning to mind.

First, and perhaps best-known in this vein, here's a passage from William Wordsworth's Ode: Intimations of Immortality:
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now forever taken from my sight,
            Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
            We will grieve not, rather find
            Strength in what remains behind;
            In the primal sympathy
            Which having been must ever be;
            In the soothing thoughts that spring
            Out of human suffering;
            In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
Or this one, from East Coker, a passage from the second of Eliot's Four Quartets whose evocation of earthy circularity might have appealed to my biologist father:
                                    In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie—
A dignified and commodiois sacrament.
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.
But, as keenly as Wordsworth and Eliot each, in their own keys, see and give voice to the cycles through which all our lives turn -- and even though the Four Quartets remains the slimmest volume I can imagine taking on a desert island exile to read over and over and over again, in saecula saeculorum -- no poem struck me quite so deeply in these months as Gary Snyder's Axe Handles.

It's an odd thing, though not so surprising, that losing a parent shines an insistent light on aspects of one's own self -- from physical to gestural to the intricacies of personality -- bequeathed by a father or mother. That light illuminates Axe Handles as well.

Snyder builds his poem, and the eponymous collection in which it appears, on a passage from the Doctrine of the Mean, written some 2500 years ago and attributed to Kong Ji, the only grandson of Confucius.

James Legge translated that passage, from Chapter XIII,  in 1861, as follows:
In the book of poetry, it is said, 'In hewing an axe handle, in hewing an axe-handle, the pattern is not far off.' We grasp one axe-handle to hew the other, and yet, if we look askance from the one to the other, we may consider them as apart. Therefore the superior man governs men, according to their nature, with what is proper to them, and as soon as they change what is wrong, he stops.
In Ezra Pound's translation of Confucius, the twentieth century poet interprets the same passage:
In cutting an axe-handle the model is not far off, in this sense: one holds one axe-handle while chopping the other. Thus one uses men in governing men.
Snyder's poem tells of teaching his son Kai to throw a hatchet into a tree stump, whereupon Kai decides he wants one of his own. The boy remembers an old hatchet-head he has seen in his father's shop. Snyder shows his son how to reshape a broken axe handle to fit the hatchet-head, and in doing so remembers centuries-old wisdom he learned by reading Pound.

From Axe Handles:
"In making the handle
Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand."
My teacher Shi-hsiang Chen
Translated that and taught it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.
A week ago today, the same friend who gave me a copy of My Father's Books brought her first child into the world, a strapping, beautiful boy, graced by his parents with a middle name drawn from another link in the great chain of human culture: Voltaire.

How we go on.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Tinkering: on bookstore serendipity and novels that show what it is to be alive
The lives of books
The lemming situation: things we've known for 50 years about environmentalism
Books everyone should read

Monday, November 18, 2013

Surveillance and power through fiction and fact: Max Barry's "Lexicon"

Max Barry's latest novel, Lexicon, is something of a mashup: a compelling shoot-em-up thriller with a secret, control-the-world-grade weapon; a deconstruction of modern marketing technique; an informed warning about 21st century ubiquitous surveillance; and a conspiracy theory about a secret society's attempt to control us from behind the curtain of corporations and government.

I couldn't put it down.

Barry's dramatization of today's massively networked webs of information and power mesmerized me. At the same time, the novel's dramatic conceits pissed me off. I strained against a rendering of corrosive, information-fueled manipulation steeped in verifiable reality ... but portrayed in exaggerated, conspiracy-theory trappings that are too easily dismissed as 'just fiction.'

Lexicon's setup, skirting spoilers, is that there's an organization of highly trained experts in what you might call applied neuro-linguistics. They call themselves "poets," and make a science of studying and using linguistic patterns (boiled down to sequences of nonsense syllables) that short-circuit the brain's neuro-linguistic filters and give a trained practitioner the ability to exercise command and control over others.

Abracadabra on steroids, sort of.

The world of Lexicon 

What does the novel's secret society of so-called poets call the ability to manipulate people through skilled use of language?

Persuasion, natch.

The science of this business, in Barry's telling, is identifying the "segment" to which a given individual belongs. Knowing the segment, a "poet" knows which words to employ to control a person.

Does that seem to bear a resemblance to real-world marketing? To rhetoric?

It should. That's a big part of the author's point. (Graham Sleight pegged Lexicon as a "moral novel" in his Washington Post review earlier this year; for a quick primer on real-world segmentation in a marketing context, check out the current Forbes article More Phones than Google or Facebook, about Flurry, one of the most intrusive consumer-data aggregators you never heard of.)

So how does a poet discover a target's segment in Lexicon? The novel gets a little two-faced on this point.

Poets are trained to deduce a person's segment from how s/he speaks, acts, and responds through subtle facial tics and body language to prompts that sound like innocuous survey questions ("Are you a cat person or a dog person?")

At the same time, people volunteer a wealth of segment-identifying information through ... wait for it ... the magic of social media, consumer tracking, and ubiquitous surveillance. This makes a poet's deductive task a great deal simpler, of course. S/he knows who you are because you revealed yourself. (Poets themselves work very hard not to give clues that reveal their own segment, because that would make them vulnerable to persuasion).

If this is sounding more and more like the world we live in and read about in ProPublica ... well ... yeah.

Here's how the business of giving up one's own segment is summarized in one of the interleaved social media posts that pepper Lexicon's artfully twisted plot lines (bold emphasis added):
In my city we spent $1.6 billion on a new ticketing system for the trains. We replaced paper tickets with smartcards and now they can tell where people get on and off. So, question: how is that worth $1.6 billion?

People say it's the government being incompetent, and ok. But this is happening all over. All the transit networks are getting smartcards, the grocery stores are taking your name, the airports are getting face recognition cameras. Those cameras, they don't work when people try to avoid them. Like, they can be fooled by glasses. We KNOW they're ineffective as anti-terrorism devices, but we still keep installing them.

All of this stuff -- the smartcards, the ID systems, the "anti-congestion" car-tracking tech -- all of it is terrible at what it's officially supposed to do. It's only good for tracking the rest of us, the 99.9% who just use the smartcard or whatever and let ourselves be tracked because it's easier.

I'm not a privacy nut, and I don't care that much if these organizations want to know where I go and what I buy. But what bothers me is how HARD they're all working for that data, how much money they're spending, and how they never admit that's what they want. It means that information must be really valuable for some reason, and I just wonder to who and why.
Lexicon's worldblurring

The excerpt quoted above is offered complete with a citation, a URL. Is the passage in Lexicon fiction? Is it 'real'? Is it really written by the novelist as part of a marketing strategy devised for his own product? The text can be found on the intertubes, at a URL to which the one given in the book (and this paragraph) redirects. And the URL to which a web browser is redirected is in the domain of a game built by Lexicon's author (

This appears to be one of the multiple techniques by which Max Barry effects not worldbuilding, as authors refer to construction of fictional environments in which plot and characters play out -- especially in speculative fiction -- but what I propose we call worldblurring: the deliberately arranged intersection of truth and fiction, aimed at grounding make-believe in the world actually inhabited by readers.

It works very nicely to ratchet up an aura of Grand Conspiracy in Lexicon.

And worldblurring doesn't detract from the book's compelling lure as a story, or as a drama-enhanced object lesson. It's not Max Barry's failure that his fiction doesn't precisely track reality. Mapping directly to the real world isn't the goal or the point, by definition. It's a novel.

Where Lexicon runs aground as explication of How Our World Actually Works does offer an opportunity to sort out reality from fiction.

In my reading, the aspect of its fiction by which Lexicon departs from the real world is portrayal of surveillance and control as the domain of a secret organization, peopled with individuals of almost superhuman ability and über-exceptional talent. The head of the poets' organization is out to leave a Pharaoh-scale mark on the world (though he's hobbled, as it were, by a sort of luxury shoe fetish). One of the novel's protagonists is preternaturally gifted at persuasion, standard deviations beyond her peers. Another is immune to the secret weapon at the heart of the novel's plot, a "bareword" whose use compels obedience from everyone, no matter what their segment or psychology.

This is the stuff dramatic action is made of: heroes and exceptional power and tragicomic flaws. But it's not a view of the world that anyone but a dyed-in-the-wool conspiracy theorist would buy.

How pervasive surveillance and control really happen

Anybody who's barely been paying attention over the past five or six months has learned more than they ever expected to about how much corporations and governments know and seek to know about regular people going about their regular lives. Not that a great deal of what we learned from the Snowden leaks wasn't available in hints and snippets before ... in some cases very big and coherent snippets ... but in 2013 our filter-and-forget mechanisms got great big holes poked through their middles, compromising, however briefly, the average citizen's ability to pretend reality isn't happening.

I'd say it's just those filter-and-forget mechanisms that we want to examine in order to understand how we got to this place, and what it would take to walk ourselves back down, if that's even possible.

One analysis in this vein that stuck with me over the intervening months was published on the NY Times site on 15 September, by Peter Ludlow, a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University. In The Banality of Systemic Evil, Ludlow was addressing the question whether a sharp uptick in "leaking, whistle-blowing and hacktivism that has vexed the United States military and the private and government intelligence communities" is grounds either for condemning or exalting those who have been identified as leakers and whistle-blowers and hactivists, e.g., Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Aaron Swartz.

Ludlow concludes that it's not the individuals who are the issue -- whether one considers them heroes or knaves. The issue is the organizations in which they act. Here from Ludlow's NY Times piece:
In "Eichmann in Jerusalem," one of the most poignant and important works of 20th-century philosophy, Hannah Arendt made an observation about what she called "the banality of evil." One interpretation of this holds that it was not an observation about what a regular guy Adolf Eichmann seemed to be, but rather a statement about what happens when people play their "proper" roles within a system, following prescribed conduct with respect to that system, while remaining blind to the moral consequences of what the system was doing -- or at least compartmentalizing and ignoring those consequences.
Prof. Ludlow is shining a light on intense pressure exerted on members of certain organizations (e.g., the U.S. military or a large NSA sub-contractor) to conform to the organization's internal norms even where they diverge sharply from the sound personal integrity by which those members live outside the organization.

As an illustrative modern example of this phenomenon, Ludlow summarizes some of the trajectory traced by U.S. Army Private Chelsea Manning:
Chelsea Manning, the United States Army private incarcerated for leaking classified documents from the Departments of Defense and State, felt a similar pull to resist the internal rules of the bureaucracy. In a statement at her trial she described a case where she felt this was necessary. In February 2010, she received a report of an event in which the Iraqi Federal Police had detained 15 people for printing "anti-Iraqi" literature. Upon investigating the matter, Manning discovered that none of the 15 had previous ties to anti-Iraqi actions or suspected terrorist organizations. Manning had the allegedly anti-Iraqi literature translated and found that, contrary to what the federal police had said, the published literature in question "detailed corruption within the cabinet of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's government and the financial impact of his corruption on the Iraqi people."

When Manning reported this discrepancy to the officer in charge (OIC), she was told to "drop it," she recounted.

Manning could not play along. As she put it, she knew if she "continued to assist the Baghdad Federal Police in identifying the political opponents of Prime Minister al-Maliki, those people would be arrested and in the custody of the Special Unit of the Baghdad Federal Police and very likely tortured and not seen again for a very long time — if ever." When her superiors would not address the problem, she was compelled to pass this information on to WikiLeaks.
Now let's switch foreground and background. Let's step back from the dramatic, individual-focused framing of these stories by news media, pundits, and agenda-laden politicians.

Ludlow is describing the world from which Manning, Swartz, and Ludlow emerged not as a top-down hierarchy of evil (even though the particular organizations in question are, in significant respects, run as top-down hierarchies). These organizations are held together by normative values and behaviors, and members are encouraged over weeks, months, and years to conform to those norms, to fit their roles and personalities to How Things Are Done Here. There's no single master-poet, Architect (a la The Matrix), Trilateral Commission, or string-pulling Halliburton-bot dictating and controlling every evil behavior of each and every participant in that world.

Because that would be make-believe; and Peter Ludlow is a philosopher, not a writer of speculative fiction.

Letting fictions teach us about the real world

Instead, Ludlow is describing an organizational universe in which well-intentioned people are conditioned within a specific context to ignore or accept things they would abhor outside that context.

Think of that old trope about frogs blithely swimming in a pot of water that only very slowly is brought to a lethal boil. It's sort of true, at least in the sense that it rings true, and therefore works well as allegory. And sort of not, according an emeritus professor from Oklahoma quoted in Snopes' deconstruction of the trope. (FWIW, Manning, Swartz, and Snowden jumped out of the pot ... which brings to mind other metaphors, like leaping from frying pans to fires.)

In any case the place most of us really live is inside one or several organizational or social contexts where powerful norms shape behavior.

We also really do live in a world in which we give up a great deal about who we are to organizations we may know about and may not. Those organizations may be capable of and interested in keeping the information we surrender private, and using it in ways we consider ethical ... or they may not.

This information-surrender happens on Facebook and Twitter and name-your-own-webmail-platform; on post-and-comment venues like Blogger or Tumblr or Daily Kos; by using smartphones, walking into airports, or registering cars that we drive on public roads equipped with surveillance cameras; by joining loyalty programs at local grocery stores, or paying with credit cards, or using transit passes.

We know that a great deal of this vacuumed-up information is used to select advertisements presented to influence consumer choices. We know that this data is used to customize search results presented to us by widely used tools for discovering information, like Google and Bing (cf. "filter bubble" on Wikipedia). How big a leap is it to imagine that a 'reputable' news source's online front page might be stitched together differently for each of us, tailored to conform to the news we want or expect to see, or to a view of the world that will facilitate that news source's business plan or political agenda?

While there may never be a single, reclusive, superhero-smart head of a secret organization hoarding and cross-tabulating and manipulating data streams generated by our diverse electronically-enhanced activities, I believe it's conceptually helpful to participate in a thought-experiment like Max Barry's Lexicon, in which just such a being heads just such an organization.

Because while there may not be one "bareword" to control all and sundry -- any more than there was really "one ring to rule them all" forged by Sauron and passed from Gollum to Bilbo to Frodo to fire -- reality bears a striking resemblance to the world of Barry's novel. I'd say it's worth stopping to take the temperature of the overheating stew of networked information in which we really do live. It's worth asking: what's the effect of all this? and is it what we really want? and if not, what are we prepared to do to try to change course?

Here's another one of Lexicon's sidebars, this one with fake URL citation, but, hey, that doesn't mean the fiction isn't true:
[...] the way to beat biased reporting isn't to find the least biased one and put all your trust in that. First of all, they're all biased, from the language they use and the framing down to the choices they make about which stories to report. [...]

But more importantly, relying on a single source of information means you can't critically evaluate it. It's like you're locked in a room and every day I come in and tell you what's happening outside. It's very easy for me to make you believe whatever I want. Even if I don't lie, I can just tell you the facts that support me and leave out the ones that don't.

That's what's happening if you're getting all your news from one place. If you stop listening to someone the second you hear a word or phrase you've been taught belongs to the enemy, like "environment" or "job creators," that's what you're doing. You might be an intelligent person, but once you let someone else filter the world for you, you have no way to critically analyze what you're hearing. At best, absolute best case scenario, if they blatantly contradict themselves, you can spot that. But if they take basic care to maintain an internal logical consistency, which they all do, you've got nothing. You've delegated the ability to make up your mind.

I suppose my bottom line is this: if Lexicon helps people connect the real-world conceptual dots it encompasses, more power to Max Barry.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
After iGoogle: all your friends are belong to us?
Pervasive NSA surveillance + civil forfeiture = U.S.-flavored totalitarianism?
Not your granddaddy's metadata: don't believe the PRISM anti-hype
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books

Thanks to Xander for an image of his original model of J.R.R. Tolkein's One Ring, via Wikimedia Commons. Thanks to Wikipedia Commons also for the image of Adolf Eichmann at his sentencing in 1961.

Monday, November 4, 2013

After iGoogle: all your friends are belong to us?

I was an iGoogle holdout.

Yup. To the very last day.

For those who missed it: iGoogle allowed anyone with a Google ID to create a personalized portal stocked with any of a wide selection of Ajax-based gadgets -- news, stock quotes, the now-defunct Google Reader, weather forecasts, your e-mail inbox, etc. -- arranged in tiles on a web page, and built around the foundation of Google's search interface. Pretty convenient. I used it as a Home page for the service's 8 year lifespan.

I liked iGoogle for the reason most people like Google's basic services (search, mail, calendar, maps): the user interface tends to be simple, functionally straightforward, and more richly configurable (or API-addressable) than one might reasonably expect of a service that's free. (Well, free except for that small matter of letting Google track every e-mail, search, clicked-thru web page, and third-party social connection that the Overlords of Mountain View can get their acquisitive mitts on ... the NSA would be jealous except they've been stealing everything Google knows about us on the sly).

Over several weeks before iGoogle shut down I looked at a number of the many alternative 'construct your own portal to the intertubes' services that are marketing themselves as iGoogle replacements. I don't claim to have made a comprehensive survey, but I gave Netvibes and Protopage a serious try, and checked out a few other before settling on uStart. (The uStart page displayed in this post is the default presented to users who have not logged in; the company is based in the U.K., hence the prominence given to BBC's news and London's weather.)

I don't think it was an accident that Google began rolling out Google+ vanity URLs a couple days before iGoogle shut down. Google has a strategy for positioning itself in social media space, and sunsetting or paring back services has always been a part of it. In November 2010 I wrote, for example, of how the company's revamp of Google Groups signaled its intentions in social media space.

I'd venture that Google's idea of a happy future involves a preponderance of people using the Google search engine to find stuff that search engines find; and to use Google+ to become aware of stuff that people prefer to find through social connections / recommendations. Already, today, using Google's search engine while logged into a Google ID yields 'personalized' search results. That is, Google algorithms use every e-mail, past search, clicked-thru web page, and third-party social connection it has tracked to figure out what we're really looking for ... and what adverts the company can most profitably present to us.

My read: the plan in shutting down iGoogle is to push users toward Google+ for a personalized Google/portal experience ... the Googleplex goal  being corporate ownership of the social connectivity that more than a billion monthly active users now get from Facebook combined with the search experience that Google search engine users access a billion times a day. (Google+ has about 540 million monthly active users as of 29 October, according to AP.) [Naturally, these numbers are chewed over and contested to death by intertube analysts. Disclaimer: I am not a credentialed intertube analyst, except to the extent that you and your kid siblings and everybody else is too.]

In March 2012, Vic Gundotra, Google's Senior VP for engineering, was quoted on the topic of where Google and Google+ are heading in the NY Times to roughly this effect:
"This is just the next version of Google," Mr. Gundotra said, noting that he sees Google Plus as a social blanket that envelopes the entire Google experience. "Everything is being upgraded. We already have users. We’re now upgrading them to what we consider Google 2.0."
I'm not entirely comfortable with this vision.

Yeah, Google is going to track me anyway ... something I bring on myself by using many of its offerings. I'm also a willing participant in public social networking (anybody who looks can find me on BlogspotTwitter, Tumblr, my Facebook Author (proto-) Page, and Daily Kos, never mind my web site). It's also arguably true that the NSA knows more about me than I do.

But I'm still a little queasy about the prospect of being enveloped by the Google+ social blanket given how much of my on-line search and social activity that would place in a single corporate data center.

Hence my move to uStart now that iGoogle is no more.

How about you?

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Four eyes: 4 ways Google Glass might change the world
Pimped by our own devices: electronica, the cloud, and privacy piracy
Google everything: technology in our times
Google signals its next social media move

Monday, October 28, 2013

Teju Cole's Open City: protagonist as open book or guarded guide?

I finished reading Teju Cole's Open City for the third time last month, a couple weeks ahead of my reading group's fifteenth anniversary. Open City was our group's 96th book, and the first novel I've read three times through in a very long while. I won't be surprised if I pick it up again before too long. It's that good; I strongly recommend it.

There's something to be said for the view that the novel form is, first and foremost, a window into the human heart and mind. Novels tend to have protagonists, and the form -- unlike a play or a film -- permits a novelist to portray protagonists from the inside. To pick from authors I've happened to read in the past year, Per Petterson, Marilynne Robinson, Colm Tóibín, Paul Harding, and Jonathan Safran Foer are novelists whose work is powerful largely because it resonates and surprises in its internal portrayal of character.

But protagonists whose hearts and minds are not laid bare to the reader can be brilliantly effective as well. In Open City, Teju Cole's protagonist -- Julius -- remains opaque even  to himself, and still shepherds the reader through a moving, provocative tour of his world and ours.

In Open City the protagonist, who also narrates, paints a deep, idiosyncratic, and psychologically acute portrait of a world at the intersection of New York  City, Brussels, and his childhood home in Nigeria -- and at the intersection of Yoruban, American (native, native-born, and a complex stew of immigrants), Moroccan, and European cultures -- but does so without sharing much insight into himself. Julius lives in New York, and as the novel opens is in the last year of a fellowship in psychiatry. Beyond Julius' intellectual qualities -- he is learned, inquisitive, sensitive to nuances of individual experience, a quiet listener, a keen observer, an articulate docent in the living museum of culture and history -- there's little more the reader gets to know of his character.

As far as learned observation goes, Julius offers discourses on the New York Marathon that touch on Phidippides and the physiology of long-distance running; when he encounters paintings by an early adopter of American Sign Language, the deaf artist John Brewster, Jr., he draws cultural arcs relating this nineteenth century painter to John Milton, Ray Charles, Jorge Luis Borges, and Johannes Vermeer; when a frail former professor's apartment is invaded by bedbugs, Julius illuminates the hardiness and intelligence of these pestilent creatures by describing observations and vaguely sadistic experiments conducted by an early twentieth century physician, Charles A. R. Campbell. (As a marker of the depth of research undertaken by Mr. Cole, or the erudition Julius possesses if one prefers to look through Cole's fictional lens, the observations of that early twentieth century physician appear to be drawn from Dr. Campbell's 1925 book Bats, Mosquitoes and Dollars, specifically from the section titled My Observations on Bedbugs.)

Yet when it comes to self-knowledge, Julius fumbles, conceals, or misses altogether. He repeatedly refers to and interacts with a close friend, but never gives his name: why the obfuscation? Pulled by a longing to reconnect with his maternal grandmother, Julius travels in the dead of winter to Brussels, but only searches halfheartedly for his oma; instead of purposeful focus, he meanders and meditates; explores relationships that will not encumber him, that have no chance of developing at any depth; then he returns to New York.

In the end, he is confronted by Moji, the forgotten sister of a nearly-forgotten childhood friend, re-encountered by chance in a New York supermarket. Moji eventually tells a harrowing tale of Julius' youthful villainy -- describing an event Julius claims he does not remember, though he does not deny that it might have occurred as Moji accuses. The reader is left to flounder. Certitude does not register as a possibility. Instead, a disquieting realization dawns: did Julius weave his densely patterned tale as an apologia, precisely to cast doubt in the reader's mind that Moji's charges are true?
Each person must, on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy, must assume that the room of his own mind is not, cannot be, entirely opaque to him. Perhaps this is what we mean by sanity: that, whatever our self-admitted eccentricities might be, we are not the villains of our own stories. In fact, it is quite the contrary: we play, and only play, the hero, and in the swirl of other people's stories, insofar as those stories concern us at all, we are never less than heroic. [...]

And so, what does it mean when, in someone else's version, I am the villain? I am only too familiar with bad stories -- badly imagined, or badly told -- because I hear them frequently from patients. I know the tells of those who blame others, those who are unable to see that they themselves, and not the others, are the common thread in all their bad relationships. There are characteristic tics that reveal the essential falsehood of such narratives. But what Moji had said to me that morning, before I left John's place, and gone up on the George Washington Bridge, and walked the few miles back home, had nothing in common with such stories. She had said it as if, with all of her being, she were certain of its accuracy.
Julius seduces the reader with his voice from the very start of Open City, an observation I made last year in the post First sentences in fiction. The fluid course he follows through the warp and weft of observed character, artifact, memory, and forgotten history fascinates. Julius is a compelling protagonist not because we learn to see him. The reader is never permitted to do so. Julius is compelling because he draws the world he sees so vividly, at a layered depth that astonishes.

It occurred to me during my third read of the novel that the author is rendering in a kind of slow motion the world of deeply particular information that seems universally accessible now that most in the developed world, and many elsewhere, have the world's libraries at our fingertips, the intertubes in our pockets for many of us, or -- paraphrasing Samuel R. Delany from one of that author's poetic titles, stars in [our] pocket[s] like grains of sand. A world in which, as Julius does, one might stumble on a monument a few blocks from New York's City Hall that "turned out to be [...] a memorial for the site of an African burial ground" and be able (by the grace of Google, Wikipedia, and the like) to know almost effortlessly that:
Into this earth had been interred the bodies of some fifteen to twenty thousand blacks, most of them slaves, but then the land had been built over and the people of the city had forgotten that it was a burial ground. It had passed into private and civic ownership. [...] In the green grass and bright sun, in the shadow of government and the marketplace, I had no purchase on who these people were whose corpses, between the 1690s and 1795, had been laid to rest beneath my feet. It was here, on the outskirts of the city at the time, north of Wall Street and so outside civilization as it was then defined, that blacks were allowed to bury their dead. Then the dead return when, in 1991, construction of a building on Broadway and Duane brought human remains to the surface. They had been buried in white shrouds. The coffins that were discovered, some four hundred of them, were almost all found to have been oriented toward the east.
But the method and ease by which we 21st Centurions can punch up information on our smartphones and iThings is not the same as knowledge, let alone the wisdom that comes of scholarship. I am far from the first to see kinship between the work of Teju Cole and that of the late W. G. Sebald, whose life extended less than a decade into the era of the World Wide Web, and whose work is also filled with discursive historical and quasi-historical tangents (cf., for example, Miguel Syjuco in the NY Times on 25 Feb 2011, These Crowded Streets).

Both these novelists offer their readers a dizzying view of the depth and breadth of foundation beneath each of our hurried, modern moments, the burial grounds beneath our shiny new buildings, the obsession and power and villainy and grief that is forgotten with each sweep of our Earth around its Sun ... Google and Wikipedia be damned. It is the authors' poetic selection and ordering of these views that builds their aggregate power, not the now-trivial fact of information available on-demand.

Perhaps the finest insight I've been granted into Open City came from a member of my reading group, P--, who is also a friend and a colleague. At one point during our group's meeting earlier this month we were discussing the novel's title, and the prominence of Brussels in it, and the fact that Belgium declared Brussels an "open city" in 1940, suffering the invasion of Nazi Germany in order to spare the city and its people the worst ravages of war.

In declaring itself defenseless, Brussels surrendered its identity in order to save its corporeal life and lives, gave itself up in order to preserve its accreted, built and living history. Perhaps, P-- suggested, Julius is himself a kind of open city: he has given up his self, his personality, an identity that could have been revealed in the novel he inhabits, but is not -- in order to direct a reader's gaze toward long and powerful tides of human culture and history.

It worked for me.

Teju Cole is, according to his web site, currently working on a non-fictional narrative of contemporary Lagos. I expect it will be well worth reading.

Thanks to Teju Cole for the author photo made available on his website.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Tinkering: on bookstore serendipity and novels that show what it is to be alive
First sentences in fiction
Art as long as history, time beyond memory
Time, History, and Human Forgetting

Friday, October 18, 2013

Radical conservatism vs the radical left

I've been mesmerized by the meltdown in D.C. these past couple weeks, how about you? Am I glad it's over? Heck yeah.

If only it were over....

Frank Rich wrote a terrific putting-things-in-perspective article this week on the recurrence of government sabotage by red-blooded Americans: The Furies Never End in New York Magazine. His premise is that the Tea Party, now sinking lower and lower in the (oh so ephemeral) polls, are not the pariahs in the country at large and outliers even in their own party that coastal in-tuh-lectual types would like to believe. Nope. Rich wrote:
Would that this were so, and that the extralegal rebellion against the Affordable Care Act, a Supreme Court–sanctified law of the land, would send the rebels, not the country, off a cliff. Off the cliff they may well have gone in this year’s failed coup, but like Wile E. Coyote, they will quickly climb back up to fight another day. That’s what happened after the double-header shutdowns of 1995–96, which presaged Newt Gingrich’s beheading but in the long run advanced the rebels’ cause. It’s what always happens. The present-day anti-government radicals in Congress, and the Americans who voted them into office, are in the minority, but they are a permanent minority that periodically disrupts or commandeers a branch or two of the federal government, not to mention the nation’s statehouses. Their brethren have been around for much of our history in one party or another, and with a constant anti-­democratic aim: to thwart the legitimacy of a duly elected leader they abhor, from Lincoln to FDR to Clinton to Obama, and to resist any laws with which they disagree. So deeply rooted are these furies in our national culture that their consistency and tenacity should be the envy of other native political movements.
I found this perspective provocative and intriguing (it goes on for quite a few words; Rich's article is long, and worth reading). It helped me to focus my own ambivalent feelings about the whole ugly mess. Because -- surprisingly perhaps, given that I profoundly disagree with most of the far right's objectives (we agree on radically reducing government snooping) -- my feelings are ambivalent.

The thing is, as a lifelong activist on the left edge of this country's political spectrum, I have to admire the Tea Party's ability to make waves.

Yeah, I think the teabaggers' positions are for the most part idiotic, hypocritical, and socially corrosive; but to be fair a whole lot of so-called "moderates" -- and pretty much everybody to the right of them -- thought the same of quite a few positions I took before they became middle-of-the-road:
  • that the U.S. should get out of Vietnam (and shouldn't have gone to war there in the first place);
  • that South African apartheid demanded active, material international opposition;
  • that same-sex lovers should be treated by others with respect, should be equally safe in public and private spaces, and should enjoy the same civil rights as opposite-sex lovers;
  • that both the 21st century Afghanistan and Iraq wars were mistakes from the get-go
... and so on.

Seriously. When I threw down on each of those issues, my position was regarded as, well, kind of wacky at best. Well to the left of mainstream.

Now? Not so much.

But the you've got to be kidding side of my ambivalence, the side most of the country took as the right wing of the G.O.P. took the government hostage and the POTUS (finally) stood his ground, left me mildly uncomfortable. I questioned how I could credibly wag my finger at tactics that I've encouraged, and used myself, and organize others to use ... in support of ending a war, or dismantling apartheid, or making safe space to be queer, or any others of the issues I've agitated for or against myself over the years.

And here I have to reveal my reformist tendencies (sorry, revolutionary comrades: I'm middle-aged now).

See, I've pretty much always understood, even when I was bellowing rage at, say, then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger on the barricades in front of San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, that the practical, useful role of the fringe left in the most wealthy and -- in many respects and for many if not most individuals -- the most politically permissive nation of the 20th (and now 21st) century ... the actually effective role of people willing to rage at barricades and occupy buildings and blockade bridges is to push the agenda and discourse of those who hold actual power in one or another direction.

It also helps to make the people who walk picket lines and march on Washington look more reasonable to the vast middle-of-the-road. There's a spectrum, and somebody's got to hang out in the infrared.

At no time during my rage-at-the-barricades days (or since, as it happens) did I hold any more political power than the next woman or man willing to kick up a fuss. Not that we tell ourselves that in organizing meetings. Not that we don't allow ourselves to dream. But aside from enthusiastic youth and the delusional-left (and there is a delusional left in this country, just like there's a delusional right), the activists I worked and work with understand the bigger picture.

The difference between the variants of political activism in which I participate and the actions of the Tea Partiers that forced a sixteen day shutdown of the government this month, the Tea Partiers who seemed ready and willing and able to wreck the global economy by letting the U.S. default on its (legislated) debts -- that difference was pithily articulated in the hallowed pages of the New York Times about a week ago.

From last week's article Business Groups See Loss of Sway Over House G.O.P.:
As the government shutdown grinds toward a potential debt default, some of the country’s most influential business executives have come to a conclusion all but unthinkable a few years ago: Their voices are carrying little weight with the House majority that their millions of dollars in campaign contributions helped build and sustain.


Joe Echevarria, the chief executive of Deloitte, the accounting and consulting firm, said, "I'm a Republican by definition and by registration, but the party seems to have split into two factions."

While both parties have extreme elements, he suggested, only in the G.O.P. did the extreme element exercise real power. "The extreme right has 90 seats in the House," Mr. Echevarria said. "Occupy Wall Street has no seats."
Uh, yeah. That's just about right. And right from the mouth of the C.E.O. of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, the largest professional services network in the world by revenue and by the number of professionals (if Wikipedia is to be believed).

Sure, Elizabeth Warren gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling, but she ain't OWS by a longshot. She was a professor at Harvard Law before she got elected Senator. And now ... she's a Senator (a Senator I would vote to re-elect in a Massachusetts minute if I lived in the state she represented).

So the difference between my left-fringe activism and the so-called Tea Party's: is it success?

Well, I don't think so. Look again at that bulleted list of erstwhile-fringe issues earlier in this post. I'd say that over the time the arc of history has bent toward the left-fringe in each of those cases.

The difference is power. The Tea Party had -- and has -- real power, in the form of those ninety seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. And they weren't afraid to use it. I'm far from convinced they'll be afraid to use it again.

It's almost a tautology to say that a large majority of U.S. citizens inhabits the middle of the political spectrum. That middle is movable, certainly. In past decades it has located itself well to the left of its current spread. I'd like to believe it'll scooch over that way again, and I do my small, sometimes fringey part to induce just that.

But if the actual activist left -- I'm not talking about center-rightists like the POTUS who are rhetorical victims of idjuts who wouldn't know a socialist if one came right up to them and offered to share a sandwich -- if the actual activist left held and exercised power in the way the Tea Party did these past several weeks? We'd be in the same doghouse the Tea Party inhabits now. Worse, because Deloitte's CEO and his comrades would have been (are) hounding us from the get-go.

This is not a call for lefties to give up. Heck no. Real activists don't ever give up. We're constitutionally incapable of it. That, indeed, is Frank Rich's thesis.

So what's Frank Rich's prescription? Here, from the conclusion of that same New York Magazine article (bold emphasis is mine):
Some Democrats nonetheless cling to the hope that electoral Armageddon will purge the GOP of its radicals, a wish that is far less likely to be fulfilled now than it was after Goldwater’s landslide defeat, when liberalism was still enjoying the last sunny days of its postwar idyll. This was also the liberal hope after Gingrich’s political demise of 1998. But his revolution, whatever its embarrassments, hypocrisies, and failures, did nudge the country toward the right: It’s what pushed Clinton to announce in his 1996 State of the Union address that “the era of big government is over” and to adopt policy modulations that tamped down New Deal–Great Society liberalism. The right has only gained strength within the GOP ever since. Roughly half of the party’s current House population was first elected in 2010 or 2012, in the crucible of the tea-party revolt. While it’s Beltway conventional wisdom that these Republicans don’t know how to govern, the real issue is that they don’t want to govern. That’s their whole point, and they are sticking to it.

Dwindling coastal Republicans of the nearly extinct George H.W. Bush persuasion like Peter King nonetheless keep hoping that the extremists will by some unspecified alchemy lose out to the adults in their party. Tune in to Morning Joe, that echo chamber of Northeast-corridor greenroom centrism hosted by Joe Scarborough, a chastened former firebrand of the Gingrich revolution, and you’ll hear the ultimate version of this fantasy: Somehow Chris Christie will parlay his popularity in the blue state of New Jersey into leading the national party back to sanity and perhaps even into the White House.

To believe this you not only have to believe in miracles, but you also have to talk yourself into buying the prevailing bipartisan canard, endorsed by King and Obama alike, that the radicals are just a rump within the GOP (“one faction of one party in one house of Congress,” in the president’s reckoning). In reality, the one third of the Republican House caucus in rebel hands and the electorate it represents are no more likely to surrender at this point than the third of the states that seceded from the Union for much the same ideological reasons in 1860–61. Unless and until the other two thirds of the GOP summons the guts to actually fight and win the civil war that is raging in its own camp, the rest of us, and the health of our democracy, will continue to be held hostage.
We'll see what the G.O.P. does with the next several months. In the meantime, you might want to lay in a supply of USDA-inspected foodstuffs, get some visits in to national monuments, download images sent home from Mars by the Curiosity -- to stock up on whatever you like about government.

'Cuz January's right around the corner.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Remembering Richie Havens: down to earth
The controversy machine v the reality machine
Making a world where queer kids thrive
The desire to destroy is also a creative desire

Thanks to Wikipedia Commons for the image of anarchist protesters at the Republication National Convention in 2008; and to cometstarmoon for the image of a Tea Party protester in April 2009.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Pervasive NSA surveillance + civil forfeiture = U.S.-flavored totalitarianism?

When Edward Snowdon's revelations about pervasive NSA surveillance first came to light, I thought the worst thing that could happen would be for people to be faux-raged for a little while and then to turn their attention to the next big news story. Has that already happened? Sometimes I think so, sometimes I don't.

What I'm sure of is that, even as the revelations keep coming, I keep hearing from smart, educated, responsible, thoughtful people -- friends, family, and acquaintances -- that pervasive surveillance is old news; not a meaningful invasion of privacy; and/or a 'necessary compromise' to keep evildoers in check.

It's not a gimme to push back against these arguments. It's complicated. There are multiple aspects of what's worrisome about a pervasive surveillance state, some of them are related in non-obvious ways, and even the most avid newshound is hobbled by the simple truth that civilians and even most experts are working from incomplete information. The reasons we ought to take pervasive surveillance seriously are complex. Some of the complexity is technical, while some is social or political.

I think that several months after Glenn Greenwald first broke the Snowdon leak story in The Guardian, it makes sense to examine aspects of the most consequential issues his leak raised, through some of the best journalism that has emerged since. By "best" I mean "most clarifying" or "most illustrative"; there's some wildly speculative and hyperbolic muck out there ... and while I recognize that not everyone will award golden "most clarifying" stars to the same pieces I do ... well, that's why there's a comments section.

I'm not going to try to examine all the important aspects of pervasive NSA surveillance. I'm not that smart. And there's no room for that thorough an examination in a single essay, not even this ridiculously long one!

Here are key points I'll touch on in this post:
  1. The data that's being gathered reveals an enormous amount about an individual's activity in social, economic, and political spheres.
  2. Surveillance data being harvested today places ordinary people at risk of persecution by the present and any future government.
  3. Nefarious use of surveillance data could easily look like current "civil forfeiture" practice applied to ordinary people.
  4. The strategies used by the NSA to enable pervasive surveillance may have already undermined the trust and security of the internet itself, on which enormous sectors of economic, political, and social activity depends.

Metadata mining is much more invasive than airport body scans

Days after the Snowdon leak story broke, I posted Not your granddaddy's metadata: don't believe the PRISM anti-hype, in which I pointed to expert opinions and studies indicating how much can be learned about a person's activities from a very little bit of metadata. Since then, this topic has been treated extensively in many public forums, so it would be silly to belabor the point.

However, a very clever analysis just came to my attention a week ago (thanks to B-- and S-- of Madison, WI -- which is probably enough metadata for the NSA to figure out to whom I'm referring, if they care).

The analysis is worth sharing.

In Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere, Kieran Healy, Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University, details in farcical form how social network analysis (SNA) -- an analytical technique applicable to social media and similar metadata to discover roles and relationships in any given group of people -- might have been used by the British in the 1770s to unmask (and perhaps nip in the bud) Paul Revere's catalytic role in the American Revolution ... if the Redcoats had actually known how to perform SNA.

The gist is this: applying social network analysis techniques to eighteenth-century data about memberships in seven Boston-area organizations -- covering a mere 260 persons in toto -- surfaces Revere's importance as a central, brokering, key individual in the mobilization that led to the revolution that freed the United States from British subjugation. Had they been in possession of information surfaced by SNA, a British special ops team, had one existed at that time, might have set out to garrote Paul Revere in order to disrupt, and perhaps incapacitate, revolutionary activity in Boston.

Here's how Prof. Healy puts it in a faux-18th-century voice:
So, there you have it. From a table of membership in different groups we have gotten a picture of a kind of social network between individuals, a sense of the degree of connection between organizations, and some strong hints of who the key players are in this world. And all this—all of it!—from the merest sliver of metadata about a single modality of relationship between people. I do not wish to overstep the remit of my memorandum but I must ask you to imagine what might be possible if we were but able to collect information on very many more people, and also synthesize information from different kinds of ties between people! For the simple methods I have described are quite generalizable in these ways, and their capability only becomes more apparent as the size and scope of the information they are given increases. We would not need to know what was being whispered between individuals, only that they were connected in various ways. The analytical engine would do the rest! I daresay the shape of the real structure of social relations would emerge from our calculations gradually, first in outline only, but eventually with ever-increasing clarity and, at last, in beautiful detail—like a great, silent ship coming out of the gray New England fog.
But perhaps that's too whimsical or allegorical an approach for flinty-minded readers.

In that case, I recommend an academic paper (to which Prof. Healy links in an afternote to his piece) by Shin-Kap Han, an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: The Other Ride of Paul Revere: The Brokerage Role in the Making of the American Revolution (PDF). This dense, 20-page treatment with tables, graphs, 19 footnotes, and dozens of cited references, was published in June 2009 in Mobilization, a "a review of research about social and political movements, strikes, riots, protests, insurgencies, revolutions, and other forms of contentious politics" run out of San Diego State University. The review's purpose "is to advance the systematic, scholarly, and scientific study of these phenomena, and to provide a forum for the discussion of methodologies, theories, and conceptual approaches across the disciplines of sociology, political science, social psychology, and anthropology."

Prof. Han's article builds on membership data about five organizations to which Paul Revere and 136 others belonged (a subset of data Prof. Healy used). His paper describes through detailed illustration and analysis of this data how SNA is applicable to real-world activities, and how a seemingly small quantity of metadata can reveal a very great deal indeed.

What government surveillance means to you, today and in the future

In the case of Paul Revere, the revelations provided by sparse metadata comes long after the fact of his political activity. But the same methods apply to individuals alive today (and tomorrow), and an enormously greater body of metadata concerning today's activities is available to those -- like the NSA -- who collect it.

For a summary of what is known about what the NSA is collecting, I'd recommend the Electronic Frontier Foundation's How the NSA's Domestic Spying Program Works and the ACLU's A Guide to What We Now Know About the NSA's Dragnet Searches of Your Communications (the latter report is dated 9 Aug 2013). My summary of key elements of this week's bottom line includes:
  • metadata about telephone communication (names, addresses, detailed records of calls) is being vacuumed up by the NSA;
  • the NSA has real-time surveillance access to just about everything that a typical person does on the internet, and search tools that make it possible to zero in on any name, e-mail address, or IP (computer network) address, etc. that an analyst wishes to examine ("without prior authorization"), whether that data/activity originated in the United States or elsewhere;
  • the NSA is building a huge ($2Bn) data facility in Utah to store the data it has been collecting over the past decade or so and into the future.
What this means to your average person may be best summarized by Edward Snowden himself, in a widely viewed video interview published by the Guardian on 9 June 2013. The following is my own transcription of what Snowden said beginning at 7'12" into the interview:
... even if you're not doing anything wrong you're being watched and recorded, and the storage capability of these systems increases every year, consistently, by orders of magnitude to where it's getting to the point you don't have to have done anything wrong, you simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they can can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you've ever made, every friend you've ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis, to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life, and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.
Will the grim picture Snowden paints necessarily happen?

Well, no. If the people who hold the power to "derive suspicion from an innocent life, and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer" decide not to exercise their power in that way, then it won't happen.

But -- even if you trust the current U.S. government to do the right thing today -- you need to ask yourself whether you similarly trust next year's or next decade's government (details persons and policies TBD) to take a similarly trustworthy approach.

As they say in the investment world, past performance does not predict future returns.

If pervasive surveillance data is collected, and stored, and accessible to analysts, then whatever agency or agencies have the data and tools also have the means to "derive suspicion from an innocent life, and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer." Any agency or agencies who have the data and tools. Not just the ones whose politics and policies one might like.

Whether this is worrisome enough to do something about it is a political and sociological call that each of us as individuals and citizens, and we collectively as a nation and society, need to make.

Imagining nefarious use of surveillance data: consider civil forfeiture

It's hard for many people to imagine the path from the United States they inhabit to a nation with a Soviet-scale gulag or to the world depicted in Neill Blomkamp's dystopian thriller, Elysium. It's therefore useful, I think, to consider repression at less dramatic scale. Doing so helps one put police-state-creep into real world perspective.

An article titled Taken, by Sarah Stillman in The New Yorker of 12 August 2013, takes a hard look at certain current practices of some state, county, and city law-enforcement agencies. These practices fall under the general category of "civil forfeiture."

What is "civil forfeiture"? In a nutshell, quoting from the sub-title of Stillman's article:
Under civil forfeiture, Americans who haven’t been charged with wrongdoing can be stripped of their cash, cars, and even homes.
In Taken, Stillman describes the experience of American citizens and residents whose property was seized under circumstances that are functionally indistinguishable from being forced to pay authorities a bribe to be released from a police investigation and/or a threatened prosecution. But not an illegal bribe. Civil forfeiture sufficiently conforms to the letter of the law that it's difficult or impossible to fight for many individuals whose legal property is taken from them by agents of law enforcement.

The examples Stillman gives in her article take place in Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia, Arizona, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, Virginia, et al. In other words: all over the country.

Here's how civil forfeiture works in greater detail, again from Stillman's article:
The basic principle behind asset forfeiture is appealing. It enables authorities to confiscate cash or property obtained through illicit means, and, in many states, funnel the proceeds directly into the fight against crime. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, cops drive a Cadillac Escalade stencilled with the words “this used to be a drug dealer’s car, now it’s ours!” In Monroe, North Carolina, police recently proposed using forty-four thousand dollars in confiscated drug money to buy a surveillance drone, which might be deployed to catch fleeing suspects, conduct rescue missions, and, perhaps, seize more drug money. Hundreds of state and federal laws authorize forfeiture for cockfighting, drag racing, basement gambling, endangered-fish poaching, securities fraud, and countless other misdeeds.

In general, you needn’t be found guilty to have your assets claimed by law enforcement; in some states, suspicion on a par with “probable cause” is sufficient. Nor must you be charged with a crime, or even be accused of one. Unlike criminal forfeiture, which requires that a person be convicted of an offense before his or her property is confiscated, civil forfeiture amounts to a lawsuit filed directly against a possession, regardless of its owner’s guilt or innocence.
The pattern of the many examples Stillman cites leads the reader to conclude that in some jurisdictions, civil forfeiture is practiced in order to fund law enforcement budgets:
[...] civil-forfeiture statutes continued to proliferate, and at the state and local level controls have often been lax. Many states, facing fiscal crises, have expanded the reach of their forfeiture statutes, and made it easier for law enforcement to use the revenue however they see fit. In some Texas counties, nearly forty per cent of police budgets comes from forfeiture. (Only one state, North Carolina, bans the practice, requiring a criminal conviction before a person’s property can be seized.) Often, it’s hard for people to fight back. They are too poor; their immigration status is in question; they just can’t sustain the logistical burden of taking on unyielding bureaucracies.

Take a deep breath (especially if you followed the link and read Stillman's descriptions of the devastation to real people's lives caused by civil forfeiture practices). And, with a clear mind, consider local incentives to inflict civil forfeiture proceedings on helpless individuals against Snowden's description of what pervasive surveillance enables.

Quoting again from Snowden's June 9th Guardian interview, with ellipses to get us right to the heart of the matter:
... even if you're not doing anything wrong you're being watched and recorded [...] it's getting to the point you don't have to have done anything wrong, you simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they can can use this system to [...] derive suspicion from an innocent life, and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.
The heart of the matter, of course, is that it doesn't even have to be criminal or political. You don't have to be regarded by powerful authorities as a political 'problem' or a 'terrorist' to have your life ruined when your activities are recorded and maintained by government spies.

You might not even fall under actual suspicion. Maybe you just look like a juicy target.

What civil forfeiture in these United States tells us is that pervasive surveillance of the sort the NSA practices enables subjugation of average, innocent civilians by authorities who are motivated by ... budget cuts. Or call it greed. Or call it lust for power. You know, the kind of crooked timber that human beings are built from.

Are you worried yet?

The other cost of NSA surveillance 'techniques': destruction of the internet?

If the risk to individuals doesn't worry you, how 'bout the news that the NSA has been secretly undermining technology that enables trust between merchants and customers, and between participants in social media activity that powers huge sectors of the 21st century's economy, political dialog, and social activity? By "trust" I mean the secure knowledge that things I willingly tell or give to a business or person won't be pirated by a malicious actor who will then do me harm.

So-called "security guru" Bruce Schnier is a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In a post on his blog, Schneier on Security, dated 5 September 2013, titled The NSA Is Breaking Most Encryption on the Internet ... well, the title pretty much says it all.

What does that title mean? It means that the secure connection that you use when you give your credit card information to a vendor, like Amazon or PayPal, is not actually secure. Surprise!

It means that the intricate, clever password you use to protect your on-line bank account or your 401(k) can't possibly be intricate or clever enough, because the secure connection you use when you type it in is permeable to bad guys. Whee!

See, it's not a matter of only the NSA being able to sniff out your credit card info. That would be creepy, yes; and in a civil forfeiture context, in which not just the NSA but the local sheriff might be able to sniff it out too -- that might be really creepy ... and materially risky as well.

The problem is that the NSA, we've now learned, has made it possible to break the encryption that protects your commercial transactions by subverting the standards on which most encryption technology is built. The encryption technology that everyone uses is weak because the NSA secretly gamed the system so the agency could play Peeping Tom ... with the unavoidable and completely foreseeable side effect that other, unknown, clever bad guys can exploit the same weaknesses.

Oh, I'm not saying I could do it myself (I'm not a clever enough geek, and I'm not a bad guy ... really, I'm not!). I'm not even saying the whole department of programmers with whom I work at UC Berkeley could do it. But, oh, how about an army of cryptographers hired by organized crime syndicates (pick your favorite here, I won't risk naming any...)? Or how about a literal army of cryptographers run by a national government?

If you're up for a lot of tech talk, you can get the geeky details of the NSA's insanely reckless subversion of internet security in On the NSA. This is a 5 Sept 2013 post on the blog A Few Thoughts on Cryptographic Engineering, written by Matthew Green, cryptographer and research professor at Johns Hopkins University (it's the post that launched a kerfuffle in which his academic dean first demanded that Green remove the post from the internet, then abjectly apologized for making that demand).

An alternative to this thickly techie post would be to read the news stories to which Prof. Green refers in the excerpt included below, summarizing those articles' revelations (TL;DR, for those unfamiliar with the meme, means "too long; didn't read"):
If you haven't read the ProPublica/NYT or Guardian stories, you probably should. The TL;DR is that the NSA has been doing some very bad things. At a combined cost of $250 million per year, they include:
  1. Tampering with national standards (NIST is specifically mentioned) to promote weak, or otherwise vulnerable cryptography.
  2. Influencing standards committees to weaken protocols.
  3. Working with hardware and software vendors to weaken encryption and random number generators.
  4. Attacking the encryption used by 'the next generation of 4G phones'.
  5. Obtaining cleartext access to 'a major internet peer-to-peer voice and text communications system' (Skype?)
  6. Identifying and cracking vulnerable keys.
  7. Establishing a Human Intelligence division to infiltrate the global telecommunications industry.
  8. And worst of all (to me): somehow decrypting SSL connections.
Back to Harvard's Bruce Schnier, in an article published by the Guardian on the same date (things were pretty busy on 5 Sept). Prof. Schneir, who reviewed many of the leaked documents himself, responds to the NSA's stunning betrayal by calling his fellow eggheads to arms:
By subverting the internet at every level to make it a vast, multi-layered and robust surveillance platform, the NSA has undermined a fundamental social contract. The companies that build and manage our internet infrastructure, the companies that create and sell us our hardware and software, or the companies that host our data: we can no longer trust them to be ethical internet stewards.

[...] I have resisted saying this up to now, and I am saddened to say it, but the US has proved to be an unethical steward of the internet. The UK is no better. The NSA's actions are legitimizing the internet abuses by China, Russia, Iran and others. We need to figure out new means of internet governance, ones that makes it harder for powerful tech countries to monitor everything. For example, we need to demand transparency, oversight, and accountability from our governments and corporations.
If you're not worried yet? I don't know what more I can type.....

And so....

What we've got is a military/industrial/security complex that is running off its rails. Just like President Eisenhower warned about half a century ago. It's putting individuals -- any and all individuals -- at perilous risk, and it's corroding key foundational elements of 21st century economic, political, and social life.

As Snowden said in June (video, 11'59" - 12'34") -- remarks for which he was unjustly ridiculed when he was just telling the plain truth -- we are perilously close to a situation in which:
...a new leader will be elected, they'll flip the switch, say that because of the crisis, because of the dangers that we face in the world, you know, some new and unpredicted threat, we need more authority, we need more power, and there will be nothing that people can do at that point to oppose it, and it'll be turnkey tyranny.
Turnkey tyranny.

Yup. We should worry about that.

This piece is cross-posted at Daily Kos.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Not your granddaddy's metadata: don't believe the PRISM anti-hype
Pimped by our own devices: electronica, the cloud, and privacy piracy
Unvarnished truth is hard to swallow

Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the scary postcard image from turn-of-20th-Century Germany.