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When an Oxymoron Becomes Du Jour

Studying figures of speech can be fun. The new meme these days is “fake news.”

This is, of course, an oxymoron.

Friday, February 3rd, 2017

A College from Scratch

This is an interesting project, building a college from the ground up.

Christine Ortiz is taking a leave from her prestigious post as a professor and dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to start a radical, new nonprofit university that she says will have no majors, no lectures, and no classrooms.

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

On Conservatives and Higher Ed

I don’t know why I bristle at articles like Steven Hayward’s in The New Criterion. It’s called Conservatives and Higher Ed. Maybe I just don’t see or understand as he sees and understands and that might be my problem. He makes this comment in reference to Max Weber and some form of academic gamble:

Now it’s no longer just a steep hill—more like a rock climb without ropes. Max Weber said over a hundred years ago that “Academic life is an utter gamble.” The odds are getting steadily worse, and if you’re a rational person calculating the odds, you may shy away from a Ph.D. track, or consider non-academic paths as more attractive than academic paths. This probably describes conservatives more than liberals.

What Weber was making reference to was the tenuous position that academics have in attracting students to their courses. They might be fantastic scholars but horrible teachers, and this was a real issue. Hayward would seem to imply, also, that one rank is rational and other isn’t. But this is small beef.

My bigger question throughout the piece goes to definitions. Hayward writes

On the surface you’d think that the pool of conservative students who express satisfaction with higher education would lead more of them toward graduate paths, except for their evident alienation from the liberal dominance of the humanities and social sciences, perhaps along with a perceived higher salience for conservatives on pursuing “practical” professional vocations.

I don’t think it’s interesting to frame liberals and conservatives on a scale of “practicals.”

The larger implication in these kinds of articles is that Academia excludes and that college teaching just isn’t attractive to Conservatives because they either want to make real money or feel alienated or there is some sort of systematic bias against their hire in the Humanities. I think the matter is irrelevant to the core mission of the college.

First of all, how does one read Dickinson? The reader reads the poem. If the reader or scholar is Liberal or Conservative or has two heads, the reader must read the poem, unless the poet is banned for being some sort of radical to establishment ideology. Interlocutors can go from there. Does a political persuasion matter? Maybe, but at least we have the poem to work with. Reading or studying poetry may be implicated as a “narrow” pursuit rather than as grand generalist’s concern for breadth. Hayward’s call to Weaver is just odd. There are plenty of poetry readers who see the larger culture at play. Why Ideas Have Consequences became a Conservative “slogan” is beyond me. He quotes this from Weaver:

By far the most significant phase of the theory of the gentleman is its distrust of specialization. It is an ancient belief, going back to classical antiquity, that specialization of any kind is illiberal in a freeman. A man willing to bury himself in the details of some small endeavor has been considered lost to these larger considerations which must occupy the mind of a ruler.

Maybe this made sense in 1949, when specialists were studying atoms rather than attending to some requirement of becoming a ruler of something. The larger point matters, sure: we shouldn’t get so caught up in one thing such that the future is shut out and that we forget where we live. But this has very little to do, it seems to me, with who’s the liberal or conservative in the room but with the kinds of questions that might be asked: is a science focused charter school a good idea or is a school that treats all subject in depth the way to go? Artists require focus and serious study, however, and we shouldn’t confuse intense concentration with “narrowness.” Programming is difficult. It takes a lot of study. As in poetry. The person who takes up the guitar will find this out fast.

We just hired a new faculty member in our Humanities department. “We want more liberals around here” never came up as a question.

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

Childhood and Stray Tires

Reading this Atlantic piece brought to mind a memory of the El Paso, TX streets when I was a kid in the late 60s and then 70s. My friends and I would find stray tires. We’d roll them to the top of a steep street and let them go and watch. They’d bounce against parked cars, the occasional fence, walls. Most everyone understood that there were kids stalking the neighborhood.

It wasn’t all rosy. Most everyone understood that too, least of all us. Guess what we did with the discarded but not-so-empty box of Benson and Hedges. We’d be called for dinner, enter and eat, then leave again. We rarely saw parents, and when we did it was like encountering exotic wildlife.

Childhood culture. Here’s an added feature: since we were out so much, we knew who to avoid; we knew where the strange people were, who’s dog would bite, what house or region was off limits. We knew the gang signs.

That doesn’t mean everyone survived.

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

Must Reads for Americans: When the Bizarre becomes Logical

After more reports on NSA and tech, these concerning Apple, I decided to include the recent ruling by Judge Pauley in the morning’s reading. I think the ruling should be required reading for Americans. The prior link goes to what appears to be a photocopy of the tezt, which is just about as bad as a pdf for cutting and pasting. One of the significant issues at the heart of the ACLU’s case is the fact that they’re Verizon customers and that the NSA has access therefore to their workflow and communications. We learn this under the Claims section on page 12. The next section has to do with whether or not the ACLU has standing to sue. The government is claiming that the ACLU doesn’t have that status, which is a good move because Verizon has a lot of customers (see page 24), potentially making for a pretty bad-ass class action. I’m a Verizon customer, also, and I also use lots of keywords that might flag me on this blog and in my Twitter stream.

The court argues, using an Amnesty International case wherein Amnesty failed to “concretely” prove “imminent” injury, that the ACLU does have standing to sue because the NSA had indeed captured its data. That’s about all the love the ACLU is going to get  from the Judge, though (and I’m not quite sure after reading the whole thing that he thinks they do have standing). Most of the reporting on the ruling goes to a question of constitutionality. But my reading of the ruling is that the thinking here is much more complicated. Consider this snippet:

Read in harmony, the Stored Communications Act does not limit the Government’s ability to obtain information from communications providers under section 215 because section 215 orders are functionally equivalent to grand jury subpoenas. Section 215 authorizes the Government to seek records that may be obtained with a grand jury subpoena, such as telephony metadata under the Stored Communications Act.

The Section 215 question here is significant. That’s the part of the Patriot Act that requires, say, the FBI to prove that it needs certain info to pursue a case, and that’s where the FISA court comes into the picture. But the distinction for the court is that it’s not the FBI doing the collecting. That activity is limited only to the NSA. (See page 33). I think Judge Pauley is at his best when he explains why bulk collection can be done by the NSA. He argues that “all phone call metadata” is a class of things the FBI might require as “relevant” in an investigation and that to prohibit the collection of this class of things would  “require the Government to determine wrongdoing before issuing a subpoena–but that determination is the primary purpose of a subpoena” (34). And that’s followed by this: “And in the context of a counterterrorism investigation, that after-the-attack determination would be too late.” And, “Here, there is no way for the Government to know which particle of telephony metadata will lead to useful counterterrorism information.”

Then comes the typical Katz case argument about the “presumption of privacy” issue. But I don’t intent to minimize Pauley’s arguments in this regard because he goes into some pretty good analysis against the ACLU on their privacy assertions and their assertions about “sweep” and “bulk.”

But now to the point. This ruling should be read in full and not just by lawyers. There’s more in it than I can go after at the moment. However, reading the ruling leaves me with a bad taste in the mouth, and I think that Pauley is incorrect. Everyone can understand that keeping information from “the enemy” is critical. If the Red Team coach knows the Blue Team’s plays, then there’s no real game to be played, and if the NSA or CIA broadcasted its moves, whatever group or individual who intended harm would alter their strategy, as any criminal would. But it seems to me the judge is writing in the bizarre context or world where a “war on terror” has been unleashed, and outside this context or world–this new “war condition”–his arguments wouldn’t be required. So the real question is, is any of this stuff legal, not just one program or several by the NSA? If the Patriot Act works inside the context of a “war on terror,” then maybe it’s the “war on terror” that’s the problem here.

I did a little reading on the controversial 215 section. Such language is about as bizarre as it gets, so many safeguards, so many “presumed” safeguards that the law of the falling dominoes would seem to be realized. It’s terrifying language, a house made of a million toothpicks. Why, because it sets up a massive “begging the question” argument: it’s constitutional because it’s constitutional, like claiming that something is legal by virtue of it being on the books, and by the way we just need to do it.

For Pauley, we’re caught between a piece of steel and an anvil. But he sets up his own and our problem with all this, the balance between liberty and security.  He writes, first quoting from Boumediene, “‘Liberty and security can be reconciled; and in our system they are reconciled within the framework of the law.’ The success of one helps protect the other. Like the 9/11 Commission observed: The choice between liberty and security is a false one, as nothing is more apt to imperil civil liberties that the success of a terrorist attack on American soil” (52). That’s a pretty big generalization and amounts to telling people what they should fear most. Rising sea levels will also do a number on civil liberties. This language could only be written in the cloud of the “war on terror” paradigm. And that’s what scares me the most about our current NSA mess.

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

How to Write a RSA Press Release and Other Sidetracks

It’s that time for the habit of the semester roundup and some thinking about what I’ve learned. But first a bit about how news stories tend to follow a path that might look like a mole’s tunnel. Not sure why. This goes to the NSA and the more recent issues with RSA, what we might call the “back door” story or the “purposeful vulnerability” story or the “How did this happen in the first place” story. Here’s what I mean about the mole’s tunnel. Tomorrow the story will turned nuanced. The stories will become the “well, it was sort of the back window not really a back door” or “vulnerability but with invulnerable characteristics just to make sure it still worked” or “well it just sorta happened by chance and we feel awful about it, and that you can believe, and this finger I’m wagging at your face proves it” stories. And so forth.

I’m reading this Guardian article at the moment titled “Security Company RSA Denies Knowingly Installing  NSA ‘back door.'” And then the subtitle, which acts as a thinner mustache: “Denial follows allegations that pioneering company made NSA algorithm its default in return for payment” (italics mine).  If the Guardian is accurately representing the verbs here, then I’m reminded of how I used language like this as a kid to slap accusations away. “Okay, sure I ate all the peanuts, but I didn’t know they were the last ones.” “Okay, I broke the plate, but I swear I didn’t know that I would drop it and didn’t think that the water on my hands would be so slippery.” It’s the “I didn’t know I was doing it” excuse that always works because it appeals to both an epistemological bias and a prevalent but often suppressed ability in people to trust in facts and discernible evidence. Since we really can’t know that RSA hadn’t known that they were actually doing something even though they were doing it goes to the question, “Hey, did you know you were just now talking to yourself?”

But it gets even sillier. Here’s the first paragraph of the article: “The security company RSA has denied that it knowingly weakened the encryption it used in its products as part of a secret contract with the US’s National Security Agency.” There’s little congruence between the title and this first paragraph: “knowingly installing” and knowingly weakening.” Indeed, the first paragraph is much better. It gives that nuance we all so love. Now RSA denies “it knowingly weakened the encryption …” Think about that. I’ve tried to tighten things up, tidy things, or make something thinner, but I’ve never actually verbed any of that “unknowingly.” I intended to make my bed. I’ve even tried to write some encryption myself. Consider this fiction:

He cracked his knuckles but before he could start, Larry said, “Put a J there in that as an extra expression.”

He said, “Duh, okay.”

Larry said to himself, “Ha, ha. He doesn’t know that that  J will open the back door. He He.”

Not only did RSA not “knowingly weaken the encryption” but they deny doing it knowingly AND as a “secret contract” with the NSA. In the first paragraph, the “as part of a” elbow acts like a conjunction in an unwritten compound sentence. We deny “knowingly doing something” AND we deny “knowingly doing something as part of a secret contract.” As every good obfuscator knows, ANDs make for future denials. Consider this part where Charles Arthur quotes from a RSA blog post

RSA initially declined to respond to the reports. But in a blogpost on its site posted Sunday, the company now says: “Recent press coverage has asserted that RSA entered into a ‘secret contract’ with the NSA to incorporate a known flawed random number generator into its BSAFE encryption libraries. We categorically deny this allegation.”

In terms of the  AND theory of obfuscation, this is grandiloquence. We “deny that we entered into a secret contract to incorporate a known flawed [something]”  Very good writing, I would say. The reporters one flaw here is the use of the word “now says” which would imply a change of heart or alteration.

In all seriousness, knowing what people did or what they were thinking is always hard. Of course it is. I would submit that the solution is pretty simple and it goes according to the deux ex machina formulation in storytelling. Some powerful person or force, maybe the American president, tells the NSA: “That’s it, stop storing Ersinghaus’s data.” Believe me it ain’t all that interesting.

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

The Concept of Privacy

In all the hair-splitting going on about the US government intelligence apparatus having access to citizen activity metadata, I have yet to see a lot of crunching going on about what privacy means. It seems to me that privacy constitutes a relationship first between “I” and “me,” that is my cerebral activity, and how much of it leaks out and captured by another agent. Imagine Basho on his rounds, leaving poems on the side of the road for others to read and, in future, to be recorded in other forms. It’s hard to say whether another traveler is wandering by with a poem by Basho in their head. The observer can’t know what is in a person’s head. If I read a tweet, I don’t necessarily know if the “thought” is actually authentic. I simply take it as a “factual” grain.

This is a cut and paste of part of Twitter’s Collection clause:

Our Services are primarily designed to help you share information with the world. Most of the information you provide us is information you are asking us to make public. This includes not only the messages you Tweet and the metadata provided with Tweets, such as when you Tweeted, but also the lists you create, the people you follow, the Tweets you mark as favorites or Retweet, and many other bits of information that result from your use of the Services. Our default is almost always to make the information you provide public for as long as you do not delete it from Twitter, but we generally give you settings to make the information more private if you want.

The implication here falls on the idea of “choice,” that Twitter makes available “information you are asking us to make public.” Agreeing to the services by provided is something the user “asks” for and therefore the service complies with software. This seems fair, as it’s observed that people freely chose the service and that they understand that “you asked for it.” It would seem fair that the NSA could use this metadata, just like any one else who understand the API.

Here’s the Log clause:

Our servers automatically record information (“Log Data“) created by your use of the Services. Log Data may include information such as your IP address, browser type, operating system, the referring web page, pages visited, location, your mobile carrier, device and application IDs, search terms, and cookie information. We receive Log Data when you interact with our Services, for example, when you visit our websites, sign into our Services, interact with our email notifications, use your Twitter account to authenticate to a third-party website or application, or visit a third-party website that includes a Twitter button or widget. Twitter uses Log Data to provide our Services and to measure, customize, and improve them. If not already done earlier, for example, as provided below for Widget Data, we will either delete Log Data or remove any common account identifiers, such as your username, full IP address, or email address, after 18 months.

This is the sort of metadata any run of the mill database will have spaces for, IP, time stamps, whatever. People agree to this sort of backend storage, assuming they know what a device ID is. If they don’t, they might agree to use and basically lie to the service. Meaning: I agree but I really don’t know what I’m agreeing to because I don’t know what a device ID is. I would assume this data would be interesting to law enforcement. But my authentic question is: is log data private or public information?

In this, I think about passwords and the encryption tools, such as SALT, that make them work. Again, I am assuming that a password is related to a “thought” I might want to keep private, “to myself,” as there’s risk in making it “public.” We know, though, that passwords are stored all over the place. They are also persistently entered, altered, and key-logged by at least two listening systems, else the system wont open. In any event, everyone who uses Twitter possesses a password but it’s strange to think of a password as “private” as it is “shared” in a sort of “middle place,” a limbo, let’s say between private and public, or, as we say in modern terms, a database, which is sort of also like the modern rendering of a nature deity.

None of this, however, gets to a definition of privacy in the context of digital tools. Part of the legal stroke here has to do with “presumptions” of privacy. We have a reasonable presumption that our in-door conversations are none of the government’s business, therefore the government has no “interest” in peeping at us through the window: presumption and interest. Of added complexity is the notion of privacy itself in the linguistic storehouse. We know that digital culture has provided spaces for dispute about the meaning of choice and sharing. It may be that in the future people drop out of the culture and chose to live more selectively. Or people will sanitize their participation, so that all we get on Twitter are links to frog images. But metadata will still grow and accumulate, as data in and of itself is neither this or that until it’s related to something else. Jaron Lanier has an interesting opinion piece in the NYT on the nature of data gathering and manipulation that’s well worth plowing through in this regard.

In literature courses, we can trace how people have viewed the line between private and public ideas. People have probably always known that they can get into a lot of trouble by speaking their minds. The image of the secret police has made vigilance the protagonist to the lordly “eye’s” antagonist. When one signs onto the Verizon contract, one should also know that something physical needs to be stored. If it is a 1, then we can always read the 1, then scramble the 1 to hide its identity. But does this constitute privacy?

Sunday, June 9th, 2013

Years Ago

It was back in the 90s when I started telling students to watch for workers outside the US to suddenly realize that they wouldn’t stand for low wages forever. They’d organize and stand up. It’s now a story to follow and consider with much more seriousness.

Then people here might might wake up again too.

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

Why Teaching is Cool


One of the cool things about teaching is the revisiting. We’ve had a few of these this week. You know who you are. But we also have those who revisit in different ways. Jason Davis was a massive person. A lamp. A voice. A speaker. He attended many of my courses and became a friend. Graduated Trinity College, Hartford.

Sadly, he has passed.

I was looking forward to reconnecting.

Swift passage to you.

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

Prepping for Extremes

At the moment, the temp outside is about 5 degrees f. Last week we had our new generator started by the good tech, with his lap top and advise for self-tests. At initial test, the power went out and the generator came on a few seconds later and repowered the house. The machine continually assesses the Grid and will respond accordingly. Smooth and simple. Currently, it’s running off temporary propane while we wait for conversion to natural gas. Our addition is pricey so we figured a generator should be a part of the bargain. This equipment is watted enough to deal with the entire house, plus the addition, and should go smoothly if properly maintained. But we don’t have to worry about gasoline power and the dedicated gas will provide for future simplicity.

But it’s super cold. It would also be nice if we never had to use the generator. But it’s there; it’s big; it’s something around which to do more landscaping. It’s also amazing to think that such an expensive appliance might actually never be used. Given the changing state of the weather, this seems unlikely.

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013