The greater threat: NSA or Alexa?

So let me start by saying that, in my view, Edward Snowden is not any kind of hero, didn’t provide any great service to the country, not even “start a national discussion”, and barely qualifies as a whistleblower. I think he’s a self-involved, cowardly little piss-ant who broke some laws and then fled to countries where government conducts far more pervasive and intrusive surveillance than he was accusing the NSA of doing. The fact that he chose Glenn Greenwald to “leak” to really says it all.

The Justice Department claims he compromised our national security efforts and put agents at risk by revealing the techniques and extent of NSA eavesdropping, which Snowden claims was illegal.  They want him to return for trial or to try to negotiate a plea, which, for a less cowardly individual, would be the perfect platform to make his heroic case to the public.

The whole thing seems silly to me at this point. It’s hard for me to imagine that the NSA is learning anything about us that we aren’t already happily giving away in exchange for some “conveniences”. We’re even paying for the privilege.

Say you use Gmail to send a message to your friend asking if he has an outdoor wifi camera.  You will see ads popping up for wifi camera deals the next time you use Google for searching. Every email you send or receive is being viewed, saved, and analyzed by Google. You opted in to this by using Gmail (and by not encrypting your messages).

The Uber app wants you to agree to let it know your location for a time before they pick you up and after they let you off. In other words, you’ll be giving them permission to know where you are all the time. Do I think that anyone who now relies on Uber  is going to refuse this and lose the convenience? Of course not.

I got an Echo from Amazon recently. You talk to it and it plays music, adjusts your thermostat, buys stuff, orders a Pizza or a ride, searches the web, and does a lot of other tricks.  When you say the word “Alexa”, it wakes up and does what you ask.  Of course this means it’s always listening for you to say the word.

Always listening and always recording everything said in your household, if that’s what Amazon, or some rogue employee, chooses for it to do. Or if the government wants Amazon to help it solve crimes or prevent terrorism. To make you feel a little better,  Alexa turns itself off if you ask whether the NSA is listening right now, or at least that’s what it appears to do.

And of course, there’s hacking. The information is out there in the cloud, waiting for our government, some other government, or some fourteen year old kid to come for it, even if Amazon or Google or Yahoo or Microsoft or Uber or whoever refuses to hand it over. And corporations care a lot less about securing their data (i.e. your data) than you might think – security is not a profit center and no one can really tell them for sure if they’re doing it right anyway. Yahoo let credentials for a billion accounts go out the door while trying not to. The game is already over. We lost.

My thesis here is that we’ve already given up virtually all privacy, so it really doesn’t matter much what the NSA does by way of legal or illegal eavesdropping.

I totally understand that there is a distinction between voluntarily giving information to a corporation that wants to sell us stuff and has no power to put us in jail, versus being secretly surveilled by a government agency that can ruin our lives. I’m arguing that in the world of total connectivity, lax security, and highly motivated governments and private parties, it’s a distinction without a difference.

American Biblioclasm

If you look up “biblioclast” in the dictionary (by which I mean click on that link, since no one actually uses a dictionary anymore and the word isn’t in a lot of them anyway) you’ll see it means one who destroys or mutilates a book. It is most often used to refer to book-burning, but to librarians and collectors, it refers to someone who separates out of leaves of a book to be used individually, mostly to be sold as works of art in their own right.

Before the printing press, books were individually created and “illuminated” by scribes and artists, some taking years to produce. Very few individuals could afford them, and very few could read. We’re talking here mostly about bibles, prayer books, texts used in the Catholic mass, and so on. Some examples of illuminations:


In many cases, books were hauled away and dismembered as part of the spoils of war. It was pretty much standard operating  procedure, since raising and maintaining armies was expensive and they were expected to pay for themselves.

In the last years of the 18th century, for example, Napoleon invaded Italy and looted the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Many of the liturgical manuscripts there were lost to biblioclasm and spread to the winds. Some did survive intact, found their way into private collections and can be seen by the public from time to time.

But some were cut up, reassembled, and sold as works of art. Between 1802-1806, the Venetian priest-turned-art-dealer, Abbé Luigi Celotti, cut miniatures from some of the Sistine Chapel loot to make montages which he framed and sold. This one, now in the Houghton Library at Harvard,  has as its central image a Last Judgement taken from a missal belonging to the Medici pope, Clement VII. The border has four scenes of Adam and Eve taken from other books, and the whole parallels the original sinners and the damned at the Second Coming of Christ.


From the book lover’s point of view, all this is quite barbaric.

In the 20th century, the Nazis took biblioclasm to new levels, burning any books written by Jews. This was, of course, an ideological outburst more related to the Bonfires of the Vanities than to biblioclasm-for-profit. Hard to say which is worse, really.

Right here in the U.S. we’ve had some pretty egregious examples of mutilating books for profit. A  good example is the Beauvais Missal, a manuscript produced at the end of the 13th century that originally had 309 leaves. It survived intact for well over six hundred years and was ultimately purchased at a Sotheby’s auction in 1926 by William Randolph Hearst, who sold it for $1000 in 1942 to New York dealer Philip Duschnes, a notorious book-breaker.

Duschnes quickly went to work selling leaves for $25 to $40. Today, there are 99 known leaves of the Beauvais Missal scattered across the world, in 26 states and five countries (Canada, Japan, Monaco, Norway, and England).

Here’s a case where someone found a leaf of the Missal in a trunk in Maine!


Leaf from the Beauvais Missal

All of this brings us to the real subject of today’s story: with help of the internet and digital technology, we can attempt to reassemble some of the books that were scattered in this way. The Broken Books project at Saint Louis University is attempting to re-assemble them digitally.

Here you can look at the leaves of the Beauvais Missal that have been traced so far, and here is an interesting site about the effort to reconstruct it.

What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.


Everything and everything else

In this time of universal connectivity and full-duplex blathering, everyone has the same power to spout their opinions as everyone else, and you are never required to listen to an opinion different from your own. It’s been said a million times now – the internet has created a “news” environment where each person can tailor the news to his own needs, and the line between news and opinion has become blurred to the point of invisibility.

When you are only listening to others who are reinforcing what you already “know”, the chances of you being open to a contrary opinion are smaller than ever. The idea that anyone could ever convince anyone else of changing their mind on something is now perilously close to obsolete.

Of course everyone wants to believe they’re right and loves validation. I don’t think that’s anything new. What is new, though, is that now any individual, irrespective of their qualifications or motives, can broadcast their views with the same volume and on exactly the same platform, and using the same tools, as sources that had previously been regarded as authoritative. Everyone has the same capability of expanding their readership and has the same size potential audience.

Do you really have to read the New York Times when Stewie Generis is sitting right over here with all the facts you’d ever want? The same number of mouse clicks is needed to get my view as theirs. I could use the same fonts and layout if I wanted and even the same “sources”. And why should you care what Maureen Dowd thinks more than what Stewie thinks?

The other day I read a question from someone asking the internet how to deal with family arguments over the holidays. Their family, clearly Trump supporters, apparently wouldn’t stop trying to change their mind about the implications of the election. The question said,

“My family thinks  we are hysterical/worried over nothing, that we don’t understand some piece of the puzzle, or that they have “heard” differently than what we know to be true. The most generous interpretation of their approach is that it is condescending, but that ignores that most of their arguments are also objectively incorrect. They will not accept anything as fact that they do not already believe to be true, and they are not interested/able to discern reputable sources from nonsense.”

I thought this expressed the problem very well. How can you change someone’s mind when they can’t tell the difference between reputable sources and nonsense? And, through this looking glass, aren’t they thinking the same of you?

I’ve made the point before that the internet devalues knowledge. No one is smarter than anyone else. No knowledge needs to be acquired or retained, since all knowledge can be retrieved with the click of a mouse or tap on a screen. This implies further that wisdom is equally devalued and so are facts, or “truth”, if you prefer. Depending on where your search takes you, anything might be true and everything is as true as everything else.

Press conference? I’d rather tweet.

Why should there be a problem if a president wanted to use Twitter instead of some other media to make an announcement, change or clarify policy, or even pick a fight. Is it so different from making a speech?

Yes, it’s different, and, yes, it’s a problem.

First of all, you have only 140 characters to say your piece. Can you really make international policy in 140 characters? Can you even use full words? Is there any room for nuance? Can you avoid ambiguity? No, no, no, and no. But it’s perfect for someone with a limited attention span.

Second, if you make a speech, you have a speech writer. You have editors. You make second and third drafts. You pass it by your advisers. You vet your points and choose your words carefully, particularly on foreign policy matters. With Twitter, none of this happens. Got a brilliant idea while sitting on the toilet? Tweet! Perfect for someone who is impulsive and always right.

Third, not only don’t you have to consult with others before tweeting, you don’t have to answer any questions after tweeting. Or if you do choose to answer questions, you can say it was a joke or you were misunderstood or it was locker room talk or you were speaking as an entertainer and not as an official or they started it or whatever. And you do it on Fox”news”. It’s the opposite of a press conference where people try to pin you down and hold you to what you’ve said before. Twitter is a one-way medium if you want it to be. Perfect for someone who likes to make proclamations and give orders, but can’t take in any information.

Trump has given no press conferences since the election, but has often tweeted, even about matters that should be the domain of the president, not the president-elect.

He got himself (and, therefore all of us) in hot water by accepting a call from the president of Taiwan. Then someone apparently told him that we’ve had a one-China policy for fifty years, and the Chinese regard Taiwan as a province (where all the Nationalists fled after the 1949 revolution).

Of course, Trump can never be wrong, so let the tweeting begin. Trump doubles down, as always, and says the one-China policy is in play unless we get a better “deal”, blah blah blah. Goes on TV (Fox of course) talking about North Korea and a lot of other stuff he obviously just heard about five minutes ago.

But he’s  not dealing with Low-energy Jeb or Little Marco or Lyin’ Ted or Crooked Hillary here. China’s Global Times newspaper called him an ignorant child (should have said man-baby IMO) and said “The ‘one China’ policy cannot be bought and sold. Trump, it seems, only understands business and believes that everything has a price and that if he is strong enough he can buy and sell by force”. They said a “real crisis” would ensue if Trump kept this up.

I don’t see a good way out here. Maybe the China tiff will fizzle. I hope so. But no one is going to take away the man-baby’s Twitter now. They tried it once a couple of days before the election, but it didn’t “take”.

We’re in trouble.

Fake news, real consequences

With Trump and his team, you never know whether they’re putting out bullshit because it’s great strategy or because they actually believe it.

So, by now you all know that fake news was invented and disseminated by Michael G. Flynn of the Trump transition team. He put out the “news” that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of the back room of a pizza shop in D.C.

Makes sense, right? Why wouldn’t she? Many people were outraged by this and one idiot charged in and shot the place up.

Flynn is the son of Trump’s national security adviser selection, Michael T. Flynn. The senior Flynn also has a tenuous grip on reality and is known among colleagues for his “Flynn Facts”.

The New York Times and Washington Post debunked the fake news, but apparently not everyone reads those publications. Go figure.

But here’s the thing. Wouldn’t you think that after this, people would at least understand that this particular thing was made-up and that fake news has the potential to cause real havoc?

No. The internet doesn’t work that way. Instead, we have a new revelation. The shooter was an actor and  “the whole thing was a psyop” , a “false flag Hegelian dialectic problem-reaction-solution event”. Wake up, sheeple!

The engineers who conceived the internet knew it could be the greatest tool ever invented to share knowledge world-wide, a way to further understanding among disparate peoples across the globe, a place where facts would reign and everyone would have instantaneous access to them.

It hasn’t worked out that way. The internet is a firehouse blasting out disinformation, conspiracy theories, fake news, and lies. And the people who understand this best and can manipulate it to their advantage will lead us.

Are there really two Trumps?

Trump took to social media to “address” the country about the priorities of his coming administration yesterday. This was in the form of a short Youtube video, in which he talked about how he was going to create “many millions” of jobs (by lifting restrictions on the coal industry), revoke and “renegotiate” trade agreements, and impose lobbying bans

In terms of content, it was just a rehash of some of his campaign blather, though he did manage to steer clear of the more incendiary provocations of the campaign, i.e. the building of a wall, deportation of millions, and revocation of the ACA.

In terms of form, there were a couple noteworthy elements. The first is the choice of Youtube, rather than a TV address or press conference, of which there have been none since the election. In the past, the use of social media for such messages has been thought to be too like simple propaganda, though Obama has done some of it. For the coming administration, it is now clear that this will be the norm.

The main “new” element in this communication was Trump speaking in a more moderate way, staying on script, using a teleprompter, and being “presidential”. There was no Trumpian bombast, no fight-picking, no singling out of critics for retaliation.

This was taken by many, including the New York Times, as evidence that there are really two Trumps, that Trump is very “self-aware”, and that he chooses carefully which Trump to present based on his objective. He has said he is capable of being “very boring” when he needs to be, meaning go five seconds without calling someone a name, and this video “proves” that.

If only.

In fact, there are not two Trumps. There is only one Trump and one Conway. What we see here is the momentary triumph of his handlers in their ongoing effort to reign in their impulsive man-baby. They wrote out a not-too-long message which he was able to deliver, selfie-style, into an iPhone camera without any tantrums before returning to the more pressing business of flipping channels, looking for his name on the internet, and grabbing the occasional stranger by the pussy.

Trump is going to show us how to be president in the internet age. He will do it from home using only his cell phone. No need to come to Washington, no need to meet with congressman, no need to deal with the press, no need to modify his family life or business interests in any way.

He can do it part-time without changing any of his real priorities. There may not be two Trumps, but perhaps this isn’t a bad thing. One is enough.