Roots of Muslim Rage

I thought I’d posted a link to this before, but I can’t find it. There’s a really good story at the Atlantic about The Roots of Muslim Rage. It’s quite long, and it’s from 1990, but it’s worth reading. Anything we can do to understand “why” is probably worth it.

Reply from David Brin

I got an email reply from David Brin already. A very nice reply, I thought, with lots of interesting ideas related to the current situation. If he gives me permission, I’ll share.

Strange Happenings in Cambridge

On the way in to work this morning, I noticed several cops on certain street corners…just watching. They’re not crossing guards, they’re not directing traffic, they’re not usually there. By the time I got into working, I was not at all surprised that there have been terrorist threats in Boston.

Bush’s Speech

Some thoughts on Bush’s speech last night…

The “Office of Homeland Security” eh? Why not just call it the Stasi and be done with it? No, wait, I’m glad they didn’t give it a less threatening name; this way maybe people will realize what a threat it is. I’m not sure whether the President can technically appoint someone to a cabinet-level position without congressional approval or oversight, and it’s not really clear what OHS is going to be, but I think we can guess that spearheading the cause of individual civil liberties will not be one of its primary responsibilities. Are you now, or have you ever been, a Moslem?
Bush pretty much made sure that the Taliban, who had recently been softening their position re: bin Laden, could not cooperate. His immoderate “not subject to negotiation” demands struck me as exemplary of the unilateral mentality that got us here. His hard-line stance about nations that “harbor” terrorists might have cost us hard-won and much-needed support in places like Pakistan and Syria. Saying that “you’re either with us or with the terrorists” paints things in the same black-and-white palette the terrorists themselves use, and puts pacifist Norway in the same category as Afghanistan or Iraq.

What’s most notable, though, is what Bush didn’t say. There was not a single word about any foreign-policy measures that didn’t involve force. Nothing about changing our policy toward dealing with repressive governments. Nothing about changing our policies regarding humanitarian aid to address the root causes behind hatred of the US – see my earlier essay for more about that. I approve of certain shows of force, but unaccompanied by “softer measures” they will only reinforce the perception of the US as a global bully.

At least Bush didn’t lose himself in the middle of a sentence as he usually does. He didn’t mumble or stutter. In terms of presentation, it was an excellent performance; it’s just the actual content of what he was saying that was such unmitigated disaster.

I’m most disappointed by the reaction from those who generally stand for the causes of moderation and personal liberty. One after the other, Democrats and others have greeted Bush’s call for a new crusade – that’s what it is, and it’s what we need least – warmly, applauding him and offering kudos – petting the wolf in sheep’s clothing in the name of solidarity. I am appalled by both the speech and the reaction as I have seldom been by mere words. Shame on the lot of them.

Eiffel License

The Eiffel Forum License looks like another good minimal type of license.

Webdings Coincidence

OK, this creeps me out. It might not work if you don’t have the right fonts, but it’s just really weird if you do.

“NYC” in Webdings: NYC

“NYC” in Wingdings: NYC

Happy 60th, Mom

Today is my mother’s 60th birthday. Happy birthday, mom!

Visitors @stake

My morning commute takes me past the offices of @stake – the l0pht folks in corporate colors. This morning, I noticed two guys with military or law-enforcement crewcuts visiting them. Somehow, in ways I can’t quite explain but related to recent events and the threat they pose to privacy and security, I find the idea of such a meeting very disturbing. Now I’ll probably notice strange cars parked near my house because I mentioned it here.

Meta-review: Transparent Society

20 September, 2001

I recently posted a pointer to David Brin’s book The Transparent Society on LambdaMOO, and was pointed in turn to a particularly offensive review by Peter McCluskey. The review is so offensive that I’ve decided to write a review of the review. Before I do, though, here are some pointers to other reviews, every single one of which is less biased and more coherent than McCluskey’s even when the reviewers disagree with the contents of Brin’s book:

The book is controversial, flying in the face as it does of the “conventional wisdom” that the right to conceal one’s actions is the most important component of privacy and that privacy is a cornerstone of an open society. These attitudes are clearly evident among technical people, especially those who have invested a lot of time in studying cryptography and related fields. The same attitudes are also very evident among the libertarian/objectivist/crypto-anarchist crowd. Thus it’s no surprise that Brin’s ideas would receive a hostile reception in such quarters, but such hostility can still be expressed constructively. Even if you hate it – perhaps especially then – Brin’s book should be thought-provoking. Sadly, no thought seems to have been provoked in Mr. McCluskey. Without further ado, then, here are my specific comments on his review.

McCluskey starts off badly. In the very first paragraph, he characterizes Brin’s book this way:

Brin makes a big deal about the need to spy on powerfull people in order to hold them accountable.

Note McCluskey’s use of “spy” instead of “observe” or another less emotionally loaded word. The first entry in my dictionary for “spy” as a verb is “to watch secretly usually for hostile purposes”. Does Brin really advocate spying? Is there anything secret or hostile about the sort of observation he talks about? Within two sentences, Mr. McCluskey has given us evidence of his own hostile purposes, but no evidence of Brin’s.

The second paragraph is no better. Consider this:

most of the corruption I’m aware of involves things like campaign contributions to reward politicians for, say, sugar import quotas. That kind of influence survives even when publicized (unless the society adopts a principled opposition to such influence, say by electing a Libertarian government)

One might naturally wonder how a Libertarian government would be magically immune to corruption. After all, political contributions are often considered a form of speech, and last time I checked Libertarians were pretty enthusiastic about free speech. Again, McCluskey’s criticism sheds more light on his own ideas than on Brin’s, and thus fails in the primary function of a review.

On page 109, Brin mentions a bunch of governments…doesn’t try to justify his claim that these governments were blinded more than similar ones which preserved freedom.

That is, quite simply, a lie. Brin in fact expends quite a bit of effort providing facts and definitions that provide just such justification.

Brin’s belief in the value of reciprocity in openness has no obvious justification

That might explain why Brin wrote a whole book on the subject; if the justification were obvious, that would hardly have been necessary.

Brin seems to think that the commonness of software bugs can be taken as evidence that no software feature can ever be reliable. But most bugs result from programmers implementing more complex systems than can be debugged with the effort they are willing to put into it.

Simple and important algorithms such as a square root or a cosine function have apparently been written well enough so that no bugs are ever found.

McCluskey must not have heard of the Pentium FDIV bug. Yeah, sure, that’s hardware rather than software, but CPU logic design is looking more and more like software every day, and the point stands that bugs are found every day in implementations of even the simplest algorithms. Just think of all the buffer-overflow exploits out there. Checking buffer lengths is not rocket science, and yet hundreds of programmers screw up this way every day.

This is a little bit of a technical digression, but I’m with Brin on this one. The issue is not just “with the effort they are willing to put into it” as McCluskey claims. Software developers are developing software that simply can’t be verified as correct using even the most sophisticated tools available, and they rarely use those tools (such as Murφ or MC, in case anyone’s interested). Open-source software is no less vulnerable either. McCluskey holds up Linux as an example of open-source success, but when Dawson Engler ran some very simple checks against the Linux source code using MC he found hundreds of bugs. My own experience encompasses maybe a dozen OS kernels and, of them all, Linux is the most primitive in terms of software engineering. McCluskey’s faith in “hundreds of nerds independently examining the public source code” is, in my opinion, misplaced. Brin’s points about the ubiquity of bugs are quite valid.

It is true that given sufficient time, it will be possible to crack most encryption. But given that the computing power needed to crack RSA-style encryption increases exponentially with the key size but the time to encrypt doesn’t, it is easy enough to keep messages secure for arbitrarily long time periods

Brin goes to considerable length to explain that cryptanalytic attacks are not the only – nor even the most troublesome – kind. If cryptanalysis becomes too difficult or time-consuming, spies with resources will pursue other means. Offering a crypto-dork analysis of how difficult it is to crack keys while failing to address Brin’s comments on these other means is basically pointless.

On page 119 Brin says “What is healthy for a nation? Accountability.” “What is healthy for a king, high priest, or tyrant? The exact opposite! Criticism is inherently dangerous …”

I doubt that a consistent pattern of criticising government actions harms the government

Again McCluskey resorts to dishonesty to make his points, this time by taking Brin’s comments out of context. Brin was making a point that for the tyrant as an individual such high levels of scrutiny are likely to be uncomfortable, but in their role as tyrant they’re inevitable. He is not saying that criticism harms the government – as McCluskey tries to make it appear – and his point is quite reasonable. Nobody likes to be under a microscope.

I hope these excerpts have shown why I find McCluskey’s review offensive. He displays an amazing degree of ignorance and dishonesty in an attempt to push his own agenda and to discourage people from exposing themselves to Brin’s ideas. In the process, ironically, he personifies one of the problems Brin talks about. We cannot trust people like McCluskey to be the guardians of our privacy through technology; we can only wonder why they’re so eager to assume that role.

Two Wrongs

Back to everyone’s favorite topic. One thing I really notice about the debate/conversation I hear is that almost everyone seems to focus only on one side of the story – that we (the US) have been wronged, or that we have wronged others in the past. Very few seem to have room in their minds for both facts. The other thing that bothers me is people who always harp on the US’s failings, never give the slightest recognition of anything good about the US or offer any equivalent criticism of any other country, and then act all indignant when people accuse them of being anti-American. Guess what, children? For all practical intents and purposes such one-sided commentary is anti-American, whether you mean it that way or not, and some of us are annoyed by behavior that is so consistently anti-any-group. Prejudice is bad, no matter who’s prejudiced against whom.

And now, something that people who know me would be very surprised to see – a quote from the Bible, holy book of Jew and Christian and Moslem alike.

Jeremiah 28:8-9
The prophets that have been before me and before thee of old prophesied both against many countries, and against great kingdoms, of war, and of evil, and of pestilence. The prophet which prophesieth of peace, when the word of the prophet shall come to pass, then shall the prophet be known, that the Lord hath truly sent him.
Jeremiah 28:15-16
Then said the prophet Jeremiah unto Hananiah the prophet, Hear now, Hananiah; The Lord hath not sent thee; but thou makest this people to trust in a lie. Therefore thus saith the Lord; Behold, I will cast thee from off the face of the earth: this year thou shalt die, because thou hast taught rebellion against the Lord.