These Are Not the Borders You’re Looking For

The European Union is making a great effort to control what their citizens view on the web by, among other legalities, ordering search engines to “forget” selected pieces of data. But that is not at all the most absurd recent attempt at censorship.

The government of India wants to control geography.

Specifically, a proposed law in that country would “ban maps or satellite images of the country unless they are approved by government”.

The bill bans all types of geospatial information, maps, raw data or photographs, acquired by any means, including satellite photography.

Offenders could be fined up to 1bn rupees (£10.4m). [around $15m USD]

It also requires anyone who has already gathered such information to apply for a licence to keep it.

It was designed to regulate both the creation and distribution of geospatial information in India “which is likely to affect the security, sovereignty and integrity” of the country, the Ministry of Home Affairs said.

Google Maps already provides very different information for certain regions of the world, including the long disputed border between India and Pakistan. But the government judging the “truth” of photographs and raw data takes this particular overreach to a whole new level.

And it probably won’t be long before India follows France’s lead and directs Google and other providers of geospatial information to only show their view of the world to everyone on the planet.

Pushing Back at Anti-Intellectualism

One excellent selection from the commencement address President Obama delivered at Rutgers University last Sunday.

Which brings me to my third point:  Facts, evidence, reason, logic, an understanding of science — these are good things. These are qualities you want in people making policy.  These are qualities you want to continue to cultivate in yourselves as citizens. That might seem obvious. That’s why we honor Bill Moyers or Dr. Burnell.

We traditionally have valued those things. But if you were listening to today’s political debate, you might wonder where this strain of anti-intellectualism came from. So, Class of 2016, let me be as clear as I can be. In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue. It’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about. That’s not keeping it real, or telling it like it is. That’s not challenging political correctness. That’s just not knowing what you’re talking about. And yet, we’ve become confused about this.

Reading the text is good but the listening to the president speak is even better (for those not part of the Fox “news” fan club). If you have 45 minutes, watch the whole address:

Speaking of the current “strain of anti-intellectualism” in American society, I also recommend reading an opinion piece, “A Cult of Ignorance”, written more than 35 years ago by the great Isaac Asimov.

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

I’m hopeful Asimov’s essay and the president’s remarks will not still be valid in another 35 years. But I’m not optimistic about that.

Fearing the Fear Itself

We here in the US are heading into yet another “election year” in 2016. And it would be nice if everyone kept these thoughts from the brilliant Charlie Pierce in mind as we withstand the flood of fear mongering from the candidates who want to lead us.

If you want to see what losing the war on terror really looks like, don’t look to the Middle East. Instead, watch the television commercials approved by the various Republican presidential candidates. The three Democratic candidates are better, but not by much.

The fact is that you can’t win a “war” on terror any more than you can win a “war” on hate or a “war” on any other easily activated human emotion, if there are enough powerful institutions that can profit from its activation. It’s really up to the rest of us, as active citizens in a self-governing republic, to keep things in perspective about the genuine dangers and the fantastical ones by which other people profit. There are genuine threats to our safety–bridges near collapse, gas leaks that may ruin a whole town, the unfettered access to firearms and the readiness to use them. That should be inspiration enough for We, The People to fulfill our pledge to each other to provide for the common defense and to promote the general welfare. John Quincy Adams was only half-right; if America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy, then it ought not to create them here at home, either.

I wish we had more of those “active citizens”, instead of media-created “average” Americans. People who passively accept the ominously-voiced crap dispensed in 30-second bursts of political advertising as fact. Along with the ratings-bait fair and balanced “debates” that substitute for civic dialog in this country.

Dumb TV News (or is that the audience)

A recent piece in Rolling Stone makes some great points about how what passes for TV news these days is not serving it’s audience. The writer claims Americans are Too Dumb for TV News, and that is the fault of the news producers themselves.

We in the media have spent decades turning the news into a consumer business that’s basically indistinguishable from selling cheeseburgers or video games. You want bigger margins, you just cram the product full of more fat and sugar and violence and wait for your obese, over-stimulated customer to come waddling forth.

The old Edward R. Murrow, eat-your-broccoli version of the news was banished long ago. Once such whiny purists were driven from editorial posts and the ad people over the last four or five decades got invited in, things changed. Then it was nothing but murders, bombs, and panda births, delivered to thickening couch potatoes in ever briefer blasts of forty, thirty, twenty seconds.

When you make the news into this kind of consumer business, pretty soon audiences lose the ability to distinguish between what they think they’re doing, informing themselves, and what they’re actually doing, shopping.

The big problem is that TV “news” these days is just too easy, both to produce and consume. But actually staying informed in an age of a constant flood of data is not easy.

You need to seek out sources you can trust to tell the truth (even if it’s not always what you want to hear). Then take the time to regularly read/watch/listen to them. And then you need to continually question the information they provide. It’s hard work.

So, is the American TV news audience dumb? Or lazy?

Just asking.

The Magic of Technology

I haven’t been paying much attention to the perpetual presidential campaign, beyond Stephen Colbert’s brilliant Hungry for Power Games segments and a few other trusted sources.

One of which is Wired, where a recent short post offers a few examples of just how clueless our national leadership really is when it comes to technology. In that article, the writer highlights some crazy ideas (out of many more I’m sure) that came from the most recent Republican debate.

Like Donald Trump’s idea about “closing areas” of the internet “where we are at war with somebody”. As with many things he says, this proposal is very short on details.

It’s not exactly clear what Trump means by “closing areas where we are at war with somebody,” and we’re not exactly sure Trump knows what he means, either. Our best guess is that he’s saying it’s possible for the US to shut down Internet access in countries like Syria. That’s problematic, not only because it would shut off millions of innocent people from the Internet, but also because the US simply doesn’t control the Internet in countries like Syria, and neither do US companies.

Then we have former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina who claimed that the tech industry would be “happy” to assist intelligence agencies like the NSA in the “war on terror” (just as she did at HP, apparently by agreeing to sell them a bunch of servers), it’s just that no one has asked them.

But the bigger problem is Fiorina’s assertion that the tech community hasn’t been asked to be part of this work. In reality, government has not only asked technologists to be part of the counterterrorism effort, it’s begged them. Just last week President Obama called on tech companies to work with law enforcement in the aftermath of the San Bernardino attack. Meanwhile, FBI director James Comey urged companies like Apple to reconsider end-to-end encryption.

But those were just the most recent appeals in the encryption battle that has been building between Silicon Valley and Washington DC. For years, tech companies like Apple and Google have fought tirelessly against government proposals that would require them to build so-called “backdoors” into their encrypted technology. They argue that this would make their technology–and their users vulnerable–and so far at least, they’ve won.

Hopefully, they will continue to win the fight against those “backdoors”, since there’s no such thing as an opening that only good guys can use. Plus it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad.

But no matter. The other candidates on stage “with the exception of, perhaps, Cruz and Senator Rand Paul” also “seem far more interested in restoring the country’s surveillance capabilities than they are in protecting Americans’ privacy.”

Finally, it’s not exactly current technology but when it comes to “carpet bombing” and fighting ISIS, at least one candidate has a lot of catching up to do, not to mention with the legal and moral issues involved.

The biggest problem in all this, however, is that far too many of our leaders, on that debate stage and elsewhere, are ignorant of the internet, digital encryption, and more. They seem to ascribe magical properties to the technology, believing that just using the authority of the president, technology can be used to shape the world to fit their vision.