Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Scunthorpe / OWS

There's a lot going on in the world, as usual. There are a lot of stories that are within my bailiwick or my preoccupations.

I have recently been listening to various discussions in the press about bad actions that were being carried out by Occupy encampments. It reminds me in a way of the cluster of familiar ideas and social back-and-forth around the Scunthorpe problem. So in the Scunthorpe problem, you have a perfectly legitimate city name that happens to have an offensive word as a substring. So in the clean, discrete digital world, pieces of software might be deployed to censor certain sequences of characters, because of a belief that those sequences of characters correlate with a fight, a troll, something that is gratuitous, mean, inappropriate, drags everybody down.

First phase. Let's say it begins when some neo-Nazis were harrassing city workers in various cities around the UK and writing them hurtful emails.

City workers in Scunthorpe happened to be getting these messages, and their manager wants to placate them. So the manager asks his IT guy what can be done. The IT guy is brilliant but doesn't have a lot of savvy. He has some autistic characteristics and tends to view problems in a linear way. He's not political. He says, let's just make a list of words that are beyond the pale. We'll discard the mail that contains these words. Problem solved.

The manager and the IT guy both accept this solution because it's quick. The city employees don't have a ton of computer savvy, and they're very grateful that someone took care of it.

Weeks go by and there's something wrong. Scunthorpe city council is having trouble getting its work done because their emails keep getting put in the trash for no reason. People start to miss meetings because they never received the reminder email.

So the manager comes back to the IT guy and explains the problem. The IT guy isn't out to get Scunthorpe or screw with anyone's work. Apparently a regular taxpayer had written in about a water bill and the correspondence got eaten. And now the guy thinks that city hall is persecuting them on purpose. He's a little paranoid anyhow, so it's OK.

So now the IT guy says "Look, I just did what I was told. I'll figure something out."

So a new rule is added to the program. Try to match 'Scunthorpe' and if you do, let the message through no matter what. If you don't match 'Scunthorpe,' try some other rules. Try to make an exact match on the letters 'cunt' and if you do, throw the email in the trash.

more later...

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Maher Arar on Real News

Maher Arar was just on The Real News. The beginning and ending of the interview were about his own experience being rendered and tortured as early casualties in the war on terror's incredible arrogance towards the whole world. Maher Arar and Khaled al-Masri are why I'm writing this post right now. I remember watching Dana Rohrbacher's obnoxious excuses when Arar appeared at a session of Rep. Nadler's Judiciary subcommittee. They were the stories through which I discovered how horrified I was with Bush and Cheney.

When Obama was elected, I decided I needed to find a way to genericize what I was concerned about. The global war on terror is an ongoing engine for individual outrages. It isn't tied to a particular president and vice-president. The policies might take a turn for the fair or unfair over the years, but the danger of ancillary damage to innocent bystanders is going to remain so long as a government feels that they must prevent a miss and certain costs are acceptable towards that end.

We have to keep Maher Arar's story and Khaled al-Masri's story at the ready and never forget. I hope we will get better, split hairs finer and have fewer mistaken identity stories, fewer false positives, innocent people rendered, if not by appealing to the leaders' sense of right and wrong, then by court judgments that make it so expensive or politically damaging that they become more careful. According to Dana Priest and according to Stanley McChrystal, we *aren't* getting better yet.

Unfortunately, under Bush and under Obama, Maher Arar has gotten no justice from the U.S. courts system. This is from the transcript of the Real News interview:

"Maher is a human rights advocate now, whose story gained public attention after American authorities falsely accused him of being linked to terrorists. Despite being a naturalized Canadian citizen, Arar was then rendered to his birth country, Syria. There he was subjected to torture, like incessant beatings, and with electrical cables, and confined to a cell the size of a grave. After his release in 2003, Canada and Syria found him to be completely innocent of all allegations ... Maher is joining us from Ottawa. We'd like him to be able to visit the United States, but he can't, 'cause he's still on a no-fly list, he's still not allowed in. And even though everyone else in the world acknowledges the fact that he was not guilty of anything, the United States finds it a national security concern to admit they were wrong."

Note: the middle of the interview was about the current situation in Syria, which is a different kind of thing to remark on. Confusing. My feelings about Syria, Libya and even the Arab Spring is that innocents matter. I don't trust any guerrilla army, no matter how righteous they are. The ends don't justify the means if the means involve wrecking the life of innocents along the way. If you're intervening to stop a massacre? Well maybe- but I don't agree with liberal hawks if liberal hawks think you can kill one group of children to save another.