Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Journalists and Twitter redux


Ain’t no fun when the bunny gets a gun

Farhad Manjoo of the NY Times is having second thoughts about Twitter.

How Twitter Is Being Gamed to Feed Misinformation
It’s an interesting read, but much of its interest lies in what it ignores and excuses, not in what it analyzes or indicts.

For instance, Manjoo wants to blame Twitter for elevating the stupid over the serious:

It prizes pundit-ready quips over substantive debate, and it tends to elevate the silly over the serious for several sleepless hours this week it was captivated by “covfefe,” which was essentially a brouhaha over a typo.
What he never mentions is that “serious” news organizations like CNN happily covered the “covfefe” crisis on their news programs. Manjoo really cannot explain why it is Twitter’s fault that CNN wasted time on “a brouhaha over a typo.”

A large part of this article is a sly attempt to excuse and coverup the moral and intellectual failings of professional journalists and established news organizations.

When journalists see a story getting big on Twitter, they consider it a kind of responsibility to cover it, even if the story may be an alternate frame or a conspiracy theory,” said Alice Marwick, who was co-author of a recent report on the mechanics of media manipulation for the Data & Society Research Institute. “That’s because if they don’t, they may get accused of bias.”
Note how neatly this absolves the legacy media. They are forced to cover these stupid Twitter-generated stories because they bend over backwards to avoid even the appearance of bias.

Here’s an alternative explanation that Manjoo conveniently ignores.:

Covering a Twitter-centric story is cheap and easy. The journalist never has to get out of his chair. As such, this content is catnip for penny-pinching editors as well as lazy, ill-informed reporters.

I am a journalist and so am vastly ignorant of many things, but because I am a journalist I write and talk about them all.”--G. K. Chesterton

"A typical reporter on deadline calls a couple of people and slaps something into the paper the next day."--Scott Shane (New York Times reporter)
[Related: Cable news, vox populi, and professional sleaze]

In previous posts I’ve argued that journalists were early adopters of Twitter because it strengthened their control of “explanation space”.

Why do journalists love twitter and hate blogging?

Why twitter?
The huge BOTS! RUSSIANS!! CONSPIRACY THEORIES!!! freak-out now underway is simply another battle in that war to control the Narrative.

A few years ago Twitter was praised for the way it empowered and energized the Black Lives Matter movement. The MSM was singularly uninterested in the role conspiracy theories played in that movement and the fake facts promulgated to support the favored Narrative (“Hands up. Don’t shoot”)

DeRay McKesson: Leader, Activist, and Unrepentant Conspiracy-Monger
Other curious omissions

Manjoo and his editors cast this piece as an even-handed look at how a technology can be exploited to disseminate lies and misinformation. Oddly enough, he chooses his examples from Trump supporters and the populist Right. Sean Hannnity and Seth Rich get a lot of attention. Louise Mensch, extravagant and misleading claims that “Russians hacked the election“, and flat charges that “Trump committed treason” are largely ignored.

Outside of Twitter in message boards or Facebook groups a group will decide on a particular message to push. Then the deluge begins. Bots flood the network, tweeting and retweeting thousands or hundreds of thousands of messages in support of the story, often accompanied by a branding hashtag #pizzagate, or, a few weeks ago, #sethrich.
If it is mostly bots retweeting bots, just how many people are reading the tweets let alone the underlying stories?

The passage quoted reminded me of something else-- an earlier conspiracy to frame the narrative and shift debate during a presidential election.

Journolist.

In that case, though, journalists and activists were not creating trending hashtags for a small audience on Twitter. Instead, they were injecting them right into the MSM.

And the defenders of truth and honest journalism did not care.

Because, in the end, facts and truth are not a major concern for them. It is simply Narrative Uber Alles.


Saturday, June 03, 2017

Thought for the day



One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we've been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We're no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It's simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we've been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.
Carl Sagan




Saturday, May 27, 2017

The 100 billion dollar idea


Another interesting point from Ross Anderson:

Back in the early 1990s, for example, if you visited the Microsoft campus in Redmond and you pointed out that something people were working on had a flaw or could be done better, they’d say, “No, we’re going to ship it Tuesday and get it right by version three.” And that’s what everybody said: “Ship it Tuesday. Get it right by version three.” It was the philosophy. IBM and the other established companies were really down on this. They were saying, “These guys at Microsoft are just a bunch of hackers. They don’t know how to write proper software.”

But Bill had understood that in a world where markets tip because of network effects, it’s absolutely all-important to be first. And that’s why Microsoft software is so insecure, and why everything that prevails in the marketplace starts off by being insecure. People race to get that market position, and in the process they made it really easy for people to write software for their platform. They didn’t let boring things like access controls or proper cryptography get in the way.

Once you have the dominant position, you then put the security on later, but you do it in a way that serves your corporate interests rather than the interests of your customers or your users Bill Gate’s most brilliant coup was to export the ethos of a hobbyist sub-culture over to the business and consumer marketplaces.
What other product has customers lining up to pay for something which will almost certainly NOT work at the time of purchase? And when it fails to work expects the customer to assume the initial responsibility for fixing the problem? (Just another example of companies outsourcing labor costs to the customers. See here)

If i buy a hot water heater I have great confidence that it will NOT disable my car’s air bags.* Yet, every time I add a new device to my wireless network or update some piece of software on one of my computers, I fully expect that I will have to trouble-shoot new problems on other devises or with other pieces of software.

*This confidence may no longer be warranted given Anderson’s discussion of the risks of the Internet of Everything. (Here)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The frightening implications of the Internet of Everything


Maybe the most important thing you can read today.

The Threat
A Conversation With Ross Anderson

If you get a safety flaw in a traditional car—say, the A-Class Mercedes, which would roll if you braked and swerved too hard to avoid an elk, they fixed that—they shipped a service pack and changed the steering geometry. Nobody died, so that’s okay. But if you’ve got a flaw that can be exploited remotely over the Internet—if you can reach out and put malware in ten million different Jeeps—then that’s serious stuff. This happened for the first time in public a couple of years ago when a couple of guys drove a Jeep Cherokee off the road. Then the industry started to sit up and pay attention.

That can also be used as a diplomatic weapon. You want sanctions on Zimbabwe? Just stop all the black Mercedes motor cars that Mr. Mugabe hands out to his henchmen as payment. We raised that with the German government. What would your reaction be to an American demand to do that? Well, it was absolute outrage! So diplomacy comes in here.

Conflict also comes in. If I’m, let’s say, the Chinese government, and I’m involved in a standoff with the American government over some islands in the South China Sea, it’s nice if I’ve got things I can threaten to do short of a nuclear exchange.

If I can threaten to cause millions of cars in America to turn right and accelerate sharply into the nearest building, causing the biggest gridlock you’ve ever seen in every American city simultaneously, maybe only killing a few hundred or a few thousand people but totally bringing traffic to a standstill in all American cities—isn’t that an interesting weapon worth developing if you’re the Chinese Armed Forces R&D lab? There’s no doubt that such weapons can be developed.

All of a sudden you start having all sorts of implications. If you’ve got a vulnerability that can be exploited remotely, it can be exploited at scale. We’ve seen this being done by criminals. We’ve seen 200,000 CCTV cameras being taken over remotely by the Mirai botnet in order to bring down Twitter for a few hours. And that’s one guy doing it in order to impress his girlfriend or boyfriend or whatever. Can you imagine what you can do if a nation-state puts its back into it?

All of a sudden safety becomes front and center. And that, in turn, changes the policy debate. At present, the debate about access to keys that we’ve had with Jim Comey’s grumblings in the USA and with our own Investigatory Powers Act here in Britain has been about whether the FBI or the British Security Service should be able to tap your iPhone—for example, by putting malware on it. People might say, “Well, there’s no real harm if the FBI goes and gets a warrant and taps John Gotti’s phone. I’m not going to lose any sleep over that.” But if the FBI can crash your car? Do you still want to give the FBI a golden backdoor key to all the computers in the world? Even if it’s kept by the NSA, then the next Snowden maybe doesn’t sell the golden key to The Guardian, maybe he sells it to the Russian FSB.

We suddenly get into a very different policy terrain where the debates over who gets access to whom, and when, and how, and why, are suddenly sharp. It’s not just your privacy that’s on the line anymore, it’s your life.
Call me paranoid, but i could not help but think of the death of Michael Hastings

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

In war, #hashtags are no substitute for victory


From Williamson and Millett's A War to Be Won:

Moral righteousness alone does not win battles. Evil causes do not necessarily carry the seeds of their own destruction. Once engaged, even just wars have to be won-- or lost-- on the battlefield.
John Keegan, Intelligence in War:

A wise opinion would be that intelligence, while necessary, is not a sufficient means to victory. Decision in war is always the result of a fight, and in combat willpower always counts for more than foreknowledge.



Thursday, May 18, 2017

The MacArthur enigma


Fresh assessments of one of America’a most controversial generals.

What did the British see?

The author of a recent book on Gen. Douglas MacArthur spoke at the Army War College AHEC this month. His book MacArthur at War presents a balanced and nuanced assessment of MacArthur’s WWII campaigns.


At the end of his talk, he was asked a question that has long intrigued me: Why did the British hold MacArthur in such high esteem? (1:00:00 mark)

Field Marshall Alan Brooke, Churchill’s Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was clear in his assessment. His biographer Arthur Bryant writes that “Brooke regarded MacArthur as the greatest strategists of the war and his campaign in the Southwest Pacific as a masterpiece"

The Field Marshall himself wrote that “I have often wondered since the war how different matters might have been if I had had MacArthur instead of Marshall to deal with. From everything I saw of him I put him down as the greatest general of the last war. He certainly showed a far greater strategic grasp than Marshall”

Maybe, as Borneman theorized, Brooke was just being peevish. Or, maybe MacArthur looked good to him because he was far away while Brooke butted heads with Ike and Marshall and King on a regular basis.

There, are, however, other reasons why Alan Brooke might have reached this conclusion.

1. MacArthur and the British high command were both more attuned to the post-war consequences of wartime strategic decisions. Marshall and his European commanders were very much of the Prussian school: Generals make decisions based on military necessity and then, after the war is won, politicians and diplomats takeover.

Churchill and his generals believed that to draw such a stark dividing line was absurd. The post-war settlement was bound to reflect, in part, the military dispositions at the time of the armistice and the campaigns that led up to it. MacArthur shared this view as shown by his insistence that the Philippines not be by-passed on the road to Tokyo clearly.

To Brooke, this meant that MacArthur grasped alevel of strategy that Marshall and his protégés were oblivious to.

2. MacArthur and his commanders also were more innovative and more willing to adjust their operational plans than the commanders Marshall sent to Europe.

The one marked weakness among the top Allied officers lay in the commander of American ground forces, General Omar Bradley. Bradley was an unimaginative and uninspiring commander, who had already proven to possess a streak of jealousy for subordinates more competent than he was...

Even worse, Bradley, who had no experience with amphibious landings, did not take advice from officers who had seen service in the Pacific. Moreover, he disliked the Navy and was uninterested in their work on fire support and ship to shore movements under enemy fire. At Tarawa the Marines learned that amphibian tractors were worth their weight in gold. Bradley left 300 amtracs in England. Nor did Bradley see the value in the specialized engineering vehicles developed by Gen. Sir Percy Hobart to overcome the extraordinary challenges presented by the German beach defenses

Lacey and Murray, Moment of Battle
When Operation COBRA smashed the German defenses in Normandy, Bradley and Eisenhower were slow to recognize the great opportunity in front of them. They held fast to the existing plans and timetables even as an epic opportunity was in their grasp.

MacArthur’s forces, in contrast, revised plans on the fly to take advantages of opportunities when they presented themselves. (The capture of Hollandia, which Borneman cites as perhaps MacArthur’s greatest triumph, is just one example of this opportunistic improvisation).

2 (a) The Brits and MacArthur shared a blindspot. They both had a tenuous grasp of the industrial planning that was required for the type of war America waged in WWII.

The British Chiefs, especially Sir Alan Brooke, never could seem to understand why the Americans had to have commitments well in advance. They accused us of being rigid and inflexible, not realizing the terrific job of procurement, shipbuilding, troop training and supply necessary to place a million and a half troops in England, with armor, tanks and troop-lift, ready to invade the Continent.

S. E. Morison


Friday, May 05, 2017

Making strategy in the real world


Williamson Murray:

Several general points about the making of strategy bear repeating. The first is that those involved, whether statesmen or military leaders, live in a world of incomplete information. They do not know, in most cases, the strategic intentions and purposes of other powers, except in the most general sense, and their knowledge of their own side is often deficient. Second, circumstances often force them to work under the most intense pressures. When a crisis occurs they have little time for reflection. As a result they often focus on narrow issues without looking at large long-term choices; in other words, they will see some of the trees but miss the forest. Few can express their ideas in a logical or through fashion, either on paper or face to face. Most merely react to events rather than mold them to their purposes. Like politics, strategy is the art of the possible, but few can discern what is possible.
Henry Kissinger:

Any statesman is in part the prisoner of necessity. He is confronted with an environment he did not create, and is shaped by a personal history he can no longer change. It is an illusion to believe that leaders gain in profundity while they gain experience. As I have said, the convictions that leaders have formed before reaching high office are the intellectual capital they will consume as long as they continue in office. There is little time for leaders to reflect. They are locked in an endless battle in which the urgent constantly gains on the important. The public life of every political figure is a continual struggle to rescue an element of choice from the pressure of circumstances.
Sir Edward Grey, British foreign secretary in the decade before World War One:

A minister beset with the administrative work of a great office must often be astounded to read of the carefully laid plans, the deep, unrealed motives that critics and admirers attribute to him. Onlookers free from responsibility have time to invent, and they attribute to Ministers many things that Ministers have no time to invent for themselves, even if they are clever enough to be able to do it. If all secrets were known it would probably be found that British Foreign Ministers have been guided by what seemed to them to be the immediate interest of this country without making elaborate calculations for the future.
John Lewis Gaddis:

[Political scientist Alexander] George has suggested that there exists, for political leaders, something he calls an 'operational code'-a set of assumptions about the world, formed early in one's career, that tend to govern without much subsequent variations the way one responds to crises afterwards.
Field-Marshal Earl Wavell

Now for his mental qualities. The most important is what the French call le sens du praticable, and we call common sense, knowledge of what is and what is not possible. It must be based on a really sound knowledge of the "mechanism of war", i.e. topography, movement, and supply. These are the real foundations of military knowledge, not strategy and tactics as most people think. It is the lack of this knowledge of the principles and practice of military movement and administration-the "logistics" of war, some people call it-which puts what we call amateur strategists wrong, not the principles of strategy themselves, which can be apprehended in a very short time by any reasonable intelligence.
...
Unfortunately, in most military books strategy and tactics are emphasised at the expense of the administrative factors. For instance, there are ten military students who can tell you how Blenheim was won for one who has any knowledge at all of the administrative preparations that made the march to Blenheim possible.
Samuel Eliot Morison::

The British Chiefs, especially Sir Alan Brooke, never could seem to understand why the Americans had to have commitments well in advance. They accused us of being rigid and inflexible, not realizing the terrific job of procurement, shipbuilding, troop training and supply necessary to place a million and a half troops in England, with armor, tanks and troop-lift, ready to invade the Continent.



Thursday, May 04, 2017

"Irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas"


This warning from Lionel Trilling (written in 1950) is even more relevant today:

When we say that a movement is 'bankrupt of ideas' we are likely to suppose that it is at the end of its powers. But this is not so, and it is dangerous for us to suppose that it is so, as the experience of of Europe in the last quarter-century suggests, for in the modern situation it is just when a movement despairs of having ideas that it turns to force, which it masks in ideology.
Although i guess it should be updated. Maybe something like this:

When a movement despairs of having ideas that it turns to force, which it masks in ideology and #hashtags
Walker Percy:

Ideological words have a way of wearing thin and then, having lost their meanings, being used like switchblades against the enemy of the moment.



Wednesday, May 03, 2017

On Andrew Jackson


Robert Remini:

There was a time when the United States had heroes and reveled in them. There was a time when Andrew Jackson was one of those heroes, along with the men and women who stood with him at New Orleans and drove an invading British army back into the sea.
...
Americans in the first half of the nineteenth century did believe that January 8 would be remembered like July 4-- both dates representing the nation's first and second declaration of independence from Great Britain. Indeed some called the War of 1812 the Second War for Independence. Generally speaking, widespread observance of January 8 as a day of national celebration continued for the next fifty years.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Reconsidering "Anti-intellectualism in American Life"


On Richard Hofstadter: Part Two


i

Anti-intellectalism in American Life (AIiAL) may be Hofstadter's most famous work. It is especially popular with pundits who love to name-check the book when they disparage the sort people who vote for Trump and Brexit.

The book may have appeared in the 1960s but its origin story goes back to 1952. Hofstadter was not just disappointed in the victory of Dwight Eisenhower, he was traumatized. He went so Madly for Adlai that he saw the election result in stark, apocalyptic terms:

a repudiation by plebiscite of American intellectuals and of intellect itself.

The campaign of 1952 dramatized the contrast between intellect and philistinism in the opposing candidates. On one side was Adlai Stevenson, a politician of uncommon mind and style, whose appeal to intellectuals overshadowed anything in recent history. On the other was Dwight D. Eisenhower. Conventional in mind, relatively inarticulate, harnessed to the unpalatable Nixon.

Eisenhower's decisive victory was taken both by the intellectuals themselves and by their critics as a measure of their repudiation by America.
According to Sam Tannenhaus, the 1952 election gave Hofstatdter his central thesis for AIiAL:

The fundamental division within America was not between Democrats and Republicans, nor between liberals and conservatives, but between clear-eyed intellectuals and benighted philistines, between the rational elite and the impassioned mob.
Hofstadter's reaction to Ike's victory epitomizes the most egregious blunders and blindspots of the Intellectual-Yet-Idiot when they write about most things intellectual.

1. They really aren't very good at identifying intelligence in other people.
2. The I-Y-Is are seduced by style and self-referential biases.
3. Moral outrage is never far below the surface of their detached dispassionate analysis.

As of consequence…..

4 (a) They over-value the capabilities of people who talk and act like them and who share their political views
4 (b) They are blind to the abilities of those who are not like them or who disagree with them. They cannot believe that 'those people' act in good faith or have valid arguments or intellectual heft.
ii

For Hofstadter, the 1952 election was a titanic struggle between the Army of Intellect and the Forces of Ignorance.

Representing Intellect was a New Deal lawyer who became a governor thanks to the Cook County Democratic machine. Everyone knew he was brilliant because he gave witty speeches and made self-decrecating jokes. Arrayed against this Hero of the Intellectuals was the man who commanded:

1. The largest army in US history.
2. The most complex and high-stakes military operation in history.
3. The most successful wartime coalition since Marlborough in the War of the Spanish Succession.
It was this absurd false dichotomy - smart Adlai and dumb Ike - that was the genesis for AIiAL.

Stevenson knew how to sprinkle aphorisms and wry observations into his speeches. Adlai the politician was a lot like Hofstadter the historian. But that wasn't the only reason Hofstadter was moved to political activism during the campaign. In 1952 he was pro-Stevenson because he was convinced that the survival of liberalism depended on defeating Eisenhower. And for him the survival of liberalism was synonymous with the survival of America.

Over the next ten years the names changed but the melodramatic struggle remained central to Hofstadter's narrative. Leftwing politics morphed into Intellect; Ike's brand of moderate Republicanism became Ignorance and Resentment.

What remained constant was that Richard Hofstadter and people like him were always the heroes in the stories Richard Hofstadter wrote.

And who could contest that narrative? Hofstadter was a celebrated historian and esteemed public intellectual. He was the expert's expert. Only a budding Know Nothing would be so gauche as to question his dicta.

Not to mention-his narrative was useful to the IYIs in the press and academia. It is always easier to name-check Hofstadter than to formulate coherent arguments. It takes a lot of energy, intelligence, and integrity to rebut an opponent in the manner of St. Thomas Aquinas. It is child's play to toss around "paranoid style" and "anti-intellectualism."

Related:

Richard Hofstadter: The I-Y-I's intellectual for all seasons

Half-blind experts and the straw men they create