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Sunday, May 29, 2005

Sharks, Deer, and Risk
Here's a question: Which animal poses the greater risk to the average person, a deer or a shark?

Most people's initial reaction (mine included) to that question is to answer that the shark is the more dangerous animal. Statistically speaking, the average American is much more likely to be killed by deer (due to collisions with vehicles) than by a shark attack. Truly accurate statistics for deer collisions don't exist, but estimates place the number of accidents in the hundreds of thousands. Millions of dollars worth of damage are caused by deer accidents, as are thousands of injuries and hundreds of deaths, every year.

Shark attacks, on the other hand, are much less frequent. Each year, approximately 50 to 100 shark attacks are reported. "World-wide, over the past decade, there have been an average of 8 shark attack fatalities per year."

It seems clear that deer actually pose a greater risk to the average person than sharks. So why do people think the reverse is true? There are a number of reasons, among them the fact that deer don't intentionally cause death and destruction (not that we know of anyway) and they are also usually harmed or killed in the process, while sharks directly attack their victims in a seemingly malicious manner (though I don't believe sharks to be malicious either).

I've been reading Bruce Schneier's book, Beyond Fear, recently. It's excellent, and at one point he draws a distinction between what security professionals refer to as "threats" and "risks."
A threat is a potential way an attacker can attack a system. Car burglary, car theft, and carjacking are all threats ... When security professionals talk abour risk, they take into consideration both the likelihood of the threat and the seriousness of a successful attack. In the U.S., car theft is a more serious risk than carjacking because it is much more likely to occur.
Everyone makes risk assessments every day, but most everyone also has different tolerances for risk. It's essentially a subjective decision, and it turns out that most of us rely on imperfect heuristics and inductive reasoning when it comes to these sorts of decisions (because it's not like we have the statistics handy). Most of the time, these heuristics serve us well (and it's a good thing too), but what this really ends up meaning is that when people make a risk assessment, they're basing their decision on a perceived risk, not the actual risk.

Schneier includes a few interesting theories about why people's perceptions get skewed, including this:
Modern mass media, specifically movies and TV news, has degraded our sense of natural risk. We learn about risks, or we think we are learning, not by directly experiencing the world around us and by seeing what happens to others, but increasingly by getting our view of things through the distorted lens of the media. Our experience is distilled for us, and it’s a skewed sample that plays havoc with our perceptions. Kids try stunts they’ve seen performed by professional stuntmen on TV, never recognizing the precautions the pros take. The five o’clock news doesn’t truly reflect the world we live in -- only a very few small and special parts of it.

Slices of life with immediate visual impact get magnified; those with no visual component, or that can’t be immediately and viscerally comprehended, get downplayed. Rarities and anomalies, like terrorism, are endlessly discussed and debated, while common risks like heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes, and suicide are minimized.
When I first considered the Deer/Shark dilemma, my immediate thoughts turned to film. This may be a reflection on how much movies play a part in my life, but I suspect some others would also immediately think of Bambi, with it's cuddly cute and innocent deer, and Jaws, with it's maniacal great white shark. Indeed, Fritz Schranck once wrote about these "rats with antlers" (as some folks refer to deer) and how "Disney's ability to make certain animals look just too cute to kill" has deterred many people from hunting and eating deer. When you look at the deer collision statistics, what you see is that what Disney has really done is to endanger us all!

Given the above, one might be tempted to pursue some form of censorship to keep the media from degrading our ability to determine risk. However, I would argue that this is wrong. Freedom of speech is ultimately a security measure, and if we're to consider abridging that freedom, we must also seriously consider the risks of that action. We might be able to slightly improve our risk decisionmaking with censorship, but at what cost?

Schneier himself recently wrote about this subject on his blog. In response to an article which argues that suicide bombings in Iraq shouldn't be reported (because it scares people and it serves the terrorists' ends). It turns out, there are a lot of reasons why the media's focus on horrific events in Iraq cause problems, but almost any way you slice it, it's still wrong to censor the news:
It's wrong because the danger of not reporting terrorist attacks is greater than the risk of continuing to report them. Freedom of the press is a security measure. The only tool we have to keep government honest is public disclosure. Once we start hiding pieces of reality from the public -- either through legal censorship or self-imposed "restraint" -- we end up with a government that acts based on secrets. We end up with some sort of system that decides what the public should or should not know.
Like all of security, this comes down to a basic tradeoff. As I'm fond of saying, human beings don't so much solve problems as they do trade one set of problems for another (in the hopes that the new problems are preferable the old). Risk can be difficult to determine, and the media's sensationalism doesn't help, but censorship isn't a realistic solution to that problem because it introduces problems of its own (and those new problems are worse than the one we're trying to solve in the first place). Plus, both Jaws and Bambi really are great movies!
Posted by Mark on May 29, 2005 at 08:50 PM .: link :.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Voters and Lurkers
Debating online, whether it be through message boards or blogs or any other method, can be rewarding, but it can also be quite frustrating. When most people think of a debate, they think of a group arguing an opponent, and one of the two factions "winning" the argument. It's a process of expression in which different people with different points of view will express their opinions, and are criticised by one another.

I've often found that specific threads tend to boil down to a point where the argument is going back and forth between two sole debaters (with very few interruptions from others). Inevitably, the debate gets to the point where both sides' assumptions (or axioms) have been exposed, and neither side is willing to agree with the other. To the debaters, this can be intensely frustrating. As such, anyone who has spent a significant amount of time debating others online can usually see that they're probably never going to convince their opponents. So who wins the argument?

The debaters can't decide who wins - they obviously think their argument is better than their opponents (or, at the very least, are unwilling to admit it) and so everyone thinks that they "won." But the debaters themselves don't "win" an argument, it's the people witnessing the debate that are the real winners. They decide which arguments are persuasive and which are not.

This is what the First Amendment of the US Constitution is based on, and it is a fundamental part of our democracy. In a vigorous marketplace of ideas, the majority of voters will discern the truth and vote accordingly.

Unfortunately, there never seems to be any sort of closure when debating online, because the audience is primarily comprised of lurkers, most of whom don't say anything (plus, there are no votes), and so it seems like nothing is accomplished. However, I assure you that is not the case. Perhaps not for all lurkers, but for a lot of them, they are reading the posts with a critical eye and coming out of the debate convinced one way or the other. They are the "voters" in an online debate. They are the ones who determine who won the debate. In a scenario where only 10-15 people are reading a given thread, this might not seem like much (and it's not), but if enough of these threads occur, then you really can see results...

I'm reminded of Benjamin Franklin's essay "An apology for printers," in which Franklin defended those who printed allegedly offensive opinion pieces. His thought was that very little would be printed if publishers only produced things that were not offensive to anybody.
Printers are educated in the Belief, that when Men differ in Opinion, both sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Public; and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter.
Posted by Mark on May 22, 2005 at 06:58 PM .: link :.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Spy Blogs
We Need Spy Blogs By Kris Alexander : An interesting article advocating the use of blogging on Intelink, the US intelligence community's classified, highly secure mini-Internet.
A vast amount of information was available to us on Intelink, but there was no simple way to find and use the data efficiently. For instance, our search engine was an outdated version of AltaVista. (We've got Google now, a step in the right direction.) And while there were hundreds of people throughout the world reading the same materials, there was no easy way to learn what they thought. Somebody had answers to my questions, I knew, but how were we ever to connect?
It's clear that we're using a lot of technology to help our intelligence organizations, but data isn't the same thing as intelligence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alexander points to a few Army initiatives that are leading the way. Army Knowledge Online provides a sort of virtual workspace for each unit - so even soldiers in reserve units who are spread out over a wide area are linked. The Center for Army Lessons Learned, which resembles a blog, allows soldiers to "post white papers on subjects ranging from social etiquette at Iraqi funerals to surviving convoy ambushes."

Apparently the rest of the intelligence community has not kept up with the Army, perhaps confirming the lack of discipline hypothesized in my recent post A Tale of Two Software Projects. Of course, failure to keep up with technology is not a new criticism, even from within the CIA, but it is worth noting.
The first step toward reform: Encourage blogging on Intelink. When I Google "Afghanistan blog" on the public Internet, I find 1.1 million entries and tons of useful information. But on Intelink there are no blogs. Imagine if the experts in every intelligence field were turned loose - all that's needed is some cheap software. It's not far-fetched to picture a top-secret CIA blog about al Qaeda, with postings from Navy Intelligence and the FBI, among others. Leave the bureaucratic infighting to the agency heads. Give good analysts good tools, and they'll deliver outstanding results.

And why not tap the brainpower of the blogosphere as well? The intelligence community does a terrible job of looking outside itself for information. From journalists to academics and even educated amateurs - there are thousands of people who would be interested and willing to help. Imagine how much traffic an official CIA Iraq blog would attract. If intelligence organizations built a collaborative environment through blogs, they could quickly identify credible sources, develop a deep backfield of contributing analysts, and engage the world as a whole.
Posted by Mark on May 15, 2005 at 11:56 AM .: link :.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Family Guy
It's back! Last week was the first new episode, and things appear to be going well. I remember watching the reruns on the Cartoon Network and cursing FOX for cancelling it. How could they do such a thing?

I have this theory about Family Guy. You see, it's almost too funny. It makes you laugh so much that you forget what was so funny in the first place. And because many of the funny bits are almost completely unrelated to the story (inasmuch as there is a story), it's not like you can remember much by figuring it out from the plot. So all anyone remembers about Family Guy is that it's funny. This apparent amnesia includes the airing date, which during the initial run of Family Guy was all over the place (Sunday, Thursday, Tuesday?). Upon repeated viewings, it becomes easier. Or I'm just a moron who can't remember stuff when he laughs.

American Dad has been less impressive, I think perhaps because it mostly eschews the cutscene/flashback formula of Family Guy. However, I'm an optimist, so I'm willing to give them a chance to flesh it out a bit. I don't think it's as bad as Jeremy Bowers does, but I share his apprehension about Seth McFarlane spreading himself too thin:
I remember when Scott Adams, the author of Dilbert, spread himself too thin with the cartoon and the TV show. I don't have a reference for the quality of the cartoon show without the cartoon, but during the run of the TV show, the quality of the cartoon really took a nose-dive. Most Dilbert daily cartoons before the TV show had effectively two punchlines in the final panel, something that once I noticed really made me respect him, given the constraints of the medium. Other cartoons certainly do it when they can, but Scott Adams pulled it off routinely after his first few years. As he worked on the TV show, the punchline count dropped to an average of one, and it was usually of a lower quality to boot. Now that he's back to just working on the strip, its quality has increased again ...

... I don't know how much Seth McFarlane is in Family Guy; sometimes the creative guy drives the whole show, sometimes he just sets up a good thing that can live on without him. But if it is the former, I hope that Family Guy doesn't suffer for the involvement in American Dad, or McFarlane may lose big by having two mediocre (and subsequently cancelled) shows, instead of one good one.
My thought is that McFarlane does indeed drive the whole show (though I'm not sure about American Dad), but I am again optimistic, for some unspecified reason.
Posted by Mark on May 08, 2005 at 09:59 PM .: link :.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Waffles, because they are more evil.
The Darth Side: Memoirs of a Monster : This has been around a while, but Darth Vader's blog is surprisingly good. You'd expect such a venture to go for cheap laughs (a la the very secret diaries of LOTR characters), but the Canadian author, Matthew Frederick Davis Hemming, really does a good job capturing the life of Vader, including some banal observations (it seems the circuitry controlling his left leg is on the fritz), occasionally throwing out poignant references to her or his son, and even showing a bit of introspection. Of course, there's a lot of humor too, but he avoids the real groaners. For example, many a mention of Lando Calrissian, but not a single reference to Colt 45. That's class, right there.

The blog seems to be covering the events immediately preceding and during The Empire Strikes Back. I think it works better if you read from the beginning. One of my favorite things about the blog is the elevation of Imperial Officers (like Admiral Ozzel, Captain Piet, General Veers, and the like) from bit parts to genuine supporting roles. Here's a nice comment about Stormtroopers' uniforms:
I must say that the stormtroopers' new heavy weather gear makes them look very cool. Hats off to Palpatine. (Most people don't know this but His Excellency designs all of our outerwear personally; he has a real flair for geometry, and a great sense of line.)
And Lord Vader also replies to some of the comments (the title of this post being in response to that age-old question: "Do you prefer waffles or pancakes?"). I'm not sure, but I think it's possible some of the commenters (boba fett?) are also being written as part of the "story." So if you're a fan, check out the blog. With post titles like "The Wind Beneath My Wings," "Calgon, Take Me Away," and "I Am Surrounded By Idiots," it's not to be missed. [via Slashdot] And just for fun, here's the note Vader sent to Ozzel's kin after Ozzel's untimely death:
Dear House of Ozzel,

I regret to inform you that your son has been killed in the line of duty.

He was an incompetent, yammering boob and he will be missed by none. I have allowed the men to pillage his personal belongings, which is why we have enclosed nothing but the sole remaining item: a torn advertisements page from a magazine of midget pornography. May it shock and disturb you, and may you think of it always when you remember your dearly departed son, the ninny.

Know also that his limitations as a sub-par military professional caused the deaths of many of the Emperor's loyal soldiers, whose funeral expenses will appear on your next tax assessment.

D. Vader
Posted by Mark on May 05, 2005 at 08:02 PM .: link :.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Old media vs. New media
Allright, so I'm going to milk this subject for everything it's worth. ArsTechnica continues their coverage of the subject as well, posting an excellent summary of the debate.
Overall, the picture that emerges has two sides to it. First, top-tier bloggers themselves are better educated than top-tier newspaper columnists. So one of the main attractions of blogging and other forms of online-only publishing is that you get topical commentary from trained specialists and insiders, instead of from people whose only professional training is journalism school and whose very job description is that they're professional outsiders.

The other part of the picture is the audience, which is more media savvy and is more interested in being treated as a peer by news sources. Blogs and other online news sources treat their readers as peers by allowing them to post comments that are directly attached to stories and by adopting a more personal, conversational tone. Thus the audience can participate directly in the newsmaking process, as high-profile blogs manage the collective efforts of their readers and work to influence reporting higher up the media food chain.
Interesting observations, but perhaps we're making a bit too much about this. Old media isn't going away anytime soon, it just needs to adapt to the existence of the new media. It's a symbiotic relationship (both sides need each other), even moreso than past media shifts. Historically, these sorts of shifts happen when a new medium presents itself. Newspapers had to adapt to radio and television, just as they'll have to adapt to the internet now (and so will radio and television). In Neal Stephenson's The System of the World, the character Daniel Waterhouse ponders how new systems supplant older systems:
"It has been my view for some years that a new System of the World is being created around us. I used to suppose that it would drive out and annihilate any older Systems. But things I have seen recently ... have convinced me that new Systems never replace old ones, but only surround and encapsulate them, even as, under a microscope, we may see that living within our bodies are animalcules, smaller and simpler than us, and yet thriving even as we thrive. ... And so I say that Alchemy shall not vanish, as I always hoped. Rather, it shall be encapsulated within the new System of the World, and become a familiar and even comforting presence there, though its name may change and its practitioners speak no more about the Philosopher's Stone." (page 639)
In his Slashdot interview, Stephenson applies the same "surround and encapsulate" concept to the literary world. And so perhaps the new media will surround and encapsulate, but never destroy, the old media.
Posted by Mark on May 01, 2005 at 08:12 PM .: link :.

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