Sunday, May 23, 2004

and in the "God is an iron" category

Things that really shouldn't be considered funny:

1. Slashdot's May 10th post on "a reclusive millionaire [who] had formed a terrorist group" but who turned out to be character in Sega's Headhunter video. This would be funny if I was the one that was mixed up, but it's even more funny that this made the "item on the government's daily threat matrix". Except....

As someone that's spent more time than most thinking about the technical side of matching names/addresses and so on, I'm very concerned about the practicality (aside from privacy) issues involved. Basically, there is no way to track people by name without a substantial number of errors: either false positive (e.g., those poor saps that can't fly, because they're on the wrong list) or false negaive (e.g., the famous visas issues to Mohammed Atta). At this point, I suspect most of the errors are due to use of inappropriate technology and miscommunications, but errors will always be made---and the more watching is done, the more errors will be made. In other words, you might wake up one year to find out that not only are you in a total survaillance state, but you're in an imperfect one at that.

I heard from a colleage that the current watchlist has over 10 million entries. This seems to me to be way too many for effective counter-terrorism, by at least 4 orders of magnitude.

2. The Onion's wonderful satire, "Bush: 'Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity is Finally Over'" - I missed the original, but recently saw this annotated version. Does anyone recall if the date (Jan 2001) is correct? It's hard to believe that humorists could be this prescient - I guess no-one else was cynical enough.

3. A recent NYT story, which starts out:

Like many of its predecessors, the Bush White House has used the machinery of government to promote the re-election of the president by awarding federal grants to strategically important states. But in a twist this election season, many administration officials are taking credit for spreading largess through programs that President Bush tried to eliminate or to cut sharply...

There's material for a great satire on the political process here, except of course for the reality issue. Come to think of it, this is a great example of why recognizing good satire is difficult for so many people - if you saw this in the Onion, wouldn't you laugh?