Thursday, 29 August 2013

Time future contained in time past

In 1975, when the future US President Obama was in his mid teens, Senator Frank Church's Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities published its reports.

"The Committee finds that the domestic activities of the intelligence community at times violated specific statutory prohibitions and infringed the constitutional rights of American citizens. The legal questions involved in intelligence programs were often not considered. On other occasions, they were intentionally disregarded in the belief that because the programs served the "national security" the law did not apply. While intelligence officers on occasion failed to disclose to their superiors programs which were illegal or of questionable legality, the Committee finds that the most serious breaches of duty were those of senior officials, who were responsible for controlling intelligence activities and generally failed to assure compliance with the law.
"Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that...the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.
"While the declared purposes of these programs were to protect the "national security" or prevent violence, Bureau witnesses admit that many of the targets were nonviolent and most had no connections with a foreign power. Indeed, nonviolent organizations and individuals were targeted because the Bureau believed they represented a "potential" for violence -- and nonviolent citizens who were against the war in Vietnam were targeted because they gave "aid and comfort" to violent demonstrators by lending respectability to their cause.
"The imprecision of the targeting is demonstrated by the inability of the Bureau to define the subjects of the programs. The Black Nationalist program, according to its supervisor, included "a great number of organizations that you might not today characterize as black nationalist but which were in fact primarily black." Thus, the nonviolent Southern Christian Leadership Conference was labeled as a Black Nationalist-"Hate Group."
"Furthermore, the actual targets were chosen from a far broader group than the titles of the programs would imply. The CPUSA program targeted not only Communist Party members but also sponsors of the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee and civil rights leaders allegedly under Communist influence or deemed to be not sufficiently "anti-Communist". The Socialist Workers Party program included non-SWP sponsors of anti-war demonstrations which were cosponsored by the SWP or the Young Socialist Alliance, its youth group. The Black Nationalist program targeted a range of organizations from the Panthers to SNCC to the peaceful Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and included every Black Student Union and many other black student groups. New Left targets ranged from the SDS to the InterUniversity Committee for Debate on Foreign Policy, from Antioch College ("vanguard of the New Left") to the New Mexico Free University and other "alternate" schools, and from underground newspapers to students' protesting university censorship of a student publication by carrying signs with four-letter words on them."

Monday, 26 August 2013

Time present and time past

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus in your mind.
                  But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.

Fond as I am of the word 'perhaps', I do wonder why Eliot had to include it here. Where was il miglior fabro? (I also wonder what Eliot, the jewel thief as Pound called him, actually knew about mud and axle trees, or even garlic and sapphires, come to that.)

But enough of that. What I wanted to remark was that we are living, now, in a historic moment. An historic moment? A truly historic moment? Perhaps even, for some, the last truly historic moment.

For we have arrived at the point perhaps where we began, where is is now formally recognised by the discerning that the word 'historic' can apply to anything in the past that we can only investigate, report and ponder upon. All time is unredeemable. Tous les matins du monde sont sans retour. To what purpose?

And so, at last, everything in the past qualifies for history, subject only to the interest of the news media, permission to disturb the dust on the bowl of rose-leaves. Mainly it involves police reports of socially egregious and criminal behaviour that formerly was tolerated.

It leaves us only to reflect whether the gratingly new usage is actually not less contentious than the old, although less useful - what is wrong with 'past'?

Saturday, 24 August 2013


'Jaron Larnier, the author and inventor of the concept of virtual reality, warned that digital infrastructure was moving beyond human control. He said: "When you try to achieve great scale with automation and the automation exceeds the boundaries of human oversight, there is going to be failure. That goes for governments, for consumer companies, for Google, or a big insurance company. It is infuriating because it is driven by unreasonable greed. In many cases, the systems that tend to fail, fail because of an attempt to make them run automatically with a minimal amount of human oversight."

'"We don't yet have a design for society that can run this technology well. We haven't figured out what the right human roles should be."'

"Don't I know your face?"

It seems there is a role for humans still, pending the development of facial recognition computer technology. (Isn't Apple's next phone expected to turn on when it recognises its owner's face looking at it?) But meanwhile, just as those 'analysts' sit at their desks in the NSA and GCHQ, the Metropolitan Police has humans watching us from afar.

'More than a million people are expected to descend on the Notting Hill carnival this weekend – but watching overhead will be a team of police "super recognisers" who have been selected for their ability to spot known offenders among the crowds.
'But as the two days of celebrations get under way along the carnival route, 17 specialist officers will be holed up in a central control room several miles away in Earls Court monitoring live footage in an attempt to identify known offenders.
'Chief superintendent Mick Johnson from the Metropolitan police said it was the first time the "recognisers" – who have been selected for their ability to remember hundreds of offenders' faces – have been used to monitor a live event.
'"This type of proactive operation is the first one we have done in earnest in real time so we are going to be looking at it very closely to see how effective it is and what we get out of it," he said.
'The Met has 180 so-called super recognisers – most of whom came to the fore in the aftermath of the London riots when they managed to identify more than a quarter of the suspects who were caught on CCTV footage.
'The officers will have access to 80 cameras that can zoom in to track suspects as well as roving police camera teams. The aim is to spot known offenders or potential flashpoints and direct officers on the ground to prevent crimes being committed.
'One of the super recognisers on duty will be Patrick O'Riordan, who says he has had an ability to pick people out in a crowd and recall faces since he joined the Met 11 years ago.'

Friday, 2 August 2013

Only collect

As the latest installment in the revelations of western governments' ability to strip mine our private lives hits the news-stands (never mind, it will all be ploughed in and grassed over in 1 month / 3 months / 6 months / 5 years) the furniture designer-makers discussion forum is once again asking whether social media, Facebook, Twitter, Printerest and their like, are a good thing for us to be exploiting professionally (or is it commercially?). Can they make us rich and famous, when all else has failed?

Beyond a strand of reluctance to get involved and a sense of scepticism, the general feeling seems to be that if it is there and it's free - and it's new - one ought to use it. It used to be said it's not what you know that counts, but who you know. Now, apparently, it's how many you know. 'Counting' is no longer analogue - it's all become digital.

Though the saviour of one's soul may log onto one's social media page, it all seems part of the spread of largely redundant and superficial connectedness that now increasingly defines our society. The trouble is, it needs a National Security Agency to make sense of it.

Nobody on our forum seems to make the connection. I don't mean that if we put up our latest creations on Facebook we should fear a visit from men with baseball caps and name tags: just that from time to time one has to take a look at one's inner being.

Incidentally, I wonder if others have been struck as I have by the contrasting appearance of Bradley Manning, done up to the nines, almost like a Ruritanian general if not quite up to North Korean standards, and the butch and scruffy sub-fusc of his minders - no medals for them - who look like something from the mafia or from Blackwater. Perhaps they are. There is a learned article to be written on the semiotics here, but the essential message is that Bradley Manning has subverted the full panoply of the American state, with which he was trusted, but the government has Bruce Willis on the case and all will be well. An even larger treatise might be written, considering how it is that the United States population can buy into wholesale the evil characterisation of its government agencies depicted in such movies as The Bourne Inheritance and yet still side with the real-life versions of the bad guys. Perhaps it's all down to the skills of central casting - or perhaps things are changing.

Of course the NSA and its likes know that counting is, like taxes, for little people. We may watch anxiously the numbers of our visits or supporters or followers, but they, heck, want it all. They know that after the collecting comes the connecting. As one of them said, how can we connect the dots if we don't have the dots? In other words, how can we explain (to the judge or whomever) why we want it before we have it? 

Unfortunately their idea of connection is little more sophisticated than the way in which the caveman's club connected with the woolly mammoth. So, pacĂ© our good and reassuring Malcolm Rifkind, although we indeed should not fear that the analysts are listening in to our fireside chats with our grannies, we should fear that if we innocently acquired enough dots, or spots, like that poor Algerian airline pilot who shared some unfortunate spots just after the demolition of the twin towers and was held for months in high security without there being any actual evidence against him, someone will be connecting for us. 

He added: "If you had the impression we are reading millions of emails, we are not. There is no intention in this whole programme to use it for looking at UK domestic traffic – British people talking to each other." The source said analysts used four criteria for determining what was examined: security, terror, organised crime and Britain's economic wellbeing."The vast majority of the data is discarded without being looked at ... we simply don't have the resources."