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TM, ®, Copyright © 2015 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.


Articles on the USA published after 2014
The Sony hack and the case against North Korea
Of heroes and thugs: African-Americans and cops
Democracy in 2014
Of museums and philanthropists
Condoleezza Rice and Eric Schmidt at Stanford
Why Snowden and the Target hackers are important for society
Articles on the USA published before 2014


  • (december 2014) The Sony hack and the case against North Korea.
    This might turn out to be the most embarrassing blunder of the FBI in recent memory. Hackers threatened Sony after breaking into its databases and stealing 100 terabytes of private information (first admitted by Sony on December 1). A movie titled "The Interview" was deemed to be the reason for the attack, and that is a movie about the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. The hackers dumped onto public domain the data that they had stolen (a fact which greatly embarrassed Sony) and then threatened to sabotage the movie theaters that dared to show that movie. Sony canceled the release of the movie citing concerns over the safety of the public. The FBI concluded (on December 19) that it was a cyber-attack by North Korea. The president of the USA in person agreed and promised retaliation. The only problem with this story is that nothing of what has been presented as "evidence" makes sense.
    First of all, the timeline: the hackers asked for money (November 21), they didn't mention the movie. It was simply a case of extortion. They asked Sony to pay else they would dump private data into the public domain. It was the media that started gossiping about the movie "The Interview" and pointing at possible connections between the blackmail and the movie about to be released. Then the hackers too started mentioning the movie as the reason for their threats. But to me it looks like the hackers were studying the media as much as the media were studying the hackers.
    Secondly, the motive sounds bizarre. If North Korea really did it in retaliation for what it viewed as negative publicity, why pick Sony instead of the New York Times or CNN? Without all this publicity, very few people would have seen "The Interview", whereas millions of people read the main newspapers and watch the main television news programs, where a lot more damaging discussions are held on North Korea's dictatorship. Note that North Korea, a country that routinely boasts of its most ridiculous deeds, denied any involvement: it would be the first time that North Korea attacks a country and, instead of boasting about it, tries to hide.
    Thirdly, it also appears that the malware unleashed by the hackers was not trying to discover the names/addresses of Sony computers and the corresponding passwords: those were hard-coded into the malware, i.e. they were known by the hackers even before starting the hacking. It seems natural to conclude that the hackers had previously access to these passwords or could benefit from the help of someone inside Sony. Sure, it could be North Korean agents; but by the same token it could be just about everybody else.
    Fourthly, the hackers' online messages were written in broken English, but Korean speakers immediately sensed that the mistakes were not typical of Korean speakers: they were typical of someone trying to impersonate a Korean speaker. (Later, linguists at Taia Global Institute determined that those mistakes were more typical of a Russian speaker).
    Last but not least, those of us who are in the music business are well aware of how much hatred Sony generated into the younger public when it created software capable of modifying a computer's operating system to prevent compact discs from being copied. Since then (2005) Sony has been repeatedly victim of malware, most famously in 2011 when the hacking group Anonymous launched a coordinated attack stealing the personal information of 77 million customers. Among the suspects one would normally include George Hotz, a legendary hacker who was sued by Sony in 2011 for breaching the security of the PlayStation 3 (except that now Hotz works for Google).
    As for the tools and paths used by the hackers, there doesn't seem to be anything that, alas, other malware has not used before. Anybody with an Internet connection and basic hacking skills could create the same malware. As far as malware goes, this was not particularly creative. But not anybody could have used that malware against Sony... unless they knew those passwords beforehand. The FBI points at a record of North Korean hackers striking South Korea, but that record basically consists of two cases (August 2012 and June 2013), both of which are doubted by many experts. The FBI argues that the same IP addresses were detected this time, but, even if those two previous attacks were indeed work of North Korean hackers, this is not proof, and, in fact, it would be really stupid of North Korea to use the same IP.
    I am sure that the FBI employed the best software experts available to the government, but after the colossal blunder of Obamacare (that took months to work properly) the credibility of software engineers picked by the government is not very high.
    It is a golden rule of detectives worldwide to ask "Cui prodest?" Who benefits from all of this? First of all, Sony: that movie is certainly going to be a hit and Sony is off the hook for so many private data having been dumped into public domain ("hey we are the victims of state terrorism"). Secondly, right-wing hawks who want to escalate tensions with North Korea.
    Even if you believe in the official government story (that North Korea is behind this case of hacking), imagine for a second that the government is wrong and North Korea has been unfairly accused of a crime committed by someone else. North Korea has demanded an apology from Barack Obama. What will he do if it turns out that North Korea was indeed innocent? And what will the damage to the reputation of the USA be? Remember the "proof" that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction? People will start seriously doubting even the evidence against Osama bin Laden.
    TM, ®, Copyright © 2014 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • (december 2014) Of heroes and thugs: African-American males and white cops.
    White police officers who kill young unarmed black men are making news all over the USA:
    July 17: a New York officer accidentally killed 34-year-old Eric Garner, who was resisting arrest after being caught selling cigarettes illegally.
    August 9: a St Louis officer killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, who had just robbed a store and was threatening the officer.
    November 22: a Cleveland officer killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was brandishing a toy gun at the officer.
    One could add the February 2012 killing in Florida of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by self-appointed vigilante George Zimmerman.
    I think these cases are different in many respects. One thing they have in common is that politically correctedness does not help see the facts clearly. So let's be politically incorrect and tell the facts as the outside world sees them.
    First of all, there are way too many guns in the USA. This is a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world. Guns kill. People with guns kill. Cops have a right to fight for their survival in a society in which anybody can get killed for the silliest of reasons, let alone a police officer patroling a dangerous neighborhood. Cops overreact because this is a society that overreacts. Cops know that there are 140 million guns out there, some of them semiautomatic, courtesy of the largest terrorist organization in the world, the National Rifle Association (NRA), which de facto masterminds the scientific extermination of the US population in order to make the gun industry prosper. (See, for example, Congratulations NRA: another successful massacre!). If there weren't so many guns, police officers would not be so eager to use extreme violence. Knowing that your chances of returning home alive in the evening are not very high makes you more likely to shoot first. If a cop knew that the chances of returning home alive are as high as, say, in Germany or Japan, that cop would be much less likely to shoot first, or to shoot at all. Confiscate all guns and some problems would disappear overnight.
    This article could end here. This is not a story about race, it is a story about guns. The reason why police officers use such lethal weapons is that criminals use them. The reason why criminals have them is that the National Rifle Association (NRA) bribes politicians into passing laws that make lethal weapons easily available. If Al Qaeda had the same influence on Congress that the NRA has, suicide bombing would be legal too, and we would be discussing why there are so many suicide bombings in the USA.
    That said, anybody who has lived in multiple countries or who has traveled around the world knows that the police in the USA tend to behave like the Nazi guards. The response by cops to trivial offenses, or simple mistakes, is often wildly disproportionate. I was stopped in Palo Alto (14 July 2012) because i had installed my new car's plate upside down: the cop blocked traffic on the city's main avenue for 20 minutes to write me a ticket for this heinous crime, despite the fact that i still had the screwdriver in the car and i was more than willing to fix the problem on the spot, which would have taken a lot less than 20 minutes (the cop did not allow me to get out of the car at all). And that's just my favorite example of arrogant and disproportionate (idiotic?) behavior by police officers that i have personally witnessed in the USA. Police cars have the motto "To serve and protect" painted on them but it would be more appropriate to change it to "To enforce rules and regulations without any regard for common sense and humanity".
    Then there's the media. What these episodes have in common is that the media were rooting for riots. None of these cases would have become national without the obsessive coverage of the media, in particular television. TV channels competed for broadcasting debates (mostly biased), opinions (mostly by non-experts), testimonies (mostly by unreliable witnesses) and live images (mostly blown out of proportion). Each tv studio was clearly eager to show a riot. There were massive peaceful protests in Ferguson that were hardly shown on tv, while a violent incident involving no more than ten people was shown over and over again. CNN showed a protest in Chicago for several minutes before the reporter admitted that there were only about 100 people protesting there (100 out of a population of 10 million, which means 0.00001% of Chicagoans). The effect of this kind of blood-thirsty coverage is to encourage more blood. The television networks wanted riots in order to increase their audience, and pretty much caused them. By watching the events unfolding in Ferguson one could begin to understand how Al Jazeera indirectly rallied terrorists in Iraq to fight against the USA. The rioters soon become heroes as television keeps showing their epic acts. Others, who would have normally played videogames or listened to a pop hit, decide that the "cool" thing to do is to join the riot. Before you know it, live television has created the very riot that it was eager to cover.
    On to the specifics. Michael Brown was a thug. He had committed a serious crime and was resisting arrest by a police officer. The police officer did what any police officer anywhere in the world would have done. De facto, Michael Brown committed suicide. His parents and his friends should feel ashamed and try to prevent that others become like him.
    Zimmerman may have been a racist maniac who was desperately looking for a chance to hurt or at least capture a black man, but he was heavily conditioned by the fact that young black men had committed a series of crimes in the neighborhood (and Trayvon Martin, like many black teenagers, might have indeed wanted to look suspicious like rap stars do). Zimmerman is as guilty of that murder as all the young black men who committed robberies in that neighborhood and created the tension that led to that deadly encounter (and as guilty as the NRA that arms both vigilantes and criminals).
    Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun. There are all sorts of toys and one has to wonder why kids in the USA enjoy toy guns over other toys (and violent videogames over all other videogames). Had he been playing with a soccer ball like most kids of this planet, he would still be alive today. Furthermore, someone had removed the orange warning tip that would have helped the cop determine this was a toy, not a real gun. If the cop honestly felt that this was a young black man (as politically incorrect as it sounds, this is the most violent category of people in the USA) aiming a gun at him, the cop can hardly be blamed for shooting first. Again, blame it on the wide availability of guns and on all the young black men who have committed murders in that neighborhood.
    Finally, Garner was not shot but was accidentally killed while a cop was trying to arrest him. The police officer had no way of knowing that Garner had asthma. The cop's defense is that Garner was arguing and resisting. In this case what stands out is the disproportionate reaction by the police to a very minor crime that resulted in an altercation. If i was furious when the Palo Alto police officer cited me for installing a car plate upside down, i can easily imagine how furious this man was: he was not selling drugs, and was not robbing a bank, and was not a suicide bomber; he was merely trying to make a little money by selling cigarettes to passerbys. I would have argued vehemently just like he did. In a country in which people who sell guns, a much more dangerous item, are considered good citizens, and in which millions of citizens sell all sorts of articles on the Internet, it is difficult to conceive why it was necessary to arrest someone for selling cigarettes.
    Therefore these case are different. What they certainly have in common is the color of the skin of the victim: black. Hence the national debate on whether police officers are too quick to pull a gun at a black person. That debate has always been a bit unfair to women. The victims are young black males, not females. Neither cops nor neighbors feel threatened by young black females. Statistics don't show young black females committing violent crimes in unusual numbers. In 2014 adult black women (age 25-54) who are not in jail outnumber black men in the same age group by 1.5 million. This is very much about the (young, urban) black male, not the black person in general. There is a racial divide, but there is a much bigger gender divide. In 2013 blacks committed 5,375 murders while whites committed 4,396 murders (and, given that there are a lot more white people than black people in the USA, this statistic should speak volumes to the black community), but about 90% of these murders were committed by males. If we have to draw a lesson from the fact that blacks are seven times more likely to kill than whites, shouldn't we also draw a conclusion from the fact that men are nine times more likely to kill than women? When was the last time that an unarmed woman (black or white) was killed by a cop? Why is it that it never happens to women? When was the last time that a girl committed a mass murder in a high school?

    So the main story should be that too many males in the USA tend to be violent and love guns and think that looking scary is cool. A corollary to that story would be that the same males are behind the staggering success by the NRA to make guns available to just about everybody; and another corollary would be that police officers (mostly male) tend to be as arrogant and threatening as the criminals they are supposed to fight. Then a secondary story should be that black men are more likely to be violent than white men. And then it gets easier to explain why a police force that is trained to overreact will end up killing more unarmed black men than unarmed white men.
    Being politically correct will not solve the problem. Each of us (regardless of skin color) has the same reaction when meeting a group of young black males in a narrow alley at night. That is a wildly different reaction than when meeting a group of, say, young Indians. The Indians are most likely software engineers who never committed a crime and have a high credit score. Too many young black men like to look intimidating and indulge in intimidating others instead of focusing on getting a degree in computer science and saving money. Not all of these young black males are criminals, but the attitude of "looking" like a criminal is widespread. This is not to say that black men "want it on themselves" but black communities should certainly meditate on why a minority that has lived free in this country for decades cannot achieve the same salary and credit score of minorities that just arrived. The outcry about white police brutality against young black men happens just when the country is debating what to do with millions of illegal immigrants: how is it that tens of millions of Hispanics crossed the border illegally, settled in very poor neighborhoods (sometimes the same neighborhoods of poor black families), accepted the humblest jobs and are now making a decent living while unemployment among their neighboring blacks (US citizens, born and raised here) is consistently twice the national rate? (This doesn't mean that i completely disagree with Ta-Nehisi Coates's article in the Atlantic, but i doubt that reparations would solve the problem of the black male youth).
    The people who rioted in Ferguson don't deserve much of an explanation. Those are thugs, or friends of thugs, who would like immunity from being arrested when they rob a store. There are many more blacks in that same neighborhood who appreciate the fact that the police protect them precisely from those rioters.
    The protesters who demand that police be fair to the 5% of the US population that is black and male are absolutely right: that 5% deserves the same treatment as everybody else. But those protesters should also march in the streets demanding that the other 95% be allowed to live without having to fear the attitude of so many black males. It is easy to protest against government, politicians and police; a lot harder to protest against the attitude of the males of an ethnic group.
    More importantly, those protesters should attack the real culprit: a society that relies on guns to the extent that everybody is ready to shoot at the slightest sign of danger, and shoot with deadly weapons. It is not only police officers who kill innocents: plenty of ordinary Zimmermans kill innocents too. If US criminals (white or black) did not have more guns than the Iraqi militias, ordinary citizens wouldn't feel terrorized and cops (and everybody else) would be less likely to overreact.
    And, while we are at it, let me briefly rant against another facet of political correctedness: the term "African-American". Only in the USA can one think that the term "African-American" is politically correct. My friend Gerard, a white man from South Africa who relocated to Pennsylvania, is an African-American. My friend Hassan, a Moroccan who relocated to California, is an African-American. The white Zimbabwean businessman whom i met in Argentina and the black Angolan student whom i met in Brazil are African-Americans. But that is not what US citizens mean when they say "African-American": they mean a "black person who lives in the USA". In fact they call "African-American" even people from Haiti, Britain and France, as long as their skin is black. Most US citizens (particularly the self-appointed African-American ones) think of Africa as being only sub-Saharan Africa, and of America as being only the USA. And they do not consider white people born in Africa as "African". In other words, when they say "African" they really mean a "person with a black skin", and when they say "American" they really mean a "US citizen"; neither of which sounds politically correct to me. It is emblematic of how twisted the whole discussion about the black minority has become.
    Having a public discussion about the unfair treatment of young black males by white police officers does not make much sense without 1. a public discussion on a heavily-armed society that absolves and rewards violence; 2. a public discussion on the subculture of the tough young black urban male, and 3. a public discussion on how media create heroes and villains for the main purpose of increasing their ratings.
    TM, ®, Copyright © 2014 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • (november 2014) Democracy in 2014. The Republicans have staged a resounding victory in US parliamentary elections, but it doesn't take a political expert to figure out that something weird is at work. Liberal causes such as marijuana liberalization, abortion minimum-salary increase and gun control won just about everywhere they were on the ballot, and polls show that a majority believes in human-made climate change and demands action. More people identify with the Democratic Party than with the Republican Party on just about every major social issue. Last but not least, gerrymandering is the reason that the Republican victory looks like a landslide: they actually only got 52% of the popular vote (and in 2012 the Republicans won the House even though the Democrats won more votes). Hence, the USA is an increasingly liberal (not conservative) nation. The Republican victory is an accident of circumstances, and it probably has more to do with the very polarization of politics of which Republicans themselves are guilty than with the much publicized low popularity of the (Democratic) president.

    Several factors are contributing to polarize politics in the USA. Gerrymandering (redrawing voting districts so that one party is clearly predominant) is probably the single most relevant one. The Economist estimates that only 5% of the 435 districts were truly competitive: the other 95% were already decided before election day because one of the two parties generally wins with a large margin in them. Winning a primary has become more difficult than winning the election, because the candidate of the prevalent party is almost guaranteed to win the election in most districts: the real challenge is to win the nomination of the party, i.e. how to beat the other hopefuls from the same party in the party's primary. And that is typically achieved by boasting one's purist credentials, as in "i have never compromised in my life and never will". Candidates who change their mind on an important issue are branded "flip-floppers" and candidates who change party are traitors, guaranteed to be distrusted by both sides. Not a recipe for electing constructive politicians. Because of gerrymandering, the 20% of voters (that's the average) that votes in the primaries of those gerrymandered districts ends up choosing the winner, and the other 80% de facto performs a fairly useless ritual: voting in a district where the winner has already been chosen.

    Then there is money. Elections have become expensive. Virtually nobody can get reelected without spending huge sums on advertising and campaigning.

    The problem has been further exacerbated by the senseless 2010 decision of the Supreme Court that corporations are persons, entitled to spend unlimited money to influence elections. There is probably no other country in the world where money is so important to determine the outcome of a parliamentary election. Inevitably, House representatives (who are up for reelection every two years) end up spending most of their time in Washington raising funds for their own reelection. Their full-time job is getting reelected, and in their spare time they also legislate.

    The Supreme Court also voted to eliminate limits to contributions by individuals to political campaigns, or, in other words, to make it legal for rich people to buy elections. At a time when the wealth gap has reached an all-time peak, it means that the few with the most money will have a much greater influence on the way the country is run than the many with little or no money. It is hard not to see a political conspiracy behind these decisions that tend to favor the Republican Party. Demographics and ideology point at an inevitable decline of that party (young people, women and minorities tend to vote Democratic). The Republican Party is being rescued by is the huge amount of money that rich individuals and corporations can pour into elections. (It may not be a coincidence that the party that was less outraged by those Supreme Court decisions is also the party that won this election).

    On top of this congenital problem, there is another one, created by the sophisticated science of marketing of this century. Studies have shown that voters "say" that they dislike negative advertising but in practice they vote accordingly: negative advertising works wonders. Therefore an incredible amount of money is spent on insulting political rivals and only a tiny fraction is spent on actually proposing solutions to problems. A politician who offers a solution to a problem will get votes only from a tiny fraction of the electorate, while a politician who demolishes the reputation of the opponents will get an avalanche of votes. That also explains an odd statistic: 42% of voters said that they voted for a Senate candidate simply because they hated the other contenders. Negative advertising works wonders.

    The result is not only a polarized Congress in which it is very difficult to get anything done; it is also a strong motivation for the members of Congress not to change that situation. To get things done, you need to compromise with the other side; but, if you do, you will lose the next primary in your district to a member of your own party who will accuse you of selling out to the enemy.

    The motivation is exactly in the opposite direction: sabotage anything that the other party wants to do, so that they will not be able to take credit for it. Hence, Republicans shut down the federal government to sabotage the implementation of the president's policies. Hence, Republican governors are preventing their own constituencies from getting health insurance through a national program called Medicaid that is a Democratic invention.

    The results are kind of funny: the voters basically voted for the party that embodies and embraces the very policies that voters dislike. For example, polls show that more than 70% of US citizens are opposed to sending troops to Syria or Iraq; but the Republican Party would do just that. People are angry because their income is stagnating while the stock market is booming: which party is most responsible for income inequality? People are tired of getting involved in the Middle East, and having to pay huge bills for it: which party is closer to Israel and more likely to get dragged into a war simply because of Israel? The Republican party endorses all the ideas that created the Great Recession: deregulation of the financial world, increase in military spending, etc. The wage stagnation that truly characterizes the struggle of the middle class started when the Republican Party was in power, in 2001. The widening inequality of our times is mostly defended by Republicans, who routinely accuse of "class warfare" anyone trying to rectify the problem. People are opposed to overspending by the government, but the Republicans have created the biggest deficits because of their increases in an already colossal defense budget. At the same time Republicans specialize in cutting taxes for the rich and for the big corporations, which further exacerbates the government's deficit and leaves the middle class to pay for those tax cuts. And the Republican Party is opposed to most of the liberal ideas (like marijuana liberalization, minimum-salary increase and gun control) that won in the very states where the liberal politicians were defeated The system is such that the voters end up voting for their enemy. (I have no particular sympathy for the Democratic Party and would write the same if the roles were inverted).

    The popular mood in the USA is negative. Polls show that most families, especially in the conservative Midwest and South, are struggling to pay their bills, and are generally pessimistic about their future. They perceive the government as not doing anything to help them. However, they fail to notice that there are places (notably the Bay Area and the Boston area) where people are not complaining at all. A newly hired college graduate at Silicon Valley's most fashionable companies frequently gets a salary of $100,000 (plus a "signing" bonus), which is about three times what a senior employee makes in the Midwest or in the South, as well as much better benefits. In other words, most of the country is failing to understand that the problem is not the government, but them: they are in the wrong business, a business that does not generate highly-paid jobs and may soon not generate jobs at all. In a democracy, this risks becoming a vicious loop: they vote the politicians who promise to help their business alive, an impossible feat, and vote against the politicians who might be able to bring the new emerging kind of business that would generate highly-paid jobs. These voters are simply digging their own graves, but the logic of democracy won't stop them from doing so. There is nothing the government can (or should) do to help these workers, short of shutting down the capitalist system and free trade. In today's world it is not you who decides what the world needs, it is the world that decides what you should make. In too many places of the USA people are engaged in activities that are rapidly becoming obsolete (or easy enough that anyone in the world can do them for half the salary).

    This is a system designed to exploit human nature in order to get people to vote for the system to remain what it is regardless of what the people would like. This self-perpetuating system represents the pinnacle of an amoral administration of power and of a scientific study of human nature. Trying to change human nature is pointless. Voters won't change. Under the existing rules, they will keep rewarding the very politicians who create the dysfunctional system that voters hate. Unless the system changes, that system will keep perpetuating itself. That system is a work of (marketing and psychological) genius.

    Politicians, of course, have no motivation to change the rules either: why risk losing their job? If the country falls apart, it is not their problem, as long as they keep their job. There is nothing in the constitution that makes it "their" problem if they cause the country to fall apart. In theory, the punishment should come from the voters, but the system has been twisted to make sure that the opposite happens. Therefore, politicians have no motivation to do the job for which they have been elected. They are more likely to be reelected if they obstruct than is they construct. In fact, soon after the elections, the right-wing National Review published an article urging Republicans not to govern.

    Let's make it their problem. I once joked that there is a simple and very effective way to make it "their" problem. Every sunday we poll the public. If the approval rating of Congress is below 50%, one member of Congress, chosen randomly, gets executed. Under such a rule the most coward members of the US Congress would simply resign (good riddance), and the others would find overnight the motivation to compromise with the other party and pass legislation that solves problems. Bickering would literally mean risking your life. I am opposed to the death penalty, so i am not serious about this specific scheme, but hopefully you get the point: the only way to motivate Congress to do their job is to make it "their" problem. Others have proposed that members of Congress get paid a salary that is proportional to their accomplishments (a salary that would be zero these days). The problem with this alternative is that members of Congress may be getting more money, indirectly, from lobbies than from their salary.

    The other way to reform the system is to ignore it. That is, in practice, what young people are doing. They have little interest in politics. They can easily see that things can done only when the process bypasses the professional politicians. A good example is precisely all those issues (marijuana liberalization, gay marriage, gun control, etc) that popular referendums took away from politicians. The voters got the job done that politicians were only bickering about. Another example is Wendy Kopp, whose Teach for America (started in a dorm room in 1989) has done more for education equality in its 25 years than the US Congress in 100 (the US Congress is actually responsible for the opposite trend). Young people increasingly view Bill Gates and other philanthropists as the ones who truly enact change in the world. Even a selfish monomaniac businessman like Steve Jobs did a lot more to improve the life of ordinary people than the US Congress did.

    Barring a revolution that will change the system in a bloody manner, what the USA needs is more ideas on how to bypass the system and get things done.

    Last but not least, there is obviously something wrong with a system that in 2014 produces a US Congress that is 81% male.

    TM, ®, Copyright © 2014 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • (april 2014) Of museums and philanthropists.
    Dear Mostafa Heddaya,

    I read your blog Hyperallergic and sometimes tweet links to the best articles. Don't take me as an enemy! I belatedly read your scathing criticism of Bill Gates' statement on museums ("why anyone would donate money to build a new wing for a museum rather than spend it on preventing illnesses that can lead to blindness"). It is always a bad idea to distort other people's words (if nothing else because you can get sued). Bill Gates never said that "spending on cultural objects is an affront to the dispossessed". In fact, i think he said the opposite (and, unlike others, he put his money where his mouth is: he donated a lot of money to cultural organizations, including the largest museum in the USA). What he said in that interview is that donating money to a museum to build a new wing might be immoral. And he made no claims to be a saint himself, as far as i know, any time in his life. You are basically trying to discredit him as a human being in order to discredit that one statement that you don't like. This is an old nazist and communist tactic, frequently used in today's polarized US politics. You are learning from our worst politicians.
    Let's focus on his real comment: that we should make sure nobody goes blind before we expand museums for people to see them. I am a strong opponent of museums: the most famous of them are simply celebrations of imperial loot, and most of them are monstruosities of space & time displacement (an object of art should stay where it was meant to be, not in an artificially conceived building, designed by a highly-paid architect mainly to satisfy the ego of the museum's director). I feel little sympathy for contemporary artists who create art already tailored to be hosted in a museum. Hence i feel little motivation to fund museums to start with. Assuming that museums still make sense in 2014 (not only for the bureaucrats who get a salary to run them), is it really a priority to build a new wing to host even more loot or more auctioned goods? That's what Bill Gates and many others (including me) ask. Does that new wing really contribute to encourage great art, or does it simply bureaucratize art? What exactly is the benefit of amassing art in museums in the age of the Internet, when we could make wonderful online museums with pictures and videos if only those physical museums relaxed their copyrights that run counter to the very mission of a museum? Does that benefit, whichever it might be, truly prevail over the goal of curing, say, one million children who are in danger of going blind? I don't think your piece answered the question with a "yes" or "no".
    I guarantee that, viewed from many countries of the world that live in poverty and whose art and history were looted to create the vast system of Western museums, the answer is quite obvious. You belong to the tiny minority of privileged Western intellectuals who think the life of a distant citizen of the underdeveloped world is not worth the pleasure that you attain when strolling through a museum with your intellectual friends before the cocktail party.
    And, before you answer it, dear Mostafa Heddaya, think that you wouldn't be here today to write polemic articles, comfortably sitting in an armchair, if your government had spent more money on museums than on medical research. Some money had to be spent to make sure you'd survive childhood in order for you to be here today, and that money could have gone to improve a museum in your hometown. Do you approve that the money was, ultimately, spent on you instead than on culture?
    Best, piero scaruffi
    p.s.
    I have visited 100s of museums in my life in more than 100 countries. I am NOT opposed to what is INSIDE the museum. I love art, antiquities, etc. What i don't like is the idea of the museum. To me it is basically a coffin. And sometimes you have to pay in order to enter that coffin. And sometimes you can't even take pictures inside. There are sometimes more rules inside a museum than outside it, which tells not only how much museums contribute to creativity and freedom, but also what kind of education museums are meant to cultivate.

    TM, ®, Copyright © 2014 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • (march 2014) Condoleezza Rice and Eric Schmidt at Stanford.
    Former secretary of state Rice and Google's CEO Schmidt spoke about the digital society at Stanford. Very little came out of their conversation that is not stereotyped slogans but the students asked more provocative questions. When the topic shifted to privacy, Rice admitted that "Amazon knows more about you than the government knows" (she politely said "Amazon" instead of "Google"). Schmidt's line of defense was that a) the government has a monopoly on the use of force; and b) it is in Google's self-interest to care about people's privacy (otherwise people would start using a competitor's product). Neither really holds water because a) these days "force" doesn't necessarily mean "violence" (the fact that my website is banned in China means that one billion people cannot read what i write, which is almost worse than spending a few days in prison like dissidents in Iran routinely are, and the biggest damage to my journalistic activities was actually caused by Google when they decreased overnight my page ranking from 5 to 2); and b) the idea that a corporation would never do anything to harm its customers has been proven false by pretty much any corporation that ever existed (and one has to be extremely naive to believe that Google will be the one corporation in history that will never do that).
    Schmidt himself brought up the issue of "bulk data leaking", a phenomenon that became important with Wikileaks and then with the Snowden case (See Why Snowden and the Target hackers are important for society). Schmidt admitted that any corporation or agency that collects data has an incredible responsibility: if its databases are vulnerable, it is very easy for someone to steal not just some data but all of them in a few seconds. He admitted that the question is legitimate: "If not Snowden, then who?" Who would have revealed the vulnerability of the system, and who would have revealed this vast espionage program?

    TM, ®, Copyright © 2014 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • (january 2014) Why Snowden and the Target hackers are important for society.
    Edward Snowden is a young computer engineers who worked for both the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA). In 2013 he decided to steal thousands of top-secret NSA documents and send them to two newspapers, the Guardian in Britain and the Washington Post in the USA. These documents revealed that since 2006 the US government had been systematically engaging in a massive operation of surveillance of both its own citizens and foreign leaders (including some of the USA's closest allies).
    Target is the second largest chain of department stores in the USA after Walmart, and the 36th largest business in the USA (according to the Fortune 500). At the end of 2013 it was the victim of a computer attack by unidentified hackers who stole the personal information of 110 million customers: names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and credit card numbers. For the record, there are about 110 million households in the USA, which means that almost every single household in the USA might be affected.
    Snowden not only revealed the vast NSA surveillance program but, more importantly, made millions of Internet users aware of how easy it is for corporations and governments to intrude in their privacy. The hackers who stole millions of private data belonging to users of the supermarket Target not only made consumers aware of how vulnerable those data are but, more importantly, showed how poor Target's security is, and, hopefully, Target is improving it right now. Both Snowden and the Target hackers are considered criminals by the law, but they provided an invaluable service. Ditto for the hacking group Anonymous, that plans to expose rapists even when the law prohibits it (Deric Lostutter, whose video framed the football team that raped an unconscious teenage girl, is under investigation by the FBI and may spend years in jail while one of the rapists has been released after just ten months in jail). The so called "Obamacare" website was an embarrassing flop. Not only was and still is a complete mess, but nobody trusts that information uploaded there will be kept confidential as it should be. Had hackers been allowed to attack it, the government would have found out right away that it was in terrible shape.
    Snowden is considered a criminal because he violated a law. But once his actions became well known, the vast majority of the public felt that the law was wrong. That exposes another facet of the problem, and perhaps a bigger problem in itself (one that we would not be discussing without Snowden's "criminal" action): the public was never asked to approve this vast surveillance apparatus. The program to spy on every single telephone call made in the USA and on millions of emails was set up under George W Bush and maintained by Barack Obama. It turns out that 15 federal judges were asked for an opinion and they deemed it lawful. It was based on a law passed by Congress called the "Patriot Act". Therefore all three branches of the government of the USA felt that this was an appropriate program. Surprise: once Snowden revealed the program to the general public (thereby becoming a wanted criminal by the USA), everybody seems to have changed their mind. A judge (Richard Leon) found it unconstitutional. Members of Congress screamed hysterically against the NSA. And, last but not least, the president of the USA instructed the NSA to reduce that program. Now that the public is outraged by the massive NSA surveillance program none of the three branches of government is so sure anymore; but that only happened because Snowden revealed the program to the masses. Between 2006 and 2013 the masses were never asked for their opinion on this program: they were treated more like cows to be herded by experienced cowboys than like citizens of a democratic country. We have to be grateful to Snowden, period.
    Civil society does not have a seat at the table, corporations do. For example, Verizon hired enough attorneys to win an important case that means the end of net neutrality, a complete change in the philosophy of the Internet. Citizens can only hope that their government steps in. The real defenders would be hackers that attack Verizon in retaliation for this legal battle, widely perceived as violating the ethical principles of the Internet. However, just the fact that i wrote this sentence makes me vulnerable to a Verizon lawsuit and to years in jail for encouraging hacking Verizon's business.
    If i were a terrorist (a real terrorist, not Verizon's kind of terrorist), and, say, an Islamic terrorist determined to destroy the non-Islamic world, i would come up with a better scheme than blowing up planes: i would hack the computers of Russia and fake a nuclear attack by the USA, thus causing Russia to "retaliate" against such an imaginary attack, thus causing the USA to retaliate against such a real attack. One hacker capable of manipulating that Russian computer could cause a nuclear war. (We do know that manipulating computers in nuclear facilities is feasible because the USA and Israel did just that to Iran with the computer worm "Stuxnet" in 2010). That's how important it is to make sure that our networks are secure. Why not reward (instead of criminalize) any hacker who can penetrate those networks before a (real) terrorist does?
    To anybody who criminalizes Snowden put a simple question: if not Snowden, who? Who would have revealed the vulnerability of the system? and who would have revealed this vast secret program of domestic espionage?
    What we should do is to reward the hackers and whistle blowers that expose the flaws of the Internet world (largely, still an anarchic Far West in which the fastest gun rules) and punish the corporations and government agencies caught unprepared.
    People are surprised when i show contempt for Manning and Assange. Australian journalist Julian Assange set up WikiLeaks in 2006. The website was largely useless until 2010, when a humble soldier, Bradley Manning, provided Assange with thousands of documents about the Afghan War and the Iraqi War. Assange passed them free of charge to three newspapers: the New York Times in the USA, the Guardian in Britain,and Der Spiegel in Germany. By the end of the year WikiLeaks and the newspapers published the so called "Cablegate" documents written by US embassies and consulates in 180 countries between 1966 and 2010. These documents disclosed a lot of embarrassing information, like the US airstrike in the Afghan town of Granai that killed more than 100 civilians and all sorts of nasty gossip about foreign leaders. More importantly, it disclosed secret deals of the USA in the war against terrorism, for example that the USA had a secret agreement with Yemen to launch airstrikes inside Yemen on the condition that those attacks be claimed by the Yemeni government (in one cable dated January 2010 the then Yemeni dictator Saleh is quoted as confirming to a US general "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours"). When the USA found out where the leaks came from, Manning was arrested as a traitor. In July 2013 he was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
    What is different about this story is that WikiLeaks showed no ethical concern. Assange simply dumped hundreds of thousands of secret documents on the world press, indifferent to the fact that he was exposing people who had worked to protect his life and the lives of millions of citizens of the free world. Manning was not unethical but simply a psychological case, a troubled youth who seemed eager of being discovered so as to become some sort of celebrity. Hence i feel no particular sympathy for either of them: they realized the incredible vulnerability of digital information (easy to steal massive amounts of it in a few seconds) and the incredible power of the Internet (easy to disseminate it worldwide in a few seconds) and used it for personal publicity. However, even this story is educational: Manning was nobody. Nonetheless he managed to caused the biggest release of secret information in the history of the world. We all learned a lot from this case: if a nobody can steal hundreds of thousands of secret documents from the world's superpower, imagine what can be done to us. I would not want Assange or Manning to be considered heroes, but their acts did expose a problem and hopefully contributed to solve it. Criminalizing them is only partly right: why nobody criminalized the people responsible for the security of those documents? Those people obviously failed grotesquely in their job. Those are the people in charge of protecting the nation. What if those documents had fallen in the hands of an enemy of the USA instead of being published on the Web? By publishing them on the Web, Assange let secret agents know right away that their identity was compromised and gave them a chance to save their neck. If those documents had fallen in the hands of terrorists or rogue regimes, the secret agents, unaware of it, would have been in far greater danger.
    The problem is not that a psychotic soldier betrayed his country but that the people in charge of protecting that country were so incompetent. Most likely those people had such a superficial understanding of the digital world that they could not envision such a case. Alas, those people might now be in the same situation: they might not fully realize what new technologies can do to their "secrets". The way to find out is to hire the world's greatest "criminal minds": place rewards on hackers who can steal secrets (as long as they publish them immediately worldwide and don't use them secretely for other purposes) and punish the corporations and government agencies that were not capable of protecting those data. If you can't protect them, you shouldn't store them. Just like if you can't drive, you shouldn't have a driving license.
    TM, ®, Copyright © 2014 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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