the only real divide

I’m not sure why, but I’ve been thinking lately about conservatives and progressives, and the problems of our current climate of political debate, heightened exponentially by cable news pundits in the USA. I have a trip to Saskatoon coming up, and I was thinking of contacting a few Sask bloggers, and Small Dead Animals comes pretty high in the search. It’s well-known right-leaning mostly-political blog from a woman in Saskatchewan, and a couple of the posts I read were … well they really turned me off. They seemed so pointlessly hostile to the “left.” And I landed on a couple of other Sask blogs, and had the same reaction (later I found some more comfortably lefty-like Sask blogs).

And yet much of the stuff on the lefty blogs is the same sort of thing (here too, probably): juvenile name-calling etc. But it steams us when we disagree; when we agree, it’s usually pretty funny stuff.

And further, I betcha if I met Kate of SDA, we’d probably get along fine, even if I don’t like her politics, and she doesn’t like mine, she’d probably not an idiot* (see below), and we’d probably have a fine discussion about healthcare or terrorism without wanting to punch each other.

We have some friends, Bruce and Michelle. Bruce is about as far at the other end of the spectrum of my political beliefs as you can get – and every time I read his political blog posts, I get all red-eared. Yet when we meet, and even when we talk about politics, I realize how close we are about our various frustrations with the state of the universe. We just have different explanations, often, for why things are messed up (I blame evil corporations; he blames corrupt governments; I blame the Conservatives, he blames the Liberals … we’re both right and we’re both wrong).

And I’ll bet you that most of us, lefties and righties – the non-idiots, at least – want more or less the same thing: a healthy country/planet, where we can leave things better for our kids, and where everyone gets a fair shot at having a decent life, where the rivers run clean and everyone’s got a job that lets them get the stuff they need; where the chances of getting killed by SARS or cancer or car crashes or corrupt police or terrorists or nuclear explosions are minimized.

On just about any issue (health care, security, environment etc), most non-idiot lefties and righties want the same sorts of outcomes.

And the real problem is not so much that we all want different things for the planet, but rather that we have some fundamental disagreements about how to get there, and what sort of impacts the different decisions about our course of action will have. Which are, sort of, testable differences: that is, some of them work and some of them don’t, and over time reasonable people should be able to look at policies, and outcomes, and decide based on the outcomes (rather than the philosophies behind them) whether they’re good or not.

Oh, one other thing I find strange about the political left-right split is that a belief about one subject is often directly correlated to a belief about another totally unrelated subject, eg. War on Terrorism, and Climate Change … and the other strange thing about those two threats in particular is that both sides use the same logic to argue one, and discount the other: climate change is a significant risk, therefore we must do extraordinary things to protect ourselves; terrorism is a significant risk, therefore we must do extraordinary things to protect ourselves. Yet no one on the right *wants* climate disaster, they just don’t believe we can or ought to do what’s being proposed; and no one on the left *wants* the “terrorists to win,” they just don’t believe what we are doing is the right strategy to deal with the threat.

Anyway, I think there are a couple of big problems: righties and lefties don’t talk much together about what they do want for the world, and the reasons they think actions A are better than actions B to get there. And further, the discussion between left and right is mediated – more in the US than here, but here too – by people who *are* idiots, and are paid to be idiots, because that makes people mad, and that sells advertising.

*All this brought to you by a quote from Marjane Satrapi (via Matt):

‘The only real divide in this world is between the idiots and non-idiots.’


Categories: politics, web

spying an the net

Interesting story about bin Laden, the net, and a bungle.

Apparently, a private US security company, SITE Intelligence Group, breached Al-Qaeda’s internet system a couple of years ago. And in September they intercepted that video of bin Laden (before it was public)…and passed it along to US intelligence services, with the warning: don’t make it public till the video comes out, or the breach will be found.

But the video was leaked to press, and George Bush was talking it up in speeches. Perhaps coincidentally, General David Petraeus was about to give testimony to Congress about things were going in Iraq (“well,” he reported).

Al-Qaeda apparently shut down the breached internet channels immediately afterwards, realizing that there were security holes in their system.

From the New York Sun:

But the disclosure from ABC and later other news organizations tipped off Qaeda’s internal security division that the organization’s Internet communications system, known among American intelligence analysts as Obelisk, was compromised. This network of Web sites serves not only as the distribution system for the videos produced by Al Qaeda’s production company, As-Sahab, but also as the equivalent of a corporate intranet, dealing with such mundane matters as expense reporting and clerical memos to mid- and lower-level Qaeda operatives throughout the world.

While intranets are usually based on servers in a discrete physical location, Obelisk is a series of sites all over the Web, often with fake names, in some cases sites that are not even known by their proprietors to have been hacked by Al Qaeda.

One intelligence officer who requested anonymity said in an interview last week that the intelligence community watched in real time the shutdown of the Obelisk system. America’s Obelisk watchers even saw the order to shut down the system delivered from Qaeda’s internal security to a team of technical workers in Malaysia. That was the last internal message America’s intelligence community saw. “We saw the whole thing shut down because of this leak,” the official said. “We lost an important keyhole into the enemy.”

See details: washington post,, New York Sun.

Categories: data, politics

can the government just give it away?

[cross-posted at]

The Guardian UK Tech Section has an ongoing campaign to free UK government data, with an associated blog:

Their campaign inspired a response from the Ordnance Survey titled:
These maps cost us £110m. We can’t give them away for free
. The response argues that the maps cost money, that the OS needs money to operate, and that by charging for the maps they can continue to provide a valuable service. Among other things:

It cost Ordnance Survey £110m to collect, maintain and supply our data last year, but we are not “paid for by taxes”, as the campaign often claims. Instead, we depend entirely on receipts from licensing and direct sales to customers for our income – we receive no tax funding at all.

If we are successful, we can cover our costs, encourage widespread licensing through partners, and stay focused on providing value for users. Under licence, there are many examples where our data is free at the point of use. This does not mean there is zero cost.

[Interesting to note that the OS’s clients, much like statscan clients, are “users,” not citizens].

The Free Our Data people responded to response in their blog, noting the key reason for their campaign:

We believe [making OS data and maps free] would set off an explosion in private-sector use of the data, and lead to more companies which would create more jobs and generate more taxes. That would offset any extra taxation required to fund OS. Making the data free would also get rid of onerous and inefficient licensing schemes that tangle up central and local government departments, which wonder if they can reuse something or even display it on the web. (Search this blog for NEPHO.)

And that was followed by further response from Tom Steinberg and Ed Mayo, the authors of the Power of Information, who say:

The key issue about charging is whether the UK would benefit more in net terms from the more vibrant information market that more open information would bring than it would lose through having to find an additional £60m per year. This is a serious question that the Treasury is currently looking into, having accepted the recommendation in the independent review we co-authored for the government earlier this year.

[link to complete letter].

Which garnered some further feedback from the Free Our Data.

And in the end this is a compelling case, perhaps the compelling case: a case that ought to convince you whatever your political leanings, right or left or circular. There are moral and social and philosophical reasons to support free government data. But the one that’s most likely to win converts is the case that free data makes for more innovation. The innovation can be commercial, social, socioeconomic – touching on health, environment, planning, equality etc, but also just good old-fashioned economic vitality.

But all of it, we’d argue, will “make Canada a better country” not just morally, but in our ability to solve important problems, and, yes, make some people more money in the mean time. Which means, in the end, more tax receipts, which means that it should offset any lost revenues Statscan and other Canadian agencies now receive for excluding all but big companies and institutions from their datasets.