All posts by martinez.jose1

Reaction to the NSA readings


I will start my reflection by stating outright that I take no position, for or against, on the NSA’s electronic mass surveillance program, nor do I have a personal opinion on the matter. It is a complicated issue, and I do not feel that a few public statements and editorials are enough for me to make an informed decision on the matter.


On one hand, the very idea of an agency of the government monitoring our private communications to assess how threatening we are is so Orwellian, that one’s natural first reaction as a citizen of a democracy is to cringe in horror. The belief that our privacy is a fundamental right, one that should not be so easily curtailed, is so strong that it is written into the constitution “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects… shall not be violated… but upon probable cause…” The fourth amendment is very clear: a reason for a search or seizure must be ascertained before the act itself, and the particulars of the search must well defined. Ignoring all other acts, laws, and legal decisions since 1776, the actions of the NSA are illegal.


However, the original edition of the fourth amendment was written before a time when a criminal or a mentally ill person could, with only a minimum of assistance and resources, do great harm to many people. The constitution was never meant to be a fixed document, slowly becoming obsolete in the face of new technology and new situations. The fact remains that the world has changed, the modern enemies of the modern enemies of the U.S. don’t wear one uniform or fly one flag, and most don’t even take orders from the same place. Decentralized terrorism has made traditional means of intelligence gathering ineffective. We live in a new age, with new tools that have the potential to both threaten and safeguard the security of this nation.


We cannot deny ourselves any weapons in the struggle for security based on words that were never meant to address every situation. But we also cannot just throw away the liberties that we hold so dear, just because we get scared of what might happen otherwise. The U.S. public has to come to a modern conclusion as to how much surveillance is too much, we’ve put it off for thirteen years and now were paying the price.


Setting aside the current debate, there is a fact that should be considered far more often than it is: there is are precedents of this situation in U.S. history. During the civil war, the Union government routed vast portions of the telegraph office through the office of the secretary of war, he had an unprecedented amount of authority to both view what was being sent, as well as stop telegraphs from being delivered.


A point of special importance; every time that a surveillance program is shut down after being deemed too extreme, it has taken a larger public outcry. Lincoln’s telegraph espionage was shut down from within the U.S. government. Shamrock was ended after a public outcry but now before. Today, we are in the aftermath of a major whistleblowing event. (That term is awkward to me as well, but I couldn’t think of a better one) This event has had major internal as well as international repercussions but, as far as we know, no major changes have been made to the NSA’s policy of mass surveillance, not has that initial outrage by the American public manifested itself since. The question can be asked: is the increasing resilience of mass surveillance programs a reflection of the fact that we increasingly live in a world where we need them?

Response to the Chomsky Debate

Chomsky makes an valid point on the limits of statistical modeling and theorizing. Despite centuries of research and work, mankind can only model the smallest of natural processes with any accuracy and is forced to resort to gross simplification when modeling large ones. It is tempting to say that modeling and theorizing are just book-keeping: a way of tying up loose ends after the “real” science is done.

Conversely, traditional experiments, while generally precise, are an inefficient way of discovering new facts when dealing with large systems with many variables. Because of this, statistical models become necessary to narrow down and pinpoint the key factors in a system for closer, experimental, study.

Frankly, rather than pick a side in the modeling vs experimenting debate , I’m inclined to agree with Millikan, who stressed the importance of both theory and observation in the advancement of science. Without observation, theory is impossible, and without theory, observation becomes useless. Arguing about whether experimental research or theory is more important is like debating the relative merits of a car’s engine vs it’s steering column; it’s true that one is flashier and more fun to work on, but without both the vehicle cannot operate.

What must not be forgotten however, is that the field of statistical “Big Data” modelling is improving all the time, indeed the rise of Google and its search engine empire in the past decade lend credence to the idea that we are only scratching the surface of what can be accomplished by this technology. Big Data analysis promises to be a powerful new tool for science, both in the collection of raw data, and in its synthesis.

Response to Information, After the flood

Reading about Wikipedia and the longstanding divide between the “inclusionist” and “deletionist” factions of facebook, I began to think about the role of big data not only in documenting the world, but in creating it.

Some background ; the original conflict was between what concepts were important enough to merit their own Wikipedia page, some believed that Wikipedia should be a place to gather best of mankind’s knowledge to make it available to the world. Other’s believed that Wikipedia should make no judgement over its content, and seek to reflect everything that exists. The example given in the book was a south African restaurant that was deemed worthy of having a Wikipedia page over much opposition.

Now, the noteworthiness of one restaurant doesn’t seem like that much of a big deal, but when big data constructs such as Wikipedia and Facebook play such a large part in life, at what point does Big Data stop reflecting life and life start reflecting Big Data? Most of us are on some form of social media, not only that but our events, and relationships are too, people talk about being “Facebook official” organize their social circles online. In a way, it has become so something is only real if it is confirmed online.

This effect is also extending to a certain degree to business as well, with new businesses living and dying by their online presence. Angie’s list and Yelp are the new yellow pages, and if a company does not appear on them, they might as well not exist. Search engines understand this and have begun to charge extra for higher spots on search results. Some business listings engage in more brazen profiteering, charging companies to remove bad reviews from their online pages. In this way, big data has begun to affect reality instead of the other way around. In essence, “So it is written, so it shall be.”

Weaving the Web

Its always fascinating to read about the origins of technologies we use every day, and when its a technology as ubiquitous as the world wide web, this is even more so. What  made this reading interesting to me is that the development of the internet was not a linear Research and Development project. The internet, from what I gathered in the writing grew organically from its beginnings in CERN and DARPANET. No one company government, or developer is responsible for it.

It was interesting how much of the writing is similar to a philosophical work.  I think that part of this comes from the way the fact that the origins of hypertext were basically an experiment to try to change the way that information and its connections were thought about. The author spoke of abstract connections between ideas and the quest to bring information to the world. These abstract ideas became the internet and the world wide web.

One point that I particularly found interesting was the differentiation made between internal and external links. While it seems that the decision to organize hypertext with two different types of links was made to save space, it had a profound impact on the future development of the web.  By making some links one way, a hierarchy within data was created, changing the way that the information is read and organized. Although it seems like something minor, the way that data is organized affects changes its impact on the world.

Response Computer Boys

It was very interesting to read about the modern struggle between management and the computer workforce from a historical perspective. It seems like such a contemporary issue since every once in a while we hear about a tech company reorganizing to either give more creative freedom to its programmers or management authority to its executives. I thought is was funny how some of the stereotypes about programmers portraying them as antisocial, unmanageable, or rebellious, were around during this era and probably originated around this time.

The biggest takeaway I got from this reading is that the challenge of managing and organizing creative high technology workers; be they programmers, analysts, or designers, is one that has existed since the inception of the computer industry and is likely to persist well into the future. The problem isn’t streamlining or regulating a skill or any one particular skill set, it’s that every time a lower level creative task is made methodical, it creates a new creative task: the organizing and streamlining of the lower level task. This is a recursive problem, every attempt to make creative programming more management-friendly just makes the whole system more complicated. It seems that the best that executives can do is to try to strike  balance between efficiency and effectiveness and find the right level of oversight for their particular companies/departments.

Reaction to Computer Girls

I could burn two hundred words on the blatant sexism of the article but frankly, it’s not worth the time since everyone else has covered it four times. On the subject, I’ll just say this: the article is from an issue of Cosmo magazine from 1967, of course it’s going to be sexist. Attitudes were different then and, by my own opinion, idiotic. We can’t change the past, all we can do is learn from it and try to do better now.

As for the rest of my response, I will try examining at the article as a pop article about computing and the computer industry in general in 1967. The article describes an America that has gotten used to the idea of computers in general, but one were they have not become second nature to the population yet.

One one hand, the article doesn’t waste any time explaining what a computer is and what is does, signifying that the magazines readership at least has a general clue about them. In several places in the article, computer slang is used without explanation. “Debugging” for example, appears on page 3.

On the other hand, the article does call computers “miracle machines” and treats them as if they are some unknowable magic understood only by genius engineers and mathematicians. This is a stark contrast to the computer’s familiar central place in current times.

One thing I thought was interesting was how despite all its advances, the computer industry never seems to change. Company representatives in the article mention the difficulty in finding capable, computer-savvy personnel to fill job positions, the same headache that many executives in silicon valley and beyond complain of today.



Reaction to the Averaged American

All in all, the Averaged American is a fascinating look at the transitional period between the late industrial and early atomic ages through the lenses of the new fields of large scale of mass marketing and mass polling. I was particularly interested in how it’s possible that the practices had unintended effects.

For example, when writing about Dewey’s defeat by Truman and the blow that it was to the young field of national political polling, the books mentions simplifications and assumptions made by polling organizations that led to their disastrously incorrect prediction. Among these was the marginalization or otherwise ignoring of blacks and other minorities. While pollsters saw this as evidence that their methods needed tweaking, the larger lesson learned is that minorities and the poor could not be ignored by politicians, this conclusion has a large impact on the later social security and civil rights movements.

Another interesting point the author of the book mentions is the idea that surveying and publishing the results of mass information gathering actually changes how people think and behave. During the election, it was feared that polls reporting that one candidate had a lead would increase his popularity due to the bandwagon effect.

As a whole, the transition from regional focused data collection to the national level was one of the large factors that contributed to the modern world. I believe that this change, although I’m sure some will disagree, was another inevitable stage in the general global trend towards bigness (big business, big government, big media etc.) brought on by the introduction of  technology into day to day life. This process, which began in earnest in the mid 1700’s and continues today, has completely done away with the way that everything was for thousands of years. The Industrial revolution brought mass production, the imperial age developed mass government, and the decades of the cold war were shaped by mass media and mass marketing.

Some interesting points, current trends in the development production technology, which focus on the efficient creation of highly customized products, suited to individual consumers, signal a radical departure from the fordistic past, which sought to create one design that could be sold to anyone and everyone.

Additionally, the centralization of popular culture into just few record companies and film studios has led to a backlash in society. A movement has developed in music and the arts which rejects what is popular or mainstream simply because it is so. This movement, spearheaded by the “hipster” subculture and its derivatives, rejects traditional pillars of media like Hollywood and New York in favor of local, independent artists.

Whether these trends are a sign of things to come, or just bumps on the road to a more homogeneous world, remains to be seen.




Response to Facts and FACTS

The Garvey paper was very interesting, I had never hear of Testimony of a thousand witnesses before. I think it was a brilliant idea to use clippings of slave trading materials against the institution and was surprised that it wasn’t done sooner. This article provides a vivid example of how Big Data can be used to further a political cause, like abolitionism