Tina K. Russell

September 28, 2007

Hardy Har Harvard

Filed under: cereal, education — Tina Russell @ 11:52 am

A New York Times op-ed reveals the shocking truth: the nation’s selective colleges are not the unshakable bastions of social mobility they claim to be. Quelle shock! Sarcasm aside, this seems like kind of a non-story to me, only because I’ve never given a flying rip about colleges whose entire schtick is that they do not want to accept me. Perhaps it’s an unhealthy anti-elitism–I don’t know–but, in general, if the admissions process will give me bowel problems, I don’t want to go to your university. That’s actually kind of an extension of my general philosophy in life, but never mind.

In any case, I think this editorial grazes a bigger problem in our educational system that kind of gets my goat; we only focus on the students that are already doing well. This seems monumentally ass-backward to me. Surely we should give scholarships to students who are doing poorly, so that they may have a chance to recover in college? But, there I go, being all bleedin’-heart liberal again.

In other news, I’ve gotten a dangerous addiction to these generic Lucky Charms in my brothers apartment. They’re kind of a comfort food. It’s very sinister. I’ve always tried to eat healthy and avoid such things as cereals that are basically just compressed sugar, but I’m stressed out from the start of the school year and I just can’t help myself. Damn you, generic Lucky Charms, and how well you fit my morning routine! Damn you to hell!

Back to my earlier subject… I don’t really mean that Yale should hand out scholarships to F students. I just mean that it disturbs me in general that high schools and universities tend to parade around their top-performing students like crown jewels. I went to a high school that spent so much time focusing on the ten or so students that were flourishing that it spent no time on the scores of students–like me–who were smart but academically languishing. I wish we’d focus more on our students’ potential rather than waste our money on students who are already at the top of their game and don’t need our help. But, there I go again. See you later.

September 13, 2007

Rated “M” for Big Sales

Filed under: games, ratings — Tina Russell @ 12:40 am

GamePolitics tells us: a new study shows that, while M-rated games are a fraction of total games released, they generally are rated higher and sell better than their less-rated cousins. I think what gets ignored in the knee-jerk analysis (OMG games are making kids into killers) is that there’s actually a much smaller market for M-rated games and that, if you are going to release one, you are generally going to make it very, very good. Also, if you can afford to allow a game to get an M rating it is also probably an established franchise–one you would be willing to risk such a rating on–and that helps sales along. A final reason is probably simply that first-person shooter titles are simply in vogue, and it’s hard to do one convincingly–that is to say, one that doesn’t seem cheerily insensitive to the horror of violence– and stay in T territory. When first-person shooters fall out of the market’s favor, they’ll fall out of prominence in sales charts, along with M-rated games in general… and I don’t believe that FPS games are popular simply because “the market likes gore,” considering the amount of control and, by extension, empowerment one gains from controlling one’s aim and one’s body movement separately. It allows for a much wider gamut of difficulty and choice than, say, “do I jump on the Goomba, or over it?”

Anyway, that’s what I think. What do you think? Incidentally, I’m not a big first-person shooter fan… I just like Halo a lot, because it has a good story, and the suits of armor sort of soothe my squeamish soul (Halo keeps the fantasy alive enough so that I don’t feel bad about shooting at alien hordes in single-player or my armor-suited buddies in multiplayer, whereas I would feel awful if I, say, eviscerated a human being with a chainsaw in Gears of War).

(I know I shouldn’t feel such antipathy for aliens if they ever visited Earth, but Halo is such an outlandish scenario and is steeped in such mythology that the gameplay doesn’t make me feel bad, whereas taking somebody’s head off with a sniper bullet really would… as would beating somebody to death in GTA with a baseball bat. Actually, that’s the real reason I wish GTA games were rated AO… I feel like giving Halo and GTA the same rating is kind of an insult to Halo and the sort of dramatic dignity it has, as opposed to the comical revelling in heinous violence in GTA. I know it’s parody, but you know, the game is aimed at adults… only…)

(I’d link to a specific Cubetoons comic right there, but the site is broken, so, maybe later.)

September 12, 2007

Petraeus Ex Machina

Filed under: iraq, us, war — Tina Russell @ 2:51 pm

A New York Times editorial eviscerates the General’s testimony, and thank the Lord for it. Their basic premise is that the surge has achieved none of its benchmarks that were laid out in advance, and Gen. Petraeus merely dismisses those metrics rather than acknowledge how royally we’re screwed in Iraq (and recognizing that is our only chance of keeping our troops safe). Instead, and I hate to say it, but Bush and co. want to keep our troops in Iraq until they can eke out something that can be creatively passed off as victory to the American people. Already, as the NYT says, Petraeus is taking credit for the most positive development for the past couple of months, which is Sunni militias deciding they hate al Qaeda more than America. It’s a positive development, but certainly not one reflecting or related to the surge, and the surge was supposed to support infrastructure that will last after we are gone, which certainly would not include an authority-less, unarmed Sunni neighborhood watch… especially not one that, I suspect, hates the Shiites more than either us or al Qaeda.

I don’t mean to be dour, it’s just that a really cold, unfeeling evaluation of the situation is what is needed to keep our troops on the ground safe, and to return the trust that they show in us by serving their country. They expect–and deserve–only the most qualified on-the-ground analysis, undefiled by political motivations, and instead they’re getting a general’s song-and-dance about how we may even be able to draw back to pre-surge levels if the surge continues its… uhhh… “success.”

There’s a sort of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle at work here… if the President is watching, it changes the General’s testimony. That is to say, it gives it a little bit of spin. How depressing… wake me up when it’s all over.

Good Grief

Filed under: new york, us — Tina Russell @ 2:03 pm

Here’s an NYT article on New York mayor Michael Bloomberg trying to move the city past mourning and into healing. I think that’s a really great idea. I always thought that the idea of building a majestic “Freedom Tower” atop the ruins of the World Trade Center was really insensitive, like you’re trying to make a theme park out of the September 11th, 2001 attacks. It’s healthy to grieve and it’s healthy to move on, and I hope that the memorial that eventually exists at ground zero–whenever all the red tape finally subsides–is something modest and somber, reflecting on the great lives that these people lived, and not congratulating ourselves for our false humility or opulence in the face of tragedy.

Anyone whose lost someone knows that you have to mourn, you have to grieve, you have to move on, and you have to remember… I think it might be best to let those who lost loved ones grieve in their own way, and let them know that the city and state of New York, and America, is there for them, for whatever they need. I think that might be best. The almost celebratory tone of each year’s 9/11 coverage is an insult to those who died, but I think those who lost loved ones probably know best what to do, and perhaps we should start following their lead instead of making up our own.

The office of the mayor of New York cannot afford to continue being president of 9/11… I think it might be best to move on, and find some way, some modest, humble way of remembering those who died and letting their loved ones know they will never be forgotten.

September 10, 2007

And Now, Back to the Rest of the World

Filed under: economics, medicine, poverty, world — Tina Russell @ 3:06 pm

Here’s a New York Times article on how hard it is to get pain medication in developing countries. Basically, there’s such a stigma against addiction and trafficking–a very legitimate stigma, if misapplied in this case–anyone who dies  in a poor country is going to die a painful, sorrowful, undignified death. Often, they suffer needlessly because incredibly cheap drugs are not available.

I know it’s become in vogue–partially because of our bungling of the war in  Iraq, which was kind of a bad idea in the first place–to say that the rest of the world can go screw itself, we should go back to being Fortress America, with our eyes turned inward and pretending that, in a globalized world, one country can be an island and completely independent of foreign goods and services. But honestly, I feel like it is our duty as a developed nation to help countries, on a permanent basis, who are not yet where we are, but will be. It will be good for them, but also, very good for us, giving us a national purpose and something for us to band together on. The war in Iraq has divided America, not united, and that sense of national unity we had on 9/11, that feeling that our individual squabbles  are meaningless in the context of the Big Picture–has been squandered in years since by foolish leaders with no foresight. We have plenty of extra money and we can use it to make the world a better place, which would help America in turn by a) solving the immigration problem by improving people’s native countries and b) improving national security by providing the kind of powerful economies, jobs, and mature populations that deter young people from terrorism.

Plenty of these poor countries, or countries torn asunder by constant civil war, have plenty of money already… in fact, the “resource curse”–a country’s ability to fund a corrupt government by natural resources alone, basically, while the rest of the world turns a blind eye ’cause you can get cheap diamonds here, or oil, or whatever–is a major factor in determining whether or not your country is an impoverished, war-torn hellhole.  Besides that, we’ve learned that throwing money and celebrities at the problem of world poverty for decades has not worked, or at least it has merely blunted the symptoms of an untreated problem (and while there’s definitely a case to be made for that–remember, this discussion began with talk of pain medication–it doesn’t solve the underlying crisis). We now have a more nuanced view of world poverty that takes into account the needs of your average peasant farmer and not just a burgeoning tech sector or natural resources. We need to find out what these countries need and give it to them, no strings attached, because it’s for the good of the world, and good for us in turn. Microfinance can help, because it’s for the good of the local economy. Other things like infrastructure, schools and hospitals, roads, things like that can really help because they form the lifeblood of a local society and help drive out sham doctors, warlords, and other social ills. Technology projects like One Laptop Per Child, I imagine, can really help because children instinctively get technology and it can be used to bring in education and knowledge from afar, so as long as we keep to the commitment and provide them with the kind of content and infrastructure allowing them to take in the world’s combined knowledge from the comfort of their houses or huts. Education is the single most important factor, the measure of how well you can survive in an economy, the one  metric by which you can turn a population mired in poverty to a population flourishing in its livelihood in one generation.
Some liberals say that we cannot export America’s success (sure, we can’t do it for them, but never mind), because that would result in a “monoculture,” a “race to the bottom” where rich fat cats own everything, prices of grain fluctuate according to international whims, and the children’s toy market becomes flooded with Rambo dolls and GI Joe plastic launchers. I think that’s absurd. If people in these countries want help, and we can give it, we ought to. It would be good for them and good for us. Education, whether in Eastern or Western traditions, is always good and vital to a country’s economy. While the opening up of an economy (a different subject, but an important one) to global trade can be traumatic, it’s a vital last step to recovery so that the country has an international web of support to count on, so that the country can be assured that the world will never leave it behind again. Education, economic development, and foreign investment are vital to a country’s humanitarian conditions and to our homeland security, as is cracking down on corruption and promoting democracy. But, we cannot control other countries or determine what systems they live by, we can only help create the conditions by which they may succeed, help them along so that all may partake in the fruits of the 21st century. I’m constantly aghast by the fact that it is 2007 and people are dying all over the world of cheaply preventable diseases, at the same time as I rack up mad high scores on my Xbox 360. It just seems insane, unconscionable, and unsustainable. As much as projects like One Laptop Per Child sound kind of absurd on their face–as though starving children need laptops more than anything–technology can help build up a stagnant economy by bringing in new knowledge and new jobs from outside, and its imperative that the Internet not lose its democracy by allowing only rich countries into the digital club. We have to promote OLPC’s attitude towards technology in all areas, be it finance, education, agriculture, police, healthcare, police, or transportation. We cannot afford to have countries dependent on foreign aid, but we cannot afford to sit around and do nothing while these countries languish and become havens for drugs and terrorism. We must affirm their sovreignty by helping them on their terms and help them build a sustainable infrastructure that will last long after they’ve left the economic doldrums and have joined the ever-increasing ranks of the developed world.

And you know what? We might learn something, too. I know I’m much happier for having a stable housing situation, a nice computer (I just bought a gigabyte of RAM, woo), some videogames, and access to education and knowledge far beyond most of the world’s wildest dreams. If we helped other countries get those things, they’ll teach us things in turn. By adding more brains to global discourse, we can turn America’s standard of innovation into the world’s standard of innovation and make our present standard of living in the developed world look like today’s poor country in comparison to the bright future we are obligated to achieve.

September 2, 2007

Spy? Where?

Filed under: germany, security, spyware, technology — Tina Russell @ 6:54 am

You know, German chancellor Angela Merkel is kind of one of my favorite people in the world despite the fact that I know next to nothing about her, because, uh, she’s a woman and holds one of the world’s most powerful offices. And, uh, she’s pretty. Yeah, I know, I could stand to have a better decision matrix for this kind of thing.

I’m sure the Internet is ablaze over the German government’s plan to plant spyware on the computers of German terror suspects, and while I think Angela Merkel is a damn fine world leader (…sorry…) I think this sounds like a really bad idea. Now, I’m not opposed on principle to the government using spyware, any more than I am opposed to the government using double agents or wiretaps. The government has to get into the 21st century for its crime-fighting, and anything that ensures that technology isn’t exclusively the domain of tinkerers and criminals is good. (Tinkerers are good, but we cannot fight criminals on our own forever.) If two details would be changed about this, I would be happy.

1. It’s too obvious. I mean, really. From the linked San Jose Mercury News article:

Schaeuble’s office has
not yet released a copy of the bill, but elements of it that were
leaked to German media include allowing investigators to
send e-mail messages that appear to be from the Finance Ministry or the
Youth Services Office, but which actually carry the Trojan horse
software.

You might as well be sending E-mails that claim to contain enticing pictures of Anna Kournikova. If I were even remotely convinced that the German government would try something a little more nuanced, I would be happy. For instance, if the government were able to intercept the transmission of an important executable file between criminals and replace it with a bugged one, that would be great. That would be a classic tactic. However, there’s absolutely no reason that the government would send you an executable file except to install spyware on your machine. Also, I’ll be really mad if they try the whole “.doc.exe” trick, where an executable file is dressed up vaguely like a text document or something. I mean, at that point they might as well spam their Counter-Strike games with taunts or fill their inboxes with lawyer jokes or something.

There’s another problem here… I don’t want the government, any government, legitimizing the practice of sending spyware. I’d be worried about people reading this article and thinking that, if they get such an E-mail claiming to be from the government, the government only has their best interests at heart. If the government gets into the spyware business, it’s going to become a new favorite front for spyware pushers everywhere. I mean, I’m sure they do this already, but there’s going to be this idea among average Germans (at least some of them) that you shouldn’t be afraid to open an attachment to a government E-mail, because even if it has spyware it is only used to catch terrorists. The truth is that if the government begins using spyware to catch terrorists, attached to E-mails identified as sent by the government, spyware pushers everywhere will begin using “the government E-mail” as a front and, if you get such a suspicious E-mail claiming to be from the Finance Ministry it is much more likely to be spyware that signs you up for a spam botnet rather than one that fights terrorists… and don’t forget that distributed computing, achieved through spyware, is one of a terrorist’s greatest tools. I wouldn’t want any government legitimizing such spyware, whether they mean to or not.

The biggest computer security concern of our day is making sure people know they should not open E-mail attachments that are either a) executable or b) from people they don’t trust (and, in general, avoid it if you don’t know what you’re doing). (Yes, I know that “a” prevents “b” from being necessary but it never hurts to make n00bs a little extra cautious in this area.) If the government, any government, gets into the spyware game it gives spyware legitimacy it doesn’t deserve. But also, every terrorist in the world is going to know not to open chump E-mails from “the Finance Ministry” or “the Youth Services Office.” Unless they can dress it up a little–attempt to infiltrate the terrorist network, imitate specific people, intercept important communications, etc.–such amateur-hour spyware cons are going to do much more harm then good, especialy because terrorists are going to begin sending out identical E-mails, with their own, choice spyware, as soon as the government does.

2. The terror obsession concerns me. Terrorism is a really, really bad deal, and terrorists are very evil people. The whole concept of terrorism is abhorrent, because it says you should use violence to achieve a political end. Terrorism says you should kill people in order to scare the rest into submission. Terror networks need to be infiltrated and forcibly disbanded, and I support any attempt to bring our anti-terror operations to the level of our new technology, especially since terrorists long ago learned to make use of the readily-available technology that world governments are only beginning to discover.

However, the idea that there is nothing in the world worse than terrorism concerns me because, in order to convince me that this government spyware program isn’t going to be used for a political agenda (getting the nationalist or the law-and-order vote, etc.) I would need to be assured that this is going to be used to target specific criminal networks and not “terorrists” in general. It would need to be used against drug pushers, kidnappers, slavery rings, and organized crime of all kinds. Terrorists are so insulated that it becomes very necessary to use extreme measures–such as spyware, I imagine–to infiltrate their networks. However, as I said above, the tactics will need to be nuanced to keep a government spyware program from doing more harm then good, but also, I’ll only accept that this will really be used against terrorists–and not merely political opponents of the government–if they will use it against all kinds of organized crime and drop the fanatical anti-terror stance. To say that we live in some kind of new, scarier world is to say that bad things, on the level of 9.11, only just started happening, and that offends me deeply. Crime has always been around and we constantly need to adapt our tactics to stay one step ahead of these callous, power-hungry maniacs. It does concern me that, without government action, tactics such as spyware are going to be used only by criminals and not by those fighting crime. However, if the word “terror,” and only the word “terror,” continues to be used to justify any and all dubious actions by the government of Germany, I’m going to continue to wonder if this really is for the safety of the people, or if its purpose is to sate an unhealthy obsession with terrorists. Terrorism is an enormous concern, no doubt, but we must be sure we don’t become like the enemy we intend to fight. Here in America, we can’t even come up with a working definition of terrorism (I would volunteer “the use of violence to intimidate a population for political ends” as a starting point), a situation ripe for abuse. I hope that, in fighting terror and adapting our tactics for a high-tech world, that we do not lose our focus on the reasons why we are fighting terrorists–to keep the population safe and free–and become short-sighted, vengeful fanatics, ineffective either at fighting terrorism or keeping the population safe.

That’s my opinion. In essence. I see nothing wrong in principle with the government using spyware, I just have extreme reservations about how it sounds like the German government is pursuing this, and I hope we maintain our balance and our perspective as we step up our fight against terrorists.

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