To run the risk of borrowing too much from cryptogram, I’ll just highlight two articles:

The first, on nuclear secrecy – Classifying a shape

And I don’t mean classifying in a “this is a platonic solid” sort of way.

The article discusses classifying all spheres as dangerous/secret objects because of the prevalence of that shape in nuclear weapon design. It elucidates the point that Secrecy is contagious – once you start classifying things, you can’t stop! Your fear of the dangerous, classified object typically forces you to make paranoid precautions about other objects which bear resemblance to it. Why just ban flammable liquids from flights when you can ban liquids altogether?

The essay continues with a story of a scientist who received a security violation for leaving an orange on his desk.

This is a classic problem with any detection system. When it’s hard to build a system that detects the thing you’re looking for, you change the problem to detect something easier — and hope the overlap is enough to make the system work. Think about airport security. It’s too hard to detect actual terrorists with terrorist weapons, so instead they detect pointy objects. Internet filtering systems work the same way, too. (Remember when URL filters blocked the word “sex,” and the Middlesex Public Library found that it couldn’t get to its municipal webpages?)

The second, on social forms of security: that is, public shaming as a sociological security measure to punish bigotry. In our country more than most other countries, we have used shame to punish those who violate social norms (caning, publishing the names of scholars who break their bond in the newspapers, etc.) as dictated by the government.

But in our culture, also more than most other cultures, we have practiced defences (‘practiced’ in this case used both as a verb and as an adjective) against shame. The defence that Schneier suggests against shame is to “form an alternate social group for whom the shameful behaviour is not shameful at all,” thus altogether circumventing the self loathing wrought by a tainted reputation. I see this everyday with the natives, them making their bigoted, sexist comments that go practically unnoticed by anybody except myself. Nobody thinks to shame them for being bigots, because in this social environment, the social norms are completely skewed. In Singapore, it is OK to be both xenophobic and homophobic. Because you violate a social norm just by being a foreigner or a homosexual. There are a trillion examples of totally offensive comments I could cite you, but i’ll just list a few:

“I run like a gay”, that is to say, he used to take 16 minutes to run 2.4km. And to make it less homophobic, he’ll continue to say “In fact, I run worse than a gay.” which is taken to be self-deprecating but really not funny for me at all.

“Ivana, you also know Mario?” because only guys can play SuperMario, it is just such a challenging strategy game.

“I don’t mind if girls become equal or better than us. In fact, I hope they become better than us!” on exactly how non-chauvinistic he is. Why thank you for your stamp of approval on my gender’s “emancipation” from worthless schmucks like you.

Now if I may pursue this tangent, here is a gem from Mrs Lintott on the definition of history:

I’m reluctant as this stage in the game to expose you to new ideas but, having taught you all history on a strictly non-gender orientated basis, I just wonder whether it occurs to any of you how… dispiriting this can be. Can you for a moment imagine how depressing it is to teach five centuries of masculine ineptitude? Why do you think there are no woman historians on TV? I’ll tell you why! Because history’s not such a frolic for women as it is for men. Why should it be? They never get round the conference table. In 1919, for instance, they just arranged the flowers, then gracefully retired. History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind… with a bucket.


In the same vein, it is pretty damn dispiriting to persist in this alternate social group for whom wrongs become rights, people fear the things they do not know well, and there is no end to the things they do not know well. There is little meaningful conversation because everyone agrees with each other on all the little things and big things in a valiant attempt to steer clear of confrontation. Consequently, there is hardly any point (intellectual profit) in talking to them at all.

OK, the last article that is really too good to pass up, The New Yorker on the world’s best pickpocket. That, and their amazingly designed covers are enough to make me contemplate an international subscription.



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