The Elements of Style, a very famous grammar book, recently reached its 50th anniversay, and some people are celebrating.
Which is weird. Even when I read it as a much younger writer, I don’t think I ever found anything especially eye-opening about the advice in it. I even vaguely recall finding points to disagree with. Celebration of this book seems even more absurd, though, when you realize that a lot of the information in it is patently false.
What’s wrong is that the grammatical advice proffered in Elements is so misplaced and inaccurate that counterexamples often show up in the authors’ own prose on the very same page.
You should read No Place To Hide, multiple-award-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald’s book about the American surveillance state. It will make you angry and paranoid, but it’s important to know about these things. And Greenwald’s occasional snark might help the medicine go down.
Consider this example: Then-senator Joe Biden publicly argued in 2005 that George Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program was a terrible overreach, and how could anyone trust the president to handle this dangerous level of power responsibly?, et cetera, but then as vice president in 2013, he made the exact opposite arguments…
Here’s Greenwald’s take:
The relevant point here is not merely that many partisan loyalists are unprincipled hypocrites with no real convictions other than a quest for power, although that is certainly true. More important is what such statements reveal about the nature of how one regards state surveillance. As with so many injustices, people are willing to dismiss fear of government overreach when they believe that those who happen to be in control are benevolent and trustworthy. They consider surveillance dangerous or worth caring about only when they perceive that they themselves are threatened by it.
This week was one of the busiest of Donald Trump’s life. And, tragically, that means it was also a week full of stuff you need to know about. All anyone’s talking about is the how Trump might have once paid ladies to pee on stuff in front of him. But so much else has happened that doesn’t involve urine or prostitution at all.
In February, the FBI inadvertently made headlines when they ordered Apple to build a backdoor into their iOS operating system. This would have allowed the FBI full access to any iOS product at will. To the federal investigators, this must have made perfect sense: They can get a warrant to scour a suspect’s home and read any handwritten notes and messages they find, so why should it be any harder to get to the digital notes and messages that a suspect keeps on their phone? Apple correctly and publicly disagreed.
Part of what made this story noteworthy was its very publicity — orders like the one Apple received normally also require secrecy, but CEO Tim Cook responded with an open letter. This wasn’t the first time a federal agency has ordered privileged access to user data, though. The American digital surveillance capacity is large and complex, and other nations are following the USA’s example. More recently, the UK Parliament passed a law, the Investigatory Powers Act, mandating that software developers create a backdoor if the UK government ever asks. Other governments, including the normally privacy-conscious Germany, are on their way to do the same.
For the moment, I’m not interested in arguing the ethics here. Instead, it’s important for you to know that these laws are objectively, factually, technologically a Bad Idea™. Building these backdoors puts us all in substantially more danger, not less.
The defense that government officials always trot out is that these are backdoors only for government use — and therefore, if you aren’t doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear, etc, etc. However, it’s literally impossible to ensure that these backdoors will only ever be used for “legitimate” government-led investigations. One of the most important principles of digital security is that any piece of data, any device, any system that can be accessed for legitimate purposes by its owner can also potentially be accessed by illegitimate third parties. All login systems can crack, all memory can leak, all private databases can go public, all devices can be lost or stolen, and all secret backdoors can be discovered. Most of these are risks that we must simply live with to take advantage of the wonders of the Digital Age. The critical difference here is that when a hacker guesses or decrypts a password, they only gain access to a single login account. When a hacker runs a SQL injection attack, they still can only access the affected database. But when an attacker finds a way into a backdoor, they gain total access to every single system where the backdoor has been implemented.
And that’s definitely when, not if. Think of it like this: If you wanted to protect your rarest Pokémon cards, you would not put them in a safe and leave it with a Pokémon-loving thief. Obviously the thief will find a way to get in there eventually, and then your mint condition 1998 holographic Pikachu Illustrator card is gone. When you build backdoors into a piece of software, you basically put everyone’s Pokémon in the same safe, and leave it where all the thieves can poke and prod it.
The governments of the world all want a skeleton key to our digital homes. It doesn’t matter if they promise not to give the key away or promise to only use the key responsibly, because every hacker will be living with the same backdoor in their homes too, and they’ll have all the time in the world to figure out where it is and how it works. When they do, there’s basically no limit to the harm they can cause. Situations like this car hack would be just the beginning.
I can’t get over it — so strange and energetic and beautiful, and, I think, an interesting sorta sequel to “Chandelier.”
Music videos as a form have been given a lot more room for the Weird in the popular consciousness, but still — I’m impressed that Sia and Maddie Ziegler and Daniel Askill are able to produce such deliberately artsy-fartsy videos, and yet still find such huge success.