Annals of Literature: The Palantir Mistake

The technology company Palantir Technologies may or may not have been part of the NSA’s currently publicized surveillance program “PRISM.” Right now it looks like a confusion among names. But considering their established relationship with the U.S. Department of Defense, the “Intelligence Community” (love the phrase), and their long-known relationship with the CIA, it wouldn’t be surprising. Leaving aside their PRISM possibilities, let’s look for a moment at the company.

Their current homepage splashes a story about combating human trafficking. Rich liberals hate human trafficking right now, a lot. What’s to like? They also sent “Philanthropy Engineers” (I did not make this up) to Oklahoma to fix things with computers in some way. Take a moment now to look through their website. They’re Google-smart and clearly successful, and it looks like a great place to work. Plus, strong ethics. Just look at the¬†mission page. Not only are they committed to saving lives and fixing diseases, they have an explicit mission to preserve civil liberties. Very explicit.

If the CIA is a big customer and investor, you’re the darling of the Department of Defense, you advertise your usefulness in the fight against terrorism, and you’re making a pantsload of money off this, how can you possibly have any “commitment” to civil liberties? What do you do for the CIA, tell them what the mountains are like in Afghanistan? Or how likely it is that Suicide Bomber #53 will show up at Bagram next week? Who do you think you’re fooling, other than yourselves?

Also, “Palantir” is a funny word. Why would you name your company that?

J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novel The Lord of the Rings is a nerd Bible, the original sword & sorcery fantasy. After Peter Jackson’s films, everyone knows it. In the novel, the Palantir is a crystal ball. “Kingly” people with appropriate credentials can stare into the Palantir and see all over the world. There are my enemy’s armies! Looks like the harvest is going well! Oh heck, is that a pirate ship? Send the cavalry!

Unfortunately, the major antagonist and bad guy has got hold of one of these things and because he’s kingly and a demigod too, he exerts influence. The bad guy can mess with another Palantir customer’s ¬†visions and distort them, showing only bad news, twisting images, creating paranoia, and wrecking morale. A key plot point involves a good guy king spending too much time looking into the Palantir like bad daytime TV and getting so depressed about his war with evil that he commits suicide, nearly killing his son as well, and dies in flames clutching the thing. It is literally an epic fail. Another powerful character slides into 100% nasty evil partly because he gets trolled by a hijacked Palantir. He gets his town wrecked by angry anthropomorphic trees and later is stabbed by his assistant. One sees a pattern.

Another smarter kingly type picks one up to mess with the antagonist a little and scare him, and then doesn’t use it any more, because the thing is dangerous. Why pick it up, even during a war, if you don’t have to? It’s unreliable now and will lead you to make bad mistakes and give up the fight. It’s not useful any more. That’s the end of that!

I understand that nerds use words that are “cool,” or even entire ideologies that seem “cool,” without thinking about the meaning of, well, anything at all. Happy Star Wars geeks get together and march in parades as the civilian-murdering, robotic, and incompetent adversaries from the movie, for example. What the hell? Oh, right. It just refers to something. Meaning is not important.

In this case, though, it’s just too damn good. The generous, progressive, socially involved, and brilliant philanthropy engineers at Palantir are one and the same with the surveillance state. Whether or not their Prism is the current PRISM, they’re both key vendors and and investment for the U.S “Intelligence Community.” These are the people who tell the President who should be drone-murdered, which civilians are threats to national security, who’s going to try to blow us up, and who is being troublesome. There has been the occasional misstep here, which is mentioned even in the news.

Our government has in its hand a Palantir, some of which is provided by the eponymous company. Look into it and you’ll see enemies without and within, plots, revolutionaries, malice concealed as dissent, and an unending future of unstoppable terrorism and necessary war. The one thing you won’t see is the sign that says “STOP! This is stupid and evil. Get a grip willya?”

So far the national Palantir has been bad for everyone. Be smart, kingly types, and throw the thing away, and throw away the war on terror as well.

And by the way: that company should change its name once it has the guts to dump its most important customers. If they read more, they’d make fewer branding mistakes and kill fewer people.

A Veterans Day Toast

This Veterans Day I offer a toast to my Uncle Richard. He was a very young soldier in 1943 when he was called upon to invade Sicily and fight the Nazis there.

On average everyone in his unit was killed three times, so 300% casualties. It’s not clear how he survived, although he has a great debt to an older sergeant who looked after him. A lot of things in life have been more difficult than they should have been since then.

Since that time he has maintained a continuous, loyal, and upright middle finger at any kind of authority, without exception. He’s a photographer and painter and retired from teaching. I believe he was something of a thorn in the side of university administrators during his career.

Uncle Dick, I’m sorry for the unholy amount of suffering you had to endure, and I salute you for being a model of rebellion and creative success. Bottoms up!

shirt and bumpersticker not big enough

M*A*S*H

Maybe it could be a series of billboards and skywriters, or sound trucks blaring, or a daily TV spot, but it’s necessary. People in my country are arguing about the most ridiculous things right now — particularly in an election year, but just generally — and while we all have this big food fight there’s a ghost at the party.

It’s the war. Nothing comes before stopping it. Please remember that.

Don’t ya know there’s a war on?

If you’re a U.S. citizen capable of any political action, your first duty is to end this war.

We are the only people who can do this. We can vote, we can spend on candidates and organizations who change votes, we can demonstrate. No one else can.

The subject line of this post kept popping up in my head today. Just today I saw long articles, discussions, and arguments in blogs and publications about Mr. Obama’s pastor and his big mouth, about Tibet and the Chinese Olympics, about the sexualization of a 15-year-old girl as a television star, about the introduction of video into the Flickr photo site, about the virtues and vices of demonstrations in which large numbers of people ride around on bicycles… it goes on.

When the torch for the god-damned Olympics came through San Francisco, the local supporters of the Dalai Lama organized a dramatic, well-organized, and clearly expensive attack on the event and made international headlines. The arguments I mention above were not little squibs like this post, either; they stretched into yards-deep webspace over days, burrowing into tiny whorls of forum thread.

Imagine if you will, an alternate version of the last month, in which the creative energy, free time, technology, expertise, and most of all the money, money, money, money, money implied by all that crap above had been thrown at one big anti-war punch. A demonstration, a television ad, a get out the vote for an important legislator, a front page ad on every newspaper. And imagine if that happened every day. Because it could. We’re a wealthy nation with a crapload of free time. Those who can, do. Those who can’t, write. Those who can’t write, write checks. (Personally I write and write checks. I’m not very good at throwing bricks.)

If you think the war should continue, I’m not talking to you. If you agree that the war must be stopped, could we all maybe spend less effort, time, thought, and ESPECIALLY MONEY on other issues?

Don’t ya know there’s a war on?

I know the adjective “Orwellian” is used too much

But sometimes you need to drag it out. This time it’s  the BBC news trying to choke down the latest buffet of insanity from our military in Iraq:

IRAQ ‘REVERSE SURGE’ PLAYS ON U.S. MINDS

There are a few gems, but this one stands out for me:

US commanders are reluctant to allow the backward momentum of the reverse-surge process to merge seamlessly into a wholesale withdrawal of American forces

What the hell does that mean? Mostly, it means that they don’t really want to pull the troops out yet. Or maybe ever. So the pull-out of troops is now a “reverse surge” and since the “surge” was a “good thing” this means we should be really careful and probably not do it! And we don’t want it to “merge seamlessly” into an actual withdrawal. In other words, because we’re not “surging” we should not leave for an undetermined time, because that would be, well, bad. Got  it?

This is that rare and beautiful news story in which every single item is a lie. An easy way to fix it up would be to replace each paragraph with this: “There is blood everywhere and no plan.”

I’ll  sell t-shirts! Meanwhile, as Orwell put it, “The fascist octopus has sung its swan song, and the jackboot  is in the melting pot.”

GO READ HIM NOW and every week from now on, so you can understand the weird stuff in the news. It’s a short little essay and people forget how important it  is.