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Scott Arciszewski

Software, Privacy, Security, Innovation

Meaning and Value

May 5, 2014 10:26 AM • Opinion, Politics

I try to be open-minded, even-tempered, humble, and accepting of others' opinions and viewpoints. Every once in a while, however, I get on my high horse and find myself lecturing complete strangers about meanings and values from how I see it.

You might expect that people react badly to these tirades. Quite the opposite; many times I've been told I need to write a book.

However, I'm not so self-important as to believe anyone should pay me their hard-earned money just so they can be exposed to my ideas. So instead, I'm going to write them down here and give them away for free.

No ads, no bullshit, and most importantly no buyer's remorse. And if you so happen to like any or all of this essay, you're at your complete liberty to copy and remix it to your heart's content (and while a link back to my blog is appreciated, it's not required). Where are you going to find a fairer deal than that?

So let's get the introductions out of the way:

My name is Scott, and I spend a great deal of my free time reading or daydreaming. Sometimes both (I have an over-active imagination). I live with my closest friends, all of whom have lived interesting lives and offer diverse insight on many different subjects. This work is more a tribute to the long discussions we've had than an expression of my originality.

One thing that you should probably know about me is when I make a decision, I stick to it. Not just important decisions, like "I'm never going to smoke tobacco or marijuana", but also the small stuff, like what a particular word means to me; and that's what this whole article is about.

Same Difference, Right?

There are a lot of words in the English language that have, I would wager, nearly identical dictionary definitions. Over the years, I've found that many people (myself included) assign different connotations and values to certain words that are not shared with their pedantic synonyms. There are probably too many to list, but I'm going to take a stab at the ones that matter to me.

Authority vs Leader

In the business world, many people sell themselves as "thought leaders", while others prefer to call themselves the "authority" on a particular subject. So what's the difference?

An authority is a person with political power over another person or group of persons. The word authority invokes images of power and dominance. It says little to nothing of entitlement or ability, nor of belonging or shared identity.

A leader, on the other hand, is a member of a group who has accepted the responsibility to analyze the groups needs, wants, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats, and personalities; and then is expected to recommend and enact tactical decisions to achieve an overall strategy.

Authorities can be appointed over complete strangers, but that doesn't make them a leader.

A good leader is everything to their team and nothing to themselves. Authorities who are not also leaders fall short of this requirement.

In the case of businessmen, whom habitually conflate the two, I find it helpful to mentally replace "thought leader" with "thought authority", which sounds sort of like mind control and is probably closer to their true agenda.

Obedience vs Loyalty

Story time! One person I know is extremely religious, grew up in a privileged environment in a well-to-do upper middle class family in a conservative cesspool. His catch phrases include, "Hmm, that doesn't sound right to me," often in response to someone with more knowledge and experience proposing a solution to a problem within their domain of expertise; "That sounds hacky" in similar situations; and of course, "By God's grace!" any time the shit doesn't hit the fan. He believes strongly in traditional gender roles (men work, women clean), strongly opposes abortion and gay marriage, and cannot shut up about what "God" wants for any appreciable length of time.

This person I know is the embodiment of obedience. He does what he is told, and doesn't push the envelope. If someone else proposes an idea or strategy that doesn't fit with his narrow-minded view and limited problem-solving capabilities, he is quick to the draw with skeptical queries and passive aggressive disagreement. He doesn't question authorities, because hey "if they weren't the right person for the job, God wouldn't put them there."

An obedient person is one whom follows directions. Loyalty is, conversely, about choices.

When you are loyal to your family, it doesn't mean when a relative says "jump" you say "how high?" It means when pressure is applied, your first priority in making a tough decision will be to secure the best possible outcome for their safety and happiness.

Not because you have to. Not because you were ordered to.

Because you want to. Because at some point, you decided that they're more important than the alternative options. Even if it means suffering inconvenience yourself.

If you, dear reader, ever find yourself in a situation where you're obligated to make a sacrifice for another person and you did not choose to do so, you aren't showing loyalty, you're being obedient.

As I've put it to the person I introduced above: "Loyalty is virtue; obedience is sloth."

Privacy vs Secrecy

Quoth the ravenEric Hughes:

Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age. Privacy is not secrecy. A private matter is something one doesn't want the whole world to know, but a secret matter is something one doesn't want anybody to know. Privacy is the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world.

I couldn't have said it better myself. Go read A Cypherpunk's Manifesto if you haven't already.

Hacker vs Hacker

There's a decades old debate over the correct definition of the word hacker. The uninformed often use it exclusively to describe criminals who use technology to steal from innocents. Many in the computer field feel that this is an inappropriate departure from the term's original meaning, which was a moniker for skillful and clever programmers; people who employ technical prowess and ingenuity to solve problems.

Personally, I think this argument is either pointless or it misses the point entirely.

When the hacker group, Zero For 0wned, defaced the website of "reformed" social engineer Kevin Mitnick, they employed technical prowess and ingenuity to solve a [perceived cultural] problem. Namely, that the media cast Mr. Mitnick in the light of some elite, master-of-all-trades super hacker... when in reality he could not even secure his own website.

The myth that there are "good" hackers and there are "bad" hackers, and some simple metric (e.g. vulnerability disclosure policies) to distinguish the two is the problem. In order to be a highly successful computer intruder, you need programming skills. Arguing that a person's conduct takes away from the cleverness required to succeed is an unfortunate mindset shared by people jaded by stories of reckless damage.

Remember, the NSA hunts sysadmins. Even the whitest of whitehats will be targeted as an enemy. Condemning "crackers" is nothing more than throwing your brethren under the bus to save your own skin (and in many cases, turn a profit). Don't act noble for being a self-centered coward.

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