Wanting to Know Everything

by Kieran Healy on May 11, 2006

The NSA “has assembled”:http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2006-05-10-nsa_x.htm a gigantic database of telephone calls in the United States, with the help of all of the major telecommunications providers (except Qwest). The database is not of voice recordings, but of calls made. It constitutes data on a huge network of ties between people who call each other. In recent years, sociology and related fields have seen a lot of development in dynamic modeling of social networks, and in fast algorithms for analyzing large, sparse graphs. Entities with this kind of structure include things like the Internet, or AOL’s instant messenger network, and the universe of telephone calls within the United States. Some of the papers in “this edited volume”:http://darwin.nap.edu/books/0309089522/html/, published by the National Academy of Science, give a sense of what people are doing. (The volume was co-edited by my colleague “Ron Breiger”:http://www.u.arizona.edu/~breiger/.) For instance, you can read about “Data Mining on Large Graphs”:http://darwin.nap.edu/books/0309089522/html/265.html, “Identifying International Networks”:http://darwin.nap.edu/books/0309089522/html/345.html, the “Key Player Problem”:http://darwin.nap.edu/openbook/0309089522/html/241.html, and the use of “MTML models to study adversarial networks.”:http://darwin.nap.edu/books/0309089522/html/324.html I think it’s fair to say that techniques of this sort are of significant interest to the intelligence community.

Social scientists, in the normal course of things, are severely limited in the amount of good data they can collect on networks of this sort. The “Internet Movie Database”:http://www.imdb.com has proved a very useful source of data for developing theory and methods in this area because it’s comprehensive and publicly available. Other researchers have set out to collect very large datasets describing some network structure together with the attributes of the people in it. A recent paper by “by Gueorgi Kossinets and Duncan Watts”:http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/311/5757/88, for example, analyzes all the emails sent over the course of a year by 43,000 students, faculty and staff at a large private university. But the traffic analyzed in that paper is just a drop in the ocean of the real flow of communication that travels by voice and email every day.

Social network analysts — in fact, any social scientist who works with quantitative data — often dream of ideal datasets. The kind of thing we would collect if money, time and ethics did not constrain us. When we daydream like this, our thoughts tend toward harmless megalomania: maximally comprehensive data on the whole population of interest, in real-time, with vast computing power to analyze it, and no constraints on updating or extending it. “And a pony”:http://examinedlife.typepad.com/johnbelle/2004/03/if_wishes_were_.html, too. At the limit, something like “Borges’ map”:https://notes.utk.edu/bio/greenberg.nsf/0/f2d03252295e0d0585256e120009adab?OpenDocument is what we want, a perfect, one-to-one scale representation of the world.

Scientists and spies are not so different. The intelligence community’s drive to find the truth, to uncover the real structure of things, is similar to what motivates natural or social scientists. For that reason, I can easily understand why the people at the NSA would have been drawn to build a database like the one they have assembled. The little megalomaniac that lives inside any data-collecting scientist (“More detail! More variables! More coverage!”) thrills at the thought of what you could do with a database like that. Think of the possiblities! What’s frightening is that the NSA is much less constrained than the rest of us by money, or resources, or — it seems — the law. To them, Borges’ map must seem less like a daydream and more like a design challenge. In Kossinets and Watts’ study, the population of just one university generated more than 14 million emails. That gives you a sense of how enormous the NSA’s database of call records must be. In the social sciences, Institutional Review Boards set rules about what you can do to people when you’re researching them. Social scientists often grumble about IRBs and their stupid regulations, but they exist for a good reason. To be blunt, scientists are happy to do just about anything in the pursuit of better knowledge, unless there are rules that say otherwise. The same is true of the government, and the people it employs to spy on our behalf. They only want to find things out, too. But just as in science, that’s not the only value that matters.

The Beauty Academy of Kabul

by Eszter Hargittai on May 11, 2006

A few weeks ago I saw the documentary The Beauty Academy of Kabul and wanted to recommend it as I thought it was a very interesting film. It’s playing now in a few U.S. cities and will continue to show up in a few others over the summer. (Just click on “Where to see it” on the flash page.)

A small group of American women (a couple of them immigrants from Afghanistan) decided to open up a beauty school in Kabul to train local women about their craft. (It turns out that most of these Afghani women had already been pursuing this line of work previously, but they had not received any training in a while.)

The film does a nice job of giving some historical context starting with footage from the 70s about life in Kabul and the introduction winding up with images of all the destruction on Kabul’s streets today. It is really fascinating to see the transformation. The focus is mainly on day-to-day life, a perspective we don’t usually get to see much.

The movie seems to be very honest about portraying various sides of the parties involved. Although the American women go into all this with a reasonably open mind, not surprisingly they remain naive about the local women’s lives. This comes through clearly in the footage, there does not seem to be any attempt at making them seem more sophisticated or in-touch than they are. The toughest parts, for me, were the heart-wrenching realizations about the situation of women in Afghanistan today, regardless of certain changes.

It’s a bummer that films like this don’t get wider distribution. If you happen to be in one of the few towns where it’s playing, I recommend checking it out.

Peter Alexander

by Chris Bertram on May 11, 2006

Today’s Guardian has an “obituary for Peter Alexander”:http://www.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,,1770686,00.html (written by my colleague Andrew Pyle).