Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Pork Scratchings

Over the past five years, US states with Republican congressmen have got more security money than states with Democratic congressmen. Bruce Schneier, in a post called The Square Root of Terrorist Intent, refers to this phenomenon as "pork".

On the POSIWID blog, we like to dig through the undergrowth of politics to find the truffles of causality. Why do some states get more money than others? Is it because the Republican congressmen have been more effective than the Democratic congressmen at getting their snouts in the trough? Or is it because states with Republican congressmen are inherently more vulnerable?

By choosing to elect more Democrats in the recent elections, the American people evidently lean towards the second explanation.

In the same post, Schneier goes on to discuss a formula that is used to allocate security funds in the USA, which includes taking the square root of some measure of terrorist intent. (The formula is also discussed by Eileen Sullivan on CQ.com: The Root of All Terror, with lots of sarcastic comments on Wired Blogs.)

Although I haven't seen the formula myself, I can't see any problem with square roots as such. Square roots are used in many good formulas, and its presence in this particular formula makes it apparent that this is an attempt to perform a proper calculation rather than the usual vague waffle. Which perhaps explains why some people are resisting or mocking the square root - because they are uncomfortable with the idea that such things might be subject to calculation at all. Without the square root, they might well have ignored the whole thing.

Can we not measure intent? Surely that's what marketing departments do - measure and manipulate the intent of customers and prospective customers. We can also measure attention, and there is a strong link (although it clearly requires some interpretation and analysis) between intention and attention. Modern ("asymmetric") warfare is largely about altering the intentions of the enemy - which makes it effectively a branch of marketing.

By declaring some national assets for special attention (Old MacDonald’s Heavy Petting Zoo, Clinton's Apple and Pork Festival), this presumably alters the intentions of the enemy. Can pork-barrel politics keep up with a constantly shifting threat? Can pigs fly?

Meanwhile, another use of square roots in a security formula is explained in Can Statistics Help Catch Terrorists (BBC News, 11 Jan 2010)

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