Root Cause Analysis

Let’s talk about America and the gutting of its civic institutions for power and profit in the name of patriotism.

The overarching theme in my sparse blogging history since I left the military has been the exploration of what it means to be a patriotic American, gradually stripping away and discarding potential partial definitions in search of a distilled essence:

Basically, after PCSing out of the military, I wanted to reinforce in my own mind the integrity of the term “patriotism” in the face of a commandeered chickenhawk interpretation of American patriotism where he who waves the flag hardest is the most patriotic, regardless of any of his other actions.

Sacred cows have been slain in the last decade because of never-ending war, polarization in politics, and the battle to own the term “patriotic”; July 4th has become a vaguely gauche holiday, standing or kneeling for the anthem is a politically divisive act, and even hearing the phrases “thank you for your service” or “respect the troops” have veterans and servicemembers hearing red flags.  Good people have abandoned ritual, leaving it to scoundrels and opportunists.

What could I strip the definition of American patriotism down to, such that even the least principled, most opportunistic chickenhawk or troll couldn’t pollute it?

Meanwhile, professionally, I spent some years unifying my experience being an internet-American comfortable with social media with my career in analysis/intelligence.  For a couple years, I was full-time watching social media for emergency management.  In that position, part of our advantage was being able to suss out what was old news, what was poor eyewitness reporting, and what was truly new news.  In that time, the spread of social media into the daily consciousness was a benign thing in all ways except the distraction of checking one’s cellphone.  Fake news was not weaponized yet; fake news was unintentional, such as poor media literacy or poor eyewitness memories and testimony.  Our job at that time was to assess mostly reliability, whereas someone in the same role now might also have to assess malicious intent at a troll level or even at a state actor level.

After what I perceived to be not only a disastrous election result but also a deeply confusing one that I did not see coming, I was thrown for a loop.  What was wrong with how I perceived reality?  I am fairly skeptical in my prediction-making and assessments, but I misjudged this one pretty bad.  Why?  And how?  This had occurred even though I was deeply troubled after Obama won re-election, stating this on Facebook amidst a taunting, mostly liberal friend feed.

My friend feeds reveling in Republican loss but we're still a nation divided on core issues (how to provide economic…

Posted by Ben Turner on Tuesday, November 6, 2012

As a result of getting married, I gave up my Texas citizenship and changed my residency to New York.  I also enrolled in the Democratic Party.  Running up to the primaries and general election, I received several of the same survey in the mail, even after I submitted my answers.  The questions were all focused on the Republican party, and did not question Hillary’s nomination.  Most importantly, the options for which issues the Party should run on (the Democratic party!) did not include anything on education or single-payer/universal health care, despite evidence that there is hunger and precedent for it amongst Democrats.  Why would the Democratic Party leadership make such stupendously foolish decisions?

Now, months after the election, the news cycle is converging around a narrative where much of the confusion can be blamed on dezinformatsiya, a substantial and tremendously successful, yet low-cost disinformation campaign by Russia in an attempt to destabilize the United States and a world order which threatens Russian security, e.g. “How Russia Created the Most Popular Texas Secession Page on Facebook”.  While the scope of the campaign is not yet known, it involves Russia’s push for RT in American, Twitter bots, astroturfed protests, fake Americans, Facebook groups, etc. Essentially focusing American social media’s energies against itself. Weaponizing it. Sowing discord and discontent.

Fortunately, it appears that there are well-reasoned, stable, legitimate investigations into the degree to which these campaigns affected US elections. Personally I want to have a betting pool on which day we’ll inevitably label as Mueller Day, an annual day where we celebrate Mueller’s principled investigation toppling the Trumpist movement.  But that may never happen.  In the meantime, the US intel community provided some background on how to assess the impact including these crucial judgments:

Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations. We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.

We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him. All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.

Moscow’s approach evolved over the course of the campaign based on Russia’s understanding of the electoral prospects of the two main candidates. When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the election, the Russian influence campaign began to focus more on undermining her future presidency.

Further information has come to light since Election Day that, when combined with Russian behavior since early November 2016, increases our confidence in our assessments of Russian motivations and goals. Moscow’s influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or “trolls.” Russia, like its Soviet predecessor, has a history of conducting covert influence campaigns focused on US presidential elections that have used intelligence officers and agents and press placements to disparage candidates perceived as hostile to the Kremlin.

Russia’s intelligence services conducted cyber operations against targets associated with the 2016 US presidential election, including targets associated with both major US political parties.

We assess with high confidence that Russian military intelligence (General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU) used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com to release US victim data This report is a declassified version of a highly classified assessment; its conclusions are identical to those in the highly classified assessment but this version does not include the full supporting information on key elements of the influence campaign. iii obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets and relayed material to WikiLeaks.

Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards. DHS assesses that the types of systems Russian actors targeted or compromised were not involved in vote tallying.

Russia’s state-run propaganda machine contributed to the influence campaign by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences. We assess Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes.

It is tempting to lean wholly on this narrative of Russian complicity with Trump and the GOP — it explains a Trump victory, it explains what Putin has been up to to counter American hegemony, it explains the increase in vitriol online, where most normal people don’t have time to engage so much.

It is tempting to write off all blame on Russian interference, instead of questioning gerrymandering, or the internal divide in our politics, or the pervasive sense of injustice, or why our system was weak enough to be affected, and why we were not on alert enough to know what to look for, and why we did not protect the sanctity of our institutions.

For the Democrats, they were blinded by a sense of entitlement; Hillary is by far the most qualified candidate, so QED, she will win. But she had a high unfavorability among even loyal Democrats.  Bernie was attacked not only by core Democrats but also identified as a threat to Hillary’s nomination where it was more certain she would lose to a Republican candidate.  Debbie Wasserman Schultz inconceivably screwed up not only handling the email scandals, but hiring sketchy IT people, ignoring her constituency, and overall just perpetuating the illegitimacy of Florida politics. Her removal was a reactionary move and not a positive outcome.  She had burned all her capital.

Angela Nagle’s excellent book “Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right” mentioned a provocative theory that the politically correct identitarian politics that dominated the left and annoyed the right for so long, peaking on Tumblr, caused a vacuum of other voices on the left, and this vacuum was eventually filled by the alt-right, and alt-left, who, somehow, had made conservatism cool, and even punk (!) by challenging cultural norms and thriving on irreverence and post-irony.

 

A Historical Aside

Let’s take a step back and think about how far the internet’s come.

I got my start on online networks using BBSs, Prodigy*, The Sierra Network/ImagiNation, and eventually MUDs via university telnet. Eventually web browsers unlocked a world not only of web pages but also of the ability to create your own pages. But there was no commercial incentive, the graphics still sucked, and everything was still primarily text-based. The dotcom era was a perfect storm of more interactive web sites, more consumer bandwidth, and unbridled optimism for social networking and the promise of profit.

In 2007-2009 or so, social media had advanced past the dotcom and bust stages of Gold Rush open API euphoria to a more stable, yet more walled garden-ish ecosystem of services which, at least in my career, was organized and standardized enough to be used to respond to emergencies and crises faster.  The main concern for my job was ignoring innocent bystanders who posted bad information because they didn’t know what they were talking about, and assessing who would be in unique positions to have a direct view of an emergency as it unfolded.

Another concern was having to manually link together disparate spheres of knowledge.  Jihadis were prolific in using social media because it helped to tie together their community across multiple countries without official channels.  But journalists were not yet on Twitter the way they are now.  Academics who may have known a lot about jihadi or criminal cultures certainly didn’t use computers or the internet any more than they had to.

The post-dotcom boom Internet up until 2014 or so represented the normalization of the online world amongst the broader population.  Dating online became more accepted. Buying food online to have it delivered became something you would sensibly do to save time. Amazon and Target deliveries changed regular spending and shopping habits. Obama-era campaign parties provided a left-wing answer to the more focused grassroots single-issue communities on the right.

Culturally, “normies” gentrified online communities of “casuals” and “autists” and the backlash came with the emergence of the ironists and trolls, who sought to exclude the newcomers from long-established communities online.

Meanwhile, internet architecture had improved such that more data could be organized online, and processed wherever.  More people relied on data being available to them online, too.  Hackers still have a field day to this day with unsecured systems.  Mostly all it took was will in order to get access to secret data.

Vulnerable Surface Area

For hackers, the proliferation of data and increased bandwidth and lagging security controls meant easy money.  For Russia, this meant a sensible, low-risk attack vector against a trusting, open internet and an American population conducive to sharing their opinions on it.  In 2008, a Russian KGB/foreign affairs/information warfare expert, Igor Panarin, got a lot of press for his theory that there would be a pending breakup of the United States into several different regions.

His background:

Panarin graduated from the Higher Military Command School of Telecommunications of the KGB (now the Academy of Federal Security Guard Service of the Russian Federation) in Oryol and the Division of Psychology of the Lenin Military-Political Academy (with a gold medal). In 1993 he defended his thesis for Candidate of Psychological Sciences, titled “Psychological Factors of the Officer’s Activity in Conditions of Innovations”. His Doctorate in Political Sciences was awarded by the Russian Academy of Public Administration in 1997 for a thesis titled “Informational-Psychological Support of the National Security of Russia”.

Panarin began his career in the KGB of the Soviet Union in 1976. After 1991, he worked in the FAPSI, then the Russian equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency, reaching the Colonel rank. His field of activity was strategic analysis and integration of closed and open information streams, information stream management in crisis situations, and situation modelling of global processes. He did strategic forecasts for the then President Boris Yeltsin. From 1999 to 2003, he worked as the Head of the Analytical Division of the Central Election Commission of Russia. From 2006 to 2007, Panarin was the Press Secretary of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roskosmos), the Russian analogue of the U.S. NASA.

Prof. Panarin started his teaching career in 1989 and has taught in the Moscow State University (MGU), the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University), the Russian Academy of Public Administration, and the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, where he has worked since 1999. He also carries out activities on his own. In 2004, he launched his official website.[citation needed] In April 2008, his first training seminar called “Information warfare – technologies for success” was held. It was targeted at top managers of state and business structures, press service managers of authorities and large corporations, anti-crisis management experts, and decision makers in time-deficit situations. On 20 May 2009, Panarin started World politics – his own weekly radio programme on the Voice of Russia radio.

Panarin is currently the dean of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s school for future diplomats and appears regularly on Russian television channels.

Legit af.

It would be interesting to me to have more access to his (mostly Russian-language) works.  I would wonder how much his ideas have permeated Russia’s operational plans, or if we are falsely attributing him to current events.

Post-Frontier West

So here we are. The internet has already lost its innocence after toxic corporatization of public spaces online, but now it has been violated by directed state-sponsored attempts to undermine the country under which much of the internet’s companies operate out of.

Memetic warfare, somehow (!!), is an actual thing!!

We have Mark Zuckerberg addressing the nation in a close-shot video that is akin to an apology video meme, while his company laid out a Root Cause Analysis and Performance Improvement Plan for itself in a classic engineering-focused style.

The Gold Rush of the dotcom era gave way to where we are now: a Wild West frontier where bandits pillage defenseless villagers and groups with ambition seek to wipe out all those who could stop them from taking over.  Social media companies have been exposed for having put off their social responsibilities for as long as possible under the guise of freedom of speech and non-responsibility for what content is posted on their neutral networks.

What happens next?

If you presume we do not have a government hostile enough to the fact that social media may have been corrupted to subvert American interests, then you wouldn’t expect the federal government to flex its muscles the same way it might have with the famed US Marshal Service, whose Marshals provided the only law some towns had in the Frontier West.  You might hope that social media companies do more to combat active state-actor disinformation and subversion efforts.  You would presume social media companies and governments would begin to officially share more information, as it appears they’re beginning to do now.

I enjoyed reading Nabiha Syed’s framing of the issue of how to confront fake news and promote free speech, particularly this (incomplete, as she points out) theory:

Third, and far less fashionable, is the idea that the First Amendment exists to promote a system of political engagement. This “collectivist,” or republican, vision of the First Amendment considers more fully the rights of citizens to receive information as well as the rights of speakers to express themselves. Practically and historically, this has meant a focus on improving democratic deliberation: for example, requiring that broadcasters present controversial issues of public importance in a balanced way, or targeting media oligopolies that could bias the populace. This theory devotes proactive attention to the full system of speech.

The republican theory, which accounts for both listeners and speakers, offers an appealingly complete approach. The decreased costs of creating, sharing, and broadcasting information online means that everyone can be both a listener and a speaker, often simultaneously, and so a system-oriented focus seems appropriate. But the collectivist vision, like the marketplace and autonomy approaches, is still cramped in its own way. The internet—replete with scatological jokes and Prince cover songs—involves much more than political deliberationAnd so any theory of speech that focuses only on political outcomes will fail because it cannot fully capture what actually happens on the internet.

It’s not clear what actions will be taken by these large entities, but a few things seem crystal clear to me:

One: the US as of 2017 has no plan to actively combat disinformation attacks and voting integrity hacks for any near-term elections, leaving us at risk for larger campaigns seeking to destabilize American interests. These campaigns could also be extended to other countries, since it worked so well in the US and perhaps for Brexit.

Two: the disillusionment with Silicon Valley has teeth. Before, the sentiment was constrained to people who wanted to cut the cord for cable, or who hate cellphones at dinner, or who want you to get real friends instead of talk online all day. Now, Silicon Valley will be perceived in a similar vein as Big Business, enabling the worst behaviors of monied interests who seek to take more and more away every year.  Companies will hide behind their algorithms, and poor decisions made now by humans will eventually be poor decisions made by AI, removing humans from feeling responsibility for their actions. How long will it be until engineers and developers seriously propose something like the Hippocratic Oath?

Three: the loss of American identity. American identities can be recreated for pennies by Russian intelligence operations. Valid American identities are sold on the deep and dark web for dollars. Because of things like Citizens United, now more money than ever can be represented as individual Americans just hoping to get you to change your view on something. If voting machine hacks actually happen (and we certainly know they can, given how easily and ubiquitously they have been hacked in the past), oops, all the sudden your legitimate vote was just used to vote for someone else.  Where are the protections for the atomic unit of American democracy, the American citizen?

Am I who I say I am, or am I really a Kevin Durant sockpuppet saying you suck for criticizing Kevin Durant?

Or am I the NFL commissioner’s wife attacking her husband’s detractors with my own sockpuppet account?

The tenor of online culture has changed, and it’s uglier and colder; read Mike Monteiro’s history of Twitter:

Twitter would have you believe that it’s a beacon of free speech. Biz Stone would have you believe that inaction is principle. I would ask you to consider the voices that have been silenced. The voices that have disappeared from Twitter because of the hatred and the abuse. Those voices aren’t free. Those voices have been caged. Twitter has become an engine for further marginalizing the marginalized. A pretty hate machine.

Biz Stone would also believe that Twitter is being objective in its principled stance. To which I’d ask how objective it is that it constantly moves the goal posts of permissibility for its cash cow of hate. Trump’s tweets are the methane that powers the pretty hate machine. But they’re also the fuel for the bomb Twitter doesn’t yet, even now, realize it is sitting on. There’s a hell of a difference between giving Robert Pattinson dating advice and threatening a nuclear power with war.

American Patriotism

Okay, so back to defining American patriotism.

What if I referred to the Army values: LDRSHIP, or Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Self-less service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal courage.

Is loyalty patriotic?  Not particularly.  In fact probably everyone values loyalty at some level, or at least justifies it to himself as being loyalty.

Duty? Respect? Honor? Personal courage? I think these values are easy to co-opt for your own interests and to look good when you want people to look at you. Think about Congressmen saying they are fulfilling their duty by “serving” in the House or Senate. Think of the “honor” of scumbag servicemembers or the personal courage of always voicing your opinion against a corrupt mainstream media or government.  These definitions can easily be twisted.

Well, what then about self-less service? This one is interesting to me. The removal of self from the equation, along with service (to others), means the calculus changes. I guess you could enhance your brand by volunteering, or you could be assuaging your own guilt about something, but the time element with no monetary reward means that you are sacrificing potential profit for helping someone else.  This is less easy to fudge or to fake.  You have to put in the time.  You’re not writing off profits from your taxes by donating.  You’re not a “not-for-profit” income-tax-protected-class church raising money but then squirming through explanations of why your church didn’t open its ginormous doors to displaced families like Joel Olsteen’s infamous interview (note the apologetic style similar to Zuck’s).

But would you define American patriotism as selfless service?

Making Sense of It All

In light of the evidence presented on a daily basis, and assuming Trump is a rational actor (I feel like this has to be stated; somewhat similarly most discussion about North Korea is most productive when it assumes North Korea is a rational actor and not just some crazy fat man-child with one finger on the button), the only theory that makes sense to me (and I have to make it clear that I don’t really think this could be possible) is that Trump, clearly a type who wants to make money at all costs and at everyone else’s expense, also is particularly vulnerable to flattery and machismo. Vladimir Putin’s overtures to Trump early on were highly successful, and Trump became open to suggestion. Putin, who is probably left with a lifelong scar of bitterness for the breakup of the Soviet Union, still profited off of the USSR’s breakup handsomely along with the other infamous oligopolists who took shattered government assets and assumed them for nothing, consolidated properties, and became massively rich.

To me, Trump’s willful animus towards American tradition and history does not come so much from deep Republican distrust of government spending, but because Trump has been convinced at some level by Putin that what happened in the USSR could stand to handsomely enrich him if it happened in the US.  Trump is certainly a member of the cosmopolitan class and so destabilization at the national level would hardly affect him — like most cosmopolitans, they could live happily and with identical lives in just about any major city in the world these days. His disdain for minorities would not be challenged, his lust for money would be sated, and his statements that are divisive with no seeming logic or theory behind them would make more sense.

Again, I don’t really believe this has happened, but it’s the only narrative I can think of that makes the most sense given all the evidence.  I just wanted to lay it out here because, well, what the fuck else am I going to do except worry about the country I love?

American patriotism, I think, partially involves optimism for the future.  Obama correctly and intuitively perceived this to be Hope.  Other countries do not necessarily have this vast wellspring of belief in optimism, because their geopolitics and culture do not allow it as well as America, with its relatively peaceful continent and bountiful resources, does.

But let’s go a step further and say that regions like the EU believe in a somewhat different form of hope.  They do see sense in policies that target poverty reduction, increase in education levels, etc.  This certainly qualifies as optimism for the future for all people, not just oneself, though it comes with a tinge of “this solution comes as a result of suffering and of trial and error”.  American optimism, I think, is embodied in Neil Armstrong’s partial quote, “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”. How ever he actually intended that quote, the US seems to undertake grand projects that help mankind, but through ambition and wanting to leave one’s mark on the world, and less of a humanitarian purpose.

Would we ever see a grand project for eliminating poverty?  Perhaps if there were a technological solution for it.  But otherwise there is no compassion for the poor, no safety net for the unlucky, no sense of moral purpose to protect the innocent.  Being poor is being guilty before being proven innocent in the US, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

American optimism as a high-level concept is personified in leaving a grand mark upon history, but optimism for many of its immigrants, illegal and legal, is for a better future for one’s children.  What does that disconnect mean for us?

Russia and China obviously identified American optimism as a critical blindspot long ago. China saw the internet as such a threat that it constructed the Great Firewall to close off its internet from the rest of the world. It has since focused on shutting down key nodes in the resistance’s social graph, preventing influential protesters from organizing in realspace but allowing other meandering complaints to occur with freedom. Russia, stereotypically paranoid about its own insecure borders and withholding as much information as possible, sought to exploit America’s — and its citizens’ — free and somewhat irresponsible handling of information.

This is akin to projection psychology, and, if you subscribe to that theory, it makes it fairly easy to predict Chinese and Russian moves, particularly since it suggests they are actually doing the hard work of identifying their vulnerabilities (and yours) and then mobilizing to protect themselves while attacking you at it.  If China or Russia make a move against their people, then they have identified the exploit for it as being valuable enough to use on you.  It applies even here at home; how many times do we need to listen to calls for increased legislation around marriage, sex, the female body, sexual affiliation, etc. while seeing the people in power who propose it be convicted of offenses in the similar area? They are legislating in an attempt to contain their hardly controlled desires and impulses. Pray the gay away. Make women wear head scarves because you can’t control your dick. Censor the internet because your policies are unpopular. Repress guilt for your adultery by preventing even the most benign divorces.

This doesn’t come out of a valid, rational, well-evidenced alternative, this comes out of fear and insecurity about one’s own impulses.

I grew up in Dallas believing that the US was post-racial divide, sure, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned that certainly is not the case.  Police brutality, and the kneeling for it, along with endless reports of sexual harassment of women, along with having lived in the southwest and in the northeast, have opened my eyes, even if I did not always want to see.

How much did it take for football players to lose their memories, or to lose their credibility as deeply-thinking human beings, in order for people to care about CTE and Colin Kaepernick‘s and Eric Reid‘s abilities to have informed opinions? It took a Trump election to change it for liberals. Would Ta-Nehisi Coates’s profound book be as powerful as it is now instead of yet another protest similar to reading a Greenpeace or PETA campaign? Would people still have responded as desperately to many of today’s issues if Hillary had won, and we could rest more assured that the arc of moral justice bends towards progress?  Now, are you as certain that that bending is true?

Imagine how other peoples’ perceptions of the above photo has changed since it first happened, after the repeated fatilities from police brutality, the Trump election, the “disrespect of the flag” debate, the dragging of veterans for some reason into this discussion.

Are we really certain of our principles and opinions on issues?  If we just got rid of the National Anthem at sporting events, perhaps this is a logical move since, well, why the fuck is it there to begin with? But have we enriched our culture by taking it away, or just leave an empty hole? Or is this like removing Confederate statues where some would say we should remember the past and others would say we should not celebrate the past. Would we have opinions on these matters that would shift in different contexts?

Proposal

I propose that we as a culture reaffirm the power of the individual vote. Just focus on that. Some (I don’t think I do, given studies that don’t necessarily show it helps) believe we should get a day off to vote. Enact measures that increase the percentage of eligible Americans who can vote. Enact policies that encourage non-voting blocks who long gave up on the system to re-engage. Put research, people, money, and innovation into secure voting methods and machines (or paper ballots if those make more sense) that implement modern-day advances in social media (the complaint about American Idol being more reliable than our voting systems). I would imagine the Electoral College is a disincentive too towards any reaffirmation of the power of the vote. Halt Citizens United and require transparency in campaign funds, even if just temporarily to solidify the mission around individual votes.

I know that is an unrealistic proposal and it probably weakens the rest of this essay for some readers, but to me it is the most actionable, most grassroots political, most confidence-inspiring thing that could be done, rather than high-up deals made behind closed doors between groups that have no connection with the American people anymore.

As for foreign corruption of our institutions, well that seems like it hardly needs to be mentioned. And we are still dealing with the shock that it even needs to be addressed. Can we not conduct politics in such a way that we need to collude with hostile foreign nations in order to succeed? That seems like pretty low-hanging fruit to me.

An Ode to Coke Zero

Back when I was in grad school in Washington DC, I wrote a brief blog post about my love for Coca-Cola Zero.  I didn’t get into much detail there, so 9 years later, as I still drink Coke Zero regularly, I wanted to revisit the topic in greater depth.

I wanted to cover it especially before the rumored sunsetting of the Coke Zero branding, which is being replaced (allegedly), with Coca-Cola No Sugar, which will taste more like regular Coke but is otherwise the same except for lacking sodium benzoate.

To establish my cred, I probably drink Coke Zero every day.  It’s a regular staple of my diet.  If people finally discover it contains carcinogens, I’m most likely a dead man.  I’m sure I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on this stuff.  I’ve got my wife hooked onto it.  At Georgetown, several classmates got hooked on it.

History

I don’t know much about the history of Coke Zero, but according to its wiki page, it was created to be primarily targeted towards men, since Diet Coke was seen as a product for women.  It was released in 2005 but was piloted in several different iterations prior to that.  It got an early start with white packaging.

The Taste

Taste of course is the primary reason I love Coke Zero.  Function is crucial.  For someone who doesn’t want to drink just plain water, who doesn’t like seltzer, who doesn’t like tea or coffee (despite British parents who have long since assimilated into American society), but who needs caffeine for 18-20 hour days, who enjoys a sweet drink paired with even the most sophisticated meal, Coke Zero delivers in every way.  In a post HFCS world, where my taste buds are no longer receptive to 20-35g of sugar in a beverage, the artificial sweetener in Coke Zero (aspartame), is a modern solution to a 90’s and naught’s problem.

In short, we have a sugar-free caffeinated sweet all-purpose beverage.  It checks all the boxes.

And yes, Coke Zero on-par with Diet Coke.  At this point, the main differences between the two come down to taste and availability.  Diet Coke is almost always more available than Coke Zero, but I prefer the taste of Coke Zero.  Diet Coke apparently contains more caffeine than both regular Coke and Coke Zero.

The Bottle

The primary vessel for drinking Coke Zero, at least for me, is the legendary 20 fl oz bottle.  According to Coca-Cola’s official chronology, the contoured bottle first came into production in about 1915.  The plastic variant emerged during the rise of plastics in the 90’s, in 1993.

The perks of this perfect design? The contoured design (along with textured bumps) fit the hand naturally, allowing for less slip and more grip.   The design is a disadvantage for packing and space management, since there’s more wasted space in the silhouette than, say, in the aluminum can footprint.  But that’s not my problem.

The cap of a bottle is crucial.  For me being on the go in school, in NYC, popping my Coke Zero bottle in my bag while on a flight or on the subway, the screwable cap means I can save my drink without having to finish it in one go, like I would with a can.  And as my life is primarily sitting in front of a computer writing code, having a cap means that any slip ups I have won’t spill Coke Zero all over my laptop.

The Branding

Regular (Classic) Coke has traditionally had a red background.  Diet Coke took a silver backdrop to denote its lack of sugar.  The Coke Zero line has been predominately black in color.  Coke Life, added recently and using cane sugar (who cares?), is primarily green.  Coke No Sugar appears to still be predominantly black but with a large red element.

Within those primary delineations, sub-flavors will add minor color hints, such as the Cherry Coke Zero adding a cherry image, or Vanilla Coke Zero adding a vanilla-ish yellow-tan color.  In doing some research for this post, I also discovered that in Europe there’s a blood orange variant, Coca-Cola Light Sango, evidently existing because Holland loves Coke:

I have no real opinion on the branding for the products except that colors largely seem to make sense.  I talked about the Coke Zero label in the past blog post being a designer’s worst nightmare, what with awkward kerning and lettering that gradually increased in thickness from fat to thin from left to right to denote fewer calories/carbs.

Coke has since dropped that original amateurish Coke Zero label and brought the design into the main Coke design fold, but with a black background.

My Coke Rewards

For a while in 2016, I figured I might as well take advantage of the number of bottles I was buying and thus take part in the My Coke Rewards program.

Basically Coke developed a web site where you could enter codes off Coke products in order to translate your purchases into reward points, which were eventually redeemable for Coke-themed products, cash/vacation/etc. lotteries, etc.

I was pretty impressed that Coke was able to put together a team which built this online platform and had it working fairly well.  The site was slow to a degree (as is common with leviathan companies which create promo sites) but it worked for the most part, though I’m fairly sure its internals felt like a mid-naughts-era web design stack.

I entered a ton of codes, which meant I had to sit there with bottle caps on my desk and type in all the codes on them.

Obviously this became too laborious and I was pretty much entering sweepstakes with my points anyway, as the platform had little stickiness or payoff.  I eventually stopped using it.

Availability

This is the biggest thing that sticks in my craw when it comes to Coke Zero.

Why is it that pretty much any store I go to, there are shelves and shelves of classic Coke and maybe Diet Coke, but there’s always a sold out shelf of Coke Zero?  If you were selling your product at stores, would you not readjust your inventories to reflect customer preference?  Would you not allocate more shelf space towards Coke Zero and stock less of the other versions of Coke?

This has happened to me at enough different, scattered locations that there is only one explanation:  either Coca-Cola or the stores who sell its products do not see Coke Zero as a viable product outside of being an alternative to classic Coke to capture a specific demographic, or Coca-Cola believes that even its own alternative products (Coke Life, Coke Zero), are threats to the sanctity and bona fide original classic Coke flavor.

I could understand that if, in Coke’s world view, a Coke product became more popular than the flagship classic Coke, then this would spin the company into an identity crisis where it was no longer known for whatever “Coke” means these days as an international brand but instead as a beverage company rotating through easily replaceable drink brands.

Whatever the motive, this often means that I have to plan out at least a small bit about which store I go to, depending on the reliability of that store to stock Coke Zero for me whenever I may want it.

Final Words

For me, Coke Zero is one of those few consumer goods I would legitimately classify as deserving of brand loyalty and fanaticism; it hits the mark in every category.  While we live in an era of unlimited choice, what that often means is we’re forced to make compromises.  But Coke Zero is a legitimate 10 out of 10.

Mercenaries

Perhaps the quality I look for and admire the most in people I associate with now that I’m 39 years old is altruism, whether someone will take actions to help others which do not benefit him in any way, whether financially, relationship-wise (gift-power dynamics), or reputation-wise (the spotlighter or faux do-gooder).  It’s one of the hardest personal traits to fake and it reveals a glimpse into someone’s true character.  It gives pause, it shows self-reflection; it may show in its worst form a dishonest penitence, but more often than not it shows love.  It separates those who truly want others to succeed, even if they’re in direct competition, from those who preach cooperation and teamwork but practice Machiavellianism.

A competing rubric for whom you might associate with is the Steve Jobs-ian method of alphas only wanting to be around other alphas.  In my industry, software development, alphas-seeking-alphas (a4a?) is the prevailing one.  Everyone’s just trading up to be an ex of a Silicon Valley powerhouse — ex-Googler, ex-Apple, ex-Uber, ex-Facebook.

In this light, you would seek only to be around people better than you, either to improve yourself faster relative to your experience, or to use those people to catapult your status. Monetary reward is typically the main driver, whether it’s near immediate (finance) or delayed (the executive or pseudo-executive golden umbrella/fat signing bonus/no accountability for performance track).  In such a competitive industry, to not pursue advancement is akin to stagnation and eventual career suicide.  In such a competitive industry, the only line too far is, apparently, sexual harassment or the holiest of holies, trade secret theft, and even those charges apparently are iffy.

Oh Travis.

In most competitive companies, it has almost always been their duty to hire specifically for alphas: people who will fight, tooth and nail, to advance their company’s “goals”.

Naturally companies began realizing at scale, whether startup or enterprise, that they didn’t need loyalty; they just needed the best hired guns they could afford in order to accomplish short-term goals, while minimizing the biggest cost-centers: human capital and health care.  Enter lobbyists, contractors, hired guns, revolving doors, job-hopping.

During my public education in the creative 80’s and careless 90’s, there seemed unbeknownst to me to be the transition from loyal company men to this mercenary class.  A common film and TV trope in the 90’s and 2000’s was the death of the company man.

Mercs were one of the most lasting results of Operation Iraqi Freedom as I witnessed it — hirsute ball-capped knuckle-draggers and pampered support contractors while we made a military salary signaled some sort of rot back home in America.  Offshoring and outsourcing were political third rails, a crude outcome of the displacement of corporate ideals.

Still, I grew up believing the rules of the game were clearly defined, and immutable to those who valued their careers.

In government, politics were partisan but most normal state and federal representatives sought the same goals: sustainment for the middle class and the advancement of American ideals.  In government, there was the separation of powers, the three branches of government, the general idea that those who went in to government sought to improve the public good instead of receive monetary reward (whether that legend truly ever existed or not).

In 2017, either the perceived or real threat of foreign influence is at least enabled by this deterioration of loyalty as an organizational goal.  If you don’t have to worry about integrity, the betterment of others, and even punishment for being caught committing a crime, you’d be stupid not to try to get the most you can for yourself, right?

The thing is, qualities such as loyalty, integrity, and selfless service are only valuable in societies or communities which enforce those qualities.  If winning, or lack of enforcement of norms, trump those qualities, then those qualities become liabilities in the game.  Those who play fair fall prey to those who want to win.

The name of the game, even in American daily life now, is winning.  It doesn’t matter how you win.  It doesn’t matter who you’re beating, or what you’re even playing for.  Winners hire winners.  Don’t get caught in a loss, big or small.  Only you can tell yourself that you lost.  Never admit you were wrong.  You will never be cast out from your line of work or your principles, at least not for long, as long as you never lose belief in the win as a cure-all.

I’m not up for winning at any cost.  I refuse to play that game.  Psychopaths play that game.  If anything I should probably enjoy winning more.  I always root for the underdog.  I root for the home team.  I prefer team cohesion to hired guns.  I’m okay with losing.  I root for the magic of the dream ending, and the longevity of the ancestors who allowed those opportunities to happen.

But it requires that I pick my spots.  Daily life and one’s engagement in it is avoiding the places where assholes abound.  You’ve got your swindlers, your “intellectual debates” which are typically just cock-jousting, you’ve got the ex-Division 1 athlete kickball team that destroys everyone else, you’ve got the bullies who push the rules wherever they are because they know others fear conflict.  You see them every day.

Imagine politics and government: you pit hired guns whose expertise is in winning at any cost versus people who are not playing to win but instead are playing to keep what little they have, playing on free time they have very little of.  Money politics will wear down community fabric every time.  Monied attacks are more persistent.  They can keep trying new strategies.  They can adapt to splinter the core community interests, learning from failure after failure, waiting for that one time when they crack the shell.

This is roughly in line with, say, the Russian approach for countering America, wearing down American ideals into division, bickering, disillusionment, lack of will or unity in the face of hopelessness.

In theory, laws passed would protect community interests from the attrition onslaught of endless directed attack by defining time intervals between relevant legislative sessions, to protect community capital.

But it doesn’t feel much like there’s been much to protect the community’s interest, right?  There’s been loss after loss, and if it isn’t a direct loss, it’s likely a loss at someone’s expense who could not afford it.

With Citizens United, shit leaders, and everyone else trying to get rich or die tryin’, the rest of us just relegate ourselves to hoping that this person or that person isn’t going to fleece us as bad as the other.

At some point either the community will fight back against enemies domestic and foreign, or it will create its own alternative community which explicitly disallows the perceived enemies from before.

Got to see NYC Mayor de Blasio speak at the Pride Parade amidst all the fun paraders

A post shared by Ben Turner (@benghis_khan_turner) on

I don’t know what will happen but the worst thing good people can do is give up.  That is pretty much what other interests would want them to do.  Having recently moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, I am least a little more relieved by the social fabric that exists in Brooklyn than by the mercenary lives of most Manhattanites.

As for me, I can’t stand alphas, save for the rare alpha that comes along very rarely and who works for everyone else — typically those types of alphas become historical legends.  Fuck!, real alphas, ones I’ve gotten to work with in the past, both destroy poseur alphas while at the same time helping everyone else.  All effortlessly, for that is where true benign power resides.

And I can deal with mercs — everyone knows where they stand on things, generally predictable in their monetary risk-reward calculations.  But give me the misfits, give me the overlooked.  Give me the people who do the right thing even when no one’s looking.

Give me the hard road.  Though let me not walk it alone.

Give me the people who can’t be bought.  Give me a life worth living, and a life with people worth living it with.

 

Apperception

While I spent a week of my paternity leave watching my little daughter, I managed to finally watch the initial season of Westworld.  I had pretty low expectations but everyone said to watch it.

I did enjoy the show, though like most movies and shows (Harry Potter, Avatar), I would have preferred to just experience the made-up world for a while, just watching some of the character interactions, before returning to the main storyline.

There’s a scene where you get to see the interface that lets the developers change the personality weightings of the characters — I was drawn to it.

This reddit thread pointed out that you can see in the UI a bunch of other characteristics that developers can edit behind the fore layer.  So in theory you can get pretty fine-grained with the personality development.  Though I’m not sure where the developers imprint a character’s backstory here, or if it can even be done via the UI.

What I love is the immediate feedback from editing a character’s personality (shades of Bret Victor’s talks about interactive code) and how the mixture of weighted traits form a baseline personality which guide, but not proscribe, all their behaviors.

This got me thinking about Galapag.us; I think I’m getting to a point where I’m ready to work on it some more.  The main thing for me in the last year has been severe time limitations with family as well as a ton of stuff to learn and think about while coding at work.  What that means is that in order for me to work on Galapag.us, I need to prioritize building a separate module for things so that I can work on them in isolation in a language and framework that requires the least complexity and time spent reasoning what the code should be doing.  As a result, I’ve spun out the MUD/text-based aspect of Galapag.us from the web application code, and I’m going to do the same with the character creator.

I’d like to get to the point where I can create random characters for fun while on the subway to work.  My previous strategy was to create essentially an MVP where everything is integrated.  But now, since this is primarily a labor of love and my life’s project, then I want to just stay with the bare metal so I can work on the components that enable me to play more.

A List of Books I Read in 2016

In 2016 my goal was to read 20 books.  I ended up reading 24.

I actually started off the year reading avidly, but 3 things occurred which drove my spare reading time to almost nil:

  1. I started working on more projects at work which I enjoy working on in my free time as well.
  2. My wife not only became pregnant but delivered our baby in late November!
  3. Partially as a result of 2, we stopped traveling almost completely at the end of the year, outside of a last-hurrah trip to Chicago.

2016 marked a year of reading more specialized books to further my advancement as a developer and to deepen my knowledge of building worlds and multiplayer games as background research for Galapag.us.

This list above is probably a less interesting list than past years to anyone outside of myself.  Nevertheless, what impressed me about the books on the list was depth to which the authors had researched and experienced their own stories.  The amount of time it took the authors to travel down the paths of scaling data pipelines, or to iterate upon Dwarf Fortress, or to establish a long history of ground-truth work for the people of Vermont as Bernie Sanders has, or to build up the best animation company in the world.

To think that these people started at the same place and traveled so far from each other is something that I consider every day that my newborn daughter gets older.  Where will she go, and how far away from her starting point will she end up?

In 2017 I think a lot of my job’s architecture buildout will be done, but my daughter will be more of a handful once she goes mobile.  So I’ll set my goal for 2017 to read a modest 15 books.  The good side is that, having gone to our local SoHo bookstore recently, after having not looked for new books in a while, I was awash with new books I wish to read.

The curiosity is still there, but not the time.  I do also plan on writing on my blog more, to cope with a post-truthiness American mainstream world.

Feel free to look through my previous years’ lists of books.

Loyalty

During my brief lifetime, the US has enjoyed unchallenged dominance on the world stage.  Indeed, the US and patriotism are used together so often that, at least to an American, it sounds weird to hear the word “patriotism” used to refer to any other country.

I’m a patriotic person as well as a veteran and I constantly internally explore the meaning of patriotism, and by extension, loyalty.  Patriotism to me very rarely looks like patriotism does to, say, Trump, or to Obama even.  It doesn’t look like Red State patriotism, and it doesn’t look like non-veteran patriotism.  I’ll generally find more kinship with veterans, but even a lot of the time I’ll disagree with them on what patriotism should mean.

One thing I’m fascinated with is what peoples’ loyalties would look like if the US were not so dominant.  In particular, what would loyalties look like if the US fell far from its leadership position?  I think that most would say they would still love their country and defend it even if it fell in prominence.  But would they?

I’ve been living in DC and NYC for the last 9 years.  Most of my classmates, and probably coworkers, are fairly cosmopolitan.  Most of the Georgetown set are well-off and enjoy gilded lives.  They tend to focus on large-scale issues and organizations whereas a lot of folks in NYC I know have old money too, but they tend not to be as world-minded.

These DC and NYC people are the people on Instagram you always see traveling to exotic countries to help people, by way of fancy hotels and safaris and whatever else.  They’re people who seamlessly transfer from one city-state to another because, if you’re well-off enough, every city provides safety and comfortable living.  These people are politically interested, and activist where it makes sense, and so you might think they would be the most empowered to retain patriotism in the face of adversity.

But I wonder if these people would be the first to leave, the first to flee, the first to criticize how things are and take flight to other places, because they are sad to see how the state of things has deteriorated.  How this place they were patriotic about no longer represents what they believed in.  We didn’t leave the party, the party left us.  Because they have such mobility and freedom, giving up allegiance comes with virtually no disadvantages.  Ex-pat culture is a massive thing now.  What does the Brexit event mean in light of all this, with the city-state of London desiring to stay, while the rest of England wanted to leave?  Toned-down nationalism and the promise of pan-European unity did not reward around half of the population evidently.

Studies of Russian patriotism are perhaps instructive because they already lost a lot of their dominance on the world stage, and while, by geopolitical position, they will always be a significant force, a lot of Russia experts would say one of the defining traits of Russia is its wounded pride.

As a veteran I’m well aware of the fact that for the most part, US military strength overwhelms its opponents.  Sure, we have recently settled with giving up our overwhelming advantages by engaging in costly urban and asymmetric warfare, but for the most part, every military unit has been turned into a force multiplier by nature of training and technology.  What would it feel like to be part of a military that was not the biggest, baddest dog in the pound?  What if your squad or unit literally faced annihilation every day by a superior force?  Would you still be volunteering to serve?  The current calculus of gilding your resume would shift.

Religious faith and fealty to family are also receding.  For the most part I think this is a good thing, especially given the explosive investigations that people in power in the church and popular media exposure of abusive households during my lifetime has flipped the script.

Work for millennials and people my age does not encourage long-term stints with the same employer.  Not only do you generally only enjoy raises and promotions only when you change jobs, employers are also less likely to internally promote unless it’s a specific policy decision they’ve made.

So in no way is one rewarded for being loyal or patriotic these days.  It makes even less sense if you don’t live in the US.  With the Olympics set to begin soon in Rio, it’s often the only time some countries display overt national pride other than, say, World Cup?

I don’t really watch The Walking Dead but my wife does.  What interests me I guess is that communities of like-minded people in these post-apocalyptic worlds form and square off against each other.  Racial ties probably are strongest.  Bandwagoning towards the strongest leader would be the next strongest perhaps.  Religion?  Maybe nationality?

The Walking Dead hints at but doesn’t quite explain fully what its estimate is for how quickly we as a society would devolve from an orderly system to every person for himself.  Would it take you a month before you gave up on any hope for a return of order, before you started to choose a faction?  Just for your own safety until people started to figure out relative strengths between groups?

I know no one else enjoyed the film A.I., but Teddy is perhaps one of my favorite all-time film characters and the betrayal of humans towards the androids they created is just so compelling and painful a subject for what will likely happen to us when we begin co-existing with computers that it’s chilling to me to see the film.

David’s programming and state as a young child is in conflict with his role in his family and so his actions become suspicious and scary to the family, particularly when the real son manipulates David into doing things that alienate their parents.

I enjoyed Fallout’s storyline regarding androids and humans, with the rift generating two different factions, The Brotherhood (those who sought to remove technology from public availability and hoard it for themselves, for everyone’s good) and the Railroad, who sought to smuggle androids to safety.

It’s true that loyalty can lead to cruelty towards outsiders and xenophobia.  But lack of loyalty, or lack of attachment to anything, leads to disengagement, a common complaint for American voting habits and politics at this point.

I’m definitely a hometown sports fan.  I don’t like bandwagoners and I respect sports fans a lot more if they root for teams in cities that they live or lived in.  I once knew a guy — Cowboys fan, Lakers fan, Yankees fan.  Infuriating.  It’s almost though you can’t trust someone who doesn’t even root for his hometown teams.

There was a problem connecting to Twitter.

Maybe the smell test here is if you’re not loyal to something, or have faith, or take a stand on something or have an opinion, then where can other people decide that you stand on anything.  Seriously, if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for everything, right?

A common trope also is that for those who are loyal, they are seen as weak and predictable — the Joker loves to take advantage of Batman in this way, but where I see it happen the most in real life is in bias committed against veterans.  It’s the idea that people shrug and give lip service to “supporting the troops”, but then if they don’t like a veteran, the person becomes a bona fide PTSD case: on the edge, ready to snap, probably suicidal, a lost cause.  This is where what you’ve stood for and sacrificed for becomes weaponized against you.  Your beliefs and your actions, generally done in service to others, becomes a negative upon you.

The other side is conformity, right?  If you don’t swear fealty, then you must be removed.  If you’re not with us, you’re against us.  It’s such a thin line, loyalty.

All this stuff is interesting to me, and perhaps because it becomes so prominent during election campaigns, that’s why I tend to write about these things every 4 years.

I certainly get why Asian-Americans, of which I consider myself a member, have parents who immigrated to the US and kept a low profile and tried to work hard and stay out of trouble.  If you’ve existed in a world where people turn on each other, question each others’ loyalties, and judge each other based on those sorts of qualities, it would be desirable to leave all that, try to raise your family, and not draw any undue attention to yourself.  As a soon-to-be father I appreciate that more and more, particularly as I also think about my career and what actions I would take in the future.

I guess I don’t have a particular point to make about all this, but these emotions people have are latent, powerful forces.  If a certain set of people no longer displays these emotions or ascribes them to common causes, where will that emotion and loyalty show itself in the future?  Does it put us in danger to just assume that the dampening of nationalism necessarily means a general sense of acceptance to a global common cause?

I doubt it.

Experimenting with React

resume_mobileWorking on Galapag.us allows me to experiment with new frameworks and to try out new design patterns on mini-apps.

React is one of the newer front-end frameworks and rivals Angular in popularity in new JavaScript apps these days.  Created at Facebook, React has done well to allow a developer to make isolated components which have readily-understandable state at any given point in time.  Having been spoiled at Vimeo by their breezily easy codebase, I was excited to try React to see if it would resemble working with Vimeo’s code.

It’s pretty good!  Components aren’t entirely isolated — you still have to find some clever way to inject style, or just settle on styling globally if you don’t want to do it inline (which React allows for).

Anyway, I built 2 mini-apps.  They’re not quite ready for production yet, so I’m not really going to link to them, but…

Resume

I’d been looking around the web and found JSON Resume, a schema proposal that allows for saving one’s résumé details in a JSON format, so it’s easily portable and separated from style and presentation concerns.  Perhaps an even more important goal of the project is to provide an alternative to the horrendous process of uploading your details via PDF or DOC to some job application site, only to have it either mangle the parsing of your file or, even worse, to force you to re-enter all the info into some shitty 5 page web form that looks like it was constructed a decade ago.  And God forbid you should ever have to update your info when you come back to your profile years later.

I figured it would be nice to have this app built-in for free — perhaps entering in all the pertinent data would become a quest to complete.

So I mapped a lot of the pre-existing modeling I already had in Galapag.us into a call to the API server that serves up your résumé data in JSON format compatibile with JSON Resume 0.0.0.

json

This app didn’t have that much complication in terms of interaction or dynamic changes — a straight-forward app making an AJAX call to populate the front-end.

But it’s fairly clean and extensible — and it’s mobile-friendly.

butterfly

Butterfly

The other mini-app I made is called Butterfly, as in a social butterfly.  The goal of Butterfly is simply to provide an easy tool for you to jot down someone’s name whom you just met at your local deli, or at a party, or whatever, so you know how to find his/her name later once you’ve long forgotten.

After all, we remember close friends but often meet so many random people who are still remarkable in their own way in your life, that we can’t remember their names.

This app is mobile-friendly too, and should make it easy for you to load the app on your phone and add the details of someone you just met.

The Bigger Picture

The résumé data signifies that my data modeling is at least getting to an intermediate point where it’s beginning to provide value in having a large datastore but also diverse enough to support applications which need broad access to different datapoints.

And the butterfly data model helps to map the social graph.  I’ve witnessed the torch and pitchfork brigades that attack services which attempt to allow people to post content about other people without their express permission.  While I disagree with this as a supporter of radical transparency, I understand how it’s just not tenable in today’s society.  But at least for those who opt-in and for certain datapoints, those who volunteer should reap all the benefits of a more interconnected virtual world.  So I do plan on rewarding those who share more — with things like the genetic crossing mini-app.

Galapag.us still isn’t useable in the sense that it replaces my daily viewing habits, and it’s not my first choice for a datastore yet.  I know when the site will be getting approachable for others when I start to dogfood it myself.  I keep adding more and more over the years, and refining that which is already there.  Eventually it will become useful, and, hopefully, necessary in terms of providing competitive reputation.

gc

A List of Books I Read in 2015

In 2015 I read 29 books.  My goal was 40 books.

Near the beginning of the year I decided to focus more of my time on coding for my ongoing personal project, Galapag.us.  That project is still in need of reaching a point of critical mass.  It’s scaled up as I’ve learned more about how to develop an application from top to bottom, but it’s still in need of a lot of work, with an ever-increasing scope.  In calculating the amount of time to push the ball forward for Galapag.us, I realized that time spent on the train, plane, subway, or waiting room could be spent figuring out the next crucial pieces for that project, instead of reading.

Hence the dropoff.

The books:

  1. (7) The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made – Walter Isaacson (Isaacson is a great biographer; starts off slow)
  2. (10) @War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex – Shane Harris (hard to find anything as thorough these days that isn’t also screechy about Snowden)
  3. (10) The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York – Robert Caro (exhaustively comprehensive)
  4. (7) Bad Luck and Trouble – Lee Child (my first Reacher book)
  5. (7) Rocketeers – Michael Belfiore (good primer on private outer space efforts)
  6. (10) The Martian: A Novel – Andy Weir (MACGUYVER IN SPACE)
  7. (7) Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace – Leon Panetta (latter half is just a timeline basically)
  8. (8) The Hacker Playbook: Guide to Penetration Testing – Peter Kim (solid broad coverage)
  9. (10) Slash – Slash, Anthony Bozza (read this and Reckless Road for full GnR)
  10. (10) Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity’s Chief Engineer – Rob Manning (invaluable engineering insight)
  11. (10) Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of NYC – Robin Nagle (ethnography of most important civic workers)
  12. (10) Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground – Kevin Poulsen (best book on carding black market out there; read along with Mitnick)
  13. (9) The Basics of Hacking and Penetration Testing: Ethical Hacking and Penetration Testing Made Easy – Patrick Engebretson (best book I’ve found for how to start out pen testing)
  14. (8) Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century – Michael Hiltzik (comprehensive look at project which changed modern west)
  15. (8) Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money – Nathaniel Popper (background into original players behind bitcoin’s rise)
  16. (8) Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs – Ken Jennings (Jennings is funny but Word Freak is a better book)
  17. (8) The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate – Robert Kaplan (gift from Colin Nagy; Kaplan & George Friedman the best on geopolitics, despite his neoliberal leanings)
  18. (10) Primates of Park Avenue – Wednesday Martin (delicious ethnography of the Manhattan elite)
  19. (10) Palace of Treason – Jason Matthews (sequel to Red Sparrow, tons of tradecraft by ex CIA case officer)
  20. (8) Armada: A Novel – Ernest Cline (next novel after Ready Player One; same themes, more scifi, seems tailored for film rights)
  21. (10) It’s So Easy: and other lies – Duff McKagan (this is like Andre Agassi’s bio — the later phases of his life somehow transcend the flashy beginning)
  22. (6) The End of Fashion: How Marketing Changed the Clothing Business Forever – Teri Agins (a now-outdated dryly written history of mass-marketed clothing trends)
  23. (10) Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates (I avoided this book for too long because of hype, but the most insightful experience about being a modern black person that I’ve ever read)
  24. (5) Slice Harvester: A Memoir in Pizza – Colin Atrophy Hagendorf (heavy emphasis on memoir, not pizza — you will not learn much about NYC pizza from this book)
  25. (10) The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State – William McCants (best primer for what ISIS is about from one of the most knowledgeable in his field)
  26. (8) Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker – Molly Bloom (fun insight into private celeb poker games in NYC, Vegas, and LA)
  27. (7) Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command – Sean Naylor (comprehensive from early days till post-Afghanistan)
  28. (8) Building the H-Bomb: A Personal History – Kenneth Ford (some good explanation of nuclear physics but also fuzzy-headed academics going camping)
  29. (10) The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win – Gene Kim (recommended at Container Days, helps understand continuous integration)

Anyway, the good part of this year was that I absolutely loved the books that I did read!  My 1-10 scores tend to skew above 6, but that’s mainly because I’m not forced to read terrible books.  I think I’ve only given a few 3s over the years.

I rated 13 books this year a perfect 10, which is absurd.  I rate a book a 10 if not only do I think it’s well-written and authoritative in its research or access, but I also think it’s important that others read the book.  A 9 is a book that I loved reading and that I think is important, but I took more personal satisfaction in it.  An 8 is a solid book, a 7 is one that I probably felt like I had to read for my own education, and 6 and below is mostly just poorly-written fluff.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book: I really wanted to not like it, but it challenged me like few books I’ve read have.  It pissed me off, made me uncomfortable, but also made me feel love, and loved.  Definitely the most influential book I’ve read in a few years.

This year I do plan to continue putting more time into Galapag.us.  I’m still trying to get it to a point where I love to use it, use it for everything, and even stop needing to use other sites.  It’s getting closer.  So let’s say my goal in 2016 is to read 20 books.

As always, I am in search of new books that cover subject matter that I don’t know much about so I can get a baseline sense of the insider baseball within.  Subculture books are always fun.  I prefer nonfiction and I generally enjoy reading journalists’ work since they can balance efficiency with fascination, discipline, and exploration.

I tried to read more fashion books this year to get a sense of that industry, but most are garbage or write of segments of time with designers who have long since been relegated to the dustbin of history despite their meteoric rises.  What does longevity mean in that industry?

I felt like cyber and hacking storytelling has finally reached a point where the stories are amazing to read, but are also true.  It’s been the stuff of cheesy plot lines in the past but now we regularly read highwire stories of law enforcement chasing unknown online criminal enterprises.  That world has matured into reality, is basically what I’m saying.

Here’s my previous years’ lists of books.

Got any book ideas?  Leave a comment.

Books I Read in 2014

This year I read 40 books.  I’m almost done with a few more really long books but I’m saving them for next year.  My goal was to read only 25 books — I think I figured that my reading would drop off with trying to work on creating practical blocks of code and learning algorithms, but I also did a bit of traveling up and down the coast, so that allowed for more reading time.

They are rated from 1 to 10.  I rated 10 of the 40 books this year a 10.  As always, the books I think are absolutely worth reading and which I think say something profound or new are rated at a 10.  Rarely do I rate below a 6, just because I wouldn’t have chosen to read the book anyway if I knew it was that bad. 9’s and 8’s are usually solid books, but not must-reads.  7’s I appreciated the content and was satisfied with my choosing to read them.

This year I added very very brief comments giving my 2-second gut review.

This year, my emphasis has been on deepening my understanding of code quality, algorithmic efficiency, and runtime speed as I try to become a more seasoned programmer.  My goal has been to practice more C and C++ to learn from a sound fundamental base.  I also tried to become stronger in devops-related topics.

I think this has been my best year for reading books written by women.  In the past I had read the Hunger Games, The Giver, and Harry Potter series, and those shouldn’t all count as uniques.  But this year I was delighted to read some fascinating investigative journalism books (on chocolate, Chinese consumerism, and shipping) and a couple amazing memoirs (Julia Child and the woman with the brain on fire).

In the coming year I’m going to try to read 40 books.  In particular, if you have suggestions for investigatory journalism books, I’d love to read them!  I also love books with biographies on great persons or great projects.

Previous years:

Why You Should Love Keanu Reeves for His Acting

Keanu’s understated demeanor and humility, combined with the Sad Keanu meme and reddit love (for having done things like giving part of his earnings to the rest of the crew on his movies), have won him at least a begrudging respect from even the most hardened and dismissive critics of Keanu.  A common refrain now, after years of being the dumb Ted Logan or the wooden Neo, is that, well, Keanu seems like maybe he’s a great person, but that doesn’t mean he’s a good actor!

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Let me attempt to convince you otherwise.

Basic Filmography

My exposure to Keanu at an early age took the form of watching Parenthood over and over because it was on TV all the time.  That movie, an under-rated film (and, I must digress, was a significant influence in my life as it showed me the dysfunctionality of families well before I was able to see it in the families around me, due to my age and immaturity), came out in 1989 which was also the year the original Bill and Ted came out.

I don’t know which film influenced this doofus young dude character the most but Keanu as Tod in Parenthood was one of the first indications of Keanu as a sweet, innocent, misunderstood character, as he played what seemed to be a trouble-making, trouble-attracting boyfriend who actually ends up helping to bring a family together.  He played Tod and Ted, I might add, after being a character in Dangerous Liaisons (with John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Glenn Close, et al).

Ted dominated the early 90’s (note that somehow he ended up a timeless film with George Carlin), and in my childhood I would watch Bill & Ted in their animated cartoon show.  Yes, that’s Keanu, animated.  How many actors were animated before digitization became a thing?

Strangely as a college kid I didn’t follow films that much but I did fall in love with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which features some of Keanu’s most infamous acting work as a ridiculous Jonathan Harker.  Point Break, My Own Private Idaho, and Little Buddha I didn’t experience until I was much older.

Speed took Keanu out of the Ted phase of his career and into an older, more wooden phase in which he wasn’t perceived as a goofy kid anymore, but just a bad actor.  Some other classic films did little to change his reputation but he managed to accomplish a lot: a William Gibson novel (Johnny Mnemonic), a film with Charlize Theron and Al Pacino as a badass Satan (Devil’s Advocate), a scab quarterback in The Replacements (with Gene Hackman, Orlando Jones, and yes, a younger Jon Favreau!), and some poor attempts at blockbusters (Chain Reaction with Morgan Freeman) and Feeling Minnesota (with Cameron Diaz and the great Dan Akroyd).

I’m just covering the facts here, ma’am, but it’s to get us on the same page.  You probably loosely know this history up to this point, since it’s the foundation for much of the criticism of Keanu’s acting chops.  Even my argument that few actors have worked in such a wide range of roles with such a high caliber of fellow actors is not enough to convince many.

I bring it up because I think like most projects of creation, it is interesting to see which people tend to end up working with each other.  I figure even the most assholish of assholes will get at least one big chance to work on a project with other talented types, but unless that person is just a pure genius and everyone knows it, it’s unlikely that others will want to pick that person again.

I tend to think of Kanye as that ridiculously creative, assholish genius, while I think of Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up as a person who had one chance to work with a group of friends but turned them off. I’ve read that the Knocked Up cast thought Heigl was a total stuck-up bitch and that reputation has followed her since — like, how could you not enjoy hanging out with the Apatow crew?

The fact that Keanu in his career has been able to work with so many different actors of high esteem is a pretty good indicator that he’s a pleasure to work with and, based on the stories revolving around him, an inspiration to be around.  This guy is the definition of a force multiplier who makes those around him better, even if his own qualities can be somewhat indeterminate (and this is a common theme among my favorites: Tyson Chandler, Paul Walker, Kenneth Manimal Faried, and my best friends, as examples).  Keanu reportedly took pay cuts in Devil’s Advocate and The Replacements to land Al Pacino and Gene Hackman.

But does that make him a great actor?  No!, most detractors would say.

The Outsider

So, let me get to the meat of my argument.  And I’m going to need to make a personal parallel here.  Keanu is a halfie like I am.  He’s mostly Canadian, but of mixed descent.  Some British.  Keanu is half-white, half-Hawai’ian/mutt.  Born in Lebanon, raised by his mom with several stepdads around.

I am mostly American, some Brit (by my Brit parents).  Half-Asian, half-white.  Raised mostly American but with some tiger mom ideals.  I was quickly outpaced by my advanced classmates (mostly Asian) in middle and high school, but I didn’t fit in with the rest of the student body, and while I enjoyed sports I was stuck in right field or last spot on the tennis team.

So with all that in mind, I began to notice I identified with Keanu in a key respect: he tends to play the role of the outsider come to help the community deal with and resolve its problems.  And if you look at things this way, you’ll see a whole new side of acting and of Keanu open up.

Here we see Tod, healing his girlfriend’s small family by teaching the young son without a father that his entree into puberty is not abnormal.  Shane Falco as the quarterback of a bunch of scrubs who get a chance at filling in where they don’t belong.  Harker traveling to Transylvania to be a liaison between the modern world and the mystical world.  Siddhartha himself, the man who sought to leave the gates of elite security and see how his people truly lived.

This helps to explain the interpretation of his acting as well, certainly.  For him to be an outsider means that he did not grow up with the same cultural imprinting, ritual, and mannerisms as the rest of the community.  He is going to be perceived as not acting “normally” or quite human enough.  He is foreign, he is weird.  This I identified with very strongly since the most common characterization of me is that I am non-emotive and stoic — but this never quite resonated with me because within myself is a complex torrent of insecurities, feelings, and understandings about the relationships occurring around me.

In Keanu’s more recent films, the outsider theme is even more prevalent.  In 47 Ronin, Keanu is a half-Japanese, half-white subservient mystical nature outcast who is treated with contempt by the samurai around him.  Says one of the characters, “I would rather have been killed by that beast than saved by a half-breed.”

Perhaps the perfect role for Keanu under this intepretation was as Klaatu, the stoic alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still who comes to Earth in human form to warn humans that we are on a path of self-destruction.

The Life-Weary Veteran

There’s a theme of Keanu as detective and beaten-down veteran, or as a technical expert.  Detectives are, culturally, those who investigate the other side in order to unravel the truth that has been hidden away.

His efficient, calm demeanor actually suits him well as a head-shotting ex-hitman in John Wick:

As a detective in A Scanner Darkly, Keanu’s character breaks down as he loses his ability to maintain identity. and is rotoscoped (how many actors have been rotoscoped?) by Richard Linklater (a triumphant director of our time) based on a Philip K. Dick book.  Keanu is enmeshed into the fabric of our age, are you getting the picture yet?

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He plays an exhausted truth-seeker forced into his trade in Constantine, Johnny Mnemonic, John Wick (though this also fits his villainous Street Kings and Man of Tai Chi roles), and of course Point Break.

Now, Point Break is legendary (Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days and Point Break are spectacular — Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty seem very different and distant).  It wasn’t always, but it’s quotable now.  And, I’m very happy to say, it was playing the day of my wedding when I was with my groomsmen waiting for the ceremony to start.  I AM AN FBI AGENT!, a line both praising and mocking our hero.

The Humble

Arrogance is exhausting to deal with when I hear it in others.  Look how Keanu phrases things.  It’s refreshing.  “I get to play Kai” (about 47 Ronin).  On his most recent reddit AMA: ” Thank you everyone for spending some time with me. It was great to spend some time with you.”  An older reddit AMA was entitled “Ask me, if you want, almost anything”.  He is asking for your permission and is grateful for it.

The Blind Mystic

There is, obviously, the Neo phase of Keanu’s career, when the mocking progressed from Speed to WHOA.  Thomas Anderson as the office drone.  But let’s look at The Matrix within this context: Keanu’s girlfriend had miscarried their child shortly before, and then not too much longer afterwards, they had broken up and she had died in a car accident.  Since then Keanu has not really had serious relationships at least that we know of, and he’s seemed to exist in a separate plane more than ever since.

With this in mind, consider the scene where Trinity dies:

Keanu, blinded, but omniscient of Agent Smith, the robots, his mortality, and his Jesus metaphor (“table for 12”).  That’s a powerful scene and no one else fits it better than Keanu does, as a human and as an actor.

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So now we can begin to see depth in Keanu’s acting and in his role choices.  His most recent shift to gunkata, martial arts, and killing somewhat parallels Liam Neesonian films after Neeson’s wife died.

Next he will be in a TV mini-series John Rain, in which he’s an ex-Special Forces (near and dear to my own heart) ex-CIA assassin-for-hire, based on a book character of the same name who is half-Japanese, half-American.  It’s like the perfect damn role for him.

The Fellow Sufferer

Keanu understands the human condition, such as this comparison to the trials of life being like quicksand:

As Siddhartha, he chose to see death instead of comfort:

Naturally he chose the red pill:

He’s been somewhat aloof about his alter-ego, Sad Keanu

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but he’s aware of how others perceive him, such as in his picture book Ode to Happiness, which my brother thoughtfully got me for Christmas last year:

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Do you see now, Neo?  What you know you can’t explain, but you feel.  It’s there, like a splinter in your mind.  Keanu Reeves is Hollywood’s best outsider, the definition of the role, the person who crosses boundaries between realms, who fits in neither here nor there.  He has traveled the world in search of truth, and he sets an example for us all to be better people through his roles and his personal deeds.

To me, any small sliver of all this puts him up there in terms of acting, but altogether, how could you argue differently?  Perhaps I look up to what he represents more than most, and identify with his feelings of alienation and isolation but deep sympathy with the human condition, but I hope that others see him the same way.

And with that, what’s a better way for me to sign off than with this Johnny Utah/Ferris Bueller (one of my top 3 films of all time) mashup?