RSS
 

A Liminal Event

30 Mar

At 36 years of age, as of March 7th, I have just become gloriously married.

You know those times at school when the teacher or a counselor would have you write down your 1-year, 5-year, and 10-year goals?  For as long as I’ve been an adult, marriage has been one of my key goals, since I value stability and a strong base as extremely helpful building blocks towards a better, unique, independent, meaningful future.  This has been a wondrous achievement, to become married to my wife!

It took me a while, and I was woefully ill-prepared for any form of marriage up until just recently despite wanting it, having incurred some hefty life experiences that forged my Ben-ness: training, war, official mistakes, transitions between cities and schools, finding a fulfilling career.  Fortunately, I also hadn’t found the right woman yet.  In retrospect I think I’ve dodged some bullets in life and I safely made it to this happy point; healthy and happy and intact to be able to recognize it in another and now I’m very lucky to have met but also deserving of my wife.  My Best Man wanted it clear to me that I was fortunate to have met her, whereas I countered that I also put in my time and effort to earn that chance.

And now we’re here.  I must confess; I’m a pretty even-keeled guy but our wedding was amazing.  Even better than we could have expected, better than all the fantasies and cliches.  Our friends and family, all holding court in their own ways, keeping the party on lock, the wedding vows themselves touching, the pacing and pre-wedding rituals, the smiles on family who have given us so much but we have not quite given much back to yet.

The honeymoon as well was what I would call a true honeymoon.  While I am loathe to engage in goofy grinny sugar, the honeymoon in Costa Rica (a bit in a secluded rainforest resort where we could sleep and eat the best food, a bit in a beach resort full of sun and surf) was almost fairy-tale like.  The best part was to share it all with a true equal, someone who is equally dedicated and invested in us — perhaps the most valuable thing one can find in life as well as one of the hardest and rarest things to find.

Prediction: Anniversary Weddings

As a side note, after having seen what the wedding culture is like, how the TV shows portray weddings, how our own planning went, I think if you wanted to create an extremely effective long-term marketing campaign, you would push for anniversary weddings as a major new event.  Think about what couples go through: their first wedding is probably going to be at least somewhat on the cheap since they’re either on the hook for it and/or they have no disposable income.  So a bride is not necessarily going to get her dream wedding when she’s so young, unless someone’s parents are loaded.

But imagine: after 5 years or so, the couple will probably have more money and will want to throw a more lavish wedding.  Perfect opportunity to market a second wedding.  Then the longevity wedding at 10 years or whatever, before a couple starts to get old and the glamour of the wedding’s superficialities fade away.  This would create several more opportunities for wedding industry folks to cater to couples and to create narratives out of multiple weddings.  It would also create more excuses for families to gather (which in the grand scheme of things is immensely important, overlooking the pettiness and jokes that surround having to deal with the in-laws and crazy uncles and whatnot).

Anyway.

Introspection

This is one of those moments in life where I take a knee at the top of the hill, look back at the path I’ve come from, and sigh and reflect on all that’s happened.

And then look further up the ridges and ranges to see what’s coming next.

I can definitely feel the strong pull of crossing over from one stage of my life into another.  For the first time, that journey is not alone, my decisions are not solely my own, and instead of destructive creation, there is now only creation, at least for the fortunate time being.  The teens and 20s are pretty destructive years but they chip away at your character and you end up in your 30s and 40s as the type of person you have chosen to be.

We love our little place in the East Village, but we have our story to write and we wonder where we go next.  For once it’s nice to share that decision, that conscious choice.

A developer’s job as a crash course in multilingualism for coding languages, organizational principles and methodologies for projects, and building applications rapidly — I feel this work has deepened my appreciation and respect for the creator and the builder and the artist, a continuation of my studies in art/tech school.  Writing code has in some ways taken the place of writing for me; I no long blog so much unless some large sweeping societal issue has me particularly wound up to write.

I was writing finger .plans in high school and college because I saw John Carmack doing it.  I wrote blog posts through the rest of most of my life thus far, even while in the Army.  Nowadays I think my conversation with the internet, and therefore with you, the reader, has contracted into more private communities.  In fact I think the most interesting communities will become smaller and more niche — it’s already happened on reddit where the subreddits are still positive, informative, and overly open to each other.  I would love to see local intranets for residential buildings or mesh networks that require some form of test in order to gain entry.  When I want to converse, I want to talk about what can be built, not why things shouldn’t, which has become the norm for discourse in most public forums.

Negativity

If I had to say what I hate most, it’s probably negativity.  I’m a pretty conservative person in my own assessments, probably a product of both my Chinese mother’s caution and my sergeant’s training to hope for the best but prepare for the worst, but this should not be confused with negativity.  Negativity is debilitating, demotivating, draining.  Those who find the inner strength to build and create and love need to be supported by the rest of us, not brought down.  And when it comes to examining what is possible, I’m usually overly optimistic.

LOOK AT THIS SHIT.  I PULLED THIS CLASSIC SLATE EXAMPLE UP ON THE FIRST TRY. LOOK AT THIS SHIT. I PULLED THIS CLASSIC SLATE EXAMPLE UP ON THE FIRST TRY.

Cranks and haters have always been a part of online and intellectual discourse, but it’s run rampant now that we have what is somewhat of a critic’s internet buffet. The Twitter community I used to enjoy, journalists and reporters and analysts and policy folks, once encouraging of a naive eagerness for new information, has become TMZ-like (in that it loves gossip, the less true the better) and pompous in its derision for anything and anyone.  No one is safe, in the end, from being torn apart for whatever reason: the idea won’t scale, this or that person is a fraud, etc.  The Atlantic, Slate, these are publications that your liberal news junkie loves to read.  And the writers they hire at those places are absolutely TERRIBLE in their negativity or insinuations of impending failure.

YouTube Preview Image

Facebook buying Oculus Rift, Amazon studying the use of drones for delivery, Google making a HUD interface in Google Glass.  What I want to be a part of is a community where those achievements are exalted, not ripped to shreds, as they have been by people I might have respected at some point.  I grew up in an idealistic proto-internet time of downloading MP3s and playing Quake online and Napster was a giant; anything was possible even if it was all insane.  Unless you tune all the negativity stuff out, you wouldn’t know.  You wouldn’t marvel at all the amazing work, such as the people who have contributed research and proofs of work towards, say, NP-Complete math problems.  Louis CK would say “everything is great and no one is happy”; I mean the research and consideration going into those Facebook and Amazon drones and balloons is just a beautiful thing to behold.

As the internet has passed through most of its adolescence and begins its maturity, the rest of everyone who plugged in were stuck in a status quo where it seems none of those critics and cranks have really advanced or improved at their own crafts.  To see the amazing achievements announced daily, and then see them shit on, well, it’s frankly infuriating.

Jason Collins coming out as a gay NBA player.  The quickest response: “But he’s a horrible player.”  Sports, one of the worst refuges of the shitbag critic.  A dude makes the NBA and instead of people showing him respect, they’re quick to point out he’s not a perennial all-star.  I’m sure even in Jackie Robinson’s day, people were slagging on him for something.  Some petty something.  As another sports example, what could be worse than this upvoted rant against watching sports?

The Snowden affair has made everything absolutely toxic.  The government lurks behind every piece of electronics now, in the minds of Snowden’s supporters.  It’s the same kind of paranoia I’m sure most of those people would make fun of the Republicans for in their loathing of Obama, or of conspiracy theorists for their suspicion of anti-gun, anti-religion, etc. liberals.  When John Schindler is pointing out how Glenn Greenwald is one bad day away from appearing on Alex Jones’ show, everything seems absurd.  My liberal peers now make blase jokes about the NSA but barely bat an eyelash at unprecedented expansion of corporate personhood.

SXSW just happened and I’ve never been, but I know people who seem to go regularly.  How do they afford it?  It’s expensive as fuck.  Do their employers pay out for it?  How much are people really getting out of SXSW?  So many people who go aren’t even creatives or builders.  I’m definitely not against a flashy party, but I do wonder when it seems like the B-players are being sent.  E3, SXSW, and other conferences are now meetups for the elite and rich, those who can either afford to go or who are paid to go.  And what are they contributing back as a result?  This is why conferences lose their magic.  This is why, most notably, TED tanked.

Wonder why communities stagnate?  Because they have more cranks than dreamers and helpers.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to love watching the Grammy’s and Oscars more.  For me it’s bewilderment at the complexity and sheer market size of their industries.  The amount of resources, attention, and output generated by dresses, producers, talented artists and directors, the entertainment and happiness that they bring.  I love the process.  Studying how films are cast, the bonding the cast goes through for the film, the pushing of boundaries in the technical areas of the film, the representation of songs off an album into powerful videos, live tours, and performances for award shows, the biographies written up in Rolling Stone and whatnot.

YouTube Preview Image

20130813-1190-macklemore-cover-306x-1376429053

But the pettiness of the crowd drags it all down.  All the slagging on Macklemore even though him and Ryan Lewis were by far the most interesting artists of the year in terms of touching all aspects of the industry and affecting culture.  I actually thought Lorde’s album was incredibly powerful for such a young person but I’m happy with all the results.  The same goes with Oscars.  I try to make a point of it to see as many nominees in as many categories as I can, because those picks represent a curation by the industry.  Hence it drives me nuts to hear people completely destroy films in their critiques — the labor going into a project is admirable, even for lesser quality films.

Negativity.  I can’t stand being around it.

Elite Self-Loathing

One story I really hate seeing is the condescension towards Silicon Valley startups who seem to be creating fluff products when, you know, there are people dying in Africa and stuff!  Why can’t those engineers work on actual important problems?

Of course, who’s writing those stories?  Well in the case of the latest NYTimes story, it is written by none other than a Columbia computer science grad student who lives among the gilded engineer community being called out.

Man, where to start.  The insanely awesome advances in open source software, particularly in the promiscuity of excellent language features being shared among the major coding languages such that they’re all beginning to share a lot of commonalities, these are created by developers and coders and hackers and engineers, people who actually do enjoy spending a whole weekend by themselves indoors in the dark pushing characters around on the screen.

0199210829.02.LZZZZZZZ

You don’t have to wait around too long before you hear people say, “We must teach the kids how to code!”  Chances are, the people saying it can’t code.  And they won’t go learn how to code beyond tutorials.  This is fine — I certainly don’t think everyone needs to code — but I am definitely a believer that if you tell others they should do something, you should have done it yourself first.  Now, code as a gateway towards solving problems that kids might be interested in, this is a great addition to a school syllabus. (having them design a database to catalog what they own, or a double-booking ledger system to keep track of what little money they make, etc.)

Anyway, my point was that engineers are good at primarily one thing, which is writing very specific code that can test the limits of what was previously possible.  Criticizing Facebook for focusing on creating end-of-year videos?  That’s an immense computational task and it had to be done using tons of peoples’ disparate datapoints.  But the knowledge of how to pull that off is now going to be passed along to successors, to schools and research facilities, and eventually to grad student theses and private products.  As a former student of international development practices, that shit is hard enough as it is and most everyone in that world barely has the statistician’s background enough to be able to make informed decisions about whether this or that program or measurement is actually helping the people who need it.

So it’s the height of arrogance for people who don’t know how to build or measure things to tell others who can do one or the other that they should not only do that task but also design, fund, scale out, and deliver onto the ground solutions to improve society.  Some mercenary blog-quality writer for The Atlantic decides that this or that project is worth slagging because he was clever enough to think of holes in the project’s design while he sips his morning coffee.

I saw this at ITP — while the community itself is immensely supportive and open towards nonsensical, wildly over ambitious ideas, when it comes to critiquing others’ work, the feedback often comes back to blowing huge holes through someone’s work just to sound smart about it.

Getting back to those life goal write-ups.  I never really did them very seriously but when I think back to them now, they were immensely informative and helpful.  When I was in college, I think my short-term goal was to be a full-time daytrader, since I was doing fairly well trading the dotcom boom.  I didn’t have the perception and experience to realize that market volatility would dry up, that the system’s regulations would be gamed so that small-time daytraders (less than $25k in their account) would be locked out of the practice because of restrictions on the number of trades one can make.  If you want to know how Wall Street has changed, beyond the infamous “quants”, then you should look at how daytrading restrictions have locked out regular folks from trading actively, and also look at how IPOs, buyouts, and other mostly stock market-related business deals are all about cashing out and not adding value.  The stock market’s investment and negotiation deals handled by the big finance firms are not too far off from nobles trading title and land for reputation and power.  Their employees get little.  The only way normal folks can win in the market anymore is to just play for the long-term.

My Flaws and Strengths

Flaws
  • not “great”
  • too stoic
  • too serious
  • not close with enough friends and family
  • no natural ability
Strengths
  • relentless
  • high tolerance
  • courageous
  • top caliber friends
  • respectful
  • reverent of the process
That’s my list.  I might also add that the part I probably think the most about is that I know that positivity and being enthusiastic and empowering others to be happy with things is the most fulfilling thing one can do day in and day out, but for me what I lament is that I am by my nature just not that person.  Having met some powerful leaders, wonderful motivators, and just all-around badasses in my time (many of whom were at the wedding, if only for a few hours before they had to return home!), I have witnessed what they can do for others, and that’s just their natural state.  In the world I’m more of a defensive-minded person, more of a guardian, more of a sheepdog.  It’s just the way I am, and it’s what I’m best at.  How will I integrate that into being successful and truly great?

Taste

People fight so strongly for their opinions.  What for?  How about this quote?
“Good taste is a myth. A story our rider creates to serve the needs of the elephant. And the sooner you kill your good taste idol, the sooner you’re going to give yourself a chance to be a better designer. It frees you up to add taste as another tool in your designer’s toolbox. Consequently, instead of focusing on good taste, your focus becomes the right taste for the problem at hand. There’s a subtle but profound difference.”

The magic moments of online forums or of hobby-based communities are that in most of the growth stage, the conversation is dominated by doers and builders, people who are curious about the implications and who love to share positive aspects of it all.

And then I’m sorry to say but the “intellectuals” then bandwagon on, having read about it all in this or that magazine or on a prominent blog.  This is around the time when communities start becoming caustic, full of cynical comments enforcing behavior of entrenched, mature communities elsewhere.  The doers mostly get drowned out.  I saw it happen on HackerNews, and to some degree on reddit.  Those amazing comments you go to read when you first joined are replaced more and more by negative comments (and by memes, but I love memes).

These folks are full-time consumers: of culture (which they did not live in), of art (which they could not possibly create on their own), of popular culture (which they foster animosity towards but can’t help but indulge in).  A community of fast-food binge watchers.  I am an avid consumer of pop culture myself but I do feel a certain pressure to need to contribute something back: to try to find artistic outlets for my more pragmatic views, or to attempt things that are somewhat subversive.

The full-time consumers are up against the people who believe in doing, as referenced in this hackernews comment section on ageism in tech:

“I have a ton of cultural criticisms of the current tech industry, but the one thing that it is absolutely getting right is valuing creation. The damage that could have been caused by the Google/Apple cartel has been limited largely by the startup industry that, for all its faults, has as a crucial belief that the act of building things is valuable, and that people who make things are the ones who create the most value.”

Strengthening a Community

To me it seems like it would take very little actual effort to maintain the positive tone of a community and avoid the police that have made Wikipedia and StackOverflow so abhorrent to contribute to.  Active enforcement of positive messages would be a given, but bigger than that, I’d prefer a whitelist system where your reputation precedes you.  Do you have a good online history of being helpful, of encouraging others and of sharing lots of content?  Then you’re in.   Admittance is earned.

One major piece of Galapag.us that I hope to implement eventually goes along with the theme of different islands.  The islands have their own cultures, wildlife, climates — and their populations should have culture and personality that reflects it.  So each island would have its own rules for communication and culture.  For example, a welcome island would have strict rules against hurting new players, whereas another island may be a free-for-all.  But I think most islands would be somewhere in between, capped mostly by having formula requirements to gain admittance, based on a person’s stats.  Perhaps an island requires a very high reputation with very low negativity and an innate nature for helping others, so one would need to have very useful posts as well as have an “angelic” alignment.

I like anonymity, pseudonymity, and verified identity all at once.  I think they all have their place.  But I also think that one’s reputation should be compatible with a community.

So here I am.  Here we are.  Starting a new family, a new chapter in life.  I think I’ve definitely become more of a homebody as I’ve gotten older; saving money, disliking the quirks of others more, understanding which types of events are never that entertaining yet knowing which ones are really key.  I’d like to think I’m stressing meeting up with friends more now.  I definitely cherish that time.

And, to conclude, my goals:

1 Year:

  • get a substantial raise to pay off more school debt and begin having children
  • plan on where my wife and I might like to move to and live
  • crash-course on C/C++ and algorithms

2015 (37 years old):

  • fluency with computer science algorithms, data structures, searches, and sorts
  • west coast driving trip
  • scouting trips for places to live

5 Year (41 years old):

  • children
  • Galapag.us as a command-line/search box-driven game

10 Year (46 years old):

  • at the age when I should expect to create a life’s work or project that is “great” and “glorious”

 

Note: I’ll probably be adding to this, as I had trouble expressing what I wanted to say in a cohesive manner and worked on this over several nights.  I know I’m leaving tons out, and need to think more about future plans.

But hell, it’s so good to be in a state of strengthening and building now.

 

List of Books I Read in 2013

27 Dec

Here is a list of the books I read in 2013.  There are quite a few coding books on this list so they were not particularly long reads, but they were fairly difficult to parse.  There’s not much of a way to quantify non-book reading (blog posts, newspaper articles, etc.) but I’ve definitely stopped reading as much about politics and economics and more from experts in their fields (particularly software engineering).  I still have a sweet tooth for foreign policy and military affairs — WaPo, NYT, and LA Times for their international news reporting fill the bill (which is good because most everyone else closed their international stations).  Newswires (AP, Reuters) continue to be stellar.

I’m probably most turned off by this year’s cyber-libertarian literature — it reads like lobbyist spin and less like 80′s-era hacker or 90′s-era cypherpunk.  As always I’m obsessed with famous American magnates.

  1. (3) The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption - Clay A. Johnson
  2. (5) The SALT Summaries: Condensed Ideas About Long-Term Thinking - Stewart Brand
  3. (6) Homeland - Cory Doctorow
  4. (7) Pukka’s Promise: A Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs - Ted Kerasote
  5. (6) Rainbows End - Vernor Vinge
  6. (8) Test Driven Development: By Example - Kent Beck
  7. (6) Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability - Steve Krug
  8. (9) Who Owns the Future? - Jaron Lanier
  9. (10) Decoded - Jay-Z
  10. (6) A Programmer’s Guide to Drupal - Jennifer Hodgdon
  11. (10) Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture - David Kushner
  12. (10) Wherever I Wind Up: Truth, Authenticity, and the Pursuit of the Perfect Knuckleball - R.A. Dickey
  13. (7) Pro Drupal Development - John K. VanDyk
  14. (7) MongoDB Applied Design Patterns - Rick Copeland
  15. (8) Learning JavaScript Design Patterns - Addy Osmani
  16. (7) Hackers & Slackers: The New York New Media Underground in the Early 1990’s - Kevin Walker
  17. (6) 10 Print Chr$(205.5+rnd(1)); Goto 10 - Montfort, Nick, et al
  18. (9) The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth - Mark Mazzetti
  19. (7) Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection - Ethan Zuckerman
  20. (6) The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master - Hunt & Thomas
  21. (7) Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace - Ronald J. Deibert
  22. (6) The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets Since the Depression - Angus Burgin
  23. (9) The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court - Jeffrey Toobin
  24. (8) MongoDB: The Definitive Guide, Second Edition - Kristina Chodorow
  25. (9) Beginning MySQL Database Design and Optimization: From Novice to Professional - Chad Russell, Jon Stephens
  26. (5) David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants - Malcolm Gladwell
  27. (9) Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile - Nate Jackson
  28. (7) Understanding Color: An Introduction for Designers - Linda Holtzschue
  29. (10) Reminiscences of a Stock Operator - Edwin Lefevre
  30. (8) Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code - Martin Fowler

 

Unfortunately, worse than most years, only 3 of the 30 books were written by women (compared with, say, last year, where 11 of the 30 books were written by women).  I’d like more parity there but save for a few spurious books on this list, most of the books were targeted reads based on topic.

As always, a book with a rating (in the parentheses) of 10 is a must-read by my count.  This year it was Jay-Z’s autobio “Decoded”, “Masters of Doom” (a book about id Software, John Carmack, and John Romero), “Wherever I Wind Up” (an autobio about the Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey who is the MLB’s last full knuckleballer), and “Reminiscences of a Stock Operator” (one of my favorite books ever, written back in the early 1900′s but which still rings true on Wall Street today).  There were probably fewer 10s this year than before — unfortunately a lot of these books were the kind of book you should probably read, but which aren’t really that good).

School ended in May so my book-read count will probably decrease this year — the only time I really spend reading now is when I’m on planes or trains or buses or whatever.  Though I might try to carve out regular time during every day since I’ve got a list of like 7 books I really want to read.  I’m going to put 2014′s goal at 20 books.

I update my lists at Shelfari and Goodreads.  Here are my lists from 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009.

 
No Comments

Posted in Books

 

Newslint: My Project to Supplement Media Literacy

19 Dec

I just released a new site that I built, Newslint.  Check it out!

A while ago I was reading Hackernews and I saw someone posted a link to the Javascript source for joblint, an app that you copy and paste text from a job listing into, returning results on whether the job sounds fluffy, unrealistic, bro-ish, tech buzzword-y, etc.

I thought it was an awesome idea, and the implementation was such that it was easy to add rules, keywords, and phrases to check against.  Having just gone through a job hunt before being hired by a very professional group of people as a developer at The Barbarian Group, I was sensitive to junk in 90% of job listings.  I was also considering my love for news curation, media literacy, and good journalism, after having been an Army intelligence collector and analyst and then a social media operations analyst for a DHS contractor.  So I started thinking about making a port of joblint so that I could lint news articles in a similar way in an effort to explore media literacy.

pew

Fast-forward a little while and I was preparing to work on a Django project for The Barbarian Group.  I had already put in a lot of time learning Python while at ChatID as an engineering intern, but now I had to learn the Django framework.  Since Python and JavaScript are similar and flexible enough that I didn’t anticipate many problems, I decided I could try to port JavaScript joblint to Python newslint and then incorporate newslint into a Django server and experimental test-bed.

How It Works

During my time doing social media analysis, we hired for and trained for our analysts to be able to quickly assess whether news information was valid, credible, interesting to our client, potentially dangerous, environmentally relevant, etc.  More of an art than a science, this involved knowing which sources tended to put out good info, knowing the current situation and deciphering which new information would most affect the status quo, where the best sources of information in different spheres of influence could be found on the public internet.  This is actually a pretty difficult skill to acquire and that alone has the largest influence on the quality of analysis output.  That is, if only 5% of the info out there is actually game-changing, then less time has to be spent on the other 95% so that more direct analysis can be done on the 5% — but at the same time, the 95% of noise is still relevant as an environmental check.

Media literacy is crucial even if it’s not your job.  A lot of my Army friends are more conservative and they’ll post articles from certain biased sources that end up not being true.  And a lot of my liberal NYC friends will post stuff from advocacy blogs about the NSA and eavesdropping which are demonstrably false or short-sighted.  For others who don’t really consume the news, the tangential connections they have with the news are even more important.  Those decontextualized sound bites from the news are all those people will hear about an issue and so it will largely shape their opinion on the matter without more study.  FOXNews used to be on every TV all day, and now it’s likely you’ll see CNN instead.  Some people only watch The Colbert Report and The Daily Show.  Others watch the worst hours of cable news television, the afternoon lineups on FOX News and MSNBC.

It is crucial to understand how businesses buy people to write in newspapers or make TV ads or form political action groups to shape public opinion through blanketing the air with a specific message.  Non-profits, advocacy groups, and different areas of the government do it as well.  Whenever you see a poster advocating for or against a bill, you should always look up the group named in small print at the bottom and see who’s behind it.  It’s probably not a grassroots campaign — it’s probably astro-turfing.

In short, like any good intel, you should be suspicious of any information that finds its way to you because it most likely was intended to reach you, and wasn’t a happy accident or a sign of unstoppable progress towards that position.  Media literacy helps people decipher incoming input for true intent and agenda.

So that’s what newslint can help you do.  It takes raw text and looks up key words and phrases that indicate credibility, non-partisanship, and professionalism.  Do you read solid sources from solid journalists in solid publications.  Are you learning partisan phraseology that slants your opinion?  How objective and experienced are the people you read?

Here are all the rules for newslint.  I would definitely appreciate an email, or even better, a pull request, if you want to add more rules.

swears = [
 'bloody',
 'bugger',
 'cunt',
 'cock',
 'pussy',
 'dick',
 'douche',
 'jackass',
 'asshole',
 re.compile('fuck(?:er|ing)?'),
 re.compile('piss(?:ing)?'),
 'shit'
]
partisan_words = [
 re.compile('obama[ -]?care'),
 'libtard',
 'nobama',
 'death panel',
 'leftist',
 'communist',
 'malkin',
 'coulter',
 'sharpton',
 'sarah palin',
 'pinhead',
 'limbaugh',
 'o\'reilly',
 'krauthammer',
 'bachmann',
 'ron paul',
 'rand paul',
 'john bolton',
 'alex jones',
 'martin bashir',
 'perino',
 'karl rove',
 'stasi',
 re.compile('police[ -]?state'),
 re.compile('hipp(?:ies|y)'),
 re.compile('fly-?over state'),
 'wingnut'
]
pundit_words = [
 'krauthammer',
 re.compile('(?:thomas|tom) friedman'),
 'ayn rand',
 'john galt',
 'jesse jackson',
 'gold standard',
 'rand paul',
 'ron paul',
 'bachmann',
 'limbaugh',
 'o\'reilly',
 'gingrich',
 'slate',
 'glenn beck',
 'msnbc',
 'huffpo',
 'huffington[ ]*post',
 'fox[ ]*news',
 'coulter',
 'david brooks',
 'john bolton',
 'michael hayden',
 'alex jones',
 'scarborough',
 'chris matthews',
 'sharpton',
 'martin bashir',
 'sarah palin',
 'ezra klein',
 'perino',
 'malkin',
 'evgeny morozov',
 'karl rove',
 'drudge',
 'dowd',
 re.compile('chris(?:topher|) hayes')
]
rag_words = [
 'gawker',
 'tmz',
 'slate',
 'infowars',
 'buzzfeed',
 re.compile('the blaze'),
 re.compile('huffington[ ]?post'),
 re.compile('fox[ ]?news'),
 re.compile('drudge[ ]?report')
]
sensationalism_words = [
 re.compile('tears? apart'),
 'screed',
 'demolish',
 'crush',
 re.compile('brown[- ]?shirt'),
 'hitler',
 'gestapo',
 'snitch',
 'stooge',
 re.compile('game[- ]?chang(?:e|ing)'),
 re.compile('cutting[- ]?edge'),
 re.compile('bleeding[- ]?edge'),
 re.compile('marxis[tm]'),
 re.compile('cron(?:y|ie)'),
 re.compile('fema[ ]?trailer'),
 re.compile('chem[ ]?trails'),
 'delusion',
 'false flag',
 re.compile('racis[tm]'),
 re.compile('meme[- ]?wrangl(?:ing|e)'),
 'flagrant',
 'cult',
 'the establishment',
 'police state',
 re.compile('solutionis[mt]'),
 re.compile('shock(?:ing|er|ed)')
]

And Now, the Tech Details

I ported over the code (it’s not very large) in a day or two, then debugged it for a while.  It worked — I made some additions, and, like joblint, it can be run independently via the command line.  Then I forked joblint and turned it into newslint in a separate git repo.

console

Next I figured I could not only use the opportunity to learn Django but also learn other stuff.  I really hadn’t needed to use LESS or SASS up till now because I was working on code I could just throw classes into, but since then at ChatID and at The Barbarian Group I ran into projects where I wouldn’t be able to modify HTML markup and would have to traverse the DOM or find other ways to hook into the code.  So I set up for SASS and Compass and installed Grunt so I could have all my different tasks (uglification, concatenation, code linting, copying to static directory, etc.) automated.  Along the way I found autoprefixer, which you can run as a Grunt task to take any CSS3 stylings and automatically add support for browser extensions.  I also decided to try Django-Bower (based on Bower) for making updating to the latest version of my JavaScript dependencies easier, and within Django’s environment bubble no less.

Django is incredibly easy to use and you get a lot of control over it, which is something I like about express.js.  But then I’m also coming off learning Drupal (PHP) for a project, which seems like a black box most of the time.

I got a simple version of newslint running on a local Django server and then things snowballed; I fleshed out some JSON endpoints for an API, I enabled form submission for saving news clips, and I wrote some tests in Django’s TestCases and Python’s unittests.  Super-easy, especially after dealing with a somewhat problematic time spent figuring out correct resources and syntax for Angular.js tests with mocha for my project Momentous.

front

And then I figured I would try deploying this Django app to Amazon’s Elastic Beanstalk, because I’d never tried that before!  I ran in to some issues there; my static files directory was split up and not in a standard directory, I had newslint loaded as a git submodule under the newslint-server and automatic deployment services like EB and Heroku don’t like submodules.  I also would have had trouble getting underneath the EB abstraction to make edits directly to server settings.

I decided to tear that app down and just get an EC2 instance (m1-small).  It costs a bit, but not really that much, and I’ll probably take down the instance once there’s no traffic on it.

My small test app turned into a full day deploying the app underneath Varnish and Apache to a new ubuntu instance.  I plugged in memcached and set up mysql and added appropriate Django middleware to help get my pagespeed score up and remove warnings and errors.  The full control of an EC2 instance made this all super easy whereas I’m not sure how I would’ve managed dealing with the EB thicket.

I had some problems making sure my headers were set up correctly so that stuff would get cached okay but tweaks to Apache and Varnish settings, along with Django, helped to mitigate those problems.  Updates to code were as easy as a git push on my local computer and a git pull to the instance.

I ran some apache bench tests on the server and it seemed okay; one thing I think I ran into was that having a form on the front page slows down the response slightly because it’s not caching the page (CSRF token?).  ab tests to a non-calling API endpoint on the other hand were super fast.  Most of the time, pageloads are under 400ms, which is pretty sweet!  Thank you to the god of page loadability, Ilya Grigorik!

So then it was rather late and I was thinking, hey, how hard would it be to get a domain for this instead of the long EC2 address?  Well, whois’ing newslint.com actually showed that it wasn’t owned!  And namecheap sells domains for $10-13 usually so I picked it up and pointed it from namecheap to Route 53 and all the sudden very early in the morning I had a working newslint.com!

result

I found some more bugs the next day, for which I’m writing regression tests, but otherwise this has been a really successful learning experiment and confidence booster for my developer chops.  Really glad this worked out so well, and thank you to Rowan Manning for his joblint work and to The Barbarian Group for letting me be a developer.

 

On Being a Veteran

19 Dec

Now that Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down, and it’s unlikely that the US will find itself entrapped into large military engagements for a while ( at least until a generation or two retires and a new round of pugnacious policy bros descend upon Washington DC) the pipeline of civilians turned service-members turned civilians again is going to be reduced to a trickle.

Periphery

Whereas a post-9/11 military probably experienced an increase in breadth across American society in terms of socio-economic status, race, etc., the military will once again be dominated by legacy kids, small-towners, and southerners.  Most importantly, most of you will never meet or run across these people; they will probably retire or stay in the areas their final duty stations were in, or they’ll return to their former communities.

This is to say that the military will pass back into the shadows of the American psyche, back where the ugly stereotype persisted of the military being only the failed high school kids and crazies, only reaching public awareness when service-members do bad things or when the Twitterati decides that a military is, like, sooo passé in today’s cosmopolitan society.

Since I got out of the Army in 2007, I lived in DC for 4 years, and then moved to NYC where I’ve been since 2011.  DC actually has some veterans, though most people you’ll meet probably work in the periphery of military affairs: analysts, military groupies (of which there a lot), policy, advocacy.  NYC has virtually no veterans at all.  At NYU the main contingent of veterans is definitely in Stern Business School, so you know what that’s like.  I’ve been told there’s also a large group of veterans at Columbia’s business school and at my grad school’s competitor, Columbia School of International and Public Affairs.  I don’t really hang out with any of them.  When I do see a veteran, he’s just visiting town on leave and recognizes my tattoo.

This is all to give you some background for what I really wanted to say, which is to respond in some sort of truthful way about what it’s like to be a veteran in today’s day and age.

In a Former Life

Being a veteran is something you sort of tuck away — it just has no relevancy to a civilian life.  What I mean by this is, no one you meet knows anything about the military, nor do they particularly care or like it.  If anything, people finding out you were in the military probably makes them feel some annoying twinge of responsibility to say “thank you for your service” or to exert a little extra energy to make sure your poor veteran is alright.  Or maybe there’s some fascination there: “I was gonna join, but…”

To me, I was lucky to have an Army job with lasting benefits to my personal and career competency — military intelligence — so I wasn’t hamstrung there the way some others might be.  But in terms of hiring I’m not sure that background imparts much of an advantage at all.  It’s unapproachable by most people who don’t know how that side of things works.  If anything, the insinuation of military intelligence smells of NSA, Snowden, massive surveillance, etc.  It’s as if people don’t even realize that nations collect on each other and that there are large forces at work 24/7, that not everything in the world is just hunky-dory, that legally-permissible wiretapping is a requisite for both intel and law enforcement.

This is the kind of disconnect that will really get to you — when something you really care about and worry about and wish to protect people for is completely taken for granted and even reviled.  A thankless job.

The Years We Spent Disconnected from the World

Day-in, day-out, I think the biggest impression that is left upon others from my veteran status is that I’m a little old for my position.  That is to say, those 5 years I spent wearing the flag on my shoulder and little hair on my head or face were 5 years that most people spend climbing the career ladder.  If it weren’t for 9/11, or for enlisting, I’d be a 31-year-old instead of 36, and that changes others’ views quite a lot, whether they realize that veteran status or not.

Just imagine this disconnect.  Most young kids turn into precocious young adults full of potential where they’re told they have the entire world open to them, then they claw their way to some sort of sustainable position and then they grow old and they hopefully reach contentment and/or have kids and grandkids so that in the end they can die happy.

Meanwhile, I knew some young adults who trained for battle, who trained how to kill and how to protect and how to serve, dying in some dust pit somewhere, or in some shitty barren wasteland, such that two service-members in Class A uniforms appear at their young spouse’s or parents’ door to inform them of grave news.  That dude who did my dentist checkup or that dude I did US weapons training with died thousands of miles away in a war zone and everyone else moved on.  Those dudes helped defend turf in some other country that we’ve since given up.  Those guys’ lives were cut way short in comparison.  My 5 years, which pales compared to the 10-25 years of military experience many I met in the Army now have, was spent getting to know THOSE people.

I hope most people who have lost friends on the job (military or other hazardous jobs) would tell you that the job itself isn’t quite as meaningful as being among brothers and sisters and being able to help them and live with them and work with them.  It doesn’t matter on a personal level so much that we gave back territory that we fought and lost blood and life and treasure for, as long as we cared for each other.  I mean you hope that in such a sensitive job as being a soldier, that you are asked to do things that really mean something, but you don’t always get to pick your battles.  It’s a valid argument to say that maybe the US handled Iraq completely wrong, but what we know now is not what we knew then and some of us enlisted right after 9/11 to go fight Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.  What’s not valid is hearing criticism from people who willfully remain unaffiliated to anything so that they’re never called upon or held responsible for anything.  Lack of action can be wise at times and cowardice at other times.

In a post-military world, where everyone is essentially out for themselves, what’s missing is that sense of camaraderie and esprit de corps and real compassion for those you work with.  This generates some sadness, particularly for a former sergeant who was trained to always be improving and mentoring and living amongst his soldiers.

Thank God for families, and for being able to build them.  I’m on my way, there.

Outer Perspective

Anyway, back to the topic.  What being a veteran has left me with is an unshakeable confidence in my ability to self-assess, self-improve, and self-correct.  I’m happy I sacrificed my time for a greater good (the mere act alone proved to my internal self that I would do it, if called upon).  I also know what I’m not, and I hope I never try to act like someone I’m not.  I’ve seen great people, who sacrifice all their time to family and country.  Great people who are continuing to serve their entire careers in the armed forces.  Great people who serve in elite units as well as the worst-managed, poorly-financed units.

I hope I can identify good people from bad, and knowledgeable people from the willfully ignorant, and never stand in the way of people who do good for others, their community, and the world.  I know how far I can push myself and when I need to push myself harder.  I definitely became a man in the meaningful sense of the phrase because of being in the Army.  I saw how other people live, throughout the US and abroad.  I hope to retain that humility in understanding and respecting how other people live, even if they hate your guts just because of what you’re wearing or where you’re from or what you’re doing.

All this gets tucked away — I keep to myself mostly — but if I meet other veterans or others who have served in the line of fire (police, fire, State, USAID, DART, etc.) then it’s like being with old friends.  It’s a virtual community, as they say.  You can talk about things you can’t talk about with others outside the community.  It awakens a dormant part of my very vivid past, a past I care for very much and am very proud to have experienced.  It doesn’t happen often that I get to talk to other veterans, and not all veterans are good people, but it’s definitely at least some sense of feeling “at home”.

Perhaps one thing I’ve noticed after leaving the military is being able to identify really stand-up people in civilian life.  GREAT people!  The kind of person you know would excel in leadership, who cares for those around him, who makes others better, who pushes himself to his limits, who shows humility and empathy and sympathy to even the people he meets whom he stands nothing to gain from.  There aren’t many of these people but man, they shine out from the rest like the freaking Southern Cross.

With that afore-mentioned pipelines of veterans trickling to almost a stop, the virtual community of veterans is going to get smaller and that part of my life will get tucked away even further.  We all have virtual communities and past parts of our lives that make us feel like this, I suppose.  But like I said, what I took away from it — a deep love and appreciation and respect for my own limits and talents and vulnerabilities and strengths — will stay with me forever.

So that’s how I feel when someone asks what it’s like to be a veteran.  It’s a solitary experience, but I think other brethren will agree — there’s a richness there that can never be taken away and will always be compared against.

 

Introducing Cryptstagram

13 Oct

[This is the long version of a post I wrote for The Barbarian Group's tumblr.  We also got written up in Wired's design blog, Laughing Squid, and PSFK, my first time getting such large coverage!]

Periodically at The Barbarian Group, a small team of new employees and veterans with varying skill-sets are brought together to work on Project Popcorn, a side project that embodies the inventiveness, technical skills, and values of the agency.

Within my first week as a developer for the agency, I was assigned to Project Popcorn, along with a senior art director, a senior copywriter, a creative director, and a technical director.

Cryptstagram is the resultant product of our teamwork. Cryptstagram is a web site that lets you steganographically encrypt a hidden message into any image, unlockable only with a specific password, and then apply glitchy Instagram-like filters to that image.

The National Security Agency whistleblowing story had just broken, and as a result we quickly became fixated on doing something involving cryptography and, to fulfill our artistic ambitions, on doing something involving the glitch aesthetic.

Cryptstagram-5

The glitch aesthetic is popular amongst our creatives and developers because it requires technical knowledge of formats and methods underpinning systems in order to then manipulate, pixel-push, and distort those systems towards the artist’s ambitions.

As a team we spent a lot of time discussing what tone we wanted to convey with Cryptstagram. How secure should it be end-to-end to pay respect to citizens’ cryptographic requirements and expectations of privacy? Should Cryptstagram’s filters create aesthetically-pleasing images or should they reflect entropy of input and interaction from the user? To what degree did we want Cryptstagram to be a statement about the NSA and privacy in general or just a reaction to the state of our relationship with technology?

In the end we decided on a reflective tone for Cryptstagram, emphasizing a common public desire to share stylized parts of ourselves in public but other parts of ourselves in private or semi-private. We should empower ourselves with stealth and style.

Cryptstagram-2

Cryptstagram-4

The Project Popcorn team also wanted to keep Cryptstagram open-ended, taking advantage of the fact that JavaScript is pervasive in users’ browsers and that most computation, SHA-1 encryption and decryption, and glitching can now be done with open source libraries, entirely on the client’s side, and using HTML5 Canvas. A JavaScript stack (Node.js/Express, MongoDB, and good ol’ jQuery) cached and served up via cloud services allows for rapid app development and easy deployment for a small creative team.

So, easily, a citizen could choose to encrypt her image with a message and save it without it ever touching an external server, then send that image via private means to intended recipients with a password that could be distributed in any number of ways. Or the citizen could share the image on Cryptstagram’s wall for others to see and even try to decrypt!

A perk of this open-ended design is that we can extend its utility: we (or you, via jsfiddle sandbox!) can add seasonally- or topically- themed filters for specific clients, a celebrity can release images with a password known only to fans, or people can use the Cryptstagram wall to create puzzles or scavenger hunts or just post encrypted messages publicly without drawing suspicion.

At The Barbarian Group, we’re invested in making things that are gonna be awesome, and in order to do so, we need to be just as able to wade through the technical limitations of CORS and CSRF as to create something people love to use and share online.

So, what creative uses can you come up with for Cryptstagram?

 

Momentous

08 Sep

After thesis and graduation, I took a break from Galapag.us to focus on getting a job.  I ended up getting hired at the wonderful The Barbarian Group as a developer (!!), about which I’m extremely happy, for that career change was exactly what I left DC and came to NYC to accomplish.

In the time since, I’ve been lurking in the nether regions of HTML5 canvas, HTTP headers, XSRF protections, and Drupal.  And now that I’m a little more comfortable with all the life changes around me, I have started coding for fun again.

I gravitate towards the MEAN stack for most any new fun project now: node.js/express.js being extremely easy to set up and expand, plus mongo which makes it super easy to drop in and manipulate with mongoose as an ORM, and then learning the intricacies of angular.js, which has made front-end state super easy.

And these projects I like to work on tend to relate to quant self and meta data about the self, which means they’re natural fits as an app on Galapag.us.  So with that in mind, I fleshed out a new interface for collecting moments at Galapag.us.

Momentous

There are many categories of data on Galapag.us, like exercise, school, and work, but there are also more nebulous forms like moments.  What discrete events did you attend today?  What special interactions did you have with random strangers, or with your loved ones?  What was the quality of those experiences?  That’s all Momentous does — it’s an excuse for me to build a quick angular.js app that collects the random moments of my day.

momentous

You can give it a shot at https://galapag.us/momentous/ (you’ll have to login/register) or just use the main moments page at https://galapag.us/c/moments/ if you like.

These sorts of mini-apps allow me to work on Galapag.us, experiment with new frameworks, and build nicer front-ends than the messy base template I’m currently using.  It’s still a work in progress.

The Future

I’m loving angular.js for building nice interactive apps that react quickly to the user and to the backend.  I’m thinking it’s a huge leap forward for writing HTML and JavaScript that expresses its meaning and functionality within the HTML source (by way of directives and filters) instead of having events bound to HTML states but stored in separate JS files.

From there, I’m thinking there’ll soon be code editors for JavaScript that build server-side API routes to receive and respond to the requests written by the user in client-facing scripts.  So you’d write some angular.js or jquery front-end stuff to hit an API route, and the IDE would automatically build the route to receive it and pull it from the database.  There’s still some disconnection between development for the client and for the server, but I think that’s what the next major leap forward will be for writing apps for the web.

 
 

Social Networks are Boring

12 Aug

A common refrain. People will complain that Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever, is boring. What’s usually going on is

  1. their friends are boring,
  2. they’ve reached mental exhaustion,
  3. they try to use social networks less as a social pulse or passive awareness and more as active entertainment,
  4. they reached exhaustion of new content, or
  5. they’re boring.

In a previous job, I’d do 12-hour shifts watching social media, 2 or 3 days in a row. Like, say, on overnights on a weekend. By 6AM on Monday morning, I wanted nothing to do with looking at a computer, and I say that as a completely internet-wired junkie. Sometimes there’s just nothing going on at all. No news. Even the Associated Press wires are just posting baseball recaps. Even the most loserish folks online aren’t busy bashing something on Sunday evenings.  Social media on Sunday overnights is dead.

So hearing from anyone else that one needs to unplug for a while is understandable. What isn’t understandable is the lack of recognition that your boring feeds reflect boring friends or your boring interpretation of what your friends do.

There are variations of this problem: sometimes people don’t follow a critical mass of content creators, so that when they try to view a stream or feed, they barely see any new content, and what content is actually there is boring as fuck.  Some present evidence that Facebook or whatever is dying — well, if you want to cast your widest social net, what’s better than Facebook?  What will possibly be better than Facebook any time soon?  Best place for photos?  Instagram has got that locked up tight, with several derivative competitors trying to offer alternatives (Snapchat).  Social networks are entrenched.  The verdict is still out on video, private social networks, etc.  Maybe reddit is the least secure of the large social media companies.  But I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you claim you’re bored, then your only alternative is to opt-out and go offline, or maybe go underground.

Self-Censored Data

Another variation of the problem, and the main one I want to talk about, is that the types of content that we want to and are able to post lead to limited and boring outcomes, as a result of our ambivalence about personal privacy online, legal norms for data, corporate apprehension toward data liability, etc.

I took some time off working on Galapag.us after thesis presentations ended — I was handling personal matters including moving to a new place with my girlfriend, graduation from school, parents visiting, job interviews, and so on — but I’ve recently started wading back into my code again.

For Galapag.us, I created tons of categories for data for people to enter the moments that occur in their lives every day, such as memories, interactions, loves, hates, etc. Making the data entry part as accessible and as fluid as possible is key since I think anyone who’s done any quant selfing has tired of entering in what food they ate, where they checked in, etc. constantly every day.

My logic is that while physically-generated data is easier to quantify, even the results (aggregation and charting) of it are not very exciting. What good is it to know the flawed number of steps or relative activity level we achieve per day, without further context like diet, circumstances? (sitting at a desk at work, traveling in a plane, skydiving)

Qualitative Data

And so, perhaps as an alternative to that physically-generated data, what we really find meaningful over time might be when and where we had an interaction with someone else, or how our preferences change over time.  Those are the things we remember for years afterwards.

I grew up in a command line interface type world, one of BBSs and MUDs and prompts.  So I started working on an API for Galapag.us so one could access JSON responses via curl, via the web site, or via a command line on the web site (similar to github’s).  The command line on the site let me use angular.js for two-way data binding and for making a nice interface for commands to output.

I started having to think about what new data I could make reachable through the API.  I don’t have a large user dataset yet, so I was considering external APIs. APIs are bad enough these days, as the former best one (Twitter) has been jailed, and most APIs expose almost no interesting public data. It’s cool that data.gov releases a bunch of government data but to be honest 99% of that data is completely fucking boring.  The rest of it is most likely useful only to some NYTimes data scientist who will make some sexy d3 or raphael dataviz that people will cream their pants over.

Facebook, Twitter, etc. are most useful through the data exposed within their networks’ metadata — tracking how circles of friends and followers are related — but the rest of their content is fairly boring. One could say the same about the data that the NSA is collecting.

Instagram is the beneficiary of being the leader for photos, which are the king when it comes to immediate gratification, entertaining content, and pageviews/clicks/PR. The photos we take power today’s social media, now that our networks algorithmically have been around long enough that they’re reaching adolescence (I would think our networks will reach “adulthood” when most of the userbase is old enough that network graph sizes begin to shrink from old age deaths, and the social network providers begin to change their site designs to reflect that contraction in connection to the external self).

Unoffensive and Boring Data Schema

The data itself being exposed for public consumption is fucking boring. The most exciting stuff you might see (outside of, once again, awesome photos from life-changing events that people post, and those swimsuit pics of those people you just friended) are who viewed your profile on LinkedIn (imagine if you could see that on Facebook), or an occasional drunk post signalling the rare chaos added to the polite, custom-filled order of our normal social feeds.

If you need an analogy, the personal data we disclose on our social networks is the equivalent of reading some small midwestern company’s corporate site.  Our front pages (Facebook and LinkedIn) are using, I guess, some shitty flash animation interstitial.  We probably have a shitty about page that barely contains any actual timeline info.  There’s no contact info available.  Check-ins on FourSquare?  A little racier, but maybe that’s just some scantily-clad photo we posted as a camgirl.  Most of the links on our shitty sites are broken or old.  Altogether it’s just a whole shitty experience.

At the same time, we can barely accept this “free use in exchange for using your data to advertise off you” compact we have with large siren servers like Google and Facebook, and we’re scared we’ve already contributed too much data online.

But it’s all so, so boring.  Few of us have the talent and courage to share what’s most dazzling and interesting and inspiring about our personalities and deeds online.  Those who do succeed because they are fulfilling their potential and fulfilling the powerful medium of expression that the internet was supposed to give us.  The rest of us hide our personalities and flaws and desires and failures and weaknesses because that would diminish our carefully curated statures online.

Few of us have enough details online to verify our reputations or trust, show proof of temperament or sound judgment under different bad circumstances, etc.  At the very least, most of us contribute nothing yet consume a lot every day.  People are afraid Facebook and Google and the rest know too much about us, but in reality, we’ve all agreed to some sort of social norm where we conceal what’s really interesting about us and only post the most fluffy, superficial information about ourselves.  We’ve all signed up to a social norm that we must be safely boring.

Dangerous Data

What I envision one day is seeing, over time, how other people and groups of people changed their body types after they had children, or as a result of increased work hours, or seeing the patterns of their lives through the 24 hours of their days.  What I envision is seeing hard data on failed dates vs. attempted dates, aggregated opinion of participants at concerts, sexual data, tracking peoples’ young potential vs. their older outcomes.

You know.  All the data that can be embarrassing to share — the data that often defines us more than any other data.  The data that shows when we’re vulnerable, emotional, petty, impulsive, breaking our own habits and patterns.

And what if the schema, API, and backend architecture also encouraged more scandalous insight? What if the data we collected, and the representation and sharing of it, did, as Jer Thorp wrote in his article “Art and the API”, bring us closer to what we really want to express?

[The] conceptual API. A piece of software architecture intended not only to bridge but also to question. The API as a software art mechanism, intended to be consumed not only by humans, but by other pieces of software. (Promisingly, the API also offers a medium in which software artists can work entirely apart from visual esthetic.)

Burnham wrote in 1968 that ‘the significant artist strives to reduce the technical and psychical distance between [their] artistic output and the productive means of society’. In an age of Facebook, Twitter & Google, that productive means consists largely of networked software systems. The API presents a mechanism for artistic work to operate very close to, or in fact to live within these influential systems.

There’s a reason people love to read the gossip sites all day.  The stories are glitches in the matrix regarding people we know (celebrities).  When order breaks down, we get interested.  Within our digital networks, order rarely ever breaks down.  People tailor their content to fit an identity, maybe not to improve their reputation, but very rarely to degrade it, unless they sacrifice some of it to pursue an issue worth it to them, like politics or sports.

If you want to know why social networks are “boring”, it’s because we’ve censored ourselves into being safe, and boring.

Identity

If anything, this is a stark argument for virtual identities, pseudonyms, and anonymity.  They allow us to act out in ways that we can’t within our main imprisoned identities.  They allow us to interact and experiment without the shaming that could come back to our physical identities.  The inference here is also that our other identities are inherently dangerous.

To me it is not shocking that the government can collect on any of us.  One should always assume that the US keeps the blade of its sword sharpened, and if it chooses to target you, anything you have linked to you is compromised.  What is shocking is the breadth for which the government is trying to piece together disparate datapoints together.  A huge piece of that puzzle is linking random datapoints collected online back to a MAC ID on your network card, so that it knows that “Xeus” and “Ben” are the same person.  Google is trying to do the same thing to get better data on pageclicks vs. pageviews across sessions and page transitions.  This is the key data.

If you want your social networks to be more interesting, you’re going to have to give more online.  You’re going to have to play more, experiment more, fail more.  You’ll have to expand your friend networks to areas you’re not as comfortable in.

And of course you can argue: hey, who gives a shit?, it’s just an online waste of time.  But I wonder how many peoples’ lives are not actually enriched at least a tiny bit by the passive awareness granted by online networks. I actually consider it beneficial knowing almost subconsciously that distant friends and acquaintances are busy raising that newborn or are changing jobs and moving to another country (you know, the heavy lifting of our timelines) even though we haven’t talked.

I think everyone’s going to have to suck it up a bit and realize that a digital life is one worth living to the fullest. The digital life can no longer be neglected or made fun of.

One of the more recent influential articles for me was by Nathan Jurgenson, who wrote about the IRL fetish:

Every other time I go out to eat with a group, be it family, friends, or acquaintances of whatever age, conversation routinely plunges into a discussion of when it is appropriate to pull out a phone. People boast about their self-control over not checking their device, and the table usually reaches a self-congratulatory consensus that we should all just keep it in our pants. The pinnacle of such abstinence-only smartphone education is a game that is popular to talk about (though I’ve never actually seen it played) wherein the first person at the dinner table to pull out their device has to pay the tab. Everyone usually agrees this is awesome.

Completely fetishized.  The reality:

Facebook doesn’t curtail the offline but depends on it. What is most crucial to our time spent logged on is what happened when logged off; it is the fuel that runs the engine of social media. The photos posted, the opinions expressed, the check-ins that fill our streams are often anchored by what happens when disconnected and logged-off. The Web has everything to do with reality; it comprises real people with real bodies, histories, and politics. It is the fetish objects of the offline and the disconnected that are not real.

Publicy vs. Privacy

The power of the people is publicy whereas the power of siren servers, cartels, etc. stems from privacy.  I would argue that we’re fighting a losing battle if we try to pursue even more privacy, government data retention laws, and oversight into surveillance.  We should still pursue strict controls on authorized surveillance as a matter of course, as it’s the only way to solidify gains legally, but the underlying strategy should be more openness, more sharing, more creation of public alibis to verify our reputations and livelihoods.  By withholding information from others, we give those who can still get that information power, since they then have access to data others don’t.  By sharing information, we not only take it out of play in the interconnected data market, we free that data for use in silly experimental games, behavioral economics studies, and so on.

I feel as though the conservatives have been particularly absent from the NSA story, probably because they are conflicted: on one hand, whistleblowing is a fine line between treason and heroism, whereas Big Brother and mysterious government agency behavior is a mainstay of the skeptical conservative.  The liberals on the other hand have gone full-retard.  Their shock that an agency tasked with collecting and analyzing information might try to game the internet is just downright laughable, particularly after almost a decade of encroachment into our communications networks painstakingly whistleblown by brave but mostly unheard individuals.  The liberals are also in disbelief that Obama could do this (!) and have begun equating what “he” has done with the horrors under Bush and Cheney.  It’s like some sort of retarded amnesia.  The final absurdity is that there has been no even half-constructed policy suggestion from the liberals on how to deal with maintaining intelligence superiority through surveillance versus maintaining first amendment freedoms in an interconnected hyperglobalized hybrid digital-actual world.  The NSA of course has blown almost every opportunity to win by just laying out an honest case for the nation requiring such systems in order to maintain superiority in foreign affairs.  I assume it squanders this position because it knows it really doesn’t have to do anything except keep its head down until this passes (like gun control, Gitmo, and a litany of other liberal causes abandoned when the next fauxtrage comes about).  You know, at least the Tea Party advocates turned out for rallies.  Digital liberals will just mock Occupy and Anonymous and Like Kony 2012 and anti-NSA causes on Facebook, slacktivism at its finest.

There’s absolutely no informed debate about this issue at all, yet it permeates every damn site right now.  So frustrating.  I would maintain that you can have 3 legitimate stances on it: 1) you don’t care, 2) you delete all your social data online and encrypt all your email along with friends who agree to it, or 3) you try to see the issue as a balance between national security, technological advancement, and public freedoms.  I choose #3 as a matter of pragmatism.  But I respect those who choose #1 and #2 as well.  I also allow for the criticism of being more open, which Jaron Lanier partially explains:

Metadata has proven to be a tool for certain kinds of behavioral change. Facebook can use metadata to find people who are more likely to agree to share information with each other, because they share history with each other anyway. This, in turn, increases the amount of metadata available to the algorithms. Once enough people are signed up, a new sphere of social mores is created and even more information is shared. … Young people, weaned on free Internet services that spy on them, seem to have accepted an America in which their financial prospects are reduced, and in which no one should expect “privacy.” The acquiescence of our young people is historically exceptional and bizarre. In the metadata age, privacy needs a new definition, and it might be “freedom from being profiled.” Or “equity with those who use the biggest computers.”

So in short: I wish there were more people clamoring for more openness, more transparency, starting with our own personal data.  If agencies and corporations draw power from controlling the distribution of our data, then we need to dump it out there into the public domain.  Aren’t open sourcing, transparency, openness, public domain the things digital liberals and other civil libertarian groups always say they want?

Well, as my final point, I would argue that those values are not really what they want.  They want everyone else to share more, but they won’t do it themselves.  Other people can fight the war, they’ll stay home and watch the Daily Show “destroy” some FOXNews pundit.  Other people can put the leg work in, they’ll make sure to catch that sweet rooftop party tonight.  Other people can dirty their hands with campaigning and fighting for causes, they’ll just photograph it to feel like they’re a part of it.  No associations, no taking a stand.  Just criticizing, critiquing, “doing no harm”.  Useless.

Tech Fetishism

At the same time, the obsession over drones, NSA surveillance, and other aspects of the “military-industrial complex” borders on tech-fetishism.  Behold the awesomeness of that drone turning that pickup truck into glowing-white heat signatures.  Think of the sexiness of that NSA terminal poring a search query through petabytes of data!  Are you getting a boner yet?  It plays into every Ayn Rand teen’s wet dream about how insidious and dangerous the government is, yet it’s ignorant of the reality of today’s world, where columns of tanks and infantry are so rarely seen, but code — and data — runs 24 hours a day, every day.  The thing about that is, tanks and infantry always cause destruction — they were built to destroy — whereas code can be good or bad, depending on the policy and the actors behind it.  Anti-NSA tech-fetishists would have the code and tech destroyed, while in awe of it, but a more sensible approach would be for a citizenry to push a responsible use of that tech through Congress and POTUS: acknowledge the necessity of it, yet create sound policy to govern the use of it.

And a nation won’t use it as much if the nation’s priorities don’t require so much of it.  Right now under a paranoid post 9/11 security apparatus (worldwide and even in the holier-than-thou Europe, I might add, and not just under Nobama’s America), the threat vector includes just about any potential self-radicalizing self-pitying dumbass who read a pamphlet about how x or y is oppressing z.  So you take away the siloed cartel control of distribution of our data, establish reputations and publicize them, and you take away much of the potential for abuse by over-zealous states who either through blunder or through antipathy go after non-targets and then claim confidentiality and parallel construction (a technique as old as the hills by any type of law enforcement, I might add) as a defense.

I don’t know where the fuck this post is ending :) so I’ll wrap it up here but right now there’s some sort of weird disconnect between the reality of a world I thought we all witnessed in the last decade or so and the Sesame Street world that the old Tea Partiers, anti-NSA libertarianers, and uninformed liberals are living in.

And so it will continue.  Sigh.

 

The Only Person Not Paying Attention is You

30 Jun

The Snowden leak has been immensely disappointing all around.  It makes me sick to my stomach to read different constituencies circling their wagons on it.  The outcome is almost certainly already written.

First of all, people are acting like it’s a major revelation that this stuff has been going on.  Really? It’s been in the news since post-9/11 took shape, and, among people in DC who care about this stuff, it flared up in 2006 and 2007 with the EFF and ACLU finding its scent.  Whistleblowers have been punished, military blogging has been pretty much extinguished, FISA silliness has made its way into Al-Qaeda propaganda, Hollywood movies, bad TV documentaries.

Technically speaking, with sheer processing speed and storage being rendered inexpensive with the advent of cloud computing and parallel processing across networks, along with massive amounts of investment by the NSA into equipment so much that it would affect local power stations, what did people really think was going on?  Room 641A was uncovered by Mark Klein, a whistleblower whose name no one knows, and showed how the FBI could tap into telecoms.  When did that happen? 2006!  How much more evidence did people need for the story to blow up?

nsa-phone-records-lawsuit.jpeg1-1280x960

Mark Klein, whistleblower

NYC

People I know in NYC are for the most part universal human rights-type liberals, which is to say they strongly believe that the notion of freedom has something to do with expecting freedom as a standard right for all, but not really having much idea how to implement or enforce it except through dreamy notions of Hans Zimmer-soundtracked Supreme Court victory films and through self-example (thus “hipster” stuff like gardening, eating healthier, being a smarter consumer, exotic hobbies, etc., but without a similar push into practicing politics).

I felt like I was a broken record in our flying robots class as people would worry about the impact of drones, while I saw drones as an eventuality of the future and cared more about the policy impacts of an unchecked and unnoticed NSA, both my allegiance and suspicion of its work coming during my time in service when all this stuff was basically being prototyped in Iraq (after years of research on systems such as Echelon).  Drones are a tool to gather intelligence for larger databases, and a technological replacement weapon for cruise missiles and gunships.  By themselves, Predators and Reapers will be footnotes in history.  The apparatus that collects, collates, targets, and scores potential enemies of the US will have a legacy that will lead us well into the end of this century.

DC

Many of the non-security people I follow on Twitter are mostly journalists or DC -based or -biased analysts, which means to say that they are indulging in the sauciness of the Snowden story while at the same time indignant at the idea that the government is spying on journalists as well as the American public.

The initial journo phase of giving Snowden a pass on reporting accuracies gave way to a more careful view of his story now (in other words distancing themselves from admiration of his courage), particularly as he’s had contact with countries considered non-friendly with the US and incompatible with the principles of freedom of speech and civil liberty.  There’s still a strong undercurrent among these people though of defending the whistleblower aspects of Snowden’s actions while downplaying his questionable behavior in other countries.

But look, here’s the thing with all this, and I’m sorry for all the setup to get to this.  The story’s going to keep morphing and Snowden supporters are going to continue to modify their lines to fit the current narrative.  There’s no accountability for such people giving half-baked opinions and mawkish support for a man who is for the most part inconsistent (see his IRC logs and personal work history) on the matter — no one will call them out later on it.

Journos will turn on or bail on this guy.  He’s just a tool to them.  Assange has turned into a punchline for the intelligentsia while Manning has turned into the equivalent of those ads on late night TV for abused pets that need healthy homes.  I saw one tweet suggest that Snowden is to Greenwald as Manning is to Assange.  A pawn in a larger dance.

YouTube Preview Image

Turning on Snowden is only slightly worse than ignoring him completely.  See Barrett Brown (corporate spying early on), Thomas Drake, William Binney and J. Kirk Wiebe, Mark Klein, and the rest of the whistleblowers and journalists no one has given a fuck about until now.  This doesn’t even cover the red flags raised after what happened to Joe Nacchio and the debate around National Security Letters (this link upped by the awesome writer Maria Bustillos).

large

Thomas Drake, whistleblower

Snowden reminds me of those LulzSec guys before they got caught.  Everyone likes the story of the fugitive — it plays well in the media.  FUGITIVE AT LARGE!  NEW DETAILS, NEXT!  In my opinion the LulzSec folks were far more compelling than Snowden’s story: they were directly challenging the international community to cooperate to find them and arrest them — they lived in multiple countries and they had a technical superiority edge at first that must have deeply concerned law enforcement, but they were ultimately undermined, most notably by their leader becoming an informant for the FBI!  I can only imagine that LulzSec was a wakeup call for building up more serious capability within intelligence to keep up with blackhats online.

Gizmodo LulzSec

What should be more scary is not how authorities are reacting to Snowden, but how they managed to thoroughly infiltrate Anonymous, WikiLeaks (Sigurdur Thordarson), and even LulzSec — people who were more capable of hiding their digital footprints than most people in society.  Given attempts to infiltrate Muslim communities in NYC, running operations to entrap potential jihadists throughout the US, and so on, virtually no organizations seem to be impenetrable to government operations.

Snowden, contrary to his depiction in the press, seems like your typical mixed bag type of person.  Contradictory views at different times, inconsistent motivations, full of character flaws.  It’s completely up in the air how his story plays out, but I think the easiest thing to conclude is that the guy has always wanted to be where the action is (a feeling I can relate to) and was seemingly raised to believe that nothing is impossible (see his 18X special forces attempt, et al) and that actions speak louder than words (being the figurehead of this NSA leak).  I’m interested in the guy too but I agree that the NSA news must be fully integrated into American citizens’ notions of what is going on behind the scenes.

As for Greenwald, the guy is fighting the good fight but is a super-douche (putting him in the panned-theon of Tom Friedman, Umair Haque, Evgeny Morozov, Paul Krugman, Jeff Jarvis) and so even if I’m harsh on him, for the most part it’s been good to watch him speak up for things over the years that people have ignored.  But seriously, why do these guys twitter-search their own names for any mentions and feel compelled to talk back?  It’s the number one reason I call them Morozlov and Greenlold — so they don’t throw a Twitter fit in a @mention.

It would be alright if this eavesdropping news was somehow a revelation but the bottom line is that people have not been paying attention for the last decade or so.  Most importantly, the NSA story has been decontextualized from post-9/11 security mission requirements and solely towards some happy fantasyland where America lives out some high school class teaching of freedom of speech and international role model-setting of a higher moral arc towards justice.

That is to say, there is next to zero intelligent balancing of the issues being discussed in the circles that should be setting the debate for everyone else.  The NSA has a pretty clear objective and it’s fairly good at executing that objective: monitoring communications and creating target packages for people who come up on its radar.  In an environment where potential enemies don’t line up in formation to attack, basic pragmatism and realistic world view would acknowledge the need for tactical and organizational ability to collect that kind of data.

Furthermore, it would be ludicrous for the US government to not pursue serious (fair trial) charges against Snowden, based solely on the current standing of the law.  It has to prevent leaks and it has to protect its intelligence.  Why do people act surprised that the US government would be seeking to detain and prosecute the man behind a massive breach of classified information and ensuing media controversy, all while passing through China and Russia?

At the same time, the networking of our data online not only increases the government’s ability to collect, it also increases the abilities of adversaries (say, China) and non-states (hacking groups, organized crime, etc.), so the public needs to be vigilant about its rights to protect its data from those groups.

All of this is within the perfectly rational and justified perception among caring Americans that the NSA’s eavesdropping programs have gone way out of control and pose a threat towards American citizens’ civil liberties.

But you don’t hear this.  The decontextualization makes it sound like the NSA is J. Edgar Hoover putting intel hits on everyday Americans for no reason, when in fact it’s more of an intelligence effort to adapt to today’s big data environment — and the NSA will do whatever it is allowed to by those who set policy (Congress), who set legal precedent (Supreme Court), and who actually have skin in the game (military, security, etc.).  9/11 was perceived as a massive failure to many professionals who dedicate their lives to ensuring that it never happens, and they will dedicate the rest of their careers to doing whatever is in their power to try to prevent 9/11 from happening again.

Do you begin to see that there are different interests at play here and that they all have varying degrees of legitimate concerns and readily apparent biases?

The bottom line is that hey, you just found out about this and it’s like reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in college and now you’re one of the few initiated who gets what’s really going on in the system man.  Enslavement, dude.

Do you know how frustrating it is to listen to people whose opinions came from a BuzzFeed blurb about a Mother Jones article (that cites news from years ago as breaking) and are all the sudden pro-disclosure rules and anti-intelligence apparatus?

Do you know what it’s like to read hit-and-run op-ed pieces about how intelligence agencies continue to fail to find viable targets from the same types of people who laughed at the crowdsourcing effort to find the Boston bombers?

Do you know what it feels like now, after having had my clearance revoked back in the day, during a deployment, because I was blogging honestly (but not giving away OPSEC) about what was going on in Iraq before the Surge and ethnic cleansing and before there were the chilling-effect blog rules in place now that have all but cut off most reports from servicemembers deployed abroad?  Let me please hear from kids who skipped out on our last decade of deployments which required leadership of smart, freedom-loving Americans who were lucky enough to not be too busy trying to save what was left of the lives they were clinging on to (which is how lower middle class, the poor, and victims of Katrina spent the last decade).  Let me please hear about speaking truth to power from kids who weren’t there, didn’t see it happening, and only found out about it years later because they’re always on the internet.  It’s easy to speak out in hindsight or when nothing is at stake for you.

Fallout

I’ll tell you who gets hurt in this.  First of all, the public will put up an outcry over this only so long as it’s in the paper.  For that reason I would think Wikileaks is the way it is: shilling for story, content, and control of the narrative.  They want to ensure that it stays on Page 1.  But really I don’t think much will change because there’s little check on the government to prevent electronic data snooping and very few people actually understand the mechanics behind how it works.  Also security concerns will still trump privacy concerns.  So the public is going to continue being spied against with few checks or even basic smell tests to see if the government should not be spying on this person or that person.  We’ll continue to see bizarre, brief fiascos like Stop and Frisk and CIA-NYPD collaboration to provoke, say, the Muslim community.

[the above is my ITP classmate Atif Ateeq's thesis about bringing context back to Muslims and Arabs who were decontextualized after 9/11]

The behemoth which is the system that allows government and corporate spying will continue almost unabated against citizens around the world, regardless of their affinities.  The technical ease is too great and the will to put understandable limits on it by decision-makers is too weak.  It’s a cliche in the science fiction world but it’s an easy eventuality.  I can only see this disparity in interests increase as tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) continue to get scaled down for easier use by lone wolves (see 3D printing, propagation of extremist material, biohacking, DIY energy devices).

The other people to get hurt will be security people.  The narrative of the post-9/11 story for intelligence has been that it took the rest of the blame for Iraq that Dubya didn’t soak up.  “The intel was bad,” people remember.  But Tenet went along with pushing for Iraq in the end, even though key intel analysts were advising the complete opposite.  After that was settled, recommendations were made, particularly in Congress, to boost the concept of fusion centers, which were supposed to prevent stovepiping of intelligence within agencies and to possibly allow for a layered effect of intel analysis where different types of data could be plotted against each other to build out networks of important terrorist individuals.  Well, fusion centers ended up costing a lot of money and were for the most part just okay but not terribly productive.  Where security is now is that data is now streaming in faster than it can be analyzed, and so systems need to be built to sift through it.  And after this scandal, it is likely that checks will be put back in place to make at least some of that data integration difficult again.

In short, I would think that it will be at least a bit more frustrating for analysts to do their jobs and to perhaps prevent another attack on American assets — maybe not even through figuring out a specific plot but by knowing the internal networks of highly capable groups.

To sum up: Americans weren’t paying attention and expect to be briefed on intelligence that they A) don’t care about, B) don’t know anything about, and C) don’t have time for.  Americans are acting like a nosy, shitty boss calling in from St. Maarten for a checkup.

Really the debate about NSA stuff should focus squarely on the test to allow for eavesdropping: the court order.  Instead of the rubber-stamping of FISA requests which has been standard operating procedure, there should be a stricter, more accountable, more quantifiable test for how analysts (who should be enabled to find oddball connections and sketchy hypotheses) go about getting further approval for eavesdropping. [As a note I should add that someone I respect on Twitter countered my rubber-stamping statement and said that there are stringent tests and quick retractions for requests that have errors in them or that are not valid.  So it's not as easy as I made it out to be, but I do believe it's telling as a trend that, according to judicial reports, the end result of rejected requests is near-zero.  I defer to an expert though.]

THIS is the fascinating part of the debate.  Yes, allow for eavesdropping, but ONLY if there’s a strong case for it that’s demonstrable through evidence.  The same it has ALWAYS been.  How do we do it?  Well, I don’t know, and we need to have very smart people think about solutions.  I could say that we allow citizens’ interest reps onto the board but that might give away tactical intelligence.  What about algorithms?  As I understand it the NSA had attempted to score potential targets using algorithms already.  I know people like Morozov would roll their eyes (which is about all they ever do) but algorithms, properly understood for the bias inherent in the creation of any algorithm, could provide a way for multiple interest groups to weigh in on what would constitute a threat or a viable target so that it could be non-specifically applied (read, programmatically) to actual targets so that it could be analyzed later.  Right now this system of judges approving anything that passes past their desks is not working, mostly because judges are always going to be supportive of law enforcement efforts, particularly with regard to terrorism.  Why would they get in the way of a dedicated law enforcement team?

If Only the Apple Store Sold iFreedom in Spotless White

I really want to go back to that part about the journos turning on Snowden.

I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to deal with the disloyalty and hypocrisy of people on that count.  Here are a bunch of people upset that the government is tracking them, even if they had security passwords and encryption and all that.  They were upset that an American has to leave his own country to whistleblow on it, which somehow turns the US into East Germany.  If only there were networks, projects, and technologies which might allow citizens to return their own privacy and security!

Transactions

If only there were something like bitcoin to circumvent large-scale banks and payment systems which can block your money from going to online poker, drugs, and anonymous bitcoin transactions!  Well, bitcoin did blow up in the news recently, and what did the twitterati and intelligentsia do with it?  They laughed at it, said it would never work and was unstable in comparison to the American dollar.  They felt it was like throwing your money down the drain.

Sharing

And okay.  If only there were some way to pass information, download movies, files, etc. easily, without having to pay some middleman extra money or to be subject to their licensing rules!  Oh, you mean like torrents or napster or whatever else?  No way dude, I’m not risking my clearance or well-being for being flagged as a pirate; that’s not as cool as using my walled garden App Store on my locked-in iPhone.  Torrents?  Peer-to-peer?  Well, it’s SLOW. :(  And I don’t have time to figure that stuff out.

Anonymous Connectivity

If only there were anonymized networks so we could use the web as it was originally intended again!  Yeah well isn’t Tor for people to sell guns and drugs and child porn?  It just sounds kind of shady lol.  How about mesh networks where people pool together their internet connections so you can connect to a network no matter where you are?  [check out my ITP classmate Sean McIntyre's work on building mesh networks in Brooklyn]  Nah, I want my own connection!  I need blazing speed to stream my GoT.

Decentralized Social Networking

What is diaspora*?  Oh wait, that’s the one with the dead co-founder right?  Wow that was rough.  But hey diaspora* isn’t as nice as Facebook so I’m not going to switch right now.

The point is that for a community that claims to be for breaking down mechanisms for control by a government that is spying on it, thought-leaders have been shooting down all the grassroots, open source, hacker-built, decentralized products that have sprung up recently.

The contempt people have for all these technologies that would help free them from corporate or government interests?  Well, it just makes me think that people aren’t as desirous of freedom as they claim — it reduces technological interest among most people to just another coolness factor.  Do you have the latest iPhone?  Sorry, I only use Instagram after I deleted my Facebook account (a personal favorite considering Facebook owns Instagram).  Macs are for overpaying idiots.

The lowest level of Maslow’s Digital Needs Curve has shit like iPhone, cloud services, gawker, reddit, and whatever else people REALLY want to use daily.  I’ve seen fairly savvy journalists on Twitter railing against Obama on his policy against whistleblowers in one tweet while drooling over their new iPhone 5 in the next.

Remember Occupy?

It was all topped off for me seeing the utter contempt from the twitterati and most liberals with the Occupy movement.  From its very onset, people who constantly act like they’re for a more democratic and grassroots system, sticking it to the banker-politician complex, etc. would laugh in the face of Occupy while at the same time being drawn to it as some chic “fuck The Man” rebelliousness.  People would go visit Zuccotti but always with a curious detachment and ultimately a pointed, knowing critique of how Occupy had no leaders or had too broad a platform or whatever else they would claim as armchair protest organizers.  Protestourism.

Occupy had its own problems and the issues that Occupy folks would bring up were some of the most important of the day (money in politics, lack of prosecution for finance industry scammers, and so on) but really it failed because, despite everyone saying it’s a problem, it’s not THAT bad a problem.

It’s not as though the Occupy protesters were dying in the streets from police abuse, malnourishment, or invasion from foreign enemies.  We barely see the poor in our day-to-days, let alone see people from the poorer parts of the city protesting.  The iconic Occupy protester would be a fairly well-educated person who had life pretty good.  Is that person going to be there when the weather turns cold?  Or when Occupy gets too dangerous?  No.

(more on what I wrote about Occupy: http://blog.benturner.com/2011/10/19/on-occupywallstreet/ )

What has been telling to me as I’ve gotten older is spotting which people will stick up for what they believe and who will disappear when things get less convenient.  My main critique with my generation is that it stands up for nothing.  Maybe things are good enough that it doesn’t have to?  It’s a generation that is against most forms of patriotism (so passé!), against joining the military (don’t be a sheep), against religion (Hitchens and Dawkins are MY gods), against political affiliation (I don’t like boundaries, man), against pretty much any form of outright aligning yourself with any larger organization or cause.  Even joining that DC kickball league is a barely acceptable affiliation.  We are all lone boats out on the ocean, apparently.  Which is fine except the politics of my generation is largely based on liberal socialist ideals for collectivized Wilsonian whatever, health care or taxation etc.  I understand the folks who live out in the country and don’t want anyone to come near — but urban liberals are not those people.

I believe at some point in life you have to start standing for something.  Maybe it’s in some ways naive or dumb, but it’s important, particularly for men, to have a set of principles and values that are immutable.  Shapeshifting and adapting to whatever is hot is something that younger children do as they try to find themselves, and I just think that once you get old enough, you have to be the person defining what’s important in life.  Maybe there’s some truth to the argument that Americans in their 30s are the new infantile Americans in their 20s.  What does it mean to be American anymore, where borders cease to matter and people switch from city to city with the same standard of living, as part of some cosmopolitan elite ideal?  What does it mean when a whistleblower travels to a Chinese surrogate and then to Russia with America’s technical secret goldmine in tow and people are more concerned about the soap opera of a missing man than of a massive foreign policy disaster?

What it says to me is that most people don’t understand the gravity of situations across the world.  Poverty reduction has been reduced to feel-good slacktivism, foreign policy has been reduced to Hollywoodish notions of outmoded Cold War era spy games, homeland security has been reduced to comedic Paul Blart-quality bureaucracies.

It just makes me not want to pay attention to more and more people who don’t have experience, who have no skin in the game, who have no cause to stick their necks out for.  It increases my willingness to listen to those who are on the ground, who have hammered out any naive notions or ideals of how the world really works, leaving only hard-nosed pragmatism behind.

How Convenience is at Odds with Art

This brings me to a bigger subject: art.  I never thought I was going to be an art student, particularly after being in the Army and having a love for business.  The quality of the art students I’ve met in terms of their abilities to look past what is useful or what provides an immediate payoff or what seems possible at the time, along with their technical and ambitious abilities to actually carry through with them, I’ve just been so impressed.  I still associate most art with projects carried on for no reason in particular and which don’t really make much sense and which seem to take up a lot of unnecessary room.  That said, art school is just as expensive as other schools. (this artist wrote a post on why you SHOULDN’T go)

41DhwYxE2vL._SY346_

But what I’ve come to feel about art is that what I associate with art is only what has been successful art in the past.  The cutting edge art of now and in the future is not going to be seen as accepted, as cool, as mainstream.  To understand what the fringes of meaningful art are now is to look not at what will be cool (advertising and design have successfully co-opted that particular game) but to look at what is seen as obscene, weird, disconnected, and offensive.  Meaningful art now is not called art: it’s called some variation of the term hacking.  Experiment, play, prototype, tool around, whatever.

In school I learned the ITP hacker ethos.  The ITP hacker ethos revolves around the 80′s-based mystique contained in phreaking, War Games, Sneakers, Easter Eggs, sleight of hand, Max Headroom, Hackers, etc.  Now society seems to think geeks are cool, but the real geeks are the ones who stay glued to the computer, hacking away on some tech that may not even pan out or make sense to anyone outside of a handful of people.  The chaos behind the high latency of Tor, or the arms race of pirates and copyright holders through torrents, the idea of darknets: this is the uncomfortable edge of where art is.  It’s childish and naive in some areas, it’s foolish and illegal in others, and it’s unproductive and a dead end too.  It’s not polished, it’s not beautiful, but what it does is test legal limits, test technical limits, test ways of seeing the world.

YouTube Preview Image

Drones

Drones.  A touchy subject.  For ITPers, it’s a mix of unsurpassed American military might, combining speed, surveillance, technology, and intelligence, all of which are core advantages to American power.  But it also stands for death, particularly collateral death.  It stands for disposition matrices and hitlists and reaching out and touching someone and the disconnect of killer and victim and secret orders signed by the President.  Drones are one of the best examples of a conflict between liberal disgust with warfare and conservative Jacksonianism and exertion of power.

So it has been depressing to read about drones because few people fall somewhere between those two extremes.  But some people have begun making what I consider to be fine art, and it has not come in the usual form of something beautiful.

James Bridle has an exhibit at the Corcoran on drones.  Among other things, this was said about his work:

Bridle realizes that drones are more than the sum of their 3D parts; they are the capillaries of a network, the point at which lines of computer code, political power, and obscured decision-making appear in the physical world. “This is what I’m really interested in at the moment: trying to push this debate back from the fetishization of the drones themselves, back into the computational networks behind them,” he says of his piece “Disposition Matrix,” a computer monitor reeling through a software program Bridle wrote that searches public resources for people who have a connection to drones and a series of volumes printed from the findings of the program, conveniently accompanied by some gloves for museum visitors to don as they flip through the pages. The program is meant to evoke the system and variables that generates an official “kill list.”

This is the greatest form of art for me.  Technical understanding of something to the point that you can recontextualize it and link it back to the bigger themes involved.

dronestagram_0

You should also watch my ITP classmate Josh Begley’s thesis presentation on dronestre.am, his API for accessing info about deaths as a result of drone strikes.  Particularly interesting were his remarks on geography being an inescapable reality and thus the increasing importance on mapping blank spots in reality, his interest in that sparked by Trevor Paglen and his “experimental geography”.

Drones as peace advocates discuss them are boring things.  A drone today is just a gadget, but what lies behind it is sophisticated blending of GPS, radio comms, cheap parts, remote weaponization, integration of real-time video and control into the commander’s toolkit.  Beneath the drone debate was always the intelligence debate, which the public has only now decided it wants to take part in, despite Bradley Manning rotting away in jail and the NSA blooming in size and a witchhunt for whistleblowers within the government.  Way to ferret out the main story, armchair analysts.

tumblr_mamqiqKAdo1qzu6nxo1_500

UX

One of the quieter stories I read about in Wired a while ago was one that has stuck with me for a while.  It was a glimpse at UX, Urban eXperiment, a French hacker-collective.  Wrote Jon Lackman:

UX is sort of like an artist’s collective, but far from being avant-garde—confronting audiences by pushing the boundaries of the new—its only audience is itself. More surprising still, its work is often radically conservative, intemperate in its devotion to the old. Through meticulous infiltration, UX members have carried out shocking acts of cultural preservation and repair, with an ethos of “restoring those invisible parts of our patrimony that the government has abandoned or doesn’t have the means to maintain.” The group claims to have conducted 15 such covert restorations, often in centuries-old spaces, all over Paris.

Begley’s and Paglen’s interest in the unmapped spaces may coincide with UX’s wishes to find and protect that which has been forgotten.  Anonymity can provide security when everyone is too distracted to pay attention.

Why do they care about these places? Kunstmann answers this question with questions of his own. “Do you have plants in your home?” he asks impatiently. “Do you water them every day? Why do you water them? Because,” he goes on, “otherwise they’re ratty little dead things.” That’s why these forgotten cultural icons are important—”because we have access to them, we see them.” Their goal, he says, isn’t necessarily to make all these things function once again. “If we restore a bomb shelter, we’re certainly not hoping for new bombardments so people can go use it again. If we restore an early 20th-century subway station, we don’t imagine Electricité de France will ask us to transform 200,000 volts to 20,000. No, we just want to get as close as possible to a functioning state.”

UX has a simple reason for keeping the sites a secret even after it has finished restoring them: The same anonymity that originally deprived them of caretakers “is paradoxically what’s going to protect them afterward” from looters and graffiti, Kunstmann says. They know they’ll never get to the vast majority of interesting sites that need restoration. Yet, “despite all that, the satisfaction of knowing that some, maybe a tiny fraction, won’t disappear because we’ll have been able to restore them is an extremely great satisfaction.”

Art stolen by UX, on display out of public view, in tunnels

Art stolen by UX, on display out of public view, in tunnels

Ai Weiwei

Today’s cutting edge of art is also political, because expression vs. government is a tangible, dangerous battle that we witness daily in various forms.  I consider Ai Weiwei to be one of the most daring and genius artists of the day to reach widescale attention, but almost no one has heard of him.  I recommend you read this article about him.

All art is political in the sense that all art takes place in the public arena and engages with an already existing ideology. Yet there are times when art becomes dangerously political for both the artist and the viewers who engage with that art. Think of Jacques-Louis David’s involvement in the French Revolution—his individual investment in art following the bloodshed —and his imprisonment during the reign of terror. If it were not for certain sympathisers, David may well have ended up another victim of the guillotine. Goya is another example of an artist who fell foul of government power. There are instances in the 20th century when artists have faced down political power directly. Consider the photomontages of John Heartfield. Heartfield risked his life at times to produce covers for the magazine A/Z, which defied both Hitler and the Nazi Party.

Backpacks spelling out: “She lived happily for seven  years in this world”

Backpacks spelling out: “She lived happily for seven
years in this world”

 

As an idea of what he has done, he built a marvel, then disavowed it (the Bird’s Nest), he created a facade of backpacks outside a museum to represent the lost children who died in China’s major earthquake while back.  In his words:

The idea to use backpacks came from my visit to Sichuan after the earthquake in May 2008. During the earthquake many schools collapsed. Thousands of young students lost their lives, and you could see bags and study material everywhere. Then you realize individual life, media, and the lives of the students are serving very different purposes.  The lives of the students disappeared within the state propaganda, and very soon everybody will forget everything.

Most poignantly, he was detained and beaten by police in Chengdu after he had gone there to support a local activist Tan Zuoren (who was on trial for helping create a victim database for the aftermath of the earthquake) and snapped this photo of himself with cops in an elevator, which he shared across the internet:

weiwei

That photo tapped into elusive, seductive themes.  Social media, a joke to its trollish inhabitants like Evgeny Morozov (whose skin in the game involves finding a new fellowship at a university to bum around in while writing a book attacking all the people who provided material for it).  The Chinese police, a symbol of ham-fisted authority.  The artist as a threat (with multiple police surrounding one unarmed artist).  Surveillance, cleverly used by Ai Weiwei to take videos of the police who tried to threaten him with video and photos.

It wasn’t being arrested by police that was rebellious or artistic — any fool in the US can get arrested these days just for acting like a jackass, and Ai Weiwei wasn’t even doing anything at the time.  It wasn’t some artistic stunt — Ai Weiwei, already known for art, was seeking the truth in recording names of those killed in the earthquake.  He…just sought the truth.

The reaction: he survived the altercation and had a choice response for the police.

ai-weiwei-never-sorry_hospital

The tragedy: almost no one knew this had all happened!  Even fellow art students.  I can barely comprehend this.  The disconnect is glaring.  You know, I’ve served my time.  I’ve reinvented myself to fit in to various communities, to take up their rituals and make them my own, to become a part of those communities, to care for them and to be cared for by them.

Artistic Voice

Now that I’m out of school, I feel like I’m freed from that need to try to catch up with what other people have done, and instead I should begin to forge my own artistic path, to be okay with creating things that no one understands.  My own temptation to believe that I should be trying to convince others has long before died as I realized it is certainly not my talent.  My dreams of grandeur have been tempered by failure, by meeting people far more intelligent and wise and wonderful and humanistic and charismatic and insightful than me, and by realizing that the best I can do is get my own affairs enough in order that I will have time to be able to help others — a project I’m still working strenuously on.  To these ends, I feel as though my bullshit filters are honed (filtering out the day-to-day nonsense in different industries while selecting the genuinely new and game-changing events) and I’ve become very good at understanding the people who are really pushing things to the edge — and I want to promote and encourage them to continue to contribute the beauty to the world that they so wonderfully create.

I suppose I just wish that people would have a more understanding perspective of the world — understanding peoples’ motivations for doing things, understanding the reasons for why traditions or events came to pass, understanding the chaos as well as the order.  What I see is not a lot of understanding, compassion, or sympathy in the world, but a whole lot of laziness.  It’s toxic, and it leads to people being able and thinking it only natural to take advantage of others — in a world where we wish and idealize that people would help each other instead.

I also wish that people would understand that when they claim to want to know the truth — whether it’s about government spying or whatever — what they often only want is the drama behind popular exposure of the truth, when perhaps the truth was out there in the open for them to avoid and ignore for years beforehand.  A critical look at “truth” involves, most importantly, a critical look at oneself and how much one will put on the line in order to accept that truth.

 

Graduation from Formal Education

08 Jun

In the midst of discussion about the trade-offs of higher education versus online courses or being self-taught, cost of schooling, etc., I wanted to share what I’ve learned.

I’m 35.  I did Arabic for 63 weeks, 7 hours a day in the Army, along with military schooling in hand-t0-hand, rifle marksmanship, defensive driving, commo, hazmat, etc.  I studied tech in art school.  I did Greek/Latin in college.  I did foreign policy studies in DC.  I stopped short of a PhD because they’re perpetual and even worse of a guarantee of employment.  School was pretty exhausting: never-ending work (if you’re doing it right), constant feeling of inferiority compared to the weight of the material and depth of the field/competition, that absence of a salary or stability.  So I get it.  I get why people are saying to skip school, avoid the costs, study on your own.  But here’s how I see the current state of higher education:

Don’t Go to School Until You Know What You Want

This was not necessarily the worst thing, but college was the only option I knew about in my senior year of high school.  I didn’t know why I wanted to go to this or that college/brand, and I had no clue what I wanted to study or do with my life.  I didn’t really know my competition and I was flying blind.  My mother was extremely helpful in this regard, covering up for my glaring blind spots.  Luckily, UT Austin took the top 10% from every Texas school and UT is one of the best public schools in the country so things worked out for me.  I spent more time making money designing sites and trading stocks than going to class, in some of the semesters, though.

When I later joined the Army after college and after 9/11, I realized that I should have joined the military after high school, but there was next to zero chance that I ever would have considered that an option at the time.  The military was distant, far away, something that people like me didn’t have to suffer through.  The military’s for those kooky white kids with the buzzcuts who never smile and who take themselves too seriously — oh, and they’re probably from military pedigrees already so that’s the only life they know.  That’s the stereotype, anyway.

What it ended up being for me later in life, when I was older than most of the other kids in basic training, was my passage into adulthood.  I got disciplined, I got chiseled down to my essence, I lost my comforts, I was forced to man up, I lost the illusion that I was safe in life with what I already had, I was confronted with my utter lack of common sense.  It was isolating, humiliating, challenging, completely foreign to my former life.  But I ended up becoming competent, I found a code of values to live the rest of my life with, and I found friends who will always remain so.  I participated in an important block of American history in a fairly significant way that remains relevant even to this day (target identification, communications interception).

Some of my Army friends joined right out of high school and they were looking at a good future where they could keep military employment as skilled people who earned a good salary, or they could then go to school and know more about what fields of study would be good for them.  Instead of using college to grow up, which I feel most kids do these days, they were using college for what it should be (especially given the current cost): focus into enriching the mind.  Ex-military folks don’t often associate with other classmates, just because of the difference in life experience, but that does mean they probably are more sharply attuned to what they need to get out of their schooling.  Plus they already had the discipline from our Arabic classes and from their sergeants riding their asses to go to the library and put in the book-time once they got to school.

By the time I left the Army in 2007, when I was 27, I finally knew exactly what I wanted to do and I studied harder than I ever had before, and my grades improved.

Another alternative is the “gap” year.  I prefer this to going to college right after high school but I still think there’s a problem with it.  You don’t have any experience after high school to know how to appreciate travel.  You see the world but it’s just a long holiday.  On some of my trips (the Outback, Galápagos), I’ve started meeting more people my age who actually worked after high school or college for a good number of years (close to a decade) and then decided to quit their careers or jobs for a year or more of full-on world travel.  By that point, they had money, they had life experience, they had their wits about them, and they could really savor their trips, while at the same time benefiting from disconnecting from dead-end work or a stressful rat race.  Euros.  They have that shit figured out.

Veteran Hiring

Your mileage will certainly vary on this, but the hype about companies looking to hire veterans is hollow.  It’s like how companies are looking to hire more women, etc.  It’s just a PR thing.  But when push comes to shove, organizations usually go with what they know.  And they will take skills over taking charity cases any day of the week.

Unless you stay near military bases, or you are fortunate enough to work in security or intelligence for the federal government or in DC, then your military status is probably not going to help you much for employment.

Military experience, training, and bearing is immeasurably useful for many veterans for the rest of their lives, but for finding a job, veterans hit the wall of the HR screenings and employers who can’t relate.  Think about it.  If you’ve never been in the military, how much does it mean to you when a veteran tells you she has leadership time or a strong work ethic or discipline or experience following orders?  These are invaluable in team, individual, and hierarchical organizations, but they do not resonate for hiring because they do not indicate specific skills that are needed to perform jobs on a daily basis.

Companies don’t hire for talent, they hire for immediate return, except at the higher levels where they’ll pay any amount of money to get the best of the best.  I had one job interview where the recruiter was telling me how they changed their entire hiring practice to look for talent and the potential to learn, not to just regurgitate answers in the interview.  Next interview with someone from the department that was hiring?  Questions for regurgitating answers.  This is double-speak.

Everyone likes to think they operate like a startup, or are considerate towards work-life balance, or are attracting top talent, or are encouraging innovation, etc.  Very few actually are.

I think I got a little lucky when applying myself to jobs post-military.  In particular my first full-time job out of Georgetown was with a contractor whose executives were all ex-military officers.  I fit right in with them and thought I was able to deliver exactly the style and results they expected, very quickly.  I was also able to do another career change and get another big break but it was mainly because another boss not only was familiar with how the military integrates with technology and with society, but also had experience in politics.  I guess the point is that without familiarity with military, employers will gloss over those years spent working for Uncle Sam.

Higher Education is a Proxy for Jobs, Not a Pipeline

While it’s mostly likely true that more education and better jobs are correlated, it might be more causative to say that more education opens up more opportunities to better jobs.  What I mean by this is to say that most degrees do not lead directly to available jobs.  Unless you are doing something like computer science, accounting, or medical school, or to some degree business and law (though even JDs and MBAs are losing some of their guarantee), employment is not a certainty.

A lot of my friends ended up being English or liberal arts types, and that sort of degree leads to a life of forging your own path through uncertainty, self-doubt, lack of understanding by 90% of employers, etc.

Now, I will say, pretty much every English major I can think of is capable of producing absolutely pure magic with their words.  Their writing is sublime, they fascinate me with their insights, and they weave creativity out of thin air.  It’s interesting to me to see really creative, successful people in their 40s and 50s who were actually English majors back in the day but who had to put in a lot of hard time gaining credibility throughout their careers until eventually they became thought leaders.

As a classics major, even in 1996, I was told that there was no future of employment in that field.  I did that major because I had a lot of AP credits, which let me take a lot of random classes like astronomy, parageography, business classes, etc.

As an Arabic linguist in the Army, I was never good enough at Arabic to continue at it for a living.  Intelligence collection/analysis was definitely something I felt really good at, and I’ve continued it to some degree since, but I didn’t end up doing it as a career.  This was probably the #1 path to success that I could have followed in my life.

As a foreign policy grad student at Georgetown, even though it was the #1 ranked foreign policy school in the country, I still didn’t quite fit in.  I wasn’t fit to work in finance in NYC or international financial/economic risk evaluation in DC.  I didn’t have a good background or the personal financial backing for international development and fighting poverty.  I certainly wasn’t polished enough to be one of those suits talking policy for South Sudan.  I talked about Galapag.us for my orals presentation and my evaluators stared at me blankly (this despite my feeling that an interconnected system for tracking identity and reputation would revolutionize our ability to account for all the disconnected, anonymous, and voiceless people targeted by things such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN’s Millennium Development Goals).

As a grad student at NYU, I got to play in probably the best hackerspace in the world.  Laser cutter, 3D printers, Processing/OpenFrameworks/Rhino/Unity/etc. classes, circuit design, Arduino, node.js/python flask, all applied however we wanted to whichever art projects we could come up with.  The ITP community is unparalleled.  For me it was more of a backdoor into software development, since I learned pretty quickly that I would have to shore up my computer science deficiency.  I knew how to move about the DOM on a web page, from having made them since high school, but the world had changed and in job interviews I was getting pure coding questions on closures and sort algorithms, and I was taking tests on implementing apps from given JSON routes and doing testable Java apps and writing clever little algorithms to solve tricky problems to demonstrate coding efficiency/style.

My point in talking about all this was that school is not enough if you want to be highly employable.  In many circumstances, schooling seems to be a strong negative against employment, in terms of having the skills you need to make the cut.  School is wonderful for theory (you will probably be far more exposed to where trends are), but you will not know how to do the simple skill requirements that any employer wants a new employee to be able to do from day one.  School is also wonderful for gaining breadth, but it is not particularly good at depth unless you do targeted research into, I dunno, computer science or interface design or get a successful research topic or something.

The conclusion is that if you want to get a degree because you think it will make you more employable, you might be better off if you just work in that career area for the 2-4 years instead.  Work experience makes you far more employable than a degree, because you’ll be able to talk about how you used X and Y, even if you might not be able to explain the cultural backdrop for why X and Y came into being (which is what you would probably learn with a degree).

Learning

Limitations

I remember when my friends in school started getting better at math and science than I did.  My grades started slipping and my friends’ didn’t.  I didn’t understand how they knew how to get certain answers all the sudden, even though we sat through the same classes and did the same work.

Through so many other different contexts, modules, and learning environments, I gradually gained confidence that it wasn’t so much always that I was slower, but that the teaching methods were incorrect for me.  I think I had pretty good teachers in grade school who realized that different students had different learning styles, but teachers don’t always have time to cater to each of those kinds.

My pre-calculus homework consisted of problem sets.  But since they were made up in textbooks in which sparse examples were given and the answers certainly were NOT given except in the teacher’s answer key (and sometimes even those answers were wrong because of poor editing), I had virtually no time or backup plan for learning how to solve the problems.  If I couldn’t figure out a problem based on a simple pattern from the reading, then there was no recourse.  Nowadays, I would probably be able to google a topic and read about it to deduce the answer, but this was in the early 90’s.  I wonder how my studies would have been different if I were a kid now and I could use the internet for my homework (at the time, the internet was really only good as a social communication tool).

I would sit through class the next day as classmates breezed through the solutions.  Usually the harder questions were at the end of the problem sets so we spent more time covering those, but the questions for me started to become difficult about one-quarter through, so I didn’t want to slow down the class and ask about them.

I also liked to play tennis as a kid.  My mom I think talks about how I lost my ability to serve when I went through my growth spurt.  I went from having a fast Sampras serve to barely being able to get any serve in.  I did some classes and participated in a tennis camp regularly, but I never got any better.

I think I’ve learned that I’m not well-suited for precise tasks that require the same motion every time, hence serving is difficult.  But how would I have ever known this?  All that time wasted on something I could never find any talent in.  Sure, maybe it’s fun, but I think a kid needs to at least have one thing that she can develop confidence in.  I ended up hitting or throwing a lot of tennis balls against walls by myself instead.

Now, what methods did I find that worked for me?  The best training I ever had was for using special equipment in the Army.  Some contractor trainers came to our base to teach us.  We had a block of instruction followed by some hands-on time, followed by more block instruction.  Same as usual.  We even got time to go take the equipment out and use it out in the forest.

The key difference was that, after all that, we then had a block of hands-on time for debugging.  The trainers would break the equipment and have us figure out how to debug it and deduce how to fix it.  This meant we had to understand how to check components in order of operational logic and then figure out where the connection would break down.  From there, we could use what clues we discovered to figure out the solution.

I knew that equipment inside and out by the time we were done.  Because I understood the big picture view and chain of events.

Counter-examples are so crucial.  It’s not enough to show someone how things are done right.  You have to show someone how things are done wrong, so that, through seeing all the differences and errors, one can see the limitations of the implementation and how it actually works.  If you’ve only seen something when it’s working 100%, you’ll have no clue what to do when it breaks.

Macro

I think this was the time I learned that most schools teach things from a micro point of view.  Tiny blocks of logic with no sense of how they tied into larger blocks.  I learned that what I desperately need to know about any new thing I find is how its biggest sense works.  Once I understand that big picture, I can dive in and deduce why each inner part is there.  To extend this, what if I were taught why people need to learn computer science or biology or calculus first, instead of having faith that the teacher was telling me stuff I needed to know even if I never knew when to apply it?

In the same way, it would have been useful for motivation to learn if I had been told that I might need to know history as a field because if I wanted to, say, become a surfer, I would want to go see x film or research y first surfer’s biography, or study how z surfing equipment is made.  That is, history would not just be remembering dates, it would branch into sociology, technology, business, etc.  The common saying is that no one uses math once they get older.  But had I known that I could apply math to, say, winning more often at no-limit Texas hold ‘em, or Fibonacci sequences in momentum stock trading, or even figuring out the statistics behind landing a valuable baseball card in those bubble gum packs, it really would have opened up my eyes more.

The other key learning moment I had was learning PHP.  I know people hate PHP but the PHP documentation is outstanding, at least for me.  I couldn’t find one great example but here’s the doc page for HTML special characters.   The docs will usually have a few examples, but perhaps more importantly, they will often have counter-examples to show common errors or hang-ups.  And the docs have comments where people share snippets of code to tackle certain problems.  Some languages like Java are devoid of good examples, and they have fairly obtuse documentation pages; while at this point I can decipher documentation, when I was studying the Processing language at ITP, I could see that other students just saw the documentation pages as full of gibberish.

Eric Rosenthal

Eric Rosenthal is an ITP legend.  Large, scaled, well-constructed circuits and installations.  Devotes tons of his time to help students, even with our dumbest questions.

So I was in his office asking questions about our flying robot project.  He got to a point where he was saying how people don’t care to learn anymore.  They don’t just open things up and experiment.  If they have questions about it, they don’t go look them up and read more about it.  After a point, I realized that he was somewhat referring to me.  I said that my buddy Slavek always took things apart, but I never did, and I never grasped it as well as he did.  But Rosenthal parried that it wasn’t that hard if people would actually research things and be curious about them, and I took it personally and wondered: maybe I really am not that good at these things, and my willpower to learn just pushes me to try even though I’ll always be sub-par.  It’s sobering when you wonder if you’ve reached your natural limits in a certain area.

Some questions: should we end up doing what we’re good at?  Should we do what we enjoy?  Will we ever get both?  What if we don’t really get to do either?

Teach Yourself

I am not for or against in-person education or online self-paced courses.  Personally I plan to continue studying computer science and coding languages through free online courses, but that only happens after I’ve gotten enough background to be able to pace myself through the courses and understand what’s going on, which means I probably had to have had some training beforehand.

I do feel as though sitting in actual classes and talking to people face-to-face is a necessity for education, but I feel as though that system doesn’t scale well in today’s universities.  Of course sitting in a 400-person class offers none of the benefits of physical interaction.  But even a class with 10 people makes it hard for a professor and TA to engage every student.  No one has time for it.  The student doesn’t have time for a lot of added engagement and the professor certainly doesn’t (with all the other things professors do these days).

Online courses, I think they require a high level of competency before they’re useful.  Learn coding through an online course?  I don’t think so.  But if you’re learning a new language once you’ve already learned others and coded projects in others?  Certainly.

It’s even worse if you’re not disciplined.  Will you really be conversant in, say, business, if you’ve only read through an online curriculum?

What I think would be really useful for online courses is more sharing and more competition.  This lends itself particularly well to coding.  Project Euler is great for this: it’s a set of coding problems that emphasize not so much just solving the problem but finding an efficient way to solve the problem.  You could brute force a solution (do 10k iterations) or come up with another solution that maybe only does half that many iterations.  Maybe to pass, you have to have the code complete in less than x seconds.

For papers or other projects, I never understood why we couldn’t look at each other’s work.  I mean, I kind of get it.  Students are incredibly protective of their privacy when it comes to their work and especially for grades.  But why?  If a professor can’t give tailored reviews or advice all the time, why can’t the other students?

In-Person Mentorship

Really where I think education breaks down is in mentorship.  My entire aware life I’ve been in search of mentors.  The best people I know all seek mentors.  A mentor is someone who can give you individualized, targeted guidance.  Someone who can hold you accountable, can adjust your learning as you need it, and who can give you support or advice on how you should continue.

A professor is not going to have time to push me.  One of the biggest freedoms I ever experienced was realizing once I hit grad school that I should really just write about whatever the fuck I found interesting — my grades improved and I felt like I was writing about things that were unique and important.  Up until then, I was writing about what I thought others wanted to read.  But no professor really pushed this on me.  Maybe I gained some sympathy into how, as a professor, you’d probably get really bored of reading the same crap over and over.

But my best mentors have always pushed me.  Quizzed me daily to see if I retained material.  Forced me to work on projects in new techs so I’d get hands-on.  Pushed me on certain principles to get me closer to being a seasoned professional.  And they’ve offered their reference, far better than a random reference from a professor or employer you barely knew.

Mentors need to know how to get from point A to point B, and how to identify what point someone else is at along that spectrum.  A mentor whom his student doesn’t respect will fail, and a mentor who gives scattershot advice to a student is not helping either.

Physical, one-to-one mentorship is crucial to education.  And you won’t necessarily find it through formal education.

Expectations and Greatness

I feel as though students have to push themselves in order to be great, or at least to strive for greatness.  Peers and teachers aren’t pushing students hard enough to go further than they would go on their own.  The difference is between a haphazardly written proposal or project and a fully-formed all-out attempt to make something important.

Team Projects

Related to that, I think that team-based project mindsets have led to substandard results.  Particularly in business school, the theory goes that you have to work in groups so that somehow you know how it is in “the real world” (whatever that is).  So, you’ll have to work for a few weeks on a half-formed project assignment for one class out of many others with 3-4 other classmates who have multiple other completely separate priorities.  Just like “the real world”?

I was in a horrible class in grad school where we formed 4-person groups to build a project using a technology none of us even got our hands on till the end of the course.  What’s worse, my team lost a person who dropped the course.  No one ended up having a working project at the end.

Here’s what I think should have happened.  Seen School of Rock?  I love this movie for many reasons, but I also think that the school project is brilliant.  Form a band, assign classmates to different roles.  There’s the manager, the band, lights, costumes, roadies.  This at least in theory would teach the whole class to execute on a common project but in more manageable parts that tied into an easy-to-identify goal, led by a teacher who (again, in theory) is older and has more experience to be able to bring all the parts together.

To me it would make more sense to run a class as one big project.  It’d operate more like a platoon, or like a startup.  Several smaller projects can be doomed to fail with all those moving parts.  The final product is less likely to be realized, to be made great.  It’s that 10% of extra work at the end that makes the project shine.

Apprenticeship

Another thing I don’t get.  Dislocation between education and jobs.  At least in the military, you’re more likely to go to schools that improve your ability to do your job.  In the real world, training has gone nearly to zero, because no one can afford to lose their employees.  And kids coming out of school are not going to know the software or tools needed for the jobs they’re applying for.

Why are there not more programs where students get education in exchange for a contract of employment guaranteed for x years?  Why wouldn’t companies have more of an interest to train future employees from an earlier age so they can produce more efficient workers?

Well I’m guessing the answer is because companies are mostly flying by the seats of their pants, have no long-term vision, and can’t afford anything beyond the short-term value of employees.

Cost and Brand

The cost of education doesn’t make much sense.  The problem is that there isn’t much of a choice.  Those $1k scholarships you can win are ineffectual.  Unpaid internships in exchange for credit are usually useless versus your just taking another course.  The cost of not going to school could be huge, unless you find a pipeline career that lets you avoid school.  So is school worth the cost?  The only reason it’s not worth the cost is you absolutely can’t pay for it (unfortunately education is becoming, as tradition has mostly held, only for the elite) or you have a career already.

Now, brand.  Brand matters for strange reasons.  Top finance firms care about brand, not because those schools (Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Wharton, etc.) produce smarter students necessarily, but because the employer knows it is getting a certain personality from that school, and, believe it or not, certain values.  Different schools do manage to inculcate their values (if they have any) into the students, particularly at stronger brands.  In that way, pedigree is important to employers.

Some random anecdotes that I came across: the only person I heard getting into Yale out of my interview group went to an arts magnet school, the only person I heard from my interview group for Booz Allen Hamilton to get in was from Carnegie Mellon (solid engineering/CS).

The Future

So here’s where we are.  A bunch of mercenaries for hire, fighting over each other for the next short-term contract (i.e. a job).  Get rich or die tryin’.  School is a fun place where some of that competitiveness goes out the window and you get to experiment and play a bit.  But there are only a few places in the employed world where you get to do that.  And fewer places where that sort of job is living-wage.

Education won’t necessarily bring you comfort and stability, whereas sticking with a job, gaining seniority, that seems to lead to, in most cases, winning the war of attrition, when everyone else has left.

It’s true that the best can succeed.  Good grades, good school, good athleticism, good looks, these things do translate into success.  For the rest of us, though, we have to find other things.  For me, I derailed my own success more times than I can count, and since I never could keep up with grades or talent, I did my best by trying to work harder than the rest, and I’ve tried multiple careers in order to find happiness, stability, and success.

And if it’s been hard for me, it’s got to be really hard for others.  Or am I making it far harder on myself than it needs to be?  Why do I know so many extremely gifted people with fabulous work ethic, force multipliers in pretty much every aspect of society they contribute to, who are struggling to get even the most basic entry-level jobs?

Is this the future we want?  Or can we strive to build something more sustainable?

Payoff

What I think I’ve learned is that school is not a viable option for most people, and not because it’s expensive (I still believe it’s worth the lifetime of intellectual freedom), but mostly because there is no tangible connection to an eventual payoff except in parenthetical ways.  That is, yes, you will meet people who you end up being close with and end up marrying/working with.  You might even gain some pedigree or credibility.  If you’re lucky, the time you spent studying will help you crack into your first job and into further promotions.  But it’s not a sure thing.

I think the best payoff right now is to take a job with reasonable mobility and just stay in it.  Climb the chain, outlast your peers, get marginal promotions.  You’ll do better if you balance this with changing jobs so that you can negotiate higher salaries.  But changing industries, or leaving industry to go to school, these are massive momentum killers.  Think about it: would a company want to hire a new unproven person or hire someone internally who uses all the dumb, arbitrary software stacks only that company uses?

Feedback

I’ve generalized in a lot of ways here and in other ways it’s very personalized to my own experience.  I know a few of you are professors, other students, people who chose lucrative and not-so-lucrative fields of study.  I’d be interested to hear your opinions on education.

 

Opening Up Galapag.us for Alpha

30 Apr

My thesis project for NYU-ITP has been Galapag.us, a tribe and ecosystem for promoting the idea that we should be radically open and transparent with our data so that we can form and share metrics to measure our progress and success in different areas of our lives.  More info at the front page of Galapag.us.

User Zero

I came up with the idea in 2006.  An email I sent to my Army buddy in April, 2006:

I sort of had an idea but it seems like it’ll be difficult to build out.  My idea would be for something similar to Xbox Live’s ranking system.  Except it’s for your life.  Privacy issues aside, people would volunteer to put in as much personal info as they want.  At first it might seem cumbersome putting in so much info but I think as myspace and other services have shown, people are willing to do it if it means it cultivates their identity.

So for instance you put in your income and number of kids and connect your accounts for online game rankings (like in Halo or Battlefield 2) and your exercise plan and your birthdate and your finances and investments and how many web sites you’re on (like myspace, digg, yahoo, etc.) and from all that data, the company would generate statistics that break down your life and give you info about how much time you spend on certain tasks, how efficient you are with your money, what your online reputation is.  Stuff like that.  The core would be statistics…anonymous statistics I think so people won’t have any incentive to forge their results.  The point would be to turn peoples’ lives into a numeric game where they can see how they rate in certain aspects of their lives.  Think of all those online quizzes people take about what kind of lover they are or what their personality is.  That could be tabulated into the statistics, which could be searchable or broke down any way the person wanted.

At the end of a year, we could look internally at our statistics and go visit the top overall people in person to go verify their data and videotape their lives, interview them.  Then a winner would be announced…like the best person award.  Heh…there’d be so much controversy and whining and competition if it caught on.  Then we could write a book about our experiences going out and discovering what makes someone “the best” compared to everyone else.

So…that’s my idea so far.  Sort of like a real-life RPG.  Perhaps we could offer points for real-world scavenger hunts or traveling to different countries around the globe.  What about having life coaches for certain segments, if someone was weak in an area like professional development?  I was thinking we could also offer points for accomplishing certain tasks like humanitarian work.

A lot of stuff happened in the meantime: I got out of the Army, went to study foreign policy in DC, worked for Homeland Security, moved to NYC for school.  And so now I’m wrapping up the thesis, which allowed me more than a semester to work just about full-time (including any waking moment) on trying to make Galapag.us a reality before I can either A) get funding or B) get an engineer/developer job after school.

So I present Galapag.us for thesis on May 15 at NYU.  I have two weeks still to work on it before then.  I think I’ve gotten it to a point where I can start letting alpha testers in to explore, and think about it.  My work log has been tracked on the thesis blog.

Beginning Alpha Testing with Thesis

Want to help alpha test or just look around?  Give it a try at https://galapag.us/login and see what you think!

Here’s the slide deck I’ll be presenting at thesis:

Stack

  • Amazon EC2 small instance with ubuntu
  • node.js/express.js: So easy to build a site using this framework.
  • varnish/nginx+ngx_pagespeed: Caching, run-time optimizations for faster page loads/downloads.  Routes to https and socket.io server too.
  • python scripts for maintaining server default state
  • celery for queuing
  • redis for temporary data dumps and lookups
  • mongodb for permanent data storage
  • angularjs for the comment system
  • mocha, unittest, qunit for unit testing in python and javascript

 

I know the site’s confusing — like an airplane pilot dashboard.  It’ll become more cohesive over time.  A lot of things aren’t quite working yet, or they have filler data to get them going.  Apologies for that.  For more familiarization, try the welcome demo.

But here are some features that are worth checking out:

Comment System

Comments will be available for tribe forums, formula critiques, peoples’ profiles.  I decided to use angularjs so I could learn how to build SPAs with it!

ss_comments

 

Tribes

By tracking individual data, one can also track internal company metrics and state-level happiness metrics too!

ss_graph

 

The Islands

Each island has its own weather, environment, and bonuses/penalties for certain user behavior, so it benefits you to live on the island that incorporates your style best.

ss_islands

 

Professions and Skills

What does it mean to be “good” at something? Are companies hiring the most qualified candidates? How do we standardize that?

ss_professions

 

Your Genome

A profile for your data.  You get reputation scores in different areas.  Those scores are determined by which formulas you choose to use.  You can also see your internet of things (devices, pets, objects) is on the bottom right, while you’ll also be able to create gaming characters using your own data.

ss_profile

 

Quests

You can complete quests within Galapag.us to gain experience.  Some tasks will be data-gardening for other people, some will be to introduce gaming elements, others will be to visit lesser-seen parts of the site.  But mostly the quests should be geared towards helping others.

ss_quests

 

Status Bar

I love github’s command bar. I want users to be able to do most everything through the search bar.

ss_searchbar

 

Tribes and Their Genomes

Tribes are important to our identities. formulas serve as their DNA.

ss_tribes

 

Universal Reputation Lookup

The left-side widget can be opened on most pages to see what reputations the people named on them have.  I intend to allow people to look up reputations from just about anywhere.

ss_widget

 

 

API/Sandbox

Galapag.us will have an API to access one’s data, as well as common stats such as state population census results, zodiac signs, and global stats.  Plus a place to test the routes, within the sandbox:

ss_api

 

So with all that, please go help alpha test at https://galapag.us/login to begin your exploration of identity and reputation.  Thanks, and come to the ITP Spring Show if you can!