This year I read 40 books. I’m almost done with a few more really long books but I’m saving them for next year. My goal was to read only 25 books — I think I figured that my reading would drop off with trying to work on creating practical blocks of code and learning algorithms, but I also did a bit of traveling up and down the coast, so that allowed for more reading time.
They are rated from 1 to 10. I rated 10 of the 40 books this year a 10. As always, the books I think are absolutely worth reading and which I think say something profound or new are rated at a 10. Rarely do I rate below a 6, just because I wouldn’t have chosen to read the book anyway if I knew it was that bad. 9’s and 8’s are usually solid books, but not must-reads. 7’s I appreciated the content and was satisfied with my choosing to read them.
This year I added very very brief comments giving my 2-second gut review.
This year, my emphasis has been on deepening my understanding of code quality, algorithmic efficiency, and runtime speed as I try to become a more seasoned programmer. My goal has been to practice more C and C++ to learn from a sound fundamental base. I also tried to become stronger in devops-related topics.
I think this has been my best year for reading books written by women. In the past I had read the Hunger Games, The Giver, and Harry Potter series, and those shouldn’t all count as uniques. But this year I was delighted to read some fascinating investigative journalism books (on chocolate, Chinese consumerism, and shipping) and a couple amazing memoirs (Julia Child and the woman with the brain on fire).
In the coming year I’m going to try to read 40 books. In particular, if you have suggestions for investigatory journalism books, I’d love to read them! I also love books with biographies on great persons or great projects.
Keanu’s understated demeanor and humility, combined with the Sad Keanu meme and reddit love (for having done things like giving part of his earnings to the rest of the crew on his movies), have won him at least a begrudging respect from even the most hardened and dismissive critics of Keanu. A common refrain now, after years of being the dumb Ted Logan or the wooden Neo, is that, well, Keanu seems like maybe he’s a great person, but that doesn’t mean he’s a good actor!
Let me attempt to convince you otherwise.
My exposure to Keanu at an early age took the form of watching Parenthood over and over because it was on TV all the time. That movie, an under-rated film (and, I must digress, was a significant influence in my life as it showed me the dysfunctionality of families well before I was able to see it in the families around me, due to my age and immaturity), came out in 1989 which was also the year the original Bill and Ted came out.
I don’t know which film influenced this doofus young dude character the most but Keanu as Tod in Parenthood was one of the first indications of Keanu as a sweet, innocent, misunderstood character, as he played what seemed to be a trouble-making, trouble-attracting boyfriend who actually ends up helping to bring a family together. He played Tod and Ted, I might add, after being a character in Dangerous Liaisons (with John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Glenn Close, et al).
Ted dominated the early 90’s (note that somehow he ended up a timeless film with George Carlin), and in my childhood I would watch Bill & Ted in their animated cartoon show. Yes, that’s Keanu, animated. How many actors were animated before digitization became a thing?
Strangely as a college kid I didn’t follow films that much but I did fall in love with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which features some of Keanu’s most infamous acting work as a ridiculous Jonathan Harker. Point Break, My Own Private Idaho, and Little Buddha I didn’t experience until I was much older.
Speed took Keanu out of the Ted phase of his career and into an older, more wooden phase in which he wasn’t perceived as a goofy kid anymore, but just a bad actor. Some other classic films did little to change his reputation but he managed to accomplish a lot: a William Gibson novel (Johnny Mnemonic), a film with Charlize Theron and Al Pacino as a badass Satan (Devil’s Advocate), a scab quarterback in The Replacements (with Gene Hackman, Orlando Jones, and yes, a younger Jon Favreau!), and some poor attempts at blockbusters (Chain Reaction with Morgan Freeman) and Feeling Minnesota (with Cameron Diaz and the great Dan Akroyd).
I’m just covering the facts here, ma’am, but it’s to get us on the same page. You probably loosely know this history up to this point, since it’s the foundation for much of the criticism of Keanu’s acting chops. Even my argument that few actors have worked in such a wide range of roles with such a high caliber of fellow actors is not enough to convince many.
I bring it up because I think like most projects of creation, it is interesting to see which people tend to end up working with each other. I figure even the most assholish of assholes will get at least one big chance to work on a project with other talented types, but unless that person is just a pure genius and everyone knows it, it’s unlikely that others will want to pick that person again.
I tend to think of Kanye as that ridiculously creative, assholish genius, while I think of Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up as a person who had one chance to work with a group of friends but turned them off. I’ve read that the Knocked Up cast thought Heigl was a total stuck-up bitch and that reputation has followed her since — like, how could you not enjoy hanging out with the Apatow crew?
The fact that Keanu in his career has been able to work with so many different actors of high esteem is a pretty good indicator that he’s a pleasure to work with and, based on the stories revolving around him, an inspiration to be around. This guy is the definition of a force multiplier who makes those around him better, even if his own qualities can be somewhat indeterminate (and this is a common theme among my favorites: Tyson Chandler, Paul Walker, Kenneth Manimal Faried, and my best friends, as examples). Keanu reportedly took pay cuts in Devil’s Advocate and The Replacements to land Al Pacino and Gene Hackman.
But does that make him a great actor? No!, most detractors would say.
So, let me get to the meat of my argument. And I’m going to need to make a personal parallel here. Keanu is a halfie like I am. He’s mostly Canadian, but of mixed descent. Some British. Keanu is half-white, half-Hawai’ian/mutt. Born in Lebanon, raised by his mom with several stepdads around.
I am mostly American, some Brit (by my Brit parents). Half-Asian, half-white. Raised mostly American but with some tiger mom ideals. I was quickly outpaced by my advanced classmates (mostly Asian) in middle and high school, but I didn’t fit in with the rest of the student body, and while I enjoyed sports I was stuck in right field or last spot on the tennis team.
So with all that in mind, I began to notice I identified with Keanu in a key respect: he tends to play the role of the outsider come to help the community deal with and resolve its problems. And if you look at things this way, you’ll see a whole new side of acting and of Keanu open up.
Here we see Tod, healing his girlfriend’s small family by teaching the young son without a father that his entree into puberty is not abnormal. Shane Falco as the quarterback of a bunch of scrubs who get a chance at filling in where they don’t belong. Harker traveling to Transylvania to be a liaison between the modern world and the mystical world. Siddhartha himself, the man who sought to leave the gates of elite security and see how his people truly lived.
This helps to explain the interpretation of his acting as well, certainly. For him to be an outsider means that he did not grow up with the same cultural imprinting, ritual, and mannerisms as the rest of the community. He is going to be perceived as not acting “normally” or quite human enough. He is foreign, he is weird. This I identified with very strongly since the most common characterization of me is that I am non-emotive and stoic — but this never quite resonated with me because within myself is a complex torrent of insecurities, feelings, and understandings about the relationships occurring around me.
In Keanu’s more recent films, the outsider theme is even more prevalent. In 47 Ronin, Keanu is a half-Japanese, half-white subservient mystical nature outcast who is treated with contempt by the samurai around him. Says one of the characters, “I would rather have been killed by that beast than saved by a half-breed.”
Perhaps the perfect role for Keanu under this intepretation was as Klaatu, the stoic alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still who comes to Earth in human form to warn humans that we are on a path of self-destruction.
The Life-Weary Veteran
There’s a theme of Keanu as detective and beaten-down veteran, or as a technical expert. Detectives are, culturally, those who investigate the other side in order to unravel the truth that has been hidden away.
His efficient, calm demeanor actually suits him well as a head-shotting ex-hitman in John Wick:
As a detective in A Scanner Darkly, Keanu’s character breaks down as he loses his ability to maintain identity. and is rotoscoped (how many actors have been rotoscoped?) by Richard Linklater (a triumphant director of our time) based on a Philip K. Dick book. Keanu is enmeshed into the fabric of our age, are you getting the picture yet?
He plays an exhausted truth-seeker forced into his trade in Constantine, Johnny Mnemonic, John Wick (though this also fits his villainous Street Kings and Man of Tai Chi roles), and of course Point Break.
Now, Point Break is legendary (Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days and Point Break are spectacular — Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty seem very different and distant). It wasn’t always, but it’s quotable now. And, I’m very happy to say, it was playing the day of my wedding when I was with my groomsmen waiting for the ceremony to start. I AM AN FBI AGENT!, a line both praising and mocking our hero.
Arrogance is exhausting to deal with when I hear it in others. Look how Keanu phrases things. It’s refreshing. “I get to play Kai” (about 47 Ronin). On his most recent reddit AMA: ” Thank you everyone for spending some time with me. It was great to spend some time with you.” An older reddit AMA was entitled “Ask me, if you want, almost anything”. He is asking for your permission and is grateful for it.
The Blind Mystic
There is, obviously, the Neo phase of Keanu’s career, when the mocking progressed from Speed to WHOA. Thomas Anderson as the office drone. But let’s look at The Matrix within this context: Keanu’s girlfriend had miscarried their child shortly before, and then not too much longer afterwards, they had broken up and she had died in a car accident. Since then Keanu has not really had serious relationships at least that we know of, and he’s seemed to exist in a separate plane more than ever since.
With this in mind, consider the scene where Trinity dies:
Keanu, blinded, but omniscient of Agent Smith, the robots, his mortality, and his Jesus metaphor (“table for 12”). That’s a powerful scene and no one else fits it better than Keanu does, as a human and as an actor.
So now we can begin to see depth in Keanu’s acting and in his role choices. His most recent shift to gunkata, martial arts, and killing somewhat parallels Liam Neesonian films after Neeson’s wife died.
Next he will be in a TV mini-series John Rain, in which he’s an ex-Special Forces (near and dear to my own heart) ex-CIA assassin-for-hire, based on a book character of the same name who is half-Japanese, half-American. It’s like the perfect damn role for him.
The Fellow Sufferer
Keanu understands the human condition, such as this comparison to the trials of life being like quicksand:
As Siddhartha, he chose to see death instead of comfort:
Naturally he chose the red pill:
He’s been somewhat aloof about his alter-ego, Sad Keanu
but he’s aware of how others perceive him, such as in his picture book Ode to Happiness, which my brother thoughtfully got me for Christmas last year:
Do you see now, Neo? What you know you can’t explain, but you feel. It’s there, like a splinter in your mind. Keanu Reeves is Hollywood’s best outsider, the definition of the role, the person who crosses boundaries between realms, who fits in neither here nor there. He has traveled the world in search of truth, and he sets an example for us all to be better people through his roles and his personal deeds.
To me, any small sliver of all this puts him up there in terms of acting, but altogether, how could you argue differently? Perhaps I look up to what he represents more than most, and identify with his feelings of alienation and isolation but deep sympathy with the human condition, but I hope that others see him the same way.
And with that, what’s a better way for me to sign off than with this Johnny Utah/Ferris Bueller (one of my top 3 films of all time) mashup?
I’m not sure if the Rift or Project Morpheus are going to be huge but with the anticipation for their consumer releases, this is probably the first time VR has been really exciting for most geeks.
You can tell how big it’s going to be by the observation that people who try it get lost in it. They put on the Rift and they emerge from it half an hour or hours later, completely unaware of how long they were wearing it and playing with it. This is akin to when DOOM first came out (the id Software dudes Michael Abrash and John Carmack are involved in Oculus, so they anticipated that potential too), or Quake multiplayer, or the Civilization games, where you go play a short game and it ends up being 7 hours later and you don’t want to quit. People will get lost in the rift.
Look at what people have said:
But Iribe couldn’t take his headset off. “Again,” he said, scarcely able to believe what he was asking for. They ran through the entire series once more. Finally Iribe took off the prototype. His head felt strange—not dizzy, not displaced, but overwhelmed. “How long was I in there?” he asked Abrash and Binstock. It had been close to 45 minutes.
– from Peter Rubin’s Wired article which I’ve reread multiple times now
“Last time I was sick with the flu,” Carmack says, “I just lay in bed and watched VR movies on the ceiling.”
This is no gimmick. This isn’t like 3D, where the difference to the viewer is a minor one. At worst, VR will be a niche format adopted by a handful of stalwart gamers. At best, we’re witnessing the birth of a significant new medium. Having seen its first baby steps, I want this technology to take giant leaps. I want to get lost in virtual reality. I want real-life Reginald Barclays to emerge just for the science-fictional thrill of it. Holo-addiction? Try Oculust.
We took turns trying it out — people would watch for ages while the rest of us anxiously waited for them to be polite and finish. It’s immersive and you’re so curious you can’t stop looking around.
Just check out the Node Studios guys playing beer pong and goofing around in the rift with a virtual hand interface add-on:
Oculus has had high visibility at the E3 gaming conference in past years — this year was no exception. The Rift was adapted to the new Aliens game, where you have to stealthily avoid an Alien xenomorph. The Rift seems perfectly suited to that experience: suspense, surround sound, 1st person. Another game, Superhot, lets you dodge bullets by moving your head around them, similar to Neo in The Matrix.
When Facebook bought Oculus, I was pretty optimistic about it though I think the majority of people think it’s bad for Oculus’ future. What I think is most interesting about it all is that it literally took just a little time for Mark Zuckerberg to meet Palmer Luckey (who is pretty goofy himself…) and then want to buy Oculus, even if it’s A) mostly unproven and B) not exactly aligned with Facebook’s core product.
If Facebook and Oculus are going to sell the Rift close to at cost, then perhaps that signifies that Facebook sees Oculus as a potential play to keep its userbase lost in the rift. Facebook according to most stats is killing any other competitor in user time spent daily, and now it owns at least two of the other major players, WhatsApp and Instagram:
Even if you subtract from that a large portion of mainly mobile users, a rift that people are addicted to would be immensely addictive to people who spend a large part of their day socializing online.
Also we’re not quite at a point where you could serve up a rift off a mobile or even a tablet, but perhaps eventually you could. I grew up romanticizing Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and William Gibson’s Neuromancer but was always deathly afraid of the almost certain future of Hiro Protagonist going to his rented storage space to zone out in the rift for a day or two.
And that’s another aspect: the popular culture anticipating this kind of timesuck. Think of TRON:
The implementation I want to see most is from Daniel Suarez’s Daemon, which has a Darknet interfaced via glasses. The glasses show peoples’ reputations, green paths leading to your location, even a way to perform alchemy on real-world objects and imbue them with special properties in the digital world (a real-world object being a key to somewhere else, for example), or showing what level of a profession someone has reached (so someone might be a level 7 farmer or a level 3 trader). Those glasses were actually described as being subtle and hard to distinguish from actual glasses so I suppose Suarez saw them as more Glass than Rift (which was what Stephenson’s Metaverse equipment was more like).
The Rift vs. Glass
I see Google Glass as technology affecting culture, in the same way that adding a front-screen camera to the phone led to the phenomenon and official word creation of the selfie. Glass has challenged accepted normal behavior in public settings: can you be recording in movie theaters, in a locker room, even just in a restaurant? Are you a Glasshole just because you have the glasses on, even if you’re an experimenting artist or technologist? Is it even legal to wear Glass to record interactions with police? So far Glass has been rejected by social norms resoundingly, even amongst those who like the tech, just because it’s been associated with a “Glasshole” culture.
I think of anti-Glassholes as the new digital NIMBYs. Digital NIMBYs are not, say, old folks who don’t like any new technology or who don’t think there’s a use for it. Digital NIMBYs are actually fairly savvy with tech, having grown up with it, but they want to control their environment and the tech that exists within it to the extent that they believe they should dictate norms to others. People who are proud to not have a TV, people who object to any cellphone use at all among others, people who want you to leave your cellphone with the others at the door, people who aren’t web developers but still scoff at IE users, that sort of thing. Digitally savvy but not technically savvy. Digerati, nimbies, whatever you want to call them. They’re insufferable and they think they dictate tech culture.
But anyway Glass does bring about problems with cultural norms regarding eyesight. We are told not to even look at others: homeless, children, people whose business isn’t yours, etc. But Glass provides a possibility to record even a passing glance for future memory viewing. This changes the whole security through obfuscation dynamic — instead of briefly viewing something with your eyes that you’ll soon forget, now every glance can be permanent. That makes eyesight into a weapon in the same way that guys might ogle girls on the street.
Contrast with the Rift. So far, the Rift looks almost comical to people not using it. Someone has a Rift on and is cocking his head around and leaning about and looking behind himself, all with the headset on. Most importantly and humorously, his eyesight is blocked and he can’t see what is actually going on around him. Most importantly, he has become a complete non-threat to those around him, almost like a prisoner, without eyesight. There’s no Rift asshole phenomenon yet, and I guess it’s because no one perceives a Rift user as a threat.
I imagine Oculus wants to enable some awareness for the user:
Oculus is also working on a second, outward-facing camera that will be part of the headset itself. The Valve prototype used such a camera to read fiducial markers on the walls for tracking, but Oculus seems to intend it for very different applications. For one, Carmack says, it can function as a pass-through camera, allowing Rift-wearing users to see what’s happening in the real world—a kind of external heads-up display that would allow you to grab a soda, for instance.
– from the Wired article
But I do think it’s interesting how eyesight augmentation between Glass and the Rift is perceived so much differently. I’m anticipating consumer VR will lead to similar advancements in digital culture, and it seems like it will finally come soon.
P.S. As an aside, why is Keanu Reeves in two of these VR films? Well, as you may know, I think Keanu Reeves is awesome, and I recently watched two of his latest films, 47 Ronin and Man of Tai Chi — I think he tends to enjoy roles where he’s cast as the outsider to a foreign world, with himself as the bridge hybrid (him being like a halfie, like me) between two worlds. He’s played this role in at least: Dracula, 47 Ronin, The Matrix, Parenthood, Constantine, The Devil’s Advocate, The Replacements, and of course, Point Break. Anyway, just a theory.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
not close with enough friends and family
no natural ability
top caliber friends
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?
“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:
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):
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.
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.
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 just released a new site that I built, Newslint. Check it out!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
A common refrain. People will complain that Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever, is boring. What’s usually going on is
their friends are boring,
they’ve reached mental exhaustion,
they try to use social networks less as a social pulse or passive awareness and more as active entertainment,
they reached exhaustion of new content, or
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.