List of Books I Read in 2012

Here’s the list of books that I read in 2012.  Since I’m in my second year of grad school and am learning a lot of technical stuff, that would explain some of the more manual-type books.  It also explains why I wasn’t able to read as many books as I would have liked.  I expect the number of books I’ll read this coming year to be higher, though I’m burned out on a lot of foreign policy books.

The number in parentheses is my 1-10 rating.  Books that are rated 10 are definite must-reads, but I think that anything above an 8 on this list this year was very, very interesting.  Having 7 out of 30 books rated “10” means to me that I did a good job of picking books worthy of my time!

Past years here: google spreadsheet

2012 Goal: 30 BOOKS
TOTAL: 30 BOOKS

Analyzing US Veteran Gravesite Data with R

For the final project in Prof. Jake Porway‘s Data Without Borders: Data Science in the Service of Humanity class at NYU-ITP, I chose to work with the US veterans and beneficiaries gravesite datasets that have been published at data.gov.  The Department of Veterans Affairs in 2004 started working on a nationwide gravesite locator that allowed for this data.

Gathering the Datasets

The data is unfortunately aggregated only at the state level, but it at least is updated regularly, so I ended up pulling 51 .csv (comma-separated values) files from the site with the publish date of October 2012.  The categories found in the data:

d_first_name, d_mid_name, d_last_name, d_suffix, d_birth_date, d_death_date, section_id, row_num, site_num, cem_name, cem_addr_one, cem_addr_two, city, state, zip, cem_url, cem_phone, relationship, v_first_name, v_mid_name, v_last_name, v_suffix, branch, rank, war

Since we would have to apply what we’d learned working with the R language to our dataset, what I hoped was that I could use the gravesite data, which goes back to the 1800’s or even earlier, to see how where veterans end up being buried correlates with national population trends over time.  In other words, if many Americans are buried in California, does this mean more veterans are also going to be buried there?

I figured, since there were categories for branch, rank, and war, that I’d be able to find some logical correlations: many privates and junior-enlisted sergeants would have died, while fewer senior-enlisted and officers would have, in past wars.  I figured the d_death_year might correlate with dates for the US’s multiple wars, with deaths elevated during those time periods.

So I guessed that with 51 data sets, this would begin to fill up my system RAM (4GB on this MacBook Air).  Look at my memory usage!

I skipped the files for the US-owned territories and “foreign addresses” since I wouldn’t be able to find normalized population data for those.  I also cleaned up the dataset so it would return only the veteran, not his/her beneficiaries who may also have been listed in the data as being deceased.

Loading the Data into R

Given that I’m not very comfortable with R, I started out just loading the Washington DC dataset since it only has 986 entries in it.  Problem?  The download for the file didn’t work.  “ngl_washington%20dc.csv” was not found.  %20 is a URL-encoded representation for a blank space.  Luckily, getting rid of the %20 revealed the proper filename, “ngl_washingtondc.csv”.  I also found that the .csv files were not importing into RStudio immediately.  I’d get an error.  I would get something similar to an uneven rows error.  What I had to do for each of the states’ .csv files was to open them up first in Excel and then save them in Excel.  Excel would properly format the files so they could be imported into RStudio.

I tried to write my R code in such a way that it could easily handle the 51 states + DC via functions, but I ended up having 51 calls for each state.  I wish the datasets were integrated into one national file.  I also wish I knew in R how to make a variable variable.  So that if I wanted to pass “Texas” to a row name, I could do “t <- “Texas” and then “state_data${t}” or something similar to convert on the fly to “state_data$Texas”.  In PHP, you might do this with $stateData{$t} (I think) and in JavaScript or Python you’d use eval().  Not pretty but I didn’t know how to do it properly.

The next step was to break up d_death_date (which was in a variety of formats such as “1993”, “9/3/98”, and “07/11/1864”) so that I could extract the year.  I had to check for the number of characters in the string, then figure out if the year was 2 digits or 4.  If it was 4 digits, I knew the year for sure (e.g. “2008”).  If 2 digits, I figured that if it were less than “15”, then it was probably referring to the year 2000 and higher (lazy data entry).  If higher than “15”, it probably was assumed to be the 20th century.  Finally, I had to convert this result from a string result to a numeric so I could do math on it.

More below the jump…

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A Trendsmap.com Look at the World

I like to do this periodically.  Sometimes you get more interesting results than other times.  This time I figured I’d do a quick and dirty stitching of the entire Trendsmap map.  In no way is it complete, but it’s still cool, and kinda beautiful. (click it to get the full-sized version)  More importantly, and this is the MSFSer in me, it’s kind of neat to see how tweets can be incredibly regional — even though I follow like 3k people on Twitter, almost none of them tweet in a foreign language or from non-western states.  It’s a reality check, at least a geographical one, if looking at Twitter can be seen as such.

I think there are some incorrectly geolocated keywords because I increased the browser size to 5k pixels across 3 screens and maybe the tag locations weren’t updated.

The Trendsmap blog also has some cool viz’s of world cities:

Easy:

And less obvious:

The Coolest Stuff I’ve Seen While at NYU-ITP

Access to the latest info and tech is easy because of the internet now, but moving to NYC and going to an art/tech school in Manhattan (NYU-ITP) has pushed me even closer to the sources of ground-breaking stuff that eddies in github repos, IRC channels, and school projects before being cut loose to hackernews or reddit or the other nerd aggregators.

Here’s some shit that I’ve seen while at ITP that I thought was fucking awesome, not necessarily because it’s never been done before, but primarily because it’s so easy for any regular person to play with now.

Interactive Coding

From Dan Shiffman in his Nature of Code class, he passed along this link from Bret Victor‘s talk, “Inventing on Principle”.  In the lengthy vid (all of it worth watching), he shows real-time feedback for coding.  That is, if you change the logic in your code, you see how the variables change, in real-time:

He extended this to showing a circuit diagram timeline with sync’d waveforms and how the electrons and flow through the circuit as you change resistance and parts:

Then, he showed iPad swiping to change elements on an animation timeline, thus creating a sort of tangible real-time animation experimentation, seen below:

The benefit of this immediate feedback is that one can begin to play.  Instead of usual software development, which consists of planning ahead of time exactly how something should behave, and developing contingencies for when things go unexpectedly, this sort of format allows for someone to play with variables, such as the size of a character’s head, or the physics of a world, with immediate results.  This allows someone to fine-tune a world, or to test the bounds to see if unexpectedly fun behavior emerges from it.

This is more consistent with how an artist might try multiple things in order to fully flesh out a concept, instead of hoping to get lucky with it, or spending ages understanding the mechanics so well that the result is contrived.

Here’s the full version of Victor’s talk:

You can see an early application of this kind of coding mentality in, as an example, this indie game, Under the Ocean:

Websockets

One of my classmates, now an ITP resident, Craig Protzel, was showing me some code he was working on with a professor, linking up heartbeat monitor-type data with a data viz timeseries graphing web site, showing real-time streaming of the data onto a line graph, with a backend of node.js and socket.io.

The best demo I could find of something similar to this is this Arduino board with two potentiometers streaming output via websockets and a Python script up to the web:

Here’s the implication.  The web has been fairly static since its inception.  Even when AJAX came and ushered in web 2.0, you were still doing with an active getter-type web.  Databases, bandwidth, and client browsers just couldn’t handle unrequested data coming in.  But now they can, what with the cloud, key-value stores like redis or AMQP, faster and bigger bandwidth pipes, etc.  The web is going to start looking more like a stream and less like a restaurant menu.

In my Redial class last semester, a lot of our final projects involved setting up an open-source Asterisk telephony server with a cheap phone number routed to an Ubuntu server instance in the cloud — that stack was all the same, but our applications were different: one team (Phil and Robbie) made a super-easy conference call service, another dude (Tony) made a multiplayer sequencer controlled by people dialing in and punching numbers on their keypads:

Server stacks are flattening in a sense — you can use any language you want to set up a server (Ruby Sinatra/Rails, JavaScript node.js, Python Flask), and then plug in extra services you need (database, key-store, admin tools, task and load balancers).  HTML5 and some degree of normalization on the browser side is allowing JavaScript to mature so that we have all these kickass visualization and interface libraries for making better user interfaces now, too, which can easily handle the structured data being thrown at it by all the stuff going on on the backend.

The last note is that you can now easily, with a little help from an Arduino and a network shield, control the digital world with analog sensors, or vice versa.

Drones

I read Daniel Suarez’s latest book “Kill Decision” (review here), in which a scientist is targeted because of her research into weaver ants, the most warlike species on Earth, being inspiration for algorithms for killer drone swarming behavior.  We’re living in an age of the dawn of drones, where the US has found it can cheaply deploy drones to kill and monitor the enemy, broken down into a bureaucracy of various levels of kill and targeting authorization.  We’ve all seen the videos of quadcopters acting together using simple rules.  It won’t be too long until law enforcement and federal agencies will be able to use drones domestically.  Drones are far more versatile, expendable, and cost-effective as overhead imagery.  Look at the quality on this RC with a GoPro camera attached:

Here was a “robokopter” sent up to monitor the police in Warsaw as they kept two hostile groups of marchers apart:

I can’t see how drones won’t be banned soon, but how will they enforce it?  Shoot down rogue drones?  Jam them?

Somewhat corny, but here’s FPSRussia using what seems to be a terribly unsafe quadcopter with a machine gun attached:

Suarez’s book takes its name from the idea that an unknown actor has built drones that target individuals, assassinate them, and self-destruct, without any instructions coming in after they’re released.  They destroy their own fingerprint and are mostly impervious to being jammed or tracked back to their makers.

All with fairly cheap parts.  It’s not the same thing as weaponizing, say, biological weapons, or building a big enough EMP, which I would imagine are two of security apparatuses’ biggest fears.  I’m kind of sad more people haven’t read Suarez’s books because they’re addressing pretty near-term implications of emerging tech.

FaceShift

I didn’t get to take this class, but Professor Kyle McDonald (whom I took for Glitch) had his students play with this new kickass software, FaceShift.  Check the demo:

Basically, you plug in a Kinect to your computer and spend half an hour mapping your facial expressions to the software.  Then it renders a model of your face, which you can then use to map any skin you want (say, another person’s face) onto it.  So quickly and easily you can do this.  Previously this sort of work was the domain of special effects studios and game development teams.  Now it’s downloadable, and you can buy a Kinect (or other similar cameras) to capture yourself.

Holy Grails That are Still Missing

Self-Recording

Here’s what I wrote my buddy Chris after he showed me this upcoming product, the Autographer:

Problem with it is threefold:

  1. unproven, not much evidence of what it actually delivers
  2. angle is all wrong, you have to wear it on your purse (!) or on a lanyard, so it will jerk around, not stay right-side out, won’t have a good angle to see what’s important (even if it’s supposedly a 135 degree lens)
  3. the holy grail of something like this would be something that takes photos OF you, not FROM you
That last part is key.  If I could, I would build a little floating ball (think the trainer that Luke uses to practice with his lightsaber) that can take photos of you without you being aware of it, or posing for it.  Candid photos.  Those are the winning photos.  Not posed photos of people mugging for the camera.  Even having another person take the photos for you steals from the atmosphere — someone is actively choosing to become disengaged from the scene in order to take a photo of it.

It also means that photos of people and recording peoples’ lives has been primarily a solo adventure at this point.  Hence the phenomenon of mirror photos, the forward-facing camera (so you can see yourself and the person you’re with while you take the photo), etc.  Not so many people are lucky enough to A) want photos and B) have someone else who loves to take photos along with them at that time.  I have no awesome photos of Iraq as a result (and those that I took, as you know, got me in a shitload of photos…can’t even claim to have returned with anything beautiful from that hard-knocks lesson).  Maybe this also explains why photos of animals have done so well.  They are ignorant of us taking photos of them, and do their crazy animalistic shit with reckless abandon, and thus make excellent photo subjects.

Extend that to personal data collection (which is what Galapag.us will start off as) and it’s a somewhat isolating experience.  Who is going to follow you around and collect data on you?  You have to do it for yourself, or participate in activities that can be tracked automatically (marathons, online social networking sites, Fuelband, etc.).  Maybe social media whores (like me) became that way because that’s the cutting edge for living a quantified, recorded life.

Anyway, I think it’s pretty fascinating that among friends who are social users of online stuff, Facebook and Instagram are the key players (which is why Facebook paid $1bil for Instagram).  I love Twitter but very few casual users use it.  Pinterest is primarily women, fantasy leagues are men, etc.  But photos are HUGE.  Facebook knows it.  But we’re not even a third of the way towards reaching the full potential of capturing the human experience through a camera in my opinion.  The tech is not there yet.

Decentralization

The web is not very distributed or decentralized.  There is a myth of digital democracy.  When Amazon AWS has a hiccup, usually in its Virginia availability zone, half the American internet’s most popular sites go down.  The NSA and other countries’ intelligence agencies are up the telcos’ asses with eavesdropping, and sites are being shut down by ICE and the FBI.  Virtually the only site that has remained impervious to government attacks has been The Pirate Bay, which is constantly coming up with new ways to thwart efforts to shut it down, primarily through redundancy and distribution.  Torrenting has almost become a political act, even though it’s a resilient model for an unevenly distributed modern-day internet.

Social networks are walled gardens.  Twitter, a darling, was caught by the more traditional walled garden peloton, and is now locking down its data, after having, at one point, a role model API.

At some point we will have IPv6, which, thankfully after Windows has gone through some lengths to secure its OS, has been slow to roll out so far, but which will eventually allow any sensor, device, appliance, whatever to have its own internet-available unique ID, for better or for worse.

In Closing

Will be adding more to this periodically for a while; still got about 7 months or so left at ITP, plus there might be some stuff I overlooked.  What else do you think has been cool that you’ve seen lately?

Glitch: The Flip-Flop Technique

For our final Glitch class, our assignment was to employ the flip-flop technique, as described by Robin Sloan.  Technically, our job was to glitch something by flipping it between the analog and digital x times, or as Sloan says, “the process of pushing a work of art or craft from the physical world to the digital world and back again—maybe more than once”.

I decided to make a puzzle of it, to see if my idea would work.  First I had to put a file online, shorten it via bit.ly (to reduce encoding complexity in the QR code), and then generate a QR code for it.  Here’s the summation of that:

In order to do my flip-flop, one would need to graph out the x,y grid coordinates from a txt file onto graph paper. (ANALOG) Check out the text file here.  0,0 is the top-left of the 25×25 grid.

You can see it’s a 25×25 grid.  Once you draw out the pixel coordinates, you’ll get what appears to be a QR code.  Here’s my work, partially through it:

I wasn’t sure if this part would work, though in theory it should have.  When I first filled in the QR code on my graphing paper, neither Google Goggles nor QR Droid could detect the QR code.  Google Goggles found the closest match to be photo images of bathroom tile patterns.

Then, figuring my drawn QR code wasn’t precise enough, or perhaps dark enough, I erased my axis labels and filled in the square pixels with a black pen.  To my amazement, the QR code then worked in QR Droid! (DIGITAL)

I was surprised that it could pick up the code, because I started getting sloppy while filling in the squares, figuring I could just use the final product as some artistic hand-drawn rendering of a QR code.  Apparently though, QR codes, depending on encoding, can handle quite a lot of error, and correct for it.  Here’s some information about how its error correction works (thanks Neil).

One interesting project handling data error and error correction was our professor Kyle McDonald’s Future Fragments project, where he had other classmates encode messages into colored grid squares, then keep the printouts in their wallets for a summer, then decoding the blocks back into a message after the pieces of paper had been worn down a bit.

The QR code takes you to a bit.ly link, which forwards you to an image on my site, a reproduction of Caravaggio’s The Card Sharps, one of my favorite paintings. (DIGITAL)

 

The next task would then be to hand-draw the painting. (ANALOG)

Then you take a photo of it to auto-save to Google+ or upload to the cloud. (DIGITAL)

Then the final task would be to color in the drawing using Photoshop or another digital tool. (DIGITAL)

Here was my final product:

As a final test, I thought I’d see if I could run the drawings through glassgiant.com’s ASCII converter.  The results for my drawing were not too good, probably mainly because I did not make bold enough lines and outlines to make the ASCII conversion stark enough.  I also ASCII’d up the QR code (ink) and the original Caravaggio. (DIGITAL)

Note: along the way, I found this awesome site that has a QR code stencil generator, for making stencils in hobo code!

Anyway, that concludes my work for Glitch class.  Thank you Kyle McDonald and Jeremiah Johnson!  This ITP class was fucking kickass.

Understanding Genomes: Data Viz Tests for Galapag.us

My Understanding Genomes class with Yasser Ansari has been primarily about understanding the process of how DNA is replicated and how its encoding carries instructions for the building of life.  Our midterm is a fairly open-ended assignment for applying the DNA replication process to a project.  I decided I would do some tests for a person’s Galapag.user data object, in the form of a JSON object being displayed in various ways that allow for quick symbolic/artistic interpretation (which humans are good at) but also allow for quick deep dives into the data (which nerdy types like me who want to see more data on-screen at expense of simplified UI).

So, the first step is to set up a way to access the JSON object.  Right after the spring semester finished up, I had some free time before work started and so I began to port my PHP+MySQL Galapag.us code over to node.js+Express+MongoDB.  I still have a lot of work to do on that, but I can’t really work on that till next semester (AKA thesis semester).  Now, of course, because we use it at work, and there’s a class at ITP teaching it this semester, I’m interested in switching over to Python Flask+MongoDB, but I’m worried I might lose some time figuring out the quirks of that, versus just doing the quick-and-dirty with JavaScript.

Anyway, I’ve already set up some basics for a Galapag.user’s profile database model.  And for Nature of Code class last semester, I built a quick node.js Express server for sending a JSON object of a person’s characteristics (1-10 scales for creativity, strength, charisma, etc.) to a Processing sketch for my genetic crossings project.

So I combined the two models to create an expanded Galapag.user profile, which looks something like this below:
{ "status": "OK", "JSONtitle": "Profile Summary", "profile": [{ "_id": "xxx", "adjectives": "", "appearance": 10, "armSize": "38R", "bio": "test me", "bodyType": "average", "broken": "femur", "caffeine": "coffee", "charisma": 8, "chewNails": "never", "children": 0, "chineseSign": 2, "city": "Des Moines, IA", "coatSize": "38L", "creativity": 3, "discipline": 6, "dressSize": "N/A", "drink": 1, "drugs": 0, "education": 6, "entrepreneurialism": 1, "eyeColor": "brown", "eyewear": 0, "facebook": "", "facialHair": "none", "fillings": 1, "flickr": "", "formulaEducation": "", "foursquare": "", "freckles": "back", "gender": 1, "google": "", "gracefulness": 8, "hairColor": "blond", "hairLength": "short", "hairStyle": "shaved", "health": 6, "height": 66, "homeTown": "Des Moines, IA", "honesty": 3, "humor": 6, "income": 120000, "injuries": "", "instagram": "", "intelligence": 5, "legSize": "30", "linkedin": "", "liquidityInteraction": "", "loggedOnTotal": "", "luck": 8, "maritalStatus": "single", "money": 7, "nationality": "USA", "neckSize": "16 1/4", "occupation": "analyst", "personalityType": "ENTP", "pid": 99, "piercings": 0, "politics": "Republican", "prosthetics": "none", "race": 1, "religion": "Christian", "religiosity": 6, "responsibility": 6, "scars": 1, "sexuality": 0, "shoeSize": "9", "sign": 1, "smoke": 1, "stamina": 5, "strength": 6, "strengthFriend": "", "stress": 6, "suggestedBy": "", "surgeries": "", "talent_art": 2, "talent_math": 6, "talent_sports": 8, "tattoos": 1, "totalBooks": "", "totalCostWardrobePerson": "", "totalInteractions": "", "totalTransactions": "", "totalWardrobe": "", "trustBusiness": "", "trustFriendship": "", "twitter": "", "waistSize": "32", "website": "", "weight": 175, "wisdom": 3, "wit": 5, "xbl": "", "youtube": "", "zipCode": 85083, "claimed": true, "audited": false, "firstTime": false, "active": true, "joined": "xxx" }] }

To visualize the data, there are a couple things I’d like to focus on.  One, I don’t want it to be just another widget you put on your site (besides, does anyone have sites anymore?), and two, I want to emphasize the non-financial benefits of reputation, which is to say, Galapag.us would be great for dating or hiring, but it should really stick to a core of providing an alternative model of judging trust, reputation, and worth through non-financial actions such as being a good friend, a good citizen, self-sacrificing (or not, depending on your opinion of altruism), whatever.

The point is that everyone has his own opinion of what makes someone else valuable, and Galapag.us needs to be a system that does not favor one system over another.  Granted, I think Galapag.us will have its own core values, which I’m hoping will be built upon the company’s DNA, of its founders, but it will also allow for alternate models created by, for example, the average expectations of the entire Galapag.userbase, or hopefully, the aggregate beliefs of different regions, countries, cultures, etc.

Anyway, back to the assignment.  DNA transcription, translation, and replication are essentially protocols for the secure passing of information.  Biology has created a highly reliable process for this.  Humans have developed less reliable processes for the passing along of cultural information, less reliable because the processes rely on generations of humans adhering to the cultural norms and traditions and taking the time to teach it to the next generation.  But look what beautiful things humans have done to pass along generations of information quickly:

Maori facial tattoos (ta moko) were often used to denote one’s place in society, based on positional rules.  From this blog post:

 For men, the Moko showed their rank, their status and their ferocity. The which is generally divided into eight sections :
1. Ngakaipikirau (rank). The center forehead area
2. Ngunga (position). Around the brows
3. Uirere (hapu rank). The eyes and nose area
4. Uma (first or second marriage). The temples
5. Raurau (signature). The area under the nose
6. Taiohou (work). The cheek area
7. Wairua (mana). The chin
8. Taitoto (birth status). The jaw

Something I’m more familiar with, American military uniforms, which allow soldiers who have never seen each other to immediately know someone else’s rank, achievements, stature, etc.  Here’s General Petraeus:

American children are primed for the military uniform (which is now full of symbology invisible to most Americans because of the small percentage of people who actually serve in it) through their Boy/Girl Scout uniforms:

These are individual displays of conformity into cultural systems and achievement within them.

But we also have ways of remembering those we’ve lost and loved.  Take, for example, the American quilt, which has traditionally been used to record family histories or American history, …

…but which not too long ago was used to create a massive remembrance of HIV/AIDS victims on the National Mall:

So how can I encode profile information in such a way that it’s visually appealing, culturally useful, and statistically informative?  To be honest, I have no clue.  It’s not something I’m strong at.  What I’m hoping is to have a few different options available, but to also just put up the API for proper designers to build their own interpretations, something that’s more in keeping with an open-ended system.  Yes, it is likely that no one at all would ever use Galapag.us, particularly any developers, but I think what’s important is to build a simple API for people (including internally at Galapag.us) to interact with.

Here are some visualizations I already made in the past:

So if I were going to come up with a new visualization that could be displayed in various mediums (on clothing, on sites, badges, business cards, etc.), there doesn’t necessarily need to be any order or logic if I am looking to create something cool aesthetically with the data, but it could help, with minimal cost.

In thinking about Galapag.us and a holistic reputation system, I thought that one would need to find universal constraints.  The first constraint I thought applied to all things, and people, rich and poor, good and bad, was time.  As Arnold Schwarzenegger and other motivators would say, there are only so many hours in a day in order to be great.  No matter how important or unimportant we are, we all only have 24 hours a day to do things.  How do we use that time while we’re alive?  How much time have we invested into different aspects of our lives?

At the same time, there are qualities and characteristics about people and things that require no time to develop or improve or grow into.  It doesn’t take you time to develop kindness, or honesty, or whatever.  You either are at any particular point in time, or you’re not.  These are binary instances, which may vary over time (most people go through periods of both).  If you took a snapshot at any point in time, you would be either one or the other.  Contrast this (and all its inherent inconsistencies) with, say, having gone through college.  It takes 4 years, usually, to get a degree.  Being a college graduate is something that took time to develop.

So time is one dimension. The other one, for better and for worse, is money.  What is your opportunity cost of spending x hours doing something?  If you become a surgeon, you have to spend maybe 6 years and a ton of money for med school.  But afterwards you end up healing sick, weak people.  If you take out loans now, you are going into debt in the present in order to earn far more money and reputation in the future.  What if you wanted to start a family in the meantime, but had to wait?  What if you had to leave your country in order to go to med school?  What if you couldn’t leave your country because of warfare or poverty?  So time versus money is a construct that we’re all in some form or another a part of.

Note that setting up time versus money does not imply that richer or more productive people are better.  It just places events on a chart.  So, I could still say that you could be a productive person even if you had no money, or you could be completely lazy and rich, but it doesn’t condemn you to being “good” or “bad”.

What if I set up this chart?

This, above, is perhaps a chart that shows the objectivist vs. altruist debate.  Should you be the best person you can be, but only for yourself (“selfishness”, in Ayn Rand’s use of the word), or is that utility also dependent on how much you’re useful to people outside of yourself? (if we added a time vs. money vs. health dimension here, we could map altruism vs. selfishness better)

Are the charts biased by going down and to the right?  Or up and to the right?  Does that imply, because of the way we learn mathematics (positive x, y graphs) that heading further out up/down to the right is “success”?

So I’m already seeing that even in displaying data in order, there are a lot of issues with bias, implication, and categorization.  Would it be better to have a visualization where a core self starts in the middle, and branches head outwards to denote connections with people outside oneself?

Let’s try to visualize the above JSON object.  Oh, and did you know that a Pokemon’s “personality value” is captured into a 32-bit unsigned integer in computer memory? (e.g. a binary 2^32 number)

Here’s a simple grid, with transparency based on the 1-10 scale of each characteristic.

The next is a line of squares, separated by category (mind, heart, body), with opacity again representing the 1-10 scale:

A background repeated pattern of the first grid:

The last one charts outwardness and utility for two separate people.  The opacity represents the outward importance of the characteristic (i.e. intelligence is not very outwardly useful to other people) while the length of the bar represents the utility to the individual.  The two peoples’ bars are next to each other (i.e. the first bar is person 1’s intelligence, the second bar is person 2’s intelligence, the third bar is person 1’s strength, etc.).

What I like about the chart below (obviously it’s still not very clear) is that you can find the average utility vs. outwardness (the middle white line) and chop off the baseline, to find the spikiness of the person’s outward utility to the world.  If the data were better represented, you could also get a better sense of who is more “visible” in the world based on his characteristics, and who tends to be overshadowed, literally.

I didn’t have enough time to do more complicated visualizations, plus Processing is not the best thing for working with hashmapped/databased data.  I would rather be using Python or JavaScript to compare two different users’ data across different dimensions. Here’s a gist of my Processing sketch:

Glitching in Processing

Some more stuff from my Glitch class, which ends next week. :/  My impression of the class is that, though most people (including, perhaps, my professors) may believe glitch-alike and glitch aesthetic are passing fads that move way too fast in the transition to some future styles of art, that Glitch is some of the most fascinating artwork I’ve seen in a long, long time.  I never really want to see any more old paintings of Christian-themed stuff, nor the post-modern Christian-themed shock art, and painting and drawing and sculpture are sort of done with, with hipsterish 8-bit and old video game-style art being too nostalgic from people who are still too young.  In terms of artists pushing boundaries, criticizing the system, and making a commentary on society, it’s hard to think of a better place for art than a world where people are learning how things work, then reprogramming them to either subvert the original intent or to distort it in a way which undermines the rigidity and order of large, interconnected, imposing data/network/bureaucratic systems.

Anyway.  In our last assignment, we all had to create an algorithm in Processing which could be used to distort an image, so that we could all put our algorithms together and output the results next to each other for comparison.

For my algo, I took Kyle McDonald’s algo which broke out an image into a grid of pixels.  Then I figured I could weave in another image by using modulus (%) arithmetic, an easy programming trick, to intersperse pixels at specific places into the canvas.  Then I also decided to take the original image’s pixels and map it on upside-down onto the image.  The original:

The result:

The algo:

PImage vt520_1(PImage img) {
  PImage img2 = loadImage("flag.jpg");
  img2.loadPixels();
  int n = img.width * img.height;
  for (int j = 0; j < n; j++) {
    color cur = img.pixels[j];
    color cur2 = img2.pixels[j];
    int r = int(red(cur)), g = int(green(cur)), b = int(blue(cur));
    int off = j*10&(j>>20)|j*3&(j*5>>15); // miiro
    off %= 256; // don't let the offset overflow
    if (j%2==0) {
    img.pixels[j] = color(0, 0, g^off, 0);
    }
    else if (j%3==0 || j%7==0) {
      img.pixels[j] = cur2;
    }
    else  {
      img.pixels[n-j-1] = color(r^off, 0, 0);
    }
  }

  return img;
}

Interestingly, because I was using modulus arithmetic, this resulted in the image changing in some applications because of the way they scale images down to certain sizes.  Some other views of the image:

Should have an image of all the algos working together at some point soon…  Classmates came up with some pretty amazing stuff!

Epler’s:

Guilherme’s:

Then our in-class assignment was to go out on the cloud and try to break services or get banned.  I liked this trick on Facebook by Hanna Kang-Brown, just using extended characters:

Breakout Glitch

Our task in Glitch this week was to glitch Steph Thirion‘s Breakout code written in Processing, using an hour to see what we could come up with.

Here’s a vid of Super-Breakout:

My result:

I didn’t feel like it was destructive or additive; mainly I was just tweaking values with randomization, and then rotated it a bit, which would need further tweaking to have more of it on-screen.

Github gist: https://gist.github.com/3835687

Though I did find this pretty cool glitchiness written in Processing, by Amnon:

We had another assignment, which was to post screenshots of our crash reports.  Here’s mine, from doing my Java homework in Eclipse (I think I had an infinite loop going or something):

And finally, my girlfriend tried to take a photo using her phone’s front-facing camera, but this kept happening:

Glitch Work

This is stuff from my ITP Glitch class.

One-Line-Code Music

We were introduced to one-line code that could generate music, as we studied Demoscene, which, among other things, tries to compact whole videos into ridiculously few lines of code by using generative algorithms and mathematics.   This can be said to create computationally minimal art.  A few users began to dabble in making music in this way (read this and this).

Videos of the captured music plus the code that generated them:

Here’s what I came up with, entitled, “Invaders”, via a link to the site.  Or, below, an MP3 w/ HTML5:

Your browser does not support the audio element.

The examples from the blogs are much richer, more refined, and more varied than mine is.  Mine sounds great, but it’s simplistic, and sounds mathematically generated as opposed to crafted.

Here’s the visual representation of the formulae, from the site:

But hey, try your hand at making this music!  The web site for it is super easy to use!

Number Generator

I might have overthought this part of the assignment.  I liked Epler’s random number generator which counts the number of chewing gum stains on squares of sidewalk.  But I couldn’t think of something in my daily life that’s actually random.

In NYC, not only is it a grid-like city full of regular systems (crosswalk signals, daily work day routines, structured lanes and processes), but that oppressiveness of systems (if you want to see it that way) is relentless against things which do not go with the flow.  Side note: perhaps this makes it a reliable medium for different industries and cultures to interact with each other in a standardized way.

Anyway, I also had a problem with this task because computers do randomization better than nature does.  Nature is full of systems as well.  It can be highly regular and predictable, even if it has long seemed like chaos to us.  Computers, however, can give you a reliable distribution of truly randomized numbers, if they are given enough input noise to counteract any regularity in computers’ signals.

So, why do this task if code can do it any which way you like?

That said, I talked with my girlfriend and we came up with something suitable: counting the number of fallen leaves per hour in a day.  While wind and time of year may affect day-to-day numbers, within the hour or smaller segments the variance is large enough to come up with reasonable frequent and random data.

It surprised me how regular any “random” data is.  You could come up with any predictive range for many “random” numbers, such as counting people carrying coffee cups, women in skirts or jeans, number of people entering a store (which, I learned recently, big department stores have very accurate software motion-tracking to calculate for them).

We live in a world of systems which drastically affects our lives.  We’re used to it, of course, but it reminds me of a book we had to read for my globalization class at Georgetown, which talked about the Meiji Restoration in Japan, putting Japan onto the western calendar and causing massive cultural upheaval to a culture which did not rely on regularized numerical calendar dates.

Glitch-Aesthetic

State of the Union, Pre-Elections 2012

Four years ago I wrote a longish post about how much Dubya and Obama had influenced my life.  Basically, a coming-of-age while Dubya was governor of my state and owner of my baseball team, and then president of my country, and then commander-in-chief of my military-issued Army body, followed by the emergence of Obama from the Senate and from the best-seller lists to provide a return to a more sensible America.

The Last Four Years

Since Obama became President, I finished up my degree in foreign policy, studying alongside future foreign service officers, UN & World Bank leaders, etc., saw the cocktail-drinking elite crowd that David Brooks (why do you guys keep reading him?) sniffs derisively at while actually being one of them.

I worked for a couple years for Homeland Security, exploring the fringes of national security and learning just how little is in public awareness, such as the worsening Missouri/Mississippi river floodings/droughts, the Mexico-Guatemala-border cartel violence that led to Operation Fast and the Furious, the hush hush arms race between crackers and the government that led to AntiSec.  Getting to learn about the goings-on of border towns and small cities struggling with the aftermaths of tornadoes and downsizing and local corruption.  Seeing the Plaquemines parish forums light up after Deepwater Horizon, seeing anonymous bloggers and Twitter users report cartel movements in Mexico border towns because all the journalists were silenced/murdered.  In the reeds.

Then I decided to move to NYC for more school, mainly to get immersed in startup culture and in learning coding the hacker way.  The first year was tumultuous but I produced pretty good work — I attempted most of the project goals I set for myself already before NYU-ITP, while this school year I’d like to pursue two key ideas.  One, Galapag.us, my reputation ecosystem, which will be my final thesis project.  And two, an idea Monkey Pope and I threw around about having a site that sells unfashionable men sets of basic must-have clothes, which are then zeroed in upon arrival by a tailor.

The last school year ended with a whimper.  Got dumped (second time in a year), had to move out of my place, didn’t know what I’d be doing over the important summer break, wasn’t feeling it from NYC.  But it vastly improved: I got a paid internship at a tech startup (which is what I came to NYC to do), I met a woman who has proved to be someone who not only can keep up with me, but who also enjoys it and tests me (all very difficult things to find), and I’m happily living in Stuy Town in Manhattan.  I’m pretty comfortable flipping from Arduino code to Python to crunching big data to building a kickass prototype, thanks to ITP.  And I still have a whole school year to continue to improve.  NYC taketh away, and NYC giveth.  But NYC also means culture, big money, melting pot of ideas, massive opportunity, and, surprisingly, liveability.

The Message

So the Republican message from the RNC convention was, “Are you better than you were 4 years ago?”  This old Reagan line is intended to blunt the Obama Hope message of 2008.  It is intended to pick off the voters who vote mainly on an economic agenda, since the Republicans know they’ve isolated themselves from all but the most morally traditional die-hards on moral and religious issues.

My response?  Yes, I’m better than I was four years ago.  I spent 2001-2007 preparing for or acting in the service of the country after it was attacked by Al-Qaeda, who took advantage of our ignorance and lack of action.  A small segment of the American population which concluded its military service in years since has fallen behind other Americans in many respects, because it chose to serve the country in its time of need instead of pursuing “rational self-interest”, a core Conservative belief.  Americans after World War 2 were united by experience, whereas Americans during GWoT scarcely shared anything, anything at all.

Since Obama came in, my life has gone from pulling shift work on holidays and overnights in helping in some very small way to protect the nation towards creating cool cutting-edge shit in Silicon Alley, in the belly of the Manhattan beast that churns out culture, fashion, art, comedy, publicity, utility, productivity, business.  I’m far closer towards building the future for myself and my family-to-be than I was in service of my country, an isolating enterprise.

Is the rest of the country?  Well, obviously not — but it’s disingenuous to put the blame on Obama unless one also points the finger at the pursestrings that is Congress.  But this is politics, so one shouldn’t be surprised.  Public understanding of how Congress affects the workings of the nation is pretty low, possibly as low as the public’s approval of Congress itself.

A more accurate description of the last 4 years under Obama has been a massive churn.  People write of a lost generation since 9/11, where middle class wages have dropped, the safety net and minimum wage are not enough to do their jobs, and the nation is polarized.  But that’s not entirely accurate either.  Inequality is the story: some people have become fabulously more wealthy and better-off, while some have completely dropped off American society’s radar — and the rest of everybody else has just held on, trying to make it with a harder job but less satisfaction.  The churn I feel is structural, though most think it’s cyclical.  The nation’s treasuries have had to absorb massive blows from military expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan and then bailing out a corrupt Wall Street whose tantalizing greediness sucked in both our most-talented kids as well as a labyrinthine system of new financial instruments along with high-frequency trading systems to arbitrage them.

But the lack of integrity in the core Republican message of “the last 4 years sucked” just isn’t going to have legs.  They bring no grand vision which will unite their party — somewhat surprising considering before Obama took the stage, the Republicans appeared to have a bulletproof national campaign.  The Republicans are playing a short-term game against a long-term winner (Obama, one of the most formidable figures in American history ever…more on that later).

Inconsistency

I wrote a post earlier in January of this year about the election coming up in November.  The stuff on Mittens and Bain stuck to some degree, and now there’s more about his wife’s dressage horse, his multiple houses, his sheltering money, his disconnect from the middle class he’s courting, etc.  [N.B. I even wrote this before the campaign-ending tape came out with Mittens telling a private audience that 47% of the country is made up of victims who will vote for Obama no matter what.]

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dfwRyal5fVk

But Mittens is bizarre, because he’s not even a Republican’s Republican.  Absent from RNC were quite a few themes that fell into style recently: the Tea Party, Palin, national security.  Obama effectively negated the national security edge for the Republicans by doing that little thing…I don’t know, I forget…oh yeah, sending Navy SEALs to shoot bin Laden in the face.  The Tea Party, predictably, disagreed with the Party, and Palin is a damn fool.  The Tea Party was not even mentioned during the convention, was it?

I’m trying to understand Mittens better.  He’s just so maddeningly obtuse.  I’ve said it before but I keep hoping he’s Bruce Wayne.  He’ll disappear for 7 years in Asian prisons, getting to know the criminal element and the life of those less fortunate.  Then he’ll be taught by R’as al-Ghul about guardians and destroyers of society, and then he’ll return to the US to become a seemingly wealthy playboy by day but a vigilante servant of the goodness of society by night.  I keep hoping.

The truth is it looks like Mittens is a cloistered politician who doesn’t even know that that’s what he is.  I mean, here’re photos of him as a 17-year-old at a Republican convention, which he attended because his dad was Governor of Michigan.  Career politician family.  I am flummoxed that he would joke about being unemployed at a time when there’s such a high number of long-term unemployed.  He says this because he honestly believes he is unemployed and running a campaign out of the goodness of his heart, and not because he’s no longer a private equity dude (e.g. leeches who prey off companies at their weakest).  That he’s associated with being a business dude seems strange, because it wasn’t he who was entrepreneuring a new company or selling a good product, he was trading debt on other peoples’ work.  Everything derivative, nothing original, nothing bold, now fantastically wealthy off escalating amounts of investment income.  Wall Street and finance types are NOT businessmen.  Business folk are Bezos, Gates, Hsieh, that hard-working family that does your dry cleaning or runs your local deli.

If anything, here’s what Mittens represents about business: “consults” others on how to do their jobs, doesn’t actually know how to do any job himself, and got over-promoted above his capability level.  Sound like people you know in YOUR office?  Business, this pinnacle of self-correcting efficiency, is FULL of people who are supposed to lead but don’t even know how to do, or follow.

I say Mittens is cloistered because I really don’t think he allows himself to view criticism of himself, or to see what the American public is dealing with.  He was taped saying he thought the trees were the right height in Michigan, TWICE, the second time after he got pilloried in the press.  Did he not get briefed on how dumb a comment that was?  Furthermore, he has mentioned in more poppy interviews that he liked Twilight, and said, “I’m kind of a Snooki fan”.  Probably the pop culture equivalent of Sarah Palin saying she reads “all of” the magazines and “a vast variety” of them.  He either 1) doesn’t give a damn what people say about him (which is scary since he’s running for President) or 2) he literally has no connection with large segments of the American public.

He strikes me as incredibly uninteresting and destructive to the people around him.  When he was in prep school, he teased a classmate for having bleached-blond hair over one eye and for possibly being homosexual.  He then clipped the guy’s hair while his “posse” pinned the kid down.  He got a Michigan state trooper’s uniform and pulled people over for fun.  These kinds of kids in school now, you call them frat bro douches.

Contrast this behavior with Obama’s upbringing.  Obama wrote 2 books before running for office, but what was interesting about those books was that Obama was framing his life as a fascinating, varied, expansive adventure through American society.  The intent of all this, including describing the equally fascinating stories of his parents and family, was to show the country that he deserved the highest office of the land, that he represented America, that he would understand how to deal with the broad array of issues a President would be faced with.  He wanted to convey that he had walked the walk, put in the time, would bring honor to the presidency.

This message didn’t play as well against McCain (which made Palin even more puzzling as a choice) since McCain was a war POW.  Then again, McCain was an entitled, protected product of nepotism who also played pranks on people (Dubya did this too) and managed to crash planes not just once (which would get most pilots taken off flight duty) but multiple times.  The myth, the narrative, trumps reality.

But it is crushing to Mittens.  Mittens is a nice enough family man I suppose, and would have been fairly harmless as just another rich person, but he’s completely inadequate for the presidency.  And we don’t need nice familymen who made some money to be in a position dealing with an expressly-granted mandate to lead the military, protect the public interest, and advance a wide range of American priorities (you know, all the shit other than lowering taxes and gutting government).

He has not been in the reeds, he has not seen how the rest of America lives.  No respect from me.  I’d like to see him live anonymously.  I’d like to hear him, and other rich types, or DC types, or whoever else overlooks those without power, talk about, say, all the people I see every day who, expecting nothing in return, make my day better.  The very smiley old Korean lady at my old laundromat in the East Village who said I was handsome and find a wonderful woman to marry, her co-worker who never forgets which bag is mine even though it looks like everyone else’s, my Russian Jewish barber Mila in the East Village who tells me about her beautiful family and gives me kosher vodka, the bartender Noel at The Horse Box whom I witnessed handle the ENTIRE bar by himself on an NBA Finals game night, the checker at Duane Reade who’s tired of the city and is moving to Rochester, the folks at my bagel place who every morning when I grab a quick bite ask how school is going or where my girlfriend is or teach me new words in their language, the bartender Graham at 7A who says he will always listen to my problems, the Arab kid at the deli who’s studying foreign policy and asked my opinion of Iran, the dude at the front lobby of my office who never ceases to give the nicest “have a good night” wave, the people who when you just ask how their day is or how much longer till they’re done with their overnight shift, light up and realize that you actually care about them and don’t think they’re just low-wage incompetents.  Those are the hard-working folks, the delivery guys who spend all day running food to the rest of us in the rain, at late hours of the night, hustling their asses off to make a few bucks on the streets of NYC.  Those are the people who feed, support, help the rest of us get through our days, particularly as I’ve learned in Manhattan.  I feel more kinship with these people than I do with the shit hangers-on who sit at their desks all day perusing light blue shirt and red tie combos on Pinterest and maybe getting a memo done about sending 50,000 more troops to Nowherefuckitallistan before complaining about how tired lunch made them (e.g. what happens in DC while, you know, the kids mentioned in their Afghanistan policy memo are sitting on a less-than-20-person patrol base surrounded by Taliban).

That’s the stuff I’d like to hear from someone like Mittens.  Instead, we get him on tape saying that a town’s pride, its baked goods, must be from 7-11.

We deserve better than this shit.

The emergence of Paul Ryan was fairly interesting to me for two reasons.  One, he’s the perfect DC type.  Very athletic, younger, very studious on economics, probably wears those douchey button-up seersuckers and herringbones that DC folks love to wear throughout their days of, whatever it is, critiquing other peoples’ policy memos and browsing LivingSocial for shit to do on the weekends, to get away from the “fat tourists” who sully their city that they don’t use.  The other interesting thing is that he has disavowed his hero worship of Ayn Rand.

I admit I’m fascinated with Ayn Rand.  I mean, get a load of her.  She was an immigrant who falsified documents to get to the US, and then she tried to cozy up with people in Hollywood, and then she wrote simple Manichean jerky books and essays about how economic self-interest is essentially Americanism (after she came around from hating democracy to loving it) and how being an asshat is justified because by only caring about yourself, you will prevent collectivist thoughts which would turn America into the totalitarian state Rand grew up in.  To Rand’s credit, wow, she worked her tail off and totally bought into being an American citizen.  Her theory of pursuing self-interest at all costs is completely unrealistic, and was layered into some pretty shitty L. Ron Hubbardish fiction, but I guess at the time, when communist thought ran rampant through Rand’s writing/intellectual peer community, she had at least an excuse to be paranoid.  She crystallized self-interest in a way that no one else had, so much so that she continues to be popular today.  But her view of the world, it’s so extreme and completely unrealistic and unbalanced that you have to question anyone who would want to apply it across the broad section of American life instead of treating it for what it is: intellectual exploration.

Anyway, Ryan disavowed Ayn Rand because her views against any kind of collectivism run right into the other pillar of Republican-ness right now: religion.  She was an atheist and looked down upon religion, for what she cared most about were ideas, unique to each individual.

Can you imagine how fucked up the conservative school of thought is right now?  It has to incorporate its belief in a strong military that can be used to push other countries and non-state actors into line, but it has to cut budget because it wants to starve Big Brother.  It wants to take a bunker-buster missile to any sort of entitlement programs, Margaret Thatcher-style, to allow the market to fairly regulate itself by judgment of the dollar.  It has to incorporate religion into a platform, but religion plays by rules separate from politics — oh, abortion? Drugs?  Gay sex?  These causes don’t directly lead to dollars so they’re a drag on the economic conservatives.  Hell, the world’s religions have enough problems on their hands modernizing into today’s increasingly tolerant and connected world, and now politicians are trying to take the reins on them?  Good luck.

I agree with the people who say that there aren’t really folks who believe in Reaganomic trickle-down theory.  It’s really just about making sure that the government is smaller and that no one free-loads off the system.  When I went on my trip to Ecuador this summer, there were a bunch of Americans and Swiss and Danes and a Brit.  The Americans were drinking during dinner, and the topic of health care came up, because Americans LOVE to talk about health care.  I wanted to peace out of that conversation so badly.  Really what it was was a microcosm — drunk Americans telling anecdotes loudly about some lazy person they heard about who was living off welfare and not getting a job, while people in other first-world countries sat in disbelief that anyone would even argue about universal health care.

This particular conversation concluded with one American woman — who works in finance, I might add — saying that, although she gets scanned by TSA every time at the airport, she turns around and thanks them for their service.  I chimed in, having worked for DHS, that no one at DHS thinks TSA is worth much respect at all.  It gets all the funding, has a super-swank operations center, and employs low-wage people with no actual security or counter-terrorism accolades, to judge whether a bunch of already-pissed off passengers (because of shit airlines) are sneaking through with drugs in their asses or lizards strapped to their chests or some explosive residue in the soles of their shoes.  EVERY DAY THIS HAPPENS.  The most useless form of security.  And she turns to me and says, “Well I know a guy in the DEA who says the FBI is useless, so it’s all relative and there’s always in-fighting.”

Fuck me.  This is our America.

Leadership

I’ve witnessed excellent leadership many times, in multiple contexts, most notably in the military.  The Army taught me that looking the other way is wrong, it taught me to step up quickly and make things happen, it taught me to get things done, it taught me to always try to improve, and most importantly it taught me to take responsibility even if it’s bad, and even if I wasn’t directly involved in something going wrong.

I’ve also witnessed a stunning lack of leadership in other contexts.  It’s rare that I’ll look at a politician’s biography, which I consider very important in understanding the depth and potential of a person, and be impressed.  Usually well-moneyed, they came from rich families and pursued law (with no other experience) and then made a play for politics.  And yet they are qualified to govern us, to “represent” us on deeply complicated policy issues in areas they would never hope to understand because they have neither the background nor the capacity to do so?

And I am expected to respect Americans who think Obama is the worst, even though objectively the guy has pushed as many, if not more, stuff in his first 4 years than most presidents in history have?  I am expected to listen to conservatives talk about budget cutbacks while at war, to liberals who think they’re open-minded even though they hate religion and are on their third iPhone and sip lattes while clucking at some clever legerdemain in The Economist?  I am expected to respect conservatives’ hailing of business while whole sectors in America are dominated by oligopolies?  I am expected to respect liberals’ views on pacifism and negativity towards drones while they’ve never volunteered to serve to be boots on the ground instead of the safer approach of unmanned death from above?

Conservatives believe they should pay fewer taxes, liberals believe religion is the cause of ignorance and war.  Liberals are wary of showing nationalism, conservatives want to make it rain vouchers in schools and God knows what else because public institutions are wasteful and incompetent.

Here’s what all that sounds like to me.  It sounds like an American culture where people are afraid to volunteer their own time and bodies towards anything.  Money is fine — easy enough to make a donation — but when it comes to volunteering to serve in the military or in the civil service, or when it comes to committing to a religion (by the way, religions’ core messages are always to be humble, charitable, and helpful to those less fortunate, despite what modern Elmer Gantries get notoriety for saying), or when it comes to being a proud American, or whatever, that’s when people tune out.  American “duty” consists of raising a family and working hard, which are good enough values, but it’s NOT enough, particularly for men.

The problem with powerful men, and especially notable amongst politicians, is that they have been given the ability to change the world around them for the better, and yet they do not.  It’s good enough for most to get paid, or to raise a family, but the true measure of a man is whether he can see outside himself and his immediate interests, and whether he can make other peoples’ lives better.  Can a man be self-confident and assertive, yet still treat all walks of life as equals, and sacrifice his own safety to help the weak and oppressed?

Men are destructive creatures — it’s what they do best.  But that recklessness and, to some degree, hopelessness, is also a man’s greatest strength for good: those qualities can push him to try to help others to his own detriment or destruction.  That selflessness and blatant disregard for pre-established order is what could allow a man to make breakthroughs for society as a whole.  I’m not saying women can’t do this either, but I’d rather a woman explain from her point of view how it’d be possible than for me to fumble through it.  I know men better.

You don’t hear a thing about Afghanistan.  Fuck that.  We have tons of servicemembers still over there and it barely registers in the news.  Last election, Iraq was a big deal, and so was Afghanistan.  Obama promised to re-orient towards Afghanistan, and he did, and he even killed the big kahuna.  And now he’s put an (albeit delayed) plan in place to leave Afghanistan, the destroyer of empires.  Mittens cannot even hope to discuss Afghanistan in any sort of depth, just like him and the rest of the chickenhawk smalldick Republican leaders who never served can never hope to discern Chinese politicking from fat, lazy Saudi scheming in the Middle East.  Seriously it would be nice to at least have a worthy Republican competitor who would not embarrass the US on an international tour, instead of figuring out ways to insult everyone along the way:

Anyway, my point is that true leaders and heroes are few and far between, those people who will stand up for something even if it kills them — and we are surrounded by people who have accepted a culture of “get rich or die tryin'”.  We all need to expect more of ourselves.

The Real America, According to DC

I don’t purport to know what the real Real America is, since we live in a beautiful, massive country where my America is vastly different from that of a black bayou person in Louisiana, or a Mexican illegal immigrant sending remittances back to his family while he works his butt off in California, or some wealthy financier a few miles down the street in Wall Street, or a roughnecker or oilhand up in Alaska, or fucking Private Snuffy in Afghanistan wondering if that Afghan soldier is going to shoot him in the back, but I’ll give it a shot from what I think the political point of view is, bird’s eye view from DC.  I guarantee you it is at least more accurate than what you’re hearing at either of the conventions right now.

The US absorbed two massive body blows, one on 9/11 that hit the finance district of the heart of American business and at the seat of American military Power Point power, and one in 2008 that resulted in the handing over of the reins from the government to banks in the name of saving the economy after quantitative coffer robbery.

The middle class and poor were the ones who took it in the gut.  Banks are doing well, DC politicians aren’t much threatened by a changed political landscape, and Occupy was treated like a bunch of troublemaking unemployed no-gooders by even people my age.  Middle income families lost a ton of wealth in the turmoil and the nation is still turning itself around economically.  However, despite the resulting vast number of books calling out America as a superpower in decline, the US geopolitically, globalization-wise, militarily, and economically, is outperforming many places in the rest of the world, and those books have gone out of vogue.

The banks figured out how to make their operations even more opaque, and it dovetails nicely with what’s been happening in DC, which has been the classifying, privatizing, and disappearing of top secret contracting and government activity as our military transitions towards a drone future where fewer and fewer American lives will be put on the line, enabling for even less public outrage than we already have.

It blows my mind that a Republican public would be fine with eavesdropping of all our communications, the true form of control used in China, Soviet Russia, etc., but not fine with even the suggestion that a handgun be registered with ATF.  This either shows a massive lack of understanding of the power of information after the 20th century, or an assumption that a redneck America that loves its guns is and should be the normal state of affairs and anyone else can screw off.  I’m not sure which is worse.  And how was that blown Fast and the Furious operation not a bigger thing in the news?

For most of my adult life I was worried about the terrorist threat but now, with most of the key players in that very particular generation of Al-Qaeda dead or detained, I’d say most of my old counter-terrorism friends have moved on and no longer see it as our chief security threat.  What this leads to, along with a nation that is formidably resilient in the face of the turmoil in the last decade of absorbing so much damage, is a sort of optimism that there’s more upside than down.  That we can go back to being creative, hard-working people with healthy families and tons of social mobility.

There are obstacles.  Citizens United is a pretty horrid precedent, allowing corporations some individual rights.  Opaque campaign financing so that ever-increasing cash reserves at companies (which are not re-investing those profits because they don’t need to or see no benefit in expanding operations) are being pushed into campaigns.  See, this is where the two conflicting pillars of conservative thought are reconciled.  Funnel enough money into candidates from your profits, buy them off, and they’ll give you deals to make more money, and at the same time, they will support your jackass social and moral and religious beliefs that you would not otherwise have been able to make sensible investments in.  Money, in this beautiful free market capitalist society everyone dreams about, is supposed to let stupid ideas die (like disenfranchising whole segments of your population even though immigration can be the lifeblood of an economy), but in a corrupt system, money allows stupid ideas to carry on and even kill smarter ideas.

Freaking “run it like a business”.  I grew up in a suburb of Dallas, TX when Ross Perot was running as the independent who sloughed votes off the Democrats because he was running on the Green Party ticket.  The main reason for voting him was because he owned EDS and would come in to run the country like a business.  I remember buying into this because that was what I was told, and that’s what everyone around me was saying.  The philosophy grew into what has now become framed into libertarianism.

Here’s the problem.  Like trickle-down, this philosophy holds little merit except as a mental exercise.  It’s like a stupid business coaching book you see prominently described at the airport.  It has some catchy title, it looks like it’s ball-busting cut-the-fat get-down-to-business business, but it’s really just simplistic meat-beating.

Let businesses be businesses.  Let them hire and fire, grow and die, compete or not compete.  May they boom and bust, create retired millionaires or leave the founders penniless.  But they are not the other pillars of our society.  The government is not a business — it has to answer to other forms of capital beyond financial capital.  It has to respond to social and human capital.  Religion is not a business too, I might add, and I’m sure within the inner circles of Republicanism, there’s some unspoken conflicts between run-it-like-a-business and help-thy-neighbor.  Not even Calvinism or Ayn Rand’s contempt for altruism can get rid of that nagging feeling that you should look out for those around you, even if you don’t get a tax break for it.

Congress

So the thing is, the presidential race was over as soon as Obama was elected in 2008.  No one else has been as influential as he has.  I keep harping on this but Congress is where peoples’ focus should lie.  According to Nate Silver’s 538 blog as of recently, the Democrats have an 80% chance of maintaining a majority in the Senate, but the more seats they pick up, the more likely they can work in concert with Obama instead of the deadlock that exists now.

The House is dire:

Stunning distribution of red states.  The House is like intramural league for government.  Anyone can sign up!  Seriously, it contains some of the most mouth-breathing useless politicians in the country, and apparently anyone can get elected anywhere, regardless of party.  Like, I think someone should run an experiment in their politics class where they choose one student to run for the House from their local district.  I’m pretty sure they would win.  All those ridiculous bills you hear about on TV? They come from the House, and thankfully they are usually shot down quickly by the Senate or even by the Supreme Court, right?

In my district, District 3 (Richardson/Plano), TX, Sam Johnson keeps winning elections (since 1991!).  Democrats don’t even try to compete there — my district has been firmly red since the end of the 60’s.  Johnson is a military veteran and votes with the Republican party line 95% of the time so his position is pretty safe.  Though, he has a competitor this year (!) in Harry Pierce, an Air Force vet who offers these pearls:

  •  “We need an amendment establishing term limits for all Congressmen. I believe Congressmen should have the same retirement and medical plans as their constituents and salaries commensurate with those in the private sector. I am for a six year term limit and have signed a pledge for term limits. The two year election cycle for the House is a good thing, providing for constant turnover.”  Oh hi, shots fired at Johnson?
  • “I oppose legal tactics to silence any opposition to the homosexual lifestyle and the state law requiring the teaching of homosexual history to children in public schools in California in grades one through twelve. I oppose the unequal balance of demands by atheists that their freedom to not honor GOD in public requires my loss of freedom to honor GOD in public.”
  • “Some Federal Departments could be eliminated because they are not necessary or their functions could be handled by state governments. This would cut costs and put power more in the hands of the people than Washington bureaucrats.  The EPA, Department of Education, Federal Reserve, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the Department of Labor are on that list.”

Not an uncommon political ideology in Texas.

So, this election, don’t worry about Obama.  He’s got this. (you should be more worried about who will run in 2016 for the Dems)  But look to the House to see what the next 4 years will be like.  The Senate will go to the Dems, but how strongly?  The Dems I think should be pouring money into the Senate and House.  The Republicans need to figure out some way to modernize their party and incorporate socially progressive views (which will pick off Dems and rope in liberaltarians), while at the same time coming up with a realistic way to deal with the necessity of government as one of the main pillars of a functioning American public life (government, business, the people, free press).  And man, they also need to figure out how to incorporate immigration to reach out to non-white folk — after all, it’s been proven over and over that immigration (even illegal immigration) helps economic output and creates future generations of proud Americans.

Long rant, I know, and it’s missing tons of stuff.  But I’m done with this now.

Caveats:

  • Not saying Obama’s perfect.  As a wannabe hacker and media consumer, I think his handling of copyright reform, cyber-security, treatment of hackers, etc. is abysmal, particularly with regards to citizens’ privacy and eavesdropping.  As a voter who relies heavily on information exchange and technology, this might be one of my top core voting values, as an Internet-American who considers online freedom and privacy as important civil rights concerns.
  • I’d classify myself as cosmopolitan or progressive, but I’d love to have a competent Republican party.  I think the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian schools of thought are valuable to American politics, and most Democrats have no concept of the importance of guns, God, and limited federal power.