I wanted to cover it especially before the rumored sunsetting of the Coke Zero branding, which is being replaced (allegedly), with Coca-Cola No Sugar, which will taste more like regular Coke but is otherwise the same except for lacking sodium benzoate.
To establish my cred, I probably drink Coke Zero every day. It’s a regular staple of my diet. If people finally discover it contains carcinogens, I’m most likely a dead man. I’m sure I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on this stuff. I’ve got my wife hooked onto it. At Georgetown, several classmates got hooked on it.
Taste of course is the primary reason I love Coke Zero. Function is crucial. For someone who doesn’t want to drink just plain water, who doesn’t like seltzer, who doesn’t like tea or coffee (despite British parents who have long since assimilated into American society), but who needs caffeine for 18-20 hour days, who enjoys a sweet drink paired with even the most sophisticated meal, Coke Zero delivers in every way. In a post HFCS world, where my taste buds are no longer receptive to 20-35g of sugar in a beverage, the artificial sweetener in Coke Zero (aspartame), is a modern solution to a 90’s and naught’s problem.
In short, we have a sugar-free caffeinated sweet all-purpose beverage. It checks all the boxes.
And yes, Coke Zero on-par with Diet Coke. At this point, the main differences between the two come down to taste and availability. Diet Coke is almost always more available than Coke Zero, but I prefer the taste of Coke Zero. Diet Coke apparently contains more caffeine than both regular Coke and Coke Zero.
The primary vessel for drinking Coke Zero, at least for me, is the legendary 20 fl oz bottle. According to Coca-Cola’s official chronology, the contoured bottle first came into production in about 1915. The plastic variant emerged during the rise of plastics in the 90’s, in 1993.
The perks of this perfect design? The contoured design (along with textured bumps) fit the hand naturally, allowing for less slip and more grip. The design is a disadvantage for packing and space management, since there’s more wasted space in the silhouette than, say, in the aluminum can footprint. But that’s not my problem.
The cap of a bottle is crucial. For me being on the go in school, in NYC, popping my Coke Zero bottle in my bag while on a flight or on the subway, the screwable cap means I can save my drink without having to finish it in one go, like I would with a can. And as my life is primarily sitting in front of a computer writing code, having a cap means that any slip ups I have won’t spill Coke Zero all over my laptop.
Regular (Classic) Coke has traditionally had a red background. Diet Coke took a silver backdrop to denote its lack of sugar. The Coke Zero line has been predominately black in color. Coke Life, added recently and using cane sugar (who cares?), is primarily green. Coke No Sugar appears to still be predominantly black but with a large red element.
Within those primary delineations, sub-flavors will add minor color hints, such as the Cherry Coke Zero adding a cherry image, or Vanilla Coke Zero adding a vanilla-ish yellow-tan color. In doing some research for this post, I also discovered that in Europe there’s a blood orange variant, Coca-Cola Light Sango, evidently existing because Holland loves Coke:
I have no real opinion on the branding for the products except that colors largely seem to make sense. I talked about the Coke Zero label in the past blog post being a designer’s worst nightmare, what with awkward kerning and lettering that gradually increased in thickness from fat to thin from left to right to denote fewer calories/carbs.
Coke has since dropped that original amateurish Coke Zero label and brought the design into the main Coke design fold, but with a black background.
My Coke Rewards
For a while in 2016, I figured I might as well take advantage of the number of bottles I was buying and thus take part in the My Coke Rewards program.
Basically Coke developed a web site where you could enter codes off Coke products in order to translate your purchases into reward points, which were eventually redeemable for Coke-themed products, cash/vacation/etc. lotteries, etc.
I was pretty impressed that Coke was able to put together a team which built this online platform and had it working fairly well. The site was slow to a degree (as is common with leviathan companies which create promo sites) but it worked for the most part, though I’m fairly sure its internals felt like a mid-naughts-era web design stack.
I entered a ton of codes, which meant I had to sit there with bottle caps on my desk and type in all the codes on them.
Obviously this became too laborious and I was pretty much entering sweepstakes with my points anyway, as the platform had little stickiness or payoff. I eventually stopped using it.
This is the biggest thing that sticks in my craw when it comes to Coke Zero.
Why is it that pretty much any store I go to, there are shelves and shelves of classic Coke and maybe Diet Coke, but there’s always a sold out shelf of Coke Zero? If you were selling your product at stores, would you not readjust your inventories to reflect customer preference? Would you not allocate more shelf space towards Coke Zero and stock less of the other versions of Coke?
This has happened to me at enough different, scattered locations that there is only one explanation: either Coca-Cola or the stores who sell its products do not see Coke Zero as a viable product outside of being an alternative to classic Coke to capture a specific demographic, or Coca-Cola believes that even its own alternative products (Coke Life, Coke Zero), are threats to the sanctity and bona fide original classic Coke flavor.
I could understand that if, in Coke’s world view, a Coke product became more popular than the flagship classic Coke, then this would spin the company into an identity crisis where it was no longer known for whatever “Coke” means these days as an international brand but instead as a beverage company rotating through easily replaceable drink brands.
Whatever the motive, this often means that I have to plan out at least a small bit about which store I go to, depending on the reliability of that store to stock Coke Zero for me whenever I may want it.
For me, Coke Zero is one of those few consumer goods I would legitimately classify as deserving of brand loyalty and fanaticism; it hits the mark in every category. While we live in an era of unlimited choice, what that often means is we’re forced to make compromises. But Coke Zero is a legitimate 10 out of 10.
Perhaps the quality I look for and admire the most in people I associate with now that I’m 39 years old is altruism, whether someone will take actions to help others which do not benefit him in any way, whether financially, relationship-wise (gift-power dynamics), or reputation-wise (the spotlighter or faux do-gooder). It’s one of the hardest personal traits to fake and it reveals a glimpse into someone’s true character. It gives pause, it shows self-reflection; it may show in its worst form a dishonest penitence, but more often than not it shows love. It separates those who truly want others to succeed, even if they’re in direct competition, from those who preach cooperation and teamwork but practice Machiavellianism.
A competing rubric for whom you might associate with is the Steve Jobs-ian method of alphas only wanting to be around other alphas. In my industry, software development, alphas-seeking-alphas (a4a?) is the prevailing one. Everyone’s just trading up to be an ex of a Silicon Valley powerhouse — ex-Googler, ex-Apple, ex-Uber, ex-Facebook.
In this light, you would seek only to be around people better than you, either to improve yourself faster relative to your experience, or to use those people to catapult your status. Monetary reward is typically the main driver, whether it’s near immediate (finance) or delayed (the executive or pseudo-executive golden umbrella/fat signing bonus/no accountability for performance track). In such a competitive industry, to not pursue advancement is akin to stagnation and eventual career suicide. In such a competitive industry, the only line too far is, apparently, sexual harassment or the holiest of holies, trade secret theft, and even those charges apparently are iffy.
In most competitive companies, it has almost always been their duty to hire specifically for alphas: people who will fight, tooth and nail, to advance their company’s “goals”.
Naturally companies began realizing at scale, whether startup or enterprise, that they didn’t need loyalty; they just needed the best hired guns they could afford in order to accomplish short-term goals, while minimizing the biggest cost-centers: human capital and health care. Enter lobbyists, contractors, hired guns, revolving doors, job-hopping.
During my public education in the creative 80’s and careless 90’s, there seemed unbeknownst to me to be the transition from loyal company men to this mercenary class. A common film and TV trope in the 90’s and 2000’s was the death of the company man.
Mercs were one of the most lasting results of Operation Iraqi Freedom as I witnessed it — hirsute ball-capped knuckle-draggers and pampered support contractors while we made a military salary signaled some sort of rot back home in America. Offshoring and outsourcing were political third rails, a crude outcome of the displacement of corporate ideals.
Still, I grew up believing the rules of the game were clearly defined, and immutable to those who valued their careers.
In government, politics were partisan but most normal state and federal representatives sought the same goals: sustainment for the middle class and the advancement of American ideals. In government, there was the separation of powers, the three branches of government, the general idea that those who went in to government sought to improve the public good instead of receive monetary reward (whether that legend truly ever existed or not).
In 2017, either the perceived or real threat of foreign influence is at least enabled by this deterioration of loyalty as an organizational goal. If you don’t have to worry about integrity, the betterment of others, and even punishment for being caught committing a crime, you’d be stupid not to try to get the most you can for yourself, right?
The thing is, qualities such as loyalty, integrity, and selfless service are only valuable in societies or communities which enforce those qualities. If winning, or lack of enforcement of norms, trump those qualities, then those qualities become liabilities in the game. Those who play fair fall prey to those who want to win.
The name of the game, even in American daily life now, is winning. It doesn’t matter how you win. It doesn’t matter who you’re beating, or what you’re even playing for. Winners hire winners. Don’t get caught in a loss, big or small. Only you can tell yourself that you lost. Never admit you were wrong. You will never be cast out from your line of work or your principles, at least not for long, as long as you never lose belief in the win as a cure-all.
I’m not up for winning at any cost. I refuse to play that game. Psychopaths play that game. If anything I should probably enjoy winning more. I always root for the underdog. I root for the home team. I prefer team cohesion to hired guns. I’m okay with losing. I root for the magic of the dream ending, and the longevity of the ancestors who allowed those opportunities to happen.
But it requires that I pick my spots. Daily life and one’s engagement in it is avoiding the places where assholes abound. You’ve got your swindlers, your “intellectual debates” which are typically just cock-jousting, you’ve got the ex-Division 1 athlete kickball team that destroys everyone else, you’ve got the bullies who push the rules wherever they are because they know others fear conflict. You see them every day.
Imagine politics and government: you pit hired guns whose expertise is in winning at any cost versus people who are not playing to win but instead are playing to keep what little they have, playing on free time they have very little of. Money politics will wear down community fabric every time. Monied attacks are more persistent. They can keep trying new strategies. They can adapt to splinter the core community interests, learning from failure after failure, waiting for that one time when they crack the shell.
This is roughly in line with, say, the Russian approach for countering America, wearing down American ideals into division, bickering, disillusionment, lack of will or unity in the face of hopelessness.
In theory, laws passed would protect community interests from the attrition onslaught of endless directed attack by defining time intervals between relevant legislative sessions, to protect community capital.
But it doesn’t feel much like there’s been much to protect the community’s interest, right? There’s been loss after loss, and if it isn’t a direct loss, it’s likely a loss at someone’s expense who could not afford it.
With Citizens United, shit leaders, and everyone else trying to get rich or die tryin’, the rest of us just relegate ourselves to hoping that this person or that person isn’t going to fleece us as bad as the other.
At some point either the community will fight back against enemies domestic and foreign, or it will create its own alternative community which explicitly disallows the perceived enemies from before.
A post shared by Ben Turner (@benghis_khan_turner) on
I don’t know what will happen but the worst thing good people can do is give up. That is pretty much what other interests would want them to do. Having recently moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, I am least a little more relieved by the social fabric that exists in Brooklyn than by the mercenary lives of most Manhattanites.
As for me, I can’t stand alphas, save for the rare alpha that comes along very rarely and who works for everyone else — typically those types of alphas become historical legends. Fuck!, real alphas, ones I’ve gotten to work with in the past, both destroy poseur alphas while at the same time helping everyone else. All effortlessly, for that is where true benign power resides.
And I can deal with mercs — everyone knows where they stand on things, generally predictable in their monetary risk-reward calculations. But give me the misfits, give me the overlooked. Give me the people who do the right thing even when no one’s looking.
Give me the hard road. Though let me not walk it alone.
Give me the people who can’t be bought. Give me a life worth living, and a life with people worth living it with.
During my brief lifetime, the US has enjoyed unchallenged dominance on the world stage. Indeed, the US and patriotism are used together so often that, at least to an American, it sounds weird to hear the word “patriotism” used to refer to any other country.
I’m a patriotic person as well as a veteran and I constantly internally explore the meaning of patriotism, and by extension, loyalty. Patriotism to me very rarely looks like patriotism does to, say, Trump, or to Obama even. It doesn’t look like Red State patriotism, and it doesn’t look like non-veteran patriotism. I’ll generally find more kinship with veterans, but even a lot of the time I’ll disagree with them on what patriotism should mean.
One thing I’m fascinated with is what peoples’ loyalties would look like if the US were not so dominant. In particular, what would loyalties look like if the US fell far from its leadership position? I think that most would say they would still love their country and defend it even if it fell in prominence. But would they?
I’ve been living in DC and NYC for the last 9 years. Most of my classmates, and probably coworkers, are fairly cosmopolitan. Most of the Georgetown set are well-off and enjoy gilded lives. They tend to focus on large-scale issues and organizations whereas a lot of folks in NYC I know have old money too, but they tend not to be as world-minded.
These DC and NYC people are the people on Instagram you always see traveling to exotic countries to help people, by way of fancy hotels and safaris and whatever else. They’re people who seamlessly transfer from one city-state to another because, if you’re well-off enough, every city provides safety and comfortable living. These people are politically interested, and activist where it makes sense, and so you might think they would be the most empowered to retain patriotism in the face of adversity.
But I wonder if these people would be the first to leave, the first to flee, the first to criticize how things are and take flight to other places, because they are sad to see how the state of things has deteriorated. How this place they were patriotic about no longer represents what they believed in. We didn’t leave the party, the party left us. Because they have such mobility and freedom, giving up allegiance comes with virtually no disadvantages. Ex-pat culture is a massive thing now. What does the Brexit event mean in light of all this, with the city-state of London desiring to stay, while the rest of England wanted to leave? Toned-down nationalism and the promise of pan-European unity did not reward around half of the population evidently.
Studies of Russian patriotism are perhaps instructive because they already lost a lot of their dominance on the world stage, and while, by geopolitical position, they will always be a significant force, a lot of Russia experts would say one of the defining traits of Russia is its wounded pride.
As a veteran I’m well aware of the fact that for the most part, US military strength overwhelms its opponents. Sure, we have recently settled with giving up our overwhelming advantages by engaging in costly urban and asymmetric warfare, but for the most part, every military unit has been turned into a force multiplier by nature of training and technology. What would it feel like to be part of a military that was not the biggest, baddest dog in the pound? What if your squad or unit literally faced annihilation every day by a superior force? Would you still be volunteering to serve? The current calculus of gilding your resume would shift.
Religious faith and fealty to family are also receding. For the most part I think this is a good thing, especially given the explosive investigations that people in power in the church and popular media exposure of abusive households during my lifetime has flipped the script.
Work for millennials and people my age does not encourage long-term stints with the same employer. Not only do you generally only enjoy raises and promotions only when you change jobs, employers are also less likely to internally promote unless it’s a specific policy decision they’ve made.
So in no way is one rewarded for being loyal or patriotic these days. It makes even less sense if you don’t live in the US. With the Olympics set to begin soon in Rio, it’s often the only time some countries display overt national pride other than, say, World Cup?
I don’t really watch The Walking Dead but my wife does. What interests me I guess is that communities of like-minded people in these post-apocalyptic worlds form and square off against each other. Racial ties probably are strongest. Bandwagoning towards the strongest leader would be the next strongest perhaps. Religion? Maybe nationality?
The Walking Dead hints at but doesn’t quite explain fully what its estimate is for how quickly we as a society would devolve from an orderly system to every person for himself. Would it take you a month before you gave up on any hope for a return of order, before you started to choose a faction? Just for your own safety until people started to figure out relative strengths between groups?
I know no one else enjoyed the film A.I., but Teddy is perhaps one of my favorite all-time film characters and the betrayal of humans towards the androids they created is just so compelling and painful a subject for what will likely happen to us when we begin co-existing with computers that it’s chilling to me to see the film.
David’s programming and state as a young child is in conflict with his role in his family and so his actions become suspicious and scary to the family, particularly when the real son manipulates David into doing things that alienate their parents.
I enjoyed Fallout’s storyline regarding androids and humans, with the rift generating two different factions, The Brotherhood (those who sought to remove technology from public availability and hoard it for themselves, for everyone’s good) and the Railroad, who sought to smuggle androids to safety.
It’s true that loyalty can lead to cruelty towards outsiders and xenophobia. But lack of loyalty, or lack of attachment to anything, leads to disengagement, a common complaint for American voting habits and politics at this point.
I’m definitely a hometown sports fan. I don’t like bandwagoners and I respect sports fans a lot more if they root for teams in cities that they live or lived in. I once knew a guy — Cowboys fan, Lakers fan, Yankees fan. Infuriating. It’s almost though you can’t trust someone who doesn’t even root for his hometown teams.
There was a problem connecting to Twitter.
Maybe the smell test here is if you’re not loyal to something, or have faith, or take a stand on something or have an opinion, then where can other people decide that you stand on anything. Seriously, if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for everything, right?
A common trope also is that for those who are loyal, they are seen as weak and predictable — the Joker loves to take advantage of Batman in this way, but where I see it happen the most in real life is in bias committed against veterans. It’s the idea that people shrug and give lip service to “supporting the troops”, but then if they don’t like a veteran, the person becomes a bona fide PTSD case: on the edge, ready to snap, probably suicidal, a lost cause. This is where what you’ve stood for and sacrificed for becomes weaponized against you. Your beliefs and your actions, generally done in service to others, becomes a negative upon you.
The other side is conformity, right? If you don’t swear fealty, then you must be removed. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. It’s such a thin line, loyalty.
All this stuff is interesting to me, and perhaps because it becomes so prominent during election campaigns, that’s why I tend to write about these things every 4 years.
I certainly get why Asian-Americans, of which I consider myself a member, have parents who immigrated to the US and kept a low profile and tried to work hard and stay out of trouble. If you’ve existed in a world where people turn on each other, question each others’ loyalties, and judge each other based on those sorts of qualities, it would be desirable to leave all that, try to raise your family, and not draw any undue attention to yourself. As a soon-to-be father I appreciate that more and more, particularly as I also think about my career and what actions I would take in the future.
I guess I don’t have a particular point to make about all this, but these emotions people have are latent, powerful forces. If a certain set of people no longer displays these emotions or ascribes them to common causes, where will that emotion and loyalty show itself in the future? Does it put us in danger to just assume that the dampening of nationalism necessarily means a general sense of acceptance to a global common cause?
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.
For last night’s Red Burns – Applications class, one of the group presentations addressed #OccupyWallStreet. I don’t usually speak in large groups anyway, mainly because I really, really hate fighting for my turn to speak, but #OWS is tough because it really makes me seethe to listen to people talk about it. It’s the same thing on Twitter. Even the group itself, which went to Zuccotti Park (I don’t believe in calling it Liberty Park till it has a breakthrough, and I think it fitting that they are occupying a private park named after a real estate mogul) often in order to document the experience and take part in it as well, was split on how it felt about the protest. A few classmates stood up to say that they are tired of protests and they don’t believe anything will ever change as a result of them, and they’ve seen it before from where they used to live (San Francisco, Phillippines, youth activist efforts). One said that they didn’t go because they didn’t understand what #OWS wants.
Maddening. I kept myself distracted by wrestling with a re-install of MySQL on OS X Lion, which I’d fucked up earlier in the day.
Here’s the problem I have with my fellow Americans with regards to #OWS. These same people, who spoke glowingly of the noble, courageous efforts being undertaken by the downtrodden working classes in the Arab Spring become strangely silent when it comes to American-born protests. On Twitter, I follow a lot of security people and people you would consider to be in the consulting, intellectual, and management classes. While they tweeted up a storm on the Arab Spring, presumably because of its implications for regional security, when fellow Americans voiced their disapproval with current conditions (which are, I think it’s still under-appreciated, historically bad in terms of income inequality and prejudiced against the public good, reaching levels only seen before the Great Depression), these people mocked them or ignored them.
It was the same during the summer and fall of Tea Party movements in 2009. And during the anti-war protests. Mocking or ignoring.
I went to most of the Tea Party rallies in DC. I was in DC during the inauguration, inauguration concert, OBL killing, government shutdown crisis, and other massive rallies (immigration, gay rights). The tenor of the city has definitely changed since Obama came in.
While I disagreed with the Tea Party (mostly I think they do not understand the role of public policy at all) and thought its invocations of history were bankrupt (read my blog posts here and here), I do think they were symbols that the Jacksonian school of thought is well and alive in America, and I felt sad that fellow Americans saw conditions as being so bad. The stupid two-party system, which has existed for, what, two centuries or something?, is now infused with corporate money and shadow organizations, introducing into our political DNA a pernicious political rift that only pits Americans against each other.
I do think that #OWS directly addresses the chief problems within the American system today. We are fortunate enough in this country that we do not have one simple demand, which is what people seem to be looking for. In other countries, this “simple demand” might be the removal of a corrupt dictator. That is the danger of singular cause movements. It focuses, essentially, on one person, or one group/class of people.
Saying you don’t understand what #OWS wants sounds precisely alike to me as when people say, “I don’t understand computers/science/math, it’s too hard.” Were you just supposed to know it intuitively? No, you have to go read about it and study and research it. There are two billion articles about why #OWS doesn’t have or want a simple list of demands. There are plenty of theories about whether they should seek specific issues later or just try to organize at this point. It should be noted that the Tea Party kind of fell off the rails once it was co-opted by politicians, was confronted for its fringe elements, and came up with its specific list of demands. Specific demands alienate people who were on board with some ideals but not others.
So saying you don’t understand #OWS is an intellectual cop-out. I am disappointed that master’s-level students would use this argument.
Another point which some of the group members who presented brought up was that while #OWS may not amount to much, it is still important in itself. The beauty of seeing the General Assembly, of seeing humans together, figuring out systems of hand gestures for communication or innovating low-tech solutions, forming working groups, blending internet viral activism with Occupied Wall Street Journal newspaper tactics; this is really important stuff. If I had kids, I would want them to see that shit. I would want them to see humans self-organizing, sharing, communicating, seeking a shared future. When I went to Zuccotti Park and to the Washington Square Park protests, that was the real deal fucking Holyfield, seeing humans do what they do best: transfer information.
Some people are waiting for heroes to emerge to lead the movement. They inevitably bring up MLK Jr. The problem is, if you’ve ever read about MLK Jr., most of his life was spent being extremely frustrated with the impact of his work. He was thrown into fits of despair often when he would attempt to organize and galvanize people and it wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t produce the results he wanted, either from getting the majority out into the streets, or in achieving political results. It wasn’t until things magically came together at some of the larger national protests that his voice took root and now the legend has taken over. But MLK Jr. was depressed during most of his time during the Civil Rights Movement. Being a “hero” is often a lonely experience. It ended in his assassination, and in JFK’s, and in RFK’s. If that is not a somber message about the role of heroes, I don’t know what is.
Anonymous has been interesting. It plays a fringe role in the Occupy movement, while it was pretty much center-stage on its own a year ago because of Wikileaks. I doubt many people actually saw V for Vendetta (like they didn’t see the Tea Party rallies or #OWS events either) which is the basis for the Guy Fawkes Anonymous masks that you see more and more these days. I think one of the most poignant scenes in that film is when the girl in the Anonymous mask is killed after she is caught putting up graffiti. After that, the social contract between the public and government breaks down, and the movie concludes with a sea of Anonymous masks converging in London, eventually overrunning the police and unmasking themselves to return to their real identities. Anonymous is some kind of Hobbesian manifestation that bothers people in that it reminds them that the strongest, most powerful man is still just a man, able to be brought down by the weakest, least important of men.
During a decade of post-9/11 hysteria, with all the stupid regulations from TSA, the newly-authorized secret spying on Americans based on mere suspicions, the corporate-endorsed wiretapping of internet service providers, anti-Muslim sentiment, and overseas military/intelligence/covert adventures, the anti-war movement barely registered. It was kept at bay by a respect for the warfighters and their tasks. It was kept at bay by apathy.
But most of all, it was kept at bay because very few Americans have ever actually participated in the armed services or known someone very close to them who has. Military bases are positioned well outside the normal paths and travels of most people, so unless military blood is in your family, you’ve probably never seen the sprawl outside Fort Benning or seen the old World War 2-era barracks or even seen many people in uniform except at sporting events and in Grand Central Station.
So these servicemembers have lived a silent decade, where friends have died, some have lost limbs, others have lost their minds. They can’t talk about it in public, because 1) no one will understand or 2) they will be put on display like they’re in a zoo. There is no shared sacrifice among the American public for military service. Just imagine how much more insular it is within AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, and other large civil service programs!
The people who didn’t protest out of respect for the troops, I question their logic. Had they shared the sacrifice, it would have been their necks on the line. Servicemembers aren’t really going to protest war — they volunteered to do service for the government. It requires attentive citizenries to defend the usage of servicemembers in warfighting for appropriate contexts. That civilians have abdicated their responsibilities towards the servicemembers of the U.S. is the ultimate slap in the face. But perhaps it also says a lot about the military, that it will continue to do its job professionally. The Army keeps rolling along.
So pardon me if I question peoples’ stated intentions for participating or not participating. Or maybe it’s not so much that, but the dismissiveness which those people give to OTHER people giving a damn about something.
I think that might be the only time I really get pissed. When people denigrate the efforts of others. When they put down or make fun of people who are trying to do something, anything, to make things better. That is the worst kind of cowardice, whether it’s born out of elitism or out of past failures or out of being afraid of future failures. Negative people tend to be reacting out of their own insecurities.
Maybe what topped the class off was sensing the disparity between the divided class and Red Burns, the mater familias of our program and a woman who’s changed the way thousands of people (at least) see the world. She is old and feeble now, and hard to hear, and definitely stubborn, but she obviously thinks #OWS is something important for us to pay attention to. But students, whom she is probably 3 to 4 times older than, ignore her hints that #OWS is a gamechanger. She has a keen eye and most importantly, has experience that is directly relevant to our futures, and yet I feel like she was being dismissed.
Back when I was at Georgetown, I was picked by my program’s staff to represent the program at the Achievement Summit, which brought together people like George Lucas, Bill Russell, Desmond Tutu, Sylvia Earle, Michael Dell, and many others, to talk to us grad students about what to do with the rest of our lives.
The overwhelming message was not that we should pat ourselves on our backs, but that we had a deep responsibility towards society. Given all these opportunities, privileges, and advantages, our role in life was to be leaders and to always look to better the lives of those less fortunate. We were told that our job was to take the hands of others and help them succeed as well. Our job was to use our talents and creativity and personal security to try things that were extremely risky, knowing they might fail, hoping to build something wonderful for the world. If we, the privileged few, were not going to take risks or to look out for others, then who would?
That resonated with me but I’m not sure how much it gets to others.
When I was in the Army, I had my clearance temporarily suspended (but got it back later, since nothing was officially wrong with it) because I was blogging and taking photos of my experience in Iraq. There weren’t the chilling effect regs there are in place now, which have stifled almost any word coming out of our overseas theaters. When I studied and worked in DC, my classmates and friends would refuse to use Facebook or other social networking because, mostly, they were afraid that employers would find out!
Now I would have trouble hiring someone who DIDN’T appear on social media, but I get that privacy is a big deal. You should still show up SOMEWHERE though.
Anyway, here’s the kicker. America is indeed the land of opportunity. You can come here as a poor immigrant and build a pretty good life for yourself and your family and your kids. But you will probably have to keep your head down and stay out of trouble. You will most likely not be able to have an opinion, or to campaign for the ridiculous idea of equal rights for all people. You will have to act in your professional life like you never drink or party, that you never have a controversial opinion. You will have to get slapped in the face and take it, because you understand that that’s what it takes to just get by and raise your family.
And my generation feels that tension at the higher levels. You better have a squeaky clean resume if you want to go into finance. All your outward correspondences better relate to your work (how many Twitter folks do you know who ONLY tweet about their work stuff? it’s kind of sad sometimes). You better fit in or else you’re not going to get paid. You won’t “succeed” in life.
I worry that kids coming out of higher education are ready to subvert their entire personalities just to get a job. One problem with income inequality is that it narrows your choices. Instead of being able to find employment in a variety of services or good production or data analysis or entrepreneurial endeavors, you have to pick health care or finance or business or law. Or you work as a barista. There’s not as much in between, particularly outside of the large cities. It hollows out society. And thus you have to jump through more hoops to reach the higher echelons. You have to keep your head down, calm down and carry on.
I don’t think any of us want to see the U.S. become a place where the calculus changes such that people would much rather set themselves on fire or stand off against the military because they have no hope of jobs, families, or future. Right now most people still have options (though with vastly increasing structural unemployment, I worry this will change).
I don’t fault the companies so much. They are doing what they should be doing. Making money wherever they can, sending lobbyists to live lavishly in DC to represent their core interests, to evade taxes as best they can legally. They are winning the policy war in DC.
Mostly it is government failing to assert itself as a balancer of public, private, security, innovation interests. We have a complete failure of political leadership. And while government protectionism of business stymies much of public ability to organize and voice its own opinion (since business employs much of the public), I still do blame at least a little the citizenry for not drawing the line somewhere.
We are just all too busy fighting for our own little Americas, instead of building a new inclusive American Dream. I don’t think any of us were raised to be overtly tribal, but the system rewards those who do.
This is all the prism that the nation sees the #OWS movement through. It’s a depressing state of affairs. People arguing for separation of corporation and state, for denying corporate personhood, for removing private shadow financing of political campaigns, for increased enforcement by government agencies tasked to do what they currently are not doing, for balancing out the business-government-public-media equation so that they are all properly warring against each other. These are not crazy concepts. These systemic problems have been identified and much has been written on the subjects.
I don’t think my point is that everyone must participate in #OWS, but that those who don’t should not condemn it or dismiss it, for whatever reason. It has fringe. Yes, of course. Everything inclusive has fringe. Fellow Americans are taking part and we owe it to ourselves to understand it. We owe it to ourselves to care about SOMETHING in this life outside of ourselves and the kids, products, whatever we leave behind. How sad is it to see our best and brightest, our graduate students and creatives and intellectuals, saying they are “tired of protest” or “don’t think anything will change”? Have they given up on life already? Don’t we want to see our children be proud of what we have accomplished as human beings? I want my kids to look at me as someone who gave a shit about something and stuck to it. Or, to be, as Bill the Butcher says, “the only man I ever killed worth remembering.”
So here’s a challenge I guess. Who do you want to end up being? Will you end up defending your own interests at the expense of a majority’s? What is going to end up being so important to you that you will do dumb things and sacrifice your time and humiliate yourself for, just because you believe in it? And do you want to be the kind of person who puts down the beliefs of others? Will you try to work with them to build something better? Or will you keep your head down? Are you your fucking khakis?
A final note. Our guest speaker, Frank Migliorelli, an ITP alumnus from way back, was a great speaker, the kind of person you want to work with. All the junky debate and politicking that people get engaged in melts away when around someone like this. He’s passionate about education, about the opportunities and cool new niches that one could do the next project in. You forget about all the other stuff and you just want to make cool things. I’m happy that he ended the class on a good note, and I hope that he and others like him win the good fight.
For this week’s Applications class, the group projects discussed Margaret Gould-Stewart‘s lecture last week on collaboration and not being an ass. I thought Justin made a good contrarian point that people should not be so nice to each other at the expense of pushing for great ideas and doing really bold artwork. I thought this was poignant because it seems to me like there have been places in history where one after another great artists have come from, and they very often hate or at the very least compete against each other. That edge made everyone stronger and forced them to be bolder, even if it made for a meaner environment. Then you have environments like this week’s speaker, Mike Hawley, talked about, like Bell Labs, which he forlornly said was a great, collaborative, unique research lab that was broken up before its time by the courts. Maybe there’s no rule to being competitive versus being collaborative. Maybe some people need either, or both, at varying times.
What I think through my own experience is that it’s great to have a strong team, but the team members have to be allowed to play to their own strengths. More importantly, shit needs to get done. One of the things I hate most is worrying about whether someone else will get his shit done or not. When you find people who can execute, they are more than worth it, even if they don’t get it exactly right. Things can be fixed later, within reason, but people who dawdle make everyone else suffer, waiting on them to finish their work. This might be reinforced by the current argument for development, which is “release early, iterate often”.
The other thought I had with regards to the group projects was that I don’t really mind if someone is an “ass” as long as he’s being an ass for a reason. Is he being mean and arrogant and an asshole because he’s challenging people to do better work, because he knows they can? Is he giving people an opportunity to try harder and to improve, or is he just taking away their self-respect and dignity? I never minded being yelled at by drill sergeants or sergeants in the military, as long as I trusted that they knew better than I did and were trying to instill something in or teach something to me. Humans really need to be pushed pretty hard to be the best they can be, and hopefully enough of them will eventually take the ball and start pushing themselves harder than anyone else ever could.
So our guest speaker last night was Mike Hawley, who worked at the MIT Media Lab, NeXT, Apple, and LucasFilm, and who has the ear of key players in business and government. He really is a badass Renaissance Man. What struck me about him was that he was really zeroing in on America’s priorities while understanding how Congress won’t fund anything, and while figuring out where the greatest risk/reward is. For instance, he was interested in getting our feedback on how to revitalize libraries, since his friend, Tony Marx (a rival Princeton Woodrow Wilson grad), the president of the New York Public Library, is meeting with President Obama today. How can libraries be streamlined for the digital present, while still maintaining that key sense of community and place for knowledge that it has always been? He was also interested in electric cars that would obsolete human driving as well as reduce car accidents, which are the number one cause of death for Americans under 35. These are crucial considerations for what America wants to be in the future.
Hawley is also fantastic at distilling the key points of audience questions into their key components, which is something many speakers can’t do. Clearly the man is brilliant, and has been mentored by some of the best American minds in history. He makes the Q&A part of lectures actually MORE exciting — usually I want to walk out once a speaker’s done. Plus my fellow classmates are actually quite insightful and aren’t pushing some pet cause they have, which was often a part of many Q&As I went to while in Washington DC (where almost everyone has an agenda).
One thing is that he clearly sees technical solutions as catch-alls. When asked about cultural differences affecting the success of autonomous cars, he essentially argued that it was just a coding/design issue to remove any possible flaws in the code. But how will you ever get a perfect system for driving? There will always be human drivers to some degree, even if just a few in a mostly computer-driven road system. What if cars could be hacked into, or if they go haywire? You can’t have a perfect system, and it’s true that some cultures will take to the technology different than others. But the key points remain: car accidents are a massively undervalued problem, and even some form of computer-assisted driving would solve all sorts of follow-on problems (e.g. congestion, safety, free time for working, reliance on gasoline, etc.).
The main thing I took out of Hawley’s visit was that I hope that more Americans like him have the ear of our senior leaders for envisioning how great America could be in the future. I also hope to be one of those Americans who contribute as much as he has, one day.
We live within a culture where negative feedback is purposefully avoided. You can’t “dislike” on Facebook, you can only “+1” on Google+. Yelp was rumored to have strong-armed companies into paying to get rid of bad reviews. Online sites like Consumerist are attacked by businesses who claim they’re unfair. Most companies purposefully hide their contact numbers on their sites so you can’t easily call them (because if you’re calling, you probably have a problem with them!), you can’t cancel service on a web site and usually have to call, people avoid conflict and argument, companies set up complex levels of firewalls to prevent angry customers from getting anywhere, etc.
It goes further. The world’s standard for measuring national improvement is Gross Domestic Product, which only tracks consumption in a very crude way. Simon Kuznets, one of the architects of the GNP metric, admitted, “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income… Goals for “more” growth should specify of what and for what.” But this forewarning was ignored. If someone gets cancer and has to purchase a bunch of equipment and pills and spend money in the hospital, this is counted as a net positive for society because of the purchases, even if all these resources are being spent on one person who is unable to contribute to society while sick. The U.S. government (!) is protesting credit rating agencies’ assessment of its indebtedness, where both the U.S. government has been profligate and the agencies have been corrupt in currying favor with the U.S. one moment and then trashing it the next.
The stock market, currently in shambles within the last few weeks, has scared nations yet again after a shock only three years ago. Predictably, the Greek government, which has watched its economy grind to a halt and reach almost-default levels, has decided to ban short-selling of stocks for two months. This is essentially an ideological move. Short-selling, where you make money by betting on a stock going DOWN, not up, has always been seen by non-market people as, in varying degrees, dastardly, unpatriotic, illegal, and even dangerous. It’s that last point regulators focus on. They believe that short sales by people who hate a company can drive a stock to zero. Meanwhile, market folks know that short selling actually adds more transparency, information, and support to stock prices, because there will be pressures pushing the stocks both up AND down, and not just up. The problem in a market without short sellers is that without them, when buyers disappear, prices collapse completely. No short sellers would be covering their positions.
And this says something else about markets. Very few people actually understand how they work. Virtually all the mainstream articles being written about the latest downturn are just flat out WRONG. You’ll get guys like this, who tell you to stay in the market so you don’t risk the upside (again, it’s always about things going up). He goes on in another piece to say that Wall Street is irrelevant! The Daily Beast, usually a pretty savvy digest of the most important stories, has turned to mush when it comes to the markets. Otherwise very intelligent people I follow online also have very flawed notions of how the markets work. The lack of economic understanding is frightening when you consider that these people probably know a little bit more than the politicians elected to vote on policy for government role in the economy.
I’d prefer to read people like George Friedman, who emphasizes that it is not just economy, but political economy, that we must talk about. Politics and the relations between power groups affects most of the dynamics in our lives, and we cannot act like the economy is some neutral entity that is impervious to human mistakes and designs. The “economy” is intimately wrapped within the designs of men.
I had to quit watching the daytrading IRC channels because even those high-frequency traders had what was basically a cynical Ayn Rand-ish slash Gordon Gekko slash Snake Plissken view of the world where you’re only successful if you cut others’ throats to get to where you are. Their adaptability to changing market conditions was highly questionable. Basic economic principles were ignored. But hey, they made good money so I can’t complain too much.
I would agree with Richard Florida (PDF), Umair Haque, Tim O’Reilly, and some others that we are in the very early, ugly stages of a transition to an eudaimonia society, from a purely consumerist society. I believe that we need to be able to take an honest look at how our society is structured and allow for more negativity in our metrics. We need to develop the capacity to take criticism, to be voted down, to be shamed when we do things that are wrong (a concept crudely and devastatingly wielded mostly by religion), to take a more holistic look at everything impacting our lives. Pure revenue should mean less if it comes at the cost of environmental degradation, pollution, lack of time at home raising families, lack of sleep, abuse from employers or manipulation from unions, etc.
Eudaimonia is a term fit only for us classicists, but @umairh's concept of the economics of the good life is spot on http://bit.ly/l25koR
“I believe the quantum leap from opulence to eudaimonia is going to be the biggest, most significant economic shift of the next decade, and perhaps beyond: of our lifetimes. We’re not just on the cusp of, but smack in the middle of nothing less than a series of revolutions, aimed squarely at the trembling status quo (financial, political, social): new values, mindsets, and behaviors, fundamentally redesigned political, social, economic, and financial institutions; nothing less than reweaving the warp and weft of not just the way we live–but why we live, work, and play.”
The goal is for people to be able to pursue middle-class professions in fields that they are talented at, to unlock their creative potential, instead of shoe-horning people into certain professions if they want to live any kind of decent lives for themselves. The goal is for people to have a successful career but also a family to raise, a community to participate in, and a healthy life. The way society is constructed now, as I’ve said before, is a zero-sum kind of get-rich-or-die-tryin’ mentality where everyone is incentivized to fuck everyone else over, at least until one becomes wealthy enough to think about maybe working on philantropy for others.
These indicators are far more in line with how we actually consider the world subjectively. They capture our concerns, worries, and understanding of how much we feel safe living in our communities. But all of the factors are ignored in the top-line metrics that we use.
Which is sad because we live in an era now of big data. The top quants in the nation are working in finance, insurance, computer science, crypto. Yet the metrics we use for our own well-being and happiness are crude “neutral” measurements from another century.
The above chart shows the disparity between how the U.S. economy is measured through GDP versus how it is in actuality. In short, we have hit a plateau in our quality of life for almost 60 years, while our GDP measurement seems to indicate we’re much “richer” per capita. It coincides with increasing income inequality, measured through the Gini coefficient:
They show that our society as a whole probably peaked in overall access to happiness somewhere in 1968.
In short, we have insulated ourselves from seeing the negative aspects of our society. Amartya Sen calls this phenomenon “hedonic opulence”, Anielski calls it “chrematistics”, Clive Hamilton calls it “affluenza”. We believe that we can grow our way out of poverty, that if we have enough positives in a society, that we can just overwhelm the negatives. But the truth is that the negatives impact the bottom line of growth and positivity. A community full of pollution and crime will stop creative processes from flourishing there. A sick populace will be less productive at work, impacting overall economic success.
“Too much and too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product [GNP]… – if we should judge America by that – …counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities…. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
This is why I want to work on Galapag.us as my life project. It is an ecosystem for reputation. All the things you’ve worked on in your life are aggregated into metrics of your own design. The most popular metrics (say, success at being a contributor to your community, looking at data such as your volunteer work, church life, money donated, time spent tutoring other people or children, household income, trustworthiness, crime record, etc.) would be voted up to the top. We would not be constrained to just GDP. We could build our own metrics. Then those local, individual metrics could be aggregated for county level, state level, all the way up to national level. The data is anonymized as it is grouped, or, if you choose, fully identifiable and open if you are an open person.
The imperative, though, must be on more transparency and accountability. If we as individuals can’t handle being criticized publicly, then we can’t expect things to improve at higher levels of organization. Being criticized is not always a bad thing. If the criticism is fair, you should improve yourself with it. If it is unfair, your detractor should be penalized for making false statements. We do not have this kind of global feedback system in place. We are victim to flash mobs, anonymous attackers, stalkers, people who suffer no negative feedback from their actions. Galapag.us would fill this hole in the internet’s identity layer while still providing degrees of anonymity, pseudonymity, and identity.
Daniel Suarez’s seminal but overlooked books, Daemon and Freedom (TM), suggest deprogramming the “Non-Player Character”/NPC dynamic of being trapped within a world of simplistic metrics (the quotes below are from Freedom (TM):
“What do we look like to a computer algorithm, Sergeant? Because it will be computer algorithms that make life-changing decisions about these people based on this data. How about credit worthiness—as decided by some arbitrary algorithm no one has a right to question?”
“Imagine how easily you could change the course of someone’s life by changing this data? But that’s control, isn’t it? In fact, you don’t even need to be human to exert power over these people. That’s why the Daemon spread so fast.”
Suarez’s books propose that darknet hacker communities will spring up in the rural areas, away from legal restraints and the encroachment of lawyers, corporations, and other barriers to entry, creating more balanced, sustainable, networked communities for people to be rewarded at their individual trades by leveling up in the darknet world and then using darknet credits to earn a reputation and a living.
“Holons are the geographic structure of the darknet. Any darknet community lies at the center of an economic radius of one hundred miles for its key inputs and outputs—food, energy, health care, and building materials. Balancing inputs and outputs within that circle is the goal. A local economy that’s as self-sufficient as possible while still being part of a cultural whole—a holon—thus creating a resilient civilization that has no central points of failure. And which through its very structure promotes democracy. That’s what we’re doing here, Sergeant.”
“The Daemon financed this.” Sebeck turned to her. “Didn’t it?” “The Daemon’s economy is powered by darknet credits, Sergeant. Imaginary credits are all that money is.” “But there’s a theft at the heart of it.” She thought about it and nodded slightly. “Yes, the darknet economy was seeded by real world wealth. Wealth that was questionable in origin to begin with. Here, it’s being invested in people and projects that have begun to return value—not in dollars, but in things of intrinsic human worth. Energy, information, food, shelter.”
There are ways out of the messes we’re in, but most people see them as unconnected issues. But personally I see it as symptomatic of an entire society’s failure to examine itself. Gnowthi seauton. Jared Diamond-type stuff. Granted, it would be a LOT to expect humankind to be able to look at itself honestly, for humans always hope to avoid the negative and only see the good in the things they believe in, but this would be one of those points where one would hope that our civic leaders and politicians would be required to study — and therefore detect — such policy/societal failures and properly diagnose them.
Unfortunately, that is not the ruling class that we have, and we are not likely to correct these systems until an alternative system is built. Those who make money under the current system will resist, but even politicians go along with something when it’s shown to be successful. Hopefully for me it would be something like Galapag.us, but I would accept any attempts.
The only way to change our systematic problems is to build our own alternative.
I just left my old job, which was to read endless open-source articles online in the mainstream, on blogs, on Twitter, in discussion forums, whatever.
One thing that was awesome about the job was learning how the news cycle works. You’re able to see how stories develop and how they take hold on the public. You’re able to see how the news is manipulated. You can see who finds stuff first, who curates the news best, who is always late to the party, who gets things wrong consistently over time. Most excitingly, you see how much crowdsourcing is contributing to the news cycle now.
Being an international relations (IR) wonk, then, what I crave when I’m looking for news is an inside scoop from people who are close to those who affect events. By the time it reaches the major newspapers, it’s not much of a story anymore. Although the New York Times is still the absolute best when it comes to learning about why a story is important. Some people like to read stuff like Before It’s News but they have too much user-submitted garbage. I’ve found that 4chan and reddit catch stuff the fastest most often these days. Huffington Post usually almost always has the most discussion about a topic but can have some pretty stupid comments.
This is where the NYT develops on-going stories. They have a ton of blogs for different topics but this one deals with whatever the big stories are, along with added social media, discussion, and NYT’s superior curated commenting system.
AOL apparently hired a lot of freelancers to write up news, and I have to say they’re a pretty reliable crew at finding more context at reporting under-rated news stories that are being talked about a lot but don’t respond to specific news events.
This blog is supposedly made up of a group of anonymous folks reporting from Mexico — while Mexican newspapers usually get the initial stories out quick, Borderland Beat usually follows up later with (very gruesome) photos and more context into what’s actually going on in the massive gun battles and violence between drug cartels in Mexico and the Mexican security forces. This is probably the #1 story not being represented well enough in the US. Borderland Beat makes sure it’s right in your face.
Sign up for the newsletter. FP’s has gotten too long. This one gives you the key headlines and important blurbs for the top 5 stories their editor has chosen (which I often concur with). Love reading this right as I get up every morning. Always feel prepared for the whole news day after quickly scanning this.
Looks at demographics and geopolitics to determine outcomes. Sees Japan, Turkey, and Mexico as the US’s looming IR challenges. Sees immigration and Mexico border as key US priorities. What I like best, but most people think is silly, is his extrapolating of future warfare: American battle stars, robot swarms, control of space and communications.
Huntington is a mensch in IR. This book argues that democratization has occurred in 3 waves so far, and even hints that we may be in a retrenching right now (each wave has an anti-wave). I read this book for my comparative democratization class, which was awesome.
Baer argues that Iran has been building up its regional power and, after the US unleashed the Shi’ites within Iraq, now has growing influence over the Arabian/Persian Gulf, the Gulf states, Iraq, and its borders with Afghanistan. Which, as we fight Sunni extremists, makes one wonder, why aren’t we working WITH Iran?
Mead counters the idea that America has had a very immature history in its foreign relations. One of the best books I never had to read for any class (but others had it assigned), it helps you see American IR in terms of American schools of thought: Jeffersonians (limited govt, more isolationist), Hamiltonians (free trade), Wilsonians (activist, progressive involvement abroad for high ideals), and Jacksonians (war hawks, fiercely nationalistic). I swear you won’t see the US the same after this book.
Bacevich addresses three concerns: American fiscal profligacy (massive budget deficits), the “voluntary” military that detaches the public from civic responsibility, and weak leadership where each President has decided not to tackle the hard issues and instead continues our spending binge (Carter being the closest to address it, but being smacked down hard, as Reagan’s election showed). Depressing book. Is the fable of American leadership just a myth?
Klein argues that the west has used the shock doctrine as a new form of exploiting weaker countries by privatizing public institutions and starving funding, and by using Washington Consensus monetary policies as bailouts in economies under attack, so that privatized systems can be put in their place afterwards.
Mandelbaum argues that the US offers the world a public good — international defense — and so therefore complaints about its military spending and presence worldwide are overlooking the benefits gained from having the US control most international waters, global trade, and currency.
Khanna graduated from Georgetown’s Security Studies Program. I think some of his analyses are breezy, but I like that he gives a quick glimpse at all the bigger second-world countries that most people overlook but have the potential to affect regional behaviors.
Know how some RSS feeds only display a blurb from their updates? WizardRSS gives you a feed URL with the full bodies of updates. Thank God. And you are using Google Reader, right? Please say yes.
A lot of the above is influenced (if not published) by the Council on Foreign Relations. That may introduce significant bias but they are also heavyweights of serious (and in my opinion, balanced) IR thought.
I will add more stuff to this post as I find it, and I’m of course curious to hear what you’d recommend!
Walking the walk has become a core lesson learned for me. I’ve tried to live an adult life of walking the walk instead of talking the talk. When I was a suburban, socially disconnected kid, I spent most of my time on early BBCs, gaming networks, and the internet posing as a normal adult because that was the only way I could fit in. As I got older, I actually was a normal adult, but I still felt left out. It wasn’t until I joined the Army that I began to understand how important it is to be a member of a community and to “know” what it is to be in a community.
Since then I have moved on from the Army and intelligence community, although I still keep in touch with people there, and can spot those types instantly from a crowd. I went and joined another community, the Georgetown community, and, with more time, became a tangential member of the DC community. Those people have their own customs, rituals, schedules, and uniforms. In many ways, DC people are not unlike military people: long hours, dedication towards greater purposes, responsibility, discipline.
My infatuation with starting a company has continued to grow. But I’ve found just how incompatible the DC community is with social entrepreneurship in my area, online stuff. While there are a lot of initiatives in DC, partly because of cloud computing, cheap CPU cycles, and Obama’s initiatives to drag the government into the present, you can sum up most early pitches in DC this way:
"Looking for Full-Time Coder for DC Start-Up"
It’s funny because in DC, you can stop anyone on the street and they will be some high-level program manager or policy wonk interested in federal-level funding and grant-making for this or some other project. But when it comes to finding people to implement all these plans and programs in a tangible way, the pool is thin.
Contrast this with stories from Silicon Valley, which is continuously castigated for building only incremental improvements to useless features. One-hit non-wonders. Things that make a prettier gadget abusing a Google Calendar API. Or making a more hipsterish movie review site.
So DC is great, important ideas in search of engineers, while Silicon Valley is talented engineers in search of serious projects.
If I had my way, I would found an engineering school in DC, and feed students into the projects that DC is dying to implement. Instead of relying solely on schools like Stanford, Berkeley, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon, DC should have some sort of computer science/social entrepreneurship program.
It might even need a broader project than that. I often think about the short booklet I read from SnarkMarket called the “New Liberal Arts”. The booklet proposes a new curriculum for students to learn applicable skills to our digital world: attention economics, coding and decoding, finding, food, home economics, inaccuracy, iteration, journalism, mapping, marketing, micropolitics, myth and magic, negotiation, play, and video literacy, among others.
I’ve found through my job, which involves me reading pretty much as much as I can that comes across the web daily, that so many people are lacking in fundamental skills to interpret their world. They do not know how to parse a story to see a particular agency’s bias, or to see which facts are actually facts and which were selectively chosen for inclusion. The ability to figure out important data from unimportant data is also woefully lacking. There is so much fluff in the world, in the form of excess meetings, long and boring Powerpoint decks, redundant employees, stifling bureaucracy, that it seems like a system built more to protect constituencies than to be lean and efficient.
“Sir Tim told BBC News that there needed to be new systems that would give websites a label for trustworthiness once they had been proved reliable sources.
“”On the web the thinking of cults can spread very rapidly and suddenly a cult which was 12 people who had some deep personal issues suddenly find a formula which is very believable,” he said. “A sort of conspiracy theory of sorts and which you can imagine spreading to thousands of people and being deeply damaging.””
Students do not know how to build the things they study. The top jobs are going towards lawyers and businessmen, but their studies are so abstracted from anything concrete that it’s all just theoretical to them. The culture of hacking, where you sit down quickly and prototype things with simple building blocks, does not exist in most bureaucracies, and it’s certainly bred out of children by the time they reach high school. The only escape for natural hackers has been the internet and for people who live out in the country and are exposed to working with their hands with minimal supervision.
Everyone has great ideas, but few have the know-how to implement or even prototype them. Which means the ideas die. Few are part of the appropriate communities to make things happen, either.
That is. I learned in the Army that if you’re not in the military, you have no clue what military culture is like. Military bases are usually separated from the rest of the American fabric, in small towns that exist only because of the base. Veterans and their family members live in a separate world. Thus to hear people talk about the military without never having been close to it is so hard to swallow. Likewise, I just became a full Catholic, during a publicized, grueling, disgusting scandal of pedophilia within the Catholic bishopry. (Indeed, before the Easter Vigil before my baptism began, I stood outside the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle and some guy in flipflops walking his dog tried to cut through our preparatory line and said, “Excuse me, child molesters”, as he walked through. What, so all Catholics are child molesters? Have we reached this level of disdain for strangers we meet in the world?)
My more agnostic and atheist friends ask me why I would join the Church, knowing about all this. Again, a Catholic within the Church would not ask. A religious person would not need to ask. Churches, despite being so numerous, and religious folk, despite being a clear majority in the US and in the world, exist in a separate world than the rest. Put a pastor next to a programmer and I’m sure you’ll rarely see such polar opposites.
So I’ve been in some pretty disconnected communities. Would that make me a crypto-first-world-urban anthropologist?
I was actually fortunate enough to have a Mac Plus and subsequent Apple products (even the Newton) because my dad would get them as part of his professor’s grant. And I remember learning Logo and Pascal in school, while playing with BASIC at home (typing in those programs out of books and then running them). As I got older, I wished badly to be able to speak in different human languages. I wondered why I couldn’t have known French or Spanish while a lot of people I knew were multi-lingual. When I became an Arabic linguist in the Army, I really lamented it.
But since then, as the internet has exploded, English has become a comfortable lingua franca for me, and what has become far more important to me is computer language. Why couldn’t I have become a god at C++ or Java? Would I need to have gone into CS in school to do that? Would that have doomed me to a linear career? I’ve picked up PHP inasmuch as I need it to prototype and build stuff online — I guess it’s no accident I spent time learning PHP since it’s so easy to build out online.
One article I read recently from RSA, talked about employing the human “third drive”, which roughly coincides with Maslow’s higher levels of human needs. The article claims that carrots and sticks at work is rarely effective and sometimes harmful. Management leads to compliance only, in many cases, as rigid hierarchy means people are only ultimately going to care about their own lane and not take on extra work, which may get them in trouble.
It’s tough because in any organization, the top people may not be the best people to “start” a project. Someone at the lowest level of an organization may have figured out what the organization needs in order to improve, but the authorization and legitimacy bestowed upon that person does not exist. Thus the idea will never see the light of the day. The higher up on the food chain, the less likely the people will be to possess skills needed to prototype. I think this is why I’m so preferential towards organizations that hire strictly engineers and people with serious experience — they were at that lowest level once, and knew the pitfalls invisible to the highest people.
At The Future of Web Design conference in Miami a couple years ago, and with a recent NYTimes article, people have begged for more women in computer science. I’m beginning to wonder if my above hypothesis, that there’s a disconnect between the cultural maps of doers/searchers vs. planners, holds true for women too. DC is interesting because it’s known as the WORST city in the world for single women to find a mate, because women here are so highly-educated and well-off, while outnumbering men.
Do women fall into communities and roles that by their nature seek to improve the human condition and standard of living? Would it be fair to say that while men have sought power in DC, women have sought to use social institutions to improve human lives? Could one say that women have not been as interested in hacking, which in many ways is a very solitary, almost autistic profession, and have sought instead positions that are more socially networked and responsible and creative?
Would there be more female hackers, and hackers in general, in DC if an institution existed to encourage computer science in a town that’s so heavily geared towards policymaking? I am beginning to think so. How can we link together the separate groups of engineers and policymakers/changemakers?
In a broader sense, shouldn’t America, which likes to see itself as a greasy-knuckles, hard-working blue-collar country (despite being the richest and fattest), find in itself a core value of walking the walk? After all, we used to subscribe to walking softly but carrying a big stick. We have imposing science, nuclear, and military programs. We were great because we had substance and experience unmatched elsewhere in the world. It is not like now, where what we value are lawyers who can argue any case as long as they’re paid well enough, or bankers who can innovate money out of our pockets while underlying assets remain unchanged in value, or businessmen who spend their lives adjusting reports while barely understanding the very product or service they sell. That is all image, abstracted away from the core economic and power realpolitik.
I just finished watching Season 4 of The Wire, which brings in the new component of Baltimore life, the public school system. What struck me was the experimental pilot program to remove the problem kids from the general population and try to socialize them, since they were all training to be “corner kids” and learning that school was just a safe zone to learn how to test rules and adults.
Are we preparing people to live and work in the world we now and will live in?
Can we move away from a culture of FOXNews, with its chickenhawk lawyers who rattle their swords on patriotism, love for the military, and mercantilist realpolitik but who consistently seem to have absolutely no experience in anything except morning zoo drive DJs, sportscasting, lawyerships, working for conservative thinktanks, etc.? Can we move away from seeking advice on small business and policymaking from people who have never started a business or who make fun of community organizing?
Can we praise a culture where walking the walk, being a member of a community instead of an outside criticizer and observer, becomes the gold standard?
Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs says that, after working with people who have the dirtiest jobs in America, they’re happier than most people. And they’re getting rich by going where everyone else wasn’t; they’re not following their passion.