Root Cause Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Ben Turner on Tuesday, November 6, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Historical Aside

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vulnerable Surface Area

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

His background:

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

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

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

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

Legit af.

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

Post-Frontier West

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

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

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

What happens next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Patriotism

Okay, so back to defining American patriotism.

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

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

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

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

But would you define American patriotism as selfless service?

Making Sense of It All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Oh Travis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A post shared by Ben Turner (@benghis_khan_turner) on

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

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

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

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

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


Why You Should Love Keanu Reeves for His Acting

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


Let me attempt to convince you otherwise.

Basic Filmography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Outsider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Life-Weary Veteran

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

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

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

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

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

The Humble

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

The Blind Mystic

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

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

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


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

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

The Fellow Sufferer

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

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

Naturally he chose the red pill:

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


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


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

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

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

VR Anticipation, and Oculus Rift vs. Google Glass

I’m not sure if the Rift or Project Morpheus are going to be huge but with the anticipation for their consumer releases, this is probably the first time VR has been really exciting for most geeks.

You can tell how big it’s going to be by the observation that people who try it get lost in it.  They put on the Rift and they emerge from it half an hour or hours later, completely unaware of how long they were wearing it and playing with it.  This is akin to when DOOM first came out (the id Software dudes Michael Abrash and John Carmack are involved in Oculus, so they anticipated that potential too), or Quake multiplayer, or the Civilization games, where you go play a short game and it ends up being 7 hours later and you don’t want to quit.  People will get lost in the rift.

Look at what people have said:

But Iribe couldn’t take his headset off. “Again,” he said, scarcely able to believe what he was asking for. They ran through the entire series once more. Finally Iribe took off the proto­type. His head felt strange—not dizzy, not displaced, but overwhelmed. “How long was I in there?” he asked Abrash and Binstock. It had been close to 45 minutes.

– from Peter Rubin’s Wired article which I’ve reread multiple times now

“Last time I was sick with the flu,” Carmack says, “I just lay in bed and watched VR movies on the ceiling.”

– Peter Rubin, Wired

This is no gimmick. This isn’t like 3D, where the difference to the viewer is a minor one. At worst, VR will be a niche format adopted by a handful of stalwart gamers. At best, we’re witnessing the birth of a significant new medium. Having seen its first baby steps, I want this technology to take giant leaps. I want to get lost in virtual reality. I want real-life Reginald Barclays to emerge just for the science-fictional thrill of it. Holo-addiction? Try Oculust.

Andrew Todd

At my old company, we got to demo an Oculus Rift HD that was displaying a 360-degree view of one of Beck’s concerts:

We took turns trying it out — people would watch for ages while the rest of us anxiously waited for them to be polite and finish.  It’s immersive and you’re so curious you can’t stop looking around.

Just check out the Node Studios guys playing beer pong and goofing around in the rift with a virtual hand interface add-on:

E3 2014

Oculus has had high visibility at the E3 gaming conference in past years — this year was no exception.  The Rift was adapted to the new Aliens game, where you have to stealthily avoid an Alien xenomorph.  The Rift seems perfectly suited to that experience: suspense, surround sound, 1st person.  Another game, Superhot, lets you dodge bullets by moving your head around them, similar to Neo in The Matrix.

When Facebook bought Oculus, I was pretty optimistic about it though I think the majority of people think it’s bad for Oculus’ future.  What I think is most interesting about it all is that it literally took just a little time for Mark Zuckerberg to meet Palmer Luckey (who is pretty goofy himself…) and then want to buy Oculus, even if it’s A) mostly unproven and B) not exactly aligned with Facebook’s core product.

If Facebook and Oculus are going to sell the Rift close to at cost, then perhaps that signifies that Facebook sees Oculus as a potential play to keep its userbase lost in the rift.  Facebook according to most stats is killing any other competitor in user time spent daily, and now it owns at least two of the other major players, WhatsApp and Instagram:

Even if you subtract from that a large portion of mainly mobile users, a rift that people are addicted to would be immensely addictive to people who spend a large part of their day socializing online.

Also we’re not quite at a point where you could serve up a rift off a mobile or even a tablet, but perhaps eventually you could.  I grew up romanticizing Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and William Gibson’s Neuromancer but was always deathly afraid of the almost certain future of Hiro Protagonist going to his rented storage space to zone out in the rift for a day or two.

And that’s another aspect: the popular culture anticipating this kind of timesuck.  Think of TRON:

Or The Matrix, of course:

Johnny Mnemonic:

Pacific Rim’s drifting and neural handshaking:

The book Ready Player One, reinvented as inspiration for this Oculus Rift game:

The implementation I want to see most is from Daniel Suarez’s Daemon, which has a Darknet interfaced via glasses.  The glasses show peoples’ reputations, green paths leading to your location, even a way to perform alchemy on real-world objects and imbue them with special properties in the digital world (a real-world object being a key to somewhere else, for example), or showing what level of a profession someone has reached (so someone might be a level 7 farmer or a level 3 trader).  Those glasses were actually described as being subtle and hard to distinguish from actual glasses so I suppose Suarez saw them as more Glass than Rift (which was what Stephenson’s Metaverse equipment was more like).

The Rift vs. Glass

I see Google Glass as technology affecting culture, in the same way that adding a front-screen camera to the phone led to the phenomenon and official word creation of the selfie.  Glass has challenged accepted normal behavior in public settings: can you be recording in movie theaters, in a locker room, even just in a restaurant?  Are you a Glasshole just because you have the glasses on, even if you’re an experimenting artist or technologist?  Is it even legal to wear Glass to record interactions with police?  So far Glass has been rejected by social norms resoundingly, even amongst those who like the tech, just because it’s been associated with a “Glasshole” culture.

I think of anti-Glassholes as the new digital NIMBYs.  Digital NIMBYs are not, say, old folks who don’t like any new technology or who don’t think there’s a use for it.  Digital NIMBYs are actually fairly savvy with tech, having grown up with it, but they want to control their environment and the tech that exists within it to the extent that they believe they should dictate norms to others.  People who are proud to not have a TV, people who object to any cellphone use at all among others, people who want you to leave your cellphone with the others at the door, people who aren’t web developers but still scoff at IE users, that sort of thing.  Digitally savvy but not technically savvy.  Digerati, nimbies, whatever you want to call them.  They’re insufferable and they think they dictate tech culture.

But anyway Glass does bring about problems with cultural norms regarding eyesight.  We are told not to even look at others: homeless, children, people whose business isn’t yours, etc.  But Glass provides a possibility to record even a passing glance for future memory viewing.  This changes the whole security through obfuscation dynamic — instead of briefly viewing something with your eyes that you’ll soon forget, now every glance can be permanent.  That makes eyesight into a weapon in the same way that guys might ogle girls on the street.

Contrast with the Rift.  So far, the Rift looks almost comical to people not using it.  Someone has a Rift on and is cocking his head around and leaning about and looking behind himself, all with the headset on.  Most importantly and humorously, his eyesight is blocked and he can’t see what is actually going on around him.  Most importantly, he has become a complete non-threat to those around him, almost like a prisoner, without eyesight.  There’s no Rift asshole phenomenon yet, and I guess it’s because no one perceives a Rift user as a threat.

I imagine Oculus wants to enable some awareness for the user:

Oculus is also working on a second, outward-­facing camera that will be part of the headset itself. The Valve proto­type used such a camera to read fiducial markers on the walls for tracking, but Oculus seems to intend it for very different applications. For one, Carmack says, it can function as a pass-through camera, allowing Rift-wearing users to see what’s happening in the real world—a kind of external heads-up display that would allow you to grab a soda, for instance.

– from the Wired article

But I do think it’s interesting how eyesight augmentation between Glass and the Rift is perceived so much differently.  I’m anticipating consumer VR will lead to similar advancements in digital culture, and it seems like it will finally come soon.

P.S. As an aside, why is Keanu Reeves in two of these VR films?  Well, as you may know, I think Keanu Reeves is awesome, and I recently watched two of his latest films, 47 Ronin and Man of Tai Chi — I think he tends to enjoy roles where he’s cast as the outsider to a foreign world, with himself as the bridge hybrid (him being like a halfie, like me) between two worlds.  He’s played this role in at least: Dracula, 47 Ronin, The Matrix, Parenthood, Constantine, The Devil’s Advocate, The Replacements, and of course, Point Break.  Anyway, just a theory.

Newslint: My Project to Supplement Media Literacy

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

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

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


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

How It Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

swears = [
partisan_words = [
 re.compile('obama[ -]?care'),
 'death panel',
 'sarah palin',
 'ron paul',
 'rand paul',
 'john bolton',
 'alex jones',
 'martin bashir',
 'karl rove',
 re.compile('police[ -]?state'),
 re.compile('fly-?over state'),
pundit_words = [
 re.compile('(?:thomas|tom) friedman'),
 'ayn rand',
 'john galt',
 'jesse jackson',
 'gold standard',
 'rand paul',
 'ron paul',
 'glenn beck',
 'huffington[ ]*post',
 'fox[ ]*news',
 'david brooks',
 'john bolton',
 'michael hayden',
 'alex jones',
 'chris matthews',
 'martin bashir',
 'sarah palin',
 'ezra klein',
 'evgeny morozov',
 'karl rove',
 re.compile('chris(?:topher|) hayes')
rag_words = [
 re.compile('the blaze'),
 re.compile('huffington[ ]?post'),
 re.compile('fox[ ]?news'),
 re.compile('drudge[ ]?report')
sensationalism_words = [
 re.compile('tears? apart'),
 re.compile('brown[- ]?shirt'),
 re.compile('game[- ]?chang(?:e|ing)'),
 re.compile('cutting[- ]?edge'),
 re.compile('bleeding[- ]?edge'),
 re.compile('fema[ ]?trailer'),
 re.compile('chem[ ]?trails'),
 'false flag',
 re.compile('meme[- ]?wrangl(?:ing|e)'),
 'the establishment',
 'police state',

And Now, the Tech Details

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Nature of Code Final: Genetic Crossings

Professor Daniel Shiffman’s Nature of Code is outstanding.  Just check out the syllabus. And play with the Nature of Code repo Processing sketches hosted on Github. And be sure to get his book when it comes out! We covered some basic algorithms for simulating inside the Processing environment vectors and forces/repellers, genetical algorithms, Wolfram cellular automata, neural networks, autonomous agents, flocking behavior, particle systems.


For me, the pull towards genetic algorithms, heredity, fitness, evolution, Punnett squares, etc. was great, so my project for my first intro to computational media class turned into my Nature of Code final.


My Genetic Crossings project attempts to create a simulated environment where people exist within a world connected to God, the peoples’ religions, their nationalities, and each other.  They produce offspring based on characteristic attraction rules (for my demo I only used “appearance”, “money”, and “religion”, but only to demonstrate what was possible –I would like to create a more fully-formed algorithm for my personal reputation/identity ecosystem to approximate and adjust to the infinite ways that people become attracted to each other and become married or have children or devote themselves to the other), and they can die.  Their well-being or happiness (what in will be eudaimonia) is dependent on their quality of living within their religions and nations.

Map View

A video from an older version:

See previous documentation on this project:


Here are the initial characteristics I created for each person.  There are so many more yet to add! Strength, intelligence, wisdom, charisma, stamina, wit, humor, education, creativity, responsibility, discipline, honesty, religiosity, entrepreneurialism, appearance, money, gracefulness, stress, health, luck, talent_math, talent_art, talent_sports.

Initial nationalities/regions: USA, China, EU, Africa, South America.  Characteristics of security, innovation, job opportunity, immigration policy, life expectancy, education, sanitation, standard of living, pollution, biodiversity, crime, political freedom, and nutrition.  By no means comprehensive.

Initial religions/spiritualities: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism.  With characteristics of commercialism, morality, hierarchy, portability.  Obviously these need some tightening up/additions/discarding.

Final Project

So in my midterm I managed to add Verlet 2D physics to the sketch so that people, nations, and religions have connections to each other which make them bounce around like they’re on springs, relative to their attractions and strength of ties to each other.

In my final proposal, I sought to add the following:

  1. Wolfram cellular automata
  2. Connect to external database
  3. A selection algorithm to choose certain parts from parents based on mutation rate and fitness to pass along to new offspring
  4. Interaction sliders to change variables
  5. Macro events that affect well-being of all objects in the world, such as earthquakes or war
  6. Micro events that affect individual well-being, like rites of passage
  7. Discrete clusters of people, mostly based on familial strength of ties, instead of one big clump of people in the middle like in my midterm


I managed to get most of this done.

I enjoyed adding Wolfram CA.  I wrote a node.js app for express which would act as a JSON middleman between my main genetic crossings sketch and a wolfram sketch.  Basically, when viewing the chromosomal stainings (genotypes), you can click on the CA button to the left of a person’s staining, and this will pass a JSON object (using Prof. John Schimmel’s Processing-Nodejs code) to the node server, which is detected within 5 seconds by a polling timer within the wolfram sketch.  The wolfram sketch then uses the JSON object as its data to apply rules to to construct a pattern unique to the selected person’s genetic characteristic code.

1) I added a third parameter to the rules which would display as either black or aqua, depending on the CA rules.  Prof. Shiffman’s code used base-2 groups of 3, which had 2^3, or 8 total possible combinations (using only the digits 0 and 1), but I used base-3 (0 = white, 1 = black, 2 = aqua), so it became 3^3, or 27 possible combinations.  For this ruleset, I duplicated Wolfram rule 90 three times, then added a few extra codes.  The triangular look seemed the most visually interesting for what I was doing.  Anyway, what was cool about Prof. Shiffman’s code was that it keeps streaming the pattern from bottom to top.  So when a new person is clicked on, that person’s signature is integrated into the flow seamlessly once the sketch loads the JSON off the node server.  I don’t know that any of this actually is useful except that it looks cool and uses principles from class and maybe, just maybe, shows someone’s digital characteristic “signature”.

Streaming Wolfram CA on top of Processing sketch code. Console of Processing shows a passed JSON object.

2) I’m happy I was able to set up a MongoDB to be accessed via node as well as by my Processing sketches.  When I build out, I’ll be able to pump out JSON objects of actual users into these sketches for data visualization.  I’d been wanting to do this since my first semester and now it’s done.  Most credit goes to John Schimmel though for writing the hook into node though!

node.js instance output including passed JSON object

3) I realized that I already had some mutation within my function, once the two parents’ characteristics were passed to a matingDance.punnettSquare() function.  Before, the function would just average the two parents’ characteristic values together and then add or subtract a random amount from them for mutation.  What I changed was making the function choose randomly from either parent’s base characteristic.  So if one parent had 10, and the other had 1, the result would not be 5 (rough average) but either 1 or 10.  Then I would offset a random amount (hardcoded as 4) if mutation kicked in (if a random number between 0 and 50 was less than 2, for approximately a 1 in 25 chance of mutation per characteristic).  What this ended up doing was increase the diversity within the genepool and more accurately reflect reproduction.  I still need to tweak these numbers to get more consistent levels of variety but the algorithm is mostly there.

Here’s a view of the chromosomal stainings before I changed the algorithm — here it averaged the parents’ traits, which, in the case of this sketch’s iteration’s octomom, created many extremely similar offspring:


And here’s the view after picking from either parent and allowing for a slim chance of mutation:


I feel as though the end result has a more diversified population with more variability between generations and individuals.  I need to tweak this so that if the value from a parent is at 1 or 10, it may mutate in only one direction, but here’s the matingDance.punnettSquare() function:

int punnettSquare(int comp1, int comp2) {
    int mutation = (int)random(0, 50);
    int dominance = floor(random(0, 1.99));
    int crossover = 0;
    if (dominance == 0) {
      crossover = comp1;
    else {
      crossover = comp2;
    if (mutation < 2) {
      crossover += (int)random(-4, 4);
    // don't want it to be out of bounds
    // TODO: fix so it can mutate only one way if parent is 1 or 10
    if (crossover < 1) { crossover = 1; } else if (crossover > 10) { crossover = 10; }
    return crossover;

4) I didn’t add sliders to change variables mid-sketch — at this point I can use variables pre-set in the main class but I’d like to make the interface more user-friendly and interactive later.

5 and 6) I didn’t do macro and micro events because I figured they’d just require making a button that, when pressed, would cause particles’ values to change.  What would be interesting would be to have random events happen based on their likelihood to occur and then some events would have permanent effects (damage to peoples’ personalities) or temporary effects (nationalities’ well-being that would later recover).  This kind of introduces the possibility for individual peoples’ health and whether they have injuries/disabilities/diseases/gifts/talents.

I did add a Ritual class though, which only includes right now a funeral function.  When funerals are recognized by a culture (by pressing ‘f’), the dead are removed from view on the map and their attraction springs are removed as well.  What this is supposed to represent is that funerals are a way for the living to remember the dead and then put them to rest so that the living can move on and create new ties with the living.  I do like the idea that we retain our ties to the past, which can sometimes become weaker in death and sometimes become even stronger.  I didn’t model that yet.

public class Rituals {

  Rituals() {

  void funeral(boolean funeralsRecognized) {
    for (int i=0; i<numPeople; i++) {
      if (person[i].parent1 != -1 && person[i].parent2 != -1 && person[i].alive == false) {
        if (funeralsRecognized == true) {
        else { // TODO: re-reference spring after it's recreated?
          parentSpringArray.add(new VerletConstrainedSpring2D(person[i], person[person[i].parent1], person[i].parent1RL, random(parentGravity1, parentGravity2)));
          person[i].parent1Spring = parentSpringArray.size()-1;
          parentSpringArray.add(new VerletConstrainedSpring2D(person[i], person[person[i].parent2], person[i].parent2RL, random(parentGravity1, parentGravity2)));
          person[i].parent2Spring = parentSpringArray.size()-1;
          parentMinDistanceSpringArray.add(new VerletMinDistanceSpring2D(person[i], person[person[i].parent1], random(parentMinDistanceRL1, parentMinDistanceRL2), random(parentGravity1, parentGravity2)));
          parentMinDistanceSpringArray.add(new VerletMinDistanceSpring2D(person[i], person[person[i].parent2], random(parentMinDistanceRL1, parentMinDistanceRL2), random(parentGravity1, parentGravity2)));

7) Discrete clusters.  I ended up adding relationships between people and their parents from just constrained springs to a combination of constrained springs and minimum distance springs.  What this would change is that a person’s distance from his parents is both constrained to no more than a certain length but also more than a minimum length, so that they can both be more visible instead of overlapping visually, and also be more clustered together.  I found that this makes certain groups on the map appear more clustered instead of forming a big ball in the middle.  I still need to do more work on this though because as there are more people in the sketch, the big clusterfuck returns (because there are too many connections between everything and I can’t zoom in closer to see the gaps and relative spacing between different networks).

I converted a lot of my arrays of spring connections over to one large ArrayList, which I think was easier to deal with in the end in terms of manipulating them after they were initiated into the environment.  I did find, however, that I had to pass a reference to the spring’s number (since it was just an ArrayList entry) to the person’s class instance so it could refer to it later.  A problem with this though, as I realize just now, is that if I remove springs (as I do in the funeral ritual), I’ll lose the correct references.  So I have to make sure that when the springs are added again, when funerals are disabled, that a pass a new reference to the ArrayList.

I also found that there tends to be super-breeders every time I run the sketch, with certain people tending to produce tons of offspring while others produce none.  I’m talking like 1 or 2 people will produce 10 kids, which tends to make the sketch appear too tightly clustered because everyone is closely linked.  Perhaps this is a feature, rather than a bug, of reproduction?


You can download the code from Github.  You’ll probably want to start up a node instance and then start the genetic crossings sketch, then finally the wolfram sketch.  Instructions are in the



And this leads me to some closing notes. I shied away from adding fitness yet again to my reproduction algorithms because I felt like “fitness” in the short-term was too much like large-scale evolution theory and autonomous agent simulation.  In my sketch there wasn’t really an ideal fitness state, with no limitations or rules imposed on the larger scale.  What I wanted was to break into modeling some culture into the simulation, so that choices were made between sexual partners based on cultural norms and not as much on randomized reproduction. Obviously modeling culture would work best if it were overlaid on top of basic biological reproductive theory such as choosing the fittest partner and whatnot, but I felt that was too much for the scope of this simulation, which I wanted mainly to focus on social networks.

JavaScript has come a long way.  It’s now the same on the backend and the frontend.  Processing can be exported to JavaScript in some capacity, and dataviz libraries such as D3 are taking off.  Soon we will be able to introduce more fluid, data, physics, and particle system simulations within a browser.  It’s too early for my sketch yet (ToxicLibs takes some finagling) but this is a glimpse of the web to come.

As I begin to do more serious work on the internal mechanics of, it’s stuff like this Processing project that makes me appreciate how careful I’ll have to be with positioning different factors against each other so that people can create their own formulae/evolutions to weight different priorities how they deem fit.

Looks like this book out of the Harvard Berkman Center, “Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems”, by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, is a must-read.

What I do feel is that current online social networks have not really tried to map out the complex interweaving, competing, variable connections and attractions we have between ourselves and others, between the different identities we all have, between the things we care about more or less at different times in our lives, etc.  To facilitate something like this, I can’t help but feel there needs to be a massive API that allows people to access all this data (if privacy settings allow it) so that we can take advantage of the multi-dimensional nature of our species.

You can think of someone’s identity as a meshed web that is being pulled apart by the external world and people and ideas and being pulled together by muscle and ligament and cartilage and sense of self and personality and such.  You can think of a community as a bunch of these springy people pulling on and apart from each other constantly, but at a stronger tension than from other communities.  Communities form religions and nations and cultures, again with that same network of relationships and competing identities. I hope that’s the dynamic I was able to capture in doing this project.


Special thanks to:

  • Prof. Dan Shiffman for all his documentation and code from Nature of Code, particularly his chapters on forces, genetic algorithms, ToxicLibs, and cellular automata
  • Prof. John Schimmel for his Processing-Nodejs code

Stunting a Renaissance

An underlying theme in my projects at school has been thinking about potential versus actual.  And one common question that people ask when my classmates introduce their project ideas is, “Will this be illegal?”

How well is our society fulfilling its potential right now?  Is it under-performing based on its many inputs?  Is it being constrained by the law, policy, culture, tradition, taboos?  Or are we doing okay right now, from a broader perspective at a wider time-horizon?

I wonder if we could be having a Renaissance right now.  Something along the lines of the Italian Renaissance itself.  Or the Harlem Renaissance. Or the American medical revolution during the Great Influenza when the US adopted scientific method instead of quackery for medical treatment.  I feel like we should be having a Renaissance of, say, Universal Freedom:  a major push towards tech/information/communications freedom, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, energy and information independence.

These particular moments seem to arise when all the restraints and boundaries are cast off in necessity or after great struggle or strain.  What held them back was partly health-related (Black Plague, Great Influenza), societal readiness (Civil Rights), fit of technology (post WW2), etc., but I bet it had mostly to do with tradition, culture, and policy.  Such factors can be massive force multipliers — for good and bad.

So my classmates, obsessed with coming up with new ideas, startups, expressions, reinterpretations of old media, mashing up, etc., are haunted by questions of copyright, legality, restraints foisted upon them by a highly litigious entertainment culture which has spread to other industries and cultural spheres.  Right now our chief societal constraints are shitty policy, over-privatization, and domination by lawyers (lawyers and CIOs, the banes of any innovative team or division).

Entertainment’s the big one.  It can be hard to employ fair use for remixing and sharing music and videos and movies and art.  Are you in as much disbelief as I am that Spotify hasn’t been shut down yet?  The MPAA and other consortiums perhaps pushed too hard on PIPA and SOPA recently, but until governments and politicians see those consortiums as parasitic, detrimental to the public good, but still a necessary middleman in the industry (e.g. they’re seen as one of many competing interests), they will continue to ask for the whole pie in the form of favorable legislation and court rulings.

But look where the public good has been battered back for the last few decades: agricultural patents for rice and genetically modified food, privatization of water and other public services, control and monitoring and censorship of communications networks worldwide, normal functioning of public-good-protecting agencies like the EPA and public health policies like contraceptives vs. abstinence, copyrighting and patenting of software.  It’s no longer just a game, involving pirating just movies and music.

I guess this isn’t really big news, but I see an overarching trend that’s, for most citizens, just really exhausting and debilitating to keep identifying, organizing, and fighting against.

The restraints being placed on societal advancement are now affecting core human needs (water, food) and basic human rights (rendition, warrantless wiretapping, freedom of assembly, and voting representation).  As a result of my comparative democratization class at Georgetown, I came to see the internet in more of a political and cultural dimension, where it serves as a gathering place for dissenters from the status quo.  Having a gathering place for dissent outside of the mainstream or government’s absolute control is crucial towards any free society, or the progress towards citizens’ freedom.  In Latin America and Eastern Europe, the Catholic Church often stood as a place where people could organize and discuss higher ideals for their restrictive societies.  The same often exists for Muslims, as mosques and weekly juma’a are where potentialities and dissent are tested, refined, and propagated.  Hence from this way of looking at things you can see just how volatile it is for American security forces to invade mosques and to, in New York’s and other cities’ cases, actively infiltrate them.  The threat of removing the internet as a public sphere for free expression is one of the greatest we’ll probably have to deal with in our lifetimes, even if it’s not as immediately threatening as nuclear apocalypse or global societal collapse from disease, war, etc.

What I’m really waiting for is the eventual breakdown of corporate advantage in lobbying Washington, and a return to more balance of public interests vs. private interests.  Certainly as an entrepreneurial sort, I would not want to see a society overly zealous with a public interest at the expense of private startups and innovative ideas, but it’s far too unequal right now toward the other direction.

What will make the difference in the next couple decades will be the emergence of meshnets, darknets, and long-distance wireless.  When individuals, citizens, and free speech organizations can set their routers to repeat and mesh up with each other, to transmit data over large swaths of physical territory without having to use the networks, which are already well-infiltrated by the NSA, local police, FBI, crackers, anyone with the knowhow to get in, then we can perhaps live up to the principles of free speech that we were raised to believe in in America.  When politicians realize that free speech in a genuine definition is worth protecting again, the two factors combined could lead to a remarkable tech renaissance which has long been promised but never delivered.  Right now, though, any emerging technology or idea is treated as inherently infringing upon something else that’s already established.  The war is being fought out on the edges, and the rest has just stopped because of chilling effects of judicial threats and adherence to law.  Certainly the freedoms of anonymity and encryption that should exist also affect the ability of law enforcement and security to track terrorist cells, murderers, etc.  But strict warrants, empowered intelligence analysts, and flattened intel bureaucracy have been and should continue to be sufficient without impacting the majority of people who would benefit from having their freedom of speech lionized.

Where is WiMAX?  It is supposed to be able to broadcast wifi at higher speeds than we have now, with better transmission through building materials, from distances up to Baltimore to DC.  If not WiMAX, why not something else?  What is the hold up?  Can you imagine the impact our being able to share wifi across entire cities would have for communications companies which try to enforce one internet hookup per residence or occupancy?  They will get drowned when this internet capability is fully unleashed, so predictably you would expect that there’ll be tons of attempts to stop long distance wifi.  But it comes as a massive hit to the public good to protect cable companies.  What is worth more to us, as a society and as a species?

I’m still encouraged.  Hacker hardware is coming — Arduino and open source and circuit diagramming is now more available to the masses, and I’m hoping that breakthroughs in building meshnets will spread like wildfire.

Not only that, open source software is booming.  I used to want to know three or four spoken languages when I was younger, but I could never hack it — I was never talented enough to just pick them up automatically, and I never took the chance to immerse myself in a foreign country for long enough.  So I ended up not knowing very much about any particular language, but knowing a little bit here and there.  Arabic I know the most about, but even that is pretty weak.

I see a lot of discussion about linguistics focus on these spoken languages — linguistics seem highly insular to spoken languages.  But as I’ve gotten more technologically-inclined, I’ve drifted towards the languages that are truly growing and forking: computer languages.  How come linguists never talk about these?  Is it because there’s such a massive divide between computers/coding and traditional academic tracks?

Software is fascinating right now.  Windows dominated my youth, but now most all students use OS X (particularly in ITP, but for a different reason — we drop down into Darwin and Linux quite a bit, and OS X makes that super-easy).  Github is by far the most intriguing social network right now.  It’s so actively engaging in that you upload and maintain versioning of your code there, and you actively follow interesting projects and coders on it.  There isn’t too much interaction through it, but it’s producing real content: software that anyone can download and use.  The emergence of node (and reemergence of JavaScript), Python, Ruby, PHP, etc., using open stacks of software and libraries, that anyone can download and install onto, say, a fresh Ubuntu box, using package installation software, is far different than the past, where this shit used to just plain suck to work with.  A lot of the stuff you can simply “git clone”, or it’s already installed on your system!  It’s a software insurgency.

The degree of self-organization and self-correction among open source coders is high enough that it can create software far more useful than corporations, save perhaps for the heavyweights, could ever do with their best talent.

Looking forward, I just have a sneaking suspicion that something great will come about, somewhat subtly and under the radar, out of the open source movement and breakthroughs in open technology.  It’s not quite there yet, but it may offer hope for our other massive, systemic societal problems.  At the same time, I think the public’s been somewhat invigorated by Obama’s election (the apathy of loss of hope is now gone, if not replaced in many peoples’ hearts by bitterness or wonder at Obama’s post-election behavior).  I think the public is far more aware of the large systemic issues than it was just a few years ago, and this may lead to breakthroughs in organizing movements against concerted lobbying efforts by wealthy individuals and powerful private interests.

I’m encouraged, and hopeful.  I would love to see the walls come down, to see innovation be something we can act upon and not just dream about, to see the pie get bigger for all of us, to see peoples’ hearts warmed by the possibility of ideas that could work.  I am hopeful we will see a uniquely 21st century Renaissance we can call our own, within our lifetime.

On #OccupyWallStreet

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.

Issues of The Occupied Wall Street Journal
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.

Counter of People Worldwide Offering Support
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.

Anonymous/Guy Fawkes
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.


Comm Lab (Video & Audio), Week 1: On Copyright

Ever since I downloaded my first MP3 in my freshman year of college in 1996, amazed at how small the file was (I think it was a Shaggy track), I don’t really think much has changed in the music industry with regards to copyright.  The timeline is (pock) marked with the detritus of used-up and destroyed start-ups and companies that tried to find a way around the RIAA.  Spotify and and others are the latest to find temporary ways to sidle into the prickly graces of the recording companies…until they are shut down or bought out and taken apart wholesale.  Google, Apple, and Amazon, with their priorities being to build distribution platforms via hardware, are the only real challengers short of a Renaissance of digital thought in Congress.

The arms race between downloaders and labels has been escalated to a fairly sophisticated level, resulting in an unofficial detente in the courts.  While I think to a large degree, even with the death of the physical act of interest in buying a CD, that the music industry has managed to formalize a lot of piracy through iTunes, Amazon, and other sources, what has been happening over the last fifteen years is defined more by what HASN’T happened than by what has.

The chilling effect is something I’m particularly sensitive about, since getting in trouble in the Army for blogging about my time in Iraq (though nothing was ultimately found to be wrong), and after witnessing the censorship efforts on communications networks during the Arab Spring and in Oakland during my time working for a Homeland Security contractor. The RIAA has lost most of its momentum (and the MPAA will soon enough be there too, but it’s still dangerous enough to conduct psyops and bully telcos into sending warnings to individual IPs), but it has certainly managed to turn artists against each other (not particularly hard, I guess), turn music fans into private consumers of music because they can’t remix and share and admit to downloading illegally, but most importantly perhaps the RIAA has turned its product, “art”, into something smeared as commoditized and fake, while at the same time making the act of obtaining music illegally an act of political defiance.

Rohter’s NYT article revealed two things to me that I think are worth investigating further:  1) the recording industry itself has significant disagreements about the public face of its position, and 2) the current Congressional trend is to argue in favor of extending the length of copyrights. The first is instructive because, since we can’t rely on artists to really share much of an opinion with each other, even in their attempts to unionize, we might find that the solution might be as simple as lobbying to prevent the current revolving door of recording industry executives into public policy positions in Washington (FCC, mostly) where they will argue for their RIAA masters. The second is interesting because it’s another representation of a chilling effect: block information and art from reaching the public domain where it can be freely remixed and reused.

Thankfully the internet has provided enough creative off-the-radar networks of music fans and technology to allow “illicit” sharing to continue.  While I do hope that artists can be paid for their works, I also think their main input to society is their labor — that is, relying on a one-off artistic creation to provide a lifetime of income is absurd, and that any human’s main contribution will not be one or two projects, but a continuing font of creativity and execution — in other words, labor which is rewarded with at least some basic regular wage.

The Garnett/Meiseles article was a rare take from both the copyright holder and the copyright abuser.  I understood Meiseles’ take on defending the context of Arauz’s act, but I strongly disagree with her.  Frankly I think she assumed far too much credit for Arauz, as if she became his guardian after taking his picture.  She certainly did her job as a photographer, and even followed it up with figuring out who the people were in her photo.  I would love to see a digital connection between people, objects, and locations in photos and the context for them, available through some sort of touchable interface, so that I could touch the kissing couple in New York City after World War II ended, and find out how they met, and what happened to them afterwards (they were strangers, I believe).

But once that photo was put out to the public, it’s game on.  It’s up to be remixed.  It’s up to be reinterpreted, reused in different contexts.  I thought immediately of Shepard Fairey’s famous HOPE portrait of President Obama, which now (somewhat contentiously) hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in DC now.

Did Meiseles ever criticize non-Americans, outside of her legal system, for remixing the image outside of her own private context?  There was not evidence of her doing so in the article, nor would she be able to do much about bringing a Sandinista rebel to, er, copyright justice.  Meiseles was taking the position of a journalist here, but not of an artist, for she cared more for the importance of investigating the context than reimagining the emotion the image evoked. She should be happy someone else found her image so powerful as to use it for another work.  It begs the question of whether we need alternate systems for rewarding people, beyond a simple copyright or job system.  There is also the gift economy and the reputation economy.  If Meiseles were properly rewarded in the reputation economy (for taking a powerful photo), then perhaps this would un-burden the hulking inefficient system we currently have, which rewards in only one currency, the almighty dollar.

Naturally I loved Lethem’s essay for Harper’s, for its subtlety in addressing the underlying issues and for calling for the practical necessity of a gift economy.  Copyright holders who defend their turf have, in my opinion, made defiance and rebellion “cool” in the eyes of downloaders, anti-corporatists, etc.  I fully welcome their attempts to blow holes in the oligopoly which exists, and the mere acts of developing software and networks to circumvent weak and hamfisted attempts to block them have become acts of art in themselves.  Today’s artists and musicians are too beholden to the system to veer very far from it, so one is not likely to see many artists in today’s generation challenge copyright regimes without a lot of help from others.

But I would expect the generation of kids who grew up in the downloadable world of art (and in the age of Anonymous and 4chan) to create their own music outside of the formalized system, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the system assimilated that style of music as well, but it would bring along with it, perhaps, a better model for rewarding artists and avoiding chilling effects against their fans.

[Note:  The New York Times article was made available via PDF for class, but it does not include the second page.  Clicking the PDF’s second page link will take the reader to the web site though.  Suggest inclusion of second page into PDF for future students’ accessibility to the whole article.]

Building Online Communities

[Before I begin, I just wanted to link to this O’Reilly Radar post that shows how Facebook continues to blow away its competition, with 175 million users worldwide.  Another conflicting post from another source has a different number of total users, at 222 million.  Facebook is posting great growth numbers abroad and in the US — I say all this because I believe Facebook is taking over the planet in social networking shortly before the personal data jailbreak is to occur.]

Somewhere between researching my final orals exam topic of “individualized identity and reputation for international development” (for my MSFS degree) and studying how to design both a competitive and collaborative ecosystem for my start-up, I came across some very cool pages at Yahoo!.

Yahoo!’s developer network has available some tips and examples of how to build competition, reputation, rankings, leaderboards, and other social interaction devices into a web site.

Check some of them out:

YDN (Yahoo! Developer Network) has grouped these and many other categories loosely under “Reputation” in one of its menu hierarchies.

These pages have some interesting linkages.  From one post it links to:

“The famed #1 book reviewer on (who does claim to be a speed-reader) posts, on average, 7 book reviews a day. So not only does Harriet have time for reading all these books, she can also whip off reviews of them pretty quickly, too.”

Another example:

“Avoid even slightly offensive names for levels (e.g., Music Hotshot! or Photo Flyguy!)

  • These may be learnable with appropriate supporting material, but remember that reputations are also a form of self-expression and odds are good that a sizable portion of your community won’t want to be identified with frivolous, insulting or just goofy-sounding labels.
  • Ambiguous level names like these tested very poorly with some of our users.”

What’s interesting to me about all this is that it provides some basic examples of when to use certain systems and when not to.  Sometimes you may not want people to be competitive, because it may detract from their desires to collaborate.  What I read between the lines is that different cultures will adopt different preferences for how their self-designed systems will create and generate the maximum value and benefit for them.  Such a system might not be of maximum utility to another culture, however.

This implies that systems may need to be designed that are flexible to different peoples’ values.  It also implies that certain web sites may work where they were previously thought not to, just by providing an alternate version specific to that culture or tribe.  The easiest example of this to visualize would be language-localized versions of web sites.  Facebook adding Arabic and Hebrew versions recently will bring in many more Arab- and Hebrew- speakers through this alone.  But other cultural dimensions beyond language have yet to be addressed.

Not too long ago, I attended the Future of Web Apps conference in Miami.  It amazed me to see just how involved companies like Yahoo! and Facebook are getting into building online communities.  I also picked up some cool Yahoo! schwag including a foldable map that shows all of Yahoo!’s APIs and services.  Pretty impressive.  What’s even better, these companies are being extremely open about all of this.  The social networking community looked nothing like this when we first began our research not too long ago in August!  Pretty awesome!