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 DCLeaks.com 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?

Proposal

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.

Mercenaries

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.

 

The Only Person Not Paying Attention is You

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

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

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

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Mark Klein, whistleblower

NYC

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

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

DC

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

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

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

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

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

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Thomas Drake, whistleblower

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

Gizmodo LulzSec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fallout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If Only the Apple Store Sold iFreedom in Spotless White

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

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

Transactions

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

Sharing

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

Anonymous Connectivity

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

Decentralized Social Networking

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

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

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

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

Remember Occupy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Convenience is at Odds with Art

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

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

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

Drones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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UX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ai Weiwei

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

weiwei

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

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

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

ai-weiwei-never-sorry_hospital

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

Artistic Voice

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

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

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

Opening Up Galapag.us for Alpha

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

User Zero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beginning Alpha Testing with Thesis

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

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

Stack

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

 

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

But here are some features that are worth checking out:

Comment System

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

ss_comments

 

Tribes

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

ss_graph

 

The Islands

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

ss_islands

 

Professions and Skills

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

ss_professions

 

Your Genome

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

ss_profile

 

Quests

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

ss_quests

 

Status Bar

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

ss_searchbar

 

Tribes and Their Genomes

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

ss_tribes

 

Universal Reputation Lookup

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

ss_widget

 

 

API/Sandbox

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

ss_api

 

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

State of the Union, Pre-Elections 2012

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

The Last Four Years

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

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

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

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

The Message

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inconsistency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We deserve better than this shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck me.  This is our America.

Leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Real America, According to DC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congress

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

The House is dire:

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

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

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

Not an uncommon political ideology in Texas.

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

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

Caveats:

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

 

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.

OUT HERE.

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 turntable.fm 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.]

Eudaimonia Versus Existing in a Childproofed Society

We live within a culture where negative feedback is purposefully avoided.  You can’t “dislike” on Facebook, you can only “+1” on Google+.  Yelp was rumored to have strong-armed companies into paying to get rid of bad reviews.  Online sites like Consumerist are attacked by businesses who claim they’re unfair.  Most companies purposefully hide their contact numbers on their sites so you can’t easily call them (because if you’re calling, you probably have a problem with them!), you can’t cancel service on a web site and usually have to call, people avoid conflict and argument, companies set up complex levels of firewalls to prevent angry customers from getting anywhere, etc.

It goes further.  The world’s standard for measuring national improvement is Gross Domestic Product, which only tracks consumption in a very crude way.  Simon Kuznets, one of the architects of the GNP metric, admitted, “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income… Goals for “more” growth should specify of what and for what.”  But this forewarning was ignored.  If someone gets cancer and has to purchase a bunch of equipment and pills and spend money in the hospital, this is counted as a net positive for society because of the purchases, even if all these resources are being spent on one person who is unable to contribute to society while sick.  The U.S. government (!) is protesting credit rating agencies’ assessment of its indebtedness, where both the U.S. government has been profligate and the agencies have been corrupt in currying favor with the U.S. one moment and then trashing it the next.

The stock market, currently in shambles within the last few weeks, has scared nations yet again after a shock only three years ago.  Predictably, the Greek government, which has watched its economy grind to a halt and reach almost-default levels, has decided to ban short-selling of stocks for two months.  This is essentially an ideological move.  Short-selling, where you make money by betting on a stock going DOWN, not up, has always been seen by non-market people as, in varying degrees, dastardly, unpatriotic, illegal, and even dangerous.  It’s that last point regulators focus on.  They believe that short sales by people who hate a company can drive a stock to zero.  Meanwhile, market folks know that short selling actually adds more transparency, information, and support to stock prices, because there will be pressures pushing the stocks both up AND down, and not just up.  The problem in a market without short sellers is that without them, when buyers disappear, prices collapse completely.  No short sellers would be covering their positions.

And this says something else about markets.  Very few people actually understand how they work.  Virtually all the mainstream articles being written about the latest downturn are just flat out WRONG.  You’ll get guys like this, who tell you to stay in the market so you don’t risk the upside (again, it’s always about things going up).  He goes on in another piece to say that Wall Street is irrelevant!  The Daily Beast, usually a pretty savvy digest of the most important stories, has turned to mush when it comes to the markets.  Otherwise very intelligent people I follow online also have very flawed notions of how the markets work.  The lack of economic understanding is frightening when you consider that these people probably know a little bit more than the politicians elected to vote on policy for government role in the economy.

I’d prefer to read people like George Friedman, who emphasizes that it is not just economy, but political economy, that we must talk about.  Politics and the relations between power groups affects most of the dynamics in our lives, and we cannot act like the economy is some neutral entity that is impervious to human mistakes and designs.  The “economy” is intimately wrapped within the designs of men.

I had to quit watching the daytrading IRC channels because even those high-frequency traders had what was basically a cynical Ayn Rand-ish slash Gordon Gekko slash Snake Plissken view of the world where you’re only successful if you cut others’ throats to get to where you are.  Their adaptability to changing market conditions was highly questionable.  Basic economic principles were ignored.  But hey, they made good money so I can’t complain too much.

I would agree with Richard Florida (PDF), Umair Haque, Tim O’Reilly, and some others that we are in the very early, ugly stages of a transition to an eudaimonia society, from a purely consumerist society.  I believe that we need to be able to take an honest look at how our society is structured and allow for more negativity in our metrics.  We need to develop the capacity to take criticism, to be voted down, to be shamed when we do things that are wrong (a concept crudely and devastatingly wielded mostly by religion), to take a more holistic look at everything impacting our lives.  Pure revenue should mean less if it comes at the cost of environmental degradation, pollution, lack of time at home raising families, lack of sleep, abuse from employers or manipulation from unions, etc.

Eudaimonia is a term fit only for us classicists, but @'s concept of the economics of the good life is spot on http://bit.ly/l25koR
@timoreilly
Tim O'Reilly

Umair Haque:

“I believe the quantum leap from opulence to eudaimonia is going to be the biggest, most significant economic shift of the next decade, and perhaps beyond: of our lifetimes. We’re not just on the cusp of, but smack in the middle of nothing less than a series of revolutions, aimed squarely at the trembling status quo (financial, political, social): new values, mindsets, and behaviors, fundamentally redesigned political, social, economic, and financial institutions; nothing less than reweaving the warp and weft of not just the way we live–but why we live, work, and play.”

The goal is for people to be able to pursue middle-class professions in fields that they are talented at, to unlock their creative potential, instead of shoe-horning people into certain professions if they want to live any kind of decent lives for themselves.  The goal is for people to have a successful career but also a family to raise, a community to participate in, and a healthy life.  The way society is constructed now, as I’ve said before, is a zero-sum kind of get-rich-or-die-tryin’ mentality where everyone is incentivized to fuck everyone else over, at least until one becomes wealthy enough to think about maybe working on philantropy for others.

My "EUDAIMONIA" Tattoo

Instead of just Gross Domestic Product, people like Mark Anielski (“The Economics of Happiness: Building Genuine Wealth”) recommend the Genuine Progress Index, or the GPIAtlantic.  The GPIAtlantic was broken down into these indicators:

  • Time Use
    Value of Civic and Voluntary Work, Value of Unpaid Housework and Child Care, Value of Leisure Time, Paid Work Hours
  • Living Standards
    Income and its Distribution, Financial Security – Debt and Assets, Economic Security Index
  • Natural Capital
    Soils & Agriculture, Forests, Fisheries and Marine Resources, Energy, Air, Water
  • Human Impact on the Environment
    Solid Waste, Ecological Footprint, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Transportation
  • Human and Social Capital
    Population Health, Costs of Crime, Educational Attainment

These indicators are far more in line with how we actually consider the world subjectively.  They capture our concerns, worries, and understanding of how much we feel safe living in our communities.  But all of the factors are ignored in the top-line metrics that we use.

Which is sad because we live in an era now of big data.  The top quants in the nation are working in finance, insurance, computer science, crypto.  Yet the metrics we use for our own well-being and happiness are crude “neutral” measurements from another century.

The above chart shows the disparity between how the U.S. economy is measured through GDP versus how it is in actuality.  In short, we have hit a plateau in our quality of life for almost 60 years, while our GDP measurement seems to indicate we’re much “richer” per capita.  It coincides with increasing income inequality, measured through the Gini coefficient:

They show that our society as a whole probably peaked in overall access to happiness somewhere in 1968.

In short, we have insulated ourselves from seeing the negative aspects of our society.  Amartya Sen calls this phenomenon “hedonic opulence”, Anielski calls it “chrematistics”, Clive Hamilton calls it “affluenza”.  We believe that we can grow our way out of poverty, that if we have enough positives in a society, that we can just overwhelm the negatives.  But the truth is that the negatives impact the bottom line of growth and positivity.  A community full of pollution and crime will stop creative processes from flourishing there.  A sick populace will be less productive at work, impacting overall economic success.

Said Robert Kennedy on March 18, 1968, at the University of Kansas:

“Too much and too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product [GNP]… – if we should judge America by that – …counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities…. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

This is why I want to work on Galapag.us as my life project.  It is an ecosystem for reputation.  All the things you’ve worked on in your life are aggregated into metrics of your own design.  The most popular metrics (say, success at being a contributor to your community, looking at data such as your volunteer work, church life, money donated, time spent tutoring other people or children, household income, trustworthiness, crime record, etc.) would be voted up to the top.  We would not be constrained to just GDP.  We could build our own metrics.  Then those local, individual metrics could be aggregated for county level, state level, all the way up to national level.  The data is anonymized as it is grouped, or, if you choose, fully identifiable and open if you are an open person.

The imperative, though, must be on more transparency and accountability.  If we as individuals can’t handle being criticized publicly, then we can’t expect things to improve at higher levels of organization.  Being criticized is not always a bad thing.  If the criticism is fair, you should improve yourself with it.  If it is unfair, your detractor should be penalized for making false statements.  We do not have this kind of global feedback system in place.  We are victim to flash mobs, anonymous attackers, stalkers, people who suffer no negative feedback from their actions.  Galapag.us would fill this hole in the internet’s identity layer while still providing degrees of anonymity, pseudonymity, and identity.

Daniel Suarez’s seminal but overlooked books, Daemon and Freedom (TM), suggest deprogramming the “Non-Player Character”/NPC dynamic of being trapped within a world of simplistic metrics (the quotes below are from Freedom (TM):

“What do we look like to a computer algorithm, Sergeant? Because it will be computer algorithms that make life-changing decisions about these people based on this data. How about credit worthiness—as decided by some arbitrary algorithm no one has a right to question?”

“Imagine how easily you could change the course of someone’s life by changing this data? But that’s control, isn’t it? In fact, you don’t even need to be human to exert power over these people. That’s why the Daemon spread so fast.”

Suarez’s books propose that darknet hacker communities will spring up in the rural areas, away from legal restraints and the encroachment of lawyers, corporations, and other barriers to entry, creating more balanced, sustainable, networked communities for people to be rewarded at their individual trades by leveling up in the darknet world and then using darknet credits to earn a reputation and a living.

“Holons are the geographic structure of the darknet. Any darknet community lies at the center of an economic radius of one hundred miles for its key inputs and outputs—food, energy, health care, and building materials. Balancing inputs and outputs within that circle is the goal. A local economy that’s as self-sufficient as possible while still being part of a cultural whole—a holon—thus creating a resilient civilization that has no central points of failure. And which through its very structure promotes democracy. That’s what we’re doing here, Sergeant.”

“The Daemon financed this.” Sebeck turned to her. “Didn’t it?” “The Daemon’s economy is powered by darknet credits, Sergeant. Imaginary credits are all that money is.” “But there’s a theft at the heart of it.” She thought about it and nodded slightly. “Yes, the darknet economy was seeded by real world wealth. Wealth that was questionable in origin to begin with. Here, it’s being invested in people and projects that have begun to return value—not in dollars, but in things of intrinsic human worth. Energy, information, food, shelter.”

There are ways out of the messes we’re in, but most people see them as unconnected issues.  But personally I see it as symptomatic of an entire society’s failure to examine itself.  Gnowthi seauton.  Jared Diamond-type stuff.  Granted, it would be a LOT to expect humankind to be able to look at itself honestly, for humans always hope to avoid the negative and only see the good in the things they believe in, but this would be one of those points where one would hope that our civic leaders and politicians would be required to study — and therefore detect — such policy/societal failures and properly diagnose them.

Unfortunately, that is not the ruling class that we have, and we are not likely to correct these systems until an alternative system is built.  Those who make money under the current system will resist, but even politicians go along with something when it’s shown to be successful.  Hopefully for me it would be something like Galapag.us, but I would accept any attempts.

The only way to change our systematic problems is to build our own alternative.

Force Multipliers

Ever since I was in the Army and learned about force multipliers, it’s been a term with magical meaning to me.  When I arrived at my Special Forces Group to begin my assignment as an intel dude supporting the ODAs, we’d be getting an even more precise force multiplier speech than the one we got in basic training.

Someone with solid training, the aggressive spirit to take the initiative, and cool demeanor can lead others during an event which would cause most people to lock up in fear and uncertainty.  The training is designed to give some muscle memory and reinforced learning through mistakes, but more importantly, training to react to scenarios helps people keep a focused mind and communicate to those around them who may be distracted.

It’s the person who runs into a conflict, not away from it, and begins verbally commanding people to do very specific tasks, since simpler commands are easier for people to comprehend when they’re distressed.  Thus one person begins utilizing other people to perform one task, shortening reaction time and coordinating multiple efforts.  That leader is a force multiplier because the net benefit derived from the group is only achieved, in a short timespan, through quick decision-making.

In the Special Forces context, the Special Forces teams are supposed to, as part of their mission, train indigenous forces for specialized tasks.  SF soldiers can take a group of ragtags and train them enough so that they can run their own missions effectively, and they can be mobilized quickly.  The SF soldier makes something out of very little.  He is a force multiplier.

Unleashing the Gays

Our country needs force multipliers.  The government and social services need to be seen as force multipliers.  Regardless of how churches and social structures adjust to the inevitability of acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage, the plain and simple truth for the civic mind is that gay marriage is a force multiplier.  Having more potential loving parents to raise children will raise social capital, and perhaps enrich the overall supply of social capital since it will offer social DNA by way of a creative, active gay community.  Any people we can find who pursue love and happiness and justice will make great parents and role models, and we can use all the help we can get right now.  Gay marriage is a force multiplier.

Health Care

Government providing a basic standard for health care is a force multiplier.  I do believe in a mixed system, where everyone has a right to basic care, but can pay more for a specialist if the money is available.  Competition between not just different for-profits but also between different models (not-for-profit, govt, for-profit) means a better mix of interests.  As an employer I do not want to worry about providing health care, and as an employee I want to know I can shift jobs or careers without having to worry about losing health care coverage.  Also, a sensible government outlook towards preventative care provides a unified message for improving the general health of all Americans.  Healthier Americans means more productive Americans.  A force multiplier.  It’s a high cost, yes, but the net benefit to social capital, generational momentum, and economic productivity must be far larger.

Public Goods As Force Multipliers

The “public good” is often a force multiplier.  Twitter I considered a public good for a while.  Its search tool was phenomenal.  It gave access to tons of data.  The API is still the best example of how to build a public good that an app and developer ecosystem can thrive off of.  Now Twitter has lost some of its key developers and is trying to be more of an advertising, consolidating monolith, and it’s begun to lose some of its utility.  The search box is far less useful than it used to be, apps are getting shut down in favor of Twitter’s own limited functionalities, and the public good is wilting.

Parks, mixed-use urban design, libraries, interstate road systems, public education, these are all public goods, thought to be provided by the government.  Government funding for basic research is a public good.  Such public goods allow for innovation and creativity and perhaps most of all, experimentation and social networking.

These days, public goods are hated as wasteful and inefficient.  Anything new and innovative that manages to creep up between the cracks on the internet or in New York City or somewhere else gets smacked down with lawsuits.  We are not allowed to do anything anymore.  Not only is it not creative, but it is a chilling effect.  Why even bother if you know you’ll get sued?  This kills the pipelines and ecosystems that are needed to raise force multipliers.

Naomi Klein made a good point in her book “No Logo: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs” about how the public space is gone.  I remember when my buddy and I went to a mall (which was the social spot of choice for kids my age, since it had an arcade and a pet shop and a computer game store) to videotape something.  Within minutes of filming, a guard came out and told us we weren’t allowed.  This public space, though owned by a private company, was off-limits for public space uses.  Now just extrapolate this to business properties all around your city, and the reduction of park space along with fewer trees and places to sit and all the things humans like around them when they gather.  This kills public goods and spaces, thus killing innovation and curiosity, thus killing the force multipliers and the people who show the force multipliers to the world.

Jobs

Steven Johnson refers to the “adjacent possible” in his book, “Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation”:

“…innovative environments are better at helping their inhabitants explore the adjacent possible, because they expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts—mechanical or conceptual—and they encourage novel ways of recombining those parts. Environments that block or limit those new combinations—by punishing experimentation, by obscuring certain branches of possibility, by making the current state so satisfying that no one bothers to explore the edges—will, on average, generate and circulate fewer innovations than environments that encourage exploration. The infinite variety of life that so impressed Darwin, standing in the calm waters of the Keeling Islands, exists because the coral reef is supremely gifted at recycling and reinventing the spare parts of its ecosystem.”

I envision it as an expanding circle of knowledge, with innovators pushing the border of the circle out further so that it may touch more things outside the space.

Johnson:

“The question is how to push your brain toward those more creative networks. The answer, as it happens, is delightfully fractal: to make your mind more innovative, you have to place it inside environments that share that same network signature: networks of ideas or people that mimic the neural networks of a mind exploring the boundaries of the adjacent possible. Certain environments enhance the brain’s natural capacity to make new links of association. But these patterns of connection are much older than the human brain, older than neurons even. They take us back, once again, to the origin of life itself.”

In Richard Florida’s “The Rise Of The Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community And Everyday Life”, he talks about how George Lucas’ works pushed the limits of special effects, having the add-on effect of creating a group of workers who experimented with new techniques and became experts in their field at them.  Then those people went on to create companies of their own, or create new movies and works, thus making new art and products that created jobs and made a ton of money.  The adjacent possible was expanded through a small group of people (and a notable leader) who created a whole new industry.  They were force multipliers.

When I think about NASA losing much of its personnel and funding, I think about the loss of force multipliers.  The cutting back of funding of basic research in government because people consider certain individual projects as wastes of money?  Loss of force multipliers.  Not everything works or spawns something big, but companies are not always going to reliably fund basic research, particularly for public or national goods, on their own.  Not only that, but whatever they do find, they silo away within their own companies’ vaults.  It does not become public knowledge.

The current ideological debate that is occurring before we can transition to the next stage of human development, between government and business, is a total farce.  It is not whether we have to choose.  We need a blend of the public good, the government’s nationalist interest, and the economic powerhouse of business.  They need to balance each other to varying degrees based upon a culture’s values and competitive pressures within a geostrategic reality.  China’s system will not look like America’s system, which won’t look like the European Union’s system.  What we should focus on, moving forward, is restoring a balance, particularly with the motivation through policy to see government as a provider of public goods and force multipliers, which allow the citizenry and businesses to do what they do best: build families and liveable communities (for citizens) and build goods and services (for businesses).

Most of all we need smart leaders.  Leaders who love business and the art and drive of making money, but who also are seen as able to promote the public good (e.g. making America a better place for all) above any one lobbyist’s interest (preferably with some civic or military service time), and who also know basic leadership skills, in terms of motivating others and being force multipliers themselves.  The kind of leader who sees a new business idea that could work, but weighs it against the detriment it may cause to the livability, civility, and fairness on the street amongst the people.  Could we build this into requirements for running for office?  Could we create schools that specifically encourage this tripartite blend of leader?