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.

A Liminal Event

At 36 years of age, as of March 7th, I have just become gloriously married.

You know those times at school when the teacher or a counselor would have you write down your 1-year, 5-year, and 10-year goals?  For as long as I’ve been an adult, marriage has been one of my key goals, since I value stability and a strong base as extremely helpful building blocks towards a better, unique, independent, meaningful future.  This has been a wondrous achievement, to become married to my wife!

It took me a while, and I was woefully ill-prepared for any form of marriage up until just recently despite wanting it, having incurred some hefty life experiences that forged my Ben-ness: training, war, official mistakes, transitions between cities and schools, finding a fulfilling career.  Fortunately, I also hadn’t found the right woman yet.  In retrospect I think I’ve dodged some bullets in life and I safely made it to this happy point; healthy and happy and intact to be able to recognize it in another and now I’m very lucky to have met but also deserving of my wife.  My Best Man wanted it clear to me that I was fortunate to have met her, whereas I countered that I also put in my time and effort to earn that chance.

And now we’re here.  I must confess; I’m a pretty even-keeled guy but our wedding was amazing.  Even better than we could have expected, better than all the fantasies and cliches.  Our friends and family, all holding court in their own ways, keeping the party on lock, the wedding vows themselves touching, the pacing and pre-wedding rituals, the smiles on family who have given us so much but we have not quite given much back to yet.

The honeymoon as well was what I would call a true honeymoon.  While I am loathe to engage in goofy grinny sugar, the honeymoon in Costa Rica (a bit in a secluded rainforest resort where we could sleep and eat the best food, a bit in a beach resort full of sun and surf) was almost fairy-tale like.  The best part was to share it all with a true equal, someone who is equally dedicated and invested in us — perhaps the most valuable thing one can find in life as well as one of the hardest and rarest things to find.

Prediction: Anniversary Weddings

As a side note, after having seen what the wedding culture is like, how the TV shows portray weddings, how our own planning went, I think if you wanted to create an extremely effective long-term marketing campaign, you would push for anniversary weddings as a major new event.  Think about what couples go through: their first wedding is probably going to be at least somewhat on the cheap since they’re either on the hook for it and/or they have no disposable income.  So a bride is not necessarily going to get her dream wedding when she’s so young, unless someone’s parents are loaded.

But imagine: after 5 years or so, the couple will probably have more money and will want to throw a more lavish wedding.  Perfect opportunity to market a second wedding.  Then the longevity wedding at 10 years or whatever, before a couple starts to get old and the glamour of the wedding’s superficialities fade away.  This would create several more opportunities for wedding industry folks to cater to couples and to create narratives out of multiple weddings.  It would also create more excuses for families to gather (which in the grand scheme of things is immensely important, overlooking the pettiness and jokes that surround having to deal with the in-laws and crazy uncles and whatnot).

Anyway.

Introspection

This is one of those moments in life where I take a knee at the top of the hill, look back at the path I’ve come from, and sigh and reflect on all that’s happened.

And then look further up the ridges and ranges to see what’s coming next.

I can definitely feel the strong pull of crossing over from one stage of my life into another.  For the first time, that journey is not alone, my decisions are not solely my own, and instead of destructive creation, there is now only creation, at least for the fortunate time being.  The teens and 20s are pretty destructive years but they chip away at your character and you end up in your 30s and 40s as the type of person you have chosen to be.

We love our little place in the East Village, but we have our story to write and we wonder where we go next.  For once it’s nice to share that decision, that conscious choice.

A developer’s job as a crash course in multilingualism for coding languages, organizational principles and methodologies for projects, and building applications rapidly — I feel this work has deepened my appreciation and respect for the creator and the builder and the artist, a continuation of my studies in art/tech school.  Writing code has in some ways taken the place of writing for me; I no long blog so much unless some large sweeping societal issue has me particularly wound up to write.

I was writing finger .plans in high school and college because I saw John Carmack doing it.  I wrote blog posts through the rest of most of my life thus far, even while in the Army.  Nowadays I think my conversation with the internet, and therefore with you, the reader, has contracted into more private communities.  In fact I think the most interesting communities will become smaller and more niche — it’s already happened on reddit where the subreddits are still positive, informative, and overly open to each other.  I would love to see local intranets for residential buildings or mesh networks that require some form of test in order to gain entry.  When I want to converse, I want to talk about what can be built, not why things shouldn’t, which has become the norm for discourse in most public forums.

Negativity

If I had to say what I hate most, it’s probably negativity.  I’m a pretty conservative person in my own assessments, probably a product of both my Chinese mother’s caution and my sergeant’s training to hope for the best but prepare for the worst, but this should not be confused with negativity.  Negativity is debilitating, demotivating, draining.  Those who find the inner strength to build and create and love need to be supported by the rest of us, not brought down.  And when it comes to examining what is possible, I’m usually overly optimistic.

LOOK AT THIS SHIT.  I PULLED THIS CLASSIC SLATE EXAMPLE UP ON THE FIRST TRY. LOOK AT THIS SHIT. I PULLED THIS CLASSIC SLATE EXAMPLE UP ON THE FIRST TRY.

Cranks and haters have always been a part of online and intellectual discourse, but it’s run rampant now that we have what is somewhat of a critic’s internet buffet. The Twitter community I used to enjoy, journalists and reporters and analysts and policy folks, once encouraging of a naive eagerness for new information, has become TMZ-like (in that it loves gossip, the less true the better) and pompous in its derision for anything and anyone.  No one is safe, in the end, from being torn apart for whatever reason: the idea won’t scale, this or that person is a fraud, etc.  The Atlantic, Slate, these are publications that your liberal news junkie loves to read.  And the writers they hire at those places are absolutely TERRIBLE in their negativity or insinuations of impending failure.

Facebook buying Oculus Rift, Amazon studying the use of drones for delivery, Google making a HUD interface in Google Glass.  What I want to be a part of is a community where those achievements are exalted, not ripped to shreds, as they have been by people I might have respected at some point.  I grew up in an idealistic proto-internet time of downloading MP3s and playing Quake online and Napster was a giant; anything was possible even if it was all insane.  Unless you tune all the negativity stuff out, you wouldn’t know.  You wouldn’t marvel at all the amazing work, such as the people who have contributed research and proofs of work towards, say, NP-Complete math problems.  Louis CK would say “everything is great and no one is happy”; I mean the research and consideration going into those Facebook and Amazon drones and balloons is just a beautiful thing to behold.

As the internet has passed through most of its adolescence and begins its maturity, the rest of everyone who plugged in were stuck in a status quo where it seems none of those critics and cranks have really advanced or improved at their own crafts.  To see the amazing achievements announced daily, and then see them shit on, well, it’s frankly infuriating.

Jason Collins coming out as a gay NBA player.  The quickest response: “But he’s a horrible player.”  Sports, one of the worst refuges of the shitbag critic.  A dude makes the NBA and instead of people showing him respect, they’re quick to point out he’s not a perennial all-star.  I’m sure even in Jackie Robinson’s day, people were slagging on him for something.  Some petty something.  As another sports example, what could be worse than this upvoted rant against watching sports?

The Snowden affair has made everything absolutely toxic.  The government lurks behind every piece of electronics now, in the minds of Snowden’s supporters.  It’s the same kind of paranoia I’m sure most of those people would make fun of the Republicans for in their loathing of Obama, or of conspiracy theorists for their suspicion of anti-gun, anti-religion, etc. liberals.  When John Schindler is pointing out how Glenn Greenwald is one bad day away from appearing on Alex Jones’ show, everything seems absurd.  My liberal peers now make blase jokes about the NSA but barely bat an eyelash at unprecedented expansion of corporate personhood.

SXSW just happened and I’ve never been, but I know people who seem to go regularly.  How do they afford it?  It’s expensive as fuck.  Do their employers pay out for it?  How much are people really getting out of SXSW?  So many people who go aren’t even creatives or builders.  I’m definitely not against a flashy party, but I do wonder when it seems like the B-players are being sent.  E3, SXSW, and other conferences are now meetups for the elite and rich, those who can either afford to go or who are paid to go.  And what are they contributing back as a result?  This is why conferences lose their magic.  This is why, most notably, TED tanked.

Wonder why communities stagnate?  Because they have more cranks than dreamers and helpers.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to love watching the Grammy’s and Oscars more.  For me it’s bewilderment at the complexity and sheer market size of their industries.  The amount of resources, attention, and output generated by dresses, producers, talented artists and directors, the entertainment and happiness that they bring.  I love the process.  Studying how films are cast, the bonding the cast goes through for the film, the pushing of boundaries in the technical areas of the film, the representation of songs off an album into powerful videos, live tours, and performances for award shows, the biographies written up in Rolling Stone and whatnot.

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But the pettiness of the crowd drags it all down.  All the slagging on Macklemore even though him and Ryan Lewis were by far the most interesting artists of the year in terms of touching all aspects of the industry and affecting culture.  I actually thought Lorde’s album was incredibly powerful for such a young person but I’m happy with all the results.  The same goes with Oscars.  I try to make a point of it to see as many nominees in as many categories as I can, because those picks represent a curation by the industry.  Hence it drives me nuts to hear people completely destroy films in their critiques — the labor going into a project is admirable, even for lesser quality films.

Negativity.  I can’t stand being around it.

Elite Self-Loathing

One story I really hate seeing is the condescension towards Silicon Valley startups who seem to be creating fluff products when, you know, there are people dying in Africa and stuff!  Why can’t those engineers work on actual important problems?

Of course, who’s writing those stories?  Well in the case of the latest NYTimes story, it is written by none other than a Columbia computer science grad student who lives among the gilded engineer community being called out.

Man, where to start.  The insanely awesome advances in open source software, particularly in the promiscuity of excellent language features being shared among the major coding languages such that they’re all beginning to share a lot of commonalities, these are created by developers and coders and hackers and engineers, people who actually do enjoy spending a whole weekend by themselves indoors in the dark pushing characters around on the screen.

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You don’t have to wait around too long before you hear people say, “We must teach the kids how to code!”  Chances are, the people saying it can’t code.  And they won’t go learn how to code beyond tutorials.  This is fine — I certainly don’t think everyone needs to code — but I am definitely a believer that if you tell others they should do something, you should have done it yourself first.  Now, code as a gateway towards solving problems that kids might be interested in, this is a great addition to a school syllabus. (having them design a database to catalog what they own, or a double-booking ledger system to keep track of what little money they make, etc.)

Anyway, my point was that engineers are good at primarily one thing, which is writing very specific code that can test the limits of what was previously possible.  Criticizing Facebook for focusing on creating end-of-year videos?  That’s an immense computational task and it had to be done using tons of peoples’ disparate datapoints.  But the knowledge of how to pull that off is now going to be passed along to successors, to schools and research facilities, and eventually to grad student theses and private products.  As a former student of international development practices, that shit is hard enough as it is and most everyone in that world barely has the statistician’s background enough to be able to make informed decisions about whether this or that program or measurement is actually helping the people who need it.

So it’s the height of arrogance for people who don’t know how to build or measure things to tell others who can do one or the other that they should not only do that task but also design, fund, scale out, and deliver onto the ground solutions to improve society.  Some mercenary blog-quality writer for The Atlantic decides that this or that project is worth slagging because he was clever enough to think of holes in the project’s design while he sips his morning coffee.

I saw this at ITP — while the community itself is immensely supportive and open towards nonsensical, wildly over ambitious ideas, when it comes to critiquing others’ work, the feedback often comes back to blowing huge holes through someone’s work just to sound smart about it.

Getting back to those life goal write-ups.  I never really did them very seriously but when I think back to them now, they were immensely informative and helpful.  When I was in college, I think my short-term goal was to be a full-time daytrader, since I was doing fairly well trading the dotcom boom.  I didn’t have the perception and experience to realize that market volatility would dry up, that the system’s regulations would be gamed so that small-time daytraders (less than $25k in their account) would be locked out of the practice because of restrictions on the number of trades one can make.  If you want to know how Wall Street has changed, beyond the infamous “quants”, then you should look at how daytrading restrictions have locked out regular folks from trading actively, and also look at how IPOs, buyouts, and other mostly stock market-related business deals are all about cashing out and not adding value.  The stock market’s investment and negotiation deals handled by the big finance firms are not too far off from nobles trading title and land for reputation and power.  Their employees get little.  The only way normal folks can win in the market anymore is to just play for the long-term.

My Flaws and Strengths

Flaws
  • not “great”
  • too stoic
  • too serious
  • not close with enough friends and family
  • no natural ability
Strengths
  • relentless
  • high tolerance
  • courageous
  • top caliber friends
  • respectful
  • reverent of the process
That’s my list.  I might also add that the part I probably think the most about is that I know that positivity and being enthusiastic and empowering others to be happy with things is the most fulfilling thing one can do day in and day out, but for me what I lament is that I am by my nature just not that person.  Having met some powerful leaders, wonderful motivators, and just all-around badasses in my time (many of whom were at the wedding, if only for a few hours before they had to return home!), I have witnessed what they can do for others, and that’s just their natural state.  In the world I’m more of a defensive-minded person, more of a guardian, more of a sheepdog.  It’s just the way I am, and it’s what I’m best at.  How will I integrate that into being successful and truly great?

Taste

People fight so strongly for their opinions.  What for?  How about this quote?
“Good taste is a myth. A story our rider creates to serve the needs of the elephant. And the sooner you kill your good taste idol, the sooner you’re going to give yourself a chance to be a better designer. It frees you up to add taste as another tool in your designer’s toolbox. Consequently, instead of focusing on good taste, your focus becomes the right taste for the problem at hand. There’s a subtle but profound difference.”

The magic moments of online forums or of hobby-based communities are that in most of the growth stage, the conversation is dominated by doers and builders, people who are curious about the implications and who love to share positive aspects of it all.

And then I’m sorry to say but the “intellectuals” then bandwagon on, having read about it all in this or that magazine or on a prominent blog.  This is around the time when communities start becoming caustic, full of cynical comments enforcing behavior of entrenched, mature communities elsewhere.  The doers mostly get drowned out.  I saw it happen on HackerNews, and to some degree on reddit.  Those amazing comments you go to read when you first joined are replaced more and more by negative comments (and by memes, but I love memes).

These folks are full-time consumers: of culture (which they did not live in), of art (which they could not possibly create on their own), of popular culture (which they foster animosity towards but can’t help but indulge in).  A community of fast-food binge watchers.  I am an avid consumer of pop culture myself but I do feel a certain pressure to need to contribute something back: to try to find artistic outlets for my more pragmatic views, or to attempt things that are somewhat subversive.

The full-time consumers are up against the people who believe in doing, as referenced in this hackernews comment section on ageism in tech:

“I have a ton of cultural criticisms of the current tech industry, but the one thing that it is absolutely getting right is valuing creation. The damage that could have been caused by the Google/Apple cartel has been limited largely by the startup industry that, for all its faults, has as a crucial belief that the act of building things is valuable, and that people who make things are the ones who create the most value.”

Strengthening a Community

To me it seems like it would take very little actual effort to maintain the positive tone of a community and avoid the police that have made Wikipedia and StackOverflow so abhorrent to contribute to.  Active enforcement of positive messages would be a given, but bigger than that, I’d prefer a whitelist system where your reputation precedes you.  Do you have a good online history of being helpful, of encouraging others and of sharing lots of content?  Then you’re in.   Admittance is earned.

One major piece of Galapag.us that I hope to implement eventually goes along with the theme of different islands.  The islands have their own cultures, wildlife, climates — and their populations should have culture and personality that reflects it.  So each island would have its own rules for communication and culture.  For example, a welcome island would have strict rules against hurting new players, whereas another island may be a free-for-all.  But I think most islands would be somewhere in between, capped mostly by having formula requirements to gain admittance, based on a person’s stats.  Perhaps an island requires a very high reputation with very low negativity and an innate nature for helping others, so one would need to have very useful posts as well as have an “angelic” alignment.

I like anonymity, pseudonymity, and verified identity all at once.  I think they all have their place.  But I also think that one’s reputation should be compatible with a community.

So here I am.  Here we are.  Starting a new family, a new chapter in life.  I think I’ve definitely become more of a homebody as I’ve gotten older; saving money, disliking the quirks of others more, understanding which types of events are never that entertaining yet knowing which ones are really key.  I’d like to think I’m stressing meeting up with friends more now.  I definitely cherish that time.

And, to conclude, my goals:

1 Year:

  • get a substantial raise to pay off more school debt and begin having children
  • plan on where my wife and I might like to move to and live
  • crash-course on C/C++ and algorithms

2015 (37 years old):

  • fluency with computer science algorithms, data structures, searches, and sorts
  • west coast driving trip
  • scouting trips for places to live

5 Year (41 years old):

  • children
  • Galapag.us as a command-line/search box-driven game

10 Year (46 years old):

  • at the age when I should expect to create a life’s work or project that is “great” and “glorious”

 

Note: I’ll probably be adding to this, as I had trouble expressing what I wanted to say in a cohesive manner and worked on this over several nights.  I know I’m leaving tons out, and need to think more about future plans.

But hell, it’s so good to be in a state of strengthening and building now.

Introducing Cryptstagram

[This is the long version of a post I wrote for The Barbarian Group’s tumblr.  We also got written up in Wired’s design blog, Laughing Squid, and PSFK, my first time getting such large coverage!]

Periodically at The Barbarian Group, a small team of new employees and veterans with varying skill-sets are brought together to work on Project Popcorn, a side project that embodies the inventiveness, technical skills, and values of the agency.

Within my first week as a developer for the agency, I was assigned to Project Popcorn, along with a senior art director, a senior copywriter, a creative director, and a technical director.

Cryptstagram is the resultant product of our teamwork. Cryptstagram is a web site that lets you steganographically encrypt a hidden message into any image, unlockable only with a specific password, and then apply glitchy Instagram-like filters to that image.

The National Security Agency whistleblowing story had just broken, and as a result we quickly became fixated on doing something involving cryptography and, to fulfill our artistic ambitions, on doing something involving the glitch aesthetic.

Cryptstagram-5

The glitch aesthetic is popular amongst our creatives and developers because it requires technical knowledge of formats and methods underpinning systems in order to then manipulate, pixel-push, and distort those systems towards the artist’s ambitions.

As a team we spent a lot of time discussing what tone we wanted to convey with Cryptstagram. How secure should it be end-to-end to pay respect to citizens’ cryptographic requirements and expectations of privacy? Should Cryptstagram’s filters create aesthetically-pleasing images or should they reflect entropy of input and interaction from the user? To what degree did we want Cryptstagram to be a statement about the NSA and privacy in general or just a reaction to the state of our relationship with technology?

In the end we decided on a reflective tone for Cryptstagram, emphasizing a common public desire to share stylized parts of ourselves in public but other parts of ourselves in private or semi-private. We should empower ourselves with stealth and style.

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Cryptstagram-4

The Project Popcorn team also wanted to keep Cryptstagram open-ended, taking advantage of the fact that JavaScript is pervasive in users’ browsers and that most computation, SHA-1 encryption and decryption, and glitching can now be done with open source libraries, entirely on the client’s side, and using HTML5 Canvas. A JavaScript stack (Node.js/Express, MongoDB, and good ol’ jQuery) cached and served up via cloud services allows for rapid app development and easy deployment for a small creative team.

So, easily, a citizen could choose to encrypt her image with a message and save it without it ever touching an external server, then send that image via private means to intended recipients with a password that could be distributed in any number of ways. Or the citizen could share the image on Cryptstagram’s wall for others to see and even try to decrypt!

A perk of this open-ended design is that we can extend its utility: we (or you, via jsfiddle sandbox!) can add seasonally- or topically- themed filters for specific clients, a celebrity can release images with a password known only to fans, or people can use the Cryptstagram wall to create puzzles or scavenger hunts or just post encrypted messages publicly without drawing suspicion.

At The Barbarian Group, we’re invested in making things that are gonna be awesome, and in order to do so, we need to be just as able to wade through the technical limitations of CORS and CSRF as to create something people love to use and share online.

So, what creative uses can you come up with for Cryptstagram?

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.

Graduation from Formal Education

In the midst of discussion about the trade-offs of higher education versus online courses or being self-taught, cost of schooling, etc., I wanted to share what I’ve learned.

I’m 35.  I did Arabic for 63 weeks, 7 hours a day in the Army, along with military schooling in hand-t0-hand, rifle marksmanship, defensive driving, commo, hazmat, etc.  I studied tech in art school.  I did Greek/Latin in college.  I did foreign policy studies in DC.  I stopped short of a PhD because they’re perpetual and even worse of a guarantee of employment.  School was pretty exhausting: never-ending work (if you’re doing it right), constant feeling of inferiority compared to the weight of the material and depth of the field/competition, that absence of a salary or stability.  So I get it.  I get why people are saying to skip school, avoid the costs, study on your own.  But here’s how I see the current state of higher education:

Don’t Go to School Until You Know What You Want

This was not necessarily the worst thing, but college was the only option I knew about in my senior year of high school.  I didn’t know why I wanted to go to this or that college/brand, and I had no clue what I wanted to study or do with my life.  I didn’t really know my competition and I was flying blind.  My mother was extremely helpful in this regard, covering up for my glaring blind spots.  Luckily, UT Austin took the top 10% from every Texas school and UT is one of the best public schools in the country so things worked out for me.  I spent more time making money designing sites and trading stocks than going to class, in some of the semesters, though.

When I later joined the Army after college and after 9/11, I realized that I should have joined the military after high school, but there was next to zero chance that I ever would have considered that an option at the time.  The military was distant, far away, something that people like me didn’t have to suffer through.  The military’s for those kooky white kids with the buzzcuts who never smile and who take themselves too seriously — oh, and they’re probably from military pedigrees already so that’s the only life they know.  That’s the stereotype, anyway.

What it ended up being for me later in life, when I was older than most of the other kids in basic training, was my passage into adulthood.  I got disciplined, I got chiseled down to my essence, I lost my comforts, I was forced to man up, I lost the illusion that I was safe in life with what I already had, I was confronted with my utter lack of common sense.  It was isolating, humiliating, challenging, completely foreign to my former life.  But I ended up becoming competent, I found a code of values to live the rest of my life with, and I found friends who will always remain so.  I participated in an important block of American history in a fairly significant way that remains relevant even to this day (target identification, communications interception).

Some of my Army friends joined right out of high school and they were looking at a good future where they could keep military employment as skilled people who earned a good salary, or they could then go to school and know more about what fields of study would be good for them.  Instead of using college to grow up, which I feel most kids do these days, they were using college for what it should be (especially given the current cost): focus into enriching the mind.  Ex-military folks don’t often associate with other classmates, just because of the difference in life experience, but that does mean they probably are more sharply attuned to what they need to get out of their schooling.  Plus they already had the discipline from our Arabic classes and from their sergeants riding their asses to go to the library and put in the book-time once they got to school.

By the time I left the Army in 2007, when I was 27, I finally knew exactly what I wanted to do and I studied harder than I ever had before, and my grades improved.

Another alternative is the “gap” year.  I prefer this to going to college right after high school but I still think there’s a problem with it.  You don’t have any experience after high school to know how to appreciate travel.  You see the world but it’s just a long holiday.  On some of my trips (the Outback, Galápagos), I’ve started meeting more people my age who actually worked after high school or college for a good number of years (close to a decade) and then decided to quit their careers or jobs for a year or more of full-on world travel.  By that point, they had money, they had life experience, they had their wits about them, and they could really savor their trips, while at the same time benefiting from disconnecting from dead-end work or a stressful rat race.  Euros.  They have that shit figured out.

Veteran Hiring

Your mileage will certainly vary on this, but the hype about companies looking to hire veterans is hollow.  It’s like how companies are looking to hire more women, etc.  It’s just a PR thing.  But when push comes to shove, organizations usually go with what they know.  And they will take skills over taking charity cases any day of the week.

Unless you stay near military bases, or you are fortunate enough to work in security or intelligence for the federal government or in DC, then your military status is probably not going to help you much for employment.

Military experience, training, and bearing is immeasurably useful for many veterans for the rest of their lives, but for finding a job, veterans hit the wall of the HR screenings and employers who can’t relate.  Think about it.  If you’ve never been in the military, how much does it mean to you when a veteran tells you she has leadership time or a strong work ethic or discipline or experience following orders?  These are invaluable in team, individual, and hierarchical organizations, but they do not resonate for hiring because they do not indicate specific skills that are needed to perform jobs on a daily basis.

Companies don’t hire for talent, they hire for immediate return, except at the higher levels where they’ll pay any amount of money to get the best of the best.  I had one job interview where the recruiter was telling me how they changed their entire hiring practice to look for talent and the potential to learn, not to just regurgitate answers in the interview.  Next interview with someone from the department that was hiring?  Questions for regurgitating answers.  This is double-speak.

Everyone likes to think they operate like a startup, or are considerate towards work-life balance, or are attracting top talent, or are encouraging innovation, etc.  Very few actually are.

I think I got a little lucky when applying myself to jobs post-military.  In particular my first full-time job out of Georgetown was with a contractor whose executives were all ex-military officers.  I fit right in with them and thought I was able to deliver exactly the style and results they expected, very quickly.  I was also able to do another career change and get another big break but it was mainly because another boss not only was familiar with how the military integrates with technology and with society, but also had experience in politics.  I guess the point is that without familiarity with military, employers will gloss over those years spent working for Uncle Sam.

Higher Education is a Proxy for Jobs, Not a Pipeline

While it’s mostly likely true that more education and better jobs are correlated, it might be more causative to say that more education opens up more opportunities to better jobs.  What I mean by this is to say that most degrees do not lead directly to available jobs.  Unless you are doing something like computer science, accounting, or medical school, or to some degree business and law (though even JDs and MBAs are losing some of their guarantee), employment is not a certainty.

A lot of my friends ended up being English or liberal arts types, and that sort of degree leads to a life of forging your own path through uncertainty, self-doubt, lack of understanding by 90% of employers, etc.

Now, I will say, pretty much every English major I can think of is capable of producing absolutely pure magic with their words.  Their writing is sublime, they fascinate me with their insights, and they weave creativity out of thin air.  It’s interesting to me to see really creative, successful people in their 40s and 50s who were actually English majors back in the day but who had to put in a lot of hard time gaining credibility throughout their careers until eventually they became thought leaders.

As a classics major, even in 1996, I was told that there was no future of employment in that field.  I did that major because I had a lot of AP credits, which let me take a lot of random classes like astronomy, parageography, business classes, etc.

As an Arabic linguist in the Army, I was never good enough at Arabic to continue at it for a living.  Intelligence collection/analysis was definitely something I felt really good at, and I’ve continued it to some degree since, but I didn’t end up doing it as a career.  This was probably the #1 path to success that I could have followed in my life.

As a foreign policy grad student at Georgetown, even though it was the #1 ranked foreign policy school in the country, I still didn’t quite fit in.  I wasn’t fit to work in finance in NYC or international financial/economic risk evaluation in DC.  I didn’t have a good background or the personal financial backing for international development and fighting poverty.  I certainly wasn’t polished enough to be one of those suits talking policy for South Sudan.  I talked about Galapag.us for my orals presentation and my evaluators stared at me blankly (this despite my feeling that an interconnected system for tracking identity and reputation would revolutionize our ability to account for all the disconnected, anonymous, and voiceless people targeted by things such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN’s Millennium Development Goals).

As a grad student at NYU, I got to play in probably the best hackerspace in the world.  Laser cutter, 3D printers, Processing/OpenFrameworks/Rhino/Unity/etc. classes, circuit design, Arduino, node.js/python flask, all applied however we wanted to whichever art projects we could come up with.  The ITP community is unparalleled.  For me it was more of a backdoor into software development, since I learned pretty quickly that I would have to shore up my computer science deficiency.  I knew how to move about the DOM on a web page, from having made them since high school, but the world had changed and in job interviews I was getting pure coding questions on closures and sort algorithms, and I was taking tests on implementing apps from given JSON routes and doing testable Java apps and writing clever little algorithms to solve tricky problems to demonstrate coding efficiency/style.

My point in talking about all this was that school is not enough if you want to be highly employable.  In many circumstances, schooling seems to be a strong negative against employment, in terms of having the skills you need to make the cut.  School is wonderful for theory (you will probably be far more exposed to where trends are), but you will not know how to do the simple skill requirements that any employer wants a new employee to be able to do from day one.  School is also wonderful for gaining breadth, but it is not particularly good at depth unless you do targeted research into, I dunno, computer science or interface design or get a successful research topic or something.

The conclusion is that if you want to get a degree because you think it will make you more employable, you might be better off if you just work in that career area for the 2-4 years instead.  Work experience makes you far more employable than a degree, because you’ll be able to talk about how you used X and Y, even if you might not be able to explain the cultural backdrop for why X and Y came into being (which is what you would probably learn with a degree).

Learning

Limitations

I remember when my friends in school started getting better at math and science than I did.  My grades started slipping and my friends’ didn’t.  I didn’t understand how they knew how to get certain answers all the sudden, even though we sat through the same classes and did the same work.

Through so many other different contexts, modules, and learning environments, I gradually gained confidence that it wasn’t so much always that I was slower, but that the teaching methods were incorrect for me.  I think I had pretty good teachers in grade school who realized that different students had different learning styles, but teachers don’t always have time to cater to each of those kinds.

My pre-calculus homework consisted of problem sets.  But since they were made up in textbooks in which sparse examples were given and the answers certainly were NOT given except in the teacher’s answer key (and sometimes even those answers were wrong because of poor editing), I had virtually no time or backup plan for learning how to solve the problems.  If I couldn’t figure out a problem based on a simple pattern from the reading, then there was no recourse.  Nowadays, I would probably be able to google a topic and read about it to deduce the answer, but this was in the early 90’s.  I wonder how my studies would have been different if I were a kid now and I could use the internet for my homework (at the time, the internet was really only good as a social communication tool).

I would sit through class the next day as classmates breezed through the solutions.  Usually the harder questions were at the end of the problem sets so we spent more time covering those, but the questions for me started to become difficult about one-quarter through, so I didn’t want to slow down the class and ask about them.

I also liked to play tennis as a kid.  My mom I think talks about how I lost my ability to serve when I went through my growth spurt.  I went from having a fast Sampras serve to barely being able to get any serve in.  I did some classes and participated in a tennis camp regularly, but I never got any better.

I think I’ve learned that I’m not well-suited for precise tasks that require the same motion every time, hence serving is difficult.  But how would I have ever known this?  All that time wasted on something I could never find any talent in.  Sure, maybe it’s fun, but I think a kid needs to at least have one thing that she can develop confidence in.  I ended up hitting or throwing a lot of tennis balls against walls by myself instead.

Now, what methods did I find that worked for me?  The best training I ever had was for using special equipment in the Army.  Some contractor trainers came to our base to teach us.  We had a block of instruction followed by some hands-on time, followed by more block instruction.  Same as usual.  We even got time to go take the equipment out and use it out in the forest.

The key difference was that, after all that, we then had a block of hands-on time for debugging.  The trainers would break the equipment and have us figure out how to debug it and deduce how to fix it.  This meant we had to understand how to check components in order of operational logic and then figure out where the connection would break down.  From there, we could use what clues we discovered to figure out the solution.

I knew that equipment inside and out by the time we were done.  Because I understood the big picture view and chain of events.

Counter-examples are so crucial.  It’s not enough to show someone how things are done right.  You have to show someone how things are done wrong, so that, through seeing all the differences and errors, one can see the limitations of the implementation and how it actually works.  If you’ve only seen something when it’s working 100%, you’ll have no clue what to do when it breaks.

Macro

I think this was the time I learned that most schools teach things from a micro point of view.  Tiny blocks of logic with no sense of how they tied into larger blocks.  I learned that what I desperately need to know about any new thing I find is how its biggest sense works.  Once I understand that big picture, I can dive in and deduce why each inner part is there.  To extend this, what if I were taught why people need to learn computer science or biology or calculus first, instead of having faith that the teacher was telling me stuff I needed to know even if I never knew when to apply it?

In the same way, it would have been useful for motivation to learn if I had been told that I might need to know history as a field because if I wanted to, say, become a surfer, I would want to go see x film or research y first surfer’s biography, or study how z surfing equipment is made.  That is, history would not just be remembering dates, it would branch into sociology, technology, business, etc.  The common saying is that no one uses math once they get older.  But had I known that I could apply math to, say, winning more often at no-limit Texas hold ’em, or Fibonacci sequences in momentum stock trading, or even figuring out the statistics behind landing a valuable baseball card in those bubble gum packs, it really would have opened up my eyes more.

The other key learning moment I had was learning PHP.  I know people hate PHP but the PHP documentation is outstanding, at least for me.  I couldn’t find one great example but here’s the doc page for HTML special characters.   The docs will usually have a few examples, but perhaps more importantly, they will often have counter-examples to show common errors or hang-ups.  And the docs have comments where people share snippets of code to tackle certain problems.  Some languages like Java are devoid of good examples, and they have fairly obtuse documentation pages; while at this point I can decipher documentation, when I was studying the Processing language at ITP, I could see that other students just saw the documentation pages as full of gibberish.

Eric Rosenthal

Eric Rosenthal is an ITP legend.  Large, scaled, well-constructed circuits and installations.  Devotes tons of his time to help students, even with our dumbest questions.

So I was in his office asking questions about our flying robot project.  He got to a point where he was saying how people don’t care to learn anymore.  They don’t just open things up and experiment.  If they have questions about it, they don’t go look them up and read more about it.  After a point, I realized that he was somewhat referring to me.  I said that my buddy Slavek always took things apart, but I never did, and I never grasped it as well as he did.  But Rosenthal parried that it wasn’t that hard if people would actually research things and be curious about them, and I took it personally and wondered: maybe I really am not that good at these things, and my willpower to learn just pushes me to try even though I’ll always be sub-par.  It’s sobering when you wonder if you’ve reached your natural limits in a certain area.

Some questions: should we end up doing what we’re good at?  Should we do what we enjoy?  Will we ever get both?  What if we don’t really get to do either?

Teach Yourself

I am not for or against in-person education or online self-paced courses.  Personally I plan to continue studying computer science and coding languages through free online courses, but that only happens after I’ve gotten enough background to be able to pace myself through the courses and understand what’s going on, which means I probably had to have had some training beforehand.

I do feel as though sitting in actual classes and talking to people face-to-face is a necessity for education, but I feel as though that system doesn’t scale well in today’s universities.  Of course sitting in a 400-person class offers none of the benefits of physical interaction.  But even a class with 10 people makes it hard for a professor and TA to engage every student.  No one has time for it.  The student doesn’t have time for a lot of added engagement and the professor certainly doesn’t (with all the other things professors do these days).

Online courses, I think they require a high level of competency before they’re useful.  Learn coding through an online course?  I don’t think so.  But if you’re learning a new language once you’ve already learned others and coded projects in others?  Certainly.

It’s even worse if you’re not disciplined.  Will you really be conversant in, say, business, if you’ve only read through an online curriculum?

What I think would be really useful for online courses is more sharing and more competition.  This lends itself particularly well to coding.  Project Euler is great for this: it’s a set of coding problems that emphasize not so much just solving the problem but finding an efficient way to solve the problem.  You could brute force a solution (do 10k iterations) or come up with another solution that maybe only does half that many iterations.  Maybe to pass, you have to have the code complete in less than x seconds.

For papers or other projects, I never understood why we couldn’t look at each other’s work.  I mean, I kind of get it.  Students are incredibly protective of their privacy when it comes to their work and especially for grades.  But why?  If a professor can’t give tailored reviews or advice all the time, why can’t the other students?

In-Person Mentorship

Really where I think education breaks down is in mentorship.  My entire aware life I’ve been in search of mentors.  The best people I know all seek mentors.  A mentor is someone who can give you individualized, targeted guidance.  Someone who can hold you accountable, can adjust your learning as you need it, and who can give you support or advice on how you should continue.

A professor is not going to have time to push me.  One of the biggest freedoms I ever experienced was realizing once I hit grad school that I should really just write about whatever the fuck I found interesting — my grades improved and I felt like I was writing about things that were unique and important.  Up until then, I was writing about what I thought others wanted to read.  But no professor really pushed this on me.  Maybe I gained some sympathy into how, as a professor, you’d probably get really bored of reading the same crap over and over.

But my best mentors have always pushed me.  Quizzed me daily to see if I retained material.  Forced me to work on projects in new techs so I’d get hands-on.  Pushed me on certain principles to get me closer to being a seasoned professional.  And they’ve offered their reference, far better than a random reference from a professor or employer you barely knew.

Mentors need to know how to get from point A to point B, and how to identify what point someone else is at along that spectrum.  A mentor whom his student doesn’t respect will fail, and a mentor who gives scattershot advice to a student is not helping either.

Physical, one-to-one mentorship is crucial to education.  And you won’t necessarily find it through formal education.

Expectations and Greatness

I feel as though students have to push themselves in order to be great, or at least to strive for greatness.  Peers and teachers aren’t pushing students hard enough to go further than they would go on their own.  The difference is between a haphazardly written proposal or project and a fully-formed all-out attempt to make something important.

Team Projects

Related to that, I think that team-based project mindsets have led to substandard results.  Particularly in business school, the theory goes that you have to work in groups so that somehow you know how it is in “the real world” (whatever that is).  So, you’ll have to work for a few weeks on a half-formed project assignment for one class out of many others with 3-4 other classmates who have multiple other completely separate priorities.  Just like “the real world”?

I was in a horrible class in grad school where we formed 4-person groups to build a project using a technology none of us even got our hands on till the end of the course.  What’s worse, my team lost a person who dropped the course.  No one ended up having a working project at the end.

Here’s what I think should have happened.  Seen School of Rock?  I love this movie for many reasons, but I also think that the school project is brilliant.  Form a band, assign classmates to different roles.  There’s the manager, the band, lights, costumes, roadies.  This at least in theory would teach the whole class to execute on a common project but in more manageable parts that tied into an easy-to-identify goal, led by a teacher who (again, in theory) is older and has more experience to be able to bring all the parts together.

To me it would make more sense to run a class as one big project.  It’d operate more like a platoon, or like a startup.  Several smaller projects can be doomed to fail with all those moving parts.  The final product is less likely to be realized, to be made great.  It’s that 10% of extra work at the end that makes the project shine.

Apprenticeship

Another thing I don’t get.  Dislocation between education and jobs.  At least in the military, you’re more likely to go to schools that improve your ability to do your job.  In the real world, training has gone nearly to zero, because no one can afford to lose their employees.  And kids coming out of school are not going to know the software or tools needed for the jobs they’re applying for.

Why are there not more programs where students get education in exchange for a contract of employment guaranteed for x years?  Why wouldn’t companies have more of an interest to train future employees from an earlier age so they can produce more efficient workers?

Well I’m guessing the answer is because companies are mostly flying by the seats of their pants, have no long-term vision, and can’t afford anything beyond the short-term value of employees.

Cost and Brand

The cost of education doesn’t make much sense.  The problem is that there isn’t much of a choice.  Those $1k scholarships you can win are ineffectual.  Unpaid internships in exchange for credit are usually useless versus your just taking another course.  The cost of not going to school could be huge, unless you find a pipeline career that lets you avoid school.  So is school worth the cost?  The only reason it’s not worth the cost is you absolutely can’t pay for it (unfortunately education is becoming, as tradition has mostly held, only for the elite) or you have a career already.

Now, brand.  Brand matters for strange reasons.  Top finance firms care about brand, not because those schools (Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Wharton, etc.) produce smarter students necessarily, but because the employer knows it is getting a certain personality from that school, and, believe it or not, certain values.  Different schools do manage to inculcate their values (if they have any) into the students, particularly at stronger brands.  In that way, pedigree is important to employers.

Some random anecdotes that I came across: the only person I heard getting into Yale out of my interview group went to an arts magnet school, the only person I heard from my interview group for Booz Allen Hamilton to get in was from Carnegie Mellon (solid engineering/CS).

The Future

So here’s where we are.  A bunch of mercenaries for hire, fighting over each other for the next short-term contract (i.e. a job).  Get rich or die tryin’.  School is a fun place where some of that competitiveness goes out the window and you get to experiment and play a bit.  But there are only a few places in the employed world where you get to do that.  And fewer places where that sort of job is living-wage.

Education won’t necessarily bring you comfort and stability, whereas sticking with a job, gaining seniority, that seems to lead to, in most cases, winning the war of attrition, when everyone else has left.

It’s true that the best can succeed.  Good grades, good school, good athleticism, good looks, these things do translate into success.  For the rest of us, though, we have to find other things.  For me, I derailed my own success more times than I can count, and since I never could keep up with grades or talent, I did my best by trying to work harder than the rest, and I’ve tried multiple careers in order to find happiness, stability, and success.

And if it’s been hard for me, it’s got to be really hard for others.  Or am I making it far harder on myself than it needs to be?  Why do I know so many extremely gifted people with fabulous work ethic, force multipliers in pretty much every aspect of society they contribute to, who are struggling to get even the most basic entry-level jobs?

Is this the future we want?  Or can we strive to build something more sustainable?

Payoff

What I think I’ve learned is that school is not a viable option for most people, and not because it’s expensive (I still believe it’s worth the lifetime of intellectual freedom), but mostly because there is no tangible connection to an eventual payoff except in parenthetical ways.  That is, yes, you will meet people who you end up being close with and end up marrying/working with.  You might even gain some pedigree or credibility.  If you’re lucky, the time you spent studying will help you crack into your first job and into further promotions.  But it’s not a sure thing.

I think the best payoff right now is to take a job with reasonable mobility and just stay in it.  Climb the chain, outlast your peers, get marginal promotions.  You’ll do better if you balance this with changing jobs so that you can negotiate higher salaries.  But changing industries, or leaving industry to go to school, these are massive momentum killers.  Think about it: would a company want to hire a new unproven person or hire someone internally who uses all the dumb, arbitrary software stacks only that company uses?

Feedback

I’ve generalized in a lot of ways here and in other ways it’s very personalized to my own experience.  I know a few of you are professors, other students, people who chose lucrative and not-so-lucrative fields of study.  I’d be interested to hear your opinions on education.

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!

A Trendsmap.com Look at the World

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

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

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

Easy:

And less obvious:

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

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

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

Interactive Coding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Websockets

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drones

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

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

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

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

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

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

FaceShift

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

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

Holy Grails That are Still Missing

Self-Recording

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

Problem with it is threefold:

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

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

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

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

Decentralization

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

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

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

In Closing

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

Redial Final Project: Hermes Ordering System

In my Redial class, we learned about the dark arts of telephony in an age of digital, packets, and VOIP.  Once we learned the basics of operating in an Asterisk telephony server environment, we moved on to how to write scripts in Ruby, bash, whatever to interact with Asterisk during a phonecall.  We set up our own Rackspace servers loaded up with Asterisk and used our professor’s script to install needed software on its Ubuntu instance.  I’ve saved that script to add extra stuff when I’m setting up a new Ubuntu server from scratch.  Ubuntu basic literacy is now attained.

That part was fun enough, but it started to get interesting when our badass professor, Chris Kairalla, published some code to Github for interacting with a web front-end in JavaScript by using socket.io, node.js, and a Ruby-Asterisk Gateway Interface script interfacing with calls placed to Asterisk. That’s when the realm of ideas greatly opened up.  Real-time interaction with the phone dialpad to control a screen, an Arduino, robots, electric switches, whatever.  And with the explosion of JavaScript and Node.js, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Here are the class notes:  http://www.itp-redial.com/class/

And the Github repo: https://github.com/itp-redial/

I set out with confidence, knowing I could use Professor Kairalla’s brilliant tinyphone code, which provided the framework to facilitate an incoming call into a caller object that one could manipulate in the web page DOM.

My idea was to build a bar or restaurant menu displayed on screens around a bar which would let customers place orders by just pressing digits on their phone, instead of waiting on waitstaff or having a gimmicky touchscreen or table screen.  The orders would be tied to someone’s phone number so paying for bills wouldn’t require the awkward splitting up of the bill, and customers would be able to use a very personal device to them, their own cellphone, to control interaction in the bar/restaurant.  Orders could be processed quickly, verified afterwards, and immediately incorporated into a database which could provide business intelligence in the form of statistics on food orders, frequencies, favorites for each customer, etc. All in a scalable, modular framework such as Node.js + Express.

Previous blog documentation: post #1.

Demo video:

Screenshots of some functionality:

Initially I figured I’d follow advice and build out the API first.  For that, I’d need an admin dashboard to perform CRUD operations to build up the menu.  I’m pretty tired of having to build out AJAX and menus to add, remove, edit, etc. so I’ve started building a Node.js app with all that stuff built-in, including JSON operations and other common usage events so I don’t have to keep testing it.  Anyway, I got my menu add functions working so I quickly started adding all my favorite Stellas, Dark & Stormies, Mojitos, etc.

Then I spent most of my development time building an interface that could only use the dialpad numbers 1-9, 0, *, and #.  Because I was fairly ill-versed with JavaScript still, I actually ended up refactoring my interface about three or four times, each time becoming more and more modular, using JavaScript objects which contained each “menu” (i.e. a beer menu that would point to each individual beer’s screen, which would pass to another object that would fill out a screen to let you order the beer) pushed into an interface that had no more than 8-9 choices.  Then the screen would have to have text displayed large enough to read, yet still accomodate perhaps 3-4 simultaneous callers at once.

var menuFoodObj = {
	name : "Food/Drinks Menu",
	upMenu : "Main",
	currentMenu : "Food",
	id : "",
	p : ["", "Beer", "Wine", "Liquor", "Non-Alcoholic Drinks", "Water", "Burger", "Specials", "Chips & Salsa"],
	pClick : ["", "Beer", "Wine", "Liquor", "Other", "Water", "Burger", "Specials", "Chips"]
}

By the end of the refactoring though, I had a really nice (but still a little soupy) interface of JavaScript objects being pushed into the DOM by jQuery.  I learned OO JavaScript pretty well although I didn’t understand fully how to create new objects and then properly make methods for objects (I was declaring new functions within objects).  Since I did most of the development and testing just using the web browser and mouseclicks, I was happy when all my refactoring allowed me to easily map a phone’s keypresses to the interface interactions using jQuery’s .triggerHandler event.  My code is still quite soupy though, and I think I’m about ready to learn backbone.js for injecting data from models into a static template — it would have been perfect for this type of project where the layout remains mostly the same but the data changes frequently.  I’m happy, though, that it was easy for me to instantiate new user objects (e.g. user[1] = new User();) for the 4 users that Hermes currently supports.

I actually ran into a weird problem after I’d hooked in caller keypresses, which I thought at first was within the DOM.  Keypresses from my softphone (I used Zoiper to connect via SIP) were happening twice and I thought the click event handler was being called twice in the DOM.  This did not occur on normal phone calls over, say, a cellphone.  Further inspection saw two keypresses coming across in Asterisk:

 <SIP/general_sip-000000ae>AGI Rx << WAIT FOR DIGIT -1
 <SIP/general_sip-000000ae>AGI Tx >> 200 result=50
 <SIP/general_sip-000000ae>AGI Tx >> 200 result=50

Prof. Kairalla found that we were actually picking up feedback on my laptop from the call being made over the software.  Once we muted my laptop, the audio wasn’t being sent to the Asterisk server, which had been detecting the extra audio as what it assumed was an extra keypress.

I added an option to check news headlines from Google News’ API, which has been deprecated so will probably disappear soon?  The other bad thing about this was that you can’t really link to the body of an article since 1) Google News just provides the link and the source’s weak abstract and 2) news sources are so proprietary about people stealing their content.  APIs always leave a bad taste in my mouth because they’re hamstrung from the outset.  Anyway, there’s a definite art to creating headlines, as I learned in my previous job covering the news cycle, and most headlines are expertly packed with relevant info, enough for you to get an idea of things just at a glance.

I also added features for sending drinks/orders to another table, to facilitate social interaction within the bar.  Trivia can be played as well, though it wasn’t built into a central system where scores are kept.  Right now it just tests a user’s response against the correct answer and then generates a random question.  Another feature added was to flirt with other tables and send them messages.

I used Flowroute, which was super easy to set up in my sip.conf and extensions.conf for Asterisk, using Flowroute’s web-based cheatsheets for config settings unique to my account.  Very nice set-up screens there.

emailjs and Twilio

To process orders (when someone wishes to buy a beer, but he hasn’t received it yet) and tabs (for delivered food/drinks), I took advantage of node.js’s awesome modules and found emailjs, which lets you package up a JS object and send it as an email via SMTP to, say, gmail.  So when a customer places an order in Hermes, the order is sent via email to the company for later verification.  Easy, piece of cake.  Can be used with any SMTP server you have an account on and that has permissions.

Then Prof. Kairalla mentioned that it would be great if a customer received a text message thanking them after they close their tab.  So I bought a phone number on Twilio ($1/mo) and used the Twilio SMS API to package up another JS object with the tab details, and then have it again email the company but also text msg the caller with his closed tab details.  I actually had some problems with this and didn’t like the available Node.js modules (because they didn’t include examples for SMS), but luckily I found Dustin McQuay’s godsend blog post in which he posts some easy node.js code as a sendSMS() function, which I used to get my Twilio SMSs working.  I then had further problems but I found out I had pasted in the wrong Twilio auth token, so once I re-checked that, it then worked!  I feel as though the auth token changed because I funded my Twilio account, changing it from a free account to a paid one, and changing the token.  I assume?  Anyway, too much time wasted on that…

I also got a fraud alert from my credit card after trying to fund my Twilio.  Apparently they get a lot of fraudulent credit card funds, which makes sense since I’m pretty sure telephony and stuff related to it are havens for people trying to commit fraud, fake identities, and game systems.  But my credit card company cleared my purchase and I was fine within minutes.  Just thought it was worth mentioning.

Conclusion

I demo’d this in class and had 4 people call in.  They quickly broke it, but it was mostly the display of each person’s menu on the page.  That’s an easy UI fix.  I also found that I would need to make each person’s number more clearly visible so he’d know which interface he’d be working on.  But I felt like people were very quickly navigating through the menus and would learn it fairly quickly once they figured out it was just using a phone dialpad.  One thing that broke the demo was that the bottom bar (telling you how to use ‘*’, ‘0’, and ‘#’) got pushed down so people couldn’t see it.  Big problem there!

This app works hand in hand, I think, with my other app, Karaoke Flow.  I would love to create products to make the bar/restaurant/club/concert/dance party/rave/big gathering experience more enjoyable for people looking to have a kickass time and more profitable for the businesses providing it to them.

And I’m blown away with what is possible now with socket.io and Node.js.  All these projects I’ve wanted to do, like a web-based MUD to hook into Galapag.us, real-time chat, real-time flowing data, it’s now possible.  Love it.  And Redial…what a great class.  It’s recaptured the mystique of phones before they went smartphone, the weirdness and coolness of the phonebooth which has become a portal in pop culture (Doctor Who, The Matrix, Danger Mouse), and the fun of messing with somewhat quirky and buggy technology after it’s fallen out of vogue.  And to see how easy it is to set up a Vonage-like system!

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.