Sunday, May 31, 2009

Swamp thing

Swamp beast, from the 2009 Maker Faire.

A very mild political tinge to this year's version:
Following on President Obama's call to "begin again the work of remaking America", Maker Faire 2009 will be organized around the theme of Re-Make America.
Or in other words, America may have lost almost all of its industrial manufacturing capabilities, but at least we still have technohipster artists who can make custom vehicles in the shape of a giant metal snail that shoots flames from its eye-stalks. Can they save us?

The present-day computer industry stemmed from an interesting confluence of large-scale government/academic/industrial forces and the counterculture. You can feel the Make people trying to recreate something similar for the more physical world of manufacturing, but it's not quite there yet. The times are different and so is the domain. Still, the kind of energy that this movement is collecting and unleashing is one of the more hopeful things in today's world.

Another random favorite: Hackerbot Lab's machine for shrinking a coin by applying 15kjoules of electricity.

A more serious and interesting service: Ponoko, a company that lets designers upload plans, manufactures the pieces on demand using a laser cutter, and makes a marketplace for the resultant gewgaws (sort of like the next level of Etsy, who was also there and apparently now has a developer API).

[Update: well, I picked a good day for this observation. But the conflence of the Faire and an American manufacturing icon sliding off into bankruptcy and the dole gave me an idea: the government should fund the creation of hackerspaces (more the machine-shop kind than the computer kind) in communities where there are massive numbers of laid-off blue-collar workers, like the town in Tenessee whose population grew by 16x due to Saturn plant which is slated for shutdown. It would give them something to do, possibly a way to learn new skills, and who knows, maybe the next steam engine or personal computer might come out of it.]

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

Two items for all of those caught up and destroyed by the periodic death spirals that our species specializes in.

Random thought: I remember having one of those minor flashes of illumination about how the world works when I was reading something about WWI -- maybe it was Hemingway -- that described the role of the Military Police in warfare, which was chiefly to prevent desertion by arresting or shooting those soldiers who did not feel like participating in the collective death machine. All of a sudden one part of the institutional structures that make war possible was clear to me. A soldier on the front lines with his gun and bayonet has a structure of violence behind him as well as in front of him; he has a gun to his back wielded by his "superiors" to deal with, as well as those of the enemy. Here's an article about those who try to break out of this trap.

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you'll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, 'They are dead.' Then add thereto,
'Yet many a better one has died before.'
Then, scanning all the o'ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

Charles Sorley (1895-1915)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

9/11 in perspective

I haven't always been Noam Chomsky's biggest fan. There's a certain one-dimensionality that infects both his linguistics and his political analyses. Nevertheless I hope I share some of his genes because at age 81 he's still bringing it:
Horrifying as [9/11] was, however, it could have been worse. Suppose that the perpetrators had bombed the White House, killed the president and established a vicious military dictatorship that killed 50,000 to 100,000 people and tortured 700,000, set up a huge international terror center that carried out assassinations and helped impose comparable military dictatorships elsewhere, and implemented economic doctrines that so radically dismantled the economy that the state had to virtually take it over a few years later.

That would indeed have been far worse than September 11, 2001. And it happened in Salvador Allende's Chile in what Latin Americans often call "the first 9/11" in 1973. (The numbers above were changed to per-capita US equivalents, a realistic way of measuring crimes.) Responsibility for the military coup against Allende can be traced straight back to Washington. Accordingly, the otherwise quite appropriate analogy is out of consciousness here in the US, while the facts are consigned to the "abuse of reality" that the naive call "history."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Be Kind to Your Web-footed Friends, For A Duck May Be Somebody's Mother

Since commenters have been impugning my patriotism, I must share this picture of the SF Ballet School Student Showcase production of Stars and Stripes that I saw last night, a piece based on a set of John Philip Sousa marches choreographed by George Balanchine, with 24 ballerinas wearing endearingly ridiculous costumes, creating an effect that crossed a 4th of July parade with the Rockettes. The male dancers were dressed as Union army soldiers, which led me to expect another group to come out dressed in Confederate gray and re-enact the Civil War as a dance-off, but that didn't happen. The use of the Liberty Bell March (better known for the opening music of Monty Python's Flying Circus) also helped lighten the proceedings.

Classical ballet dancers constitute the most international and cosmopolitan subculture you can imagine; having them re-enacting the forms of traditional small-town American patriotism has got to involve a hint of friendly parody.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Obama sucks; Bush sucks slightly less than we thought

For the record, I highly disapprove of at least the following actions of the Obama administration, all of which serve to continue or cover up the atrocious policies of his predecessor:
  • failing to appoint a special prosecutor to deal with the crimes of the Bush administration

  • suppressing the release of torture photos

  • bringing back military tribunals

  • using the state secrets defense to try to avoid judicial review of the policy of "extraordianry rendition".
Greenwald has been covering this stuff in excruciating detail and holding Obama's feet to the fire.

All of these are appalling, if not exactly surprising. I never thought Obama was some sort of left-wing messiah, but I did expect him to stand up for civil liberties a little bit more than this. Oh well.

And this commentary on the recent revelations of Donald Rumsfeld's power plays actually makes George Bush come off as slightly sympathetic, in that he was at least willing to override some of the worse people in his administration, once in a while.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Do Androids Dream of Electric Justice?

Obama must be a master of some sort of dark-art political aikido. How else could he get his opponents to come out against empathy? Obama mentioned that he'd want to nominate a justice with the capacity to exhibit this quality:
Now, the process of selecting someone to replace Justice Souter is among my most serious responsibilities as President. So I will seek somebody with a sharp and independent mind and a record of excellence and integrity. I will seek someone who understands that justice isn't about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book. It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people's lives – whether they can make a living and care for their families; whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation.

I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving as just decisions and outcomes...
Jeff Sessions (R-Jesusland) responded:
"The danger of that is: what is empathy? Empathy is a totally non-objective standard. It is utterly subjective. In other words, I don't like you so I have no empathy for you, but I have empathy for your opponent therefore I'm going to tilt the playing field in favor of the person who's suing you or you are suing.
Or as SadlyNo shortered it:
You know who had empathy? Hitler, that's who.
So I guess the Republican position is that we need to screen all prospective jurists with the Voight-Kampff Empathy Test and exclude those who pass.

This is sure to be another winning strategy for the GOP. Everyone wants a justice system packed with replicants. What with them already successfully running the Terminator for governor of California I'm beginning to think that the party may already be a front for a robot takeover.

There's been much commentary about this, but I liked this one by Jonah Lehrer points out that the lack of empathy is not impartiality but psychopathy, and also pointed out that Adam Smith laid out how empathy was the basis of morality and justice a couple hundred years ago.

Empathy is one of those concepts that cuts across and connects a whole swathe of things I'm interested in, including personhood, group formation and polarization, artificial intelligence, and politics. My dissertation (which was ostensibly about novice programming environments) was partly taken over by the question of how one attributes agency to things, and how one applies certain cognitive frames to quasi-animate objects that enable projection, identification, attribution of goals and emotions. The question of empathy in politics was how commenter Michael and I started our long and tedious debate – I thought that it was useful to apply empathetic thinking to the activities of criminals, he thought that it was just awful and you shouldn't. And of course, it was a central theme of Phil Dick's work.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Nonviolence entrepeneurs

Followup to The Organization of (Non)-Violence

Reader bhyde introduced me to the useful term "violence entrepreneurs" (originating with political scientist Charles Tilly, I believe). I'm somewhat pleased and somewhat annoyed (and not very surprised) to find that some ideas that I had come up with on my own were already somebody's longstanding research speciality. These violence entrepreneurs specialize in building boundaries, polarizing populations, and heightening conflict. A growth industry.

More-or-less coincidentally, I happened recently to see a film about some nonviolence entrepreneurs: the documentary Encounter Point, which is about a variety of Israeli and Palestinian activists who are trying to establish dialog, reduce the level of hatred and distrust, and generally promote the opposite of what a violence entrepreneur would do.
Encounter Point is an 85-minute feature documentary film that follows a former Israeli settler, a Palestinian ex-prisoner, a bereaved Israeli mother and a wounded Palestinian bereaved brother who risk their lives and public standing to promote a nonviolent end to the conflict. Their journeys lead them to the unlikeliest places to confront hatred within their communities. The film explores what drives them and thousands of other like-minded civilians to overcome anger and grief to work for grassroots solutions. It is a film about the everyday leaders in our midst.
Some of the people featured belong to a group called the Bereaved Families Forum. These are parents whose children have been killed in the course of the conflict, and somehow managed to get beyond the natural feelings of anger and hate and confront the larger problem. They seem to wield an awful moral authority, bought at the maximum price, and are deploying it as best they can.

The film left me somewhat unsatisfied. I wanted to be able to dive deeper: what sort of process did these people go through to arrive at their current mission? How did they manage to transcend the parochical emotions of hte conflict and approach it as a broken system? An 85-minute documentary can only give hints of answers to this question. I also wanted to see a broader picture: how are these peace efforts being met in the larger context of Israeli and Palestinian society? Is any headway being made? Are these isolated efforts of a few individuals, or is this potentially a broader movement? Again, not something a short documentary can answer. Efforts at peace and reconciliation are not new; and these aren't the only ones. The film's website includes a list of over 100 organizations working in some way for peace, justice, and human rights in the context of the conflict. So, with all this goodwill, what's the problem? Why haven't they won yet? Or, a better question, what would it take for these efforts to be stronger, to prevail over the forces that lead to violence and conflict?

One quote that leaped out at me was when one of the activists said something like "The politicians want to use our grief as an excuse for further violence, and we have to stop them". So there is a realization that prolonging the conflict is in some people's interests. But what does it take for everyone to realize that, to decide that the real enemy is not the other side, but the violence entrepreneurs on both sides?

Friday, May 01, 2009

Real Labor Day; Technical Work; Open Source Economics

Today is the real labor day; the one in September was an effort to disassociate the more conservative parts of the labor movement from the radical factions. May Day was relabeled as "Loyalty Day" by Eisenhower.

I'll link to this post I did on the fake labor day a couple of years ago on the nature of programming work.

Very few people in the computer industry seem to care about the unequal distribution of monetary gains in the technosphere. That some people get to be zillionaires while others slave away in cubicles seems very normal. In the heart of Silicon Valley where I work, everyone thinks they are going to get rich, and a significant enough fraction does. The open-source movement, a great idea in many ways, has only intensified the concentration of financial gain, where a few people who manage to occupy a strategic location in the system end up profiting over the unpaid work of others. Almost nobody seems to be critiquing this, but one exception is Seth Finkelstein, who focuses on how the unpaid labor of thousands of Wikipedia writers and editors has not only enriched the world, but a few individuals who get to take credit for this vast network of volunteers.

Oh well, I'm just bitter because I have managed pretty well to avoid getting rich, my interests have always either been non-commerical and/or mistimed (I had a proposal for a www-like system in 1986, a few years before the actual web took off). Luck has a lot to do with who wins in a winner-take-all economy; so does having a particular personality type. We live in a culture that worships outrageous success and disdains those whose accomplishments are modest. The genius of the labor movement was in giving a voice to the ordinary, in glorifying the mundane. Only partly successful, of course -- the dynamics that lead to inequality of status are powerful and perhaps innate to human existence; the global market economy did not invent them, it just perfectly embodies them.

The labor movement was a response to the dislocations of the industrial revolution. We are in the midst of a postindustrial revolution; new economic forms are being invented as we speak (virtualized companies, open source projects, intellectual commons...) and who knows how that's going to shake out. Nobody seems to have a very good model for how the information economy (where goods are expensive to create and free to reproduce) should relate to the everyday economy of scarcity, of things like food and energy. Open-source is creating great value for the world while the people who create it have to beg and scrounge to support their efforts. This seems wrong and unsustainable in the long term.