Wetmachine Blog: I Fear These Things

Enough

I’ve created plenty of technical solutions that were demonstrably effective, yet failed to change the world because they were not integrated with the users’ personal culture (or lifestyle) and social culture (or ecosystem). For years I’ve been analyzing these connections on this blog, and I expect I’ll still be learning for years to come.

I think these interconnections ought to be part of the current national discussion that follows this week’s latest mass shooting.Yesterday, a parent at our son’s school wrote to the elementary school list inviting parents to join a gun protest in our little suburban downtown. When asked, I told my wife I didn’t want to go — that I felt deeply but that I didn’t know what I wanted to accomplish by protesting. “Shut up. You’re going,” she said. I ended up talking with a lot of people, and I feel I learned something.

Almost everyone seems to feel that it is now time to break away from our usual daily concerns to focus for a while on what the hell we’re going to do about this. It’s time. No one knows exactly how, but people want to help. They want to have a conversation. There’s a great overwhelming need for people to try to understand what it is that they think. To form an opinion. To accomplish some sort of effective change, because things are not ok, and our failure to address gun violence is no longer acceptable.

There also seems to be consensus that there are at least three components to the lethal events we are seeing:

  • the availability of a guns — i.e., a technical tool
  • an individual but widespread attachment to violence — i.e., a personal culture
  • an inadequate mental health system — i.e., our social ecosystem

My own views are still evolving, but I’m starting to collect some strongly held beliefs:

  • It’s best to address all of these in a comprehensive way. Leaving out any of the three elements may lead to failure.
  • We are becoming increasingly dependent on medicating children and relying on schools to monitor their mental health. This appears to create a problem as young men leave the school system.
  • Many people, almost always men, are drawn to a culture that celebrates violence for its own sake and as a means of settling issues. People are drawn to gore, bullying, and destruction. Most of us effected don’t act on such impulses, but I know that when I feel wronged and powerless, even my presumably healthy mind is constrained by only the thinnest of lines. Movies, music, video games, and advertisements celebrating aggression are either causes or effects of this culture. Maybe both. So are some sports, business, and political cultures. It is absurd to attack some of these potential sources of a culture-of-violence, without also considering the effect of gun fetishism itself. And I believe in shedding light on dark corners, but can we do this without making the killers famous? Please?
  • Guns are a hugely powerful force multiplier. When used as directed, the meekest can be lethal to many in just moments. We send out soldiers and policemen with assault rifles, shotguns and handguns — not swords, knives, or machetes — precisely because they are so effective. It is absurd to not consider having at least the same controls on the deployment or exercise of guns as we have on explosives, poisons, automobiles, radios, drugs good and bad, home ownership, bank accounts, marriage licenses, driving while black, or working while brown.

There are may things I still don’t understand. For example, I’m ignorant of what factors are driving the increasing medication of children or using schools for monitoring and assessment instead of for education.  I don’t understand why so many people stopped to thank us for protesting. Most were parents or grandparents. Quite a few, like the retired Connecticut State Trooper who spoke almost randomly with us for an hour, were not for gun control per se. But all those who walked up or leaned out their cars to thank us seemed to feel that it was desperately important to be doing something, and they seemed to feel that simply voicing our concerns and facilitating discussion was itself the start of doing something. People seemed to feel that their distress was not theirs alone, and that everyone should know that. By contrast, I don’t understand what some people — always older white women — were thinking when they shook their heads disapprovingly as they drove by our little protest. I don’t think these people were in favor of shooting children, but it seemed that they felt that such conversation or protest was inappropriate, or maybe beneath them.  Maybe they think we were being reactionary or sensationalist. Maybe they’re right. Maybe the most important thing that I just don’t get is a sort of fundamentalist interpretation of law. Not a small number of white men, never with children in tow, and who are were clearly had never been inclined to study either law or history, were somehow fervently devoted to what they felt was intended (though not actually written) into the constitution. I’m not talking here about discussion of what is or isn’t a problem, but rather the idea that some discussion is some sort of thought-crime that must not be spoken. Several such men yelled out their car window. One walked up to us and salaciously predicted that the next massacre would surely top fifty children dead. Another got into my daughter’s face and talked about how he enjoyed killing pigs. All swore that guns didn’t kill people and the second amendment said that they could, end of story. Frankly, although I know many nice people with guns, these guys made me feel like guns are for schmucks. (Unfair, I know. But that’s what these creeps made me feel.)

Anyway, I still don’t know the answer. I think there’s plenty of opportunity for technology to help “enforce the laws we have.” (If my phone can alert security folks or disable itself when in certain zones, so can a gun.) I think we can change laws. A neighborhood watch guy suggested that we team up with people like him — who may or may or may not be “gun nuts”, but who definitely want to help protect people.  The state trooper urged us to demand that sherif departments expand “D.A.R.E.”-like programs to include perhaps violence, bullying, and mental health. Campaign that Guns Are For Schmucks. The idea of taxing bullets is sounding less facetious. Or mandatory gun insurance. But let’s discuss this, and let’s not keep anything off the table.

Also posted in Inventing the Future | Comments closed

These “Clouds” Have a Dark Lining

Do you like dealing with your cable company or your bank? How would you like to resolve an account issue with them if they had cut off access to all your documents, email, contacts, pictures, links, and all else digital in your life?

It is important to recognize that the term “Cloud” is a pernicious misnomer. This isn’t Napster or Bit Torrent or a DHT. As both legally and technically implemented today, your vital data is not stored in the ether, owned and accessible only to you. It is simply stored on a huge corporation’s servers, accessible and controllable by them for any purpose and disclosure whatsoever, and with no protections for continued access by you. Ah, but Google are “good guys”, right? Well, any Google employee will tell you that the cult is not one of actions and good works of the form “do no evil”, but rather a self-ruling predestined “don’t BE evil.”

Anyway, we don’t have to imagine or guess what will happen. It has already has. Read the tale of Thomas Monopoly. There are bound to be many more concerning aspects of the still-experimental g+, such as this one. Indeed, my G+ invitation came through the artist and storyteller known as Cheeseburger Brown. He has now had to shut down his g+ account for fear of running afoul of Google’s anti-pseudonymity policy. Even as Google decides to make his commercial and artistic identity a social unperson, the man who illustrated the modern anticorporatist 1984 cannot risk loosing his gmail or blogger access. When I tried to comment on the corpse of his g+ identity, I am told only that “There was a problem updating your comment.” The point is not the degree to which these or comparable Facebook incidents are defensible or temporary, but rather that the Monopoly affair is not an isolated incident.

As a child I used to wonder how whole populations in history could collectively engage in self-ruination. Through the work of experimental economists such as Vernon Smith, we now know that people do indeed create market bubbles and bubbles of perception around ideas that they know to not be true, but which they’d like to get away with being temporarily true. Whether wanton violence during war or rapacious speculation in a housing bubble, people will abandon the rules they have always lived by as long as they believe that many others are now doing so as well. (I do not think we yet understand which people will abandon which beliefs under which circumstances.)

With this in mind, I have no doubt that people in this second part of the Information Age will happily give up their most important information to corporations that offer no protection for it whatsoever.

I do not think that the US government is currently inclined to help, nor the US voter inclined to demand protection for individuals. Read the tale of The United States v. Aaron Swartz. Among the principles we have collectively abandoned recently, is the dictum that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Hundreds of years ago, we designed our system of government with each limited-power group counterbalancing each other, and simultaneously modeled our economic philosophy the same way. But now we have radically allowed no limitation on the power, control, “speech”, access or operations of the largest corporations. We ignore the evidence of the effects of that we see today on our environment, economy, and government process. What we will soon have, then, is internationals answerable to no one, with access to everything.

Also posted in Inventing the Future | 5 Comments (Comments closed)

Augmented Reality Two-Step

Step 1: An R/C hoverplane with a built-in camera that displays on the control app (on an iPhone).

Step 2: Remember Rainbows End? Here’s the same as above, adding virtual weapons.

Cool stuff (and somewhat terrifying) from AR Games. Hat tip to Julian for pointing it out.

Also posted in Inventing the Future, The Age of Imagination | 1 Comment (Comments closed)

Everyone in the Pool

The US Senate just passed a bill to outlaw discrimination in employment or insurance based on genetic testing. No one voted against it. It is expected to pass the house and be signed by President Bush.

No one thinks it’s ok to base insurance on genetic information?

Then why the hell do we allow insurers to charge so much more based on the absence of a Y chromosome? (I own a day care that is unusual in providing insurance for our staff. They are mostly women, and the extra costs are staggering.)

I had thought that insurance was supposed to be about pooled risk. Actuarial studies were supposed to be used to figure out how much total risk the insurer faced, so that they could set overall rates to be solvent and actually provide their service when needed. Instead, insurers seem today to default on payments. Moreover, they seem to use actuarial studies (and past-payments to individuals) to manage profit from micro-pools or individual accounts. Instead of being about pooled risk, today’s insurance is more like an individual savings plan.

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Cheney assumes presidency tomorrow

When President Reagan was shot, Vice President Bush Sr took over for a short time. That was the only time the VP had ever assumed the power of a living president before or since — until the current administration.

Tomorrow will be the second time that Cheney has done this. (Washington Post story)

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Neuron

These folks do great work, and I’d like to get them building stuff for Croquet. But this little movie (second image down) is creepy. Looks like an illustration for one of John’s books.

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Tales of the Obermind

This description of the motivation and effect of digital rights management in Windows Vista is making the rounds. Probably not fair and balanced, but certainly scary enough for Wetmachine readers.

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I need help

There’s a lot that the nation needs to clean up in the aftermath of Katrina. I have faith that we will — as long as we don’t get bored, pour another drink, and choose to feel better before the work is really done. Racism. Bureaucracy. Anarchy. Incompetence. Posse Comitatus.

There’s a particular issue that I’m interested in. I’m looking for is a word or phrase to help me define a tiny a piece of what I’m seeing. The concept isn’t any more or less important than the others that are being discussed. I’d like to find a label for the concept, so that we can talk about it, without simply saying “President Bush is bad.” That just cuts off conversation for 50% of the country. That’s not fair, and it doesn’t fix the problem.

There’s something happening here.
What it is ain’t exactly clear.
There’s a man with a gun over there.
Telling me I’ve got to beware.

The concept that I’m thinking about goes back to classical Rome. One faction would simply kill its enemies. It would reward only its political members. A guard would bear fasces before The Leader in a triumphant parade. Then the leader of the faction would eventually be murdered. It was all something like a To-The-Death form of a generic T-shirt that I’ve recently seen: “The local sports team from my area can beat the local sports team from your area.”

We’ve seen a lot of this from Karl Rove. Outing spies that criticize the administration, telling Barbara Walters how he was beat up as a geeky kid but nobody’s beating him up now, or openly excluding industry experts from US delegations to trade conferences because “They didn’t win the election.” We’ve seen it in blue state vs red state discretionary spending and base closings, and we’ve seen it in on-the-ground preparations for New Orleans vs Houston. I feel this is wrong, but it isn’t obviously and universally regarded as wrong.

My Republican wife is convinced that this is some sort of partisan genocide. I’m looking for a word that describes this as obviously and blatantly a Bad Idea. Not just soccer hooligans rooting for their team, but partisan soccer hooligans with their fingers on the Button.

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where are they now?

Any conclusions from the following?

* Since 9/11, the portion of DARPA’s computer science budget going to universities has dropped drastically from $214M to $123M. (Pretty paltry, in my biased opinion.)

* Universities (at least the one’s I’m familiar with) are typically prohibited from doing classified research on campus.

* The total DARPA computer science budget over the same period has actually increased slightly, from $546M to $583M.

* DARPA’s Total Information Awareness project, initially unclassified, has officially been ended by Congress.

* The last year in which Ashcroft had requested unclassified funding for TIA was 2004. He had asked for something north of $100M.

Say, what is Ashcroft doing since going back into “private” life? What is Poindexter up to?

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President Bush is no Hitler.

I have a number of friends and relations that have supported George W. Bush in the past. It’s pretty hard to admit you’re wrong, and these folks still support him. So I’m going to write this out in one burst, for fear that I won’t have the balls to click “submit” if I bother to make this a coherent argument.

I feel that if we return George W. Bush to office, we’re a bad people. While what the Bush administration is doing is not as bad as what the Nazis did, folks who work to keep Bush in power are doing the same thing in their turn as those who supported the Nazis when they knew what they were doing was wrong. This includes folks who have given a record $200 million dollars directly to Bush’s re-election cause and the untold more to soft money. If you honestly and thoughtfully disagree with me, ok. But failing that, support for Bush’s re-election is equivalent to support for keeping Hitler in power.

Read More »

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