Nothing New under the Gubmint

So, this week people are getting pretty exercised about how the NSA, in some super secret operation code named “PRISM,” has been watching everything people are looking at on the web and keeping track of what phone calls are being made and received. Wil Wheaton posted on Google+ that he’s gonna cancel all his Verizon phone lines. Lemme know how that works out for you, Wil, I wanna know what company you’re going to find that isn’t going to turn their data over to the NSA.

I am an old fogey, apparently. I remember when folks on alt.cypherpunks were all exercised about the NSA monitoring Internet traffic back in the late 1980s. Back then, people were talking about using crypto to hide the contents of their email, using steganography to hide messages in images, and even more stuff. Now people try to use TOR to hide the endpoints of their web surfing. But here’s the deal: back then, crypto only worked for making the contents of the email opaque. The surveillance being done under PRISM isn’t concerned with content; it’s looking at the fact that a message was sent from one person to another. This isn’t new. That doesn’t make it okay — I still think it’s creepy — but I’m kind of surprised that people are surprised that this information is being gathered and looked at.

We’ve already got this notion of contagion in American law: if you live with or associate with a person who’s a gang member, you’re a gang member according to the police. I don’t know for sure but it’s not too big a stretch for me to imagine some creative DA making the step from “gang contagion” to “terrorism contagion.” Given how the politicians are all beating the terrorism drum, I see this as a natural move.

Bottom line: Edward Snowden was not wrong when he talked about the security apparatus being the Panopticon. What are you gonna do about it? Gonna stop making and receiving telephone calls, gonna stop sending and receiving email, gonna stop using the Internet? Gonna go completely off the online grid?

Log of Damocles

I took the weed trimmer to the grass on the creek side of the house this afternoon. The grass had grown unchecked since, well, last fall. When we moved to the woods, I was really happy and thought, “Yeah, this is great! I’m never gonna mow the lawn again!” Except that knocking the grass down does make for a nicer view. Also, it helps keep down the bur chervil. Given how long it took for me to get around to it, the grass was tough and it took a lot of whacking and I had a lot of time to think about stuff. I started wondering about why I so rarely get around to cutting the weeds down, or pulling blackberries, or prune the trees or…the list goes on. So then I figured, well, it’s because I’m doing other things. Sure, obviously, I’m always doing something and only one something at a time. So then I thought about logging it.

What about some kind of social network enabled device, like a BodyMedia Fit or something, that you logged what you were doing and had the list of all the other things you want to do or could be doing, and it would tweet for you, “I chose to spend the past hour doing laundry and washing dishes instead of reloading Facebook.” And you know, that mostly exists already. Consultants already use software tools to track which jobs they’re working on and when. The big deal really comes in setting up all the job codes and recording your context switches. Do I want to track “brushing my teeth” separately from “showering” or is “personal care” granular enough? And I’d need to have the darned log on my person all the time so I could switch.

And this reminded me of software development. One always sticks logging messages in code, just to prove that a given subroutine executes from time to time, or to emit state information for later analysis. And people sometimes complain that the cost of logging is so high that it impacts performance. Sure, that’s possible, but I know from actual experience that it is possible to log very verbosely without having the program’s performance slow down — but the systems have to be in place. Carrying around a notebook and pencil and a watch all the time to record what I’m doing and for how long would certainly give me some valuable insight into how I’m spending my day. On the other hand, it would slow me down and it’d feel really onerous. I bet I’d spend a noticeable amount of time on the logging!

Our house is falling apart, it’s messy, and there are a zillion things we’d like to do but we can’t because we’re already over-committed. For the moment, I’m just going to trust that what we’re actually getting done is more important than the things that aren’t getting done. We live indoors. We have electricity and food and propane. Our cars work. We have clean clothes, clean dishes, and fresh food that we prepare ourselves. That’s what’s up with us.

It Smells Branded in Here

Things go in cycles. I know this, and yet I’m always a little surprised when the entrepreneurial cycle comes around to me again. Yesterday, I was at a St. Patrick’s Day party as my genius wife’s plus one, and I wound up having several conversations with people who are working hard on their new projects. I love that people are building things, are working out new solutions to problems, and are excited about getting their solutions out into the world. I especially love that some of these people are in my area code. And then…

Then today I got an email introducing me to a local entrepreneur. The fellow making the introduction is familiar with me via TechRaising, and he remembered that I have experience with high performance and highly scalable middle-tier and back-end systems, but he didn’t go beyond that in making the introduction. I thought I’d point the other fellow at my LinkedIn profile to let him see more of my resume before taking the conversation further, but when I went over there to get the link I got distracted by this post. Suddenly, I felt catapulted back in time to the early 90s.

Branding an entire generation is a pointless exercise. Or rather, it’s pointless unless you’re selling something. I’m feeling very Lloyd Dobler about the whole buying, selling, and processing exercise.

When I go shopping at Safeway, I often hear pop hits from the late 70s and the 80s on the in-store sound system. “Heart of Glass,” “London Calling,” I mean, is there nothing from my teen years a retailer won’t use to convince me that I should stay in the store and spend a little more money there?

The last thing I want is to be lumped into a demographic package and sold to whoever’s buying. I know, it’s kind of too late and it’s already happened (see above) but that’s just the same realization that every generation has made. Still, what kind of crazy person wants to be boxed up and sold like that? Resist!


My brilliant and lovely wife offered this insight while reading my rant, and I think it’s important to share:

But this started with the Baby Boomers. That’s why all the music we hear at Christmas is the Christmas music from when they were little. The first big wave of nostalgia TV was in the 70s, when we were all idolizing the fifties, and that’s when they figured out they could repackage everyone’s past and sell it back to them and make a mint. But you know what? Fuck that. Fonzie has moved on.

What Globalization Means to Me

In 1995 I decided to stop eating animals. As I was living in San Francisco it really wasn’t hard to find good food made by someone else and which didn’t contain meat. Traveling inland even a couple of hours, though, was traveling to a world where “vegetarian” meant, “eats alfalfa sprouts and avocado and, um, cheese.”

In 1996 I stopped eating dairy and eggs. This necessarily meant that traveling to anyplace without large populations of hippies or Buddhists meant I needed to be prepared to make all my own meals. The American South is particularly fond of gratuitous meat, for example, but even Fresno was a trial.

Today, I’m eating lunch at the food court at a mall in Boston. I’m eating a burrito with grilled vegetables and no dairy, without alfalfa sprouts and without gratuitous meat broth. Globalization has plenty of critics but today I ate lunch in a town distant from my home and I didn’t have to make it in my hotel room.

It’s in the Air

Junglemonkey and I are in Boston for a few days. She’s here for the AWP conference, and I’m here as her plus one. I love that she wanted me along. I would absolutely have missed her if I’d been at home all week while she attended the conference, never mind that she’s going to be busy nearly all the time and I’ve got lots of practicing to do since I’ve got several competitions coming up. What this really means is that I’ve already spent several hours walking around Boston on my own. As I walk through crowds, I wind up overhearing snatches of a zillion different conversations. It’s always interesting to me what the gists of conversations in a locale are. For instance, in Santa Cruz the conversations I overhear tend to be local politics or technological, tending to be design or marketing. (There are a lot of folks working in Internet-related jobs in Santa Cruz.) In San Francisco, there’s a lot of tech, mostly web development, and of course people are talking about their plans for what they’re going to be doing later on — which clubs or concerts or whatever. Here in Boston, it’s been financial snippets — lots of people talking about investments and business plans with time horizons in days or months — and men talking about women.

But here’s the weird thing, the thing that makes me write this. The conversations about women are all weird and kind of objectifying. Example: the guys behind me in line at Starbuck’s this morning. They sounded like stereotypical frat boys; very materialistic (luxury goods purchased or used, padding corporate expense accounts, partying) and objectifying women in a way I haven’t really encountered personally in many many years. The way these guys were talking about a particular woman — her breasts, her suitability as a status symbol — I was really surprised. I had to tell Junglemonkey about it just because I needed to talk about it to figure out if they were really as obnoxious as I thought. But then I walked around for a couple of hours and heard other snippets of other conversations and these guys were not different. Holy cow!

You know, I’m sort of accustomed to keeping my trap shut as women I know talk about male privilege, patriarchy, and sexism. Let’s face it: there’s not a hell of a lot that I can bring to that conversation. Even so, that doesn’t mean that I’m not paying attention. Guys in Boston seem, upon cursory inspection, to be far less considerate (because I have a hard time thinking that women in Boston are any less bitter about it). Dudes, step up your game and stop being dicks.


So, here’s a joke I know about feminism:

Q: How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?

A: That’s not funny!

If you think that joke is really not funny and you’re mad about it, then that joke is about you. If you think that joke is not funny because feminism is about freedom and the joke presumes the teller and the listener have a perspective on feminism that doesn’t include that notion, then a) that joke is not about you and b) you can probably (95.2% likely) provide one or more personal acquaintances whom that joke is about. If you think that joke is funny then you’re a) a man and b) you live in Boston.

The Early Wish

I forget which science fiction writer talked about time travel stories as an expression of that regretful wish of a child who’s done something wrong: “Make it didn’t happen!” Maybe Larry Niven, maybe Frederick Pohl, I read a lot of SF and can’t keep it straight any more. Anyway, I’m currently reading The Demon Under the Microscope and over and over I’m wishing for a time machine. Sometimes we fantasize about going back in time to get rich from some insider knowledge of the future (as, for example, in Replay) but this time I want to go back in time and tell the chemists at Massengill, “Holy cow, don’t use antifreeze in medicine that’s to be taken internally! You’ll kill people!”

Oh yeah, and I just finished reading The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler, a book whose subtitle reads like an SRL performance (e.g. “A Calculated Forecast of Ultimate Doom: Sickening Episodes of Widespread Devastation Accompanied by Sensations of Pleasurable Excitement”). That book, while also fascinating, has reset my context for the Nazis. I was thinking about that this morning when I read this story about the pope, comparing his resignation to Nixon’s. I mean, are these people serious? Nixon broke the law and tried to subvert the political process and then tried to cover it all up. The pope, as CEO of the Catholic Church, has certainly tried to keep the lid on scandals, but did he direct all the pedophile priests to go forth and molest? His Holiness doesn’t have a G. Gordon Liddy to do time for him. Will young Catholics be urging him to resume his role in fifteen years, wearing T-shirts emblazoned, “Benedict for Pope: He’s tan, rested, and ready!” I doubt it. He’s not like Nixon. And: the idiot you’re arguing with on the Internet? He’s not like Hitler, either.

Make Room for Love

I got an email from the Sundance Institute suggesting six films for Valentine’s Day. This is the marketing blurb from the email:

What better way to perpetuate the quixotic romantic desires that reside in our partners’ minds than by watching films that validate those delusions of love? This Valentine’s Day, we’re offering a short list of Sundance-supported love stories as a remedial to such lofty figments—unfortunately, the reality is not quite as attractive. From an idyllic summer love that concludes with an acerbic breakup in 500 Days of Summer to a lingering, albeit passionate romance that traverses drug abuse and other pitfalls in Keep the Lights On, these six stories of (not always mutual) affection will jolt even the most deluded lover from their reveries…

You know what? I think this is terrible. I reject, with blasphemous obscenity, this assertion that love is something to be destroyed. I get that there are single people out there who are unhappy that they are single and bitter about messages of love. I get that there are people who resent marketing messages telling them how to celebrate love (frankly, I’m one of them). I get that there are sad, angry, bitter people in the world, people who see romance and professions of love as things to mock, to deny, to tear down. I am telling you, though, that that is not the way to feel better. Anger, resentment, bitterness, and cynicism are not desirable states of being. They are instances of suffering. Don’t cling to suffering, relieve it. It’s one thing to feel hurt and betrayed and angry and sad because your life is not going the way you’d hoped; it’s another thing entirely to reach out to other people and suggest to them that they, too, ought to feel cynical and hurt and alone.

I want to reach out to people and say that hurt and anger and cynicism aren’t final states. You can move away from them. It’s okay to celebrate love. Love doesn’t make me want to belittle people, it makes me want to embrace people. Love is good. Stories about love are good stories.

Let’s Play a Game

I like to play games. Who doesn’t? But not just any game, I’m actually kind of particular about what games I like. I happen not to like zero-sum games; my favorite games are those where, by careful maneuvering, the players can achieve a win for everyone. I also like games where there’s complexity, because that tends to mean there are multiple ways to win. In this group are such games as Fluxx and Civilization. The complexity is fascinating in its own right, though, and I have spent more time than I can calculate just watching kinetic sculptures. I suspect that the complexity is why I even like trade games like Tradewinds and Escape Velocity, and even Pirates! had my attention for a few years at the end of the eighties.

I’ve always found, though, that whatever game I’m playing is interesting but it emphasizes the wrong thing, or glosses over some aspect of the scenario that I would like to explore. For instance, most games give the player instantaneous access to all available information at the same time. Think of Risk: imagine you’re in control of North America and you manage to send troops across from Alaska into Siberia. Your armies march onward, but get mired in conflict in Ukraine. But in the same turn that Ukraine stops your westward advance, you manage to break into South America and someone else comes across to invade Nova Scotia. You know all these results at the same time. Similarly, in Civilization, your warrior in 300 BC makes contact with another player and you know right away, even though it will take that warrior 15 turns to get back into territory you actually control. Information doesn’t have a speed of propagation in these games, and I have been thinking about that for a while, now, trying to come up with some game that would be interesting to play and that would involve a variable speed of information.

Another thing that has bugged me about Civilization (and other games with lots of units, whether turn-based or RTS) is that the player who is the autocratic despot of a large civilization nonetheless gets to micromanage every factory, every platoon, and every diplomatic meeting, as well as running the treasury and performing a lot of civil planning and engineering. Golly! Back in, oh, 1996 or 1997, a friend and I talked about what a game might look like wherein the player could give any instructions he chose, but each instruction cost some number of points and there were a limited pool of instruction points per turn. Go ahead, micromanage all you want, but you’ll never be more effective than just one or two guys. Delegate intelligently, though, and you can achieve great things.

Personally, I’m not so good at delegating. I’ve always been most comfortable as an individual contributor rather than as a manager. I feel like I would delegate more to the AI in video games, if I had any faith that the AI would be at all smart about what to do and when to do it. It’s really hard to write a good AI, though, and I think it’s really unreasonable to expect that from a video game.

So I keep thinking about games, and what I like, and what I don’t like. I keep trying out, in my mind, different scenarios and different types of games, trying to see what might be interesting when you play with information propagation speed, or limiting the amount of control you can exercise in a given turn. And all the time wondering, “How could this be set up so that everyone can win?”

Four More Years?

Barack Obama will be the president of the United States a year from now, and I think that’s great news. I’m happy about that.

Last night, Junglemonkey and I watched some of the live election coverage on the Beeb and they had a couple of American dipnuts on, I guess to explain U.S. politics to the British audience. The Republican they had was saying that, having lost the bid for the presidency, the Republican party needed to spend some time in introspection to figure out how they could reach out to more people. I think that’s true, but I’m a little doubtful. It feels to me as though the Republicans have become the Taliban. I’ve seen several people tweet comments along the lines of, “Okay, now we’ve finished with the election, can we please talk about climate change?” (or whatever issue they want to talk about that was ignored during the campaigns). I think that’s a little naive, as well. If the issue wasn’t something the candidates thought was important enough to get people to vote for them, how will the winners think it’s important enough to talk about now? This election seemed to be all about enfeebling (or not) the federal government, allowing (or not) women to control their own bodies, and giving (or not) medical care to Americans. What’s to be said about climate change? It’s real, it’s happening, and major campaign contributors don’t want the government to do anything about it. Nobody’s talking about it because, what is there to say?

For the last four years, the Republican strategy has been to oppose any legislation proposed or supported by any Democrat. This isn’t a secret; heck, Republicans started out Obama’s first presidency saying this exact thing to any news organization that would listen. The presidential election and the senatorial election look to me like a slap to the right wing crazy talk, but the house looks like it could be more of the same. I consider this Republican house and then I think about the crazy signs up and down the central valley of California claiming that it’s the government’s fault there’s not enough water, and I think about the scared old rich white people we’ve met. I worry that we’re still in the midst of a national temper tantrum and desperately need a time out.