Thursday, September 13, 2007

Undead Stygian Dolls

I've started a new blog to chronicle my recent Diablo 2 re-addiction. It's got an experimental (for me) "war correspondent" narrative style, but other than that it probably won't be of interest to more than one of the two or three people who read this blog.

I for one welcome our Spider Overlords

Gaia theorists unite, Mother Nature's revenge is nigh. Reminds me of the Will Baker novel Shadow Hunter.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

KUOW's Weekday Manufactures Consent

This morning, KUOW's Weekday talked to Benjamin Barber, author of Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, about consumerism. Listen to this show.

Barber repeatedly invoked "capitalism" as a market force developed to meet people's real needs that had changed or been corrupted from its puritan roots. It quickly became clear that Barber either a. does not understand what capitalism is, or b. is deliberately misleading people about capitalism. When I called into the show and said he was using the word "capitalism" incorrectly, the screener decided my opinion was not "about consumerism" and thus not appropriate for the show.

This is a classic example of what Noam Chomsky calls the "manufacturing of consent". By instinctively refusing, on grounds of relevance, to allow discussion of the basic forces that govern our lives, KUOW perpetuates the delusion that we can somehow defeat consumerism at the individual level without structural changes in the economy. Barber repeatedly evoked a beneficial Puritan Capitalist Ethic that never did exist, to which we could never return. He will get nowhere with this approach, and the blighted "consumers" he is trying to enlighten or help will get nowhere either. KUOW did its job to perpetuate this ineffectiveness by insisting callers focus on surface phenomena like whether there are enough chairs at Alderwood for mall rats to ogle each other.

To his credit, Barber did mention microlending as a force for providing people's real needs. This would have been a good opportunity to discuss how real capitalism could be leveraged to defeat consumerism. But of course, without talking about what capitalism really is, we can't really talk about how it can really help us.

Here's the email I sent in frustration after being put down by KUOW's screener:

Your guest, Benjamin Barber, repeatedly invokes a mythic "capitalism" as a system whereby markets provide goods that people need at reasonable prices for both the seller and buyer. This is not and never was Capitalism. Capitalism, as its root word suggests, is a system whereby capital (money) is traded on markets. It has never had anything to do with providing goods and services people need - except for money. For example, a friend of mine who was an early employee at Amazon now "makes her living" renting her Amazon stock to short sellers. This activity has nothing to do with people's needs in the sense meant by Mr. Barber.

Note that I am not saying Capitalism is bad. Capitalism is very beneficial in many ways, but it is needs-agnostic. Mr. Barber will never win his crusade against consumerism until he acknowledges that Capitalism never was about providing individual needs - it's about lubricating markets by allowing money to be traded. Capitalism will amplify the bad or good effect of any economic system by making it more efficient overall. There is no Puritan Capitalist Ethic to which we can return Our Democracy. It doesn't exist, and it never has.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Killer Dogs vs. Wussified Humans

The infamous fatal mauling by two Presa Canarios in Pacific Heights, San Francisco is back in the news as the California Supreme Court decides whether it should set a new legal standard regarding culpability for "unintended" deaths. That's an interesting topic in itself, but today I'd like to point something out about dogs, their owners, and the general public.

Dogs are pack animals, and they behave as such. Dog owners need to understand this in order to control their animals. However, even conscientious dog owners have a tendency to disrespect people who don't "behave correctly" around their dogs, thus "triggering" undesirable behaviors - from uninhibited romping and sniffing to fatal maulings.

What dog owners need to understand is that humans have to obey laws that prevent them from acting aggressively toward dogs. Back in days of yore, if a large, aggressive dog got close enough that you felt threatened, you would kill that dog with your spear or whatever before it had a chance to do anything to you. There would never be any question of your right to do this. Nowadays, if you physically attacked a dog before it attacked and injured you, you would definitely be subject to criminal prosecution. In fact, if you killed or injured a small dog for biting you, in a situation where the dog would have no chance of seriously injuring you, you could also be jailed.

This is the fundamental problem: our entire culture is built around a covenant of responsibility and non-violence on the part of its members. We don't carry weapons any more, not just because we don't need to, but because we're not allowed to. When people bring large predators they can't physically control into this environment, you are guaranteed to have trouble - it's just a matter of time.

There are only two solutions to the problem of dangerous dogs, whether they are simply biting people - as the dogs who perpetrated the Pacific Heights mauling repeatedly did, without being taken from their owners or put down - or actually killing people:

1. Responsible Alpha: Make dog owners completely responsible for every behavior of their dog, as if they themselves were that dog.

2. Superpredator: Allow people to kill dogs they feel threatened by, and to carry weapons sufficient to do that job, regardless of the size of the human or the dog. Humans are supposed to be the apex superpredator - let us act like it.

It looks like the courts in CA may go a ways toward option #1. I can't imagine #2 ever happening, but if dog owners want to be absolved of the consequences of their dogs' behavior, they must support it.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

The End of Hospitality is "Thank You"

In the beginning there was the swapping of I and me:

"You and me should go down to the levee."
"This is a story that affects you and I both."

Then came the use of apostrophe's in every word and it's dog.

Now, a far more sinister linguistic change has blown up in the media and, sadly, in day-to-day use: the thank you thank you.

As in:

Sawyer the Anchor: "Thanks, Bob, for reminding us that planes are still the safest way to travel."

Bob the Pundit: "Thank YOU, Sawyer."

What ever happened to "You're welcome"?

The answer is simple: "You're welcome" was collateral damage in the drive-by shooting of the Old World culture of hospitality and community by post-industrial soccer-mom gangastas and their Nintengat-wielding broodlings. The last thing "You're welcome" saw as it bled out through a gaping chest wound was a "My son is on the honor roll" bumper sticker and a discarded can of New Coke celebrating the wholesome antics of an atomic family of soon-to-be-endangered polar bears. No one mourned "You're welcome". Hell, "You're welcome" ended up on ice in the county morgue, then dumped into a pauper's grave at St. Mark's. No one liked "You're welcome" much, cause it got baggage. "You're welcome" always stank of the kind of open-ended, no-questions-asked obligation that the boundary-setting, social darwinist, New World Order folks hate the most.

The thank you thank you makes it clear: I am only doing this because it benefits me. I'm polite, so I'm thanking you for giving me this opportunity. But if you want me to throw down my expertise on another topic of interest to your viewers, I'd better get something in return.

Even shop keepers, when thanked by their customers, now give the thank you thank you. And what's so wrong with that? Well, first off, it's stating the obvious. You just gave them your money, they better be thankful. "You're welcome", on the other hand, says "Come by any time, look around, shoot the breeze. You don't have to buy anything, and I'll give each of your kids a hard candy and sit them up on the rocking horse in the corner."

"You're welcome" is about belonging. The thank you thank you is about quid pro quo. The thank you thank you says I owe you something. "You're welcome" says I will give you everything. In the Old World, that kind of hospitality bound communities with an invisible web of mutual benefit. In the New World Order, that kind of hospitality is too big a risk: we have too much of our own, too much to lose, and too little danger of losing what we have because we don't have strong social ties to our neighbors.

Or so it seems. Up in the arctic, the pack ice is melting.

World Wide Web With Wings

Well, the new Apple, Inc., finally did it. The iPhone: a convergence device as far above existing phones/pocket PCs/multimedia players as the angels on high are unto the BSE prions lurking in a cow patch in South Dakota. But the real beauty is beneath the surface, even beneath the revolutionary interface. The wonder of the iPhone is that it offers nothing new at all.

AAPL could have done it differently. They could have made the most killer, most easy to use, most elegant Zune ever. Instead, they did the unexpected: rather than craft from first principles a hideous chimera, they mutated their existing PC platform, giving it the wings to fly in the mobile sphere. It's as if we suddenly started growing buildings in the shape of the chambered nautilus using nanotechnology.

In the early nineties, Novell fell to the standards-based Internet. Now prepare for the second mass extinction, as proprietary data networks and the software that runs on them become nothing more than a brief, ugly memory. The Web, in all its glory, on a mobile device. WiMax ascendant (don't forget that Apple tried to jump start citywide wireless networking back in the day). WAP obsolete.

This revolution will be posted on GooTube.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Campaign Finance Reform

Today on KUOW's Weekday, the topic was Clean Elections: The Impossible Dream? A very interesting discussion, including two guests involved in the "clean" elections movements in Arizona and Maine. The conclusion: public funding of at least some candidates and disclosures of funding sources have democratized politics at the local level, allowing low-income citizens to win elections and serve their country as elected officials; however, constitutionally protected, unlimited spending on issue campaigns diluted this effect substantially.

This Weekday show was serendipitous, since I was already thinking about another aspect of this issue brought up by my very first (and possibly next-to-last) commentator, walkitout, who wrote: "What do you think of the tizzy about political bloggers accepting money from candidates?" Well, walkitout, here's the deal:

First off, as my friend Taylor said when she heard about this blog: "welcome to 1999". I failed to participate in the blog revolution of 2001-2002, in part because I was too busy getting ... wait for it ... a Digital Media Communications master's degree! The curriculum never included blogs at the time - how pathetic is that? Meanwhile, the general issue of bloggers being paid is now so old the New York Times reported on it over a year ago. So we should expect the corporatization and monetization of the blogosphere to be well advanced, and learn to live with the general phenomenon.

On the political front, it's hard for me to pin down what the "tizzy" is. Political blogs have raised lots of money for campaigns, so it's inherently difficult to distinguish between paid-off patsies and campaign workers, who are generally considered the good guys (think MoveOn if you are a progressive). Fortunately, the distinction is unimportant in the grand scheme.

Let's say this is my own blog strategy:

1. Start blog.
2. ?
3. Profit.

Now, if ? involves taking money for a quid pro quo endorsement, I might balk. But that doesn't mean the content of this blog isn't corrupted by money. Even in its infancy, with a whopping 2 comments from people who are probably my best friends (one of whom sneaks in a shameless viral plug for my soon-to-be-cc-licensed novel), this blog has already been corrupted by the power and influence of big business! See, I work for a wholesale mortgage lender, and I depend on my salary to afford the computer to write this blog on. So you won't find me blogging under my own name about mortgage industry dirt. You also won't find posts about certain highly controversial topics. Self-censorship, secrecy, and other information control is alive and well on this blog, and our culture's money&power imbalance is at the root of it. This blog exists at the whim of numerous large, powerful, rich corporate entities.

Getting back to politics, it's clear that campaign finance reform can help, especially at the local level. But I still laugh at the campaign finance reformers, because they never, ever talk about the big picture. Talking meaningfully about money and power in this country is taboo. It's always about "special interests", an empty term if I ever heard one. That's why I consider economic justice a prerequisite for democracy. Campaign finance reformers are trying to fix the wrong problem. They are on a bucket brigade in the French Quarter while people are swimming for their lives in the Lower 9th Ward.

As for the paid-off bloggers - let them eke some enjoyment from their 30 pieces of silver before they are savaged by the burgeoning pack of Woodwards and Bernsteins.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Richard Dawkins' God Delusion

OK, by now we know Richard Dawkins is Mr. Meme. He's also a take-no-prisoners, atheist badass. He's a man with a mission, but is he preaching to the choir or converting the wicked?

The choir's all like "aaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh" whenever Dawkins opens his mouth, and with good reason. He's the Noam Chomsky of evolution and cosmology. Hell, the two men look, act, and sound alike. Dawkins and Chomsky seem to be that rare breed of principled old white guys gazing down from their ivory towers and observing the fruits of their labors are perhaps rotting on the vine. They're trying to do something about that, at great risk to their professional and personal reputation. Certain types of geeks instantly recognize this as cool, in much the same way Slim Pickins riding an H-bomb down the godless commie pinko throat of a Rooskie missile silo is cool, but cooler because they are about creating things, not destroying them. These geeks are raising a great chorus of appreciation.

Meanwhile, inside their churches the wicked are all like, "WTF?".

I mean, let me get this straight: you, Richard Dawkins, believe that God is a meme. He's a worm propagating on the networked system of culture. So, you believe God is real. But you are trying to convince the people for whom God is most palpably real that He is not real. Right.

Here's an analogy for Dawkins' approach:

You've got your Sony-BMG root kit. It's infected the PCs of a gajillion hapless Celine Dion fans - never the most stable group to begin with. Now you tell them the only way to fix their Windows installation is to join the EFF and fight against Digital Rights Management. Technically, you are correct - over the long haul, if you get everyone on the planet to believe in the unnaturalness and scientific invalidity of DRM, the God meme^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^HSony-BMG root kit-like malware will be eliminated as a worldwide phenomenon. In the mean time, that root kit on Hapless Fan's PC is sending his personal data to Sony, slowing down his machine, hiding Russian mafia bot nets, etc. Celine Dion is yowling, her fans are crying and cursing Dawkins and the EFF in the name of all that is holy, for lo, they have been cast out upon the hard plains of despair.

Dawkins is trying to convince your basic Christian that God, as they believe He exists, violates natural law and can not - must not exist. In the mean time, Dawkins personally believes God does exist, just not in the way your basic Christian thinks. Your basic Christian observes God existing - Dawkins acknowledges this is a valid observation. Your basic Christian simply has the explanation for those observations wrong. What's really important to your basic Christian - and anyone else who considers themselves "spiritually inclined" - is that a god-thing exists and gives meaning and other stuff to their lives. Also that God clearly can kick ass and enable god-fearing people to kick ass. This person may not understand that the details, their untenable beliefs, aren't central to the power of the metaphor - but that's part of the meme's evolutionary self-defense mechanism. Richard Dawkins himself came up with this analysis, yet he fails to draw the natural strategic conclusion - that he must tackle religion head-on, Noam-style, Rebel Alliance-style, as a viral meme, not chip away at the meme's outer defenses.

Perhaps Dawkins should try to get people to switch to the Mac instead.

Apologies in Advance

Let's face it: my capacity for extrapolating and synthesizing small data sets is matched only by my general ignorance. So if, let's say, in a purely hypothetical sense, let's say I one day posted a blog entry (or whatever you call it) criticizing Richard Dawkins for not realizing that God is a meme, when in fact Richard Dawkins coined the term and notably applied it to religion... Let's say I did a stupid thing like that. It would be inexcusable, but also, perhaps, understandable - even forgivable. A learning experience. An opportunity. A tribute to the educational power of blog authorship. The web is rife with context-free snippets. Reader beware. That is all.

Elections = Democracy?

There's a lot of talk about democracy and elections these days. It's a good time to examine the relationship between the two.

Most governments in the world today profess to have elections, and the majority have free and fair elections based on some kind of constitution. Do "free and fair" elections guarantee democracy? No. Just ask non-Party members in China, the minority Sunnis in Iraq, non-Muslims in Iran, non-mafia in Russia, non-Saud in Saudi Arabia, etc.

Democratic institutions are what create democracy. A democracy with elections is a representative democracy. An example of democratic government without elections would be the anarchist Zapatistas in Mexico, who use consensus government at the local level.

We need to remember the core characteristics of democracy, so we don't end up without one:

- The rule of law. Usually this is enshrined in a constitution and other stable codes of law, and it's always enforced by an independent judiciary.

- Equal protection under law with basic rights guarantees. This limits majority rule.

- Loyal opposition. That means no civil war or secession.

- Professional bureaucracy. Democracies must have stable, effective, corruption-free government institutions that last longer than terms of office.

- Equal representation of individuals. This could be through elections of representatives, through town hall-style issue polls, through consensus government, etc.

- Economic justice. So powerful people and institutions don't effectively run the show despite the above.

A nation missing any of these things will not succeed as a democracy.

Bloggers vs. Journalists

Why does every one of 1,300 air travel deaths worldwide in 2006 make front page news, while 40,000 driving deaths every year in the U.S. barely make a blip on traffic reports?

Take a journalism class and you'll find out: "news" is defined by journalists as unusual, timely information. Traffic deaths happen all the time, so they generally don't qualify as news. Planes almost never crash, so when one does, that's news. Really. This goes way beyond the well-known "if it bleeds, it leads." Professional journalists are trained not to report on things that routinely happen. That's simply not their job.

It stands to reason that professional journalists, and the organizations they work for, are uniquely unqualified to cover long-term trends, change fundamental misconceptions about the world, or foster the public awareness necessary to solve routine problems like the yearly death of 40,000 Americans in twisted piles of smoking metal.

OK, so I'm exaggerating a bit. Newspapers and other journalistic organizations do investigative reporting, analysis, etc., that does not qualify as "news". But the fundamental truth remains: if you are primarily interested in gathering information that will help you know about, understand and solve the real problems in your life, looking only to "news" sources is, by definition, going to send you down the wrong path.

The other major problem with journalists is "objectivity". Objectivity has always been a sham, since journalists have this built-in bias toward "news", and even the most dedicated, fair-minded journalist filters events according to this bias. However, in recent years, "objectivity" has devolved to mean choosing exactly two "sides" of a notional "debate" about the story and presenting those sides' biased, self-serving perspectives verbatim. Obviously, this does not yield objectivity in the sense most people undertand it. More often than not, journalists eschew even this faux objectivity by providing exactly one perspective. When was the last time you read a report on a recent arrest that quoted the accused?

Some journalists, however, go all out with an independent investigation of the facts. It's rare, but it definitely happens, and good journalists from better news organizations always strive to infuse their stories with independently verified information - in essence, the truth. This "fact checking" is often cited as a reason to trust the professionals. Unfortunately, with rare exceptions, journalists are professionals only in the journalism field. Their understanding of complex issues pales in comparison to that of experts in relevant fields. This is obvious whenever you read a news story about a field you are expert in - you will always find factual inaccuracies, ommissions, and misrepresentations in the story. A news story that reports accurately on a complex or technical subject does come around once in a while, but you have to assume that if you're unfamiliar with the topic of the story, the truth is being misrepresented in some substantial way.

For example, this article on CNN Money states: "Meanwhile, the two houses are expected to appreciate only about 3 percent a year - the couple can do better than that with Treasuries." This is an invalid apples-to-apples comparison between the return on a non-leveraged asset (t-bills) and a leveraged asset (real estate). It's misleading and false in a way that materially affects readers' decision-making, and yet it appears in an article from an authoritative, even specialist traditional news site. Moreover, I've complained about this statement and it hasn't been corrected. Obviously, a large organization like CNN is never going to take the time to correct an error in an obscure analysis article just because a mortgage industry professional calls them on it.

The bottom line: professional journalists add little value to people's day-to-day information-gathering and decision-making process. Historically, with their unique constitutional protections and access to viewers and readers, journalists have been the only source for a lot of important information. However, this role of providing access to information has largely been taken over by other information sources, such as the World Wide Web, which gives ordinary citizens direct access to most of the primary sources, experts, and geographically distributed observers of breaking news that journalists once monopolized.

Enter the blogger. Bloggers can have horrible bias and publish falsehoods with striking ease and impunity. Journalists also publish biased statements and get away with printing falsehoods. In fact, their job is to filter events in a way that, by definition, misrepresents reality and radically molds public perception. Despite this, journalists as a profession pretend to have a special value and authority as information sources, a pretense bloggers will never pull off. When you first encounter a blog, it's just a blog. You approach it warily. You observe it carefully from a distance. It's time we applied the same standards to the news.

Reader beware.