I feel just as safe as I did last Sunday

I haven't really wanted to blog about the bombing in Boston, because I don't think I have anything worthwhile to add to the conversation.  But today in my Sociology class, the teacher asked a question that really pissed me off:  Do we feel less safe now than we did before the bombing? No.  No, I don't.  And no, neither should most people.

If you live or work in or around Boston right now, that's one thing.  Or if you're about to go to a major cultural event.  And if you're Muslim or Chechen, being around strangers in America might be a bit less safe now than it was last Friday.

But living within a half hour's drive of a place where a bomb went off almost a week ago isn't notably dangerous.

If I felt like everyone else was being reasonable, I would say that the only reason you might feel less safe now than you did last week is if, prior to now, you were totally unaware of the reality that some people suck, and sometimes people blow things up or shoot people.  There are loads of reasons people do these things, but the reasons don't matter all that much on a personal safety level.

What matters is that people living in middle- to working-class neighborhoods and attending community colleges that have no large geo-cultural or political significance are just as much not targets as they were before something other than them was targeted.

This isn't about not giving in to terror.  This isn't about putting up a brave face.  This is me, pissed off that my peer group can't handle the idea that bombs in one place do not automatically, systematically increase the likelihood of bombs everywhere.  I, like most of the people I know, am actually not less safe because of the bombing on Monday.

It's fine and normal to be sad, freaked out, or confused right now.  But if you actually feel like your safety has declined since Monday, and I didn't mention you in paragraph three, I think you probably haven't been paying attention.

I'm definitely supposed to be getting work done right now.  But I'm in the middle of a fifteen minute long video of a guy destroying a log with a lathe.  Or, not destroying.  That's not fair.  Shaping.  But there are a lot of bits coming off in the process. It's the second video in John Cheese's Cracked article from last month, The 12 Most Strangely Satisfying Videos on the Internet.

I believe I'm likely to spend quite a lot of time on this article, so I figured I should probably blog about it.

I'm watching because, like John says, these videos are incredibly soothing -- and I've had a seriously stressful day today.  Really, it's starting off with last night, when I had a panic attack relating to my serious dental problems.

You may have noticed that today, if you're paying a lot of attention to this  blog, that I had art therapy.  About a month ago I said I was going to start posting my art from those sessions, if I felt like it was appropriate.  I don't have anything to post today, but it's not because what I did was bad, or too personal.  It's because we never got to doing any art.  Instead, I spent the majority of the session trying not to cry over my anxiety about car ownership.

At this point in the Cracked article, I'm though the lathing, past the paper marbling, past the guy pouring some molten metal into the sand and pulling out a stool, and now I'm watching one of John Cheese's favorite videos, a video of an old man digging for clams.

The stuff I mentioned above isn't the only really stressful, painful stuff that happened today.  But I'm not as comfortable blogging about the other things.

Something came up, a new stressful thing, and I have to stop watching the videos now.  It's making me kind of feel sick to think about.  I don't know what to do with myself on days like this.  I don't know how to get out from under the feelings of dread and self-loathing that come with knowing I have things I need to do, and I haven't done them.  I spiral.  But I'm trying not to, I'm trying to get better at that.

I'm thankful, though, for the article, and for the videos in it.  For a little while, they made me feel calm, they made me feel human, they made me feel like not everything anyone ever does is so incredibly difficult that I can't even contemplate it.  Seeing other people do stuff made me feel more like I could do stuff, too.

I don't know how much I'm going to get done today, and I don't know how much of the stuff I do get done will be stuff that was on my list this morning.  Probably not a lot of it.  But I do know that the time I spent on these videos wasn't a waste of time -- because it helped me remember that there are things worth doing that don't produce any tangible value, and that my comfort and calm is worth something on its own, not just as a means to the end of production.

I'm still scared, and I still feel cold and a little bit frustrated, and the problems that I was dealing with when I started this post are still all there, and they'll be there when I publish it.  But I'm going to be okay, I think.

Laci Green on rape culture

I don't really know what to say about the Steubenville rape case, outside the obvious -- those boys got less punishment than they deserved, and the media sources that have been covering it like the tragedy is two rapists getting punished for rape are sick and horrible and people should be made to resign -- I find it difficult to articulate what I feel about it, and I'm not sure I feel qualified to talk about it. But part of rape culture is letting rape apologetics pass by unquestioned, so I think it's wrong not to say anything, too -- which is why I'm glad Laci Green has made a video about it, because now I can just embed that and say "I agree with her."

Laci Green's WTF HAPPENED IN STEUBENVILLE? (Trigger warning: rape):

I agree with her.

On Aaron Swartz

I was only vaguely aware of Aaron Swartz's existence before he died.  So that makes me feel overwhelmingly unqualified to say anything at all about his death, or about his life.  But it's getting to be kind of a huge deal.  And that's not why I'm writing, exactly.  More like the other way around.  It's a huge deal, even among thousands of people who never heard of him before he died, because he was brilliant, he was important, he was unjustly prosecuted, and he is dead. Today there have been several news stories about the fact that the prosecutor on Swartz's[1. Every other piece article I've read about him refers to him as Aaron.  But, also, every other piece I've read about him was written by people who knew him personally.  So it kinda feels weird to go either way on that.] case openly admitted that he pursued an absurd sentence in order to pressure him into a plea bargain with jail time, and called that "Good use of prosecutorial discretion." 

So, there's a lot about this case that's pretty aggressively screwed up.  It highlights a lot of things that are wrong.  But reading about the stuff that Swartz did in his life highlights a lot of the ways people can fight back, too.

I guess all I really want to say is that I'm sad that he's gone.  I feel like I have to say it.  It seems really important.

George W. Bush's leaked paintings

I've seen some paintings of George W. Bush around the internet today, and I really had no idea what was going on with them.  I didn't particularly care.  I had also seen some stuff about someone hacking Bush's email account.  I didn't care about that either, and also it sounded like too much effort to read about while I'm sick.  (btw: I'm sick.) But the Daily Kos wrapped it up in a nice, short piece, and here's the gist of what happened:  Some douche hacked into George Bush's email account and publicly distributed a couple of paintings he'd done of himself, in his free time, which had been sent to his sister.  Other douches around the country are making fun of the paintings, criticizing Bush as an artist, and photoshopping stuff into them.

This strikes me as an obvious breach of ethical boundaries:  yes, email hacking of political figures can have positive effects, re: journalism and important leaks.  But these paintings aren't important political information.  They're really obviously part of the private life of a person who happens to also have a significant public life -- or, at least, used to have.

Apart from the fact that it's Absolutely Not Cool to make fun of a non-expert artist for being not an expert at art, this also reflects on the screwed up idea in American culture that notable people are public property.  It should be a no-brainer that responsible citizens of the internet shouldn't encourage this distribution and mutation of Bush's paintings.

If you're really curious, you can go googling, but I'm not going to embed the pictures or link to anywhere that posted them. (The Daily Kos article embedded them, so no link, but they were at least critical of the fact of their release.)

Cory Doctorow interview on SuicideGirls

(via Boing Boing) This interview was supposed to be about Cory Doctorow's upcoming new book, Homeland, the sequel to Little Brother.  And, I suppose it is.  But really what it's mostly about is how incredibly terrifying the student loan system is, and, basically, how screwed I am for the rest of my life.

[Nicole Powers]:
This is the first time in history where students in England and America have a disincentive to get educated. In America now, because of rising college fees and falling wages, economically it’s arguable that you’d actually be better off investing the money you spent on education and working straight out of school. -
[Cory Doctorow]:
It’s not arguable, it’s true. Apart from a few Ivy League degrees, the rate of return on an investment in tertiary education, in most fields, in most universities in America is lower than the rate of return on gilts. Literally just buy bonds and you’ll get more money out of the system then you would on borrowing to get a university degree over the long run.
NP:
So we have a situation now on both sides of the Atlantic where there’s a disincentive to get educated.
CD:
Well, they share a certain common heritage. You mentioned for the first time there’s a disincentive to get an education, but what you don’t mention about the UK situation is that for the first time poor people have been given access to tertiary education. It’s not a coincidence that when tertiary education ceased to be the exclusive province of people who had a lot of political influence, that education ceased to be untouchable as an area for defunding by government. In other words, when universities were the exclusive province of rich people who were in close contact with the political classes, nobody took seriously the idea of defunding free education in this country. But when it became more broadly democratized, you could start talking about education as almost like a market proposition.

(emphasis mine.)

[CD: ...]
Also, the federal government can be successfully lobbied to do what they’ve done now over the last 10 years, which is make student debt the only kind of debt you can’t be relieved from in bankruptcy, and the only kind of debt that can be taken out of social security. This is a perfect storm of awful, where in order to get any kind of a good job you have to take a loan out for a hyper inflated university degree and that loan is then visited upon you forever.

You can’t be relieved of that debt through bankruptcy, even if it turns out you made the wrong decision, and the debt collection practices are set up so there’s almost no limits on them and they can impose arbitrary fees and penalties on you. Whatever your student loan was, you actually can never escape it because if you miss a single payment or even if a payment goes astray, suddenly you have these ballooning charges that could double or triple your student debt and those keep recurring through the life of your student debt, such that it becomes almost a form of indenture.

People also who carry a lot of debt are much more beholden to their employers. Especially a kind of debt where if you miss a payment you have ballooning charges and penalties, because you can’t afford to be made redundant, you can’t afford to be taken off the job, you certainly can’t afford to risk being fired. Those people become a more pliant workforce. So you have, again, this perfect storm of awfulness where all of these awful interests are aligned into making people indebted and unhappy and unable to fulfill their lives, fulfill their potential.

For one thing, people don’t start businesses if they can’t afford to quit their jobs. So all of that economic creativity that America has often benefited from…I mean, for all that America is a nation of military adventurism and conquest, it’s also a nation of entrepreneurship and an enormous amount of its economic mite has been driven not just by resource extraction from foreign economies, but also from the exporting of entrepreneurial ventures. You know, inventing stuff that other people in the world want a buy, that entrepreneurial zeal is increasingly locked up behind people who struggle with debt and can’t afford to quit their jobs to do something cool. This is why you have dot com millionaires who are actually offering cash prizes to people who have good grades not to go to university. They want those people unlocked from debt so they can go off and invent cool things and make jobs and unlock new economic growth for the country.

NP:
On the night of the Strike Debt launch [Strike Debt is an Occupy Wall Street affinity group which buys debt and forgives it order to raise awareness for the true cost of debt] I hosted a discussion via the SuicideGirls’ Twitter account using the Strike Debt hashtag. I just asked people about how debt had impacted their lives. Within the SuicideGirls’ demographic, I’d say 90% of the debt that people were talking about was student loans. And the worst thing is that Strike Debt can’t even buy student loans. It’s the one class of debt that they can’t purchase. The good guys can’t even buy the debt to clear it. And one of the most worrying sentiments that was coming through that night was that because people had no hope of ever paying their student loans off –– especially amongst those where the penalties were already accruing –– they were like, what’s the point of getting a job? I’m never going to get out from under my student debt. There’s literally a whole class of people who have a very real disincentive to find work because of the crippling weight of their student loans.

(emphasis mine.)

Read the whole interview here.

Guns in the US

There was an ad before a YouTube video I watched earlier today,  unfortunately I didn't have the presence of mind to save the link -- I think it's safe to assume that they would have already paid for the advertising, that they didn't (a.) throw up the ad after hearing about the shooting this morning, or (b.) have the ability to pull it from airing for a respectful period of time.  My point isn't that the ad was in poor taste.  Just that it exists. It was an ad for a company in California, that sells kits to assemble guns at home.  The ad featured (in fact, entirely consisted of) a man explaining that it's not illegal to buy the parts of a gun, even if you can't buy the gun itself, how to machine those parts to create the gun they're parts of, and in what ways you can avoid registering the gun.  Apparently, registration has to happen at the point where the gun is sold, at least in California, so if you make it yourself, nobody has to know that you own it.

It's not hard to qualify for a gun in the United States.  But apparently, that's not enough -- there are also companies whose business is helping people who don't qualify get around the law with loopholes, so they can have guns without letting anyone know.

I'm angry.

I'm angry because I know how many times in the next few weeks I'm going to hear people say that this couldn't have been prevented.  And because I know I'm going to hear that, even if guns were substantially more controlled, this kid would have gotten them anyway.  Or that he would have done just as much damage if he had some other weapon.

After the Aurora, CO shooting, PolitiFact responded to Facebook claims that the United States has the most gun violence in the world:

According to data collected by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, several other countries had more gun homicides than the U.S., and perhaps 17 countries had a higher rate of gun homicides than the U.S. when population is factored in. However, when comparing the U.S. to its most direct equivalents -- affluent nations in Europe and Asia -- the U.S. has far more gun homicides than they do. We rated this one Half True.

Emphasis mine.

So, we have less violence than countries like Somalia.  We're outdone in gun violence per capita by the nation states who are constantly at war with themselves and each other.

And I'm angry that people will say "If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns."  First of all, because it reduces a complex legislative discussion to all-or-nothing, and secondly, because other developed countries clearly illustrate the reality that more gun control means less gun death.

The UK is widely acknowledged to have some of the strictest gun laws in the world.  Wikipedia has a list of world nations by firearm related death rate.  The United States is twelfth, at 9 deaths per 100,000 people annually (data 2008-2010).  The UK is sixty-fifth, at 0.22 deaths per 100,000 people annually (data 2009).  That is, eleventh from the bottom of the list.  That is, about 41 times more gun death in the US than the UK.

And to the point about people just finding other ways to kill people, the US rate of murders per 100,000 people is 4.2; the UK's is 1.2.  As for the discrepancy with the numbers, a lot of gun death in America is by suicide.  The American suicide rate per 100,000 annually is 12.  UK; 6.9.

Now, correlation does not prove causation.  But it offers a fracking big hint.  And this correlation absolutely disproves the premise that more gun laws = more gun violence.

Plenty of people will say that we shouldn't make this political.  That it's a tragedy.  That we have to wait a respectful amount of time before we start the argument about gun violence.  They said that after the Aurora shooting.  And the shooting before that.  And the shootings before that.

We didn't ever get around to changing the rules last time.  We won't, this time, either -- if we pretend that gun control legislation is somehow irreverent.  There may not be a sufficiently respectful amount of time after this shooting, before there's another one.

Since (and including) the Columbine shooting in April of 1999, there have been 31 mass shootings in America.  That's close to two and a half per year.

We're over the average so far in 2012, at 3, but there are less than 20 days left this year.  Is that a respectful amount of time?

General disappointment

I'm more than usually annoyed at civilization's failures today. According to indexmundi.com, the average American spends 25.2 minutes a day commuting.  That's 2 hours a week.  probably enough time to keep up with an online class.  (Especially a class organized for commuters.)  If we had comprehensive public transportation, people could spend the time going to and from work on buses and trains, with their laptops or tablets, learning.

Or they could keep up with another reality TV show.  Or they could get in a nap.  Or they could listen to music and meditate.

Commutes would probably be longer in this paradigm, but that's fine.  That's more free time.  Time blocked out cleanly in everyone's day.

(I mean, ideally our cities would be built in a way that placed everyone close enough to their workplace that their commutes wouldn't take that long.)

I'm sure there are enough people willing to drive for a living to overcome the sudden absence of hundreds of thousands of amateur drivers.  It would reduce carbon emissions.  It would make the roads safer -- by reducing the number of cars, and by having only professional drivers on the road.

And, obviously, when I remember about this particular civilizational failure, I'm reminded of many of the other ones:  the continued existence of the penny, the horrible structure of student loans, the failures of education systems worldwide, the DMCA, American internet speeds, the war on drugs, etc.

We're suffering, in the United States, from a failure to optimize several societal institutions, because the optimization reduces the number of people who can profit from a reformed system.  Our internet isn't being reformed because our ISPs can charge us enough as it is.  Our entertainment industry is fighting against freedom of expression because it maximizes their ability to make billion-dollar, broad-appeal action movies.  Our education system is nearly a method for converting optimistic young adults into revenue streams for loan companies.  Our drug policies primarily benefit private prison owners farming nonviolent offenders for government money.

And our transportation systems are fatally crippled because all the obvious solutions would result in fewer people driving, fewer people buying gas, fewer people living in suburbs and fewer people owning cars.

There are two separate intersections on my commute to school where, no matter how wide a gap I wait for, I'm always terrified that someone is going to crash into me.  Part of it is that the roads are poorly designed, but a bigger part is that the roads are crowded with people who have no place operating a motor vehicle -- including me.  The fact that we expect everyone to do it means we've lowered our standards for who should be allowed to drive.  It's incredibly dangerous, and you really should have to be a lot better at it before they let you do it every day, whenever you want.

I'm pissed about this, because (a.) my life is daily put at needless risk because I happen to live in a country with a fetish for motor vehicles, (b.) I have to pay for this privilege because despite an infrastructure that makes them a necessity our society doesn't treat access to cars as a right, and (c.) it means I start and end every day with stress.  I spend about an hour every day being made anxious and irritated, time I could spend studying, or working, or napping, or listening to fracking music.  Really, anything other than being the person operating the vehicle would be awesome.

In the event of my death

Delete my internet history. No but seriously, what am I going to do with all my data when I die?  I assume it's going to be a very long time from now, but I can't actually be sure.  And I am completely unprepared.

I've been thinking about this occasionally since I read this interview, between webcomic creators Joey Comeau and Ryan North.  North talks about what's going to happen with all his online affairs after he dies.  His answer, too, is apparently nothing:

Joey: Your career is on computers, and probably a large part of your life is, too. Does anyone else have your passwords? What happens if you die tonight? Will your family be able to get into your email and sort out your affairs? Do you want them to? Have you got a goodbye Dinosaur Comic in your will?

Ryan: I've got nothing. I've come close to setting up a dead man's switch: a program where if I don't check in on it once every week or so, it assumes I'm dead, and goes into action. My final Dinosaur Comic gets posted, friends get pre-composed goodbye emails, enemies get a final "HEY SCREW YOU I'M DEAD BUT I'M STILL KINDA CHEESED AT YOU" message, and important passwords get emailed to my family. But I keep thinking, what if it goes wrong? What if it goes off prematurely and starts trying to tie off the loose ends in my life when I'm still around? It's a risk I haven't taken yet. It might make a good subject for a comic though!

Anyway if you're asking for my passwords they're all "ryaniscool" now.

This is on my mind again today because Cory Doctorow posted an article on Locus Online, The Internet of the Dead, last Friday, and I got around to reading it last night.  A friend of his, a much more exhaustively embedded hacker than Ryan North, passed away, and (because no one knew what to do with it) he offered to store the data until his friend's family knew how to deal with it.

Keeping your data on your live, spinning platter means that it will get saved every time you do your regular backup (assuming you perform this essential ritual!), and if the drive starts to fail, you’ll know about it right away. It’s not like dragging an old floppy out of a dusty box and praying that it hasn’t succumbed to bitrot since it was put away.

[...]

if you just stick the PC on a shelf or in a box in the basement until you know what to do with the data, there’s a good chance that the data will be lost. When it comes to computers, storage is fraught with peril. The lubricant on the drives’ bearings dries up and the disks seize. They get flooded out, or damp infiltrates them. They get gnawed by rodents, and insects fill them with droppings.

If natural causes don’t get them, then robbery might.

Ultimately Doctorow puts his friend's files on a cloud drive, where they will be held in an archive for 10 years, prepaid.

I'm not good enough with computers to set up my own dead man's switch, and I can't afford to set up my own cloud drive archive of my whole life.  But I have thought about putting together an envelope, perhaps with a password to a ZIP file I will keep updated with all my current passwords -- or, the ones that I don't want to have entombed upon my passing.  An instruction to locate and post a final blog update, messages to my friends and family, documents appointing artistic and digital executors, and a general outline of what to do if I happen to have some kinds of assets upon my death.

And I think it's a fair bet that I've thought this through more than most of the people I know.  Granted, many of them may not have quite as much of their lives on the interwebs.  But what data they do have online means something, and for some of them, it might be lost forever.

Or, maybe most of the people I know just share all their passwords with their parents, and I'm more than usually paranoid about this sort of thing.

SkyScrapers in DC

I figured I was probably going to like any article with the headline Skyscrapers in DC would be good for America.  I was not mistaken.

The main issue is that DC area real estate is one of the primary "inputs" to the federal government. If housing in the DC area became cheaper, then in effect real compensation of DC-area federal employees would rise (allowing the government to attract better workers) at no cost to the taxpayer. Similarly, the federal government would just straightforwardly save money if it didn't need to pay such high rents for office space. And as well as being the most expensive office market in America, DC also has one of the most expensive hotel markets in the country which raises the cost of doing routine federal business which often requires federal workers based elsewhere to travel to agency headquarters' in the DC region.

I have occasional arguments with people about whether the US should be more urbanized. I think it should.  A lot of people think that living in the city is an occasionally necessary evil which everyone should avoid if they can.

According to the CIA world factbook, 85% of Americans lived in cities as of 2010, so making cities better is kind of a big deal.  And one of the problems with American urbanization is sprawl.  When I say "Bigger cities," I don't mean "More sprawl."  I don't mean that more of the empty space in America should be turned into two-to-three story tall fields of suburbs and strip malls.

Instead, I think we need to make the existing cities more friendly to increasing density. Skyscrapers are a great way to do this, and since DC is the most important city in American politics, it needs to be more open to access and development.

1984: new work in ENG102! Yay!

We've just finished Grimm's Tales in my English 102 class, and we're just moving on to one of my favorite books, 1984.  Part of the format of this class is writing essays in response to each reading assignment -- 1984's assignments are divided up one for each of the three sections -- and I have a lot of ideas.  And I'm only 12 pages in.  So here's a bit of an idea dump so I can move on with reading. Oppression, Capitalism, and Architecture

The Ministry of Truth -- Minitrue, in Newspeak -- was startlingly different from any other object in sight.  It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters in the air.

This is the Shard.  It is 306.9 meters tall, according to Wikipedia, and is the tallest building in London by far.  I'll grant that it's not made of glittering white concrete, but it's pretty damn closeto looking like the Ministry of Truth.

That said, it's not the home of the British Government's propaganda wing.  It's a private building, full of offices, restaurants, and hotels.  We're in a weird place, as a civilization, where the biggest construction projects we can manage are not the source of nationally organized collective action for the benefit of all, but private enterprises for the benefit of the very wealthy.  The Shard is for corporate offices, and it is, essentially, a gigantic ad sticking out of the center of London, declaring, "We are friendly to Corporate Offices.  Come put your Corporate Offices Here."

The Reactionary Anti-1984

I will grant, unequivocally, that it's a good thing that 1984 didn't come true.  We would not be better off as a world if a lot of countries had ended up going down that road, and I do believe that Orwell gave us the tools to discuss it, and thereby prevent it.

What he didn't do, which is fair enough because we can't expect one writer to fix the whole of the future, was explain how things could go wrong in the other direction.  The use of propaganda in 1984 is oppressive and insane.  But it bred a rabid anti-propaganda culture, where what would have been better in its place is a system of transparent propaganda: more "This is what the government asks of you and why," less "The government has no right to ask anything of you."  Civilization means we're all in this together, and at best the government is our efforts to cooperate, manifest.  In fear of letting it control us, we've completely untoothed it.  Now, we're suffering other kinds of oppression.  (See above: The Shard, corporate overlords.)

Facebook: The self-manifest Telescreen

We're not strictly living in the kind of technological Panopticon that Orwell envisioned.  More like the reverse -- we're living in an increasingly comprehensive environment where, at any time, we could be broadcasting.  See, for example, this blog.

Some of us are hopefully using this for good.  I, personally, see my online presence as a way of holding myself accountable by putting my best self forward and demanding of myself that I live up to my online presence.  But I don't feel like most people have as carefully thought through what version of themselves they're putting forward.

As I've written before, some of our online resources, like Facebook, are engineered to encourage us to put a particular version of ourselves forward.  Facebook encourages us to be nasty, shallow and narrow-minded.  You can use these tools without succumbing to their leanings, but Facebook isn't helping anyone be a better person.

And all your friends could always be watching or listening. The more you use Facebook, the more your silence is conspicuous.

The phenomena Orwell described in 1984 are largely deliberately orchestrated by the Party.  But it's also possible for many of them to occur organically, through the mere existence of the appropriate tools.  Facebook's relevance algorithms encourage everyone to pay closer attention to your relationship status than any other aspect of your life.  Twitter, Tumblre and tagging in general arguably promote a kind of #newspeak.  In this case, the failure of social media companies to make their products actively anti-Orwellian constitutes a failure to prevent the world that Orwell sort-of predicted.

###

I don't have any ultimate point here.  Any one of these might get expanded into my first paper on 1984, or I might come up with some totally new topic.  I've got like three days to write it, who knows what will happen. (Apart from Google, whose algorithms have presumably already predicted the content of my blog for the next six weeks.)

This post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.  More information is available at www.txwatson.com/school-license.

Dishonset Politician mythology

It's true that politicians sometimes lie.  It's true, in fact, that they may even lie more than most people in public -- though, probably, only because most people don't have the opportunity to talk in public quite as often.  But nearly regardless of politicians' actual adherence to the truth, the idea that politicians tend to lie is a serious cultural problem. The problem is that the belief that politicians generally lie makes it nearly impossible to make informed decisions about politicians.  It affects both sides: whatever is important to you, you can assume that the candidate you support doesn't really mean it when she contradicts your views, and the when that candidate's main opponent says something you support, you can assume he's concealing his actual motives.

There are a number of other important possibilities one should consider in the first place:  That the politicians are honestly repeating a lie that they have been told, that they genuinely don't understand the issue, or, most importantly, that they actually believe the things they say, and intend the things they say they intend.

I don't want to make this a partisan argument, but I want to write an example.  So I'm going to make up some politicians, and use policy debates that don't exist at any significant level in America.

Ann is running for the Moose Party.  She claims to support adopting the Alternative Vote method for electing candidates, because she thinks it's more fair.  She also publicly supports the repeal of the Lollipop Act, which subsidizes the presence of lollipops for children in doctors' offices and banks, because she thinks it's wasteful.

Fred is running for the Polar Bear Party.   His platform is that the Alternative Vote is a bad idea, based on the argument that it will decrease voter turnout and increase errors in voting due to confusion.  He publicly supports the Lollipop Act, and promises that if he's elected he will block attempts to repeal it.

Now, I support the Alternative Vote, but I also support the Lollipop Act.  Of the two issues, I think the Lollipop Act is much more important.  I've voted for the Moose Party in the last three elections, though.

Conveniently, though, I know that politicians lie all the time.  So I know that the politician I identify with probably believes the same things as me.  Besides, voting for the Moose Party has always gone well for me in the past.

So it feels safe to assume that Ann is lying when she says she's against the Lollipop Act.  Sure, some fringe elements in my party believe that, and she has to pander a little bit.  That's just politics.  But she'll never actually do anything to pursue that campaign promise.

Besides, Polar Bear candidates are all the same.  Their political philosophy is wrong, so nothing about it is likely to be reasonable.  The things they say that I agree with are inconsequential at best, but more likely outright dishonest.

The dishonest politician mythology that pervades American political attitudes degrades the quality of our discourse, and undermines the possibility of an informed electorate.  You can't inform a group of people who discount whatever evidence they dislike.

Of course, we do sometimes need to discount evidence. But there are ways to do so that don't automatically reinforce your initial views.  Relying on credible sources is a good one, although the credibility of mainstream news isn't what it used to be (if it ever was what it's supposed to be.)

But in most cases, you can generally take a politician at their word.  They probably aren't lying as much as you wish they were.

American Belief Statistics

Browsing EurekAlert, I noticed an article titled Canadians Overwhelmingly Believe Climate Change Is Occurring.  The article claims that only 2% of Canadians deny the existence of climate change.  The survey report breaks it down further:

Canadians most commonly (54%) believe that climate change is occurring partially due to human activity and partially due to natural climate variation. One third (32%) believe that climate change is occurring due to human activity while one in ten (11%) believe that climate change is occurring due to natural climate variation or that climate change is not occurring at all.

Comparatively, according to a Gallup report this year 15% of Americans believe that the effects of global warming will never happen, and another 15% say that its effects won't occur within their lifetimes. About half of Americans believe what scientists in the field are saying about the heat lately:  global warming is already happening.

Reading this, I got curious: what are the percentages of some other conspiracy-style, anti-sense beliefs in the US?

According to Wikipedia, somewhere in the area of 15-30% of Americans believe that the US government at least had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attack plans, and chose to let it happen.

As of 2001, somewhere between 6% and 20% of Americans believe that the moon landings didn't happen.

In 2011, after the release of his long-form birth certificate, about 10% of Americans still believe that President Obama was not born in the United States.  Among only Republicans, it's at 23%.

Also in 2011, a health poll conducted by Thomson Reuters and NPR concluded that 21.4% of Americans believe that vaccines can cause autism.

A criticism I hear a lot about America, which I personally believe, is that Americans believe that they are not obligated to consider evidence when it conflicts with their views -- that facts are just as subjective and malleable as opinions.  Unfortunately, the broader cultural trends in America seem to reinforce this position.  Mainstream news media's Balance principle pushes them towards giving coverage to verifiably wrong positions, and pseudo-educational media outlets like The History Channel produce shows like UFO Hunters, Ancient Aliens and The Bible Code: Predicting Armageddon.

Also unfortunately, the web as it's currently structured makes this worse.  Most peoples' major portals to content online, Facebook and Google, filter the content they show the user based on past trends of liking, clicking, and otherwise positively responding.  Then, we all head off into media outlets that target our own demographics, pretty much exclusively.

But, obviously, America is getting it wrong more than the rest of the world.  Our climate change blindness is at 30%.  Canada's is at 2%.

I've depressed myself now, so I'll end it there.

Mainstream Republican views [TW: rape]

Tyler Oakley reblogged a post from Tumblr user AGV notes, titled Top 5 Quotes About Rape from Republican Men:

These are the best (worst) GOP rape quotes I could find - but message me if you have more. Let’s hold these people accountable.

1. Todd Akin: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways of shutting that whole thing down” - mid 2012 Senate Campaign

2. Claytie Williams: “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it” - mid 1990 Gubernatorial race in Texas 

3.  Chuck Winder: “I would hope that when a woman goes in to a physician with a rape issue, that physician will indeed ask her about perhaps her marriage, was this pregnancy caused by normal relations in a marriage or was it truly caused by a rape. I assume that’s part of the counseling that goes on.” - March 2012

4.  Ken Buck: “A jury could very well conclude that this is a case of buyer’s remorse … It appears to me … you invited him over… the appearance is of consent.” -October 2010

5. Rick Santorum: “I think the right approach is to accept this horribly created — in the sense of rape — but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you… rape victims should make the best of a bad situation.” - January, 2012

PEOPLE: WE SHOULD ALL BE FURIOUS. WE SHOULD ALL GET PISSED OFF AND BE VOCAL ABOUT IT. WE SHOULD ALL VOTE.

These aren't fringe nutjobs, they're people with a lot of popular support.  Three of those quotes are from this year.  There are a lot of people in this country who seriously support this party over the other leading party.

Even if these are considered fringe views by a lot of Republicans -- even if these quotes lead a lot of voters to think, "That's a little over the line, but it's not a dealbreaker."  It's still terrifying.  These quotes are so far away from okay that if you think they're just over the line, you're too far gone.

These quotes represent such a massive detachment from reality, compassion and empathy that it's absolutely clear that these people are not fit to govern.  It's not okay for politicians to be this far off on this.  Like it's not okay if a science teacher denounces germ theory, or like it's not okay for the police to deal cocaine.

It's not just stupid.  These aren't just bad people.  They're people who explicitly lack the qualifications to perform the jobs they're asking for.

To however many people this reaches, if you understand how nuts this is, please, please remember to vote.

Doctorow's new talk

Yesterday I linked to Cory Doctorow's new talk, but I didn't actually say anything about it, because I hadn't watched it yet.  Now, I have. In his new talk, a sequel to his last big talk, The Coming War on General Computation, he describes a scenario that follows after we've won the civil rights war of information -- after the federal government stops trying to deny the right of computer owners to know what's going on in their computers, their right to privacy, their right to autonomy, there's another big problem coming.

Just because owners, in this hypothetical future, have the right to control their property, doesn't necessarily mean that users do, too.  If you log into Facebook from a library computer, or use a work-issued laptop, or lease a car, you don't own the machine you're operating.  That gap leads to the potential for some pretty serious abuses of power.

It all sounds a little far fetched, but I live in a country now where it's not unheard of for banks to attempt to repossess houses they had no legal connection to.  In some cases, they didn't own the mortgage.  In some cases, there was no mortgage.  And sometimes, it worked.

The idea that that kind of policy could be applied to nearly everything in my life scares me, and it's unsettlingly plausible.  What Doctorow is arguing for is that we need to be thinking about how to avoid that future, now.  

I'm more conflicted than I thought

Yesterday I wrote that I wasn't sure whether analyzing Paul Ryan's suit was frivolous. It turns out, that conflict runs a lot deeper than I realized:  This article started out with the headline, "I'm NOT conflicted about whether this is important," and featured two articles that popped up on my Google newsfeed this morning:

Don't get me wrong, these publications' coverage is horrible, in the case of the E! Online article, it's super fracking[1. BTW, does anyone else feel like it's sort of perfect that the main curse word from Battlestar Galactica is being used to describe a natural gas extraction process that causes air pollution, radioactive water, and earthquakes?] creepy.  But the basic premise, that the style decisions of the super-scrutinized are worthy of analysis, is the same.

There are three major areas of conflict, in my mind:

  • These are all people asking for our attention.  Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates, to prove they're capable of doing a massive job at the top of our government; super-celebrities, to make themselves sufficiently marketable that their mere name is enough of an asset to any creative work with which they're involved that they get bigger paychecks.  In both cases, it's awful that this is our relationship to those roles in society.  But in both cases, it's also a feature of our society.
  • The style decisions of the super-scrutinized have resonating influences throughout the whole of our culture.  By this point, the amount of attention we pay to them is good and important, though it's also self-reinforcing.  These people are building the narratives of our culture, and their stylistic choices establish the costumes of those narratives.
  • Directly adjacent to that point, the way we pay attention to the style decisions of the super-scrutinized reinforces the harmful cultural norms of our society.  The Paul Ryan and Robert Pattinson articles are about sexiness and relatability, stemming from their conformity to the norm, and the Miley Cyrus article is about the remarkable fact that at least one person is standing up for a super-scrutinized person trying to resist that norm.

The first bullet-point reminds me of an article I read yesterday about rape culture, called The missing stair.  While I wrote that bullet point, I felt the end of that article itching at me:

This isn't just about individuals, either.  Everyone who says "I don't want to be a victim-blamer, but girls should know frat parties aren't safe places" is treating rape culture like a missing stair.  Everyone who says "it's an ugly fact, but only women who don't make trouble make it in this business" is treating sexual harassment like a missing stair.  Everyone who says "I don't like it either, but that's the way things are," and makes no move to question the way things are, is jumping over a missing stair somewhere. [Emphasis mine.]

And while I wrote the last one, I remembered a Ze Frank video, in his 2006 series, "The Show."

We need these narratives, and these people giving us touchstones to build these narratives.  Life, it turns out, is way too big and complicated for anyone to handle working out entirely from scratch.  But it also seriously hurts a lot of people when we don't question them, or think about whether the narratives we're using tell the truth about the people who fit into them.

This was always a problem for the people moving within the narratives, but I think it didn't used to be such a problem for the people setting the trends -- those people where characters in books, plays, poems and mythologies.  We don't have to worry, for example, about how Romeo feels that everyone on earth imagines him as a hopeless romantic, or whether it hurts Darth Vader's feelings that people only ever see him as the bad guy.

As every child star grows up this generation, it seems like they have to face the impression that their transition from child to teenager to adult is a symbolic struggle on behalf of all culture, whether between innocence and corruption, or childhood and maturity, or stagnation and fluidity.

I know very little about Miley Cyrus and Robert Pattinson, so I can't speak to the nature of their struggles.  But I will say that I'm not 100% certain that it's not important, and shouldn't be noticed.

The moral problems of Big Data

Cory Doctorow linked to a great article about the civil rights implications of data collection. By the way, data collection is totally a civil rights issue.  Alistair Croll explains,

“Personalization” is another word for discrimination. We’re not discriminating if we tailor things to you based on what we know about you — right? That’s just better service.

There's a lot of information you can get out of the amount of data that corporations gather about their customers -- and a lot of ways that information can be used in damaging ways.  There was a case in which Target accidentally outed pregnant teens to their families by mailing them personalized catalogs close to entirely about things like baby carriages and diapers.

Croll raises the issue of that sort of information being figured into issues like bank loans or housing.  That's a big problem -- it means existing trends of social dysfunction will implicitly get reinforced.

If I collect information on the music you listen to, you might assume I will use that data in order to suggest new songs, or share it with your friends. But instead, I could use it to guess at your racial background. And then I could use that data to deny you a loan.

It doesn't even matter if they actually try to guess your race.  If the trends among fans of a particular band is that they're less likely to make their loan payments, then being part of a particular musical subculture can unfairly affect your ability to get loans.  And musical taste often does break down along the traditional lines of discrimination -- race, gender, sexuality.

Eli Pariser discussed this issue in his book, The Filter Bubble, which explores a huge variety of the ways in which the massive amount of data companies gather about us is potentially (and often practically) a very bad thing.

Ideally, citizens on the internet need to be empowered to decide how their data is used.  But Croll points out that it's a lot easier to say that's a good thing than to actually make it happen:

The only way to deal with this properly is to somehow link what the data is with how it can be used. I might, for example, say that my musical tastes should be used for song recommendation, but not for banking decisions.

Tying data to permissions can be done through encryption, which is slow, riddled with DRM, burdensome, hard to implement, and bad for innovation. Or it can be done through legislation, which has about as much chance of success as regulating spam: it feels great, but it’s damned hard to enforce.

Croll calls it the civil rights issue of our generation. I think LGBTQ rights still tops it for urgency, and none of the old civil rights problem are really gone, entirely, but he's right that this is a massive issue, and it needs more attention.  Organizations with a lot of power have a bad record for looking out for the rights of the people they have that power over.

What the hell, Mississippi

(via ThinkProgress) I'm glad that there's news coming out of Mississippi, because it's one of like five states whose names I can spell correctly the first time.  (Connecticut has 3 C's in it.  Seriously.)  I am not, however, at all happy about what the news is.

Mississippi schools are sending students -- mostly who are black or disabled -- to prison. These kids aren't selling heroin or stealing chemicals from the science classroom.  It's not even stuff like getting in fights.  ABC News writes:

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has released investigative findings determining that children in predominantly black Meridian, Miss. have had their constitutional rights violated by the Lauderdale County Youth Court, the Meridian Police Department, and the Mississippi Division of Youth Services in what civil rights investigators allege is a school to prison pipeline with even dress code violations resulting in incarceration.

[...]

“The system established by the City of Meridian, Lauderdale County, and DYS to incarcerate children for school suspensions ‘shocks the conscience,’ resulting in the incarceration of children for alleged ‘offenses’ such as dress code violations, flatulence, profanity, and disrespect.” The Justice Department findings letter noted.

The worst part is, this isn't a new thing.  The ACLU has a name for it -- it's called "The school-to-prison pipeline," and they say it's a national trend.

"Zero-tolerance" policies criminalize minor infractions of school rules, while high-stakes testing programs encourage educators to push out low-performing students to improve their schools' overall test scores. Students of color are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline.

At about 1% of the population, America has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.  Imprisoned Americans are about a quarter of the imprisoned people on Earth -- and some of them are kids, in jail for breaking the dress code.

So, y'know, Live Free or Die and stuff.

Spoilers!

I could have sworn I'd written about this before, but I can't find any older posts here.  Maybe I just linked it on Facebook.  Oh well. There's scientific research that very strongly suggests a counter-intuitive truth about spoilers:  That they improve the reading experience.  This is on my mind because Boing Boing has pointed out another study demonstrating this claim.

As a writer, and a reader, I've thought hard about the issues around spoilers.  In general, I try to avoid them as much as possible.  I once attempted to persuade someone to read American Gods, pitching it as: "It's about a guy named Shadow, who gets out of prison.  On his way back home, he meets a strange man called Mr. Wednesday -- after that, things get weird."

If you've read the book, you know that description barely even covers the contents of the first chapter, and certainly doesn't capture the heart of what the book is about.  And when I think about having described it like that, I can't help but feel like I was wrong.

Because American Gods is one of my favorite books.  I've read it several times.  But I knew it existed for about six years before I ever picked it up -- and it wasn't just a complete absence of interest.  I was intimidated, because I knew it was supposed to be challenging and elaborate and I didn't know anything else about it.  That made it scary.  It made it hard to want to read.

On the other hand, the books I find easiest to pick up are the ones where I know exactly what's going to happen -- Steampunk books still have a damn-near cookie cutter structure, and Terry Pratchett is always reliable for a particular kind of funny, social commentary, and affirmation of a worldview I want to hear celebrated, via poetic justice through a heavily metaphorically resonant plot.

I know that American Gods is a better book if you know what's going on.  There are subtle foreshadowings and clever buildups that seem totally banal on your first read-through, but are like bombshells if you know how everything ends.  The second read is just better.  That's true of every Gaiman book I've read, and every Pratchett book I've re-read.  (A lot of Pratchett, I've only gotten through once.  But I've read The Truth three times, and Going Postal seven.)

Yet, still.

I can't bring myself to spoil books for people, especially not without a huge amount of forewarning.  And I don't fully understand why, but I have the beginnings of a theory.

Reading a book you already understand a little bit is very nearly always a better experience than reading it the first time.  Certainly, any great book is better on the second read than the first, and on the third read than the second, and so on.  Stories by brilliant writers are better when they're seriously considered in the fullness of their context and outside the linear fact of their narrative than they are if read as though you were simply living the life of the narrator once, the way we live our own lives.

But that better experience is available an unlimited number of times, in whatever context and however much illumination any reader wants.  Once a reader knows the story, they can explore it from a huge number of perspectives.

The fresh read, the version of the story that you only live once, is available only that one time, only the first time you read a book.  And that opportunity is so fragile that it can be broken even without getting to the book.

We use stories to build the narrative of our experience, and we use stories to create shared experiences within our communities.  [Spoiler Alert Final Fantasy VII] There's a whole generation of gamers who experienced a shocking, tragic moment at the end of the first disk of Final Fantasy VII when Aeris is killed by Sephiroth, permanently.  That kind of shared experience is nearly impossible to replicate in such scale outside fiction, and I think a lot of people, myself included, are afraid that spoiling stories takes away the power of a story to deliver that experience.

The subsequent reads, watches, or plays of a work of fiction are deeply personal experiences, and they have more power to enrich the lives of the audience than the first pass ever does.  But the first time through is the work's best shot at creating a community -- at giving people a shared, lived experience that connects them in a meaningful way.

The moment of beautiful surprise in the middle of Zombieland, the way The Fault In Our Stars ends, the way understanding builds itself sideways in the City and the City, these things create the experiences in fiction that connect us.  I don't know if that would still work if stories were spoiled more often, and I think a lot of people (myself included) aren't quite ready to risk trying it out.

Forbes illuminates cultural bias towards Facebook

(via Reddit) Following the Aurora, CO shooting, one of the points that have been raised is that the shooter didn't have a Facebook page. He wasn't on any social network, in fact, except Adult Friend Finder.  Slashdot has pointed out an article that highlights the fact that mass-shooter Anders Breivik was on MySpace, rather than Facebook.

Forbes expands on these arguments, pointing out that not having a Facebook is becoming an acceptable red flag for people across culture:

It’s not just love seekers who worry about what the lack of a Facebook account means. Anecdotally, I’ve heard both job seekers and employers wonder aloud about what it means if a job candidate doesn’t have a Facebook account. Does it mean they deactivated it because it was full of red flags? Are they hiding something?

[...]

But it does seem that increasingly, it’s expected that everyone is on Facebook in some capacity, and that a negative assumption is starting to arise about those who reject the Big Blue Giant’s siren call. Continuing to navigate life without having this digital form of identification may be like trying to get into a bar without a driver’s license.

This article hasn't dissuaded me from leaving Facebook, still scheduled for the end of this month.  In fact, it only bolsters my motivation to leave -- we've let one private company take such dramatic control over our social lives that it's transcended being convenient to have an account -- it's become a liability not to.

It's not okay for one private company to have this kind of grip on the social lives of people.  It's becoming more and more clear that the internet and social networks are more like a utility (like water or electricity) than a free-market product (like McDonald's or motorcycles.)

Facebook gets away with massive ethical violations all the time because we let it have that much leverage on our lives.  I strongly urge my readers to leave Facebook, and diversify into other social networks.  Get on Tumblr, Reddit, Google+, Twitter, get your social needs met in a variety of places so that if any one starts trying to control your social life or abuse your trust you can drop out of it without disrupting your social web.