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.

Review: Pirate Cinema

Okay so first of all, I read this book for free, thanks to Cory Doctorow's policy of posting all of his books free online. I decided that I'm going to buy a copy, and since I've already read it and can get the text online whenever I want, I'm going to take Doctorow's suggestion on his website and buy a copy for a school.  Y'know, when I have money.  It's on the list. Pirate Cinema is a fantastic novel.  It's about a teenager in England who gets his family kicked off the internet for making fan videos about his favorite actor.  In order to spare his family the shame and risk of a pirate son, he runs off to London to live on the streets -- where everything goes pretty well.

I mean, he's homeless, and he suffers some serious consequences for that fact.  But this novel is just a little bit optimistic, and a lot  aspirational -- this is a book about teenagers doing amazing things.  I love books about teenagers who do amazing things.

It gets a little preachy at times, which is fine with me because I like preachy and I agree with the message -- it's definitely a political novel.  But it's the best kind of political writing -- the kind that makes clear the fact that the small-seeming decisions made by big governments pretty much always mean life or death to someone, somewhere.

Check it out, for free or for money.

Regular Expressions

As usual, reading Cory Doctorow's new article in the Guardian has inspired me to learn new things.  This time, it's regular expressions.  Here's a chunk of his article, Here's what ICT should really teach kids: how to do regular expressions:

Knowing regexp can mean the difference between solving a problem in three steps and solving it in 3,000 steps. When you're a nerd, you forget that the problems you solve with a couple keystrokes can take other people days of tedious, error-prone work to slog through.

Like typing or spelling, regexp is a foundational skill that involves a fair bit of practice and learning by rote. It's the sort of skill that is best taught at an early age. Regexps are easy to teach with games, since each "operator" in a regular expression blocks or matches a different set of characters, so you can easily make tower-defence style games where the player has to construct progressively more complex regexps to block the incoming monsters – there are tons of regexp games online already.

His article includes a link to this site, www.regular-expressions.info, and I will be googling for some of those tower defense games.

The Coming War Against Your Computer Freedom

Ohmygod Ohmygod Ohmygod the new Cory Doctorow talk is up on FORA.tv.  Here's the link.  I'm watching it now, but it's an hour and a half long, so I don't think there'll be time for me to blog about it tonight. Doctorow's previous talk, the Coming War on General Computation, is one of the clearest explanations I've seen about the importance of computer rights.  Like, their huge, massive importance.  A level of importance way out of scale with what most people tend to assume computers are capable of.

He pitched this talk as a sequel to the previous one, and I'm very much looking forward to seeing if it lives up to that pitch.

Cory Doctorow's coming sequel on general computation

Cory Doctorow's "The Coming War on General Computation" is one of my favorite talks on the internet.  Here's a text version, and it's embedded below:

I am happy to report that in the next two weeks, Doctorow will twice be delivering a sequel to the talk in the next two weeks, and they should both be going online.  (I hope they do -- it would be weird for a Cory Doctorow talk to be kept under wraps...)

I want to take this opportunity to recommend again the talk I've embedded above, especially if you're not all that familiar with the issue of copyright, or you don't think you do anything illegal online, and think the people who do are some anonymous other that you don't have to worry about.

You do have to worry about it, but the bad guys aren't those anonymous others.  They're the corporations and governments trying to impose legislation to restrict your use of the computers you own, and for reasons Doctorow makes clear, that's a very bad thing.

As a member of the Walkman generation, I have made peace with the fact that I will require a hearing aid long before I die, and of course, it won't be a hearing aid, it will be a computer I put in my body. So when I get into a car -- a computer I put my body into -- with my hearing aid -- a computer I put inside my body -- I want to know that these technologies are not designed to keep secrets from me, and to prevent me from terminating processes on them that work against my interests.

-- Cory Doctorow, The Coming War on General Computation

Doctorow: Transaction costs

Cory Doctorow is probably my favorite person.

Technologies that makes it cheaper to work together lower the tax on super-human powers.

He's got a new article up at the Guardian, called Disorganized but effective:  how technology lowers transaction costs.  It's about the ways in which the internet, and other advancing technologies, have expanded our ability to cooperate to the point where we've passed a horizon of comprehensibility -- it no longer makes sense to think of cooperation in some traditional ways.

Language (which allowed for explicit communication), writing (which allowed for record-keeping), literacy (which allowed for communication at a distance and through time) and all the way up to assembly lines, telegraphs, telephones, cryptography (which lowers transaction costs by reducing the amount of energy you have to expend to keep attackers out of your coordination efforts), computers, networks, mobile phones and beyond.

Decreasing transaction costs means that the powerful can do more. If you've already organised a state or criminal enterprise or church with you at the top, it means that you've figured out how to harvest and distribute resources effectively enough to maintain your institutional stability.

Sci fi writers always ask the best questions, and Doctorow's essay doesn't disappoint:

When I'm wondering about the future, I try to imagine moving today's institutions down the formality ladder. What technology would let us govern nations the way that ants build hills or Occupy runs its general assembly? What technology would make it possible to build and run a tramway the way Wikipedia manages its collective editing process? What would it mean to have networking fade into the background, become so commodified and automated that it more or less built and maintained itself?

Most of all, I try to imagine what "disorganised and effective" groups would do with every area of substantial human activity, from public health to education to astronomy. It's a wonderful and mindwarping sort of exercise – I thoroughly recommend it.

Homeland by Cory Doctorow: Little Brother Sequel

Oh My Crap, Cory Doctorow has written, and turned in, a sequel to Little Brother.  Amazon has it scheduled to come out on February 5, 2013. Doctorow writes:

I recently turned in the manuscript for Homeland, the sequel to my 2008 YA novel Little Brother. Tor's going to be bringing it out next February, 2013. I've got two more books coming in the meantime: Rapture of the Nerds (with Charlie Stross) and Pirate Cinema (a YA novel). (All three will be CC licensed)

Cory Doctorow on Google's Algorithms (and Plato)

(via Boing Boing) Cory Doctorow just gave me everything I want to see in a headline:

Google admits that Plato's cave doesn't exist

The article is about a recent change in rhetoric by Google about their pagerank methodology.  As Doctorow puts it:

The pagerank algorithm isn't like an editor arguing aesthetics around a boardroom table as the issue is put to bed. The pagerank algorithm is a window on the wall of Plato's cave, whence the objective, empirical world of Relevance may be seen and retrieved.

That argument is a convenient one when the most contentious elements of your rankings are from people who want higher ranking. [...]

The problem with that argument is that maths is inherently more regulatable than speech. If the numbers say that item X must be ranked over item Y, a regulator may decide that a social problem can be solved by "hard-coding" page Y to have a higher ranking than X, regardless of its relevance. This isn't censorship – it's more like progressive taxation.

I like this because of what it says about Google's evolving role in the business of information curating.  I like the idea of Google taking more responsibility for the content people see via their search engine, and refusing to diminish that responsibility by being swayed by corporate interests.

It's also great to think that Google's filtering protocols are becoming more public knowledge -- they make content on the internet valuable, but they also carry significant risks, and it's important that we remain conscious of them and make proactive decisions about our relationship to the content we're exposed to.

But I love the way Doctorow frames the issue, because I love seeing any public stab against Platonism.

Platonism (summarized to emphasize the aspects I object to[1. I think this is valid, since I'm acknowledging I'm doing it, because philosophical discussions can get confusing quickly and I'd rather this not get derailed by nitpicking],) is the belief that there are fundamental, immutable truths called forms that literally exist, and can be perceived with sufficient training.  The highest of these forms is the form of the Good, which Platonism argues can be accessed by individuals after years and years of study, giving them straightforward, unambiguous correct answers to moral questions.

It'd be awesome if this were true, but it isn't -- and one of the many problems with Platonism is that it leads people who've spent a lot of time dwelling on a particular idea to ultimately come to believe that they've accessed ultimate truth, rather than that they've just spent too much time getting far too good at finding illusory patterns.  (There are other problems too.)

I've written before about how the organization of a story affects how it gets read, and this is the sort of use that I like to see, in that vein.  Stuff like the titles of opinion pieces flavor the conversation we have as a society about more than just the subject of the article.