Saturday, June 21, 2008

I have nothing to hide... mind your own goddamn business.

As an advocate of an open society, I feel strongly that anyone should be able to essentially come out of the closet about anything they care to make public, without fear of judgment or repercussion. This should, in fact, apply even to admissions of criminal behavior in a context which does not constitute a legal confession, unless there is a clear and imminent threat of harm to another in the admission. No one should have anything to hide.

However, I feel that it is critical to distinguish this position from the entirely spurious anti-privacy assertion that "if you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide." For an astute and detailed refutation of this idea, see this paper; I particularly identify, however, with this excerpt: "[D]ata mining aims to be predictive of behavior, striving to prognosticate about our future actions. People who match certain profiles are deemed likely to engage in a similar pattern of behavior. It is quite difficult to refute actions that one has not yet done. Having nothing to hide will not always dispel predictions of future activity." Nothing grates against the sense of justice and the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" quite like the notion of future guilt. "[T]he problem with the 'nothing to hide' argument is that it focuses on just one or two particular kinds of privacy problems—the disclosure of personal information or surveillance—and not others."

For other readers, a different analogy might strike home: "In many instances, privacy is threatened not by singular egregious acts, but by a slow series of relatively minor acts which gradually begin to add up. In this way, privacy problems resemble certain environmental harms which occur over time through a series of small acts by different actors. [...] The law frequently struggles with recognizing harms that do not result in embarrassment, humiliation, or physical or psychological injury. [...] The problems caused by breaches of confidentiality do not merely consist of individual emotional distress; they involve a violation of trust within a relationship. There is a strong social value in ensuring that promises are kept and that trust is maintained in relationships between businesses and their customers."

Privacy is about the right to control how much or how little information about yourself becomes public. Too much privacy becomes de facto censorship; too little creates a paranoid police state. When I reveal personal information about myself, I am attempting to help create an environment in which anyone can be true to who they are in public without fear of censure, not to imply that we should have no secrets.

"[W]hen confronted with the plurality of privacy problems implicated by government data collection and use beyond surveillance and disclosure, the nothing to hide argument, in the end, has nothing to say."

Seriously, I recommend this essay.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Living in bubbles

I was listening on Thursday to a call-in show on our local NPR station, KUOW, called The Conversation. On this particular occasion, the show was not, in fact, call-in; instead, it featured an on-air debate between progressive and environmental activist David Sirota and well-known conservative mover and shaker Grover Norquist. It was an interesting listen, but ultimately I thought that neither of them presented himself or his "team" very well. Sirota was rather hand-waving and outraged, like a Socialist protester at a state university, and Norquist came off as greasily slick, smug, and lawlerly.

I didn't choose the comparison for Sirota arbitrarily. As the argument progressed over the economy, the elections, and oil prices, his rhetoric became more and more scornful and, frankly, Marxist, resorting to assertions of class war and responding to some of Norquist's dodgy statements by saying they were "a joke... what a joke." I found this somewhat dismaying on multiple levels, since not only am I no Marxist personally (I find Marxist ideology to be insultingly simplistic and naïve, rather like Randian Objectivism or Libertarianism), but indeed Marx's arguments about class as a driving force of social upheaval and revolution have been refuted to a substantial degree by historical analysis. It was also, I might add, just bad form.

The more I listened, however, the more I came to realize that what I was hearing wasn't just a naïve ideologue attacking a smug social Darwinist; it was, in fact, two naïve ideologues, whose ideologies, while theoretically opposite, were not in point of fact all that different. The sole distinguishing point was that one vested complete faith in fairness through social oversight, while the other worshiped at the altar of the infallible and beneficent Market. Indeed, come to that, Norquist was the greater cultist, since he admitted to no compromise whatsoever with Sirota's moderate - if still unrealistic - statist socialism, while Sirota at least did not attempt to entirely demolish the very idea of a capitalist market.

What I saw was that Norquist, emblematic of the deep conservative tradition that Reagan and his ilk brought to the fore in this country, was, in fact, a sort of anarcho-Communist himself. He and his movement endorse complete deregulation of all industries and services and essentially the elimination of taxation; they prefer to believe that private enterprise will naturally assume all the roles that the government now fills. They go so far as to say that oversight is completely unnecessary, since corporations will avoid harming or exploiting consumers so as to avoid losing business. This is so patently contrafactual that it is difficult to believe anyone could make the statement with a straight face, but there you have it.

Ultimately, Norquist's laissez-faire capitalism relies completely on exactly the same flawed axioms as Marxism: that humans are rational, enlightened, and in their self-interest, and that they are fundamentally and reliable moral. Indeed, the central theoretical works of Keynesian economics state openly and apparently without self-consciousness that individuals are "rational actors" who will take the best possible actions to advance their needs and desires. If there is only one insight that modern social science and psychology have granted us, it is that humans are not rational actors in any but the simplest and most unrealistically isolated and abstract circumstances. To claim that a theory based on the rational action of individuals is sound or useful in a reality where obesity and smoking-related deaths are commonplace and people prefer the incredibly dangerous transportation option of individual passenger automobiles to safe, cheap, and responsible mass transit is so absurd as to be insulting; and that doesn't even take into account individual contributions to global problems as in the case of climate change.

Communism, schmommunism. When you get right down to it, laissez-faire capitalism "works in theory" too. Just like Communism, it also results in social stagnation, environmental degradation, and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few elites self-selected for amorality. Both systems suffer from the same failing of a fundamental lack of accountability of those at the top to the people who make up the system; and before you raise a fuss about the power of consumers to direct a capitalist society through purchasing choices, consider marketing. Marketing is the ability of those who control information networks - which have, not coincidentally, been privatized and deregulated - to manufacture both product and service demand, and public opinion, and the fact is that it works. Yes, even on you. You may consider yourself unusually immune to advertising, like many of us do; perhaps you only respond to one in a thousand ads, or you only buy something you saw advertised when it was something you wanted anyway? Well, one in a thousand seems insignificant... until you consider it on the scale of three hundred million Americans. And until you take into account studies that demonstrate that people are just as likely to be swayed by one opinion heard over and over again as they are by a very popular opinion. If you hear an ad for a product two or three times a day for months, chances are you'll start to think that everyone has one, and you need one too, and you won't even realize your mind has been changed.

There is a reason American citizens are always referred to by those in government and industry as "consumers" rather than "Americans" or "citizens" or "people."

In short, I suppose, the take-home message here is that the next time you say something derogatory about China or the Soviets, take a good, long look close to home, too. We had our own Cultural Revolution, and it's a damned wonder we don't all have little red books by Ronald Reagan. When you're going to vote or bitching about a tax hike, just remember that democracy and the free market, in spite of everything you've been told since 1980, are emphatically not the same thing. The American dream of self-improvement and a good life through fulfillment of all our needs has been stuck in a closet and buried under multiple strata of lava lamps, Walkmans, Betamax players, Power Rangers action figures, and more defunct automobiles than it's possible for the human brain to visualize: cheap consumer crap we didn't need that's now fallen out of fashion. That closet is getting full, and the first step we're going to have to take in the long-overdue spring cleaning is to stop piling more and more new junk on top of the mess we've already made. That, in turn, is going to require some reevaluation of a whole lot of people's assumptions about what it means to live in a free democracy. We deserve more than just the freedom to have our strings pulled by private interests who control our basic material needs and the flow of information to the public. We deserve, frankly, a new American dream.

Edit: I have changed the link to the voluntary simplicity page to a more general informational page on the concept, since it came to my attention that the site I originally linked to is, well, crap.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Clone wars

You can have your Jurassic Park, sir, and may you take much joy from it.

I am going to fill my island with cloned Vikings.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Do you see this?

Do you want to know where absolutism leads? Do you want to know what it looks like to have the mindset that anything is permissible so long as you believe your cause is just? Take a look. Look and see how we arrived at the current state of affairs, Abu Ghraib and waterboarding and the looming specter of war with Iran and all of the damned mess.

The only thing worse than the hopelessly naive "My country, right or wrong," is the blind and vicious "My country is always right."

Where's William H. Taft when you need him?

It appears that the Communications Trust is preparing to strike again with another plan to screw consumers who simply don't have any other realistic options.

Time Warner has plans to being testing a new metered bandwidth plan in Texas. I can tell you firsthand that there really aren't any other good options for broadband connection in Texas, so it's not surprising they'd choose that location to roll out this latest outrage.

Initially, the plan might not seem like a bad idea on its face. Other utilities are metered, right? So why not bandwidth? Well, the weaker but still relevant objection is the philosophical: it's wrong force people to pay for information. There are a hundred ways around this objection, most of which involve charging for the medium on which the information is distributed or for the effort of the distribution. This is just the latest bite taken out of Net Neutrality and the egalitarianism of the internet.

But like I said, that's the weaker objection. The stronger is this: Time Warner (and Comcast, which is guilty of its own anti-consumer sins) constitutes a strong regional monopoly, and when they suddenly change not only their own service offerings in this way, but the entire paradigm of the service offered, they essentially blackmail customers into accepting it - customers who did not seek out or sign up for this type of limited service. In most parts of the nation, you will find one cable broadband provider - almost always Time Warner or Comcast - and, if you're lucky, one DSL provider, and that's it if you want more than dial-up. Since these communications giants, along with the few other holders of major network brands, effectively run the FCC with careful lobbying and lots of lawyers, no one can be bothered to rein them in.

I really don't know what to tell you to do about it, I'm afraid. Support the EFF, maybe, or write your legislators. It's hard to oppose these kinds of forces, but give it a try any way you can.

Update: Apparently, Comcast is getting in on the game as well, not by charging more for bandwidth, but by deliberately slowing connections. Comcast's fight with P2P networks is old news, but it's new to me that they're instituting such a general crackdown on bandwidth use. It seems to me to be even more egregious to deliberately deny your customers what they're paying for than to ask more for your service. Both of them taking these actions recently and fairly suddenly, however, cannot help but reinforce the impression of collusion and price-fixing. It is to be hoped that the next U.S. administration lives up to its promise to be the polar opposite of both W. Bush and John McCain, and thus approves of and engages in vigorous trust-busting. I see little hope otherwise given the general apathy of the American public (whom I adamantly refuse to refer to in the general as "consumers," as there is much, much more to life than consumption).

Monday, June 2, 2008

Thoughts on brewcraft

I'm sitting here at my "desk" - the end of the living room table, in point of fact, since we're having trouble procuring furniture that meets our standards of both green and responsible, and not an aesthetic disaster - sipping one of the last half-dozen bottles of an ale I brewed a couple months ago. It wasn't a successful batch, in some ways; for one thing, it's a dark brown, but I don't think I'd really call it a stout or a porter since it's not very dry or toasty, so it's a bit of a bastard beer when it comes to style. For another, I really underhopped it, since I was improvising on the recipe and I didn't have a good feel for the hops I used. To top it all off, I also used the irish moss - a flocculant - and priming sugar wrong, so it's cloudy and supercarbonated. When I opened the first bottle and tried it, it reminded me strongly of really crappy albeit unsweetened root beer: brown, explosively bubbly, and, well, crappy.

It's matured for a couple of months now, however, and I have to say that at this point in time, it's really... not bad. I don't know if I would buy more of it from the store, but I'm happy to drink what I have left. It developed real character, and as the maltiness came out, the insufficient hops really seemed to matter less. The excess carbonation also seemed to bleed off a bit over time, perhaps owing to the flip-top bottles I used, so right now it's a nice, balanced, malty brew, and I don't even think I can really call it a failure in any fairness.

So what's the moral of this story? Well, first off, it's that beer is pretty good, even when it's bad.

More importantly, though, the moral is this: if you use decent ingredients, it's hard to make bad beer, even if you don't really know what you're doing. Really hard. You practically have to try to fail, since yeast is a prolific little organism that really likes sugar, and it doesn't like to allow any other organisms to share, so bacterial infections in the wort rarely prosper. Understand, then, that when you experience bad beer, you are being subjected to direct malfeasance. Good beer is pretty easy, so you'd better believe that when a major brewery releases a bad beer, they know what they're doing. They are insulting your taste and judgment as a consumer in order to make more money by using inferior ingredients.

Are you just going to take that? Thank goodness for the microbrew revolution.

For additional relevance, the megabreweries also promote deeply unsound industrial practices. You'd better believe they don't care where their grain comes from so long as it's homogeneous, which feeds a lot of money into irresponsible, fertilizer-heavy agriculture. They also, as anyone who is over the age of three and not blind and deaf must be acutely aware, voraciously exploit the American schizophrenic relationship with sex for their own profit in their marketing. In addition to simply being a bad cultural influence, there is no way that this practice could fail to increase the incidence of poor judgment in relation to consumption of alcohol and sexual behavior.

Drink good beer.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Thumbing a ride

Excuse me, but I'd like to get back on the writing wagon. Which way are you headed, driver? If you're not going all the way to Self-Realization City, that's okay; you can let me off at Maturityville or even Enjoyment Cove and I can find the rest of the way myself. Mind if I hop on?

I imagine it would be strange for him to hear it - in fact, having met him briefly and established that he's a nice, down-to-earth guy with a history of underestimating himself, I'm sure it would be - but I feel like I owe a lot to Wil Wheaton. I've been reading Just a Geek, and I don't think I've ever encountered a more excruciatingly sympathetic account of an internal struggle between real identity and expectation. Like Wil, I'm a writer by nature, and like Wil, I have spent years fruitlessly telling myself that I'm something else. In my case, the "something else" is a scientist, not an actor; all the same, I find the internal struggle deeply resonant. In the bargain, I've neglected my writing to the point where I've lost my edge, and I've spent many semesters kicking myself for fitting inadequately into a role I'm just not made to fill. There are differences, sure; I can probably continue to work in science since it's not as cutthroat as Hollywood, and I do love it. I'm a passionate generalist.

Those of you who only know Wil as Wesley Crusher need to give him another look. You might be surprised to know just how much you have in common - just like every other insecure teenage boy, Wil hated Wesley too. The grown man Wil tells a heck of a story, and the story he tells is personal, familiar, and pretty damn funny.

Anyway, thanks, Wil.