Jacobin: War Is a Racket

It seems wholly appropriate to be covering this issue on Veteran’s Day. Both my parents were Army, and I’ve been living in an area of the country with one of the largest populations of active-duty personnel in the country.

This issue came to my door looking like a mock up of an old GI-Joe action toy, the packaging made out with images of our hero in the midst of battle. In this case, however, the included figurine is long after the battle has ended. Our action hero is sporting non-regulation long hair and beard, as well as a prosthetic leg, cane, and several bottles of prescription medications litter his feet.

This issue pulls no punches, deflating the notion of ‘service’ and ‘supporting our troops’. There’s plenty in this hefty issue about ending American imperialism, but probably the standout for me is the re-framing of American military culture as a ‘poverty draft’:

“The military welfare state only makes an effective recruiting tool because the Unite States denies all of us the civilian safety net we deserve. The US working class is held hostage by a political and military elite that exploits our deprivation to fuel its endless wars, forcing workers to make a devil’s bargain in pursuit of basic protections that should be available for all.

This statement hit me with such a moment of realization that reading it, I was almost embarassed that I had not seen it before. It’s a bit difficult to state the way which military culture permeates the culture here, so it was a bit like the David Foster Wallace bit about a fish learning what water is for the first time.

There’s a bit about activist opposition to ROTC programs in High Schools that made me think about the recruiting emails and texts that I’ve been getting through my college email address. And there’s a lot more in this issue, which is heftier than most of the others I’ve seen from Jacobin. They have a breakdown of the current 2020 Democratic Presidential contenders, (dl;dr: Biden, F; Warren, D-; Bernie: A-), infographic timelines on US military installations post-WWII, and some other features that are interesting.

But the short end of it is that they’re right about the hold that US militarism has on culture. From ‘Defense’ spending, displays of patriotism at sporting events, to the exploitation of Veterans by for-profit colleges via the GI Bill, American’s have an unhealthy relationship with our Armed Forces. And while a good deal of this issue does talk about concrete steps that can be taken to turn the tide, it seems like it might take generations before we have a population willing to fight back against our military-industrial system. Providing Medicare for All and free college would do a lot to break this, but then again, this may be exactly why the powers-that-be are fighting so hard to stop it.

Wired: September 2019

Three Years of Misery Inside Silicon Valley’s Happiest Company, by Nitasha Tiku:The cover story of this month’s issue a really in-depth piece about the chaos that has been plaguing of the eponymous internet search company, Google. One of the things I love about Wired is their long form reporting, and this article is several thousand words, about 14 pages of text in nine parts. Tiku details the leaks from inside the company that seemingly destroyed the company’s unspoken rule of ‘what happens at Google, stays in Google’. Social justice activists tore down the company’s missteps with regard to sexual harrassment by managers and execs, betraying their “don’t do evil” motto, through dealings with authoritarian China and the United States military.

The article really opens up a look at the inner culture of Google, how they had a fairly open culture, with C-level executives making themselves open for questioning from staffers, and with rank-and-file employees creating sub-cultures within the company. T

The story starts in January 2017, as employees took to the streets after the Trump administration’s travel ban was declared. The company stood behind their employees and stood up for immigrant rights. Then in June, an engineer named James Damore release a 10-page memo ‘explaining’ why there weren’t more female engineers in the industry. Damore was reacting to efforts to promote female engineers within the company, and claimed that this was a bad idea since there were biological reasons why there aren’t more women in STEM fields.

The eventual backlash to Damore’s memo, and his eventual dismissal, started a culture war between the company’s conservatives. Apparently, this minority within Google had been existing within their own corner of the company, but following this, some of them became emboldened and began to step up their opposition and trollishness. They doxed several of the liberal organizers, thereby breaking the company’s sacred rule of non-disclosure.

This episode is just one of several that Tiku details. By the end of the piece, it’s clear that Google’s culture has been transformed, and that while their employees may still be sticking to their ‘don’t be evil’ motto, the executives of the company, driven by shareholder capitalist growth demands, have lost their way.

FAN-tastic Planet: When I was a teenager, growing up in the mid 90’s, Wired was the coolest magazine on the planet. I felt that it offered up both a vision of the future and secret knowledge about where things were headed. Wired was an essential fuel for the ideas that eventually led to my career in computers and programming. Now, having learned more about the nascent cyberpunk culture that Wired killed off in favor off Dot Com boom and bust, that I wonder more about what could have been. I bring this up because I was almost shocked to read the intro to this special culture section in this issue.

“A person sitting at a computer – it was a mystical sight. Once,” it opens, before going further into something straight out of a Rushkoff monologue: “The users, we humans were the almight creator-gods of the dawning digial age, and the computers did our bidding. We were in charge. In today’s world, subject and object have switched places… Computers run the show now, and we -mere data subjects.” It’s almost like they literally took Rushkoff’s point about ‘figure and ground’ verbatim. Please forgive me, dear reader, for mistaking if his point isn’t original. But given his disdain for Wired’s entire raison d’etre during the 90’s and aughts, I find it entirely ironic that they have this section: fan-fic-writing nerds; Netflix’s turn toward Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style programming; social-media influencers ‘connecting’ with fans over special, subscriber only feeds; and the rise of a new generation of crossword-puzzle writers who are bringing new, diverse voices to another field traditionally dominated by white men. (This last one actually includes a crossword, and let to several days of puzzling on my part.)

Free Riders, by Zeynep Tufekci: The front pages of this issue have the standard Wired fare, gadgets and the latest tech. This time it’s smart-writing tools and augmented-reality gizmos. A bit about the current NASA Mars rover being built, another extolling the joys of world-building video games, another bemoaning Facebook’s creepy dating feature. I wanted to end with a mention of Tufekci’s bit about the prevalence of commercial companies that are built on top of the free, open source tools that have been released to the internet. Not that this is a problem, per se, but there have been many instances of packages that have been so instrumental to the success of these companies, and to the industry in general, that have had security issues, or depended on the unpaid efforts of some very overworked contributors. Tufekci details two pertinent examples: the Heartbleed bug, which affected the OpenSSL spec used to protect almost all web traffic, and core-js, a Javascript library widely used in web browsers.

In the latter case, the developer had been working on the library almost every day for five years without pay, and had solicited less than a hundred dollars. While some might blame him for not taking advantage of his project’s popularity and using it to leverage himself into a high-paying gig somewhere, the issue highlights a problem with the web’s altruistic origins, that have long since been abused by corporation. At least, in the case of OpenSSL, they were able to guilt some firms into providing more funding, but we’ve got a long way to figure out a way to reward these open source programmers that have provided the tools that the web is built on.

Play us a song

My first instrument was a small Casio keyboard that I got for Christmas when I was maybe three or four. It had a small ROM cartridge that plugged into it with some songs on it that you could play. The keys, there were maybe three or four and half octaves or so, had small lights on them that would light up when you needed to press them, and you could play along with the songs in this manner. It’s been so long that I have forgotten what it had on it, I think one of them might have been Flight of the Bumbleebees or Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Jingle Bells was one of them, for sure. I didn’t get much more serious with it.

When I was in first grade I wound up in the school orchestra, playing violin. I’m not quite sure what happened, but according to my dad I lost the instrument or something, so that was the end of that.

When I was about fifteen, my best friend Thomas showed me his inheritance from his grandfather, a 1950-something model Gibson hollow-body. At some point, Tommy asked me if I wanted to start a band, and I was like ‘hell ya’. I asked my dad if I could get a guitar, and he gave me some lame, dad-like excuse that I was going to my grandmother’s for the summer and needed to save my money. So off I went on a plane with my little brother for the summer, and when we got picked up by my grandmother, she asked what I wanted to do.

“I want to buy a guitar.”

I spent most of that summer watching MTV, trying to pick up as much as I could by watching More Than Words, Nothing Else Matters, and Mama I’m Coming Home on constant rotation. And that began a life-long love affair with the guitar that has had its ups and down and remains somewhat cool to this day. I dare say I’m decent enough at it, having taught myself and learned enough over the years that I can teach myself pretty much any song that I want to. Not that I’m the best technical player, but I can pass a decent solo if I put my mind to it. And I can sing and play, so I’ve had a lot of fun over the years as a front man with a band or as solo performer.

One thing that has always bothered me is that I’ve never been able to read sight music. Guitar players have tablature, which is basically play by numbers, and I’ve always been good at using that to learn whatever I couldn’t pick up by ear. But put a piece of sheet music in front of me and I’m dead. I once tried out for the local art school when I was in high school, but I got too frustrated during the audition and gave up.

A few years ago, after getting more into electronic music production, I bought a 61-key keyboard and started trying to teach myself a few songs. I picked up a couple books and printed out sheet music to some stuff I wanted to play, and started learning how to play by reading the scores. I dare say I was able to teach myself Fur Elise, all of it mind you, not just the theme, but the two breaks with all the technical runs and everything. But the keyboard got stored away to make room for my other hobby du jour, and everything I new drained away.

I still play the guitar, and even bought a small ukulele for the girls, and about all they can do with it is open strum it and sing. I’ve tried teaching them how to fret the strings, but so far, no good. So I figured I’d break the keyboard out of the closet and let them start playing with it. Dare say I was greatly disappointed with how little I had remembered. But the girls took to it like a new toy and all.

The only question was how to drive their learning. As I expected, there’s an app for that, and after a bit or research bought a month of Playground Sessions, and have been letting my oldest play with that. It’s a game, basically, and of course I wanted to use it to. The problem is that the subscription is single-profile only, and I didn’t want to go in there and blow through all the basic lessons and complete her work for her. So yesterday I ran through the demo of Flowkey, which is much different from Playground. A quick review:

Playground Sessions is a much more sophisticated app. It has more of a traditional sheet music view, and there’s a couple options for speed, and whether the notes or finger positions appear above the score. The lessons have accompaniment, and it plays through, marking on the score where you hit the correct note, and it gives you a score based on your accuracy. Eighty percent is passing, and each ‘lesson’ has four or five sections that build on each other before a challenge section. My daughter is obsessed with the accuracy score, wanting one-hundred percent before moving on. I try to get her to move forward, progress by resting before coming back, else she gets to frustrated.

The PS subscription includes a number of free song credits per month. There are multiple versions of songs based on skill level, and they’ve got backing tracks accompianning them. They’ve even got Old Town Road, which was a must-get for my kids. All of the classical music is free, but I was disappointed that the top level of the advanced-hard songs were still simplified compared to the actual scores.

Flowkey, on the other hand, is a bit more pared down app, but is superior in other ways. Now first off, its web based, which is cool, but makes progressing through the lessons a pain. Even the first lesson, which is When the Saints Go Marching In, requires you to load 4 different lessons to learn about four bars at a time, before trying the whole thing. Needless to say, I didn’t spend much time messing that that.

Where Flowkey really shines, though, is that they unlock the entire music library after you go Premium. And this is the real deal. Now, like Playground, the popular music follows a modified score that incorporates the vocal melody in it. I would rather have the full score, actually, but that’s a minor quibble. Instead of showing several lines of staff and playing through it like a metronome, Flowkey has one continuous line of staff. The top screen shows a performer playing through it, with graphic aids to show exactly which keys are being pressed. This is both useful and inspiring. Flowkey doesn’t have the fingering numbers like PS, so it’s useful to figure out where to put you hands or how to switch between several chords in succession. And Flowkey has a wait mode, so that it will pause until you find the right note.

And I love just watching the performers on some of the more challenging pieces. It’s hard not to be impressed with Let It Go, forget it. And I was grinning ear-to-ear watching the score and hands whizzing by the keyboard for Bohemian Rhapsody.

Overall, I’m not sure which one I like better. I think Playground Session has a better lesson structure, although it’s very metronomic, whereas Flowkey, well, flows better. It’s more human, rather than just grading you on accuracy. And having unrestricted access to all the songs instead of the limited mode with Playground is nice. (PS has the entire library unlocked for annual subscribers, although not lifetime… ??)

So for now the jury’s still out. I’ll see if my daughter maintains interest in it for now, we’re about a week or two into it, and she still hasn’t gotten through the right-hand lesson. This dad, though, is having fun.

And I might just learn to sight read yet.

The Nation: July 29 – August 5, 2019 Issue

AI’s Persona Problem, by Patricia J. Williams: I don’t usually talk much about the front third of The Nation, as most of the stuff they talk about is more recent event stuff that has gone stale by the time I make my way into the stack. Or, more likely, it’s that I’m already sick of the subject by the time I get to it. This one fits well with the technological issues that I’ve been discussing, and is in line with the Team Human themes that I’ve been interested in lately.

Williams talks about the death of privacy, but gets into the ‘code switching’ that people adopt on different areas of the internet. Lord knows I’m guilty of that here. The persona problem that she’s referring to is that that of an individual’s right to self-invention, and the inability of computers to sense the complexity of people’s emotions, or as Rushkoff puts it, the fidelity of human interaction. It’s a short piece, and one that I’d like to see Williams delve deeper into in the future.

The Trump Court, by Elie Mystal: Here is the most terrifying thing about Trump: that besides all of his incompetencies, his madness, and the sheer absurdity, he has been extraordinarily effective at transforming the Federal courts for likely several generations. Mystal is rightly indignant at Democrats for failing to make the Courts more of a campaign issue, and presents a very strong article showing us just how far the Right has succeeded, and what the stakes are for the near future.

Democrats did not make the Supreme Court enough of an issue during the 2016 election, and as a result we now have Justice Kavanaugh. But beyond the relatively high profile of the Supremes, it’s the lower courts that we should really be paying attention to, as the Circuit Courts are the final arbiter of most cases. Mystal picks 7 of the worst ultraconservatives that Trump — or rather the Heritage Foundation — has placed on the courts, and looks at their records on civil rights, gun regulations, immigrants, torture, health care, campaign finance, and so forth.

Mystal is right, Democratics have failed spectacularly when it comes to informing the public about the stakes on this, and we’ll likely be living with the results for generations to come, assuming we can get Trump out of office before the takeover is complete.

Bernie’s Challenge to American Exceptionalism, by Greg Grandin: There is an ongoing theme among the left, a theory about Bernie Sanders, that his brand of democratic socialism is unique, or rather makes Sanders unique among the other contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination. Ergo, since the other contenders are therefore equivalent, they will ultimately be ineffective at dealing with the problems of capitalism and the issues that gave us Trump.

Grandin make a strong case here that Sander’s platform “is the only thing that can break up the ideological cohesion of the modern right”. He does that by taking us on a historical tour of the war between social rights and individual rights that has been ongoing in America. He writes:

“Individual or political rights are aimed at restraining government power. They presume that virtue is rooted in the individual and that the public good, or general welfare, of a society stems from allowing individuals to pursue their interests—to possess, to assemble, to believe, to speak, and so on—to the greatest degree possible. A legitimate state is a state that restrains itself, that limits its role to protecting the realm in which individuals pursue their rights. Economic or social rights presume that in a complex, industrial society, with its imbalances of power and often extreme concentrations of wealth, the state has a much more active role to play in nurturing virtue through the redistribution of wealth in the form of education, health, child care, pensions, housing, and other common needs.”

Grandin is the author of The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, which was in Dissent’s Summer 2019 issue. He teaches history at Yale and sits on the editorial board of The Nation as well. I’m starting to find him a very important voice to help understand contemporary America through the lens of history — which is the point of knowing history, of course.

If he is correct that Sander’s is uniquely leading a charge against the individual rights exclusivism that underpins the conservative right, then all progressives and liberals should study that focus and apply it. No matter what ultimately happens with Sander’s presidential campaign. And that’s been my take away from Sander’s 2016 and 2020 runs, that no matter what happens, there are lessons to be gained from it, movements to be built, and people to empower. And I think that has always been Sanders’s goal. Even from those first losses for governor of Vermont, he was showing the way.

The Right Side, by James Oakes: Review of Armies of Deliverance, by Elizabeth R. Varon. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone discount the basic premise of an author while effectively building a new thesis on top of the same work. Oakes does this with Varon’s premise that the Civil War was won as various factions, including “enslaved blacks, nonslaveholding Southerners, Northern Democrats and antislavery Republicans, came together to defeat this slaveholder’s rebellion.” To him, this interpretation is incorrect. The battle was not about slavery per se, but against slaveholders, making the Civil War a class conflict.

Oakes is not critical of Varon’s book, in fact his review practically gushes with praise. He considers this and her other volume on Civil War history to be very important chronicles of primary-source materials. Oakes, who is the author of this own volume on the Civil War, makes a compelling case for a reinterpretation of the binding principle of the Union forces against the Slave Power of the Confederacy, one which may be helpful in bringing class struggle to the forefront of modern American consciousness.

The Nation Magazine: July 15/22

Reclaiming Stonewall, guest editor: Patrick McCarthy: This issue commemorates the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. I hate to use the word riot in the context of this event, a more appropriate term would be confrontation. Fed up with being targeted for by police for being, Stonewall marked a turning point in the LGBTQ community, one that would see a revolutionary change in status through the AIDS crisis and marriage equality. This special section of the magazine features short contributions by a number of LGBTQ activists, organizers and authors.

Warren Rising, by Joan Walsh: Continuing their coverage of the 2020 Democratic nominee hopefuls, The Nation turns their attention to Elizabeth Warren. Along with Bernie Sanders, Warren is one of the front-runners among the more radical and progressive factions on the left, and this gushing portrait of her is indicative of that. Joan Walsh follows Warren as she stumps through Iowa, covering her speech and reaction from the electorate while providing more of Warren’s background and some direct reporting.

I cant tell if this report is a glowing portrait of Warren because of her front-runner status in the primary, or if it’s because she’s the real deal. I’ve got great respect for Warren, and would welcome her as the nominee, but I would still prefer Sanders’s class-antagonism over Warren’s “I’m a capitalist” reformism. Still, there’s the issue of electability, and given Warren’s ability to bounce back from Trump’s attacks, and the Democratic establishment’s fear/hate of Sanders, I do hope that either one of them is able to beat out Biden for the nomination.

Resisting Trump’s Cruelty, by Sasha Abramsky: If there’s anything that seems to drive my outrage fatigue more than anything, it’s the Trump administrations’s wanton cruelty against immigrants. As I’m quick to remind, “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature” of Trump’s policies, following a predictable proto-fascist campaign to stir up racial resentment and white nationalism. This article points out the rays of sunshine in the fight against this dehumanization of South American refugees, those risking jailtime to make border crossings through the desert less deadly, and the churches and community organizations that are stepping up to sponsor, clothe and shelter those waiting on their asylum hearings.

Inherently Unequal, by David Cole: Review of Separate, by Steve Luxenberg. This history of the Plessy v. Ferguson case, the Supreme Court case which enshrined separate but equal in the United States until it was over turned 58 years later, is interesting for a variety of reasons. The litigants in the case knew that it was deemed to fail, and it was even opposed by Frederick Douglass and other civil rights supporters. Without a mass movement on their side, they knew that the nation, still reeling from the Civil War, was not ready. What surprised me also was that the case was brought by the Citizens’ Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Act, as well as the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, which did so because of the expense of operating separate cars. While the justification of the Court’s majority decision that segregation was “in the nature of things” is not surprising, it is that the sole dissenter in the 7-1 decision was the Court’s only southerner, Justice John Marshall Harlan. Harlan, who was raised in a slave-owning family and was a long-time opponent of civil rights legislation and supporter of states-rights, was nonetheless a supporter of the 13th and 14th amendments.

The Socialist Manifesto, by Bhaskar Sunkara

Sunkara is the founder of Jacobin magazine, which has been around since 2010, and his new book is an accessible history of socialism aimed at a general audience. It starts off with a vision of what democratic socialism in the United States would look like before going into a detail history of the movement from Marx up to the resurgence of the modern left through politicians like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. It ends with a chapter of action items that Sunkara believes are necessary for Democratic Socialists to win in the future.

My involvement in the movement is fairly recent, I’ve only been truly involved in it since the 2016 Democratic primary, where I was a Democratic party caucus chair for the Sanders campaign in my congressional district. I don’t have a strong history in Marxism or socialist history. I’ve been reading Dissent, Nation and Jacobin for about two years now, and have been reading and listening to leftist media on a regular basis during that time. Sunkara has done a service to people like me, to help fill some gaps in history and give me some much needed response to critics on issues surrounding socialism’s failures in the past.

There were several times during this book that I was having deja vu, when I realized that certain sections had pulled from Jacobin’s pages. Certain turns of phrase around Khruschev’s “secret speech”, for example, I’m pretty sure were lifted straight off of a recent issue (or reprinted.) Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Sunkara’s work with Jacobin has been instrumental to the movement, and my education, and the publication is probably one of the most coherent and influential sources of political thought for the latest generation of Democratic Socialists. At least that’s how I see it from here — it’s been months since I attended my local DSA chapter’s meetings.

Sunkara — and Jacobin — does not shy away from the failures of twentieth century socialism, and does not sugar coat the crimes that Stalin, Mao, and others have done in the name of communism and Marxism. He’s able to acknowledge it without excusing it or justifying it. At the same time, there is emphasis of the democratic part of democratic socialism, and the lesson to readers here is to find ways to increase democratic involvement in the movement.

The history is broad here, and it was easy for me to get lost amongst the party organizations, figures and coalitions that are part of the century and a half of the movement. There’s a lot to cover here, and the socialist movement spans the entire globe, and I’ll admit that another reading is warranted before I can even begin to understand all of the schisms in the various european movements contained within this short volume.

The history of socialism in the United States is one that obviously doesn’t get told these days, and reading the history of American unions and the left this right before Labor Day is good timing for the Party breakfast that I’ll be attending tomorrow. And this intersection of labor, Democratic party politics and Democratic Socialism is obviously one that I’m most interested in, and where I plan on focusing most closely in the future.

Beyond the history lesson and rationale behind democratic socialism’s resurgence, the part of the book that will likely get the most discussion amongst leftists will be the penultimate chapter, “How We Win”, with 15 points that Sunkara lists for success moving forward. Many of them boil down to the advice that socialists shouldn’t shy away from class struggle, and need to embed in working class issues to get our agenda pushed through. He worries that success may ultimately be the movement’s undoing as it has in the past, and urges readers to move forward, not backward, when the inevitable challenge rises. Two points that I’ll be studying: “It is not enought to work with unions for progressive change. We must wage democratic battles within them.” And: “We need to take into account American particularities.” This latter one has some broad outlines for possible avenues of attack within the Democratic party.

I’m not sure I share his optimism that our two party political system can be undone as swiftly as he believes, but I’ll take his idea of an actual mass-membership political party seriously for the time being. The idea of activating rank and file members, whether within a labor union or a political party, is probably the most important takeaway from this book. The main way to accomplish socialism in America will be through more Democracy. That is the biggest threat that we face from the populist right these days, and is also the main argument against authoritarian-style Communism. Focusing on democracy, within our organizations, workplace and political system should be the number one goal of progressive and leftist organizations moving forward.

Wired: July 2019

https://coverjunkie.com/cover-categories/best-of-the-rest/wired-us-75/

Wired Magazine was one of the most influential magazines I read growing up. I credit it with giving me a leg up on where tech was headed, and how it was going to transform the world. It’s only been recently that I’ve understood that they were not so much predicting the future as they were reporting the present and building the future. I’ve loved sharing Wired with friends to help give them a peek into this world. My subscription may have lapsed for a few years earlier this decade, but I still love this magazine. I don’t look to it so much as a beacon of the future, as I do for their long form stories about what’s going on.

The one thing I dislike the most? Their gadget features, which is usually a bunch of overpriced shit for people with too much time, and too much money on their hands. But I guess that’s expected, given the ads that usually accompany the magazine, likely focused at the Valley founder / venture tech-bro set.

Mission Out of Control, by Stephen Witt: Just in time for the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo moon landing is this account of just how close to disaster it came. We all know that we carry more processing power in our phones than was available in the Apollo capsule, but it still boggles the mind how they pulled things off back then. Weaving machine logic on a loom and wrapping it into a bundle of wires? Amazing. The solutions that they came up with to design these systems were quite ingenious. But apparently they could solve for everything. Armstrong wanted the return radar antenna left on in case they needed to abort the landing, unfortunately, this used up too much of the console’s limited memory, and caused the guidance system to crash the system. Armstrong had to guide the lander in manually and — spoiler — he landed successfully. Allegedly.

Besides two features about the reemergence of measles thanks to anti-vaxxers, and another about the unique VR-assisted directing used by Jon Favreau in Disney’s new Lion King reboot, there are two that are complementary and focus on sex and crime: The Fight to Take Down Backpage, by Christine Biederman, and How a Hacker Shamed Teen Girls — And How They Fought Back, by Stephanie Clifford.

Backpage.com was once the internet’s classified site for sex. Founded by a pair of hard-assed, first amendment loving, sons of bitches, it quickly drew ire from the authorities due to their no-fucks-to-give attitude toward doing what they want and willingness to fight back against attacks. After several years of facing off against the owners, they eventually used civil forfeiture tactics to seize their assets, and have been using stalling a delaying tactics to draw out the legal challenge to hopefully beat the defendants in a war of attrition. The case is troubling for both free speech and sex work advocates, and this case covers a lot of history about the safe-haven clause of the Communications Decency Act, Section 230, as well as the SESTA/FOSTA. The latter, intended to fight sex trafficking has, according to opponents, conflated trafficking and consensual sex work, and has driven exploitation and traffickers into the darker corners of the internet.

Clifford’s story, about a group of girls in rural New Hampshire who were cyberstalked and harassed by a classmate, documents the abuse that the girls suffered, and the case that law enforcement built against the perpetrator. It documents the way in which their perpetrator built up trust, talked them into taking risque pics, and then tried to exploit them for more explicit images. When the girls refused, he hacked their accounts and released their images under fake social media profiles, which caused these young women no end of stress and social trauma. Many of them were ostracized by their peers and punished by their families. Perhaps dozens of girls were caught up by this perp, who was only a teen himself, but there were perhaps many more who never told anyone about the abuse and have perhaps been suffering alone.

I say these last two stories are complementary, cause they seem to be touching on two sides of technology and sex. In the Backpage piece, we have two rich old white guys who are battling the feds to be able to sell sex on the internet, while trying to maintain an air of plausible deniability. In this piece, there is literally nothing about the individuals on the other side of the transaction. There are mentions about some of the underage victims who were exploited and abused via posts in Backpage, but we hear nothing from them themselves. The second piece is the opposite, we hear nothing from the perpetrator in this case, but hear from several of the victims that were abused, and the fear and PTSD that they still suffer to this day.

It’s an interesting editorial decision from Wired. I imagine that they felt they were coming off as too sympathetic to the Backpage owners and wanted to counterbalance accusations by including the sexting piece. I think both are important, and have a bit of a nuanced position on the two. I do think the feds have probably overstepped their bounds on the Backpage case — we’ll see how it plays out, and I’ll be sure to pay attention to whether SESTA/FOSTA is challenged at the Supreme Court. On the other hand, I worry about the world that my daughters are growing up in and will make sure to take steps to make sure they understand the dangers of cyberstalking and sexting. One problem that I think with the way the second case was handled was that when authorities became aware of who the perpetrator was, a sixteen year old boy, their response was not to confront him or involve his parents, but was to spend another two years building a case against him so that they could throw him in prison for eight years. Not to question the decision of the authorities in this case, but it seems like there is more to the story that is missing there.

Team Human

I don’t know exactly when I became aware of Douglas Rushkoff’s excellent podcast Team Human, but I’ve been hooked on it since I discovered it earlier this year. The book has been on my to-read list for months, and I finally purchased a copy and I am not disappointed. This is a very important book, and highly recommended.

Rushkoff is a ‘media theorist’, and has been covering technology since the 80’s. He was part of the cyberpunk Mondo2000 movement back in the day, and has spent most of his time since then critiquing the capitalization of the internet by business forces since the dot com boom.

The podcast itself usually starts with one of Douglas’s monologues, which are usually taken from sections of the book, and is followed by an interview with various people who are ‘playing for Team Human’. These are usually technologists and authors like Cory Doctorow, Clive Thompson, or climate activists such as Naomi Klein, David-Wallace Wells, or members of Extinction Rebellion.

You can get a real good sense of the book from the first 30 minutes of this episode, which comes from a speech Rushkoff gave at a recent event hosted by startup accelerator Betaworks.

This is ultimately where Rushkoff excels, bursting the bubble of venture capital and startup culture, who are most often interested in whether they can do something than whether they should. His main premise is that technology, once driven by the promise of connecting and empowering people and communities, is eventually corrupted by capitalism’s growth-driven profit model, and is turned against humans, ultimately exploiting and alienating us. Having run out of territory and other nations to extract value from, we have now turned ourselves into targets, and now we are the fuel for these digital technologies.

Team Human covers a lot of ground in a short two hundred pages, and ultimately makes a lot of simplifications that some people may find cherry-picked, but Rushkoff’s version of history, from the invention of finance, markets and religion, to more recent advents of social media, machine learning, and big data, is very interesting, and are as mind-opening as Zinn’s A People’s History was to me when I first read it years ago. There are also more than twenty pages of footnotes for those that want to follow deeper into subjects.

The book is short enough that it can be read through in a few hours, and Rushkoff tends to repeat certain turns of phrase or statistics enough times in his interviews that I’ve started to assimilate into my own thinking quickly enough. (He coined the term ‘viral media’, and seems to be an expert on memetic propagation, so I’m sure this is no accident.)

The call to action in this book is find the others, which is to say that to survive the challenges that we face in the current age, we need to purposefully foster the human connections with those around us, in our local community. Rushkoff believes that there is no substitute for the full bandwidth experience of face-to-face human interaction, and that by meeting with those that we disagree with can we ‘recognise the humanity’ in those who we may be ideologically opposed to, and come to some sort of agreement.

There is a lot to unpack in this short book. It is very broad, with room for exploration within each of the dozen chapters within. It’s a mind-altering work, and one that is much needed in today’s divided public sphere. Rushkoff has intentionally refused to take the helm of any new organization under the Team Human banner, but instead encourages others to find the organizations that are already doing the work.

I’ve taken that advice, and I encourage others to do the same to work toward that end. This book is ultimately a mind-virus for the future of humanity, not a revolution, but a renaissance of pro-human values, a return away from the extractive corporate tech firms that have transformed the world in the last decades. It’s a cycle that has played out through written language, the printing press, radio, television, and the internet. And Rushkoff’s mission is to make sure that the inventors of the next world-altering app have human values in mind when they are created.

The Nation Magazine: July 1/8 2019

Killer Kitch, by James McAuley: I’ll admit I didn’t read all of this issue’s cover story on Renaud Camus. I’m not familiar with his work, but after a couple of pages about this man I had read enough. I guess I’ve heard enough about le grand replacement, and given that I had been reading this around the second anniversary of Unite The Right’s Charlottesville rally, I don’t think I really wanted to read more about it.

The Florida GOP’s Assault on Democracy, by Sasha Abramsky: This seems par the course these days: citizens overwhelmingly approve ballot measure that will increase voting power by demographics likely to favor Democratic party candidates; Republican legislators move the goalposts and otherwise try to undermine the voice of the people in order to preserve their power. In this case it was a measure to reinstate voting rights for persons convicted of a felony after they had served their time. We’ve seen a similar response play out here in Virginia after gubernatorial executive orders granting blanket restorations to tens of thousands of citizens. The Virginia GOP about had the vapors.

The situation is a bit more dire for Republicans in Florida, given the state’s role in the 2000 presidential race. According to Abramsky, about 1.4 million people were expected to be reinstated by Florida’s Amendment 4, but state Republicans have managed to lower that number to around 800,000 changing the criteria and qualifications that individuals have to have to fall under the rule. And since it seems to be par the course for these reviews, here’s the obligatory Last Week Tonight segment that covered the absolute shitshow that was Florida disenfranchisement before the 2018 vote.

The Statue Aimed at Julian Assange, by Miriam Schnier: Now I could normally give a rat’s ass about Assange. I dislike him for a variety of reasons, but as I’ve said here before, how we treat the worst of us reflects on us. And the real importance about this article is because of the information it gives about the 1917 Espionage Act. And this is really where my subscription to The Nation really pays for itself. The magazine has been around long enough that it was there a hundred years ago, when noted the passage of the act with the headline “Civil Liberty Dead”.

“Based on language in the act that criminalized efforts to obstruct military recruitment, the government rounded up thousands of anti-war protesters, union activists, and political radicals, many of whom were held without trial in hastily organized internment camps.

Miriam Schneir

Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs, and anarchist activist Emma Goldman were both imprisoned under the Act, and Daniel Ellsburg likely would have been convicted for his release of the Pentagon Papers of not for the incompetence of Nixon’s ‘plumbers’. Both Chelsea Manning and Reality Winner have been charged under the Act.

While I’ll not defend Ethel and Julius Rosenburg’s spying for the Soviet Union, Schnier notes “the government has been able to use it to restrict freedom of speech; imprison anti-war activists, socialists, anarchists, communists, and ideological whistle-blowers; and help to destroy numerous progressive organizations and publications.”

Lost Bearings, by David A. Bell: Review of A Thousand Small Sanities by Adam Gopnik. Ah, liberalism. A word that has been demonized both by the right and the left. I’ve given much thought to its meaning, mostly in relation to the term progressive. My theory is that the two differ mainly on economic issues. Over the years, there’s been so much demonization of ‘liberal’ by right wing media like Limbaugh and Fox News, that actual liberals have fled from it, preferring the term ‘progressive’ when describing themselves. As far as social issues like race and LGBT equality goes, there isn’t much air between the two sides, and liberal politicians have been using the term to signal to the Democratic base that they are on board with these issues.

But my qualm with these politicians is that they share none of the economic values that are inherent in progressivism: welfare, economic equality, regulation, and progressive taxation. Virginia’s current Governor, Ralph Northam, is probably the most egregious example that I can think of, who was running around the state during his 2017 campaign, calling himself a progressive while simultaneously taking tens of thousands of dollars from fossil fuel companies.

I’ve long referenced the three party system in explaining these differences during my political activities. The ability of the neoliberal corporate wing of the Democratic party to play lip service to the progressive wing of the party continues to sicken me. Unfortunately, so long as the party of Trump continues to be dumpster fire, moderate, right leaning citizens who would normally vote social and fiscal conservative, will migrate to these moderate Democrats. Given the current demographics of the electorate, and the paltry participation by more progressive-leaning Millennials, I can see no solution to this problem until the current generation of boomers ages out of the population.

The Most Human Human: By Brian Christian

I heard Brian Christian on a recent podcast in my feed earlier this month, talking about computer science, decision making and other subjects. His more recent book, 2016’s Algorithms to Live By wasn’t available at my local library, but this 2011 book about the Loebner prize was, so I picked it up instead. I’ll admit, it took me a while to get into it. I had other things in my reading list I was trying to work through simultaneously, but once I got through those and was able to spend some more time with it I did enjoy it.

The Most Human Human is a chronicle of Christian’s experience in the 2011 Loebner prize, a Turing Test competition where chatbot programs and their human confederates compete against each other, each trying to convince a series of judges that they are the most human. Christian tells his story of trying to prepare for the competition, trying to figure out what he can do during each five minute round of chatting to convince the judges that he is not a computer. Within this story, Christian covers the history of computer science, from Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, to the first chatbots like ELIZA, onto more advanced concepts like compression algorithms.

Christian has a dual degree in both computer science and philosophy, as well as a MFA in poetry, and he puts all of this to use in the book. There’s a lot of discussion about art, music and poetry, as one would expect, and lots of quotes to break up the various sections. He spends a good deal on chess, mainly as it relates to computer science and the Kasparov vs. Deep Blue matches. The book is informative without being jargony. I was fairly familiar with most of what he covers in the book, but I was pleased that the book was more in depth about general computing concepts that just about the details of the Loebner prize competition, which was probably one of the lesser interesting parts of the book.

The book is only eight years old, but I fear it doesn’t really age well due to the prevalence of discussion around the pick-up artist (PUA) scene, notably Neil Strauss, Mystery, and the techniques employed by them like negging and neurolinguistic programming. I was involved in the PUA scene, around the mid-aughts, and it’s notable how that subculture became aggressively toxic. It’s quite a distraction in this age of #meToo and incels and the like. It’s also apparent that Christian really liked Dave Matthews Band when he was writing this book, but who am I to judge.

One of the things I really liked from this that Christian writes is about what he terms the anti-parliamentary debate, modeled as the antithesis to the Lincoln Douglas debates which are typical of primary and secondary school debate clubs. Instead of an adversarial process, opposing sides have to come together to work on joint legislation, which they then present to the judges independently, each side explaining why the legislation supports their position. These collaborators are scored jointly, with individual scores based on joint participation scores across several rounds. It’s a shame it hasn’t taken off.

As someone interested in artificial intelligence and machine learning, this book is a good read. It’s right in the sweet spot for general audiences and people like myself that have more of a technical background. A mix or art and science, if you will. One of the takeaways that is going to stay with me from reading this is the ever-moving target that we humans present to these questions around synthetic minds. The goalposts keep moving. Each time a computer beats us at a particular task, that task is no longer seen as a creative endeavor. First checkers was solved, and we’ve been beaten by computers in chess, now Go and other games. But these defeats ultimately allow us to determine what is it that separates us from the machines, that makes us uniquely human? And ultimately, Christian’s book is about his mission to discover those things, and is what the reader is left thinking about afterward.