Artificial Flowers

You can imagine, outside any pull of nostalgia, a time when the internet was just a novelty. Before companies began to dream about monetizing our personal data. Before political campaigns began to mine that data for habits and proclivities, before our vulnerability to having weaponized popularity used against us (if only for a few minutes)… you had, what? Techno-utopianism is perhaps the saddest kind: dry, unfulfilling, obviously not harmless. But the gamed-out essence of online anonymity maxed into inflated presence with no actual power behind it beyond its allure brags a special brand of nerdy cache. With computer technology we began trading in a kind of currency we had never considered before we were already doing so. That’s why it was new but felt so familiar.

It’s not old, or merely similar to other things, as some have suggested; being online was definitely new, again, if only for a few minutes. And it wasn’t just the DandD kids, it was everybody – work made use of it. And news! Watch videos, anytime! Buy stuff… uh oh. We just took to it so naturally, the sleight-of-our-own-hand felt redeemable. The ease itself took a natural form, comfit to the future that had yet to deliver flying cars or even dependable jetpacks.

I share books and records with certain friends, and I still think ‘virtual reality’ is a hilarious phrase. There are artificial flowers, have long been, and they still have no scent. All the stuff we used to be able to do with maybe the exception of spelling, we can still do. Yes, smart technology makes you dumb. If you get a little out of shape, you must exercise. If you get a little too far removed – from people, from politics, from real food, from ammunition that doesn’t come in a box – move back into town. Register to vote. Get a library card. Go to the bar.

Green is self-renewing, even our own cabbage-truck-just-fallen-ness. It’s still pouring, but postdiluvian world number TWO lay just steps outside of this ark. Now what’s that tapping? Oh, it’s just the Raven.

A trolley of Folly

Via the powder blue Satan, an instant classic in the emerging genre of parody far superior to the original:

I was reminded of this when—I can see certain readers rolling their eyes already—I read the news, last September, that numerous California cities, including Oakland and San Francisco, had filed lawsuits against Exxon, BP, and several other oil companies. The cities argue that rising sea levels, caused by global climate change, driven by fossil fuel consumption, will cause billions of dollars in property damage, and that “big oil” should foot the bill for costly infrastructure projects to shore up below-sea-level neighborhoods and oceanside communities.

If you believe the science is settled and the models are correct, of course it makes sense to take a page from the “Big Tobacco” lawsuit playbook. If it were the case that Exxon and the others were acting in ways that could ruin much of the California coastline, with full knowledge of the certain results of their conduct, it would indeed be just to ask them to foot the bill for protecting our cities and communities.

But I can’t help but think of those Navy prognosticators, who probably knew more about computers than just about anyone else in the United States government but didn’t know what Silicon Valley was up to right at that very moment.

The only real way to push back against the gratuitous provocations of the NYT editorial page or the dogsh*t political coverage at NPR is to send it up, up and away. Merely disagreeing only confirms their primary, fundamental fallacy: “Hey! If both sides are criticizing us, we must be right!” – a sweet spot only further plaqued with the appearance of even-handed contrarianism. This is more like transmitting articles through a ridicule device. One can only hope it embarrasses the other Stephens and his colleagues, if for nothing else the flimsiness of their shoddy talents.

Slowed! to the Highest Bidder

Hilarity ensues as the Trump ministration launches a trial balloon for building a nationwide 5G network:

it was an unpleasant surprise to many when a draft proposal urging heavy federal involvement in the next generation of fast mobile networks emerged from the White House of Donald Trump — who won the presidency after promising massive cuts to regulations.

”We’re not Venezuela,” Representative Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican and the chairman of the House Commerce Committee, said at a policy gathering in Washington. “Government taking it over, controlling it, is probably — clearly — not the way to go.”

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican chosen by Trump, was even more blunt: “I oppose any proposal for the federal government to build and operate a nationwide 5G network”

The proposal is rooted in concerns about China and cybersecurity, according to two administration officials familiar with the plans who were granted anonymity to discuss them. Unresolved questions include the extent of taxpayer funding, and whether a fifth generation, or 5G, network would be owned by the government, one of the officials said.

If the federal government directly participates in building a wireless network intended for commercial use, it would be a departure from the decades-long tradition of auctioning licenses to telecommunications companies to build their own networks. Phone service has been on a deregulatory path for decades, including legislation in 1996 that President Bill Clinton said “promotes competition as the key to opening new markets and new opportunities.”

Very observant of Representative Walden, but so many (and varied) plans are afoot and this is where they play the V card? So frightened are we of the massive, self-created Beowulf of ‘government-run _____’ that we are willing to abide any and all inferior services because THE MARKET! One might say it is cunning to introduce the security threat into this discussion until you remember who’s in charge and that you have every reason to be suspect even of unscheduled emptying of waste baskets. But the rending of garments about how great our competitive monopolies are at doing everything and the temerity to threaten them with a network built and own by Guhvuhmint is indeed tender and endearing.

Terrifically Boring


The movements on the Green energy front (What does it mean?) have become complex, obscured tea-leaves reading exercises and here’s another one that will get little attention though it rolls disparate dynamics into one [silent] scream:

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Monday unanimously rejected a proposal by Energy Secretary Rick Perry that would have propped up nuclear and coal power plants struggling in competitive electricity markets.

The independent five-member commission includes four people appointed by President Trump, three of them Republicans. Its decision is binding.

TL;DR – the commission endorses markets. ‘Sustainable’ was an iffy signifier until people. Started. Making. Money. Or put another way: Guy comes into his shrink’s office after a hundred sessions and the doc lays it all out. Everything comes down to: It doesn’t matter which green we’re talking about. They both point to the same place. Ugly, perhaps, and maybe not inevitable enough to happen in time. So parades and grandstanding will seem a little gratuitous and a kind of devolution at the hand of the money power. Again, hate the irony, not the player.

Image: future skate park?

The hazards of Political Art [part MCMXII]


Even for the most accomplished of smart ass, wise guy, artist provocateurs, political art is dicey. Art can be political. But if it is, it better also be very good.
So… Banksy has a hotel in the West Bank city of Bethlehem called Walled Off. Okay. And he threw a street party to mock-celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration:

People from the nearby Aida refugee camp said afterwards they objected to the way the event had used Palestinian children as the centrepiece of the performance. “We came because we didn’t like the use of the British flags or the way they were using Palestinian children,” said Munther Amira, a prominent activist from Aida who planted a large Palestinian flag in the middle of a cake.

Banksy’s rendering of a British street party was intended to satirise other celebrations, including the dinner on Thursday, at which guests will include the British prime minister, Theresa May, and her Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Several dozen Palestinian children had been invited to the event, which included scorched bunting and flags, cakes and helmets painted with union flags set at a table beneath the looming concrete separation wall.
The event also included the unveiling of a new work by Banksy, etched into the concrete of the wall: a mock apology from Queen Elizabeth II to the Palestinians reading “Er … sorry”.

The Balfour declaration was the result of discussions between British Zionist leaders seeking political recognition of their goals for Jewish statehood and British politicians embroiled in the first world war.

Whoever Banksy is, his instinct to bring attention to Palestinian suffering is well-chosen but also lousy with pitfalls. Once any artist begins to make statements of expression using actual people, their stories, histories and emotions, they are using much more than words, paint, film or movement. I’m not convinced that it can’t or should not be done – it has and will again. But again: err first on the side of excellence. Good work is easily marginalized if it can be dismissed as manipulative self-promotion.

Tech Fascination Capture


A somewhat cheeky line connects the many points along what I’ll call our Tech Fascination Capture. Describing that line can be tricky, but that’s what blogs are for, so here goes.

Interpretive problems that computers cannot solve, or rather those they can solve that aren’t the important ones, are at the center of a cognitive gap that is only increasing – and doing so fueled by our gaze and awe. We can’t seem to figure out why or how Russian troll farms might have swayed the most recent U.S. presidential election, if not others. Will artificial intelligence and the occupations lost to robots be good/a net value/desired? Self-driving cars – will we get there safely?

Much of this mystery is obscured by the need for a single answer to any one question, of course. But we are also frightened by the prospect of a single answer to multiple questions. This fear is a sort of disbelief itself, based on our own uncertainty about what we know from what we’ve learned, plus this more recent tendency to fall back on what everyone knows to be true. I’m actually unsure about the origin of that dynamic, though I am unafraid to speculate.

But, one thing is certain (and demanding of emphatic, if parenthetical, punctuation!): the answers lie in the questions themselves.

On social media misinformation, we don’t seem to want to contemplate the very top-level tradeoff: is the ability to connect with people worth the price of manipulation? That is, transmission of information and disinformation flow through the same tube – whether we believe one is sacred and the other profanely immoral or not is of not consequence whatsoever. There is one tube/portal; these are its uses; do you want to play?

Will robots kick us to the curb and take our places? Who programs what robots can do? What will machine learning do about the should question? Is there such a thing as robot creativity, outside of MFA programs, that is?

Self-driving cars: so few startups and new products have anything to do with actual technology anymore that this one – which does – should (ha!) be attached with a free-rider proviso. The billions of dollars and pixels that accrue to its pursuit all ignore the same problem with driverless cars: unanticipated events. If a couple, holding hands, is jay walking and a young mother is in the crosswalk with her carriage on the same section of a street simultaneously, who gets run over? It all happens in an instant, plus bikes, buses, other cars (are there bad self-drivers?), weather, darkness… the idea that these variables can be solved is an answer to a solution, not a problem.

This is not to suggest understanding our capture is simple. But let’s think about it.

Simply Amazing Tools

So fB is headed for a showdown with the Mueller investigation, or at least the inauguration of a new transparency czar for the social media advertising publishing juggernaut. For all their community building and connectingness of a bringing a world closer togetherness(tm), it’s still just a website with a business model – and that business model is your attention:

Facebook is so accustomed to treating its ‘internal policies’ as though they were something like laws that they appear to have a sort of blind spot that prevents them from seeing how ridiculous their resistance sounds. To use the cliche, it feels like a real shark jumping moment. As someone recently observed, Facebook’s ‘internal policies’ are crafted to create the appearance of civic concerns for privacy, free speech, and other similar concerns. But they’re actually just a business model. Facebook’s ‘internal policies’ amount to a kind of Stepford Wives version of civic liberalism and speech and privacy rights, the outward form of the things preserved while the innards have been gutted and replaced by something entirely different, an aggressive and totalizing business model which in many ways turns these norms and values on their heads. More to the point, most people have the experience of Facebook’s ‘internal policies’ being meaningless in terms of protecting their speech or privacy or whatever as soon as they bump up against Facebook’s business model.

The whole concept of ‘paid social’ is far more preposterous than anyone seems willing to admit. If you/they have created the perfect mechanism for connecting people with (only) the stories and issues they care most about, you/they have also created a tool for manipulation that is so precisely anonymous and disfiguring that it can, has and will again be used to undermine governments with very little actual effort beyond basic IT competence and price of a starter home in the ‘burbs. The naiveté of the hubris is just staggering, as are the pleas of innocence and well-meaning. Deciding that you will not make any editorial decisions is disingenuous – but also an editorial decision!
We are our own enemies, and our willingness to be manipulated and use such a ‘free’ product is a tale that is being told to us, right before our eyes, to which we only insist on contributing further rationales.
Also, Orwell was a piker.

Three stories


I once had a dream, within which was a contained a thread about my own work. I know – imagine that. A couple of tidy realizations were clouded (dreamlike) with an allusion to the titles of my next three books – what were they? It plagued me for days, as they were three titles I had not yet imagined. I’m getting close to another one, but that would be a fourth story. Let’s stick to three:
Trimming the fat in all the wrong places. That the Grey Lady is also not immune to corporate misgovernance is sad and depressing, and even though we’ve known for a very long time of its myopic shortcomings, it’s rather pathetic to see the paper of record put a knife to its own throat:

Staffers at the New York Times staged a newsroom walk out on Thursday as a demonstration of solidarity as management threatens job cuts. The protest followed a pair of letters sent earlier in the week to Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joseph Kahn by Times reporters and copy editors.

Cartoonish evil. The problems with putting a imbecilic grifter in the most powerful office in the world has, by definition, no possible limits. Not even going to link to any because what’s the point.

The foreignness of policy disruption or, let’s defend a former Exxon-Mobile CEO. While it’s imaginable that a Secretary of State might have disagreements with her boss, it’s difficult to understand the chain of events that leads one to accept a ‘high’ position in this administration. Did you ask yourself, ‘what do I have to lose?’ Did you answer in the space provided?

A close associate of the secretary of state says that Tillerson was not only “blind-sided by the Trump statement,” but “absolutely enraged that the White House and State Department weren’t on the same page.” Tillerson’s aides, I was told, were convinced that the true author of Trump’s statement was U.A.E. ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, a close friend of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. “Rex put two-and-two together,” his close associate says, “and concluded that this absolutely vacuous kid was running a second foreign policy out of the White House family quarters. Otaiba weighed in with Jared and Jared weighed in with Trump. What a mess.”

Image: author photo of OB, while we were away last week.

Tactics v. Strategy, an ongoing series

So… who ever thought The Cossacks Work for the Czar would become a literal trope? If you are keeping score at home, and really should be, the skullduggery looks like this. A campaign received election assistance from a foreign government, discussed potential policy changes as recompense for the successful assistance [ON TELEPHONE CALLS THAT WERE MONITORED], publicly complimented and assured the leader of the same foreign government, and blames enemies and the media (Venn diagram available) for existence of, as well as attempts to call out, this treason.
Not unrelated, continued efforts in the only actual work the administration is currently pursuing consists entirely of working the refs:

While the administration is battling a large swath of the media, the fight with CNN has special intrigue because its parent company has a massive piece of business awaiting government approval: a proposed $85.4 billion sale to AT&T Inc. Messrs. Kushner and Ginsberg, who have been friends for a decade and whose discussion covered a variety of issues including Israel and the economy, didn’t discuss the merger in their recent meeting, said the people familiar with the matter.

If you know where to jump in here, please do. In the trumped up [ugh] dispute with CNN, its president’s relationship to the reality show that launched this whole fiasco is only mentioned in passing. But there it is.
Image: Painting by Ilya Repin, The Zaparozhe Cossacks Writing a Mocking Letter to the Turkish Sultan

See It Now

First of all Happy New Year and apologies for going blank for a while. We were hacked! And I’m not naming Russians names, but THANK YOU to someone special for getting this thing back up and running.
So… when the FCC gave licenses to stations to broadcast advertisements beginning in July 1941, they negotiated public service programming commitments as a requirement for a license. These were initially 15-minute current events recaps. But when Pearl Harbor was bombed later that year, the national emergency gave way to extensive special reporting that led to everything form newsreel theatre to interview and expose shows – John Cameron Swayze and Camel News Caravan to, eventually Edward R. Murrow himself and See It Now, the first program with live simultaneous transmission from coast to coast.
So the public affairs arena became profitable and something happened to it. We can connect other phenomena, and we should (the advent of Pop art), but all this happened in a way that seemed positive, fortuitous and in many ways divine. But we weren’t nearly savvy enough to keep the news boring enough to keep ourselves informed long enough to figure how we should treat these new information delivery systems that were so engrossing we would just sit down and watch… anything.
Now they have become useless for informing us – but they didn’t start out that way! The diminution has been deliberate, but informing people could be a viable business model! But, and this is serious, the quarterly profit expectations will have to be vastly curtailed. And this is only part of the problem. But let’s begin.