28 September 2012

UX design podcast

A little while back I recorded a conversation with Jesse James Garrett and Peter Merholz about what we mean by “UX”, which you can now hear at the Adaptive Path website.

26 September 2012

Multicultural metaphors

A lot of Americans were brought up with the melting pot metaphor of American culture.

But social justice folks rightly criticize the assimilationism which that metaphor promotes. Expecting people to wholly surrender their own culture, submitting to an entirely homogeneous American culture, denies both the truth of American history and the dignity of the range of cultures. Proponents of multiculturalism often talk about the salad bowl as a better metaphor than the melting pot.

In a salad bowl, different ingredients are all mixed together to make one thing, yet each ingredient also retains its own characteristics. They aren’t blended into some bland goo.

I respect the critique of assimilationism there, but I have never liked this metaphor. As I said just the other day, this rhetoric suggests a virtue in the Preservation of Cultural Purity which has some troubling implications and doesn't represent how culture actually works, anyway, since cultures always end up overlapping and influencing each other.

My favored metaphor comes from Mark Twain, who is blamed clever and snuck it in to the third paragraph of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The widow rung a bell for supper, and you had to come to time. When you got to the table you couldn't go right to eating, but you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn't really anything the matter with them, — that is, nothing only everything was cooked by itself. In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better.

A carrot in a stew remains a carrot, but it takes on some of the flavor of the stew. The stew takes on some of the flavor of the carrot. The stew as a whole doesn't become a “bland goo”, but does have a character as a whole that becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

That sounds to me like the way American culture works at its best, the American culture I want to see us build.

I bring this up because artist and activist damali ayo, whom I really dig, just proposed another metaphor which responds to the question of American culture and race and the challenge of building a healthy whole that I find intriguing.

It's a Rubik's cube.

The Rubik's cube metaphor holds a few simple ideas:

  1. This is a really hard puzzle.
  2. The puzzle is only complete when all sides are whole and connected. 3) On the way to becoming whole, there can be a lot of disruption.
  3. There is a solution. We can be whole, connected, and at peace. Keep trying.

Humanity has been given a gift — our diversity. And in this gift lies a challenge, a shared spiritual lesson, a big opportunity for growth. It is a puzzle for the ages, one of the most amazing, memorable, challenging, and rewarding ones we could have been given as a species. It has lasted us generations. It is certainly not easy. It seems unsolvable. But we must try to solve it. It compels us, sometimes through the hope of a solution, sometimes through sheer frustration (much like a Rubik's cube). On the way to solving it, like the cube itself, we will become, as a whole, a better unit. Each part becomes part of a whole, and those wholes become part of a larger whole ... the world. It is possible. We have to keep trying to find a solution. Any one of you in a relationship knows how hard it is to mitigate differences between two people, and the joy that comes when you succeed. Well, it seems like humanity has been given this kind of opportunity on a species-wide level. So the joy in our success will be as broad as we are, but so will the work it takes to get there.

I quite like the way this metaphor frankly admits the challenges — we find building a just society difficult because, well, it is difficult — but also has an implicit optimism that a solution does exist. It also implies that we can find pleasure in the process of working toward a solution, that we can transmute the inescapable challenges themselves into a ground for satisfaction with the work. It also hints that the injustices we see result from a kind of complex machinery in society, which I find useful in avoiding the idea that these injustices devolve simply to the attitudes of individuals.

Given the limits of metaphor, I do see some things in it that don't quite work for me. The image of a single, clear “solution” which one can easily imagine but have difficulty actually constructing doesn't quite work for me; this hides the genuine contention of what constitutes a just society. The image of unscrambling the colors and separating them out has a valence that presents some serious problems given American history.

But quibbles aside, I like the metaphor. Pardon the pun, but I look forward to playing with it.

24 September 2012

RPG cultural appropriation

Geek culture has recently seen a series of heated and messy online conversations about the intersections of genre, cultural appropriation, sexism, and racism. Long overdue. The racism implicit in our cultural symbols needs a good hard look and a vigorous response, and I feel delighted that this part of the world has started having the conversation.

That said, I have to confess my own ambivalence about some of the rhetoric of “cultural appropriation”, which implies that Group X “owns” some ideas/images/practices/etc such that if Group Y employs them this constitutes “stealing” from Group X. This carries a whiff of Maintaining Cultural Purity which spooks me. Plus it seems to suggest an unrealistic conception of culture, which in practice always transmits itself across borders of all kinds and manifests a stew of crisscrossing influences. One cannot simply say, f'rinstance, that White people stole rock ’n’ roll from Black people. That succinct summary points to injustices which birthed rock ’n’ roll as a White genre, but a close look reveals a much stranger and more complicated story. Rock ’n’ roll, like so much cultural innovation, comes not from within a unified people but out of an encounter between different people, embedded in a history of injustice but not wholly authored by one group.

Plus, if a White guy like me enjoying Stevie Ray Vaughn playing the blues is wrong, I don't want to be right.

While I have no shame about enjoying hearing a White guy like Vaughn play the blues well, I also recognize the need to face the underlying ugliness of the story of how a he came to perform in a musical style primarily developed by Black people in a context of horrifying oppression — indeed, largely as an expression of that horrifying oppression — and how a White guy like me ends up enjoying the result. I confess that my pleasure comes born of a history of injustice, and at the very least I must not shrink from that awareness. Even as we enjoy some things, we can — we must — criticize the problems inherent in culture even while we enjoy it. Rachael at Social Justice League has a terrific piece How to be a fan of problematic things which talks about this problem.

Liking problematic things doesn’t make you an asshole. In fact, you can like really problematic things and still be not only a good person, but a good social justice activist (TM)! After all, most texts have some problematic elements in them, because they’re produced by humans, who are well-known to be imperfect. But it can be surprisingly difficult to own up to the problematic things in the media you like, particularly when you feel strongly about it, as many fans do. We need to find a way to enjoy the media we like without hurting other people and marginalised groups.

That constitutes the very least a person in a position of privilege must do. Sometimes awareness of the problems with things we enjoy does not constitute a strong enough response. Sometimes we have not just “problematic” culture but minstrelsy, in which a people and a culture become twisted into cartoon parodies of themselves, and I think we have to reject that completely. So I support and take seriously the growing critique which travels under the banner of “cultural appropriation” despite my discomfort with some of its arguments.

The foment over this in geekkultur reflects in large part how the genre literature which geeks love has racist symbolism sewn deep into the tradition. Can we clear away the problematic implications of genre literature while retaining as much as we can of what people love about those stories? We need to figure that out. I suspect that in many places it will turn out that we cannot square the circle. Perhaps the charms of something like Star Trek depend too much upon the elements of the colonial narrative to rescue, and a decade or two from now we will find it hard to enjoy it at all. As I have said before:

I sometimes reflect that Al Jolson, the famed blackface singer from the dawn of recorded music, is inaccessable to us. He was reputedly a master of his art, brilliant and moving, but he sang in blackface and like most contemporary Americans I just can't get past that; it goes past offensive all the way to baffling. So his artistry is lost to me ... and I insist that it is a loss. Any artist's work that we can no longer enjoy diminishes us. But I would have it no other way. The dignity which that loss buys us is more than enough compensation.

I have this on my mind because in recent years I have made a middle-aged return to one of the very geeky pursuits of my youth, tabletop roleplaying games. It turns out that middle-aged social skills, plus drinking beer at the table, make this much more fun. Though I will not deny the deeply geeky character of tabletop roleplaying, it owes more to improvisational theatre than most uninitiated folks realize. In order to make the story of the game work, players need to share an image of the world in which the story takes place, so RPGs tend to rely heavily on genre imagery. The granddaddy of tabletop roleplaying games, Dungeons & Dragons, of course draws on the heroic fantasy genre spawned by Tolkien's work. Other games imagine worlds drawn from Westerns or cyberpunk or spy movies or post-apocalyptic science fiction or superheroes or other geeky genres. So if we bring the critical tools that look for racism and sexism and cultural appropriation and so forth to the gaming table, as we should, some tough questions start to surface.

My reëntry into tabletop roleplaying came when a few years ago I started gamemastering a steampunk game about a zeppelin-borne group of adventurers in an alternate-history Victorian era. I tried to dodge the Kipling-esque colonial tropes that lurk in that space ... mostly unsuccessfully. So I have had this collision between RPGs and genre and culture on my mind for a while.

Other middle-aged guys like me have started asking themselves similar questions about games and what stories they tell, and have had the internet as a tool for discussing them. As a result, the last few years have produced an energetic movement of experimental “indie games” created by hobbyists; weird and wonderful games about cops in a fantastical version of 19th Century Utah and the hardworking minions of master villains and chivalric tragedy at the end of time and academics using an evil alien cockroach to get tenure and more.

With H. P. Lovecraft lurking on the bookshelves of many of the people making games (and Call of Cthulhu a hugely influential early roleplaying game) we have seen several recent attempts at Lovecraftian games.

The racism in Lovecraft presents a problem.

All horror literature has fear of the Other as a part of how it works, and many of the moves which play on that carry racist symbolism. But Lovecraft's world presents bigger problems than this fundamental note in horror, and many people have remarked on how racism animates much of his work. It contains ooga-booga cults of “savages” and fear of miscegenation and more. Lovecraft was an exceptionally racially bigoted man, even for his time. So contemporary writers and game designers try to avoid surfacing that aspect of his work.

A group of designers recently announced a Kickstarter for tremulus: a storytelling game of lovecraftian horror, and I threw in a few shekels. The fundraiser has been going well, so as the pledges have piled up the authors have been offering expansions to the game as stretch goals if the game reaches a higher funding target. So a couple of weeks ago, they circulated this announcement to project backers:

We shall now turn our attention away from the creepy litle town of Ebon Eaves and cast our eyes to strange, foreign soils with The Congo Playset. That's right. You'll be able to quickly create a framework to let your characters explore the heart of darkness. And it comes with three playbooks: The Captain, The Guide, and The Wild Man.

Whoa.

Seeing that, I tried to gather my thoughts and comment on the Kickstarter page about the problems with it. Before I got to it, other backers were also on the case.

Just ... be careful with this one. Reading the phrases “Congo”, “Heart of darkness” and “Wild Man” makes me worry that you're coming dangerously near some cultural third rails like racism and colonialism. Obviously the original material of the Mythos is full of that stuff, but Lovecraft had the excuse of writing in the 1930s (and Conrad in 1899). Revisiting those tropes nowadays will require some tricky balance between faithfulness to the original works, respect for different cultures, and healthy fear of creating a shit-ton of bad feeling.

Anyway. Sorry to go all Edward Said on you, and maybe you've already thought through all this, but I thought it was worth bringing up.
....
Put me down as another person whose red flags went up upon hearing “The Congo”
....
Ah, so “the Congo” is all about exoticism, going to the Other Place, and experience the primal alienness there. And the home you return triumphantly to is presumably an industrialized nation. With Tarzan.
....
I have to say, I'm really, really, REALLY not cool with this playset, and the update/comment intended to be reassuring really isn't. Taking someone's home, and then saying “well pretend the PEOPLE aren't there, and just the cool exotic place is, and it's all okay”...no. That's not okay. I'm going to have to reconsider this.

So the game designers dropped it.

We pride ourselves on planning and foresight, yet none of us anticipated the strong reaction by some to our announcing the latest stretch goal of The Congo playset, so we have had some meetings over the last few days to decide what we’d do. You see, we aren’t trying to advance any secret agendas nor is it our desire to offend anyone, so at this time we are presently setting aside The Congo ....

The critique of cultural appropriation has reached the geeky sphere of roleplaying game enthusiasts, a territory rich in middle-aged White guys.

Little victories. We don't have this worked out yet, but we are working on it.


I'm proud to say that this article was included in RPG Review #17.

21 September 2012

Krugman turns it up to 11

No more Dr. Nice Krugman. Today's New York Times column, Disdain for Workers, hits the GOP with both barrels. I know a lot of people accuse Krugman of being a partisan hack, but that's not really true. He's been sharply critical of Democrats' policy, too ... he just thinks the Republicans are categorically worse.

In the eyes of those who share this vision, the wealthy deserve special treatment, and not just in the form of low taxes. They must also receive respect, indeed deference, at all times. That’s why even the slightest hint from the president that the rich might not be all that — that, say, some bankers may have behaved badly, or that even “job creators” depend on government-built infrastructure — elicits frantic cries that Mr. Obama is a socialist.

Now, such sentiments aren’t new; “Atlas Shrugged” was, after all, published in 1957. In the past, however, even Republican politicians who privately shared the elite’s contempt for the masses knew enough to keep it to themselves and managed to fake some appreciation for ordinary workers. At this point, however, the party’s contempt for the working class is apparently too complete, too pervasive to hide.

Read the whole thing.

20 September 2012

Tiny apartment furniture

Matroska Furniture makes a cunningly reconfigurable furniture system for small apartments. The video showing how things fold together is quite delightful.

I am once again struck by the number of products becoming available to support the life I wanted to live when I was in my 20s.

19 September 2012

18 September 2012

Sexism heuristic

A bicyclist looks at bicycle ads and other bike media and talks about how one might answer the question “is this thing sexist?” Well said and full of links to smart examples.

The Bike Test:
Here are the criteria:
  1. Are women present or represented at all?
  2. Are the women presented as active subjects rather than passive objects?
  3. If the gender were reversed, would the meaning stay more or less unchanged? (Or would the image become hilarious?)

Who pays taxes

With Mitt Romney having made the news for repeating the bullshit factoid that “47% of Americans don't pay any income tax”, articles have been circulating about that claim.

The Washington Post has a good overview of the deceit and its implications.

83 percent of those not paying federal income taxes are either working and paying payroll taxes or they’re elderly and Romney is promising to protect their benefits because they’ve earned them. The remainder, by and large, aren’t paying federal income or payroll taxes because they’re unemployed. But that’s a small fraction of the country.

Behind this argument, however, is a very clever policy two-step that’s less about who pays taxes now and more about who is going to pay to reduce the deficit in the coming years. Here’s how it works.

If you want deeper analysis of the numbers, a chewy long article from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorites, Misconceptions and Realities About Who Pays Taxes, looks closely at the figures.

The fact that most people who don’t owe federal income tax in a given year do pay substantial amounts of other taxes — and also are net income taxpayers over time — belies the claim that households that do not owe income tax in a given year will form bad policy judgments because they “don’t have any skin in the game.”

Furthermore, although the federal tax system is progressive overall, state and local tax systems are regressive and undo a significant share of that progressivity.

The Tax Foundation has more on how Bush's tax cut plays a big part in creating people paying no income tax. David Leonhardt at the New York Times has more in an old post about how the 47% figure is deliberately deceptive. Digby snarks about the incoherency of this argument from conservatives. That pie chart at the top of this post is from NPR.

And this might also be a good time to bring up the “Giver States vs Taker States” analysis which has been long known by lefty bloggers like me showing that, paradoxically, States whose populations pay more Federal taxes in aggregate than they receive in benefits tend strongly to be “Blue” states which elect Democrats while the States whose populations come out ahead on Federal money are “Red” states which vote Republican.

17 September 2012

Entitlement

The Mother Jones piece about Mitt Romney speaking to a fundraiser of rich guys has rightly gotten a lot of play. I want to focus on one little segment. Romney says:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.

Emphasis mine.

Now I'm sure that Romney would say that he's talking about the evils of the imagined socialism which Republicans somehow have convinced themselves that Obama stands for. They suppose that Democrats plot to have the Federal government try to provide for the needs of everyone, even freeloaders who are just too lazy to work, leading to our bankruptcy and ruin. To believe such an absurd fantasy is bad enough.

But look at what Romney said. Romney's argument is grounded in the idea that it is wrong for people to think they are entitled to these things. Romney implies that there are people who are not entitled to health care, to food, to housing. There are people who deserve to suffer from treatable diseases. There are people who deserve to go hungry. There are people who deserve to sleep in the rain tonight.

This suggestion is none other than disgusting.

No doubt Romney's supporters will surface and accuse people like me of twisting Romney's words, of engaging in the corrosive American political practice of gotcha-ism.

I will grant that the American left is prone to reading people's words too closely and raising the stakes of the implications of offhand comments too high. I have made the same complaint myself.

But that close parsing of language that lefties engage in does have an important virtue. Looking for signs of disrespect, of dismissal of civil liberties, of racism, and so forth teaches a certain rigor in thought. What have I implied in what I have said? Where do my ideas really lead? A person who cultivates the habits of mind that prevent them from accidentally saying that some of us deserve to go hungry has also learned to see what choices might send people to bed hungry. Conservatives tend to be very bad at that kind of examination of their ideas in general.

So here we see Romney insufficiently thoughtful to notice the repugnant implications of what he says. A man who would say this lacks the qualifications to command the attention of civilized people at all, much less to serve as President of the United States.

14 September 2012

Phone futurism

I'm fond of telling a story about how fifteen years ago I read an article about how cellphones were much more prevalent in some East Asian country (Singapore? South Korea?). Something like 95% of the population had a cellphone. But the proliferation of phones didn't strike me so much as another statistic: apparently half of those phones had never made a voice call. Instead, people used their phones for SMS, little games, and PDA functions.

I prophesied then that in 2050 everyone would have a little computer in their pocket which they would call a “phone”, but few people would even remember where the name “phone” came from.

The emergence of the ubiquitous Little Pocket Computer has come faster than I expected. The iPhone assumes that one does not want a phone that also does other things; one wants a pocket computer which has “telephone” as one among many functions. The other smartphones have drifted the same way.

Alexis C. Madrigal at The Atlantic has canvassed a bunch of folks about The Phone Of 2022. It seems that this transition to “phone” not meaning telephone has taken hold in everyone's minds. Indeed, the article quickly becomes a discussion of computing interfaces.

“It's not clear to me that there is any such device as the phone in 2022. Already, telephony has become a feature and not even a frequently used feature of those things we put in our pockets. Telephony as a purpose built device is going away, as it's been going away for the TV and the radio,” Clay Shirky said to me, when I asked him to speculate. “So what are the devices we have in our pockets?”

The article contains the usual windy futurism. I don't mean that as a criticism; I love me some windy futurism. But more than any of the technologies it talks about, I find it interesting that even a journalist with column inches to fill assumes now that telephony does not define a “phone”.

12 September 2012

Iraq war

A reader points me to a convenient brief overview of the Iraq war.

Named Operation Iraqi Freedom, the original military operation lasted a total of three-weeks before Baghdad was captured by U.S. Marines and the core of the Iraqi government was disbanded.

On April 21st, 2003, coalition forces formed what would become known as the Coalition Provisional Authority, which would act as the transitional government before elections could be held. President Bush would then appear on April 1st, 2003 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln before a banner stating Mission Accomplished and proclaiming an end to major U.S. combat operations in Iraq, despite having not captured or confirmed the death of Saddam Hussein.

Despite assurances of victory, It soon became clear that the war was not truly over.

11 September 2012

Going Galt

Nils at Small Precautions has a chilling summation of the challenge presented by the Rich Folks Who Own Everything separating themselves from the destiny of the rest of society which he calls, wittily, “plutocratic insurgency”.

One of the most important global trends of the last few decades has been the tendency of wealthy elites to hole themselves up in walled off enclaves. These islands of elitism are designed to be largely self-sufficient in their ability to deliver health care, food, security, education, entertainment, etc. to their residents, even as they sit amid seas of social misery.
....
plutocratic insurgency arises wherever you see financial and economic elites using such enclaves as staging areas for making war on public goods. This is what I take to be the defining political-economic feature of plutocratic insurgency: the attempt on the part of the rich to defund the provisioning of public goods, in order to defang a state which they see as a threat to their prerogatives.
....
it's worth noting that the idea of plutocratic insurgency on its face is paradoxical, perhaps even oxymoronic: shouldn't plutocrats be the folks most invested in the perpetuation of a system which has them at the top? Why would the system's biggest beneficiaries want to make war on the system? The answer lies in part in the rise of an ideology—or perhaps more accurately, a narrative—that has allowed society's winners to imagine their success not as being the result of either the luck or the skill to work the system for their maximum personal benefit, but on the contrary as having been arrived at by pure dint of their own rebellion against the system.
....
On the one hand, then, an ideology of rebellion and success through the undermining of “the takers.” The flip side is a material point: the very wealthy today are so rich that they can effectively afford to buy for themselves the sorts of goods which previously required a state to provide. The result is a phenomenon whereby many plutocrats today see no reason to contribute anything to their host societies, and indeed actively make war on the idea that citizenship imbues them with any economic or social responsibilities.

Horrifying. And I am reminded of Thomas Frank's essay from The Baffler, Why Johnny Can't Dissent.

The new businessman quite naturally gravitates to the slogans and sensibility of the rebel sixties to express his understanding of the new Information World. He is led in what one magazine calls "the business revolution" by the office-park subversives it hails as "business activists," "change agents," and "corporate radicals." He speaks to his comrades through commercials like the one for "Warp," a type of IBM computer operating system, in which an electric guitar soundtrack and psychedelic video effects surround hip executives with earrings and hairdos who are visibly stunned by the product's gnarly 'tude (It's a "totally cool way to run your computer," read the product's print ads).
....
Our businessmen imagine themselves rebels, and our rebels sound more and more like ideologists of business.

10 September 2012

Apple paid Xerox PARC for the GUI

I sort of grew up on the legend of Steve Jobs “stealing” the basics of the Mac interface from Xerox PARC. A while back I learned that the truth is more complicated.

In 1979, Jobs and a group of Apple engineers visited Xerox PARC, a famous Silicon Valley research group, for three days. During those visits, the Apple team saw what was then the future of personal computing: Bitmapped screens, graphical interfaces, desktop metaphors like folders and trash cans, Ethernet, printers, mice — the works. Four years later, Apple shipped the Lisa and a year after that, the Macintosh — both of which used concepts seen at PARC.

The conventional wisdom has become that Xerox PARC invented the networked graphical PC, and Jobs “stole” their ideas. But this is wrong on all counts.

Of course, there’s no question that Apple made major leaps of understanding and vision by visiting PARC. But what Apple created was not Xerox technology.

....

The idea that Apple stole Xerox’s mouse invention is totally wrong on all counts. This basic scenario is also true for many other Mac technologies seen at PARC.

Of course, some things the Apple engineers saw were in fact invented by Xerox, including bitmapping and Ethernet. But the biggest thing Apple got out of the visit was the big-picture vision of how a networked graphical personal computer and printers might function. The second thing was a whole lot of pointers and shortcuts to the solution to problems solved by PARC researchers.

But here’s the most important fact: Nothing was “stolen.”

Whatever Apple got from those three days was bought and paid for as part of a fair, legal, above-the-table business deal between Xerox and Apple.

....

The bottom line is that Jobs didn’t steal from Xerox. He paid for whatever he got, fair and square.

09 September 2012

What is democracy?

Democracy is not elections. Democracy is about all of us being in this together. We are forgetting that.

Tom Junod goes to a water park to make the point.

A few days ago, I took my daughter to the big water park in Marietta, Georgia, just outside Atlanta. It's called Whitewater, and I take her there every year, on Labor Day weekend, at the end of summer. I take her there not just for the “rides,” which in most cases aren't really rides at all, but slides that combine water and gravity in varying proportions, and so pack a pretty elemental wallop.

I take her for the lines.

Read the whole thing. Then pay a visit to Andrew Sullivan to see how he has paired his link to this article with a South Park clip with some serious satirical bite.

Examiner.com is not a source

I had wondered, but now I'm sure. Examiner.com publishes absurd nonsense. They are not worthy of trust. One shouldn't read them at all; one might accidentally remember something one reads there and think it was legitimate.

SxD & narcissism

Benjamin Philips breaks out the psychoanalytic theory to consider what drives us in using social media.

The truly fascinating aspect of this turn toward the Social Enterprise is how commercial social influence measurement technology becomes an almost satirical expression of what is known in psychoanalysis as a “Pathologically Narcissistic” personality.
....
Salesforce.com, Hubspot, and others on the cutting edge of the Inbound Marketing industry regularly produce infographics and blog posts advising potential customers and advocates what time of day to tweet, how often, how many characters the content should consume, how it should be organized, and so on. Imagine (before it is reality) this process transposed onto any other social environment: you are at a party, trying to elicit the interest of a potential sex-partner, and you consult an infographic describing exactly what to say, to whom, when, and how long to talk. You have an objective score that updates in near real-time representing your success-rate, which you can compare to past performance. The idea strikes us as entirely artificial and bizarre, a sort of “Brave New World” meets “Degrassi Junior High” pastiche.

I cannot help but think that this somehow relates to the way that a certain narcissism is rewarded — culturally and materially — by the tech industry. This is much commented upon in the emergence of people who are Internet Famous for various reasons, but it runs deeper than that. You can see it in many people who are celebratory of the culture of Silicon Valley startups, as well. You can see it in the mythology of CEO as Hero.

You can see that among designers like me. I often say that an interaction designer needs to acheive Buddhist enlightenment in order to do their job. A designer must at once arrogate to themselves good judgment about what people need, but also set aside their own proclivities and instead attend to what users different from them want and like. A designer must have passionate certainty about their solution, while also being prepared to release their attachment to it when they get new information which calls that solution into question. That seems to echo the psychoanalytic sense of narcissism that Phillips describes.

I know that sounds like a knock agains the culture of the industry, but I don't mean it that way. (At least, not only that way.) Steve Jobs provides the classic example of how narcissim yoked to talent can act as a powerfully positive force, especially in tech.

08 September 2012

Superheroine art

David Brothers at Superhero Alliance has a meditation on the sexualization of superheroines in comic book art. His objection is not just political; he points out that it makes for bad storytelling.

Whatever the reason, we're mired in crappy sexualization. And the problem isn't just what that means for women, but what it means for the craft and quality of the comic. Imagery that prizes sexualization above all else -- especially when that doesn't make sense for the story -- can pull you out of the moment and stop your reading experience dead.
....
Cape comics exist to tell stories. There are a variety of stories they can tell, from mysteries to sci-fi to cheesecake to drama to existential examinations. The problem is when the streams cross to detrimental effect. In certain proportions, mixing those stories is fascinating. It's when things get out of proportion, when things turn grotesque, that the entire enterprise begins to fall apart.

The art examples he shows make the point very well.

Indeed

Listen to Omar.

Confused? This is a reference to The Wire. If you haven't watched The Wire, you really should check it out.

07 September 2012

Globalism

So if you're reading me, you probably know the Portlandia bit about the couple at the restaurant asking if their chicken was raised locally.




Here's another version from Cobb, The New Retail, thinking at the global scale:

Customer: .... which shirts would you recommend?

Clerk: Those that you are looking at for $35 are very popular..

Customer: ..but you would recommend those behind the counter which cost more.

Clerk: You are very perceptive sir. These fine shirts behind me are of the highest quality American linen.

Customer: And these out here?

Clerk: Chinese.

Customer: Hmm. They look almost identical. I can't really tell the difference.

Clerk: Allow me to explain. The American shirt is made by English speaking Americans who were born and raised in this country and whose parents were citizens. They are union workers who get full benefits including premium & catastrophic health care, vision & dental flex care, 401k, 529 contribution matching, profit sharing, tuition reimbursement ....

And that in turn reminds me of one of my favorite things I've ever read, a long essay from The Exile, Elite Versus Elitny, which I had thought I had already blogged but it seems I have not.

But there are some things which make poverty more tolerable. Wal-Mart for one. I’d moved to Louisville with not even a fork or a spoon. Wal-Mart sells all that — hamper, dishes, utensils, dish rack, sheets, telephones, you name it — for prices so incredibly low that I was genuinely grateful. I thought about Wal-Mart’s union busting, its abused work staff of geriatrics and economically desperate wage slaves, its stocks of Third World products which in turn further destroyed America’s manufacturing, its aesthetic Sovietization of America… and then I thought about my own shitty fiscal situation. Conclusion: “Fuck ‘em.”

Wal-Mart is one of the few bones with a little meat on it that America throws to its tens of millions of lower-middle and semi-middle classes. Goods that once may have been unattainable are now attainable, almost free, thanks to union busting, employee abuse, Third World slave labor, the destruction of over-priced ma and pa stores, the homogenization of Middle America and every other horrible sin. When I said “Fuck ‘em,” I didn’t mean it in the sense that I’d turned coat and gone right-populist like some David Horowitz. I just meant that I needed those cheap dishes. And I understood how, from the point of view of the economically struggling millions, you could mistrust and loathe all the natty left-wing intellectuals, all the rasta-haired, chin-studded anti-consumerists who want to steal that one bone that you’ve been given: access to goods. Goods that allow you to keep from slipping down yet another terrifying notch on America’s cruel socio-economic fortress walls.

The global economy creates systemic challenges which require that we address them at a systemic level. Trying to shop responsibly is worth doing, but we shouldn't imagine that it's a solution.

Not that regulation is unproblematic. Bruce Sterling's novella Kiosk, in which there are surprising repercussions when a guy operating a street kiosk in Eastern Europe (Borislav) starts operating a gray-market 3D printer, dramatizes that problem well.

Mrs. Damov spoke up. “I can't believe your fascist, technocratic nonsense! Do you really imagine that you will improve the lives of the people by dropping some weird machine onto their street at random? With no mature consideration of any deeper social issues? I wanted to pick up some milk tonight! Who's manning your kiosk, you goldbricker? Your store is completely empty! Are we supposed to queue?”

Mr. Savic emptied his glass. “Your fabrikator is great fun, but piracy is illegal and immoral. Fair is fair, let's face it.”

“Fine," said Borislav, waving his arms, “if that's what you believe, then go tell the people. Tell the people in this café, right now, that you want to throw the future away! Go on, do it! Say you're scared of crime! Say they're not mature enough and they have to think it through. Tell the people that they have to vote for that!”

“Let's not be hasty,” said Savic.

“Your sordid mechanical invention is useless without a social invention,” said Mrs. Damova primly.

“My wife is exactly correct!” Damov beamed. “Because a social invention is much more than gears and circuits, it's…well, it's something like that kiosk. A kiosk was once a way to drink tea in a royal garden. Now it's a way to buy milk! That is social invention!” He clicked her bubbling glass with his own.

Ace mulled this over. “I never thought of it that way. Where can we steal a social invention? How do you copy one of those?”

These were exciting questions. Borislav felt a piercing ray of mental daylight. “That European woman, what's-her-face. She bought out my kiosk. Who is she? Who does she work for?”

“You mean Dr. Grootjans? She is, uh…she's the economic affairs liaison for a European Parliamentary investigative committee.”

“Right," said Borislav at once, "that's it. Me, too! I want that. Copy me that! I'm the liaison for the investigation Parliament something stupid-or-other.”

Savic laughed in delight. “This is getting good.”

“You. Mr. Savic. You have a Parliament investigation committee.”

“Well, yes, I certainly do.”

“Then you should investigate this fabrikator. You place it under formal government investigation. You investigate it, all day and all night. Right here on the street, in public. You issue public reports. And of course you make stuff. You make all kinds of stuff. Stuff to investigate.”

“Do I have your proposal clear? You are offering your fabrikator to the government?”

“Sure. Why not? That's better than losing it. I can't sell it to you. I've got no papers for it. So sure, you can look after it. That's my gift to the people.”

Savic stroked his chin. “This could become quite an international issue.” Suddenly, Savic had the look of a hungry man about to sit at a bonfire and cook up a whole lot of sausages.

“Man, that's even better than making it a stupid art project,” Ace enthused. “A stupid government project! Hey, those last forever!”

We need to be thinking about these things in a more sophisticated way.

Clint Eastwood was faking?

So there's a theory that Clint Eastwood's bizarre, rambling speech at the Republican National Convention was actually a very clever con.

I fully believe that what Eastwood did at the RNC was all on purpose, carefully planned and crafted to the very end.

See, Clint Eastwood has for a long time described himself as an “Eisenhower Republican” and “Libertarian.” He is in favor of gay rights, non-interventionism, individualism; there aren’t many points of convergence between those philosophies and what Mitt Romney stands for. In fact, there are none. That’s why I thought it was so odd that Eastwood decided to endorse Romney and speak for him at the warmongering-NeoCon-meeting function par excellence.
....
at various moments in his speech — moments which went ignored by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, eager to bask in their projection bias — Eastwood rags on Obama for failing to come through on his promise of being a peace president and bringing the troops home, and also for failing to close Gitmo. If Clint Eastwood is not senile and doesn’t live in a cave, he knows for a fact that Mitt Romney’s position on the wars is pretty much the same as Obama’s, and that, if it were up to Romney, he’d probably expand the Gitmo base to engulf the entire Caribbean.

Also, a lot of his criticisms toward Obama (his background as a lawyer, for instance), are very much applicable to Mitt Romney himself.

And finally, if Clint’s objective was to draw attention to himself and shine a light on the ridiculousness of the entire convention and the pretense that Mitt Romney is any different from Obama, he largely succeeded.

The cui bono? argument does have a certain seductive power.

Clint Eastwood single-handedly threw the carefully scripted Republican convention off course: delaying Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech past the start of prime time, making his speech the focus of media attention rather than Mitt Romney's, and making the Republicans and Republican conventioneers look more boorish, ridiculous and hypocritical than even John Stewart ever could. However, his artifice was such that the Republicans had to defend his performance and could not attack him.

As dozens of movie villains have learned, never underestimate Clint Eastwood.

Joking aside, I'd thought it was a charming speculation, but a bit outlandish ... and impossible to demonstrate, anyway. But an article in the Carmel Pine Cone almost gives the game away.

After a week as topic No. 1 in American politics, former Carmel Mayor Clint Eastwood said the outpouring of criticism from left-wing reporters and liberal politicians after his appearance at the Republican National Convention last Thursday night, followed by an avalanche of support on Twitter and in the blogosphere, is all the proof anybody needs that his 12-minute discourse achieved exactly what he intended it to.
....
Romney’s campaign aides asked for details about what Eastwood would say to the convention.

“They vet most of the people, but I told them, ‘You can’t do that with me, because I don’t know what I’m going to say,’ ” Eastwood recalled.

Emphasis mine.


Update: Clint comments:

If somebody’s dumb enough to ask me to go to a political convention and say something, they’re gonna have to take what they get.

Not a clincher. But the theory is still in play. And it's convinced Ta-Nehisi Coates, who's smarter than I am.

Learning to program

So a bit ago I found this piece on Coding Horror about a fascinating paper demonstrating that the ability to program software depends upon an essential knack ... and that, stunningly, you can easily test for that knack.

It is as if there are two populations: those who can [program], and those who cannot [program], each with its own independent bell curve. Almost all research into programming teaching and learning have concentrated on teaching: change the language, change the application area, use an IDE and work on motivation. None of it works, and the double hump persists. We have a test which picks out the population that can program, before the course begins. We can pick apart the double hump. You probably don't believe this, but you will after you hear the talk.

Now via Gretchen Anderson I learn that Estonia is planning to teach programming to primary school kids starting in first grade. The big question in my mind is whether catching kids early enough will inscribe that talent into all of them. And if so, what are the implications for cognitive development?

Brazilification

Cobb has a rumination on the way that the shape of the contemporary economy produces what Douglas Copeland calls “brazilification”, a shift toward a shrinking middle class, a vast immiserated proletarian class, and a tiny stratospherically wealthy aristocratic class.

So I eventually came up with the Peasant Theory which explains why millions of Americans who think they ought to be middle class actually are not. The middle class is illusory. It is just as illusory as ‘middle management’. Or to put it bluntly, you're either an injun or a chief. Most of us are injuns. Well actually it's not that bad. There are three classes in America, just like there are three classes everywhere. There is the Ruling Class, there are the Peasants and between those two is what I call the Slice. The Slice are the people that the Ruling Class need to run things while they are out enjoying life. And guess what, the Slice is thinner than you think. Think Matrix Reloaded. There was the Merovingian and his bored wife. Rulers. Then there were all of the people at the party at the Merovingian Castle. Peasants. The Slice? Those were the guys you had to kill with the silver bullets and the ghost twins. You could probably count the guys battling in the marble room but really no more than 8. If you don't know at least a dozen millionaires personally, you're not in the American Slice. Or to be more proper about it if we were in England, the Slice would be the holders of Royal Warrants.

But this is America, you say! We are a meritocracy, you say. Ha! Do you really want to live in a meritocracy? No you really don't. You don't want your refrigerator drawings in the Met. You don't want your face on an IMAX screen. You don't want to try and defend against Kobe Bryant. You don't want to race your boat against Team Oracle. You don't want to argue with K Street lawyers. What you want is to play with people around your level. The bad news is that your level is called Peasant. The good news is that you have lots of company, not only now but throughout human history. Peasants persist. Nobody cares what happens to Peasants but the Peasants. What really matters is how well the Ruling Class earns the respect of the Slice, and in that regard I should refer you to Shakespeare's King Lear as the ripe example. Bottom line, you don't want to live in a meritocracy, you want to live in a neighborhood.

His Slice is a bit narrower than what I would call “technocratic professionals” but his picture of the three essential strata of class in America is the same.

Lefties like me talk a lot about the stagnant wages and weakening security of the lower 80% or so, and the stratospheric wealth of the upper 1%, but I see a great deal of weirdness in the in-between of technocratic professionals where I live.

I'm sure that this is partly a symptom of living in left-ish San Francisco, but among folks like me I'm seeing an awareness that the unforgiving American economy is treating us relatively well combined with several kinds of anxiety. First, there's class anxiety that we directly experience in our working lives how we are the courtiers hard at work running the country for the benefit of wealthy oligarchs. Second, there's political anxiety that the majority of the American people rightly should see us as complicit in running the system that screws them. Third, there's the economic anxiety that our economic class lives on a slippery and shrinking ice floe, and it's easy to fall off of it; you see this particularly in the sense of barely contained panic parents have about their children's education.

What's really striking is that my description came in the context of me talking about technocrats like me yearning for a more just economy that would in many senses cost us our relative wealth, while Cobb is a conservative who regards such grumblings as hopelessly naïve ... yet we offer very similar descriptions of what is happening now.

06 September 2012

Dieter Rams on design

Via Gong Szetzo, we have ten principles of good design from the legendary Dieter Rams.

Good design
  1. is innovative
  2. makes a product useful
  3. is aesthetic
  4. makes a product understandable
  5. is unobtrusive
  6. is honest
  7. is long-lasting
  8. is thorough down to the last detail
  9. is environmentally-friendly
  10. is as little design as possible

Gong tells us:

No need to buy any books on the subject. This is pretty much all one needs to know.

Julian Assange

Recent conversations remind me to observe that I find that I have no difficulty at all holding all of these ideas simultaneously:

  • Julian Assange is a hero for his work with Wikileaks
  • The vigorous pursuit of Assange to face trial for accusations of rape is unmistakably a political attack
  • The crime which Assange has been accused of committing is really rape, and really serious
  • It is right that he should stand trial because ...
    • The accusations are plausible
    • The accusations are plausibly false
  • If convicted, he should be punished under the law

If you remain unclear on what the accusation is and why it merits criminal prosecution, Alas, A Blog has a list of resources.

04 September 2012

Federal Reserve

With a bunch of “End The Fed” crackpottery floating around, I'm long overdue to assemble some materials about the Federal Reserve. Here are some links:

  • Propaganda from the Fed: History, an overview, and an approachable explanation of the functioning of the Fed. Obviously these merit a skeptical eye, but many anti-Fed activists seem not to have even heard this stuff.
  • Debunking major myths about the Fed at PublicEye.org
  • The Austrian school of economics, which blames central banks like the Fed for the business cycle, takes a beating at RationalWiki.
  • Commentary in the context of Occupy from lefty Wall Street watcher Doug Henwood, who also has a good description of the case against the gold standard.
  • Plutocrats and Printing Presses is a Paul Krugman post explaining how expansionary monetary policy by the Federal Reserve is not a trick to build the wealth of Evil Rich Bankers, as many anti-Fed crackpots claim.
  • The Crash of 1907, which inspired the creation of the Federal Reserve, described in detail.

Update

I recently stumbled across a blog post which actually provides about as good an explanation in 250 words of why Keynesian stimulus is supposed to work.

Let's say there are 8 million healthy, unemployed people in US.

The Treasury can simply print 4 million pieces of IOU claiming that the holder of this piece of paper is entitled to a free massage or a free cleaning services or free haircut or free baby-sitting or free moving (basically any service worth $50 with negligible raw material) from another unemployed person and simply distribute it to unemployed people.

What happens? On Day 1, the 4 million who got the coupons tender their coupons and receive services (increase in daily GDP 4 million * 50 = 200 Million).

On Day 2, the opposite happens and this goes on quite a while. Now, lets say the economy improves and 2 Million get employed. Now essentially we have 1 Million extra coupons (inflation). Treasury will tax the lucky/rich people who have a job and a coupon and essentially retire them.

Or, let's say the economy deteriorates and 2 more more million get unemployed. Now there are few coupons and some may be willing to do the job for 3/4th of a coupon (deflation). Now essentially Treasury can print extra 1 million and distribute them.

Notes:

  1. We need flexible money supply.
  2. Having gold standard is stupid. What does amount of gold supply have to do with anything?
  3. We increased GDP by simply printing pieces of paper.
Bonus:

Let's say someone comes with a brilliant idea that one unemployed can actually perform two jobs a day. Now instantly the capacity doubled and Treasury can print double the amount of IOUs.

The host of this post is actually a libertarian skeptic of Keynesianism, quoting a commenter; his argument against this is nuh-uh, that's absurd! Really; go look if you doubt me.

I haven't looked closely at any of the other discussion on that blog, but I scent Austrianism since there's the explicit allusion to gold. Austrian economics holds that one must abolish the Federal Reserve and return to a gold standard in order to banish the boom-and-bust cycle of the economy. This is the school favored, most famously, by Ron Paul, but the father of this school is Ludwig von Mises.

Because of some discussion on Facebook I am reminded of a long blog post from Brad DeLong trying to puzzle out how von Mises' theory works.

I find myself under a mysterious but inexorable and irresistible compulsion to waste what would otherwise be productive work time trying to make some kind of sense of it--to at least understand wherein lies the error, and how somebody trying very hard to understand the economy (never mind that he is a big fan of the political leadership of Benito Mussolini) can go so pathetically wrong.

The crack about Mussolini references von Mises' praise of Mussolini, which is troubling but not necessarily a proof that von Mises' economics is wrong.

Unhappily, DeLong fails to find a clear theory that he can find wrong. He proposes several possible descriptions of von Mises' thinking, but all of them founder on the rocks of things that von Mises said. “Not right, and not even wrong.”

Needless to say, there is no coherent model of a monetary economy in which this could possibly be correct.

Thus I interpret it as the survival at a prelogical level of a deep attachment to a cost-of-production theory of value, whereby it is the sin of the Mammon of Unrighteousness for anything that can be produced as cheaply as fiat money is to actually have value, and that sin must bring fearful retribution from the Gods of the Market.

The post attempts (mostly) to be clear to folks with a decent lay understanding of economics, but if you're coming from a cold start it may be tough sledding ... though some Google should make it possible to follow.

There is one reference that I'll Google for you in advance: the babysitting coöp. It's another famous short example of the logic of Keynesian stimulus that Paul Krugman is fond of alluding to. He has a short version of the babysitting coöp story at Slate. I found it very clarifying when I first encountered it; I'd encourage you to click through to it before taking on DeLong's lengthy post.