30 August 2015

Committed people and Korman's Third Law

So there's a little aphorism I hate, attributed to Margaret Mead.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

On the face of it, it's a stirring message of hope. If you're like me, you picture Martin Luther King sitting around a kitchen table with Bayard Rustin and Ralph Abernathy and James Orange and Frederick Douglas Reese.

But looking at it closely, the aphorism rankles. It's vanguardist, almost anti-democratic: never mind most people and mass movements, it's the committed few who matter. It's Green Lanternism: will matters above all. And the romanticization of “changing the world”, which one sees a lot of in the tech industry, is not entirely wholesome. Change is inevitable and not all changes are good; I want to look to what will make a better world.

Plus, there's no evidence that Mead ever said it.

Plus — and this to my mind is most damning — thinking about who might draw inspiration from the thought of a small vanguard changing the world through he force of their will, and remembering Rhett's Law, I feel moved to offer Korman's Third Law:

If it makes a funny “Nazi-spiration” meme image, it's questionable motivational advice.

You cannot make this stuff up. Irony-impaired former Kent State student Kaitlin Bennett tweeted this:

24 August 2015


A while ago I was charmed by the underlit skirt project of maker SexyCyborg that made the rounds thanks to a blurb on bOING bOING.

One of my favorite wearables is the Hikaru Skirt: http://hikaruskirt.tumblr.com

My problem with the existing design is— Limited external control (just responds to movement) and the ugly frilly skirt/tutu style is not suitable for anyone over 8 years old (or at least not Japanese).

Solution: Denim mini/micro skirt with control pack hidden in belt buckle. Skirt length is a matter of personal taste but with the LEDs off it passed for normal.

The project came to my attention because of a flurry of feminist internet commentators noting the predictable sexist dismissal of her as a maker because her outfit was revealing and her figure is so striking.

Having more recently gotten interested in infosec, she built herself some James Bondian shoes with hidden chambers in the high wedge heels.

A handbag would be suspicious and leaving cell phones at the gate would be standard practice in any reasonably secure facility. My typical clothing does not leave room to hide anything- but that’s all the more reason they would not be suspicious of me ....

So. She's doing clever projects, and she has a sense of wit about her Sexy Lady style:

Any women with questions about teaching themselves online should feel free to contact me on Reddit and I’d be delighted to offer any help I can. Remember ladies— if you are thinking about becoming a Maker, learning to code or doing hardware; if a girl who looks like me can do it, how hard can it really be?


Normally I have to sort though about 50% identical replies to my posts on Reddit. For those flexing their fingers and getting ready to give me a hard time:

  • Yes, they are fake.
  • Yes, I feature them prominently and deliberately in everything I do.
  • No, most of my projects do not have all that much technical merit- they are 90% silicone and 10% silicon ;-)
  • No, if you point out the absolutely obvious no one will think you are insightful, edgy or cool. They will think you are 12.

It seems like it might be worth keeping track of her to see what other projects she gets up to, so to have them handy, links to her on Reddit and Imgur.

Well this is a hell of a thing. I guess no one else would think to do this.

22 August 2015

The new Apple file system

A friend was just complaining about the elimination of Save As from Apple's OS X.

In partial defense of Apple, this is a tragically half-baked execution of a good idea.

Save-as with prompt-before-overwrite are the two primitives necessary to allow users to roll their own system for doing organization and version management of their files. But frankly most people are not sophisticated about how they do that.

What you should have is a system of automatic saving, versioning, milestoning, organizing, searching, and mirroring to backup.

OS X is obviously working toward this, but the current state of things is an annoying mixed bag of levels of maturity. The incompleteness and incoherence make it a less satisfactory answer than the old Directories-And-Save-As regime ... if you understood how to use the old regime well.

  • Automatic saving: OS X just does this, now. Which is good on the merits, but spooky if you have developed habits around saving explicitly. And since some applications have not yet integrated automatic saving in the new system, you cannot yet abandon those habits.
  • Versioning: Uh, there's time-based automatic versioning in Time Machine. If you use that. Which of course you don't, for a host of reasons, not least because the versions it creates are not made available in the context of your authoring applications. To get at past versions of a file, you have to leap out of your working context and into hyperspace, which is reïnforced by Time Machine actually looking like hyperspace.
  • Milestoning: There's no structural support for this. Except for the clumsy Duplicate function, which isn't smart enough to identify for you which is the copy you left alone and which you started modifying ....
  • Organizing: Someone at Apple knows that nonexclusive labels are a better solution for organizing large collections than the hierarchical directory tree ... but OS X assumes you only need half a dozen labels, and provides weak support for using them, which makes them no replacement for the tree in the Finder at all.
  • Searching: Text content search in OS X is astonishingly fast and complete in Spotlight in OS X, but it doesn't provide any structure, it just recognizes everything with the search string in it. There's no wisdom about metadata in the search at all.
  • Mirror to backup: iCloud supposedly does this. But the process is Not Very Transparent, and iCloud has other weirdnesses, so it's impossible to fully trust it.

If anything, this current state of things makes managing files even more dependent upon getting clever with your file naming conventions.

13 August 2015

Christian Reconstructionism

A really good interview with Julie Ingersoll, who has written a book on Christian Reconstructionism, an influential religious and cultural movement which has a complex relationship with the Christian right.

Reconstructionists do engage in explicitly political work but they claim that what they see as the religious right’s over-emphasis on the role of civil government is itself humanistic and therefore doomed to fail.

What Reconstructionists envision is a multi-generational transformation that starts in families: families need to be reconstructed in terms of biblical patriarchy. Women need to be in submission to men; children need to be educated in the home to fulfil their specific roles in terms of the exercise of dominion. Churches should be comprised of godly patriarchal families in submission to church authority.

I spent a lot of time thinking through how it is that Reconstructionists claim the religious right has failed while I maintain that the Reconstructionists have had more influence than has been recognized. It seems to me that our standards vary. Reconstructionists are looking for thoroughgoing consistent application of biblical law to Christian life and they do not see that happening.

There's also an interview on Salon:

One thing that emerges in your book is how different their concept of freedom is from what’s commonly assumed in America today, and how the opposite of freedom is defined so differently as well — majority rule, and democracy as tyranny. This has emerged particularly in the rhetoric of “religious freedom” against gay marriage. So where does this concept of freedom come from and? And what does it entail?

That’s a good one. Some of it, at least philosophically or theologically, goes right back to that division between submission to the authority of God — and claiming authority for our own rationality. It goes right back there. So, for these Christians, the way they understand it, the only true freedom is freedom in submission to God. The thing that we might think of as freedom is actually conceived of as bondage to sin. And in some ways, if you say “Where does that come from,” it says that in the New Testament, right? That’s what Paul says. Paul is working with all of those inversions: to live is to suffer, and to die is gain. And the leaders are the servants. He inverts all kinds of categories in that way.

You also see some of this in the discussions about slavery. And there’s a good bit about that in the book. To me, this is one of the more interesting developments over the last decade. Because, on the one hand, you do have this real minimization of the horrors of slavery, and the wrongness of slavery. You have people talking about, “It wasn’t so bad,” and “These are actually Christian families” and “People were well treated,” and “They were better treated than they were in Africa,” you get all that kind of stuff. So actual, literal slavery gets a little whitewashed, if you pardon the word, while being required by the federal government to fill out a tax form is considered involuntary servitude and slavery, and that’s appalling! I don’t feel like going out tax forms any more than anyone else, but I don’t really think of it as actual slavery. But they talk about it that way.

Mis-remembering Vietnam

You know those stories you hear about hippie Vietnam War protestors spitting on military veterans at airports, just as those vets were returning home from the war?


A historian named Jerry Lembcke did some digging and was unable to find any contemporaneous documentation that this actually happened. Instead we have urban legends that start turning up about ten years later. He wrote a book about it, Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam.

It turns out that not only is the legend untrue, it turns out to be a funhouse-mirror mis-remembering of what did happen.

Lembcke uncovered a whole lot of spitting from the war years, but the published accounts always put the antiwar protester on the receiving side of a blast from a pro-Vietnam counterprotester. Surely, he contends, the news pages would have given equal treatment to a story about serviceman getting the treatment. Then why no stories in the newspaper morgues, he asks?

Rick Perlstein describes how there was a group who may not have spat on Vietnam vets but did systematically disrespect their service: other veterans.

Jerry Lembke established that the only actual documented examples of the frequently repeated canard that Americans spat upon returning Vietnam veterans came from the kind of World War II veterans who wouldn't let their brothers back from Vietnam join local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts beause they were seen as shameful, as polluted. (The New York Times reported on the phenomenon here.)

They were the kind of veterans who - Gerald Nicosia tells the story in his history of Vietnam Veterans Against the War - greeted the antiwar veterans who had marched 86 miles from Morristown, New Jersey to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, just like George Washington's army in 1777. The World War II veterans heckled them:

“Why don't you go to Hanoi?”

“We won our war, they didn't, and from the looks of them, they couldn't.”

A Vietnam vets hobbled by on crutches. One of the old men wondered whether he had been “shot with marijuana or shot in battle.”

Digby has a sharp commentary on Perlstein's article that garnered such surprising comments that I tucked them away, which is a good thing since the old comment system Digby used has been linkrotted away. Here are the two I saved:

When I returned from the Mekong Delta in 1972 (Navy, Binh Thuy) my dirty hippy friends were glad to see me. They welcomed me home and were very accepting of my hyper-vigilance and other quirks. I stopped in at an American Legion post just once. I had to leave before it was necessary for me to beat down those who told me that we, the troops, had lost Vietnam.

I never heard it from the hippies but, I sure as hell caught crap from any number of solid citizens with American flag pins in their lapels.

I have a close friend who served in the Vietnam war during Nixon's illegal invasion of Cambodia. He returned home on a chartered commerical flight that landed at a public airport. As the vets came into the airport they saw a small group from the VFW who they thought were there to welcome them home. Wrong. The VFW assholes were carrying signs that accused them of “losing the war” and being drug addicts. They shouted insults at the Vietnam vets. My friend responded in kind and one of the old farts spat on him. He is very fond of telling this story when some right wing barfly starts ranting about hippies spitting on troops.

I was reminded of all this because of something else from Rick Perlstein: The Story Behind the POW/MIA Flag, which reveals a similar kind of mis-telling of history.

.... Nixon invented the cult of the “POW/MIA” in order to justify the carnage in Vietnam in a way that rendered the United States as its sole victim. It began, as cultural historian H. Bruce Franklin has documented, with an opportunistic shift in terminology. Downed pilots whose bodies were not recovered—which, in the dense jungle of a place like Vietnam meant most pilots—had once been classified “Killed in Action/Body Unrecovered.” During the Nixon years, the Pentagon moved them into a newly invented “Missing in Action” column. That proved convenient, for, after years of playing down the existence of American prisoners in Vietnam, in 1969, the new president suddenly decided to play them up. He declared their treatment, and the enemy’s refusal to provide a list of their names, violations of the Geneva Conventions—the better to paint the North Vietnamese as uniquely cruel and inhumane. He also demanded the release of American prisoners as a precondition to ending the war.

This was bullshit four times over: first, because in every other conflict in human history, the release of prisoners had been something settled at the close of a war; second, because these prisoners only existed because of America’s antecedent violations of the Geneva Conventions in bombing civilians in an undeclared war; and third, because, as bad as their torture of prisoners was, rather than representing some species of Oriental despotism, the Vietnam Communists were only borrowing techniques practiced on them by their French colonists (and incidentally paid forward by us in places like Abu Ghraib): see this as-told-to memoir by POW and future senator Jeremiah Denton.

And finally, our South Vietnamese allies’ treatment of their prisoners, who lived manacled to the floors in crippling underground bamboo “tiger cages” in prison camps built by us, was far worse than the torture our personnel suffered. (Time magazine quoted one South Vietnamese official who was confronted with stories of released prisoners moving “like crabs, skittering across the floor on buttocks and palms,” and responded with incredulity that such survivors even existed: “No one ever comes from the tiger cages alive.”)

Be that as it may: it worked. American citizens enacted a bizarre psychic reversal.

Another false memory: during the Vietnam War, young people opposed it while older people supported it. Again, this turns out to be backwards.

There were many polls on public opinion during the war, and they show a consistent pattern by age. Young people were more likely to support the war at the beginning, when it was popular, and more likely to support it at the end, when it was not.

And of course, the greatest false memory of them all, the dolchstoßlegende that the US lost the war because political opposition to it in the US somehow undermined military effectiveness, which I have written about repeatedly.