Stephenson and Sterling on the state of things

Neal Stephenson: “I saw the best minds of my generation writing spam-filters.”

Bruce Sterling: “The wolf is beyond the door. The wolf is in the living room. This is the Anthropocenic condition.”

Antonio Bolfo’s NYPD vs Ramarley Graham’s NYPD

This morning I was taking a second look at this post from the excellent Lens blog. It’s an interview with ICP- and RISD-trained photographer Antonio Bolfo, who became a cop and did some amazing photojournalism of rookies patrolling housing projects in New York City.

From the roof of a housing project, Officer Weadock looks over Mott Haven in the Bronx. October 2009.

I was curious about how the Lens editors might have connected the project, called NYPD Impact, with the Ramarley Graham shooting, which happened two days before the post went up. It turns out there’s no mention of Graham in the post, and I couldn’t find any comments that made that connection.

I did find this link to an anonymous response:

‘This is like a safe haven for them,’ Bolfo tells the Times. ‘Kind of like, collect their thoughts, talk to their loved ones, be people. Shed their police persona and relax a little bit.’ It is a place forbidden to civilians. The intensity of the relief this seclusion brings the officers is inverse to their connection to the community. The more they are merely foreign occupiers, the more they enjoy the view, a view that the very residents of the buildings on which they so symbolically trod are not allowed to enjoy … The many must be excluded so that the few may have the privilege of aesthetic contemplation. After all, isn’t that the way Art works?

It’s a pretty harsh perspective, but I can’t help but wonder whether the audience for NYPD Impact actually includes those who live in the projects. The Lens piece does mention the symbolic aspect of Bolfo’s project:

[The photographs] are at turns raw and tender, scary and sweet, and they humanize people on both sides of the badge — those who wear one and those who face them, night after night.

The photos are definitely amazing (be sure to check out the full set) and certainly humanize the NYPD. But I wonder if they do so to the same degree for residents of the housing projects. I wonder about the timing of the interview, which is about a project from 2008-2009. It’s hard not to see the post as a response to community outrage, although I realize it’s most likely just an unintended coincidence.

Update: I contacted Michael Wilson, the reporter who interviewed Antonio Bolfo, and the timing of the interview was in fact coincidental:

The piece was scheduled to run when it did about a week prior, and it was completed and filed in the system before the shooting, I believe. It’s even possible the piece was edited the day of the shooting. I can see where your questions seem like obvious ones after the fact, but at the time, it just wouldn’t have occurred to anyone here to link the two.

A proposal for Penn Stationwww.nytimes.com

Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times:

To pass through Grand Central Terminal, one of New York’s exalted public spaces, is an ennobling experience, a gift. To commute via the bowels of Penn Station, just a few blocks away, is a humiliation.

What is the value of architecture? It can be measured, culturally, humanely and historically, in the gulf between these two places.

The original Pennsylvania Station was razed in 1963.

I wholeheartedly agree with this, tear that sucker down:

The only way to fix Penn properly is to move Madison Square Garden.

Link

Occupy.here at FEAST Brooklyn

The recent absence of regular posting here has mainly been due to project overload on my part. For the last week I’ve been focusing on my activist wifi project, Occupy.here. On Saturday I participated in FEAST Brooklyn, a kind of science fair exposition for community art projects. The way it works is everyone who attends pays $20 for a banquet dinner and a vote for which project of ten should be funded. I did not receive funding, but I got a lot of great feedback and my first round of user testing with about a dozen people trying the project out.

I was satisfied to see the technology performing flawlessly. As far as I know, everyone who tried to was able to join the wifi network and participate in the online forum. I still consider myself a newbie to wifi hacking and programming in Lua, but I’ve mustered enough stability to start paying more attention to interaction design and social dynamics. Seeing how people used the software in practice was really interesting. It seems obvious in retrospect, but presenting an anonymous message forum to such a festive audience yielded an uncomplicated gregarious kind of conversation.

While the forum’s conversation didn’t cover politics or the Occupy movement, the invisible backchannel aspect of it was compelling. The first, most active, message thread was about the food at the event. Apparently the cheese was a big hit, although sadly I wasn’t able to try it myself. This thread included the forum’s first hash tag, #CheeseRevolution, and a long string of emoji burgers. In another thread an attendee complained they’d come to the event without a date, boldly listing a phone number that presumably belongs to the lonely author. I was amused to see the AOL-era “ASL” (age/sex/location) inquiry and “Anyone got any weed?” It was silly and fun, and felt entirely appropriate to the event.

How the discussion is framed in a broader social context is very important. In the deployment at FEAST, users were offered an open architecture without many cues about which topics of conversation the forum is meant to support. The next iteration will feature a more prominent introduction to the Occupy.here platform and host an archive of essays and media about the Occupy movement from a variety of sources.

I’m interested to see what effect, if any, these changes have on the subject and character of conversations. I wonder if deemphasizing the message forum might preclude conversation altogether, favoring a passive mode of media consumption. I’ll gather some usage data to see how many users browse without participating.

Users identified themselves about 50% of the time, half posting under the default handle “Anonymous” and half adopting first names or two letter initials. For my next round of testing I’m going to adjust the interface where users select their usernames, perhaps not offering a default option. I’m still committed to supporting anonymity, despite the challenges it creates in reaching higher level discussions. I do think it’s possible and perhaps making all users uniquely identifiable might contribute toward discussions with slightly more substance.

Probably the most important factor for user behavior is the physical (and social) context the wifi router appears in. This coming Saturday I’ll be showing Occupy.here at the Activist Technology Demo Day event at Eyebeam. I’m guessing the audience will be more oriented toward technology and activism. The location of the venue, in Chelsea rather than Greenpoint, will also have some bearing on the next round of users. That’s a lot of variables changing at once, but I’ll be sure to post my decidedly non-scientific findings next week.

How to catch a bike thiefwww.outsideonline.com

An in-depth article about stolen bicycles, from Outside magazine:

In America’s rough streets, there are four forms of currency—cash, sex, drugs, and bicycles. Of those, only one is routinely left outside unattended.

Link

Three links about SOPA/PIPA

On Twitter a lot of people have been linking to the @herpderpedia account, which is retweeting people’s confused reactions to today’s Wikipedia blackout. On a mailing list I subscribe to, somebody wrote of this phenomenon:

It’s really amazing
A. how completely oblivious people are to the issues
B. how completely oblivious people are to the page they’re looking that explains why wikipedia is blacked out
C. how much I don’t want to live on this planet anymore

I share his sense of disappointment, but this kind of ironic distance is exactly what we don’t need right now. Instead, let’s have a little compassion for each other. Send those people links to help them understand why Wikipedia has gone dark today. That sharing capacity is exactly what this issue is all about.

On the ownership of MLK’s speechesmotherboard.vice.com

The rights to the “I Have a Dream” speech are owned by EMI. They are only legally available through buying a $20 DVD.

What would King have made of all this, and of SOPA? I think he might have reframed the question, with poetry: how does ownership of ideas effect how we exist together in the world? How does the spread of ideas help push forward better understanding among men. What price are we willing to pay to keep ideas free? How do we decide who deserves access to ideas, who gets to build on them, and who gets to “own” them? Who gets to censor them, and at what cost?

See also: On the Media’s MLK segment

Link

On information diversity

Doug Henwood, who I’ve seen speak a few times recently and host of the excellent radio show Behind the News:

For a while, I’ve been thinking about writing a piece on how NPR is more toxic than Fox News. Fox preaches to the choir. NPR, though, confuses and misinforms people who might otherwise know better. Its “liberal” reputation makes palatable a deeply orthodox message for a demographic that could be open to a more critical message.

Doug’s post is not so much about NPR, but a response to Adam Davidson who is co-host of the show Planet Money. Davidson’s recent piece in the New York Times Magazine argues for the benefits of American-style finance.

Davidson apparently hasn’t read up on the comparative international mobility stats (e.g., this). He writes: “One of the most striking facts of life in countries without a modern financial system is the near total absence of upward mobility.” In fact, the U.S. has a middling-to-poor standing on mobility in the international league tables. A country like Germany, where consumer finance is relatively underdeveloped, is more mobile than the U.S. The Nordic social democracies show the most mobility of all. Oh, and student debt, now breaking the trillion dollar mark? Nothing to worry about, says Davidson: it’s “largely changed America for the better.” Actually, the rising price of higher ed is making it harder all the time for the working class to go to college. Watching millions graduate with five figures of debt into a miserable job market doesn’t evoke a better America. College should be free.

First, I agree that college should be free, and with most of Doug’s other complaints. But here I would like to write a little about NPR, since I agree that it’s misunderstood as a fundamentally progressive news source. Like the New York Times, there is plenty of good (progressive) journalism coming out of a largely pro-corporate framework. NPR gets far more of its funding from corporate underwriting than from the US government (although its largest source is individual contributions). Having a bias is okay, and corporate partiality might reflect an American public that still has faith in corporate brands, despite the many reasons for concern. NPR, like any news source, will likely reinforce its listeners’ existing beliefs.

There are very good shows on NPR and ones that I can’t stand. For an example of good coverage of globalized labor, take the recent episode of This American Life, Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory. If you haven’t heard it already, stop reading this and give it a listen. It’s compelling and heartbreaking as a story, and also includes a useful follow-up segment with further analysis.

This episode is one of many “explainers” that This American Life is so good at, one of which led to the creation of Planet Money itself. But this is just one story that’s complemented by other sources, such as links from John Gruber and Edward Burtynsky’s photography of Chinese factories. None of these sources can be expected to tell the complete story, like the parable about the blind men and the elephant.

Perhaps the lesson here is that it’s incumbent on the modern citizen to diversify one’s own sources of information. Relying exclusively on NPR will lead to the same kind of stilted worldview you’d expect from someone who only watches Fox News. This is what the Internet is great at! I try to get the most out of a variety of blogs, podcasts, and aggregators, trying to cultivate sources that might lead to further discoveries. Some of these leave me frustrated and disappointed from time to time (e.g., Left Right & Center’s non-coverage of the NDAA). I grab links from Twitter and Facebook, I skim and skip and unsubscribe ruthlessly, and I try not to allow myself to get overwhelmed.

In case you’re curious, here are my blog and podcast subscriptions, in OPML format:

You should be able to import these into Google Reader, iTunes, or whichever other tools you prefer. I’d love to hear what your favorite sources are.

Dead of Winter Works documentary

For the last few days I’ve been preoccupied with preparing an installation I made with Future Archaeology, just barely getting it ready in time for the opening. I’ll write about that project in future posts, but I thought I should share this magnificent documentation of a project we did one year ago in the same gallery, Splatterpool artspace.

I recall being fairly inarticulate the night we did our group interview in the gallery, so my part in the video is a non-speaking one, but the other members of the group did a fine job of explaining our project Ohm Ω. I think Tom, in particular, has a knack for describing what it is we’re doing with our collaborations.

The Future Archaeology part starts about 15 minutes in.

See also: a longer video of the Ohm Ω performance

171 men remain there

Lakhdar Boumediene was held without charge at Guantánamo Bay for seven years.

I do not like to think of Guantánamo. The memories are filled with pain. But I share my story because 171 men remain there. Among them is Belkacem Bensayah, who was seized in Bosnia and sent to Guantánamo with me.

About 90 prisoners have been cleared for transfer out of Guantánamo. Some of them are from countries like Syria or China — where they would face torture if sent home — or Yemen, which the United States considers unstable. And so they sit as captives, with no end in sight — not because they are dangerous, not because they attacked America, but because the stigma of Guantánamo means they have no place to go, and America will not give a home to even one of them.

This horrific story follows the recent passage of the National Defense Authorization Act that may legalize this type of detention for US citizens suspected of terrorism.

Al Franken has been a vocal critic of the bill, calling it inconsistent with American liberties and freedoms:

As we reflect on what this bill will do, I think it is important to pause and remember some of the mistakes this country has made when we have been fearful of enemy attack.

Most notably, we made a grave, indefensible mistake during World War II, when President Roosevelt ordered the incarceration of more than 110,000 people of Japanese origin, as well as approximately 11,000 German-Americans and 3,000 Italian-Americans.

Franken delivered a similar speech to the Senate, prior to the bill’s passing.

Debate about the controversial sections of the NDAA has focused on whether or not American citizens would be subject to indefinite detention. The bill is vague and self-contradictory, left open to the interpretation of President Obama and all future sitting presidents.

It’s not hard to see the inherent problem of indefinitely detaining citizens protected by the Bill of Rights. Being held without charge defies due process and habeas corpus. But those legal traditions are not American in origin, from a moral standpoint I don’t see why non-citizens ought to be treated any differently.

Holding 171 men at Guantánamo Bay without charge is just as inconsistent with those same American liberties and freedoms Al Franken speaks of. I was frustrated with how little the NDAA was discussed in the weeks before it became law. But perhaps it’s for the best. That debate should be framed more broadly; it’s about human rights, not just the rights of Americans.