The language of activism and nature

Yesterday Ellie posted about some of her recent projects, including one we’ve been collaborating on called Flight Lines. She mentioned a thing that I’ve said out loud a few times (mostly when speaking at panels), but that I’ve never fully articulated:

Ruminating on these topics with my husband Dan Phiffer on our morning run, we came to the conclusion that in addition to dropping our reliance on the outmoded concept of “nature” as Morton suggests, perhaps we also need to dispense with the term “activist”. This might help people like me further embrace the idea that we all have a role to play in facing the challenges ahead. (emphasis added)

Timothy Morton argues that the term “nature” ignores the fact that humans are increasingly a central part of ecological systems, and it doesn’t make sense to draw some boundary between “nature” and “non-nature.” Maintaining a false romantic ideal holds us back from taking responsibility for the habitat us human creatures rely on. And also from seeing how natural systems (no scare quotes!) permeate our urban spaces. This is an ongoing theme in Ellie’s art practice.

Rejecting the term “activist” just takes the shape of Morton’s argument and applies it to something I’ve observed in Occupy Wall Street, and more recently in protest movements like Stop Watching Us. I’ve been seeing a lot of people out protesting for the first time. Which makes me really hopeful! Activism is really just one aspect of civic life, it doesn’t need to be restricted to specialists. Just as one need not self-identify as an “artist” to make a good drawing, calling oneself an “activist” also doesn’t imply a life dedicated to fighting injustice.

But much as there are those who make their livelihood from art, the practice of activism often depends on full-time organizers whose work is sorely needed in the world (which is also the case with artists, I say). I want to avoid emptying the idea of activism of meaning, and instead just flip a small linguistic switch. Striking “activist” from one’s vocabulary just insinuates it within the standard set of Things That Are Done, rejecting the implication that practicing activism deserves a special label. One of the small victories of OWS is that “non-activists” are totally welcome to the rally. Of course we always were, but now we’re growing in numbers. We are ideological creatures, we might as well think like it!

Class and attention quality

From yesterday’s New York Times article, “Wasting Time Is New Divide in Digital Era”:

“Despite the educational potential of computers, the reality is that their use for education or meaningful content creation is minuscule compared to their use for pure entertainment,” said Vicky Rideout, author of the decade-long Kaiser study. “Instead of closing the achievement gap, they’re widening the time-wasting gap.”

Policy makers and researchers say the challenges are heightened for parents and children with fewer resources—the very people who were supposed to be helped by closing the digital divide.

The same day Matt Mullenweg posted this video to his blog. It’s a presentation about the social implications of constantly using one’s iPhone, given at a country club.

Digital literacy and attention quality are certainly important across the socioeconomic spectrum, but I do think that it’s legitimate for public policy to focus on the needs of lower income people. More from the Times article:

The new divide is such a cause of concern for the Federal Communications Commission that it is considering a proposal to spend $200 million to create a digital literacy corps. This group of hundreds, even thousands, of trainers would fan out to schools and libraries to teach productive uses of computers for parents, students and job seekers.

Separately, the commission will help send digital literacy trainers this fall to organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Some of the financial support for this program, part of a broader initiative called Connect2Compete, comes from private companies like Best Buy and Microsoft.

Let me preface this by saying that I have much respect for Microsoft’s danah boyd, who is quoted in the article. But the idea of Best Buy and Microsoft funding a national digital literacy program sounds to me like McDonald’s funding a new school lunch program. “Connect2Compete” sounds like a great name for some dystopian parody of corporate-training-mill style technology education.

Don’t get me wrong, I fully support these kinds of initiatives. I just think we need more independent efforts, for example Jonathan Baldwin’s Tidepools. As part of his thesis project at Parsons, Baldwin set up free community wifi for primarily lower income residents of Brooklyn’s Red Hook. The community mapping application he created uses the visual language of gaming to do things like improve civic infrastructure and map out the locations of NYPD stop-and-frisks.

It’s impressive work, and I’m happy to hear he’ll be developing it further under the New America Foundation. And it’s given me a lot of ideas about how I should proceed with Occupy.here.

Configuring jEdit

A good text editor is, by far, the most important tool for programming computers. There are many good options available, and each person has their own reasons for choosing one editor over another. On the Mac, popular choices include BBEdit, TextMate, and Coda. For modest needs, an editor like TextEdit.app can be sufficient, while some opt for a full-blown IDE like Eclipse or XCode. Many coders still work with a console-based editor, such as vim.

I haven’t had a Windows box in so long I’m not sure what the popular choices are any more, but in college I was an UltraEdit guy.

My text editor of choice now is jEdit, which is free and Open Source. jEdit is written in Java, so it works on both Mac and Windows, and it supports many of the same features of non-free editors. It seems to be pretty obscure though, in part because getting jEdit into a usable form takes a little bit of work. Plugins must be installed, settings must be tweaked. It uses ugly non-system native Open and Save dialog boxes, but I don’t mind so much because those interfaces let you work with remote files seamlessly via SFTP (using the ‘FTP’ plugin).

I thought it would be helpful to share my preferred settings, to give my favorite editor a better first impression. Below are a few steps to help you get set up on a Mac or on Windows. Desktop Linux can probably also follow along and improvise where things might diverge from Mac OS X.

jEdit with default configuration

  1. Start by downloading and installing the latest stable release, use either the Windows Installer or Mac OS X package
  2. Download and unzip my baseline configuration: jedit-mac.zip or jedit-win.zip (these have different default fonts and keyboard bindings defined in startup/startup.bsh)
  3. Launch jEdit once to generate some default settings, and then quit (on Windows you may also need to close the jEdit Server from your system tray)
  4. Make a backup of the default settings folder, found in /Users/[username]/Library/jEdit on Macs or C:\Users\[username]\.jedit on Windows 7, just rename the folder to jEdit.bak or .jedit.bak (note: your Library folder is hidden by default in Mac OS X 10.7 Lion)
  5. Copy my baseline configuration folder where the default one was (in your Library folder on Macs or in your home directory on Windows)
  6. Launch jEdit again, it should look a lot nicer!

jEdit with my baseline configuration applied

Some notes about what’s different in this configuration:

  • Nicer color scheme and default font (via the Editor Scheme plugin)
  • FTP plugin for seamless remote file management (use a path like sftp://user@hostname/path/to/directory)
  • Tabs UI instead of a drop-down to switch between files (via the BufferTabs plugin)
  • Project Viewer plugin lets you browse files from the sidebar
  • XML plugin provides handy HTML auto-completion, indentation, and entity conversions
  • SuperAbbrevs plugin lets you set up macros for frequently used code snippets (for example type ‘a’, then shift-tab, set a macro for hyperlinks like <a href="$1">$end</a>—now you can type ‘a’ followed by a tab and save yourself some repetitive typing)

You also get things like multi-line tab indenting and regular expression search/replace out of the box. Of course you’ll want to tweak your own setup further depending on your needs, so be sure to explore the preferences and browse the extensive list of plugins. One thing that’s also worth pointing out is that jEdit listens on a random network port when you start it up to determine if other copies of the editor are running. When I first saw this it made me wonder if I should worry that my editor had been hacked, but apparently this is normal behavior and can be disabled.

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.

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.

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.

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.

US drones in Pakistan

This morning, after turning off the interminable NPR coverage of the Republican primaries, I saw that The Morning News recently linked to this ABC News story about the case of Tariq Khan, a 16 year old Pakistani killed in a US drone attack.

In late October, he accompanied a group of tribal elders when they traveled down to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad for the anti-drone conference. There, he sat with dozens of foreign lawyers and journalists and displayed no signs of hatred or animosity at them or the government, according to the people who spoke with him. According to family and associates, he said he wanted to refute Washington’s claim that the drone program had killed zero civilians in the last few years.

Tariq Khan was killed when a small missile fired overhead piercing the roof of his vehicle. (Neil Williams/Reprieve)

I was struck by the wide range of civilian deaths in various reports compared to the CIA’s claim of zero civilian deaths. From Wikipedia:

Daniel L. Byman from the Brookings Institution suggests that drone strikes may kill “10 or so civilians” for every militant killed. In contrast, the New America Foundation has estimated that 80 percent of those killed in the attacks were militants. The Pakistani military has stated that most of those killed were hardcore Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants. The CIA believes that the strikes conducted since May 2010 have killed over 600 militants and have not caused any civilian fatalities, a claim that experts disputed and have called absurd. Based on extensive research, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that between 391 – 780 civilians were killed out of a total of between 1,658 and 2,597 and that 160 children are reported among the deaths.

Zero civilians is a pretty bold claim that I can only come up with two explanations of. Either each attack is backed up by thoroughly documented research or the CIA simply designates anyone they kill as a de facto terrorist. Perhaps it’s a mix of both, but without any public accountability we’ll probably never see evidence that it’s the former case.

If accurate, this description of drone tactics contradicts the “heavy research” explanation, and is eerily reminiscent of the follow-up bombing tactic used by Iraqi insurgents:

Asked for documentation of Tariq and Waheed’s deaths, [the attorney for Tariq’s family] did not provide pictures of the missile strike scene. Virtually none exist, since drones often target people who show up at the scene of an attack.

It’s maybe no surprise then that two thirds of Pakistani journalists regard US drones attacks as acts of terrorism.

At least for now these attacks have been suspended.

Drone strikes were halted in November 2011 after NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in the Salala incident.

Update: this NY Times article offers a more nuanced discussion of the “zero civilian deaths” claim. It sounds like John Brennan simply overstated drone effectiveness and offered a more evasive explanation that “the U.S. government has not found credible evidence of collateral deaths.”

Update #2: I’m coming back to this post after several months, and thinking I might have underplayed this a little. Just to spell it out more clearly: an anti-drone activist, who was trying to draw attention to Pakistani civilian deaths, was himself killed by a drone. This would be kind of funny and ironic, if it wasn’t so not funny.

Strangely, the coverage of this incident on Democracy Now has his name as Tariq Aziz.

The mobile browser upload problem

In a pair of recent posts, Andre Torrez outlined an idea for solving the “how do I get photos from my iPhone onto a website” problem. I like this idea, and I’d happily install this hypothetical Community Camera app if anyone ends up developing it.

The central mechanism for Andre’s idea is a new URL protocol camera: (similar to http:, mailto: or ftp:) that a simple camera application could claim control over. One such built-in protocol on the iPhone is sms:, which lets you easily direct users to send an SMS message. For example, clicking on this link (with URL sms:+12125551212) would switch you over to the SMS application with the phone number already filled in. Here is a handy list of other iPhone-supported protocols. But if you’re not reading this on an iPhone, pressing that link will probably give you an error message.

One of the good design aspects of hyperlinks is they’re not always expected to work, the web is chaotic and broken links are relatively harmless. So it’s certainly okay to offer these links even if they won’t work for everyone. An improved design would allow web applications to detect whether or not a given protocol can be used. That way I could write some JavaScript code to check whether camera: or sms: links are supported, and make the process much more seamless for users. As far as I know (correct me if I’m wrong), such a mechanism doesn’t exist yet. It exists! See update below.

The email workaround

One workaround solution, used by many web applications including Flickr, is to provide a special email address that allows you to upload photos as an attachment. The benefit is that every computer with a browser supports email links, smartphones and otherwise. The downside is the unwieldy sequence of steps you have to follow. In the best case scenario, a user has already saved the web app’s special email address to her contacts:

  1. Switch to the Camera app, take a photo or find the one you want from your library
  2. Press the “utility button” and choose “Email Photo”
  3. Fill in the email address from contacts and press send
  4. Switch back to the browser and wait for the attachment to be received by the web app

A number of factors complicate this process, starting with the initial messaging. The natural thing to say is “Email a photo to upload,” linked with a mailto: URL protocol. But on the iPhone you can’t attach photos from the Mail app, it only works from the Camera side of things. So that “Email a photo” link should probably go to a page that explains the process outlined above, including the important step zero “add our special email address to your contacts.”

Email uploading requires that you’re willing to read a bunch of steps, understand them, and follow them. Additionally, the web application is left with no button that initiates the process and no way of giving feedback about whether it worked or not. If you reload the web app and you see your photo, then it worked. If not, maybe you’ll get a email bounce message. It’s a process that works okay for experienced users, poorly for novices, and that fails ungracefully.

Plus there is the implementation challenge of receiving and parsing email, which is kind of a pain in the ass. As an alternative to Andre’s plan, if somebody wants to write a general purpose email-to-upload service, I would find that pretty useful. Or does this exist already? I haven’t looked very hard.

Compare those steps above to the camera: method (including step zero, “install the Community Camera application”):

  1. Press the “upload photo” link, with its “camera:” URL protocol
  2. Using the native app that appears, take a photo or choose one from your library
  3. When finished, the app switches you back to a page that has useful feedback

This is a better user experience, but it does require that someone go and write that native camera app (and that I install it). And unless there’s some way of checking for camera: support, even this will require some additional explanation.

Multimedia Messaging Service

Yet another solution can be found in SMS, or its more advanced permutation MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service). Using the sms: protocol mentioned above, I could create a link to sms:email@example.com that behaves almost exactly like the email upload method, while avoiding some of its complexity. On the iPhone, you can attach photos from the Messages app, and you can send MMS messages to an email address. And since there’s a link that initiates the process, it allows web apps to give some feedback on the page in response to a click event.

The downside to this method is that it requires the user to have a mobile plan with reasonable rates for sending MMS messages, and could fail ungracefully for users who aren’t fully informed about their mobile plan.

In any case, writing all this up has made me realize web browsers should let you detect whether a given URL protocol is supported. Browser makers, please build that into your next release!

Update: Andre tweeted a clever trick for detecting URL protocol support! Here’s how it might work in PHP:

<?php

// This will only work if the sms: protocol is supported
header('Location: sms:email@example.com');

// If not, fall back on this other page
echo '<html><head><meta http-equiv="refresh" content="0; url=sms-not-supported.html" /></head></html>';

?>

Thinking about 2012

The 1st of January is as arbitrary as any day to designate a new year. Reading the Wikipedia article on the Gregorian calendar outlines some of the competing times to round out a new year — in March, May, September, December, as well as January — even when limiting oneself to the history of Europe.

But here I am, reflecting on the year ahead. Here is a short list of specific resolutions I’ve set out for myself:

  1. Read more books
  2. Write more blog posts
  3. Take more photos, take a photography course at ICP
  4. Work through my Instapaper queue (currently at 1,219 unread articles!)
  5. Focus on finishing and polishing my existing projects
  6. Favor those projects that help me keep in touch with friends and family

It’s in the interest of this last resolution that I’m setting aside the book I’ve recently started to start reading The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, which was recommended by my friend James. I like the idea of synchronizing my reading with friends for the sake of discussion. In case you might be interested in doing the same, I’ve added my Goodreads profile to my list of networks in the sidebar (heads up to RSS feed subscribers, there’s a sidebar you can’t see from there!).

I suppose I’ve taken some inspiration from Woody Gothrie’s 1942 “New Years Rulin’s”, many of which I also aspire to for the coming year:

  1. Work more and better
  2. Work by a schedule
  3. Wash teeth if any
  4. Shave
  5. Take bath
  6. Eat good — fruit, vegetables, milk
  7. Drink very scant if any
  8. Write a song a day
  9. Wear clean clothes — look good
  10. Shine shoes
  11. Change socks
  12. Change bed clothes often
  13. Read lots of good books
  14. Listen to radio a lot
  15. Learn people better
  16. Keep rancho clean
  17. Don’t get lonesome
  18. Stay glad
  19. Keep hoping machine running
  20. Dream good
  21. Bank all extra money
  22. Save dough
  23. Have company but don’t waste time
  24. Send Mary and kids money
  25. Play and sing good
  26. Dance better
  27. Help win war — beat Fascism
  28. Love Mama
  29. Love Papa
  30. Love Pete
  31. Love everybody
  32. Make up your mind
  33. Wake up and fight

The invented people

Recently there’s been some discussion about Newt Gingrich’s views on Palestinians, that they are an invented people:

Remember, there was no Palestine as a state, it was part of the Ottoman Empire, and I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs and were historically part of the Arab community.

An American talking about “invention” in the context of a people’s right to statehood is so mind-bendingly ironic. Anil Dash sums it up in 129 characters:

One of the best things about the U.S. is that it's an invented country populated by an invented people with an inventive spirit.
@anildash
Anil Dash

This position gets even weirder as Thomas Friedman (yeah, really!) points out where this line of reasoning takes us:

If the 2.5 million West Bank Palestinians are not a real people entitled to their own state, that must mean Israel is entitled to permanently occupy the West Bank and that must mean — as far as Newt is concerned — that Israel’s choices are: 1) to permanently deprive the West Bank Palestinians of Israeli citizenship and put Israel on the road to apartheid; 2) to evict the West Bank Palestinians through ethnic cleansing and put Israel on the road to the International Criminal Court in the Hague; or 3) to treat the Palestinians in the West Bank as citizens, just like Israeli Arabs, and lay the foundation for Israel to become a binational state. And this is called being “pro-Israel”?

It’s surprising that a right wing politician might be, in essence, arguing for a One State Solution. Aside from Friedman’s use of quotes around the word illegal — as in, “illegal” settlements — I think it’s a solid op-ed. But this notion of a group of people having their identity called into question is better explained by Laila El-Haddad:

After booking a flight online with British Airways out of Cairo (the nearest accessible airport for Palestinians here, eight hours and a border crossing away from Gaza), I attempted to enter my “passenger details”, including country of citizenship and residence.

Most people wouldn’t give this a second thought. But being the owner of a Palestinian Authority passport (which one can acquire only on the basis of an Israeli-issued ID card), I have become accustomed to dealing with Kafkaesque complications in routine matters.

And sure enough, in the drop-down menu of countries, I found the British Indian Ocean Territory, the Isle of Man and even Tuvalu – but no Palestine.

I collaborated with Laila on You Are Not Here and she told harrowing airport stories, of being detained and questioned on account of her “invented” status. I remember following one such adventure as she tweeted about being denied entry into Palestine by Egyptian authorities:

arrived in Cairo- am not being allowed through the airpot. been waiting w/ kids for 4 hours now. can't go back to US-visa expired.
@gazamom
Laila El-Haddad

Imagine traveling from Copenhagen to New York, with a stopover in Montreal. Imagine being held by Canadian authorities because they don’t like your “American” passport. They send you back to Denmark because, you know, the United States doesn’t even have a legitimate monarchy! Who can trust these “invented” people?

The kicker is the lack of recourse, no Palestinian embassy can hold those Egyptian authorities to account. Gingrich’s position inadvertently calls attention to the estimated 12 million stateless people in the world. Their rights are not adequately protected in large part because they’re not considered legitimate people.

A redesigned phiffer.org

I’ve been tinkering with a new design for this site for a few months and have finally gotten to the point where it feels polished enough to start using. It’s not a huge departure from what was here before, but I’ve made some structural changes to how the WordPress theme works that should make it easier for me to maintain and improve. The old theme was ambitious, I invented my own object-oriented template system that shunned the well established conventions of making WordPress themes. This is all fine and good when a site first launches, but over time I forgot how all the parts fit together and was left puzzled by my earlier choices. This new theme is much more straightforward, no PHP fanciness this time around.

phiffer.org header

I did indulge a bit in some front-end fanciness though. You may notice there’s a new header element that gradually changes in response to your mouse movement. The gradations of green squares correspond to regions of the page, but rotated 90 degrees. If you move your mouse up or down you’ll see changes in the header, only your mouse movements show up horizontal instead of vertical. So the more you browse below the fold, the more visual changes will appear in the header toward the center and right. All this is private to your browser (and saved, per-browser, using something called JavaScript localStorage), I’m not sending any of the mouse movement data to the server.

Aside from that I’ve mostly just trimmed back some text in the sidebar, added a new archives interface in the footer, and beefed up my links to projects and friends. It’s still a work in progress, but with a bit more fit and finish I could see releasing the theme for others to use.

ows.offline is um… online!

This morning I stopped by Zuccatti Park and left the wifi router running ows.offline! It seems that weekday mornings are a lot less crowded, and the people I met who were awake and in the park were exactly the people who I wanted to know about the project. I chatted with some folks at the info desk and they were really enthusiastic about the idea! I explained the idea to this one guy who promptly plugged me into the generator and said “you are awesome!”

I’m just going to play it by ear and just drop in for maintenance/backups and promotion when I can.

The label reads:

  1. Connect to wifi network “ows.offline”
  2. Visit http://ows.offline/
  3. Profit! Revolt!

Code release and promotional flyers coming soon!

Proposal for ows.offline

Occupy Wall Street

Like many New Yorkers I’ve been observing and processing the occupation of Zuccatti Park with a sense of cautious enthusiasm. It took me a few days to figure out what it’s actually about, and I’ve come around to accept their position that protesting with no stated agenda is legitimate. Here are some resources I’ve found useful, but really the best way to get a sense for things is to walk around and talk to people in the park.

In short, there are two separate things happening:

  1. The occupation itself (also): a group of activists with a range of leftist politics (plus some Ron Paul supporters) are using occupation as a tactic
  2. The New York City General Assembly: an experimental process of political deliberation and decision making is being used to guide the occupation

One challenge I’ve been working through is how to best express my sympathy for the occupation without bailing on my existing responsibilities. My Fall schedule has been really busy, which has made it especially difficult to participate.

Of course there are a variety of things one can do to show support and I’m hoping to contribute in a way that plays to my strengths. Below is a project proposal I’ve submitted to the Occupennial art exhibition (more info).

ows.offline proposal

I’ve been working on hacking a Linksys WRT54GL wifi router to run very simple web forum software I developed. It’s part of an art process that I’m calling Situated Net Art. Like other instances of net art it relies on web technologies such as HTML, but is intended to be experienced from a specific physical location rather than adopting the more universal context of the World Wide Web.

The motivation behind ows.offline is that the web offers a fantastic array of communication tools, but often the conversation suffers from certain trade-offs as the number of participants rises. Proximity could be a useful filter for those with the greatest need for better communication tools. The forum is an attempt to complement the existing deliberative process of the NYC General Assembly and offer its constituents a text-based forum to hash out their ideas with greater subtlety.

Another component I’m interested in exploring is how access to the necessary hardware is or is not available to occupiers. I would like to develop some kind of social contract that stipulates the laptop or smartphone being used to access the forum might be lent to those without access. A similar type of arrangement was used in Heath Bunting’s BorderXing database, where users of the site must agree to become internet providers in a kind of peer-to-peer distributed net cafe.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user shankbone

What next?

I’m not sure an art context is the best way to pursue this, but at least it’s a process I’m familiar with. I’m still pretty uncertain about the logistics of maintaining electricity and shepherding my little wireless router through the chaos of the plaza. Perhaps inclusion in an art exhibition is a way to keep the hardware safe and dry. The software itself is already written, I’m just trying to figure out the best way to deploy it. I’ll release the software soon on GitHub with instructions on how others might use it with their own wifi routers.

Of course I’m open to feedback, so please feel free to comment below.

Why you should learn to program your computer

This is an essay I wrote for a one-off newspaper published by the Trade School folks. I haven’t found any trace of it online, but I bet a PDF version will materialize at some point.

An unusual book was published in 1974 called Computer Lib/Dream Machines. It has an oversized magazine format and two front covers. The two sides read inward to the center page, each side rotated 180° to the other. On the Computer Lib side, above a crudely-drawn clenched fist, reads the subtitle: You can and must understand computers NOW. I like the imperative nature of the phrase, even all these years later.

The book isn’t written by a computer scientist. Its author, Ted Nelson, isn’t a “technical person” so to speak, he has degrees in sociology and philosophy. He is a kind of über-generalist:

People keep pretending they can make things deeply hierarchical, categorizable and sequential when they can’t. EVERYTHING IS DEEPLY INTERTWINGLED. In an important sense there are no “subjects” at all; there is only all knowledge, since the cross- connections among the myriad topics of this world simply cannot be divided up neatly.

Nelson also coined the term “hyptertext” and continues to work on Xanadu, an ambitious (but tragically unpopular) hypertext system technically still in competition with the World Wide Web. I think of him, fondly, as the web’s crazy uncle. I appreciate his open resistance to the conventions of the web, even if my own career building websites is largely based on those conventions.

It’s hard to overstate the ubiquitous role the web now plays in our lives. The undergraduates I teach have grown up with access to Facebook and Google, these things must feel timeless to them. However, the internet as a whole is a fairly recent creation. It’s the result of very deliberate choices reflected in infrastructure and code. It’s easy to overlook how that hardware and software actually operates on our data.

As Lawrence Lessig has argued in Code, “we can build, or architect, or code cyberspace to protect values that we believe are fundamental. Or we can build, or architect, or code cyberspace to allow those values to disappear.” Setting aside Lessig’s unfashionable use of the word cyberspace, his point is an important one. It’s echoed more recently by Douglas Rushkoff in Program or Be Programmed:

Throughout the twentieth century, we remained blissfully ignorant of the real biases of automotive transportation. We approached our cars as consumers, through ads, rather than as engineers or, better, civic planners. We gladly surrendered our public streetcars to private automobiles, unaware of the real expenses involved.

Like global warming and urban sprawl, the dangers of centralized, corporate control over our mediated lives might seem daunting, inevitable even. It’s tempting to simply make due with those tools already at hand, to let professionals make the hard decisions about the software we rely on. The principle of intertwingularity suggests otherwise—your individual preferences and knowledge are fundamentally connected to the technologies where they become manifested. The capacity to write code is deeply intertwingled with what that software can produce.

Granted, the progress you can expect to make learning to program computers will be slow. It may take years before you build anything close to useful. Even so, the patterns of thought developed through understanding code will help you better negotiate the strange currents of our hypermediated world. The important first step is understanding why so that you will want to find out how. The second step is deciding on a project to undertake. The rest is a cyclical process of typing, befuddlement, and exhilaration when you finally understand how it works.