Internet Autocracy

Article at The Conversation on the internet as a centralized form of media that can be exploited by authoritarian regimes, particularly among citizens using it primarily for entertainment.

My comment:


I believe that the jury is still out on this one. One of the factors that fueled international respect for authoritarian regimes was external propaganda. Leaders of developing nations were beguiled by the perception that state-run economies and militaries were equally effective as those managed by decentralized cultures. The internet completely skewers that façade.

Most authoritarian regimes are sustained by revenues obtained through labor and resource exploitation by the developed world. As the consumer nations shift to automated and sustainable alternatives (respectively), those revenues will dry up. The old Roman dictum “bread and circuses” fails when there is no bread. When there is no bread, people will be forced to organize in a decentralized fashion to obtain basic goods. The internet will be the mechanism that facilitates that organization.

And there is still the lesson of the Cold War: if the international community can avoid creating external conflicts to justify the fear-mongering, the investment in lies eventually divorces the leadership from reality. The internet only provides the appearance of greater efficacy. The people learn to go about their business independently by pushing responsibility upwards. The retort is always “I’ll do it, boss, if you show me exactly how.” It’s like that scene in Life of Brian where the two prison guards stutter and garble words until the interrogator leaves, then start speaking coherently.

In the meanwhile, liberal societies will rocket ahead using the benefits of network effects (the value of a communications network goes up as the factorial of the number of participants). In the era of rapid change driven by global climate stress, that facility will be essential to survival.

Trimmed to Size

I am in the third stage of down-sizing my living space, preparatory to relocation from a 1200 square-foot apartment with attached garage to a 700 square-foot space. Considering the expense of a storage unit, I have steeled myself to discard or donate everything except the bedroom set and my tech tools. I began the final purge and boxing up for the move last night, and stuff that had survived the first two cuts is now either piled up in the garage pending a trip down to Good Will, or sitting in the dumpster.

Strangely, the two collections represent very different aspects of my life.

The primary impetus for down-sizing is that my sons are off to college. I’ve held back their child-hood memorabilia, most of it stored under my bed, which is were it will be again after the move. The rest of me as a father is destined for Good Will, including the power tools that I used in fixing up the house their mother now lives in, the racks that stored their backpacking gear, and the last of the storage bins that held their craft supplies.

In the dumpster lies the record of my intellectual life, starting with the journals I wrote in college that marked the beginning of my attempts to understand the power of love and why it was so hard to transmit it. Also from that era are the remnants of the comic book collection that I accumulated up to the date of my marriage at thirty-five. More significant are the last of the evidence of my investment in Diagrammatic Programming, the systems analysis technology developed by my father who passed away just before New Years.

The furniture and appliances are no loss. But these things hurt somehow.

From the comic collection I did hold back my run of The Puma Blues. It’s been sitting on a wire rack for three months, but made it to my bed last night. My elbow began aching around 9:30, so I decided to turn in. Instead, I ended up propped up by my pillows, trying to decipher the faded scratches of the hand-lettered dialog, while a voice in the back of my head keep on observing “This was the only thing in your comic collection worth keeping.”

Puma Blues, which ran only 24 issues, charts the experience of Gavin, a young man confronted on all sides with the futility of the struggle against death. It was created by two Canadians with deep environmental sensitivities. The artwork lovingly captures the natural world, with a moodiness that sometimes makes it difficult to discern the minutiae of artificial existence.

Set at the turn of the millennia, the ecological context of Gavin’s life is terrifying: global warming, acidification, ozone depletion and nuclear terrorism have brought the natural world to the point of collapse. Strangely, in seeking refuge from hopelessness, Gavin finds himself posted at a nature preserve, monitoring the pH of a lake that is being limed to allow the fish to survive, and thus to support the rest of the ecosystem. But with too much free time on his hands, Gavin is brought to confront a more direct experience of mortality, in the form of videos made by his deceased father that consider darkly the larger question of humanity’s relationship to eternity.

The storyline offers two promises for healing, promises that I regret were barely formulated before the series was dropped. The first is the assertion by Gavin’s father that “rebellion is the beginning of faith.” In the backdrop of Gavin’s life, the rebellion is evident in his rootless refusal to engage society, and it is indeed that rebellion that allows him the opportunity to engage his father’s voice. But from my writings here, it might be gleaned that I believe that the whole of religious experience is a rebellion against our Darwinian programming. In both cases, rebellion manifests as a pig-headed refusal to participate in systems that create death.

This parallel will be offensive to lovers of nature, but I stand by it: while it is fashionable to believe that humanity has disrupted a natural balance, that is only true on the human time-scale. Looking at ecology even on the time-frame of tens of thousands of years, and we see a constant rising and falling of species and ecosystems. There is no stability, and the instability brought by death was the agency of our evolution.

Gavin resists faith, however, even though the second promise for healing is nothing less than an absolute miracle. Symbolically, it reflects the hope of life itself, a hope that it will find some way to outgrow the disasters that humanity is visiting upon it. Along with his environmental monitoring duties, Gavin is occasionally ordered to seek out and “transmute” aerial manta rays. Physiologically, there is no concession in the artwork to biological necessity. The rays sport gills, and flutter their wings gracefully as though under water. But they fly through the air none-the-less. Obviously, the only explanation for their survival is access to some other form of energy, a form that is not channeled by the normal metabolic means.

This is the promise that I offered my sons all through their childhood. While I try not to show it, it hurts now to hear them enthuse about terraforming Mars (to which I think: “Really – invest all that energy so we can move there and screw it up?”) or spread nanoscale sensors all over the Earth (“Disrupting the digestion of the insects and worms just as our plastic refuse does that of the birds and fish?”). I do understand, of course: they must survive in a culture that abases itself before its technological avatars, because they offer the promise of complete control of the world through the use of digital technology.

But the problem, as I see it, is in seeking control.

Here’s an experience: I was working at a climate change modelling institute in 2004, back when the fossil fuel industry really began to push back against the scientific community. The ozone layer was a serious concern: the CFCs used for foam production and refrigeration catalyzed the breakdown of ozone, thereby allowing cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation through the atmosphere. While replacements had been found, the chlorine atoms at fault would remain in the atmosphere for decades.

As a physicist, I was mulling one day over the thought that neutrinos from the sun could catalyze electron emission from a neutron in the chlorine nucleus, transforming it into argon, which is chemically inert. Thinking more and more deeply about this, I visualized the neutrino field being emited from the sun, and then honed my attention on the thin shell of the atmosphere. I felt other minds joining mine, and then a frission of energy.

A few weeks later, one of the climate modelers came by after church to say: “We were pretty worried about the ozone layer, but it seems like it wasn’t such a big problem after all.”

And so I find myself a little disjointed today, juxtaposing my promise of hope against the paranoia of Gavin’s father, whose faith manifests as belief in UFOs and the hope that some higher species is standing in the wings to engineer our salvation. Neither my sons nor the authors of Puma Blues seemed ready to proclaim that we are the intervention. We are the tool by which God conquers Darwinian violence.

We just need our rebellion against death to mature into a surrender to love.

Wish You Were There

Google has recently announced a “photo location” service that will tell you where a picture was taken. They have apparently noticed that every tourist takes the same photos, and so if they have one photo tagged with location, they can assign that location to all similar photos.

I’m curious, as a developer, regarding the nature of the algorithms they use. As a climate change alarmist, I’m also worried about the energy requirements for the analysis. It turns out that most cloud storage is used to store our selfies (whether still or video). Over a petabyte a day is added to YouTube, with the amount expected to grow by a factor of ten by 2020. A petabyte is a million billion bytes. By contrast, the library of Congress can be stored in 10 terabytes, or one percent of what is uploaded daily to YouTube.

Whatever Google is doing to analyze the photos, there’s just a huge amount of data to process, and I’m sure that it’s a huge drain on our electricity network. And this is just Google. Microsoft also touts the accumulation of images as a driver for growth of its cloud infrastructure. A typical data center consumes energy like a mid-size city. To reduce the energy costs, Microsoft is considering deployment of its compute nodes in the ocean, replacing air conditioning with passive cooling by sea water.

But Google’s photo location service suggests another alternative. Why store the photos at all? Rather than take a picture and use Google to remind you where you were, why not tell Google where you were and have it generate the picture?

When I was a kid, the biggest damper on my vacation fun was waiting for the ladies to arrange their hair and clothing when it came time to take a photo. Why impose that on them any longer? Enjoy the sites, relax, be yourself. Then go home, dress for the occasion, and send up a selfie to a service that will embed you in a professional scenery photo, adjusting shadows and colors for weather and lighting conditions at the time of your visit.

It might seem like cheating, but remember how much fun it was to stick your face in those cut-out scenes on the boardwalk when you were a kid? It’s really no different than that. And it may just save the world from the burdens of storing and processing the evidence of our narcissism.

Much Ado About Women

When I went to my thirty-fifth high-school reunion, I ran into one of my old cronies. After observing me dancing by myself, he remarked that I was “still afraid of women.” Thirty minutes later, I had a lady drag me out on the floor, saying she wanted me to dance with her friends. The eight of them made a circle around me, laughing and shrieking until I reached my hand out and spun around to link their hearts in a circle, rhetorically asking “What’s the energy for, ladies? What’s the energy for?”

So, no, it’s not fear.

But I didn’t know quite how to put it until I recalled a scene in the recent live-action Alice in Wonderland. The caterpillar rejects her identity, and in response to protestations from his friends merely observes to Alice, “You’ve lost your muchness.”

This reflects on a recent conversation with a woman who testified that she spent her youth protecting the weak from bullies, until a man that she recognized as an old teacher (from lives stretching back 4000 years) observed to her that she “didn’t have to be Joan of Arc all the time.” I walked away from the conversation reflecting that she had surrendered her greatness to him so readily.

So, please, don’t do that. Jesus was an exemplar, not a substitute. Make much of yourself, my dears.

Yoga Limits

The constraints of my professional life have driven me to yoga twice. Both times, I was suffering from back pain that constrained my ability to sustain my focus while sitting at my desk. I recognized that the problem was tight hamstrings and a weak core, but I channeled my need for exercise into jogging, which didn’t address either condition.

The first practice was held in the meeting room of a spirituality bookstore. The instructor was an Indian lady, and I was the only man that showed up consistently. As I got stronger in the practice, I eventually found myself with thirteen women hitched to my wagon. At the time, I didn’t have the energy to manage the load, so I quit.

I was able to stay away for a few years, and then I discovered the Bikram yoga studio in Agoura Hills. I have to admit that it’s been a struggle for the owners as much as it has been for me. I am a tall string bean with a large chest.

The relative narrowness of my frame results in transmission of stress into the stabilizing muscles in the hips and lower back that are supported by bones that provide limited leverage. This means that muscle balance is absolutely essential not only to achieve postures, but to avoid overuse injuries. As I strive for that balance, I’ve been developing muscle groups that had always taken a free ride in the past, which means that I become exhausted doing postures that are often placed in the “warm up” or “recovery” category.

After four years I’m finally able reliably to stay in the 105 degree room for the full ninety minutes. While the owners were often frustrated by my bailing out in the middle of class, some of the instructors are impressed by my persistence. Several have observed that the practice is not designed for my body type.

The attraction to me is a feature that many find intolerable – the dreary repetition of the practice. The Bikram formula is a series of twenty-six postures that the instructors describe with a rote dialog. Fortunately, the more difficult postures are progressive. This means that we aren’t expected to achieve full expression, and so I have the latitude to focus on trying to figure out how to get my muscles to work together. It’s a process that has caused my to look in the mirror on occasion and burst out in laughter in the middle of class.

This opportunity to focus on my physical self has been critical to my peace of mind over the last four years. While not typical, I have dreams in which people show up seeking help to keep societies and ecosystems glued together. There’s not much I can do except to offer them the sanctuary of my heart as a place of restoration. It’s frustrating and grievous to me.

So I should have intervened early today when the instructor continued reading his story during the srivasanas that punctuate the exercises of the floor series. Although I realized that it was interfering with my ability to focus on aerobic recovery, I was fascinated by the enthusiasm that filled the room, . The diversion provided some relief from the normal thoughts – people struggling with the urge to escape the room.

The story contrasted the experience of two caterpillars. The humble yellow caterpillar (which I’ll call ‘she’) encounters a grey caterpillar spinning a cocoon. While uncertain about the possibility of becoming a butterfly, the yellow caterpillar finally chooses to try, and discovers comfort in the realization that spinning a cocoon is a natural skill.

The second, striped caterpillar (which I’ll call ‘he’) has chosen to climb a pillar of caterpillars, symbolizing the struggle for social success. As he nears the top, stepping on those below, he is finally unable to penetrate the clinging mass, and becomes trapped. He looks out and sees a field littered with caterpillar pillars, and realizes that his struggle is meaningless – with so many pillars, attaining the pinnacle of one signifies nothing.

As he weighs his options, the yellow butterfly arrives to rescue him. She attempts to pull him out of the pillar, but he draws back, and sees this terrible sorrow in her eyes.

It was at that point that I walked out, the class laughing at my explanation. I laid down on the couch in the lobby, crying “Oh, God!”

I live this every day, and it’s not that simple. They don’t just refuse assistance.

They pull off your wings and drive nails through your hands and feet.

One of the students told me, as I was passing him after class on the way out the door, that “I had missed a good story.” Really? I don’t come to yoga for a spiritual fill-up, or for entertainment. That’s supposed to happen at church or the movies. I come to focus on keeping my body strong enough to bear the burdens that I carry. If I can’t focus on that, then I’m going to have to quit again.

Fun? What is this ‘fun’?

Greg got a great laugh out of it at the time. He called me over to the computer and said, “Hey, Dad, you should try this game.”

“What is it? Run-escape? What’s that?”

“No. RUNE-scape.”

He's just a farm(ing) boy.

My Runescape avatar, Trichronos, watching the plotted mushrooms grow.

It started off as something for us to do together on weekends, and the chat channel let us stay in touch while they were away at their mother’s house. When I was forced to surrender my custodial rights to take a job up in Livermore in 2004, the game became a stress breaker. Runescape involves a lot of mindless, repetitive skilling activities. I would sit down with The Economist and mouse away, half the time without even looking at the screen.

My avatar, Trichronos, was once a negative image of me. Now my hair is mostly white. The original Runescape was pretty raw, with a lot of adult language, misogyny and racism. I chose the character as a reaction to the last, and have been called a ‘nigger’ more than once. And when others complain that they wish there were more female players, I always trot out my original error, “Well, it’s because girls parse the name as ‘Run! Escape!'”

On the flip side, I have observed over the years that Runescape does grow player communities consisting of disabled vets, students, the chronically unemployed and the elderly. They follow each other’s lives and often provide support in solving real-world problems.

One of the draws of a fantasy game is that you get to chose what kind of hero you want to be. Combat is a big draw to some, although the tactics and visual effects in Runescape are tame compared to those in games that focus narrowly on combat. I do enough combat to be able to do the quests, but filled up my time with skilling.

As the ecology in California began to collapse, I felt compelled to focus on the farming skill. It was my first “max” skill two years ago. Changes in the game mechanics made it easy to max out on the other skills since, but also introduced rewards for further achievements. So while I don’t have an interest in the other skills except as they factor in quest outcomes, I am trying to complete the farming achievement. It represents a bounded but not insignificant draw upon my energies: logging in for twenty minutes four times a day to harvest patches and plant new crops. I estimate somewhere between 120 and 200 days to achieve my goal.

“Trichronos” is obviously not a name I would give to a child, but has specific meaning to me. “Tri” is obviously the prefix “three,” and Chronos is the Titan of time in Greek myth. The choice references both my model of physics, in which I posit additional time dimensions, and my sense of my deep past, as in “third time is the charm.” It’s not time to explain that second one yet…