Friday, November 29, 2013

How we go on: for Dad

My father died a year ago today. No surprise, then, that he has been on my mind quite a lot since last November. Absence sharpens loss is at least as true as time dulls edges.

I've found my way to more than a few books about fathers and sons this year, some of them recommended by thoughtful friends (My Father's Books by Luan Starova, about which I wrote in The lives of books in late January); some of them found by chance, if you believe in such things (Paul Harding's Tinkers, about which I wrote in July: Tinkering: on bookstore serendipity ...).

But as I approached the end of my first year without a living parent, poems that treat themes of persistent effect in the world, beyond death -- all is not lost poems, if you will -- kept returning to mind.

First, and perhaps best-known in this vein, here's a passage from William Wordsworth's Ode: Intimations of Immortality:
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now forever taken from my sight,
            Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
            We will grieve not, rather find
            Strength in what remains behind;
            In the primal sympathy
            Which having been must ever be;
            In the soothing thoughts that spring
            Out of human suffering;
            In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
Or this one, from East Coker, a passage from the second of Eliot's Four Quartets whose evocation of earthy circularity might have appealed to my biologist father:
                                    In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie—
A dignified and commodiois sacrament.
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.
But, as keenly as Wordsworth and Eliot each, in their own keys, see and give voice to the cycles through which all our lives turn -- and even though the Four Quartets remains the slimmest volume I can imagine taking on a desert island exile to read over and over and over again, in saecula saeculorum -- no poem struck me quite so deeply in these months as Gary Snyder's Axe Handles.

It's an odd thing, though not so surprising, that losing a parent shines an insistent light on aspects of one's own self -- from physical to gestural to the intricacies of personality -- bequeathed by a father or mother. That light illuminates Axe Handles as well.

Snyder builds his poem, and the eponymous collection in which it appears, on a passage from the Doctrine of the Mean, written some 2500 years ago and attributed to Kong Ji, the only grandson of Confucius.

James Legge translated that passage, from Chapter XIII,  in 1861, as follows:
In the book of poetry, it is said, 'In hewing an axe handle, in hewing an axe-handle, the pattern is not far off.' We grasp one axe-handle to hew the other, and yet, if we look askance from the one to the other, we may consider them as apart. Therefore the superior man governs men, according to their nature, with what is proper to them, and as soon as they change what is wrong, he stops.
In Ezra Pound's translation of Confucius, the twentieth century poet interprets the same passage:
In cutting an axe-handle the model is not far off, in this sense: one holds one axe-handle while chopping the other. Thus one uses men in governing men.
Snyder's poem tells of teaching his son Kai to throw a hatchet into a tree stump, whereupon Kai decides he wants one of his own. The boy remembers an old hatchet-head he has seen in his father's shop. Snyder shows his son how to reshape a broken axe handle to fit the hatchet-head, and in doing so remembers centuries-old wisdom he learned by reading Pound.

From Axe Handles:
"In making the handle
Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand."
My teacher Shi-hsiang Chen
Translated that and taught it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.
A week ago today, the same friend who gave me a copy of My Father's Books brought her first child into the world, a strapping, beautiful boy, graced by his parents with a middle name drawn from another link in the great chain of human culture: Voltaire.

How we go on.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Tinkering: on bookstore serendipity and novels that show what it is to be alive
The lives of books
The lemming situation: things we've known for 50 years about environmentalism
Books everyone should read

Monday, November 18, 2013

Surveillance and power through fiction and fact: Max Barry's "Lexicon"

Max Barry's latest novel, Lexicon, is something of a mashup: a compelling shoot-em-up thriller with a secret, control-the-world-grade weapon; a deconstruction of modern marketing technique; an informed warning about 21st century ubiquitous surveillance; and a conspiracy theory about a secret society's attempt to control us from behind the curtain of corporations and government.

I couldn't put it down.

Barry's dramatization of today's massively networked webs of information and power mesmerized me. At the same time, the novel's dramatic conceits pissed me off. I strained against a rendering of corrosive, information-fueled manipulation steeped in verifiable reality ... but portrayed in exaggerated, conspiracy-theory trappings that are too easily dismissed as 'just fiction.'

Lexicon's setup, skirting spoilers, is that there's an organization of highly trained experts in what you might call applied neuro-linguistics. They call themselves "poets," and make a science of studying and using linguistic patterns (boiled down to sequences of nonsense syllables) that short-circuit the brain's neuro-linguistic filters and give a trained practitioner the ability to exercise command and control over others.

Abracadabra on steroids, sort of.

The world of Lexicon 

What does the novel's secret society of so-called poets call the ability to manipulate people through skilled use of language?

Persuasion, natch.

The science of this business, in Barry's telling, is identifying the "segment" to which a given individual belongs. Knowing the segment, a "poet" knows which words to employ to control a person.

Does that seem to bear a resemblance to real-world marketing? To rhetoric?

It should. That's a big part of the author's point. (Graham Sleight pegged Lexicon as a "moral novel" in his Washington Post review earlier this year; for a quick primer on real-world segmentation in a marketing context, check out the current Forbes article More Phones than Google or Facebook, about Flurry, one of the most intrusive consumer-data aggregators you never heard of.)

So how does a poet discover a target's segment in Lexicon? The novel gets a little two-faced on this point.

Poets are trained to deduce a person's segment from how s/he speaks, acts, and responds through subtle facial tics and body language to prompts that sound like innocuous survey questions ("Are you a cat person or a dog person?")

At the same time, people volunteer a wealth of segment-identifying information through ... wait for it ... the magic of social media, consumer tracking, and ubiquitous surveillance. This makes a poet's deductive task a great deal simpler, of course. S/he knows who you are because you revealed yourself. (Poets themselves work very hard not to give clues that reveal their own segment, because that would make them vulnerable to persuasion).

If this is sounding more and more like the world we live in and read about in ProPublica ... well ... yeah.

Here's how the business of giving up one's own segment is summarized in one of the interleaved social media posts that pepper Lexicon's artfully twisted plot lines (bold emphasis added):
In my city we spent $1.6 billion on a new ticketing system for the trains. We replaced paper tickets with smartcards and now they can tell where people get on and off. So, question: how is that worth $1.6 billion?

People say it's the government being incompetent, and ok. But this is happening all over. All the transit networks are getting smartcards, the grocery stores are taking your name, the airports are getting face recognition cameras. Those cameras, they don't work when people try to avoid them. Like, they can be fooled by glasses. We KNOW they're ineffective as anti-terrorism devices, but we still keep installing them.

All of this stuff -- the smartcards, the ID systems, the "anti-congestion" car-tracking tech -- all of it is terrible at what it's officially supposed to do. It's only good for tracking the rest of us, the 99.9% who just use the smartcard or whatever and let ourselves be tracked because it's easier.

I'm not a privacy nut, and I don't care that much if these organizations want to know where I go and what I buy. But what bothers me is how HARD they're all working for that data, how much money they're spending, and how they never admit that's what they want. It means that information must be really valuable for some reason, and I just wonder to who and why.
Lexicon's worldblurring

The excerpt quoted above is offered complete with a citation, a URL. Is the passage in Lexicon fiction? Is it 'real'? Is it really written by the novelist as part of a marketing strategy devised for his own product? The text can be found on the intertubes, at a URL to which the one given in the book (and this paragraph) redirects. And the URL to which a web browser is redirected is in the domain of a game built by Lexicon's author (

This appears to be one of the multiple techniques by which Max Barry effects not worldbuilding, as authors refer to construction of fictional environments in which plot and characters play out -- especially in speculative fiction -- but what I propose we call worldblurring: the deliberately arranged intersection of truth and fiction, aimed at grounding make-believe in the world actually inhabited by readers.

It works very nicely to ratchet up an aura of Grand Conspiracy in Lexicon.

And worldblurring doesn't detract from the book's compelling lure as a story, or as a drama-enhanced object lesson. It's not Max Barry's failure that his fiction doesn't precisely track reality. Mapping directly to the real world isn't the goal or the point, by definition. It's a novel.

Where Lexicon runs aground as explication of How Our World Actually Works does offer an opportunity to sort out reality from fiction.

In my reading, the aspect of its fiction by which Lexicon departs from the real world is portrayal of surveillance and control as the domain of a secret organization, peopled with individuals of almost superhuman ability and ├╝ber-exceptional talent. The head of the poets' organization is out to leave a Pharaoh-scale mark on the world (though he's hobbled, as it were, by a sort of luxury shoe fetish). One of the novel's protagonists is preternaturally gifted at persuasion, standard deviations beyond her peers. Another is immune to the secret weapon at the heart of the novel's plot, a "bareword" whose use compels obedience from everyone, no matter what their segment or psychology.

This is the stuff dramatic action is made of: heroes and exceptional power and tragicomic flaws. But it's not a view of the world that anyone but a dyed-in-the-wool conspiracy theorist would buy.

How pervasive surveillance and control really happen

Anybody who's barely been paying attention over the past five or six months has learned more than they ever expected to about how much corporations and governments know and seek to know about regular people going about their regular lives. Not that a great deal of what we learned from the Snowden leaks wasn't available in hints and snippets before ... in some cases very big and coherent snippets ... but in 2013 our filter-and-forget mechanisms got great big holes poked through their middles, compromising, however briefly, the average citizen's ability to pretend reality isn't happening.

I'd say it's just those filter-and-forget mechanisms that we want to examine in order to understand how we got to this place, and what it would take to walk ourselves back down, if that's even possible.

One analysis in this vein that stuck with me over the intervening months was published on the NY Times site on 15 September, by Peter Ludlow, a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University. In The Banality of Systemic Evil, Ludlow was addressing the question whether a sharp uptick in "leaking, whistle-blowing and hacktivism that has vexed the United States military and the private and government intelligence communities" is grounds either for condemning or exalting those who have been identified as leakers and whistle-blowers and hactivists, e.g., Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Aaron Swartz.

Ludlow concludes that it's not the individuals who are the issue -- whether one considers them heroes or knaves. The issue is the organizations in which they act. Here from Ludlow's NY Times piece:
In "Eichmann in Jerusalem," one of the most poignant and important works of 20th-century philosophy, Hannah Arendt made an observation about what she called "the banality of evil." One interpretation of this holds that it was not an observation about what a regular guy Adolf Eichmann seemed to be, but rather a statement about what happens when people play their "proper" roles within a system, following prescribed conduct with respect to that system, while remaining blind to the moral consequences of what the system was doing -- or at least compartmentalizing and ignoring those consequences.
Prof. Ludlow is shining a light on intense pressure exerted on members of certain organizations (e.g., the U.S. military or a large NSA sub-contractor) to conform to the organization's internal norms even where they diverge sharply from the sound personal integrity by which those members live outside the organization.

As an illustrative modern example of this phenomenon, Ludlow summarizes some of the trajectory traced by U.S. Army Private Chelsea Manning:
Chelsea Manning, the United States Army private incarcerated for leaking classified documents from the Departments of Defense and State, felt a similar pull to resist the internal rules of the bureaucracy. In a statement at her trial she described a case where she felt this was necessary. In February 2010, she received a report of an event in which the Iraqi Federal Police had detained 15 people for printing "anti-Iraqi" literature. Upon investigating the matter, Manning discovered that none of the 15 had previous ties to anti-Iraqi actions or suspected terrorist organizations. Manning had the allegedly anti-Iraqi literature translated and found that, contrary to what the federal police had said, the published literature in question "detailed corruption within the cabinet of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's government and the financial impact of his corruption on the Iraqi people."

When Manning reported this discrepancy to the officer in charge (OIC), she was told to "drop it," she recounted.

Manning could not play along. As she put it, she knew if she "continued to assist the Baghdad Federal Police in identifying the political opponents of Prime Minister al-Maliki, those people would be arrested and in the custody of the Special Unit of the Baghdad Federal Police and very likely tortured and not seen again for a very long time — if ever." When her superiors would not address the problem, she was compelled to pass this information on to WikiLeaks.
Now let's switch foreground and background. Let's step back from the dramatic, individual-focused framing of these stories by news media, pundits, and agenda-laden politicians.

Ludlow is describing the world from which Manning, Swartz, and Ludlow emerged not as a top-down hierarchy of evil (even though the particular organizations in question are, in significant respects, run as top-down hierarchies). These organizations are held together by normative values and behaviors, and members are encouraged over weeks, months, and years to conform to those norms, to fit their roles and personalities to How Things Are Done Here. There's no single master-poet, Architect (a la The Matrix), Trilateral Commission, or string-pulling Halliburton-bot dictating and controlling every evil behavior of each and every participant in that world.

Because that would be make-believe; and Peter Ludlow is a philosopher, not a writer of speculative fiction.

Letting fictions teach us about the real world

Instead, Ludlow is describing an organizational universe in which well-intentioned people are conditioned within a specific context to ignore or accept things they would abhor outside that context.

Think of that old trope about frogs blithely swimming in a pot of water that only very slowly is brought to a lethal boil. It's sort of true, at least in the sense that it rings true, and therefore works well as allegory. And sort of not, according an emeritus professor from Oklahoma quoted in Snopes' deconstruction of the trope. (FWIW, Manning, Swartz, and Snowden jumped out of the pot ... which brings to mind other metaphors, like leaping from frying pans to fires.)

In any case the place most of us really live is inside one or several organizational or social contexts where powerful norms shape behavior.

We also really do live in a world in which we give up a great deal about who we are to organizations we may know about and may not. Those organizations may be capable of and interested in keeping the information we surrender private, and using it in ways we consider ethical ... or they may not.

This information-surrender happens on Facebook and Twitter and name-your-own-webmail-platform; on post-and-comment venues like Blogger or Tumblr or Daily Kos; by using smartphones, walking into airports, or registering cars that we drive on public roads equipped with surveillance cameras; by joining loyalty programs at local grocery stores, or paying with credit cards, or using transit passes.

We know that a great deal of this vacuumed-up information is used to select advertisements presented to influence consumer choices. We know that this data is used to customize search results presented to us by widely used tools for discovering information, like Google and Bing (cf. "filter bubble" on Wikipedia). How big a leap is it to imagine that a 'reputable' news source's online front page might be stitched together differently for each of us, tailored to conform to the news we want or expect to see, or to a view of the world that will facilitate that news source's business plan or political agenda?

While there may never be a single, reclusive, superhero-smart head of a secret organization hoarding and cross-tabulating and manipulating data streams generated by our diverse electronically-enhanced activities, I believe it's conceptually helpful to participate in a thought-experiment like Max Barry's Lexicon, in which just such a being heads just such an organization.

Because while there may not be one "bareword" to control all and sundry -- any more than there was really "one ring to rule them all" forged by Sauron and passed from Gollum to Bilbo to Frodo to fire -- reality bears a striking resemblance to the world of Barry's novel. I'd say it's worth stopping to take the temperature of the overheating stew of networked information in which we really do live. It's worth asking: what's the effect of all this? and is it what we really want? and if not, what are we prepared to do to try to change course?

Here's another one of Lexicon's sidebars, this one with fake URL citation, but, hey, that doesn't mean the fiction isn't true:
[...] the way to beat biased reporting isn't to find the least biased one and put all your trust in that. First of all, they're all biased, from the language they use and the framing down to the choices they make about which stories to report. [...]

But more importantly, relying on a single source of information means you can't critically evaluate it. It's like you're locked in a room and every day I come in and tell you what's happening outside. It's very easy for me to make you believe whatever I want. Even if I don't lie, I can just tell you the facts that support me and leave out the ones that don't.

That's what's happening if you're getting all your news from one place. If you stop listening to someone the second you hear a word or phrase you've been taught belongs to the enemy, like "environment" or "job creators," that's what you're doing. You might be an intelligent person, but once you let someone else filter the world for you, you have no way to critically analyze what you're hearing. At best, absolute best case scenario, if they blatantly contradict themselves, you can spot that. But if they take basic care to maintain an internal logical consistency, which they all do, you've got nothing. You've delegated the ability to make up your mind.

I suppose my bottom line is this: if Lexicon helps people connect the real-world conceptual dots it encompasses, more power to Max Barry.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
After iGoogle: all your friends are belong to us?
Pervasive NSA surveillance + civil forfeiture = U.S.-flavored totalitarianism?
Not your granddaddy's metadata: don't believe the PRISM anti-hype
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books

Thanks to Xander for an image of his original model of J.R.R. Tolkein's One Ring, via Wikimedia Commons. Thanks to Wikipedia Commons also for the image of Adolf Eichmann at his sentencing in 1961.

Monday, November 4, 2013

After iGoogle: all your friends are belong to us?

I was an iGoogle holdout.

Yup. To the very last day.

For those who missed it: iGoogle allowed anyone with a Google ID to create a personalized portal stocked with any of a wide selection of Ajax-based gadgets -- news, stock quotes, the now-defunct Google Reader, weather forecasts, your e-mail inbox, etc. -- arranged in tiles on a web page, and built around the foundation of Google's search interface. Pretty convenient. I used it as a Home page for the service's 8 year lifespan.

I liked iGoogle for the reason most people like Google's basic services (search, mail, calendar, maps): the user interface tends to be simple, functionally straightforward, and more richly configurable (or API-addressable) than one might reasonably expect of a service that's free. (Well, free except for that small matter of letting Google track every e-mail, search, clicked-thru web page, and third-party social connection that the Overlords of Mountain View can get their acquisitive mitts on ... the NSA would be jealous except they've been stealing everything Google knows about us on the sly).

Over several weeks before iGoogle shut down I looked at a number of the many alternative 'construct your own portal to the intertubes' services that are marketing themselves as iGoogle replacements. I don't claim to have made a comprehensive survey, but I gave Netvibes and Protopage a serious try, and checked out a few other before settling on uStart. (The uStart page displayed in this post is the default presented to users who have not logged in; the company is based in the U.K., hence the prominence given to BBC's news and London's weather.)

I don't think it was an accident that Google began rolling out Google+ vanity URLs a couple days before iGoogle shut down. Google has a strategy for positioning itself in social media space, and sunsetting or paring back services has always been a part of it. In November 2010 I wrote, for example, of how the company's revamp of Google Groups signaled its intentions in social media space.

I'd venture that Google's idea of a happy future involves a preponderance of people using the Google search engine to find stuff that search engines find; and to use Google+ to become aware of stuff that people prefer to find through social connections / recommendations. Already, today, using Google's search engine while logged into a Google ID yields 'personalized' search results. That is, Google algorithms use every e-mail, past search, clicked-thru web page, and third-party social connection it has tracked to figure out what we're really looking for ... and what adverts the company can most profitably present to us.

My read: the plan in shutting down iGoogle is to push users toward Google+ for a personalized Google/portal experience ... the Googleplex goal  being corporate ownership of the social connectivity that more than a billion monthly active users now get from Facebook combined with the search experience that Google search engine users access a billion times a day. (Google+ has about 540 million monthly active users as of 29 October, according to AP.) [Naturally, these numbers are chewed over and contested to death by intertube analysts. Disclaimer: I am not a credentialed intertube analyst, except to the extent that you and your kid siblings and everybody else is too.]

In March 2012, Vic Gundotra, Google's Senior VP for engineering, was quoted on the topic of where Google and Google+ are heading in the NY Times to roughly this effect:
"This is just the next version of Google," Mr. Gundotra said, noting that he sees Google Plus as a social blanket that envelopes the entire Google experience. "Everything is being upgraded. We already have users. We’re now upgrading them to what we consider Google 2.0."
I'm not entirely comfortable with this vision.

Yeah, Google is going to track me anyway ... something I bring on myself by using many of its offerings. I'm also a willing participant in public social networking (anybody who looks can find me on BlogspotTwitter, Tumblr, my Facebook Author (proto-) Page, and Daily Kos, never mind my web site). It's also arguably true that the NSA knows more about me than I do.

But I'm still a little queasy about the prospect of being enveloped by the Google+ social blanket given how much of my on-line search and social activity that would place in a single corporate data center.

Hence my move to uStart now that iGoogle is no more.

How about you?

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Four eyes: 4 ways Google Glass might change the world
Pimped by our own devices: electronica, the cloud, and privacy piracy
Google everything: technology in our times
Google signals its next social media move