Names versus Titles

One of the most common questions I hear is “What is the difference between a name and a title?”

To really dig into this, we first must distinguish between two very different kinds of identifying labels: functional labels versus essence labels. A functional label identifies you regarding your place within society: for example, “lawyer” and “teacher” are functional labels. An essence label identifies you regarding your relationship with existence. Your name (any of them) could be essence labels, as well as things like your religion: are you “catholic” or “protestant”?

I’d suggest that a title is a functional label, with two general purposes: identifying role and rank. “Teacher” might be a role label, and “assistant” teacher shows your rank. This is very important within more formal roles like the military, where the difference between a lieutenant, a general, and a colonel carry a huge amount of responsibility. Rank can also demonstrate a degree of honor: for example, someone who has been knighted carries the title of “Sir”.

Refresh and Engagement Addiction

An alcoholic looks for his next drink. A heroin junkie looks for her next fix. And a social media user constantly hits “refresh” to see what the next “update” will be.

We’ve created a culture in which people are afraid not to be engaged with something. I’ve seen this on the subway, in waiting rooms, pretty much any place where there is idle time. Someone whips out their phone, checks their email, looks at twitter, facebook, instagram, and so on, and when (in the majority of cases) all of these avenues turn up dry, they might repeat a few rounds of the cycle before settling on a game. In the instance where there is something that brings value– a news article linked on facebook, for example– the person taps on the link, loads up the article, and reads a little bit. Then comes the moment of evaluation: scrolling through the article to see how long it is, and debate whether to devote to time to reading it or race back to facebook in case an even more important article was posted.

I’ve seen this exact scenario play out many times while shoulder-surfing. I do not have a “smart” phone, so the habits of people who do interest me. It might take different forms: maybe someone sees a blog of text in a tweet that sounds agreeable to them, so they tap “retweet.” The only issue is that they never bothered to check the link, the “source” for the assertion, so that either they realize their error and delete the tweet (or post a correction), or someone else corrects them, which leads to embarrassment.

What is it that compels people to be constantly hitting refresh, on their twitter or inbox or anything else? I actually suspect that the need to be engaged is separate from the refresh addiction. In the need for engagement, it’s worth exploring what happens if you are NOT engaged. Before the nanny-state laws started banning smoking cigarettes, people would light up and smoke. Beside the temporary stress relief, it creates an engagement, and answer to the question “what are you doing?” Because we must have a purpose in whatever we do. If you’re waiting for the bus, you are stuck in a limbo state of idleness while waiting for the bus to arrive, and the last thing you want to do is engage with your environment. Likewise, the phone is a good counter-measure for those awkward moments on the train when there is someone sitting in the seat directly across from you. Perhaps there’s also an allure of “I’m important” with these engagements; or more specifically, if you are not engaged with something, it’s because you’re not important enough to be. Reminds me a bit of the people who fill their entire day with meetings.

When you hit refresh, there’s a moment of anticipation, waiting to find out whether something interesting is coming your way. Are you important enough to receive some bit of news? Maybe there’s an argument and you want to see the sides and weigh the evidence– because you, of course, are able to qualify how valid the evidence is. On a similar note, there could be a bit of dread. Perhaps you posted an opinion about something, and are waiting to see whether people agree with you, or whether someone will disagree, creating a crushing blow to your twitter self-esteem. Thankfully, when we disagree, these services provide us with “block” buttons, whereas email provides us with delete.

Over and over and over again, never stopping. Waking up in the middle of the night, grabbing the phone, dragging down the email or twitter client with your thumb, watching the “updating” status to see what’s coming next. At least with newspapers, there was a finite end and we could get on with our day.

A new beginning

“We’ve come a long long way together,
Through the hard times and the good.
I have to celebrate you baby,
And now I’ll treat you like I should.”
–What Google should have said right after #nymwars.

Three significant things have developed in the three years since nymwars: the NSA revelations, the decline of Twitter’s quality, and Google’s complete retraction of the “real” names policy. The NSA revelations came as a shell shock, and made me think a lot about data privacy. I can’t quite pinpoint when the quality of Twitter feeds started to fade, but I imagine it was around the time that the outrage economy began to seriously capitalize on it. And, like the healthy skeptic, I didn’t really believe the Google names policy retraction to be real until I saw it enforced.

The NSA revelations made me realize that very little communication on the internet is sacred anymore. While I’m mostly happy with Google’s atonement for their names policy drama, I do also recognize two things: first, I should not post anything on Google that I don’t mind seeing on the front page of the New York Times; second, because Google is granting us access to control our information within, at any moment another policy change might happen to revoke that access. As such, I’ve decided to turn my WordPress account into a proxy of sorts: I can post here, and it will be reposted to Google Plus, as well as to Facebook (I set up an account just for this), as well as to Twitter. This strategy minimizes the work I need to do– write up an article/essay and click publish– and capitalizes distribution so that someone who uses Twitter but not Google can still learn about the post. It also creates redundancy in that the work is replicated in all places (well, Twitter is just a link to the WordPress), so that if one service decides to block access, it’s still available in others. And worst case scenario, the original source is hosted at WordPress, which I am paying for, thus dismissing the “it’s a free service!” argument.

After the nymwars, when I felt I could no longer trust Google not to randomly suspend my account, and leaving Facebook for privacy related concerns, I focused mostly on Twitter. The challenge there is obvious: we learn to work with the tools we have, and thinking in terms of 140 characters both destroys grammatical constructs and ruins nuance. Rather than having enlightened discussions, we have stories reduced to half-assed “headlines” with links, and I imagine the percentage of people who follow through and read the entire link is far less than those who bother to click the link in the first place. Twitter focuses on the immediate, which can be useful for some things, like letting people know you’re still alive after a hurricane. But it magnifies presumption and bias to a degree that any kind of discourse is almost immediately ruined by angry replies, many from people who may have just seen a retweet and have no notion of the entire context. Topping this off, its nature is highly reactionary, and a misunderstanding can quickly turn into an angry twitter-war, which can result in rambling blog posts, escalating to a story on Valleywag (or an equivalent e-tabloid), all of which drive ad impressions up and create a false awareness of concern that is present until focus is robbed by the next outburst. In short, I see Twitter as fuel for what I call id journalism.


A reflection on Twitter

And more accurately, how I’ve begun to use it.

I decided to basically take the month of August off of Twitter. It was partly an experiment– can I keep up with current news and important opinions without it– and partly a therapy. Twitter had become a sort of addiction, constantly checking to see if there were any important updates (spoiler: there weren’t), and I wanted to know whether the dopamine rushes were worth the hysteria.

During the first day, I found myself typing “twitter” into the web browser (I don’t use 3rd party apps) and hitting escape so many times that I installed a firefox plugin called Redirector, catching any instance involving “” and pointing it to a locally hosted page that says, succinctly, “no twitter!” It was sad how many times I saw that in the first couple days.

About halfway through the month, I began to cozy up to direct messages, partly because I had some things to follow up on. I wound up opening twitter in a separate web browser, partly so that I’d have to break routine a bit to visit the site. Since I was doing that, I considered that using twitter as a broadcast was not such a bad thing and posted an update about my upcoming Harvard talk. After a few more days, I noticed some @replies and decided to go ahead and check that. In doing these things, I began to develop a protocol.

And that’s where I feel this experiment has lead me. While using twitter in its native form– constantly checking– I suspected it was emotionally damaging as well as time-wasting. However, if I use twitter to send direct messages, broadcast various thoughts, and use the @reply system to engage in discussion, it keeps the channel open while regaining quite a lot of control over it.

I’ll probably continue to abide by this protocol until I find a better way. For now, I’m pretty satisfied.

The Decline and Fall of the American Empire

I was in the DC area this past weekend for a conference called Computers, Freedom, and Privacy (CFP). CFP was one of the many efforts created after the war between hackers and law enforcement in Operation Sundevil to try to prevent such a drama from happening again. The EFF is another such effort. While admittedly the scales are a little more balanced now, the battle has re-emerged and the fire rages more strongly than ever.

I met and chatted about this with a reporter named Wendy Grossman, who’d been attending CFP since the early days. She mentioned that she hadn’t seen anyone like me at CFP for many years, and asked why that was. After a few minutes of explaining the legal situations of people like weev, Barrett Brown, Jeremy Hammond, and so on, she summarized with “it sounds like we’re back to 1994 again.”

I’d actually suggest it’s worse than that. We’re back to 1971. After 13 years of chest-thumping and proclaiming “America Number One” while holding our beers and wearing our football jerseys, our faux-patriotism of nationalist anti-intellectual authoritarianism is beginning to show its cracks. Whether you believe Snowden was in the right to make his disclosures, one thing is clear: the United States has lost control of the narrative we’ve held since the end of World War II.

The muffled voices crying “Where did terrorism come from? Why did they actually attack us on 9/11? What is it that gives us the right to call the US the best country in the world?” are slowly being heard, not as the fringe tinfoil hat lefties, but as reasoned, articulate, dissenters. Perhaps some of them are simply jumping on the bandwagon, but it’s worth noting that once you’re on a bandwagon, you can see a lot more than if you stay in one spot.

What really makes me sad is the lack of any kind of discussion about issues in our country. I kept pressing the advocates at CFP: “Why are journalists no longer asking Obama hard questions?” When the inevitable answer about not wanting to lose access came up, I asked “then wouldn’t you write a story about losing access? You’re a journalist after all!” and met with resounding defeat. The advocates dismissed the journalists as privileged youth coming out of Ivy League schools. When I pointed out these schools are the same places that are supposed to teach critical thinking and a classical education, there was, once again, a silence. There was a sort of disappointment, a silent yearning for thirst of what we could have, but we cannot because the political and media agenda since 9/11 has been of censorship. This, combined with the crap trough-feeding of No Child Left Behind, and the fallacy-like believe that “most people” don’t care, should leave an informed citizen with no question as to why the people no longer trust the government.

Even the very act of voting requires trust. When I cast my vote into the ballot box, what guarantee do I have that it doesn’t wind up in a dumpster, while some act of money changing-hands recalibrates my whole district to be for someone we didn’t elect? If that’s the kind of thing that happens in Mexico but not the United States, then why did Diebold put up such a fight in their court battles? And if people don’t trust that their votes will have any impact, either by size of failure of technology, then why trust in anything else?

The next area that requires trust is the candidate themselves. Will this person represent me? Are they an actual person, not just another sham-puppet cast into human form to promote the idiocracy of the highest bidder? If you think watching presidential debates is painful, watch the last 20-30 years of debates… and note that they are asked the same questions and give the same answers. Because the world is the same as it was 30 years ago, right?

Of course, perhaps the circus carnival we call elected representatives is limited to just that. Perhaps people in longer term appointed positions are less subject to the tragedy of the commons, perhaps there is some hope there. Although given events like Jared Polis grilling the head of the DEA (“All illegal drugs are bad.”), I’m not too hopeful. And then you wonder why the arranged marriage between mudge, one of the few bridges between hacker and government, and DARPA, the so-called Cyber Fast Track, ended abruptly, sending mudge off to Google. But the real question when considering Snowden is how the hell the very court that was designed to reaffirm trust, the FISA court, has failed so miserably at its one and only job.

The fact that we needed a FISA Court at all, thanks to the Church Committee, is a testament to the notion that all the vices and illnesses, such as paranoia and greed, which plague the common man can invade the highest office. And I’m told that in the early days of FISA, it did reflect such oversight. But why was it that right after 9/11, when the PATRIOT Act seemed so ready to be delivered, they expanded the number of judges on FISA from 7 to 11, as if anticipating the massive increased need for surveillance? Of course proof of this increase is not possible, until FISA request numbers before 2000 are made public. Like everything else until the next Snowden comes along, it’s all up for speculation.

The current state of the United States is a staggering insult to our Founding Fathers, and anyone who denies this needs to study history. The Sons of Liberty did indeed keep secrets, but the penalty was being caught and hanged by the British Empire, not being exposed to the public they claimed to serve. During the period Robert Caro calls the Golden Age of the Senate, the decades leading up to the Civil War, there was disagreement in the Senate, voiced strongly on the record, nobody fearing losing his name or title because someone might argue with him. After all, to have free speech is useless unless you use it to join public discourse. Imagine if the strong voices of the South were silenced because they feared retribution from the North? Or better yet, imagine that the Lincoln Douglas debates were classified for fear slaves might read them and revolt (assuming we didn’t have laws banning teaching slaves to read).

The country has lost its way. I’m not suggesting that Snowden holds the answer, but I do suggest he’s helped crack the crystal ball of social censorship and begun to open the gates of discussion to allow us to get it back. Because if we don’t do something soon, we won’t have much left worth arguing for.

Fighting back against the NSA with HTTP

You’ve probably heard the news about PRISM, the NSA’s system for spying on basically everyone in the world. Want to flip them the birdy digitally while they watch your web traffic go along?

If you’re using Firefox, download the “Modify Headers” extension. I have version Then in the preferences, click “Headers”,  and select “Add” from the dropdown. I used “FUCK_THE_NSA” as the name, and “This copyright entitles me to receive a copy of all requests stored on demand. If you choose not to accept this license, your only recourse is to delete all stored requests with this signature” as the description. Click save, and click “enable”. Make sure the light is green.

Once you’ve enabled this plugin, here’s what the webserver will see when you connect to it, and subsequently what the NSA will see while sifting through your data:

GET / HTTP/1.1
Host: localhost:4567
User-Agent: lolz
Accept: text/html,application/xhtml+xml,application/xml;q=0.9,*/*;q=0.8
Accept-Language: en-US,en;q=0.5
Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflate
FUCK_THE_NSA: This copyright entitles me to receive a copy of all requests stored on demand. If you choose not to accept this license, your only recourse is to delete all stored requests with this signature
Connection: keep-alive

I’ll be very interested to see if there is a way to word this such that it’s actually admissible in court.

Let’s try that again…

I think I have at least a half dozen unfinished posts on here at this point….

So, there is the notion of a bright affect and a flat affect. A bright affect is one who is openly emotional, charismatic, maybe empathetic. A flat affect is the type who has effectively turned their emotions off. One of the interesting elements of this I’ve found is that affect seems to be the bridge that connects binary values, the nuance. So if someone is emotionally dead, the world may seem very true/false and black/white, whereas with empathy there is subtlety and nuance.

Maybe part of it is the search for purpose? In order to do something, you must have a reason, or an end goal, and it must make sense. It’s irrational (and therefore bad) to, say, go to the park and play games. We’re impressed with this notion that time is sacred (it is) and we musn’t waste it, but nobody stops to mention what “waste” actually means. Do you need to devote every moment, every second to doing something “productive”, something tangible, something with a devout purpose? To me, it seems like adhering yourself to a structure, and declaring that because it exists, the structure must be good.

I’ve seen this a lot in computer geeks lately, the ones who turned to the computers and internet because it was easier to cope with than the bullies at school, and they never really came out of the cave. Or worse, the ones from a normal non-threatening background, who entered computers because it was cool, at the time when schools were beginning to really formalize and structuralize classes, so they they learned how to program. Not how to explore with programming, but the  correct models to use. Every line of code must have a purpose! Woe to the folks who get bored and start drafting funny haikus in their comments!

But there is an analogous entity, the large faceless corporation/government. The neverending dictation of what should be done when and how, rulebearing gifts seizing upon everyone as they struggle merely to exist. For all your questions, we have a procedure for that. Everything is determined, all the lines are already drawn, just draw inside of them with the approved color of your choice. Rulebooks all the way down, the poor turtles trying to claw their way up, a sort of dance between reason and irrational, an assumption of axioms but the tower of logic is so high nobody can see the bottom. What a terrifying jenga game. Normalize! Statistize! Follow the approval brick road, fear that which is not understood, ignore that which is not known.

Ask “why” not for curiosity but for justification. Demand purpose. Eliminate waste. Slice away inefficiency. That is, after all, how to make a perfect world.