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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

2013-08-06

On the Thoughts of Chairman Bruce

So I’m reading the latest missive from Chairman Bruce Sterling about Snowden and Assange, and even though I have some history with the guy, I’m clapping along, because he always writes a fine barnstormer.

Then, like Cory, I get pulled up by this bit. He’s reeling off a list of names, from 7iber to Bytes For All. I recognise them. They’re a list of activist groups I work with. The names are from a project I’m working on.

This what he says about those groups, in passing:

Just look at them all, and that’s just the A’s and B’s… Obviously, a planetary host of actively concerned and politically connected people. Among this buzzing horde of eager online activists from a swarm of nations, what did any of them actually do for Snowden? Nothing.

Before Snowden showed up from a red-eye flight from Hawaii, did they have the least idea what was actually going on with the hardware of their beloved Internet? Not a clue. They’ve been living in a pitiful dream world where their imaginary rule of law applies to an electronic frontier — a frontier being, by definition, a place that never had any laws.

Well, let’s go through the Chairman’s list alphabetically, and see if they have any excuse for their lack of aid and woeful ignorance about the electronic frontier.

First on the list, 7iber works in Amman, Jordan. 7iber is so politically-connected that their own government banned them last month from Jordan’s domestic Internet. I’m not sure reaching out to them was ever going to nab Snowden a safe harbor in the Middle-East. Probably the opposite: after all, they were were one of the groups translating Wikileaks into Arabic back in 2010, which didn’t exactly endear them to the local states.

Next up, Access. Access has a base in the United States, where aiding Snowden would get you hauled in for questioning on an espionage charge. I note they’ve been in such “a pitiful dream world” about the rule of law they spent a sizeable chunk of the last few years campaigning (with EFF and CPJ and many others) to get https turned on for a huge chunk of the Internet, thereby protecting it — I’m sure entirely accidentally — from unlawful NSA taps. You know, the ones that EFF has been telling people about since 2006.

Similarly, Agentura.ru must be incredibly ignorant about the surveillance state, given that it’s been investigating and whistleblowing on the Russian and American security service for 13 years. Enough to be detained and questioned several times by Russia’s secret police.

But hey, that’s just words on the Internet, right? What we really need is less of that online guff, and more direction action, right? Like our next witness, Aktion Freiheit statt Angst, who have been protesting surveillance in Germany since 2006, when they inspired 15,000 people onto the streets of Berlin.

Maybe you can explain to them how they can better make the security state a bigger issue in Germany this year on September 7th, at Potsdamerplatz. I can’t imagine any of those people will be agitating for better treatment for Bradley Manning or Snowden this year.

Moving on: here’s a pic from those NGO types at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

That’s the back of Nabeel Rajab. He sort of knows a little about the surveillance state, because his electronic communications and phones were monitored after receiving this beating from the Bahraini government.He’s been imprisoned in part for his work on social networks.

Besides the imprisonment of Rajab, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights in general also has some idea about the risks of Internet surveillance, because elevenother  twitter users in that country have been jailed because of anonymous tweets that were tracked by sending them malicious web addresses. Here’s their detailed report. Note that that particular report ends with an explanation of how you can defeat that kind of surveillance. You know, apart from that delusional rule of law.

Wrapping up those As and Bs, Bolo Bhi and Bytes for All are both conducting the most sustained and brilliant work I’ve seen in advocacy, fighting against surveillance and censorship in one of the countries most determinedly targeted by both its own government and the United States for anti-terrorist action: Pakistan.

The idea that these groups, who are fighting to keep the Internet defended in their own country, are supposed to drop their grassroots activism and start, I don’t know, hob-nobbing the people they are actively opposing in their own states to get Snowden a break, or have any illusions about the rule of law on the Internet right now, betrays a profound misunderstand about what digital activists actually do these days.

Online activists these days do policy work, but they do a lot more than that. They have to do a lot more than that, because these days what we do in the “electronic civ lib” world is actually defend real people targetted by this surveillance. It’s been like that since around about 2008, when all of this deeply stopped being theoretical. Because it’s around that time that we all started getting friends and colleagues on government watchlists, or getting thrown in jail as a result of surveillance or Internet activity.

And it’s weird that Bruce doesn’t know that things got this weird five years ago, because ten years ago, he predicted at least part of it. Here’s how another of his barnstormers, this time in 2002, to the O’Reilly Open Source Convention.

In times of adversity, you learn who your friends are. You guys need a lot of friends. You need friends in all walks of life. Pretty soon, you are going to graduate from the status of techie geeks to official dissidents. This is your fate. People are wasting time on dissident relics like Noam Chomsky. Professor Chomsky is a pretty good dissident: he’s persistent, he means what he says, and he’s certainly very courageous, but this is the 21st century, and Stallman is a bigger deal. Lawrence Lessig is a bigger deal.

Y’know, Lawrence, he likes to talk as if all is lost. He thinks we ought to rise up against Disney like the Serbians attacking Milosevic. He expects the population to take to the streets. Fuck the streets. Take to the routers. Take to the warchalk.

Lawrence needs to talk to real dissidents more. He needs to talk to some East European people. When a crackdown comes, that isn’t the end of the story. That’s the start of a dissident’s story. And this isn’t about fat-cat crooks in our Congress who are on the take from the Mouse. This is about global civil society. It’s Globalution.

Okay, that’s a bit over the top, even for a 2002 O’Reilly audience. But hey, a classic Sterling coinage! It’s “globalution”!

In the end, it wasn’t Lessig who got cracked down on by the US government. Ridiculous idea! No, it was his colleague, Aaron. Here they are at the time. They were both at that conference. Aaron left early, and so I think he missed that speech.  He blogged about it though.

Bruce continues:

I like to think I’m one of your friends. That’s easy enough to say. But one of the true delights of the world of free software is that it’s about deeds, not words. It’s about words that become deeds when they’re in the box.

So, I remember when the Bradley Manning story broke. Here’s Bruce’s words (and deeds) at the time, when the techie geek finally and horribly graduated to official dissident:

Bradley Manning, was a bored, resentful, lower-echelon guy in a dead end, who discovered some awesome capacities in his system that his bosses never knew it had… [People just like Manning] are banal. Bradley Manning is a young, mildly brainy, unworldly American guy who probably would have been pretty much okay if he’d been left alone to skateboard, read comic books and listen to techno music.

 


In 1998, I was one of a handful of fresh-faced newly-minted cypherpunk activists in the UK, trying ineptly to stop the roller-coaster of the UK’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (and in particular the bit that would outlaw strong encryption in the UK) from being passed.

Doing this kind of tech activism outside the United States was, and frankly still is, a little frustrating. Whenever there was any story about our corner of the political universe — digital wiretaps, online censorship, public key cryptography — it always seemed to be about what was happening in the US, and not the rest of the world. Back then, I felt we needed the US media and policy space to pay attention to our fight: because we felt, very strongly, it was a global fight.

One day, we saw that Bruce Sterling was coming into town for a book reading, and we thought: here’s our chance. Like good Nineties digital activists, we’d all read our Hacker Crackdown, and knew he might be a friend in getting some rip-roaring coverage in the heart of the beast. After horribly hijacking him from what looked a nice literary meal, we took him to heroin-chic dive bar in Soho, told him our problems, and begged him to help.

Forget defending crypto, he said. It’s doomed. You’re screwed.

No, the really interesting stuff, he said, is in postmodern literary theory.

Honest to God and ask my friends, it broke my poor dork heart. I listened to him talk for a few hours about what was research for “Zeitgeist”, and then we went home and fought off the outlawing of crypto without him, but with a tiny bunch of committed Brits, some of whom are still working on that fight today.

Fifteen years on, the world sucks, but some parts are a bit better. As Bruce points out with his As and Bs, I live as part of a far greater and interlinked world of what he called “global civic society”, who, behind the scenes or in front of the microphones, actually do work together to defend people like Snowden, build tools for decentralisation and privacy, and frantically try and work out how to make them work for everyone.

Some of us work on policy, some of us work in a myriad other ways to change the world, including whistleblowing. We try to minimize the number who get beaten up or killed. I don’t think any of us live in much of a dream world any more. Pretty much all of us are more cynical than you’d believe after seeing what’s gone down. And I know, given the odds, some of it looks pathetic sometimes, but believe me, we can the hardest critics on each other about that. They’d laugh me out of town if I ever said “globulution”, for instance.

And, as the good Chairman says, you do learn who your friends are.

2010-01-31

jet plane emotions; ipad cycles

Does anyone else get weepy on long haul flights? I’m currently on a Virgin America flight (hello gogo wi-fi, hello deucing my carbon credits for another decade), watching a House marathon (which is protecting me somewhat from emotional liability), but I still get a little tearful after the fifth hour. Maybe it’s oxygen dep, maybe it’s sheer boredom, maybe it’s NOT JUST ME. One time I burst into tears at an inflight showing of Mission to Mars. I hope it’s not just me.

Anyway, it means I have time for you. I have a little less time for Virgin’s chairback entertainment system. Watching the Linux boot-up errors scroll back used to give me a wriggle of delight, but now the wonder of that has worn off, it’s just constantly irritating. There’s latency issues, especially with fast-forwarding in movies, which is like trying to tap-dance on black ice. There’s pages full of “this service isn’t ready yet”, terrible anti-aliasing on the branding. Oh, and my main credit card doesn’t work on purchases, coming up with a “Credit values of $9999 not allowed” error. The same card gives the same error on my neighbour’s machine. Another card that has a variant of my name works fine. My main credit card has an apostrophe in the surname. I do hope Little Bobby Tables doesn’t take a flight on VIrgin any time soon.

Here’s the question that is gripping plenty of my friends in fear tonight. Do open systems inevitably suck at UI, compared to closed systems run by control freaks? Will the iPad (sorry, that is “iPad”) mean our children will not code, and Stallman will die alone, the last free programmer strangled with the DRMed guts of the last Macmillan author?

I think the guilt is exacerbated by all of our concerned essays being interleaved by admissions that we, too, will be getting one. It’s like a “Just Say No” ad recorded by people conspicuously tapping their upper arms.

But, you know, I’m optimistic. I’ve had these chills before. The first time, actually, was Windows 3.1, back when I was six or something. Okay, twenty-one. Windows was amazing, and unprogrammable to anyone who didn’t have a proper programming job, and thus couldn’t justify the expense of the dev environment, the Petzold, and the fancy 486 to run it all on. To people accustomed to working with a $50 copy of Turbo Pascal and a 80×25 Hercules card, this was a horror show. In the space between DOS’s QBASIC and Visual Basic, the Windows platform was closed to amateurs.

As was the Mac, compared to the Apple II ecosystem. I remember in 1992, in a run-down London flat, having somehow managed to beg a Mac from a local dealer, sitting and dolefully staring at it because outside of playing MacWrite and admiring the screen resolution, there was damn all you could do with it.

As for the risks to interactivity and creativity: I remember when the WebTV was announced, and we huddled in corners and worried for the future of the Internet. Unlike Windows and the Mac, the WebTV may well have died because it sucked: but I notice that it has no descendants on the technology family tree. No-one makes a web browser at arm’s length, for watching. Even the supposedly sealed iPad sits close enough to our laps for us want to make something, even if it’s just finger paintings.

Of course, the iPad (sorry, just “iPad”) is different because of the lockdown. Even if we had the resources to write something for it, we can’t without Apple’s whim. But I remain confident that the same forces that wash away proprietariness in general purpose computers in the past will eat away at the iPad. Maybe it will be like Windows, where the system itself becomes more open just by virtue of a disinterest in its owners in keeping it closed. My own, perhaps overgenerous feeling is the App Store is not an artifact of Jobs’ control-freak mentality, but a paranoid reaction to iPhone OS’s lack of decent sandboxing; that paranoia may be whittled away slowly.

Or it could be like the Mac, which became more open out of competition with more other open systems. Closed costs money to maintain, and open has more features. It may be that the iPad gives up its closed nature when faced with competitors that take its lead, and run faster and more alluringly than even Apple can keep up with. That seems less likely, to me: Apple knows its strengths, and the open world is so far struggling to emulate its aesthetic integrity and hardware integration. Closed costs money, but also lets Apple create new revenue streams for it and its partners. Open has more features, so Apple concentrates and creating a few features very well. Well, shrug: we have competition. That’s good. It’s not like the other proprietary behemoths are doing a good job mimicking Apple either.

Or it could be that we have to become outlaws. The problem with a closed system in our post-DMCA world is not that it exists, but that it’s a criminal act to open it. Some prosecutors claim it’s a criminal act to even talk about how how to open it. It’s certain criminal to sell other people ways to open it.

Despite that, open is still so important than thousands of people do it to their iPhones. Millions of people buy Android systems in preference to iPhone partly because of that power. And if the iPad is successful, surely millions will either jailbreak them, or buy open alternatives out of a wish to reach for something that Apple isn’t offering them.

It’s easy to see the iPad as the final tragedy in a long history of openness and tinkerability in general purpose computing. But the truth is, the cyclical fight against locked-in systems has been the recurring theme of computing since the mainframes. Our open systems are as wonderful as they are because they had to set themselves up against the shiny proprietary wonders of a previous age. The iPad isn’t a threat; it’s an inspiration. They’re always trying to steal the revolution; we always have to steal it back.

2009-09-18

online voices, twitter and register

I’ve been commenting a lot online recently. I’m enjoying getting a voice back on the Net, especially to talk about politics and other contentious topics.

Weirdly, I haven’t talked much on the Net in my own voice for years. My main voice on the Net for long long time was the NTK one, which is actually rather disengaged and aloof. Dave and I inherited a disdain for political drama by the time were doing NTK: on my side that came from the psychic damage of having to write Weekending and Spitting Image; on Dave’s I think it came from him from having to listen to people talking about writing for Weekending and fucking Spitting Image all day. Also I believe Dave thinks politics is an obscure branch of Earth Primatology. (I remember him noting the day after the landslide election that brought Labour and Tony Blair to power that maybe we should have mentioned it  once in that day’s NTK).

Anyway, because I was such a firebrand, he’d allow me to write one or two “worthy” news items a week, and I’d grudgingly allow him to write 3,000 words on chocolate anytime he wanted. In the NTK divorce, I got to bother people about the Open Rights Group (join now! Fight Peter Mandelson and meet Ben “Bad Science” Goldacre!), and he got to run SnackSpot (Confirmed sighting: Brannigans Roast Beef and Mustard/ Blue Diamond Jalapeno Smokehouse Almonds). So I got a little more worthy after NTK.

When I joined EFF, and put childish things behind me, I ended up dropping that voice too, and becoming even more worthy if that were possible. Weirdly, that meant becoming far less personally outspoken. I was EFF’s main domestic activist for a while, and in that position, you quickly realise that anything you say, even informally, stops being “Danny said blah” and becomes “The EFF’s Danny O’Brien stated”. It’s like walking around online with a loudhailer stuck to your mouth; you end up just not saying anything for fear of suddenly having headlines explaining how you’re worse than Karl Rove and Hitler combined.

I do, incidentally, think that matters have got better on that front in the years since then. When I wrote about public and private registers in conversations a million years ago, I predicted that eventually we’d get used to a more informal tone from public figures:

We’ll learn a kind of tolerance for the private conversation that is not aimed at us, and that overreacting to that tone will be a sign of social naivete.

I think that’s what Twitter is all about, and permits: it’s sort of magically translated the informal register of text messages into the public space, and for public figures, allowed them to get away with throwaway comments far more than before. (My current favourite: the star of Pimp Your Ride complaining about, joking about, and finally replicating, the “yo dawg, I herd you like X, so I put an Y in your Z so you can VERB while you VERB” meme he inspired.)

That said, my political speech right now are crazily messed up. Obviously there’s the whole libertarian embarrassment. Apart from anything else, libertarians online are like Jehovah’s Witnesses, and appear to be obliged to go knocking on every comment thread they see, selling copies of the Laissez-Faire Watchtower or whatever. I know that even flirting with that title has somehow required me to endlessly clarify apparently batshit notions to my more … orthodox friends. I know for instance that I spent several hours last night actively researching the economy of Somalia before concluding that, yes, it is actually fucked. But you know, I had to check, because WHO CAN TRUST THAT STATIST LACKEY THE BBC.

At the same time, however, I’ve also becoming intensely interested in privilege, feminism, racism and power inequities amongst groups. Yes, yes, very contradictory of me, I contain multitudes cool aren’t I cheers thanks. But that means I get to be in on those endless arguments too! Usually (but not always) on the other side!

We shall talk more on this topic tomorrow, because you are already bored. But I just wanted to let you know, buried down here, that I let the NTK voice on an outing this week on my twitterfeed.

So now you can quote me horribly out of context and get me into trouble. I am Hitler!

2009-06-08

my much more shameful, and unfortunately less secret, secret shame

Actually, making people laugh is far less humiliating than having most people laugh at you, which has been the primary result of me coming out as a libertarian a few months ago. I could not have timed it better: while most of my friends (and me!) have been taking the piss out of libertarians for years, the recent downturn and the general narrative of What Went Wrong means that now that libertarians are about as popular as Marxists were in 1989. It doesn’t help that in the meltdown of the post-Bush Republican party, some of the remnants have seized upon sweet little shards of libertarian rhetoric as something to bind onto their crazy-cat-religion, conspiracy theories, and Obama Derangement Syndrome to make a comforting nest of denial.

My comfort during this time of tribulation has been Brian Doherty’s hilarious, moving, and, yes, often creepy Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, a broad look at the fall and rise of libertarianism in the United States (uh, and Austria, I guess) from the point of view of someone who adopted it almost literally for its punk rock value. Brian’s majestic and incredibly completist survey  covers everything from the mirror-Marxist machinations of Murray Rothbard, to the sex life of Ayn Rand, to my favorite libertarian of all, Andrew Galambos.

Galambos believed that not only was intellectual property identical to other forms of property (and thus inviolate in the libertarian tradition), so were individual ideas. He allegedly used to put a coin in a jar for the descendants of Tom Paine every time he used the word “liberty”, so that they could be refunded for his use of Paine’s term. Much more concretely, he required everyone who listened to his lectures to sign an NDA, agreeing not to reveal any of his “property” without first negotiating with him for their personal right to spread his ideas.

I have meant to use Galambosianism as an example of the dangers of too much IP protectionism for several years, but sadly his defence of his property was so complete that his ideas are utterly obscure and his name so unremembered that it’s been hard to be able to find anything to cite. Brian Doherty is to be commended for bringing his name back into currency, albeit by actively breaking the very principles Galambos espoused.

Anyway, Doherty made me realise that my take on libertarianism isn’t so far away from the mainstream of the tradition. I always assumed the anarchists were on the even-wackier side of the fence, whereas Doherty brings them center-forward, and argues that it was only in the 1970s that so-called libertarians even considered consorted with Their Enemy, The State. Before that, the libertarians were making the same kind of arguments that any other anarchist group worth their druthers was making: that this State business was a mistake from the start, and needed to wither away as soon as was logistically possible.

I like this position as a political stance to take, because I’ve always been emotionally close to anarchism as a theory, and rather comforted by its lack of any practical consequence. The closer libertarians get to being included in any government, the less I like them. I’m not a libertarian because I think they should in charge. I’m a libertarian because I don’t think anyone can be trusted with that much responsibility. I’d rather busy myself trying to think up institutions, tools, and cultural capital that can be created to prevent that from ever happening.

Actually, that’s close to a lie. The reason I’m a libertarian is an accident of timing, and of influences. Here’s an interesting (US) fact: Generation Xers, like myself, are more loyal to the Republican party than Boomers or Gen-Yers. I can imagine why that despicable fact is true. I grew up when the Left was indulging in a severe self-detonation, and laissez-faire ideas were briefly fashionably new and exciting. I read what I now realise were proto-libertarian tracts under the bed (I also read some awesome Marxist propaganda, but it didn’t really catch). In fact, I fall precisely into a distinct category in Brian Doherty’s taxonomy of libertarians, which he describes here:

[Robert Anton] Wilson’s libertarianism represents a unique strain within the modern movement, a libertarian house in which there are many more mansions than there were in the 1940s to 1970s. Libertarian scholar Chris Sciabarra believes libertarianism needs to become a more “dialectical” philosophy, subsuming more about human life and culture than just politics. He should appreciate the Wilsonian style of having libertrian values inform not just politics but a vision of a life entire. Wilson edited the School of Living’s journal, which had been called Balanced Living and which he renamed A Way Out — a way out of a way of life, state, church and culture that seemed a trap. He scandalized the more puritan among their vegetarian clean living readers in the early 1960s with articles celebrating Wilhelm Reich, sexual liberty, and Ezra Poun, and running poems by Norman Mailer.

Hippies. Anyway, this sounds much more like the scion I’m attached to, although it’s always sort of depressing to discover that your entire outlook is still determined by books you read when you were fifteen. I shall never laugh at geeks quoting The Moon is A Harsh Mistress again.

It also means that I think it perfectly understandable that a generation younger than me (and it’s amazing how many of my Gen-Xers are in denial that there could possibly be such a thing) is less enamored with the L-word. I think I came out as libertarian out of a desperate desire to become more radical as I grew older, rather than just settle into some genial liberal senility. As it is, I’m just playing exactly to type. There’s probably other more exciting philosophies than my warmed-up P.J. O’Rourkism right now. I’m not so old that I’m not fascinated to know what they are. Any ideas?

2009-06-03

tethering the android

So it was being stuck without wifi in the Library of Congress the other week that finally made me decide to overwrite the T-Mobile firmware on my Android G1 with something with root access. I was talking with the US Copyright and Patent offices about how to improve access to copyrighted material for the reading disabled (in the hopes, partially, to encourage them to support the Treaty for the Visually Impaired at WIPO the following week).

I know some people frown on net access at such affairs, but as Cory once noted, if you think people are distracted when they have net at meetings, you should see how distracted they get when they don’t have net.  A bunch of us were scrabbling to get information in and out of the public meeting in advance of the transcript becoming available. So, for instance, I recorded my comments onto my phone, and then mailed them out to the rest of the EFF international staff to hear as they were already preparing to fly to Geneva.

The same thing happened, only more fervently at WIPO, with Jamie Love and other attendees  frantically twittering out to the wider world about the imminent attempts to kill the treaty, and thus getting the visible external support they needed to put pressure on countries to keep the Treaty alive (thanks to everyone who contacted their governments, by the way).

All of this networked analysis and activism gets much harder when you don’t have laptop connectivity. Because my G1 phone wasn’t rooted (and T-Mobile forbids tethering apps in Google’s Android app Market), I couldn’t link my computer to my phone’s 3G network. And I wasn’t quite ready to multi-task listening to my fellow panellists and attempting to re-flash firmware at the same time.

I’m glad I waited. It turns out that these days, it’s relatively easy to drop in a version of Android that gives you power over your own device. These instructions on how to root your G1 take you through the tortuous (but by now pretty foolproof) procedure.

In the end, I chose to install JesusFreke’s distribution of the Android OS, which now has a great little utility to manage who gets root on your phone (each application’s request is intercepted, and you, as user, get to allow or deny it). This tethering application is incredibly easy-to-use, and lets you share your 3G connection via wifi or bluetooth (I haven’t tried the bluetooth). You can WEP encrypt the wifi connection, or allow access to only selected users.

Of course, next time I go to the LoC, I’ll be sure to keep the wifi node open. I wouldn’t want the MPAA guys doing without!

2009-06-02

where i’ve been, what is up

Brief summary: Having a great deal of fun.

I am currently trying to break my brain by simultaneously book-kegging Austrian economics and feminist science fiction (as well as the conventions thereof). I am truly enjoying the mental thrashing I endure as I flick from glorious syndicalist manifestos to fierce denunciations of unionism, optimistically chatting with Seasteaders while sceptically surveying current libertarian paradises. I’ve been reading up on Dale Spender and William F. Buckley, Murray Rothbard and Murray Bookchin. I’ve gone politically non-linear. It’s akin to snorting magical policy pixie dust off Ken Macleod‘s bare back. I hope to have some screwed-up ideas of my own, very soon.

I also have a s3krit pr0ject, which I am currently bad at, but getting better. You shall not hear of it until I fail to suck. I also have a not-so-secret work project, which I hope to introduce to you soon, if only as I angst through to its final production. But most importantly, I have agreed to conduct an internal psychological experiment (n=1) that will involve far more blogging. Hooray! Onward! Outward! Excelsior!

2008-11-25

in which i demonstrate remarkably personal hindsight

So I now have some clues as to why I suddenly stopped blogging twenty days ago. Looking over the black box recording, I note it coincides with me engaging in a rash of travel, and also obtaining a prescription for sleep medication for the first time in my life.

That makes sense. When I go on a longhaul plane for a speaking engagement, I go out into deep-space coma until I return. It’s the whole being ferried around by machines, and deposited into womb-like hotels thing. Add to that my discovery of a pharmaceutical that magically medically increases the amount of blood in my caffeinestream, and you’re going to lose me to forty-years worth of sleep catch-up and shoddy hotel connectivity.

Plus I swear to God, everyone I knew spent a few weeks wandering around in a post-election haze. Last week, I spoke at the University of Maryland (which was awesome, but I am an all-comers speaker: if you are at a US college, force your school at gunpoint to book me here: all the money goes to EFF). Honestly out of nowhere people would end any normally pessimistic discussion with this dreamy-eyed “but now, with this spirit of reconciliation in the air”, and stuff like that. Even the NASA guys at the hotel were cheery. Of course, that’s all in the beltway, but there’s languour elsewhere: Republicans are punch drunk and lolling, and the news media is sort of just lying there on the tarmac, having collapse in a heap and lazily eyeballing Obama nominations from one half-closed eye.

Things finally picked up this week, just in time to slam into Thanksgiving, which, to translate for British readers, is really the American Christmas (the real Christmas being more like a Bank Holiday with religious pretensions). You know what I think they should do to boost the economy here? Hold another couple of elections. People would be buying new cars just to have somewhere to put the bumperstickers.

2008-11-01

three days to the election; eternity until the end of nanowrimo

Here’s the link to where I’ll be dumping my Nanowrimo novel. I managed to do 1969 words in the first day. Suggestions for plot developments and new barely-disguised cameos gratefully received.

I realise that not everyone is as glued to the election as I am, so here’s a selection of fun (or disturbing) video that you may or may not have seen:

Charles meets Obama. Will make Obamatrons cry, especially the young and old.

Democrat attack ad uses Palin. For Democrats who want their party to get dirty, but also like tweedly Apple ads.

Palin fans explain why they’re voting for John McCain. Depressing for almost everyone.

2008-10-15

the debate and the spotlight of consensus

While the position who have particular political biases are relatively constant, it’s fascinating to watch the spotlight of what appears crazy to the general public shift around.

I first started reading Little Green Footballs during the run-up to the Iraqi invasion, because I felt that what they said there gave an insight into how decisions were being made or accepted among a large sector of the public. Steven Den Beste was required reading, because he seemed to be constructing (or interpreting) the abstract framework that best represented Bush’s foreign policy (he ended up writing a WSJ editorial spelling it out).

I didn’t agree with these people, but what they said certainly had predictive value — far more predictive value than those on most left blogs. People would say “surely Americans will see through this bullshit”, and they didn’t. Meanwhile, one of the warbloggers would say that Dean would pay for saying we weren’t safer after Saddam was captured, and lo! That’s what public opinion would reflect. The statements of the conservative bloggers matched much of public discourse (in the US, of course). I remember people like Brad deLong spending much of the first decade of this century standing with their mouths open, agape at the discrepancy between what was obvious to them and what “everyone else” appeared to see.

What’s is fascinating now is watching that spotlight move very dramatically away. The conservative bloggers confidently predict that McCain or Palin ruled the debate and … reality lurches away in the other direction. ESR talks about Obama’s campaign smelling of defeat, right as they begin their meteoric rise up the polls. None of the levers work. The die falls snakes eyes, throw after throw. You move the mouse up, and the cursor goes down. At this point, they’re convinced that the mainstream media, *and* the pollster, *and* random people in the street are just making shit up.

Again, this isn’t about right or wrong. This is about your ability to predict the general population. Just as it didn’t help to talk about dictators stealing the election when over 50% of the American population thought Bush was an allright fella, all the accusations that Obama is a marxist terrorist muslim aren’t going to help you when people are saying sure he’s a marxist terrorist muslim, but they’re going to vote for him anyway because he has a good healthcare policy. How do you compute that if you’re instapundit?

Most of all, I love watching that spotlight of opinion refocus on a point after these debates. And the focus pull in this election seems to be online videos. I thought McCain did okay in this debate, actually, but that’s not where the spotlight has fallen. It’s fallen on the reload button next to the YouTube clip of his “Zero? WTF?” moment. And he can talk about Joe the Plumber all he wants, but the more people who see Obama actually talking to Joe the Plumber (and it’s worth watching all the way through), I think the better Obama looks, not McCain.

I hope to god I’m almost done with this election. My citizen friends are voting early. As Nate Silver says, Obama is in “live boy, dead girl” territory these days. If there’s going to be a change in that, it’ll be one that no-one on either side predicts. The spotlight is steady, and for now it’s trained on the new president.

2008-10-12

politics in the city

Walking down a Bernal Heights street, I heard a guy shouting from behind me to a woman in a garish, oversized white t-shirt with somebody’s name on it. “Hey, you guys are doing well — I see posters for Tom everywhere!”. The woman shouted back, “Thanks! Who are you walking for?” “Eric!” “Cool!”. Later, a bunch of bicyclists fly by in convoy, playing an upbeat latino tune on speakers, and waving flags for another candidate.

It’s election time in San Francisco. As well as the presidential election, there’s the usual Bible-sized selection of other plebiscites to be plebbicized, including the election of the supervisor for my local neighbourhood. You can decide whether you should vote for Eric or Tom or Eva or David or Vern or Mark or the other Eric by thumbing through the 268 page local voter guide here. I believe that’s on top of the 166 page State guide.

I was going to witter here a little about the vibrancy of American elections, and then I remembered where else I’ve lived where elections were this vivid and fun. When I was eight, I remember the cars driving around with loudspeakers balanced on top, and posters, and speechifying and lots of local excitement to a British election. I grew up in Basildon, a marginal constituency (Ohio-on-the-Thames, if you will), and ground zero for those wanting to extrapolate results from their glib little parodies of voting patterns. You had to admit though, both sides fought like prize-fighters for every voter there.

San Francisco is about as far away from a swing state as you can imagine (unless you mean between Cindy Sheehan supporters and Nancy Pelosi fans), but the internal city politics are gloriously internecine and bloody. Supervisors have a surprising amount of power: en mass they are a counterbalance to the major. One of them just pleaded guilty to take $84,000 in bribes. I admire the huge encyclopedia of political explanations that turn up on everybody’s doorsteps every election, as well as the miles of columnage in the local papers analysing the minutiae of the city’s internal politics. Even the alternative free papers here often have front covers with titles like “REVEALED: JUST WHAT THE HELL DOES DEPUTY VICE ALDERMAN DIFRAMBRIZI THINK HE IS DOING WITH THE MANHOLE COVER FINANCIAL ALLOCATION FOR FINANCIAL PERIOD 2007/2008?”. To give a less made-up example, I have just read a (genuinely fascinating, actually) three page piece expose on the fines builders have to pay for having their cones in the wrong place. It is all connected with police graft, of course.

I honestly wonder who reads all of this, and yet I love that it’s there. I was reading Linus Torvalds slightly agape bemusement at how uncivilized American elections are, and wonder: is it better that politics be such a loud carnival? Or would all this corruption go even more unnoticed if no-one was watching?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

petit disclaimer:
My employer has enough opinions of its own, without having to have mine too.