I <3 compliance!

Onkyo CompliesLast month I bought an amazing gadget that is easily my most favorite of the decade. Before last month, I was barely aware this product category existed until I browsed the “Home Audio” section at PC Richards while looking for a replacement vacuum cleaner. I noticed that many of the receivers had ethernet jacks and also supported wi-fi, bluetooth, hdmi and USB. They boasted compatibility with internet audio streaming services, home media libraries, as well as any bluetooth-enabled media collection. Brought to all of us thanks to Free and Open Source Software.

The Onkyo TX-NR626 looks almost identical to a stereo receiver you could have bought from Onkyo in the 80s and 90s. In fact, the chases is the same, save for a few extra buttons, and the form factors of the inputs/outputs in the back. A 95W per channel, supporting 7.2 channels, this sucker packs a meaner punch than my UWS apartment (or, more accurately, my neighbors) can stomach. But don’t let it’s outer shell fool you. But, the guts of this gadget have been updated for the 21st century, with flair.

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I love traveling and I travel alot. In the past few years I have added a fun toy to my travel kit – a small, portable bluetooth speaker. I am currently using the Logitech UE Mini Boom, which sounds so much better than the tinny, built-in laptop speakers it’s worth lugging along. Normally, I plug a cheap audio wire into my phone to connect it to the speaker, but the wire connection started acting flakey and I bluetoothed while vacationing in Florida, Philly and the Hudson Valley. I really enjoyed dialing up my entire music collection from across the room over the would-be miracle that bluetooth promised. So much so that I started wondering why I couldn’t do the same at home.

For the better part of the last decade my home workstation, a mac mini, has been my media hub and jukebox. Back in ’98, I started ripping my CD collection even before I owned an MP3 player, anticipating the day when my digital collection would pay off in spades. Every night I would connect to the internet over my dial-up modem, pull down the album metadata from CDDB, and would typically digitize one or two CDs per night. Maybe a few more over the weekend. After a year my collection was digitized.  My first MP3 player was a Rio Diamond 500 with a paltry 64MG of storage. I hated selecting playlists, and dreamed of the day when my entire collection would be at my fingertips. Inevitably, I would neglect to load new music on my Rio, and be stuck listening to the wrong music.

In recent months I have become increasingly frustrated with my home jukebox setup. I’ve installed CrashPlan on my Mac, a java based backup programming that is incessantly hogging resources and causing frustrating delays in my access to music. I’m also disgusted with Apple’s oppressive policies, and have begun to second guess my decision to make my workstation my media hub. Last year I ditched my iPod in favor of a SanDisk Sansa Clip running the open-source RockBox, but a few months back I upgraded my HTC phone to a model that takes an microSD card, and have been enjoying my entire collection on my phone.

I can now send music to my new stereo receiver from my phone, tablet and computer. I can also connect to the internet, and I love it. Sometimes, you just want an appliance with an old fashioned  remote control, not a general purpose computing device.

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onkyo_front_largeThe new line of home audio components manufactured by folks like Yamaha, Denon and Onkyo, look alot like their predecessors but are actually network-enabled computers. When I opened up my new receiver I was amazed to find 11 pages of Free Software licenses included along with the warranty and instructions. Onkyo has respectfully complied with the LGPL and GPL licenses, and includes this pamphlet along with their hardware. The documentation references many familiar libraries, including OpenSSL, curl, ntp, image libraries and video transcoding libraries.

For years, Eben Moglen has been claiming that hardware manufacturers have embraced FLOSS, but this device crystalized for me the obvious advantages. Onkyo is a stereo component manufacturer. The last thing they want to deal with is hiring an army of developers to wrestle with SSL to support wifi passwords or develop boilerplate settings interfaces. The sheer quantity of software required to create modern consumer electronics is staggering, and I am fairly certain that without free software this receiver would have easily cost 1.5-2 times the price, and probably had fewer features.

From automobiles to DVD players, computers are being grafted onto every device we interact with. The better ones are being reimagined and built around computers, instead of vice-versa. There are an awful lot of protocols and standards to support. It makes me really happy to know that we all have friends in embedded places – greasing the nooks and crannies of 21st century electronics.

Audio experiments and the rise of Scuttlebutt

by Jonah Bossewitch and Rob Garfield

ouroboros_Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_14While chipping away at my dissertation this summer I found myself faced with the daunting task of transcribing about a dozen hours of video. I desperately wanted to believe that, in 2014, transcription was a machine’s task, so I took a minor detour through the state of the (consumer) art in voice recognition.  One of my computers runs OSX which includes Dictation (since Mavericks), the same voice recognition software that powers Siri. Following these instructions I used the Soundflower kernel extensions to send the audio output from Audacity into Dictation’s input.

Dictation did such an awful job understanding my video that I actually found it easier to transcribe the videos manually rather than edit Dictation’s vomit. I found some decent software called ExpressScribe to assist in the manual transcription.  ExpressScribe makes it easy to control the playback speed, and can be configured to play a segment, automatically pause, and then rewind the video to moments before it paused.  The pro version can be rigged up to foot petal controls, but I was able to do my transcription using the crippleware.

This summer I visited my friend Rob’s country house, affectionately dubbed Snowbound and located on the transcendental Baptist Pond, NH. Rob was gracious enough to invite me up for a writing retreat, though we managed to fit in some canoeing, hiking, cooking and drinking. We also gave birth to one of the most creative constructive procrastinations of my dissertationScuttlebutt.

After all that time playing with transcription tools we began to wonder if OSX could understand itself.  For years, OSX has been able to turn text to speech, and even ships with dozens of voices, with names like Vicky and Alex.  What would happen if we fed OSX’s text-to-speech into it’s own Dictation software?

Dealing-with-Workplace-Gossip6Originally we thought Scuttlebutt might analogize and highlight the way that we humans misunderstand, mishear and misremember, in particular, the lightning quick messages that we receive on a daily basis through personal interaction, social media and emailoften deeply changing the message, generalizing it, and recontextualizing it.  Although voice recognition software begs us to “train” it, we thought we might have better results interacting with its infant state.

We needed a reliable benchmark and settled on the first chapter of Genesis. We were curious if the voice recognition software would improve, with successive iterations of feeding it it’s own output back to itself using text-to-voice. There was one way to find out.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the rest anything is left without things we think are funny face of the deep and just give it to Scott moved upon the face of the waters…

The results were surreal and absurd. Successive iterations degenerated, and we realized that Dictation was trying to adapt and learn, and would never reach a stable state. In fact, the system wasn’t behaving deterministicallywe were seeing different interpretations when reading the exact same text. As you can see from our lab notes, zaniness ensued.

One of the things we found most beautiful about the initial Scuttlebutt experiments was watching the mechanisms think in real time, going back in the text to reevaluate previous approximations in the face of new material, yet rarely, if ever, arriving at a more humanly coherent whole.  With Soundflower enabled, the text-to-voice was inaudible and my laptop appeared possessed as the words flowed spectrally into the text editor. At times Scuttlebutt would pause, as if pondering, and burst forth with an entire paragraph. Other times it corrected itself, backtracking as if reconsidering it’s previous composition. What we saw was an unthinking machine actually thinking in a way so foreign to us that we could only find it charming and amusing.  The analogy to human misprision began to erode and the phantasm of an alien intelligence emerged to take its place.

Did Scuttlebutt care about Genesis?  Did it care about cogency, grammar, narrative, character?  Was it looking for a climax?  Was it acting like an alien parrot trying to please us with its ability to mirror the sounds it heard and fool us into thinking it had at least an unsteady foothold in human (English) linguistic competence?  Would it have passed a Turing test altered to determine whether an alien mind was conscious?  Will the first recognizably sentient AI be running on free/open source software (a question we’ve pondered previously in: Playing doctor)?

What next for Scuttlebutt? A tweeting preacher-bot?  Transrealist poet?  Mechanical Burroughsian cut-ups?

The sheriff and the pretty woman

spitzer-dupreI just read a provocative essay in the Atlantic that draws a connecting thread between many of today’s top news stories.  What do the ISIS beheadings, the NFL domestic abuse scandals, the Fergeson riots and nude celebrities all have in common?  Pics or didn’t happen: The new crisis of the connected camera describes the emergence of the “networked lens” and the ethical questions this new(ish) medium raises.

I’ve been writing and thinking about these themes for years under the heading of The End of Forgetting. The Atlantic piece explicitly separates the bulk of NSA  surveillance from this analysis “This is not all to say every issue today is a networked lens issue. NSA surveillance as a whole isn’t, I think. But the agency’s mass-facial recognition is.”  This whole discussion reminded of a pet theory of mine that I’ve never written up, but seems more relevant than ever.

What would the NSA do with a time machine?  Not one of those fanciful machines that transports matter through time, but the more plausible wormcam variety that only transmits information through time. I described this capability in my post on yottabytes, wormcams and whistleblowers, but never elaborated an early example of this kind of power in action.

Consider this questionWho protects the president against character assassinations?  I am pretty sure it’s not his secret service detail, and I seriously doubt his PR team is up to the task. As far as I can tell Michelle is one of Obama’s last lines of defense against a humiliating scandal that would destroy what remains of his disappointing presidency. If JFK were alive today you wouldn’t need a magic bullet to take him out. Hacking into his (or better yet Marilyn’s) Snapchat account would end his political career. Just ask Anthony Wiener.

How clear a picture can metadata paint? In the Atlantic piece, Robinson Meyer quotes Susan Suntag, who once argued that While there appears to be nothing that photography can’t devour, whatever can’t be photographed becomes less important.”  To this I would add the caveat that (meta)data in the right hands can be used to paint a vivid picture, and ruin someone’s image as readily as an HD photo.

Let’s travel back in time to winter ’08. Elliot Spitzer was one year into his first term as governor of New York after a earning a reputation as a fearless prosecutor of Wall Street’s white-collar criminals.  He certainly had many enemies, from slimy CEOs to dirty politicians. But not too many people remember what Elliot was working on the night before he ordered out in DC. Exhibit A is posted on web for anyone curious enough to search:

Predatory Lenders’ Partner in Crime, By Eliot Spitzer. Thursday, February 14, 2008

To summarize, Spitzer’s Op-Ed in the Washington posts describes how 49 State Attorney Generals had identified the threat of predatory lending years before the sub-mortgage crisis and he accuses the Bush administration of intervening to prevent any regulation of the banks. He blames the Bush administration, by name and all the way to the top, for the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the worst recession in a generation.  And two weeks later he was assassinated. At least, his political career was summarily killed and he resigned from office in disgrace.

As an aside, I find it curious that Spitzer’s Op-Ed was published on Valentine’s Day. I sometimes wonder if he seized the occasion of his Op-Ed publication to combine work and play, as many busy professionals might. Was Spitzer in love with Ashley Dupré? How exactly did they originally meet?

While the scope of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping and surveillance programs was only speculation in Feb ’08, they were fully operational at this time and I believe that Spitzer may have been one of the first causalities of the NSA’s metadata time machine. Spitzer was taken down by telephone metadata  Client 9’s calls to the DC Madam was they key to the case that eventually led to the release of phone transcripts which included unnecessary graphic detail, like his preference for protecting his feet from the cold during sex and his shunning of all other forms of protection. These images were etched in the minds of the public and were as decisive as the images of Wiener’s junk.

I personally had a conversation with a developer from White Oak Technologies (now renamed Novetta) who coyly described his firm’s involvement in the Spitzer case. Founded before this newfangled craze of facebook-era indirection through venture capital funds, White Oak was a good old fashioned intelligence front, a data mining and analysis company that worked exclusively on government contracts. The developer I spoke with described how his firm got the contract on Spitzer and how they had been hired to dig up some damning dirt. In retrospect, it’s now easier for me to imagine the kinds of data they were mining.

The Snowden revelations provide evidence of warrantless phone wiretapping as well as the collection of data from numerous internet providers through the PRISM program.  While Obama has deceptively maintained that metadata is innocuous, Spitzer’s character assassination a potent example of the power of this kind of data.

What would you do with a time machine that let you peer into anyone’s past?

peddling platforms

7175132773_dc83a2d1f2_bNew York City’s bike share program is flourishing, and I recently signed up for a membership even though I live outside the range of any Citibike stations. I find it convenient and fun to use the bikes to cross town, as well as zip from place to place when I am downtown. Since my first ride on the Parisian Vélib’, I’ve become a huge fan of bike shares, and have enjoyed rides in Paris, DC, Denver, Miami, and Toronto.

The other month I had a great conversation with a local bike shop owner about the new program, and he conveyed the anxiety that many bike shops are feeling around Citibike. Understandably, many are concerned that the bike share will cut into their rental and retail sales, although I think it is likely that an increase in  biking will generate more interest and awareness, and generally increase the demand for bikes and bike services.

Our discussion helped me recognize was how the city bike shares can be viewed as a platform for innovation, in the same sense that the iPod/iPhone is platform. And, just as the iphone-as-platform enabled a large ecology third-party  hardware and software businesses, bike shares present an analogous opportunity to creative entrepreneurs. Platforms can support entire ecosystem, and city bike shares provide an opportunity to build a new ecosystem around them.

Cases and Chargers

Let’s start with the hardware. I don’t need an MBA to understand that the real money in retail is made by selling accessories. For the iPhone this includes cases, cables, and a range of other devices, but retailers like Amazon and Best Buy have invested in incredibly complex systems to track the relations between products and their compatible accessories.

Consider this. What New Yorker wants to be mistaken for a tourist while riding their Citibike? What they need is a way to (fashionably) express themselves, and make the generic bike their own. Starting with an appropriate pannier bag, Citibikers need an easy way to transport their helmet, gloves, music, and personal belongings. Bike shops currently have entire walls devoted to these kinds of accessories. With some focused curation bike shops can begin assembling “MyCitiBike” kits that are segmented and suitable for the demographics of their customers, no custom manufacturing required.

Bags and accessories are just the start. Helmets should be as ubiquitous as umbrellas—inexpensive ones sold by street vendors, and maybe more durable ones available in vending machines, for a refundable deposit. You would just need to bring your own liner, which you could conveniently stash in your pannier bag.

Turn on the lights

Consider the explosive proliferation of bike lights that are poised to transform New York City into Black Rock City. Bike lights are being sold in  increasingly dizzying arrays of frequencies and patterns, but the arms race for visibility and attention may soon devolve into visual noise and distraction as the density of bikers grows. Imagine you are a biker who wants to communicate your intentions to a motor vehicle. During the day, there is a system of hand signals for signaling your intent. But currently are are’t any well established  standards for bike lights, other than white in the front and red in the back. Some of the standards that could help are obvious—more red when I’m braking, and left and right blinkers when I’m turning.  Others, like wireless control of helmet mounted lights, still need to be worked out.

Some European bike manufacturers have begun introducing signaling innovations, but without standards these efforts will likely stall. Standards can emerge from the top-down, by mandate or regulation, or the bottom-up, by convention and adoption. I believe that bike share fleets present a powerful opportunity to innovate on bike safety and standards in a way that could lead the rest of the market.  Admittedly, it would be difficult to convince municipalities to devote the resources to underwrite these features. However, I dream of a day when stakeholders such as Transportation Alternatives and Critical Mass work with the Mayor’s office to hold Citibank’s feet to the fire. Instead of just a marketing campaign designed to whitewash their reputation, the Citibike program could be used to spearhead safety initiatives, such as lighting standards and open APIs, that could eventually make their way across the rest of the biking industry.

Computational Cycles

The iPhone has the app store, and bikeshare apps could be just as expansive. From quantifying yourself for fitness and health, to turning the city into one big arcade game, the possibilities are really wide open. It’s easy to imagine apps which bring traditional “pedal-for-charity” campaigns into 21st century, as well as casual team games like capture the flag or even frogger.  Some of these games could be powered by apps that run on smartphones, or fitness trackers (e.g. fitbit),  but once again, the bike-share platform offers an opportunity to standardize data formats and open apis for ride tracking. RiderState is an early example of a competitive social game for bikers, but more will surely follow.

It’s an exciting time for cyclers. US cities are finally embracing bike lanes and bike shares are spreading across the country. Bike safety continues to be a pressing issue, as projects like crashmapper vividly demonstrate. Creativity is spinning around gorgeous projects like Monkey Electric, and revolights brings brakelights to your wheels. There is a huge opportunity to coordinate some of this activity around platforms like the Bixi bike, and build a thriving ecosystem around bike shares.

 

too sexy for my phone

bling_bejeweled_cell_phone_kandee_fashion_weekThe other week I thought I lost my phone and I visited a local Best Buy to find out what a temporary substitute would cost me.  I asked the salesperson for the dumbest phone they had, and was struck by its feature/price ratio. Thankfully, my phone turned up, but I was reminded of the power of Moore and his law.

The phone I looked at was a BLU Tank, which you can find online for ~$25 (it retails for $32.99) . This phone is so dumb that it has an FM Radio, can capture images, audio, and video, has 2 sim card slots, and a replaceable battery. There is no built-in browser, but it does comes with facebook and twitter apps. It even comes in different colors!

Not only would this phone make fabulous burner, but it really got me thinking. Imagine if you wrapped that phone in metal – aluminum, silver, gold?  You could probably sell it for twice the price. Easy. What about a wood case – maple, oak, teak?  Double again?

But, if you really wanted to make some serious money you would have to put the right initials on there.  Maybe G for Gucci, or LV for Louise Vuitton?

It really hit home that as tech becomes ubiquitous, it’s becoming fashion. Products like Google Glass are starting to make this more obvious, but companies like Crated are taking this a step further by designing unobtrusive, intelligent wearables as well as focusing on improvements to the manufacturing process.

If only we could figure out how to tap the vanity of the 1% and redirect wealth back to the rest of us.

Hippocratic hypocrisy

caduceus-eyeWhen I graduated from Teachers College in ’07, I donned the goofy ceremonial robes and walked with my classmates at the university-wide commencement.  I distinctly remember my astonishment when I heard the medical graduates recite the Hippocratic oath, right there, for all of us to witness. I remember thinking to myself that other professionals should be required to recite oaths too, as lawyers, teachers, journalists, and others all have the power to do great harm, but I suppose that medicine still occupies a unique place, as the power to heal is synonymous with the power to kill.

I have arrived at a point in my dissertation research where I am now convinced that the psychiatric-pharmaceutical complex is in violation of the Hippocratic oath. I realize that this is a heavy accusation to make, but I now believe that the field has gone beyond simple, or even gross negligence, and has crossed the line into willful harm.

Apollo Physician and Asclepius and Hygieia and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will fulfill according to my ability and judgment this oath and this covenant:

I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect… In purity and holiness I will guard my life and my art.

I make this claim based on a range of evidence – scientific, journalistic, anecdotal, end experiential.  Some of this evidence can be found in earlier posts on this blog, as well as in coverage in places like The Icarus Project, Madness Radio, and Mad in America.  But this post is less about demonstrating that the oath has been violated and trying to imagine a proportional karmic response.

For starters, consider that pharmaceutical companies don’t even take the Hippocratic oath – their charters don’t contain anything like Google’s “Don’t be evil“, and their employees aren’t required to take the Hippocratic oath upon hire. Their sole responsibility is to maximize shareholder value (and increasingly, that includes breaking the law as the calculated cost of running a profitable business). I’m under no delusion that adopting language like this would instantly reverse decades of malfeasance, but it might help generate a few more Edward Snowdens in the pharmaceutical industry.

It’s fascinating to me that we continue to invoke the Greeks with this oath. Now that it’s been violated, it is our duty to wake Zeus and Apollo and help them raise Olympus. I’m afraid that Jehovah, especially since Jesus, simply doesn’t have the wrath to deal with the crimes that psych-pharma is perpetrating.

For years I thought that a divine lightening bolt would strike psych-pharma over the harmful and abusive use of the toxic atypical anti-psychotics (Zyprexa, Seroquel, Risperdal, Abilify, Clozaril, Geodon, etc).  These drugs cause massive obesity, metabolic disorders, and diabetes(!), and are being prescribed liberally to kids, seniors, veterans, and prisoners. Despite billions of dollars in fines for over-marketing these drugs (last month Johnson and Johnson was fined $2.2 Billion for Risperdal, but they assured stockholders this fine would not have an adverse affect on their finances). I am learning how difficult it is to rally voices to defend the defenseless, and lately I have been rethinking approaches for slowing down psych-pharma’s relentless expansion.

As the anniversary of the tragic Newtown killings approaches we need to reiterate the call to redirect the journalistic inquiry following tragedies like these. Unfortunately, mass killings in the US continue at a horrific frequency, and the prevailing journalistic narratives have revolved around gun control and mental illness. The question that needs to be asked following these tragedies is – What psych drug was the perpetrator coming on (or off of) before the attack?

In 2004, the FDA issued a blanket Black Box warning on all antidepressants (updated in ’07) about the increased risk of suicidal thinking and behavior that antidepressants have been found to cause in some cases. The documentary film Prescription Suicide presents a gripping profile this disturbing trend . And, antidepressants may actually cause an increase in violence and aggression, which can be directed inward or outwards, leading to suicidal as well as homicidal thoughts/behavior. While the FDA’s 2007 black box warning only mentions the risk of suicide, the chorus of incidents connecting antidepressants with homicidal thoughts and actions continues to grow, and the FDA is tracking and documenting the violent side effects of psychiatric drugs. While the percentage of patients exhibiting these extreme side effects is low (< ~3%), these drugs are prescribed in such large numbers that even such small percentages add up to significant consequences.

The stories about mass killings in the in the mainstream media have revolved around gun control and mental illness, but crucially, they are missing an essential interstitial step – while the perpetrators may have been going through an emotional crisis, is the psychiatric intervention worse than the original condition? This account won’t explain (away) all of the gun violence in America, but it is only a matter of time before a national tragedy is linked to a popular, brand-name antidepressant.

What’s going to happen when this story finally breaks? Will patients rush to their physicians, demanding to switch to a competing brand (even though the side-effect profiles are quite similar across brands)? What will happen to the stock price of the pharma company whose unlucky number just came up? In the ensuing litigation, will documents emerge demonstrating that pharma has been aware for years of the violent, homicidal side-effects of their products?

There are scandals brewing in Big Pharma that will dwarf the scandals in Big Tobacco.

ZEUS_LIGHTINGIN

Makers, Burners and Pedagogy Transformers

Last Thursday, I managed to further integrate my personal/professional/hobbiest identitites, and me and two of my esteemed colleagues (Therese and Jon) presented Burning Man and Hacker/Maker Spaces at the weekly CCNMTL staff meeting.

The rosetta stone for our talk was Fred Turner’s seminal paper Burning Man at Google: a cultural infrastructure for new media production (published by New Media and Society, the same journal that published my and Aram’s paper on The End of Forgetting (preprint)), which Turner also presented at Google, where his talk was recorded.

We tried to connect Burning Man to a central question in education — the question of transference.  Do skills learned under simulated conditions transfer over to real world settings? We started out with the grand question, “What Educates?”, and tried to narrow that down to the question of how we can view commons-based peer-production in an educational context?  What can Burning Man, and crucially, the Maker Spaces that make Burning Man possible, teach educators about teaching and learning?

 

Our talk:

And our slides:

Now that we have presented this to CCNMTL, some of the librarians have gotten wind of our talk, and have invited us to re-present it at a tech brownbag lunch later this Fall :-D

To the evolution!

 

Dear Frank,

I remember the first time we met. It was my third and final interview for my current job at CCNMTL back in Spring ’04. I was initially anxious, but you immediately made be feel welcome and comfortable. [Over the years I came to appreciate your gift for authentically connecting with just about anyone, often within 30 seconds of meeting them. You dispatched with superficial niceties and blazed trails directly to people’s souls. You bridged intellect and emotion, without a hint of pomp or circumstance, projecting sensitivity and respect to everyone you encountered. Age, class, race, gender – not so much that these dimensions were irrelevant, but you always managed to connect with the individual. You actually listened. And learned.] During that interview I remember walking into your office, encircled floor to ceiling with books. You asked me about my undergraduate senior thesis, a topic I hadn’t revisited in almost a decade, and then proceeded to pull Julian Jaynes off the shelf. You showed me your photo with Allen Ginsberg, and then asked me if I recognized the person in another grainy b/w photo. When I correctly identified Wittgenstein I was pretty confident I had landed the job. But, more importantly, I had found a new mentor.

We didn’t interact very often my first summer at CCNMTL. I worked in Butler library, under Maurice’s supervision, and you were keeping summer hours, at your office in Lewisohn. When Fall rolled around I was eager to enroll in classes, and begin my graduate journeys, but I was nervous about signing up for a course with my boss. You never made me feel like a subordinate, but I was scarred from my relationship with management at previous jobs, and wasn’t sure what it would be like for us to enter into a student-teacher relationship. I hadn’t quite figured out that that was the only kind of relationship that you knew how to cultivate, although our roles were constantly revolving and inverting, as you shared your wisdom, and facilitated growth in every exchange. You brought out the best in everyone around you, rarely content to talk about people or events – always rushing or passing your way into the realm of the Forms. As I reflected when Robbie retired, I chose to enroll in your legendary Readings seminar after one of your students (I think it was Joost van Dreunen) made the case that your syllabus was your text on social/cultural/critical/communications/media theory.

That year was invigorating. I remember rediscovering the joys of school, as I learned to reclaim spaces of intellectual exploration and play, and translate them into action. On the surface, our seminars resembled office meetings, but the luxury of non-directed (not to be confused with non-purposeful) conversation, which was a privilege I needed to readjust to.

Together we figured out ways to weave together disparate threads of my life – work, hobbies, play, passions – somehow, I learned to integrate these (often inconsistent) vectors into a unified construct. A self, I suppose. But, it was my self, not one you imposed on me. It never felt like you pushed your agendas or ideologies on me – rather, you always wanted to help me discover what I really want to think about and work on. And I know that I’m not the only one that believes this – this was your way.

I often wish you had written more, although your autobiographical text is a multi-volume, multi-dimentional, multimedia masterpiece. Sometimes I wonder how seriously you took Socrates’ critique of writing, along with his commitment to be a midwife for ideas. Did you lose count of the number of dissertations you helped deliver?

One under-studied paper that you published, “Who controls the canon? A classicist in conversation with cultural conservatives,” (Moretti (1993), Teachers College Record, 95, pp. 113-126) captures many of the paradoxes you embodied and worked through. A radical classicist, a skeptical optimist, a scientific artist, a philosophical craftsman, an institutional revolutionary. Somehow, you integrated these roles with a career trajectory that not even the most advanced detectors in the Large Hadron Collider could trace. I watched you start countless conversations with a Greek or Latin etymology, charming the academics, administrators, and funders alike in a display of the continuing power of the Western cannon. You constantly reminded us of the classical education that many of our favorite thinkers received, and insisted we read them against that backdrop. But, more importantly, a reminder of how radical these thinkers all were in their own time, and how likely they themselves would be protesting the ossification of the cannon, if they were around today. These lessons will live on through one of the last projects you initiated, Decolonizing the Cannon, which a number of us are committed to follow through with. After 25+ years of reading Homer every fall, it will take us a lifetime to reconstruct the lesson plans you left behind.

In the 9 years that I’ve known you we’ve been to hell and back. We’ve studied together, traveled together, worked together, gotten sick and healed together, but all the while kept our senses of humor. I’ve read many beautiful eulogies about you, but in this letter I want to emphasize your enduring sense of humor. You were a funny man. LMAO funny. Slapstick funny. Dada surrealist funny. Hashish funny. Plenty of the humor was dark, and perhaps, as your student Ruthie suggested to me recently, your humor helped shield you from the brutal injustices that you perceived and experienced all around us. But you were also sometimes a klutz, in an absentminded-professor sense, and a disorganized mess. A creative mess, but a mess. But, I have to say, that even when you were operating on scripted autopilot, you were way better than most people at their best. There wasn’t much you enjoyed more than being called out for your lapses in attention, and my glimpses of your inner monologue were often hysterical. I think that your analysis of power led you to conclude the the world was simply absurd. We all witnessed you acting on this with gravitas and determination, but in the minutia of our micro-interactions, there was always a wide smile and a belly laugh. I don’t think any of us will ever forget the sound of your laugh. (Or, your bark. Man, did you love to throw down and argue. But, that’s another post.)

After I started taking classes with you, it didn’t take me long to realize that that the secret to understanding what you were talking about was knowing what you were reading that week. You would basically have one conversation all week long, no matter who you were talking to. I imagine it was bewildering to many of my coworkers when you brought up false-needs, or commodification at our weekly staff meetings, but if people paid close attention, they could almost observe the wheels spinning all week long, as you lived the theorists you were teaching through the practice of our projects. I often explained to people the incestuous nature of my work/school commitments by comparing my situation to a graduate student in the natural sciences. They might spend 40-60 hours a week in a lab, and working for you was about as close as I could imagine to working in a communications lab. I often wondered how many of my cohorts managed to keep up on developments in new media (and many of them certainly did) without the ambient immersion in a practice that exercised and embodied the theories we were reading.

When summer vacation rolled around, you never quit.  I remember how you used to talk about the stretch of time between Sept-May as one long sprint (as long as I’ve known you, you’ve taught at least 2-2 + advising phd students + multiple committees at TC and the J-School, on top of your administrative responsibilities as executive director at CCNMTL and a senior officer in the libraries) , but you didn’t exactly slow down in the summer either. Or, perhaps I should say that you did slow down, but you never stopped teaching and learning.  For at least 3 or 4 summers I participated in “slow reading groups” with you and a few of your dedicated students. We didn’t get any credit for these sessions, and you didn’t get paid. We would sit in your office, and go around the table reading a book out loud, pausing whenever we needed clarification.  And, we often needed clarification. You were convinced that no one was reading anything closely anymore, and that the hundreds of pages that were assigned in courses each week were flying by without students or teachers taking the time to slow down and absorb them.  The second summer we tried this we read Latour’s Politics of Nature, a text we all internalized and will never forget.

You had such a funny relationship with technology. You loved gadgets, but were constantly thwarted and befuddled by them. I wonder how many laptops and phones you lost or broke in the years we have known each other. You never stopped learning, but were suspicious of every new tool that showed up, and the more hype around the tool, the more you growled defensively at it. But often, after months of critiquing and berating something, you would come around and start appreciating it. While some of my coworkers/cohorts seem to have chips on their shoulders about the ineffectual futility of technological interventions, you had an optimistic will that allowed you to wield technology like you wielded the classics. Opportunistically, and instrumentally, in the service of social justice. That was your gig. Relentlessly. Sometimes I wonder if you felt like you had painted yourself into a corner with all of your critiques — like when you whispered quietly to me that you wanted to learn how to use Second Life, without blowing your critical cover.

Last week I ran into an ex-girlfriend that I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. It was nice to reconnect, and in the course of our conversation I realized that we hadn’t spoken since I had started working and studying at Columbia. I was an entirely different person back then, one I barely recognized. Perhaps people return to graduate school in order to change, but true transformations require a relinquishing of your old identity and ego, without a clear idea of what might emerge on the other end. The Judaic tradition has a teaching that anyone who teaches you the alphabet is considered a parent. You literally taught me the alphabet, as we revisited the alphabet as a revolutionary communications technology (via Eric Havelock), and you taught me many other alphabets and languages that gave me access to entire new worlds.  You also invited me into your home, and made me feel like I was part of your family. Most of all, you modeled and embodied an honesty, integrity, and sheer force of will that I am blessed to have intersected.

Safe travels, Frank, and enjoy your vacation.

Love,
/J

“So what?!?” – Wikimedia ’06 Plenary session at Wikimedia ’06 in Cambridge, multimillionaire philanthropist Brewster Kahle presents his vision for the Internet Archive, and Frank steps up for the Q&A.  Classic brilliance.

Yottabytes, wormcams and whistleblowers

If you haven’t yet heard about the  details of the NSA’s spying program, catch yourself up with the timeline so this post doesn’t sound entirely bonkers.

For years I’ve been pondering the scope and implications of what Aram Sinnreich and I call The End of Forgetting, and even prior to Edward Snowden’s revelations, I have recently noticed a few dramatic activations of massive distributed memory banks.

In recent months, there have been a few instances where we have literally peered back in time, reconstructing the past based on comprehensive (relevant) records. In the sciences, the collection of records prior to having a specific question is sometimes called “triple-blind“. And, as we know, the dragnet-style collection of records has extended far beyond the lab. If software does one thing well its the collection/storage/retrieval of records; And, software is everywhere.

This story about the reconstruction of February’s meteor path based on dashboard-cam footage reassembled inside Google Earth was pretty stunning:

Also, was it me, or did the reconstruction of the crowd scenes leading up to the Boston bombings feel a bit like the the distorted phone messages from the past that the Scientists reconstructed in 12 Monkeys???

Mainstream physicists have postulated a viable form of 2-way time travel based on wormholes. In this scenario, one end of a wormhole is accelerated into the future, allowing those in the future to travel back to the point where the wormhole was opened, but crucially, no farther back in the past. The point when this wormhole is created is known as Year Zero.

In the past, I have discussed physically travelling through time (Pyramid Schemes), including how critical detailed records of your destination is to plotting flippin’ pinpoint coordinates. But in this post I’m content to explore the metaphor of the Wormcam, a science-fiction device I first saw used in Arthur C. Clarke’s Light of Other Days.  The wormcam is a wormhole that only allows light to travel through it. In this book, wormholes are first able to bridge any two points in space, and soon thereafter, any two points in time. Most people learn to correctly assume that they have at least one wormcam fixed on them all the time.

I’m not really big on sharp discontinuities in history, and I’m not particularly fixated on determining when precisely Year Zero fell/will fall. But, its increasingly clear to me that The End of Forgetting signifies the singularity, more-so than AI, Mo-Bio, and Nano-Tech combined. There won’t be a single moment when prior and after people won’t understand each other, but the period we are living through right now has those characteristics. And PRISM is just the start.

If you haven’t heard of the British series Black Mirror, stop reading this post right now and go watch  S01E03 The Entire History of You.  Really, that episode alone should lay to rest the question of why someone who doesn’t break the law should care about the End of Forgetting.

Of course, the precipice we are standing on does not only provide us with a view of the past. While the past doesn’t determine the future, power is determined to wield the past as a means of stacking the odds.

The media is currently preoccupied with data mining, and forensic analysis.  But, the real money is about about turning the wormcams to the future, using predictive behavioral modeling. The NSA  only needs to be 100% correct to stop terrorists, but corporations only need to be a few percentage points better to sell more burgers or prevent your friends from changing mobile carriers, and politicians often only need a few more points to win an election or gerrymander a district. A friend of mine at TC published a paper about predicting who will drop out of high school dropouts by third-grade, based primarily on their grades and absentee records. And, that’s before we turn to  pre-crime or pathologizing risk.

In Snowden’s own words, “they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with.”

Just remember, if all that exists is the present, then the past must be as malleable as the future. That is, unless we digitally ossify them :-)

DSM-5 vs. NIMH: kill-shots and social constructs

Last month the DSM-5 finally launched at the American Psychiatric Association conference. After 13 years and multiple delays, you can now pre-order your copy at Amazon (list price: $150), or just leave a helpful comment.

The DSM-5 had been surrounded by controversy, and not just by the usual suspects. Allen Frances, the chairman of the DSM-IV task force, just published a scathing critique of the processes and outcomes of the DSM-5 efforts: Saving Normal: An Insider’s Revolt Against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma, and the Medicalization of Ordinary Life. Frances has been sounding the alarm about DSM-5 for over a year, raising concerns over the current committee’s secretive methods, conflicts of interest, expansive diagnostic inflation, and the reduction in reliability (the odds of two doctors agreeing on a diagnosis) that DSM-5.  Over 50 Mental Health organizations and almost 15k people signed a petition demanding reform of the DMS-5 drafts.

Although this scale of controversy would be scandalous in many fields, the APA barely flinched. The DSM-5 task force moved some of the most troubling diagnoses into the appendix, renamed a few others, skipped a round of efficacy trials to meet their deadline, and otherwise proceeded with business as usual.

I have to say my jaw dropped when I learned that the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and it’s $1.5B/year of funding,  was “re-orienting its research away from DSM categories[!]”. The official NIMH announcement, Transforming Diagnosis, posted by their director Thomas Insel on April 29th, was picked up by a wide range of science media (NYTimes, Koplewicz @ The Huffington Post, Chris Lane @ Psychology Today, Psych Central) with headlines such as “NIMH Withdraws Support for DSM-5″ and analysis that this was a “kill-shot” for DSM-5.

What struck me as most shocking was that the NIMH basically came out and said that the the Mental Illnesses defined in the DSM are social constructs – “the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure.”  Ironically, the anti-psychiatrist’s arguments have prevailed, although for the wrong reasons. As I interpret this statement, NIMH isn’t denying the existence of mental illness, just our current ability to agree on its nature and manifestations. But, yes, the current definitions are social constructs and continue to defy attempts at validity. Ha!

But, before anyone gets too excited, what the NIMH proposes may turn out to be scarier than the system in place. This research is representative of the direction that the NIMH is heading: Suicidal behavior is a disease. Here, disorders will be sliced and diced into their constituent elements, which conform more readily to the instruments and models that scientists (neurobiologists and geneticists) already have at their disposal.

I’ve been convinced for a while that within the next 5-10 years the Pharma-Industrial complex was going to invest enough research money to find a definitive neuro-imaging/molecular/genetic/biochemical marker for mental illness (that is, once the marker cast a wide enough net).  However, I wasn’t expecting them to turn the tables and redefine mental illness according to what they could already test. Pretty sneaky.

The saddest part of this whole debacle is that instead of seizing this moment of crisis as an occasion to bring together disparate stakeholders – from patients, to consumers, to survivors, to advocates, to caregivers across a range of backgrounds – and work together to develop a new language and paradigm for understanding human suffering and emotional crisis, the NIMH has doubled down on scientific authority. Soon they will be short-circuiting all debate by pointing at pretty false-color pictures and lab results. There will always be a value judgement when evaluating the boundaries of normal experience/behavior, and no scientific instrument will ever be able to tell us when someone’s experience/behavior is deviant, without human interpretation. As the disability right’s movement says: Nothing about us, without us.

Somehow, for all of the NIMH’s noble intentions, I have a bad feeling that the treatment side of mental health care is poised to become more oppressive. We’ll likely continue to see the growth of anti-psychotics for everyone, and the pre-cog, pathologizing of risk through predictive and preventative care that will explosively expand the diagnostic reach.

This conversation just took a sharp turn past the rhetoric of the last few decades. I hope the psychiatric resistance is following along closely, and updating their arguments accordingly.

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