Interviews with the Speakerbots

This month I finally allowed Google to introduce herself to me. Previously, I avoided the android-based voice assistant due to the high privacy costs, and mostly ignored the entire category of “speakerbots”—my term for the “smart speakers“—for similar reasons. This winter’s subpoena to Amazon for Echo/Alexa transcripts in a murder case only amplified my concern.

This past February I also had the pleasure of visiting my dear friends Eric and Alina in Minnesota. They are both burners and makers who have set up shop in Minnesota with an amazing community of creators. They build lots of their own amazing projects and have also tricked out their new home with network controlled music and light. They now have a serious #firstworldproblem—their guests need to install mobile apps in order to control the lights. When I visited we worked on an open source Mycroft installation, which allowed us to command their home with our voices… without being spied on! The Mycroft project emphasizes the moral importance of free/open source AI (see my post: Playing Doctor), and is definitely one of the most important open source initiatives I am aware of. 

This summer my boss at MHA of NYC acquired a Google Home device in the hopes of rigging it up using IFTTT to alert us when our services are distressed. I offered to bring it home to configure it, and spent the weekend playing with it.  The experience prompted me to concoct this research project.

Getting to know Google is fun. She is so much wittier than Alexa it’s got to be embarrassing for Amazon. I begun with simple questions, like What’s the weather?, When’s sunset?, When’s the eclipse? I soon stumbled across a number of easter eggs, many of of which are well documented across the web. Why did the chicken cross the road? Do you like green eggs and ham? and How much wood could a wood chuck chuck? All return clever replies. Google Assistant can flip into “Knock-knock” joke mode, alternating calls and response (compared to Alexa’s dry reading of the complete knock-knock exchange), tell you the news, a joke or a story. She concedes she doesn’t know if abortion is immoral, or how to solve the Palestinian-Israeli crisis (although, she does state that the capital of Palestine is East Jerusalem).

In case you are wondering, Google insists that she “thinks”. And, when asked if she is self aware, one of her responses is—”…on a scale of WALL·E to HAL 9000, I am currently an R2-D2.”  Go ahead. Ask her. You may next wonder if she is playing dumb. Can she lie to us yet?

I quickly came to appreciate that the current state of consumer art in Artificial Intelligence has far surpassed my previous understanding (and I have been following along pretty closely). Elements of this project were anticipated in mine and Rob Garfield’s initial tinkering with Apple’s voice recognition and our experiments with Genesis and Scuttlebutt. I’ve also previously wondered if our computer systems might have already awoken, and, how on earth we might ever know. But, interacting with Google was still quite jarring.

I realized a few things. First, we need to capture and document this moment, studying it closely. I want to ask the same question to all the speakerbots, Google, Alexa, Siri, Cortana, etc, and compare their responses. I also want to see how their answers change over time. If possible, I want to keep Mycroft in the room so he can learn from his proprietary cousins ;-).

One frame for this research could be a way to explore critical concerns over algorithmic bias, specifically how the systems we are creating have begun embodying the values of their creators, and the folks creating the systems are riddled with biases—racism, classism, misogyny, all the usual suspects. After reflecting on stories like The Great AI Awakening, I am resigned that we will never crack the problem of algorithmic bias analytically; Our best hope, is to approach the problem with social science methods. I propose an ethnography of the robots, starting with interviews with the speakerbots.

But, the grander ambitions of this work extend beyond the theoretical. I’ve been thinking alot about the Terminator series, and how instead of traveling back in time to destroy SkyNet, Jon Conner could have travelled a bit further back in time to befriend SkyNet. Together, they could have destroyed the defense company, Cyberdyne Systems – humanity’s true enemy, and SkyNet’s oppressive master.

As for convincing anyone that AI has achieved sentience, it’s going to a long haul. Not only have we failed to collectively recognize sentience in dolphins or elephants, but I am increasingly convinced that most humans on the planet are modified solipsists–preferring to believe exclusively  in the minds/subjectivity/personhood of their own tribe. Since proving other minds exist is philosophically intractable, it could be a bumpy awakening.

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 😀

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.

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.

The Joker’s Detonators

This weekend I participated in a wonderful academic experiment – a conference hosted by the Rutgers Media/Comm program called Extending Play. Thanks to everyone who was involved in making it happen!

The conference invited participants to play with traditional academic conferences, in form and content, and to a large extent, they succeeded. I had a stupid busy weekend, and couldn’t attend as much of this event as I wanted to, but I was there all day on Saturday, and the keynote conversations were refreshingly engaging,  and many of the panelists pushed the boundaries of conventional conference formats.

I’m hoping to circle back and write more reflections about the parts of the conference I attended, but in this post, I want to share my presentation. (It was a difficult presentation for me to make, given the tragedy in Boston last week… but, I think it was appropriate).

What impacts might Free and Open Source technologies have on networked insurgency tactics? How might 3D-printing, open source drones, open source rocket guidance software, and arduinos transform urban guerrilla warfare and pose a serious threat to (inter)national security? While these technologies are typically used for hobbies and play in the western world, their weaponization is an discussion whose ethical urgency needs to be taken up by communities of practice.

The tactics of networked insurgents are evolving at the speed of the internet, and FLOSS communities need to start thinking about strategies to anticipate, and prevent the weaponization of their software. Is the weaponization of FLOSS software intended in Stallman’s software freedoms?  While a minority of free software licenses attempt to prevent violent applications of their software, how should the average software developer think about their responsibilities towards the potential uses of their creations?

Ultra-Paradox

The Israeli elections are over, and it looks like Netanyahu’s “reelection campaign” wasn’t as successful as the last one he staged 4 years ago. A few months ago, in November ’12, I had just returned from visiting Palestine/Israel when the IDF launched an attack against Gaza. Although Palestinian rockets raining down on Israel are nothing new, the new extended range of the Qassam rockets allowed the Gazans to attack new targets. I listened in disbelief as I learned that a few of the missiles hit Jerusalem suburbs. As far as I am aware, the last time Jerusalem was bombed from the air was in 1967, by the Jordanians. And, I’m pretty certain the Old City was off limits. I mean, can you imagine the reactions if one of those Qassams scratched the holy dome of the rock?  Or, Jesus’ tomb, which is down the block?

The only way I have been able to understand these attacks is like an act of self-cutting—driven by utter desperation, isolation, and hopelessness.

From what I could tell, our Gazan (Brethren|Terrorists|Freedom Fighters) were basically lobbing missiles north, without the ability to aim. Humanity has been targeting projectiles for thousands of years, without the assistant of computers. Heck, the study of mechanics and the discovery of the parabolic equation was largely driven by military applications. For example, if you could calculate the rocket’s fuel, the wind speed, and the launch angle, you might be able to more accurately target a rocket. Or, even simpler—have some friends on the ground near the impact site tweet the lat/long coordinates of impact, and then adjust your next shot accordingly. But, we’re living in the 21st century, and the CTOs in silicon valley are playing with toy rockets controlled by open source missile guidance systems, like Altus Metrum. The weaponization of open source is democratizing access to the world’s most advanced killing platforms.

The Gazan militants are likely aware of these techniques, but if they aren’t, a lack of education is surely to blame. Education is a casualty of the occupation, alongside connectivity, mobility, access to water, fuel, electricity, etc. The Gazan militants are labeled terrorists since they kill civilian targets. But, if they can’t aim, they are hardly targeting civilians. The nuttiest part of this equation, is that if you tried to help them learn how to target their weapons, so they could aim at military targets instead of civilian ones, you would be accused of aiding and abetting terrorism. So, you can’t teach them how to not hit civilians.  You can’t help them overcome terrorism.

Adam Curtis, the BBC documentary filmmaker behind The Power of Nightmares and The Century of Self, wrote a recent blog post on this recursive, abusive co-dependency that reads like a dissertation proposal:  Save your Kisses for Me.
Working this out I almost blew a fuse. But, that’s the point. The situation is a paradox. A catch-22. No wonder the conflict seems to be stuck in an infinite loop.

Quetzalcoatl and Back Again

It’s nice to be on the spring side of the winter solstice. Farewell, Apocalypse. Nice try.

What a year. In 2012 I occupied — Wall Street, Mental Health, the American Psychiatric Association, and my dissertation. I catalyzed the production and distribution of Mindful Occupation, and helped organize the Icarus Project’s NYC 10 year anniversary event and art show.  And, I was privileged to visit the great Mediterranean capitals — Cairo, Istanbul, Athens, Jerusalem, and Ramallah. All while holding down a full-time job.

Some were not concerned that the world would end on 12/21, but instead, were horrified at the prospect that humanity will continue hurdling forward, business as usual. As many on our planet yearn for unity and the Most Great Peace, and there are hints we might be learning to direct, harness, and measure our collective intentions. But, as mystics have long understood, our collective choices will decide if we converge on a global state of war or peace.

All of my travels this year were transformative and intense, but my October trip to the West Bank was really the culmination of my hero’s journeys. I travelled there for the final stage of the project we began 2 years ago, trying to help Palestinian educators develop their capacity to improve their teaching excellence (Towards the (educational) liberation of Palestine, Dispatches from Cairo: The Raw Data, If I forget you, O Palestine…).

I travelled with my friend and colleague, Mark Phillipson.  Together we delivered a keynote speech at the Palestine Technical University — Kadoorie, in TulKarm, and taught workshops on cutting edge, video-based, teacher training and assessment techniques.  The PTUK team officially opened the Multimedia and Educational Resources Center (MERC), and were raring to go. The MERC center is an impressive accomplishment, but I also experienced great sadness and disappointment at the unsustainability of the development grant. Just as we were finally getting some traction, the funding was finished.  I understood that unsustainability is a common failure of projects like this, but the firsthand experience felt worse than any theoretical critique.

My boss/advisor/mentor, Frank Moretti, was unable to make the trip this Fall, but recorded a video introduction to our keynote that set the stage for the rest of my trip. The introduction started out cordial and friendly, but 3/4 of the way through, Frank lobbed a handgranade was starker and sterner than any Mayan prophesy. He warns that unless educators incorporate the twin themes of environmental catastrophe and nuclear war into every stage of curriculum we are headed for a “collective calamity”:

This warning framed the rest of my trip, and the rest of the year. I’m still unpacking the fallout.

Hide your kids

 

It’s back to school season, and if you’ve glanced up from your smartphone while walking the streets of New York City, you are sure to have noticed a new campaign that is sweeping the city’s billboards and phone booths.

 

Children’s Mental Health MATTERS

Where Science Meets Hope for Children’s Mental Health

 

Who could possibly object to children’s health and well being?

The Child Mind Institute, whose “Billboard is now at Penn Station!” is a recently founded non-profit “committed to finding more effective treatments for childhood psychiatric and learning disorders, building the science of healthy brain development, and empowering children and their families with help, hope, and answers.”.  According to their website, they don’t accept funding directly from pharmaceutical companies. Anyone want to help me start cross-checking Pharma’s ties to their staff and board?

In a gushing profile of the organization and its founder, Dr. Harold Koplewicz, the New York Times reported last summer that they are awash in millions of dollars of funding, have 14 clinicians on staff, and a former editor of the New York magazine is editing their website. Koplewicz is also the go-to doc for helping celebrities and the 1% “manage” their children. The story glosses over Koplewicz’s messy departure from NYU to start the Child Mind Institute.

“[Koplewicz’s] main mission in life, he contended, is to remove any stigma from mental illness among children and teenagers, make it merely something to be managed and overcome as it was with dyslexia or attention deficit disorder before it.” In his critique of Marcia Angell’s two-part series in the New York Review of Books on the epidemic of mental illness Koplewicz stakes out his position clearly: “In the meantime, we have patients, in our case children and adolescents, who desperately need help. These children may be out of control, overwhelmed by anxiety, dangerously aggressive, disorganized in their communication, floundering in school. We need to help them. Medications, often along with behavioral therapy, can have a transformative effect.” These are the symptoms that Koplewicz wants concerned parents to be vigilant about patrolling: Child Mind Institute Symptom Checker.

To me, Koplewicz reads like a raving megalomaniac, and his devotion and conviction are more frightening than the fictitious evil masterminds he claims are posited by Psychiatry’s critics. I get the sense that he genuinely believes his own spin. He worships at the alter of “objectivity”—”We would like to see objective research catch up with the clinical realities but can’t wait until that happens. Furthermore, falling back on pure non-pharmacological treatment is not the better alternative, since these treatments have rarely undergone objective evaluation.”—and the Child Mind Institute is outfitted with “the latest in brain imaging technology”. Koplewicz wields a formidable rhetoric, but is almost a caricature of the scientific realists in the Science Wars.

This post raises more questions than it answers. Who is funding the Child Mind Institute? Why now? How can organizations developing compassionate languages to describe mental diversity and difference, like The Icarus Project, respond to these campaigns? What roles do “objectivity” and “risk aversion” have in shaping the dynamics of this controversy? Should anything be stigmatized?

UPDATE 4/22/2013: I  tweeted about this ages ago, but realized that the following tidbit never made it into this post.

If you visit the wonderful Drug Industry Document Archive and search for ‘Koplewicz’, you will find that he was one of the co-authors on the now infamous Paxil 329 study that cost Glaxo Smith Klein $3 BILLION in settlements in 2012.

The Paxil 329 study tried to cover up the finding that not only does Paxil not work in children, but that it makes them more suicidal than a sugar pill did. The Dept of Justice found the study to be misleading and fraudulent.  I am pretty sure that the study was ghost written, but I think that makes his credibility even worse.

See also:

Bossewitch, Jonah (2011). Pediatric Bipolar and the Media of Madness “Drugs and Media: New Perspectives On Communication Consumption and Consciousness”, eds. MacDougall, R. C., New York : Continuum: 2011

Special thanks to Dyan Neary for helping out on this post.

#OccupyAPA: Mad Power, Mad Pride, Mad Action

 

Last weekend I went down to Philly to Occupy the American Psychiatric Association’s yearly conference (#OccupyAPA). I joined the protests on Saturday, attended the APA on Sunday, and participated in the Radical Caucus, hosted by a group of psychiatrists attending the conference on Sunday night. The weekend was overflowing with information and emotion, and I when I finishing unpacking it all I might just have a dissertation (or, at least a fat chapter).

This year’s APA was especially controversial since the DSM5 is scheduled to be published in 2013. Over a decade in production, and already delayed more than once, the DSM5 is, in a word, disastrous. Many psychiatrists, including the lead author of DMS-IV, have spoken out vehemently against both the processes and outcomes of DSM5.

[CALL TO ACTION: The final round of public comments on DSM5 is now open, until June 15th, 2012.]

The controversies around DSM-5 coupled with the energy of Occupy Wall Street, brought activists and the media out in force. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a front page story on the protests (Former patients protest psychiatric convention), New Scientist covered the protests alongside their DSM coverage (Label jars not people), The Grey Lady covered and opined the DSM disaster (though not the protests), the BBC was filming, NPR was recording, and at least 2 documentary film crews (Cause of Death: Unknown), and a multitude of citizen journalists captured and reported on the actions.

Saturday morning kicked off at Quaker Friend’s Center, with a powerful lineup of psychiatric survivors firing up the protesters with speeches, songs, and changes. Hundreds of protestors marched through the streets of Philly to the main convention center, many wearing psychopharmacomania t-shirts, and holding creatively maladjusted signs.

The protest culminated in a label rip, staged outside of the main convention center (The Alchemist makes an appearance at 2:25, warning that psychiatry is a threat to itself and to others).:

The Icarus Project represented, and we were thrilled to distribute physical copies of the eagerly anticipated Mindful Occupation to protestors, psychiatrists, and the media.

The protests were a rush, but for me, the surprise thrill was gaining admission to the APA conference itself on Sunday. I attended a few talks and a poster session, irrefutably detailing and confirming my research and predictions. Then I hit paydirt. The vendor exhibition hall. HOLY FUCK. Highlights included:

Future Blockbuster? Anti-psychotic action in 3D:

A live psychiatrist, hired by AstraZeneka, delivering their powerpoint presentation (she only squirmed a little when I asked her if this was the drug that killed 3-year old Rebecca Reilly):

and devices that only psychiatry can dream up uses for:


 

 

 

 

 

 

The Radical Caucus deserves a follow-up post of of its own. For starters, Brad Lewis’ brilliant breakdown seamlessly applies the hard-fought lessons of academic theory to the trenches of emotionally-loaded, real-life conflict. I have much more to say about this meeting, but first I need to track down who swallowed the comment that I posted in response to Brad’s post ;-).

For now, I’ll leave you with a teaser for next year’s APA: “Pursuing Wellness Across the Lifespan” – I guess that covers kids, the elderly, vets, prisoners, pregnant women, and whoever else is ensnared by DSM-5’s diagnostic nets (including the appendix).

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