"Undermining my electoral viability since 2001."

Daddy's Got a New Pair of Shoes

After close to five months of inactivity, I've updated my design in an effort to break the logjam of writers block. I've based my theme on meedjum, which is of course inspired by medium.com. I have a long history of "borrowing" my design concepts, and this is no different. I love the way this design puts emphasis on the text.

Depending on my motivation level, I have a few clever ideas regarding images, twitter integration, and popularity tracking to add as features. I wouldn't hold your breath, but optimistically I'd like to find time to noodle on the innards of the site. Web development is fun, and I miss it.

As for what's been going on lately in life... oh man; a lot! Pantheon has been going gangbusters, and my fiancee is living in the Bay Area now, and we're 43 days away from our wedding. The vendors are booked, and we're collecting RSVPs. It's been a lot of work, but her parents have been doing an incredible job helping with the organizing, and we have a lot of support from my family and all our friends. It should be pretty rad.

While still stressful — everyone will tell you wedding planning will "test your relationship", and it's true! — I feel like we've turned the corner, and it's getting kind of exciting. I've got butterflies in my tummy when I think about it. I also think I'd like to have a little less tummy by the time the date rolls around. But that's another story.

In terms of what to do with this old blog, I have a bunch of substantive posts rattling around in my head that I think are halfway good. It's the usual kind of stuff, and I'm still doing it for mostly selfish reasons. Writing helps me think more clearly. Maybe someday I'll write for an audience or with an impact in mind, but for the time being you can expect the same 80%-baked thinky things as I make my stumbling way in parsing our common reality. Frankly, I'm looking forward to it.

It's good to be back!

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Metadata, PRISM, and the Surveillance State

UPDATE Seriously, just go watch this video with the whistleblower who is the source all the below.

I've been tweeting up a storm and got a couple questions along the lines of "what do you think of PRISM?" so I thought I'd sit down and exercise my ability to explain in long-form what I think is going on, and what it means.

The News

Late last week, Glenn Greenwald broke a story at the Guardian about how the NSA — the National Security Agency; the camera-shy and more data/computation driven cousin to the CIA — was collecting phone records for millions of Americans:

National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America's largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.

The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an "ongoing, daily basis" to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.

Then, the day after the Guardian and the Washington Post published stories based on leaked documents about a program called PRISM which allows the US and UK intelligence services to mine data from popular internet destinations:

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Arts, Sciences and Sufficiently Advanced Technology

Reading a bit of trashy sci fi over the past weekend — good "hardboiled cyberpunk" about the encoding of consciousness into data and transferring between physical bodies as a way of managing interstellar exploration — while traveling in Mexico got me thinking about the old "sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" argument. I think I came up with some good riffs, and even some navel-gazing about me and my weird mercurial career, so here goes.

It's easy to dismiss outlandish ideas about interstellar travel as flights of fancy, and indeed there are good physics reasons to be skeptical we'll make it beyond the Solar System in any real way in the next few generations. But that also kind of misses the point. The original quote by Arthur C Clark is meant to position us as "people of the past", encountering some awesome technologogy of the future, possibly alien. How can we not react with awe? But what about all that we've learned to take for granted already? There's another threshold which we pass over when fantastically complecated and difficult processes become six or seven-sigma reliable and ubiquitous, things like Big Macs or indoor plumbing. You go from magic to assumed fact of life.

Take for instance the MP3 player going poolside on a carribean beach resort, playing Elvis. Here you have a device manufactured from raw materials that might come from three continents (rare earths, etc), forged into components in a number facilities about 8,000 to 10,000 miles away, assembled and delivered via an international shipping and retail process that is literally hundreds of thousands of people's jobs to operate.

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Linkage

I've been slammed against the wall. No time to blog, but I've run across a bunch of links that are working through the back of my mind. Collecting them here so I don't forget:

The Locust Economy

The Case For Less

Bitcoin, Energy and the Future of Money

The Moral Limits of Markets

Destructo Salon: Does Matthew Yglesias Enjoy Murder?

And this quote from Atrios:

The full employment fairy will help, if it ever arrives, but I'm just not sure it can when we have a nation of low wage workers and a political class who has no understanding of what that's like.

Imagine what I'll have to say!

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On The Ethics of Knowledge Work

Recently I tried out the service "99 Designs", largely with good results. However, this got some pushback from peers of mine in the web development community, which prompted a good bit of thinking on my part about the various ethics and contingencies of Knowledge work and Digital Labor. So, here goes.

First Principles

I'm sympathetic to the "No Spec" movement, especially when considered in the historical context of design and creative as a profession. To this day, much of the business of design involvs doing the work first, "on spec", and then only getting paid if the client liked it. If you're a fan of Mad Men, you've seen this. Don Draper forces Peggy and the gang to pull an all-nighter in a desperate bid to try and land a big new account. It's a staple of the show.

At its most extreme, the spec work process requires a completely finished product before payment, and a buyer will solicit this from several different individuals or firms, ultimately choosing only one to get paid. Or in the ultimate dick move, choosing nobody and "taking the campaign in-house" — which usually means stealing the best ideas and assets but handling the final execution internally, without paying anyone.

Clearly, this is no bueno: as one of my internet heroes Mike Montiero says, "F-you, pay me".

But, It's Maybe a Little More Complicated

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Things are wired up wrong

Started as a tweet, but I can't fit it into 140 characters.

What makes an idea good, or "compelling"? What makes a person expressing an idea worth listening to?

I've been thinking about "Suck On This", the infamous Tom Friedman statement after "the war was over" in Iraq:

(it gets really great towards the end)

Friedman is a bit of a piñata because he makes all kinds of generally innocuous but-still-ridiculous statements, and has a really ridiculous bio photo. He's an architypical gasbag with a perch on some of the most influential forums for "ideas" that the english-speaking world convenes, which is a shame, but I think what he represented in the video above deserves special attention. It's above and beyond simple buffoonery.

As a nation, we have a dysfunctional political culture, and it's in part due to terrible information inputs. Like we say in my game, "garbage in, garbage out": if your inputs are bad, you can't have quality output. The fact that most congressional offices have a TV in the main area playing 24-hour cable news (or, also, that financial institutions play CNBC) is an enormous problem.

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On the Challenge of Becoming Relevant

At the core of my ambition is a hunger to be relevant. This isn't anything special; you can sub out "relevant" for "important" and "important" for "powerful" and everybody wants to rule the world, but I've been thinking about what sort of longer-term career arc I'd like to have, and while I don't ever see myself beating the workahol or ceasing to be an entrepreneur I think it's important to have some notion of what I really want, and to see a way to get that while working at less of a breakneck pace than how I normally roll.

Sustainability is a key for the long haul. Sustainability and fulfillment. In the long run, I'd like to be able to move the world with my words, and have that be more than a hobby.

Specifically, I'd like to develop an independent platform as a pundit to promote and promulgate my own views and Just What Should Be Done in this here 21st Century. That's right, it's simple megalomania.

But seriously, I have had enough exposure to the world of politics to know that opinions matter, and enough experience working with up-and-comers to know that there are millions of hungry minds out there who are looking for something more than what they're currently getting from either the establishment of independent press. I want an audience that's big enough to matter. If at all possible, I'd like it if that were part of how I support myself and my putative family.

Figuring out how to get there from here is no small task. Traditionally if you wanted to be an opinionator of repute, you usually scrapped that together after a successful career in journalism, and/or because some publisher somewhere took a shine to you. In the internet age, the rules are quite a bit different. Here's what I see out there:

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Cultural Trends

I'm generally sensing a positive shift in the zeitgeist. There are three movies out this year about the Beat Generation, one of those clusters of hindsight or nostalgia that can catch impressionable minds. That's a good thing in my book — phalocentric as they may have been, the original hipsters (angel-headed) still have a thing or six to teach young minds about freedom. Not sure what the corresponding equivalent would be lending itself to the liberation of young women, but hopefully it too is on the rise.

Also, there's the Obama inauguration, and somewhat more importantly the fact that his administration successfully won a couple negotiations, which I admit was a surprise. It appears that the slow roll of generational demographics that underpinned his electoral victory may coalesce into some kind of new national consensus. It's still a long shot, and I think anyone putting much hope or trust in this administration from the Left is likely to be disappointed, but at the same time it's hard not to notice momentum.

The "Big Mo" is there culturally, no doubt about it. I think we're going to look back at 2004 as a kind of last hurrah for the hugely successful cultural politics that a generation of conservative activists executed in reaction to civil rights, feminism, Lyndon Johnson and hippies. Call it the Buckley brigade. They were able to push a not-very-popular GW Bush over the top with patriotic rhetoric and an intelligent strategy of linking "traditional marriage" constitutional amendments to drive base turnout.

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Expect the Unexpected, or why I don't believe in the Singularity

Well, the "Mayan Apocalypse" passed without incident. Given that life is apparently going to go on, I'd like to take a minute to register some thoughts on another end-of-the-world (as we know it) theory popular among technophiles: the Singularity.

At it's most generic, the term "Singularty" refers to a point in the future at which change begins to occur so rapidly it's completely impossible to predict what will happen. It's the equivalent to a black hole's event-horizon, the point at which light can no longer make its way out. After that point, we have no idea.

In that simple context, it's an interesting question to ponder — at what point does our ability to predict the future become so poor as to be essentially worthless? I'd actually argue that the answer to that question is a lot sooner than most Futurologists think, but more on that later.

The problem is that the popular interest in in the Singularity is based on notions of accelerating computing power and the replication of human intelligence or a different kind of "Strong AI" which has the potential to self-evolve. Essentially, some kind of artificial mind takes the drivers seat for technological development, at which point all bets are off because it will move much faster than we can imagine. Maybe we'll be immortal. Maybe we'll become post-human. Maybe SkyNet will kill us all.

It's fun to speculate about such things, and I'm not arguing against futurism or science-fiction. I enjoy both quite a bit. However, I do see a number of somewhat obvious flaws in this increasingly popular gestalt that I feel the need to point out, if only to make way for more interesting or pertinent speculation.

Remember: it's the "End of the World as We Know It", not the End of the World

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Do you like what you do?

Since getting engaged I spend more time thinking long-term about the world and my career. I've always had a yen for the big picture, but figuring out how yours truly factors in has taken on more urgency of late.

Some of it comes from explaining "what would you say ya do here" to a pool of putative in-laws who understandably have a number of questions. Part of it is needing to figuring out how I'm gonna cash the existential checks I've written with my existing career moves, to make good on my potential, to pursue the bigger-vision in more than a hand-waving context. A little bit of it is wanting to feel solid in an identity that's separate from the pop-culture caricature of Silicon Valley that's part of the current zeitgeist.

It's not a simple question. I have the most nebulous career and title in the world, "entrepreneur" and "founder". When I talk to people in the start-up game, I often extend the label to be "utility founder", like in baseball where you have a utility infielder; someone who can play shortstop, second base, or first or third in a stretch. The truth is I don't have a single job description. I have several. People in my field tend to get that. Filling multiple positions is par for the course in early-stage companies.

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