"Undermining my electoral viability since 2001."

British C-130 Down In Iraq

I've been following this story with some interest, and this worries me:

An Arabic television channel aired a videotape Monday purporting to show insurgents firing a missile that downed a British transport plane in Iraq, and London said 10 people were missing, believed dead.

My closest personal attachment to the war at the moment is my friend JD from high school. He flys as a Loadmaster on a C-130. He's supposedly on his last tour in the Middle East (number 7 if you can believe it) before being re-stationed stateside to do training. I hope those orders hold up. If the latest scuttlebutt about how they're dealing with troop shortages holds any water it looks like my man might get a reprieve from the front lines -- someone will need to train those desk-jockeys -- and by the looks of it not a minute too soon.

So this doesn't bode well for my friend, and it doesn't bode well for the rest of our people over there either. Whatever else you might call them, the Insurgents aren't stupid. They've been attacking suplly lines since day one, and from what I can gather, the air link -- largely supplied by C-130s -- has grown in importance as there are no truly safe truck routes in many areas. If the Insurgents have found access to a steady supply of SAMs, things are going to get much tighter over there. Here's hoping it doesn't.

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It Was A Beautiful Day in SF

Doing good out here. Things are in motion. I have transit arrangements from Oakland to NYC on the 15th (arriving butt-ass early on the 16th) and from Boston back on the 19th of May. I may bounce back between now and then, but the only certainty is to see my sister graduate from college, then return to this coast to load up for the road.

On that front, Luke got a truck. Off e-bay. Oh yeah. He's flying to Phoenix, AZ next weekend to pick it up and drive it back. The weekend of the 12th/13th we'll drive it up to Westhaven where it will be stored until May.

Things are shaping up. I spent the night in the Sunset with Carrie -- watched Eddie Izzard and had some ice cream -- and today instead of rushing home to work as I'd planned I took off through Golden Gate park on what turned out to be a nice three-hour ride through the swankier parts of SF.

In spite of my obvious hunger to leave, I'll miss this place; looking forward to a nice long goodbye.

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Voting Works Out In Iraq, But The Proof Is In The Pudding

The vote in Iraq seems to have gone as good as anyone could have expected, and better than pessimists predicted. That's cool. You can't knock democracy, even in its protoplasmic form. Chris Albriton has his observations from the street.

I'm inclined to point out that in spite of a fair amount of polling day violence ("a few dozen deaths" the wires report), the actual machenery of balloting seems to work better in the middle of a warzone than in fucking Ohio:

The predicted low turnout in Anbar, a hotspot of Sunni resistance to the American occupation, was exceeded to such an extent that extra voting materials had to be rushed to outlying villages, where long lines were formed at polling stations, Mr. Ayar said.

What a novel idea! When long lines form, extra voting materials are rushed to the spot of trouble. Polls close on time, no one walks away. In Ohio this year, people waited until 4 in the goddamn morning to vote.

Not to get off on a tangent, but Kenneth Blackwell should go to prison. I'm deadly serious. He should be put in a public stockade and grade school children should be bussed in from far and wide to pummel him with rotten fruit as a lesson in civics. However, since his tactic helped put his bosses over the top, he's more likely to get heavy backing in his run for Governor 2006, shades of his predicessor Katherine Harris.

Anyway, bully for Iraq on having a relatively orderly election. The question is whether the government elected will be able to siginificantly improve things. I think progress is going to continue to be slow, and hinges on whether or not the Sunni population will consider this government legitimate. If so, then there's hope. If not, then I don't see much light at the end of the tunnel.

As for us and our Troops; we'll keep spending billions and loosing thousands every year for a while yet, I think. The major question here is whether or not the Insurgents momentum is dulled by the elections, and whether or not they are able to secure access to more powerful arms. The weakness of the US Occupation is its supply lines, and if they are able to find a way to bring down our air transports -- e.g. if this starts happening with any regularity -- we'll be in serious trouble.

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Back to Iraq 3.0: Desperation or Hope?

Chris Albriton has been an independent reporter in and out of Iraq for almost two years now. His is a set of opinions I have come to trust. With elections there tomorrow, I take his predictions with some stock. Why? Because he writes it as he sees it:

BAGHDAD—Tomorrow Iraqis will go to the polls and, inshallah, get a better government that they have right now... Eventually. But first they will have to vote, and that's an activity fraught with peril.

The security situation is unreal. No cars tomorrow—except those with special passes, which includes media, cops, political guys, etc. in short, if you're an insurgent and you hit a car tomorrow, you're bound to get someone vaguely important. Only five polling stations in Baghdad will allow cameras or other electronic gear, so bear that in mind when you look at photographs of the election.

I'll be out in the thick of it for a while at least... Out with my photographer and seeing what goes on. Not sure if I'll be driving or walking. That will depend on my security guys. This is a free election? Insurgent pamphlets are being distributed that anyone walking to a polling center is a target. Several centers have already been blown up. The fear is thick enough to cut with a knife. The Iraqi security forces—with their American patrons—have tanks at the end of my street. Old Soviet T-55s, but tanks, nonetheless.

No one knows what's going to happen, whether it's the level of violence, the level of turnout or who will win. The Sistani-blessed United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) list is expected to do well, but I would be shocked if it got an absolute majority. My predictions for the elections...

Like I said, he writes it as he sees it. As Mike pointed out, he works for Time also. I know this. The only restrictions on his blog are that he can't scoop himself. For instance, when he interviewed Allawi, he didn't blog about it until after the relevant issue of Time came out, at which point he posted a much more lengthy transcrip than was published on paper. The whole point of what he's doing has been to provide better "context" and, since he started working as part of the regular reporter pool, to talk about the State of Journalism in a war zone.

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You send a postcard that contains a secret; they scan and put on their blog. Cool use of the medium for art. There are some really interesting things going on online in the realm of confession, secrets, etc.

This ties into why I think the net might support (finance, popularize) a new kind of live performance. It's a ways away from being big enough business to support many people, maybe a decade or so, but I think its coming. The current aesthetics of technology are going to change as more and more people figure out how to make shit. I'm just waiting for someone to work out a $200 linux-based system that's essentially a communications and e-commerce platform. That will kick some ass.

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Yeah They Call Me The Seeker

Contempating leaving this coast... flights to NYC are $85 from Oakland on JetBlue. Even I can affort that! I need to get serious about logistics, schedules and the like. I've been thinking about Feb 15th as a departure date. It's two years since then that I did this.

protests in NYC

Easy to forget that stuff. I thought it would be a good thing to come back in on such a date. I'd set up a meeting for axiom, start doing lunch witih people, working out of the Tank. It would be wild, I tells ya. Wild.

To be a seeker again. An explorer. I don't want to sleep. I want to curl up with a bottomless hot toddy and be slightly numb and melancholy and vaguely hopeful for the future forever, to sit under the sodium-vapor yellow of streetlights and contemplate how it all got away. At the same time, I want to be on the move; to ride, to fly, to run, swerve and accelerate. To feel the force of life in motion. F = mA, dig? And A = delta-V over t... Without acceleration (change in velocity vector-wise) there's no feeling. Time to ramble with open eyes.

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Three hits from the realm of politix:

  1. Pursuant to the Bittorrent jive I posted below, check this out. Downhillbattle is at it again. Eyes on the screen is a pure brilliant piece of copyright political activism.
  2. It looks from all signs that the Democrats are unified in defeat. The real questions now are will they be able to make headway in the national "marketplace of ideas" and take back some territory owned by the right wing noise machine, and will they be able to make hay from the fissures now apparent in the Republican coalition?
  3. For my part, I'm still decompressiong. I realize it's been a while, but I was in the trenches for a long ass time, and in pretty deep too. I gave up a lot to do this. Re-evaluation is ongoing. Have to see what feels right.

Back to watching movies and breathing deep.

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Bittorrent Cinema

I've been waiting more movies than usual lately. Not the kind of movies I go see in the theater or even rent; the kind I get for free off BitTorrent. So far I've seen Dark City and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and AI. My next attempt will be Equilibrium. I'll talk a little about the films later, but first a note about bittorrent, the MPAA (the motion picture equivalent to the RIAA) and the future of entertainment.

The MPAA is even dumber, it seems, than the RIAA. As it stands, Bittorrent and the p2p networks pose no threat (none) to their bottom line. They will at some point, but right now there is zero threat (none) of lost revenue due to these technologies. I don't know if they're looking to monazite these "on-demand" cable services, or if they're just upset over loosing control over their release schedule, but their newfound taste for lawsuits against torrent trackers displays a sadly predictable lack of entrepreneurialism.

Getting movies off bittorrent is a hassle, and the product isn't really all that great. It takes days of steady broadband to download a whole film, and even then you're getting something that's usually somewhere below VHS quality, with occasional and annoying digital defects. Analog interference detracts from the viewing experience, but if it's mild enough your brain will sort of accommodate it. Anyone who's ever given up with the antenna and settled for ghosty tv knows what I'm talking about. It's bearable. The digital hiccoughs you often get from the kind of compression it takes to squeeze a DVD down to 700mb can much more disruptive to the enjoyment of the film. If you really want to watch a movie, you're going to spend a couple bucks to rent the shit.

So why, then, is the MPAA trying to squash this stuff rather than looking for ways to take advantage of it? I have three ideas. One is that they're too myopic to try and turn this into a profit center. Two is that they're lazy enough to be satisfied with whatever vig they've negotiated from "on demand." Third is that they're not really motivated so much by profit, but rather terrified of having less control over their industry.

While I'm sure there's some latent fear of obsolescence and profit loss, if you look at the articles out there, one of the things that always gets a prominent mention is that some film made it out online weeks before its scheduled theatrical release. This suggests to me that the primary motive for the MPAA to crack down on bittorrent is not a direct fear of lost dollars in ticket sales and rentals, but a future fear of loosing control over their industry.

Here's a scenario: As more and more moviegoers turn to the internet for information about cinema, if advance reviews are available online, and they're negative, it could hurt the opening. It's no secret at the moment that there are "reviewers" out there who will hype anything in the hopes of getting advance screenings, gift-baskets, or even (they say) payola. A democratic advance-review process could break this system, and cause potential opening-weekend viewers to shy away.

I don't know that this has ever yet happened, but it might, and if it did it would be a threat to the current movie studio business model. On the other hand, what we're talking about here is undercutting the ability of movie studios to produce un-entertaining products and then recoup their losses by marketing the flick in a slick enough fashion. When you put it that way, it doesn't sound so bad. And who said business models are sacred anyway?

The point is, there are a lot of smarter ways to go about this. But if the studios (or even the theater chains) were to make a move, it would probably be public by now. Their strategy seems to be to try and sue their problems away. While they're clearly on a sound legal footing issuing Cease and Desist orders to tracker servers, the reliance on this strategy reflect a crippling lack of foresight. Maybe something to do with how many lawyers there are (as opposed to techies) in your average boardroom.

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The Decision

In the political circles I swim in, the fashionable debate these days is over whether you support Howard Dean -- who's candidacy I can lay credit (or blame) on for my own current participation -- or Simon Rosenberg, the brilliant leader of the Yuppie faction of the Democratic party (aka the NDN) who's got all the right organizational moves.

I don't have a vote or know anyone who does, so this is really only a debate. (There are only 440 voting DNC people around the country. Yeah; that's kinda fucked up, and hopefully it will change. But the debate rolls on.)

Here's where I'm at: I worry about Dean because I think some people might not be willing to accept him what with all the secretarian baggage he comes with. I believe he and his people will work with everyone in the party to make shit happen, but I don't know if everyone currently on the inside of the party feels the same. Also, Dean was just the candidate for his campaign; the actual organizational mojo was the work of his staff. That being said, I like Dean as a figurehead and tone-setter. I like his moral instincts, and I trust that there are plenty of people who would work for him in a heartbeat who understand how to kick ass with New Skool organizing techniques. In short, I think he'll do well communicating to the American people, I think he can re-brand the Democrats (which is what we need), and because he hasn't fucked me yet I trust him.

Simon, on the other hand, seems more popular with the folks I know. It may be that they're are closer to him and his organization. It may be that they trust his track record more than Dean's. Some ask about the wisdom of putting a loosing primary candidate in charge of the party. Some are put off by Dean's more vocal followers. Some just think Rosenberg would do a better job of reforming the party.

I can see Simon's qualifications, but I don't find myself liking him. Part of it is superficial -- I don't like his style, and I don't like the NDN's style. They're yuppies. I'm not supposed to like them personally, but it also worries me. I don't think they embody an idea of America (white-collar success) that can be broadly shared. People have knocked Dean before for being backed by the "Starbucks Ghetto" but that seems more an appropriate Simon's posse. I went to their after-party at the DNC. It gave me the fear... felt like the Marina.

I also feel that Simon Rosenberg is less trustworthy, because he told a small audience of activists I gathered with after the election all about his ideas for reforming the party, then insisted adamantly that he didn't want the job of DNC chair. I found out a few days later that he really did want it, so to my mind he lied to us. While I'm enough of a professional by now to understand that sort of thing, I'd rather not have to internally sigh and say "well, that's politics" to myself when picking the chairman of a party I'm trying to use as my vehicle.

I got into this to change the nature of the game. My sense is that Rosenberg is smart and committed, but essentially wants to build a Left-Wing version of the Republican Noise Machine. I'm looking to find a way to tune the country back to a good signal again, and that means more than doing Conservatives one better at the propaganda game.

In any case, I think either of them are preferable to the other lot. That Frost guy is a joke. Are you fucking kidding me?

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In Defense of Bottom-Up Epistimology

Sterling Newberry, blogger politico-econ-philosophistic head par-excellence and one of the most prodigious writers I've ever observed, has posted an essay on BOPnews attacking contepmorary pop-philosophy for being sophistic. He assails what be calls the "bottom-up epistimology" of the moment thusly:

  1. People make their best decisions from spontaneous snap judgements (Blink)
  2. The mass consensus is more right than any group of "experts" (The Wisdom of Crowds)
  3. When the Blink of Consensus shifts, change occurs (The Tipping Point)

I'm not sure whether Sterling is attempting to read the zeitgeist or criticize the authors here. If it's the former, he's got a point insofar as he's picking up on the latest iteration of market fundimendalism. However, if it's the latter, I think he's beating up a straw-man and missing a critical opportunity to boot.

Let me come out of the closet as someone who sees bottom-up epitsimology as a useful tool, if not quite exactly what I entirely believe. I took some epistimology courses in college because I wanted to see what it was all about, but in the end I really couldn''t get into it. At NYU, the question of "how we know what we know" seemed to often reduce to kind of innane debates over whether reality is really real. Maybe it was what the kids were into -- that was when The Matrix first dropped -- but it bored me. If there is no reality, then there's no point (that I can see) in living, and since I like living, I just take for granted that I'm not a brain in a vat or something. It lets one move on to much more substantial and meaningful questions.

My own epistemic philosphy is one of experience, best outlined in this performance text. Basically I think reality exists -- the laws of physics are real for all intents and purposes, and there's a bunch of energy and matter lying around -- but that human beings all have their own set of beliefs, knowledge, fantasy, etc. The perception of objective reality through the lens of these beliefs is experience, which is all that any of us will ever know. The central question of "how we know what we know" becomes then not about reality (which is largely out of our control) but about belief, about fantasy, which is the real variable in determining our experience.

My own creed is directly informed by my training and inclination as an artist. Beliefs can come from many places, but almost all fall under the bracket of "things we learned from previous experience."1 Art serves an important social purpose in creating novel experience that can impart values one wouldn't normally encounter (or encounter directly) in everyday life. I believe it is the responsibility of the artist to safeguard, maintain, and improve the beliefs , knowledge and fantasies of his/her fellow humans.

Artists are not alone in this role. The somewhat anachronistic craft of "Letters" -- ala "Arts and Letters" -- serves a similar purpose, as does the social institution of the Press, aenemic as the both of them are these days. This is where I see the phenomena of self-publishing fitting in, natch, but that's another essay for another time.

Getting back to the virtue of bottom-up epistemology, contemporary society suffers from an institutionally-supported paucity of ideas about how to be, how to live. At present, the top-down epistimology at work in most places is blandly consumeristic. Our fantasies rendered flaccid, banal, prosaic to better serve to logic of mass production and hence mass marketing. It is my belief that the "power corrupts" maxim applies to the brokerage of belief, that when the means of influencing ideas are centralized and closely held, a power-eliete develops who manipulate said means to maintain a beneficial order for themselves. As such, a diverse and competitive ecology for fantasy -- something that's lacking in 21st Century America -- is a benefit to society and critical component of liberty.

Now, Sterling knocks these pop-prostelatizers of bottom-up epistimology for much the same thing: justifying and/or extolling mundane consumer choice as an arbiter of virtue. Perhaps the missing link is The Wisdom of Crowds, which I haven't read, but my initial reaction to his critique is that at the very least he's misred Gladwell.

The Tipping Point isn't a work of philosphy. It's a book about marketing, about how people set about intentionally convincing strangers of things. It doesn't address whether epedemics of consumer choices are good or bad, just how they happen, and therefore how you can help them to come about if you're into that sort of thing. It's a how-to manuel for anyone who's got ideas which he or she would like to see more widely considered but doesn't have the resources to mount a major PR campaign. As such, I like it quite a lot.

Blink on the other hand, is about how snap decisions are made, mostly with ragards to pre-conscious pattern recognition. Again, it doesn't address the virtue of said decisions. In fact, in an excerpt I previously linked to, he talks specifically about how "thinking without thinking" can lead us astray. A nimble mind can immediately connect the omni-presence of advertising as an attempt to influence pre-conscious decisions. Maybe I make this leap because I already know this is how advertising works, but it seems like a pretty obvious connection to make if you're going to criticise the book for propping up the consumer state.

Questions of interperetation aside, Sterling errors, I think, in ascribing any motive to Gladwell in speaking to the virtue of either of these phenomena. He's an enthusiast for novel and under-appreciated modes of thought, but nowhere does he say anyhing along the lines of "this is the way it is, and it is good." In ascribing motives to the authors which don't exist -- that they're attempting to blueprint an order for society, or set forth where "the truth" is -- Sterling misses the actual value of the current pop-intellectual interest in bottom-up epistemology: it's full of great ideas for how to go about changing things cheaply and effectively.

In that sense, all the better if the current top dawgs see it as a sophistic confirmation of their market fundimentalism. To make an overblown analogy, it would be rather like business leaders in 19th-Century Europe taking The Communist Mannifesto as a comfort. Clearly the pop-lit on bottom-up change falls several orders of magnitude short of Marx, but wouldn't it be a hoot if the market's much-vaunted knack for assimilating critique where turned on its head for a change?

A savvy understanding of these books points to the impending eclipse of slow-moving institutions (a.k.a. large publicly-traded corporate congolomerations) as dominant forces in dictating the popular consensus. Once that cat is out of the bag -- when un-assimilated but intelligent people start realizing how pattern-recognition works and how social ideas spread -- the democratization of meme-making will be difficult if not impossible for the current Masters of the Universe to contain. I know those of us in the inner circle are sick of talking about memes and shit, but this stuff is about to hit the Midwest in a big way, and that'll be all she wrote.

It's worth putitng out there as an addendum that I'm not some kind of bottom-up fanatic. There's value in top-down epistemology in setting protocols (c.f. the code of laws), and there's value in institutions as shelters and training grounds. Ideally we'll get a world in which open, transparent, democratically-managed institutions form a core infrastructure for a society which is comprised of communities, networks and enterprising individuals. At the moment, though, we have a lot of dead weight. When institutions broker a vast portion of the societies belief, and these institutions are failing, in Sterling's words, to effectively represent a "rational system" -- one which obtains "objective results" and can effectively "credential" individuals to perform positive roles within a normatively-guided system -- the time is ripe for renewal, reform, even revolution.

1 Note the iterative nature of this construction: experience is a product of belief, which is itself a product of experience. This totally begs all kinds of questions about early childhood development. But that's really tough territory, so I tend to leave it to the professionsals.

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