Perspectives on the News

What are we meant to think? Where should all this go in our minds? What they present us with each day are minuscule extracts of narratives whose true shape and logic can generally only emerge from a perspective of months or even years.  News organizations are….  institutionally committed to implying that it is inevitably better to have a shaky and partial grasp of a subject this minute than to wait for a more secure and comprehensive understanding somewhere down the line” 

- Alain de Botton

“The audience of people that want to know what’s happening in the world week by week, the people that work during the day and can read it, its small, alright and it’s concise and there’s pictures in it, you know? It’s a certain class of people, its a class of people that take the magazine seriously, I mean sure I can read it, you know, I read it , I get it on the airplanes but I don’t take it seriously. If I want to find out anything, I’m not gunna read TIME magazine, I’m not gunna read Newsweek, I’m not gunna read any of these magazines, I mean cause they just got to much to lose by printing the truth.”

- Bob Dylan

“I feel, on a whole, blogs are probably more accurate particularly in the long term. When I publish a blog post it’s not edited beforehand, it’s not fact checked beforehand, but it’s my words, my name’s on it, I feel personally attached to it, and if there’s anything wrong in it I get a comment within five minutes telling me about it. That was the beauty of blogs and that conversation would be transparent under the blog post. I feel like bias was clearer, understood, and that the conversation that could happen so easily after the blog meant that the truth came out, even if there was a mistake, an honest mistake. Even if there was a dishonest mistake people would blog about it and link to it. You could have these conversations.”

- Matt Mullenweg (founder of WordPress)

on The Smartest Guys in the Room

Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room [Motion picture]. (2005).

This film nicely wrapped up what was a very complicated story. As the scandal took place, uncovering the important pieces of the narrative was difficult because they were competing with everything else in the daily news information deluge. Letting a few years pass and waiting for the dust to settle makes stepping back and taking the 10,000 foot view easier.

When Enron was originally in the news I didn’t have any sense of the great impact that company shareholders suffered, and I didn’t understand what a celebrated and ‘accomplished’ company it had been shortly before the scandal broke out. Being a high school student in 2001, I wasn’t as tuned in as I would be if something like this happened now, so I appreciate the deep-dive explanation of what really happened.

I am proud that investigative reporting was one of the catalysts for uncovering the story. At a time when many people think the media is suffering, news is biased, and technology has rendered newspapers and magazines obsolete – this scandal was ultimately uncovered because a lone reporter asked a few tough questions. A lone female reporter at that, who not was not only dealing with a very ‘macho’ culture at Enron, but also didn’t have very much career experience before breaking the story.

Energy is a form of technology, and that’s what Enron sold – but this didn’t feel like a story about technology. The company’s trouble mostly came from accounting practices, limiting the supply of their product and creating false demand to raise prices. This could happen with any industry that serves a basic need to the population – auto makers, communication services, airline industries, etc.

It raises the question (although it was seemingly answered for energy long ago) at what point does a technology, or a technology market, become regulable? There are probably actual definitions of this, but I’ve never thought about it before. Energy became regulable a long time ago, and now the internet is approaching that same threshold – but does it meet the same criteria?

How would this story be different if Enron were a broadband provider? I don’t know if they would have been held to the same ethical standards, since unlike energy, broadband hasn’t yet been defined as critical to the functioning of everyday life in American society.

The film presents the notion that Enron only attempted these unethical actions because they believed they were ‘smarter’ than the regulators, and that being smarter gave them permission to break the rules. Is this any different from the idea that ‘code is law,’ and whatever code someone is smart enough to come up with gives the coder permission to circumvent legality?

Squares and Dreams

Discovering a balance of visual elements within a defined space is exciting.

Driven by the influence of Instagram, most of the photography I’ve done lately has been in a square format, and captured on the fly – pieces of everyday life that I sneak into a symmetry. I go about my routines looking for rhythmic views that I might steal from the disproportionate world.

The square nudges me into looking for harmony of dimension, and the scenes I stumble on can occasionally trick me into thinking I’ve escaped the lazy, uninterpreted world… and slipped into a more astral, dreamy place.

Images from the last few weeks:

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Oct. 3

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Sept. 25

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Sept. 8

to Fiction or Not to Fiction?

The Daily Post asks – which do I prefer, fiction or non-fiction?

I’ve been reading much more non-fiction lately than its counterpart, but an admission of habit doesn’t consummate an endorsement. Instead of my undergraduate idols like Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Twain, Calvino and Delillo, now my reading pile is full of business and political biographies, philosophy, psychology, and software development manuals.

What gives? I can’t explain the transition, other than hinting that I don’t get paid to read novels, whereas skills or ideas I pick up from non-fiction have a chance of application in my working life. It’s a cheap premise, and I shudder to think I’ve unwittingly given up on the textured experiences of reading make-believe for the slim chance that I might find better financial rewards elsewhere. Reading non-fiction doesn’t also conclude I’ve disowned creativity – the best works of non-fiction can expose an unbelievable universe just as well as Tolkien can.

Fiction might be a little more ‘dangerous’ to read, in the sense that I don’t know how deeply affected I’ll be by the time I turn the final page. That could be why I’ve been skimping on it.

Non-fiction feels safer in the way of its predictability. A work of fiction might promise a simple narrative, but underneath the story of a kid floating down the Mississippi on a raft is a byzantine world of emotions, culture, desires and fears.

With some exceptions, non-fiction doesn’t usually offer characters that might confront my understanding of the world and run contrary to it. In fiction (good fiction) characters are explored beyond black & white existence, inhabiting a murkier grey area in which good and bad can cohere. Characters make decisions that expose moral puzzles, and the reader can be left confused about where to place sympathy. Non-fiction is usually much clearer about who its villains are.

Non-fiction opens slowly before it presents a challenge, and usually attempts to uncover a solution or display rationale before it finishes. Fiction often does the opposite; it begins with picture of stability, then transforms it into chaos, quitting haltingly just after the highest point of drama and leaving me to come to conclusions independently.

The authors of non-fiction (at least the kind I’ve been reading lately, and not the creative non-fictionists of the Wolfe and Mailer school) indirectly impress upon readers the idea that their subjects are under control, figured out, and ready for clear-eyed examination. The writers of fiction don’t dare to be as presumptuous, they are more likely to say ‘here is what exists, judge it as you wish.’

Of course there are exceptions to my generalization. There exists non-fiction which is just as challenging and open to interpretation as a novel, and there is some very bad fiction which is utterly thoughtless and predictable. The problem is that when non-fiction leaves its thesis open to analysis, it is much less entertaining than the same experience or idea presented in a fictional format – and when fiction is predictable, the time spent with it could have been made more prosperous by examining the monotony of the real world, instead.

Two Documentaries on ‘Hacking’

BBC – How Hackers Changed the World

While Anonymous was given most of the treatment in this piece, I didn’t feel like their story was the strongest thread in the overall hacker narrative. Lulzsec appears to be the group that did the most actual damage, while WikiLeaks is the most ethically challenging.

Anonymous comes across as a bunch of people posting on message boards who all showed up to protest the Church of Scientology once. Occasionally they were able to DDoS some government websites. They are presented as being large and formidable because allegedly ten thousand people participated in the Scientology demonstrations – but 10k isn’t that much, in the grand scheme. Ten thousand people shop at the Gap, ride the metro, buy a hot dog, blah blah every day. Boring and mundane stuff also attracts many people. Crowds don’t predicate meaning or importance.

Lulzsec on the other hand appeared to be able to cause more disruption with a much smaller and more focused group. Anonymous appeared to be too large to manage any kind of cohesive campaign, and the premise that it could operate without leadership doesn’t really have a historical precedent – anarchistic groups or societies have not accomplished much in the world, compared to groups with leaders and structure.

Discovery Channel – Secret History of Hacking

I think the order in which I watched these two documentaries made a difference in how I reacted to them. Watching the BBC doc first, and being exposed to Anonymous before Wozniak & Cap’n Crunch, had a different effect than if I would have reversed the order. I think I had less sympathy for Anonymous’s cause without the historical context of hackers that came before them.

The hackers of earlier decades, who began with ‘phone phreaking’ seemed to have a more innocent purpose. In the BBC doc, hearing the stories of Anon and Lulzsec and Wikileaks, I didn’t detect any of the harmless and curious aim that the original hackers had.

The earlier hackers also seemed to push the technology further. They subverted the intended use of the technology in a way that was unprecedented. Instead of disrupting or harming the way other people used it, they just found a way to use it more freely themselves. They were apolitical.

One interesting moment came when an early hacker spoke on the initial perception of computers – ‘why would anyone want one of these in their house?’ seemed to be the original sentiment, back in the 70’s when computers were large and not very powerful. It makes me wonder what technology is in its infancy today, that people are having the same reaction to. 3D printers? Self-driving cars? Google Glass? What else are people shunning for its perceived uselessness, that might someday dominate markets?

Two Bloggers Blogging

I stumbled twice today on articles by bloggers, about blogging.

First, in the Washington Post, Barry Ritholtz celebrated his 30,000th blog post. Yes, thirty thousand. If you’re having trouble comprehending that volume, you aren’t alone. He writes about finance in his personal blog and also contributes to several papers. Today was the first time I’ve ever read anything by him. Anyway, it’s taken me seven years to amass a paltry 172 entries in Brian Writing. At my current output, it will take me ONE THOUSAND two-hundred and fifty years (1,250 years) to catch up with Mr. Ritholtz. I better get going.

Secondly, my LinkedIn feed promoted a post by Richard Branson on his blogging tendencies. Instead of celebrating the milestone of an umpteen-thousandth post, Mr. Branson offers a general treatise on writing habit. The Virgin Galactic founder says that topics can be found in anything (I agree) and also praises the art of delegation – although he insists his posts are self-written, a team of ‘content’ people help him generate ideas. Apparently, among the committee’s ideas are to format each post with no less than three or four large, carefully composed promotional photographs of the author: talking on phones, wearing leather jackets, gazing up at the sky or pensively stroking his beard.

I enjoy writing in this blog for one of the same reasons that propelled Mr. Ritholtz to churn out thirty-thousand entries. He says: ‘Writing is a good way to figure out what you think. Often, I have no idea what I thought about a subject until I begin to write about it.‘ 

Well put, Ritholtz. It’s also a good way to make fun of billionaires and their library of self-stock imagery.

on my Ethical Radar

‘A man got to have a code.’ – Omar

As I wrote in a previous post, I just began a class in ethics and technology. During lecture last week, I couldn’t help but remembering the quote from Omar in The Wire on how everyone should have a code, or sense of morals – even if they don’t adhere to societal norms.

One of the ideas I’ve been most interested in, after two sessions with the class, is the concept of ‘discussion stoppers,’ and how they can be categorically expected to occur and also why they should be avoided.

I’ve never really enjoyed arguing for the sake of it. Many people get pleasure from the competition of proving their own righteousness or intelligence through ethical battles, and those people always turned me away from the activity. I prefer finding common ground in conversation, rather than exploring differences of opinion. In class, I’m finding out that to treat a subject which is ethically ambiguous requires a more concentrated effort than I’m predisposed to give.

‘Everyone has their own opinion, so there’s no point in trying to come up with a solution. It’s impossible.’ — this is a common perspective and one that I frequently give in to when a discussion becomes difficult. The textbook I’m reading suggests that it is incorrect to claim ethical progress can’t be made on account of the improbability of consensus. The fact that everyone can’t agree doesn’t mean that the discussion itself is useless, or doesn’t lead to minor advancements in understanding.

In the course of any typical week, I consume all kinds of news which touches on ethics. So, as part of the class, I’m starting to give more consideration to each scenario and what the ethical implications are, what claims were made to reach conclusions, and whether the claims appear to be sound.

Hitting my ‘ethical radar’ recently were several issues:

A police officer distracted by a laptop struck a man with his car, killing him, and the officer was acquitted because he was answering a ‘work-related’ email: Since when are emails or any other internet-based activity considered real-time communications of such a timely nature that drivers should be excused for killing a cyclist because they needed to respond to a laptop? The base claim here – that answering an email while driving was more important than a human life – seems unequivocally wrong.
http://www.businessinsider.com/police-officer-will-not-be-charged-in-killing-of-napster-executive-2014-8

Adderall and other ‘neuroenhancers’ being used in top colleges: Is it ok for students to do this? Why is it different from athletes being issued suspensions for using drugs? Those are the questions hinted at in this New Yorker article, which is more descriptive of the phenomenon than suggestive of any ethical standard. It does make more transparent the norms which predetermined the subject’s choices – such as legal decisions categorizing Adderall and other amphetamines as prescription-only drugs.
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/04/27/brain-gain

The Death of Adulthood: A lengthy and fascinating article in the NY Times by film critic A.O. Scott. The premise is that American literary culture has always been youthful & rebellious, but until now those sentiments had purpose against some specific enemy or authority. Scott claims that post-millennial culture has done away with adulthood, but without the ethical backbone of its predecessors.
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/14/magazine/the-death-of-adulthood-in-american-culture.html?_r=0

Ray Rice and the video taping incident: Aside from the obvious conclusion that Rice’s actions were inexcusable, this story raised several questions about the ethics of surveillance. Was it ethical for the video owners to keep it private for so long after the incident? Does a person who makes a surveillance video have some kind of rights over it, or should they be obligated to immediately make it public? Since they are filming a public place, shouldn’t the video be ‘public,’ and viewable by anyone who is interested in that space? Why are videos filmed for surveillance kept more private than the places that they are filming?