Monday, June 26, 2006

Morons in the Peerosphere

I've spent most of my life avoiding doing much of anything that I perceived as hard. I mean, Why bother? Much of my motivation for this approach admittedly has had much to do with fear of humiliation; my dread of gym classes a good example. Avoiding mathematics of all sorts has more to do with an unfortunate lack of aptitude. I really wish sometimes that I hadn't become so clever about avoiding those things which seemed difficult. Ironies abound, avoiding hard things has lead to much humiliation. I seemed ready to suck my belly in and take humiliation with the pretense that at least it served my plan to avoid whatever it was I was avoiding. And one would think that avoiding hard things is akin to "going with the flow," but damned if I'm not a stubborn fellow. I'm rather proud of how little work history I've accumulated, if for no other reason that's been a sort of plan all along.

As much as I don't seem to mind being stupid, I very much like smart people. Sometimes being stupid in front of smart people can lead to very informative interactions, but at other times can be downright embarrassing. I'd do well to find a little reticence about using my mouth and keypad.

A recent post at Phil Jones' Platform Wars concerned groups of users of software with attitude versus developers of software with attitude. As a programmer and developer, Jones strips away the pretentiousness of attitude of software users which boils down to users telling developers what to do. Jones wrote:
But the idea that development is a commodity - which is essentially what he's saying here -, that it’s like the water supply which can be turned on or off or piped-around at the will of the user, is wrong, wrong, wrong.

The reason is, that good software creation, like any other creative activity, requires a deep knowledge of the nature and constraints of the medium. You can’t invent the transistor without a profound understanding of physics. Nor write a great novel without being a master of your own language. Nor a great painter without knowing paint. Nor invent radio or television or the computer without a background in the relevant science.
Heaven forfend I should attempt to learn software engineering, that's way too hard. But I think users and developers should talk with each other; developers say the most interesting things and are very well represented in the blogosphere. So I typed in a comment to the post. I rather knew that my comment wasn't really responsive to the thrust of his post and that I was vaguely trying to get at something but hadn't really gotten a handle of what that something was.

As luck would have it the post corresponded with this weekend's BloggerCon conference and Phil Jones's post was linked to at Dave Winer's Scripting News. The result: plenty of people went to Platform Wars to read Jones' insightful post. If they wanted to comment they had to scroll past my moronic comment. I hadn't bargained on that.

Years ago as part of a standardized test to get a teacher's accreditation I had to write an essay in a short time. The test booklet gave the standard advice about making an outline before writing, but I'm not an outline-making kind of guy. We had to open an envelope to discover my essay question. It was essentially: "Technology: Good or Bad?" The gist of my essay was that people--homos--are tool makers. It's hard to think of people without thinking about language. Language is a kind of tool, a technology, so good or bad people are rather stuck with technology. And to make matters even more muddled, every technology seems to bring along with it unintended negative consequences. I barely passed the essay portion of the test!

My comment at Platform Wars had something to do with the unintended, not always negative, consequences of new technologies. I get goose pimples all over when I think about the great possibilities that computers and the Internet will make possible. I'm also of the sort that wants computer software to allow me to do stuff without any care about what makes the software tick. Recently, and in no small part a result of reading John Robb's Global Guerrillas, some of the potential negative potential of these new technologies have begun to dawn on me. What if the most innovative and up-to-date supply chain management software is used by criminal gangs running drugs and guns as well as by health departments and NGO's to deliver lifesaving health care?

I've been following the development of Kiva with great interest. The model of micro-credit financing is so innovative I'm certain that it's creating something good. Another great thing is that in addition to the wonderful Kiva site there are several blogs to follow the adventure. A post at IntoContext relates some hard questions about the business model:
The response was very critical with very pointed remarks about the failures of Kiva even in a large sense about what their intentions were. They brought up issues we had never considered like what if people use Kiva to launder money. What measures had Kiva taken to protects the MFIs.
Whoa! I hadn't thought of any of those things. I'm not the least bit suspicious of the good folks at Kiva; rather that new technologies bring attendent negative consequences.

I always groan when I hear, "Guns don't kill people; people do." Still, I generally find it easy to imagine technologies as lacking intentions. Drivers of automobiles ought not to drive drunk, and it's really rather hard to imagine that drunks would have much of anything useful to say to automobile designers. Or for that matter what users of satellite communications devices might have to say to rocket scientists. The same sort of differential of knowledge attainment between users of technologies--especially moronic ones--and developers of technologies apply to software and the sorts of discussions users and developers of software and software systems.

Not being a rocket scientist I have nothing to of use to add in discussions of rocket designs. Nonetheless I think I shouldn't be excluded from discussions about nuclear weapons. Indeed, I think there are avenues of scientific investigation that scientists ought not to proceed and such discussions are not the sole province of scientists. Because I haven't paid much attention at all to software other than what it might do for me, I hadn't until very recently imagined that software development posed dilemmas on the order of nuclear weapons. When I wrote the comment at Platform Wars it was discussions about human responsibility between users and developers which I had in mind.

The trouble is I don't know enough to write a sensible comment on the subject, or a sensible blog post for that matter. I believe strongly in the great positive potential for everyone in peer production, and the arena that Jones calls the peerosphere. With that comes the responsibility to know something about "the relevant science" of software development. Oh no! That sounds like hard work. Still, I've managed to learn something about physics and something about biology in order to engage in thoughtful discussions about other technologies where vital questions about human responsibility come into play. It's about time to begin my education in this vital area begin as well.

There's been some great discussion of a recent article by Jaron Lanier, Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism. The discussion about the piece is particularly interesting (more here and here) because implicit in the thoughtful discussion is an understanding of the architecture of software design, the fundamental science informs the discussion.

It's a good thing that developers discuss their work online so now I have a bit more motivation to listen in. I hope I don't write too many more mindless comments on anymore of their blogs, but I probably will.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Garden People

National Archive

Drat! Just as I was finishing up this post my browser crashed and I lost it. One might think it's easy to reconstruct a post--a matter of retyping--but that's hardly the case for me. Oh well, I wasn't quite sure about the post anyway.

I began it with Rear Rear Adm. Harry Harris, Guantanamo Bay commander saying the three recent suicides there were acts of "asymmetric warfare." The always interesting BagNews Notes has a great post about the incident with links to the Charlotte Observer coverage. If you are at all interested in the story, go to BagNews Notes and click through the links. The reporting by the Charlotte Observer is important and unique.

The picture is of a garden made by Yasusuke Kogita during he and his family's four years as prisoners at the Minidoka Internment Camp in Southern Idaho. I discovered the picture through an NPR Morning Editon report by Ketzel Levine. Levine tells about Kenneth Helphand's Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime. NPR provides a few book excerpts.

What connected Guantanamo to the picture of Yasusuke Kogita's beautiful garden was a report about how prisoners at Guantanmo had saved seeds from their meals in order to create a prohibited garden. A British human rights advocacy organization Reprieve has begun collecting seed packets and gardening advice for the prisoners at Guantanamo. They know the prisoner's actually receiving them isn't likely, and are prepared to sue in US courts for their delivery. Success through the courts is even less likely, so the effort is to protest.

We are assured both that victory will be ours in the "War on Terror" (WOT) and that the war will be more or less permanent, at least there's no end in sight. It's disconcerting to know that already WOT has exceeded the length of the US in WWII. The peeved reaction of US officials to the suicides at Guantanamo reveal a frustration with the progress; a plaintive cry: "Why won't they just do what we tell them to do." Last week a song performed by a US soldier in Iraq, "Hadji Girl," made the rounds of on the Internet; via Digby the lyrics include:
I grabbed her little sister and pulled her in front of me.
As the bullets began to fly
The blood sprayed from between her eyes
And then I laughed maniacally
Then I hid behind the TV
And I locked and loaded my M-16
And I blew those little f***ers to eternity.
And I said

Durka Durka Mohammed Jihad
Sherpa Sherpa Bak Allah
They should have known they were f***ing with a Marine
A German TV station has a clip startling to hear the audeince response of laughter and approval.

As Americans begin to speak about the WOT; tentatively asking "WTF?" the accusation is hurled that any discussion is an aid to terror; an expression that we don't want to win the war.

I discovered the links to the Charlotte Observer stories about Guantananmo after I'd lost the previous incarnation of this post. I was struck by Col. Mike Bumgarner. The reporter relates:
He got a phone call. It was the older of his boys, the one that most closely shares his father's reverence for honor and duty.

"Dad," he asked, "what are you doing down there?"

Bumgarner was stunned. "For him to challenge me and question whether I was doing anything to compromise my integrity and his, well, it hurt me very deeply."
I relate very much to the hurt he felt and recognize that I have a responsibility as a citizen which has real bearing on the lives on the service members sent to fight under my flag. They are my sisters and brothers, my fellow citizens. Col. Bumgarner is following orders for which my small influence exceeds even his. To say forthrightly that the prison camp at Guantanamo is a dreadful blunder which should be rectified by its prompt closure is not to undermine his integrity, rather to attempt to preserve it along with my own.

Victory Gardens during world War II were for food security, but they also served as a way that ordinary people could be engaged in the war effort. I'm not so sure that the whole food security angle of such gardens for today isn't a good idea. But I think that gardens planted without that motivation are good ways for Americans to become engaged. What is so lacking and in critically short supply are our imaginations engaged to respond to the challenges we face today. Gardening can engage our imaginations.

Why does a prisoner save a lemon seed to plant, and then secretly plant it although it's forbidden? Is it really so hard to imagine? Look again at the picture of Yasusuke Kogita's garden. His son's remember that he was lost in reverie as he meditated and worked on his garden. Gardens are a way to manifest our love and connections to life.

On Tuesday June 20, PBS will air the third in their FRONTLINE documentaries about the Iraq War, The Dark Side. The title stems from vice-president Cheney's warning that after 911 the US government would have to operate on "the dark side." Our descent has been rapid and pervasive as we move towards a terrible world with no restraints to power over enemies.
The lists of enemies have grown to include a bare majority of Americans ourselves: Americans who express any questions or reservations about our nation's secret conduct outside the framework of representative government and the law.

My friend PingTing wrote a wonderful comment to my previous post on torture encouraging me to stop paying attention to the media for a week, among other things. He wrote:
my reality is what i can deal with. i try to be kind and gentle in the world each day. if i water the
plants around me, and tend to them, they will hopefully grow well and the bees will come and the flowers
will flourish and spread. we can "do" more (to help the world condition).
He is more eloquent than I in making the point why we should garden now more than ever.

It's not really about gardens per se, PingTing and another friend arrived at my house after supper one day last week. It was so delightful to walk with them on a long walk through the gardens here as the light faded and the darkness set in. I don't get around to mowing the grass as often as is expected, and goodness knows my approach to weeding and watering, essentially ignoring those activities, leaves much to be desired. Still I plant seeds and wonder at what comes up. We picked flowers, touched and smelled the plants as we went along. Pausing to admire the shingles of bark of the Shag Bark Hickory tree and how it conjured sinister renderings of forest in illustrations and films. Then over to the massive Hemlock towering at an angle, bent by the wind. I laughed at myself when I noticed that I was indeed hugging the trunk. The best aspects of my garden are ones I had nothing to do with. Appreciating them makes me a part of the garden, makes it mine.

Over the time of this blog I've repeated "create something good" which has been attributed to G. I. Gurdjieff as his answer as to what our response to evil must be. I'm not a student of Gurdjieff, but that answer seems inspired to me.

I'm not sure I'll take PingTing's advice to stop consuming media for a week. But the point to focus on those things close to me which I can reasonably influence seems good advice. As my government, leaders and many fellow Americans embrace a dark path, at least what I can do is try to remember and follow the path that's towards the light. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke much that's worth repeating:
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Torture Is Wrong

Artwork by Octavio Roth

It doesn't take much for me to get writer's block. What seemed to bring it on this time was an effort, Bloggers Against Torture an alliance of bloggers in support of Torture Awareness Month. More specifically a promise to do a post sometime in June about torture I made at the end of May. It didn't help that I composed a post and then my browser froze and I lost most of it and have to reconstruct it now.

I've had plenty of time to think, and I've collected more links than I know what to do with. Yet I still don't know what to write. I'm against torture. Torture is wrong. Thinking about torture makes my limbs weak and my stomach ache.

When I was a boy I changed schools in the fifth grade. Christ Church Episcopal School is a private school and most of the other students had started together in primer, so I was lowest on the pecking order.

The winds of change were stirring in the mid-sixties in the American South. Two summers before I was enrolled at the school my mother had taught a racially integrated class which was part of the earliest beginnings of Head Start. These classes were the first racially integrated public school classes in Greenville since the late 1800's. The year I was in fifth-grade the news was all about how the next year the public schools would implement a very feeble desegregation plan, which allowed students to choose the closest school to where they lived. A huge uproar ensued; the local paper fulminated against it. Just a few years earlier Greenville had shuttered its public library rather than allow it to become integrated.

The upshot of this was that the private school where I went had to make some decisions. The first decision was whether it was a racially segregated school. They answered, "no" and made plans to admit black students, but only beginning in the primmer class. The second decision was how the school would respond to enrollments for the most part that decision was answered by the first.

In hindsight the school's decisions seem quite tepid. The decisions could have gone the other way as hundreds of all-white "Christian" schools in the South attest. Greenville is also home to Bob Jones University, a determined advocate for racial segregation. Bob Jones is an important stop for political stump speeches for Republicans running for national office. The story goes that Bob Jones University has changed, but not so much.

With a year of school under my belt a few new students arrived for sixth grade, and one was from a Bob Jones family. The American South has many traditions and an essential tradition inculcating a "culture of honor" is bullying. I was bullied mercilessly throughout my fifth-grade year.

At the end of summer my mother told me that my father wanted me to play football--my brother had been a high school football star. Perhaps it had something to do with my being called every variation on the theme "faggot," but they had to know I hated football. In any case, I was dutifully suited up to play. In the locker room one day after practice the big boys started bullying the Bob Jones boy, who was very enthusiastic about football. I saw it as a chance to work my way up the pecking order and joined in. Students at that time took a bus from the school to the YMCA for physical education. On the bus back to school I felt sick over my great crime. I was sick about joining in the bullying for days. I never repaired my transgression with the boy, so now all I can do is to silently say his name and wish for forgiveness, as I've done many times over the years. He only lasted that one year at the school and as I think back mustn't have had a single friend the whole year. Still, I feel grateful for the experience because I learned that some things to gain acceptance by others weren't worth doing for the sake of ones own peace.

It's easy to imagine those who torture as "monsters," but the truth seems that we are all capable of torture as childhood cruelties attest. I don't have piercings and no tattoos for me. Of course I don't want to be tortured, nobody does. To hear about torture is quite distressing not just from the horror of the pain inflicted, but from the recognition of what it does to those who torture.

I thought of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and Haiti when contemplating torture. One of the troubling aspects current American notions of terrorism is that it's a single flavor which goes by the name Al-Qaeda. Unfortunately there are many more flavors than that and Duvalier reign offers a disturbing template of private armies, based on the previous example of Italian BLackshirts and German Brownshirts, funded by crime and extortion enforced by torture and terror layered with religious zealotry.

John Maxwell writes for the Jamaica Observer. He's been called many things, among them "a journalist's journalists" and is surely a wonderful essayist. At Chicken Bones: A Journal is a handy collection of his essays. If you're not already familiar with Chicken Bones click on Home and check it out. Maxwell frequently writes about Haiti. In a column a couple of years ago An Ozymandias Moment Maxwell is critical of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq as well as policies toward Haiti. He makes an essential observation:
But, it is clear to me, that any government which is unable to recognise the essential human dignity of any human being is obviously not civilised.
President Bush has declared: "We do not torture." Alas, there is so much evidence to the contrary.

The list of American traditions, conventions and legal obligations against torture is long. In 2001 Richard Du Boff made a list of changes in American commitments to legal obligations of international law. This was prior to the Guantanemo Prison which has made our legal contortions even more extreme. It seems useful to consider that the novel claims of legal authority which the Bush administration have taken existed prior to the day that "changed everything." And with an interpretation of presidential authority existing above the law the charge to "take the gloves off" was an easy slide.

"We do not torture" but then again it's hard to know. The revised US Army Field Manual for Interrogation, previously a transparent public document, now contains ten secret pages. But we do know that the manual abandons a key component of the Geneva Conventions banning "humiliating and degrading treatment." Aparently for the president it all depends on the "meaning" of torture and the artful interpretation of the laws.

John Robb notes that as the news about what happened in Haditha "filters out" that it becomes plain that a paradox put forwar in Martin van Creveld's book The Transformation of War is in play. Robb helpfully provides and excerpt:
In other words, he who fights against the weak - and the rag-tag Iraqi militias are very weak indeed - and loses, loses. He who fights against the weak and wins also loses. To kill an opponent who is much weaker than yourself is unnecessary and therefore cruel; to let that opponent kill you is unnecessary and therefore foolish. As Vietnam and countless other cases prove, no armed force, however rich, however powerful, however advanced, however well motivated is immune to this dilemma. The end result is always disintegration and defeat...
My horoscope in today's paper warned me against singing to the choir. My presumption is that the choir composed of people against torture must be very large indeed. But with news of Guantanemo, Abu Gharib and extraordinary rendition opposition to torture clearly has broad support. Also in the paper today right wing columnist, Ruth Ann Dailey excoriates the left for failing to celebrate the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. I think Ruth Ann Dailey's contention that Zarqawi's death was met with silence on liberal and progressive blogs. But what her explicit condemnation of the left for not being on the side of civilization is a good example of how difficult the national conversation has become.

Being against torture ought not be a politically partisan issue. For the American right the "War on Terror" is a contest between civilizations. To the right in this contest no action can be too extreme in order to win.

Study by the Union of Concerned Scientist predict that the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the form of "bunker buster" bombs against suspected nuclear sites in Iran would result in one million deaths and an additional ten million affected by increased cancer risks. Physicians for Social Responsibility (PDF file) report that in one scenario using computer models the deaths were as many as three million. Yet when Seymor Hersh reported on planning against Iran's nuclear installations including the use of tactical nuclear weapons, the dominate controversy was whether Hersh is with us or with them.

The illustration is of Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Ruth Ann Dailey envisions "civilization" as American Christian Empire over all and at the expense of all other human civilization, and she's hardly alone. I agree with John Maxwell that any government and anyone who doesn't recognize "the essential human dignity of any human person is obviously not civilized." My hope and prayer is that we can increase human civilization. Understanding that torture is wrong is essential to that movement.