The unbearable lightness of being… Snowden

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Sep 302014
 

I read the news today (well, on the weekend, actually), oh boy. It seems that the Internet is coming under attack in the East. It made me wonder about the poster child for Internet utopianism: Mr. Snowden, in his lavish or maybe squalid Moscow apartment.

China has, of course, been a strong “administrator” of Chinese Internet for a long time now. Everyone there and here expects the regime to nose in on and strong arm service providers, search engines, portals, and users in their age-old quest to control everything about that society. But we all had such high hopes for Russia after the fall of the Wall in ’89. Democracy and capitalism would roll through the former Soviet Union like Siberia-bound train. It seemed to start pretty well, and then members of the billionaire oligarchy ended up in jail, their assets nationalized. Punk rock girls went to jail. People disappeared. The president, despite following constitutional rules slowly and steadily became an imperial government of one. Flash forward and the old bear is annexing Ukrainian sovereign territory and fomenting insurrection with some soldiers that they lent to (or “allowed” to go fight with) rebels in eastern Ukraine.

During this period, as everyone knows, Edward Velcro-hands absconded with classified secrets of the US and other governments, secured while he was a trusted contractor to the National Security Agency. Instantaneously, in the heady days of Wikileaks and Julian Assange’s 15-minutes of fame, Snowden became a hero to patriotic freedom lovers the world over, not least within the civil rights and other such communities in the US. So roundly loved and lauded was he, that he immediately fled the country first for Hong Kong and then for the loving embrace of Mother Russia. This, of course, so that he would not be tried as a thief and traitor.

The secrets about “Five Eyes” and US/other government surveillance of its own citizens showed clearly that the Western governments about whom he had discomforting information to reveal were not doing very good things–to their own citizens. To make a long story short, the whole episode and Snowden himself always speaking from Russia via video catalyzed and crystalized popular awareness of the dangers of the Internet. That is, it revealed that the Internet is not a utopian garden where there is peace, love, and understanding (except for the Nigerian scammers…), somehow removed from the rest of the world. It also showed that governments were bringing the rest of the world–all that bad stuff–to this electronic Eden.

What was revealed but did not obviously trouble those who were troubled by the trouble that Snowden found himself in was, in fact, that the world is a nasty place. The kind of ugliness that we see on television drama and in movies actually happens someplace in the murkiness of the shadows and behind closed doors. Moreover, it happens because while civil rights and protection from government encroachment on one’s privacy, to pick a popular theme in this situation, is important, national security might trump it. That is, its a judgment call: your privacy or your safety? It is arguable that we elect our governments to fall on the side of our safety when things get rough. But that is not the point here.

What Western governments were exposed as doing was in and of itself bad. But what Snowden exposed was tactical information that eliminated any kind of advantage in a bigger forum–like international affairs. In any case, the point is that although he is a wanted man, he is alive. He propagated navel gazing and pontificating about these subjects to the point that one has to wonder whether the safety issue has been sufficiently, artificially, and probably disastrously poisoned. But that’s enough back story and evangelizing.

Why I thought about Snowden this weekend is because of the laws that Tsar Putin is intending to have enacted. Specifically, Putin intends to extend the state’s right to control the Internet in Russia. The details can be found elsewhere, but the broad strokes are that any individual with a blog read by more than 2000 people will be considered a media outlet and subject to the laws governing media organizations. Portals, search engines, and other service providers online must operate specifically off of servers located in Russia which would be firewalled at the Russian border AND fully subject to the state having unfettered access to all logs and records. There’s more.

About Edward Zhivago, I wonder if he’s at all disheartened by this turn of events? It’s not like he can complain much about it. Perhaps he’s morally OK with the situation because the Russian snooping and surveillance would follow the rule of law, such as it is? Let’s admire the fact that Putin has no intent of spying on his people from the shadows: he’s fully up front about it. In any case, I prophesy that if he is as smart as alleged, he won’t be making any video appearances at SXSW castigating this unfortunately imposition on the privacy, rights, and freedoms of Russian Internet users. Or, if we do, it will only happen once.

I use “F-Words”

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Sep 122014
 

I use “f-words” in mixed company. Well-bred professional, management, and executive types recoil in disgust. One might think that they would be inured to f-words. But they seem to hold themselves above all that.

Of course, the most troubling f-word is not the one on the tip of your tongue now. This one sounds “eff” but starts “ph.” Try saying philosophy in the company of busy career people; just be prepared for rolled eyes and that piteous expression that says you just don’t get it.

Those blank faces better “get it” soon themselves. Our privacy and maybe even democracy could depend on it. After all, not every tectonic shift is as blatant as the revelations of Edward Snowdon or as arrogantly, publicly contemptuous as the Fair Elections Act. Pay attention to the every day stuff!

Today’s transactional immediacy of business and government work is not an historical novelty. There was no time when these practical people were more inclined to think deeply about what they were doing. What may be different now is the measure of disdain for anyone who challenges business or government plans and actions more deeply than what the pervasive “value proposition” pap answers.

If we refrain from contemplations of epistemology and such, and stick to ethics and the sunnier(!) side of existential questions, philosophy is about purpose. That has to be clarifying for professionals, and is about as close as most organizations get to schwerpunkt (a typically consonant-ridden German word that means concentration point or main effort).

When I say philosophy in this company, I often mean, “What do you believe?” Not as in, “We believe the world wants a device that will allow them to…” That’s actually, “We think…” Rather, as in, “We believe that people need to remain connected to other people; we believe our purpose is to provide devices that…” Despite reading and abiding by directives such as Start With Why (Sinek, 2011), this kind of descent to expose the core assumptions of “Why” is one nobody really wants to take.

So why is that kind of philosophical pondering held in such disregard?

First, it’s hard. It requires rigorous thought, due consideration, and alternative points of view. None of which is acceptable in an environment of HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) rules or unconsidered braying of partisan vitriol.

Second, it’s still hard. It demands a sense of right and wrong. That then presumes you might stand for something, ideally something that can be argued rationally from some principles. Rampant specialization and narrow awareness does not lend itself to this capacity.

Third, it’s unnecessary. After all, whether its Mill, Burke, Rousseau, or Jefferson, there are philosophies a plenty to choose from and no need to waste time on such things now.

Fourth, well… it’s hard. Given the preference for action—any action!—to indicate ability, quality, and value, taking time to muse over that action gets indicted as regressive to say the least.

It’s true that some fundamental underpinnings of philosophy are timeless—give or take a millennium, otherwise we wouldn’t still look to Plato. But other philosophy is more set in a time and place—give or take a millennium or continent, so it needs to be refreshed from time to time.

Given the rate society is evolving in technology’s wake, we need to take a little time to continually consider whether our core values remain operative in practice. At the very least, we should give a modicum of respect and an ear to those who do it professionally, casually, or within the confines of their daily toil.

The problem with not thinking about these things and, worse, discouraging those who will, is that these things are affected by rapid innovation and change anyway.

The seemingly outrageous privacy invasions by governments is not the product of a sea change in method. It was a steady dripping of unconsidered change that allowed the method to metastasize into what it’s become: something odious. And, it all took root in so many innocuous “consumer benefits.”

The outrageous bill that is to be the Unfair Elections Act (2014) is only possible because over time we have largely become so blasé about hyper-partisan drivel and the corruption of governance by politics that many people see nothing especially egregious about the bill’s content. And so it now threatens a foundation of our society. That represents six years’ effort on the part of Canada’s New Government.

So let’s all throw around the f-word until it’s so common that everyone does it. We’ll all be better for it.

Snakes on a plane (redux)

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Aug 272014
 

I fly fairly consistently though by no means am I row 13 troll racking up 100,000 miles a year or more. That said, I’m on enough to know that airlines squeeze people into too small a space for actual comfort.

More than that, people flying on business tend toward pulling out laptops to make productive use of the time in the air. That laptop has to sit in the already unsuitable space on the meal tray. So when the person immediately in front of the worker exercises his/her right to recline the seat back for greater comfort, it not only invades the already cramped space but makes using the computer all but impossible. I, personally, have had the clamshell lid cracked because it got sandwiched when the seat in front of me was thrust back.

So when two 48-year olds come just short of blows because one guy, sitting in the worst seat (middle) uses a little piece of plastic that costs 14-cents to make but is $22 at retail called the Knee Defender to prevent the seat from coming back, forcing the plane to be diverted from destination, you can do nothing but say, “Yeah, so what?” (See BBC story here)

Have to say that because it’s inevitable and has probably happened without such media fanfare many times. You also have to say it because both of these people were being douche bags (though I sympathize more with the guy using the device than with the gal who wanted to recline). Douche bags they might be, likely very self-righteously protecting their position and logic.

The airline, on the other hand, never mind the regulators, are culpable and should be punished. Here’s why. They create and foster the situation.

They create seat pitch (the gap for knees and breathing space) and squeeze it as tight as they can get away with. They do this because over 30 rows, 1-inch adds up to another row of seats which adds up to more revenue at a solid marginal profit. Notably, this fight broke out in a part of the plane that already had a larger pitch than cattle class.

They install seats that recline. Frankly, I think this whole notion is ridiculous and warrants physiological testing. The amount of recline the seat affords is not enough to be really any more comfortable; only enough to be irritating, imposing, and beyond annoying to the person behind you.

They make (and sell) the space and time on the plane to business travellers as a time to get things done. For crying out loud, they’re installing wifi on-board. Wifi is useless without a device to connect and trying to do real work on a tablet or smart phone is preposterous.

So, it’s the airline that creates the conditions that create the possibility for nobody’s wrong, self-righteousness.

Reclining passenger says, “Hey, the seat reclines and it’s my right to get more comfortable (or at least have the feeling that I’m getting more comfortable) by reclining completely. As far as I’m concerned, given the structure of the seating, that space MUST be mine to recline into.

The passenger being reclined into says, “Whoa, hold on, this space between my nose and your upright seat is inadequate to begin with. As soon as you recline, especially if the person in front of YOU isn’t reclining, you’re getting more space–MY space, which I need to work in. Back off. Reclining is a privilege, not a right.”

At the end of the day, the douche bag who pushes her seat back is probably more in “the right,” but in any case, the airline is in the wrong. And who suffers? The recliner, he being reclined upon, and EVERY OTHER PASSENGER who didn’t get to Denver as promised or has to listen to the kerfuffle.

Nonsense.

Take the train. It’s civilized.