Archive for June, 2013

The Humanities and the Price of Gold

golden-buddha

It’s by looking back that you can see the seriousness of the fever. At the time, it seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime. Take that gold jewelry stashed away in the back of a drawer and turn it into money — big money. Inherited gold jewelry impossibly out of fashion could be sold for the value of its gold. No need to haggle about the artistic value, all that mattered was gold content. The trade value of the jewelry is simply the value of its gold.

On August 23, 2011 the price for an ounce of gold hit $1,913.50. That was an all-time high, and while the price has begun to decline, it remains at historically high levels. If you look at antique gold jewelry on eBay, you’ll see the prices have moved with the base price of gold. The collectibility of a work, its rareness, or even the acknowledged skill of the artist who created it — all these factors were overwhelmed by the spot value of gold as a commodity. During this period a lot of antique gold jewelry was melted down to create commodity gold bars or coins. Someone told me that in Hong Kong, the jewelry stores price their gold jewelry by adding up two figures, the first is the weight of the gold multiplied by the spot price, and the second represented the aesthetic value of the piece.

The relationship between form and matter becomes strangely clear when the value of the material destroys the unity of an object and creates a new commodity object — ostensibly one without any formal features. Gold, the commodity, doesn’t need to look like anything in particular. Although its usually given the shape of a brick for easy stacking and marked with its weight for easy price calculations. The material seems to shed its visible aesthetic appearance in favor its pure commodity value.

buy-gold

Gold shows us something important here, something that has some truth beyond the buying and selling of gold. I thought about the price of gold when reading some recent essays on the decline and fall of the Humanities in universities around the country. Certain kinds of math and science have taken on the qualities of gold in the University. A university education has always required the declaration of a major area of interest. And now we can easily assign a value to a diploma based on the degree to which it can be traded for employment that at minimum has the potential of paying back the student loans incurred in the process of attaining it. What was a university education has been disrupted by the spot value of one of its component parts.

As with objects made from gold, the university education is no longer a university education. They keep up appearances, but in many cases they’ve been reduced to their commodity value. The decline in the humanities is the process of melting down the aesthetic externalities to get at the pure gold bricks of the spot value of an education.

The humanities have a value, but not in this new object that has been created in the place of the university. Gold jewelry has a value, but not in the context of historically high spot prices for gold. The price of gold is falling, so it’s entirely possible that the old object could re-emerge out of the new object. But, of course, once you’ve melted down your great grandmother’s gold jewelry the damage is done.

The Strict Hypocrite’s Diet

Young-Girl-Eating-a-Bird-The-Pleasure-Rene-Magritte

Because we live in an age where we believe in the goodness of clarity and purity, much of the work we do takes the form of “optimization.” Our ideologues, of whatever stripe, push us toward the purest form of an idea. As we stake out the extremes of purity, we decry the moral weakness and hypocrisy of those who fail the tests of purity. Hypocrite! It’s the insult par excellence for our age. Once we get a simple agreement that something is good in principle, we then go about exploring how the great unwashed public, or alternatively our leaders, fall short of that ideal. Every aspect of our lives becomes political, every action measured against a larger political agenda.

Food writer Mark Bittman has written a diet book called “VB6”. “VB6” stands for Vegan Before 6pm. The brilliance of this “diet” is that it’s hypocritical. Surely to be a vegan is to be a vegan all of the time. How else can you genuinely be a vegan? If you cheat, if you break the rules, if you don’t live up to the ideal, you aren’t really a vegan. It’s the same with all diets. A diet is a set of rules, if you break the rules you aren’t really on the diet. Rule breaking translates into a form of weakness.

Bittman’s VB6 has an interesting relationship to rules. Here’s Bittman on his “diet”.

Nor will I tell you that you must eat foods that you don’t want to eat, or to ignore your body’s legitimate cravings and desires, or to stop eating before you’re full. I am, after all, someone who has built an entire career on my love of cooking and eating good food. And VB6 is the way I eat now, and have for six years.

There are three very basic aspects to VB6. First, you make a commitment to eat more plant foods — fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans … you know what I’m talking about. Second, you make a commitment to eat fewer animal products and highly processed foods, like white bread. And third, you all but eliminate junk foods, most of which are barely foods in the strict sense of the word anyway. (I say “all but eliminate” because everyone needs to break the rules occasionally.)

Mark Bittman is a food writer. When his doctor suggested that he become a vegan to head off some potential health problems, Bittman was faced with a dilemma. VB6 was his solution, and so far, it’s worked for him. This approach to the rules of diet can be instructive across a whole range of activities. He teaches us something about the nature of rules themselves. Bittman also rejects our current fascination with personal data.

To make matters worse, many diets bury you in data, requiring you to count calories, points, or grams of fat or carbohydrates. Counting calories can of course be an effective dieting strategy; if you consume fewer calories than you burn, you’ll lose weight. But it turns eating into a clinical, obsessive exercise, reduces food to numbers, eliminates pleasure, and makes the diet unsustainable. No one wants to count calories his or her whole life, while all the time following a program that eliminates huge groups of foods.

No hard and fast rules, no counting. What kind of diet is that? How can you be a part time vegan? Isn’t that like vegetarians who eat fish? If you think it’s good to be a vegan, why aren’t you a vegan all the time? Of course, Bittman’s diet isn’t about being a vegan, it’s about developing a sustainable, enjoyable way of living that helps him lose weight and improve his health. Although Bittman isn’t blind to the larger implications of food:

…Food touches everything. You can’t discuss it without considering the environment, health, the role of animals other than humans in this world, the economy, politics, trade, globalization, or most other important issues. This includes such unlikely and seemingly unrelated matters as global warming: Industrialized livestock production, for example, appears to be accountable for a fifth or more of the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change.

Fear of hypocrisy is a common rationale for taking no action whatsoever. Unless a solution is perfectly clear and pure, there’s no sense in ever trying. And once you understand that pure solution, you must adhere to it without fail. That’s what we call “being good”. The fragility of a pure solution is that a single deviation from it ruins the purity upon with the solution depends. As Nassim Taleb as noticed, the more you optimize (purify) a system, the more fragile it becomes. The cynic / nihilist takes the position that since there is no perfect position, no position is worth taking. Since all positions can be criticized, I’ll take the position of criticizing positions.

Philosopher Tim Morton takes on the cynical position by pointing out that the cynic is hypocritical about his hypocrisy:

I’d rather be a straight-forward hypocrite than a hypocritical hypocrite. Now we’ve gotten rid of cynicism, because now there’s only two options: there’s hypocrisy or there’s hypocritical hypocrisy.

In a 2006 interview, the black metal band Wolves in the Throne Room made the observation that “we’re all hypocrites and failures.” As human beings there is no position outside of hypocrisy. In our morality we’ve defined “good” as a pure state and “bad” as an impure state that looks a lot like hypocrisy. You’re in the wrong when you’ve violated a rule you know to be good. Morton gives us the basis to think about ethics in the age of self-conscious hypocrisy. Being “good” looks a lot more like being a straight-forward hypocrite; while being bad looks like the hypocritically hypocritical. This kind of ethical practice has been difficult to articulate. Mark Bittman with his VB6 diet gives us a beautiful example of what being straight-forwardly hypocritical could look like.

We Want You, Big Brother

fuseli_the_nightmare

The song called ‘Big Brother’ by David Bowie keeps playing in the background of my thoughts. Of course, it’s all the noise about NSA and the Big Data work they’ve been doing to try and anticipate terrorist threats. It’s what we asked them to do, and now we’re shocked that they’ve gone and done it.

Someone to claim us, someone to follow
Someone to shame us, some brave Apollo
Someone to fool us, someone like you
We want you big data. Big data.

There’s a book by Shane Harris called “The Watchers” that provides a pretty good history of the effort. John Poindexter is the godfather of Prism and the efforts to use big data techniques to combat terrorism. Although Poindexter’s plan to build audit trails and anonymity into the original system were left by the wayside, the system we have is the one he imagined.

We want zero terrorists attacks, which means we have to stop them before they occur. Like a novel by Philip K. Dick, we have to anticipate the bad guys and stop them before they can act. It’s an impossible demand. Some will say this should be left to law enforcement— good old fashioned police work. And that’s fine if you want to catch the bad guys after the fact. Law enforcement isn’t going to stop a terrorist before the bomb explodes. And if you want to stand up and ask “why couldn’t our intelligence agencies have prevented this?”, then you have to acknowledge that Big Data, and your data, is baked into the cake.

The news media has done shameful job of reporting the story, and they don’t seem to care. The news seems to be about the court-ordered collection of telephony metadata and the potential for collection of specific datasets from the major cloud platforms as a result of court orders. The bloggers working for newspapers prefer to type up their nightmares instead of reporting the story. And, of course, printing nightmares is a good way to create pageviews. The more fear they can create the better. To anyone paying attention, this story has been well known for years.

The house seems to be filled with big brothers, we find them at every turn. Every corporation, organization and government aspires to be a big brother. When big brothers protect us, or give us “free” cloud-based applications, we applaud them. When we begin realize the guns used to defend us could be turned and used against us, we panic. Almost anything can be used as a weapon these days. Take a close look at Jeff Jonas’s real-time sensemaking systems that use context accumulation. Yes, like John Poindexter, he’s baked privacy in from the start. But if that system was pointed at you, there’s very little it couldn’t find out. You can buy that system from IBM.

The nightmare government with total access and control seems to have its roots in the figures of Alp and Mare — the elves that ride you in your sleep without your knowledge or permission. It’s as though the government is dead and now manifests as Mare. It not only has all your earthly communications, but has complete access to your unconscious, your dreams, your wishes and your fears. Government, now dead, haunts the living. It’s unmoored from the material world. It’s everywhere, it gathers up all the information about us and plots our misfortune. Perhaps it seeks revenge for shrinking it to such as small size that it could be drowned in a bathtub.

Oddly what we’re complaining about with the issue of privacy is that our “personal data” which is owned by the phone companies, Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft is being given to the NSA. It should be noted that while we call it “our personal data” and “our privacy”, it’s only ours in that sense that it’s corporate-owned information about us. The Network platforms own it. It doesn’t belong to us, we gave it away in exchange for the chance to win valuable prizes. What we fear with regard to the NSA is the standard business model of the technology industry.

You’ve always already been hacked. The use of common protocols has guaranteed there’s no such thing as a secure computer network. At the end of 2010, the head of the NSA noted that the NSA works under the assumption that various parts of their system have already been hacked. They already act like crypto-anarchists and cypherpunks.

Debora Plunkett, head of the NSA’s Information Assurance Directorate, has confirmed what many security experts suspected to be true: no computer network can be considered completely and utterly impenetrable – not even that of the NSA.

“There’s no such thing as ‘secure’ any more,” she said to the attendees of a cyber security forum sponsored by the Atlantic and Government Executive media organizations, and confirmed that the NSA works under the assumption that various parts of their systems have already been compromised, and is adjusting its actions accordingly.

John Poindexter was trying to find the signal through the noise. He was trying to do what Jeff Jonas said was impossible. Jonas said you needed to start with the bad guy and then assemble the data around that point. Poindexter created “Red Teams” to devise terrorist strategies, and then based on the interaction patterns the strategies revealed, the analysts would look for matching patterns in the data. Early tests resulted in a lot of false positives. But that was ten years ago, Big Data has come a long way since then. When TIA was de-funded and removed from the official budget, the systems moved to dark funding and we lost a lot of visibility. The secret system became a secret to the extent that there can be secrets anymore.

Do we still want to try and discern the weak signal through the noise? The editor of Slate.com, David Plotz argues that we’re no longer facing terrorist threats and therefore these security programs are overreach. A position that must be much easier to take if you don’t receive daily intelligence briefings. The amount of noise is ever increasing, the question we need to answer is whether it’s really possible to detect a weak signal. Can you really see into the future with a reasonable probability? If not this way, then how?

The Overload
By Talking Heads

A terrible signal
Too weak to even recognize
A gentle collapsing
The removal of the insides

I’m touched by your pleas
I value these moments
We’re older than we realize
In someone’s eyes

A frequent returning
And leaving unnoticed
A condition of mercy
A change in the weather

A view to remember
The center is missing
They question how the future lies
In someone’s eyes

A gentle collapsing
Of every surface
We travel on the quiet road
The overload

The Anthropocene: Burning Down the House

Mammatus-storm-clouds_San-Antonio

Climate is a interesting kind of thing. It’s not directly perceivable through our senses. Weather isn’t climate, rather it’s a data point used in the construction of the larger conceptual model we create to visualize climate. There’s our model of climate, and then there’s the thing-in-itself that is climate. Particular manifestations of weather are a result of climate, but the unseasonable cold, rain and snow aren’t climate.

Watch out you might get what you’re after
Cool babies strange but not a stranger
I’m an ordinary guy
Burning down the house

Hold tight wait till the party’s over
Hold tight We’re in for nasty weather
There has got to be a way
Burning down the house

Weather is what you experience, climate is the set of conditions that provide the ground for the possible weathers that might manifest at any particular moment. Equatorial climate has a range of possible weathers, as does Antarctica. Strange weather, if it occurs with enough frequency becomes climate—that is to say that it joins the set of possible weathers as a probable weather manifestation.

climate-model-2

When we say that we must address the climate, it’s not the climate we would directly touch. For instance, reducing or eliminating carbon dioxide emissions as a negative externality from our machines is an attempt to address a specific chemical reaction in the atmosphere known as the greenhouse effect. By changing the pattern of global warming, we hope to affect the climate—meaning the range of possible temperature and weather manifestations.

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

The climate has an interesting political feature that is of recent vintage. Our interaction with the Internet is perhaps the best model. The Network can be addressed from any node. There is no center or edge. Monarchs, dictators, elected governments, corporations, non-profit groups, political parties, religions, scientists, artists, hobbyists and individuals can all connect their ideas to the Network. No special authority, coordination or consensus is required to publish. Tap a few keys on a keyboard, make some kind of recording, and then push a button.

As we become more pessimistic about collective action on global warming, the issue of geoengineering becomes more and more pressing. Geoengineering treats the earth, its atmosphere and biosphere, as a machine that can be hacked through large-scale interventions to operate within parameters that we specify. Generally these techniques aim to manage solar radiation or to directly remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The key question about geoengineering is who is allowed to geoengineer? In some sense, we’re all collectively geoengineering the earth through our use of a certain class of carbon-emitting machines. But the large interventions proposed by geoengineers need not be collective actions sanctioned by governments. Geoengineering requires only the resources and access to the climate.

polar-bear-geoengineering

Bill Gates has enlisted climate scientist Ken Caldeira to co-manage a fund that invests in geoengineering research. Caldeira is not currently advocating the use of geoengineering, but he puts it this way in an article by James Temple in the San Francisco Chronicle:

“I am in favor of fire insurance,” he once said in explaining his stance. “But I am also against playing with matches while sitting on a keg of gunpowder.”

In other words, if we pass the rubicon we’ll have geoengineering in reserve as a last resort. The “fire insurance” metaphor is a little troubling. Who plays the role of the insurance company in this scenario? Who will decide when the house has burned down? What store shall we go to purchase replacements for the contents of our house? Businessman Russ George recently accepted a payment of $2.5 million to dump 100 tons of iron dust into the Pacific waterways off of western Canada. The scientific community was outraged by his actions, but should we really be surprised by this kind of hacking? The triggers for geoengineering are not as clear as a house on fire.

The residents of a small island threatened by rising oceans may well decide that the time is right to engage in geoengineering. A tech billionaire may decide it’s up to him to act in the absence of collective action to address global warming. Two enemy states may decide to engage in geoengineering as a form of warfare. A politician may decide it’s good politics. The appeal of geoengineering is that it doesn’t necessarily require collective action. No agreements need be reached. We only need to find the weather to be sufficiently strange.

The other appealing thing about geoengineering is it makes the invisible visible. The problem with climate change as a result of global warming is that it’s inaccessible to us. It’s what Timothy Morton calls a hyperobject. It occupies a higher dimensional phase space—it unfolds too slowly over too long a period for our eyes to perceive it. We are outscaled by it. Geoengineering allows us to take immediate concrete action. The vast geologic time scales are compacted to fit into human lifetimes. If the problem is not solved, at least it’s been cut down to size. Some may call geoengineering “playing god” with the earth, but it’s more a matter of bringing the “earth” down to earth, a human-sized earth (humiliation).

earth_hands

If geoengineering fails, don’t worry. We can always go back in time and repair the mistake. Just as with repairing the machinery of the biosphere and the climate, time travel and correcting the course of time is only a matter of technology advancing sufficiently. The filmmaker Chris Marker imagined what the correction of catastrophe might look like in his film La Jetée: